William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth, the son of an attorney, was born in 1770. After the death of his mother in 1778 and his father in 1783, Wordsworth was sent away to be educated at Hawkshead Grammar School in the Lake District. Wordsworth went to St. John's College, Cambridge where he developed radical political views. Influenced by the ideas of William Godwin, Wordsworth was an early supporter of the French Revolution.

Wordsworth went on a walking tour of France in 1790 and returned the following year and had an affair with Annette Vallon, the result of which was an illegitimate daughter, Ann Caroline. After the outbreak of war with France in 1793, Wordsworth returned to England. The poem, Guilt and Sorrow reveals that he still held strong views on social justice. He also wrote, Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff (1793), a pamphlet that gave support to the French Revolution. However, after the Reign of Terror (September 1793-July 1794), Wordsworth became disillusioned with radicalism. This was reflected in his verse drama, The Borderers (1796).

In 1796 Wordsworth set up home at Alfoxden in Somerset with his sister, Dorothy Wordsworth. His friend, Samuel Coleridge, who had also renounced his early revolutionary beliefs, lived three miles away at Nether Stowey. In 1798 they published the book Lyrical Ballads, which achieved a revolution in literary taste and sensibility. Lyrical Ballads included Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey and Coleridge's famous poems, the Ancient Mariner and The Nightingale.

In 1799 Dorothy and William moved to Grasmere in the Lake District. Three years later William Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson. Over the next five years Wordsworth suffering several distressing experiences, including the death of two of his children, his brother being drowned at sea and Dorothy's mental breakdown. During this period Wordsworth worked on two major poems, The Recluse, which was never finished, and The Prelude, a poem that remained unpublished until after his death.

Wordsworth published Poems in Two Volumes in 1807. This including the poems: Ode to Duty (about the death of his brother), Resolution and Independence and Intimations of Immortality. Although attacked by William Hazlitt, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, for renouncing his early radicalism, Wordsworth was popular with most critics. The Excursion (1814) was well received and this was followed by The White Doe of Rylstone (1815), Miscellaneous Poems (1815) and The Waggoner (1819).

Wordsworth, now established as a conservative and patriotic poet, succeeded Robert Southey as poet laureate in 1843. William Wordsworth died at Rydal Mount, Ambleside in 1850.

Primary Sources

(1) In 1792 Dr. Richard Watson, the Bishop of Llandaff, published a pamphlet attacking the French Revolution. In Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff (1793), William Wordsworth attempted to reply to Dr. Richard Watson.

Twenty-five millions of Frenchmen have felt that they could have no security for their liberties under any modification of monarchical power. They have in consequence unanimously chosen a Republic. You cannot but observe from that they have only exercised that right in which, by your own confession, liberty essentially resides. Slavery is a bitter and a poisonous draught. We have but one consolation under it, that a Nation may dash the cup to the ground when she pleases. Do not imagine that by taking from its bitterness you weaken its deadly quality; no, by rendering it more palatable you contribute to its power of destruction. We submit without repining to the chastisement of Providence, aware that we are creatures, that opposition is vain and remonstrance impossible. But when redress is in our own power and resistance is rational, we suffer with the same humility from beings like ourselves, because we are taught from infancy that we were born in a state of inferiority to our oppressors, that they were sent into the world to scourge, and we to be scourged. Accordingly we see the bulk of mankind, actuated by these fatal prejudices, even more ready to lay themselves under the feet of the great than the great are to trample upon them.

(2) William Wordsworth, The Wealth of Nations (1805)

With settling judgements now of what would last

And what would disappear; prepared to find

Ambition, folly, madness, in the men

Who thrust themselves upon this passive world

As Rulers of the world; to see in these,

Even when the public welfare is their aim,

Plans without thought, or bottomed on false thought

And false philosophy; having brought to test

Of solid life and true result the books

Of modern statists, and thereby perceived

The utter hollowness of what we name

'The Wealth of Nations', where alone that wealth

Is lodged, and how increased; and having gained

A more judicious knowledge of what makes

The dignity of individual man,

Of man, no composition of the thought,

Abstraction, shadow, image, but the man

Of whom we read, the man whom we behold

With our eyes - I could not but inquire -

Not with less interest than heretofore,

But greater, though in spirit more subdued -

Why is this glorious creature to be found

One only in ten thousand? What one is,

Why may not many be? What bars are thrown

By Nature in the way of such a hope?

Our animal wants and the necessities

Which they impose, are these the obstacles?

If not, then others vanish into air.

Such meditations bred in anxious wish

To ascertain how much of real worth

And genuine knowledge, and true power of mind

Did at this day exist in those who lived

By bodily labour, labour far exceeding

Their due proportion, under all the weight

Of that injustice which upon ourselves

By composition of society

Ourselves entail.