William Wordsworth, 1770-1850

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Biographical note

Poet, son of John W., attorney and agent to the 1st Lord Lonsdale, was born at Cockermouth. His boyhood was full of adventure among the hills, and he says of himself that he showed “a stiff, moody, and violent temper.” He lost his mother when he was 8, and his father in 1783 when he was 13. The latter, prematurely cut off, left little for the support of his family of four sons and a daughter, Dorothy (afterwards the worthy companion of her illustrious brother), except a claim for £5000 against Lord Lonsdale, which his lordship contested, and which was not settled until his death. With the help, however, of uncles, the family were well ed. and started in life. William received his earlier education at Penrith and Hawkshead in Lancashire; and in 1787 went to St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he graduated B.A. in 1791.

In the preceding year, 1790, he had taken a walking tour on the Continent, visiting France in the first flush of the Revolution with which, at that stage, he was, like many of the best younger minds of the time, in enthusiastic sympathy. So much was this the case that he nearly involved himself with the Girondists to an extent which might have cost him his life. His funds, however, gave out, and he returned to England shortly before his friends fell under the guillotine. His uncles were desirous that he should enter the Church, but to this he was unconquerably averse; and indeed his marked indisposition to adopt any regular employment led to their taking not unnatural offence.

In 1793 his first publication — Descriptive Sketches of a Pedestrian Tour in the Alps, and The Evening Walk — appeared, but attracted little attention. The beginning of his friendship with Coleridge in 1795 tended to confirm him in his resolution to devote himself to poetry; and a legacy of £900 from a friend put it in his power to do so by making him for a time independent of other employment. He settled with his sister at Racedown, Dorsetshire, and shortly afterwards removed to Alfoxden, in the Quantock Hills, to be near Coleridge, who was then living at Nether Stowey in the same neighbourhood. One result of the intimacy thus established was the planning of a joint work, Lyrical Ballads, to which Coleridge contributed The Ancient Mariner, and W., among other pieces, Tintern Abbey. The first ed. of the work appeared in 1798. With the profits of this he went, accompanied by his sister and Coleridge, to Germany, where he lived chiefly at Goslar, and where he began the Prelude, a poem descriptive of the development of his own mind.

After over a year’s absence W. returned and settled with Dorothy at Grasmere. In 1800 the second ed. of Lyrical Ballads, containing W.’s contributions alone, with several additions, appeared. In the same year Lord Lonsdale died, and his successor settled the claims already referred to with interest, and the share of the brother and sister enabled them to live in the frugal and simple manner which suited them. Two years later W.’s circumstances enabled him to marry his cousin, Mary Hutchinson, to whom he had been long attached. In 1804 he made a tour in Scotland, and began his friendship with Scott. The year 1807 saw the publication of Poems in Two Volumes, which contains much of his best work, including the “Ode to Duty,” “Intimations of Immortality,” “Yarrow Unvisited,” and the “Solitary Reaper.” In 1813 he migrated to Rydal Mount, his home for the rest of his life; and in the same year he received, through the influence of Lord Lonsdale, the appointment of Distributor of Stamps for Westmoreland, with a salary of £400. The next year he made another Scottish tour, when he wrote Yarrow Visited, and he also published The Excursion, “being a portion of The Recluse, a Poem.” W. had now come to his own, and was regarded by the great majority of the lovers of poetry as, notwithstanding certain limitations and flaws, a truly great and original poet. The rest of his life has few events beyond the publication of his remaining works (which, however, did not materially advance his fame), and tokens of the growing honour in which he was held. The White Doe of Rylstone appeared in 1815, in which year also he made a collection of his poems; Peter Bell and The Waggoner in 1819; The River Duddon and Memorials of a Tour on the Continent in 1820; Ecclesiastical Sonnets 1822; and Yarrow Revisited in 1835. In 1831 he paid his last visit to Scott; in 1838 he received the degree of D.C.L. from Durham, and in 1839 the same from Oxford Three years later he resigned his office of Distributor of Stamps in favour of his son, and received a civil list pension of £300. The following year, 1843, he succeeded Southey as Poet Laureate. His long, tranquil, and fruitful life ended in 1850. He lies buried in the churchyard of Grasmere. After his death the Prelude, finished in 1805, was published It had been kept back because the great projected poem of which it was to have been the preface, and of which The Excursion is a part, was never completed.

The work of W. is singularly unequal. When at his best, as in the “Intimations of Immortality,” “Laodamia,” some passages in The Excursion, and some of his short pieces, and especially his sonnets, he rises to heights of noble inspiration and splendour of language rarely equalled by any of our poets. But it required his poetic fire to be at fusing point to enable him to burst through his natural tendency to prolixity and even dulness. His extraordinary lack of humour and the, perhaps consequent, imperfect power of self-criticism by which it was accompanied, together with the theory of poetic theme and diction with which he hampered himself, led him into a frequent choice of trivial subjects and childish language which excited not unjust ridicule, and long delayed the general recognition of his genius. He has a marvellous felicity of phrase, an unrivalled power of describing natural appearances and effects, and the most ennobling views of life and duty. But his great distinguishing characteristic is his sense of the mystic relations between man and nature. His influence on contemporary and succeeding thought and literature has been profound and lasting. It should be added that W., like Milton, with whom he had many points in common, was the master of a noble and expressive prose style.

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