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William Wordsworth (1770-1850)


British poet, who spent his life in the Lake District of Northern England. William Wordsworth started with Samuel Taylor Coleridge  the English Romantic movement with their collection Lyrical Ballads ( 1798). When many poets still wrote about ancient heroes in grandiloquent style, Wordsworth focused on the nature, children, the poor, common people, and used ordinary words to express his personal feelings. His definition of poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings arising from "emotion recollected in tranquility" was shared by a number of his followers.

"Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science." (in Lyrical Ballads, 2nd ed., 1800)

William Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth, Cumberland, in the Lake District. His father was John Wordsworth, Sir James Lowther's attorney –  the fifth Baronet Lowther was the most feared and hated aristocrat in all of Cumberland and Westmoreland, "an Intolerable Tyrant over his Tenants and Dependents". However, the magnificent landscape deeply affected Wordsworth's imagination and gave him a love of nature. He lost his mother when he was eight and five years later his father.

The domestic problems separated Wordsworth from his beloved and neurotic sister Dorothy, who was a very important person in his life. Dorothy had especially fresh contact to nature from a very early age. Her thoughts and impression were a valuable source of inspiration for her brother, who also introduced himself as Nature's child. The first time she saw the sea, she burst into tears, "indicating the sensibility for which she was so remarkable," Wordsworth remembered.

With the help of his two uncles, Wordsworth entered a local school and continued his studies at Cambridge University. As a writer Wordsworth made his debut in 1787, when he published a sonnet in The European Magazine. In that same year he entered St. John's College, Cambridge, from where he took his B.A. in 1791. During a summer vacation in 1790, Wordsworth went on a walking tour through revolutionary France. He also traveled in Switzerland.

On his second journey in France, Wordsworth had an affair with a French girl, Annette Vallon, a daughter of a barber-surgeon, by whom he had a illegitimate daughter Anne Caroline. The affair was basis of the poem 'Vaudracour and Julia', but otherwise Wordsworth did his best to hide the affair from posterity. After his journeys, Wordsworth spent several aimless and unhappy years. In 1795 he met Coleridge. Wordsworth's financial situation became better in 1795 when he received a legacy and was able to settle at Racedown, Dorset, with his sister Dorothy.

Encouraged by Coleridge and stimulated by the close contact with nature, Wordsworth composed his first masterwork, Lyrical Ballads, which opened with Coleridge's 'Ancient Mariner.' Humphry Davy, a chemist and inventor, edited the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. Shortly after discovering "laughing gas" (nitrous oxide), Davy persuaded his literary friends to self-experiment with it. Wordsworth looked at science with a critical mind, saying in 'A Poet's Epitaph' (1798): "Physician art thou?–one, all eyes, / Philosopher!–a fingering slave, / One that would peep and botanize / Upon his mother's grave?" About 1798 he started to write a large and philosophical autobiographical poem, completed in 1805, and published posthumously in 1850 under the title The Prelude. The long work described the poet's love of nature and his own place in the world order.

"Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society."

The winter 1798-99 Wordsworth spent with his sister and Coleridge in Germany. There he wrote several works, including the enigmatic 'Lucy' poems. After returning he moved Dove Cottage, Grasmere. In 1802 married Mary Hutchinson. They cared for Wordsworth's sister Dorothy for the last 20 years of life – she had lost her mind as a result of physical ailments. Almost all Dorothy's memory was destroyed; she sat by the fire, and occasionally recited her brother's verses.

 "... Wordsworth was of a good height (five feet ten), and not a slender man; on the contrary, by the side of Southey, his limbs looked thick, almost in a disproportionate degree. But the total effect of Wordsworth's person was always worst in a state of motion. Meantime, his face – that was one which would have made amends for greater defects of figure." (in Reminiscences of the English Lake Poets by Thomas de Quincey, 1907) Wordsworth's second collection, Poems, in Two Volumes, came out in 1807. In the same year Thomas de Quincey met Wordsworth for the first time and wrote about him and other Lake Poets in several essays. He described revealingly Wordsworth's mean appearance and Dorothy's lack of sex appeal. The frankness of his text, although published in the 1830s and 1840s, was considered indiscreet by later Victorian critics.

Wordsworth's path-breaking works were produced between 1797 and 1808. In a letter to Lady Beaumont he said: "Every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great and original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished." His poems written during middle and late years have not gained similar critical approval. Wordsworth's Grasmere period ended in 1813 when he moved to Rydal Mount, Ambleside, where he spent the rest of his life. His daughter Catherine and beloved son Thomas had died and his friendship with Coleridge, suffering from addiction, was breaking apart. Coleridge did not visit Grasmere, although he had made a trip to the Lake District.

Wordsworth was appointed official distributor of stamps for Westmoreland. From the age of 50 his creative powers began to decline, but three female assistants took care of him, and filled his life with admiration. Wordsworth abandoned his radical faith and became a patriotic, conservative public man. In 1843 he succeeded Robert Southey (1774-1843) as England's poet laureate. Wordsworth died on April 23, 1850. In the years after his death, his widow published The Prelude, completed already by 1805. It was a part of a huge work, The Recluse, which Wordsworth and Coleridge had planned together over 50 years ago. The subject was to be life in general. Comparing his other published pieces with The Recluse, Wordsworth paralleled "little cells, oratories, and sepulchral recesses" with the body of a Gothic church.

The second generation of Romantics, Byron and Shelley, labeled Wordsworth as "dull". A long-lived poet, Wordsworth did not only outlive Coleridge, but also his younger contemporaries, Shelley, Keats and Byron. The philosopher Bertrand Russell summed up the poet's career: "In his youth Wordsworth sympathized with the French Revolution, went to France, wrote good poetry, and had a natural daughter. At this period he was called a 'bad' man. Then he became 'good,' abandoned his daughter, adopted correct principles, and wrote bad poetry."

Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855) published travel books and journals, such as Grasmere Journals 1800-03 and The Alfoxden Journal 1798, in which she described the friendship of Wordsworth and Coleridge. After a serious illness in 1829, she was obliged to lead the life of an invalid, which deeply affected her imaginative and mental powers.

For further reading: The Hidden Wordsworth by Kenneth R. Johnston (2001); 1798: The Year of the Lyrical Ballads, ed. by Richard Cronin (1998); The Revolutionary 'I' by Ashton Nichols (1998); Disowned by Memory by David Bromwich (1998); The Hidden Wordsworth by Kenneth R. Johnston (1998); William Wordsworth: A Biography by Hunter Davies (paperback in 1997); William Wordsworth by John Williams (1996); Becoming Wordsworthian by Elisabeth A. Fray (1995); A Literary Guide to the Lake District by G. Lindop (1993); Wordsworth and the Beginnings of Modern Poetry by R.M. Rehder (1981); Wordsworth's Second Nature by J.K. Chandler (1984); A Wordsworth Companion by F.B. Pinion (1984); Life by M. Moorman (1957/1965); Wordsworth and the Human Heart by J. Beer (1978); Reminiscences of the English Lake Poets by Thomas de Quincey (1907) - See also: Walter de la Mare. - Museums: Dove Cottage, Town End, Grasmere - former home of William and Mary Wordsworth, closed mid-January to mid-February; Rydal Mount, Ambleside - Wordsworth lived there from 1813 to 1850. Still a family house of his descendants. Closed Tuesdays 1 November to 28 February, and in January; Wordsworth House, open April to October. - Suom. Wordsworthilä on julkaistu Runoja (1949), suomentaneet Aale Tynni, Yrjö Jylhä, Lauri Viljanen.

Selected works:

  • An Evening Walk, 1793
  • Descriptive Sketches, 1793
  • The Borderers: A Tragedy, 1796
  • Lyrical Ballads, 1798 (with William Butler Coleridge)
  • Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, 1798
  • Upon Westminster Bridge, 1801
  • Appendix on Poetic Diction, 1802 (Lyrical Ballads, 1802)
  • Poems, in Two Volumes, 1807
  • Miscellaneous Sonnets, 1807
  • Wordsworth's Tract on the Convention of Cintra, 1809
  • Essays Upon Epitaphs, 1810 (The Friend, no. 25, 22 Feb. 1810)
  • The Excursion, 1814
  • The White Doe of Rylstone; or the Fate of the Nortons, a Poem, 1815
  • Peter Bell: A Tale in Verse, 1819
  • The Waggoner, a Poem, 1819
  • The River Duddon, 1820
  • Memorials of a Tour on the Continent, 1822
  • Ecclesiastical Sketches, 1822
  • Yarrow Revisited, and Other Poems, 1835
  • The Complete Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, 1837 (edited by Henry Reed)
  • Poems, Chiefly of Early and Late Years, 1842
  • The Prelude or, Growth of a Poet's Mind; An Autobiographical Poem, 1850
  • Ode: Intimations Of Immortality From Recollections Of Early Childhood, 1884
  • The Recluse, 1888
  • The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, 1896 (8 vols., edited by William Knight)
  • Wordsworth's Literary Criticism, 1905 (ed. with an introduction, by Nowell C. Smith)
  • Letters of the Wordsworth Family from 1787 to 1855, 1907 (3 vols., collected and ed. by William Knight)
  • Selected Poems of William Wordsworth, 1924 (edited by Howard Judson Hall)
  • Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, 1940-49 (edited from the manuscripts with textual and critical notes by E. de Selincourt)
  • Selected Poems, 1950 (edited by George W. Meyer)
  • Poems in Two Volumes, 1807, 1952 (2d ed., edited by Helen Darbishire)
  • Letters of William Wordsworth, 1954 (selected and with an introd. by Philip Wayne)
  • The Complete Poetical Works of Wordsworth, 1960 (edited by Andrew J. George)
  • Literary criticism of William Wordsworth, 1966 (edited by Paul M. Zall)
  • The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, 1967 (2nd ed., arranged and edited by the late Ernest de Selincourt)
  • The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, 1974 (3 vols., edited by W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser)
  • Poems, 1977
  • The Love Letters of William and Mary Wordsworth, 1981 (edited by Beth Darlington)
  • The Five-Book Prelude, 1997 (ed. Duncan Wu)
  • Translations of Chaucer and Virgil, 1998 (edited by Bruce E. Graver)
  • Selected Critical Essays, 1999 (ed. G.W. Meyer)
  • Sonnet Series and Itinerary Poems, 1820-1845, 2004 (edited by Geoffrey Jackson)
  • Selected Poetry, 2008 (edited with an introduction and notes by Stephen Gill and Duncan Wu)
  • The Major Works, 2008 (edited with an introduction and notes by Stephen Gill)

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