Wordsworth, William

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Wordsworth, William

William Wordsworth, 1770–1850, English poet, b. Cockermouth, Cumberland. One of the great English poets, he was a leader of the romantic movement in England.

Life and Works

In 1791 he graduated from Cambridge and traveled abroad. While in France he fell in love with Annette Vallon, who bore him a daughter, Caroline, in 1792. Although he did not marry her, it seems to have been circumstance rather than lack of affection that separated them. Throughout his life he supported Annette and Caroline as best he could, finally settling a sum of money on them in 1835.

The spirit of the French Revolution had strongly influenced Wordsworth, and he returned (1792) to England imbued with the principles of Rousseau and republicanism. In 1793 were published An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches, written in the stylized idiom and vocabulary of the 18th cent. The outbreak of the Reign of Terror prevented Wordsworth's return to France, and after receiving several small legacies, he settled with his sister Dorothy in Dorsetshire. Wordsworth was extraordinarily close to his sister. Throughout his life she was his constant and devoted companion, sharing his poetic vision and helping him with his work.

In Dorsetshire Wordsworth became the intimate friend of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and, probably under his influence, a student of David Hartley's empiricist philosophy. Together the two poets wrote Lyrical Ballads (1798), in which they sought to use the language of ordinary people in poetry; it included Wordsworth's poem "Tintern Abbey." The work introduced romanticism into England and became a manifesto for romantic poets. In 1799 he and his sister moved to the Lake District of England, where they lived the remainder of their lives. A second edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1800), which included a critical essay outlining Wordsworth's poetic principles, in particular his ideas about poetic diction and meter, was unmercifully attacked by critics.

In 1802 Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson, an old school friend; the union was evidently a happy one, and the couple had four children. The Prelude, his long autobiographical poem, was completed in 1805, though it was not published until after his death. His next collection, Poems in Two Volumes (1807), included the well-known "Ode to Duty," the "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," and a number of famous sonnets.

Thereafter, Wordsworth's creative powers diminished. Nonetheless, some notable poems were produced after this date, including The Excursion (1814), "Laodamia" (1815), "White Doe of Rylstone" (1815), Memorials of a Tour of the Continent, 1820 (1822), and "Yarrow Revisited" (1835). In 1842 Wordsworth was given a civil list pension, and the following year, having long since put aside radical sympathies, he was named poet laureate.

Assessment

Wordsworth's personality and poetry were deeply influenced by his love of nature, especially by the sights and scenes of the Lake Country, in which he spent most of his mature life. A profoundly earnest and sincere thinker, he displayed a high seriousness comparable, at times, to Milton's but tempered with tenderness and a love of simplicity.

Wordsworth's earlier work shows the poetic beauty of commonplace things and people as in "Margaret," "Peter Bell," "Michael," and "The Idiot Boy." His use of the language of ordinary speech was heavily criticized, but it helped to rid English poetry of the more artificial conventions of 18th-century diction. Among his other well-known poems are "Lucy" ( "She dwelt among the untrodden ways" ), "The Solitary Reaper," "Resolution and Independence," "Daffodils," "The Rainbow," and the sonnet "The World Is Too Much with Us."

Although Wordsworth was venerated in the 19th cent., by the early 20th cent. his reputation had declined. He was criticized for the unevenness of his poetry, for his rather marked capacity for bathos, and for his transformation from an open-minded liberal to a cramped conservative. In recent years, however, Wordsworth has again been recognized as a great English poet—a profound, original thinker who created a new poetic tradition.

Bibliography

See his poetical works, ed. by E. de Selincourt and H. Darbishire (5 vol., 1940–49); his prose works, ed. by W. J. B. Owen and J. W. Smyser (3 vol., 1974); correspondence with his sister, ed. by E. de Selincourt (6 vol., 1967–82); biographies by M. Moorman (2 vol., 1965), S. Gill (1984), K. R. Johnston (1999), and J. Barker (rev. ed. 2005); studies by M. Reed (1967), F. E. Halliday (1970), R. Rehder (1981), J. K. Changler (1984), P. Hamilton (1986), A. J. Bewell (1989), D. Bromwich (1999), and A. Potkay (2012); G. McMaster, William Wordsworth: A Critical Anthology (1973); A. Sisman, The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge (2007).



Wordsworth's sister, Dorothy Wordsworth, 1771–1855, is known principally for her poems and for her journals, which have proved invaluable for later biographies and studies of the poet. These journals, the first of which was started in 1798, are written in delicate, exquisite diction, and describe the Wordsworth household, friends, and travels. For the last 20 years of her life Dorothy Wordsworth was an invalid, suffering from an obscure illness that made her prematurely senile.

Bibliography

See her journals, ed. by H. Darbishire (2 vol., 1958; rev. ed. 1971, ed. by M. Moorman, repr. 1991); biography by E. de Selincourt (1933); A. M. Ellis, Rebels and Conservatives: Dorothy and William Wordsworth and Their Circle (1967); E. Hardwick, Seduction and Betrayal (1974); F. Wilson, The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (2009).

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