A Short History of English Literature

By Harry Blamires | Go to book overview

16

Wordsworth and the Romantics

Our survey of the literature of the second half of the eighteenth century has touched on many a tendency anticipatory of the Romantic Movement. Much that was new and distinctive in the work of Burns and Crabbe, Cowper and Chatterton, Radcliffe and Walpole, marked them as precursors of Romanticism. Extensions of literary concern in the direction of passion and mystery, imagination and creativity, and towards the fuller exploration of man and Nature, may be subsumed under the label ‘Romantic’. So too may movements away from the conventionalized forms of eighteenth-century literary expression. The concept ‘Romantic’ is wide because the movement was a rich one, involving some of the most exciting literary personalities of our history.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was born in Cockermouth and educated at Hawkshead near Esthwaite Water. After studying at Cambridge, he visited France, was infected with revolutionary fervour (‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’) and fell in love with a royalist surgeon’s daughter, Annette Vallon, by whom he had a child. (Some impression of the tensions caused by this liaison can be gathered from the poem, Vaudracour and Julia.) The Terror that succeeded the Revolution reinforced private distresses and unhinged the young poet for a time. He toyed with the philosophy of reason expounded in Godwin’s Political Justice, and vented his pessimism in Guilt and Sorrow, a narrative of suffering, and The Borderers, a tragedy of treachery, but he recovered his balance fully under the influence of Nature and with the help of his sister, Dorothy, whose Journals prove how indebted he was to her sensitivity and perceptiveness (‘She gave me eyes, she gave me ears’, he said in ‘The Sparrow’s Nest’). Friendship with Coleridge strengthened his inspiration, while a

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