William Wordsworth Biography

William Wordsworth was born on April 7, 1770, in Cookermouth, Cumberland, England, the second child of an attorney. Unlike the other major English romantic poets, he enjoyed a happy childhood under the loving care of his mother and was very close to his sister Dorothy. As a child he wandered happily through the lovely natural scenery of Cumberland. In grammar school, Wordsworth showed a keen interest in poetry. He was fascinated by the epic poet John Milton (1608–1674).

From 1787 to 1790 Wordsworth attended St. John's College at Cambridge University. He always returned to his home and to nature during his summer vacations. Before graduating from Cambridge, he took a walking tour through France, Switzerland, and Italy in 1790. The Alps made an impression on him that he did not recognize until fourteen years later.

Wordsworth, William ( 1770–1850 ), poet , was born in Cockermouth, Cumberland, on 7 April 1770, the second of the five children of John Wordsworth (1741–1783) and his wife, Ann Cookson (1747–1778) . The other children were Richard (1768–1816) , who became a lawyer; Dorothy Wordsworth (1771–1855) ; John (1772–1805) , East India Company sea captain; and Christopher Wordsworth (1774–1846) , clergyman and scholar, who became master of Trinity College, Cambridge. The imposing house in which they were born signalled the professional status of their father, who served Sir James Lowther (from 1794 first earl of Lonsdale ) in many functions, but primarily in legal and electoral matters. He was also bailiff and recorder of Cockermouth, posts he owed directly to the Lowther interest.

Childhood and schooling

William and Dorothy spent long periods of their early childhood with their Cookson grandparents in Penrith, where William attended Ann Birkett’s dame-school, but in 1778 brother and sister were split up. On the death of their mother in March, Dorothy was dispatched to relatives in Halifax, and William was enrolled, in May 1779, together with his brother Richard , at the grammar school at Hawkshead in Furness, north Lancashire. William and Dorothy did not see each other again for nine years, a separation which had enormous significance for the lives of both.

John Wordsworth senior died on 30 December 1783. William had not been happy at Penrith, and now his already strained relations with his relatives worsened. At his death John Wordsworth was owed large sums of money from his employer, but Sir James contumaciously declined to honour the debt (after his death in 1802 they were acknowledged by his successor and finally settled in 1804), and the Wordsworth children found themselves reliant upon the goodwill of their guardians, their uncles Richard Wordsworth of Whitehaven and Christopher Crackanthorpe Cookson . Wordsworth , by his own account a child of ‘ stiff, moody, and violent temper ‘, resented every slight as a reminder of his dependent status ( Memoirs of William Worsworth, 1.9 ).

Wordsworth’s memories of schooldays, however, were ones of great happiness. In his autobiographical poem The Prelude he records his gratitude that he grew up ‘ fostered alike by beauty and by fear ‘. The poem’s opening books recall boating on Windermere and Coniston, skating, bird-nesting, nutting, walking on the fells, and riding to Furness Abbey, experiences which the mature poet recognized as having furnished his mind with imagery of the natural world. Very late in life he reiterated his hostility to an overemphasis on book-learning for children, remarking that his views were those of ‘ one who spent half of his boyhood in running wild among the Mountains ‘ ( letter of 16 Dec 1845; Letters, 7.733 ).

Schooldays in Hawkshead also nourished Wordsworth’s literary imagination in a variety of ways. He was boarded out with Ann Tyson , and he drank in the stories about the neighbourhood told by his deeply loved surrogate mother. He watched and listened to the working people of Hawkshead—shepherds, quarrymen, saddlers, blacksmiths, wallers, pedlars, and vagrants—and the concern of much of his later poetry for ‘ humble and rustic life ‘ had its origins in what he learned. And he read. At his father’s urging he had already memorized passages of Shakespeare , Spenser , and Milton , and from his father’s library he had gone through the whole of Fielding , some Swift , Don Quixote , and Gil Blas . Now, encouraged especially by one of his headmasters, William Taylor , Wordsworth added to the school’s instruction in Latin and Greek a personal exploration of eighteenth-century English poetry, up to the latest publications ( Wu , vol. 1 gives the fullest account). He began writing himself, and in the year he left school (1787) his first published poem appeared in the European Magazine under the pseudonym Axiologus , a sonnet entitled ‘On Seeing Miss Helen Maria Williams Weep at a Tale of Distress’ . By this date he had also written hundreds of lines towards a never finished evocation of the Hawkshead region, The Vale of Esthwaite .

In the summer of 1787 Wordsworth was briefly reunited with Dorothy , who had returned for what proved an unhappy stay at Penrith. In October he left the Lake District for the first time in his life, for Cambridge.

Cambridge and the Alps, 1787–1790

When Wordsworth took up residence at St John’s College in late October 1787 the auguries were good. Hawkshead School had prepared him so well in mathematics and the classics that he judged himself a year ahead of other freshmen. A fellowship reserved for men from Cumberland was held by his uncle William Cookson , and as he expected preferment shortly there was hope that the nephew might follow him into it. Cookson was an intimate friend of William Wilberforce ; John Robinson , MP for Harwich and a cousin of Wordsworth’s father, was a powerful figure with the ear of the king, and indicated that he would be watching Wordsworth’s career with interest. Hawkshead friends, such as Robert Greenwood at Trinity, John Millar at Jesus, John Fleming at Christ’s, Fletcher Raincock at Pembroke, and many others, were an antidote to loneliness.

Wordsworth none the less failed to capitalize on any of these advantages. In college examinations in December 1787 he was placed in the first class, and the following June in the second class. Thereafter, however, he did not fulfil the college examination requirements for a man reading for honours, and in the final university examination of January 1791 graduated without honours.

Reviewing his Cambridge years in The Prelude , Wordsworth later touched on many factors which might have contributed to his failure to make the best of his opportunity—principled dislike of competitive examinations; irritations such as compulsory chapel attendance; a sense that the academic community was moribund; the temptations of sociability. His most telling judgement, though, is simply:

The Prelude, 1805, 3.80–81 His subsequent behaviour indicated how strongly he resented the pressure upon him to distinguish himself at Cambridge in the expected way that would lead to professional advancement.

As an undergraduate Wordsworth took Italian lessons from Agostino Isola , who introduced him to Tasso and Ariosto , and he composed a substantial loco-descriptive poem, An Evening Walk . During the long vacation of 1788 he returned to Hawkshead, and in Penrith spent time with Dorothy and with Mary Hutchinson (1770–1859) , whom he later married, and although the evidence is inconclusive, it seems that he went back to Hawkshead for much of the following summer vacation too. For the summer of 1790, however, what Wordsworth planned was so reckless that he kept it secret from all his family, even his sister: a walking tour across revolutionary France to the Alps.

Wordsworth’s companion was Robert Jones , a Welshman who remained a lifelong friend. They crossed from Dover to Calais on 13 July 1790, the eve of the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, but mountain country was their destination, not Paris. By late September, with £20 apiece, they had travelled nearly 3000 miles , more than 2000 of them on foot. Jones later recalled: ‘ We were early risers in 1790 and generally walked 12 or 15 miles before breakfast ‘ ( letter of 23 Feb 1821; Reed , 1.98 ). Having arrived in Lyons, travelling partly by boat along the Saône, they visited the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse on 4–5 August and then proceeded to Lake Geneva and on to the vale of Chamonix. They crossed the Alps at the Simplon Pass and by 19 August were at Lake Maggiore. Lake Lugano and Lake Como were included before a circuitous route took them via Lucerne to Lake Constance. They visited the Rhine falls at Schaffhausen on 8 September before returning to Lucerne and then to Basel. A journey down the Rhine by boat to Cologne was followed by a rapid return home by about 11 October via Aix-la-Chapelle (now Aachen) and Ostend.

Wordsworth , declaring himself a ‘ perfect Enthusiast in [his] admiration of Nature in all her various forms ‘ ( Letters, 1.35 ), recorded his immediate responses in a long letter to Dorothy of 6 and 16 September 1790, and he drew on them poetically for Descriptive Sketches (1793) and book 6 of The Prelude , written in 1804. What he dwells on most in the latter account is the way in which he and Jones were cheated of their eagerly awaited experience of the sublime by discovering that by mischance they had actually crossed the Alps without being conscious of it. When Wordsworth retraced his steps in 1820 he made a point of discovering again the path that had misled them in 1790.

Once back, Wordsworth returned to Cambridge and then went on to Forncett, near Norwich, the living of his uncle William Cookson , where Dorothy was currently staying. Brother and sister relived every step of the European tour before Wordsworth left for Cambridge to complete his degree. At the end of January 1791 he moved to London.

London, 1791, and France

Lodging near Cheapside, Wordsworth revelled in the spectacles of the city, as he did on every visit to London until late in life. He attended parliamentary debates and may well have been present on 6 May 1791 at the momentous rupture of Burke and Fox over the significance of the French Revolution. He also witnessed the activities of those excluded from formal politics. Through Samuel Nicholson , a member of the Society for Constitutional Information , Wordsworth was introduced to the world of dissenting radicalism. Listening to Joseph Fawcett preach at the Old Jewry meeting-house and encountering or hearing about such prominent activists as John Jebb , John Frost , Horne Tooke , and Joseph Johnson marked the beginning of Wordsworth’s political awakening.

From London, Wordsworth went late in May to Wales, to stay with Robert Jones at his family’s home at Plas-yn-Llan, Denbighshire. Another joint walking tour included the climbing of Snowdon, recorded in the final book of The Prelude . To Wordsworth’s relatives, however, such activities were no answer to the pressing question of what he was to do with his life now that he had his degree. John Robinson offered to secure him a curacy, but Wordsworth wriggled out of any immediate commitment. William Cookson suggested that further study, of oriental languages, might be sensible for one destined surely to become a clergyman or tutor. What Wordsworth settled on was a return to France. Ostensibly he was going to perfect his command of the language; in reality he was in flight from his relatives’ expectations and their conception of an appropriate career.

Wordsworth arrived in Paris on 30 November 1791. He behaved as a tourist, ticking off the famous sites and pocketing a fragment of the Bastille as a souvenir. He attended meetings of the Jacobin Club and got to know Brissot . But he had never intended to stay long, and on 5 December he left for Orléans. Here the course of Wordsworth’s life changed irrevocably. Visiting her brother in Wordsworth’s lodgings was Marie-Anne (Annette) Vallon (1766–1841) , a 25-year-old, ardent anti-revolutionary from Blois. He fell in love with her, and in the spring of 1792 he followed the now pregnant Annette back home.

At Blois, Wordsworth’s nascent radicalism was quickened by contact with members of the society ‘Les Amis de la Constitution’ and above all by his friendship with Captain Michel de Beaupuy , to whose altruistic zeal for the revolutionary cause book 9 of The Prelude pays feeling tribute. But nothing at Blois, at a time of accelerating political and social crisis, could help Wordsworth to acquire what he needed most: an income to support Annette and their unborn child. He had to return home. After a spell in Orléans, where Annette had been moved to conceal her pregnancy, Wordsworth went on 29 October to Paris. The city was in the grip of terror after the September massacres, but for six weeks he lingered, absorbed by the power struggles unleashed by Louvet’s failed attempt to curb Robespierre . He returned to London at about the time when his daughter, Anne-Caroline , always known as Caroline , was born, 15 December 1792.

London to Racedown, 1793–1795

Wordsworth’s situation on his return to London was desperate, and rapidly grew worse. The years 1793 to 1795 were the most unsettled and troubled of his life. From February 1793 the outbreak of war with France put Annette and Caroline out of reach. The tolerance of John Robinson and William Cookson had run out: even the curacy was no longer on offer. Wordsworth had no money, no home, nor any immediate prospects. He was, moreover, completely out of sympathy with the prevailing national mood. The polemic he wrote but wisely did not publish at that time— A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff , a full-blooded republican’s testament—reveals how complete his disaffection was. What he did hasten to publish were his poems An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches , but though they attracted some notice they did not materially help him in his plight.

During the summer a projected tour of the west country with a Hawkshead friend, William Calvert , came to an abrupt end with a carriage accident and Wordsworth once again headed on foot for Robert Jones’s home. His route took in Salisbury Plain, which provided material for a stridently radical poem, ‘Salisbury Plain’ , and the Wye, which he later recalled in the opening lines of ‘Tintern Abbey’ . Fragmentary evidence suggests that late in September, Wordsworth recklessly returned to France to see Annette . Kenneth Johnston in The Hidden Wordsworth (1998) argues the case for this most fully, but it remains uncertain whether Wordsworth did hazard his life in this way.

In 1794 Wordsworth was reunited with Dorothy in the north of England. For part of the time they stayed at Windy Brow, a Calvert family farmhouse at Keswick, where Wordsworth substantially added to An Evening Walk . Towards the end of the year it was agreed that Wordsworth would accompany Calvert’s consumptive brother, Raisley , to Portugal, but Raisley died early in January 1795. He left Wordsworth £900 , ‘ from a confidence on his part ‘, Wordsworth later maintained, ‘ that I had powers and attainments which might be of use to mankind ‘ ( c.23 Feb 1805; Letters, 1.546 ).

Back in the south by February 1795, Wordsworth associated with the élite of London radicalism: William Frend , Thomas Holcroft , William Godwin , James Losh , George Dyer , and others less well known. In a series of letters the previous year to William Mathews , a Cambridge friend, Wordsworth had laid out his political principles as one ‘ of that odious class of men called democrats ‘ ( 23 May 1794; Letters, 1.119 ). They allied him closely with those who sought radical reform but recoiled from the violence of revolution, whose effects were now convulsing France. It is unclear, however, how active Wordsworth was in radical politics. His brother Richard was moved to urge him to ‘ be cautious in writing or expressing [his] political opinions ‘ ( ibid., 1.121 ), a sensible warning, given that just by associating with the likes of Holcroft , Wordsworth made himself a marked man; but did he do anything more than debate and follow the pamphlet wars of the day?

Wordsworth’s confession of principles to Mathews stems from a scheme of theirs to establish a journal of philosophical radicalism to be called The Philanthropist . That scheme seems to have foundered, but a journal called The Philanthropist did appear from March 1795 to January 1796, and Johnston ( The Hidden Wordsworth , 1998) has argued forcefully that Wordsworth was deeply involved in it and that his withdrawal to the country in the summer of 1795 was a prudent retreat before the increasing pressure of government surveillance of all radical activity. The evidence, however, is inconclusive.

Wordsworth did withdraw from London, and the fact that he had a place to which he could withdraw came about, like the Calvert legacy, from the fortunate chance of another rapidly ripened friendship. Through Francis Wrangham , with whom he was collaborating on a Juvenalian satire, and Basil Montagu , Wordsworth met John and Azariah Pinney , sons of a wealthy Bristol merchant and plantation owner. They offered him rent-free occupancy of one of their father’s properties, Racedown Lodge in Dorset. Dorothy Wordsworth was to join her brother and together, for £50 a year, they would look after Montagu’s little son, also Basil , whose mother had recently died. Invited by John Pinney senior , Wordsworth stayed in Bristol en route for Racedown, and here he met for the first time the bookseller Joseph Cottle , Robert Southey , and Samuel Taylor Coleridge . By late September 1795 Wordsworth and Dorothy had settled into Pinney’s substantial house: they never lived apart again.

Racedown and Alfoxden, 1795–1798

In the late spring of 1797 Dorothy Wordsworth reported that her brother was ‘ as chearful as any body can be … the life of the whole house ‘ ( 19 March [1797]; Letters, 1.181 ), and there is no doubt that overall their time at Racedown was happy. The house had an excellent library. There were frequent visitors, and a six-month stay by Mary Hutchinson greatly added to their contentment. They walked, and for the first time Wordsworth laboured seriously in the garden. Both enjoyed bringing up little Basil , teaching him nothing but what his curiosity demanded and making it their ‘ grand study ‘, Dorothy wrote, ‘ to make him happy ‘ ( 19 March [1797]; ibid., 1.180 ).

Domestic ease, though, was not untroubled. Generous but unwise loans to Montagu and one of his friends meant that the Wordsworths grew very short of money: ‘ carrots cabbages turnips and other esculent vegetables … the produce of my garden ‘ sustained them, Wordsworth declared ( letter of c.25 Feb 1797; Letters, 1.178 ). There was the question of Annette and Caroline . The widening of the war seemed certain to ensure that Wordsworth would be able to do nothing about them for some time to come. And there was the question of his future. Compared with his industrious brother Richard , for example, Wordsworth , it seemed to his relatives, was still squandering youthful years, directionless.

In reality the Racedown period was the threshold to Wordsworth’s discovery of his characteristic poetic voice and themes. Ideological excess and militarism in France forced Wordsworth (and many others) to sift the beliefs and ideals that had drawn them to the French social experiment. The zealotry of debate and pamphlet warfare, Wordsworth’s diet over previous months, came to seem to him to be a damaging commitment to the local and transient in politics and no route either towards understanding human beings or alleviating their sufferings. Most important of all, Wordsworth came to the conviction that the kind of rationalism exemplified by Godwin was sterile. The Racedown period was not a sudden crisis. Wordsworth did not abruptly abandon the opinions he had espoused in A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff , but rather he subjected all of them to re-examination.

The result, Wordsworth’s own kind of poetic radicalism, was not manifest for another year at least, but the poetry he composed now was its necessary prelude. ‘Salisbury Plain’ was transformed into Adventures on Salisbury Plain , in which interlocking stories of human wretchedness dramatize most of what in the earlier poem is rendered in hortatory declamation, the conviction that in war it is invariably the poor who suffer most. His next work, The Borderers , though clearly contemporary in the range of its concerns, leaves the war-torn eighteenth century for the lawless world of the border country in the thirteenth. A blank verse tragedy, The Borderers explores the human lust for power, the evil potentialities of rationalism untempered by love or domestic pieties, and the nature of guilt.

Adventures on Salisbury Plain impressed Charles Lamb , whom Wordsworth first met at this time, and Coleridge , but negotiations to publish it with Cottle lapsed, and it did not appear until 1842, and then in a greatly revised form called Guilt and Sorrow . The Borderers was likewise hidden until the same year, when it too appeared in revised form, having been declared unactable by the Covent Garden management in 1797. Neither work, therefore, though exhibiting considerable poetic and intellectual powers and being of the greatest importance to Wordsworth’s poetic development, did anything to promote him into visibility.

What did, and in the near future, was Wordsworth’s fresh encounter with Coleridge , one of ‘ the two Beings ‘, he later declared, ‘ to whom my intellect is most indebted ‘ ( W. Wordsworth to William Rowan Hamilton, 25 June 1832; Letters, 5.536 ). Letters had followed their meeting in 1795, but intimacy began only in March 1797 when Wordsworth called on Coleridge in Nether Stowey. In June, Coleridge repaid the call, and the two poets eagerly read their recent work to each other. Enchanted by their new friend, William and Dorothy went on 2 July to Nether Stowey. They had, in fact, left Racedown for good.

Alfoxden to Grasmere, 1797–1799

Through the good offices of Thomas Poole , a wealthy tanner and farmer from Nether Stowey with radical leanings, the Wordsworths secured for £23 a year the tenancy of Alfoxden House, a mansion with nine bedrooms and three parlours. Here they were visited by many acquaintances such as Thelwall and Lamb , and by a new one, William Hazlitt , who recorded his impressions in My First Acquaintance with Poets . Wordsworth’s attachment to Lamb deepened over a lifetime, but the friendship with Hazlitt faltered and eventually soured. The Wordsworths delighted in Alfoxden’s beautiful situation amid the Quantocks, but what mattered most was that it was only 3 miles from Nether Stowey. Over the next year intimacy between them and Coleridge deepened on repeated walks between their homes and rambles to the neighbouring coast and Exmoor. On one excursion in November 1797, while at Watchet, the two poets planned out ‘The Ancient Mariner’ , hoping to sell it to defray expenses.

When Coleridge first visited Racedown, Wordsworth read him his most recent composition, ‘The Ruined Cottage’ (revised for book 1 of The Excursion , published in 1814), whose blank verse, it is generally agreed, speaks for the first time with Wordsworth’s mature voice. At Alfoxden the poem’s structure was considerably altered to frame the story of one woman’s suffering and death within the commentary of a wise pedlar, whose philosophic utterances about loss and the kinds of natural compensation available to man set out the themes that were to dominate much of Wordsworth’s greatest poetry. Convinced that his friend was uniquely gifted to combine philosophy and poetry, Coleridge urged him to write a comprehensive work on ‘ Nature, Man, and Society ‘, and by March 1798 Wordsworth was enthusiastically broadcasting its title. It was to be called The Recluse , and so ambitious was it that Wordsworth declared, ‘ I know not any thing which will not come within the scope of my plan ‘ ( letter of 6 March [1798]; Letters, 1.212 ).

The project was not to advance at Alfoxden, for barely were the Wordsworths settled in before they knew they had to leave. In August 1797 gossip about the new tenants at Alfoxden, their strange ramblings, and their hospitality to such a notorious radical as John Thelwall had been passed on to the Home Office . An agent, James Walsh , was dispatched and soon reported that Alfoxden housed not French infiltrators but disaffected Englishmen, whose names were already known to the authorities. Though Poole vouched for their probity to Alfoxden’s owner, the Wordsworths were informed that their lease would not be renewed.

Coleridge planned a visit to Germany, and the Wordsworths wanted to join him. Newly funded by an annuity from the Wedgwoods , Coleridge could afford it. The Wordsworths could not, and it was in their financial need that one of the most famous volumes of English poetry had its birth. In Biographia literaria (1817) Coleridge spoke of the ‘ plan ‘ of Lyrical Ballads , but it is clear that there was no plan as he describes it. The most promising scheme to raise money was that Cottle should publish Wordsworth’s recent longer works— ‘The Ruined Cottage’ , Adventures on Salisbury Plain , The Borderers , and Peter Bell —but for unknown reasons it lapsed. What took its place was a hastily constructed volume, whose authors insisted on remaining anonymous, which consisted largely of lyric poems Wordsworth had composed over the spring and early summer of 1798, some of his earlier unpublished pieces, and a few poems by Coleridge , including ‘The Ancient Mariner’ . ‘Tintern Abbey’ was added at the last moment after a tour of the Wye area undertaken after the Wordsworths had left Alfoxden on 25 June 1798. Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems was published on 4 October 1798, by which time its authors were in Germany.

They went first to Hamburg. During their stay Wordsworth and Coleridge met Klopstock , but thereafter they split up. Coleridge , seeking intellectual community, eventually settled in Göttingen; the Wordsworths went to Goslar. Unable to speak the language fluently and restricted by an unusually severe winter and their tight funds, the Wordsworths gained little personally from their German sojourn. Poetically, however, Wordsworth took a momentous step. In a notebook used by his sister for German language exercises, he began to compose blank verse about his own boyhood experiences at Hawkshead. They became the first version of his autobiographical testament, what is for many his most impressive poem, The Prelude .

The Wordsworths returned to England at the end of April 1799 to stay at the Hutchinson family farm at Sockburn-on-Tees. A visit to the Lake District, on which he was accompanied at various times by his brother John , Coleridge , and Cottle , confirmed Wordsworth in the conviction that it was here that he wanted to settle. In November he negotiated the tenancy of a cottage he had seen at Town End, Grasmere, and late in the afternoon on 20 December 1799, after an extraordinarily arduous journey from Sockburn, mostly on foot along half-frozen roads, Wordsworth and Dorothy moved into the cottage, their home for the next eight years.

Grasmere, 1800–1806

One of the earliest poems Wordsworth wrote at the cottage, later named and now always known as Dove Cottage, was called ‘Home at Grasmere’ . The title is revealing. The dwelling house at Town End was the first home of Wordsworth’s adult life, and Grasmere was where he chose to put down roots. Here he began family life with Mary Hutchinson , his wife from 1802, and here he composed most of the poetry on which his fame rests. Life at Dove Cottage was a continual struggle, whose daily victories against lack of space, limited food, testing weather, and chronic ill health from damp are chronicled in Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals . But creating a home satisfied Wordsworth profoundly, even the labour once more in the garden, and the vale itself, the people as well as the landscape, memorialized in poems such as ‘Michael’ and in the lyrics ‘Poems on the Naming of Places’ , was an inexhaustible quarry for his imagination.

In the summer of 1800 Coleridge moved with his family into Greta Hall, Keswick, where Southey joined him with his family in 1803. Lamb was lured away from London for a visit to the Lakes and Grasmere in 1802. But Wordsworth also made two new friends now who were to matter to him in different ways until they died. One was the ‘ great and amiable man ‘ Sir Walter Scott ( note to Yarrow Revisited, The Fenwick Notes of William Wordsworth, ed. J. Curtis , 1993, 47 ). The other was Sir George Beaumont , who, with characteristic generosity, marked the beginning of their acquaintance by giving Wordsworth a parcel of land at Applethwaite, near Keswick.

Wordsworth and Mary Hutchinson had been moving towards marriage, and two events in 1802 made it possible. The first was the recognition by the earl of Lonsdale’s successor, Sir William Lowther , that the Wordsworth family claim on the estate would be met. The second was the realization that the brief respite in the war offered by the peace of Amiens gave Wordsworth the opportunity to settle matters in France. He was not in a position financially to settle money on Annette , and no evidence has survived that he did so in the coming years (though he was to make an annual allowance to Caroline later). But he seized this unlooked-for opportunity to see his French family. He and Dorothy stayed a month in Calais with Annette and Caroline , now nine years old.

Wordsworth and Mary Hutchinson were married from the farmhouse of her brother Thomas at Gallow Hill, near Scarborough, in Brompton church on 4 October 1802, and on the same day they and Dorothy began the journey back to Grasmere.

Wordsworth’s marriage became the bedrock of his life. His attachment to Mary was passionate. Shelley’s characterization of Wordsworth as ‘ a solemn and unsexual man ‘ ( Peter Bell the Third ) has stuck, but the second epithet at least is wide of the mark. Letters between Mary and William from 1810 and 1812 that surfaced only in 1977 read like avowals at the beginning of a love affair rather than after nearly ten years of marriage. At Grasmere and subsequently at Rydal, Wordsworth very consciously built the kind of domestic security his own early life had lacked. His sister continued to live with them. To Mary , as she said in old age, Dorothy was ‘ my chosen companion through life ‘ ( The Letters of Mary Wordsworth, 1800–1855, ed. M. E. Burton , 1958, xxi ), and in due course Mary’s own sister, Sara Hutchinson , was added as a permanent member of the domestic circle at Town End.

The first child of William and Mary Wordsworth , John , was born on 18 June 1803. Dorothy , usually called Dora , followed on 16 August 1804. Thomas was born on 15 June 1806, Catherine on 5 September 1808, and the last child, William , on 12 May 1810.

In August and September 1803 Wordsworth , Dorothy , and Coleridge made a tour of Scotland, whose diverse rewards, beginning at the grave of Burns and ending with the company of Scott , are described in full in Dorothy Wordsworth’s Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, A.D. 1803 . Two weeks into the tour, however, Coleridge and the Wordsworths split up, and the division indicates what was happening to their relationship. Coleridge was miserably in love with Sara Hutchinson , whom he had known since November 1799; he was chronically ill and slipping into drug addiction. Mrs Coleridge understandably blamed the Wordsworths for succouring her husband on his frequent visits to Grasmere. The Wordsworths loved Coleridge but thought his feelings for Sara were selfish and his treatment of his wife lamentable. With such discord the creative harmony of Alfoxden could not be restored, and it was with sad acknowledgement of the fact that the Dove Cottage family said farewell to Coleridge early in 1804, as he began his journey to the Mediterranean in search of sunshine and health. They did not see him again for over two years.

Much greater pain afflicted them in the following year. On 5 February 1805 John Wordsworth , now captain of an East Indiaman, the Earl of Abergavenny, was drowned in the wreck of his ship off Portland Bill. Wordsworth and Dorothy had not seen him since 29 September 1800, when they had waved him off down the path to Patterdale where it leaves Grisedale Tarn. The family at Town End were inconsolable. What his brother’s death meant to him is revealed in part by one of Wordsworth’s most moving poems, written the following year, ‘Elegiac Stanzas, Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle, in a Storm, Painted by Sir George Beaumont’ .

Writings, 1798–1807

A second edition of Lyrical Ballads , dated 1800, was issued by Longman and Rees late in March 1801. Now in two volumes, the collection decisively announced Wordsworth’s arrival: his name was on the title-page; the majority of the poems were his; ‘The Ancient Mariner’ was moved so that it no longer opened volume 1. Many of the new poems reflect what Grasmere had come to mean to Wordsworth . The series ‘Poems on the Naming of Places’ links the poet and members of his family to particular localities. ‘Michael’ and ‘The Brothers’ revivify the pastoral by dwelling on the fortitude and dignity with which the Lake District’s inhabitants face the hardships of their life.

That such lowly people are especially worthy of poetic attention is one of the main propositions of the substantial essay which prefaces the collection. The brief prose ‘Advertisement’ to the first edition of Lyrical Ballads (1798) had introduced the poems as ‘ experiments … written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation of the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure ‘, but the preface of 1800 extends the topic very boldly. The lives, customs, and language of ‘ low and rustic life ‘ are the focus, it claims, because here the ‘ primary laws of our nature ‘ can be discerned most clearly in their operation, untainted by the superficialities of a metropolitan society.

The preface’s other most important claim is that these are designedly poems of sentiment, differing from the common run of such poems in that here ‘ the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation and not the action and situation to the feeling ‘. Numerous causes, Wordsworth maintains, are combining at the present time to degrade public taste. By dwelling upon the ‘ great and simple affections of our nature ‘ the poems in Lyrical Ballads are to serve as an educative counterbalance.

Implicit in this proposition is a high claim for the power of poetry to foster human betterment. Major additions to the preface for the third edition of Lyrical Ballads (1802) amplify it, as Wordsworth identifies the true poet as one who ‘ rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him ‘ and celebrates poetry as a cultural power and as the ‘ breath and finer spirit of all knowledge ‘.

The preface established publicly the major concerns of Wordsworth’s poetry and identified this previously barely known poet as a writer with a mission. Only close friends knew on what else he was engaged during these years. By the end of 1800 Wordsworth had fashioned his autobiographical blank verse into a poem in two parts addressed to Coleridge . It declares itself a harbinger of The Recluse , but when progress on that project faltered, Wordsworth returned to the history of his own poetic evolution. As he chronicled his life up to 1798 Wordsworth re-examined his political, religious, and aesthetic convictions and expanded the poem’s scope so majestically that when it was completed in 1805 it had grown from two to thirteen books. It is Wordsworth’s masterpiece, but as it was conceived throughout as a prelude to a greater work, The Recluse , so long as Wordsworth remained committed to the project for the philosophical poem, the autobiographical one had to remain unpublished. It was Wordsworth’s widow and executors in 1850 who called it The Prelude . In Wordsworth’s lifetime it was always known as ‘The Poem to Coleridge’ or ‘Growth of a Poet’s Mind’ .

To the Grasmere years also belong most of Wordsworth’s finest lyrics—poems such as ‘To the Cuckoo’ and ‘To a Butterfly’ ; memorials of the tour of Scotland, such as ‘Yarrow Unvisited’ and ‘The Solitary Reaper’ ; political sonnets such as ‘Great men have been among us’ and ‘To Toussaint l’Ouverture’ ; other sonnets no less famous such as ‘The world is too much with us’ and ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’ . In 1804 Wordsworth completed his greatest ode, ‘There was a time’ , after 1815 entitled ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’ . Brought together for publication in 1807 as Poems, in Two Volumes , this varied, original collection ought to have been a triumph. It was a disaster. The sonnets and the odes affronted no aesthetic codes, but the lyrics certainly did. In the 1802 preface to Lyrical Ballads , Wordsworth had declared that the ‘ objects of the Poet’s thoughts are every where ‘, and these poems explored that conviction in a manner which even Coleridge thought exhibited a ‘ daring Humbleness of Language & Versification ‘ and a startling ‘ adherence to matter of fact, even to prolixity ‘ ( Collected Letters, ed. Griggs , 2.830 ). They were too daring by far for Francis Jeffrey . His merciless anatomy of the volumes in the Edinburgh Review for December 1807 was only the most thoroughgoing of the many onslaughts which, while generally conceding merit to the sonnets, castigated the bulk of the lyrics as puerile trash.

From Dove Cottage to Rydal Mount

The years 1806 to 1813 were the most troubled of Wordsworth’s married life. He was worried about money, about how to provide a decent home for his growing family, about the disintegration of his relationship with Coleridge , and about his future as a poet.

Over the winter of 1806–7 the family decamped to a farmhouse owned by Sir George Beaumont near his new house at Coleorton, Leicestershire, where Wordsworth energetically oversaw the laying-out of the winter garden. Coleridge joined them, but it was an uneasy reunion. The Wordsworths thought him ‘ utterly changed ‘ ( Dorothy Wordsworth , letter, 6 Nov 1806; Letters, 1.86 ); Coleridge began to torment himself with the conviction (quite unfounded) that Wordsworth had become Sara Hutchinson’s lover.

In May 1808 the Wordsworths moved to Allan Bank, to the west of Grasmere village, a house spacious enough for Coleridge to join them in September and for his sons, now at school in Ambleside, to stay at weekends. Thomas De Quincey too became one of the circle before taking over the tenancy of Dove Cottage in February 1809. At Allan Bank, to everyone’s surprise, Coleridge laboured heroically over every aspect—writing, printing, distribution—of the production of a weekly paper, The Friend , which ran from June 1809 to March 1810.

Allan Bank was fraught with personal tensions. The Wordsworths felt that Coleridge , clearly still dependent on drugs, was abusing Sara Hutchinson’s compassion and generosity—she was amanuensis for much of the production of The Friend —and neglecting his own family responsibilities. Coleridge believed that the Wordsworths were becoming selfishly introverted and he contrasted their increasing coldness to him with the warmth of their welcome to the newcomer, De Quincey . Shortly after Coleridge left for London in October 1810 the mixture of resentment, anger, and suspicion bubbled over.

The catalyst was Basil Montagu , who was travelling south with Coleridge . En route Montagu declared that Wordsworth had cautioned him against taking Coleridge in, as he was a ‘ rotten drunkard ‘ and an ‘ absolute nuisance ‘. Coleridge was stunned that his dearest friend should have become his ‘ bitterest Calumniator ‘ ( letter of 24 April [1812]; Collected Letters, ed. Griggs , 3.389 ) and broke off all communication with Grasmere. When the Wordsworths eventually learned of Coleridge’s suffering, Wordsworth stiffly refused to justify himself against what he maintained was a false accusation. At length, in April 1812, Wordsworth and Coleridge were brought into contact in London, largely through the mediation of Henry Crabb Robinson , and a reconciliation was patched together. The two poets continued friends, and after Coleridge’s death in 1834 Wordsworth reportedly called him ‘ the most wonderful man that he had ever known ‘ ( reported by R. P. Graves in Memoirs of William Wordsworth, 2.288 ), but the creative intimacy born at Alfoxden was extinguished for good after Allan Bank.

In May 1811 the Wordsworths moved into the disused rectory opposite Grasmere church. Here two of the children died within months of each other— Catherine of convulsions on 4 June and Thomas of measles on 1 December 1812. At Catherine’s death both parents were away, Wordsworth in London and Mary at her brother-in-law’s in Radnorshire, and neither was at her burial. Grief and self-reproach threatened to pitch Mary into permanent decline, and Wordsworth recognized that it was imperative to get her away from a house which was only yards away from the children’s graves. In May 1813 the family moved to Rydal Mount, a house on rising ground just south of Grasmere, owned by Lady le Fleming of Rydal Hall. It did not disappoint. Allan Bank had been intolerably smoky; the rectory was dangerously ill-drained. Rydal Mount was commodious, with a fine view over the head of Windermere, and it became the Wordsworths’ permanent home.

At the same time financial worries eased. They had become so acute that Wordsworth had been forced to beg for help from Lord Lonsdale . A generous promise of £100 a year was transformed in April 1813 into the more easily acceptable offer of an official position, that of distributor of stamps for Westmorland and the Penrith area of Cumberland. Wordsworth hoped to make £400 a year, but in practice the distributorship, despite his conscientious attention to the duties of the office, brought in much less. Wordsworth’s son William later deputized for him until 1842, when he took over the distributorship on his father’s retirement.

From July to September 1814 Wordsworth , Mary , and Sara Hutchinson , joined for part of the time by John Wordsworth , toured Scotland as far north as Inverness. In Edinburgh they met Robert Gillies , who was to become a staunch admirer, and James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd , who guided them on a visit to the Yarrow. When they arrived at Abbotsford, Scott was absent, but they were warmly received by his wife and daughter.

Wordsworth’s improved finances also enabled him to do something for his daughter Caroline . On her marriage in 1816, Wordsworth offered Caroline £30 a year, an arrangement that lasted for almost twenty years. In 1835, feeling that age was overtaking him and that his financial position was likely to worsen, Wordsworth concluded the payments with a generous capital settlement of £400 .

Writings, 1807–1815

What new writing Wordsworth published between moving into Allan Bank and leaving for Rydal Mount was entirely prose. Outraged by the diplomatic trading which allowed the defeated French army to evacuate Portugal in 1808, Wordsworth became unexpectedly absorbed for a year in composing a vehement denunciation of national conduct, The Convention of Cintra , published in May 1809. For The Friend he contributed an essay on education, called A Reply to ‘Mathetes’ in reply to a letter from John Wilson ( ‘Christopher North’ ), and three ‘Essays upon Epitaphs’ , only one of which appeared before Coleridge’s periodical collapsed. The essays have come to be regarded as some of Wordsworth’s profoundest meditations on language as an agency in human community. What later became Wordsworth’s most famous and best-selling prose, however—his Guide to the Lakes —appeared first anonymously. Over 1809–10 he composed the letterpress to accompany forty-eight engravings issued by a former acquaintance, Joseph Wilkinson , as Select Views in Cumberland, Westmoreland, and Lancashire (1810). In 1820 he reclaimed his own work, publishing it as an annexe to a volume of new poems, The River Duddon , and in 1822 it achieved a separate identity at last as A Description of the Scenery of the Lakes in the North of England .

Wordsworth’s most urgently felt compulsion, however, was to counter the failure of Poems, in Two Volumes by affirming to himself, and ultimately to the public, his poetic vocation. In 1807 he composed The White Doe of Rylstone , a historical narrative. Despite the urgings of his family that money was desperately needed, however, Wordsworth broke off negotiations for its publication. Further work on the first book of The Recluse , ‘Home at Grasmere’ , concluded the poem, but not in a fashion which pointed to any development of a larger structure. It remained unpublished until 1888. Other work towards the philosophical poem, though, did engage him. Revising ‘The Ruined Cottage’ to stand as the opening to a new quasi-dramatic narrative and incorporating throughout meditative blank verse dating back to Alfoxden with fresh composition, Wordsworth eventually completed a poem in nine books, The Excursion .

Published in 1814 as an elegant and costly quarto, The Excursion announced to the world for the first time its author’s larger ambitions. The title-page declared the poem to be only a ‘ portion ‘ of The Recluse , and a preface explained what that work was ultimately to consist of, namely three poems ‘ containing views of Man, Nature, and Society ‘. The preface also divulged the existence of the autobiographical poem and printed a lengthy passage of eloquent but difficult blank verse as a ‘Prospectus’ to the whole of the design of The Recluse .

In the following year Wordsworth followed this major publication with another: two handsome volumes entitled Poems … Including Lyrical Ballads, and the Miscellaneous Pieces of the Author , in effect Wordsworth’s first collected works. The contents were grouped under non-chronological classifications of the poet’s own devising, which he employed with variations for the rest of his life, and were buttressed by a preface and a supplementary essay in which Wordsworth expounded his matured views on poetry and its elements. In 1815 also The White Doe of Rylstone appeared in expensive quarto form.

Coleridge was disappointed in The Excursion , and the revelation in his letter of 30 May 1815 of just how different had been the two poets’ conception of The Recluse almost certainly blocked Wordsworth from any further serious work towards the philosophic poem. Nor was Francis Jeffrey won over. The Edinburgh Review (no. 24, November 1814) carried his most sustained and considered attack on the chief of ‘ the Lakers ‘, which opened unforgettably with ‘ This will never do ‘. To Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley , The Excursion demonstrated that Wordsworth had become ‘ a slave ‘ ( Journals of Mary Shelley, 1, ed. P. R. Feldman and D. Scott-Kilvert , 1987, 25 ). To Byron everything about the poem—its opulent format, the dedication to Lord Lonsdale , its metaphysical pretensions—indicated that its author had become a social and intellectual lackey. The influence of The Excursion on Shelley , however, was not inconsiderable, and Keats deemed it one of the ‘ three things to rejoice at in this Age ‘ ( letter of 10 Jan 1818; The Letters of John Keats, 1814–1821, ed. H. E. Rollins , 2 vols., 1958, 1.203 ). Slowly the positive assessment of Wordsworth’s achievement took hold. For years his remained a coterie reputation, but after 1815 it grew steadily.

Travel and revision, 1815–1832

London was always a lure for Wordsworth , and in 1817 an extended autumn visit was enjoyed so energetically that after a month Sara Hutchinson was hoping ‘ we shall go out in the evenings no more ‘ ( Letters of Sara Hutchinson, ed. K. Coburn , 1954, 114 ). One evening has become famous as Benjamin Robert Haydon’s ‘ immortal dinner ‘. On 28 December, Haydon , who had already brought Keats and Wordsworth together on an earlier occasion, was host in his painting-room to a party at which Charles Lamb became tipsy, and Wordsworth is said to have hesitated to join in a toast proposed by Keats , ‘ Newton’s health and confusion to mathematics ‘.

Foreign travel was always a greater lure still, and in this period, with money less of a worry than it had been, Wordsworth yielded to it. In the summer of 1820 he returned to the Alps and traced exactly the ground he had walked with Robert Jones . Dorothy Wordsworth recorded in her Journal of a Tour of the Continent, 1820 how deeply her brother was moved when he identified the track that had misled him on the Simplon Pass thirty years before. Their return route took them to Paris, and here Mary Wordsworth met Annette Vallon and Wordsworth was reunited with his daughter. Henry Crabb Robinson , who had joined the party at Lucerne, thought it ‘ indelicate ‘ that Caroline always called Wordsworth ‘ Father ‘ ( Henry Crabb Robinson, 1.248 ).

In 1823 Wordsworth and Mary toured Belgium and the Netherlands; in the following year it was north Wales. 1828 saw Wordsworth , his daughter Dora , and Coleridge on a tour of Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Rhineland. In 1829 Wordsworth pursued a demanding itinerary in Ireland for five weeks.

The tour that meant most to him in this period after the Alpine excursion of 1820, however, took place in 1831. Summoned by the ailing Sir Walter Scott to visit before he left for Italy, Wordsworth and Dora made Abbotsford the starting point for a full Scottish tour. In Scott’s company they revisited the Yarrow, and with high emotion the two men bade each other farewell. Wordsworth and Dora then followed the route of earlier Scottish excursions, and the 61-year-old was so much invigorated that he often walked 20 miles a day.

Dora was glad that their activity took her father’s mind off the progress of the Reform Bill , and she had reason to be grateful, for the poet had been settling into tiresome gloom for over a decade. After the defeat of Napoleon , Wordsworth was alert to any sign that his countrymen had not learned the lessons to be drawn from the French politics of the previous twenty-five years. In practice this meant that he became increasingly partisan. In the Westmorland election of 1818 he campaigned tirelessly to ensure victory for Lord Lonsdale’s candidates, convinced that the contender, Henry Brougham , was little better than a Jacobin. He was unsympathetic to radicals such as Cobbett and Hone , not because he thought the conduct of public affairs beyond reproach—far from it—but because he believed that activities such as theirs could only stir up unrest from below and dissolve national unity. Wordsworth strongly opposed Catholic emancipation in 1829 and the Reform Bill of 1832. Both measures weighed on him so heavily that friends and his family became alarmed for his health.

In a moment of depression Wordsworth told Haydon in 1831, ‘ The Muse has forsaken me ‘ ( 23 April [1831]; Letters, 5.378 ). This was not quite true, but his finest work was behind him. In 1819 Wordsworth published revised versions of poems written much earlier, Peter Bell and The Waggoner , and in 1820 a sonnet sequence, The River Duddon , with other recent compositions, which was enthusiastically received. A sonnet sequence history of the Anglican church , Ecclesiastical Sketches , followed in 1822, and in the same year Memorials of a Tour on the Continent, 1820 . Two other publishing events were more significant for Wordsworth’s reputation. The first was the reissuing of The Excursion in a more portable format in 1820. What became a favourite poem for Victorian readers was issued separately many times until late in the century. The second was Wordsworth’s work in 1820 on a four-volume set of collected works, which he oversaw with meticulous attention to organization and revision of texts. Collections were issued in 1827, 1832, 1836, 1845, and 1849–50, with reprints in many other years. For all save the last of these major new editions, each of which folded new poems into the existing classifications, Wordsworth scrutinized every line with an eye to revision, in the belief that his corpus was a self-referential and still developing whole.

Later writings

In 1835 Wordsworth collected his recent work in the volume Yarrow Revisited . The finest poems in it are retrospective and elegiac— ‘On the Departure of Sir Walter Scott from Abbotsford, for Naples’ , ‘Musings near Aquapendente’ , and ‘Extempore Effusion upon the Death of James Hogg’ . In the latter poem Wordsworth mourns the passing of Hogg , Scott , Coleridge , Lamb , and others in verse as powerful in its economy as any he had ever written. But the volume is not wholly backward-looking. ‘The Warning’ is a Jeremiad about the state of contemporary society, a theme returned to in a prose postscript to the whole volume. Here, however, the more attractively humane Wordsworth is to the fore, notably in the condemnation of the spirit inspiring the new poor law of 1834.

The success of Yarrow Revisited , attested by second and third editions in 1836 and 1839, emboldened Wordsworth to gamble on changing publishers. Longmans were abandoned for Edward Moxon , whose reverence for Wordsworth allied to his attentiveness in details of business endeared him to the Wordsworth circle. Moxon accompanied the poet to Paris in 1837, visited him at Rydal Mount, and was his host in London.

Moxon published Wordsworth’s next collected edition in 1836. One of the many revisions in it was especially significant: the title-page of The Excursion no longer carried the legend ‘ a Portion of the Recluse ‘. Over the years admirers had somewhat tactlessly asked Wordsworth when The Recluse would be completed and the poet sporadically maintained the fiction that he was preparing himself for further composition, but by 1836 he had in fact recognized what he told Ticknor a couple of years later, that ‘ he had undertaken something beyond his powers to accomplish ‘ ( The Life, Letters, and Journals of George Ticknor, 2, ed. G. S. Hillard , 1876, 167 ).

That his poetic career was drawing to a close was also acknowledged in the labour Wordsworth expended on thorough revision of the autobiographical poem. Charging his family to publish it after his death, Wordsworth scrutinized every line for the preparation of a new manuscript fair copy.

Wordsworth’s final discrete volume of poems also engaged with the distant past. Poems, Chiefly of Early and Late Years (1842) contained recent work, but its chief interest was that it included ‘Guilt and Sorrow, or, Incidents upon Salisbury Plain’ and his drama The Borderers , both having lain in manuscript since the late 1790s. Wordsworth had always vehemently opposed chronological presentation of his work. The classification system elaborated over the sequence of his collected editions had been intended to avoid what he described as the ‘ very worst ‘ way of displaying a poet’s corpus ( 27 April 1826; Letters, 4.444 ). Now, however, in an introductory note which conceded the claim of ‘ literary biography ‘, Wordsworth underscored the historical interest of what he was disclosing, as he located the origins of ‘Guilt and Sorrow’ in 1793 and the beginning of the war with France. What he did not reveal was that though the note recalls the poet’s state of mind in that period, the poems had been substantially revised and, in the case of ‘Guilt and Sorrow’ especially, their radicalism muted.

Wordsworth concluded the setting of his poetic affairs in order. In 1843, at the urging of his beloved friend Isabella Fenwick , Wordsworth composed extensive notes about the whole of his life’s work, upon which all editors and biographers have drawn, and in 1847 he dictated memoranda about his early life for his nephew Christopher to use after his death in whatever form of biographical notice might seem appropriate. They and the ‘Fenwick notes’ were used in Christopher Wordsworth’s two-volume Memoirs of William Wordsworth (1851). In 1845 Wordsworth oversaw the publication of a handsome single-volume edition of his collected works. The text was, as usual, subjected throughout to revision, but the most significant was that to The Excursion , in which the language of Christian doctrine was more explicitly introduced. Revision, however, what the poet’s family called ‘ tinkering ‘, was not quite over. New readings in the last collection in six volumes in 1849–50 established the text of his corpus in this, the last authorized edition of the poet’s lifetime.

Personal characteristics

Wordsworth was tall for his day and proud of it. His passport of 1837 and Haydon , who measured him for a portrait sitting in 1842, put his height at 5 feet 9½ inches . Regular walking until advanced old age kept him spare, and though he was troubled by the usual infirmities of age, Wordsworth’s only serious medical worry was for his eyes, which frequently became so inflamed that he feared he would go blind. In later life he regularly wore a shade or tinted glasses.

Comments about Wordsworth in his prime tend to emphasize his robust directness, practicality, and seriousness, and there are many witnesses who also found him, as Charles Greville did in 1831, ‘ very cheerful, merry, courteous, and talkative ‘ ( 25 Feb 1831; The Greville Memoirs: a New Edition, ed. H. Reeve , 8 vols., 1888 ). During his middle years, however, Wordsworth often left an unappealing impression on those who did not know him intimately. Deeply wounded by professional failure, he became prickly and egotistical. Keats was not the only one who found him domineering. From the 1820s Wordsworth sank into such an utterly disproportionate gloom about the state of the country that eventually even his family remonstrated with him. In the late 1830s, though his disapproval of social and political developments remained strong, he seems to have mellowed personally.

Numerous portraits capture Wordsworth across the whole of his poetic life from Lyrical Ballads to the laureateship. Wordsworth in 1798 was drawn by Robert Hancock ; the pencil and chalk portrait is now in the National Portrait Gallery. Portraits by Richard Carruthers , now in the Wordsworth Museum, Grasmere, and Benjamin Robert Haydon , now in the National Portrait Gallery, present differing images of Wordsworth in 1817 and 1818. The Carruthers oil was judged a strong likeness by the Wordsworth circle, but it was the pencil and chalk Haydon , familiarly known at Rydal as ‘ the Brigand ‘, that was judged to have caught some of the fire of the reckless youth who had earlier walked across revolutionary France. Mary Wordsworth could not bear to part with it. Henry William Pickersgill painted Wordsworth in 1832–3 for St John’s College, Cambridge, and again in 1840 (painting now in the Wordsworth Museum, Grasmere). The finest image of the poet in late life is certainly Haydon’s Wordsworth on Helvellyn (1842), now in the National Portrait Gallery.


Wordsworth is popularly associated with solitude. One of his most famous poems speaks of ‘ the bliss of solitude ‘ ( ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ ). In The Prelude he remarks that in childhood he was taught to feel

The Prelude, 1805, 2.77–8 The Recluse was so named because it was to embody the views of one ‘ living in retirement ‘. But though he drew on resources nurtured in solitude, Wordsworth was not in the ordinary sense of the word a solitary man.

Wordsworth’s friends and acquaintances were very numerous. The extant correspondence indicates their range, but the volumes of letters do not include many people, such as friends from school and college days, to whom Wordsworth is known from other evidence to have remained attached. To list all their names here would be neither possible nor useful. Some account of Wordsworth’s friendships with more famous figures, however, will suggest how fully engaged he was in the contemporary literary, the artistic, and to some extent the political milieu.

In the 1790s Wordsworth met many of the most important radicals such as John Thelwall and William Godwin . The friendship of Sir George Beaumont introduced him in his middle years to London circles of arts and politics, where he encountered Joseph Farington , David Wilkie , James Northcote , John Constable , Samuel Rogers , Charles James Fox , and others. The diaries of Benjamin Robert Haydon record the course of his volatile friendship with the poet. At Henry Taylor’s breakfast salon Wordsworth was introduced to John Stuart Mill . William Charles Macready became a disciple, as did John Kenyon . Through the Cambridge connections of his brother Christopher Wordsworth made the acquaintance of churchmen and academics, such as William Whewell and Hugh Rose . Charles Blomfield , bishop of London, became a fast friend. In 1837 Thomas Talfourd solicited Wordsworth’s aid in promoting a copyright bill, partly because of the range of connections he would be able to lobby. Wordsworth’s friendship with Lord Lonsdale put him on the guest list of many of the Lake District’s leading families, but in his later years the circle there he valued most was a small one that included Eliza Fletcher , of Lancrigg, Grasmere, the Arnolds , and Isabella Fenwick . With Harriet Martineau in Ambleside, Wordsworth could never get on.

Wordsworth told the young Thomas De Quincey :

My friendship is not in my power to give: this is a gift which no man can make, it is not in our power: a sound and healthy friendship is the growth of time and circumstance, it will spring up and thrive like a wildflower when these favour, and when they do not it is in vain to look for it. 29 July 1803 ; Letters, 1.400

A small number of people stand out as those whose friendship meant a great deal to Wordsworth , irrespective of how often they met. Of Sir Walter Scott , Wordsworth said simply, ‘ I love that Man ‘ ( [30 July 1830]; ibid., 5.310 ). Robert Southey did not endear himself to Wordsworth when they were both young, but over the years Wordsworth came to value Southey’s steadiness and courage in adversity. At his death, though not invited by Southey’s divided family, Wordsworth made his way through driving rain to his funeral. Charles Lamb , his preference for London streets over the Lake District mountains notwithstanding, had a special place in Wordsworth’s affections from their first meeting in 1796. Wordsworth’s friendship with Sir George Beaumont began with an act of patronage—the gift in 1803 of a parcel of land, mentioned above—but it was sustained until the latter’s death in 1827 by mutual interests and high personal regard. William Rowan Hamilton , who conquered Wordsworth at once in 1827, seemed with Coleridge to be one of ‘ the two most wonderful men ‘ he had ever met ( R. P. Graves , Life of Sir William Rowan Hamilton, 3 vols., 1882–9, 1.269 ). It is not likely that Wordsworth ever called Henry Crabb Robinson wonderful, but in his later years he came to depend upon his steadfast, unostentatious support. In 1842 Wordsworth dedicated ‘Memorials of a Tour in Italy’ to Crabb Robinson ,

The most important relationships of Wordsworth’s life, other than that with his wife, were those with Dorothy Wordsworth and Coleridge . In ‘Home at Grasmere’ Wordsworth pays beautiful tribute to what his sister meant to him:

Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere journals record a degree of intimacy and passion between brother and sister which alarmed Wordsworth’s first scholarly biographer, William Knight , and which continues to discomfit many readers. Dorothy shared the poet’s passion for walking and for observation of natural phenomena, and some of Wordsworth’s verse draws on his sister’s journal entries.

One of the early bonds between Wordsworth and Coleridge was that the latter was completely enthralled by Wordsworth’s ‘ exquisite Sister ‘ ( [c.3 July 1797]; Collected Letters, ed. Griggs , 1.330 ). Wordsworth was awed by Coleridge’s intellect, by his range of reading, and by the creative fertility of his thought. Wordsworth’s hesitant but emerging faith in his own powers in the late 1790s was greatly strengthened by Coleridge’s conviction that his friend was destined to be the greatest philosophical poet in the language. The interplay of their poetry and aesthetic theorizing was subtle and energetic. The Prelude is addressed to Coleridge ; its concluding lines embrace him; its chronicle ends with the summer of 1798, when Wordsworth and Coleridge had ‘ wantoned in wild Poesy ‘, rightly, for that was when both poets were happiest, in a creative intimacy they were never to recapture. For the misery of the slow disintegration of their friendship Wordsworth found large compensation in the contentment of his marriage, but Coleridge had no such recourse, and the conviction that Wordsworth had turned against him remained one of the ‘ griping and grasping Sorrows ‘ of his life ( 8 Oct 1822; Collected Letters, ed. Griggs , 5.249 ).

Final years, 1833–1850

As Wordsworth entered old age he remained physically vigorous; he climbed Helvellyn for the last time when he was seventy. In 1833 he visited the Isle of Man and then Scotland, memorializing the latter tour in a series of sonnets. One of his busiest London visits ever occupied two months in 1836, and the following year Wordsworth and Crabb Robinson travelled through France to Italy, seeing Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice, before returning through Germany and Belgium. Though he lamented that he was too old to use his experiences in fitting poetry, Wordsworth none the less composed one final travel sequence, ‘Memorials of a Tour in Italy’ . In 1841 he returned to the west country and revisited places such as Alfoxden, made precious by association with Coleridge and Lyrical Ballads .

Wordsworth’s fame continued to grow. In 1838 he was awarded an honorary degree by Durham University, and in the following year he received one from Oxford at a ceremony in which he was eulogized by John Keble and applauded by a packed audience in the Sheldonian Theatre, including Matthew Arnold and Arthur Hugh Clough . The honorand presented the Newdigate prize for poetry to the twenty-year-old John Ruskin . Before the ceremony Wordsworth was entertained by John Henry Newman , among others. After the death of Robert Southey in 1843, Wordsworth was offered the post of poet laureate. After declining initially on the grounds of age, he accepted when Sir Robert Peel insisted that it was the queen’s particular wish and that nothing would be required of him. On 25 April 1845 Victoria’s laureate knelt before her, wearing court dress borrowed from Samuel Rogers and encumbered by Sir Humphry Davy’s sword.

Wordsworth’s fame drew hundreds of visitors to Rydal Mount, whose names were mostly recorded in the Rydal Mount visitors’ book, now in the Wordsworth Library, Grasmere. Notable among them were John Stuart Mill , John Kenyon (on behalf of Elizabeth Barrett ), the radical poet Thomas Cooper , Dr Thomas Arnold , Alfred Tennyson , and Aubrey de Vere , and Americans such as George Ticknor , William Ellery Channing , Orville Dewey , Charles Sumner , Ralph Waldo Emerson , and Henry Reed , who edited Wordsworth’s poetry for the American readership. In the Lake District circle of which he was the acknowledged ornament, Wordsworth also met Elizabeth Gaskell , William Rathbone Greg , Harriet Martineau , and many other notable figures. In the early 1840s Wordsworth was courted by Frederick William Faber , who took every opportunity to foster the view that Wordsworth was truly the laureate of the Oxford Movement.

The years of Wordsworth’s greatest fame, however, were also a time of much personal grief. In 1833 Dorothy Wordsworth was taken seriously ill, and in the coming years she fell prey to a form of Alzheimer’s disease. She was nursed at Rydal Mount until her death in 1855, and at the very end of Wordsworth’s life Mary Wordsworth remarked that the one thing that continued to give him pleasure was ministering to the ‘ dear, dear Sister ‘ of ‘Tintern Abbey’ ( reported by Henry Crabb Robinson , 15 Jan [1849]; Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson, 2.685 ). The death of Sara Hutchinson , a mainstay of the Rydal Mount household, in June 1835 followed closely on that of Coleridge on 25 July 1834 and that of Charles Lamb on 27 December 1834. Wordsworth’s surviving brother, Christopher , master of Trinity College, Cambridge, died in 1846 ( Richard had died in 1816). The most deeply felt loss was that of Dora on 9 July 1847, and Wordsworth’s grief was intensified by self-reproach. Passionately devoted to his daughter, Wordsworth had done all he could to prevent her marriage in 1841 to Edward Quillinan , a widower thirteen years her senior with two daughters, and in the years before Dora’s death he had never fully accepted her choice of husband.

By the time of Hartley Coleridge’s death on 6 January 1849 Wordsworth was waiting for his own. At Hartley’s burial in Grasmere churchyard, Wordsworth pointed out to the sexton where his own and Mary’s graves were to be, saying that Hartley would have wished to lie near to them. Having taken pleurisy from recklessly walking out in frosty weather, Wordsworth died at Rydal Mount on 23 April 1850 and was buried in the churchyard at St Oswald’s, Grasmere, four days later. Dorothy Wordsworth died on 25 January 1855; Mary Wordsworth died on 17 January 1859. They too were buried in the churchyard at St Oswald’s. The Prelude was rushed through the press, appearing just three months after Wordsworth’s death.


After Wordsworth’s death funds were raised by public subscription for memorials: a profile medallion by Thomas Woolner in Grasmere church; a memorial window, paid for in large part by American contributions, in Gilbert Scott’s new church in Ambleside; and a statute by Frederick Thrupp in Westminster Abbey.

For many years Wordsworth’s heirs effectively controlled the image of the poet that was to be transmitted to posterity, not least through policing the copyright vested in the last authorized edition of 1849–50 and in all unpublished writings. The biography by the high-church bishop of Lincoln, Christopher Wordsworth , Memoirs of William Wordsworth (1851), smoothed over Wordsworth’s radicalism, omitted (against the author’s wishes, it should in fairness be added) all mention of Annette Vallon , and emphasized the poet’s adherence to the Church of England . Moxon & Co. continued to issue the only definitive editions, with the result, for example, that The Prelude , which other publishers could not touch until it came out of copyright until 1892, was less widely known than its importance warranted. Wordsworth’s prose was collected by Alexander Grosart in 1876, and towards the end of the copyright term William Knight , professor of moral philosophy at St Andrews, was allowed to produce the first ever scholarly edition of the poetry and a biography, eleven volumes in all, between 1882 and 1889. Late in his research Knight almost certainly worked out the secret of Wordsworth’s illegitimate daughter, but with Wordsworth’s surviving son, William , still alive, he did not disclose it. The story was revealed by George McLean Harper in William Wordsworth (1916).

By the time of his death Wordsworth was an acknowledged classic and there was no swing of the pendulum against him. Critical writing, however, was meagre, and obeisance little more than routine until serious critical reassessments by Richard Holt Hutton , Aubrey de Vere , John Campbell Shairp , Walter Pater , Leslie Stephen , Stopford Brooke , and Edward Caird returned Wordsworth to prominence from the 1870s. Much was made of the spiritual elements of the poetry. Wordsworth was claimed as a kindred spirit by Christians from Quakers to Roman Catholics. Leslie Stephen spoke for non-Christians when he extolled Wordsworth’s ethics as capable of systematic exposition. In one of the century’s most famous tributes to Wordsworth’s healing power, John Stuart Mill recorded in his Autobiography (1873) how at a crisis in his life, when emotional and intellectual aridity threatened his sanity, immersion in Wordsworth’s poems had helped to save him: ‘ they seemed to be the very culture of the feelings which I was in quest of ‘ ( J. S. Mill , Autobiography and Literary Essays, ed. J. M. Robson and J. Stillinger , 1981, 150 ). The most influential essay, however, played down ethics and philosophy. In his introduction to his selection of Wordsworth’s poetry published in 1879 Matthew Arnold made two declarations that immediately became critical commonplaces, namely that all Wordsworth’s greatest work was written before 1810 and that there was too much of it, making selection vital if the poet’s influence was to survive. His third point sparked a debate which has continued into the twenty-first century. In reverencing the ‘ philosophy ‘, Arnold claimed, Wordsworth’s disciples were honouring the weakness, not the strength, of his poetry.

Despite grumbling about ‘ Wordsworthians ‘, Arnold served as president of the Wordsworth Society in 1882–3. The society, whose most active member was William Knight , existed from 1880 to 1886. In 1890 Dove Cottage was bought and made over to a body of trustees which included Stopford Brooke , William Knight , and Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley . In addition to Dove Cottage, the Wordsworth Trust now maintains in Grasmere a museum and a library in which the bulk of the poet’s extant manuscripts are preserved.

The most important scholarly event after Knight’s edition was the appearance of Ernest De Selincourt’s parallel text of the first and last completed versions of The Prelude in 1926. In the notes and textual apparatus to this edition and to the five-volume edition of Wordsworth’s complete poetical works which De Selincourt inaugurated in 1941 (completed by Helen Darbishire in 1949), the editors revealed the existence of a large number of manuscripts and of early versions of poems unknown to scholars. Since 1975 the Cornell Wordsworth Series , under its general editor Stephen Parrish , has been presenting them in their entirety. It is largely thanks to successive editorial uncoverings that the Wordsworth studied in schools and universities at the beginning of the twenty-first century is substantially different from the Wordsworth delineated in the Dictionary of National Biography .

The poet

From ‘The Idiot Boy’ (1798) to the Fenwick note to An Evening Walk (1843) Wordsworth consistently dated his ‘ strong indentures ‘ to ‘ the muses ‘ from his fourteenth year. In fact, despite the accomplishment of his early work, Wordsworth’s career was not wholly settled until 1798, the year that saw the summer of Lyrical Ballads and the beginnings of The Recluse . Thereafter he pursued his vocation unwaveringly. The preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800 and 1802) formulates his most eloquent defence of the poet and of poetry as the most philosophic of all writing, but throughout his letters appear observations such as this declaration to Lady Beaumont : ‘ To be incapable of a feeling of Poetry in my sense of the word is to be without love of human nature and reverence for God ‘ ( 21 May 1807; Letters, 2.146 ).

Many of Wordsworth’s lyrics derive their charm from an appearance of spontaneity. This, coupled with selective quotation from the preface to Lyrical Ballads about poetry as ‘ spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings ‘ and the fact that in her journal Dorothy Wordsworth does frequently record her brother composing out of doors, gave currency to an image of Wordsworth as a poet at his most creative when extemporizing to the fields. Arnold’s remark in the introduction to his selection that Wordsworth had no style, that it was as if nature held the pencil, prolonged its life. But it was always a misapprehension, for, whatever the origins of any particular composition may have been, Wordsworth was meticulous about his craft. Admonishing William Rowan Hamilton to pay more attention to ‘ Workmanship ‘ in his own verses, Wordsworth insisted that:

the materials upon which [the logical faculty] is exercised in Poetry are so subtle, so plastic, so complex, [that] the application of it requires an adroitness which can proceed from nothing but practice, a discernment, which emotion is so far from bestowing that at first it is ever in the way of it.

What Wordsworth praised in Shelley was his ‘ workmanship of style ‘ ( A. B. Grosart , The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, 3 vols., 1876, 3.463 ).

Drafts, revised drafts, and fair-copy manuscripts survive as fascinating remains from Wordsworth’s struggles in composition, but all his printed texts constitute further evidence, for what was unusually strong in him was the conviction that a poem was not finished, nor finished with, when it was published. For each successive collection of his work he revised his poems, line by line, including punctuation. So compulsive was the urge to repossess a published poem that he began revising Lyrical Ballads (1800) in one of the first copies he received from the printer. The labours of revision often brought on illness and invariably made Wordsworth irritable and difficult. At sixty-seven he begged his wife’s forgiveness for his ‘ ungovernable ‘ impatience during a particularly trying period of revision ( [5 July 1837]; Letters, 6.424 ).

Continual revision was entailed in part by Wordsworth’s conviction that his large and varied corpus was one growing and unified whole. Introducing the Recluse project in 1814, Wordsworth saw it as resembling a Gothic church, adding that his minor pieces,

when they shall be properly arranged, will be found by the attentive Reader, to have such connection with the main Work as may give them claim to be likened to the little cells, oratories, and sepulchral recesses, ordinarily included in those edifices.

This organic view of his work is reflected in the classification system he devised to present his collected poems from 1815 onwards, for it obscured or concealed both dates of composition and the groupings of the poems on first publication.

Addressing Benjamin Robert Haydon , Wordsworth begins a sonnet, ‘ High is our calling, Friend! ‘. In many such utterances, notably in Wordsworth’s letter to John Wilson of 7 June 1802, the ‘ calling ‘ is identified as that of the teacher. ‘ Every great Poet is a Teacher ‘, Wordsworth declared to Beaumont , ‘ I wish either to be considered as a Teacher, or as nothing ‘ ( [February 1808]; Letters, 2.195 ). His conception, however, of how poetry could teach was flexible and generous and it encompassed every genre, but fundamental to it all was a concern to honour the primary human affections and the essentials of human experience. Assessing his own achievement in late life, Wordsworth quoted aptly from one of his earliest poems, ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’ , when he observed to Crabb Robinson : ‘ If my writings are to last, it will I myself believe, be mainly owing to this characteristic. They will please for the single cause, “That we have all of us one human heart!” ‘ ( [c.27 April 1835]; ibid., 6.44 ).

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