Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
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Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.
All right, in this lesson, we're going to talk about William Wordsworth, who, along with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was a progenitor of the Romantic poetry movement in England; they got it going together.
You might figure that a guy with 'word' and 'worth' in his name would write words of worth. It's kind of like my middle school gym teacher whose name was Miss Sweat; that is a true fact.
Wordsworth was born in 1770 in Cockermouth, Cumberland, which is northern England, near Scotland. He had four siblings; he had a particularly close bond with his sister Dorothy, with whom he was baptized. They actually remained close throughout their lives, even living together as adults for a while - they were tight buds.
As for Wordsworth's parents, they weren't really in the picture for that long, but each played a pivotal role in his development as a poet. His mother died when he was eight, but before she died, she taught him how to read, as all good parents do. He was actually largely homeschooled when he was really young. His father also died when Wordsworth was young; he was a lawyer. He had a library in his house that helped expose the young William to Shakespeare, Milton and other really important works that shaped his development as a writer and thinker.
Following the death of his mother, Wordsworth was sent away to school. At school, he actually met his future wife, Mary Hutchinson, although they wouldn't marry until 1802 when Wordsworth was 32. So, they're high school sweethearts in a way, but they waited a long time. Mary and Dorothy (Wordsworth's sister) also met at this time. They actually ended up great friends, which probably contributed to Mary ultimately marrying Dorothy's brother, William.
As I said before, he grew up near the beautiful river Cocker, and this caused Wordsworth to develop a deep appreciation of nature. As he began to write, he made celebrating nature a real central theme of his work. Like I said before, he was a founder and leader of the Romantic poetry movement, and his appreciation for nature made this an important element of the genre. Other Romantic poets would extend this and rank imagination really highly as well. Wordsworth pretty closely stuck to nature as a really important theme (or at least setting) for a lot of his poetry. He also liked to use the fond memories of his childhood as basis in his poetry. He writes:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
If Wordsworth had been born in Newark, nature probably wouldn't have been so central to Romantic poetry, but he was born in Cockermouth. So we can all be thankful for that, for beautiful Cumberland.
While he was attending St. John's College in Cambridge, he spent a few summers seeking out nearby locations that were known for their awe-inspiring natural settings because that was what he was into. To go out and explore the countryside, he would walk because they didn't have cars back then. Cars aren't really that great for exploring anyway. In 1790, he takes a walking tour of several countries in Europe. He goes on a long hiking trip, basically; he goes to France, Switzerland and Italy. This only served to deepen his love of nature. This was really a pivotal thing for him.
It actually made sure that he was in France during the French Revolution, which was also important. He returned in 1791 because he really became fascinated with the politics of the Revolution. This would inspire another theme of Wordsworth's poetry, which was the idea that you were writing for the common people. This was the French revolutionaries and the masses rising up against the aristocracy. Wordsworth's poetry was really into focusing on ordinary people, using ordinary language, and this was in stark contrast to what a lot of poets would write about before. The poor would really find a place in Wordsworth's poetry, and again, he wrote in accessible language, which would really come to define the movement as a whole. It probably comes as a relief from all that stilted stuff that came before, especially Milton.
Politics wasn't the only thing that kept Wordsworth interested in France. He was smitten with a certain Annette Vallon, who was involved in the Revolution. Also, in 1792, she gave birth to a little girl named Caroline, who was probably Wordsworth's. He'd keep the affair quiet, but he would actually go visit the child. He actually went with his wife to meet his daughter. I guess she was cool with it. I don't know; it's a little nicer than if he had just abandoned her.
Rolling right along, we're going to get to the poetry now because we've talked a lot about him as a man. For such a looming figure in Romantic poetry, Wordsworth's notable career was actually pretty brief. He didn't write so many great things, but he did write a lot of good stuff.
He'd met this guy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1795, and together, they decided to publish this thing called Lyrical Ballads in 1798. This is mostly Wordsworth's poetry, but it begins with Coleridge's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner,' which is still the most widely read poem in Lyrical Ballads. So, he was upstaged a lot in this.
The most significant Wordsworth poem in Lyrical Ballads is (I have to take a deep breath before I say this) 'Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour. 13 July 1798' (it is also known as 'Tintern Abbey'). It's kind of like that Fiona Apple CD where the title takes up the whole front of the CD (I hope that doesn't age me too much). The poem basically uses a memory of a visit to a long-abandoned abbey as an opportunity to - wait for it - celebrate nature. We're going to get to this in more detail in a separate lesson.
Also of note from Lyrical Ballads are several of the Lucy poems, which are basically about the speaker's unrequited love for a maybe-fictitious dead woman named Lucy. Some people think Lucy is actually Wordsworth's sister Dorothy; that's who it's based on. Or she may just be a literary device that allows Wordsworth to write about longing, love and, as usual, nature.
A few other significant poems in Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth would be 'We are Seven,' 'The Idiot Boy' and 'Lines Written in Early Spring.' He's really found of those titles: lines written on… blah, blah, blah. That's a way you can probably recognize a Wordsworth poem.
Starting in 1801 with the book's second edition, Wordsworth included a now-famous preface that established his beliefs about what poetry should be and, as it turned out, what Romantic poetry did turn out to be. This is kind of a manifesto, as it were, of Romantic poetry. It's in this preface that Wordsworth spells out what all the themes should be: common language, nature, emotion and so on. He says that poetry should be the 'spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings… recollected in tranquility'. What does this mean? Basically, that poetry shouldn't be a clinical exercise; if there's no emotion in it, why bother? If it's not written to express something deep, what's the point of writing at all? But, it should be recollected in tranquility. So, it's like when people tell you that you shouldn't send that angry e-mail to your ex-boyfriend when you're in a rage and cancel his Starcraft account or whatever you might want to do. Don't do that when you're angry! You want to wait, and then write something more cogent or take a more considered form of revenge. That's the idea with this; poetry should overflow with powerful feelings, but you should be able to construct it in calm retrospect so that you really know what you're saying and you're not just spewing your emotions onto the page. That never turns out well.
In 1807, Wordsworth publishes Poems, in Two Volumes, which was a bit of a flop at the time, but today some of the poems are really considered to be awesome. It's kind of the Arrested Development of 1807.
A few of the collection's really notable poems: one is 'The Solitary Reaper,' which begins with this really awesome, evocative image:
Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
He goes on to describe how he's transfixed by the woman and her singing, and she's alone in nature. She's Scottish, so he doesn't understand the words: Will no one tell me what she sings? And that's important. He loves the music but he doesn't have the language to convey the emotion, but it's powerful.
There's also a sonnet called 'London, 1802,' which is a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings about John Milton. He's really upset about Milton being dead.
In this poem, one of the interesting things about it is that you can see that Wordsworth is different from his fellow Romantic poets in the sense that he cares about morality. His discussion of Milton and London in this poem really brings about that he sees that there are things that are wrong in England. He's not that into free love and stuff that maybe his contemporaries (like Blake in Coleridge) were. He's really not into drugs.
Also in Poems, in Two Volumes, there's the very sadly-titled 'I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.' But it's actually a happy poem because clouds wandering lonely is a nice image for Wordsworth - because it's a cloud wandering around in nature! This one, again, is about the speaker walking in nature. He's basically saying that it takes a really hard-hearted person to be unhappy with really beautiful scenes around him.
So, his later career wasn't much of note. We should mention The Prelude, which is basically an epic poem that he starts when he's 28. He continues working on this for decades; he's never done. He changes it substantially as he goes along, so there are a lot of different versions of this poem that are markedly different from earlier versions. His wife had it published after his death. The poem is autobiographical, and it details events that are from his life.
Beyond The Prelude, which is a problematic work on its own, there really isn't that much that you need to know about the later career of Wordsworth. He kind of does his best work early on. He peaked with Lyrical Ballads and Poems, in Two Volumes and never recovered the glory years.
Later in life, his politics shifted pretty dramatically. You know how he was into the French Revolution back in the 1790s and whatnot? Well, he stopped being a revolutionary and became really conservative and patriotic. It's like those people who were left-wing hippies in college, and then they end up watching Rush Limbaugh and Fox News (hopefully without the virulent misogyny, in Wordsworth's case). Despite this, he was England's poet laureate in 1843 until his death in 1850.
To sum up Wordsworth:
He helped found the Romantic poetry genre, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The movement really celebrated passions of his, including nature and the common man - celebrating the poor people who couldn't read fancy language.
Along with Coleridge, he published Lyrical Ballads, the book that defined Romantic poetry.
His major poems include:
He also worked his whole life on the autobiographical poem The Prelude, which remained unfinished at his death, but then his wife published afterwards. So, we have it today.
So, that is William Wordsworth.
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Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 137 lessons | 10 flashcard sets