William Wordsworth: Poetry and Biography

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  • 0:05 Early Years
  • 1:52 Nature & Babies
  • 5:15 Lyrical Ballads
  • 8:38 Poems
  • 10:30 Later Career
  • 11:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeff Calareso

Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.

Poets and their feelings - that pair has a bad reputation these days, but it used to be that poets didn't share their emotions. Then came William Wordsworth. In this lesson, you'll learn about Wordsworth, one of the founders and chief architects of the Romantic poetry movement in England.

Early Years

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.

Nature, Walking and Revolutionary Babies

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.

Lyrical Ballads

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.

Poems, in Two Volumes

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:

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