In this lesson, you'll learn about William Wordsworth, one of the founders and chief architects of the Romantic poetry movement in England and England's poet laureate from 1843-1850.
Wordsworth Early Poetry
Growing up in beautiful Cumberland caused Wordsworth to develop a deep appreciation of nature. As he began to write, Wordsworth made celebrating nature a central theme of his work. As a founder and leader of Romantic poetry, his appreciation for nature made this an important element of the genre. He used fond memories of his childhood in his poetry:
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.
While he was attending St. John's College in Cambridge, Wordsworth spent a few of his summers seeking out nearby locations that were known for their awe-inspiring natural settings. To explore the countryside intimately, he'd walk. For example, in 1790, Wordsworth took a walking tour of several countries in Europe. This included France, Switzerland, and Italy. This only deepened his love of nature.
Wordsworth was in France during the French Revolution. He'd return in 1791, when he became fascinated with the politics of the Revolution. This would foster another theme of Wordsworth's poetry: writing for and about common people. Just as the French Revolution involved the masses rising up against the aristocracy, Wordsworth's Romantic poetry would focus on ordinary people, in stark contrast to the poetry that came before. The poor would find a place in Wordsworth's poetry, and he'd write in accessible language that came to define the movement.
Politics wasn't the only thing that kept Wordsworth interested in France. He was smitten with a certain Annette Vallon. Annette was involved in the Revolution, and in 1792, she gave birth to a girl named Caroline.
Wordsworth would keep his affair with Annette quiet for a variety of reasons, especially since the child was born out of wedlock. In 1802, before marrying his American wife Mary Hutchinson, Wordsworth returned to France with his sister Dorothy to meet his daughter. He apparently kept in contact with Annette for years, and it's believed, though not confirmed, that there are numerous references to her in his poetry.
Speaking of which, let's get to the poetry. For such a looming figure in Romantic poetry, Wordsworth's notable career was fairly brief. He'd met Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1795 and, together, they published Lyrical Ballads in 1798. While Wordsworth's poetry dominates the collection, the book begins with Coleridge's ''Rime of the Ancient Mariner,'' which is still the most widely read poem in Lyrical Ballads.
The most significant Wordsworth poem in Lyrical Ballads is ''Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour. 13 July 1798'' (also known as ''Tintern Abbey''). The poem uses the memory of a visit to a long-abandoned abbey as an opportunity to celebrate nature.
Also of note from Lyrical Ballads are several of the Lucy poems. These poems involve the speaker's unrequited love for a maybe fictitious dead woman named Lucy. Some people think Lucy is Wordsworth's sister Dorothy. However, it's also possible that she may just be a literary device that allowed Wordsworth to write about longing, love, and nature.
One of these poems is ''Strange fits of passion I have known.'' In the poem, the speaker tells a story about traveling at night to his lover's cottage. Along the way, he watches the moon, which is getting lower in the sky in front of him, just over her cottage:
And now we reached the orchard-plot;
And, as we climbed the hill,
The sinking moon to Lucy's cot
Came near, and nearer still.
When the moon drops behind the cottage, he says:
What fond and wayward thoughts will slide
Into a Lover's head!
''O mercy!'' to myself I cried,
''If Lucy should be dead!''
Despite Lucy being dead, the poem is a fascinating look into the mind of a man in love. He has this terrible, dark thought that comes out of the disappearance of the moon. In this poem, nature isn't necessarily something awe-inspiring so much as a catalyst for his mind's wanderings.
Some of the other significant Wordsworth poems in Lyrical Ballads are ''We are Seven,'' ''The Idiot Boy,'' and ''Lines Written in Early Spring.''
Starting in 1801 with the book's second addition, Wordsworth included a now-famous preface that established his beliefs about what poetry should be and, as it turned out, what Romantic poetry would be. It's in this preface where Wordsworth spells out all the themes you've come to know and love about this genre: common language, nature, emotion, and more. He states that poetry should be the ''spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings… recollected in tranquility.'' In other words, poetry isn't a clinical exercise; if there's no emotion in it and it's not written because the urge to express your feelings is overwhelming, then what's the point?
Poems, in Two Volumes
In 1807, Wordsworth published Poems, in Two Volumes. It was a bit of a flop at the time, but today several of its poems are considered among his best. Let's briefly discuss a few of the collection's notable poems:
First, ''The Solitary Reaper'' begins with the this 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 this woman and her song, 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 and he doesn't have the language to convey his emotion, but he knows it's powerful.
Then, there's the sonnet London, 1802. In it, the poet cries out to the long-dead poet John Milton, saying:
Milton! Thou should'st be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness.
There's a lot to dissect here. The altar means the Church. The sword means the military. The pen means literature. And, fireside means the home. This poem is a good example of one of the ways in which Wordsworth differed from his fellow Romantic poets. He cares passionately about morality, which he sees as gone awry in England. Some of his contemporaries were a bit more about free love (see: Blake) and drugs (see: Coleridge).
Finally, there's the sadly-titled I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. This is actually a happy poem that's about the speaker walking in natural setting:
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
A poet could not but by gay,
In such a jocund company
It takes a pretty hard-hearted person to not be happy when staring at a field of daffodils. Wordsworth isn't that guy. The daffodils fill him with pleasure and, later, whenever he feels sad, all he has to do is remember those flowers.
We should also note The Prelude. This is an epic poem that Wordsworth began at age 28, continued working on for decades and never quite finished, but his wife published it after his death. The poem is autobiographical, detailing events from throughout his life.
Later in life, his politics would shift dramatically. He stopped being as revolutionary-minded or even sympathetic to revolution, becoming more conservative and patriotic. Despite this shift in tone and politics, he was still England's poet laureate from 1843 until his death in 1850, when he died of pleurisy, which is an inflammation around the lungs.
Let's take a few moments to review what we've learned about William Wordsworth.
To summarize, William Wordsworth was a poet and a writer who helped found the Romantic poetry movement in England. The movement celebrated passions of his, including nature and the common man. Along with Coleridge, he published Lyrical Ballads, the book that defined Romantic poetry, and even though Coleridge's ''Rime of the Ancient Mariner'' is still the most widely read poem in Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth's contribution to it is massive, including the famous Lucy poems, which involve the speaker's unrequited love for a maybe fictitious dead woman named Lucy.
Wordsworth's other major poems include ''Tintern Abbey'' (which uses the memory of a visit to a long-abandoned abbey as an opportunity to celebrates nature), ''The Solitary Reaper'' (which describes his love of a woman like his love of nature), ''London, 1802'' (which addresses John Milton), and ''I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud'' (which is a simple, happier poem that basks in natural beauty). In addition to all of that, he was working on a massive project throughout his life known as The Prelude, an epic poem that Wordsworth began at age 28, continued working on for decades and never quite finished, but was published posthumously by his wife.