William Wordsworth: Poetry and Biography

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  • 0:04 Wordsworth Early Poetry
  • 2:13 ''Lyrical Ballads''
  • 4:56 ''Poems, in Two Volumes''
  • 7:05 Later Career
  • 7:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

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.

Lyrical Ballads

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 feelingsā€¦ 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!

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