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William Wordsworth: Childhood

William Wordsworth was born 7 April 1770 in Cockermouth, England, a village in the northwest county of Cumberland. He was the second of five children born to John and Ann Cookson Wordsworth. His sister Dorothy was born in 1771. The two siblings were baptized together, which marked the beginning of a lifelong closeness. From childhood, William Wordsworth was unusually intense. When he was seven years old, his mother told a friend that the only one of her children "about whose future life she was anxious, was William; and he, she said, would be remarkable for either good or evil."4 Yikes.

For someone who grew up to romanticize childhood, Wordsworth did not have a particularly happy one. His mother died when he was eight. His father worked as a lawyer to the Earl of Lowther, a notoriously corrupt man who had earned the local nickname "Wicked Jimmy." When John Wordsworth died in 1783, leaving thirteen-year old William and his four siblings orphans, the family discovered that the Earl owed their father a large sum of money, and as a result they were left deeply in debt. They sued but were unable to claim any money until the Earl died twenty years later. The siblings were forced to scatter among relatives. Dorothy was sent off to relatives in Yorkshire while William stayed with his mother's clan in Penrith, Cumberland. The siblings did not see each other again for nine years.

William Wordsworth did not get along with his mother's family and was very unhappy in Penrith. Rather than stay at home with them, he occupied himself on long walks through the beautiful rugged hills of northwest England. For the rest of his life, nature would be a source of inspiration and comfort. It was also a crucial part of his work. "Poetry is the image of man and nature," he wrote in the preface to Lyrical Ballads. A poet "considers man and nature as essentially adapted to each other, and the mind of man as naturally the mirror of the fairest and most interesting properties of nature."5 His family eventually sent him to school in the Lake District, a gorgeous corner in northwest England known for its picturesque landscapes. Wordsworth would make his home there for most of his life.

In 1787, he entered St. John's College at Cambridge University. He also made his publishing debut as a published writer that year, with a sonnet in The European Magazine. On school holidays, Wordsworth set out on foot for long walking tours of Europe.

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