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William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth: Dorothy & Coleridge

From 1797 to 1798, the Wordsworth siblings and Coleridge spent nearly every day together. They took walks that lasted hours through the hills and thickets of the Lake District, sometimes talking, sometimes composing poetry. They embraced the Romantic notion that nature was the only place where one could truly experience the deep, powerful emotions from which true poetry emerged. Wordsworth believed that cities and the seemingly boring jobs men held there made people more stupid. "A multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind… to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor," Wordsworth wrote. Urban life made men crave stimulation, "which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies."10 (Thank goodness he was born before YouTube.) In light of this national dumbing-down, Wordsworth felt it was a poet's duty to develop the reader's ability to feel things without resorting to the lurid provocations of romance novels and crappy melodramas. In the Lake District, he intended to carry out this poetic duty.

The three friends operated under the unspoken agreement that the brightest star in their constellation was William. Coleridge and Dorothy Wordsworth, both brilliant writers in their own right, seemed to take for granted that their greatest achievement would be advancing William Wordsworth's career. "Tho' we were three persons it was but one God,"11 Coleridge wrote of their year in the Lake District.

Dorothy Wordsworth never married and lived with her brother (and later his wife) for all of her adult life. Her attachment to her elder brother was so intense that some have speculated that she was in love with him (here at Shmoop, we don't believe that theirs was an incestuous relationship). Dorothy kept detailed journals of the household's activities. She kept better track of William's moods, headaches, and feelings than her own. The diaries were kept not for her own memory but for William's, so that he would have material to draw on for his poetry later. He borrowed her reminiscences shamelessly in his work. In his 1804 poem "The Daffodils," William Wordsworth makes it sound as though he discovered the flowers as a solitary traveler:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
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.

In fact, Dorothy had been on the same walk and was the first to record their reactions to the lovely sight two years earlier.

"When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side. … as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing."13

As for Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his genius may have actually surpassed Wordsworth's. Coleridge was a brilliant poet and literary critic. He was a factory of ideas, but serious personal problems, including depression and opium addiction, often left him unable to execute his ideas. Many literary historians have described Coleridge as the "brains" behind the two men's collaboration; Wordsworth, with his superior discipline, was the "brawn" who actually put their ideas on paper.

The two men set to work on a new type of poetry, one that relied on the language of regular people instead of the stuffy "poet-speak" of classical writers. The result was Lyrical Ballads, published in 1798. (In a typical move, Wordsworth insisted on having sole authorship credit, even though five of the poems in the collection were Coleridge's.) Wordsworth added a preface to the second edition that essentially became the manifesto of English Romantic poetry. The language of peasants, Wordsworth argued, was more real and more suitable for expressing ideas than the stuff poets typically used. "[S]uch men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived," he wrote. "I have wished to keep the Reader in the company of flesh and blood, persuaded that by doing so I shall interest him."14

The real world and the ideal world depicted in Wordsworth's poetry were separated only by a common language. Wordsworth wrote that good poetry should be made of speech, passion, and meter, a combination that lifted the lines above the "vulgarity and meanness of ordinary life."15 None too modestly, Wordsworth suggested that if readers got on board with his ideas, they would judge the work of modern and ancient poets differently. His goal was no less than to change the course of poetic history.

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