Study Guide

William Wordsworth Introduction

William Wordsworth Introduction

William Wordsworth was an English poet, a key figure of Romanticism, and the author of the most famous poem ever written about daffodils. Born in 1770, Wordsworth and his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge invented a new style of poetry in which nature and the diction of the common man trumped formal, stylized language. Their seminal 1798 poetry collection, Lyrical Ballads, helped to launch the Romantic era of English literature, in which writers sought to unite the tranquility of nature and the inner emotional world of men. Even in the nineteenth century, Wordsworth felt that the world was "too much with us"—too fast-paced, too noisy, too full of mindless entertainment. He wanted to create poetry that reunited readers with true emotions and feelings. When he wrote about a field of daffodils, he didn't want you just to think about it—he wanted you to feel those flowers, to feel the breeze against your skin and the sense of peace this sight brought to your soul.

Wordsworth was the quintessential figure of Romanticism. He lived in England's scenic Lake District instead of urban London. He wrote poems in his head as he wandered through the hills and moors. He had a few different families during his adult life, some of which were unconventional—a partner and illegitimate daughter in France during the French Revolution, an unorthodox but literary household containing his sister Dorothy and Coleridge, and eventually a wife and five kids. By the time he died in 1850, Wordsworth was so famous that tourists flocked to the Lake District village of Grasmere just to peer in his windows. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that Wordsworth did "more for the sanity of this generation than any other writer." The world is with us far more now than it was in the nineteenth century. Maybe your soul—and your sanity—could use a little Wordsworth.

William Wordsworth Trivia

While in Paris in 1792, Wordsworth met John "Walking" Stewart, an English philosopher who had spent the last thirty years trekking on foot from India to Europe. Wordsworth was deeply impressed by Stewart and his philosophies on nature.

Wordsworth was so popular in his later years that his Grasmere home became a tourist attraction. His wife Mary wrote in 1847, "At this moment, a group of young Tourists are standing before the window (I am writing in the Hall) and Wm reading a newspaper—and on lifting up his head a profound bow greeted him from each."

As adults, Dorothy and William Wordsworth liked to lie down next to each other outdoors and pretend that they were lying in their graves. Huh.

A thorn in Wordsworth's side was the critic Francis Jeffrey, who was not a Wordsworth fan. His review of the long 1814 poem The Excursion began simply, "This will never do."

Both Wordsworth and Coleridge liked to compose poetry in their heads while they walked. According to critic William Hazlitt, a friend of both men, Coleridge preferred to bash his way through brush and fields. Wordsworth always sought a straight gravel path.

Wordsworth's friends were used to his egocentrism. One biographer tells a story of a dinner at the home of poet Charles Lamb, where Coleridge sat at one end of the table, talking about Wordsworth's poetry, and Wordsworth sat at the other—also talking about his poetry.

Despite their reputation as a bunch of tortured artists, the Romantics could also get into some trouble. During an 1803 visit to see Wordsworth and Coleridge in the Lake District, critic William Hazlitt was nearly jumped by an angry gang after sexually harassing a woman at a pub (when she refused his come-ons, he lifted her skirt and spanked her—not okay). Coleridge hid him at Wordsworth's house in Grasmere. Hazlitt's reputation was harmed less by the actual incident than by Wordsworth and Coleridge's vicious gossip about it afterwards.

William Wordsworth Resources

Books

William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads (1798)
If you read just one book of Romantic poetry, make it this one. Wordsworth and Coleridge's collaboration (though Wordsworth demanded sole author credit, five of the poems are by Coleridge) was the kick-off to the Romantic era. In his preface to the second edition of the book, Wordsworth sounded off his vision of a new style in poetics, one free of the "gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers."_CITATION36_

Stephen Gill, William Wordsworth: A Life (1989)
Gill's biography is considered to be the definitive word on Wordsworth. A professor at Oxford University, Gill is one of the foremost experts on Wordsworth and deftly weaves together material on his life and work.

Kenneth R. Johnston, The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy (1999)
This biography uncovers the wild side of one of England's most serious poets. Johnston went to such great lengths to retrace his subject's steps—scaling mountains, following walking paths that are now busy highways—that, as one reviewer said, "you have to be thankful for his sake that Wordsworth did not fall off a mountain or drown in a lake."_CITATION37_ At nearly 1,000 pages long, this book is not for the faint of heart.

Frances Wilson, The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life (2009)
William's younger sister Dorothy never published anything during her lifetime, but is now regarded as an important player in England's Romantic literary scene. This book focuses on 1800 to 1803, the years she kept the Grasmere Journals. Dorothy kept the detailed chronology of the Wordsworths' lives to provide material for her brother's poetry. To our benefit, her chronology has survived to become one of the finest examples of nature writing.

Adam Sisman, The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge (2007)
William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were so closely intertwined in work and life that it makes sense to look at them together. This is a biography of one of the most productive friendships in literary history. Wordsworth was a controlled, disciplined poet; Coleridge was a genius with serious personal problems that hampered his achievements. Both believed that Wordsworth was the more important of the two.

Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772-1804 (1999) and Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804-1834 (2000)
Holmes won the Whitbread Award for Biography for his staggering achievement in this two-volume look at Coleridge's life. Wordsworth's friend and collaborator Samuel Taylor Coleridge is one of the most fascinating and tragic characters in literature—a genius whose numerous personal flaws proved fatal.

Music

Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven and William Wordsworth were both born in 1770. Both were major players in their fields, leading the way into Romanticism from the Classical era. Beethoven kept at it even after he was completely deaf.

Lee Boo
This U.K. group has just released "Blake Songs," an album of music set to the lyrics of Romantic poet William Blake's poetry. Check out songs like "The Echoing Green" and "The Tyger."

Wordsworth
William Wordsworth he's not. But Wordsworth—the Brooklyn-born hip-hop MC—is his own master of language. Extra Shmoop credit if you can work him into your English class presentation on the Romantics.

Images

Young William
Portrait of Wordsworth as a young man.

William Wordsworth
Portrait of the poet.

Pensive poet
Painting of Wordsworth.

Dorothy Wordsworth
Portrait of Wordsworth's sister and collaborator.

Thoughtful poet
Painting of Wordsworth

Tintern Abbey
A painting by J.M.W. Turner of the abbey ruins Wordsworth immortalized in his poem.

Rydal Mount
Wordsworth's home in Grasmere.

Dora's Field
Wordsworth and his wife planted this field of daffodils near their home after their daughter Dora's death from tuberculosis.

Wordsworth's Grave
Final resting place of William and Mary Wordsworth.

Movies & TV

Clouds of Glory: William and Dorothy (1976)
Filmmaker Ken Russell made a pair of films centering on Wordsworth and Coleridge, the twin stars of Romantic poetry. The first focused on the unusually intense relationship between William and his sister Dorothy. This film suggests, as have other biographers, that there may have been an incestuous element to the pair's attachment. We aren't buying it.

Clouds of Glory: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1978)
The second film from Russell focuses on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the most colorful characters in literary history. The film looks at his ravaging drug addiction, which cost him his career and his health.

Pandaemonium (2000)
This film from director Julien Temple is about the friendship between Wordsworth and Coleridge. It is set during the period when Coleridge wrote the epic poem "Kubla Khan" while battling his addiction to opium. The beautiful set helps you understand why the Romantics found nature so inspiring.

The Romantics (2006)
This BBC miniseries chronicles the drama-filled lives of the English Romantics. David Threlfall plays Wordsworth.

Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969)
There's more than one reference to William in this sketch comedy series. He appears once as himself, reading a poem dedicated to an ant "not named Marcus," and his name resurfaces again in an off-color door-to-door poetry reader.

Websites

Academy of American Poets
The Academy of American Poets site also has information on non-American poets and is a great place to start your tutorial in the English Romantics. Start with their simple, straightforward introduction to the Romantics and then move between the biographies of Wordsworth and his contemporaries.

Wordsworth Variorum Archive
This is a fantastically organized, searchable archive of all William Wordsworth's works. You can search by title, first line or edition in order to ferret out that elusive poem or phrase. Very helpful to scholars.

The Samuel Taylor Coleridge Archive
Another very useful Web resource that focuses on Wordsworth's close friend and collaborator Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The disciplined Wordsworth wrote more poetry, but genius Coleridge had more ideas. This archive is a useful source of information on both poets, as well as the Romantic period.

Dove Cottage
Wordsworth's home in Grasmere from 1799 to 1808 is now a museum to the poet and the Romantics, run by the Wordsworth Trust. The cottage is a tourist site and frequent host to poetry and literary events. Its website is a good guide to Romantic poetry and its stars.

Victorian Web
Victorian Web is a helpful site that shows how all of the different players and themes in the Victorian and pre-Victorian era were related. Wordsworth and the other Romantics fall into the latter category. Wordsworth's page flows easily between lessons on his biography and concurrent literary and political issues.

Romantic Period Twitter
Wordsworth thought that "the world is too much with us" in 1888. One can only guess what he would think of our ultra-wired universe in 2009. He would probably spin in his grave if he knew that he and his fellow Romantics were on Twitter—let's just hope that no one up there has told him what Twitter is or how to Tweet.

Video & Audio

Wordsworth Speaks (Sort of)
An animated poem.

Upon Westminster Bridge
A reading of the poem.

Surprised by Joy
Susan Stewart's reading of the poem.

Daffodils
A reading of the poem by actor Jeremy Irons.

The Solitary Reaper
A reading of the poem.

Wordsworth Sketch
William Wordsworth (Peter Cook) talks to Ludwig von Beethoven (Dudley Moore). Special appearance by dancing daffodils.

MC Nuts
A squirrel raps "Daffodils." We can't stop watching.

Primary Sources

The Complete Poetical Works
Bartleby's collection of Wordsworth's poems.

Prefaces and Prologues
Wordsworth's prose.

Lyrical Ballads
E-text of Wordsworth and Coleridge's masterpiece.

"Tintern Abbey"
Text of the poem.

"Ode: Intimations of Immortality"
Text of the poem.

"The World Is Too Much With Us"
Text of the poem.

Grasmere Journals
The entry of Dorothy Wordsworth's diary that inspired the poem "Daffodils."

"Dull and Heavy"
An 1897 New York Times article on Wordsworth.

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