Study Guide

William Wordsworth Biography

  • Biography

    Quick: picture a poet. Who do you see? Is it a moody, sensitive guy, wandering around a moor or a field or a forest? Congratulations! You have just conjured to mind a Romantic poet. Many of the stereotypes that we have about poets and poetry originated in this period in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Artists disillusioned with industrialization and urbanization turned to nature for inspiration, valuing emotion over reason and feeling over rationality. They sought the awesome, divine beauty that could only be experienced in the tranquility of nature and only by one willing to be quiet long enough to feel it.

    No one can say precisely what started the Romantic era, but its breakthrough in English literature was a 1798 volume of poetry entitled Lyrical Ballads, by William Wordsworth. (Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge actually wrote some of the poetry as well, but more on that later.) Wordsworth's preface to a later edition of Lyrical Ballads essentially became the manifesto of literary English Romanticism. The poems, he promised the reader, were free of "gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers." Their goal, instead, "was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them …in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, … and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature."blank" rel="nofollow">Samuel Taylor Coleridge who were willing to sacrifice their own careers in order to advance his. Because of their efforts, and because of Wordsworth's undeniable talent and drive, we have today a beautiful body of work that speaks straight to the soul.

  • 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."blank">The European Magazine. On school holidays, Wordsworth set out on foot for long walking tours of Europe.

  • Revolution & Romanticism

    In 1791, William Wordsworth graduated from Cambridge and traveled to France, which was then in the throes of the French Revolution. When we think of the French Revolution today, we picture guillotine blades, beheadings, and the Reign of Terror. All those things were years away when William Wordsworth arrived in Paris. At the time, the revolution was a truly Romantic political act. No one anticipated how it would later go awry.

    Until the Revolution, France had been ruled by a monarchy with absolute power, whose policies wrecked the economy. A frustrated population guided by the values of the Enlightenment sought change. Wordsworth was fascinated by the Republicans, the faction that sought to establish a government headed by a leader of the people's choosing. For an idealistic young European, France was THE place to be. In his long autobiographical poem The Prelude, Wordsworth wrote about that time:

    "For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
    Upon our side, us who were strong in love!
    Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
    But to be young was very Heaven! O times,
    In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
    Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
    The attraction of a country in romance!"
    blank" rel="nofollow">Coleridge. Thus began one of the most productive, intense, and unusual three-way friendships in literary history.

  • 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." 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.

  • Marriage

    In 1799 William and Dorothy moved to the village of Grasmere, and Wordsworth began work on a long piece he referred to as the "poem to Coleridge." In 1802, he and Dorothy traveled to France so that he could meet his daughter Caroline and make arrangements for her support. When he returned to England, he married Mary Hutchinson, a former schoolmate and longtime friend. The couple had five children over the next eight years, including daughter Dora, a frequent inspiration for Wordsworth's poetry.

    Wordsworth finished the "poem to Coleridge" by 1805 but refused to publish it, saying that it would be the prologue to a longer piece entitled The Recluse. He instead published in 1807 Poems in Two Volumes, a new book of verse. The year after the book's publication, Coleridge moved in with the Wordsworths. Two years later he moved out, his mind and body wracked by addiction to laudanum, an opium-based painkiller frequently prescribed at the time. When he learned that Wordsworth had warned a mutual friend against taking the high-maintenance Coleridge in as a houseguest, Coleridge sank into a deep depression. The two men split and eventually reconciled some years later. In 1812, Wordsworth experienced acute tragedy of his own when two of his children, six-year-old Thomas and three-year-old Catherine, died in the same year.

  • Death

    In 1813, the Wordsworths moved to a home in Grasmere called Rydal Mount, where William and Mary lived out their lives. William had obtained an official position as the Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland, exactly the kind of cushy, bourgeois job that his younger self would have railed against. By this time people were catching on to Wordsworth's new school of poetry, and he had serious fans. "[Y]ear after year increased the number of Mr. Wordsworth's admirers. They were found … chiefly among young men of strong sensibility and meditative minds; and their admiration… was distinguished by its intensity, I might almost say, by its religious fervor,"

    • Family

      Father: John Wordsworth (1741-1783)
      Mother: Ann Cookson Wordsworth (1748-1778)
      Brother: Richard Wordsworth (1768-1816)
      Sister: Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1885)
      Brother: John Wordsworth (1772-1805)
      Brother: Christopher Wordsworth (1774-1846)

      Partner: Annette Vallon (1766-1841)
      Daughter: Caroline Vallon (1792-?)

      Wife: Mary Hutchinson (1770-?)
      Son: John Wordsworth (1803-1875)
      Daughter: Dorothy "Dora" Wordsworth Quillinan (1804-1847)
      Son: Thomas Wordsworth (1806-1812)
      Daughter: Catherine Wordsworth (1808-1812)
      Son: William Wordsworth (1810-1883)

    • Education

      St. John's College, Cambridge University (1787-1791)

    • Work Experience

      Poet (1787-1834)
      Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland (1813-?)

    • Major Works

      An Evening Walk (1793)
      Descriptive Sketches (1793)
      Lyrical Ballads (1798)
      Poems in Two Volumes (1807)
      The Excursion (1814)
      The Prelude (1850)

    • Awards

      Honorary degree, Durham University (1838)
      Honorary degree, Oxford University (1839)
      Poet Laureate of England (1843)