Along with William Blake (1757-1827) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Wordsworth is recognised as one of the greatest of the first-generation Romantic poets. As with the Romantic composers, the Romantic poets reacted against what they saw as the cold intellectualism of the Enlightenment: their work emphasised the emotional, the natural, the voice of the common people, the power of the imagination and the concept of the sublime.
Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
Foster’d alike by beauty and by fear;
Much favour’d in my birthplace, and no less
In that beloved Vale to which, erelong,
I was transplanted.
– from ‘The Prelude’, 1850
It is easy to see in Wordsworth’s writing the influences of his childhood. He was born in the Lake District and spent his childhood there and on the moors surrounding Penrith. His father, John Wordsworth, was a legal representative of the Earl of Lonsdale and, while often away on business, was able to maintain a decent library to which his children were granted ready access. At his school for upper-middle-class children in Penrith his teacher, Ann Birkett, focussed on the classic writers of English literature – Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton – and the local festivals which marked the turning of the year, including May Day and Easter. His family relationships ran the gamut of human emotion: he lost his mother when he was a child, his father was frequently away, he was extremely close to his sister Dorothy, and his relationship with his maternal grandparents and uncle, with whom he lived for a while, was poor enough to lead him to contemplate suicide.
While he may have empathised with the plight of the poor, Wordsworth himself was financially independent, first as the result of a legacy of £900 which he received in 1793, and then in 1802 as the result of £4000 received from the new Earl in payment of a debt his father had owed to Wordsworth’s father, John. Because of this, Wordsworth was freed from the necessity of employment and able to spend his life in his beloved Lake District as well as travelling on the Continent, which he did several times, witnessing the brutality of the Revolution in France and fathering an illegitimate child, Caroline, by the Frenchwoman Annette Vallon, in 1792, a decade before his marriage to his childhood sweetheart Mary Hutchinson.
Wordsworth was a close friend of Coleridge, with whom he published Lyrical Ballads in 1798. This collection, which included Wordsworth’s famous ‘Tintern Abbey’ and Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, initially received only modest interest, but in time came to be recognised as the work which inaugurated the English Romantic poetic movement.
… For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deep interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of thought,
And rolls through all things.
– from ‘Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, 13 July 1798’
There is little else to say about Wordsworth’s life. He continued writing some of the most influential poetry in the English language until the death of his daughter Dora in 1847 triggered a depression which silenced him. He received honorary doctorates in Law from the University of Durham in 1838, and from Oxford in 1839. In 1842 the government awarded him a pension of £300 per annum, and he became Poet Laureate upon the death of Robert Southey in 1843. He died at home in the Lake District on 23rd April 1850 and is buried at St. Oswald’s Church in Grasmere. His most famous work, ‘The Prelude’, was published posthumously by his widow, Mary, a few months later.