B. 1770 D. 1850
The eye, it cannot choose but see; / We cannot bid the ear be still; / Our bodies feel, where'er they be, / Against or with our will. Wordsworth, 'Expostulation and Reply'
About William Wordsworth
Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth, Cumbria, in 1770, the son of an attorney. Both parents were dead by the time he was thirteen, a loss recorded in the early part of ‘The Prelude’ where he describes with vivid intensity his growing up in the country ‘foster’d alike by beauty and by fear’. After fitful study at St John’s College, Cambridge he went abroad to France where he was fired by the events and the politics of the French Revolution. He also fell in love with Annette Vallon who bore him a daughter, but he returned to England leaving behind Annette and their unborn child.
He settled in the West Country with his sister Dorothy and, in 1795, met Coleridge. There followed a period of extraordinary creativity for both poets leading to the publication in 1798 of ‘Lyrical Ballads’. This collection succeeds in its ambitious aim to change the direction of English poetry: Wordsworth said that he wanted to show that men who do not wear fine clothes can also feel deeply. His poems give ‘the charm of novelty to things of everyday’. In ‘Nutting’ he tells a tender fable to a young female child; the moment when the boy narrator knocks the nuts out of the tree has an arresting energy, as though nature itself has been violated. Wordsworth explained that the origin of this poem was a childhood memory; he had originally included the incident in ‘The Prelude’ but decided ‘it was not wanted there’.
‘Expostulation and Reply’, also from ‘Lyrical Ballads’, sets out in complete simplicity Wordsworth’s belief, expressed in all his work, of the importance of the influence of nature, and ‘wise passiveness’ in response to it.
During the time of writing for ‘Lyrical Ballads’ Coleridge urged Wordsworth to write ‘The Recluse’, a huge work never completed. ‘The Prelude’ was intended as an introduction, but it stands on its own and includes Wordsworth’s greatest writing. It records ‘spots of Time’, moments rescued by the memory, and is addressed with great affection to Coleridge himself. It describes ‘the growth of a poet’s mind’ starting with descriptions of childhood in Cockermouth: the snaring of woodcocks, skating, riding, playing cards, his stealing a boat and rowing it out, only to be admonished by the eerie uprearing cliff – and so much else. Then on to Cambridge, the aftermath of the French Revolution and beyond. The extracts recorded here can only give a small taste of this unique masterpiece.
By this time Wordsworth and his sister had moved to Grasmere in the Lake District. ‘The Solitary Reaper’ portrays a young woman seen on a walk as part of the natural scene, not realised as an individual with her own inner life but having a profound effect as part of the landscape.
In 1802 Wordsworth and his sister travelled to Calais to meet Annette Vallon and the child, Caroline, to prepare the way for Wordsworth’s marriage to his childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson. ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’ closely follows a description in Dorothy’s Journal of crossing the bridge as part of their journey. It is one of one of many examples of Dorothy’s profound influence on Wordsworth’s writing.
In 1813 Wordsworth was appointed Stamp Distributor for Westmoreland, a post without onerous duties. He continued to write and revise his earlier work for the rest of his life and he reluctantly became Poet Laureate in 1843. But by 1805 much of his best work was done; he died in 1850.
Poems by William Wordsworth
Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798
Read by Andrew Motion
Read by Adam Foulds
Books by William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth: The Major Works
William Wordsworth: Selected Poems
The Collected Poems of William Wordsworth