advanced course lesson 12
William Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth in 1770. The town of Cockermouth lies in the Lake District. The Lake District is in the middle of the United Kingdom. In this poverty stricken region of idyllic countryside Wordsworth spent his childhood. The land at first appearance is of desolate aspect. The hills are mostly bare but for coarse bushes, gorse and broom. Scree and corries litter the hillsides and escarpments. The soil is thin and its provender is meagre. The luckless swains who ply for a living here often find the culture of the soil yields precious little. They tend to tend sheep. Amongs shepherds and shepherdesses William took passed his youth.
Though most people in the region were impoverished peasantry the Wordsworth family was well off. William’s father was a well to do solicitor. William has one sister Dorothy and he had three brothers. Happily all five lived to adulthood which was no foregone conclusion in the 18th century. He was very close to his sister. But relations with his brothers were sometimes frigid. William sometimes went to stay with his maternal grandparents in the fair shire of York. But he and they were not in sympathy. When William was 7 his father passed away.
After a desultory schooling William went to St John’s College, Cambridge. His brothers were also educated at this university. William was very fast at his books. He had read deeply of Greece and Rome. He had little inclination for matters mathematical or scientific. After 4 years he graduated.
The French Revolution had just occurred. Youth was in ferment. William was animated by his revolutionary fervour the same as so many youths of a passionate stripe. He crossed the foam to Gaul. Ere long he fell in love with a young Frenchwoman Annette Vallon. In 1792 his funds were running low. Relations between Britain and France turned our. There was a distinct possibility of a war between the two. After a few months he sailed back to the British Island. Then he discovered that Annette was carrying his child. The baby was born in 1792. He could not see his daughter for several years.
William later wrote of being in France in 1791: bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven.
Wordsworth became part of the Romantic Movement. This was an artistic and intellectual movement in the late 18th century and the early 19th century. This is not about ‘romantic’ in the sense of the love of a man for a woman. It was about sentimentality and the celebration of the natural world. The classic paradigm is that of wilderness. Romantics preferred the untamed undergrowth and trees to a manicured garden. They believe in letting things go to do what they will. They intuited that mankind is born good. By contrast the traditionalists at the time believe that the inborn nature of mankind was wicked and needed to be kept in check.
The romantics tended to be politically radical. They were fired by zeal for the French Revolution. They also were usually against organised religion. They correctly perceived the established churches as being bedfellows of the reaction. Wordsworth did not adhere to the romantic cause on the religious issue. He remained a member of the Church of England.
The poems of Wordsworth are noted for their simplicity. He eschewed a highfalutin vocabulary. Poets of the previous movement – the Augustan poets – bore their erudition heavily. They strove to pack their verses with references to classical mythology and Latinisms.
In time Wordsworth married. His marriage was blessed with a race of children.
The subjects of Wordsworth’s poems were often the landscape of his native Lake District. He also wrote about the plain people of this region.
This is one of Wordsworth’s most widely appreciated poems
I wandered lonely as a cloud
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.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed- and gazed- but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils
As Wordsworth grew older he began his cultural retreat. He become more conservative. In time he advocated for the Tory cause. He had always been a communicant of the Church of England. In his dotage his faith became fervent.
The Poet Laureate is the official poet of the United Kingdom. It is the supreme honour which may be conferred upon a composer of verses. In old age Wordsworth was offered this exalted title. He accepted without demure.
As Wordsworth was conscious that the grave lay not far ahead he cast his mind back to his childhood. He composed The Prelude as in these poems were about the prelude to his adulthood.
Here is an excerpt from The Prelude
One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cove, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark, –
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams
In 1850 Wordsworth died.
- In which year was Wordsworth born?
- In which land was he born?
- What was his Christian name?
- What profession did his father follow?
- Which university did he attend?
- What was his religion?
- Which foreign land did he visit in the 1790s?
- What happened between him and Annette?
- What intellectual movement was he part of?
- What is the poem about his childhood?
- Did he take a wife?
- What exalted title was he given when he was old?
- When did he die?
- Name a poem by him?
- What do you think of him? Five sentences