This famous British poet was born on 7 April 1770 in Cockermouth in the beautiful Lake District.
He was the second child in a family of five and his sister was Dorothy Wordsworth, herself a famous poet and diarist. William Wordsworth together with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge is credited with starting the English Romantic Movement in poetry.
The circumstances of William’s childhood and youth shaped his poetry and his politics. He was torn between Revolutionary zeal with its perceived better life for the Common Man, and a desire to return to the peace and beauty of the glorious countryside of his early childhood. The ideas of the day were that getting back to nature would solve all the evils associated with the ever expanding cities. Wordsworth’s poetry reflects these ideas – he defined poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings from emotions recollected in tranquility."
William’s father was a lawyer whose principal client was the Earl of Lonsdale a man notorious for not paying his debts. When William was eight his mother died and his father sent him off to school at Hawkshead Grammar School. At age 13 William’s father died and although he left a substantial estate of £4,500 most of it was tied up in claims on the notorious Earl of Lonsdale. These claims were not paid until after Lonsdale’s death in 1802 when Wordsworth was 32 years old. Londsdale’s despicable behaviour caused the break up of the Wordsworth family as the children came under the guardianship of various uncles. William was deeply affected by the loss of his parents and siblings and grew up lonely and anxious. His therapy was his poetry.
William went to Cambridge University as a student of St John’s College in 1787, the same year that his first poem was published in ‘The European Magazine’. During his studies he visited revolutionary France in 1790 and was very influenced by the Republican movement. Following his graduation in 1791 he returned to France and fell in love with Annette Vallon with whom he had an illegitimate daughter. William’s enthusiasm for the Republican cause waned with the onset of the Reign of Terror in France.
Return to England
France was also becoming a dangerous place for an Englishman and he had to return to England without marrying Annette. Well aware of his responsibilities and his financial inability to meet them, William did not advertise the fact that he had a daughter. He appears to have been very depressed during this time in his life. In later years when his financial circumstances changed Wordsworth visited his daughter and contributed to her upkeep.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In 1793 Wordsworth published the first collection of his own poems. Then in 1795 he became the beneficiary of a legacy and he met Samuel Taylor Coleridge. These two events changed Wordsworth’s life. At last he was able to devote all his time to writing poetry and was able to move to Racedown in Dorset with his beloved sister, Dorothy. Coleridge and he had many ideas in common and their friendship grew. They collaborated in the production of an anthology of their poems in a publication called Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth’s famous Tintern Abbey and Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner poems are in this anthology. Neither poet put their name to the first edition of Lyrical Ballads but Wordsworth’s name appeared on the subsequent editions.
Appointed Poet Laureate
In 1798 the two friends and Dorothy went to live in Germany. Coleridge was intellectually stimulated by the move but Wordsworth was very homesick and after a particularly hard winter he and Dorothy moved back to the Lake District, living in Dove Cottage in Grasmere. Nearby lived the Poet Laureate Robert Southey and by 1804 Wordsworth’s friendship with Coleridge was weakening (partly because of Coleridge’s addiction to opium and his subsequent failing health). Wordsworth became good friends with Robert Southey and in fact when he died, Wordsworth was appointed his successor as Poet Laureate. With the return of France to an Empire under Napoleon, Wordsworth’s radical leanings disappeared and from then on he was an avowed Tory.
In 1802 Wordsworth finally received his inheritance with interest from Lord Lonsdale’s heirs. He married an old childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson and Dorothy lived with them for the last 20 years of her life. The Wordsworths were very happy and had five children. William applied for and got the position of official distributor of stamps for Westmoreland and in 1813 the family moved to Rydal Mount in Ambleside. In his later life he received two Honorary Degrees and a government pension and he reconciled with Coleridge. It is said that his best poetry was written in his earlier years before his circumstances became more comfortable. Whatever the truth, Wordsworth’s poems celebrate the beauty of the English countryside at any time of year.
Buried at St. Oswald's church, Grasmere
William Wordsworth died at his Rydal Mount home on 23 April 1850 and is buried at St. Oswald's church in Grasmere. There is a memorial to him in Poets’ Corner in the South Transept of Westminster Abbey, London.