The northwestern corner of England, which contains the counties of Northumberland and Westmorland, is both mountainous and inaccessible. The cliffs are not as high as those in Switzerland, but they are rugged, and the land is settled mainly by shepherds and by isolated farmers. The valleys have long, narrow, picturesque lakes, and so the region is called the English Lake District. William Wordsworth was born and lived much of his life among these lakes. Many of the English Romantic writers are sometimes called lake poets because of their association with this area. Wordsworth was born in 1770 in the small town of Cockermouth in Cumberland. Although he later wrote about the lower classes, his own family was middle class, and the poet never actually worked with his hands to make his living. His father was a lawyer who managed the affairs of the earl of Lonsdale. The poet had three brothers (Richard, John, and Christopher) and a sister (Dorothy). For the first nine years of his life, the family inhabited a comfortable house near the Derwent River. William attended Anne Birkett’s school in the little town of Penrith, where Mary Hutchinson, whom he married in 1802, was also a student. His mother died when he was seven. The two brothers, William and Richard, then boarded at the house of Ann Tyson while attending grammar school in the village of Hawkshead.
Apparently this arrangement was a kindly one, and the boy spent much time happily roaming the nearby fields and hills. He also profited from the teaching of his schoolmaster William Taylor, who encouraged him to write poetry. In 1783, his father died and the family inheritance was tied up in litigation for some twenty years. Only after the death of the earl of Lonsdale in 1802 was Wordsworth able to profit from his father’s estate. With the help of relatives, he matriculated at St. John’s College, Cambridge University. Although he did not earn distinction as a student, those years were fertile times for learning.
While he was a student at St. John’s, between 1787 and 1791, the French Revolution broke out across the English Channel. During his summer vacation of 1790, Wordsworth and his college friend, Robert Jones, went on a walking tour across France and Switzerland to Italy. The young students were much impressed by the popular revolution and the spirit of democracy in France at that time. Wordsworth took his degree at St. John’s in January, 1791, but had no definite plans for his future. The following November, he went again to revolution-torn France with the idea of learning the French language well enough to earn his living as a tutor. Passing through Paris, he settled at Blois in the Loire Valley. There he made friends with Captain Michael Beaupuy and became deeply involved in French Republican thought. There, too, he fell in love with Annette Vallon, who was some four years older than the young poet. Vallon and Wordsworth had an illegitimate daughter, Caroline, but Wordsworth returned to England alone in December, 1792, probably to try to arrange his financial affairs. In February, 1793, war broke out between France and England so that Wordsworth was not able to see his baby and her mother again until the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 made it possible for him to visit them. His daughter was then ten years old.
In 1793, Wordsworth must have been a very unhappy young man: His deepest sympathies were on the side of France and democracy, but his own country was at war against his French friends such as Captain Michael Beaupuy; he was separated from Annette and his baby, and his English family associates looked on his conduct as scandalous; the earl of Lonsdale refused to settle his father’s financial claims, so the young man was without funds and had no way to earn a living, even though he held a bachelor’s degree from a prestigious university. Under these conditions, he moved in politically radical circles, becoming friendly with William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Paine. In 1793, he published his first books of poetry, An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches.
Wordsworth and his younger sister, Dorothy, were close friends. In 1795, the poet benefited from a small legacy to settle with her at Racedown Cottage in Dorset, where they were visited by Mary Hutchinson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1797, they moved to Alfoxden, near Nether Stowey in Somerset, to be near Coleridge’s home. Here a period of intense creativity occurred: Dorothy began her journal in 1798 while Wordsworth and Coleridge collaborated on Lyrical Ballads. A walking trip with Dorothy along the Wye River resulted in 1798 in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” That fall, Coleridge, Dorothy, and Wordsworth went to study in Germany. Dorothy and the poet spent most of their time in Goslar, where apparently he began to write The Prelude, his major autobiographical work which he left unfinished at his death. Returning from Germany, he and Dorothy settled in Dove Cottage in the Lake District. In 1800, he completed “Michael” and saw the second edition of Lyrical Ballads published. With the end of hostilities in 1802, Wordsworth visited Vallon and their daughter in France, arranging to make an annual child-support payment. Upon his return to England, he married Mary Hutchinson. During that year, he composed “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”
In 1805, his brother John was drowned at sea. Wordsworth often looked on nature as a kindly force, but the death of his brother in a shipwreck may have been a powerful contribution to his darkening vision of nature as he grew older. In 1805, he had a completed draft of The Prelude ready for Coleridge to read, although he was never satisfied with the work as a whole and rewrote it extensively later. It is sometimes said that when Wordsworth was a “bad” man, fathering an illegitimate child, consorting with revolutionaries and drug addicts, and roaming the countryside with no useful occupation, he wrote “good” poetry. When he became a “good” man, respectably married and gainfully employed, he began to write “bad” poetry. It is true that, although he wrote prolifically until his death, not much of his work after about 1807 is considered remarkable. In 1813, he accepted the position of distributor of stamps for Westmorland County, the kind of governmental support he probably would have scorned when he was younger. His fame as a writer, however, grew steadily. In 1842 when his last volume, Poems Chiefly of Early and Late Years, was published, he accepted a government pension of three hundred pounds sterling per annum, a considerable sum. The next year, he succeeded Robert Southey as poet laureate of England. He died April 23, 1850, at Rydal Mount in his beloved Lake District.