William Wordsworth Biography


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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.

William Wordsworth Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)
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William Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth, in Cumberland, England, on April 7, 1770, the son of John and Ann Wordsworth. He had an elder brother, Richard, a younger sister, Dorothy, and two younger brothers, John and Christopher. His mother died when William was eight, and he and his brothers were separated from their sister to be reared by grandparents. William’s father died when William was thirteen. William first began writing poetry soon after.

When he was seventeen, Wordsworth entered Cambridge and was graduated in 1791. While at the university, he went with a friend on a walking tour of France during the beginnings of its revolution. After leaving the university, he returned to France, where he found himself in the midst of bloody violence in 1792. He met and planned to marry Annette Vallon, but he was forced to return to England and could not marry her, although the relationship produced a daughter.

Uncertain of his future, distraught over events in France, and heartsick about his separation from Annette, he went on a walking tour of Wales in 1793 and then joyfully reunited with his sister, Dorothy, and made plans to settle with her until he could marry Annette. Meanwhile, he met the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1797 in Dorset. By now, Wordsworth believed that his destiny was to become a poet, and he was encouraged by Dorothy and Coleridge. To finance a trip to Germany, Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote their famous collection of poems, Lyrical Ballads, in 1798. One of the poems, “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” was composed after a walking trip that Wordsworth took with Dorothy to visit the ruins of a famous abbey on the Welsh border.

In 1798 and 1799, the two poets and Dorothy went to Germany, but Wordsworth and his sister returned shortly afterward to England, leaving Coleridge behind. Wordsworth wrote more poems, which would be included in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1800, and he composed his prose essay on his theory of poetry as a preface for the collection. He also began to write long sections in blank verse of his autobiographical poem, to be called The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind (1850), which he had probably begun in Germany. When Coleridge returned to England, he often visited William and Dorothy and soon moved to live near them in the Lake District of north England, where Wordsworth was born.

By this time, Wordsworth and Annette were no longer interested in marrying, and he married Mary Hutchinson in 1802. The famous “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” has its origins partly in Wordsworth’s feelings immediately before he got married; the poem is also a reaction to Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode,” lamenting Coleridge’s loss of imagination. Wordsworth, however, was increasing his own powers as a poet, and he began to compose many great sonnets at this time, especially some in response to the Napoleonic wars in Europe. He was also working hard at his long autobiographical poem, completing the first version in 1805.

By then, he had suffered another painful loss in his family because his favorite brother, John, had died in a shipwreck at sea. His beloved daughter, Dora, was born in 1804, however, and he gave increasing attention to his growing family. His relationship with Coleridge began to weaken after Coleridge left to take a diplomatic post in Malta in 1804. One of Wordsworth’s most important collections of poetry was published in 1807 as Poems in Two Volumes. It contains, among other great poems, the “Ode to Duty,” the “Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle,” and “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”

Some believe that Wordsworth’s poetry began to decline in quality from about this time, but he continued to write much. Some of this work was very important, such as his revisions and additions to the autobiographical poem, which he did not want to publish yet. Wordsworth believed that he had to complete the poem on his life as a preface for a grand philosophical poem to be called “The Recluse” (published in 1888 as The Recluse). This ambitious project was never completed, but one of its parts, The Excursion, was published in 1814. It is, like The Prelude, a long poem in blank verse, but it is organized in nine books around the dramatic monologues of several characters, including the main ones of a Peddler, a Poet, a Solitary, and a Pastor. While this poem is not, at present, highly praised, it was very much noticed by readers of the time, including John Keats, who thought that it was one of the greatest things ever written in modern poetry.

As Wordsworth’s family grew, and as he helped to care for Coleridge’s family and other friends, he needed more financial resources than his poetry sales could provide. He was appointed by the government to be a collector of taxes from postage rates, a position that caused some critics, such as young Percy Bysshe Shelley, to attack him as a traitor to libertarian causes. His poetry began to show some of his increasingly conservative themes, such as in the Ecclesiastical Sketches published in 1822 to describe the history of the Christian church in England. It was not as religious a poem as the subject and title suggest, and Wordsworth did not entirely abandon his poetry that celebrated nature. His The River Duddon in 1820 expresses his mature reflections on childhood scenes of nature, and in many of the poems that he composed during tours of Europe, from 1820 to 1837, he occasionally recovers his enthusiasm for paganlike feelings of nature.

When his friend and neighbor, the poet Robert Southey, died in 1843, Wordsworth succeeded him and became the poet laureate of Great Britain. He had not published The Prelude, but he had made many changes and additions to it since starting it years before. In fact, he had produced at least three versions of that great poem. It was never published during his lifetime. He died on April 23, 1850, in Rydal Mount, England, leaving the manuscript of the poem as a part of his estate for his family. It was published in July, 1850, a posthumous memorial to Wordsworth’s lifetime of achievements as one of the greatest of English poets.

William Wordsworth Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

From ballad experiments to innovations of epic, William Wordsworth maintained a total commitment to poetry. He turned his personal experience into public statement, and he modified public genres of writing with personal testimony. He departed from classic ideals of regularity and abstract diction, and he established the Romantic taste for the irregular experience rendered in concrete language.

Life in the solitude of the Lake District provided him with subjects of rustic living, but his education in sophisticated cities added richness of self-reflection and self-discipline. His writing drew from all dimensions of his experience.

William Wordsworth Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Comparing William Wordsworth with other great English poets was once a parlor game for critics. Matthew Arnold places him below only William Shakespeare and John Milton; others, ranging less widely, are content to call him the greatest of the Romantic poets. Incontestably, Wordsworth stands supreme among English nature poets, and the stamp of his influence so strongly marks the brief period of nineteenth century Romanticism that some have called it the age of Wordsworth.

The second son of a lower-middle-class family, Wordsworth was born April 7, 1770, at Cockermouth in the Lake District of Cumberland. When he was eight, his mother died; the loss of his father, five years later, made him dependent upon his uncles for an education. School at Hawkshead was followed by matriculation at Cambridge University, where he entered St. John’s College in 1787. He interrupted his career there in 1790 to take a summer tour of Switzerland, France, and Italy; in 1791, after receiving his degree, he returned to France, ostensibly to learn the language.

Much besides language, however, quickly absorbed Wordsworth’s attention. The years 1791 to 1792 found him developing two passions, one for Annette Vallon and the other for the French Revolution. Both were probably sincere, while they lasted, but both were soon to suffer from a change of heart. Wordsworth’s daughter Anne Caroline was born to Annette Vallon while he was still in France; for reasons that have never become clear, he acknowledged the child without marrying the mother. Wordsworth’s other passion, the Revolution, stirred him deeply and left an indelible impression. His enthusiasm waned chiefly because of its growing excesses and because of the accession of Napoleon. Even so, the philosophy he acquired from Michel Beaupuy and his fellow revolutionists was an important factor in making Wordsworth the great poetic spokesman for that element as yet relatively voiceless—the “common man.”

Back in England, Wordsworth briefly found congeniality in the circle of young freethinkers surrounding William Godwin. Godwin, future father-in-law of Percy Bysshe Shelley, was a radical philosopher and the author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793). Like Wordsworth, he was an ardent disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a fact which helps to explain his temporary hold on the young man’s attention. In 1795, however, a fortunate legacy enabled Wordsworth to settle at Racedown with his devoted and talented sister Dorothy. There occurred a brush with fate which was to change the lives of two men: In meeting Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth formed the most significant connection of his career. Mutual intellectual stimulation and constant companionship were its immediate dividends. When Coleridge moved into Somersetshire in 1797, the Wordsworths followed. The next year the two men published jointly a small volume which would become a milestone of English literature.

The initial reception of the 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads gave no clue as to the status it would achieve in the future. Most of the collection’s contents came from the industrious Wordsworth, including “Tintern Abbey” and a group of shorter, balladlike compositions celebrating and exalting nature and the ordinary person. In his single contribution, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge, on the other hand, had the task of making the supernatural seem ordinary.

Scorned by some critics and ignored by others, Lyrical Ballads survived its initial reception sufficiently well to justify a second printing in 1800. Though this edition contained some interesting new poems, its most significant feature was Wordsworth’s long preface, which amounted to a literary declaration of independence, breaking completely with neoclassical theory. Reflecting strongly the continuing influence of Rousseau, this credo stated formally the ideals of sincerity, democracy, reverence for nature, and adherence to simple, natural diction—to all of which Wordsworth and Coleridge had vowed allegiance.

With Lyrical Ballads as its starting point, most of Wordsworth’s great poetry was compressed into the quarter century between 1798 and 1823. Many of his celebrated short poems, such as the Lucy poems and “The Solitary Reaper,” illustrate the simplicity advocated in his preface. Still, he could successfully depart from his principles when he felt the need, employing more elevated diction in his sonnets as well as in such longer poems as “Tintern Abbey” and The Prelude.

Valued by descriptive linguists for revealing the cultural and aesthetic milieu of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, debated by New Historians and dialogic critics, and analyzed by literary critics of various persuasions, Wordsworth’s poetry is as timely now as it was in his own day. His reverence for nature, his concern with ordinary human beings, and his belief in the power of transcendence all speak to the present time—whenever that present time happens to be. Wordsworth speaks to commonalities, to those concerns that all civilizations share. If any change in regard for Wordsworth’s work is worthy of note, it would have to be the critical regard of some works previously considered aesthetically inferior, such as “The Idiot Boy.”

Unfortunately, although both Wordsworth and Coleridge profited from their collaboration on Lyrical Ballads—which was followed by productive careers for them both in which they earned respect for their theories as well as for their poetry—their friendship did not endure. In 1803 a misunderstanding arose during a tour of Scotland, leading to a breach between the two men which was never fully mended.

In 1802 Wordsworth married his childhood friend Mary Hutchinson, the inspiration for “She Was a Phantom of Delight.” As he grew older, Wordsworth became more and more conservative in matters of religion and politics. From the government, which had once been the object of his youthful censure, he now received employment, being appointed, in 1813, distributor of stamps in Westmorland County. In 1843 he was appointed poet laureate, succeeding Robert Southey. Wordsworth died at Rydal Mount on April 23, 1850, and was buried in Grasmere churchyard. A monument erected in his honor stands in Westminster Abbey.

William Wordsworth Biography

(History of the World: The 19th Century)
0111201606-Wordsworth.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: As one of the first and probably the greatest of the English Romantic poets, Wordsworth redirected the literary trends of the time. His most important poems present a vision of the expanded human mind in creative interplay with the external world.

Early Life

William Wordsworth was born on April 7, 1770, in the village of Cockermouth, on the borders of the Lake District in northwest England. He was the second of five children born to John and Ann Wordsworth. His mother died when he was eight, and when he was nine he was sent to Hawkshead Grammar School, thirty-five miles to the south, on the shores of Esthwaite Lake. Wordsworth loved the Lakeland countryside, where he was free to roam for long periods, as he was later to record in The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind (1850). He was an adventurous, imaginative, strong-minded, and rebellious boy, who was also given to periods of solitude. His was a happy childhood, though his father also died when Wordsworth was young.

In 1787, Wordsworth entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, but the tall, lean, and dour Northerner, his long face usually serious in expression, his clothes plain and unsophisticated, and his manner awkward, neither excelled as a scholar nor fitted smoothly into fashionable social circles. He later wrote in The Prelude that he believed that he was “not for that hour,/ Nor for that place,” but at the time he had no clear idea of his vocation.

During his summer vacation in 1790, Wordsworth went on a walking tour with his friend Robert Jones through France and the Alps. The following year, after receiving his degree from Cambridge, he climbed Mount Snowdon, the highest peak in Great Britain. It was an important event because he would later incorporate the story of the climb, giving it great symbolic importance, in the final book of The Prelude.

In November, 1791, Wordsworth returned to France, where the French Revolution was at its height. Stimulated by his friendship with the Republican soldier Michel Beaupuy, Wordsworth enthusiastically embraced the revolutionary cause, later writing of “France standing on the top of golden hours,/ And human nature seeming born again.” He also had a love affair with a Frenchwoman, Annette Vallon, from Orleans, who later gave birth to his child, Caroline.

Wordsworth returned to England in December, 1792, and one month later his first published poetry, An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches, appeared. For the next two years, he lived mainly in London and was involved in radical politics. Wordsworth was appalled that England had gone to war against revolutionary France, but over the next few years, as he watched the Revolution turn into tyranny and ward of conquest, he was thrown into a state of moral confusion.

In 1795, Wordsworth’s financial position eased when a young friend, Raisley Calvert, died and left him a legacy of nine hundred pounds. He and his devoted sister, Dorothy, rented a cottage in Racedown, in the southwest county of Dorset, where Wordsworth recovered his peace of mind. He also met two young poets, Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The friendship with Coleridge, which became fully established in 1797, coincided with the beginning of a golden decade in which Wordsworth was to write most of his greatest poems.

Life’s Work

Coleridge, a great poet in his own right, worshipped Wordsworth, and Wordsworth, in his turn, was stimulated by the range of Coleridge’s learning and the depth of his critical insight. It was Coleridge who helped to shape Wordsworth’s conception of his own poetic vocation. For several years, the two were almost daily in each other’s company, and in 1798 they published anonymously a joint collection (although Wordsworth was the chief contributor), entitled Lyrical Ballads. It did not win favorable reviews and did not sell many copies, but it later came to be recognized as one of the landmarks in the history of English literature. Wordsworth had developed a new idea of what poetry could be about. He wrote about ordinary events in the lives of ordinary people: simple country folk and children mainly, but also social outcasts and misfits. Not only did this break all the neoclassical rules about the proper subject matter of poetry, but, in using simple, nonliterary language, what he called the common language of men, Wordsworth also challenged the conventional wisdom regarding poetic diction.

In December, 1799, following a brief visit to Germany with Coleridge, Wordsworth and Dorothy moved to Dove Cottage, in the Lake District village of Grasmere. Coleridge and his wife followed them to nearby Keswick. The Wordsworths were to live in Dove Cottage for nearly ten years; it was to be the most creative period of the poet’s life. This was in part a result of the serenity and happiness of domestic life at Dove Cottage; Dorothy was a devoted helper, and Wordsworth’s marriage to his childhood friend Mary Hutchinson in 1802 increased his tranquillity. It was an ideal environment for writing. During this period, Wordsworth completed an early version of The Prelude, planned a long poem titled The Recluse (1888), and wrote most of Home at Grasmere (published in 1888 as part of The Recluse), as well as Michael (1800) and a preface to Lyrical Ballads, which was published in a new and expanded edition in 1801. The following year, he wrote the first four stanzas of the magnificent Ode: Intimations of Immortality (1807).

In the same year, tragedy struck the close-knit family when Wordsworth’s brother, John, a naval captain, was drowned when his ship was wrecked in a storm. Wordsworth and Dorothy were grief-stricken; the 1807 “Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle” records Wordsworth’s feelings at the time. In 1805, the second version of The Prelude was completed, although Wordsworth never gave the poem a title, referring to it only as the poem about his life.

Now in midlife, Wordsworth was undergoing a profound change of outlook. Formerly a supporter of the French Revolution and a political radical, he now began to lean heavily toward conservatism in politics and religion, giving his support to the governing Tory Party, the landed aristocracy, as well as the Church of England. As an established man with family responsibilities (by 1810, he had become the father of five children), he felt safer with the status quo. “Ode to Duty” is a sign of the stern, unbending Wordsworth that the Victorian age was to admire. In addition, Wordsworth was aware that he had lost the visionary power with which, as a youth, he had communed with nature, and which had inspired so much of his best poetry. The effects of the loss, as well as the renewed strength that he had found, is recorded in Ode: Intimations of Immortality and the “Elegiac Stanzas.”

In 1808, Dove Cottage was becoming overcrowded, and the Wordsworths moved to larger accommodations at Allan Bank in the same town, where Coleridge stayed with them for long periods. The famous friendship, however, was showing signs of strain. Coleridge’s health was deteriorating, largely through his dependence on opium, and he seemed incapable of sustained and productive work. In 1810 came an open quarrel, when some critical remarks made by Wordsworth about his friend got back to Coleridge. The quarrel was patched up eighteen months later, but the two were never to regain their former intimacy.

Tragedy struck the family again in 1812, when two of the Wordsworths’ children died in infancy. The following year, the family left Allan Bank for nearby Rydal Mount, where they were to stay for the remainder of their lives. Their financial security improved when Wordsworth accepted a government position as Distributor of Stamps for the county of Westmoreland, a post which confirmed the conservative trend in his life which had been apparent for at least a decade.

In 1814, Wordsworth published The Excursion, his first publication in seven years. Like Lyrical Ballads, however, it did not find favor with professional reviewers. In spite of their reservations about some aspects of his work, however, there was a growing recognition in literary circles that Wordsworth was one of the leading poets of the age and that some of his work was indeed the work of genius. When, in 1820, he published a series of sonnets, The River Duddon, he was, for the first time, universally acclaimed. Ironically, however, his golden years as a poet were behind him. Although he continued to write a large number of poems, very little of the work of his later years retained the freshness, the visionary quality, of his early poems.

The remaining years of Wordsworth’s life were years of fame. There was a constant stream of distinguished visitors to Rydal Mount, as well as tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the great man. In 1843, as the elder statesman of the British literary scene, he was appointed poet laureate. Four years later came a devastating personal blow when his daughter Dora died. Another tragedy was with Wordsworth constantly. Twelve years previously, his beloved sister Dorothy had become seriously ill, and she lived the last twenty years of her life as a physical invalid and mental child. Wordsworth nursed her devotedly until his death on April 23, 1850. The Prelude, which he had been revising on and off for forty years, was published posthumously, as he had wished. It is his greatest achievement as a poet.


William Wordsworth was at the forefront of the revolution in literature which took place when the neoclassicism of the eighteenth century gave way to the Romanticism of the early nineteenth. There were several major areas in which change took place. First, the Romantic age reestablished the importance of the imagination in the creative process, in contrast to neoclassicism, which had exalted the rational intellect. The power of the imagination gives the poet the ability to see the external world from a higher perspective. It reunites the perceiver and the perceived, subject and object, and creates a unity in diversity, in contrast to the tendency of the intellect to separate and compartmentalize. The imagination is central to Wordsworth’s design in The Prelude.

The Romantics also emphasized the importance of feeling and emotion and the spontaneity of the creative act. Poetry arises from the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” wrote Wordsworth in the preface to Lyrical Ballads, one of the central documents of English Romanticism. Emotional and intellectual crises became legitimate subjects for poetry (Wordsworth’s The Prelude is an excellent example). In part, this was a result of the highly exalted view of poetry and the poet. The poet is viewed as a seer (“I was a chosen son,” wrote Wordsworth in The Prelude), and poetry itself, according to Wordsworth, is “the first and last of all knowledge—it is as immortal as the heart of man.”

Other Romantics, younger men such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, were profoundly influenced by Wordsworth’s poetry and ideas. Although Wordsworth’s reputation went into a slight decline after his death, the Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold emerged to champion his cause. Since then, he has not lost his high rank among the English poets, standing behind only John Milton and William Shakespeare. Although much of his later work is undistinguished, the serene and solemn majesty of the best portions of The Prelude remains unmatched in the language, and the great Ode: Intimations of Immortality, as many generations of readers have found, has enormous power to inspire, uplift, and console.


Bloom, Harold, ed. William Wordsworth. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. A selection of modern criticism which shows the variety of contemporary approaches to Wordsworth.

Darbishire, Helen. The Poet Wordsworth. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950. Lucid, concise, and eloquent introduction to the poetry by a senior Wordsworth scholar.

Davies, Hunter. William Wordsworth: A Biography. New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1980. Written in an informal style for the general reader. Davies avoids discussion of the poetry, but the result is that his biography, although readable and accurate, fails to convey any sense of Wordsworth’s greatness.

Gill, Stephen, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. The fifteen essays in this compilation provide an excellent introduction to Wordsworth’s material.

Moorman, Mary. William Wordsworth: A Biography. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957, 1965. Moorman’s meticulous scholarship, and her sympathetic understanding of the poet, make this the standard biography.

Wordsworth, William. Letters of William Wordsworth: A New Selection. Edited by Alan G. Hill. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984. More than 160 of Wordsworth’s direct, matter-of-fact letters, which reveal much about himself as man and poet, and about his relations with family and friends.

Wordsworth, William. The Poetical Works. Edited by Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire. 5 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940-1949. The complete poetry. Classified according to Wordsworth’s own arrangement.

Wordsworth, William. The Prelude, 1799, 1805, 1850. Edited by Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1979. Definitive edition of Wordsworth’s masterpiece. Format allows easy comparison of the 1805 version with the 1850 version. Includes contemporary responses to The Prelude and a selection of recent critical essays.