William Wordsworth, with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, began the Romantic movement in British poetry with the publication of their Lyrical Ballads, turning away from the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment, the artificial milieu of the Industrial Revolution and the aristocratic, heroic language of 18th century poetry to dedicate his work to the imaginative embodiment of emotion in the ordinary language of the common man, seeking meaning in the sublimity of the natural environment, particularly in his beloved home, England’s Lake District.
William Wordsworth was born in 1770 in Cockermouth, Cumbria, the scenic mountainous region of northwest England known as the Lake District. He was the second of five children, sent away to Hawkshead Grammar School after his mother died when he was 8. Five years later, his father died, and the children were sent to live with various relatives. The separation from his orphaned siblings was a severe emotional trial, and after reuniting as adults, William and his sister Dorothy lived together for the rest of their lives. In 1787, William began his studies at St. John’s College, Cambridge, with the help of his uncles.
Love and Revolution in France:
While he was still a university student, Wordsworth visited France during its revolutionary period (1790) and came under the influence of its anti-aristocratic, republican ideals. After graduating the next year, he returned to continental Europe for a walking tour in the Alps and more travels in France, during which he fell in love with a French girl, Annette Vallon. Money difficulties and political troubles between France and Britain led Wordsworth to return alone to England the following year, before Annette bore his illegitimate daughter, Catherine, whom he did not see until he returned to France 10 years later.
Wordsworth and Coleridge:
After returning from France, Wordsworth suffered emotionally and financially, but published his first books, An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches, in 1793. In 1795 he received a small legacy, settled in Dorset with his sister Dorothy and began his most important friendship, with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1797 he and Dorothy moved to Somerset to be closer to Coleridge. Their dialogue (really “trialogue”--Dorothy contributed her ideas as well) was poetically and philosophically fruitful, resulting in their joint publication of Lyrical Ballads (1798); its influential preface outlined the Romantic theory of poetry.
The Lake District:
Wordsworth, Coleridge and Dorothy travelled to Germany in the winter after the publication of Lyrical Ballads, and on their return to England Wordsworth and his sister settled at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, in the Lake District. Here he was a neighbor to Robert Southey, who was England’s Poet Laureate before Wordsworth was appointed in 1843. Here also he was in his beloved home landscape, immortalized in so many of his poems.
Wordsworth’s greatest work, The Prelude
, is a long, autobiographical poem which was in its earliest versions known only as “the poem to Coleridge.” Like Walt Whitman
’s Leaves of Grass
, it is a work that the poet labored over during most of his long life. Unlike Leaves of Grass
, The Prelude
was never published while its author lived.