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Asserting in the preface to his Lyrical Ballads that poetry should comprise ”language really used by men,” William Wordsworth challenged the prevailing eighteenth-century notion of formal poetic diction and thereby profoundly affected the course of modern poetry. His major work, The Prelude, a study of the role of the imagination and memory in the formation of poetic sensibility, is now viewed as one of the most seminal long poems of the nineteenth century. The freshness and emotional power of Wordsworth s poetry, the keen psychological depth of his characterizations, and the urgency of his social commentary make him one of the most important writers in English.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Tranquility, Tragedy, and Revolution
William Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth, England, the second son of john and Anne Cookson Wordsworth. An attorney for a prominent local aristocrat, john Wordsworth provided a secure and comfortable living for his family. But with his wife s death in 1778, the family became dispersed: The boys were enrolled at a boarding school in Hawkeshead, and Wordsworth s sister, Dorothy, was sent to live with cousins in Halifax. in the rural surroundings of Hawkeshead, situated in the lush Lake District, Wordsworth early learned to love nature, including the pleasures of walking and outdoor play. He equally enjoyed his formal education, demonstrating a talent for writing poetry. The tranquility of his years at Hawkeshead was marred by the death of his father in 1783. Left homeless, the Wordsworth children spent their school vacations with various relatives, many of whom regarded them as nothing more than a financial burden. Biographers have pointed out that Wordsworth s frequently unhappy early life contrasts sharply with the idealized portrait of childhood he presented in his poetry.
After graduating from St. John s College in Cambridge in 1791, Wordsworth lived for a short time in London and Wales and then traveled to France. The French Revolution was in its third year, and although he previously had shown little interest in politics, he quickly came to advocate the goals of the revolution. Along with a heightened political consciousness, he experienced a passionate affair, the details of which were kept a family secret until the early twentieth century. During his stay in France, he fell in love with a French woman, Annette Vallon, and in 1792, they had a child, Anne Caroline. Too poor to marry and forced by the outbreak of civil war to flee France, Wordsworth reluctantly returned alone to England in 1793.
Writing Habits and Lifelong Friends
Following a brief sojourn in London, Wordsworth settled with his sister at Racedown in 1795. Living modestly but contentedly, he now spent much of his time reading contemporary European literature and writing verse. An immensely important contribution to Wordsworth’s success was Dorothy’s lifelong devotion: She encouraged his efforts at composition and looked after the details of their daily life. During the first year at Racedown, Wordsworth wrote The Borderers, a verse drama based on the ideas of William Godwin and the German Sturm und Drang writers, who emphasized emotional expression in their work. The single most important event of his literary apprenticeship occurred in 1797 when he met the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The two had corresponded for several years, and when Coleridge came to visit Wordsworth at Racedown, their rapport and mutual admiration were immediate. Many critics view their friendship as one of the most extraordinary in English literature. The Wordsworths soon moved to Nether Stowey in order to be near Coleridge. In the intellectually stimulating environment he and Coleridge created there, Wordsworth embarked on a period of remarkable creativity.
In 1802, Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson. Realizing that Wordsworth now required a more steady source of income, Coleridge introduced him to Sir George Beaumont, a wealthy art patron who became Wordsworth’s benefactor and friend. Beaumont facilitated the publication of the Poems of 1807; in that collection, Wordsworth once again displayed his extraordinary talent for nature description and infusing an element of mysticism into ordinary experience. Always fascinated by human psychology, he also stressed the influence of childhood. Most reviewers singled out ”Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” as perhaps Wordsworth’s greatest production.
The remaining years of Wordsworth’s career are generally viewed as a decline from the revolutionary and experimental fervor of his youth. He condemned French imperialism in the period after the revolution, and his nationalism became more pronounced. The pantheism of his early nature poetry, too—which celebrated a pervasive divine force in all things—gave way to orthodox religious sentiment in the later works. Such admirers as Percy Bysshe Shelley, who formerly had respected Wordsworth as a reformer of poetic diction, now regarded him with scorn and a sense of betrayal. Whether because of professional jealousy or because of alterations to his personality caused by prolonged drug use, Coleridge grew estranged from Wordsworth after 1810. Two works, Yarrow Revisited and Other Poems (1835) and The Sonnets of William Wordsworth (1838), received critical accolades upon their publication and evoked comparisons of Wordsworth’s sonnets with those of William Shakespeare and John Milton. In 1843 he won the distinction of being named poet laureate. After receiving a government pension in 1842, he retired to Rydal. When he died in 1850, he was one of England’s best-loved poets.
Works in Literary Context
Wordsworth was a quintessential Romantic poet. The Romantic Movement in literature, which began in the late eighteenth century, was a reaction against what was seen as the cold rationality of the Enlightenment period. During the Enlightenment, developments in science and technology ushered in the massive social changes in western society. The Industrial Revolution brought about population explosions in European cities while the works of political scientists and philosophers laid the groundwork for the American and French Revolutions. The Romantics viewed science and technology skeptically, and stressed the beauty of nature and individual emotion in their work.
Works in Critical Context
Critics of Wordsworth’s works have made his treatment of nature, his use of diction, and his critical theories the central focus of their studies. Early response to his poetry begins with Francis Jeffrey’s concerted campaign to thwart Wordsworth’s poetic career. His reviews of the works of the Lake poets—Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Robert Southey—and of Wordsworth’s poetry in particular, were so vitriolic that they stalled public acceptance of the poet for some twenty years but brought many critics to his defense. To Jeffrey, Wordsworth’s poetic innovations were in ”open violation of the established laws of poetry.” He described Wordsworth’s stylistic simplicity as affectation. Like Jeffrey, many readers may have believed Wordsworth ”descended too low” in his writing, as an advertisement printed with the Lyrical Ballads in 1798 warns. The advertisement recognizes that the familiar tone Wordsworth uses may not be what poetry readers prefer and tries to frame Wordsworth’s poetic inclusion of ordinary language as an “experiment” that attempts ”to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.” Despite this public hesitation, Wordsworth’s poetry eventually gained acceptance. By the 1830s, Wordsworth was England’s preeminent poet.
In 1978, Annabel Patterson wrote in a journal called The Wordsworth Circle that The Excursion has a history of disappointing its readers.” Patterson goes on to describe how Wordsworth’s literary contemporaries reacted negatively to the volume and expected far more. Yet other critics have viewed The Excursion like other Wordsworth works, as poetic song or even a ”song of daily life,” in the words of scholar Brian Bartlett. Bartlett remarks on Wordworth’s distinct combination of ”man’s music and nature’s music.” William Wordsworth is considered the preeminent poet of nature, though he claimed his main subject was ”the Mind of Man—/ My haunt, and the main region of my song.” Wordsworth portrays suffering humanity in many of his poems, showing a variety of causes: poverty, separation, bereavement, neglect. As Geoffrey Hartman has written, those famous misreaders of Wordsworth who say he advocates rural nature as a panacea should be condemned to read The Excursion once a day.”
Wordsworth’s The Prelude was published shortly after his death. Begun some fifty years earlier, the poem was completed in 1805 and then drastically revised over time. Greeted with uneven praise at its first appearance, the poem is now hailed as Wordsworth’s greatest work. Scholar Alan Richardson notes that because of the work’s autobiographical slant, many literary critics view The Prelude through a variety of lenses, particularly psychoanalytic. Wordsworth, or the poet, becomes the subject, while the critic becomes amateur analyst. At the same time, some critics tend to explore the poem through historical criticism, preferring, as David Miall suggests, to see how Wordsworth engages with contemporary events …at the local level and …on a broader canvas.” In this vein, scholars like to analyze the way Wordsworth may ”position himself as a historical figure.” In general, critics laud The Prelude’s blending of autobiography, history, and epic, its theme of loss and gain, its mythologizing of childhood experience, and its affirmation of the value of the imagination.
- Abrams, M. H., ed. Wordsworth: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972.
- Batho, Edith. The Later Wordsworth. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1933.
- Bewell, Alan J. Wordsworth and the Enlightenment: Nature, Man, and Society in the Experimental Poetry. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.
- Hartman, Geoffrey. Wordsworth’s Poetry: 1787-1814. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964.
- Jones, John. The Egotistical Sublime: A Study of Wordsworth’s Imagination. London: Chatto &Windus, 1954.
- Onorato, Richard. The Character of the Poet: Wordsworth in “The Prelude”. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971.
- Perkins, David. Wordsworth and the Poetry of Sincerity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964.
- Roe, Nicholas. Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
- Simpson, David. Wordsworth’s Historical Imagination. New York: Methuen, 1987.
- Woodring, Carl. Wordsworth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
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