An Evening Walk, 1793
Descriptive Sketches, 1793
Lyrical Ballads, 1798 (with Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems, 1800 (with Coleridge, includes preface)
Poems in Two Volumes, 1807
The Excursion, 1814
The White Doe of Rylstone, 1815
Peter Bell, 1819
The Waggoner, 1819
The River Duddon, 1820
Ecclesiastical Sketches, 1822
Poems Chiefly of Early and Late Years, 1842
The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind, 1850
Poetical Works, 1940-1949 (5 volumes; Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire, editors)
The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, 1876
Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, 1935-1939 (6 volumes; Ernest de Selincourt, editor)
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.