William Wordsworth believed poetry should teach, honoring the primary human affections and reflecting the essentials of human experience. His writing focuses on the lives, customs, and language of ‘low and rustic life’ because this is where the ‘primary laws of our nature’ can be found to operate most clearly, untainted by the superficialities of society. His are simple tales about simple people simply told, those of genuinely ordinary people of the Lake country, such as schoolmasters and shepherd boys living their obscure lives, accepting and enduring their sufferings with quiet dignity. His work has a sense of completeness, an acquiescence in the natural cycle of life culminating in the inevitability of death. He claimed the power of poetry to foster human betterment. Such writing was avant garde in early 19th-century English literature and literary critics attacked him unmercifully. His work and that of his friend and fellow poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, mark the beginning of the Romantic period in English literature. Wordsworth completed his best writing by the time he was in his forties. He wrote mostly poetry, and a little nonfiction. He constantly revised his poems, even after publication; he tinkered with his words whenever new editions came out. As the Romantic movement developed and more people could read who identified with his subjects, his fame grew. He became England’s poet laureate upon the death of Robert Southey in 1843. Many of us know, or remember, from high school or college English his famous poem about daffodils called “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” On display here are some of his works in M.S.U. Libraries’ Special Collections. Agnes Haigh Widder, Humanities Bibliographer
William Wordsworth was born April 7, 1770 in Cockermouth, located in the Lake District in northwestern England, a beautiful area full of sheep, stone walls, gorgeous scenery, mountains, lakes, and rivers. He lived most of his life there dying on April 23, 1850 in his home Rydal Mount, Ambleside, between Grasmere and Rydal Water. His work helped popularize the Lake District as a vacation destination. His father was a gentleman, a lawyer who worked for Sir James Lowther, later Earl of Lonsdale, a large landowner in the area. He had an older brother, Richard, who became a lawyer, a sister, Dorothy, and two younger brothers. John became a sea captain; Christopher became a clergyman and scholar. Their mother died when William was eight; their father died when he was 13. Relatives, landladies, and schools raised the siblings thereafter. The children were close and resented being dispersed. William’s education took place at schools in Cockermouth, Penrith, and Lancashire.
Wordsworth graduated from St. John’s College, Cambridge in 1791. The family “intended him for the Church,” but he did not want to become a clergyman. One summer during college he and a friend walked through France, the Swiss Alps, and Northern Italy. By the time he graduated from college, the French Revolution had begun. He went to France in the fall of 1791, became radicalized, fell in love with a French girl, Annette Vallon, got her pregnant, registered his paternity, and came home without marrying her. None of this sat well with his family, nor did his evasion of becoming a minister, his continual walking about in all weathers night and day, befriending whom we would today call “street people,” writing poems, being shy about publishing, and not settling down to earn a living. As he saw the excesses of the French Revolution unfold, and the succeeding Napoleonic Wars, he reversed his republican sympathies.
William was especially close to his sister, Dorothy, who was a year younger. They set up housekeeping together as adults. At first, they supported themselves by raising a small boy, the son of a friend. William and Dorothy travelled on the continent together. Afterward, they settled in the Lake District, in a house in Town End, a hamlet just south of Grasmere, where he wrote much of his best and most famous poetry. Today the house is called Dove Cottage and is a museum. After years of litigation, they received their inheritances, from wages their father’s employer had owed him before he died suddenly in 1783. Now more able to support a family, William married Mary Hutchinson, a childhood friend of his and Dorothy’s, on Oct. 4, 1802. Mary came to live with William and Dorothy at Town End. Dorothy helped raise their five children, two of whom died in childhood. She and Mary both worked for/with William making the clean copies of his works as he wrote and revised them to submit to his publishers; there were no typewriters or computers then, remember. All three loved the out of doors, walking everywhere, noticing, and admiring the beauty of the physical world, and observing the people around them. All that they saw, journaled, and talked about became fodder for his pen. At age 43 William obtained his only paid job, Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland, Whitehaven and the Penrith area of Cumberland, making his family more financially secure. He sold, for the government, the stamped paper that people used for writing legal documents on and doing newspaper printing. Various friends came to stay and/or live with them for periods of time, including Sara Hutchinson, Mary’s sister, and poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas De Quincey, and Robert Southey. A Wordsworth descendant now owns Rydal Mount and operates it as a historic house museum. William’s grave is in St. Oswald’s Church in Grasmere and there is a monument to him in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Works in the Display
Wordsworth, William. Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems, in Two Volumes. London, Printed for T.N. Longman and O. Rees, 1800.
XX PR 5869. L9 1800
The first edition of Lyrical Ballads was an anonymously published one volume 1798 work containing poems by both Wordsworth and Coleridge. The 1800 edition has two volumes, only Wordsworth’s name is on the title page as the author, Coleridge’s famous poem “The Ancient Mariner” does not open the book, and all the poems of volume two are by Wordsworth. Coleridge promised new poems to include but failed to deliver. Wordsworth wrote many new poems between 1798 and 1800 after he and his sister Dorothy returned from Europe and went to live at Town End, near Grasmere. This edition contains Wordsworth’s famous Preface, regarded as a central statement of Romantic literary theory.
Wordsworth, William. Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, in Five Volumes. London, Printed for Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1827. PR 5850. E27 v. 2
Wordsworth, William. Prelude, or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind, an Autobiographical Poem. London, Edward Moxon, 1850. XX PR 5864 .A1 1850
In 1799 Wordsworth completed the first version of what would become his poetic masterpiece, the epic, blank verse, autobiographical poem The Prelude, a work that he continued to expand and revise throughout his life, which his wife published only after he died in 1850. The title, Prelude, implies that this precedes, or is the beginning of, another work. Wordsworth did work on what he intended to be the main part of it, and did publish some parts of “The Recluse,” as a book called The Excursion, in 1814; critics attacked it unmercifully. He never completed “The Recluse” parts one and three. Originally, it was to have been a joint work with, and inspired by, Coleridge and their goal was to surpass John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Their original idea was “to compose a philosophical poem, containing views of man, nature, and society, and to be entitled the Recluse; as having for its principal subject, the sensations and opinions of a poet living in retirement.” Milton in Paradise Lost justifies “the ways of God to men.” Coleridge’s participation fell by the wayside. Wordsworth’s subject here was the growth of his own mind and imagination. He narrated a number of his literal travels that become the metaphorical vehicle for his personal life journey.