William Wordsworth (1770-1850), an early leader of romanticism in English poetry, ranks as one of the greatest lyric poets in the history of English literature.
William Wordsworth was born in Cookermouth, Cumberland, on April 7, 1770, the second child of an attorney. Unlike the other major English romantic poets, he enjoyed a happy childhood under the loving care of his mother and in close intimacy with his younger sister Dorothy (1771-1855). As a child, he wandered exuberantly through the lovely natural scenery of Cumberland. At Hawkshead Grammar School, Wordsworth showed keen and precociously discriminating interest in poetry. He was fascinated by "the divine John Milton," impressed by George Crabbe's descriptions of poverty, and repelled by the "falsehood" and "spurious imagery" in Ossian's nature poetry.
From 1787 to 1790 Wordsworth attended St. John's College, Cambridge, always returning with breathless delight to the north and to nature during his summer vacations. Before graduating from Cambridge, he took a walking tour through France, Switzerland, and Italy in 1790. The Alps gave him an ecstatic impression that he was not to recognize until 14 years later as a mystical "sense of usurpation, when the light of sense/ Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed/ The invisible world"--the world of "infinitude" that is "our beings's heart and home."
Sojourn in France
Revolutionary fervor in France made a powerful impact on the young idealist, who returned there in November 1791 allegedly to improve his knowledge of the French language. Wordsworth's stay in Paris, Orléans, and Blois proved decisive in three important respects. First, his understanding of politics at the time was slight, but his French experience was a powerful factor in turning his inbred sympathy for plain common people, among whom he had spent the happiest years of his life, into articulate radicalism. Second, in 1792 Wordsworth composed his most ambitious poem to date, the Descriptive Sketches. An admittedly juvenile, derivative work, it was in fact less descriptive of nature than the earlier An Evening Walk, composed at Cambridge. But it better illustrated his vein of protest and his belief in political freedom.
Finally, while Wordsworth's political ideas and poetic talent were thus beginning to take shape, he fell passionately in love with a French girl, Annette Vallon. She gave birth to their daughter in December 1792. Having exhausted his meager funds, he was obliged to return home. The separation left him with a sense of guilt that deepened his poetic inspiration and that accounted for the prominence of the theme of derelict womanhood in much of his work.
Publication of First Poems
Descriptive Sketches and An Evening Walk were printed in 1793. By then, Wordsworth's wretchedness over Annette and their child had been aggravated by a tragic sense of torn loyalties as war broke out between England and the French Republic. This conflict precipitated his republicanism, which he expounded with almost religious zeal and eloquence in A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, while his new imaginative insight into human sorrow and fortitude found poetic expression in "Salisbury Plain." The influence of William Godwin's ideas in Political Justice prompted Wordsworth to write "Guilt and Sorrow," and this influence is also perceptible in his unactable drama, The Borderers (1796). This Sturm und Drang composition, however, also testified to the poet's humanitarian disappointment with the French Revolution, which had lately engaged in the terrorist regime of Maximilien de Robespierre.
The year 1797 marked the beginning of Wordsworth's long and mutually enriching friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the first fruit of which was their joint publication of Lyrical Ballads (1798). Wordsworth's main share in the volume was conceived as a daring experiment to challenge "the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers" in the name of...
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