At the age of twenty-one William Wordsworth was so undecided as to what he wanted to do for a living that his relatives believed he would turn out to be a good-for-nothing. At the age of thirty-five he had finished a tremendous poem in fourteen books, which he had begun because he was not ready at the time to take up anything more difficult!
Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth, in Cumberland, England, on April 7, 1770, the son of John Wordsworth, a lawyer. When he was only fifteen he wrote as a school task an account in poetry of his summer vacation. He entered Cambridge at the age of seventeen; but did not get along well there because he did not like his studies nor the discipline of the college.
In those days, when there was no railroads or trolley lines, it was the custom for young Englishmen who could afford it to take walking trips through Europe during their vacations from college. In the summer of 1790 Wordsworth made a tour through France and among the Alps, and was much affected by the beauties of nature he saw, particularly at Lake Como. He graduated from St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1791, with the degree of Bachelor of Arts.
The French Revolution came along about this time, and, together with most of the progressive young men of the day, Wordsworth hailed it with enthusiasm. But later the horrors of the Revolution disgusted him; although he always remained a Republican in principle.
Wordsworth’s friends urged him to enter the ministry, and he himself thought a little of becoming a lawyer; but he finally decided to write for a living. And a poor living it was at first! Sometimes he had hardly enough to eat. He published his first poems in 1793,—“An Evening Walk, Addressed to a Young Lady,” and “Descriptive Sketches Taken During a Pedestrian Tour Among the Alps.”
Two years later his poverty was lightened by a legacy of $4,500 left him by a friend, and his sister Dorothy went to keep house for him. She helped him in many ways, and cheered his spirits. In 1802 he married Mary Hutchinson, and about the same time inherited $9,000 from his father. Three years later he finished that long poem in fourteen books, “The Prelude,” containing an account of the cultivation and development of his own mind. This was not published until after the poet’s death.
Wordsworth continued to write many poems, most of which had to do with the beauties of nature. Nature in all her forms was his delight. He liked to walk by himself in the fields, and to talk with the poorer people, those nearest to the soil. He was simple, kindly, and much loved by those who knew him.
In 1843 Wordsworth succeeded Robert Southey as poet laureate of England, and was recognized as the greatest living English poet. He held this honor only seven years, as he died at Rydal Mount, his home in England, on April 23, 1850.