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William Wordsworth Biography | Poet

Photo of William Wordsworth

The English poet William Wordsworth is considered to be one of the most important literary figures in modern history, as well as one of the leading purveyors of the Romantic Movement. He was born in 1770, in Cumbria, and was one of four children. Over the course of his life, he continued to return to the Lake District, and eventually passed away in Cumbria, in 1850.

The influence of William Wordsworth should not be underestimated, as he not only helped to kick-start the Romantic Age, he also formed half of one of the most famous literary partnerships in history. The friendship that he shared with fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge is now the stuff of legend, as is the subsequent fallout after the friendship fell apart.

The Life of Wordsworth

The young Wordsworth experienced tragedy at an early age, as both of his parents died before he turned fifteen. He and his four siblings were taken onboard by a succession of relatives, but the situation did not dim his passion for the natural world. Even as a young man, the admiration for nature which would later characterise his most famous pieces is clearly represented in his poetry.

Wordsworth often spent his summer vacations on walking excursions in the Swiss and French Alps. This is where he picked up a keen interest in French politics and the values of the French revolution. The young Wordsworth started to write poetry during his time at Cambridge, but the work was not made public until 1793.

In 1795, Wordsworth came into an inheritance and relocated to Dorset with his sister Dorothy. They would not stay still for long, however, because by 1797, they had upped and moved to Somerset in order to reside closer to a new fan of his work, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

As a fellow poet, Coleridge admired the collections An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches (published in 1793) and wanted to get to know Wordsworth better. According to some literary historians, Wordsworth was easily enamoured by the flattery of his new friend, having only recently experienced an acrimonious break with another poet, Robert Southey.

Wordsworth and Coleridge shared a deep passion for nature and for ideas relating to humanity, liberty, and restoration of the soul. The two took long walks through the Quantock hills and it was during these strolls that they came up with the idea for a brand new type of anthology. It would be called Lyrical Ballads and it would usher in a new age of poetry, characterised by the power of imagination, the natural world, and pastoral life.

Whilst it was initially treated with no small degree of vitriol from critics – who labelled it an ‘irresponsible flaunting of poetic convention’ – it was popular with many of the more radical writers like William Hazlitt. Over time, the public reaction to Lyrical Ballads changed and critics began to take a closer look at its moral and philosophical puzzles.

It is now considered to be one of the most influential poetry anthologies of all time and pieces like Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Tintern Abbey are celebrated as a rebellion against the unstoppable march of the Industrial Revolution.

In 1799, Wordsworth and his sister decided to make the Lake District their permanent home and it was not long before Coleridge and his family followed. One of his most admired poems, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud was composed here, in 1804. During this time, Wordsworth wed childhood friend Mary Hutchinson, but life was set to be unkind to the pair.

Over the next few years, two of their children passed away and Wordsworth lost his brother to an accident at sea – his sister also experienced a breakdown. In 1813, he relocated again to Ambelside, where he struggled to recapture the essence and energy of his previous work.

He produced very little after 1835, but was asked to become Poet Laureate seven years later – he accepted only after being reassured that he would not be obliged to produce any more great works. In 1850, Wordsworth died unexpectedly, after a short illness, and was laid to rest in Grasmere. 

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