William "The Interminable"[1] Wordsworth (1770-1850)

William Wordsworth was born on 7 April 1770 in Cockermouth2, Cumberland, the second of five children. His father, John, a lawyer, was very educated and liberal for the time, and encouraged all his children to be the same. William was definitely the wild one of the family, and his sister Dorothy3, a year younger than him, was usually his only ally in the family. The Wordsworth children had a pretty happy childhood4 on the whole, at least until their mother, Ann, died in 1778. William was sent away (I think maybe his father couldn't handle him very well) to a grammar school some distance away5. William was allowed to run wild, and became quite the young sportsman.

When John Wordsworth died in 1783, the outlook for the children became really bleak. Though theoretically John's estate was worth £10,485, that amount included many debts which people owed him. The largest debt, that owed by John's employer, the Earl of Lowther, amounted to nearly £5,000 of that sum, and would not be paid to the Wordsworths for 19 years. The kids were foisted on two uncles6 who were very peeved at having to take care of them. They paid for William to go to Cambridge, where he did very well in his first year, but soon realized Cambridge was no place for him7. He chose his own course of studies from then on, and though he did graduate, it wasn't what you would call a real degree8.

After graduation, William wandered aimlessly through France for a time. The country was then in the early, glorious stages of the French Revolution, and William was only one of many Englishmen who were fascinated by its Republican ideals. In the city of Orleans, he met a young woman named Annette Vallon. She was a Royalist and a Roman Catholic, but you can't fight chemistry. They had an affair and Annette became pregnant. Before the child was born, however, William had to go back to England. He needed to earn money somehow, and in any case, the Revolution was starting to turn into the Terror9. He returned to London with every intention of marrying Annette once things had settled, politically and financially10.

He tried to raise money by publishing two poems he'd written, mostly for his own amusement. These were Descriptive Sketches, a very pro-revolutionary piece, and An Evening Walk. They weren't very good, and sold accordingly. But some saw potential in them, most notably an old school friend of William's who arranged for a legacy of £900 so William could concentrate on his poetry. William was very grateful for the bequest, and between the income from that and some money he got from another friend (a widower) in exchange for watching the friend's young son, William and his sister Dorothy were able to live together in a little cottage11. About this time, William met Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, two young poets who were planning a great socio-political experiment12. Robert and Coleridge soon had a terrible quarrel13, the scheme died, and Coleridge became William's friend. In 1798, they published a joint volume of poetry called Lyrical Ballads. No one quite knew what to make of it14; it was really nothing like what the reading public was used to. It was Romantic, though at the time everyone called it poetry of the Lake School, since William was froom the Lake District.

In 1800, Lyrical Ballads was reworked and a second volume added. William also wrote a preface expounding his theories of what made good poetry15. Two years later, the Wordsworths discovered they were at last to get the money owed to their father. Perhaps because of this, William asked Mary Hutchinson, a friend since childhood, to marry him. After a quick visit to Annette16 to straighten everything out, William and Mary were married in a quiet ceremony17. William, Mary, and Dorothy all lived together in their little cottage.

In 1807, William published a two-volume set containing 113 poems18, which was again given a very bad review by everyone who bothered to review it, including Lord Byron, then 19 and just getting started in the business of slamming poetry. William tried to take it all in stride, but it was probably no coincidence that he changed his mind about publishing some long poems he'd just finished. He also started writing more prose, at least partly because Coleridge had recently started a magazine that needed articles. But Coleridge's growing drug addiction and paranoia soon put a stop to that literary endeavour, and, unfortunately, his friendship with William as well.

William's home life, generally happy, was nearly shattered in 1812. In June of that year, Catherine, his fourth child, died of convulsions at age 3; in December, the third child, Thomas, died of pneumonia. Mary herself came close to dying from grief, and Dorothy was little better. William wrote a very touching sonnet on Catherine's death some years later, called "Surprised by Joy" The following year, realizing that the family's finances were suffering, William begged and pleaded and called in a lot of favors to get the appointment of Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland19, with an income of £200 per year. A couple of years later, he started cautiously publishing some poems again, and actually got a few good reviews. Some even went so far as to compare him favorably with Robert Southey20. He was much more popular with the general public--tourists actually came to the Wordsworth house in hopes of seeing William.

Though he published a few of the poems he'd been afraid to before, William didn't write much over the next few years, concentrating instead on his family. 1822 saw the re-release of a travel guide to the Lakes which he had earlier printed anonymously; it was an immensely popular guide21. In 1829, William returned from a jaunt (he was forever going off on jaunts, usually with Dorothy or his daughter Dorothy, commonly called Dora to avoid confusion) to find his whole household stricken with influenza. Sara Hutchinson, Mary's sister, who had been staying with them, died. Dorothy, already in somewhat precarious health, recovered from the influenza physically but not mentally. For the rest of her life she suffered continual ill-temper and was mostly incoherent, except when quoting poetry.

In 1839, William finshed The Prelude, a poetical autobiography of his early life which he'd been working on for years. He sealed it away, to be printed only after his death22. By 1840, Robert Southey23 was beginning to deteriorate, both mentally and physically. He died in 1843, and William was asked to be Poet Laureate in his place. Though he initially refused on grounds of age (he was 73), William eventually agreed as a personal favor to a man named Sir Robert Peel, who had gotten a government pension for William to live on24. William died (finally) on 23 April 1850, of pleurisy, an infection of the lung cavity.

His daughter Dora died of tuberculosis in 1847, but his two remaining sons, John and Willy, both married25 and had children, as did his illegitimate daughter Caroline, so there are still direct descendants of William's around today. No signs of any more poets in the family, though. I guess one's enough.

Davies, Hunter. William Wordsworth. New York: Atheneum Press, 1980.

  1. I call him that because he lived a long time, not because I think his poetry was long or bad or anything. Well, mostly not because of that.

  2. Nope. Too easy.

  3. William and Dorothy were very close all of their lives. The reader may decide if they were too close.

  4. They lived in an interesting neighborhood. Some of their childhood friends were surnamed Christian; if you've seen Mutiny on the Bounty, you know what happened to William's friend Fletcher.

  5. He took a room in the home of a woman named Mrs. Tyson, who ran a shop where she sold, among other things, a crystallized sugar for which she coined the name Candy.

  6. One of these uncles changed his name to Crackenthorpe as a condition of inheriting the large estate of some distant cousins of that name. He went to live in high style in Newbigger Hall.

  7. He wasn't riotous enough to hang out with the party animals and he was too proud to bow and scrape to the higher-ups in hopes of getting preferential treatment. (This will change later on, however. See footnote 19.)

  8. It was called an unclassified Bachelor of Arts. His uncles, I imagine, called it something you wouldn't want to repeat in mixed company.

  9. That meant there were a lot of angry Frenchman hanging around a lot of guillotines just waiting to chop off someone's head, and the French never really liked the English.

  10. Until the 1920's, when a cache of undelivered letters Annette wrote to William was discovered, no one had any inkling of this affair. Wordsworth scholars everywhere scrambled to revise their theory that William was a big prude.

  11. They were very close.

  12. It was called Pantisocracy and it was all about absolute equality and utopian living. They wanted to choose 12 men and 12 women to live in the New World on the banks of the Susquehanna River. No one knew where that was, exactly, but they all liked the name.

  13. They never got along after that. It was just too bad for them that they married sisters.

  14. Except Robert, who wrote the most scathing review he could manage. He particularly disliked "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Now name any two poems by Robert Southey.

  15. This was also a new thing. It led people to decide that William was pompous far beyond his years. And maybe he was; after all, people (especially Coleridge and Dorothy) had been telling him he was a genius for nearly ten years at that point.

  16. She'd been calling herself Madame William, and continued to do so for many years, but it was apparently an amicable separation. Anyway, Annette was busy hiding Royalists from Napoleon's troops.

  17. It kind of had to be quiet. Mary's family disowned her when they heard about the engagement, and William's uncles had disowned him long ago. Dorothy was too overcome with emotion to attend the ceremony. She was very close to her brother.

  18. It was called, creatively enough, Poems in Two Volumes. This is where many of the poems you recognize were originally printed, like the one about the daffodils, which is actually called "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud."

  19. Not postage stamps, stamps to make documents official. This made William a civil servant, and the young poets (like Keats) were pretty disappointed. He wasn't even close to a revolutionary anymore.

  20. Robert had been appointed Poet Laureate (after Walter Scott turned it down). All right, name one poem by Robert Southey. He told Charlotte Brontë that "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life and it ought not to be," and she respected the advice (though fortunately not enough to stop her from writing Jane Eyre).

  21. A minister was once heard to ask if this William Wordsworth fellow had written anything other than the guide.

  22. He wrote lots and lots of sonnets in his later years, on all sorts of unexpected subjects. A friend once asked "Has Wordsworth written no sonnet on the Income Tax?"

  23. Okay, I'll give you one freebie, but it isn't a poem. Robert Southey wrote "The Three Bears." I'm not kidding. He wrote the children's story "The Three Bears."

  24. William had turned the stamp distribution over to his youngest son, Willy, who was absolutely hopeless at everything.

  25. Actually, John married four times and had at least six children. William was a very doting grandparent.

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