William Wordsworth

Life and Works

In 1791 he graduated from Cambridge and traveled abroad. While in France he fell in love with Annette Vallon, who bore him a daughter, Caroline, in 1792. Although he did not marry her, it seems to have been circumstance rather than lack of affection that separated them. Throughout his life he supported Annette and Caroline as best he could, finally settling a sum of money on them in 1835.

The spirit of the French Revolution had strongly influenced Wordsworth, and he returned (1792) to England imbued with the principles of Rousseau and republicanism. In 1793 were published An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches, written in the stylized idiom and vocabulary of the 18th cent. The outbreak of the Reign of Terror prevented Wordsworth's return to France, and after receiving several small legacies, he settled with his sister Dorothy in Dorsetshire. Wordsworth was extraordinarily close to his sister. Throughout his life she was his constant and devoted companion, sharing his poetic vision and helping him with his work.

In Dorsetshire Wordsworth became the intimate friend of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and, probably under his influence, a student of David Hartley's empiricist philosophy. Together the two poets wrote Lyrical Ballads (1798), in which they sought to use the language of ordinary people in poetry; it included Wordsworth's poem "Tintern Abbey." The work introduced romanticism into England and became a manifesto for romantic poets. In 1799 he and his sister moved to the Lake District of England, where they lived the remainder of their lives. A second edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1800), which included a critical essay outlining Wordsworth's poetic principles, in particular his ideas about poetic diction and meter, was unmercifully attacked by critics.

In 1802 Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson, an old school friend; the union was evidently a happy one, and the couple had four children. The Prelude, his long autobiographical poem, was completed in 1805, though it was not published until after his death. His next collection, Poems in Two Volumes (1807), included the well-known "Ode to Duty," the "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," and a number of famous sonnets.

Thereafter, Wordsworth's creative powers diminished. Nonetheless, some notable poems were produced after this date, including The Excursion (1814), "Laodamia" (1815), "White Doe of Rylstone" (1815), Memorials of a Tour of the Continent, 1820 (1822), and "Yarrow Revisited" (1835). In 1842 Wordsworth was given a civil list pension, and the following year, having long since put aside radical sympathies, he was named poet laureate.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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