The second of five children born to John Wordsworth and Ann Cookson, William Wordsworth was born on 7 April 1770 in Wordsworth House in Cockermouth, Cumberland, part of the scenic region in northwestern England known as the Lake District. His sister, the poet and diarist Dorothy Wordsworth, to whom he was close all his life, was born the following year, and the two were baptised together. They had three other siblings: Richard, the eldest, who became a lawyer; John, born after Dorothy, who went to sea and died in 1805 when the ship of which he was captain, the Earl of Abergavenny, was wrecked off the south coast of England; and Christopher, the youngest, who entered the Church and rose to be Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.
Wordsworth’s father was a legal representative of James Lowther, 1st Earl of Lonsdale and, through his connections, lived in a large mansion in the small town. He was frequently away from home on business, so the young William and his siblings had little involvement with him and remained distant from him until his death in 1783. However, he did encourage William in his reading, and in particular set him to commit to memory large portions of verse, including works by Milton, Shakespeare and Spenser. William was also allowed to use his father’s library. William also spent time at his mother’s parents’ house in Penrith, Cumberland, where he was exposed to the moors, but did not get along with his grandparents or his uncle, who also lived there. His hostile interactions with them distressed him to the point of contemplating suicide.
Wordsworth was taught to read by his mother and attended, first, a tiny school of low quality in Cockermouth, then a school in Penrith for the children of upper-class families, where he was taught by Ann Birkett, who insisted on instilling in her students traditions that included pursuing both scholarly and local activities, especially the festivals around Easter, May Day and Shrove Tuesday. Wordsworth was taught both the Bible and the Spectator, but little else. It was at the school in Penrith that he met the Hutchinsons, including Mary, who later became his wife. After the death of his mother, in 1778, Wordsworth’s father sent him to Hawkshead Grammar School in Lancashire (now in Cumbria) and sent Dorothy to live with relatives in Yorkshire. She and William did not meet again for another nine years. Wordsworth made his debut as a writer in 1787 when he published a sonnet in The European Magazine. That same year he began attending St John’s College, Cambridge. He received his BA degree in 1791. He returned to Hawkshead for the first two summers of his time at Cambridge, and often spent later holidays on walking tours, visiting places famous for the beauty of their landscape. In 1790 he went on a walking tour of Europe, during which he toured the Alps extensively, and visited nearby areas of France, Switzerland, and Italy.
In November 1791 Wordsworth visited Revolutionary France and became enthralled with the Republican movement. He fell in love with a French woman, Annette Vallon, who in 1792 gave birth to their child, Caroline. Because of lack of money and Britain’s tensions with France he returned alone to England the next year. The circumstances of his return and his subsequent behaviour raised doubts as to his declared wish to marry Annette, but he supported her and his daughter as best he could in later life. The Reign of Terror estranged him from Republican France, and war between France and Britain prevented him from seeing Annette and Caroline again for several years. With the Peace of Amiens again allowing travel to France, in 1802 Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy visited Annette and Caroline in Calais. The purpose of the visit was to prepare Annette for the fact of his forthcoming marriage to Mary Hutchinson. Afterwards he wrote the sonnet “It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,” recalling a seaside walk with the nine-year-old Caroline, whom he had never seen before that visit. Mary was anxious that Wordsworth should do more for Caroline and upon Caroline’s marriage, in 1816, when Wordsworth settled 30 pounds a year on her (equivalent to 1,360 pounds as of the year 2000). The payments continued until 1835, when they were replaced by a capital settlement.
The year 1793 saw the first publication of poems by Wordsworth, in the collections An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches. In 1795 he received a legacy of 900 pounds from Raisley Calvert and became able to pursue a career as a poet. It was also in 1795 that he met Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Somerset. The two poets quickly developed a close friendship. In 1797 Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy moved to Alfoxton House, Somerset, just a few miles away from Coleridge’s home in Nether Stowey. Together Wordsworth and Coleridge (with insights from Dorothy) produced Lyrical Ballads (1798), an important work in the English Romantic movement. The volume gave neither Wordsworth’s nor Coleridge’s name as author. One of Wordsworth’s most famous poems, “Tintern Abbey”, was published in this collection, along with Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The second edition, published in 1800, had only Wordsworth listed as the author, and included a preface to the poems. It was augmented significantly in the next edition, published in 1802. In this preface, which some scholars consider a central work of Romantic literary theory, Wordsworth discusses what he sees as the elements of a new type of verse, one that is based on the “real language of men” and avoids the poetic diction of much 18th-century verse. Wordsworth also gives his famous definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility,” and calls his own poems in the book “experimental”. A fourth and final edition of Lyrical Ballads was published in 1805.
Between 1795 and 1797 Wordsworth wrote his only play, The Borderers, a verse tragedy set during the reign of King Henry III of England, when Englishmen in the North Country came into conflict with Scottish rovers. He attempted to get the play staged in November 1797, but it was rejected by Thomas Harris, the manager of the Covent Garden Theatre, who proclaimed it “impossible that the play should succeed in the representation”. The rebuff was not received lightly by Wordsworth and the play was not published until 1842, after substantial revision.
Wordsworth, Dorothy and Coleridge travelled to Germany in the autumn of 1798. While Coleridge was intellectually stimulated by the journey, its main effect on Wordsworth was to produce homesickness. During the harsh winter of 1798–99 Wordsworth lived with Dorothy in Goslar, and, despite extreme stress and loneliness, began work on the autobiographical piece that was later titled The Prelude. He wrote a number of other famous poems in Goslar, including “The Lucy poems”. In the Autumn of 1799, Wordsworth and his sister returned to England and visited the Hutchinson family at Sockburn. When Coleridge arrived back in England he travelled to the North with their publisher Joseph Cottle to meet Wordsworth and undertake a proposed tour of the Lake District. This was the immediate cause of the siblings settling at Dove Cottage in Grasmere in the Lake District, this time with another poet, Robert Southey nearby. Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey came to be known as the “Lake Poets”. Throughout this period many of Wordsworth’s poems revolve around themes of death, endurance, separation and grief.
William Wordsworth died from an aggravated case of pleurisy on 23 April 1850, and was buried at St Oswald’s Church, Grasmere. His widow Mary published his lengthy autobiographical “poem to Coleridge” as The Prelude several months after his death. Though it failed to arouse much interest at that time, it has since come to be widely recognised as his masterpiece.Wi
- April, 07, 1770
- United Kingdom
- Cockermouth, Cumberland, England
- April, 23, 1850
- United Kingdom
- Cumberland, England
Cause of Death
- aggravated case of pleurisy
- St Oswald Churchyard
- Cumbria, England
- United Kingdom