William Wordsworth was born on April 7, 1770, in Cockermouth, Cumberland, a small quiet market town in northwest England, on the edge of the Lake District. Thus from the very beginning he was associated with that region which he loved more than any other, and except for brief sojourns in Britain, Germany, and Italy, he never left his beloved Lake Country. He died in 1850 and was buried at Grasmere, Westmoreland, about twenty-five miles from his birthplace.
His personal history was just about as uneventful as his lack of movement would lead one to expect. The excitement in his life took place on the level of intellect; he found ideas more exciting than any other thing. Though he appreciated the intimacy of a small circle of friends, he consistently avoided any larger portion of society. Like the American Thoreau, his philosophy was one rooted in simplicity of living, and like Thoreau, he sought always to practice it. In fact, he preferred humble surroundings and a minimum of personal effects. From his childhood onward, he invariably strove for economy, frequently from necessity, but always because of principle.
He was born one of five children to a modest land lawyer. Wordsworth's only sister, Dorothy was one year his junior. She never married because she preferred to become the poet's lifelong companion and informal biographer. William reportedly demonstrated no childish precocity. He was self-willed and often displayed such a violent temper that his mother confided she was worried more about his future than the destinies of her other children. His mother died in 1779, evidently of a cold.
Soon afterward, the poet and his elder brother were sent to the small, free grammar school at Hawkshead, near Windermere. He was not an outstanding student, but among his more rustic classmates he seems to have shone somewhat. He lodged and boarded with a childless landlady, and she seems to have come in many ways to replace his lost mother in his affections. For years he regarded her cottage as home and considered it a welcome relief from the establishments of his stern relatives. The cottage was a mere stone's throw from the open fields.
In 1783, his father died, and the young Wordsworth became an orphan at thirteen. Before his death, the father named his own brother and his wife's elder brother as joint guardians of the children, and it was to the latter that the four orphaned boys were sent. Their uncle proved to be hostile and insensitive toward them, never ceased to remind them of their poverty, and seems even to have encouraged the servants to neglect and abuse his charges. William appears to have been particularly disliked by master and servant alike.
As Wordsworth grew older, he decided he might like to become a lawyer. Accordingly, in October 1787, he left his uncle's home in Penrith and went to attend St. John's College, Cambridge. His apparent early enthusiasm for Cambridge was not long in turning to apathy. He found teachers and students shallow and the course of study inconsequential; he openly proclaimed that he could not stand the regimentation. He did desire admission to the circles representing the gentry and intelligentsia at Cambridge, but they would have none of him because he was poor and quite common.
During his vacations, he spent his time visiting his former landlady at Hawkshead and, with his sister Dorothy, covering some of Derbyshire and Yorkshire on foot. At the end of his junior year, he abandoned his earlier idea of applying for a fellowship. He and a schoolmate left on a three-month walking tour through France and on into the Alps and got as far as Lakes Maggiore and Como. Here he gathered the impressions which were to crystallize in his first volume of poems.
He took his B.A. degree in 1791 and soon after made one of a series of visits to London. He next considered becoming a clergyman. However, after a year of postgraduate work, he decided to go to France, where he intended to learn more of the language and customs of France with the intention of becoming a tutor. He stayed only four days in Paris before he moved on to Orléans to live among the natives. He shared lodgings with several members of the cavalry and probably through them was introduced to Paul Vallon, a clerk, and then to the latter's sister, Marie Anne ("Annette"). She was nearly four years older than the poet; she was a Royalist, and he was a self-styled "democrat," she was a Catholic and he a non-practicing Protestant; but love seems to have leveled all things. When she returned to her family home at Blois, farther south along the Loire, Wordsworth went with her. In the spring, she announced that she was going to have a baby and that the poet was the father. He meantime had been planning to return to England that spring (1792) to engage in some kind of literary activity or finally to take orders. The natural thing would have been for the two young people to marry, and from all indications, they were perfectly willing. The poet acknowledged (by proxy) the baby — a girl, Caroline — as his own at her baptism. But there were serious parental objections to nuptials.
At Orléans and Blois, Wordsworth was plunged into the midst of the intrigue that surrounded the French Revolution (1789-99). He was at first completely indifferent to the Revolution and its ideals. Slowly, however, he began to fancy himself a patriot and spoke up for the revolutionary cause. While at Blois, he had the good fortune to meet Michel Beaupuy, a captain, whom he met possibly through the local revolutionary club which the young Englishman had just joined. No other man except Samuel Taylor Coleridge had as great an influence on Wordsworth.
When King Louis XVI was beheaded on January 21, 1793, Wordsworth was back in England. Though the poet was compelled to defend the French Reign of Terror outwardly, his inner convictions were slowly altering, and he underwent a serious spiritual malaise, during which he seemed to be finally and completely without desire or design. As one biographer says, "largely because of what he underwent between 1792 and 1795, he became one of the voices of his age."
His relatives would now have none of him; they considered him an anarchist, as well as a disbeliever and an idler. His first volumes of poems were unpopular with the critics, when they were noticed at all. There was one man, nevertheless, who was much struck by these early endeavors, and that was Coleridge.
In October 1793, Wordsworth managed once more to return to Paris, a feat that took much courage. He found Blois cut off from Paris and once again returned to England. For years after, he had nightmares about what he had seen of the Terror.
In September of 1795, William and Dorothy got one of their most ardent wishes fulfilled — that of living together — when they let a house at Racedown, in Dorset, in southwest England. Wordsworth and Cole-ridge met in Bristol late in 1795 and corresponded thereafter. They did not become close friends until 1797. Together they planned a revolutionary volume which they supposed would change the course of English literature. Lyrical Ballads appeared September 1, 1798. It was slow to win literary favor but gradually acquired its permanent significance as the turning point in English poetry.
In 1802, Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson, a friend from childhood. She bore him six children. In 1805, a favorite brother drowned at sea, and this event shocked the poet. In the spring, The Prelude, begun in 1799, was concluded. In 1812, two of his children died within months of each other. The first collected edition of his poems appeared in 1815; five more editions followed between then and 1850. A bequest enabled him to indulge his passion for travel, and he toured Europe. From about 1829, his sister, who had always been high-strung, began to be mentally ill; in 1835, she went completely mad.
The later years of his life were peaceful. He had been given a job in the civil service in 1813 and thereafter took the large house called Rydal Mount, near Grasmere, where he was to live the rest of his life. His youthful religious skepticism was resolved, and he embraced the established church. He veered toward conservatism from the very moment of Napoleon's rise to power, and later he vociferously opposed many of the beneficial liberal measures of the time. He received honorary degrees from Durham (1838) and Oxford (1839). In 1842, he resigned his civic post and was awarded a pension. The following year, on the death of Southey, he was appointed Poet Laureate.
Toward the end of his life, he knew much fame. He was welcomed everywhere as a celebrity. The critics were stilled by his laureateship, and his verse became quite popular with the burgeoning middle class. It was very fashionable among the early Victorians to gather for group readings of Wordsworth's poetry.
In 1850, the death of his beloved daughter Dora (Dorothy) brought a depression from which he could not recover. On April 23, he died at the age of eighty. Thus was silenced one of the noblest voices of Romantic times and of all times.