William Wordsworth
(1770 - 1850)

Short Biography      Sample Poems

1770: Birth and parents >
1778-87: Childhood and education >
1787-90: University and walking tour of France, Switzerland, Northern Italy and Germany >
1791-92: Second visit to France and affair with Annette Vallon >
1792: Return to England and radical ideas >
1793: First publications >

1793-94: William and Raisley Calvert and Dorothy Wordsworth >
1795: Residence in London and Bristol >
1795-97: Racedown Lodge >
1796-97: Visit to London and The Borderers >
1796-97: Mary Hutchinson comes to visit >
1797-98: Other poetry >
1797: Samuel Taylor Coleridge >
1797-8: Alfoxton House >
1797: John and Tom Wedgewood >
1798: Lyrical Ballads >
1798-1850: The Recluse >
1798-99: Trip to Germany >
1799: Return to England >
1802: Marriage >
1805: His brother drowns at sea >
His ménage à quatre >
1807: Poems in two volumes >
1810: He argues with Coleridge >
1812-13: Move to Rydal Mount: Wordsworth the family man and distributor of stamps >
1814-20: The Excursion and other poetry >
1843: Poet Laureate >
1850: Death >

Birth and parents
William Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth in Cumberland, son of John Wordsworth, and Ann, née Cookson, of Penrith.The Cooksons were well-to-do people who ran a large drapery next to the George Hotel in Penrith. Ann's mother had aristocratic pretensions as a descendant of the Crackenthorpes of Newbiggin Hall. John worked as an agent and rent collector for Sir James Lowther.

1778-1787: Childhood and education
His mother died in 1778 (8), and in the same year he was sent as a boarder to Hawkshead Grammar School. His father died in 1783 (13), at which time Sir James owed him some £4000 (around £200,000 in today's terms), but he refused to honour the debt, which was not paid until 'wicked Jimmy' (Sir James Lowther) was dead (ie 20 years later). Responsibility for William and his siblings passed to his mother’s brother, Christopher Cookson, an unhappy arrangement for the children, who found their guardian unsympathetic. Hawkshead School, on the other hand, under the headship of William Taylor, was a progressive and liberally oriented establishment, where reading in mathematics, the sciences and poetry was encouraged. Wordsworth's sister, Dorothy, who was later to become his constant companion, was separated from her brothers and sent to live with Elizabeth 'Aunt' Threlkeld, her mother's cousin, in Halifax. more

Hawkshead Grammar School
Hawkshead Grammar School

1787-90: University and walking tour of France, Switzerland, Northern Italy and Germany
He attended St John’s College, Cambridge, from 1787 (17) to 1791 (21). During the long vacation of 1790 (20), he went on a walking tour of France, Switzerland, Northern Italy and Germany (over 4000 kilometres in total) with his friend Robert Jones. At the time, France was in full revolutionary turmoil. They returned along the Rhine, and by mid October, Wordsworth was back at Cambridge. The tour is partly documented in the long poem Descriptive Sketchesmore

1791-2: Second visit to France and affair with Annette Vallon
He visited France again between November 1791 (21) and December 1792 (22). During this second visit he was befriended by Michel Beaupuy, through whom he came to share the ideals of the French Revolution. Whilst in Orléans he had an affair with Annette Vallon (1766-), who bore him a child (christened Caroline on December 15, 1792) just after he returned to England. He would not see the child until 1802. His encounter with Annette and Caroline in 1802 is documented in part in the sonnet It is a beauteous evening calm and freemore

1793: He returns to England and radical ideas
Financial problems and the political situation forced him to return to England, where he began to give wholehearted support to the radical philosophy of Thomas Paine and the ideas of the French revolution, openly expressing these ideas in his own poetry, and penning a Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff (unfinished and not published until 1876) in which he clearly expressed his republican sentiments, a dangerous thing at the time. more

1793: First publications
His first publications followed shortly after his return to England. An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches made their appearance on 29 January 1793, and received unfavourable not to say contemptuous reviews.

Map of England showing Wordsworth's tour of 1794
map of England showing Wordsworth's tour of 1794

1793-4: The brothers, William and Raisley Calvert, and Dorothy Wordsworth
His financial problems continued, but luckily, in April 1793 (23), William Calvert, a friend from Hawkshead School, who had recently inherited a considerable fortune, invited him on a tour of England and Wales, all expenses paid. The two men separated after an unfortunate accident that damaged the gig in which they were travelling beyond repair. Wordsworth continued alone and on foot through Salisbury, Bath, Bristol and into Wales, passing by Tintern Abbey, later immortalised in the poem of that name, in which he recalls this first visit on the occasion of a second visit in 1798. The poem became his most significant contribution to Lyrical Ballads. He continued his tour northwards, visiting his friend Jones in the vale of Clwyd on the way, and arriving at the Rawson's house near Halifax in mid-February 1794 (24), where he was re-united with his sister, Dorothy. Here he stayed until mid-April, when the two set off together, travelling by coach and then on foot as far as Windy Brow, near Keswick, a farmhouse offered to them rent free by William Calvert while he was away in London, and where they lingered for a while until making for Cockermouth and then Whitehaven, where Dorothy stayed with the family of her cousin Richard Wordsworth. The two then spent some time moving between friends and relations in the Lake District.

1794: Windy Brow
William returned to Windy Brow in late September, where he found Raisley Calvert in poor health. The poet agreed to accompany the him on a trip to Portugal, but, when this proved impossible due to the sick man's deteriorating health, agreed to stay to look after him. Raisley, who had made plans to share his income with Wordsworth in order to allow him to pursue his career as poet, now proposed to leave him £600, later raised to £900, in his will. Wordsworth spent much of the latter part of 1794 looking after the sick man, who died on 9 January 1795 (25).  more

1795: Residence in London and Bristol
At the end of February 1795 (25), he took up residence in lodgings in Somers Town, London, a few doors away from William Godwin, and became involved with the radical republican circle around the philosopher. Among those he met were John and Azariah Pinney, who offered him Racedown Lodge in Dorset rent free. He also came to an agreement with Basil Montagu to look after his young son for £50 a year, the intention being to settle with Dorothy and the boy at Racedown. He left London towards the end of August 1795 for Bristol, where Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had been giving lectures. He arrived at Racedown with his sister Dorothy and the young Basil on 26 September. more

Map of Great Britain
map of Great Britain showing places relevant to the biography of Wordsworth

1795-7: Racedown Lodge
While political turmoil continued in the land with the passing of the 'gagging acts' in December 1795, Wordsworth lived in solitude with his sister at Racedown. He writes to William Mathews on 24 October that they were both 'as happy as people can be who live in perfect solitude... more

1796-7: Visit to London and The Borderers
A
visit to London beginning on 1 June and further acquaintance with Godwin and his circle gave rise to a reaction against the philosopher. He expressed some of his doubts concerning Godwin's ideas about rationality and benevolence in the play The Borderers (not published until 1842). The play also draws on his experiences in France during the Revolution. He asserts that he wrote the play 'to preserve in my distinct remembrance what I had observed of transition in character and the reflections I had been led to make during the time I was a witness of the changes through which the French Revolution passed' and in the Preface to the play comments on 'the dangerous use which may be made of reason when a man has committed a great crime'.

1796-7: Mary Hutchinson comes to visit.
His future wife, Mary Hutchinson, arrived to visit Dorothy in November 1796. Wordsworth describes her as 'a Phantom of delight'. Of her departure in June 1797, he writes
'... if you had but taken the road through Bristol when you left Racedown ... I should certainly have accompanied you as far as Bristol; or further, perhaps and then I thought, that you would not have taken the coach at Bristol, but that you would have walked on Northwards with me at your side, till unable to part from each other we might have come in sight of those hills (the Malverns) ... and .... I fancied that we should have seen so deeply into each others hearts, and been so fondly locked in each others arms, that we should have braved the worst and parted no more.' (Letter to Mary Wordsworth 11 August 1810)

Other poetry 1797-8:
He began to interest himself in the poor people of the region, now finding a deep sympathy with their suffering, patience and fortitude, and in many of his poems of this period he takes them as his subject, for example We are Seven, Anecdote for Fathers, The Thorn, Goody Blake and Harry Gill, Her Eyes are Wild, Simon Lee, and Expostulation and Reply. It would appear that he had become disillusioned not only with the philosophy of Godwin, but with 'intellectual' arguments in general. This radical change is well expressed in the poem The Tables Turned, which puts forward the proposition that 'One impulse from a vernal wood / May teach you more of man / Of moral evil and of good / Than all the sages can.'

1797: Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Returning on foot from a trip to Bristol in early April, Wordsworth made a detour to pay a visit to Coleridge in Nether Stowey, and Coleridge returned the compliment a little later, arriving at Racedown on 5 June. Coleridge read aloud his unfinished drama Osorio and Wordsworth read aloud his Borderers. Coleridge expressed himself thus: 'I speak with heart-felt sincerity & (I think) unbliinded judgement, when I tell you, that I feel myself a little man by his side.... '  Dorothy Wordsworth commented in a letter to Mary Hutchinson dated June: 'You had a great loss in not seeing Coleridge. He is a wonderful man. His conversation teems with soul, mind and spirit.' Coleridge stayed until 28 June, returning two days later in a cart to carry off William and Dorothy to Nether Stowey.

1797-8: Alfoxton House
While staying at Nether Stowey, the Wordsworths found and took a lease on nearby Alfoxton House, 'a large mansion, in a large park, with seventy head of deer around us', on 14 July. The French government had declared war on Great Britain on 1 February 1793, ratcheting up the fear of invasion, and, having been seen wandering the countryside with notebooks and having been heard asking questions about the local geography, the new arrivals were immediately suspected of being French spies preparing for just such an invasion. Reports were relayed to Lord Portland, the minister in charge of national security and espionage, and James Walsh, a government agent, was sent down to investigate. Adding to the fears of the government, John Thelwall, recently tried for High Treason due to his advocacy of political reform, was one of Wordsworth's first visitors. Walsh was quickly convinced that there was little to the allegations, but Mrs St Albyn, the owner of the property, promptly gave notice to terminate the lease as soon as it expired in June 1798.

1797: John and Tom Wedgwood
Two of the sons of Josiah and Sarah Wedgwood, founders of the celebrated Wedgwood pottery at Barlaston, arrived on a visit in late September. Tom had a project to educate a child genius, and money to fund such a project, but Wordsworth seems to have found his ideas not only impracticable but also dangerous, particularly for the child. Tom Wedgwood left unimpressed, and, in the event, provided an annuity of £150 a year for life to Coleridge.

1798: Lyrical Ballads
Wordsworth and Coleridge, who were seeing each other almost daily at this period, collaborated on a collection of poetry which they called Lyrical Ballads, which was published on 4 October 1798 (28). The collection began with Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, begun as a joint project but concluded by Coleridge alone, and ended with Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, a poem composed just days before printing began in August. Wordsworth penned a short Advertisement (Preface) in which he set out some of the poets' intentions. For the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1800, 30), now expanded to two volumes, Wordsworth re-arranged the poems, added others of his own, put his sole name on the title page and wrote a longer Preface, which set out in greater detail his theory of poetry. He elaborated on some of the ideas in this Preface of 1800 in an appendix to the third edition (1802, 32) entitled Poetic Diction. 

1798-1850: The Recluse
It was during the course of 1798 that the idea of composing an epic philosophic poem was suggested by Coleridge. Wordsworth took on the idea, the object of the poem being, as he saw it, 'to give pictures of Nature, Man and Society. Indeed, I know not any thing which will not come within the scope of my plan.' (Letter to Jas Tobin, 6 March, 1798). The introduction to The Recluse was The Prelude, a poem running to some 7800 lines, and completed between 1798 and 1805, but not published until just after Wordsworth's death in 1850. There were to be three further parts, only the second of which was completed, christened The Excursion and published in nine books (8814 lines in total) in 1814. The only other section to be completed was the first book of Part I, called Home at Grasmere, though Wordsworth asserts (in the Preface to The Prelude) that the other poetry he composed after 1814, when properly ordered, comprised Part III.

map of northern germany showing places visited by Wordsworth and Coleridge
map of northern Germany showing places visited by Wordsworth and Coleridge

1798-9: Trip to Germany
On 16 September William and Dorothy Wordsworth set sail from Yarmouth for Hamburg with Coleridge and John Chester, a native of Nether Stowey, who held Coleridge in great awe. 'When he sat down at table with his idol,' recounts Hazlitt1, 'John's felicity was complete...' Having seen the sights of Hamburg all 'huddle and ugliness, stink and stagnation,' (Coleridge, letter to Thomas Poole, 26 October), Coleridge left for Ratzeburg on the recommendation of Victor Klopstock, brother of the poet Friedrich, with whom Wordsworth had several meetings. He arranged for rooms at Ratzeburg for himself and Chester. The Wordsworths were left to make their own arrangements, and travelled south to Goslar, 'a venerable (venerable I mean as to its external appearance) decayed city. It is situated at the foot of some small mountains, on the edge of the Harts forest. It was once the residence of Emperors, and it is now the residence of Grocers and Linen-drapers who are, I say it with a feeling of sorrow, a wretched race, the flesh, blood and bone of their minds being nothing but knavery and low falsehood'. (Letter to Josiah Wedgewood, February 5th 1799.) Wordsworth made no progress in learning German as there was almost no-one with whom he could converse, and he and Dorothy lived in almost complete isolation, an isolation which had its benefits as the poet was thrown back on his own resources, and composed a considerable amount of poetry, including the 'Lucy' and 'Matthew' poems, and the beginnings of The Prelude. They were effectively kept at Goslar by the exceptionally cold winter, leaving only on 23 February to tour the Harz mountains and probably some of the towns of Upper Saxony, including Weimar. Unfortunately, Wordsworths account of this tour has been lost. Coleridge had in the meantime moved to Göttingen, where the Wordsworths arrived in April burning with '.. impatience to return to their native country' (Coleridge, letter to Sara Coleridge, 23 April), but, being unable to persuade Coleridge to go with them, promptly left the next day.

1799: Return to England
On their return in May 1799 (29), William and Dorothy moved first to Sockburn, Yorkshire, where they stayed with their friends, the Hutchinsons (Wordsworth was to marry Sara Hutchinson in 1802), and then, in December, to Town End (later called Dove Cottage), Grasmere, in the Lake District.

  Dove Cottage
Dove Cottage, Grasmere, now the Wordsworth Museum. It was known to the Wordsworths as Townend. Built in the 17th century as the Dove and Olive Bough Inn, the cottage was rented by the Wordsworths from 1799 until 1808.

1802: Marriage
He married Mary Hutchinson in 1802 (32), and acquired two patrons in Sir George Beaumont and Sir William Lowther, the latter settling his cousin’s debt to Wordsworth. 

1805: His brother drowns at sea
His brother John was drowned at sea in 1805 (35). 

His ménage à quatre
His sister Dorothy continued to live with Wordsworth, along with his new wife and her sister, Sara Hutchinson. They were often visited by Coleridge, who had moved to the Lake District with his wife, and who had become emotionally involved with Sara Hutchinson. 

1807: Poems in Two Volumes
Wordsworth published Poems in Two Volumes in 1807 (37) in an edition of 1000, 230 of which were still unsold in 1814. The volume received a critical drubbing from the Edinburgh Review

1810: He argues with Coleridge
He severed his connection with Coleridge in 1810 (40), partly because of that poet’s continued addiction to opium. 

William and Dorothy Wordsworth
William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy by Margaret Gillies (1803-1887)
 

1812-13: Move to Rydal Mount: Wordsworth the family man and distributor of stamps
He now had five children, two of whom died in 1812 (42). In 1813 (43) he moved to Rydal Mount, Ambleside, and was appointed the official distributor of stamps for Westmoreland with a salary of £400 a year. 

Rydal Mount

Rydal Mount, Ambleside, the home of William Wordsworth from 1813 until his death in 1850.

1814-20: The Excursion and other poetry
In 1814 (44) he published The Excursion, 9000 lines of poetry in nine volumes, which aroused little interest, followed by The White Doe of Rylstone (1815, 45), Peter Bell (1819, 49) and Benjamin the Waggoner (1819, 49). He continued to be criticised for his low subjects and ‘simplicity’. Thereafter he became more interested in reworking, ordering and anthologising his work in various collected editions. 

Portrait of William Wordsworth
Portrait of William Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert Haydon

1843: Poet Laureate
He was appointed Poet Laureate in 1843 (73). 

1850: Death
He died in 1850 (80) and was buried in Grasmere churchyard.

Ullswater 

Ullswater in the Lake District, watercolour by John Glover (1767-1849)

Links to Poems

Poems written in youth
Lines left on a Seat in a Yew Tree  
  Descriptive Sketches
An Evening Walk 

Poems on the naming of places
Joanna's Rock  

Poems of the Fancy
   The Linnet

Poems of the Imagination
  Lines written above Tintern Abbey
   Night Piece

Miscellaneous Sonnets
   Upon Westminster Bridge
It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free  
   Composed in the Valley near Dover
The Poet's Work  

  Sonnet, on seeing Miss Helen Maria Williams weep at a tale of distress
The World is too much with us 

Poems dedicated to National Independence and Liberty
On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic  

Links to external sites

Recording of The Wanderer

Comprehensive poetry resource

The poet biographies, criticism, maps, translations, and textual notes on this site are the copyright of Paul Scott
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