William Wordsworth

(1770 - 1850)

Short Biography

William Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth in Cumberland, son of John Wordsworth, who worked as an agent and rent collector for Sir James Lowther

Childhood, education and first visit to France
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 (about £200,000 in 2010 terms), but he refused to honour the debt. Responsibility for William and his brothers 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 and the sciences was encouraged. He attended St John’s College, Cambridge, from 1787 (17) to 1791 (21), and went on a three month walking tour of France (a country then in the midst of revolutionary turmoil), Switzerland and the Rhine in 1790 (20) with his friend Robert Jones

Hawkshead Grammar School 
Hawkshead Grammar School

Second visit to France and affair with Annette Vallon
He visited France again in November 1791 (21), and during this second visit 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 in December 1792 (22), just before he returned to England, but whom he did not see until his return to France in 1802.

Portrait of William Wordsworth
Portrait of William Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846)


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 William Godwin, openly expressing their ideas in his own poetry.  

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

Wordsworth, Coleridge and Lyrical Ballads
In July 1797 (27), at the invitation of John and Azariah Pinney, he moved with his sister Dorothy to Racedown Lodge on the Devon / Somerset border, where he met the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In June 1798 (28) he moved to Alfoxden House, closer to Coleridge at Nether Stowey, and they collaborated on and published Lyrical Ballads, with a few other Poems (1798, 28), which began with Coleridge’s Ryme of the Ancyent Marinere and ended with Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey. In a letter to Robert Southey (July, 1797), Coleridge expresses his admiration for Wordsworth as follows:

Wordsworth is a very great man, the only man to whom at all times and in all modes of excellence I feel myself inferior, the only one, I mean, whom I have yet met with, for the London literati appear to me to be very much like little potatoes, that is, no great things, a compost of nullity and dullity.

For the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads, and other Poems (1800, 30), Wordsworth re-arranged the poems, added others of his own, and wrote a preface, which set out his theory of poetry. He expanded on these ideas in an appendix to the third edition (1802,32) entitled Poetic Diction.

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

Germany and the Lake District
Later in 1798 (28) the Wordsworths made a trip to Germany with Coleridge. The party split up soon after their arrival, and the Wordsworths spent the winter in Goslar of which he writes:

Goslar is 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.)

On their return in May 1799 (29), they 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. From about 1798 Wordsworth worked on a long philosophical and autobiographical poem, The Prelude, which was not published until 1850, the year of his death. 

  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.

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. 

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. 

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

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

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.

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. 

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

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


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

Links to Poems

Lines left on a Seat in a Yew Tree  

   Upon Westminster Bridge

It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free  

   Night Piece

The Poet's Work  

   The Linnet

On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic  

   Composed in the Valley near Dover

Joanna's Rock  

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