William Wordsworth was born on April 7th, 1770, in Cockermouth, Cumberland, England. Young William’s parents, John and Ann, died during his boyhood. Raised amid the mountains of Cumberland alongside the River Derwent, Wordsworth grew up in a rustic society, and spent a great deal of his time playing outdoors, in what he would later remember as a pure communion with nature. In the early 1790s William lived for a time in France, then in the grip of the violent Revolution; Wordsworth’s philosophical sympathies lay with the revolutionaries, but his loyalties lay with England, whose monarchy he was not prepared to see overthrown. While in France, Wordsworth had a long affair with Annette Vallon, with whom he had a daughter, Caroline. A later journey to France to meet Caroline, now a young girl, would inspire the great sonnet “It is a beauteous evening, calm and free.”
The chaos and bloodshed of the Reign of Terror in Paris drove William to philosophy books; he was deeply troubled by the rationalism he found in the works of thinkers such as William Godwin, which clashed with his own softer, more emotional understanding of the world. In despair, he gave up his pursuit of moral questions. In the mid-1790s, however, Wordsworth’s increasing sense of anguish forced him to formulate his own understanding of the world and of the human mind in more concrete terms. The theory he produced, and the poetics he invented to embody it, caused a revolution in English literature.
Developed throughout his life, Wordsworth’s understanding of the human mind seems simple enough today, what with the advent of psychoanalysis and the general Freudian acceptance of the importance of childhood in the adult psyche. But in Wordsworth’s time, in what Seamus Heaney has called “Dr. Johnson’s supremely adult eighteenth century,” it was shockingly unlike anything that had been proposed before. Wordsworth believed (as he expressed in poems such as the “Intimations of Immortality” Ode) that, upon being born, human beings move from a perfect, idealized realm into the imperfect, un-ideal earth. As children, some memory of the former purity and glory in which they lived remains, best perceived in the solemn and joyous relationship of the child to the beauties of nature. But as children grow older, the memory fades, and the magic of nature dies. Still, the memory of childhood can offer an important solace, which brings with it almost a kind of re-access to the lost purities of the past. And the maturing mind develops the capability to understand nature in human terms, and to see in it metaphors for human life, which compensate for the loss of the direct connection.
Freed from financial worries by a legacy left to him in 1795, Wordsworth moved with his sister Dorothy to Racedown, and then to Alfoxden in Grasmere, where Wordsworth could be closer to his friend and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Together, Wordsworth and Coleridge began work on a book called Lyrical Ballads, first published in 1798 and reissued with Wordsworth’s monumental preface in 1802.
The publication of Lyrical Ballads represents a landmark moment for English poetry; it was unlike anything that had come before, and paved the way for everything that has come after. According to the theory that poetry resulted from the “spontaneous overflow” of emotions, as Wordsworth wrote in the preface, Wordsworth and Coleridge made it their task to write in the simple language of common people, telling concrete stories of their lives. According to this theory, poetry originated in “emotion recollected in a state of tranquility”; the poet then surrendered to the emotion, so that the tranquility dissolved, and the emotion remained in the poem. This explicit emphasis on feeling, simplicity, and the pleasure of beauty over rhetoric, ornament, and formality changed the course of English poetry, replacing the elaborate classical forms of Pope and Dryden with a new Romantic sensibility. Wordsworth’s most important legacy, besides his lovely, timeless poems, is his launching of the Romantic era, opening the gates for later writers such as John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron in England, and Emerson and Thoreau in America.
Following the success of Lyrical Ballads and his subsequent poem The Prelude, a massive autobiography in verse form, Wordsworth moved to the stately house at Rydal Mount where he lived, with Dorothy, his wife Mary, and his children, until his death in 1850. Wordsworth became the dominant force in English poetry while still quite a young man, and he lived to be quite old; his later years were marked by an increasing aristocratic temperament and a general alienation from the younger Romantics whose work he had inspired. Byron—the only important poet to become more popular than Wordsworth during Wordsworth’s lifetime—in particular saw him as a kind of sell-out, writing in his sardonic preface to Don Juan that the once-liberal Wordsworth had “turned out a Tory” at last. The last decades of Wordsworth’s life, however, were spent as Poet Laureate of England, and until his death he was widely considered the most important author in England.