William Wordsworth was the second son of John Wordsworth and Ann Cookson, and was born on 7 April
1770 in a fine Georgian house, now called Wordsworth House, in Cockermouth - a little town in Cumberland, northwest England, in the region called the ‘Lake District’.
The ‘Lake District’ (The Lakes or
) is a mountainous region in North West England. It is a popular holiday destination, famous for its lakes and its mountains (called ‘fells’), and its associations with the early 19th century poetry and writings of William Wordsworth and the other Lake Poets, considered part of the Romantic Movement (among the main figures, along with W. Wordsworth there were Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, but they were associated with several other poets and writers of their time, including Dorothy Wordsworth, Charles Lloyd, Hartley Coleridge. The beauty of the Lakeland Lake District has also inspired many other poets over the years, such as - for instance - Walter Scott).
The central, and most visited, part of the area is called the Lake District National Park which was designated as a National Park in 1951.
William’s father was an attorney and, at the time of William’s birth, he was working as an estate agent for Sir James Lowther - who owned their house. In 1766 he married Anne Cookson and they had four sons and a daughter:
- Richard (19 August 1768), who became a lawyer
- William (7 April 1770),
- Dorothy (25 December 1771), who became a poet and diarist and to whom William was close all his life. She was only a year younger than him and the two were baptized together.
- John [December 1771), who went to sea and died in 1805 when the ship of which he was Master was wrecked off the south coast of
- Christopher [9 June 1774), who entered the Church and rose to be Master of Trinity College, in Cambridge.
The Wordsworth children had little involvement with their father, as he was very often distant and busy. In any case, although rarely present, he taught William poetry, including that of Milton, Shakespeare and Spenser. Moreover he allowed his son to rely on his own father's library. The garden at the back, with the river Derwent flowing past, was a place of magic and adventure for the young William.
Unfortunately their mother died on 8 March 1778 and William, who was only eight, had to spend most of his time with relatives in Penrith (his mother’s hometown) and then he was sent to Hawkshead Grammar School (from 1779 to 1787) in
Lancashire. His sister Dorothy was sent to live with relatives in Yorkshire. Brother and sister would not meet again for another nine years.
Five years after their mother’s death, on 30 December 1783, their father died, too.
In 1784 all the children finally left Wordsworth House to be cared for by relations.
Although Hawkshead was Wordsworth's first serious experience with education he had been taught to read by his mother and had attended a tiny school of low quality in Cockermouth. After the Cockermouth school, he was sent to a school in Penrith for the children of upper-class families.
In 1787 William Wordsworth’s first sonnet was published in The European Magazine. He was 17 and it was at that time he began attending St John's College, Cambridge. He received his B.A. degree in 1791.
During his youth, William made many visits to the countryside and often remained for the summer holidays in Hawkshead, situated in the
Lake District too, as he loved its nature and surroundings. He was quite influenced by the powers of nature around him (thus gaining inspiration!).
He then spent later summer holidays on walking tours, visiting places famous for the beauty of their landscape. In 1790, he took an extensive walking tour of Europe, during which he toured the Alps and visited
France, Switzerland, and . Italy
William was a great walker and he remained an active fell-walker into old age. He climbed Helvellyn to celebrate his seventieth birthday. Haydon marked this passion in a portrait of the poet that he executed in his
studio, but in which he depicted the symbolic setting of Helvellyn at sunset in the background. London
In November 1791, at the age of 21, Wordsworth visited Revolutionary France and was fascinated by the Republican movement. He fell in love with a French woman, too, Annette Vallon, who in 1792 gave birth to their child, Caroline.
A year later, because of lack of money and Britain's tensions with
France, he returned alone to . The Reign of Terror and war between England France and prevented him from seeing Annette and Caroline again for several years. He, then, tried to support Annette and his daughter as best he could in later life. Britain
In 1795 he received a legacy of £900 which gave him the means to pursue a literary career. In that year he went to stay in a cottage in
Dorset, where he met S.T. Coleridge and Robert Southey. In these years a close relationship developed between William W. and Coleridge.
In 1797, Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy moved to Alfoxton House,
, just a few miles away from Coleridge's home in Nether Stowey. Later the two friends undertook a tour of the lake District, starting at Somerset Temple Sowerby and finishing at Wasdale Head, via Grasmere. At Grasmere they saw Dove Cottage, and William liked it at first sight.
Together, Wordsworth and Coleridge (with insights from Dorothy) produced their Lyrical Ballads (published then in 1798), an important work in the English Romantic movement. One of Wordsworth's most famous poems, "Tintern Abbey", was published in the work, 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, which was augmented significantly in the 1802 edition. This Preface to Lyrical Ballads is considered a central work of the Romantic literary theory. In it, Wordsworth discusses what he sees as the elements of a new type of poetry, one based on the "real language of men" and which avoids the poetic diction of much 18th-century poetry. Here, Wordsworth gives his famous definition of poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." (A fourth and final edition of Lyrical Ballads was published later in 1805).
In December 1799 William and Dorothy moved into Dove Cottage, in
Grasmere. Coleridge had already moved to Gretna Hall in Keswick. Dorothy was constantly with them. She was William’s secretary as he dictated her his poetry.
With the Peace of Amiens again allowing travel to
France, in 1802 Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, visited Annette and Caroline in and arrived at a mutually agreeable settlement regarding Wordsworth's obligations. France
In that year he received from the son of his father’s old employer ₤4,000, an amount of money that Wordsworth's father had lent to Sir James Lowther to help him because he had incurred in a crash.
Later that year he got married to a childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson. Dorothy continued to live with the couple and grew close to Mary. The following year, Mary gave birth to the first of five children, three of whom predeceased William and Mary:
- John (1803–1875).
- Dora (1804–1847).
- Thomas (1806–1812).
- Catherine (1808–1812).
- William "Willy" Wordsworth (1810–1883).
Because they needed more space for their growing family, the Wordsworths had to move twice, in the
Lake District area, in search for a better accommodation. During that period their friend Coleridge lived with them for a couple of years. Unfortunately it was at that time that William’s two youngest children died.
Wordsworth received an honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree in 1838 from Durham University, and the same honor from Oxford University the next year. In 1842 the government awarded him a civil list pension amounting to £300 a year.
With the death in 1843 of Robert Southey, Wordsworth became the Poet Laureate. He initially refused the honour, saying he was too old, but accepted when Prime Minister Robert Peel assured him "you shall have nothing required of you" (he became the only laureate to write no official poetry). When his daughter, Dora, died in 1847, his production of poetry came to a standstill.
William Wordsworth died by a re-aggravating case of pleurisy on 23 April 1850, and was buried at St. Oswald's Church in Grasmere. His widow Mary published his lengthy semiautobiographical "Poem to Coleridge" as The Prelude several months after his death. The poem had been revised and expanded a number of times by William Wordsworth throughout his life. Though this failed to arouse great interest in 1850, it has since come to be recognized as his masterpiece.