Armytage Open Lecture


William Wordsworth


1. Family Background 


William Wordsworth (1770-1850), poet, was born in Cockermouth (at the northern edge of the English Lake District) on 7 April 1770. His family were prosperous, his father, John Wordsworth, being the law-agent to Sir James Lowther, a powerful landowner, businessman and politician who dominated the area. But Wordsworth's childhood was unsettled. The family home served as Lowther's campaign centre, and the Wordsworth children were regularly dispatched to their unsympathetic maternal grandparents at Penrith for long periods. The early deaths of both his parents, his mother in 1778, his father in 1783, the consequent guardianship of uncles he disliked, and attendant sense of homelessness, increased Wordsworth's sense of dislocation. 


2. Wordsworth in France


Wordsworth's years at St John's College, Cambridge, between 1787 and 1791 were unspectacular, despite initial promise. His university career reads as a subdued protest at family expectations that he would obtain a fellowship and enter the Church. In summer 1790 came an act of outright rebellion: shortly before final examinations he embarked on a long walking tour of France, Switzerland and Italy, effectively destroying any hopes he may have had of obtaining a fellowship. A pursuit of nature in her most 'sublime' and 'picturesque' aspects (then conventional categories of appreciation), this tour also developed Wordsworth's political awareness, giving him a prolonged experience of France in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, though he was slow to recognise its full significance. His political education continued when he spent several months in London in 1791, at a time of intense discussion of revolutionary principles. At the end of the year, still trying to avoid a Church career, he returned to France, ostensibly to study French. His politically radical, even revolutionary views, steadily strengthened. While in France Wordsworth had a relationship with Annette Vallon, a young Frenchwoman, who subsequently gave birth to his daughter. It is probable that Wordsworth intended to marry Annette, but the outbreak of war between Britain and France in 1793 prevented his doing so. 


3. Wordsworth and Coleridge in Somerset


In 1797 Wordsworth and Dorothy developed a close and epoch-making friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge , and quickly moved to Alfoxden House, Somerset, to live close to him. Coleridge convinced Wordsworth that his proper life's work was a grand philosophical poem to be called The Recluse , and Wordsworth struggled with this project, which was never realised, for the rest of his life. In a less serious vein the two poets co-authored Lyrical Ballads, published anonymously in 1798. Wordsworth's contributions include poems like 'Simon Lee', 'The Thorn', and 'The Idiot Boy', which revolutionised the romantic and sentimental ballads popular at the time with their narrative complexity and quiet humour. Most importantly, the volume concluded with 'Tintern Abbey', which, in passionate blank verse, described Wordsworth's personal development in terms of his deepening relationship with nature. 


4. Wordsworth in Germany


In September 1798 the Wordsworths travelled to Germany with Coleridge , though afterwards separated from him, taking up residence at Goslar. In winter 1798-9 Wordsworth wrote some of his finest poetry: a series of evocative but fragmentary blank verse descriptions of his Hawkshead days, as well as the 'Lucy' and 'Matthew' poems. In 1799 the autobiographical fragments were developed into a two-part poem, now recognised as the first version of The Prelude. Addressed to Coleridge , as all subsequent versions of The Prelude were, it represents Wordsworth's childhood and adolescence as shaped by the 'severe' lessons of a nevertheless benevolent nature. The advantage of this sort of growth-in-nature is that human passions become 'intertwined' with natural landscapes: hence Wordsworth's celebrated formula of 'spots of time' to describe memories which possess a restorative function. The poem as a whole, in all its versions, was designed to represent Wordsworth as properly equipped to write The Recluse.

5. Wordsworth in Lake District


The Wordsworths returned to England in 1799, and at the end of the year moved to Grasmere, in the centre of the Lake District. Wordsworth began writing 'Home at Grasmere', a part of The Recluse. The poem's extravagant happiness was somewhat tempered by doubts respecting the moral character of country people, and quite what the Wordsworths' relationship with their new neighbours would be. Much of 1800 was taken up with assembling a second, greatly expanded edition of Lyrical Ballads, published in January 1801 (but dated 1800) under Wordsworth's name. The new poems were more wholly serious than those published in 1798, and, reflecting the intervening work on The Prelude, more concerned with the relationship between man and nature: among the most important are 'Hartleap Well', 'The Old Cumberland Beggar' and 'Michael'. Many of the poems refer quite specifically to places in the Lake District and ultimately led to Wordsworth's being strongly associated with the region. By far the most controversial part of the 1800 edition was Wordsworth's theoretical 'Preface' which described contemporary culture declining into cheap sensationalism due to the pressures of urbanisation. His remedy was a poetry based on the subtle observation of country people and their language, in which 'the primary laws of our nature' are better displayed.  


6. A Short Video Biography of Wordsworth





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