William Wordsworth

Orfeas Katsoulis | May 17, 2024

Table of Content


William Wordsworth (Cockermouth, April 7, 1770 - Rydal Mount, April 23, 1850) was a British poet.

Together with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he is considered the founder of Romanticism and especially of English naturalism, thanks to the publication in 1798 of the Lyrical Ballads, the first real manifesto of the movement in England. His friend Coleridge contributed The Ballad of the Ancient Mariner (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner), which opened the collection in the first edition (closed by Tintern Abbey). Although Wordsworth's posthumous poem The Prelude (The Prelude) is considered his masterpiece, it is actually the Lyrical Ballads that were a major influence on the nineteenth-century literary landscape.

The decidedly innovative character of his poetry, set in the picturesque setting of the Lake District in northern Cumberland, lies in his choice of protagonists, characters from humble backgrounds drawn from everyday life, and of simple, straightforward language that closely traces their speech.

To be considered of equal (if not greater) importance for English Romantic literature is the Preface to the collection added to the 1802 edition, in fact a full-fledged critical essay in which the ideas-cardinal to Romantic poetics are set forth.

Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, who were inspired by the same scenic setting of the Lakes, were referred to as the "lake poets" (Lake Poets). The initiators of what has gone down in history as Ethical Romanticism (1798-1832), they constituted its first generation, while the second includes George Gordon Byron (1788-1824), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and John Keats (1795-1821). The later Romanticism (1832 1875), having lost the revolutionary and innovative thrust of its predecessors, generally falls back on moralistic-didactic positions (to which the later Wordsworth may also refer): this is why it is considered part of the Victorian compromise.

Wordsworth revolutionary

His Parisian environment led him to espouse the anarchist and libertarian ideals of so many rebellious and anti-monarchist thinkers of the time: suffice it to mention William Godwin, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote the famous Vindication of the Rights of Women. Driven by the same ideas, he repudiated not only the Christian faith but also the institution of family and marriage, interweaving relationships with several women, most notably Annette Vallon with whom he fell in love.

He had a daughter, Caroline, by her in 1792. In 1793 Wordsworth openly expressed his political beliefs in A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, in which he supported atheism and the revolutionary cause, praising the execution of Louis XVI of France. Involved in infighting in the ranks of the Girondins alongside Captain Beaupuy, he risked losing his life when Robespierre bloodily repressed their faction. The following year he published his first poetry collections, An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches.

Return to England

Soon, however, the excesses of the Terror and then the Napoleonic imperialism that turned against England drove him to return to his homeland, abandoning the woman he loved so much. But he recognized their daughter and never forgot them, visiting them in 1802 accompanied by his sister Dorothy. When, thanks to the success of the Lyrical Ballads and the settlement of a £4,500 debt on the death of the Earl of Lonsdale (which the latter had avoided paying years earlier, leaving the family in the lurch), he was finally able to enjoy some ease, he sent Annette and her daughter all the money they needed for their sustenance.

Marriage to Mary and meeting with Coleridge

In the same year as his visit to Annette he married Mary Hutchinson, a fact that permanently marked his separation from France and Annette. Witness to this profound trauma is the drama The Borderers (1795). That year, however, marked a decisive stage in his future poetic production. It was then, in Bristol, that he met Coleridge, the cause of his coming closer to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and German idealism.

The Lyrical Ballads

The extraordinary sensitivity of his sister Dorothy, an essential mediating element in his dialogue with nature, was equally important: the result of this synergy was the Lyrical Ballads (1798), a milestone of English Romantic poetry: key work in the collection is Tintern Abbey, in which the poet already sketches the story of his own sentimental development, while Coleridge collaborated on the volume with four poems, including the highly successful Ballad of the Old Mariner, which although they may seem different in reality do not differ much either in subject or in the general style of the work. Also to be considered the first manifesto of Romantic aesthetics is the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, appended to the 1800 edition and further enriched in 1802, in which Wordsworth sets out in detail his Romantic theory that revolutionized both content and English poetic language, and beyond. Also from this era are the so-called Lucy poems, published separately between 1800 and 1807. Dedicated to a woman who died at a young age (in whom some critics have seen the figure of Margaret Hutchinson, Mary's younger sister), they succinctly render the worship of childhood, naiveté and candor that enable the approach to the state of nature lost in the transition from childhood to adulthood and from the rural to the urban and industrial world and Wordsworth's pantheistic view of nature.

Separation from Coleridge

Divergence of intentions and interests-Wordsworth stubbornly attached to the life of the humble, then inclined to more conservative positions both poetically and politically and socially, while Coleridge left poetry for philosophy (drawing on German idealism) and symbolic research-and some personal misunderstandings led to a breakup around 1810, due in part to Coleridge's addiction to opium.

Romanticism marked the outgrowth of eighteenth-century classically based rationalism-the Ballads show a nature vibrant with deep spirituality and sensuality far removed from the aloof and algid goddess reason extolled by the Enlightenment-yet in Wordsworth the democratic sensibility and spontaneous sympathy that, in keeping with the French revolutionary spirit, were directed toward the deprived and destitute classes was not lost.

Maturity: the reactionary Wordsworth

But Wordsworth's political orientation was destined to change: the rise to power of Napoleon, crowned emperor in 1804 marked the beginning of a harsh (and long) period of war with England, also gripped by the pincers of the "continental bloc." Wordsworth, who precisely in France had seen the emblem of democracy and freedom, felt as if betrayed and began to gradually fall back to moderate and eventually conservative positions (especially from 1808 onward), until he re-embraced the Anglican religion and monarchy with the Victorian Compromise.

The tragic 1805 was marked by, among other things, the death of his brother John, a captain who drowned at sea, and was destined to profoundly affect his life as his future poetry: he completed the Poem to Coleridge (later published posthumously in 1850 by his wife under the title The Prelude, his most famous narrative poem), an autobiographical part written as an introduction for The Recluse, a planned long philosophical poem of which The Excursion (The Excursion, 1814) was to be the second part (the third was never written).

Herbert Read read in the poet's aversion to France and the Revolution a veritable psychological removal by which Wordsworth would repress the pain of separation from Annette and from a country that all things considered he would not cease to love: if France, with young Annette was his mistress, Read said, England with Mary became his wife. Loyal to his marriage as to the monarchy that protected it, he denied the liberating thrust of nature, seeing in it rather the order and authority of an austere patriarchal God: "and here is where Wordsworth ceases to be romantic, where his democratization of the heroic is no longer revolutionary: for in the creatures he points to as exemplars it is no longer rebellion that he finds, but obedience to a law" (Mario Praz).

In 1807 he published Poems in Two Volumes, containing among others the famous Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood ("Ode: Insights of Immortality from Recollections of Childhood") and I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. Aside from a few trips, to Germany (1798), Belgium (1828), the Netherlands (1823) and Italy (1820 and 1837), Wordsworth led a withdrawn life marked by no small number of domestic misfortunes: the death of his brother was followed a few years later by the deaths of two of his five children, Thomas and Catherine (1812), and later by the infirmity that rendered his beloved Dorothy paralytic in 1829. Paradoxically, it was then that he was at the height of celebrity and affluence, going so far as to be awarded the title of poet laureate in 1843 (succeeding Southey who had died that same year). He died at Rydal Mount, where he had lived since 1812, on April 23, 1850. His body was buried in St. Oswald's Cemetery in Grasmere, among the lakes he had loved so deeply.

Meaning of the Lyrical Ballads

The Romantic revolution arrived in England with the Lyrical Ballads. True, authors of overtly Romantic tendencies (such as Blake) had preceded Wordsworth and Coleridge by a few decades, and Romantic sensibility, somewhat like all movements, never entirely detaches itself from the immediately preceding tradition: in fact, Romanticism developed from that rediscovery of sensibility that pervaded eighteenth-century literature from the second half of that century through Rousseau and the French Revolution.

The great vogue of "folk" ballads, which Bishop Percy and McPherson present as rediscovered or drawn from the folk tradition but actually written or extensively manipulated by the authors, already betrayed the public's desire for poetry inspired by folk and Arcadian motifs. Works such as Edward Young's Night Thoughts and Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard for the dead unnamed because they belonged to the humblest strata of society formed the foundations on which the Romantic poetry of the next century grew. It is no coincidence that Wordsworth brings the new collection together under the name of ballads, although the premises on which his discourse is articulated are quite different.

In the 1802 preface he writes

Notable for that time is the openly declared abandonment of eighteenth-century poetic diction inspired by the classicist model that Pope had called nature to advantage dress'd, an abandonment motivated not so much by aesthetic criteria as by ethical ones, now recognized as fundamental.

Wordsworth's writing is indeed inspired by a desire for concreteness and spontaneity, as well as by that democratic sensibility alluded to above: the Romantic poet is described as

Wordsworth's poetry, however, is only apparently artless, artless: the poet skillfully masters the blank verse already widely used in the English tradition (we find it already in the Elizabethan Theater), which allows him to avoid rhyme and use popular lemmas and expressions, with the effect of imitating common speech. Unlike Pope and Dryden, the art here is cleverly disguised, not flaunted, reduced to the bare essentials, for here the poetic message lies not so much in the form as in the content. Wordsworth's audience is no longer the court, but encompasses all social classes, which are more sensitive to a poetry that has been debased from archaic forms and is closer to people's feelings.

In this linguistic choice he stands at the opposite of Coleridge who, on the contrary, rehashes the folk ballad without renouncing archaisms, with a still eighteenth-century attention to rhyme. On the other hand, Coleridge himself regarded the everydayness and humility of the poetic subject as incompatible with a poetry that turns its gaze to the supernatural or the exotic: the beautiful and the sublime could not be identified with common life, for in the present and in industrial England he saw a threat to man's fundamental values. The two poets both considered themselves invested with a spiritual mission: for the Romantics, poetry was "more than the mere putting of philosophical truths into verse: the poet was also the prophet, and he did not merely transcribe truths received from others but was himself the initiator into truth" (Anthony Burgess).

We also find, again in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads, an important definition of what was, according to Wordsworth, Romantic poetry:

This means that the emotions and sensations felt at a particular moment will later be needed by the poet as the subject of his poem, once he has brought himself back to ordinary tranquility. So it is twofold the message we get from this passage: first, we get a fundamental piece of information about what the fundamental subject of Wordsworth's poetics, or of Romantic poetics more generally, is: sensations and emotions; we also get the definition of poetry as a necessary means of reviving those emotions and sensations otherwise imprinted only in one's memory.

The value of remembrance: Tintern Abbey

But while, as mentioned above, his friend sees poetry as an escape from reality, Wordsworth offers his readers a way to engage in dialogue with the present and society: although his poetry is set in the wild and rugged setting of the English lakes, it is also a recollection in tranquillity, literally "recollection in stillness," of personal experiences lived in nature that enrich those who live constrained by the reality of the industrial metropolis: The poet is not only the one who perceives nature's message through his special sensitivity, but also the one who can encode it in a way that evokes in the reader his own visual, auditory, and tactile experiences: in the most famous poem in the collection, Tintern Abbey, he says:

It is impossible to make this poem perfect in the Italian language, not least because of the onomatopoeic value of certain words, in which the liquid and nasal consonants reproduce the flowing and falling of water (rolling - springs - murmur). The evocation of certain emotions is enabled above all by the "active" role of the recipient of the text, who becomes the writer's interlocutor and provides him with the opportunity for a detailed outburst : As Wordsworth states

The ethics of nature

In Wordsworth's poetry, nature has ethical and moral value first and foremost. By evoking the Lake District in his poetry Wordsworth introduced the world to this region blessed by nature, but he also emphasized the ethical and not merely utilitarian value of environmental treasures. Nature was, on the other hand, according to what he himself had to say, the one who initiated him into life: the long walks in the steep mountains of Cumberland would bring him to his senses and somehow force him out of the isolation in which he had fallen back because of serious family problems.

Nature is thus providential for Wordsworth, and God is creation, is an immanent and visible God. Such a pantheistic and neo-Platonic view of the universe pervades Wordsworth's early poetry: count as an example perhaps the most famous of the Lucy poems, A slumber Did My Spirit Seal, where the poet mourns the death of his beloved woman:

Equally neo-Platonic is Wordsworth's belief that especially children (as well as people untouched by civilization, and here the echo of Jean-Jacques Rousseau is clear) are closer to God because in them lingers the memory of the heavenly world in which we were all before we were born. Indeed, among the most famous characters in the Lyrical Ballads are children, vagabonds, the disabled, the insane: "unseemly" subjects who threw scandal in the first years following the work's publication (so much so that they provided the right to so many parodies), but who in time paved the way for greater social solidarity, prompting so many Victorians in both letters and politics to fight for the great social reforms of that century.

The nineteenth century

It is hard to imagine how English Romanticism would have evolved without the Lyrical Ballads, and thus the entire post-Romantic tradition to the present day. Precisely because of the copyright restrictions in force at the time, which allowed partial publication of a collection by other publishers without paying royalties, his ballads ended up being published in thousands of copies in newspapers, giving him far greater fame than he would have had from the publication of his book. While the first edition sold five hundred copies, a good print run for a book at that time, newspapers such as The Critical Review and the Lady Magazine reached figures between four thousand and ten thousand copies, although public acclaim still did not touch Coleridge (The Old Mariner's Ballad relegated to the last places after the first edition). Wordsworth's success rebounded in the United States, where major magazines such as Literary Magazine in Philadelphia made him the literary phenomenon of the century. During the Victorian age it was Matthew Arnold who defended Wordsworth's poetic revolution against detractors who wanted to hand him down to posterity in his oleographic guise of the poet laureate and pantser as he appeared in his later years.

The Twentieth Century

The early twentieth century marked a rediscovery of the Lyrical Ballads by critics, with numerous studies, such as the aforementioned Wordsworth by Herbert Read (1930). Also from those years is Basil Willey's work, later also published in Italian, on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English culture, which highlights the poet's relationship to sensism and the French Revolution.

A master study for the student of Anglistics is still considered to be The Mirror and the Lamp by M.H. Abrams, translated into Italian in 1976 under the title Lo specchio e la lampada. An authoritative dissenting voice but destined to cause much discussion was that of Robert Mayo (1954), who wanted to see in many of Wordsworth's characters a lack of originality and an excessive indebtedness to the old eighteenth-century ballads. More recent studies by P.D. Sheats (1973) and two contributions by John J. Jordan (1970 and 1976) are also very interesting. Today the Lake District is a national monument and a protected area under English laws.


  1. William Wordsworth
  2. William Wordsworth
  3. ^ a b c d Thomson e Maglioni, p. 134.
  4. ^ Historic England. "Wordsworth House (1327088)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 21 December 2009.
  5. 1 2 3 4 Parrish S. M. William Wordsworth // Encyclopædia Britannica (англ.)
  6. 1 2 3 4 William Wordsworth // Nationalencyklopedin (швед.) — 1999.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 https://www.biography.com/people/william-wordsworth-9537033
  8. Казакова И. Б. Предел познания в философской лирике У. Вордсворта // Филология и человек. — 2010.
  9. A Library of Poetry and Song: Being Choice Selections from The Best Poets. With An Introduction by William Cullen Bryant Архивная копия от 21 апреля 2021 на Wayback Machine, New York, J.B. Ford and Company, 1871, p. 442.
  10. Titre complet : Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, 13 July 1798.
  11. La Dove, rivière qui portait le nom celtique de Dufanau IXe siècle, signifiant « foncé, noir, ténébreux ». Ce nom a évolué pour donner Duvesdale en 1269 et Dovedale, ainsi que Dove à l'heure actuelle. La traduction par le mot « Colombe » est sujette à polémique, puisque cela risque d'ajouter une symbolique qui, selon certains, n'a pas lieu d'être. Pour autant, il se trouve que la rivière porte le nom de Dove qui signifie colombe, et rien n'interdit de penser que Wordsworth a cherché, en accord avec les adjectifs qu'il emploie dans la première strophe, untrodden (qui n'a jamais été foulé) et maid (jeune fille vierge), à, justement, introduire une nuance symbolique.

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