William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth in Cumberland in 1770. One of five children, his sister, who was a year younger, was the poet and diarist Dorothy Wordsworth. With the death of his mother in 1778, his father sent him to Hawkshead Grammar School. In 1783 his father, who was a lawyer and the solicitor for the Earl of Lonsdale, died. After their father's death, the Wordsworth children were left under the guardianship of their uncles. It took William many years, and much writing, to recover from the death of his parents and his separation from his siblings.

William went to St John's College, Cambridge in 1787. Three years later, in 1790, he visited Revolutionary France and supported the Republican movement. The following year, he graduated from Cambridge without distinction, returned to France and took a walking tour of Europe that included the Alps and Italy. He fell in love with a French woman, Annette Vallon, who in 1792 gave birth to their child, Caroline. War between France and Britain prevented him from seeing Annette and Caroline again until 1802, when William and Dorothy visited them in France and arrived at a mutually agreeable settlement.

In 1793 Wordsworth's poetry was first published in the form of the collections An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches. He subsequently received a legacy of £900 from Raisley Calvert  so that he could continue writing poetry. Around that time, he also met Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Bristol, whilst staying with friends. The two poets shared the same publisher. It was a brief meeting at which he also met Robert Southey, but he wished to see more of Coleridge. The two met again at the Wordsworth's house in Dorset. In the summer of 1797, William and Dorothy, moved to Nether Stowey, where they rented Alfoxden house at Holford, just four miles away from Coleridge's cottage.

Dorothy began writing in about 1795 when she shared a house in Dorset with William. At Alfoxden, she started her first journal, and then kept several other journals of travels and expeditions. Her thoughts and writings were an important source of stimulation for Coleridge and William. "Tho we were three persons," Coleridge wrote, "it was but one soul." Dorothy'sAlfoxden Journal was never intended for publication and was published posthumously. In it she recorded walks, visits, conversations, and the world of nature and it is from this that we know most about their visits to Exmoor. Her journal and letters contain beautiful word pictures of the woods, heaths and sea and the changing weather through the winter of 1797. Suppressing her ambitions of becoming a writer, and devoting herself to domestic duty, she once said: "I should detest the idea of setting myself up as an author." Instead she wrote to "give Wm Pleasure by it". Her brother's poems use her precise descriptions of the countryside and life in it. During this period the main poems he produced were Ruth, The Thorn and The Whirlwind from Behind the Hill.

In early November 1797 the Wordsworths set off with Coleridge on a long walk along the coast to Porlock. Coleridge introduced them to the woodland path from Porlock Weir to Culbone where he had been the previous month and composed Kubla Khan. They walked on to Broomstreet Farm and Yenworthy and by dusk reached Lynmouth. The next morning they walked up to the Valley of Rocks, which they proposed to use for the setting of a prose tale The Wanderings of Cain, a story of murder and remorse. It was decided that Wordsworth should write the first canto of the story, Coleridge the second and 'which ever had done first, was to set about the third' Coleridge finished his canto 'at full finger-speed' only to find Wordsworth with a nearly blank sheet of paper and a look of 'humorous despondency' on his face. The story was never finished and later attempts at joint writing similarly failed, due to clashing personalities.Coleridge and the Wordsworths fell in love with the Lynton area and even thought of settling there. Coleridge wrote to a friend: "We will go on a roam to Linton and Linmouth, which if thou camest in May will be in all their pride of woods and waterfalls, not to speak of the august cliffs, and the green ocean, and the Vast Valley of Stones all of which live disdainful of the seasonsor accept new honours only from the winter's snow." A flowery combe near Lynton was later described in his poem Reflections on Leaving a Place of Retirement, although not specifically named.

Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner was planned during a walking tour with the Wordsworths later the same month. Wordsworth later recalled: “Coleridge, my sister and myself started from Alfoxden with a view to visit Lynton and the Valley of Stones . . . . In the course of this walk was planned the poem of the Ancient Mariner.” Setting out from Alfoxden, they agreed that a poem should be published to cover the cost of their journey. They felt that the Monthly Magazine would pay £5 for a ballad based on the supernatural, a popular theme at the time. The main theme came from a dream of a spectre ship which was had by Coleridge's friend, John Cruikshank. Wordsworth added the idea of the crime of shooting the albatross from reading a book about rounding Cape Horn in a ship. Wordsworth contributed a few lines to the poem, but soon gave up trying to work with Coleridge. Coleridge added the following note to the poem: “For the last two lines of this stanza, I am indebted to Mr Wordsworth. It was on a delightful walk from Nether Stowey to Dulverton, with him and his sister, in the Autumn of 1797, that this poem was planned, and part composed:

"I fear thee ancient mariner

I fear thy skinny hand!

And thou art long, and lank, and brown,

As is the ribbed sea-sand.”

The first night of the walk was spent at Watchet and the first few lines of the poem were reputedly written at the Bell Inn. Watchet harbour undoubtedly provided inspiration for the harbour from which the mariner set sail. Culbone is said to have been inspiration for the hermit's woodland home. Their route beyond Watchet is not recorded. The Ship Inn at Porlock claims to be where some of the poem was composed. It is not clear whether they returned to the Valley of Rocks as Wordsworth had intended and it is certain only that they passed through Dulverton. They returned after a week, during which time they dropped the idea of publishing the poem in a magazine and proposed to publish jointly a book of their poems, which came out a year later as Lyrical Ballads. This work is said to have inspired the English Romantic movement. Besides The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, it included one of Wordsworth's most famous poems, Tintern Abbey. The second edition, published in 1800, had a preface considered to be a central work of 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". Here, he also gives his famous definition of poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings from emotions recollected in tranquility." The lives of Wordsworth and Coleridge, in particular their collaboration on the Lyrical Ballads, are discussed in the 2000 film Pandaemonium, shot on location on Exmoor and the Quantocks.

William, Dorothy, and Coleridge then traveled to Germany in the autumn of 1798. During the harsh winter of 1798–1799, Wordsworth lived with Dorothy in Goslar, and he began work on an autobiographical piece originally entitled Poem to Coleridge and later titled The Prelude, which is considered to be his finest work. This contains a reference to his time on the Quantocks. He also wrote a number of famous poems, including the "Lucy poems." He and his sister moved back to England, now to Dove Cottage in Grasmere in the Lake District, and this time with fellow poet Robert Southey nearby. Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey came to be known as the "Lake Poets". Through this period, many of Wordsworth's poems revolve around themes of death, endurance, separation, and grief.

In 1802, after returning from his trip to France to visit Annette and Caroline, Wordsworth received an inheritance owed by Lord Lonsdale since his father's death in 1783. Later that year, he married a childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson. They produced five children. Dorothy continued to live with the couple and grew close to Mary. The death of his brother, John, in 1805, affected William strongly. From about 1804 onwards the friendship with Coleridge deteriorated because of the latter’s opium addiction and the two became estranged in 1810. Two of William’s children, Thomas and Catherine, died in 1812. The following year, he received an appointment as Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland, and the £400 per year income from the post made him financially secure. His family, including Dorothy, moved to Rydal Mount, Ambleside, where William spent the rest of his life. By 1828, Wordsworth had become reconciled with Coleridge and the two toured the Rhineland together that year. Dorothy suffered from a severe illness in 1829 that rendered her an invalid for the rest of her life. With the death in 1843 of Robert Southey, Wordsworth became the Poet Laureate. His production of poetry ceased after the death of his daughter, Dora, in 1847.

William Wordsworth died in Rydal Mount in 1850 and was buried at St. Oswald's church in Grasmere. Dorothy died five years later.