Today is the birthday of English poet William Wordsworth (books by this author), born in Cockermouth, Cumberland, in the Lake District of Northwestern England (1770). His father was a rent collector and law agent and though he was often absent from the home, he encouraged his son to read and memorize poetry by Shakespeare, Milton, and Spenser. Wordsworth’s parents died when he was young; he and his siblings were split up among relatives. Wordsworth wouldn’t see his sister Dorothy again for nine years, but when they were reunited, it was for life. Dorothy would become her brother’s best companion, housekeeper, transcriber, and sounding board. It was from Dorothy’s journals that Wordsworth cribbed some ideas and language for his famous poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” about a row of brilliant of daffodils. Dorothy was a poet, too, and a wonderful essayist, but it wasn’t until after her death that people began to discover her talent. When her brother married his childhood friend Mary Hutchinson, Dorothy was so overcome with despondency that she refused to attend the wedding and spent most of the day crying. Once, Wordsworth wrote of Dorothy, “She gave me eyes, she gave me ears.”
Wordsworth said poetry was “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” For a time, he was great friends with fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. They took long walks together in the Lake District in England, expounding on the nature of life and talking about philosophy and English poetry, which they thought was too strict and prudish and didn’t appeal to the common man. Together, they wrote a book called Lyrical Ballads (1798). In the preface, Wordsworth warned the reader: “The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purpose of poetic pleasure.” The book included Coleridge’s famous poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” but Wordsworth removed another of Coleridge’s poems, “Christabel,” at the last minute, which angered Coleridge.
Lyrical Ballads was such a sensation that one critic said the book was like “turning up fresh soil.” The first edition sold out in two years, but Coleridge and Wordsworth would have a falling out several years later. Coleridge became addicted to opium, and more interested in Wordsworth’s career than his own. Wordsworth told a friend that Coleridge was “a rotten drunkard.”
William Wordsworth could be prickly and ostentatious. He spent more than 40 years working on a long philosophical poem he liked to call “Poem to Coleridge.” He began the poem at the age of 28 and it wouldn’t be published in its entirety until after his death, but what became known as The Prelude (1850) is considered his masterpiece.
Wordsworth never made much money during his lifetime, surviving on small appointments and even receiving the post of Distributor of Stamps for Westmoreland for a time. He accepted the post of poet laureate when he was 73 years old, but he wasn’t writing much, anymore, and he is the only poet laureate to never have written a poem during his appointment.
Scottish poet Joanna Baillie once said of William Wordsworth, “He looks like a man that one must not speak to unless one has some sensible thing to say.”