William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Major Works: Lyrical Ballads (1798, 1800) [including  "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey"]; "Preface to Lyrical Ballads" (1800, 1802);  Michael (1800), "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" (1807), The Excursion (1814), The Prelude (written 1798-1805, revised until 1850 publication).

Biographical Notes: Born the son of an attorney, both parents dead before he was fourteen, Wordsworth was often described in youth and maturity as an imposing personality: brooding, passionate, willful and emotional.  He attended Cambridge, where he rebelled against the college "system."  In the early 1790s Wordsworth was a passionate believer in the ideals of human liberation championed in the French Revolution, though the Reign of Terror, England's war with France, and the rise of imperial-minded Napoleon led to his disillusionment with the French cause.  Over the years he grew increasingly conservative, holding different government positions from 1813 on and becoming poet laureate in 1843. In the 1790s and early 1800s Wordsworth was close to poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and working together on Lyrical Ballads the two would revolutionize poetry.  Wordsworth was admired by some in the first two decades of the 19th century, but over the 1820s and 30s he was elevated to the status of a national institution.  He has often since been called the greatest English poet after Shakespeare and Milton.

Wordsworth trademarks
purple bulletHis 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads offers a de facto declaration of independence from the constraints of poetic precedent: it signals the movement of modern poetry away from the heightened poetic language then current to "language really used by men," and it opens the door for poetry to examine the common, everyday world and the "simplicity" of the "humble and rustic."  Wordsworth felt that the simple, the ordinary, and the common were appropriate subjects for poetry because they were far removed from the artificial restraints imposed by "society" and tradition--therefore, according to Wordsworth, the common subject offered the purest glimpses into the "essential passions."


purple bulletNature, nature as religion: Wordsworth saw in nature a living Consciousness or Spirit, a pervasive Being, what he most often called a "Presence."  This living Spirit in nature was to Wordsworth available through actual experience with nature.


Wordsworth viewed nature as a living organic whole, not as a "dead mechanism" in which matter interacted only physically or chemically with matter according to mathematical principles, as the science of the 18th and 19th centuries generally assumed.  His belief in a powerful God, present everywhere in nature, offered important religious possibilities to those not satisfied by either strict rationalism or biblical fundamentalism.  Wordsworth's ideas of God in a Living Nature would be developed and reiterated later in the century by the American transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, among others.

purple bulletSpecific moments of revelation  (called "spots in time" in The Prelude): Frequently, Wordsworth's poetry moves from vivid depiction of a specific scene or object to thoughtful meditation, resulting in profound moral or religious insight—particularly, glimpses into the living essence of nature, typically more available to the minds of children or peasants not burdened by worldly concerns, ambitions, loves, strifes, etc.

purple bulletCreative power of the imagination: against the traditional view of rationalists such as John Locke, who suggested that human perception of reality involves  passive reception of sensual data from the objective, outer world, Wordsworth believed that the imagination had a visionary sort of interaction with the living external world.  He thought the mind's subjective power of "creating" or "imagining" what it perceived defined human experience,  coloring the external world in subtle shades that varied according to each individual's powers of imagination: "The mind both endows objects with qualities and receives sensory impressions from them—the mind "half creates, half perceives."


purple bulletWordsworth saw poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, tempered by deep and long thought," or "powerful emotion recollected in tranquillity."  He believed that poetry should express moments of powerful individual emotion, but only "after the fact," after the mind has had time to meditate upon and shape the powerful experience into conscious art.