I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them dance; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed – – and gazed – – but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
At the moment I’m taking part in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) about William Wordsworth and his work. Since I write novels set in the early nineteenth century, I wanted to know more about poets and novelists who would have been read by my characters, so I thought I’d write about him this week. As part of the course we’re studying some of his poems, looking at videos of some of his manuscripts to understand the development of his poems, sometimes over decades, and watching films of some of the wonderful scenery of the Lake District that he loved so much and that inspired him. Information about the course can be found here. I can recommend it as a good introduction to Wordsworth and his poetry.
Wordsworth was born a Georgian (in 1770) and died a Victorian (1850). Most of his life was spent in the Lake District, where he was born and brought up and where he married a girl he met at school. After he graduated from Cambridge he became friends with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, another Romantic poet with revolutionary ideals. Of his four siblings Wordsworth was closest to his sister Dorothy, who lived with him for most of his life. She was also a poet and her diaries tell us a great deal about her brother’s life.
He was a keen walker and in 1790 he went on his first European walking tour in the Alps, visiting France, Switzerland and Italy. Like most intellectuals of his generation he was a revolutionary in his youth, inspired by the French Revolution, but he became disillusioned by the Terror in France and was disgusted by Napoleon becoming emperor. He was in France from November 1791 where he fell in love with Annette Vallon in Orléans. Lack of money and worsening relations between England and France forced him to return to England without seeing their daughter Caroline. He first met his daughter when she was nine years old in 1802. He and Dorothy visited France during a brief period of peace in the Napoleonic Wars (or the Revolutionary Wars depending on which side you were on) in order to tell Annette that he was marrying Mary Hutchinson. He provided as much financial support for his daughter as he could.
In 1797 he went with his sister Dorothy to live in Somerset near their friend Coleridge. With Coleridge he wrote Lyrical Ballads. The three of them went to Germany in 1798. Whilst they were there, Lyrical Ballads was published. Although barely noticed at the time it had a great influence on English literature, being the first work of the English Romantic movement. All but five poems in the collection are Wordsworth’s. It was in Goslar during this trip that he began work on The Prelude, an autobiographical poem now considered his greatest work, but not published until after his death. When they returned from Germany Wordsworth and Dorothy moved into Dove Cottage in Grasmere, which is now owned by the Wordsworth Trust and houses the Wordsworth Museum. It was during his eight years there that he wrote most of the poetry that people think of most readily when they think of him, including the one at the beginning of this post.
The Preface to the expanded version of Lyrical Ballads caused outrage when it was printed in 1801. This was where Wordsworth set out his principles about writing poetry. In particular the statement that Wordsworth intended “to choose incidents and situations from the common life, and to relate and describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men” in his poetry offended the sensibilities of his readers. They expected the language of poetry to be elevated and beautiful. How could common language be used to reflect the emotions of a refined character?
In 1802 he had enough money to marry and he and Mary set up home with Dorothy. There were five children, only three of whom survived childhood. In 1813 he was secure enough financially to move to Rydal Mount, a large house where he lived for the rest of his life. He became Poet Laureate in 1843 and, unusually, never wrote an official verse. He stopped writing when his daughter Dora died in 1847. Only two of their children survived him and Mary.
Wordsworth’s poetry was quite revolutionary in that he chose to write about common subjects. His work reflected Romanticism’s desire to study nature. His work is full of reflections on nature and exhortations to the reader to learn from nature. The Prelude describes the impact of nature on his own life.
This will be the first of an occasional series about novelists and poets whose work was popular in the Regency period.