William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth (1770–1850)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 6, 364–367.

The Brownings’ letters are sprinkled with references to this famous literary figure and quotations from his works, though their direct contacts with him were limited. Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth on 7 April 1770, son of John and Ann (née Cookson) Wordsworth. His ancestry was mainly of the upper middle class, and strongly rooted in English country life. Both parents, who encouraged William in early reading, died while he was quite young. Early schools included an excellent one at Hawkshead, where he received training from Headmaster William Taylor, a poetry lover with progressive views. Wordsworth entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1787 and took a degree of B.A. in 1791, but his college career was undistinguished. Failing to settle upon any particular vocation, he travelled to France. While there, from November 1791 until late the following year, he became involved in French revolutionary activities and also fathered a child—Anne Caroline—to whose dowry he eventually contributed. For the next few years he drifted, though apparently intending to make his way as a writer. During this period he published two poetical works, An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches, both in 1793. He settled upon poetry as a definite career after receiving a £900 legacy from a friend who died in 1795. At about this time he was joined by his sister Dorothy, from whom he had been separated since childhood. Their close association continued for the remainder of William’s life. Another firm lifetime association was geographical, with the Lake District, where William and Dorothy settled in 1799. Meanwhile William had become acquainted with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. These two poets jointly produced Lyrical Ballads (1798). Most of its contents were by Wordsworth, but Coleridge’s contributions included his famous “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Among the numerous Wordsworth items were “Tintern Abbey” and “We Are Seven.” In 1802 Wordsworth received a substantial amount of money from the payment of a debt which had been owed to his father, and further resources through marriage to Mary Hutchinson.The couple had five children, two of whom died in their early years. Most of Wordsworth’s best poetry had been written by 1807, when he published Poems in Two Volumes. This included his “Intimations of Immortality” and “The World Is Too Much With Us.” The Excursion—which was to have been part of a much longer work, never completed—appeared in 1814. The Prelude: Growth of a Poet’s Mind was completed in 1805 but not published until 1850, the year of Wordsworth’s death. Wordsworth is considered to have been among the first of the English Romantics, a school of poets that also included Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. His works are noted for their emphasis upon nature and for humanitarianism. Politically liberal or radical in early life, he became increasingly conservative as time passed. He received a lucrative government appointment as distributor of stamps for Westmorland in 1813, a government pension in 1842, and the Poet Laureateship—upon the death of Robert Southey—in 1843. Wordsworth died at his home, Rydal Mount, on 23 April 1850 and was buried at Grasmere.

Wordsworth was a friend of EBB’s scholarly Hope End neighbour Uvedale Price. He visited Price’s estate, Foxley, on at least two occasions in the 1820’s, but EBB seemingly did not meet him then. Both she and RB were readers and admirers of Wordsworth during their early years. EBB’s admiration endured, but RB’s faded along with Wordsworth’s liberalism. RB and Wordsworth sat near each other at the often-mentioned Ion supper, hosted by Thomas Noon Talfourd on 26 May 1836 (see vol. 3, p. 324). EBB met Wordsworth at the home of her friend and distant relative John Kenyon two nights afterward. Later she went with Kenyon, Wordsworth, Mary Russell Mitford, and others to see the Duke of Devonshire’s garden at Chiswick. EBB discussed her impressions of Wordsworth in letters 546 and 555, to her friend Julia Martin. Among other things, she said: “I trembled both in my soul & my body!—— But he was very kind.” Wordsworth was a long-time friend of John Kenyon, sometimes staying at his home while on visits to London. On 17 August 1838, after examining EBB’s The Seraphim, and Other Poems (see Reconstruction, M74), Wordsworth wrote to Kenyon complimenting “the power & knowledge displayed” therein (SD932). EBB, as we have noted, never lost her admiration for Wordsworth. She quoted him frequently in expressions such as “My heart leaps up”; she placed high value on flower seeds received “from Mr. Wordsworth” via Miss Mitford (see letter 670); and on 4 February 1842 (letter 908), she wrote to Miss Mitford: “I might, if I were tempted, be caught in the overt act of gathering a thistle because Wordsworth had trodden it down … Yes—Wordsworth is wordy sometimes—in his blank verse he is. But he is a Wordsworth—a great poet & true!” However, in reviewing his Poems Chiefly of Early and Late Years for The Athenæum of 27 August 1842, she managed to include—along with effusive praise for Wordsworth in general—some unfavourable observations on “The Borderers.” In the spring or summer of 1842, Wordsworth twice asked John Kenyon about the possibility of visiting EBB at Wimpole Street, and Kenyon—knowing of EBB’s reluctance to see visitors—prevented him from doing so. EBB regretted this, writing to Miss Mitford on 21 October 1842 (letter 1030) that she would not have said “no” to Wordsworth—“I wd have seen Mr. Wordsworth—if I never were to go to sleep any more!–” In that same year EBB saw and admired an unfinished portrait of Wordsworth done by her artist friend Benjamin Robert Haydon. Her “Sonnet on Mr. Haydon’s Portrait of Mr. Wordsworth” (Reconstruction, D615–620) appeared in The Athenæum of 29 October. Wordsworth received a copy of the poem from Haydon, and acknowledged it in letter 1033 to EBB. His only other extant letter to either of the Brownings was written to EBB on 16 August 1844, acknowledging the copy of Poems (1844) which she inscribed to him (Reconstruction, C91). Wordsworth was a collaborator, along with EBB and others, on R.H. Horne’s The Poems of Geoffrey Chaucer, Modernized (1841). According to Taplin (p. 83), Horne wanted to retain Chaucer’s language and versification insofar as possible, and the writers who did this best—besides Horne himself—were EBB and Wordsworth. EBB did considerable work on the section dealing with Wordsworth in Horne’s A New Spirit of the Age (1844); and Wordsworth’s portrait was among the five from that book, including RB’s, that she hung in her room at 50 Wimpole Street. In a letter to her brother George on 11 July 1842 (no. 983), EBB reported that Wordsworth had recently sent her, via John Kenyon, “several little branches & buds” from his garden. In the following year, Wordsworth sent her a signed copy of his privately-printed “Grace Darling” (Reconstruction, A2491), a poem which pained her because it dealt with a shipwreck, thus recalling the 1840 death of her beloved “Bro.” On 12 April 1843 EBB wrote to Miss Mitford about Wordsworth’s having received the Poet Laureateship: “It is his right.... Long live the Laureate!——.” In the mid-1840’s, however, EBB became disturbed over reports of Wordsworth’s position concerning the railroads. He opposed their expansion into his beloved Lake District, fearing that they would bring in hordes of people not capable of appreciating its beauty (Mary Moorman, William Wordsworth, a Biography: The Later Years, 1803–1850, 1965, pp. 562–563). EBB, in a letter to Miss Mitford on 16 December 1844, indicated that such a view would be “atrocious”; but she obviously did not want to believe that Wordsworth really held it. Wordsworth tended to idealize country virtues, as indicated in a letter written to EBB by Harriet Martineau (who, like the Poet Laureate, lived in the Lake District) on 8 February 1846: “I dare say you need not be told how sensual vice abounds in rural districts. Here it is flagrant beyd any thing I ever cd have looked for: & … here is dear good old Wordsworth for ever talking of rural innocence.”

RB, though stirred by Wordsworth’s early poetry, became antagonized by the latter’s drift from liberalism, his accepting a £300 civil list pension in 1842, and his accepting the Laureateship in 1843. RB eventually acknowledged that his “The Lost Leader” (1845) referred to Wordsworth. In the RB-EBB letters of 1845–46, RB made occasional reference (as did EBB) to the episode in which Wordsworth—on 25 April 1845—attended a royal court ball in borrowed, ill-fitting attire, knelt awkwardly on both knees before Queen Victoria, and needed the help of two lords in rising to his feet. Comparing some of the English romantic poets in a letter to EBB on 22 August 1846, RB wrote of his strong “feeling for Byron … while Heaven knows that I could not get up enthusiasm enough to cross the room if at the other end of it all Wordsworth, Coleridge & Southey were condensed into the little china bottle yonder.” Late in life, however, RB joined the Wordsworth Society; and on 17 May 1880 he wrote to the President of that organization: “I keep fresh as ever the admiration for Wordsworth which filled me on becoming acquainted with his poetry in my boyhood.” When Wordsworth died, The Athenæum (1 June 1850) proposed EBB for the Poet Laureateship, an honour which eventually went to Alfred Tennyson.

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