30 POETS/ 30 DAYS: WILLIAM WORDSWORTH

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I WANDERED LONELY AS A CLOUD
by William Wordsworth

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 danced; 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.

Happy 245th Birthday to the late William Wordsworth! We have always loved the poem above, and hope that you all do too, especially in the midst of warmer weather here at Wellesley–insider tip: the hill by the admissions office is stock-full of daffodils.

Here is some background on Wordsworth, courtesy of our lovely friends at The Poetry Foundation:  “William Wordsworth, son of John and Ann Cookson Wordsworth, was born on 7 April 1770 in Cockermouth, Cumberland. The Wordsworth children—Richard, William, Dorothy, John, and Christopher—remained close throughout their lives, and the support Dorothy offered William during his long career has attained legendary status. John Wordsworth, William’s father, was legal agent to Sir James Lowther, Baronet of Lowther (later Earl of Lonsdale), a political magnate and property owner. Wordsworth’s deep love for the “beauteous forms” of the natural world was established early. The Wordsworth children seem to have lived in a sort of rural paradise along the Derwent River, which ran past the terraced garden below the ample house whose tenancy John Wordsworth had obtained from his employer before his marriage to Ann Cookson. William attended the grammar school near Cockermouth Church and Ann Birkett’s school at Penrith, the home of his maternal grandparents. The intense lifelong friendship between Dorothy and William Wordsworth probably began when they, along with Mary Hutchinson, attended school at Penrith. Wordsworth’s early childhood beside the Derwent and his schooling at Cockermouth are vividly recalled in various passages of The Prelude and in shorter poems such as the sonnet “Address from the Spirit of Cockermouth Castle.” His experiences in and around Hawkshead, where William and Richard Wordsworth began attending school in 1779, would also provide the poet with a store of images and sensory experience that he would continue to draw on throughout his poetic career, but especially during the “great decade” of 1798 to 1808. This childhood idyll was not to continue, however. In March of 1778 Ann Wordsworth died while visiting a friend in London. In June 1778 Dorothy was sent to live in Halifax, Yorkshire, with her mother’s cousin Elizabeth Threlkeld, and she lived with a succession of relatives thereafter. She did not see William again until 1787.

In December of 1783 John Wordsworth, returning home from a business trip, lost his way and was forced to spend a cold night in the open. Very ill when he reached home, he died 30 December. Though separated from their sister, all the boys eventually attended school together at Hawkshead, staying in the house of Ann Tyson. In 1787, despite poor finances caused by ongoing litigation over Lord Lowther’s debt to John Wordsworth’s estate, Wordsworth went up to Cambridge as a sizar in St. John’s College. As he himself later noted, Wordsworth’s undergraduate career was not distinguished by particular brilliance. In the third book of The Prelude Wordsworth recorded his reactions to life at Cambridge and his changing attitude toward his studies. During his last summer as an undergraduate, he and his college friend Robert Jones—much influenced by William Coxe’s Sketches of the Natural, Civil, and Political State of Swisserland (1779)—decided to make a tour of the Alps, departing from Dover on 13 July 1790.

Though Wordsworth, encouraged by his headmaster William Taylor, had been composing verse since his days at Hawkshead Grammar School, his poetic career begins with this first trip to France and Switzerland. During this period he also formed his early political opinions—especially his hatred of tyranny. These opinions would be profoundly transformed over the coming years but never completely abandoned. Wordsworth was intoxicated by the combination of revolutionary fervor he found in France—he and Jones arrived on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille—and by the impressive natural beauty of the countryside and mountains. Returning to England in October, Wordsworth was awarded a pass degree from Cambridge in January 1791, spent several months in London, and then traveled to Jones’s parents’ home in North Wales. During 1791 Wordsworth’s interest in both poetry and politics gained in sophistication, as natural sensitivity strengthened his perceptions of the natural and social scenes he encountered. In a letter to William Matthews, a Cambridge friend, he lamented his lack of Italian and weak Spanish—he would have liked to be reading modern poetry.

Wordsworth’s passion for democracy, as is clear in his “Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff” (also called “Apology for the French Revolution”), is the result of his two youthful trips to France. In November 1791 Wordsworth returned to France, where he attended sessions of the National Assembly and the Jacobin Club. In December he met and fell in love with Annette Vallon, and at the beginning of 1792 he became the close friend of an intellectual and philosophical army officer, Michel Beaupuy, with whom he discussed politics. Wordsworth had been an instinctive democrat since childhood, and his experiences in revolutionary France strengthened and developed his convictions. His sympathy for ordinary people would remain with Wordsworth even after his revolutionary fervor had been replaced with the “softened feudalism” he endorsed in his Two Addresses to the Freeholders of Westmoreland in 1818.

While still in France, Wordsworth began work on the first extended poetic efforts of his maturity, Descriptive Sketches, which was published in 1793, after the appearance of a poem written at Cambridge, An Evening Walk (1793). Having exhausted his money, he left France in early December 1792 before Annette Vallon gave birth to his child Caroline. Back in England, the young radical cast about for a suitable career. As a fervent democrat, he had serious reservations about “vegetating in a paltry curacy,” though he had written to William Matthews from France in May 1792 that he intended to be ordained the following winter or spring…As Wordsworth turned his attention to poetry, he developed, through the process of poetic composition, his own theory of human nature, one that had very little to do with Godwin’s rationalism. During this period Wordsworth met another radical young man with literary aspirations, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

In 1794 and 1795 Wordsworth divided his time between London and the Lake Country, at one point telling William Matthews that he would rather be in London because cataracts and mountains were good occasionally but would not do for constant companions. Nevertheless, in September 1795 William and Dorothy Wordsworth settled at Racedown Lodge in Dorset, where they would live for two years. In The Prelude Wordsworth wrote that his sister “Maintained a saving intercourse / With my true self,” and “preserved me still / A poet.” At Racedown Wordsworth composed The Borderers, a tragedy in which he came fully to terms with Godwin’s philosophy, finally rejecting it as an insufficiently rich approach to life for a poet. Then Wordsworth for the first time found his mature poetic voice, writing The Ruined Cottage, which would be published in 1814 as part of The Excursion, itself conceived as one part of a masterwork, The Recluse, which was to worry Wordsworth throughout his life, a poem proposed to him by Coleridge and planned as a full statement of the two poets’ emerging philosophy of life.

In 1797, to be closer to Coleridge, the Wordsworth’s moved to Alfoxden House, near the village of Nether Stowey. Because of the odd habits of the household—especially their walking over the countryside at all hours—the local population suspected that the Wordsworth’s and their visitors were French spies, and a government agent was actually dispatched to keep an eye on them. The years between 1797 and 1800 mark the period of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s close collaboration, and also the beginning of Wordsworth’s mature poetic career. Wordsworth wrote the poems that would go into the 1798 and 1800 editions of Lyrical Ballads—poems such as “Tintern Abbey,” “Expostulation and Reply,” “The Tables Turned,” “Goody Blake and Harry Gill,” and “Michael” (written, Wordsworth told James Fox, “to shew that men who did not wear fine clothes can feel deeply”). During 1798 Wordsworth also worked on a piece of prose setting out his evolving ideas on justice and morality. Called the “Essay on Morals” by later editors, it was set aside and never finished. Wordsworth seems to have been attempting to work out and justify his changing political and social ideas—ideas that had begun to develop intuitively during the process of poetic composition. The poet in Wordsworth was beginning to dominate the democrat, and the poet found a political philosophy based on power, violence, and reason anathema. In the “Essay on Morals” Wordsworth concerns himself with the relationship between writing and political justice, and, though he had explicitly rejected Edmund Burke’s philosophy in his scorching “Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff,” he seems to be developing a Burkean idea of community.

In September 1798 the Wordsworth’s set off for Germany with Coleridge, returning separately, after some disagreements, in May 1799. In Germany Wordsworth continued to write poems, and when he returned to England he began to prepare a new edition of Lyrical Ballads. The second edition—that of 1800—included an extended preface by Wordsworth, explaining his reasons for choosing to write as he had and setting out a personal poetics that has remained influential and controversial to the present day. For Victorian readers such as Matthew Arnold, who tended to venerate Wordsworth, the preface was a fount of wisdom; but the modernists were deeply suspicious of Wordsworth’s reliance on feeling: poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, while they could accept the strictures on poetic diction, found the underlying theory unacceptable. Subsequent critics have focused on the literary and historical sources of Wordsworth’s ideas, demonstrating that, while the poet certainly reinvented English poetic diction, his theories were deeply rooted in the practice of earlier poets, especially John Milton. This preface, Wordsworth’s only extended statement of his poetics, has become the source of many of the commonplaces and controversies of poetic theory and criticism. For Wordsworth, poetry, which should be written in “the real language of men,” is nevertheless “the spontaneous overflow of feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.””

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