William Wordsworth Biography



In his first acquaintance with the poetry of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge remarked that "there is a harshness and acerbity connected and combined with words and images all a-glow, which might recall those products of the vegetable world, where gorgeous blossoms rise out of the hard and thorny rind and shell, within which the rich fruit was elaborating." Coleridge\'s natural metaphor is revealing, for Wordsworth effected a revolution in poetic language and in the vision of nature. Reacting against the artifice of neo-classicism and its distance from ordinary speech, he sought to restore the spontaneous power of a purified common speech to poetry, embracing all the thorniness of its syntax and the contortions of natural thought. His vision of nature reacted against the scientific and rational universe of the eighteenth century and restored a spiritual power to the natural world, a mighty Presence that coursed through all things. His poetry ranged from divine simplicity, in which he revealed the beauty of nature in a diction stripped of literary artifice, to the great meditative passages that plumbed the mysteries of time\'s passage and immortality and the dark abyss of infinity in all its terrifying grandeur. Wordsworth yoked together a close attention to the natural world, with passages full of precise detail and fidelity to nature, with a brooding and metaphysical imagination that transformed the natural world into a vast reflection of his own inner moods. As William Hazlitt wrote caustically of Wordsworth\'s "intense intellectual egotism," the poet rejected the particulars of the world "as interfering with the workings of his own mind, as disturbing the smooth, deep, majestic current of his own feeling." At the heart of Wordsworth\'s poetry is a cleft between nature as the source of beauty and the imperious and transcendental self that is characteristic of Romantic poetry in general. But the sublimity of his poetry does not suffer from such inconsistencies. As Coleridge was quick to recognize, Wordsworth\'s genius was "the union of deep feeling with profound thought; the fine balance of truth in observing, with the imaginative faculty in modifying the objects observed."


Wordsworth\'s preface to his early Lyrical Ballads announced a radical departure from the classic rhetoric of Pope and its literary diction. Inspired by a deep faith in democracy -- he was initially swept up in the furor of the French Revolution -- he sought to restore the simplicity of common language unsullied by materialism and false sophistication. As he wrote of rustic life, "the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, speak a plainer and more emphatic language." He thought poetic speech to be ordinary speech transfigured by passion. Like Rousseau, Wordsworth lifted emotion over intellect, as he sought to uncover the laws of human nature undistorted by the conventions of a crippling civilization, and truth became not a function of reason but a outgrowth of the heart. Consequently poetry became in Wordsworth\'s famous dictum "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" that arises from "emotion recollected in tranquillity." Moreover, his purification of ordinary language in order to elevate nature gives poetry an ennobling purpose, a high seriousness, as the imagination becomes the central purveyor of truth.


Given his sense of poetry as recollection, Wordsworth\'s poetry emphasized the process of poetic meditation; characteristically he moves from an encounter with a concrete image or remembered event -- the glide of a canoe, the wind in a field of daffodils, the sight of a shepherd tending his flocks -- upon which he draws out the philosophical meaning in discursive terms. His work is full of epiphanies, moments of time arrested in memory, that spur his mind to ruminations. Following Platonic thought, he believed in fact that all knowledge was recollection and that "Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting," and much of Wordsworth\'s poetry is devoted to recapturing forgotten moments and forestalling the slippage of time, the merciless betrayals of forgetfulness and death. His grand Prelude is a personal reminiscence, a reflection upon the growth of the poet, that portrays in epic scale the glories of childhood, while poems such as "Tintern Abbey" and his "Ode: Intimations of Immortality" grapple with desire to recapture the fleeting past and to conjure