William Wordsworth is a highly influential English poet, best known for his contributions to the 19th century Romantic Movement. Wordsworth is lauded as being a highly original thinker and writer who emphasized the use of ordinary language in his verses, which was in stark contrast to the aristocratic Neo-Classical tradition from which Wordsworth had emerged (Weaver 231). Wordsworth is perhaps best known for exploring man’s relationship to nature and his style is best personified by a powerful surge and overflow of emotion. In this paper three of Wordsworth’s works are considered and analyzed within the context of the greater Romantic Movement, and certain biographic details.
The Romantic Movement may be considered as a historic epoch wherein a group of ideas, artistic styles, and philosophies came to intellectual prominence in Europe towards the end of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century (Wellek 2). Historians differ as to what exactly, if anything, constitutes the cohesion between these sets of ideas. Indeed, some historians go so far as to claim that the term ‘Romanticism’ has been so broadly applied that it has ended up losing all real meaning (Lovejoy 252). Notwithstanding these criticisms, certain parallels can be drawn between the themes and ideas explored by English authors and poets during the period and those in continental Europe.
With reference specifically to Wordsworth, one of the Romantic ideas that forms a prominent component of his writings, is a rejection of mechanized modernity in favor of retrospective urge towards historic epochs, notably the medieval. For Wordsworth these historic epochs are characterized by a deeper connection between man and nature, and a stronger emphasis on the individual as opposed to the collective. This retrospective urge was in large part a reaction against the industrial revolution that was clearly destroying traditional ways of life. The Romantic Movement furthermore places a great emphasis on emotion which, partially rejects the rationalistic ideal of the Enlightenment. Wordsworth perhaps encapsulates this sentiment best in the foreword to The Prelude wherein he defines poetry as “…the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility…’
A further idea which notably animates English Romanticism, is the rejection of the aristocratic poetic practice of the early 18th century, notably that of Alexander Pope (Wellek 2). Poets such as William Blake and William Wordsworth rather strived to portray the lives of the common people using common language (Choudhury 30). Thereby a more authentic portrayal of the broad society emerges. The use of simple language is perhaps a consequence of the Romantic urge towards freedom, which may be contrasted against the Neo-classical urge towards conformity and authority.
William Wordsworth was born as the second of five children into an upper-middleclass family on 7 April 1770 in Cockermouth, England. Cockermouth, which was historically a part of the Cumberland District, is located on the fringe of the scenic Lake District area in north-western England. Wordsworth’s father, John Wordsworth and his grandfather, Richard Wordsworth were legal agents to the Lowther family who went on to become the Earls of Lonsdale. In 1778, Wordsworth’s mother, Anne, died as a likely result of pneumonia. John Wordsworth was devastated, which eventually led him to send his children away to live with relatives. In this process Wordsworth was traumatically separated from his younger sister Dorothy, to whom he was very close (Choudhury 30).
Following the death of his mother, Wordsworth went to live with his mother’s family in Penrith. Wordsworth had a deeply strained relationship with his grandparents which led to him spending a lot of time wandering away from home. It is during these wanderings that Wordsworth developed his affinity towards nature. Wordsworth attended the Hawkshead Grammar School during which time he met and became friends Mary Hutchison, whom he would eventually go on to marry. In 1787 Wordsworth enrolled as an undergraduate at Cambridge University’s St Johns College from which he graduated with a BA degree in 1791. During his time at Cambridge Wordsworth was reunited with his sister who essentially became a constant companion throughout their lives.
In an epoch that would influence much of his later writing, Wordsworth visited revolutionary France in 1791 (Clarke 75). The French revolution is an event that captured the imaginations of Romantic writers both in England and Germany, though many of these, including Wordsworth, would later become disillusioned with the movement. In France Wordsworth fell in love with French woman Annette Vallon, whom gave birth to their daughter Caroline in 1792. Wordsworth also made the acquaintance of the nomadic adventurer John “Walking” Steward. In 1791 Steward had published a philosophical treaties The Apocalypse of Nature to which many of sentiments evident in Wordsworth’s writings may be attributed (Grovier). Due to surging tensions between England and France, Wordsworth was eventually forced to return, leaving Vallon and their daughter behind. Wordsworth would only return to France nine years later, during the Peace of Amiens, to inform Vallon of his upcoming marriage to Mary Hutchison. This was the first time that Wordsworth would see his daughter. Inspired by an evening walk with his daughter, Wordsworth wrote the sonnet “It is a beauteous evening, calm and free” in 1802.
In 1795 Wordsworth made the acquaintance fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge with whom Wordsworth would become lifelong friends. Together Wordsworth and Coleridge produced the poetry compilation Lyrical Ballads in 1798, which went on to become a foundational example English literary Romanticism. In 1807 Wordsworth published Poems, in Two Volumes, which is considered Wordsworth at the peak of his poetic powers. Notable works from Poems, in Two Volumes include I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud and The World is Too Much With Us.
During the latter half of Wordsworth’s life, he produced less works and his poetry tended to be less well regarded. Nevertheless, Wordsworth’s fame and financial standing increased throughout his life. In 1843 the aging Wordsworth became Poet Laureate of the British Empire and in 1850, Wordsworth passed away.
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free is one of Wordsworth’s most personal poems and reflects the end of a deeply tumultuous time in his live. One of the prominent themes of within the sonnet is the innocence of children and their associated connection with nature. The sonnet starts of by describing an evening scene which is “…quite as a Nun,” line 2, yet “breathless with anticipation”, line 3. This creates an effective contrast and tension between the tranquillity of the evening scene and a sense of anticipation. In lines 6-8, the sonnet goes on to express a sense of awe and wonder at nature’s grandiosity which is typical of Wordsworth: “Listen! the mighty Being is awake, And doth with his eternal motion make, A sound like thunder—everlastingly.”
In line 9, the tone of the sonnet changes with Wordsworth addressing his daughter directly “Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,”. Wordsworth goes on to remark on how she seemed unaffected by the magnificence of the scene before them, “If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,” line 10. In line 11 Wordsworth introduces another paradox by stating that his daughter’s “nature is not therefore less divine:” despite her failure to appreciate the natural beauty around them. The sonnet ends by remarking that Wordsworth’s daughter is closer to nature and closer to the divine or “Abraham’s bosom”, line 12. Paradoxically this deeper connection with nature reveals itself through the child’s failure to be impressed thereby. In contrast thereto, Wordsworth who is filled with the worship of nature, is further removed from it than the child.
In The World is Too Much With Us, many themes that are representative of Wordsworth’s body of work are expressed. The sonnet starts off with a criticism of modern society which, according to Wordsworth, is “…too much with us,” line 1. Consumerism, or “getting and spending…”, line 2, has driven a rift between humanity and nature. Wordsworth, and indeed the Romantic Movement at large, finds this to be a terrible exchange or a “…sordid boon”, line 4. Lines 5-7 provides an awe inspiring description of nature that is typical to Wordsworth with beautiful imagery such as “The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon.”
In the later half of the sonnet Wordsworth expresses his desire for humanity to return to an earlier state wherein it was more in touch and in tune with nature. This is reflective of the retrospective urge that is characteristic of the Romantic Movement, as discussed in the previous section. Wordsworth makes the radical claim that he would rather be a pagan than lose touch with the natural word. To illustrate this desire Wordsworth makes use of imagery involving gods from ancient Greek mythology whom Wordsworth wishes to see “…rising from the see”, line 13, or hear “….blow his wreathed horn”, line 14.
I wandered lonely as a cloud was written by Wordsworth following an encounter that he and Dorothy had had with a field of daffodils whilst on a walking tour through Glencoyne Bay in Ullswater. The poem, though initially not popular, has widely become known as one of Wordsworth’s defining works (Tearle). It strongly embodies the ideals of English Romanticism including: the solitariness of the individual as reflected in the title and reference to the “the bliss of solitude”, line 22; and man’s relationship to nature especially Wordsworth’s sacred appreciation thereof as reflected in “I gazed – and gazed – but little thought/ What wealth the show to me had brought”, lines 17-18. The poem is furthermore written in plain English, as Wordsworth and his contemporaries within the Romantic Movement often sought to do.
In this paper, three poems written by William Wordworth were contextualized both in terms of certain biographical details and the Romantic Movement at large. It is concluded, based on the poems considered, that Wordsworth likely drew inspiration from both the ideals of the Romantic Movement, and his personal experiences. In conclusion when considering Wordsworth it should be noted that he wrote for the heart and not for the intellect. His poems are not meant to be understood, but rather to be felt – and at inspiring feelings of awe at the grandeur and beauty of nature, Wordsworth remains without equal.
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