From The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Margaret Drabble:
WORDSWORTH, William (1770-1850), born at Cockermouth, Cumbria, the son of an attorney; he attended (with Mary Hutchinson, his future wife) the infants' school in Penrith and, from 1779 to 1787, Hawkshead Grammar School. His mother died in 1778, his father in 1783, losses recorded in *The Prelude, which describes the mixed joys and terrors of his country boyhood with a peculiar intensity. He attended St John's College, Cambridge, but disliked the academic course. In 1790 he went on a walking tour of France, the Alps, and Italy, and returned to France late in 1791, to spend a year there; during this period he was fired by a passionate belief in the French Revolution and republican ideals, and also fell in love with the daughter of a surgeon at Blois, Annette Vallon, who bore him a daughter (See E. Legouis, William Wordsworth and Annette Vallon, 1922). (This love affair is reflected in 'Vaudracour and Julia', composed ?1804, published 1820, and incorporated somewhat anomalously in Book IX of The Prelude.) After his return to England he published in 1793 two poems in heroic couplets, An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches, both conventional attempts at the *picturesque and the *sublime, the latter describing the Alps. In this year he also wrote (but did not publish) a Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff (see WATSON, R.) in support of the French Republic. England's declaration of war against France shocked him deeply, but the institution of the Terror marked the beginning of his disillusion with the French Revolution, a period of depression reflected in his verse drama *The Borderers (composed 1796-7, pub. 1842) and in 'Guilt and Sorrow' (composed 1791-4, pub in part in 1798 as 'The Female Vagrant'). In 1795 he received a legacy of £900 from his friend Raisley Calvert, intended to enable him to pursue his vocation as a poet, which also allowed him to be reunited with his sisster Dorothy (above); they settled first at Racedown in Dorset, then at Alfoxden in Somerset, where they had charge of the son of their friend Basil *Montagu. The latter move (aided by T. *Poole) was influenced by a desire to be near *Coleridge, then living at Nether Stowey, whom Wordsworth had met in 1795. This was a period of intense creativity for both poets, which produced the *Lyrical Ballads (1798), a landmark in the history of English *Romanticism (See ANCIENT MARINER; IDIOT BOY, THE; TINTERN ABBEY.) The winter of 1798-9 was spent in Goslar in Germany, where Wordsworth wrote sections of what was to be The Prelude and the enigmatic *'Lucy' poems. In 1799 he and Dorothy settled in Dove Cottage, Grasmere; to the next year belong 'The Recluse', Book I (later *The Excursion), 'The Brothers', *'Michael', and many of the poems included in the 1800 edition of the Lyrical Ballads (which, with its provocative preface on *poetic diction, aroused much criticism). In 1802 Wordsworth and Dorothy visited Annette Vallon in France, and later that year William married Mary Hutchison, his financial position having been improved by the repayment of a debt on the death of Lord Lonsdale. In the same year he composed *'Resolution and Independence', and began his ode on *'Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood', both of which appeared in Poems in Two Volumes (1807), along with many of his most celebrated lyrics. To the same period belong the birth of five children (of whom the eldest, John, was born in 1803), travels with Dorothy and Coleridge, and new friendships, notably with Sir W. *Scott, Sir G. *Beaumont, and *De Quincey. Wordsworth's domestic happiness was overcast by the death of his sailor brother John in 1805 (which inspired several poems, including 'Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle', 1807), the early deaths of two of his children (one of which inspired his sonnet 'Surprised by joy', 1815), and the physical deterioration of Coleridge, from whom he was for some time estranged, and with whom he was never entirely reconciled. But his productivity continued, and his popularity gradually increased. The Excursion was published in 1814, The White Doe of Rylstone and two volumes of Miscellaneous Poems in 1815, and *Peter Bell and *The Waggoner in 1819. In 1813 he had been appointed stamp distributor for Westmorland, a post which brought him some £400 a year, and in the same year moved from Allan Bank (where he had lived from 1808) to Rydal Mount, Ambleside, where he lived the rest of his life. The great work of his early and middle years was now over, and Wordsworth slowly settled into the role of patriotic, conservative public man, abandoning the radical politics and idealism of his youth. Much of the best of his later work was mildly topographical, inspired by his love of travel; it records journeys to Scotland, along the river Duddon, to the Continent, etc. He was left a legacy by Sir George Beaumont in 1827, and in 1842 received a Civil List pension of £300 a year; in 1843 he succeeded *Southey as *poet Laureate. He died at Rydal Mount, after the publication of a finally revised text of his works (6 vols, 1849-50), and The Prelude was published posthumously in 1850. His prose works include an essay, Concerning the Relations of Great Britain, Spain and Portugal . . . as Affected by the Convention of Cintra (1809), castigating the supine English policy, and A Description of the Scenery of the Lakes in the North of England, written in 1810 as an introduction to Wilkinson's Select Views of Cumberland.
De Quincey wrote of Wordsworth in 1835, 'Up to 1820 the name of Wordsworth was trampled underfoot; from 1820 to 1830 it was militant; from 1830 to 1835 it has been triumphant.' Early attacks in the *Edinburgh Review and by the anonymous author of a parody, The Simpliciad (1808), were followed by criticism and satire by the second generation of Romantics; *Byron and *Shelley mocked him as 'simple' and 'dull', *Keats distrusted what he called the *'egotistical sublime', and *Hazlitt, and later *Browning, deplored him as *'The Lost Leader', who had abandoned his early radical faith. But these doubts were counterbalanced by the enormous and lasting popularity of much of his work, which was regarded by writers such as M. *Arnold and J. S. *Mill with almost religious veneration, as an expression in an age of doubt of the transcendent in nature and the good in man. A great innovator, he permanently enlarged the range of English poetry, both in subject matter and in treatment (a distinction he would not himself have accepted).
Wordsworth's Poetical and Prose Works, together with Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals, ed. W. Knight, appeared in 1896, and his Poetical Works (ed. E. de Selincourt and H. Darbishire, 5 vols.) in 1930-9 and 1952-4. Letters of the Wordsworth Family 1787-1855 were edited by W. Knight in 1907, and Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth (ed. de Selincourt) appeared in 1935-9. His biography by M. Moorman was published in 1968 (2 vols), and a long-lost collection of letters between Mary and William appeared as The Love Letters of William and Mary Wordsworth, ed. B. Darlington (1982). See also Stephen Gill, William Wordsworth (1989).