Articles for ‘Wordsworth’

A Conversation with Stephen Logan

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

In April of 2009, graduate editor Pete Newbon met with Dr Stephen Logan, a specialist in Romantic poetry who has carefully pondered the connections and tensions between poetry, pronunciation, identity, and criticism. In this conversation he reads from Wordsworth and offers some fresh and provocative ways of encountering his poetry.

Just below you can click on the link to listen to a conversation I had with Stephen Logan about Wordsworth's poetry, accents, identity, and reading. This conversation often moves quickly, from one text to another, and from Wordsworth to other poets, writers, reference resources, and other things besides. We hope you will find the conversation interesting; you may find it easier to follow if you begin by reading the notes below. At the bottom of this page you will find some suggestions for further reading on these topics, and some questions to help you think further about them.


Notes to Accompany Interview with Stephen Logan

  • 'Tintern Abbey': A blank-verse lyric poem, fully titled 'Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks of the Wye Valley during a tour, July 13, 1798', was composed by Wordsworth, and included as the last poem in the anthology 'Lyrical Ballads' (1798). The poem was composed on Wordsworth's second visit to the ruined medieval abbey on the banks of the river Wye, five years after his first visit, and on the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille at the commencement of the French Revolution.
  • Robert Burns (1759-1796): A Scottish poet who composed largely in a Scotch dialect. His most famous works include 'Auld Lang Syne', 'Red, Red Rose' and 'Tam O' Shanter.'
  • OED: The Oxford English Dictionary is a comprehensive dictionary of the English language, and is generally taken as the leading authoritative source regarding information about English words.
  • Edward Thomas (1878-1917): An Anglo-Welsh poet of the late nineteenth and early twentieth Century who died fighting in World War I.
  • Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881): A Scottish essayist, satirist and historian of the mid-Victorian period, who wrote various important anecdotes and commentaries upon Romantic writers.
  • Seamus Heaney (1939- ): An Irish poet, writer and lecturer who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.
  • William Hazlitt (1778-1830): An English essayist, critic and philosopher who was a friend and associate of many Romantic writers and artists.
  • Rustic: A word that can be used to refer to country dwellers, often peasants, which denotes simplicity, lack of refinement or roughness.
  • Burr: 'A rough sounding of the letter r characteristic of the county of Northumberland, and found elsewhere as an individual peculiarity. Writers ignorant of phonology often confuse the Northumberland burr with the entirely different Scotch r, which is a lingual trill.' (OED)
  • Phonetics: 'The study and classification of speech sounds, esp. with regard to the physical aspects of their production.' (OED)
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822): A Romantic poet, who was a friend and collaborator of Lord Byron's.
  • George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824): A Romantic poet featured on this website.
  • 'Resolution and Independence': A poem by Wordsworth written in a Chaucerian rhyme scheme called Rime Royal. It is also known as 'The Leech-Gatherer', and was published in the anthology Poems Written in Two Volumes (1807). The poem was famously satirised by Lewis Carroll in Alice Through the Looking Glass (1871).
  • Half-Rhyme: Consonance on the final consonants of the words at line endings (so 'moon' could be a half-rhyme for 'stone').
  • Monophthong: A pure vowel sound, one whose articulation at both beginning and end is relatively fixed, and which does not glide up or down towards a new position of articulation.
  • Diphthong: A unitary vowel that changes quality during its pronunciation, or glides, with a smooth movement of the tongue from one articulation to another.
  • Full Rhyme: When the later part of the word or phrase is identical in sound to another.
  • Cadence: A fall in inflection of a speaker's voice, such as at the end of a sentence.
  • 'Lines Written in Early Spring': A poem by Wordsworth included in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800).
  • 'I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud': Also known as 'The Daffodils', this poem was inspired by a shared encounter with a view of the flowers by Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, and the poet drew upon his sister's account of the event in her journal to help his composition. It was published in 1807.
  • Hugh Kenner (1923-2003): A Canadian literary critic and professor.
  • Basil Bunting (1900-1985): A British Modernist poet, famous for recitations of his own work.
  • Edmund Spenser (1552-1599): A sixteenth-century English poet, esteemed by Wordsworth as one of the greatest poets of all time.
  • Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909): A poet of the Victorian era.

Further Reading

Jonathan Bate, Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition (London: Routledge, 1991).

Jonathan Bate, Song of the Earth (London: Picador, 2001).

Brennan O'Donnell, The Passion of Meter: A Study of Wordsworth's Metrical Art (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1995).

Hughes Sykes Davies, Wordsworth and the Worth of Words (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Further Thinking

Stephen Logan encourages us to listen to poems, to think about how they sound, as we read them. This obviously has implications for every poem you might read. Can you think of any (by Wordsworth or not) that seem particularly enlivened by this sonic approach?

Some qualities of the Wordsworthian soundscape are regional ones. What difference does this make, if any, to how you read some of his great poems, which are acclaimed as national rather than local classics?

Wordsworth and the Lake District: A sense of ‘place’ and ‘home’

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

In this essay undergraduate Catherine Watts looks at how Wordsworth depicts his home territory, the Lake District, how it inspires his poetry, and how it enriches his thoughts about mankind.

1. Wordsworth's Native Land - 'Born among the hills / Bred also there' ('Home at Grasmere', lines 348-49)

Born in the town of Cockermouth in 1770, William Wordsworth's first home was in the Lake District, and it was one of many he would have there. Cumbria was where he spent most of his life, where he was schooled, raised his own family, wrote much of his poetry, and where he died in 1850, at his last home, Rydal Mount. Though Wordsworth would spend time away from the area at various points throughout his life, he would never be away from the Lakes for long, and, in the light of the thousands of lines of poetry he devotes to his and others' experiences there, we may rightfully doubt whether the place ever left him in mind even when the author was parted from it in body.

Wordsworth's relationship with his 'native land' was not one deriving from it merely as a location, but, since he refers to himself in his poetry as , , and , it seems that the Lake District formed part of his very identity. His great autobiographical poem, The Prelude, traces the 'Growth' of the author from his early years until the time it was written, and from this it is clear that Wordsworth's intellectual development, his ideas and philosophies, owe a great deal to the region in which he was born and raised, lived and died.

2. Imagination and Intellect

Nature was important to Wordsworth from his earliest years, as it fuelled his vivid imagination. Some of the most striking memories he would describe in The Prelude are of experiences he had as a child, when his impressionable mind was awe-struck, and sometimes even afraid of his surroundings. In Book I he tells of a night-time boat trip he once took which left him shaken, thinking 'grave and serious thoughts... for many days' (lines 416-18):

I dipp'd my oars into the silent Lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my Boat
Went heaving through the water, like a Swan;
When from behind the craggy Steep, till then
The bound of the horizon, a huge Cliff,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Uprear'd its head. (lines 402-8)

That Cliff, he writes, seemed to follow him 'like a living thing'. He rowed away 'With trembling hands', and was haunted afterwards both day and night by such forms moving slowly through his mind.

Wordsworth was certainly intellectually inspired by his surroundings - 'O Nature! Thou hast fed / My lofty speculations!' (lines 462-3) - and he devotes a whole book of The Prelude to the influence Nature had on helping him develop his philosophies towards mankind (VIII, 'Retrospect - Love of Nature Leading to Love of Mankind'). In his everyday life, his time amongst the vales and mountains gave him time to observe, consider and commit his reflections to verse - which he would often do aloud as he walked. Sometimes his sister, Dorothy, would accompany him and write her own observations down in her journal, which Wordsworth might use later to inspire his poetry. It was in this way that his most famous poem, 'The Daffodils', was conceived.

Yet Wordsworth also had a more domestic, emotional connection with Nature. Orphaned at the age of thirteen, and spending much of his time outdoors, it is unsurprising that Wordsworth later writes of Nature as a guardian, a comfort, and something which offered him company in his solitude:

I yet
Despair not of our nature; but retain
A more than Roman confidence, a faith
That fails not, in all sorrow my support,
The blessing of my life, the gift is yours,
Ye mountains! (lines 457-62)

Oh! That I had a music and a voice,
Harmonious as your own, that I might tell
What ye have done for me. (XI, 20-22)

3. Excursions Elsewhere

The Lakes were not Wordsworth's only home, however. His first extended period away came at the age of 17, when he went to study at Cambridge. Later excursions would take him not only to London, but abroad to France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. Well-documented in The Prelude, his experiences at Cambridge, London and France were especially important, for it is clear that his time spent in those places played an essential part in developing the poet's intellect and political beliefs. But it is also clear that being away reinforced his love of the Lakes. The young Wordsworth's joy is palpable in Book IV of The Prelude, at his return to the familiar sights and places of his home, following his first year at St. John's College:

I bounded down the hill, shouting amain
A lusty summons to the farther shore
For the old Ferryman; and when he came
I did not step into the well-known Boat
Without a cordial welcome. (IV, 5-9)

For Wordsworth, as is surely the case with many a student or traveller, his happiness was keenly felt in the simple pleasure of returning to his old home, which, as ever, seemed all the more comfortable for his having been away.

4. Humanity

Time away in the 'flat plains' of Cambridge or London, with its 'Streets without end', had not only acquainted Wordsworth with new landscapes, but with new people - the University academics, and the 'thickening hubbub' of 'the Comers and the Goers' of the capital. And yet, once more, it led Wordsworth back to a new appreciation of the Lakes. The anonymity of London's people left the author bewildered:

Above all, one thought
Baffled my understanding, how men lived
Even next-door neighbours, as we say, yet still
Strangers, and not knowing each other's names. (VII, 118-20)

The city lacked the intimacy and community of his native land, where, Wordsworth writes, 'if we meet a face / We almost meet a friend'.

Yet London gave Wordsworth a deeper insight into the sufferings of others, of types, and of a scale, different from those seen in the Lakes. He writes in 'Home at Grasmere' of his awareness that he was privileged to live in such an area where even the most needy were not beyond the help of others in the community ('They who want, are not too great a weight / For those who can relieve', lines 366-7). Wordsworth was himself generous with his time and money, and did what he could to help local people who were less fortunate than himself. He offered a home and job as a servant, for example, to the orphaned Sally Green, and raised money with the profits from a poem he composed to help the rest of her brothers and sisters. It was just one act of kindness which the author and his family liberally bestowed on both friends and strangers throughout his life.

It was his daily life in the Lakes from which he derived his empathy with others, Wordsworth writes:

The lonely roads
Were schools to me in which I daily read
With most delight the passions of mankind,
There saw into the depths of human souls,
Souls that appear to have no depth at all
To vulgar eyes. (VIII, 163-8)

Those 'vulgar eyes' are not those of monetarily deprived men, but men lacking in feeling or 'spirit', such as those with whom Wordsworth may have mixed with in Cambridge: 'Ye who are fed / By the dead letter, not the spirit of things' (VIII, 431-2).

Wordsworth's poetry makes loud appeal to such academic types, asking those who are intellectually curious to consider a new type of education - that offered both by Nature and by their fellow human-beings:

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can. ('The Tables Turned, lines 21-4)

5. The Poet's Purpose

Having led 'an undomestic Wanderer's life' travelling 'from place to place', a life in the Lakes was finally settled for Wordsworth in 1799, when a tour there with Coleridge resulted in the author's decision to live in Grasmere. He immediately took a lease at Dove Cottage, the first of four homes he would have in the Lake District. His return to the area inspired the same joy experienced by his youthful counterpart in Book IV of The Prelude. Writing in 'Home at Grasmere', he once again relishes his release into nature, enjoying what it offers all those who see it:

Majesty, and beauty and repose,
A blended holiness of earth and sky.
A termination and a last retreat,
A Centre, come from wheresoe'er you will,
A Whole, without dependence or defect,
Made for itself and happy in itself,
Perfect Contentment, Unity entire. ('Home at Grasmere', 143-51)

Starkly defending the notion that he may have returned to the Lakes to segregate himself from the rest of the world, Wordsworth describes instead all the company that he would have there in the form of birds and animals, plants, flowers, and the landscape. He dares readers to suggest that the place is one of solitude, when he is surrounded by such diverse forms of life:

Say boldly then that solitude is not
Where these things are: he truly is alone,
He of the multitude whose eyes are doomed
To hold a vacant commerce day by day
With objects wanting life - repelling love;
He by the vast Metropolis immured,
Where pity shrinks from unremitting calls,
Where numbers overwhelm humanity,
And neighbourhood serves rather to divide
Than to unite. (lines 592-601)

His appreciation of nature in the Lakes is, at the same time, an attack on a life elsewhere, such as that of the city-dwellers whom he had no doubt witnessed at work during his time in London. The sense of community and society in the Cumbrian countryside is directly contrasted to such a miserable existence of isolation from fellow men. Like that of his younger self free from the academic pressures of Cambridge on his Summer Vacation, Wordsworth's delight in the Lake District is one of freedom from the punishing regime and imprisonment of city institutions.

And yet, by expressing this liberation in his verses, Wordsworth demonstrates that his life in Cumbria was not merely to be one of personal privacy or escape. It would instead become his occupation - and he would write on it with purpose, seeking to affect his readers with the scenes and stories of the people he observed, as well as sharing the philosophies that he developed during his time reflecting on his surroundings. It is with this resolve that he ends his poem:

Yet in this peaceful Vale we will not spend
Unheard-of days, though loving peaceful thoughts.
A Voice Shall Speak, and what will be the theme?
On Man, on Nature, and on Human Life
Musing in Solitude. (lines 751-5)

Further Reading

  • Wordsworth, William, The Prelude: The Four Texts (1798, 1799, 1805, 1850) (London, 1995).
  • Biographical facts can be followed up in Wordsworth's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and in Steven Gill, William Wordsworth: A Life (Oxford, 1990).

Further Thinking

Lots of authors have been inspired by nature. In the light of this essay, and perhaps making comparison to another writer, what do you think is distinctive about the inspiration Wordsworth found in the natural world?

Wordsworth's poems have various specific places, or things, or moments, through which he thinks about nature and human beings in it - for example, the fragment of a wooden bowl in 'The Ruined Cottage'. Find one you think is interesting, and think about how it helps the poet think.

In the early twenty-first century, writers often focus on the precarious state of nature - in particular, because modernity, industry, human beings in general, are ruining it. Does that anxiety have a role to play in Wordsworth?

'Home at Grasmere', line 729.
The Prelude, Book V, line 587.
The Prelude, Book III, lines 34-35.

Responding to Wordsworth: A Critical History

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

Undergraduate Rachel Thorpe's essay traces the history of Wordsworth's critics. He has meant very different things to different historical periods, but he has consistently been provocative. Where some poets have long periods of neglect, Wordsworth has been distinctive in persistently causing profound, worthwhile problems to later generations.

'An Eddy of Criticism'

Wordsworth is a poet who never seems far from critics' minds. From the moment of his first publication (in 1793), there has been no shortage of critics ready both to dismiss him and to idolise him. His close friend and fellow poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, recognised early on that the sheer amount of critical attention threatened the poems themselves: '[His work] produced an eddy of criticism, which would of itself have borne up the poems by the violence, with which it whirled them round and round'. (This, and the other references in this article, can be followed up in 'Further Reading' below). It is within this whirlpool of critical voices that Wordsworth's poetry exists for us today.

It seems that new generations of critics never tire of evaluating and re-evaluating the ideas found within Wordsworth's poetry, and reinterpreting their significance for a new generation. Whether they love him or hate him, critics of every age have felt it important to communicate their views on his verse and his critics include Hazlitt, DeQuincey, Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot and Harold Bloom. Just what is it about the poetry of Wordsworth which seems to provoke such disparate responses?

Reactions of Wordsworth's Contemporaries

Early readers of Wordsworth were confused by Wordsworth's poetry. They objected to his thoughts about language, metrical arrangement, his poetics and his seemingly low subject matter. Despite his having written a large amount of prose discussing his new style of poetry, readers often found this prose yet more infuriating and perplexing (a mood which perhaps Wordsworth registered by writing more and more prose in the early nineteenth century). Coleridge voiced this frustration with poetry that required an explanation, stating: 'nothing can permanently please, which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise'. Thus readers largely set the prose aside in order to interrogate the poems themselves.

wrote damning reviews of a number of Wordsworth's poems. Most notoriously, he wrote an especially stinging review of The Excursion in Edinburgh Review, beginning with the infamous line 'This will never do'. He claimed that Wordsworth was arrogant, irresponsible, and 'silly'. Jeffrey found the moral of Wordsworth's poem obscure, and objected to his use of diction, his lowly subject matter and what Jeffrey imputed as an abstruse system in the poem. He concluded that, 'The case of Mr Wordsworth, we perceive, is now manifestly hopeless, and we give him up as altogether incurable, and beyond the power of criticism'.

But other critics had less aggressive reservations. agreed that Wordsworth was not a truly great poet, and even called him the 'spoiled child of disappointment'. However, he suggested that 'his strength lies in his weakness' and that while his poetry was limited, he was still 'the most original poet now living'. This respect for him is evident in Hazlitt's prose which is bestrewn with allusion to and citation from Wordworth's verse.

Hazlitt also noted that the tide seemed to be turning in Wordsworth's favour, something that anticipated. In fact De Quincey felt sure that he had discovered Wordsworth's genius at least thirty years before the reading public, who were sure to recognise it soon. He attributed the growing critical disregard for Wordsworth to the fact that people needed time to see the 'eternal truths' behind them. He predicted that the poems were destined to increase in popularity as people recognised his 'sympathy for what is really permanent in human feelings'. Memorably, he claimed 'whatever is too original will be hated at first. It must slowly mould a public for itself'.

And he seemed to be right. Critics such as Wordsworth's friend Charles Lamb wrote favourable reviews, in which flaws were highlighted within the context of friendly teasing. Coleridge too catalogued at length what he saw to be Wordsworth's faults, not unlike Jeffrey had. However, his aim was to prove that despite all of these, Wordsworth was still a truly great poet. He claimed that his synthesis of meditative solitude and an energetic excitement of the mind meant that he was capable of producing 'the first genuine philosophic poem'. Whether he ever in fact achieved this has been a recurrent critical debate, as we shall see.

Artistic Responses

Coleridge was not only a critic of Wordsworth - he was a fellow poet. His engagement with the poetry was creative as well as intellectual. He and Wordsworth had worked together on the Lyrical Ballads, and Coleridge was keen to point out that their collaboration did not mean that they held identical views about the task of poetry, or indeed on the Lyrical Ballads themselves. Indeed, as the years passed, their friendship became increasingly strained. Perhaps this was partly due to Coleridge's constant awareness that Wordsworth was the greater poet, and the dissipation of his own poetry as Wordsworth's grew into maturity. However, it was also undoubtedly due in some part to Wordsworth's growing contribution and dominance over the Ballads after 1798. Coleridge was highly concerned to articulate his own position, and often when he appears to be discussing Wordsworth, it is because he states Wordsworth's arguments, and then deliberately distances himself from them in order to highlight his own aesthetic theories and practices.

One novelist who gravitated towards Wordsworth was George Eliot. Her novels show the extent to which she admired Wordsworth as a simple poet of nature and rural beneficence. They shared an identification with the English rural landscape. His influence is perhaps most felt in her novel Silas Marner, where the epigraph is a snippet of one of his poems. She herself commented that she had doubted anyone at all would appreciate the novel seeing as 'Wordsworth is dead'. But it was not only Wordsworth's poetic style, but his philosophy which was inspiring people. John Stuart Mill, the famous economist and philosopher, was profoundly moved by the sentiments he found in Wordsworth. He became inspired by Wordsworth's visions of individuality and the dignity of the human. Wordsworth's concerns with aspects of existence that touch us on the profoundly personal level added nuances to Mill's thoughts about social justice and reform.

The Victorians

A recent critic, Stephen Gill, noted that Wordsworth is often approached by critics in the Victorian period not because of his poetry, but because their own 'visibility [their prominence as critics] is enhanced by a full-dress re-appraisal of Wordsworth's contemporary significance'. Wordsworth was becoming central to literary culture, not only because of his poetry but because of his reputation. The name 'Wordsworth' sold books, and so people began to write about him to gain fame for themselves. Everyone had an opinion on Wordsworth and wanted to share it. People even began to travel to Wordsworth's home in Grasmere on a poetic pilgrimage of sorts. 'The Sage of Rydal Mount', as Wordsworth became known, was now the living relic of a shrine. People journeyed there to take clippings from the garden, or even to converse with the master himself. And indeed they still do today, to partake of the 'famous Grasmere gingerbread'.

Matthew Arnold, an important Victorian social and literary critic, wrote of Wordsworth 'I, for one, must always listen to him with the profoundest respect'. However, he thought that ultimately, Wordsworth could never be a truly great and permanent poet of the stature that Coleridge had suggested he might be. He felt the poetry of Wordsworth and the other Romantic poets to be 'premature', produced 'without sufficient materials to work with'. Arnold summarises: 'In other words, the English poetry of the first quarter of this century, with plenty of energy, plenty of creative force, did not know enough'. This was a shortcoming not of the poets themselves, but of the society in which they were writing; this response is ironic in that both Coleridge and Wordsworth read copiously in numerous fields. But for Arnold, both the strength and the weakness of Wordsworth's poetry would always be that it had its 'source in a great movement of feeling, not in a great movement of mind'.

Modernist Discussions

The modernists framed Wordsworth as their point of departure from the poetry of emotions. rebutted the idea that good poetry was 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling', instead suggesting that it was in fact an escape from emotion and personality. He felt that critics should be turning their attention away from the feelings and opinions of the poet to re-focus on the poetry. A modernist preference for concrete imagery and language meant that Wordsworth was often considered suggestive and vague.

A few critics tried to reclaim purpose within this haze. M.H. Abrams characterised Wordsworth's poetry as having an outward-looking intention not entirely dissimilar from that at the centre of the Modernist project. He claimed that everything in Wordsworth's poems calls us to look beyond, always to something higher, deeper, better, something beyond the self. In contrast, Geoffrey Hartman claimed that Wordsworth's poetry calls us not out into nature, by deep into the mind of the poet himself. He was interested in Wordsworth as a poet of a of thought, or what he labelled Wordsworth's 'consciousness of consciousness', his thinking about his own thinking. The focus was clearly on Wordsworth's ideas, as he became the 'poet-philosopher'.

Specificity vs. Transcendence

critics such as Marjorie Levinson and Jerome McGann began to treat Wordsworth's expansiveness and introspection with suspicion. They considered a poem not only to be an aesthetic construction of language, but also a cultural product. Their approach was not only linguistic, but also conceptual and ideological. Their focus was on the historical aspect of the poems, which they felt had been much ignored since divorced poetry from its context. In reclaiming what had become known as 'cultural contamination' they looked through what they considered to be Wordsworth's elusive and generalising poems to find the specific historical moments which they thought lay behind them They claimed that any sense that his poetry transcends material history was an illusion, created by displacement and evasion. Thus theirs was the approach of analysing the unmentioned things behind the poem. Unfortunately, for many this implied that Wordsworth had focused on nature and beauty at the expense of recognising the harsh reality of the world around him. However, Levinson has been keen to suggest that in fact far from being divorced from his surroundings, he was so deeply affected by them that he could only bear to mention them in passing and so feigned aloofness.

Recently, however, a critical challenge to this approach has returned to a serious consideration of Wordsworth as a philosophical poet. David Bromwich and Simon Jarvis have both argued against criticism that attacks what is supposedly absent from Wordsworth's work. Instead they argue that Wordsworth's arguments in verse might still have ramifications for our own philosophising today. Bromwich was keen to suggest that Wordsworth did write this 'philosophical song' and Jarvis more generally suggests that, 'His [Wordsworth's] writing is always breaking through to some experience for which the available fails'. They believe his poetry to be a living moment of human truth, which exists beyond any one historical event, cultural cause, or life circumstance. This is not because they think that Wordsworth was not interested in 'the '. Jarvis is deeply interested in Wordsworth's response to its own cultural movement, but is keen to point out that his poetry might also take in a broader historical sweep of thought. Using theorists like , Jarvis argues that we must consider how Wordsworth treats a continuum of ideas and forms in his poetry - ideas and forms that have their own histories.

Bromwich has in fact called for a complete reappraisal of Wordsworth, suggesting that we cast aside idealised visions of him as the prophet of nature, and remembering that he was a man - at times a disagreeable one - who wrote poetry. By remembering this, we can perhaps gain a more realistic picture both of the poet and the poetry. And the debate is not over. While Wordsworth maintains his honoured position in the English canon, he will continue to be a centre of critical activity. For, whatever the reason, we can surely agree with Coleridge when he wrote that the sheer volume of critical writings 'leave no doubt in my mind, that Mr. Wordsworth is fully justified in believing his efforts to have been by no means ineffectual'.

Further Reading

Here you will find a list of the sources for quotations above. Other opinions (e.g. Lord Jeffrey quoted above) can be found in The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth, ed. Stephen Gill (Cambridge, 2003), or indeed in William Wordsworth: The Critical Heritage, ed. Robert Woof, vol. I: 1793-1820 (London, 2001).

  • Abrams, M.H., Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (Oxford, 1971).
  • Blake, William. Complete Writing, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (Oxford, 1957).
  • Bromwich, David, Disowned By Memory: Wordsworth's Poetry of the 1970s (London, 2000).
  • Coleridge, S.T, Biographia Literaria ed. J. Shawcross (Oxford, 1907).
  • De Quincey, Thomas, Recollections of the Lake Poets, ed. Edward Sackville-West (London, 1984).
  • Gill, Stephen, Wordsworth and the Victorians (Oxford, 1998).
  • Hartman, Geoffrey H., Wordsworth's Poetry 1787 - 1814 (Yale, 1964).
  • Hazlitt, William, The Spirit of the Age: Contemporary Portraits (London, 1825).
  • Jarvis, Simon, Wordsworth's Philosophic Song (Cambridge, 2006)
  • Lamb, Charles,Lamb's Criticism (ed.) E.M.W. Tillyard (Cambridge, 1923).
  • ---- Selected Writings (ed.) J.E. Morpurgo (Manchester, 1993).
  • Levinson, Marjorie, Wordsworth's Great Period Poems (Cambridge, 1986).
  • McGann, Jerome J, The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation (London, 1983).

The George Eliot quotation comes from a letter she wrote to her publisher, John Blackwood, on 24th Feb 1861 and can be found in the introduction by Terence Cave to the Penguin edition of Silas Marner.

Further Thinking

Rachel Thorpe quotes Simon Jarvis saying that Wordsworth is always 'breaking through' to something that words struggle to express. Can you find moments in the poems where this seems to be happening? Or would you put it another way?

It seems as if people have, for a variety of reasons, reacted against Wordsworth. Are there things that you react against - even if overall you are persuaded of his merits?

If you have a comment on any of the issues raised here, or if you have read something really good about Wordsworth, you can leave a reply here.

Lord Francis Jeffrey was a Scottish judge and critic.
Relating to metaphysics, which is the study of existence and the world at a level more fundamental than sciences attempt. Topics like ontology (the nature of being) and cosmology (the nature of the universe and our place in it) are part of metaphysics.
One of the greatest English critics and essayists of the early 19th century. He knew Wordsworth and Coleridge well.
Thomas De Quincey was an essayist and critic, and also the author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), an account of his drug experiences. He was an acquaintance of Wordsworth who moved to the Lake District and even lived in Dove Cottage, formerly Wordsworth's house.
As well as being one of the foremost Modernist poets, author of The Waste Land and Four Quartets, Eliot was an influential literary critic with strong views.
The study of experiences and consciousness. A 'phenomenology of thought' aims to understand thought by considering its first-person effects, what it feels like, how it is experienced, etc.
Also known as Cultural Materialism, a critical movement in which Stephen Greenblatt's work on Shakespeare (especially Shakespearean Negotiations) played a key role. The essential project of New Historicism is to read literature in relation to its historical context, but very much as part of that context - as a form in which the tensions, contradictions, and power-dynamics of a culture are all at work, not as something which observes all that from on high.
An important literary critical movement of the mid-20th century, which emphasised close reading, undermined the important of contexts, authorial intentions, etc., and often prized ambiguity as a crucial literary feature. A good example of the New Criticism is Cleanth Brooks's book The Well-Wrought Urn (1947).
Another word for Dictionary; the point is that some Wordsworthian poetic experiences appear to be beyond words, or at least beyond words as they were/are currently used.
A phrase used by William Blake in Jerusalem.
One of the greatest cultural philosophers of the 20th century, Theodor Adorno's ideas straddle many fields. Perhaps his most important contribution to literary criticism is his complex analysis of how thoughts and ideas work in society (things they can and cannot do), and how literature and culture can work as critiques of the prevailing power structures.

Wordsworth’s Cambridge Education

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

Sophie A. Sawicka-Sykes, a second-year undergraduate, takes a close look at Book III of The Prelude, Wordsworth's great autobiographical poem. In it she finds his reflections on the unfamiliar, the delightful, the unsettling, and the stimulating aspects of his Cambridge years. A note on sources: three books have provided most of the facts in this piece: Stephen Gill, William Wordsworth: A Life (Oxford, 1990); Nicholas Roe, Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years (Oxford, 1988); and Ben Ross Schneider, Wordsworth's Cambridge Education (Cambridge, 1957). They will be cited in brackets in the text, where appropriate. The editions mentioned under 'Works Cited' below are the sources of a few other details.

A New Life

As William Wordsworth left the Lake District for the first time in October 1787, he was no doubt immersed in the nervous excitement felt by even the most self-assured .  Having been a pupil at Hawkshead Grammar school, one of the best in the country, he was well trained in mathematics, the subject which dominated the Cambridge curriculum thanks to the work of Trinity College graduate Sir Isaac Newton (Schneider, p. 4).  Wordsworth was not without connections at Cambridge - his former Master at Hawkshead was soon to become Professor of Law, and with him in the coach was his uncle, William Cookson, a Fellow of St John's College and a friend of (Gill).  Yet as he travelled towards what promised to be a distinguished future at St John's, Wordsworth may well have lamented the separation from his beloved sister, Dorothy, his closet living relative; he might have been worrying about the expectation placed on him by his unsympathetic uncle at Penrith; and perhaps he was basking in the memories of the awesome hills that scraped the leaden clouds as he entered the flat fens of Cambridgeshire.

A Charmed Life?

Surrounded by the well-known yet unfamiliar sights of the majestic colleges and the traditional dress of the students, it is little wonder that Wordsworth describes his new residence as an 'eddy', a whirlpool of new experiences that he cannot resist.  Inundated on all sides by instructions and advice, Wordsworth appears to have enjoyed the dizzying hubbub of his first few weeks at Cambridge.  But after the exhilaration subsided, the feeling of disorientation remained.  To be unsettled is to be detached from a sense of place and purpose.  Uprooted from Cumberland and not fully established in Cambridge, Wordsworth compares his life to that of a 'floating island, an amphibious thing' (The Prelude, III, 340).  Though capable of supporting life, these spongy patches of ground that rise from beneath soon disappear back into obscurity.  Wordsworth knew that he had intellectual substance, but his time at Cambridge made him feel redundant, out of place and almost uncanny.

Wordsworth depicts his own haste to familiarise himself with the already bustling city and kit himself out as the quintessential Cambridge student.  He finds himself in a rags to riches fairytale, decked in 'splendid clothes', his very hair metamorphosed, 'Glittering like rimy trees when the frost is keen' (III, 37).  The change he underwent, from 'northern villager' to a Cambridge townsman is further highlighted in the of the text, where his two identities are physically separated into two .  Wordsworth is certainly given the appearance of a gentleman, but the spell only has a superficial effect.  Although three quarters of Senior Fellows at St John's were Northerners (Schneider, pp. 6-7), Wordsworth was in all probability acutely aware of his accent and rustic manners.

It did not help that he was a sizar, a student receiving financial help from his College: in the stanza following his transformation, he mentions that he was delegated a small room in a 'nook obscure'.  According to College practice, sizars would have had to wear a distinctive gown and eat leavings from the Fellows' table (Schneider, p. 42), so the thought of playing the part of the gentleman must have seemed inappropriate.  Wordsworth's strong identification with his rural home in the North gave him a sense of stability and .  His preference for 'homely produce rudely piled' (III, 602) contrasts sharply to the elaborate arras of an 'artificial life' (III, 590).  The imagery suggests that such a superficial lifestyle is morally tainted; the 'snaky hues' (III, 594) deceive the eye, whilst the rough material favoured by Wordsworth is sheered from a faithful flock led by a shepherd swain.

Even though Wordsworth declines to play the gentleman, he acknowledges the necessity of assuming a role at Cambridge.  He repeatedly uses theatrical metaphors to describe the artificiality of his university life, a show which, for a time, dazzles his inner vision.  Wordsworth plays the 'loiterer', one who revolts against the pressurised atmosphere.  The spectacle being enacted is a tournament, which is not just a representation of life, but a microcosm of the competitive spirit at large in the world.  The boyish races of his childhood 'where disappointment could be none, / Uneasiness, or pain, or jealousy' (II, 66-7) provided a bitter contrast to the aggressive rivalry that possessed the students during examination days.

Such emulation was encouraged by the university: on the final day of exams, the Questionists (Fourth years) were 'bracketed' with peers of roughly equal ability.  If a man felt that he had been positioned too low, he could challenge someone in a higher bracket to a contest of wits, the intellectual equivalent of a tournament, in which the students sported the heraldic badge of their College crest to obtain the much sought for prize of an Honours degree (Schneider, p. 6).  Wordsworth's lack of ambition meant that he graduated from Cambridge in 1791 with a BA without Honours - that is, he was among the 70 or so who did the bare minimum to pass.  Though he was true to himself, Wordsworth was a disappointment to his family, who expected him to enter the clerical or legal profession, or take up a fellowship at St John's College in place of his uncle, who married in 1788, thereby leaving the position open (Schneider, p. 7).

The Fellows themselves were as dry and dusty as their books, in contrast to the old shepherds breathing the fresh mountain air.  Aged and yet influenced by the showy manners and fashions of the young students, the grave elders are objects of derision, not reverence.  The deceased eccentrics exist in Wordsworth's memory how they existed in life, 'Of texture midway between life and books' (III, 613).  From Wordsworth's descriptions of them, the reader has trouble imagining the Fellows as living, breathing men.  Book III concludes with an image of a museum, in which specimens of the natural world are artificially preserved.  Such dead objects could only teach Wordsworth so much - he was to find real wisdom in nature.

For all the reasons given by Wordsworth in Book III for his dislike of Cambridge, a great deal is left unsaid.  Though Cambridge was a seat of political radicalism [see the section entitled 'A Radical Life' below], Wordsworth does not mention the controversial issues debated inside and outside the Senate House.  The content of the Cambridge curriculum also goes unspecified, replaced with a parenthetical character sketch of the students' different attitudes to learning.  One only need compare his enthusiasm to write about the shaping influences of his childhood in the Lake District in Book II to the bathos of 'I do not speak of learning, moral truth / Or understanding' (III, 91-2) and the dismissive 'Two winters may be passed / Without separate notice' (VI, 25-6) to understand that Wordsworth found much of his Cambridge career a soul-dulling drag.

A Poetical Life

Yet the phrase Wordsworth uses to describe his slight of the intellectual culture at Cambridge demonstrates one of the positive effects the institution had on his development as a poet.  When he remarks that his pursuit of independent study was a 'proud rebellion and unkind', one cannot help but imagine him as Satan from Milton's Paradise Lost.  Wordsworth was evidently moved by the thought that Newton, Chaucer, Spenser and Milton had trodden the same paths through the cobbled streets, and was nostalgic about the Cambridge of the past.  His admiration extends back to when Cambridge was under monastic orders and scholars studied with patience, plainness and piety.  The students who applied themselves diligently to their books are compared to caterpillars eating their way through the academic material.  The 'chattering popinjays' (III, 457) may represent a particular type of contemporary student, who lacks the humility of the scholars of old and vainly flounces his riches.

However, in one episode of Book III, Wordsworth demonstrates how his reverence for the past can tip into the most Satanic of vices - pride.  Honouring the memory of Milton in what was his first, and probably last drinking session, Wordsworth is tainted with upon arriving late at the chapel and walking through the townspeople, 'the inferior throng / Of the plain burghers' (III, 319-20).  Wordsworth is ashamed of such conceit, after clear-headed reflection.  The haughty attitude that briefly possesses him is akin to that of the , the more violent of whom were known to attack the townspeople (confusingly called 'Snobs').  Did he attempt atonement through the everyday language and simple style of ? According to the 1800 version of the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, the language of common man is more apt to convey feelings, 'being less under the action of social vanity', in contrast to the poets who 'indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression in order to furnish food for fickle tastes and fickle appetites of their own creation'.  This passage clearly shows Wordsworth's disgust of poetic and material indulgence.  Nevertheless, it is likely that he felt a conflict of feeling between the sense of belonging with the commoners of the Northern countryside, and with the intellectual elite at Cambridge University.

In Book VI, Wordsworth describes how his 'instinctive humbleness' of mighty names began to 'melt away' (VI, 69-73) to soft sympathy for his fellow poets.  When Wordsworth was not socialising or pursuing his interest in languages, he took solitary walks through the fields around Cambridge.  The absence of the sublime scenery of the Lake District, that before may have filled his mind with awe and stunned his thought processes, allowed him to contemplate the unity throughout nature.  In silence and solitude, he felt how nature, his mind, and the mind of God were harmonised and intertwined.  It may have been on these inspired outings that he began composing An Evening Walk, detailing an excursion through the Lake District, which he completed before his four years in Cambridge were over (Gill, p. 42).  Even during that unhappy period, the 'poet's soul' stirred within Wordsworth, and the vast 'house / Of letters' (VI, 32-3) provided him with plenty of literary resources.  For though it may have felt like he was wandering through a museum, 'every step brings something forth / That quickens, pleases, stings' (III, 656-7).

A Radical Life

The storming of the on the 14th July 1789 was a momentous declaration of liberty.  According to a contemporary account, a great number of members of the Cambridge Senate supported radical action in France (Roe, p. 15).  But as the Revolution spun out of control, the authorities developed a suspicion of dissenters such as William Frend. He was tried and found guilty before the Vice-Chancellor's Court in Cambridge following the publication of his subversive pamphlet, Peace and Union, in 1793, the year of King Louis XVI's execution and the publication of Frend became a leading member of the Corresponding Society, whose members included a large proportion of Cambridge students and friends of Godwin (Roe, p. 19).  Coleridge, who arrived in Cambridge the year Wordsworth finished his degree, became a under the influence of Frend in 1792.  Frend also played an important part in the life of Wordsworth, for it was at Frend's house that Wordsworth also made the acquaintance of Godwin (Roe, p. 14).

Other Cambridge dissenters included Robert Robinson, who founded the Cambridge Constitutional Society, a forum for debating the hottest political and theological issues of the day over tea, and Theophilus Lindsey, who founded the Essex Street Unitarian Chapel in 1774.  A significant number of the Cambridge dissenters were also Unitarians.  They advocated the removal of the Test Acts (acts in force between 1673 and 1828 that required allegiance to the Church of England), and the to which every student at Cambridge had to subscribe to qualify for their degree (Roe, p. 15).   Wordsworth's spirituality, that some critics have called , did not seem to conflict with his faith in the Church of England.

The Prelude gives no indication of the political changes occurring at Cambridge during Wordsworth's student days.  This may be because the radical atmosphere had not fully developed at the University until Wordsworth graduated, or, unlike Coleridge, Wordsworth may have been relatively unmoved by the dissenters.  Nevertheless, his connections to the Cambridge radicals proved vital in the ensuing years, when he was to be swept up with the tide of revolutionary zeal, before ultimately rejecting Godwin's political theory in favour of his personal philosophy - that the experiences of nature, not abstract moral reasoning, lead us to the highest truths.

'Life's Sweet Season'

Wordsworth was certainly unhappy at Cambridge, but it would be an over-simplification to ignore the positive effects of his time at university.  His desire for a broader curriculum, though not entirely fulfilled, could have been partly satisfied by his tutoring in modern languages by Agostino Isola.  Despite his lack of application in the area of mathematics, he later found consolation in the study of geometry.  The book of Euclid that appears in the dream sequence of Book V, which 'held acquaintance with the stars / And wedded man to man by purest bond / Of nature' (V, 104-6) was one of the set texts for Lent Term 1788 (though Wordsworth had already began his study of it at Hawkshead Grammar school).  The influence of Newtonian mathematics can be seen in Wordsworth's cosmological metaphors, for example, he is as wakeful to the and beauty of nature 'as waters are / To the sky's motion' (III, 135-6).  We have already seen how his evening walks contributed to his belief that all living things are linked and suffused with the omnipresent mind of God.  Though socialising seemed superficial in comparison to the time he spent alone, deep in thought, Wordsworth delighted in the company of his fellow students.  He naturally inclined towards society, to the youth of Cambridge flowering in 'life's sweet season' (III, 225).  The dreaming, the sauntering, the rioting and the talk were not as unprofitable as Wordsworth may have thought; his love of mankind blossomed during this period of his life and continued to grow and survive his disenchantment with the French Revolution.

Further Reading

  • Wordsworth, William and Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Lyrical Ballads, ed. R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones, second edition (London and New York, 1991; first published 1963)
  • Wordsworth, William, The Prelude: The Four Texts (1798, 1799, 1805, 1850) (London, 1995)

Further Thinking

What surprises you about the portrayal of Cambridge in Prelude, Book 3?

Sophie Sawicka-Sykes takes an optimistic line and argues that Wordsworth's love of humanity 'blossomed' in Cambridge. Is there room for an alternative reading, more pessimistic and more in tune with the poet's unhappiness, of the relevant passage?

First-year student, especially at the beginning of the year.
The influential MP and leading advocate of the abolition of slavery.
Floating Island / Derwent Water - Wordsworth's metaphorical floating island is based on a natural phenomenon he observed in the Lake District.
The Prelude was first published in 1850, three months after Wordsworth's death; earlier versions (dated 1798, 1799, and 1805) were found later, and published.
The word is usually used of a repeating unit in a poem - e.g. 'a four-line stanza rhyming abab'. Here it is used of the verse paragraphs in The Prelude, which vary in length.
Being unsophisticated and unworldly; here it means he seemed out of place in Cambridge.
Being condescending, disdainful.
A group of hearty and hard-living students.
In 1798 Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published this collection of poems. It was one of the key early works of English Romanticism. In the second edition (1800) Wordsworth included a Preface that set out his wish to write poetry using everyday language.
A fortress-prison in Paris. A key moment in the French Revolution came when the Bastille was attacked and taken by a revolutionary crowd.
William Godwin's Enquiry into Political Justice (1593) was one of the most important English responses to the French Revolution. It explored the possibilities of an anarchist society.
Unitarians believe in a single God, not in a Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Although there are different strands of Unitarianism, most see Jesus as a great man, perhaps more than a man, but not as God.
The 39 articles of the Anglican faith originated in the reign of Elizabeth I. They set out core beliefs, including the very first, faith in the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
A belief that God is in everything, indeed that God is everything, and everything is God.
'The sublime', a very important category in poetics, refers to something great to the point of being incomparable, as a physical, aesthetic, or moral quality.

William Wordsworth

Monday, December 1st, 2008

William Wordsworth was born in 1770. He grew up in the Lake District (with which he is often associated) and went to grammar school at Hawkshead in Furness. His first departure from this part of the country took him to St John's College, Cambridge, in 1787. His Cambridge career was not particularly happy or distinguished, and he graduated without honours in 1791. In 1790 he had undertaken a bold journey through France, in the grip of Revolution, to the Alps. This sparked a fascination with France and radical politics. War between England and France kept him apart from his French mistress, Annette Vallon, and their daughter. Later they agreed to separate and he was married, to Mary Hutchinson, with whom he had five children.

Success and financial security did not come quickly to Wordsworth. However, in 1798 he and his great friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge published the first edition of Lyrical Ballads, and in 1799 he moved back to the Lake District. In 1800 the second edition of Lyrical Ballads came out, this time with its important critical preface (revised and expanded for the 1802 edition) outlining the principles behind the poems and their language. By this time he was also working on The Prelude, the complex autobiographical poem that is usually thought to be his greatest achievement. He worked on this throughout his life, and it was only published in after his death in 1850; most of it was in place by 1805, however. Wordsworth and his family settled at Rydal Mount, overlooking Lake Windermere, but he travelled a good deal in Europe and, as his fame grew, he was feted in London. He became Poet Laureate in 1843.

For the modern reader, there are two key areas of his work to explore: his shorter works, as found in Lyrical Ballads but also in other collections, and The Prelude. The latter includes powerful autobiographical episodes transformed into a profound and searching exploration of the mind, the individual, and poetry in relation to nature and history. While there are various selections of Wordsworth's poetry that include these, it is worth the extra effort to get hold of one through which you can get at the different version ofThe Prelude, such as The Prelude: The Four Texts (1798, 1799, 1805, 1850), ed. Jonathan Wordsworth (London: Penguin, 1995).

The Cambridge Authors pages for Wordsworth include three essays opening up aspects of his work: one looks at two centuries of criticism and interpretation; another looks at how places matter so much in his poetry; and another looks at his experience in Cambridge. We have also included an interview with Cambridge lecturer Dr Stephen Logan, who describes the insights offered by reading Wordsworth aloud, especially in the light of an understanding of the regional dialects of his time.