Wordsworth’s Cambridge Education

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.

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