The son of John and Ann Cookson Wordsworth, William Wordworth was born on April 7, in Cockermouth, Cumberland, located in the Lake District of England: an area that would become closely associated with Wordsworth for over two centuries after his death. He began writing poetry as a young boy in grammar school, and before graduating from college he went on a walking tour of Europe, which deepened his love for nature and his sympathy for the common man: both major themes in his poetry.
The Wordsworth children seem to have lived in a sort of rural paradise along the Derwent River, which ran past the terraced garden below the ample house whose tenancy John Wordsworth had obtained from his employer, the political magnate and property owner Sir James Lowther, Baronet of Lowther later Earl of Lonsdale. The intense lifelong friendship between William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy probably began when they, along with Mary Hutchinson, attended school at Penrith. This childhood idyll was not to continue, however. In March of Ann Wordsworth died while visiting a friend in London.
She did not see William again until In December of John Wordsworth, returning home from a business trip, lost his way and was forced to spend a cold night in the open. Very ill when he reached home, he died December Though separated from their sister, all the boys eventually attended school together at Hawkshead, staying in the house of Ann Tyson.
In the third book of The Prelude Wordsworth recorded his reactions to life at Cambridge and his changing attitude toward his studies. Though Wordsworth, encouraged by his headmaster William Taylor, had been composing verse since his days at Hawkshead Grammar School, his poetic career begins with this first trip to France and Switzerland.
During this period he also formed his early political opinions—especially his hatred of tyranny. These opinions would be profoundly transformed over the coming years but never completely abandoned.
Prophetic Tautology and the Song of Deborah: Approaching Language in the Wordsworth Circle
Wordsworth was intoxicated by the combination of revolutionary fervor he found in France—he and Jones arrived on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille—and by the impressive natural beauty of the countryside and mountains. In December he met and fell in love with Annette Vallon, and at the beginning of he became the close friend of an intellectual and philosophical army officer, Michel Beaupuy, with whom he discussed politics.
Wordsworth had been an instinctive democrat since childhood, and his experiences in revolutionary France strengthened and developed his convictions. While still in France, Wordsworth began work on the first extended poetic efforts of his maturity, Descriptive Sketches , which was published in , after the appearance of a poem written at Cambridge, An Evening Walk Having exhausted his money, he left France in early December before Annette Vallon gave birth to his child Caroline. Back in England, the young radical cast about for a suitable career.
His democratic sympathies aroused, he spent several weeks in February and March working on a reply. By this time, his relationship with Annette Vallon had become known to his English relatives, and any further opportunity of entering the Church was foreclosed. Equality, without which liberty cannot exist, is to be met with in perfection in that state in which no distinctions are admitted but such as have evidently for their object the general good.
You wish it to be supposed that you are one of those who are unpersuaded of the guilt of Louis XVI. If you had attended to the history of the French revolution as minutely as its importance demands, so far from stopping to bewail his death, you would rather have regretted that the blind fondness of his people had placed a human being in that monstrous situation. During this period Wordsworth met another radical young man with literary aspirations, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
In and Wordsworth divided his time between London and the Lake Country. Because of the odd habits of the household—especially their walking over the countryside at all hours—the local population suspected that the Wordsworths and their visitors were French spies, and a government agent was actually dispatched to keep an eye on them. Wordsworth seems to have been attempting to work out and justify his changing political and social ideas—ideas that had begun to develop intuitively during the process of poetic composition.
The poet in Wordsworth was beginning to dominate the democrat, and the poet found a political philosophy based on power, violence, and reason anathema. In September the Wordsworths set off for Germany with Coleridge, returning separately, after some disagreements, in May In Germany Wordsworth continued to write poems, and when he returned to England he began to prepare a new edition of Lyrical Ballads. The second edition—that of —included an extended preface by Wordsworth, explaining his reasons for choosing to write as he had and setting out a personal poetics that has remained influential and controversial to the present day.
Eliot and Ezra Pound, while they could accept the strictures on poetic diction, found the underlying theory unacceptable. It is important to remember when reading the preface that it both chronologically and logically follows the composition of most of the poems.
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The two central ideas of the preface are the need for reforming poetic diction—which, according to Wordsworth, had become far too artificial—and the role of the poet in society, which Wordsworth saw as having become too marginal. He had also come to the conclusion that the troubles of society were specifically urban in nature.
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In the preface, Wordsworth characterized those forces as acting against the elevation of mind in which the poet specializes, and he identified them with urban life:. For a multitude of causes unknown to former times are now acting with combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the encreasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.
To this tendency of life and manners the literature of the atrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves. The invaluable works of our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespear and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagent stories in verse.
The [Prince Regent] seems neither respected or beloved; and the lower orders have been for upwards of thirty years accumulating in pestilential masses of ignorant population; the effects now begin to show themselves. Even before the publication of the first edition in , Wordsworth was certainly aware that the poems in Lyrical Ballads were different from the conventional verse of the day, and he knew that fashionable reviewers would probably dismiss them as insufficiently elevated in tone and subject matter.
But even in the version of the preface Wordsworth made an explicit connection between a plain poetic diction and a proper relationship to nature and society; that is, he makes the issue of a poetic diction a moral one, and his critique of a sonnet by Thomas Gray is an ethical demonstration as well as an example of literary criticism directed by one generation against the preceding one. With financial prospects, Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson on October 2, The settlement helped to support a growing family and also allowed the Wordsworths to continue their generosity to various friends and men of letters, many of whom came to stay at Dove Cottage, sometimes for months on end.
Wordsworth continued to write poetry with energy and passion over the next several years, and while fashionable critics such as Francis Jeffrey continued to snipe, his reputation and finances slowly improved. In these poems Wordsworth presents a fully developed, yet morally flexible, picture of the relationship between human beings and the natural world.
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Thomas De Quincy took over Dove Cottage. Symptoms of the measles appeared upon my Son Thomas last Thursday; he was most favorable held till Tuesday, between 10 and 11 at that hour was particularly lightsome and comfortable; without any assignable cause a sudden change took place, an inflammation had commenced on the lungs which it was impossible to check and the sweet Innocent yielded up his soul to God before six in the evening. He did not appear to suffer much in body, but I fear something in mind as he was of an age to have thought much upon death a subject to which his mind was daily led by the grave of his Sister.
Thomas was the second child of William and Mary Wordsworth to die in childhood. Catherine had died the previous June, a few months before her fourth birthday. In late Lord Lonsdale proposed that he provide pounds a year for the support of Wordsworth and his family until a salaried position became available. He was relieved when the post of Distributor of Stamps was offered to him a few months later. Politically, Wordsworth had completely transformed himself; poetically, he repeated earlier formulas and began rearranging his poems in a seemingly infinite sequence of thematically organized volumes.
As Distributor of Stamps, Wordsworth should not have engaged in electioneering, but his two addresses back the local nobility in no uncertain terms. Fully the Tory mouthpiece, Wordsworth argued that the Whigs had put too much faith in human nature, as they and he did at the commencement of the French Revolution. In Wordsworth returned to his introduction, expanding it into a book most commonly known as A Guide through the District of the Lakes , which continues to be republished in a variety of editions.
In Wordsworth was named poet laureate of England, though by this time he had for the most part quit composing verse. He revised and rearranged his poems, published various editions, and entertained literary guests and friends. When he died in , he had for some years been venerated as a sage, his most ardent detractors glossing over the radical origins of his poetics and politics.
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