William Wordsworth
(1770 - 1850)

Portrait of William Wordsworth
Portrait of William Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert Haydon

1770 : Birth and parents
William Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth in Cumberland, son of John Wordsworth, and Ann, née Cookson, of Penrith.The Cooksons were well-to-do people who ran a large drapery next to the George Hotel in Penrith. Ann's mother had aristocratic pretensions as a descendant of the Crackenthorpes of Newbiggin Hall. John worked as an agent and rent collector for Sir James Lowther.

1778 - 1787: Childhood and education
His mother died in 1778 (8), and in the same year he was sent as a boarder to Hawkshead Grammar School. His father died in 1783 (13), at which time Sir James owed him some £4000 (around £200,000 in today's terms), but he refused to honour the debt, which was not paid until 'wicked Jimmy' (Sir James Lowther) was dead (ie 20 years later). Responsibility for William and his siblings passed to his mother’s brother, Christopher Cookson, an unhappy arrangement for the children, who found their guardian unsympathetic. Hawkshead School, on the other hand, under the headship of William Taylor, was a progressive and liberally oriented establishment, where reading in mathematics, the sciences and poetry was encouraged. Wordsworth's sister, Dorothy, who was later to become his constant companion, was separated from her brothers and sent to live with Elizabeth 'Aunt' Threlkeld, her mother's cousin, in Halifax. more

1787 - 90: University and walking tour of France, Switzerland, Northern Italy and Germany
He attended St John’s College, Cambridge, from 1787 (17) to 1791 (21). During the long vacation of 1790 (20), he went on a walking tour of France, Switzerland, Northern Italy and Germany (over 4000 kilometres in total) with his friend Robert Jones, at a time when the whole of France was in full enthusiasm in the initial phases of the Revolution. They returned along the Rhine, and by mid October, Wordsworth was back at Cambridge.  more

November 1791 - December 1792: Second visit to France and affair with Annette Vallon
During this second visit to France he was befriended by Michel Beaupuy, through whom he came to share the ideals of the French Revolution, despite its descent into violence and disorder. Whilst in Orléans he had an affair with Annette Vallon (1766-), who bore him a child (christened Caroline on December 15, 1792) just after he returned to England. He would not see the child until 1802.  more

December 1792 - April 1793: He returns to England and radical ideas
Financial problems and the political situation in France forced him to return to England. Whether he had requested money from his uncles is uncertain, but he clearly had plans on foot to try to raise money by the publication of the long poems An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches, both completed while he was abroad. The two poems were published under separate cover by Joseph Johnson of St Paul's Churchyard, London, on 29 January 1793, receiving unfavourable not to say contemptuous reviews. He now began to give wholehearted support to the radical philosophy of Thomas Paine and the ideas of the French revolution, openly expressing these ideas in his own poetry, and penning a Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff (probably composed in February 1793, but unfinished and not published until 1876) in which he clearly expressed his republican sentiments, a dangerous thing at the time, as William Pitt's government was pursuing radicals and dissenters with increasingly severe penalties. more

map of england
map of England showing Wordsworth's tour of 1793

April 1793 - February 1794: Pedestrian tour of England and Wales, possible third visit to France, William Calvert, and Dorothy Wordsworth
With war between England and France declared in February 1793, return to France became almost impossible. In April 1793 (23), William Calvert, a friend from Hawkshead School, who had recently inherited a considerable fortune, invited him on a tour of England and Wales, all expenses paid. The tour began on the Isle of Wight (2), conceivably to allow William to check out the possibility of making a crossing to France. The two men spent a month on the island before heading north, separating near Salisbury (3) after an accident that damaged the gig in which they were travelling beyond repair. It was probably at this point that Wordsworth began to compose the poem Salisbury Plain. He continued alone and on foot through Salisbury, Bath, Bristol and into Wales (4), following the River Wye past Tintern Abbey, then continued his tour northwards, visiting his friend Jones in the vale of Clwyd (5), where he spent the summer. It is possible that he now made another attempt to cross over to France (6), the main evidence for which is that the historian Carlyle recorded later that William told him that he had witnessed the execution of Gorsas, which occurred in Paris on October 7, 1793. He probably returned to England shortly thereafter and made his way north to visit relatives and friends in the Lake District (7) during the late autumn and winter, arriving at the Rawson's house near Halifax (8) in mid-February 1794 (24), where he was re-united with his sister, Dorothy.

February - September 1794 : tour of the North West with Dorothy
He stayed in Halifax with his sister, Dorothy, and the Rawsons until mid-April 1794. They then set off together, travelling by coach and on foot as far as Windy Brow, near Keswick (9), a farmhouse offered to them rent free by William Calvert while he was away in London, and where they lingered for a while until making for Cockermouth and then Whitehaven, where Dorothy stayed with the family of her uncle Richard Wordsworth. The two then spent some time moving between friends and relations in the Lake District.

September 1794 - January 1795: Raisley Calvert and a legacy
William returned to Windy Brow in late September, where he found William Calvert's brother, Raisley, in poor health (he was in fact dying of tuberculosis). The poet agreed to accompany the sick man on a trip to Portugal, but, when this proved impossible due to his deteriorating health, undertook to stay to look after him. Raisley, who had made plans to share his income with Wordsworth in order to allow him to pursue his career as poet, now proposed to leave him £600, later raised to £900, as a legacy. Wordsworth spent the next few months nursing him until his death on January 9, 1795 (25).  more

February 1795 - September 1795: Residence in London and Bristol
At the end of February 1795 (25), Wordsworth was back in London, and became involved with the radical republican circle around the philosopher William Godwin. Amongst those he met at this time were John and Azariah Pinney, sons of a rich Bristol merchant, who offered him the use of Racedown Lodge in Dorset rent free. He also came to an agreement with Basil Montagu to look after Montagu's young son for £50 a year, the intention being to settle with Dorothy and the boy at Racedown. He left London towards the end of August 1795 for Bristol, where Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had been giving lectures. After spending five weeks with the Pinneys, he arrived at Racedown with his sister Dorothy and the young Basil on 26 September. more

Map of Great Britain showing places relevant to William Wordsworth
map of Great Britain showing places relevant to the biography of Wordsworth

September 1795 - June 1797: Racedown Lodge
Whilst the crackdown against radicals continued with the passage of the Treasonable Practices and Seditious Meetings Acts in December 1795, Wordsworth lived in solitude with his sister and young Basil Montagu at Racedown. He revised the poem Salisbury Plain, writing to his friend Francis Wrangham on November 20, 1795: 'I have made alterations and additions so material as that it may be looked on almost as another work'. A visit to London in June 1796 and further acquaintance with Godwin and his circle seems to have confirmed a reaction against the philosopher's ideas, which William expressed in his blank verse drama The Borderers, composed in late 1796 / early 1797. His future wife, Mary Hutchinson, arrived to visit in November 1796, staying until the end of May 1797. Returning on foot from a trip to Bristol in early April 1797, Wordsworth made a detour to pay a visit to the poet Coleridge at Nether Stowey, and Coleridge returned the compliment a little later, arriving at Racedown on 5 June, at which point Coleridge read aloud his unfinished drama Osorio and Wordsworth read aloud his Borderers.  Coleridge left on June 28, but returned two days later in a cart to carry off William and Dorothy to Nether Stowey. more

Map of the West Country
Map of the West Country

July 1797 - July 1798: Alfoxton House and Lyrical Ballads
Whilst visiting Coleridge at Nether Stowey, the Wordsworths found and took a lease on nearby Alfoxton House, 'a large mansion, in a large park, with seventy head of deer around us' (Dorothy Wordsworth to Mary Hutchinson, August 14, 1797). Unfortunately, rumours spread that the Wordsworths were republican sympathisers and possibly French spies. It was a time of heightened fear of a French invasion, and a government agent was sent to check out the rumours, which were found to be groundless, but Mrs St Albyn, the owner of the Alfoxton property, promptly gave them notice to quit at the end of June 1798. By the beginning of March 1798, Wordsworth had completed the first version of The Ruined Cottage, according to Dorothy 'to the length of 900 lines' (Letter to Mary Hutchinson March 5, 1798). The poem was never published in this form, but much of the material was used later for the first book of The Excursion. It was also during the course of early 1798 that the idea of composing an epic philosophic poem was suggested by Coleridge. Wordsworth took on the idea. He writes in a letter to Jas Tobin, on 6 March, 1798 : 'I have written 1300 lines of a poem in which I contrive to convey most of the knowledge of which I am possessed. My object is to give pictures of Nature, Man and Society. Indeed, I know not any thing which will not come within the scope of my plan.' The poem was The Recluse, which, including the preface The Prelude, eventually expanded to some twenty thousand lines and on which Wordsworth was to work for the rest of his life. Wordsworth also planned a collaboration with Coleridge to bring to publication a volume of poetry, entitled Lyrical Ballads, for which most of the poems were written between April and August 1798. The volume was published in September 1798. more

map of northern germany showing places visited by Wordsworth and Coleridge
map of northern Germany showing places visited by Wordsworth and Coleridge

September 1798 - May 1799: Trip to Germany
On 16 September William and Dorothy Wordsworth set sail from Yarmouth for Hamburg with Coleridge and John Chester, a native of Nether Stowey. Having seen the sights of Hamburg all 'huddle and ugliness, stink and stagnation,' (Coleridge, letter to Thomas Poole, 26 October), Coleridge left for Ratzeburg, arranging for rooms for himself and Chester. The Wordsworths were left to make their own arrangements, and travelled south to Goslar, 'a venerable (venerable I mean as to its external appearance) decayed city'.  Wordsworth made no progress in learning German as there was almost no-one with whom he could converse, and he and Dorothy lived in almost complete isolation, an isolation which had its benefits as the poet was thrown back on his own resources, and composed a considerable amount of poetry, including the 'Lucy' and 'Matthew' poems, and the beginnings of The Prelude. They were effectively kept at Goslar by the exceptionally cold winter, leaving only on 23 February to tour the Harz mountains and probably some of the towns of Upper Saxony, including Weimar. Unfortunately, Wordsworth's account of this tour has been lost. Coleridge had in the meantime moved to Göttingen, where the Wordsworths arrived in April burning with '.. impatience to return to their native country' (Coleridge, letter to Sara Coleridge, 23 April) Unable to persuade Coleridge to go with them, they promptly left for England the next day. more

May - December 1799 : Return to England, Sockburn and the Lake District
On their return in May 1799 (29), William and Dorothy moved first to Sockburn, Yorkshire, where they stayed with their friends, the Hutchinsons. Coleridge returned from Germany in July and came to visit at the end of October with the publisher Cottle. The three men set out on a walking tour to Egglestone Abbey, Barnard Castle, and Greta Bridge, where Cottle parted company, and the two poets took the mail to Temple Sowerby near Penrith. William's brother John now joined them, and the three men set off on a tour of the Lakes, during which William discovered a 'small house' at Grasmere which he thinks he and Dorothy might take. This is Town End (later called Dove Cottage), Grasmere. The two poets parted company around November 17, Coleridge returning to Sockburn and then, almost immediately, to London, William staying on in the Lakes until the end of November, and probably completing arrangements for renting Dove Cottage. It is probably at this point in time that Coleridge's infatuation with Sarah Hutchinson, Mary's sister, began. more

Dove Cottage     
Dove Cottage, Grasmere, now the Wordsworth Museum. It was known to the Wordsworths as Townend. Built in the 17th century as the Dove and Olive Bough Inn, the cottage was rented by the Wordsworths from December 1799 until May 1808.

Part II

Ullswater in the Lake District, watercolour by John Glover (1767-1849)

Links to Poems

Poems written in youth
Lines left on a Seat in a Yew Tree  
  Descriptive Sketches
An Evening Walk 

Poems on the naming of places
Joanna's Rock  

Poems of the Fancy
   The Linnet

Poems of the Imagination
  Lines written above Tintern Abbey
   Night Piece

Miscellaneous Sonnets
   Upon Westminster Bridge
It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free  
   Composed in the Valley near Dover
The Poet's Work  

  Sonnet, on seeing Miss Helen Maria Williams weep at a tale of distress
The World is too much with us 

Poems dedicated to National Independence and Liberty
On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic  

Other Poems
The Prelude

Links to external sites

Recording of The Wanderer

Comprehensive poetry resource

The poet biographies, criticism, maps, translations, and textual notes on this site are the copyright of Paul Scott