William Wordsworth
University (1787 - 1791)

St John's College, Cambridge
St John's College, Cambridge

1787-91: University and walking tour of France, Switzerland, Northern Italy and Germany
Wordsworth attended St Johnís 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 the time, France was in full revolutionary turmoil. They returned along the Rhine, and by mid October, Wordsworth was back at Cambridge. The tour is partly documented in the long poem Descriptive Sketches.

1787 (17): Wordsworth arrived at St John's Cambridge on 30 October 1787. He was enrolled as a sizar, which meant that he paid reduced fees, but also that he was marked as an impoverished student by the requirement to wear a distinctive gown.

At the age of seventeen William won a sizar's place at St John's College. This was a form of scholarship intended for bright but impecunious students, entitling them to pay reduced fees and receive free dinners, in the expectation that they would win high honours for their college in university examinations. William won further scholarships and exhibitions on his arrival at Cambridge, and it was generally expected that, after graduation, he would be ordained and succeed his uncle, William Cookson, as a fellow. Constant family pressure was applied to this end but William's rebellious streak soon began to reassert itself. (WLL p 7)

He found that he was well in advance of his fellow students:

... I had a full twelve month's start of the freshmen of my year, and accordingly got into rather an idle way; reading nothing but classic authors according to my fancy, and Italian poetry. (WAM

But his initial enthusiasm for college life was quickly tempered by disillusion. Of Cambridge, he records:

for, all degrees
And shapes of spurious fame and short-lived praise
Here sate in state, and fed with daily alms
Retainers won away from solid good;
And here was Labour his own bond-slave; Hope,
That never sets the pains against the prize;
Idleness halting with his weary clog,
And poor misguided Shame, and witless Fear,
And simple Pleasure foraging for Death;
Honour misplaced, and Dignity astray;
Feuds, factions, flatteries, enmity, and guile,
Murmuring submission, and bald government,
(The idol weak as the idolater),
And Decency ad Custom starving Truth,
And blind Authority beating with his staff
The child that might have led him; Emptiness
Followed as of good omen, and meek Worth
Left to herself unheard of and unknown.
The Prelude
, Book III, lines 591-608

Disapproval of his conduct at Cambridge was expressed by his family. His uncle Christopher Cookson writes to Wordsworth's brother Richard on 18 December 1789: I am sorry to say that I think your Brother Wm very extravagant he has had near £300 since he went to Cambridge which I think is a very shameful sum for him to spend, considering his expectations.

His sister Dorothy writes to her friend Jane Pollard on 30 April 1790: I am very anxious about him (William) just now, as he will shortly have to provide for himself: next year he takes his degree; when he will go into orders I do not know, nor how he will employ himself, he must, when he is three and twenty either go into orders or take pupils...

The idea of going on a continental walking tour during the summer vacation of 1790 attracted almost universal condemnation from family and friends. He writes: I set off for the Continent, in companionship with Robert Jones, a Welshman, a fellow collegian. We went staff in hand, without knapsacks, and carrying each his needments tied up in a pocket handkerchief, with about twenty pounds apiece in our pockets. (WAM)

Of this continental tour, he writes later:

An open slight
Of College cares and study was the scheme,
Nor entertain'd without concern for those
To whom my worldly interests were dear:
But Nature then was sovereign in my heart,
And mighty forms seizing a youthful Fancy
Had given a charter to irregular hopes.
In any age, without an impulse sent
From work of Nations, and their goings-on,
I should have been possessed by like desire;
But 'twas a time when Europe was rejoiced,
France standing on the top of golden hours,
And human nature seeming born again.
The Prelude
Book VI, Lines 326-341

He returned to Cambridge in October, and took and passed his final examination in January 1791, without distinction.


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  

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

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