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William Wordsworth

Born 7 April 1770 in Cockermouth, Cumberland, to the steward of an estate, Wordsworth's early life was relatively hard. His mother died when he was eight, and the next year he was sent to attend the principal grammar school of the district at Hawkshead where he was solidly educated. Only four years later, however, his father died, and the boy found himself an orphan at the age of thirteen. Through so disjointed a childhood, according to his own account, he was thrown much on his own resources, developing an early fondness for the beauty and sublimity of the Lake District that touched the core of his life and his beliefs.

In 1787 he matriculated at St. John's College, Cambridge, where he was an indifferent student. In the same year, however, he published his first poem, a sonnet that appeared in the respectable European Review. Still, at this early point no one could have predicted the development that a decade later would make Wordsworth the spokesperson for a revolution in English poetry.

In the summer vacation of 1790, indulging his republican sympathies, he and a classmate took a walking tour through revolutionary France. He returned to France after his graduation in the following year and in Orléans had a romantic liaison with Annette Vallon, by whom he had a daughter, Caroline, in December 1792. But the political tensions that erupted into war between England and France in February 1793 forced him to return to England before she was born, and he did not see her until the start of the new century, during the Peace of Amiens, when she was nine. Returning to France at that point, he established financial arrangements providing for his daughter's education.

In resettling himself in England, Wordsworth did not return to the Lake District, but rather spent the next few years in London with other radicals surrounding the publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson obviously saw his talent, publishing his first two volumes of poetry the very year of his return, Descriptive Sketches and An Evening Walk. Among other literary and cultural figures Wordsworth could have met in this circle, all of them likewise published by Johnson, were William Blake, Mary Wollstonecraft, and William Godwin. By the latter figure, indeed, Wordsworth was enormously influenced.

In 1795 Wordsworth was reunited with his sister, Dorothy, and the two moved to Alfoxden House, near Bristol, in 1797, where they met Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The two young men began a collaboration that, a year later, resulted in their publishing Lyrical Ballads.

The two young poets traveled in Germany over the winter of 1798-1799. When Wordsworth returned to England, it was to recover the grounds of his youth. He and his sister Dorothy now settled in Grasmere, in the Lake District, where they rented a small house called Dove Cottage. Here, energized by his recovered roots and the natural beauty of his surroundings, Wordsworth's genius flourished, and he added a second volume of poems with mainly pastoral themes to a reprinting of Lyrical Ballads that appeared in 1800. It was headed by a preface in prose that constituted Wordsworth's manifesto for a new naturalism in English verse.

After settling his affairs with Annette Vallon in the summer of 1802, Wordsworth returned to Grasmere to marry Mary Hutchinson that fall. Coleridge was settled in the vicinity, and soon he was accompanied by Robert Southey, who settled at Greta Hall, near Keswick. The "Lake School" of Romantics was in place. Wordsworth worked with great commitment during these years, composing a first draft of his autobiographical Prelude, which finally was published posthumously in 1850, as well as the many significant lyrical poems that made up a new collection of his verse, which he entitled Poems, in Two Volumes when it appeared in 1807.

At this point, just as Wordsworth's importance as a literary figure becomes firmly based, he settles into a general decline both as poet and thinker. For his younger contemporaries like Mary Shelley, it is most fully manifested in his nine-book narrative poem, The Excursion, that appeared in 1814. Mary Shelley's 14 September entry to her journal upon reading the poem, simply notes of its author, "He is a slave," by which she means that he has wholly capitulated to establishment views. Indicative of that more settled complacency was Wordsworth's relocating his family the previous year (1813) to the elegance of Rydal Mount overlooking Derwent Water, where he would live the rest of his life. So, perhaps, is the more publically symbolic act of his accepting a synocure from the government, earning a munificent salary of £400 in the generally unfunctioning position of distributor of stamps for Westmoreland county.

Although Wordsworth's presence in Frankenstein indicates that Mary Shelley's early reverence for his poetry persisted well after her regard for him as a person had ceased, it is clear that her and her husband's views were highly ambivalent. This can especially be discerned from Shelley's sonnet, "To Wordsworth," published in the Alastor volume of 1815, and his sometimes blunt satire on him in "Peter Bell the Third," written in 1819. Although Byron is said to have commented that Shelley had "dosed him on Wordsworth" during the summer of 1816, which resulted in the tributes to nature in the third canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrmage, later references to the poet (for instance, in Don Juan) are colored by this sense of policial apostacy and are uniformly derogatory. Of course, Wordsworth outlived these two detractors by a quarter century, and Mary Shelley herself survived him by less than a year. He wrote on and on, often if not well, succeeding after the death of his friend Southey in 1843 to the office of Poet Laureate. He passed away, in serene old age, on 23 April 1850, the anniversary of Shakespeare's death.