I mentioned back in the spring that we were soon to reissue Christopher Wordsworth’s biography of his uncle, the poet (and Poet Laureate) William. It has now arrived, and is a very good read, not least because the author quotes his more famous uncle’s letters and autobiographical poems very liberally. This was the sine qua non of the biographical enterprise: when Christopher (a scholar who later became bishop of Lincoln) discussed ‘the Biography of departed poets’ with his uncle in 1847, the latter ‘expressed an opinion that a poet’s Life is written in his WORKS; and this is undoubtedly true, in a remarkable manner, in his own particular case’.
However, the poet realised that, precisely because of the very personal nature of his works, ‘many of his poems will be very obscure to those persons who are not acquainted with the circumstances of his life’. Therefore, ‘a biographical manual, designed to illustrate the poems, ought to exist…’. Christopher, having agreed to undertake this task, asked his uncle for a ‘brief sketch of the most prominent circumstances of his life’, which appears here as the second chapter in Volume 1.
We decided to use two images of Wordsworth’s homes at Grasmere and Ambleside – Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount – on the covers of the two volumes. But in fact, the first deals at great length with the ‘pre-Lake-Poet’ period of Wordsworth’s life, emphasising the unsettled nature of his upbringing.
William was born in Cockermouth, Cumberland, in 1770, but his mother died in 1778, ‘of a decline, brought on by a cold, the consequence of being put, at a friend’s house in London in what used to be called “a best bedroom”’. William and his older brother Richard were sent away to school in Hawkshead soon afterwards, but his beloved and influential younger sister Dorothy was handed over to relatives in Halifax, and the siblings did not meet again for another nine years.
Hawkshead School was at the time ‘one of the most flourishing seminaries in the north of England’, and the pupils from a distance were boarded out in the village. Wordsworth seems to have flourished there, but his prospects became more precarious when in 1783 his father died. Theoretically prosperous, John Wordsworth was owed a substantial sum of money by his employer, the earl of Lonsdale. The orphans’ estate was diminished by lawsuits trying to obtain repayment (a Jarndyce-like process which was not resolved until the earl’s heir repaid the debt (with interest) in 1802).
Under the guardianship of his two uncles, Wordsworth was sent up to St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1787, but his time there was not happy or fulfilling. The censorious Christopher, writing at a time of great university reforms in which his own father, as Master of Trinity, had played an early part, observes: ‘He was not prepared … to submit with genial affection and reverent humility to the discipline of a college; especially when that discipline was administered by some who did not appear to comprehend its true meaning, and did not embody its spirit in their lives.’
After leaving Cambridge (and indeed during his vacations), Wordsworth led a peripatetic life: he stayed with relatives and friends, and set off on 13 July 1790 on an extensive tour of revolutionary France, Germany and Switzerland (with a brief sortie into north Italy) with a college friend, Robert Jones. Urged by relatives to take holy orders, he demurred on grounds of youth, and in November 1791 he set off again for France, by himself, intending to spend the winter at Orleans: he did not return to England until the end of 1792.
The elephant in the room at this point is Annette Vallon, who gave birth to Wordsworth’s daughter Anne-Caroline on 15 December 1792. There is no mention, of course, in William’s autobiographical piece or in Christopher’s work, of this event, which has been the subject of much scholarly detective work, most recently in The Life of William Wordsworth: A Critical Biography, by John Worthen. Though the elders of his family apparently knew nothing of the child, they were none the less exasperated by his refusal to determine a career, and the next two years consisted of a poverty-stricken traipse from one friend’s house to another, writing poems which attracted critical attention, but no money.
William was on the verge of becoming (he hoped) a freelance journalist in London, when his fortunes took an unexpected turn. He had been in Penrith, helping to nurse the consumptive brother of William Calvert, a Hawkshead school friend. The plan was for William to accompany Raisley Calvert to the benign climate of Portugal, but he died in January 1795, leaving William £900, which freed him from immediate financial anxiety, and enabled him both to devote himself to his writing and to provide a home for Dorothy. As Christopher puts it: ‘If it had not been for Raisley Calvert, or rather for the spirit of love moving in his heart, Wordsworth’s best days might have been spent writing leading articles for “The Courier”; and the world would never have seen “The Excursion”.’
William and Dorothy never lived apart again until her death. On his way to their new home at Racedown in Dorset, William passed through Bristol, where he met Robert Southey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the bookseller and publisher Joseph Cottle: and, arguably, his adult life began.