Many scholars say that the Romantic period began with the publication of ‘The Lyrical Ballads’ by William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge in 1798.
Born in the Lake District six years before John Constable, William Wordsworth was the second of five children. Like the Constables, the Wordsworths were affluent. The family lived in a large house in Cockermouth. Wordsworth’s mother died when he was eight and his father died five years later when he was 13. He had a famously close relationship with his sister Dorothy and married Mary Hutchinson with whom he had five children, three of whom died before he did.
- In 1790 – and at the age of 20 – Wordsworth took a walking tour of Europe in the early years of the French Revolution. He developed a passion for the revolutionary ideals of “liberty, equality and fraternity” and a sympathy for the ordeals of the “common man”. While in France had had an affair with Annette Vallon and by whom he had a daughter
- In 1798 – and in order to raise money for a trip to Germany – Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote The Lyrical Ballads (see image three above)
Key themes in The Lyrical Ballads are:
- the concerns and insights of childhood – childhood was seen as a time of deeper connectedness with a spiritual absolute
- the moral goodness of a simple life lived on the land, in rhythm with nature
- ordinary events such as partings, reunions or sudden sights of natural beauty provoke strong feelings which the poet interprets and invites the reader to identify with.
Wordsworth focussed on simple, uneducated country people, using the normal everyday language and by inference suggesting that country people lead a purer and more innocent existence. The Lyrical Ballads contain some of the best-known works – Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Wordsworth’s Michael and Lines Written a Few Miles from Tintern Abbey.
“There dwelt a Shepherd, Michael was his name; An old man, stout of heart, and strong of limb. His bodily frame had been from youth to age Of an unusual strength: his mind was keen, Intense, and frugal, apt for all affairs”
(extract from Michael by William Wordsworth from The Lyrical Ballads)
In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth describes himself as pioneering a new type of poetry based on “the language of real men” which he defined as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings ….. emotion recollected in tranquility.” He believed poetry should express genuine experience and that the truest experiences were to be found in nature.
“These beauteous forms, Through a long absence, have not been to me As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye: But oft, in lonely rooms, and ’mid the din Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; And passing even into my purer mind, With tranquil restoration.”
(extract from Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth from The Lyrical Ballads)
William Wordsworth meets John Constable in 1806
While on a sketching tour of the Lake District in 1806, Constable met and drew Wordsworth (fifth image above). Constable later described the meeting with Wordsworth to Joseph Farington, a fellow artist. Farington recalled in his diary that Wordsworth told Constable that while a boy at Hawkshead School, his mind was “often so possessed with images so lost in extraordinary conceptions, that he was held by a wall not knowing but he was part of it.” Constable thought Wordsworth pompous and the pair did not become close friends – but they met at least once more in London in 1812.
Wordsworth lived a long time and was a prolific writer. As well as the Lyrical Ballads, poetic works include
- The Lucy Poems (1798-1801)
- Upon Westminter Bridge (1801)
- Ode on Intimations of Immortality (1806)
- I wandered Lonely as a Cloud (1807 and revised in 1815)
- The Excursion (1814)
- The Prelude (1850)
End of Life
Wordsworth became a towering figure in English Literature and was Poet Laureate from 1834 to his death from pleurisy in 1850, aged 80. He is buried in St Oswald’s Churchyard in Grassmere (see image six above).
Click the link at the the end of this bullet point to view more drawings by John Constable Royal Albert Memorial Museum South West Collections Explorer.
Click the tab marked ‘video’ above image gallery at the top of this page to listen to readings from Wordsworth’s poetry