Social and historical context
William Wordsworth (1770–1850)
The second of five children, William Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth in Cumberland in April 1770. It is significant to Wordsworth’s life and works that he was born in this scenic region of the Lake District. His father was a legal representative and was rarely present throughout his childhood, although he did teach him poetry when he was there. Wordsworth also used his father’s library to develop and widen his reading. During his childhood, he also spent time in Penrith, Cumberland with his grandparents. Here he experienced a different view of nature as he was exposed to the wilds of the moors and some harsh treatment from his relatives.
Wordsworth was schooled in both Cockermouth and in Penrith, where he met his future wife, Mary Hutchinson. He went on to attend the University of Cambridge and publish his first works of poetry. He indulged his continued enthusiasm for nature with walking tours exploring the countryside.
In 1791, Wordsworth toured France where he developed an enthusiasm for the Republican movement in the French Revolution and fell in love with a French woman who later bore his child. His later separation from the Republican movement and the war between Britain and France meant he was unable to see his daughter and her mother for several years. The experience inspired some of his poetry, including ‘It is a beauteous evening, calm and free’which recalls a seaside walk with the daughter he had not seen for ten years.
The collaboration between Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge began when Coleridge was a guest of Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, in 1796. Lyrical Ballads, published in 1798 is widely regarded as the cornerstone of Romanticism and was a result of this collaboration.
In 1802, shortly after returning from a visit to his daughter in France, Wordsworth married his childhood friend Mary Hutchinson. He was made Poet Laureate in 1843 but his writing stopped with the death of his daughter Dora in 1847. Wordsworth died of pleurisy in 1850.
In 1798 Wordsworth began to write The Prelude: Growth of a Poet's Mind after experiencing some depression and home-sickness while in Germany with his sister and the poet Coleridge.
The Prelude is a long autobiographical poem in 14 books. The first version of the poem was written when Wordsworth was 28, but he continued to work on it throughout his lifetime and it was not published until after Wordsworth’s death. The poem is philosophical as well as autobiographical and is considered by many to be his greatest work.
Past events and Wordsworth’s thoughts on nature, the mind and hope form the basis of the poem. The poet uses memories of childhood and places visited to express personal journeys and his search for understanding. Wordsworth stated that it is a poem ‘contrasting views of Man, Nature, and Society’.