His mother, nee Ann Cookson, was the daughter of a linen draper in Penrith. His father, John Wordsworth, was a lawyer, prospering as business agent of Sir James Lowther. In their comfortable home at Cockermouth John and Ann brought up five children: Richard, who became an attorney and managed the poet’s finances; William and Dorothy, who are our chief present concern; John, who went to sea and died in a shipwreck; and Christopher, who became a scholar and rose to be master of Trinity College, Cambridge. For reasons now forgotten William was not baptized till after the birth of Dorothy a year after him, in 1771; brother and sister were christened on the same day, as if to sanction and bless their lifelong love.
Dorothy, more than any of his brothers, became William’s childhood friend. She shared his fascination with the varied nature that surrounded them. He was keen and sensitive, she was more so, quicker to catch the forms and colors of the vegetation, the moods and exhalations of the trees, the lazy wanderings of the clouds, the moon benignly shedding silver on the lakes. “She gave me eyes, she gave me ears,” the poet was to say of his sister. She tamed his hunting impulses to chase and kill; she insisted that he should never hurt any living thing.1
When she was seven they bore the bereavement of their mother’s death. Their father, stunned, refused to take another wife; he buried himself in his work, and sent his children to live with relatives. Dorothy went off to an aunt in Halifax in Yorkshire, and could now see William only on his vacations. He was sent in 1779 to a good school at Hawkshead, near Lake Windermere; there he studied the Greek and Latin classics, and began, as he said, to “spin verses.”
But the woods and waters of the vicinity seemed to have played a greater role than his books in the formation of his style and character. He was not unsocial; he took part with the other boys in the games of youth, and sometimes joined in a boisterous evening at the local inn; but many times he walked off alone into the hills, or along the shores of Esthwaite Water or Lake Windermere. Now and then, careless of weather and friendly to its forms, he wandered too far for security, and knew the fears that can come to youths invading the appropriated haunts of “lower” life; but gradually he came to feel a hidden spirit in the growth of plants, the play and struggle of animals, the pride of the mountains, the smiles and frowns of the kaleidoscopic sky. All these voices from field, forest, peak, and cloud seemed to speak to him in their own language, too secret and subtle for words, but felt by him as assurance that the incredible multiform multitude of things about him was no helpless mechanism of matter, but the frame of a God greater and nearer than the distant, silent, formless deity of his prayers. He developed a mood of somber inwardness as well as outgoing adoration.
In 1783 the father suddenly died. His disordered assets passed into such prolonged and expensive litigation, and the £4,700 owed him by Sir James Lowther were so long held back, that the available bequest, amounting to six hundred to each of the children, fell far short of providing for their continued education.2 Brother Richard nevertheless found means to see William through Hawkshead.
In October, 1787, Wordsworth “went up” to Cambridge and entered St. John’s College. One of his uncles had persuaded the headmaster to give the youth a scholarship, in the hope that he would prepare himself to receive holy orders in the Anglican Church—and so cease to be a financial burden on his relatives. Instead of taking courses leading to the ministry, he read for his own pleasure—specializing in Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton —and protested against compulsory chapel attendance twice a day; apparently his reading had rubbed off some of his inherited faith. Much of it must have remained, for he found Voltaire dull.
In July, 1790, he persuaded a Welsh classmate, Robert Jones, to pool savings with him to a total of twenty pounds and join him in a walking tour on the Continent. They made their way to Lake Como, turned east into Switzerland, ran short of funds, and hurried back to England and Cambridge in time to appease the wrath of their financiers. Wordsworth made up for a year’s neglect of Dorothy by spending the Christmas holidays with her at Fornsett Rectory near Norwich. “We used to walk every morning about two hours,” she wrote to Jane Pollard, “and every evening we went into the garden at four… to pace backwards and forwards till six…. Ah, Jane! I never thought of the cold when he was with me.”3 She hoped that he would become a clergyman, and that she would be allowed to keep house for him.
When he graduated from Cambridge (January, 1791) he disappointed many hopes by going to London, “where for four months he lived in an obscurity which remains almost complete.”4 In May he took off with Jones on a walking tour through Wales; they climbed Mount Snowdon (1,350 feet) to see the sunrise. On November 27, alone, he crossed again to France.
The Revolution was then in its finest phase: a liberal constitution had been formulated, a Declaration of the Rights of Man had been proclaimed to the world; how could any sensitive youth, still a fledgling in philosophy, resist that call to universal justice and brotherhood? It was too hard for a poor scholar who had known some hurt from titled overlords (Sir James Lowther) to condemn those Frenchmen who, as he would put it in his autobiographical Prelude,
held something up to view
Of a Republic where all stood thus far
Upon equal ground; that we were brothers all
In honor, as in one community,
Scholars and gentlemen; where, furthermore,
Distinction open lay to all that came,
And wealth and titles were in less esteem
Than talents, worth, and prosperous industry.5
Arrived in France, he was stirred by the ardor of the nation rising spontaneously to arms to meet the threat of the Duke of Brunswick to suppress the Revolution, and, if Paris resisted him, to burn it to the ground. He became friends with an officer in the Revolutionary Army, Michel de Beaupuis, who “by birth ranked with the most noble,” but now felt obliged to defend France against invaders. This classless dedication moved Wordsworth to consider how he himself could be useful in the cause. But he felt too frail to bear arms, and knew too little French to serve in a civilian or political post. He settled down at Orléans to study the language, so bewitching on a woman’s lips, so bewilderingly deceptive in orthography.
He found it most charming, but largely superfluous, in Annette Vallon, a warmhearted, warm-blooded young woman who gave him not only instruction but herself. In return he could give her nothing but his youthful seed. He was twenty-one, she was twenty-five. When the result announced itself, Annette thought she deserved a wedding ring, but William wondered: could he, who knew more Latin than French, survive as a husband in France; or could she, as a pagan Catholic, survive in Puritan England?
On October 29, 1792, he left her in Orléans and moved to Paris. Before parting he signed a paper authorizing a M. Dufour to represent him as the absent father at the christening of Annette’s expected child.6 It was born on December 15, and was named Caroline.
By that time Wordsworth, in Paris, was immersed in the Revolution. He attended meetings of the Jacobin Club, visited the Legislative Assembly, made friends of Girondins. The fever of the day came upon him; he felt himself at the center of world-shaking, history-making events:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive;
But to be young was very Heaven!7
Then a letter reached him from brother Richard refusing further funds, and insisting upon his immediate return. As the Revolution did not offer to support him, he crossed to London, and tried to thaw the frozen arteries of familial finance. Brother Richard remained lovingly stern. Uncle William Cookson, rector of Fornsett and host of Dorothy, closed his purse and doors to the youngster whose education had been paid for as a prelude to sacerdotal services, but who now seemed to have turned into a shiftless Jacobin.
William was sorely hurt; he had adopted poetry as a profession, and felt entitled, as a consecrated devotee of a Muse, to fraternal and avuncular support. Defiantly, he associated with the radicals who frequented Johnson’s bookshop, and he continued his public support of the Revolution. In the last fifty lines of Descriptive Sketches, which he wrote and published in 1793, he praised the Revolution as the liberation not of one nation only, but potentially of all mankind; and privately, as he posthumously confessed, he rejoiced in French victories even “when Englishmen by thousands were o’erthrown, left without glory on the field.”8 On February 1, 1793, France declared war on England; in March a letter reached Wordsworth from Annette begging him to come back to her, but the Channel was closed to civilian travel. He did not forget her, the thought of her burned his conscience; we shall see him, nine years later, trying to make some amends. During those years Annette became an ardent royalist, and William slowly discovered the virtues of the British Constitution.
His faith in the Revolution waned when the Terror guillotined the Girondins whom he had admired (1794). About this time he was much impressed by Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice; it encouraged his radicalism, but it warned against revolutions as feeding on revolutionists. In 1795 he met Godwin himself, and was charmed; seven times in that year he called upon the famous philosopher in his home. Even when he himself had become an ardent conservative he remained Godwin’s friend till death intervened (1836).
An added inducement to sobriety came when, in 1795, Raisley Calvert bequeathed Wordsworth nine hundred pounds. Recklessly the poet lent three hundred of this legacy to his notoriously improvident friend Basil Montagu, and two hundred to Montagu’s intimate, Charles Douglas—in both cases on mortgages hopefully paying ten percent. Wordsworth reckoned that the fifty-pounds-a-year interest (it was very irregularly paid), plus the remaining four hundred, would not suffice, even with Dorothy’s annuity of twenty pounds, to finance his sister’s dream of a cottage where they might live in a modest condominium of poetry and love. But just then another friend, John Pinney of Bristol, offered them, furnished and free, his Racedown Lodge in Dorset. So, on September 26, 1795, Wordsworth and Dorothy set up housekeeping there, and there they remained till June, 1797, in unexpected comfort and bliss.
We picture him, now twenty-five, as of middle height, gaunt and slightly stooped; his thin careless hair falling around his collar and his ears; his dark and somber eyes looking down along an inquiring and slightly aggressive nose; his trousers of pastoral plaid, his coat a loose brown frock, a black handkerchief serving as a tie. He was frail in body, strong in energy, spirit, and will; he could outwalk the sturdiest of his guests, and could with his own arms and axe keep his fires burning with cut or gathered wood. He was as sensitive as a poet, as nervous as a woman; he suffered from headaches, especially when he composed. He was often moody, inclined to hypochondria, easily moved to tears; once he thought of killing himself9—but that is a universal bravado. He was acquisitive, proud, self-centered, sure of his superior sensitivity, understanding, and (forgiving that carelessly fallen seed) moral excellence. But he was modest before Nature, holding himself her servant and her voice for the instruction of mankind.
Dorothy was his opposite: small and frail; earning her face of tan with many walks under the sun; selflessly absorbed—or selfishly delighted—in serving her brother, never doubting his genius, keeping their shelter clean and warm for him, tending him in his illnesses, searching out the subtlest beauties and wonders in nature with what he called “the shooting lights of thy wild eyes,”10 and jotting down those percepts in her journals for her remembrance and his use. She gave ears and hands as well as eyes; she never(visibly) tired of hearing him recite his verses, or of copying them readably. He loved her in return, deeply but without forbidden passion, as the dearest and least demanding of his acolytes, as a precious delicate lateral tendril of himself.
To turn their home into a family, and add £50 to their annual revenue, they took under their care the three-year-old Basil, son of Basil Montagu; and they rejoiced to see their young ward “metamorphosed from a shivering, half-starved plant into a lusty, blooming, fearless boy.”11 In the spring of 1797 Dorothy’s friend Mary Hutchinson came down from Penrith to stay with them till June 5. And on June 6, answering in his own exuberant way an invitation sent him by Wordsworth, a youth of twenty-five, pregnant with poetry, leaped over a gate, bounded over a field, and entered powerfully into the lives of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. It was Coleridge.