“Take me to the lakes where all the poets went to die(Swift, Taylor, 2020, track 17)
I don’t belong, and my beloved, neither do you
Those Windermere peaks look like a perfect place to cry
I’m setting off, but not without my muse”
Who would have imagined a pop culture reference could pique my interest in The Lake Poets? The song to do this, was The Lakes from Taylor Swift’s eighth studio album Folklore which references the Romantic era, and alludes to the trio of poets known as The Lake Poets: William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey.
Interestingly, Swift gives a subtle nod to Wordsworth which ostensibly appears to be a typo, despite in fact being a direct reference through the line “tell me what are my Wordsworth“ – a clever pun involving his name.
Who Was William Wordsworth?
The youngest of five children, William Wordsworth was born on April 7th in 1770 to John and Ann Cookson Wordsworth in Cockermouth, located in the North-West of England covering the Lake District. He is most remembered for being a poet concerned with the beauty of nature and its healing effects on the individual. A steadfast advocate for ordinary people, he depicted the lives of rural folk by capturing their vocabulary and speech patterns in his poetry.
When he was 7, Wordsworth lost his mother, who died in March 1778 whilst visiting a friend. Following the subsequent death of his father in December 1783, the boys were sent by guardian uncles to attend Hawkshead Grammar School together. Wordsworth did not see his sister Dorothy again until 1795, who in June 1778 had been sent to live in Halifax, Yorkshire, where she would live with a succession of relatives following their mother’s passing.
Wordsworth held a deep passion for democracy, which he developed as a result from two trips to France during his years at St John’s College, Cambridge. It was during this period that his early political persuasions were shaped, including his contempt for tyranny in particular. This can be evidenced in Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff (also known as Apology for the French Revolution). In July 1790, he made a tour of the Alps with his friend Robert Jones during his last summer as an undergraduate, arriving on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. It was there that he became immersed by the revolutionary enthusiasm following the demolition of the Bastille, which in turn led to him becoming an impassioned republican sympathiser.
After being awarded with an ‘undistinguished pass’ in his Cambridge degree in January 1791, he returned to France in November that year where he met and formed a relationship with a Frenchwoman named Annette Vallon. Having depleted his finances, Wordsworth was forced to return to England in early December 1792, before the birth of their first child, Caroline. Once returned, he became stymied by the outbreak of war between England and France. Prevented from being able to maintain in contact with his partner and child, the relationship eventually ended.
Penniless and increasingly resentful of his country’s opposition to the French, the young Wordsworth tried to seek out a suitable career for himself. The first few years following his return to England, he lived in London where he associated with fellow literary radicals such as William Godwin. It was at this point that Wordsworth began to develop a deep solidarity towards the abandoned single mothers and widows struggling to feed their children, as well as to the vagrants and other displaced people that fell victim to England’s war. This growing sympathy can be sensed in the sombre tone of the poems he began writing during this period, which often featured ‘half-crazed’ grieving or forsaken female figures.
It is true to say that these years were the darkest period of Wordsworth’s life. However, in 1795 a gift in a friend’s will enabled him to reunite with his sister Dorothy – in 1797 they moved to Alfoxden House near to the village of Nether Stowey and were never to be parted again.
The Great Decade
It was whilst living at Alfoxden House that Wordsworth met another fellow poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who he developed a close friendship with. Their collaboration combined both Wordsworth’s lyrical style with Coleridge’s metaphysical one, and was instrumental in shaping the trajectory of English literature and pioneering the Romantic Movement. It was during this period that Wordsworth wrote the poems which were published in the 1798 and 1800 editions of Lyrical Ballads – a slim anonymous volume comprising poems such as Tables Turned, Tintern Abbey and Expostulation and Reply.
In 1797, Coleridge had begun working on what was to be an epic poem called The Brooks. However, the task of writing this poem – which was to be known as The Recluse – was soon passed onto Wordsworth himself. To prepare himself for this undertaking, Wordsworth begun working on an autobiographical poem which he immersed himself in over the next 40 years. This was eventually published in 1850 and titled The Prelude, in which he recalls his life from his schooling at Cockermouth to his trips to France during his time at university, up to his move to Dove Cottage in Grasmere in 1808.
Whilst The Recluse itself was never completed, Wordsworth did finish one of its intended three parts, which was published as The Excursion in 1814.
The aim of this article was to serve as an introductory overview of the life of William Wordsworth, acting as an invitation to explore his literary works.
To wrap up, I would like to end this article with a quote from one of Wordsworth’s most popular lyrical poems known as I Wander’d Lonely as a Cloud (also known as ‘Daffodils‘), which was inspired by Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, coming across a “long belt” of daffodils in the Lake District in 1802.
“I wandered lonely as a cloudWordworth, I Wander’d Lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of golden daffodils
Beside the lake beneath the trees
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”
Maxfield Parrish, S. (2023, April 19). William Wordsworth. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Wordsworth
Munna, Z. A. and Mostafizar Rahman, A. R. M. (2009). WORDSWORTH’S TREATMENT OF WOMEN IN HIS POETRY. Khulna University Studies, 10(1 & 2), 23–30.
William Wordsworth. (n.d.). Poetry Foundation. Retrieved April 30, 2023, from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/william-wordsworth
Wordsworth, A. (2020, June 3). The women in William Wordsworth’s life. Wordsworth Grasmere https://wordsworth.org.uk/blog/2020/06-03/the-women-in-william-wordsworths-life.