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Lecture II: Wordsworth and the Lyrical Ballads
We now begin a sequence of four lectures on the poet who many of us regard as the most important writer of the past two centuries. Under whose capacious wings we still find protection, and under whose inspiration most Anglo-American poetry has developed.
Wordsworth has never been an easy sell, and this is due both to the peculiarities of his verse, and to the figure of the poet himself, the man who in no way inspires the immediate sense of intimacy that you get when reading, for example, Lord Byron. Wordsworth is not the first poet whom one would like to have a meal with. That distinction would go to the more energetic and open Keats, or even to Coleridge, a wonder of talkativeness and opinions, who impressed anyone who ever met him with his volubility, brilliance, and occasional generosity, in spite of his all-too evident human imperfections.
No, Wordsworth was not a "clubbable" man. He was often dour, silent, seemingly aloof in the sense of his own superiority. And the coldness of the man, often presents itself in the poetry, which Keats memorably characterized as (I'm quoting Keats) "the egotistical or Wordsworthian sublime."
He's not for everyone's tastes. If Byron was, in the famous assessment, mad, bad, and dangerous to know, Wordsworth, whom Matthew Arnold linked with Byron as the two poets who would be remembered at the end of the 19th century, has struck many readers as sane, haughty, and impossible to know. The man who called the poet "a man speaking to men" in the Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1800. That most important document in the history of English aesthetics often seems troublingly opaque. Much of his work is as unassimilable as the man himself.
Biographers divide Wordsworth's life into two pieces. The first half, which represents his growth, his conflicts, and his creative energies, followed by a second half in which the former rebel and innovator gradually came to be replaced by an increasingly conservative, orthodox, even stodgy old man, a Church of England believer, and finally, upon the death of Robert Southey in 1842, the poet laureate. Whom Robert Browning, from the next generation, memorably lamented Browning said "Just for a handful of silver he left us, just for a ribbon to stick in his cloak."
What happened, to produce such a momentous decline? Wordsworth was born in Cumberland in England's Lake District in 1770. He was the second of five children to Anne and John Wordsworth. His father was an attorney and the chief law agent for Sir James Lowther.
In other words, he came from a solid middle-class, conservative family, to whose status he returned in the second half of his life, after a somewhat troubled radical youth. His mother died when he was seven, and the children were farmed out to various relatives. Among the five siblings, William was especially close to his brother John, and to his sister Dorothy, who was 18 months his junior, from who he was separated for a nine year period when he was shipped off to school.
He went up to St. John's College, Cambridge, where he was not a particularly distinguished student. In the summer of 1790, he did what many contemporary American students might do, he took a walking tour in Europe, in France.
The difference of course was that the Bastille had been stormed exactly one year before, and coming to France with his friend Robert Jones, he felt he was arriving in a new world. The early promise of the French Revolution had filled liberals, especially young people, with hope and excitement. Wordsworth returned to France after completing his degree, and probably was involved there, and subsequently in London, in radical political circles. He also had an affair with a French widow named Annette Vallon, by whom he sired a child, and whom he probably would have married had not the growing hostilities between France and England made it difficult, if not impossible, for him to return to France.
The years of 1793-1798 were spent in confusion, the kind of confusion typical of young people today, confusion about a career, about money, family, sex, and so forth. A small legacy from his friend Raisley Calvert who died in 1795, gave Wordsorth some degree of financial freedom. And that same year, he met Coleridge, who was clearly the major influence on his creative and imaginative life. It's been said in fact that Coleridge's greatest work was Wordsworth, that without the overseeing inspiration of his junior friend, Wordsworth would not have blossomed so quickly into the great poet he became.
Collaborating with Coleridge, he produced the first volume of Lyrical Ballads in 1798, and then traveled to Germany in 1798 with Coleridge and Dorothy, settling into Goslar in the Hartz mountains, during the coldest winter of the century. And At this time, he began piecing together the long work which eventually took shape over the next seven years, as his great verse autobiography, The Prelude, to which we'll return in lectures 4 and 5.
By 1802 he had returned to the Lake District, married and old childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson, and settled down at the age of 32 to become a pater familias, two of his five children died young, and increasingly a national figure and person whom visitors wanted to meet.
His greatest creative work was essentially finished in 1814, on year after he became distributor of stamps for Westmoreland, an office that paid him between 400-500 pounds per year. And he spent the remaining 35 years of his life, writing poetry that was more conventional than that of his earlier years, and fussing with The Prelude, which remained unpublished at his death in 1850.
Wordsworth's great creative years were the decades between 1797-1807, and it is to the poetry of that decade, that we shall devote the rest of these lectures. Wordsworth is a poet at once commonplace and sublime, and as such he inspires feelings of ...
Transcribe a college lecture regarding Wordsworth and his work "Lyrical Ballads".