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7.4: Wordsworth, William. Selected Poems

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    William Wordsworth - A True Romantic Poet

    The Romantic Era was a period of revolution and radical ideas. The belief in liberty and social justice for common people appealed to many writers and intellectuals and resulted in a strong antagonism towards the aristocracy and the political establishment.

    Friheten leder folket. Maleri.

    CC-BY-NC-SA-4.0 Photographer: The Granger Collection

    These young poets were the rebels of their time, and many of them led lives that were seen as morally scandalous. Some of them felt exiled by the narrow-minded English establishment and settled abroad; Lord Byron, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley all moved to Italy, never to return. William Wordsworth also went abroad, but he returned to England both inspired and distressed by what he experienced in France.

    Homeless and Restless

    Wordsworth's parents died when he was quite young, which probably induced his feeling of alienation and homelessness. He was a bright student but his education took time because he was more into self-studies and wandering to seek the beauty of nature; and when he finally graduated he refused to take a regular profession. Instead he set out hiking in England and Wales, and he went to France, allegedly to learn French properly. But things turned out differently; in France he encountered the strong forces that were to become the inspiration for much of his poetry: revolution and love.

    Three Women and a Friend

    William Wordsworth

    CC-BY-NC-SA-4.0 Photographer: The Granger Collection

    Wordsworth was intensely excited by the revolutionary spirit in France, and supported the rebels in their insurrection. While he was there he met Annette Vallon, they fell in love, and after some months she became pregnant with his child. But Wordsworth was homesick and felt restless, and his poor finances made it impossible to stay on and marry Annette. So he left France, probably intending to return some day, but his plans were interrupted by the outbreak of war between England and France in 1793. And it was to be nine years until he could see Annette again and meet his then unborn child, and then the purpose of and circumstances around the visit had changed altogether.

    Wordsworth made contact with his sister Dorothy, and their close company lasted for the rest of their lives. He also made friends and worked with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, another young romantic poet; together they published "Lyrical Ballads" (1789) which stands as a milestone in English romantic poetry. Wordsworth was gradually achieving popularity, but money was scarce until he was left some money by a friend he had helped during his illness. He and his sister moved around in England until they settled in a cottage in The Lake District in the north of England, a short distance from their birthplace. This was Wordsworth's homecoming, both literally and emotionally. Inspired by the beautiful surroundings of lakes and valleys in the area he wrote many of his cherished poems here. His poetic project was to grasp natural beauty in a fresh approach and to display man's need for harmony with nature.

    Back home he also met Mary Hutchinson, an acquaintance from his school days, and whom he was later to marry. But presently Wordsworth was not rich enough to enter a matrimonial liaison with Mary, and besides, there was another serious obstacle: In France a woman still called herself Mrs. Wordsworth. They were not married, but they had a child together, and William felt the obligation to settle things with his "French connection" before he could marry Mary. So in 1802 he headed for France, accompanied by his sister, to meet Annette and his now nine year old daughter, Carolyn. (The poem "Upon Westminster Bridge" was written on this trip.) This meeting could have turned out quite dramatically; such a situation holds quite some "romantic" potential. But after a time they reached an agreement after long talks and walks on the Calais beach. After having settled things with Annette, William and Dorothy returned to England, and back to their cottage in the Lake District where they spent the rest of their lives. William married Mary and they had two children. But this was a period of emotional distress for Wordsworth; in addition to his tormenting love situation he grieved over his friend Coleridge's moral degradation and drug addiction. Another stressful element was his indignation at Napoleon's bloody way to power. In some way all these events and elements are recorded in his poetry.

    Wordsworth's Legacy

    Though his political views became more lenient and conservative as he grew older, William Wordsworth was still seen as a rebel by the moral standards at the time. He had an illegitimate child and he was living with two women, one of them his sister; these things caused speculations and made people talk. Wordsworth died in 1850 when England was entering a new age and the literary scene was to change radically. Sentimental poetry about natural beauty was no longer trendy — it was time to "tell it like it is." Wordsworth went on writing in the aftermath of romanticism, but he never reached the same intense and powerful poetic imagery as in his early career. William Wordsworth is for many the incarnate romantic poet who has rendered the reading public, both then and now, some of the most beautiful poems in English literature.

    William Wordsworth: Upon Westminster Bridge

    During the Romantic Period, cities were in general viewed as being gloomy places compared to the beauty of landscapes and pastoral scenes. However, although this is not a typically Romantic poem, you may, if you look closely, still spot some clear traces of truly Romantic poetry in both its language and imagery.

    Sonnet Composed Upon Westminster Bridge

    September 3, 1802 by William Wordsworth

    Earth has not anything to show more fair;
    Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
    A sight so touching in its majesty:
    This City now doth like a garment, wear
    The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
    Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
    Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
    All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
    Never did sun more beautifully steep
    In his first splendour, valley, rock or hill;
    Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
    The river glideth at his own sweet will:
    Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
    And all that mighty heart is lying still!

    Westminster Bridge, 1831

    Westminster Bridge, 1831

    CC-BY-NC-SA-4.0 Photographer: The Granger Collection

    Exercise 7.4.1

    A Closer Look at the Poem

    • Where can you see indications of the romantic ideals and images in this poem?
    • Make a list of the adjectives Wordsworth uses to describe the city. Do you spot any contrasts?
    • Find examples of metaphors and simile in the poem.
    • The poem is composed as a sonnet. Follow the link below and read more about sonnets.
    • The poem was written when Wordsworth was on his way to France to settle some unfinished business with a French girl before he could marry at home. Follow the link below and read the story about Wordsworth's "French connection."

    The Solitary Reaper

    William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

    Behold her, single in the field,
    Yon solitary Highland Lass!
    Reaping and singing to herself;
    Stop here or gently pass!
    Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
    And sings a melancholy strain;
    O listen! For the Vale profound
    Is overflowing with the sound.

    No Nightingale did ever chaunt
    More welcome notes to weary bands
    Of travellers in some shady haunt,
    Among Arabian sands;
    A voice so thrilling ne'er was heard
    In a spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
    Breaking the silence of the seas
    Among the farthest Hebrides.

    Will no one tell me what she sings?
    Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
    For old, unhappy, far-off things,
    And battles long ago:
    Or is it some more humble lay,
    Familiar matter of to-day?
    Some natural sorrow, loss or pain,
    That has been, and may be again?

    Whate'er the theme, the Maiden sang
    As if her song could have no ending;
    I saw her singing at her work,
    And o'er the sickle bending;
    I listened motionless and still;
    And as I mounted up the hill,
    The music in my heart I bore,
    Long after it was heard no more.

    Exercise 7.4.1

    A Closer Look at the Poem

    • Point out some typical romantic ideals that come to life in this poem.
    • Wordsworth took long walks in the countryside for inspiration and to feel the closeness of nature. Where, specifically, do you think he is walking in this poem? What are the clues?
    • The poem has references to far-away and exotic places. Why do you think they are mentioned?
    • Wordsworth wanted his poetry to reflect the language of ordinary people. How does that show in this poem?
    • Look at the rhyme pattern and see if you can spot some irregularities.
    • Follow the link below and read more about William Wordsworth.

    W. Wordsworth: The Tables Turned

    "The Tables Turned" is another of William Wordsworth's famous poems that is so typical of the Romantic Era. It is in a way a declaration of Wordsworth's Romantic manifesto, and it presents a break with the scientific approach of the Enlightenment. Read the poem and do the tasks which follow.

    The Tables Turned

    William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

    Up! Up! My Friend, and quit your books;
    Or surely you’ll grow double:
    Up! Up! My Friend and clear your looks;
    Why all this toil and trouble?

    The sun, above the mountain's head,
    A freshening lustre mellow
    Through all the long green fields has spread,
    His first sweet evening yellow.

    Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
    Come, hear the woodland linnet,
    How sweet his music! On my life,
    There's more wisdom in it.

    And hark! How blithe the throstle sings!
    He, too, is no mean preacher:
    Come forth into the light of things,
    Let nature be your teacher.

    She has a world of ready wealth,
    Our minds and hearts to bless –
    Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
    Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

    One impulse from a vernal wood
    May teach you more of man,
    Of moral evil and of good,
    Than all the sages can.

    Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
    Our meddling intellect
    Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things: -
    We murder to dissect.

    Enough of Science and of Art;
    Close up those barren leaves;
    Come forth, and bring with you a heart
    That watches and receives.

    Exercise 7.4.1

    A Closer Look at the Poem

    • Point out some lines that in your opinion reflect the ideas and values of the Romantic period.
    • What would you say is the theme of the poem?
    • How can we say that this poem is a manifesto of the Romantic period?
    • Who is the author addressing in the poem?
    • What defines this as a poem (and not prose)?
    • The title is a well known saying. What does it mean that "the tables are turned"?
    • Comment on the line: "Close up those barren leaves."
    • Follow the link below and read more about William Wordsworth.

    I wandered lonely as a cloud

    I wandered 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, 5
    Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

    Continuous as the stars that shine
    And twinkle on the milky way,
    They stretched in never-ending line
    Along the margin of a bay: 10
    Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
    Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

    The waves beside them danced; but they
    Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
    A poet could not but be gay,
    In such a jocund company: 15
    I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
    What wealth the show to me had brought:

    For oft, when on my couch I lie
    In vacant or in pensive mood,
    They flash upon that inward eye
    Which is the bliss of solitude; 20
    And then my heart with pleasure fills,
    And dances with the daffodils.

    The Last of the Flock

    In distant countries I have been,
    And yet I have not often seen
    A healthy man, a man full grown,
    Weep in the public roads alone.
    But such a one, on English ground,
    And in the broad high-way, I met;
    Along the broad high-way he came,
    His cheeks with tears were wet.
    Sturdy he seemed, though he was sad;
    And in his arms a lamb he had.

    He saw me, and he turned aside,
    As if he wished himself to hide:
    Then with his coat he made essay
    To wipe those briny tears away.
    I follow'd him, and said, "My friend
    "What ails you? wherefore weep you so?"
    —"Shame on me, Sir! this lusty lamb,
    He makes my tears to flow.
    To-day I fetched him from the rock;
    He is the last of all my flock.

    When I was young, a single man,
    And after youthful follies ran,
    Though little given to care and thought,
    Yet, so it was, a ewe I bought;
    And other sheep from her I raised,
    As healthy sheep as you might see,
    And then I married, and was rich
    As I could wish to be;
    Of sheep I numbered a full score,
    And every year increas'd my store.

    Year after year my stock it grew,
    And from this one, this single ewe,
    Full fifty comely sheep I raised,
    As sweet a flock as ever grazed!
    Upon the mountain did they feed;
    They throve, and we at home did thrive.
    —This lusty lamb of all my store
    Is all that is alive;
    And now I care not if we die,
    And perish all of poverty.

    Six children, Sir! had I to feed,
    Hard labour in a time of need!
    My pride was tamed, and in our grief,
    I of the parish ask'd relief.
    They said I was a wealthy man;
    My sheep upon the mountain fed,
    And it was fit that thence I took
    Whereof to buy us bread:"
    "Do this; how can we give to you,"
    They cried, "what to the poor is due?"

    I sold a sheep as they had said,
    And bought my little children bread,
    And they were healthy with their food;
    For me it never did me good.
    A woeful time it was for me,
    To see the end of all my gains,
    The pretty flock which I had reared
    With all my care and pains,
    To see it melt like snow away!
    For me it was a woeful day.

    Another still! and still another!
    A little lamb, and then its mother!
    It was a vein that never stopp'd,
    Like blood-drops from my heart they dropp'd.
    Till thirty were not left alive
    They dwindled, dwindled, one by one,
    And I may say that many a time
    I wished they all were gone:
    They dwindled one by one away;
    For me it was a woeful day.

    To wicked deeds I was inclined,
    And wicked fancies cross'd my mind,
    And every man I chanc'd to see,
    I thought he knew some ill of me.
    No peace, no comfort could I find,
    No ease, within doors or without,
    And crazily, and wearily,
    I went my work about.
    Oft-times I thought to run away;
    For me it was a woeful day.

    Sir! 'twas a precious flock to me,
    As dear as my own children be;
    For daily with my growing store
    I loved my children more and more.
    Alas! it was an evil time;
    God cursed me in my sore distress,
    I prayed, yet every day I thought
    I loved my children less;
    And every week, and every day,
    My flock, it seemed to melt away.

    They dwindled, Sir, sad sight to see!
    From ten to five, from five to three,
    A lamb, a weather, and a ewe;
    And then at last, from three to two;
    And of my fifty, yesterday
    I had but only one,
    And here it lies upon my arm,
    Alas! and I have none;
    To-day I fetched it from the rock;
    It is the last of all my flock."

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Connections: What have expert literary scholars said about this poem? Check out Heidi J. Snow's literary criticism that centers on this poem along with William's sister Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journals.

    Contributors and Attributions

    This page titled 7.4: Wordsworth, William. Selected Poems is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Heather Ringo & Athena Kashyap (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .

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