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.
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
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 all together.
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 home-coming, 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.
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.