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Motion on... Wordsworth

Updated Tuesday, 9th September 2008

Poet Laureate Andrew Motion explores the work of Wordsworth.

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Andrew Motion Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

About William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Jupiter Images Born in Cockermouth, Cumberland, Wordsworth spent most of his life in the Lake District of Northern England. With Samuel Taylor Coleridge he started the English Romantic movement with their collection ‘Lyrical Ballads’ in 1798.

Wordsworth lost his mother when he was eight and five years later his father. The domestic problems separated William from his beloved sister, Dorothy, who was very important to the budding poet.

He made his debut as a writer in 1787, publishing a sonnet in The European Magazine. That same year he entered St. John's College, Cambridge, taking his BA in 1791. During the summer of 1790, the young Wordsworth went on a walking tour through revolutionary France – during which he had an affair with a French girl, Annette Vallon, by whom he had a illegitimate daughter, Anne Caroline.

The affair was the basis of the poem Vaudracour and Julia. After his journeys Wordsworth spent several aimless and unhappy years. His finacial situation became better in 1795 when he received a legacy and was able to settle at Racedown, Dorset, with his sister Dorothy. Encouraged by Coleridge and stimulated by the close contact with nature, Wordsworth composed his first masterwork, Lyrical Ballads, which opened with Coleridge's Ancient Mariner and ended with Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey.

Wordsworth's central works were produced between 1797 and 1808 – the poems written during middle and late years have not gained similar critical approval.

In 1843 he succeeded Robert Southey as poet laureate and he died on 13th April 1850.

View of bridge Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

Composed upon Westminster Bridge

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!

Walkway Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

William Wordsworth, 3rd September 1802

Andrew Motion's thoughts

Andrew says it’s surprising to find a poem in praise of cities because conventionally poems were in praise of landscapes, if anything. Wordsworth himself is very much associated with landscapes, but with this poem he explores the pros and cons of city and country. The words tower, dome etc are representative of the people and he gives the cities some of the qualities that we associate with the country.

The poem also reveals Wordsworth’s radical tendencies through the use of the word majesty – in this case it’s not the monarch who is majestic but the site and the people. Wordsworth had very strong republican views in his early years and his feelings are clearly on show in this poem.

The last line has a fascinating paradoxical quality – is the still heart sleeping or dead? And so is the poem a straightforward celebration of city life – or something darker?

Take it further

1798: The Year of the Lyrical Ballads
edited Richard Cronin

The Revolutionary 'I'
Ashton Nichols

Disowned by Memory
David Bromwich

The Hidden Wordsworth
Kenneth R. Johnston

William Wordsworth: A Biography
Hunter Davies

William Wordsworth
John Williams

Becoming Wordsworthian
Elisabeth A. Fray

A Literary Guide to the Lake District
G. Lindop

The Wordsworth Trust

Wordsworth's complete poetical works

Wikipedia on Wordsworth

 

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