The life of William Wordsworth told through some intriguing biographical facts
William Wordsworth was born on 7 April 1770 in Cockermouth in the Lake District. He went to the same school, the Cockermouth Free School, as Fletcher Christian, the man who would lead the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789. Christian was six years senior to Wordsworth.
Famously, Wordsworth had anosmia. As the poet’s nephew wrote in his Memoirs of William Wordsworth, ‘With regard to fragrance, Mr. Wordsworth spoke from the testimony of others: he himself had no sense of smell. The single instance of his enjoying such a perception, which is recorded of him in Southey’s life, was, in fact, imaginary. The incident occurred at Racedown, when he was walking with Miss H––, who coming suddenly upon a parterre of sweet flowers, expressed her pleasure at their fragrance, – a pleasure which he caught from her lips, and then fancied to be his own.’
Wordsworth was a keen walker among the Lakes where he lived for much of his life – as was his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who collaborated with him on the landmark 1798 volume Lyrical Ballads. Thomas De Quincey once estimated that Wordsworth walked up to 180,000 miles in his whole life.
To the right is a picture of the manuscript for Wordsworth’s best-known poem. It is often referred to (erroneously, if we’re being pedantic) as ‘The Daffodils’ or ‘Daffodils’, but in fact it had no title and is technically known only by its first line, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’. It didn’t appear in the famous Lyrical Ballads – it was written a few years after that volume had been published. On 15 April 1802, Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were walking (there’s a surprise) around Glencoyne Bay in Ullswater when they encountered, in the words of Dorothy’s journal, a ‘long belt’ of daffodils. As Dorothy wrote, ‘we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seed ashore & that the little colony had so sprung up – But as we went along there were more & yet more & at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed and reeled and danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever dancing ever changing.’ The influence of this passage from Dorothy’s journal can be seen in Wordsworth’s poem, which we’ve analysed here.
Who wrote the following lines? ‘They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude.’ They come from ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’, but they weren’t written by Wordsworth – his wife, Mary Hutchinson, contributed them, as Wordsworth himself confirmed. There is no evidence to support the oft-repeated claim that Wordsworth originally had ‘I wandered lonely as a cow’ until Dorothy advised him to alter it to ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, though it’s a nice story: the myth may have originated in Conrad Aiken’s 1952 novel Ushant.
‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ first appeared in print in 1807 in Wordsworth’s Poems in Two Volumes, which received largely negative reviews. A young Byron described it as ‘puerile’. It was not, perhaps, the worst review Wordsworth’s work ever received: Francis Jeffrey’s adverse review of Wordsworth’s long poem The Excursion began with the devastating sentence, ‘This will never do.’ Which, somehow, is worse.
Wordsworth’s famous preface to the Lyrical Ballads, in which he refers to poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ that ‘takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility’, didn’t appear in the original 1798 edition but was first published in the 1800 reprint (which, for some reason, carried only Wordsworth’s name as author).
Wordsworth died on 23 April 1850 – just over a fortnight after his eightieth birthday, and on the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death some 234 years before. For the last seven years of his life he was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, though he wrote no official verses during this time.
Image: Manuscript of William Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ © The British Library Board, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.