The best Wordsworth poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
W. H. Auden said of Edward Lear that ‘he became a land’. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) became ‘Romanticism’, in many ways: he came to embody the starting-point of English Romanticism through his early collaboration with Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Lyrical Ballads (1798) and his famous preface, published two years later in the second edition, calling for poetry which uses direct, natural human speech rather than overly ornate language and diction. In 1843 he became the UK Poet Laureate, and wrote barely a word more. But in his lifetime he wrote a great amount of poetry, in various forms and modes. Below are ten of Wordsworth’s very best poems, with a little bit about them.
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 …
This sonnet, written in 1802, praises the beauty of London in the early morning light, as the poet stands on Westminster Bridge admiring the surrounding buildings.London, even by the early nineteenth century, was a world of industrialisation, smog (that is, smoky fog, created by industrial activity), as well as the centre of government and empire, two things that came under heavy scrutiny by the early Romantic poets. Yet the London of early morning is serene and still, and it is this quiet scene that Wordsworth praises here.
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,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze …
One of Wordsworth’s most famous poems, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (as it should properly be known; it’s commonly known as ‘Daffodils’) is about the poet’s kinship with nature, and how the memory of the daffodils dancing cheers him whenever he recalls them. What’s less well-known is that Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy – and, indeed, his wife – had a hand in the composition of the poem, as we explore here.
from The Prelude. Wordsworth’s great long autobiographical poem in blank verse (though it’s not without its flaws), The Prelude has many great passages, and this is one of the best, from the first book of the poem, describing the poet’s schooldays:
Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!
Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought!
That giv’st to forms and images a breath
And everlasting motion! not in vain,
By day or star-light thus from my first dawn
Of Childhood didst Thou intertwine for me
The passions that build up our human Soul,
Not with the mean and vulgar works of Man,
But with high objects, with enduring things,
With life and nature, purifying thus
The elements of feeling and of thought,
And sanctifying, by such discipline,
Both pain and fear, until we recognize
A grandeur in the beatings of the heart …
If this excerpt whets your appetite for the whole poem, you can read that here.
Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness …
In this sonnet, Wordsworth addresses the poet John Milton (1608-74), expressing the wish that Milton were still alive, because his country, England, needs him now. England has become stagnant and corrupt in all quarters. Everyone has become selfish. Only Milton, it seems, can restore England to its former greatness, by restoring the virtues that it has lost.
‘Tintern Abbey’. This poem was not actually composed at Tintern Abbey, but, as the poem’s full title reveals, was written nearby, overlooking the ruins of the medieval priory in the Wye Valley in South Wales. Well, actually, according to Wordsworth, he didn’t ‘write’ a word of the poem until he got to Bristol, where he wrote down the whole poem, having composed it in his head shortly after leaving the Wye. We have analysed this poem here.
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love …
The poem is one of the great hymns to tranquillity, quiet contemplation, and self-examination in all of English literature.
‘My heart leaps up when I behold’. This simple nine-line poem describes how the poet is filled with joy when he sees a rainbow, and that he has always felt this way, since ‘my life began’; he hopes he will always keep that sense of enchantment with the natural world. The poem contains Wordsworth’s famous declaration, ‘The Child is father of the Man’, highlighting how important childhood experience was to the Romantics in helping to shape the human beings they became in adult life.
‘A slumber did my spirit seal’. Often included as one of Wordsworth’s ‘Lucy poems’, this short lyric is about feeling at peace, as though asleep and existing in a deep calm. This is because of an unidentified ‘she’ who did not seem to be marked by the passing of time or the ravages of nature as other mortals are. But wait: in the second stanza, we are suddenly informed of the woman’s (girl’s?) death: she lies still and powerless, unable to see or hear, and has become a part of the day-to-day world of nature.
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more …
Philip Larkin once recalled hearing this poem recited on BBC radio, and having to pull over to the side of the road, as his eyes had filled with tears. It remains a powerful poetic meditation on death, the loss of childhood innocence, and the way we tend to get further away from ourselves – our true roots and our beliefs – as we grow older.
‘The Solitary Reaper’. As well as writing odes and short lyrics, Wordsworth could also turn his hand to the ballad, as this poem demonstrates. Inspired by a visit to the Scottish village of Stathrye which the poet undertook with his sister, it has one of Wordsworth’s favourite subjects – the life of simple rustic folk:
Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by 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 …
Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Written about the death of the poet’s three-year-old daughter Catherine, this sonnet is about all death, too – about turning to share a feeling or a moment with somebody who is no longer there. One of Wordsworth’s most viscerally moving poems, and for that reason, one of his best.
The best collection of Wordsworth’s poetry is The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics). It isn’t a collected works – that would be an even bigger volume – but it features all of his most famous poems and has helpful notes and an informative introduction. For more Romantic poetry, see our pick of John Clare’s poems, Keats’s best poems, Shelley’s greatest poems, and these classic poems by Coleridge.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (top): Manuscript of William Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ © The British Library Board, Wikimedia Commons, public domain. Image (bottom): Portrait of William Wordsworth by Benjamin Haydon, 1842; via Wikimedia Commons.