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.
3. 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.
4. ‘London, 1802’.
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.
By 1802, Wordsworth was a literary celebrity, thanks to the publication of Lyrical Ballads, which he co-authored with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1798. Wordsworth had been a staunch supporter of the French Revolution in 1789, later declaring, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive!’ But by 1802, the Revolutionary regime had given way to Napoleon’s imperial tyranny, and the Napoleonic Wars. How can England defend itself against a foreign power while there is such corruption and selfishness among its people?
Milton thus stands as a beacon of enlightenment and integrity, a man who has the best interests of England at heart and has the skill and influence to make a real political difference.
5. ‘Tintern Abbey’.
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 …
This poem was not actually composed at Tintern Abbey, but, as the poem’s full title (‘Lines Written (or Composed) a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798’) 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.
Wordsworth tells us that although it’s been five years since he last clapped eyes on this scene, the memories of the beautiful landscape have often returned to him when he has been in busy ‘towns and cities’ or sitting ‘in lonely rooms’. The scene inspires feelings which the poet connects with small acts of love and kindness, and which can lead to a kind of tranquillity which allows us to ‘see into the life of things’: to understand things in a way we usually cannot.
We have analysed this poem here.
The poem is one of the great hymns to tranquillity, quiet contemplation, and self-examination in all of English literature.
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety …
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.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees …
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.
Wordsworth later wrote of the poem:
This was composed during my residence at Town-end, Grasmere. Two years at least passed between the writing of the four first stanzas and the remaining part. To the attentive and competent reader the whole sufficiently explains itself; but there may be no harm in adverting here to particular feelings or ‘experiences’ of my own mind on which the structure of the poem partly rests. Nothing was more difficult for me in childhood than to admit the notion of death as a state applicable to my own being.
In the poem, Wordsworth confides that he now loves the brooks more now he is older, and that dawn, and a new day, still fill him with appreciation of the world and all it can offer. The clouds gathering round the setting sun, foreshadowing the poet’s own decline and eventual death, remind him also that another day has ended and this has brought new glories. Thanks to the nature of the human heart, which allows us to connect emotionally with the world around us, even the ‘meanest flower’ inspires thoughts in the poet which ‘lie too deep for tears’.
We have analysed this poem here.
9. ‘The Solitary Reaper’.
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 …
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.
It is a quintessentially Romantic poem in many respects: its ballad form, its focus on solitariness among nature (the girl is reaping in the fields of the wild highlands), and its emphasis on human emotion (‘plaintive numbers’; ‘natural sorrow, loss, or pain’).
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.
However, the closing sestet (six-line unit) tends to divide readers. Is it an eloquent and sincere outpouring of grief, or is it a set of platitudinous statements about grief? This is probably where objective analysis gives way to subjective, personal preference. But ‘Surprised by joy’ remains one of Wordsworth’s most accessible and popular short poems, and is one of his finest depictions of personal grief.
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.
About William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is one of the leading poets of English Romanticism, and, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, is regarded as one of the ‘Lake Poets’: poets so named because of their associations with the Lake District in Cumbria in northern England.
Curiously, although Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth in Cumbria and would live for many years at Dove Cottage in the Lake District, some of Wordsworth’s most important and influential poems were written in the late 1790s while he was living in southern England and collaborating with Coleridge on their Lyrical Ballads (1798), which would herald a return to older, traditional oral forms of poetry and a privileging of personal sensory experience and individual emotion over the cool rationalism and orderliness of earlier eighteenth-century verse.
Wordsworth’s themes are nature and the English countryside, the place of the individual within the world, and memory: especially childhood memory. One of his most famous statements is ‘the child is father of the man’, which asserts that our childhood years are so formative that they determine the adult we become. Wordsworth is often looking back to his childhood, and nowhere more so than in his long autobiographical poem The Prelude (1805; revised 1850).
Lyrical Ballads heralded the arrival of English Romanticism in poetry, and Wordsworth added a famous preface to the collection when it was reprinted in 1800. However, he later fell out with Coleridge, and his poetic creativity dried up in his thirties; much of his best work was written before 1807. He accepted the role of Poet Laureate in 1843 when his fellow Lake Poet, Robert Southey, died, but he never composed a single line of official verse during his seven years in the post. He died in 1850.
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.