The English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was prolific over the course of his long life and career, although he wrote virtually no new poetry after he was appointed UK Poet Laureate in 1843. But between the early 1790s and the late 1800s, the most productive period of his career, Wordsworth wrote some of the greatest and most celebrated poems in the English language.
Many of the following classic Wordsworth quotations come from his poetry, although he also left behind some memorable lines in his prose writings, too. Below, we select and introduce some of Wordsworth’s best-known – and best – quotations.
‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.’
For all that we like to talk of Romantics like Wordsworth as being poets of sensation, they are, as Wordsworth’s own ‘Tintern Abbey’ shows, poets for whom quiet reflection and deep thought are as important as heady emotion.
And this quotation, from Wordsworth’s 1800 ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads, the collection he co-authored with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, shows how the recollection was as important as the powerful feeling.
‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’.
This opening line – of what is undoubtedly Wordsworth’s best-known poem – is a good example of that ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’, recalling as it does a time when Wordsworth walked (actually with his sister Dorothy, rather than alone) among the landscape of the Lake District in northern England:
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 …
Later in the poem, Wordsworth makes it clear that the memory of those daffodils, which ‘flash upon that inward eye’ of the imagination, is as powerful as the daffodils themselves. By the way, there is no evidence to support the idea that Wordsworth originally drafted the line as ‘I wandered lonely as a cow’.
‘On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.
In these lines, from his ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’, Wordsworth tells us that although it’s been five years since he last visited the banks of the River Wye, the memories of the beautiful landscape have often returned to him when he has been in busy living his life elsewhere.
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.
‘Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting’.
This famous quotation is from ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’, one of William Wordsworth’s best-known and best-loved poems:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come …
In other words, we are more than just flesh and blood, and have a deeper kinship with the natural world, and – by a sort of pantheist extension – with God. When we are born, that is not the beginning: we arise from a much bigger, deeper, longer organism that is the world.
When we are very young, we are surrounded by the divinity of heaven, but the ‘prison-house’ begins to close in on us, even while we are still children, but we keep it in our sight; when we are a bit older, on the threshold between youth and adulthood, we believe in its majesty; but once we arrive at adulthood we lose it altogether.
‘The world is too much with us’.
These are the opening words of a sonnet Wordsworth wrote in around 1802, and published in 1807:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
It is one of Wordsworth’s most powerful critiques of the Industrial Revolution and the materialist world of ‘getting and spending’.
‘My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky’.
This quotation is from a short poem Wordsworth wrote about the beauty of the rainbow, although the rest of the poem acknowledges the role that childhood plays in making us the adults we become. Or, as Wordsworth puts it:
‘The Child is Father of the Man.’
This quotation, from the rainbow poem quoted above, distils one of the key ideas of the Romantic movement: childhood experiences are formative for us, and help to create the adults we grow up to be. Indeed, childhood is a sacred estate which we should leave behind with reluctance, Wordsworth believes.
‘The still, sad music of humanity.’
This is another quotation from Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ poem, in which nature plays a key part:
For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.
‘One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.’
This quotation (and quatrain) is from ‘The Tables Turned’, a Wordsworth poem included in the 1798 Lyrical Ballads. The poem argues that nature is a better teacher than any textbook or classroom.
‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’.
Wordsworth was one of the first Romantic poets to reinvigorate the sonnet form, following the proto-Romantic Charlotte Smith (1749-1806), who helped to make the sonnet popular after more than a century of neglect.
This opening line is from Wordsworth’s poem ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’, and sees the poet looking out at London in the early morning light. It’s a rare example of Wordsworth praising the strange beauty of the city, rather than more rural landscapes.
‘Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.’
Let’s conclude this pick of the best Wordsworth quotations with a line, not from his poetry, but from a letter he wrote to his wife on 29 April 1812.