In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section William Wordsworth

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Introductions
  • Reference Works and Resources
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Biographies
  • General Collections of Essays
  • Writing Practices, Revision, and Textual Issues
  • Sources and Influences
  • Relationships with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Dorothy Wordsworth
  • Reviews and Histories of Criticism
  • Reception, Posterity, and Influence
  • The Poetic Role
  • Imagination
  • Suffering and Feeling
  • Language
  • Form
  • Philosophy and Aesthetics
  • Psychoanalytic Criticism
  • Women and Gender
  • Religion
  • Nature and Ecology
  • Place and Space
  • Travel
  • Science

British and Irish Literature William Wordsworth
Simon Bainbridge
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0062


William Wordsworth (b. 1770–d. 1850) was one of the most important poets of the Romantic period and is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest poets writing in the English language. He was born in Cockermouth in the Lake District and went to Hawkshead Grammar School in the same area. His mother died in 1778, and the death of his father in 1783 left him and his siblings, including his sister Dorothy, in financial difficulties. Wordsworth studied classics at St. John’s College Cambridge, after which he spent time in London, France, and southwest England, where his friendship with fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge became a vital inspiration. In 1798 the two poets published jointly the first volume of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth’s own claims for which contributed to a debate about the volume ushering in a new age of poetry, a debate that continues to this day. After a brief stay in Germany, William and Dorothy returned to the Lake District, settling in Grasmere, an event celebrated in the poem “Home at Grasmere.” Wordsworth lived in the Lake District for the remainder of his life, and the poet and the region continue to be strongly associated. In 1799 Wordsworth completed the first version of what would become his poetic masterpiece, the epic autobiography The Prelude, a work that he continued to expand and revise and that wasn’t published until 1850, after the poet’s death. He married Mary Hutchinson in 1802 and the couple had five children, though two died in 1812. Poems in Two Volumes (1807) and the long work The Excursion (1814) were published to mixed receptions, and Wordsworth’s acceptance of the government-funded role of Distributor of Stamps for Westmoreland in 1813 seemed to some contemporaries to be symbolic of the poet’s increasing orthodoxy and conservatism after his radical, nonconformist youth. Wordsworth’s critical reputation improved from the 1820s on, culminating in his appointment as Poet Laureate in 1843, seven years before his death. The strange and often disturbing power of Wordsworth’s poetry has always been recognized, though contemporaries were often critical of the poet’s choice of “low” subject matter and of what John Keats defined as the “egotistical sublime” character of his verse, qualities that since have been recognized as central to Wordsworth’s poetic achievement. Wordsworth has been central to discussions of Romanticism and English literature more generally and continues to stimulate a wealth of critical readings and theoretical approaches.

General Overviews and Introductions

Wordsworth’s work has been the subject of a vast amount of critical analysis and has often been used as a battleground for different theoretical approaches. Williams 2002 provides a valuable guide to the changing critical responses, alongside a useful introduction to a wide range of the poems. Danby 1960 gives a detailed reading of the major poems from 1797 to 1807 that readers new to the poetry will find particularly helpful. Gill 2003, a collection of essays written by some of the leading current Wordsworth scholars, offers a good starting point. Hartman 1964 is one of the most important studies of the poet and is often seen as the first major modern study of the poet and the touchstone for later criticism. Wordsworth 1982 provides a good place to start, this time with an emphasis on manuscript study. McFarland 1992 offers a powerful attempt to characterize the essential nature of Wordsworth’s achievement, responding in particular to New Historicist readings of the poetry. The beautifully illustrated Jaye, et al. 1987 locates the poet in the period’s wider contexts. Purkis 2000 also provides very useful introductions to the various contexts in which Wordsworth was writing, along with helpful close readings of the poetry.

  • Danby, John F. The Simple Wordsworth: Studies in the Poems, 1797–1908. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960.

    A good starting point with detailed and helpful close readings of the major poetry.

  • Gill, Stephen. The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521641160

    Both a good introduction to the poet and his work and a valuable snapshot of the current state of Wordsworth scholarship. Fifteen essays by leading Wordsworth scholars offering a wide-ranging study of key works and themes.

  • Hartman, Geoffrey H. Wordsworth’s Poetry, 1787–1814. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1964.

    One of the most important and influential studies of Wordsworth of the 20th century. Offering careful, detailed, and revelatory readings of the poetry. Unlike much preceding criticism, presents a Wordsworth in conflict, unsure whether to commit to nature or the imagination. Explores idea of tension between the poet’s “two consciousnesses,” a consciousness of nature and a consciousness of self. The author added a valuable preface to the 1971 edition.

  • Jaye, Michael C., Robert Woof, and Jonathan Wordsworth. William Wordsworth and the Age of English Romanticism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

    Well-illustrated introduction to the poet in his context. Sections on key topics in the writing of the period, including nature, memory, imagination, and the sublime. Powerfully conveys the excitement of the Revolutionary age.

  • McFarland, Thomas. William Wordsworth: Intensity and Achievement. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198112532.001.0001

    Positions itself against the New Historical criticism prevalent in the 1980s and opens with a reading of “Tintern Abbey” in response to Marjorie Levinson. Argues for “intensity” as the definitive element of Wordsworth’s poetry.

  • Purkis, John. A Preface to Wordsworth. Rev. ed. London: Longman, 2000.

    Very good starting point for undergraduates or general readers, including a valuable introduction, sections on “economic history” and “philosophy and religion,” and critical readings of a good selection of poems.

  • Williams, John. Critical Issues: William Wordsworth. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2002.

    Useful survey of the critical responses to Wordsworth from his own time until the present day, with a detailed discussion of key essays. Considers the whole span of Wordsworth’s career. Ordered in terms of major publications with two chapters on The Prelude. Investigates Wordsworth’s ongoing value for modern readers. A valuable volume for advanced undergraduates or postgraduates.

  • Wordsworth, Jonathan. William Wordsworth: The Borders of Vision. Oxford: Clarendon, 1982.

    A collection of essays on major themes in the poetry that together constitute an important study. Critical emphasis on early versions of the poems, especially The Prelude, drawing on manuscript sources. Good on the relationship with Coleridge. As title suggests, argues for Wordsworth as a poet of “border vision.”

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