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Sketch of his Life
The Castle of Indolence
Glossary

657 659 694

WILLIAM WORDSWORTH:

SKETCH OF HIS LIFE.

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The birth-place of William Wordsworth is in Cumberland, a county lying in the north-west corner of England, and separated from Scotland by Solway Frith. That region is specially distinguished in having numerous small lakes cradled among its hills and mountains, all of which have now been crowned with classic honours by the poet's hand. His father, John Wordsworth, was an attorney, and, having been engaged as law-agent by the Earl of Lonsdale, was set over the western portion of the wide domain of Lowther, and lived at Cockermouth, in a manorhouse belonging to that family. There William was born on the 7th of April, 1770, the second of four sons. There was only one daughter in the family, Dorothy, who came next after the poet. Cockermouth stands on the Derwent, called by the poet“ the fairest of all rivers,” and looks back to the Borrowdale mountains, among which that river is born. The voice of that stream, he tells us, flowed along his dreams while he was a child.

His mother, a wise and pious woman, told a friend that William was the only one of her children about whom she felt anxious, and that he would be “remarkable either for good or evil.” This was probably from what he himself calls his “stiff, moody, and violent temper.” Of this, which made him a wayward and headstrong boy, all that he seems afterwards to have retained was that resolute

of character which stood him in good stead when he became a man. Of his mother, who died when he was eight years old, the poet retained a faint but tender recollection. At the age of nine, he, along with his elder brother Richard, lest home for school. It would be hard to conceive a better school-life for a future poet than that in which Wordsworth was reared at Hawkshead. High-pressure was then unknown; nature and freedom had full swing. Bounds and locking-up hours they had none. The boys lived in the cottages of the village dames, in a natural, friendly way, like their own children. Their play-gounds were the fields, the lake, the woods, the hillsides, far as their feet could carry them. Their games were crag-climbing for ravens' nests, skating on Esthwaite Lake, setting springes for woodcocks.

In Wordsworth's fourteenth year, when he and his brother were at home for the Christmas holidays, their father, who had never recovered heart after the death of his wife, followed her to the grave. The old home at Cockermouth was broken up, and the orphans were but poorly provided for. Large arrears were indeed due to their father from the strange, self-willed Earl of Lonsdale; but these his lordship never chose to make good. Nevertheless the boys returned to school, and William remained there till his eighteenth year, when he left for Cambridge.

From Hawkshead Wordsworth took several good things with him. In booklearning, there was Latin enough to enable him to read the Roman poets with pleasure in after-years; of mathematics, more than enough to start him on equality with the average of Cambridge freshmen; of Greek, probably not much,at least we never heard of it afterwards. It was here that he began that intimacy with the English poets which he afterwards perfected : but neither at school nor in after-life was he a devourer of books.

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course.

Of verse-making, his earliest attempts date from Hawkshead. A long copy of verses, written on the second centenary of the foundation of the school, was much admired; but he himself afterwards pronounced them but a tame imitation of Pope." But more than any book-lore, more than any skill in versemaking, or definite thoughts about poetry, was the free, natural life he led at Hawkshead. It was there that he was smitten to the core with that love of Nature which became the prime necessity of his being. Not that he was a moody or peculiar boy, nursing his own fancies apart from his companions : so far from this, he was foremost in all schoolboy adventures,--the sturdiest oar, the hardiest cragsman at the harrying of ravens' nests. Weeks and months, ho tells us, passed in a round of school tumult. No life could have been every way more unconstrained and natural. But, school tumult though there was, it was not in a made play-ground at cricket or rackets, but in haunts more fitted to form a poet,

- on the lakes and the hillsides. All through his school-time, he says that in pauses of the “giddy bliss” he felt“ gleams like the flashing of a shield.” And as time went on, and common school pursuits lost their novelty, these visitations grew deeper and more frequent.

In October, 1787, at the age of eighteen, Wordsworth passed from Hawkshead School to St. John's College, Cambridge. College life, so important to those whose minds are mainly shaped by books and academic influences, produced on him but little impression. The stripling of the hills had not been trained for college competitions : he felt that he “was not for that hour, nor for that place.” The range of scholastic studies seemed to him narrow and timid. As for college honours, he thought them dearly purchased at the price of the evil rivalries and the tame standard of excellence which they fostered in the eager few who entered the lists. No doubt he was a self-sufficient, presumptuous youth, so to judge of men and things in so famous a university : but there were qualities of a rarer kind latent in him, which in time justified him in thus taking his own

When arrived in Cambridge, a northern villager, he tells us there were other poor, simple schoolboys from the North, now Cambridge men, ready to welcome him, and introduce him to the ways of the place. So, leaving to others the competitive race, he let himself, in the company of these, drop quietly down the stream of the usual undergraduate jollities. In The Prelude he tells us how in a friend's room in Christ's College, once occupied by Milton, he toasted the memory of the abstemious Puritan, till the fumes of wine took his brain ; – the first and last time that the future water-drinker experienced that sensation. During the earlier part of his college course he did just as others did, lounged and sauntered, boated and rode, enjoyed wines and supper-parties,“ days of mirth and nights of revelry;" yet kept clear of vicious excess.

When the first novelty of college life was over, growing dissatisfied with idleness, he withdrew somewhat from promiscuous society, and kept more by himself. Living in quiet, the less he felt of reverence for those clders whom he saw, the inore his heart was stirred with high thoughts of those whom he could not see. He read Chaucer under the hawthorn by Trompington Mill, and made intimate acquaintance with Spenser. Milton he seemed to himself almost to see moving before him, as, clad in scholar's gown, that young poet had once walked those same cloisters in the angelic beauty of his youth.

During the Summer vacations Wordsworth and his sister, who had been much separated since their childhood, met once more under the roof of their mother's kindred in Penrith. With her he then had the first of those rambles by the streams of Lowther and Emont- which were afterwards renewed with so happy results. Then, too, he first met Mary Hutchinson, his cousin, and his wife to be. It was during his second or third year at Cambridge, that he first seriously formed the purpose of being a poet, and dared to hope that he might leave behind him something that would live. His last long vacation was devoted to a walking-tour on the Continent along with a college friend from Wales. For himself, he had long cast college studies and their rewards behind him; but friends at home could not see this without uneasy forebodings. What was to become of a penniless lad who thus played ducks and drakes with youth's golden opportunities? But he had as yet no misgivings; he was athirst only for Nature and freedom. So, with his friend Jones, staff in hand, he walked for fourteen weeks through France, Switzerland, and the north of Italy. With four shillings each daily they paid their way. They landed at Calais on the evo of the day when the King was to swear to the new constitution. All through France, as they trudged along, they saw a people rising with jubilee to welcomein the dawn, as they thought, of a new era for mankind. Nor were they onlookers only, but sympathizers in the intoxication of the time, joining in village revels and dances with the frantic multitude. But these sights did not detain them, for they were bent rather on seeing Nature than man. Over the Alps and along the Italian lakes they passed with a kind of awful joy.

In January, 1791, Wordsworth took a common degree, and quitted Cambridge. The crisis of his life lay between this time and his settling down at Grasmere. He had resolved to be a poet; but even poets must be housed, clothed, and fed ; and poetry has seldom done this for any of its devotees, Jeast of all such poetry as Wordsworth was minded to write. But it was not the question of bread alone, but one much wider and more complex, which now pressed upon him,

the question, What next? And the difficulty of meeting this was much enhanced to him from the circumstance of his being turned loose upon a world just heaving with the first throes of the French Revolution. He had seer that event while it still wore its earliest auroral hues, when the people were mad with joy, as at the dawn of a renovated Earth. That he should have staked his whole hope on it, looked for all good things from it, who shall wonder? Coleridge, Southey, almost every high-minded young man of that time, hailed it with fervour. Wordsworth would not have been the man he was, if he could have stood proof against the contagion. On leaving Cambridge he had gone to London. "The Spring and early Summer months he spent there, not mingling in society, but wandering abont the streets, noting all sights, observant of men's faces and ways, haunting the open book-stalls. During these months he tells us he was preserved from the cynicism and contempt for human nature which the deformities of crowded life often breed, by remembrance of the kind of men he had first lived amongst, in themselves a manly, simple, uncontaminated race, and invested with added interest and dignity by living in the same hereditary fields where their forefathers had lived, and by moving about among the grand accompaniments of mountain storms and sunshine. The good had come first, and the evil, when it came, did not stamp itself into the groundwork of his imagination. The following Summer he visiter his travelling companion Jones in Wales, and made a walking-tour in that country.

In November, 1791, he visited Paris, and there heard the specches that were made in the Hall of the National Assembly, while the Brissotins were in the ascendant. A few days he wandered about the city, surveyed the scenes rendered famous by recent events, and even picked up a stone as a relic from the site of the demolished Bastile. This rage for historic scenes he however confesses to have been in him more affected than genuine. From Paris he went to Orleans, and sojourned there for some time to learn the language. When, in the Fall of 1792, he returned to Paris, the September massacrc had taken place but a month before; the King and his family were in prison; the Republic was proclaimed, and Robespierre in power. The young Englishman ranged through the city, passed the prison where the King lay, visited the Tuileries, lately stormed, and the Place de Carrousel, a month since heaped with the dead. As he lay in the garret of a hotel hard by, sleepless, and filled with thoughts of what had just occurred, he seemed to hear a voice that cried aloud to the whole city,“ Sleep no more. Years after, those scenes still troubled him in dreams. He had ghastly visions of scaffolds hung with innocent victims, or of crowds ready for butchery, and mad with the levity of despair. In his sleep he seemed to be pleading in vain for the life of friends, or for his own, before a savage tribunal.

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