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The poetry of Wordsworth is so associated with what is known as the Lake Country of England that it is a pleasure to find him a native of that region, and not some city-bred man who sought the country as a refuge. He was born April 7, 1770, at Cockermouth, a town on the edge of the Cumberland highlands, and except for his college life, two journeys on the Continent, and occasional visits to London, he spent all his years in the neighborhood of his birthplace, so marking the country by his poems that another English poet happily named it Wordsworthshire.
His father and mother both died when he was a boy. His memory of his boyhood was very vivid, for he often recurs to it in his poetry; especially he was able to recall the impressions made on his mind by the mountains and lakes and the lonely scenes amid which he lived. When he was seventeen years old, he went to St. John's College, Cambridge, where he spent four years. They were the years when the early movements of the French Revolution set many ardent young Englishmen aflame with hopes of a new order of things, and he went to France after his graduation ; but the deepening horror of the Reign of Terror sent him back to England at the end of a year. He drifted about for a while; he was a friend of Coleridge and of Southey, and with Coleridge published in 1798 a volume of poems with the title Lyrical Ballads. It contained poems, now famous, which were so unlike the poetry then familiar to readers that most people stared and laughed at them. So accustomed were they to think of poetry as
a very formal thing, unusual ideas clothed in unusual language, that when a poet sang of the smiles and tears, the simple pleasures and the simple sorrows, of plain folk, even of children, and used in his song just such words as ordinary people used, they refused to believe they were listening to real poetry. This was not so of all : a few heard the melody of the song, and as they listened, they were like the Poor Susan of Wordsworth's own ballad, the poetry took them to their home. The thoughts and feelings common to men, the deep significance and beauty of the world which every one's eyes
could look on, were brought to light, and Wordsworth showed himself thus a seer, another name for a poet, since he could see into life.
After Lyrical Ballads was published, Wordsworth went to Germany for a while. Coleridge was his companion part of the time, but his nearest friend was his sister Dorothy, and when he went back to England he established himself near one of the lakes which he had known as a boy, and there lived with his sister. He had given up the hopes he had once entertained of a new order of society; he became a firm supporter of the church and state, but he did not abandon his deeper, constant sense of a democracy which lay behind political and ecclesiastical forms. Above all, he believed in honest work. In one of his poems he used the phrase, often quoted since,
“Plain living and high thinking."
That was the heart of Wordsworth's creed.
He married Mary Hutchinson in 1802, but his sister Dorothy continued to make her home with him, and was a constant companion in his walks, his short journeys, and in his studies and thought. In 1813, after one or two changes of residence, he fixed his home at a spot called Rydal Mount, near Ambleside, and there he lived till his death. His house, which has been visited by many lovers of Wordsworth's genius, stands on a knoll looking off upon Rydal Mere, a little sheet of water closed about by mountains. A small bit of ground only belongs to the place, but so skilfully did the poet dispose his hedges and trees that the eye wanders over large tracts, and is not interrupted by any apparent confine. He had distinguished neighbors, for Coleridge, Southey, and De Quincey lived in the same district, and later Harriet Martineau and Dr. Arnold made their homes there. He died at Rydal Mount, April 23, 1850.
When one visits this region, he takes with him a volume of Wordsworth's poems, and it serves as a beautiful guide to the country. Not that the versés describe closely the several scenes, but they are the reflection of a poetic mind brought in contact with varied nature. Beethoven wrote over the score of his Pastoral Symphony, “Thoughts of a man going into the country in early spring.” People when they hear the symphony sometimes think they hear the song of birds, or the wind in the treetops, or the ripple of a brook. This is not what Beethoven meant to convey : he wished to reproduce the soul of man as it listens to bird or wind or brook. Thus it was with Wordsworth. a host of golden daffodils and the loneliness which possessed him as he strayed through the field, and his loneliness turns to gladness, even gayety, so that the image of the scene comes back to him when he is by himself in some still hour. He goes out despondent, and sees a poor, bent leech-gatherer patiently about his business; the sight starts the
memory of men about other sort of work, but equally separate from their fellows, and he goes back with a kind of victorious, triumphant feeling. Sometimes he sings as if his song were a very echo to the sounds he hears; but nature or the activities of men do not merely rebound from him in a simple description ; they pass through his mind and partake of its character.
The headnotes to the poems that follow are by Wordsworth himself.
He sees WE ARE SEVEN.
The little girl who is the heroine I met within the area of Goderich Castle, in the year 1793. I composed it while walking in the grove at Alfoxden. My friends will not deem it too trifling to relate, that while walking to and fro I composed the last stanza first, having begun with the last line. When it was all but finished, I came in and recited it to Mr. Coleridge and my sister, and said, “ A prefatory stanza must be added, and I should sit down to our little tea-meal with greater pleasure if my task was finished.” I mentioned in substance what I wished to be expressed, and Coleridge immediately threw off the stanza thus:
“ A little child, dear brother Jem." I objected to the rhyme,“ dear brother Jem,” as being ludicrous ; but we all enjoyed the joke of hitching in our friend James Tobin's name.
A SIMPLE Child,
5 I met a little cottage girl :
She had a rustic, woodland air,