Named Poet Laureate in 1843, Wordsworth has regularly featured in publications like The Nation’s Favourite Poems and his reputation as the doyen of English poetry has been cemented through events like 2004’s mass recital of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (more commonly known as ‘Daffodils’). However, he has also been lampooned as ‘Turdsworth’ by Byron, been the inspiration (?) behind Francis Jeffrey’s infamous ‘This will never do’ review, and mocked by William Hazlitt as ‘the spoiled child of disappointment.’ Seamus Heaney champions him in this rather retro clip from 1974, but today his popularity seems to be on the wane as he missed out on being included in the BBC’s Top Ten of the Nation’s Favourite Poets in 2009 and he’s in the news again as education specialists and the Department of Education debate the value of studying his poetry, with GCSE examiners urging caution.
Whatever you think about the artistic merit of his poetry or the peculiarities of his temperament, Wordsworth caused a seismic shift in the way poetry was read and written through his assertion that poets should ‘choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men’ (Lyrical Ballads). Together with Coleridge he championed the lives and language of ordinary people for the first time in English literature, writing about a child with learning disabilities in ‘The Idiot Boy’ (‘idiot’ then being a medical term rather than a derogatory one) and a poor leech gatherer in ‘Resolution and Independence’. He also eschewed heavily formulaic Latinate language and his rhymes are peppered with a Northern inflection, rhyming ‘waters’ with ‘chatters’. (For a more in depth look at this, have a look at my blog post for OxfordWords.)
There isn’t time to look at more than one Wordsworth poem in this short blog post, or to go into his life story any further (however, the Poetry Foundation have produced a brilliant potted biography of Wordsworth, along with a list of his best-known poetry.) I have chosen my favourite of his poems, his Valedictory Sonnet to the River Duddon, because it is both beautiful and gives hope for humanity:
I THOUGHT of Thee, my partner and my guide,
As being pass’d away.—Vain sympathies!
For, backward, Duddon! as I cast my eyes,
I see what was, and is, and will abide;
Still glides the Stream, and shall for ever glide;
The Form remains, the Function never dies;
While we, the brave, the mighty, and the wise,
We Men, who in our morn of youth defied
The elements, must vanish;—be it so!
Enough, if something from our hands have power
To live, and act, and serve the future hour;
And if, as toward the silent tomb we go,
Through love, through hope, and faith’s transcendent dower,
We feel that we are greater than we know.
The subject of this sonnet is not, as is traditional, a lover – instead it is the River Duddon in Cumbria which draws along the full weight of Wordsworth’s sorrow and his hope. The octave deepens into the battle cry of the final sestet half-way through the ninth line – ‘be it so!’ – which is unusual as it breaks the internal rhythm of the line. However, this volta represents the real power of the sonnet, as Wordsworth moves from the past to the future, calling to the hands of every reader that they might have some power therein to change the world. I do not believe there is a more eloquent call to action in the whole of literature.