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Wordsworth at 250

Celebrating William Wordsworth (7 April 1770 - 23 April 1850)

Arguably the College’s most famous alumnus, William Wordsworth is celebrated the world over as the definitive poet of nature and the chief instigator of the literary movement known as British Romanticism. From relatively humble beginnings amid the mountainous landscape of northwest England, he went on – via Cambridge, London, France, Dorset and Germany – to settle in the Lake District, where he composed some of the most memorable and enduringly popular poems in the English language. While his finest work dates from his twenties and thirties (with the period 1799–1808 often referred to as his ‘golden decade’), Wordsworth’s publishing career spanned six decades, and from 1843 until his death he served as Poet Laureate to Queen Victoria.

Curated to mark Wordsworth’s 250th birthday, this exhibition showcases items from the College’s Wordsworth Collection. Here you can observe not only his face (as cast from life) but his breakfast teacup, as well as letters to his eminent contemporaries and first-edition copies of his greatest works.

This is an online version of an exhibition held in the Library from 20 January to 24 April 2020.

Curated by Rebecca Watts, Library Projects Assistant

Admission to St John's

Register of Fellows, Officers & Scholars, Vol. 5 (1775-1824)
Admissions register
College Archive SJAR/6/1/1/5

William Wordsworth came up to St John’s College on 30 October 1787, and was formally admitted as an undergraduate on 6 November. Here (the third entry down on the right-hand page) you can see his entry in the College Register, written in Latin, in his hand.

Wordsworth entry detail

Ego Gulielmus Wordsworth Cumbriensis juratus et admissus [sum] in discipulum hujus collegii pro Dma Fundatrice Dec Do Myers

I William Wordsworth of Cumberland am sworn and admitted a scholar of this College on the Foundress’s foundation in succession to Mr Myers

Despite being admitted to a Scholarship on the basis of academic merit in his first term, Wordsworth had little enthusiasm for the mathematical curriculum offered at Cambridge, and chose to apply his time instead to general reading and the study of Italian. His marks steadily dwindled, and he eventually graduated without honours in January 1791.

The Prelude

The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind; an Autobiographical Poem (London: Edward Moxon, 1850)
Prelude first edition title page
Wa 1850.2

Having left Cambridge, Wordsworth moved between London, Revolutionary France, southwest England and Germany, before settling in his native Lake District in December 1799. Over the following five years, he completed a first draft of a book-length autobiographical poem, which he dedicated to his friend and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Having read the poem aloud to Coleridge in 1806, Wordsworth spent the next four decades revising the text, leaving it untitled and unpublished at his death in 1850. This first edition, brought to publication by his wife Mary shortly after his death, bears the title suggested by Mary to reflect the fact that Wordsworth had conceived of the poem as the introductory part of a much longer work (never completed).

In section III of The Prelude, looking back on his time at Cambridge, Wordsworth pronounces that he ‘was not for that hour, / Nor for that place’ – having preferred to ‘pace alone the level fields’ rather than face his ‘College labours’ or ‘the Lecturer’s room’.

Prelude section III

From The Prelude, Book III: ‘Residence at Cambridge’

It was a dreary morning when the Chaise

Roll’d over the flat Plains of Huntingdon

And through the open windows, first I saw

The long-back’d Chapel of King’s College rear

His pinnacles above the dusky groves. […]

 

My spirit was up, my thoughts were full of hope;

Some Friends I had, acquaintances who there

Seemed Friends, poor simple Schoolboys, now hung round

With honour and importance; in a world

Of welcome faces up and down I rov’d;

Questions, directions, counsel and advice

Flowed in upon me from all sides, fresh day

Of pride and pleasure! to myself I seem’d

A man of business and expense, and went

From shop to shop about my own affairs,

To Tutors or to Tailors, as befel,

From street to street with loose and careless heart.

 

I was the Dreamer, they the Dream; I roam’d

Delighted, through the motley spectacle;

Gowns grave or gaudy, Doctors, Students, Streets,

Lamps, Gateways, Flocks of Churches, Courts and Towers:

Strange transformation for a mountain Youth,

A northern Villager. […]

 

The Evangelist St. John my Patron was,

Three gloomy Courts are his; and in the first

Was my abiding-place, a nook obscure!

Right underneath, the College kitchens made

A humming sound, less tuneable than bees,

But hardly less industrious; with shrill notes

Of sharp command and scolding intermix’d.

Near me was Trinity’s loquacious Clock

Who never let the Quarters, night or day,

Slip by him unproclaim’d, and told the hours

Twice over with a male and female voice.

Her pealing organ was my neighbour too;

And, from my Bedroom, I in moonlight nights

Could see, right opposite, a few yards off,

The antechapel, where the Statue stood

Of Newton, with his Prism and silent Face.

 

Of College labours, of the Lecturer’s Room,

All studded round, as thick as chairs could stand,

With loyal Students, faithful to their Books,

Half-and-half Idlers, hardy Recusants,

And honest Dunces;—of important Days,

Examinations, when the man was weigh’d

As in the balance,—of excessive hopes,

Tremblings withal, and commendable fears,

Small jealousies, and triumphs good or bad

I make short mention; things they were which then

I did not love, nor do I love them now.

Such glory was but little sought by me,

And little won. But it is right to say

That even so early, from the first crude days

Of settling-time in this my new abode,

Not seldom I had melancholy thoughts

From personal and family regards,

Wishing to hope without a hope; some fears

About my future worldly maintenance,

And, more than all, a strangeness in my mind,

A feeling that I was not for that hour,

Nor for that place.

The Pickersgill portrait

Portrait of Wordsworth by Henry William Pickersgill (1833)
Oil portrait of Wordsworth
William Wordsworth in 1832

Wordsworth’s ambivalent relationship to his College did not prevent him from becoming one of its most renowned alumni. In 1831 the College commissioned Henry William Pickersgill to paint this portrait of Wordsworth. The original oil painting currently hangs in the College Hall.

Pickersgill was a prolific painter, and during his long career produced portraits of many of the notable figures of his time. In the following letters, dating from April and May 1832, Wordsworth tentatively proposes that Pickersgill might journey to the Lake District to undertake the commission – naturally ‘during the Summer Vacation, when a little recreation and a ramble in this fine Country during the season of its beauty might recompense you for so long a journey’. By late August the logistics of the visit were still being negotiated.

Pickersgill letter 6 page 1

Pickersgill letter 6 page 2
Wordsworth/Folder 6
Pickersgill letter 7
Wordsworth/Folder 7

Pickersgill eventually made it to Rydal Mount (Wordsworth’s family home, just north of Ambleside) in early September, where he completed the preliminary drawing shown below, and began work on the large canvas. The original drawing was donated to St John's in 1897 by the artist’s granddaughter.

Preliminary sketch of Wordsworth

 

Manuscript sonnet

'To My Portrait'

This manuscript sonnet, written by Wordsworth in response to the Pickersgill portrait, was presented to the College Library in 1886 by the Revd John Hymers, a Fellow of St John’s. Hymers had coordinated the portrait’s commission back in 1831, collecting subscriptions from the Fellows in order to fund it and corresponding with Wordsworth over the choice of artist and other logistical matters.

Manuscript sonnet
Wordsworth/Folder 23

To my Portrait

Painted by Pickersgill at Rydal Mount

For St. John’s College Cambridge

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

Go, faithful Portrait! & where long hath knelt

Margaret, the saintly Foundress, take thy place;

And if Time spare the Colors for the grace

Which to the work surpassing skill hath dealt

Thou, on thy rock reclined, tho kingdoms melt

In the hot crucible of Change, wilt seem

To breathe in rural peace, to hear the stream,

To think and feel as once the Poet felt.

Whate’er thy fate, those features have not grown

Unrecognized thro’ many a starting tear

More prompt, more glad to fall, than drops of dew

By morning shed around a flower half-blown;

Tears of delight that testified how true

To Life thou art, and in thy truth, how dear!

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

Wm Wordsworth

An Evening Walk (1793)

An Evening Walk. An Epistle; In Verse. Addressed to a Young Lady, from the Lakes of the North of England (London: Printed for J. Johnson, 1793)
An Evening Walk title page
Wh 1793.1

This is a first edition copy of Wordsworth’s first published volume, of which only a few copies are thought to survive. Wordsworth began composing the poem while at school, and continued to work on it during his first two College vacations. The ‘argument’, printed after the title leaf, summarises the poem’s content as follows:

Argument

The ‘young lady’ of the title is Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy.

Lyrical Ballads

Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems. (London: Printed for J. & A. Arch, 1798)
Lyrical Ballads first edition
Wa 1798.1
Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems. In Two Volumes. By W. Wordsworth. Second Edition. (London: Printed for T. N. Longman and O. Rees, 1800)
Lyrical Ballads second edition
Wa 1800.1

Wordsworth and Coleridge’s collaborative publication Lyrical Ballads was first published anonymously in October 1798. The volume opened with Coleridge’s 50-page poem ‘The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere’ and closed with Wordsworth’s ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ – now considered two of the defining poems of the English Romantic movement. The first edition contained a brief ‘Advertisement’, advising readers that ‘the following poems are to be considered experiments […] to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure’. The experiments baffled readers and reviewers alike, and so for the second edition, published in 1800 in two volumes and bearing Wordsworth’s (but not Coleridge’s) name, Wordsworth added a lengthy ‘Preface’ explaining his project and the literary revolution it was intended to kick-start.

Lyrical Ballads 'Preface'
Wa 1800.1 - 'Preface' to Lyrical Ballads

The principles Wordsworth outlined underpin much of the lyric poetry written today, and the Preface to Lyrical Ballads is now viewed as a key manifesto not just for Romanticism but for modern poetry in general.

Letter to Coleridge

Letter to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 8 July 1820

Letter to Coleridge

Letter to Coleridge
Wordsworth/Folder 3

Reflecting on his literary development in 1832, Wordsworth declared Coleridge one of ‘the two Beings to whom my intellect is most indebted’. Between 1795 and 1810 they discussed their philosophy and shared their poetry with one another, collaborated on publications, and travelled in Europe together (along with Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy). Having initially lived in close proximity in the South West, when the Wordsworths relocated to the Lake District at the turn of the century Coleridge followed. It was on Coleridge’s suggestion that Wordsworth sketched out his plan for a major work on ‘Nature, Man and Society’ – to be titled The Recluse – of which The Prelude and The Excursion would form a part.

This letter was composed in 1820, by which time the two poets had reconciled after a period of disagreement and estrangement. Ever concerned over matters of health, here Wordsworth writes of the eye condition from which he chronically suffered, named here as ‘Lippitudo’ (blear eye, or blepharitis). ‘Derwent’, who is mentioned as the intended recipient of Wordsworth’s latest book of poems, was Coleridge’s second son – like Wordsworth, an alumnus of St John’s.

The Excursion (1814)

The Excursion, Being a Portion of The Recluse, a Poem. (London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1814)

With The Prelude remaining unpublished until after Wordsworth’s death, for most of the nineteenth century The Excursion was considered his major work. Both poems had in fact been intended to form part of a longer work titled The Recluse.

The Excursion title page
Wh 1814.2

In his preface to the first edition of The Excursion, Wordsworth describes his overarching plan: ‘that the first and third parts of the Recluse will consist chiefly of meditations in the Author’s own Person; and that in the intermediate part (The Excursion) the intervention of Characters speaking is employed, and something of a dramatic form adopted.’

Excursion preface
Wh 1814.2 'Preface' to The Excursion

Among the archetypal characters to whom the poem gives voice are ‘the Wanderer’, ‘the Solitary’ and ‘the Pastor’ – individuals purportedly encountered by the poet-narrator during his travels in the mountains and valleys of northwest England. The characters soliloquise on their experiences and philosophies, and enter into debate with one another about religion, nature and ‘the Mind of Man’.

A bad review

The Edinburgh Review, No. XLVII (November 1814)

Like many poets, past and present, Wordsworth was no stranger to mixed reviews. Some readers were immediately convinced of The Excursion’s merit. Charles Lamb judged it to be ‘without competition among our didactive and descriptive verse’, and John Keats, who was not yet 20 when The Excursion was published, wrote to his friend Benjamin Robert Haydon: ‘I am convinced that there are three things to rejoice at in this Age – The Excursion, Your Pictures, and Hazlitt’s depth of Taste.’

The author of this 30-page appraisal in The Edinburgh Review was somewhat less taken with the poem. ‘This will never do’, he begins, declaring the poem ‘longer, weaker, and tamer, than any of Mr. Wordsworth’s other productions’. On page two he decides: ‘The case of Mr Wordsworth, we perceive, is now manifestly hopeless; and we give him up as altogether incurable, beyond the power of criticism.’

The Edinburgh Review
Wc 1807.1

 

Daffodils (1807 and 1815)

Poems, in Two Volumes (London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1807) and Poems (London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1815)

Wordsworth’s poem ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ – generally referred to as “the daffodils poem” – has been dubbed the most famous poem in the English language. Displayed below are two versions of the text. The earliest version, published in 1807, consisted of three stanzas. In the revised version, published in 1815, Wordsworth has inserted an entirely new stanza, and substituted several words in what were originally the first and second stanzas. The final stanza is the same in both versions.

Poems 1807
Wa 1897.2 - the 1807 version
Poems 1815
Wa 1815.1 - the 1815 version

The particular host of daffodils portrayed in the poem had delighted both William and Dorothy, who had observed them while walking together beside the shores of Ullswater in April 1802. It wasn’t until two years later however, when he read Dorothy’s description of the sight in her journal, that William was inspired to write about it. Dorothy had noted how the flowers ‘tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake’ – observations and phrases that fed directly into her brother’s poem. Not always shy of admitting his sources, Wordsworth would later remark that the two best lines in the poem in his view (‘They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude’) were those suggested by his wife Mary.

Life mask

Life mask

Life masks (like death masks) are made by applying wet plaster to the subject’s face and carefully removing the mould once it has hardened. As well as being artefacts in their own right, intended to preserve a person’s likeness for posterity, life masks aid painters and sculptors by enabling them to study the sitter without the actual person having to be present.

Life mask

This life mask of Wordsworth was taken by the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon in 1815, when Wordsworth’s reputation as one of the era’s greatest poets was already firmly established. Haydon recorded the event in his diary:

'June 13. I had a cast made yesterday of Wordsworth’s face. He bore it like a philosopher. Scott [John Scott, editor of The Champion] was to meet him at Breakfast. Just as he came in the Plaister was covered over. Wordsworth was sitting in the other room in my dressing gown, with his hands folded, sedate, steady, & solemn. I stepped out to Scott & told him as a curiosity to take a peep, that he might say the first sight he ever had of so great a poet was such a singular one as this.

'I opened the door slowly, & there he sat innocent & unconscious of our plot against his dignity, unable to see or to speak, with all the mysterious silence of a spirit.

'When he was relieved he came into breakfast with his usual cheerfulness and delighted & awed us by his illustrations & bursts of inspiration.'

Letter to Haydon

Letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon, 21 December 1815

A highly regarded artist in his day, Benjamin Robert Haydon went out of his way to forge friendships with those notable men whose genius he considered equal to his own. In 1817 he introduced the 22-year-old John Keats to his poetic hero, William Wordsworth, at a dinner party hosted in Haydon’s London flat. Wordsworth and Keats both dedicated verses to Haydon, and Haydon included their likenesses within the crowd of worshippers in his vast painting Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (1814-20).

This letter, sent a few months after Haydon made Wordsworth’s life mask in 1815, demonstrates the importance of correspondence and dialogue to the Romantics’ creative practice. Wordsworth includes drafts of three new sonnets in the letter – the third of which is addressed explicitly to Haydon – explaining that ‘the last you will find was occasioned, I might say inspired if there be any inspiration in it, by your Letter’.

Haydon letter

Haydon letter

Haydon letter

Haydon letter
Wordsworth/Folder 1/1

 

Letter to Southey

Letter to Robert Southey, [?16] March 1838

Letter to Southey

Letter to Southey

Letter to Southey
Wordsworth/Folder 10

Wordsworth first met Robert Southey in August 1795 in Bristol, where Coleridge was lecturing on politics and religion. Radicalism, as well as poetical ambition, united the three men, whose support for the republican cause at that time was widely known. Over the years, and to the dismay of many of their readers, both Wordsworth and Southey renounced the left-wing stance that had underscored their early work. Both acceded to the essentially conservative role of Poet Laureate: Southey in 1813, and Wordsworth upon Southey’s death in 1843.

In this letter to Southey, written when both men were in their sixties, Wordsworth dwells on death, grief and illness – going into some detail about the best kind treatment for a hernia – before turning to literary matters. ‘What is to come of you and me as Poets in future times, it would be presumptuous to aim at determining,’ he writes, ‘but surely we shall have a better chance of being remembered than some others who have figured in our day.

Letter to a younger writer

Letter to a younger writer, 30 June 1843

Written a few months into Wordsworth’s Laureateship, this letter is his response to an unsolicited missive from a young writer who had sent his book to Wordsworth seeking his opinion of it. The book in question has not been identified, but presumably consisted of a narrative poem on a Christian theme.

Letter to unknown recipient

Letter to unknown recipient
Wordsworth/Folder 20

After declaring his ‘unfitness to assume the office of a Critic upon the Productions of young men of Genius’, Wordsworth – who had evidently read the book – goes on to detail several obstacles to his sympathising with the its content. ‘I feel the less scruple in being thus open with you,’ he concludes, ‘because I greatly admire the poetic ability displayed in your work’. Whether the young poet was encouraged to receive such an engaging reply from the most lauded poet of the era, or considered Wordsworth to be damning him with faint praise, is unknown.

Note to the Master of St John's

Note to the Master of St John’s College, 1 April 1835

Wordsworth’s youngest brother Christopher performed considerably better than William in the Cambridge examinations, and was elected a Fellow of Trinity College in 1798. He proceeded to the degree of Doctor of Divinity by royal mandate in 1810, and served as Trinity’s Master from 1820 to 1841. William was presumably visiting his brother when he sent this note to James Wood, then Master of St John’s: ‘Mr Wordsworth, with much pleasure, will do himself the honor of waiting upon the Master and Fellows of St John’s to Dinner on Saturday next.—’.

Note to the Master of St John's

 

Note to the Master of St John's
Wordsworth/Folder 8

 

Breakfast crockery

Breakfast crockery

Cup, saucer and plate

This white porcelain breakfast set, which Wordsworth purportedly used from 1816 to 1850, was a gift to the poet from Sir George Howland Beaumont (1753-1827). Beaumont was a powerful patron of the arts, whose vigorous campaigning and substantial donations brought about the founding of the National Gallery. Also a poetry enthusiast, he was a friend to all the Lake Poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey), viewing Wordsworth in particular as a kindred spirit.

Cup (detail)

Poetical Works (1846)

The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, in Seven Volumes. A New and Revised Edition. (London: Edward Moxon, 1846)
Title page and frontispiece portrait
Wa 1846.1

During his long career, Wordsworth published fifteen discrete volumes of poetry and nine collected editions. To every collected edition he added new poems and substituted revised versions of previously published work. This edition of 1846 is one of the last publications Wordsworth saw through the press. Despite running to seven volumes, it does not include The Prelude; perhaps ahead of its time, the poem did not find an enthusiastic readership until the early twentieth century, when it began to be viewed as Wordsworth’s major work.