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William Wordsworth accepted the laureateship under protest

Posted in British Countryside, English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature on Wednesday, 31 July 2013

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This edited article about English literature originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 355 published on 2 November 1968.

William Wordsworth, picture, image, illustration

William Wordsworth at Dove Cottage by Harry Green

William Wordsworth was born on 7th April, 1770, at Cockermouth, in Cumberland. He was a lawyer’s son.

Wordsworth was, above all, a poet of the Lake District, and he spoke with a strong Cumbrian burr. He often used local words in his poetry, e.g. “canty” for lively, and “bye-spot” for an out-of-the-way place.

Wordsworth’s poetry springs from the fields and mountains where he wandered as a boy, and to enjoy his poetry fully it helps to know the countryside he knew.

Wordsworth belongs to the same period of history as Sir Walter Scott, Charles Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey. He was seventy-three when, on Southey’s death, the post of Poet Laureate was offered to him. He accepted under protest, and only when the Lord Chamberlain made it clear that it “would not in any way interfere with his repose and retirement”.

In fact, during the seven years that he held the appointment, Wordsworth did not write one poem of the kind expected from the Poet Laureate. The honour came to him too late in life. It might have been very different if he had been at the height of his powers, but as it was, there are only two poems which may be even remotely considered the product of his office. The first, “Ode on the Installation of His Royal Highness Prince Albert as Chancellor of The University of Cambridge” in July, 1847, is known, not for its merit, but because it appears to be mainly the work of his son-in-law, Edward Quillinan. Although Wordsworth undertook to write it, he was prevented from doing so by the grave illness of his daughter. The other was included in a book of poems he sent to Queen Victoria in 1846.

Two years went by before Wordsworth left his beloved Lake District to pay his respects to the Queen in person. He was summoned to Buckingham Palace to attend a ball. The clothes, buckles, stockings and sword he wore for the occasion were borrowed – he had no need of “Full Dress” in his Lakeland retreat.

William Wordsworth wrote a great deal of poetry, but much of that which he produced during his later years is dull and uninspired. He was a great poet none the less, and a typically English one. His great love was for the world of nature, and he was content to spend his last years quietly in the Lake District contemplating:

The silence that is in the starry sky,
The sleep that is among the lonely hills.

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