Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 63.djvu/36

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Wordsworth
Wordsworth
12

WORDSWORTH, WILLIAM (1770−1850), poet, son of John Wordsworth, was born at Cockermouth, Cumberland, on 7 April 1770. The poet's grandfather, Richard Wordsworth (1680?−1762), descendant of a family which had been settled for many generations at Penistone, near Sheffield, bought an estate at Sockbridge, near Penrith. His eldest son, also Richard (d. 1794), became collector of customs at Whitehaven. His daughter Anne married Thomas Myers, vicar of Lazonby, Cumberland (Appendix to Memoirs, 1851). His second son, John (1741−1783), the poet's father, was an attorney at Cockermouth, and in 1766 became agent to Sir James Lowther (afterwards first Earl of Lonsdale) [q. v.] On 5 Feb. 1766 John Wordsworth married Anne (6. January 1747), daughter of William Cookson, mercer, of Penrith, by Dorothy (Crackanthorpe). They had five children : Richard (1768−1816), William, Dorothy (1771−1855), John (1772−1805), and Christopher (1774−1846) [q. v.], afterwards master of Trinity College, Cambridge. The mother died ‘of a decline’ in March 1778. Brief references in the ‘Prelude’ (v. 256, &c.) and the autobiographical fragment show that Wordsworth remembered her with tenderness as a serene and devoted mother. William, alone of her children, caused her anxiety on account of his ‘stiff, moody, and violent temper,’ and she prophesied that he would be remarkable for good or for evil. To prove his audacity he once struck a whip through a family picture. On another occasion he thought of committing suicide by way of resenting a punishment, but stopped in very good time. He was sent to schools at Cockermouth and Penrith, where he learnt little. His father at the same time made him get by heart passages from Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton (Memoirs, i. 34).

In 1778 Wordsworth and his elder brother were sent to the grammar school at Hawkshead founded by Archbishop Edwin Sandys [q. v.]). The life was simple and hardy. Wordsworth lived in the cottage of Anne Tyson, a ‘kind and motherly’ old dame, whom he commemorates affectionately in the ‘Prelude’ (iv. 27−43). There were four masters during Wordsworth's time. William Taylor, master from 1782 till his death in 1786, won his warm regard, and was in some degree the original of the ‘Matthew’ of the well-known poems of 1799. An usher taught him more Latin in a fortnight than he had learnt in two years at Cockermouth; and he wrote some English verses which were admired, and of which a fragment or two is preserved. His first published poem, an irregular sonnet, signed ‘Axiologus,’ in the ‘European Magazine’ for March 1787, appeared before he left school. The great merit of the school in his opinion was the liberty allowed to the scholars. Disciples of Rousseau's then popular theories would have approved a system which had doubtless grown up without reference to the theories of Rousseau or of any one else. Wordsworth congratulated himself upon the absence of any attempt to cram or produce model pupils. He read what he pleased, including ‘all Fielding's works,’ ‘Don Quixote,’ ‘Gil Bias,’ ‘Gulliver's Travels,’ and ‘The Tale of a Tub.’ He also read an abridgment of the ‘Arabian Nights.’ He tried with his schoolfellows to save enough money to buy the whole book, but their resolution failed. He amused himself rambling over the fells, fishing, boating, birdsnesting on the crags, riding to Furness Abbey, and skating upon the lake; skating was the only athletic exercise, except walking, which he kept up in later life. He took his share in the simple society of the place, and probably appeared to his fellows to be a fine sturdy lad, with no nonsense about him. He already delighted, however, in lonely strolls, in which a characteristic mood began to show itself. The outward world, he says, seemed to him to be a dream; distant mountains assumed a spectral life, and affected him with a kind of superstitious awe (Prelude, i. 377, &c., ii. 351). The love of boyish sports gradually developed into an almost mystical love of nature. Wordsworth may in later years have read a little too much into these early moods, but the general truth of his recollections is unmistakable. He thoroughly imbibed at the same time the local sentiment of the little rustic society of independent ‘statesmen’ and peasants, though he still regarded the shepherd rather as the genius of the scenery than as a human being (ib. viii. 256, &c.) Scott was hardly more a product of the border country than Wordsworth of the lake district; but while Scott was filling his mind with picturesque historical imagery, Wordsworth was indulging in vague reveries, and was already something of a recluse. He was, however, far from unsocial, and was often deeply moved by some of the little incidents which afterwards served as a text for his poems. Meanwhile his father had died on 30 Dec. 1783. He left little beyond a claim upon Lord Lonsdale. When application was made for payment the earl simply defied his creditors. Basil Montagu, in his evidence to a commission on bankruptcy, stated that when an action was brought at Carlisle, the earl ‘re-