Literary Networks in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries Class Exhibit: William Wordsworth

On December 9th at 9:05am, Dr. Kristin Pond’s English 3351: Literary Networks in the Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Centuries course will be presenting their Great Exhibition. This is a class project which requires students to explore what artifacts, including original letters, manuscripts and books, photographs, and actual objects exist at the Armstrong Browning Library related to each student’s assigned author.

The exhibition will be on display in the Hankamer Treasure Room for the entire morning December 9th, 2019.

To prepare for the exhibition, students wrote a short biography of their author and practiced analyzing an artifact for what it reveals about their author. A sample of one student’s preliminary research follows.


William Wordsworth


William Wordsworth was born in 1770 in England, and he would grow up to become a well-renowned poet by the time of his death in 1850. Achieving that honor, however, required a great deal of financial strife first. Orphaned at an early age, impoverished throughout his youth, and dissatisfied with his college education at Cambridge, Wordsworth fumbled through his earlier years (Mason, 1-3). He had always been interested in writing, but he did not produce much poetry during this period. However, he did develop a very close relationship with his sister Dorothy. As adults, they eked out an impoverished existence together in a house called Racedown in Dorset, England. It was here, under the influence of his likewise literary-minded sister, that Wordsworth grew into the title of poet, increasing his output by four times as much as he had written in earlier years. As Worthen writes, “…having discovered a way of working with [Dorothy], he now preferred not to write without her” (Worthen, 113-117). This clearly drew Wordsworth into a particularly close emotional bond with his sister. Perhaps more significantly, this new era in his writing might never had come about if not for Dorothy’s support. As he continued writing, she critiqued his work, and “it was [her] propensity for aesthetic judgement, as well as her unwavering emotional support, that Wordsworth most respected, and her comments inspired him to improve his writing” (Mason, 5). Dorothy played a formative role in Wordsworth’s beginnings as a poet, pushing him ever-forwards toward greatness.

As Wordsworth developed as a poet, he formed another important relationship: a friendship with Samuel Coleridge. The two writers “were immediately enamored with each other,” and they soon moved within a few miles of each other. The two (and Dorothy) spent a lot of time together, often taking long walks during which they wrote and talked about poetry (Mason, 7). All evidence points to the fact that Wordsworth and Coleridge were fast friends with much in common. They clearly stimulated each other’s minds and got along quite well, not to mention the fact that Coleridge aided Wordsworth in getting his early work published. Also, in her biographical work on Wordsworth, Emma Mason describes in detail the writing relationship between Coleridge and Wordsworth: “Coleridge… tasked Wordsworth with the writing of a new Miltonic philosophic epic.” This would grow into Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem, “The Prelude.” The pair also co-wrote a book of poetry, aptly titled Lyrical Ballads, and traveled Europe together (Mason, 8). Coleridge was not only a good friend but a good writing partner, bolstering Wordsworth’s writing and, like Dorothy, propelling him towards progress. Their friendship began to sour, however, as Coleridge became addicted to opium and began to push Wordsworth away. Finally, Coleridge broke off the friendship over petty hearsay (Mason, 10-11, 16). Wordsworth, though hurt by this abrupt end to such a long and devoted friendship, moved on and kept writing.

In 1802, Wordsworth would marry Mary Hutchinson (after having a love-affair and a child with a Frenchwoman, Annette), and the two had what appeared to be a loving, relatively happy marriage. The two lived with Dorothy, who remained close with her brother throughout their lives (Mason, 10-13). And, after years of little financial success as a poet, Wordsworth gradually gained widespread recognition as a great poet. In 1843, Wordsworth became Poet Laureate of Britain, the crowning glory of several literary honors that he received. He died in 1850 (Mason, 22).




In an 1808 letter to Dorothy Wordsworth (and his wife, Mary), Wordsworth begins the letter by addressing his “Dearest Loves.” He recounts his travels, focusing in particular on the people he has encountered and how they are doing. He mentions Coleridge multiple times, clearly expressing worry about Coleridge’s health (by this time, the latter was well into his opium addiction). Wordsworth also writes that “Coleridge has just had a long Letter, in which is related the fate of Sally’s parents. It has much affected me, and we must do for Sally what we can” (Wordsworth, 1808). This letter is rife with evidence of affection towards Dorothy and Mary, and even more impressive compassion towards his old friend Coleridge and even towards his former servant, Sally. In this letter, Wordsworth comes across as a loving man who tries fervently to love and take care of those around him.

Interestingly, within the same letter, Wordsworth reveals his negative opinion on publishing his work. In distinct contrast to the gentle way he refers to those that he is familiar with, he writes of the “wretched and stupid Public.” He describes how, though he desires to use his writing to benefit the public, he still somehow detests the idea of publishing his work (Wordsworth, 1808). Here the reader receives an intriguing insight into why Wordsworth was slow to publish his work.

Although, as mentioned above, some of Wordsworth’s most significant literary attachments were to his sister Dorothy and to Samuel Coleridge, he also was connected to the Brownings. In a letter to John Kenyon, William Wordsworth references some poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that Kenyon sent Mrs. Wordsworth, and he compliments Barrett Browning’s “Genius and attainments” (Wordsworth, 1839). In this letter, he reports his admiration for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s intelligence and literary accomplishments. Though the indirectness of this compliment toward Elizabeth Barrett Browning might seem to suggest that they were unfamiliar with each other in person, a letter written three years prior (in 1836) disproves this idea. In this letter, written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning herself, she also describes Wordsworth in a complimentary fashion: “I… must have told you that one of my privileges has been to see Wordsworth twice. He was very kind to me, and let me hear his conversation…. His manners are very simple; & his conversation not at all prominent – if you quite understand what I mean by that” (Browning, 1836). It seems that the warm feelings and respect between William Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were definitively mutual. Barrett Browning also gives the reader further clue into Wordsworth’s personality, describing him as kind and “simple,” which I interpret as meaning that he came across as modest despite the literary fame he had achieved by that time. Though Wordsworth and Barrett Browning may not have known each other well, they did appear to deeply respect each other, both in personality and in literary accomplishments.


Works Cited

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett to Julia Martin. December 7th, 1836 in The Brownings’ Correspondence,

Mason, Emma. The Cambridge Introduction to William Wordsworth, Cambridge University Press, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Wordsworth, William to Dorothy Wordsworth. March 26th, 1808 in Oxford Scholarly Editions Online,

Wordsworth, William to John Kenyon. February 26th, 1839 in The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. Ernest de Selincourt et al., 2nd ed.,

Worthen, John. Wiley Blackwell Critical Biographies : Life of William Wordsworth: a Critical Biography, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *