The Early Years: Politics and Poetry

  • John Williams
Part of the Critical Issues book series (CRTI)


Wordsworth himself ensured that after his death a steadily increasing number of readers would become convinced that the key to much of his poetry lay in the experiences of his childhood. Surprisingly, while he lived, the situation was very different. As a young poet he achieved considerable notoriety; his most formidable critic, Francis Jeffrey of the Edinburgh Review, portrayed him as eccentrically perverse, obsessed with ‘an affectation of great simplicity and familiarity of language’. It was a critique that plainly linked a would-be revolutionary aesthetic with dangerously revolutionary political and religious ideas. In response to Wordsworth’s claim of 1800 that the Lyrical Ballads sought to ‘make the incidents of common life interesting by tracing in them … the primary laws of our nature’, and that they would do this by using ‘the language of men’ associated with ‘the manners of rural life’, Jeffrey wrote:

The poor and vulgar may interest us, in poetry, by their situation; but never, we apprehend, by any sentiments that are peculiar to their condition, and still less by any language that is characteristic of it.1

Responses to Lyrical Ballads were by no means all negative, but in order to facilitate the long and painful journey towards acceptability, Wordsworth sought to remove his childhood and early manhood as far from the public gaze as possible. There were skeletons in his cupboard that needed to be kept locked away, not least among them the fact that in 1792 he had had an affair with Annette Vallon, and had become the father of their illegitimate child, Anne-Caroline.


Political Agenda Private Tutor French Revolution English Poet Barren Landscape 
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© John Williams 2002

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  • John Williams

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