Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 2. Wordsworth’s Childhood

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

V. William Wordsworth

§ 2. Wordsworth’s Childhood

Wordsworth was born in 1770 at Cockermouth, in the north of the lake country, the second child of a fairly prosperous attorney-at-law and of Anne Cookson, daughter of a Penrith mercer. Seen from the outside, without the optimistic prism of The Prelude, his childhood does not seem to have been any more privileged, while his youth appears decidedly more vexed and troubled, than those of the common run of men. The child, surely, had pleasant hours with his brothers and sister while playing about the terrace of the family garden which overlooked the Derwent, or when bathing in the river. There were bitter hours, however, when he was taken to his mother’s family at Penrith, where harsh grandparents often treated the little ones “with reproach and insult.” William was particularly unruly and, in consequence, had most to bear from the Cooksons. Hence, we hear of acts of defiance and even of a childish attempt at suicide.

When he was eight years old, his mother died, and, parting from his father, who never recovered his cheerfulness after his bereavement, Wordsworth was sent to Hawkshead grammar school. A very homely one-room house in a very poor village is the place where he was taught. He lodged with one of the old village dames, who, however kind they might be to boys, could only give them coarse and scanty fare. For his companions, he chiefly had farmers’ sons, destined for the church, who brought with them the rough manners of their home life. In spite of the delight he found in games, open air life and rambles about hill and lake, it must be admitted that Hawkshead was a very mixed paradise.

Then came his father’s death, when the boy was thirteen. The orphan’s condition was precarious. Almost all the money left by his father was in the hands of Sir James Lowther, to whom Wordsworth’s father had been steward, and Sir James would never hear of paying it back so long as he lived, nor could he be compelled to reimburse. It is true that enough remained to allow William to pursue his studies, and a boy does not take money questions much to heart. But there were wretched holidays at Penrith, in his grandparents’ sullen home. Of the frequent distress of the children in that house, we have a vivid picture in the earliest letters of little Dorothy, the poet’s only sister, written in the last year spent by William at Hawkshead. Dorothy, whose sweet, affectionate nature cannot be suspected of unjustified complaints, could scarcely bear the loveless constraint she had to undergo. No more could her brothers: “Many a time have William, John, Christopher and myself shed tears together of the bitterest sorrow.” “We have no father to protect, no mother to guide us,” and so forth.