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It has been argued with some force that "a poet's verses are his life," and that he should hence be exempted from the intrusion of biography. The phrase quoted is emphatically true of William Wordsworth; and, upon this interpretation of it, would render a notice of his life superfluous. Yet the common feeling of mankind seems to have ruled otherwise; there has always been an interest in learning what manner of man the poet was, when and where he lived, and by what prominent circumstances his mind and heart were moulded. Indeed, it is probable that men have been guided in this by a judicious instinct; and that, if there is a certain identity between the writer and his writings, the fact may be rather found to invite a biography, though of a truer and deeper kind than that which generally bears the name, than to discourage it. If the poet's verses form his life, this must be because his life, in its essential or elementary features, has passed into his verses. For such examination as we can make, shows that simply as he lived, can he think and write: that only from what may be within him of loftiness in imagination, of purity in feeling, of depth in sympathy, of quickness in observation; from what he is, only, can he win the words which, so far as the epithet may apply to anything of human workmanship, are destined to immortality. This law appears to be absolute in all the Fine Arts, and if absoluteness admitted of degrees, would be most so in Poetry, as the first and greatest of them. We may read the man in the work; but, were it possible to reverse the process, the poem might also be predicted from the poet. There would be no little value and interest in a biography so written: and, although it could not be attempted within the limits of a few pages, yet, having been entrusted by Wordsworth's family with the task of framing the following selection, the editor thinks that the most suitable preface towards a fit comprehension of the poems contained in it, will be, not so much a criticism on the poet's style and place in literature, as a short account of his life, viewed in relation to his writings.
The second son of respectable parents, and of a family which traced itself to the fourteenth century as landowners in the north, William Wordsworth was born (April 7, 1770) at Cockermouth in Cumberland, on the verge of that beautiful land of mountain and lake which will be always associated with his memory, as it entered in no small degree into the education of his genius. "To those who live in the tame scenery of Cockermouth," says Mr. De Quincey, "the blue mountains in the distance, the sublime peaks of Borrowdale and of Buttermere, raise aloft a signal, as it were, of a new country, a country of romance and mystery, to which the thoughts are habitually turning. Children are fascinated and haunted with vague temptations, when standing on the frontiers of such a foreign land, and so was Wordsworth fascinated, so haunted." The Derwent, " fairest of all rivers," running near Cockermouth, seems to connect the little town with the chief of the Cumbrian lakes; and between Penrith and Cockermouth, Wordsworth passed his earliest years. Losing his parents while yet a child, and separated from the sister who became afterwards so much to him, the "stiff, moody, and violent temper" which he ascribes to himself was probably left to the correction of nature; and, united with the passion for solitude and observant meditativeness characteristic of the poetic disposition, may be traced in its effects throughout his youth. It is not meant that Wordsworth spent his days in abstraction. Whilst at the school of Hawkshead in Esthwaite Vale (1778), and at St. John's College, Cambridge (1787), his great physical strength and spirit, qualities which he retained through life, made him enjoy to the full the energetic sports of boyhood; he travelled much, and