William Wordsworth's emotional power, not his breadth of intellect, made him famous and influential. Indeed, much of his importance comes from statements by such great Victorian thinkers as John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, and Leslie Stephen about how much they owed to Wordsworth for his emotional power. In a memorial poem, Arnold asks,
where will Europe's latter hour
Again find Wordsworth's healing power?
and in Chapter 5 of his Autobiography Mill tells how much he owes to the "Intimations" ode.
Wordsworth seems to have needed both intellectual stimulation, which he got from Coleridge, and reassurance of his poetic stature, which he also got from Coleridge but more especially from his sister Dorothy. When the three of them were living closely together in 1797-98, they seem to have lost track of whose ideas were whose: similar phrases turn up in poems by both men, and Dorothy's journal sometimes shows that it was she who made the observations which William recollects in tranquility and turns into poetry.
Perhaps the single most important intellectual debt Wordsworth owes is to David Hartley and his associationist psychology, to which he was introduced by Coleridge in 1795. Hartley argued that we become aware of sensory events as impressions, and that "ideas" are derived by noticing similarities and differences between impressions and by naming them. Connections resulting from the coincidence of impressions will set up linkages, so that the occurrence of one impression triggers those links and calls up the memory of those ideas with which it is associated (See Dorothy Emmet, "Coleridge and Philosophy," in Writers and Their Background: S.T. Coleridge, ed. R.L. Brett , p. 199).
Created in 1988; incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000