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William Wordsworth’s glasses and the lifelong struggle with his eyesight 1

a pair of ebonite and glass spectacles

A pair of Wordsworth’s spectacles at Dove Cottage. Courtesy The Wordsworth Trust

How William Wordsworth’s eyesight affected the poet’s life

The poet William Wordsworth was plagued throughout his life by eye disease, which at times left him partially sighted and sensitive to bright lights. This was a problem that affected him throughout much of his career, with varying intensity.

It had both a positive and negative effect on his work, encouraging him to publish his poetry at times when he feared a loss of sight, and disabling him from reading or writing when the condition was at its worst. However, it did not confine him at all times to his house, although when the attacks were particularly acute outdoor excursions had to be postponed.

The first occurrence of an eye disease was in January 1805, when he suffered from an inflammation of the eyelids – probably a symptom of the eye infection trachoma – and his vision was impaired. He also suffered an attack in the summer of 1810 when he was travelling on his way to Coleorton.

The symptoms were to return again on the 18th of December 1810, which forced him to return from Elleray to Allan Bank. His children had whooping cough at this time, and the combination of both sicknesses and the feelings of disinterest in poetry which perhaps resulted from the stress of the period, meant that Wordsworth’s writing ground to a halt.

In 1820 the trachoma returned, and William feared he might, like his hero Milton, be going blind. This encouraged William to go to London to publish his poetry, and then to travel to Switzerland. It was around this time that the attacks became more frequent and more severe, and he started to wear a green eyeshade to alleviate the attacks.

On September the 28th 1827, Sara Hutchinson, William’s resident sister-in-law, wrote to Edward Quillinan about a visit by Frederic Reynolds, editor of The Keepsake, to their house at Rydal Mount. Reynolds had brought with him a blue stone, which was used to touch William’s eyes.

The trachoma was ‘cured’ within two weeks. On this occasion, it was the return of health, rather than approaching ill health, which stimulated him to approach publishers. He was successful, and Longman offered him two thirds of the profits.

composite photo of two pairs of glasses

(left) Metal framed spectacles with round lenses and extendable arms. Owned by William Wordsworth. They have strong magnification which would suggest that he was short-sighted. (R) Spectacles with tortoiseshell frames, extendable metal arms and four semi-oval lenses of tinted glass. Two of the lenses can be positioned to shade eyes at the temples. Owned by William Wordsworth. Courtesy Wordsworth Trust

There followed a period of general good health, particularly concerning his eyes. Dorothy wrote in 1830: “He is still the crack skater on Rydal Lake and as to climbing of mountains, the hardiest and the young are yet hardly a match for him”.

The effect, however, does not appear to be permanent. A visit to Scotland with his daughter Dora, to see his dear friend Sir Walter Scott in August 1831, was delayed by another inflammation of the eyelids. He seems to have worn a cloth around his face when in a coach, to protect his eyes from the dust, and it also appears that Dora had to drive.

In 1833, letters from Dora and Mary record that although William was “very, very patient”. Any improvement in his eyesight was so slow that he began to get “very nervous and very anxious”. It was at this time that the eye itself became infected for the first time – a serious development.

Reports of blindness began to appear in the papers, which he was quick to contradict. However, some improvement is noted, making it difficult to assess just how serious his sight loss was. A letter dated December 29th 1834 from William’s nephew, Chris, to his father (William’s brother) reads: “My Uncle’s eyes are…much better, indeed they would be quite well, if he did not write verses: but this he will do; and therefore it is extremely difficult to prevent him from ruining his eyesight”.

portriat of an elderly Worsdsworth with arms folded and eyes downcast

Wordsworth on Helvellyn by Benjamin Robert Haydon. William Wordsworth © National Portrait Gallery, London

This seems to have been a period when the symptoms did not seems so severe to his nephew, who could also see a way that his uncle’s eyes could be better still. William himself, on the other hand, was clearly concerned about his sight, and feared he would go blind.

It was in this year that he started to think about going to Italy to “lay in a store of images poetical and others…to feed his imagination in the darkness to come”. Certainly by 1837, a visit to the Wye Valley with Rogers and Dora had to be cancelled due to a recurrence of the disorder (probably trachoma).

However, by 1840, his wife Mary wrote that “tho’ he labours in constant fear of his eyes and complains of discomfort from them – yet in reality he has had very little suffering”.

It would seem that William’s anxiety over the issue, and the reports of the press, could make his sight loss seem to a historian more advanced than it actually was.

The inflammation of the eyelids seems to have been sporadic. Sometimes it prevented him from travelling, while at other times he was able to excel in outdoor pursuits. Sometimes it left him unable to read and write, and other times the fear of future blindness was a motivation to publish the poems he had already written.

Mary’s comment in 1840 acts, I think, as a caution as we assess the severity of Wordsworth’s eye trouble. While Wordsworth suffered from a very real affliction, his wife’s remark tells us that maybe it was not always as severe as the poet made out. This could be expected from a man of artistic temperament who was also very anxious about his illness.

Explore more fascinating blogs about the lives of the Wordsworths, their circle and the Romantics on the Wordsworth Trust blog.

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Wordsworth Grasmere

Grasmere, Cumbria

Immerse yourself in the unique atmosphere of Dove Cottage, the Grasmere home of poet William Wordsworth. Wander through the Garden-Orchard Wordsworth called ‘the loveliest spot that man hath ever found’. Uncover Wordsworth’s radical and creative life story in the Museum and enjoy breathtaking views of Grasmere Vale from the new…

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