by Stephen Hebron
‘A tender and sure immortality’, wrote the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges in 1927, ‘is that of the poet whose name is linked to a place in the world.’ Such a poet is William Wordsworth. His name is attached, securely and lastingly, to the lakes and fells of north-west England, to a particular village, Grasmere, in the midst of those fells, and most of all to a plain dwelling just outside that village, a place we now call Dove Cottage.
The Victorians who came to the cottage in the second half of the nineteenth century thought that places mattered. One such visitor, a Professor at St Andrews University called William Knight, encouraged all those who loved Wordsworth’s poetry to look to the Lake District. He walked through its landscape, identifying places with poems, and in 1878 published a pocket-sized book, The English Lake District as Interpreted in the Poems of Wordsworth, which explained to the reader ‘Wordsworth’s numerous allusions to the locality.’
Not every one thought this was a useful or an illuminating exercise. John Ruskin sternly told Knight that ‘one bit of rock or moor is as good as another – and one can gather leeches in any pool, and break stones on any road’. What mattered, he said, was Wordsworth’s ‘general temper, teaching, and view of life’.
We might agree with Ruskin: Wordsworth’s greatest poems do not depend on places; they explore universal human passions, from the ‘old unhappy far-off things’ that the poet heard in the song of the solitary reaper to the ‘Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears’. Or we might agree with Knight, and find that by making physical associations, by experiencing first-hand the colour and character of the places known to the poet, one finds new things in the poetry. ‘The power of Wordsworth cannot be fully known by one who is a stranger to Westmoreland’, Knight maintained. ‘The wish to be able definitely to associate his poems with the places which suggested them, and which they interpret, is natural to every one who has ever felt the spell of his genius.’
One person fell wholeheartedly under Wordsworth’s spell when he visited Dove Cottage in 1889. Stopford Brooke was a man of letters, a stirring preacher, and a committed Wordsworthian. As he and his brother William moved around the rooms of the cottage they saw the places known to them from Wordsworth’s poems and Thomas De Quincey’s recollections, and from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals, which Knight had published earlier that year: the upstairs drawing room, with its ‘Half kitchen and half parlour fire’, where the poet would occasionally compose; Wordsworth’s bedroom, ‘whence, when he was restless with composing, he came down to visit his sister who slept a little below and to read to her his verses’; the guest rooms where Coleridge and De Quincey used to sleep; the kitchen, where Mary Wordsworth would spend so much of her time, where Wordsworth would chop wood and Dorothy, quietly dutiful, would wash clothes.
‘The whole house is perfumed with their memories’, wrote Brooke, and further associations pressed on him and his brother as they walked around the garden. But though the place was little changed, it was uncared for, and so they found it hard to see the ghosts that surely inhabited it. They therefore resolved to acquire the cottage for the public:
There is no place,’ we said, ‘which has so many thoughts and memories as this belonging to our poetry; none at least in which they are so closely bound up with the poet and the poems; almost everything in this garden has been written of beautifully; almost every flower has been planted by his or his sister’s hands; in almost every tree some bird has built of which he has sung. In every part of this little place he has walked with his sister and wife or talked with Coleridge. And it is almost untouched. Why should we not try and secure it, as Shakespeare’s birthplace is secured, for the eternal possession of those who love English poetry all over the world?
Over 300 lovers of English poetry contributed to the fund to buy the cottage. The two biggest contributors were a Mrs Holland, and a Lincolnshire engineer, Joseph Ruston, both of whom gave £100. American subscribers contributed a total of £28 11s. 4d., and among the better-known English names are the Marquess of Salisbury (£10); Joseph Chamberlain (5 guineas); Sir Frederick Leighton and Mrs Humphry Ward (£5); Lord Tennyson, Henry Irving and John Ruskin (two guineas), Edward Burne-Jones (a guinea) and Mrs Matthew Arnold (a guinea). There were a good number of anonymous but heartfelt gifts, both large and small: ‘A Disciple of the Poet who gave us The Prelude’ (£50); ‘A Friend’ (£30); ‘A Lover of Lucy’ (4 shillings), ‘A School Lecture’ (a guinea), ‘Three Lovers of Wordsworth’ (10 shillings), ‘A Well Wisher’ (two shillings and sixpence), ‘We are Seven’ (seven shillings), ‘A Working Woman’ (a shilling).
The enthusiasm and generosity of these subscribers, and the popularity of Dove Cottage ever since, exemplify the link between poets and places celebrated by Borges. Perhaps they also help to confer on Wordsworth a ‘tender and sure immortality.’
Stephen Hebron is a curator in the Department of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. He worked at Dove Cottage between 1991 and 2008 and wrote the definitive book: Dove Cottage, available from all good bookshops and The Wordsworth Shop.