by Andrew Ray
In 1820 William Wordsworth published The River Duddon, A Series of Sonnets. As Stephen Gill points out in his essay, Wordsworth and the River Duddon, reviewers were bemused that a famous poet should choose to write about this ‘insignificant river’ with a ‘barbarous name’:
‘What would he not have written had the majestic Thames employed his muse’, exclaimed the Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review, getting the matter exactly wrong. The lines from Burns quoted at the close of the ‘Postscript’ to the River Duddon sonnet sequence ought to have alerted the reviewer to Wordsworth’s poetic intent. In the verse letter ‘To William Simson, Ochiltree’, Burns declares that, ‘Illisus, Tiber, Thames, an’ Seine’ having all been celebrated in ‘monie a tunefu’ line’, he and his fellow poet should now rather seek the Muse ‘Adown some trottin burn’s meander’ in their own locality, to ‘gar our streams and burnies shine / Up wi’ the best’.
Wordsworth read this poem almost as soon as it was published in 1786, quoted from it throughout his life, and adopted its forthrightness as he began his celebration of the river with the barbarous name.’
In The Song of the Earth, Jonathan Bate suggests that the choice of the Duddon for a sonnet sequence over, for example, those other Wordsworthian rivers, the Wye and the Derwent, may have had something to do with its location, rising near the confluence of Westmorland, Cumberland and Lancashire. Standing in three counties at once is to feel both connected to the local and in touch with a much wider geography. Wordsworth believed in a nationalism rooted in the regions, a country of small Anglican parishes where the periphery was as important as the centre, the Duddon as worthy of literature as the Thames. A couple of years ago I wrote about Wordsworth’s sonnet Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, Sept. 3, 1802, in which the poet stood looking out over the Thames. Here I will give a brief summary of the River Duddon sequence, from source to sea.
- Wordsworth’s first sonnet announces his theme – not the spring of Bandusia, not some Persian fountain, not an Alpine torrent, but ‘long-loved Duddon’.
- This river is ‘remote from every taint / of sordid industry’ and has remained unchanged, long after the surrounding forests have vanished ‘where stalked the huge deer to his shaggy lair / through paths and alleys roofed with darkest green.’
- Wordsworth sits and prepares to ‘paint’ the river in words. No monument marks its birthplace but instead the river itself has ‘shed a gleam / of brilliant moss, instinct with freshness rare.’
- The Duddon is like a snake, threading ‘with sinuous lapse the rushes, through / dwarf willows gliding, and by ferny brake.’
- After the solitude of ‘sullen moss and craggy mound’ the river becomes shaded by green alders, ashes and ‘birch-trees risen in silver colonnade’.
- He describes the flowers that grow by the side of the river: wild strawberries, thyme and ‘trembling eyebright … sapphire blue’.
- A ‘love-sick Stripling’ might envy the plucked rose lying on his lover’s breast, or imagine himself her caged bird singing, but those with ‘calmer mind’ would rather be an ‘unculled floweret or darkling wren / that tunes on Duddon’s banks her slender voice.’
- The poet wonders what kind of man first came upon this stream. Whatever his ancient beliefs, the river’s role was then as it is now, to heal, restore, soothe and cleanse.
- There are some stepping stones in the river. Crossing here, when a flood runs ‘fierce and wild’, the Child puts ‘his budding courage to the proof’, whilst ‘Declining Manhood learns to note the sly / and sure encroachments of infirmity.’
- The stepping stones again, and this time two young lovers cross, she blushing and holding out her hand, he teasingly withdrawing it, and then both of them feeling the thrill when their hands touch.
- A flight of fancy in which tiny dancing elves are imagined dancing by their ‘sunless cleft’ and stealing a baby.
- As if realising that this sort of thing will try our patience, he exclaims: ‘On, loitering Muse–the swift Stream chides us–on!’ It is all too easy for the river’s features to become the ‘toys of Fancy.’
- We zoom out to an open prospect of fields and a hamlet under a green hill. Wordsworth imagines the pleasures of a warm hearth here in cold weather, ‘when bleak winds roar / through the stiff lance-like shoots of pollard ash’.
- The river seems to seek its own solitude, attended only by its own voice, leaving behind the solitary shepherd and his cottage.
- From a ‘deep chasm, where quivering sunbeams play’, he sees a kind of ‘gloomy niche’ in the rock where some ancient statue might have been placed, sculpted by men perhaps, or fire, or the waters of the Deluge.
- A continuation of the theme, in which Wordsworth describes the caves and rock drawings of Native Americans.
- He hears the croak of a raven on a blasted yew and an eagle ‘shedding where he flew / loose fragments of wild wailing.’ Sheep sleep by the remains of the old Roman fort and the ancient stone circle of the Druids.
- The sonnet is entitled ‘Seathwaite Chapel‘ and suggests that the vale of the River Duddon protects ‘Truth’s holy lamp’, alluding to the ministry of the Reverend Thomas Walker of whom Wordsworth wrote a short memoir, appended to the poem sequence.
- A tributary: ‘waters, from their aery height / hurrying, with lordly Duddon to unite.’ Its musical murmur announces a source of refreshment to the thirsty fields.
- On the flowery plain of Donnerdale, the waters are slow and serene, but further on the course is rougher and the river dances from rock to rock.
- ‘The cloudy stall / of Time, breaks forth triumphant Memory’ and Wordsworth recalls those he once roved with on the banks of the River Duddon.
- In a sonnet called Tradition the story is told of a love-lorn Maid who yearns for a primrose reflected in a clear, blue pool and, it is implied, drowns there.
- Banishing such sad thoughts, he recalls the ‘blithe cheer’ of boys shouting and dogs barking whilst sheep are washed in a pool formed where bands of rock check the stream.
- Now he finds a good place to rest, ‘with woodbine hung and straggling weed … half grot, half arbour’, enclosing both the body and the mind.
- Here he can imagine ‘the One for whom my heart shall ever beat / with tenderest love’ being brought. But without her, ‘the waters seem to waste / their vocal charm.’
- Memories of childhood: ‘fondly I pursued, / even when a child, the Streams–unheard, unseen; / through tangled woods, impending rocks between.’ He has learnt much from the river.
- He describes a ruined castle, ‘quietly self-buried in earth’s mould’.
He rises to continue his onward journey, while cattle avoid the heat of the day by crowding together ‘under rustling trees / brushed by the current of the water-breeze.’
- There are no stories of battles fought over this landscape, but to those who lie buried and unremembered,’the passing Winds memorial tribute pay’.
- In life, Wordsworth suggests, it is best not to yield to sudden temptations or swerve away too far from innocence. He is content to ‘saunter o’er the grassy plain’ here, chained loosely to the river, knowing when he leaves that he will always return to it.
- The ‘Kirk of Ulpha’ is a welcome sight and he imagines reclining among its graves or marking the distant moonlit mountain summits, faintly shining, ‘soothed by the unseen River’s gentle roar.’
- This penultimate sonnet is pure landscape: a description of the lower reaches of the river, ‘gliding in silence with unfettered sweep’.
- The original sequence ends with the sea that the Duddon flows into – here there are no warships, just humble sailing boats. Wordsworth would like to end his days like the river, ‘prepared, in peace of heart, in calm of mind / and soul, to mingle with Eternity!’
Postscript: Wordsworth later added a thirty-fourth sonnet in which, as Jonathan Bate says, ‘the poet deconstructs, then reconstructs, the analogy between human life and the life of the river.’ It can be read at The Poetry Foundation.
[In one of his endnotes Wordsworth says that ‘the country people call this circle Sunken Church’. We visited Sunkenkirk, as it is now known, on our recent trip to the Lakes. In The Modern Antiquarian, Julian Cope calls it ‘perfect from all angles … this Sunkenkirk is a place for the most righteous devotion.’]