My thesis, Wordsworth, Creativity and Cumbrian Communities examines the ways that Wordsworth interacted with a variety of local communities, his impact on these communities, and their impact on his poetry. As a collaborative doctoral award student, I am affiliated with both the University of Leeds and the Wordsworth Trust, so as planned, in 2015 I left Leeds and spent a year based at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. Whilst I had loved visiting the Lake District for many years as a mountaineering tourist, I was not exactly sure what to expect when I came to live and work in a Cumbrian museum. Yet since Wordsworth’s connection with Cumbria is a key aspect of my research, it was certain that my time in Grasmere would inform my research in a number of different ways. I offer you now an insight into how my time was occupied, my research developed, and the new skills I gained as a result of my time in Grasmere.
I enjoyed unparalleled access to the archive in the Jerwood Centre. Over a fascinating morning, Jeff Cowton, Curator and Head of Learning, showed me how to approach manuscripts. It was a very practical session spent carefully leafing through DCMS15, or the ‘Christabel notebook’: a red leather-bound manuscript that contains Christabel and extracts towards The Prelude and The Old Cumberland Beggar.
Unlike my normal literary approach, we examined it as a physical object – looking at handwriting, ink, paper, folds and layout – to deduce how the book had been made and what it was used for. It made me appreciate the hard work and expense that went into aspects of writing beyond just composition, from making the paper in a paper mould, to combining oak gall, iron sulphate and gum Arabic to make ink, and binding the notebook.
I loved leafing through other treasures within the collection, such as a group of scrapbooks known as the Phoebe Johnson Bequest. From rushbearing to wrestling, dialect plays to road building, these books carefully document Grasmere’s history over the past 150 years in notes, letters, photographs, and newspaper cuttings.
To develop my understanding of the relationship between poet and community, I devoted much time to exploring the responses of local people today to Wordsworth’s poetry. Aside from insights I gathered from conversations in the pub (“why doesn’t Wordsworth write about quarrying or mining?”), I also led a number of shared reading groups in different settings. People were surprised to learn that Wordsworth could be funny, and commented,
“It’s amazing how much more you understand after you’ve discussed it a bit and re-read it”
It was a real treat to read poems such as Michael and To A Nightingale on dark winter evenings by the fireside in Dove Cottage. These sessions created moments when the walls that normally seal the past from the present became more porous – and suddenly Wordsworth, Dorothy and Coleridge’s existence not so distant.
I also led a number of reading groups with local school children. Every Thursday, come rain or shine, I cycled over Red Bank to begin my rounds of first Langdale, then Ambleside and finally Grasmere primary school. It was fascinating to see the different ways each of these schools worked (ranging in size between a total of 48 and 110 pupils) and how the children responded to the same Wordsworth poems. A couple of the groups became particularly fixated by death, deciding their overall favourite poem on the basis of how many deaths it contained. As a result of this process, fittingly, We Are Seven (a poem that relates a mathematical dispute between the narrator and a child) came out top:
“I liked all the death, but I would like a little more of it. My favourite poem is ‘We are Seven’ because there were two deaths.”
At the end of the year I put together an exhibition on local people’s responses to Wordsworth’s poetry. It was my first experience of curating an exhibition: an absorbing process of decisions about content, design, label writing and evaluation, guided by the dual purposes of making it both appealing and informative. The exhibition seeks to generate responses via the ‘poet-tree’: a tree upon which people can attach their comments that are written on parcel labels.
The exhibition includes recordings from adult and children’s groups. I learnt to edit sound in order to create 4-minute audio ‘highlights’ from hour-long reading groups. The process of re-listening to the discussions enabled me to reflect on my own practice as a reading group facilitator. I noticed voices I hadn’t heard within the bustle of the session, expressing their own moments of discovery. Clicking through the minutes and hours of discussion in the editing software – which visually depicts sound on screen as blue spikes of noise and grey gaps of silence – I began to visualise individual thought processes. It was amazing to see how a thought evolved in response to poetry, from tentative exploration into unexpected ideas and developed thinking.
The exhibition also contains drawings based around a Wordsworth poem by all 34 children who participated in the reading groups. A particular favourite is a version of Peggy Ashburner from Repentance as a weeping three-eyed monster. On my last week in Grasmere we invited these children into the museum to view their exhibition. They were delighted to see their work on the wall and hear their voices through the headphones. Among the feedback left on the ‘poet-tree’, one child commented: “It was a very good idea to build the expedition.”
Whilst I participated in the museum’s visitor service duties, such as working in the shop and invigilating exhibitions, my favourite time was spent giving tours of Dove Cottage. It was interesting to see the arc of visitor numbers throughout the year: from the quiet days in spring when you might sit beside the fire, reading and chatting between small hourly tours, to the manic summer days of full tours every 10 minutes, before numbers dropped off again in autumn and winter. I saw Wordsworth’s place within the international community – with visitors from across Europe as well as America, China, India, Korea, and Japan. For some Wordsworth was a cultural icon, part of a whistle-stop tour of British culture (calling in on route to Edinburgh from Shakespeare’s house in Stratford), whereas others had a more personal connection with the poet, recalling how they had memorised the Daffodil poem in school, or visited the museum forty years ago.
Overall, I have really benefitted from the year’s ‘behind-the-scenes’ insight into both the Wordsworth Museum and the Lake District National Park. Living at Town End I have met and got to know a diverse group of people who were drawn to work at the museum for different reasons – a love of history or literature, a wish to live and work in the Lake District, the opportunity to develop new skills, or merely because it is something to do. I also discovered a new inclination in myself: when living in cities I have often felt the need to escape to the country, perversely, in Grasmere I sometimes found a thirst for the bustle and variety of the city.
I will take away many strange and memorable experiences, such as the morning I had to pause mid-tour to rescue a toad from the buttery in Dove Cottage, or the day the A591 washed away, as well as dazzling sunsets, and walks, climbs, swims and cycles in all weathers. It has been wonderful to get to know such a range of kind, friendly locals and receive their support, advice and insight. The general local feeling towards Wordsworth is perhaps best captured by a girl’s response to the question; will you read Wordsworth’s poetry in the future?
“Maybe because they are interesting, but I would not study it like you.”
Before I left Grasmere I delivered a talk on ‘Wordsworth’s Grasmere Characters’. If you would like to find out more about my research and the local people that Wordsworth wrote about, click the following link to view the talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BT18D-ezSA0
The exhibition ‘Wordsworth and his Neighbours’ will be on display until 28th February.