Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

Page 1

by Lucy Stone

 

‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration between the Wordsworth Trust and the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership. These words open the sound piece The Daffodils, crafted by sound artists Conor Caldwell and Danny Diamond. A simple, melodic figure follows these words: it’s as if a musical shadow emerges and ‘sprightly’ dances behind the students’ readings and observations:

 

 

There are in fact a number of shadows at play here. The music itself, but also within the poem. If you listened carefully, you would have heard echoes of I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud in the prose that followed it. The prose is the journal entry Dorothy (William Wordsworth’s sister) made on 15 April 1802. But, in reality, the poem came after Dorothy’s writings. The poem was inspired and informed by Dorothy’s writings, and not the other way round. Yet it is William rather than Dorothy who has long received all the credit for the poem. The Wordsworth Trust is working to raise awareness of William’s and Dorothy’s collaborations. It is fitting that the students’ artwork made on the day of recordings for the sound pieces should show Dorothy as William’s shadow, drawing attention to her key role in his creative process:

 WT soundpiece

 

The words ‘daffodils’ and ‘Wordsworth’ have long been synonymous, but ‘daffodil’ has more recently joined with the words ‘Marie Curie’, and, in Australia ‘Cancer Council’, with each charity/organisation taking the daffodil as its logo. While I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud might be the most famous poem in the English language, I only came across it in my late teens in Australia (where I was born and raised) when I faced and thankfully overcame cancer. I wanted to know the cultural significance of the daffodil. I began researching it and soon found the poem.

 

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud became something of a Transitional Object (TO) for me. (Older) readers of the blog might remember something of Winnicott’s theory of TOs from teacher training courses in the 1960s or 1970s or his BBC broadcasts. Paediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott found that the TO, objects such as a blanket, doll or teddy bear that young children hold dear, could help children move from one state of being to another, such as from waking to sleeping by bridging children’s inner and outer realities (Playing & Reality, 1971). It is not only infants who use TOs, but also older children when faced with stress and anxiety at times such as illness.[1]

 

Moreover, it’s not just concrete objects that operate as TOs. Maria Tatar has thought about how reading can be like a TO for children, adolescents and adults: ‘Just as our hands once needed those concrete physical objects in childhood, so too do our minds seize on images and words from stories to help us make our way in the world’ (Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood 2009,). In this particular chapter of my life, it was the Wordsworths’ words which helped me. I walked by the lake in my mind, and between treatments, my father took me for walks by the sea, where, in my mind’s eye, the sea’s waves would ‘sparkl[e]’ as they would on the Cumbrian lake. In many ways, it has been words and nature that have really healed me over the years, and my love for and appreciation of literature and the great outdoors only continue to grow.

 

Robert Macfarlane’s writings really struck a chord with me, particularly his book Landmarks (2015) and his efforts to uncover, recover and discover the words of nature. Since setting out on this project, Macfarlane’s The Lost Words: A Spell Book (2017), a collaboration with illustrator Jackie Morris, has reached the hands of many children, parents/guardians and teachers and is working its intended magic to delight children in nature and save nature’s words from vanishing. Macfarlane kindly met with me in the lead up to our workshop with the Keswick School year ten’s, and his thoughts on the activities we might run were invaluable.

 

Dove Cottage runs its own fantastic programme of activities and events to foster links between the Wordsworths, their Grasmere home and its stunning surroundings, and we hope that our sound pieces might complement the museum’s programme for visitors. But we also want to encourage (young) people beyond the lakes and even across the seas to listen to the Wordsworths’ words and to take them into whatever bit of nature they might have access to, and let them ‘flutter’ and ‘danc[e] in the breeze’ as if they were daffodils.

 

[1] For a discussion on how, for example, children’s writer Catherine Storr (1913-2001) shows how older children use TOs in troubled times see Kimberley Reynold’s online article ‘“I Write to Frighten Myself”: Catherine Storr and the Development of Children’s Literature Studies in Britain’ here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10583-017-9339-1

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Spring shoots and green peas: the Wordsworths and their kitchen garden

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by Gareth Evans
Following six months of settled living with his sister Dorothy, one May morning William Wordsworth left Dove Cottage with his brother John to walk through Yorkshire.  Separated from her brothers in early childhood only to be permanently reunited as adults, an understandably emotional Dorothy found ways of coping with what was clearly an acute sense of loss on their departure.  That day, 14 May 1800, she resolved to start writing what was to become The Grasmere Journal.  The following morning she went out into the garden and hoed that season’s first row of peas, an activity that was both a distraction and a necessity.
DC garden
Away from the steeply-rising pleasure garden at Dove Cottage, Dorothy chiefly organised and tended the productive kitchen garden as part of her housekeeping tasks.  This she undertook with the help of the out-living day servants Molly, Aggy and John, who with William, helped perform heavy tasks: ‘Sauntered a good deal in the garden, bound carpets, mended old clothes.  Read Timon of Athens.  Dried linen – Molly weeded the turnips, John stuck the peas’ (19 May 1800).  Garden peas were a nutritious staple of the cottage economy they appear to be a long-time constituent of the Wordsworths’ plain diet, as was a wide range of other garden produce.
 
That first row of peas that Dorothy tended on 15 May 1800 had probably been sown from the end of March to the beginning of April, which suggests they were growing an ‘early’ variety bred to give especially quick results.  To plant each row the seeds were placed at regular intervals in a drill drawn across the ground.  Not fully above the ground in May, they were still vulnerable to competition from ramping weeds.  As Abercombie’s plain-speaking Every Man His Own Gardener (1767 onwards) advises in his entry for May, ‘There is no work in the kitchen garden that requires more attention than this; for weeds are at no time more dangerous to crops than the present.’  A week later the reward of Dorothy’s vigilance was recorded in the journal with the satisfied comment ‘all peas up’; a feat, along with the success of the whole plot, we should take too much for granted.   Peas are known for their rapid development, so soon shoots of that first row of peas at Dove Cottage would have vined, the point when the first tendrils appear.  Straggling on the ground, they would have required somebody to provide them with support, or to ‘stick’ them as Dorothy refers to it using a now obsolete term:

Stick: ‘to furnish (a plant) with a stick as a support’, (OED 3rd ed. 1972).

Stickings: ‘sticks used to support garden pea plants.’, (OED 3rd ed. 2017).

Pea sticks can be cut from such trees as hazel, beech or hornbeam, the previous winter.  The broom-like, prepared twiggy branches are placed in the ground like small leafless trees for the pea tendrils to bind to as the plant grows up into the supporting matrix.  In an alternative practice, tent-like frames were created from straight pollarded poles of hazel or birch.  As William was still making more pea sticks in June it appears he was, in fact, utilising the trees in the woods around Grasmere.  Most suitable for full-sized variety of peas, as opposed to the dwarf type, these unwieldy pea sticks could be over two metres long.  Whichever system was actually used, the pea and the support together created an intimately entwined and productive structure.
 

A man trims cuttings from a hedge on his farm in the Pennines, to re-use them as pea sticks in the garden. 1945

A man trims cuttings from a hedge on his farm in the Pennines, to re-use them as pea sticks in the garden. 1945


 
However, this is not the story of the simple cultivation of a single crop of peas.  The pea is most frequently mentioned vegetable in the Journal in 1800.  This was a consequence of the demanding horticultural procedure the Wordsworths had planned which prolonged the season of this quick growing crop.  Dorothy’s pea plot was not completely sown at once, in line with the established practice, the successive rows would have been sown at intervals to give a ‘constant supply of young peas for the table’.  The poorest cottager might be able to sow a single row of peas, or perhaps two rows in succession for an extended harvest.  The Wordsworths confidently planned at least six rows in succession, probably more.  If they had bought a pint of an established garden variety such as ‘Prussian Blue’, contemporary horticultural sources state confidently that it would have contained 1860 seeds, enough for 8 rows each 4 yards long.
John Constable, 'Golding Constable's Kitchen Garden', c. 1815, detail

John Constable, ‘Golding Constable’s Kitchen Garden’, c. 1815, detail


 
Although Dorothy’s journal starts too late in the year to record that first sowing of peas, nevertheless we can detect the rhythm of the Dove Cottage pea plot from the records of ‘sticking’.  If each reference to this essential task from 19 May to 13 June represents a complete row of peas, it would suggest that, at its height, the rows had been originally sown at the horticulturally approved interval of a fortnight.

19th May.  ‘Molly weeded the turnips, John stuck the peas’

2nd June.   ‘John Fisher stuck the peas.  Molly weeded and washed’

9th, 11th  & 13th June.  ‘In the evening I stuck peas, watered the garden & planted Brocoli [sic]’; ‘William stuck peas, after dinner he lay down – John not at home – I stuck peas alone – Molly washing.’; ‘Molly stuck peas.  I weeded a little.’

William had to make more pea sticks on 20 June so the cultivation cycle must still have been rolling on into the summer.  The first mention of a pea crop appears in an entry for Tuesday, 29 July; ‘still very hot, We gathered peas for dinner’.  After an evening walk Dorothy ‘was sick & weary’.
 
A new tempo now began as it was necessary to keep harvesting pods that were ready to pick.  By doing so the plants were stimulated into further flowering and pod production.  Each promising pod would have been carefully judged as picking too early was wasteful, but leaving the peas bulk up too much meant they were losing their tender sweetness.  From now on the consecutive rows of plants would be developing in steady sequence from seedlings to, finally, podding plants.

Pea cultivation. Dorothy Hartley's, 'Food in England'. 1954

Pea cultivation. Dorothy Hartley’s, ‘Food in England’. 1954


 
The many analogies between the organic growth and the creative process have the danger of being too glib.  Caught up in a laborious sequence of imperative tasks, the Wordsworths were probably too weary to care.  In spite of this it must be said that the figurative possibilities of the entire pea plot are too tempting to completely ignore, constructed as it is in the form of a metrical store of peas with its own tuneless prosody.  A creative idea or poem may be said to develop ‘organically’, that is as a single organism.  As we shall see there is a greater potential for structure, if not form, when they are considered collectively. When you next have an opportunity, consider a vegetable garden or allotment. As verse manipulates words and the ideas of language, the individual plots can be seen as imposing an order on the otherwise feral plants such as the unruly pea.  Both variously create something sustained, productive and, in some way, potentially nourishing.
 
Dorothy could now afford to be generous.  The day after the first peas were picked more pods were ready, this time they were to be a gift for neighbours.  Dorothy spent the following Sunday morning in the kitchen, that evening there were ‘peas for dinner’.  Considering the customary frugality of the household we might take this last statement literally.  The following Monday she ‘pulled a large basket of peas & sent to Keswick by a return chaise’.  The sugar content decreases sharply after picking, hence the need for urgency.  No doubt the Coleridges at Greta Hall relished the sweet, fresh peas which were presumably sent at some expense.
Peas
 
Bags and baskets of peas continued to be pulled over the coming weeks until, a month later, the season was turning and the longer rhythm of year was making itself felt.  It was time to let the peas that remained on the plants completely mature into viable seed.  When dried these would be stored to be the source of the follow year’s crop.  Stripped of all that was useful, the remaining unproductive plants could then be unearthed.  ‘Very cold – baking in the morning – gathered pea seeds & took up’ (22 August).
 
If the pea plot can be seen fancifully as a sort of horticultural verse form, then, as the final pods are left on the plants to mature into viable seed, we can see it as a some sort of sonnet.  In the course of the last few rows there is an abrupt change of focus and tempo from the immediacy of harvest to an anticipation of the coming year.  Certainly, insights of maturity and expectation are suitable subjects for a sonnet’s closing stanza.  William, of course, admired the sonnet form, in Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room (1807) he does refer to ‘the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground’.
 
Do gardeners feel the experience of cultivating in some way the same as being inside a tight verse form, either a creator or consumer?  I do not know.  If it is then to some degree it is in the maintenance of integrity and the creation of form and structure.
 
As far-fetched as the poetical analogy of the pea plot might be, there is one aspect that is authentic to the Wordsworths’ life and creative work, that is its embodiment and representation of order.   As with many vegetables in the kitchen garden, the cultivation of peas was an exercise in painstaking care, but in maintaining this horticultural order one was rewarded with abundance.  These gardening virtues feature by their absence in ‘The Ruined Cottage’ (The Excursion, 1814).  The humbleness of the cottager is indicated by the modest length of the rows of peas.  Her ‘peculiar pains’ have been applied to the cultivation of the carnation, a ‘fancy’ flower of the labouring classes, but also the sowing the two rows of peas, no doubt in succession.  The consequences of poverty brought on by political and economic forces are reflected in the ‘silent overgrowings’ of the neglected garden, which climaxes in the pea plot.  Here William invokes bindweed, one of the most nightmarish of garden weeds.  Described with funereal imagery, the overwhelming weight of its unimpeded growth pulls down anthropomorphically the whole structure, both the crop and its support.

              carnations, once
Prized for surpassing beauty, and no less
For the peculiar pains they had required,
Declined their languid heads, wanting support.
The cumbrous bind-weed, with its wreaths and bells,
Had twined about her two small rows of peas,
And dragged them to the earth.

 
Away from its use in imagery, the physical act of creating and maintaining the vegetable plot no doubt had its therapeutic effects on both brother and sister. The concentrated cycles of the kitchen garden are one of the most intimate everyday relationships between humanity and the plant world.  William formulated a joke on the sort of mental diversion that work in the kitchen garden can bring about, no doubt at times both necessary and welcome.

We plant cabbages … and if retirement in its full perfection be as powerful in working transformations as one of Ovid’s gods, you may perhaps suspect that into cabbages we shall be transformed. 

Wordsworth to William Matthews, Racedown Lodge, 21st March 1796.

 
Summer in the kitchen garden imposed an exacting external order on the Wordsworths, a mind-emptying physical exertion that helped support both their corporeal existence and creative lives.
 
 
Gareth Evans writes articles on the history and culture of plants and their use (garethhevans.com).   He worked in, and with, botanic gardens for 16 years, specialising in the history of plants and medicine.  Recent Highlights include: ‘Seeds of Inspiration’, Linder Memorial Lecture, Beatrix Potter Society, March 2018, and  ‘Keats’s Flight from the Vegetable Monster’, a paper at the 4th Bicentennial John Keats Conference 1817.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

The winners of the 2018 Wordsworth birthday poem competition

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We had another wonderful set of entries this year, on the subject of ‘The child is father of the man’.  We’d like to thank Fiona Sampson, the poet and acclaimed author of The Girl who Wrote Frankenstein, for being this year’s judge, and for very kindly donating two copies of her book to the winner and runner-up.
Sampson
 
The winning poem is by Gerald Schwartz. Fiona said: “This poem comes up fresh each time, no matter how often you reread it. It’s direct and yet mysterious, a moment in time and yet a whole lifetime of such moments. I love its intimate feel: like seeing in the dark.”
Early Photo

I’ve hung a photo of myself
At age seven in a metal frame
In the kitchen so I
Can see me in the dark
When and where I make
My pre-dawn coffee.
Then as now the same
But different, as my life
Trickles down the same
Dark and silver nerve
Of a station I don’t understand
But will always remind me
With its mystery, its living map
Long after I have lost
My mobile phone, reminding me
With that pulsar of identity
Where I am still free to go.

 
The runner-up is by Alison Carter, who was last year’s winner. Fiona said of this poem, “This very human, narrative poem leaves lots unsaid – which is just what we want from a story that lest us step into it. What’s special about this day? Is the man in the poem digging a grave for his father? Or just missing him? We don’t need to know: we can fill the poem with our own meanings.”
Digging to Australia

He learned lots of things
working the garden with Dad:
that a spadeful of soil
contains more living organisms
than there are people on the planet.

He knew the biscuit snap
of an ancient pot from a bit
of brick, that their soil
had ‘Good tilth’, the lovely word
light between tongue and teeth.

A Job shared was a job halved,
but that day he worked alone,
watched his knuckles whiten
on the warm wood of the grip,
swung onto the blade’s shoulder,

tucked his head deep into his chest
like a sleeping bird and dug.
Last night’s row worried his ears,
as he drove through surface litter,
the pale gulp of the clays below.

Once, he believed he could dig
down to Australia, but today
rasping metal strikes unbroken
rock, describing the weight
of all that is now ungovernable.

Congratulations to Gerald and Alison and thank you again to everyone who entered. We’ll be back next year!

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Reimagining the Wordsworths II: Poetry and Diaries

Page 1

by Hannah Piercy
 
The 5th June 2017 was not so much ‘a fine showery morning’, as Dorothy Wordsworth says of the 5th June 1802 in her diaries, but one of those days when being outside for a few minutes can get you soaked to the bone – so a typical rainy day in the Lake District, some might say! I grew up in the Lakes, not so many miles away from Dove Cottage in Grasmere, where the Wordsworths lived for almost nine years. And as a secondary school pupil, I attended Keswick School, so there was a special pleasure for me in meeting some of the current year ten students of Keswick School to workshop some creative and critical ideas about the poetry, diaries, and lives of William and Dorothy Wordsworth.
DC 4
To create a manageable plan for workshopping William and Dorothy’s work in less than five hours, we had decided on a shortlist of poems and diary entries to discuss and record with the students during the day. We ran four sessions, discussing and trying out creative exercises based upon one of William’s poems and one of Dorothy’s diary entries in each session. Some of the texts we chose, like I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, were obvious choices, but some, like The Tables Turned, perhaps seem less obvious. We chose to pair The Tables Turned with Dorothy’s diary entry for 15th April 1798 (written before the Wordsworths moved to Grasmere, when they were living in Alfoxden house, Somerset). The Tables Turned implores its addressee to ‘quit your books’ and ‘Come forth into the light of things, / Let Nature be your teacher’, while Dorothy’s diary discusses how ‘Nature was very successfully striving to make beautiful what art had deformed – ruins, hermitages etc’, and notes that ‘Happily we cannot shape the huge hills, or carve out the valleys according to our fancy.’ We wanted, then, to ask the students to think about how we perceive nature today, and to invite them to compose their own poems in response to the themes and issues raised by Dorothy and William’s writing.
 

 
 
As we read over the poems composed by the students, it was fascinating to see how many of them – the majority of the group, in fact – had fixated on the idea of more modern distractions from nature, and in particular, the role of smartphones in quite literally ‘filtering’ nature for us. While William’s poem admonishes its addressee to abandon books and ‘hear the woodland linnet’, the year ten pupils from Keswick School used their poems as a chance to reflect on the need to abandon their phones and enjoy nature in its own right. Natalie Williams’s poem, for example, expressed a poignant call for us to
 

Zoom in on a picture but know
in the real world nature has
a higher resolution than any screen.

Look up to the trees, to the branches and leaves.
Notice the veins that weave
across the surface like a thread,
unravelling like a map to the road ahead.

 
 
Some of the poems were forthright celebrations of nature and its constancy in our changing world, aligning closely with the sentiments of the Wordsworths – as Chloe Mackay wrote,

Year by year the fieldmice breed,
 
and green shoots sprout from every seed,
After all this trouble the birds still sing
Oh nature! what a marvellous thing.

field-mouse

It was fantastic to see this group of pupils enjoying and thinking carefully about their engagement with nature through the poetry and diaries of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Our hope is that that is what these soundpieces of young people reading and discussing the work of the Wordsworths, and the enjoyment of nature, will encourage, along with the Wordsworth Trust’s work on Reimagining Wordsworth more broadly. In the accompanying soundpiece to this post, you can hear the students’ voices overlaid into a chorus, with the sound of a river bubbling in the background, an apt accompaniment to a poem that celebrates the importance of nature. Young people today can still get a lot out of both poetry and nature, as illustrated by the poems these year ten students produced at the Wordsworth Trust. It is with one of these poems that I will end, written by Elspeth Leslie, and again dealing with the intersection of nature and technology:
 

Eyes fixated on a glaring screen
human turning into robots,     
surviving on wifi and phone signal,
they come alive as their
battery dies.

If you only looked up just
long enough to see the
mesmerising beauty of shimmering
lakes and the staggering
beauty of the mountains
rising, breathtakingly from
the ground.

The moment ends as the
addictive phone looms
up from the pocket and
snaps the ‘insta worthy’
shot. #beautifulview.

 You can read more about the project and hear the first instalment of the sound pieces here . Keep an eye out for part three, coming soon!
 
Thanks go to the following people, without whom this project would not have been possible: Lucy Stone, Michael Rossington, Sarah Rylance and Evie Hill (Newcastle University), Jeff Cowton, Bernadette Calvey, Melissa Mitchell, and Susan Allen (Wordsworth Trust), Tracey Messenger, Helen Robinson, and the Students of Keswick School, Deirdre Wildy (Queen’s University Belfast), Robert Macfarlane, sound artists Conor Caldwell (Queen’s University Belfast) and Danny Diamond, and project leaders Jemima Short and Kate Sweeney.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Wordsworth and old age

Page 1

by Fred Blick
 
Aging is intrinsic to Wordsworth’s poetry. He declared in 1800, in his Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, ‘I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’. Recollection inevitably involves aging. It follows that recollection in general, and of ‘spots of time’ in particular, were significant features of his inspiration. Recollection helped him mentally and physically to adapt to aging:

There are in existence spots of time,
Which with distinct prominence retain
A renovating virtue, (The Prelude, 1805, Book Twelfth, ll. 257-9).

 
During Wordsworth’s lifetime, life expectancy in England hovered around forty years, but it increased the older one survived. In 1798, when Lyrical Ballads was first published, William Wordsworth was aged twenty-eight, Samuel Coleridge twenty-six and William’s sister, Dorothy, twenty-seven, and folk in their sixties would have been considered old. Dorothy and William lost their mother Ann when she was thirty-one and when they were six and seven respectively. Their father John died aged forty-two when Dorothy was twelve and William thirteen. Coleridge’s father, a vicar with a comfortable living, died at the good old age of sixty-three, when Coleridge was eight.
 
In the first two editions of Lyrical Ballads some of Wordsworth’s references to the old appear to be quite objective and distant – almost cruel. This attitude is first demonstrated by his poems ‘Animal Tranquillity and Decay‘ (1798) and ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’ (written 1798, published 1800). The former refers to an old man who in ‘Animal Tranquillity’

  … is by nature led
To peace so perfect that the young behold
With envy, what the Old Man hardly feels. (ll. 12-14).

 Likewise the ‘Beggar’ declares that the Old Beggar was ‘not … useless’ to society simply because he made his donors feel good by

 … thought
Of self congratulation, to the heart
Of each recalling his own boon, (ll.124-6).

 
The 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads included the poem ‘Goody Blake and Harry Gill’, which Wordsworth wrote in the spring of 1798, shortly after borrowing Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia (1794-6). From this book he took the story of farmer Harry Gill’s mental and physical illness following his cruel ensnaring of  ‘old Goody Blake’ for pilfering sticks from his hedge to keep herself warm in the winter. Although the old lady is pitiable, the poem’s style is of skilful but dispassionate reportage, leaving the reader to decide whether or not to be sympathetic. It is as if at the age of twenty-eight to thirty, Wordsworth was observing and learning the lessons of old age, rather than associating himself closely with its travails.
 
The second edition of Lyrical Ballads of 1800, includes Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’ (written late 1800). This displays a more empathetic approach. Speaking in the first person, the poet associates his own love of Nature with the main character of the story, Michael, ‘An old man, stout of heart, and strong of limb:

 … having felt the power of Nature
[He] led me on to feel
For passions that were not my own, and think
(At random and imperfectly indeed)
On man, the heart of man, and human life
. (ll. 28-33).

 
By March 1802 Wordsworth had developed a profound awareness of his own aging. In ‘The Rainbow’, composed that month, he considers the possibility of losing the child-like sense of wonder at the sight of a rainbow ‘when I shall grow old’. Such a loss would be tantamount to dying. The prospect of the loss of the Child’s glorious vision is made all the more real in ‘Ode: Intimations of  Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’, the first four stanzas of which he wrote next day: ‘The Rainbow comes and goes … There hath past away a glory from the earth.’ From then on Wordsworth ‘eye … kept watch o’er man’s mortality’ (ll. 198-9) and he certainly became more aware of his own (and mankind’s) aging. But the poetic recollection of his ‘spots  of time ’ was a continual, renovating comfort to him, reminding him of infinity and eternity.
turner_buttermere_lake_with_park_of_cromackwater
After writing ‘The Rainbow’ and the ‘Ode’, premature mortality was soon to impact upon William’s own life when his brother John drowned in a shipwreck in 1805. The deaths of two of his children were to follow in 1812. In 1814 Wordsworth quotes an ‘old Man’ dolefully thus,

             I see around me here
Things which you cannot see: we die, my Friend,
Nor we alone, but that which each man loved
And prized in his peculiar nook of earth
Dies with him, or is changed; and very soon
Even of the good is no memorial left. (The Excursion, Book First, The Wanderer, ll. 469-740).

There is much philosophical consideration of age and mortality in this long poem, the publication of which followed his more immediate experiences of loss mentioned above. But, as if by way of compensation, Wordsworth never forgot his belief in ‘infinity’. In The Prelude of 1805 he declares,

Our destiny, our nature, and our home
Is with infinitude, and only there (Book Sixth, ll. 538- 9).

which is echoed in what he writes in Book Thirteen.

The feeling of life endless, the one thought
By which we live, infinity and God. (ll. 183-4 ).

By the power of ‘Imagination’ (l. 525) he can see mankind’s place in eternity, as he does in ‘Tintern Abbey’:

a sense sublime
Of something far more interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round earth and the living air,
And the blue sky, and the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. … (ll. 95- 102)

 
Wordsworth’s middle and late years were marked by further losses. Charles Lamb died in1834, Coleridge in 1834, Robert Jones, his companion in the Alps, in 1835, his sister-in -law Sara Hutchinson  the same year, Robert Southey in 1843, and his brother Christopher in 1846, and his daughter Dora in 1847, at the age of forty-three. And while Wordsworth remained in fairly good health and mentally active, there were times when Dorothy was very severely ill, both physically and mentally, though she continued to write letters and some verse until 1853. She survived William and died in 1855 at the age of eighty three. Brother and sister each had life spans of almost twice the national average that had prevailed when they were born.
Dorothy 2
Only four years before his death, Wordsworth wrote ‘I know an aged Man constrained to dwell’. The poem probably owes much to his memory of Dorothy’s love for a robin when she was very ill. She fed this intimate pet and shed tears for it when the household was given a cat (William then saw to it that cats were banned from the house). The poem tells of an old Man who lived ‘as in a Prisoner’s cell’ in an alms house, where he fed a robin. The last lines are imbued with a profound truth about the power of love and friendship in old age:

O that the good old Man had power to prove,
By message sent through air or visible token,
That still he loves the Bird, and still must love;
That friendship lasts though fellowship is broken.

Robin_in_the_snow_3_(4250400943)

Fred Blick is an independent scholar from a multi-disciplinary background. He has published a number of essays over the past twenty years; not only “Wordsworth’s Dark Joke in ‘The Barberry-Tree’” in Romanticism journal in October 2014, but also innovative essays in peer-reviewed academic journals worldwide on the subjects of the Sonnets of William Shakespeare and of Edmund Spenser.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Finding Mary Wordsworth's voice

Page 1

by Erica Pratt
 
A tour of Dove Cottage always starts in the ‘Houseplace’. Guests enter, blinking against the darkness, and are invited to take a seat by the glowing fire or read extracts from Dorothy’s Grasmere Journal. The Houseplace is a warm, homely place and it isn’t hard to imagine food cooking on the fire, a dining table, children playing, and women reading or sewing on the window seat. In the next room, a silhouette of Dorothy Wordsworth and a painting of Mary Wordsworth hang over a simple washstand.
 
Houseplace
 
In a tour, it can be easy to over-emphasise Dorothy and briefly gloss over Mary. Dorothy is the passionate one, with her dramatic stories and endearing journal entries. She adds a spark to the story of the country poet, and through the publication of her Grasmere Journal, Dorothy has been given a voice.
 
Mary’s voice, by contrast, is a little harder to access. She not known for having written any particular works of literature. She, along with Dorothy, served as William’s amanuensis, and although the work the Wordsworth women accomplished is remarkable, it was a work which expressed William’s voice and not their own.
 
When I was given the opportunity to transcribe some of Mary’s letters, I was quite excited because I really wanted to understand Mary. I wanted to hear her voice, get a sense for her role in Wordsworth’s circle, and find out who she was.
 
At the time, I had recently finished transcribing the letters of George Ticknor, an American correspondent with William Wordsworth. Many of his letters are letters of introduction, so they are focused on others, but through them it is easy to get a sense of who Ticknor was. His letters were often meticulously written with a strong, measured hand. They are full of conventional courtesies, classical allusions, and travel notes and his style gives the impression that he is well-educated, well-connected, and confident. Although I felt that I was able to paint an accurate mental picture of Ticknor and his relationship with Wordsworth, I didn’t feel quite at home.
 
Ticknor letter
 
Mary’s letters make you feel at home. Her letters are littered with terms of endearment and sweet imagery. She talks about the health of her daughter-in-law Isabella, the weather, people who have come to visit, and the latest news from those she cares about.

Silver box

A silver box containing plaited strands of William and Mary’s hair


 
She tends to focus on other people throughout her letters, but it is easy to see how important these people are to her. In a letter to her friend Mary Stanger, Mary Wordsworth writes, ‘cannot you contrive to pass a night here on your way- at any rate you must not pass by without calling. We wish much to see you.’ Many of her letters record visitors and express the wish that others will visit her. Mary’s household was a bustling one, and she seemed to enjoy the company.
A handkerchief owned by Mary Wordsworth

A handkerchief owned by Mary Wordsworth


 
Equally important to Mary were the letters which were received at Rydal Mount. In a letter, Mary notes the ‘delightful letter from Dora,’ and then delightfully passes on information regarding Dora’s health. She is a connector, and whether she is connecting Isabella, Dora, Sara Hutchinson, or Mary Stanger, Mary seems to enjoy bringing people together.
MW and WW
The cameo brooch Mary is wearing in the portait above

The cameo brooch Mary is wearing in the portait above


 
Ticknor was the type of person I could turn to for debating philosophical points. Mary Wordsworth, in contrast, was the type of person who would carry on an intelligent and deeply meaningful conversation whilst bringing you tea. Her stories are full of warmth and humour. She doesn’t put herself into the limelight –even in writing a blog post about Mary I have used a lot of roundabout methods of reaching her, but she makes herself known. She cares for others, but that doesn’t mean her voice is silenced. In fact, quite the contrary. The sheer number of letters she writes attest to her strong voice.
A letter from Mary to William

A letter from Mary to William


 
There is something about the charm of Dove Cottage. It is warm and welcoming. On a nice day, the colours on the wall dance as the sunlight streams through the window. One can imagine Wordsworth lying on his couch in ‘vacant or in pensive mood,’ or dictating to Mary or Dorothy the latest changes in his poem, or walking back and forth composing poetry outside in the garden. Either way you choose to imagine Wordsworth, it is hard to fully and correctly imagine him without the cottage and the women who made this place a home.
 
A great deal of letters in the Wordsworth Trust’s collection have been transcribed and are available to research online here.
 
Erica Pratt is a student from Brigham Young University interning at the Wordsworth Trust. She is from Salem, Utah, but has been living and Ericaworking in Grasmere for the past four months. She is majoring in English Literature with a minor in European Studies.  Erica has been working on transcribing a series of manuscript letters in the Wordsworth Trust’s collection, including those by Mary Wordsworth.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Wordsworth’'s poem 'The Primrose of the Rock': From Pythagoras and Pantheism to Christianity

Page 1

by Fred Blick
 
Wordsworth’s contemplation of the primrose, as seen in ‘The Primrose of the Rock’ of 1831/5, illustrates the development of his spiritual beliefs concerning death and renewal. The poem reveals a change from a playing with the idea of continuity by Pythagorean transmigration of the soul to a conventional belief in orthodox, Christian Resurrection; from Pantheism to Christianity. The result was, as can be seen from the link below, one of the most touching of his ‘spots of time’ poems. This ‘spot’ was recorded in Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal for 24 April 1802 only a few days after she had memorialised the daffodils of Ullswater.
 
In a subsequent, unfinished poem, the doom-laden ‘The Tuft of Primroses’ of May-autumn 1808, Wordsworth clearly associates the primrose with illness and death, but also with relief in the thought of survival and renewal (see ll. 1- 20). Mary Wordsworth sister, Sara Hutchinson had become terribly ill in May 1808. Her illness is referred to in lines 37- 48 as ‘a Friend’ to whom ‘ … came danger with disease’. Worse, Wordsworth’s brother John had died in a shipwreck in 1805. His death is also referred to in the poem – ‘how much is gone’ (ll. 72-4), ‘Of best Friends dead or other deep heart’s loss’ (l. 74), ‘ How many mute memorials pass’d away’ (l. 77). Of the primrose itself the speaker takes some consolation in its survival,  ‘That little flower remains, and has survived’ (l. 79). Up to this period in his life Wordsworth seems to have seen continuity in the natural process of renewal and in the continuity of perceived phenomena, such as in a child’s uplifting sense of immortality as associated with the Rainbow; not primarily in a belief in Christian Resurrection. Like St. Basil in the later part of ‘The Tuft … ’ who chooses a hermit’s life, he seeks relief in solitude and then in recollection (as in ‘I wander’d lonely as a cloud’). ‘The Tuft …’ poem is an elegy for the inspired days of the ‘happy Band’ of Dove Cottage (Coleridge’s ‘Gang’ of ‘A Soliloquy of The Full The Moon’, 1802).
 
By the end of 1812, the anguish arising from the deaths of two of his children had produced a profound, compensatory, religious effect upon him which coincided with the family’s move from the smoky Allan Bank at Grasmere to the elevated Rydal Mount in the following year.

Rydal Mount

Rydal Mount


 
Wordsworth’s early vagueness about Christianity had been a source of uneasiness on the part of his friend and collaborator, Coleridge, who was an outspoken and convinced Unitarian. Coleridge wrote of Wordsworth to John Thelwall on 13 May 1796, ‘ … this man is a Republican and at least a semi-atheist’. Then he wrote to the Revd. J.P. Estlin on 18 May 1798, ‘He loves and venerates Christ & Christianity – I wish he did more’. The truth was that up to about 1808 Wordsworth was a tepid Anglican Christian who did not agree with all Christian dogma. He certainly displayed Pythagoreanism and Pantheism and found Deity in Nature as part of an interpretation of ‘the one life’. In contrast, Coleridge saw ‘the one life’ as part of Unitarian Christianity.
 
In his ‘Immortality Ode’, fifth stanza, Wordsworth contemplates Pythagorean transmigration:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,

However, like Coleridge’s, Wordsworth’s ‘one life’ is associated with Harmony. Both of them owed much to the Pythagorean concept of a harmonious universe based on the ‘music of the spheres’ – a harmony (in the Greek meaning of ‘a fitting together’) running through all things and constituting a finely tuned ‘One’ and, consequently, initiating ‘the one life’.
 
Inspired by the sound of the wind-harp wedged in a window, Coleridge wrote in his ‘The Eolian Harp’ (the 1817 version),

O the one life within us and abroad
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where – …

Wordsworth was undoubtedly interested in the music of the spheres and in universal Pythagorean harmony. He was clearly aware of Shakespeare’s references to it in his plays and he knew, therefore, that Lorenzo was alluding to it when he addressed Jessica in the famous star-lit scene towards the end of The Merchant of Venice (Act V. scene i. 58-63). This evidenced when in The Prelude, Book First (1805, 351-55) Wordsworth writes:

The mind of Man is fram’d even like the breath
And harmony of music.
There is a dark Invisible workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, and makes them move
In one society.’

Wordsworth is speaking here of ‘the one life’ and of the macrocosm/microcosm equation which prevailed in Renaissance aesthetics and also of concordia discors, the harmony of discord, a concept derived from Pythagoras (c. 570–495 BC) and emphasised as ‘unity of opposites’, by Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535 – c. 475 BC). This is also evident in Wordsworth’s 1828 preliminary ‘Argument’ for ‘On The Power of Sound’ which commences ‘Thy functions are ethereal’. There he summarizes the theme of its Stanza 12 as ‘The Pythagorean theory of numbers and music, with their supposed power over the motions of the universe.’ The stanza reads,

By one pervading spirit
Of tones and numbers all things are controlled,
As sages taught, where faith was found to merit
Initiation in that mystery old.

The heavens, whose aspect makes our minds as still
As they themselves appear to be,
Innumerable voices fill
With everlasting harmony.  (lines 177-184).

 
This display of Pythagoreanism appeared long after he had committed himself more fully to Christianity; but it looks as if it was planned much earlier. He was very proud of it. In a letter to Alexander Dyce dated 23 December 1837 he held it ‘… equal to anything I have produced’.
 
In a much simpler but sensitive vein, Dorothy wrote in her Journal for 24 April 1802,

Saturday 24th. A very wet day. William called me out to see a waterfall behind the Barberry tree. ― We walked in the evening to Rydale ― Coleridge and I lingered behind ― C stopped up the little runner by the Road to make a lake. We all stood to look at Glowworm Rock ― a primrose that grew there & just looked out on the Road from its own sheltered bower. The clouds moved as William observed in one regular body like a multitude in motion a sky all clouds over, not one cloud. On our return it broke a little out & we saw here & there a star. One appeared but for a moment in a lake pale blue sky’.  (Journals, Woof ed., p. 91).

Glowworm Rock 1890s

Glowworm Rock 1890s


 
The particular occasion; a wet day; possible apprehension at the waterfall; Coleridge’s deliberate stopping of the stream’s flow on the walk as if to stop the flow of time (so that the occasion would become one of Wordsworth’s inspirational ‘spots of time’); the ‘primrose’ clinging to the solid ‘Glowworm Rock’; the ‘multitude’ of ‘clouds’ and the ‘star’ seen ‘but for a moment’ – must have been an especially memorable combination. The record of how ‘We all stood to look at Glowworm Rock ― a primrose that grew there & just looked out …’ has the flavour of a solemn ceremony, the participants intent on memorializing a special occasion. Dorothy’s words fit the scene most beautifully and poetically, but they are loaded with an appreciation of the Pantheistic, animal vitality of natural phenomena as found in Greek Myths and Ovid.
 
Almost thirty years after that record, in 1831, Wordsworth finished ‘The Primrose of the Rock’. Its composition had begun in 1829 when Dorothy first became seriously ill and it was published in 1835, the year after Coleridge’s death after long illness. Like ‘The Barberry-Tree’ of Spring 1802, which commences ‘Late on breezy vernal eve’ (l. 1), the poem recalls that occasion of 1802, fanned by ‘the vernal breeze’ (l. 6). In 1831. Wordsworth was aged sixty-one and he knew too well that Dorothy’s health had failed. Coleridge was also extremely ill. In the poem Wordsworth recalled the rock where the ‘glow-worms hang their lamps’ (l. 3). And, as in ‘The Tuft of Primroses’, his theme was the persistence of the primrose flower and of the ‘Rock itself to which it ‘adheres’ as ‘A lasting link in Nature’s chain’ (ll.11 and 17). The love (including its sexual elements) symbolized by the light of the glow-worm (see Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Glow-worm’) had by 1829 been transmuted by age (‘That love which changed’, l. 37), into ‘God’s redeeming love’ (l. 36) with the certain prospect of a ‘rise’ to an ‘eternal summer’ (i.e. to Christian Resurrection, ll. 46-7). He could have composed no more moving souvenir of that happy, distant and contemplative occasion. Since that time he had merged his Darwinian Pantheism with Faith in the God of Christianity. Natural renewal had been replaced by Resurrection. Or perhaps he had simply clarified his ideas and had never really seen any conflict between different aspects of Deity.
 
The full poem can be read here. You can see it as a song in two parts, the first meditating on life’s changes through time and celebrating the first seeing of the persistent primrose of the ‘living rock’; and the second a Christian song in Recollection of that occasion, but embracing all ‘Deity’ (l. 54).
 
Fred Blick is an independent scholar from a multi-disciplinary background. He has published a number of essays over the past twenty years; not only “Wordsworth’s Dark Joke in ‘The Barberry-Tree’” in Romanticism journal in October 2014, but also innovative essays in peer-reviewed academic journals worldwide on the subjects of the Sonnets of William Shakespeare and of Edmund Spenser.
 

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

The Language of Semblance in The Prelude

Page 1

by Chris Townsend

There are features of Wordsworth’s poetry that are so obvious as to not really need stating; he was obviously concerned with visual perception, and he very clearly had an interest in nature. But sometimes when we let the most obvious parts of poems slip by us, they silently carry with them a wealth of significance that might change how we read the rest of the work. It’s for that reason that it’s not a bad idea to take a close look at Wordsworth’s all-but ubiquitous language of semblance — that is, his frequent use of words like seems and appears.

‘Semblance’ relates to external appearances — especially when the appearance of a thing is different from its reality. But we all use terms of semblance so often and casually that’s it’s not always clear what we mean. If you ask a friend what they think of your boyfriend or girlfriend and they reply “they seem very nice”, you might be satisfied with the response — or you might wonder why they only “seem” nice, as if your friend is really thinking “they seem nice, but…”. The verb ‘to seem’ is a ghostly relative of the verb ‘to be’; the former is about the surface of a thing, the latter gets to its actual nature. And whilst Wordsworth rarely wrote poems about the relative merits or demerits of anyone’s boyfriend or girlfriend, but there are deep philosophical implications to this difference between appearance and reality. Let’s have a look at The Prelude.

The 1805 version of Wordsworth’s Prelude opens with the following image of an ‘intellectual breeze’:

Oh, there is blessing in this gentle breeze,
That blows from the green fields and from the clouds
And from the sky; it beats against my cheek,
And seems half conscious of the joy it gives. (I.1-4)

The poem, which is many thousands of lines in length, begins with what can only be viewed as a tentative claim about the nature of Nature: the breeze only ‘seems’ conscious, and only half-conscious, at that. True enough, the opening lines do feature the verb ‘to be’ — there is blessing in the breeze — but it is not clear who put it there, nor if the breeze really knows about it. Is this a poem about human consciousness, a natural-spiritual consciousness, or half-and-half?

Following the many instances of this kind of language, you can quickly detect two patterns in The Prelude. One is that terms of semblance often accompany doublings, dichotomies, and things that come in halves. Consider the following (with italics added by me):

       his figure seemed
Half sitting, and half standing (IV.413.-414)

        I seem
Two consciousnesses, conscious of myself
And of some other Being (II.31-33)

        things remembered idly do half seem
The work of fancy (VII.148)

The other discernible pattern is that Wordsworth’s language of semblance tends to pop up in those moments in The Prelude when nature is (or seems) most spiritualized or active. Here’s the famous image of a cliff bearing down on the young Wordsworth as he rows on a lake at night:

When from behind that craggy Steep, till then
The bound of the horizon, a huge Cliff,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Uprear’d its head. (I.408-411).

As if with voluntary power. But not actually? Nature again and again gets this treatment in The Prelude, with the poet writing: ‘Upon this lustre have I gazed, that seemed / To have some meaning which I could not find’ (VIII.576-577); ‘in life’s everyday appearances / I seemed about this period to have sight / Of a new world’ (XII.369-372); and ‘the sky seem’d not a sky / Of earth, and with what motion mov’d the clouds!’ (I.351-323). What motion, indeed?

This language, of seemingness and appearance, ultimately plays a crucial role in Wordsworth’s philosophic vision. He won’t confirm for us whether he is merely seeing the world as a spiritualized entity, or whether it really is that way. It’s the difference between subjective and objective truth, and Wordsworth’s uncertain language plots a course somewhere between the two. We can’t apply the hard and fast categories of philosophy to Wordsworth — such as Materialism, Idealism, Realism — because he by turns looks to occupy all those positions, and none. Put differently, it would be difficult to say for sure whether Wordsworth thinks the whole world is in his head, or if it exists ‘out there’ — and if there were no humans left to observe it, whether the world would carry on being half-conscious of the joy it gives.

A last example can be found in the concluding sections of The Prelude, which deal directly with the question of the relation between mind and world. Wordsworth flags up the theme of uncertainty early in the thirteenth book of the poem, during a climb up Mount Snowdon. A ‘huge sea of mist’ parts at the top of the mountain, and he gains a view of ‘the sea, the real sea, that seemed / To dwindle and give up its majesty’ (XIII.49-50). This is a much-discussed pair of images, as Wordsworth goes from a common metaphor (‘sea of mist’) to a literal image of the ocean one. And yet, Even that ‘real sea’ is awash with semblance, seeming to ‘dwindle’, to appear somehow smaller, in the eye of the poet.

View of Mount Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle, by Richard Wilson

View of Mount Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle, by Richard Wilson

The passage atop Snowdon then gives way to the climactic episode of the book, the experience of the poetic imagination:

A meditation rose in me that night
Upon the lonely mountain when the scene
Had passed away, and it appeared to me
The perfect image of a mighty mind,
Of one that feeds upon infinity,
That is exalted by an under-presence,
The sense of God, or whatsoe’er is dim
Or vast in its own being (XIII.66-73)

If it’s hard to tell what’s going on here, it’s because Wordsworth in part wants to keep it that way (there isn’t actually a full-stop for another 10 lines after this, it just keeps going). He sees the image of his own mind, which is imbued with a ‘sense of God’. ‘Sense’ is a complicated word in itself, as Wordsworth could mean it in its technical deployment as a bodily or mental function — as in ‘the sense of smell’ — or as only a faint, intuited knowledge of something — ‘sensing his presence’. More difficult still is the pairing ‘it appeared’. ‘Appeared’ might mean ‘it looked like’, or else ‘it really made itself visible before me’ — the difference between ‘it seems like a mind’ or ‘a mind appeared’. That’s confusing enough before even asking what ‘it’ refers to. There’s a tendency to read ‘it’ as what we call a pleonastic pronoun — as in the phrase ‘it rained’. But maybe ‘it’ looks forward: ‘the perfect image of a mighty mind appeared to me’. Or maybe ‘it’ looks back to the previous lines: ‘A meditation rose and appeared like a mind’, or ‘the lonely mountain appeared to me as a mind’, or even ‘the scene, after it had passed, (somehow) appeared to me as a mighty mind’. Where we’d hope for answers from the poem, though, we find none.

The job of a poet, after all, relates more to offering perspectives than it does to providing hard and fast answers, and The Prelude artfully manages to give us several pictures of reality at once; images of ‘the real sea’ relate to the scientist’s view of the world, as out there, real, and indifferent to us. The spiritualized vision of a natural world that interacts with the human mind is, for Wordsworth, the most tantalizing view of things. And there is also the possibility of solipsism in Wordsworth — of a mind that only sees the world as a collection of its own thoughts. Keats famously referred to this aspect of Wordsworth as the ‘egotistical sublime’ — as the mind that encounters the natural world, but only seems to see itself. Such an experience is, though, only one facet of Wordsworth’s poetry, and across his most philosophic poetry he uses semblance, and uncertainty, to leave the options open for his reader. In closing, here are the opening lines of his great ode, ‘Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.

At the centre of these opening lines is the word ‘seem’. And the uncertainty of semblance is here reinforced through the emphatic movement of the poem’s rhymes: from stream, to seem, to dream. A natural image, the dreaming mind that produces its own images, and, in the middle, the experience of a world ‘seeming’ to be, which holds both nature and mind together. It is masterful.

Chris Townsend is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of Cambridge. He works on the philosopher George Berkeley and his influence on the Romantic-era poets William Blake, Chris TSamuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth. Outside of academia, he writes about literature, art, and popular culture, and he also blogs about professional cycling. His Twitter ID is @marmeladrome

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Women behind the words

Page 1

Melissa Mitchell, Assistant Curator at the Wordsworth Trust, talks about a new digital exhibition at Grasmere
William Wordsworth was a lucky man. In his sister Dorothy, his wife Mary, and his daughter Dora, he had an endless supply of encouragement and love. Together, they were homemakers, a support network – but perhaps more remarkably, they were an industrious force of pen and paper quite unlike any other.


‘We have transcribed all William’s smaller Poems for you, and have begun the Poem on his Life and the Pedlar, but before we send them off we mean to take another Copy for ourselves, for they are scattered about here and there in this book and in that, one Stanza on one leaf, another on another which makes the transcribing more than twice the trouble.’

So wrote Dorothy, to Samuel Taylor Coleridge from Dove Cottage in March 1804. Together with Mary, William’s wife, she was busy bringing together a mass of her brother’s works, intended to accompany Coleridge on a journey overseas. The women faithfully copied thousands of lines on hundreds of pages, pulling together the ‘scattered’ drafts into beautiful, handwritten volumes.
 
This is just one example of work that spanned a lifetime. Many years later, when Dorothy was no longer able to act as her brother’s chief amanuensis, his daughter, Dora Wordsworth, inherited the role. In a household where poetry, writing and words were everything, the women also took care of everything else. The washing, cooking, cleaning, raising children, crafting and mending, hosting, caring for and loving – together they created a home and family that worked in unison to help William succeed.

When studying the manuscript drafts of Wordsworth’s poetry today, we often see the words from his mind shaped on paper in Dorothy, Mary or Dora’s hand. It is hard not to wonder just how far their involvement extended: did they ever suggest another word, rephrasing of a line, movement of a stanza? It is also possible to consider how the home they built, the world they created and most importantly, their own personalities, emotions and actions shaped the words on the page. How might things have been different if these women were not in Wordsworth’s life? By exploring their original journals and letters, their own words will help to build a picture of what their lives were like, and how they individually and collectively created the world in which the poems were written.

A fair copy in Mary's handwriting

A fair copy in Mary’s handwriting


A fair copy in Dorothy's hand

A fair copy in Dorothy’s hand


In these manuscripts, we catch fleeting glimpses of a household at work. In Dorothy’s Grasmere journal, for example (written in the first few years at Dove Cottage), writing and the making of poetry blends seamlessly with domestic chores, with accounts of conversations, with gardening, with walks to Ambleside to collect letters. For example:

Wednesday 17th [February 1802]. A miserable clashy snowy morning. We did not walk. But the old man from the Hill brought us a short letter from Mary H. I copied the second part of Peter Bell. William pretty well.

But then, Dorothy’s journal itself contributes to the creation of poetry, with her descriptions of ‘an old man almost double’, whose trade was ‘to gather leeches’ and the daffodils that ‘tossed & reeled & danced and seemed as though they verily laughed with the wind’ by Ullswater.
Melissa
In Mary, we find another key supporter. Her contribution is perhaps more quietly represented in letters and journals, but there is no doubt that she was a constant and steadying force behind the scenes. She formally joined the household in 1802 as William’s wife, but had known William and Dorothy for many years, and was well prepared for her new life as part of this unique literary household.

Portrait of William and Mary Wordsworth, Margaret Gillies, 1839. (Replica on display in Dove Cottage.)

Portrait of William and Mary Wordsworth, Margaret Gillies, 1839. (Replica on display in Dove Cottage.)


With Mary, came her sister, Sara Hutchinson, who also gave her time, thoughts and energy to William’s poetry. Sara has the most beautiful hand, and her fair copies of William’s poems are a pleasure to read and study.
Sarah Hutchinson
Dora Wordsworth stepped into the role of chief amanuensis as Dorothy’s health failed, as did William’s eyesight, many years later at Rydal Mount. ‘I hold the pen for father’, she writes in a letter, October 1833. She is setting her father’s words down on paper, in this instance simply to help him write a letter, and to distinguish his voice from her own. Yet, like her mother and aunts before her, holding the pen became a central part of Dora’s life.
Dora
All of these women held the pen for William Wordsworth, but the hands that operated it belonged to individuals with their own thoughts, emotions and motivations. They are the women behind the words.
Between November 2017 and March 2018, Melissa  will be posting a series of short films exploring the manuscript letters and journals of these women, held at the Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, in Grasmere. Melissa will also show behind the scenes glimpses into daily life in the Jerwood Centre, the Wordsworth Trust’s library and archive, and the planning of the project’s exhibition, which will be open from 1 February 2018 to 18 March 2018.
Follow the story here:
https://storify.com/wordsworthtrust/women-behind-the-words

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Join us in the Big Wordsworth Bonanza

Page 1

by Jenny Uglow
I know it’s almost three years away – or only three years away – but 7 April 2020 is the 250th anniversary of Wordsworth’s birth, and the Wordsworth Trust want to celebrate it in style. There will be conferences, parties, walks on fells, radio and television programmes readings among daffodils, on Westminster Bridge – and wherever you can think of. We’ve even got hopes of ‘Romantics’ stamps, though nothing may come of this! So this is an invitation to all Wordsworth fans, and everyone interested in the Romantics, to join in looking ahead, planning, getting together with ideas world-wide.
RIww 2
 
No one ‘owns’ a great poet, and the Wordsworth Trust (where I’m a Trustee) is far from being the only group who want to mark this anniversary. However, it seemed a good idea to post something to tell you what we’re thinking. A small team has gathered, co-ordinated by Simon Bainbridge of Lancaster University, and including the Wordsworth family, the Wordsworth Trust, the team at Rydal Mount and the National Trust, who run Wordsworth’s House in Cockermouth. In time, there will be a separate website for Wordsworth 250, which will publicise all the events. Your ideas are welcome!
RIWW
In Grasmere itself, the Wordsworth Trust has plans to enhance the site at Town End, with Dove Cottage at its heart. In a project called ‘Reimagining Wordsworth’, the Trust will re-design the Wordsworth Museum for the first time in over thirty years, refurbishing its galleries to show Wordsworth’s manuscripts in fresh and exciting ways. Visitors will ‘step back in time’, and see Dove Cottage as the Wordsworths would have known it, and new research will mean that Dove Cottage garden, which William and Dorothy loved, has the right plants for the date. Parts of the site will be opened up, so that we can enjoy the green spaces and the views, and there will be new opportunities for children to play, and for visitors to rest and look – and write. Wordsworth’s poetry will come to life for the 21st century.
RIWW 3
This is a huge venture, and it should be a joyous transformation.
The Heritage Lottery Fund has committed £4 million to the project, but to unlock this funding, the Wordsworth Trust must raise a further £1 million by March 2018. We are planning Wordsworth and poetry-themed auctions in 2018 and 2019, but our urgent need now is to meet this target. You can find out more about the project and how to support it by visiting the new Reimagining Wordsworth website.
In short – forgetting money for the moment – this is a really exciting time for all Wordsworth fans, the start of great things. Do please get involved – we would love to hear from you.
 
Jenny Uglow’s latest book is In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815. She is a Trustee of the Wordsworth Trust.Jenny Uglow
 
 

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

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04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

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    Cumbria, LA22 9SH

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