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 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

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

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.

Reimagining the Wordsworths II: Poetry and Diaries

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.

Re-imagining the Wordsworths: A soundpiece

by Jemima Short

This sound project is the product of collaboration between the Wordsworth Trust and the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership. A group of PhD Students, led by myself and Kate Sweeney of Newcastle University working alongside Lucy Stone (Newcastle University) and Hannah Piercy (Durham University), set out to create sound pieces that bring Wordsworth’s poetry to life whilst also highlighting the equally important work of his sister Dorothy. Students from Keswick School participated in the recording of the texts, which were then edited and mixed by two sound artists, Danny Diamond and Conor Caldwell. Danny and Conor also added their own sound work and instrumentation, mostly improvised, to create the beautiful pieces presented here.

 

 

‘Find somewhere secluded and just listen to the birds. … People don’t really appreciate nature anymore and they just sort of take for granted that it’ll always be there … I often go on hikes and things on my own and I think you need to appreciate time like that.’

This quote from a year 10 student at Keswick School can be heard in the first instalment of our four-part sound piece Re-imagining the Wordsworths. This is one of the key ideas behind this project: through reflections on the beauty of nature and the local area around Grasmere, we are encouraged to step away from our distractions to appreciate the wonder of the world around us. The four sound pieces present the writings of William and Dorothy Wordsworth performed by students from Keswick School, and whose discussions are interspersed with the texts.  Accompanying music and sounds from artists Danny Diamond and Conor Caldwell set the mood of each piece.

The first of our four sound pieces uses extracts from Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal. It is fitting that a reimagining of Wordsworth should start with words written by his sister, whose own work was so important for William’s creative process. Their relationship was one of collaboration, and Dorothy spent hours transcribing her brother’s texts. In this piece, we hear Dorothy’s beautiful descriptions of the area around Grasmere and the emotions she felt as she moved through the landscape. Her appreciation of the nature around her all those years ago is interspersed with Keswick School students talking about the area they call home. The readings are accompanied by a structured and rhythmic musical background. Layered pizzicato in the opening of this piece adds shape and momentum, mirroring the lightness of the fine showers Dorothy describes. There is a sense of movement to the sounds as we follow Dorothy through the landscapes at the centre of much of the Wordsworths’ writing.

Saturday 5th June 1802

‘A fine showery morning. I made both pies & bread, but we first walked into Easedale, & sate under the oak trees upon the mossy stones. There were one or 2 slight showers. The Gowans were flourishing along the Banks of the stream. The strawberry flower hanging over the Brooke – all things soft & green.-In the afternoon William sate in the orchard. I went there, was tired & fell asleep. William began a letter to John Wilson.’

Dorothy journal

Friday morning 16th May 1800           

‘Warm and mild after a fine night of rain. The woods extremely beautiful with all autumnal variety & softness – I carried a basket for mosses, & gathered some wild plants – Oh! that we had a book of botany – all flowers now are gay & deliciously sweet. The primrose till prominent The later flowers and the shiny foxgloves, very tall, with their heads budding. I was much amused with the business of a pair of stone chats. Their restless voices as they skimmed along the water following each other their shadows under them, & their returning back to the stones on the shore, chirping with the same unwearied voice. Could not cross the water so I went round by the stepping stones. Ryedale was very beautiful with spear-shaped streaks of polished steel. Grasmere very solemn in the last glimpse of twilight it calls home the heart to quietness. I had been very melancholy in my walk back. I had many of my saddest thoughts & I could not keep the tears within me. But when I came to Grasmere I felt that it did me good. I finished my letter to MH.’

Look out for part two, coming soon!
 

Our thanks go to the following people, without whom this project would not have been possible: Hannah Piercy (Durham University), 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 Mcfarlane, and sound artists Conor Caldwell (Queen’s University Belfast) and Danny Diamond.

Women behind the words

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

Theatre review: 'William Wordsworth', by Nicholas Pierpan

By Katherine Robson
As a Collections Trainee at the Wordsworth Trust, my role involves answering public enquiries about our collection. Recently, I was sent some interesting questions from actress, Emma Pallant. To prepare for her role as Dorothy Wordsworth in an upcoming play about William Wordsworth, Emma wanted to know more about Dorothy’s character and how she moved around the house. I enjoyed reading Dorothy and William’s letters, Dorothy’s Grasmere Journal and secondary sources to find the answers that Emma needed.
 
I must admit, I am always a little sceptical of historical films, TV series and plays, perhaps because of my training as a historian. For me, accuracy is paramount in these productions to give the audience the best possible understanding of who a person in the past was; his/her attitudes, concerns and motivations. So you can imagine that I was pleased to receive Emma’s email. It made me hopeful that this new play would present the life of an iconic poet as accurately as historical sources allow.
 
I was not disappointed. William Wordsworth is not without dramatic license but there have been great attempts to make the play accurate. Its writer, Nicholas Pierpan, chose William Wordsworth as the subject for his PhD. His supervisor was Professor Stephen Gill, a leading Wordsworthian scholar, and former Wordsworth Trust trustee, who came to show the cast some of William’s manuscripts. A voice teacher also helped the cast to perfect their Cumbrian accents, with the help of interviews of local people.
WW Pierpan
Set in 1812, William Wordsworth follows William, played by John Sackville, and his family in a particularly challenging year of their lives. It begins with William looking pensively at the Lake District landscape. But the bubble bursts and we are transported to the Grasmere Rectory , which Wordsworth was then renting, where Dorothy runs around cleaning, tries to keep William and Mary’s children under control and pleads with William to publish some poems so that they can get a new chimney.
General 2 Pierpan
The key strength of the play is that it allows the audience to decide whether William was a great poet or more interested in upholding his literary reputation than providing for his family. I thought that my mind was made up at the beginning. William comes across as ‘holier-than-thou’ as he tries to persuade fellow poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, played by Daniel Abelson, to return to the Lakes to care for his family.
STC - Pierpan
 
As Coleridge tells William, ‘you live wholly among devotees – having every minutest thing, almost his very eating and drinking, done for him by his sisters or his wife’. Yet the next scene is a party of London’s elite, where William defends his poems, only to be mocked by the guests. I felt sorry for him when, as he and Coleridge leave, a guest says, ‘[t]here goes one seriously demented idiot, alongside a washed-up Mr Coleridge’. I still cannot decide whether I like William!
 
I was also impressed by the attempts to give a voice to the women in William’s life, particularly Dorothy and her sister-in-law, Sara Hutchinson, played by Amiera Darwish. They are portrayed as strong-minded, not subservient housekeepers. But I would like to have seen more evidence of Dorothy’s many skills aside from her domestic work, such as her talents as a writer. During the play, Dorothy says, ‘I just want a chimney, William’, but was this really the height of her ambitions?
Women - Pierpan
Pierpan strikes the right balance between poignancy and humour. In a play such as this, it would be easy to get bogged down in the tragedy that the Wordsworths faced. Indeed, there is no shortage of sadness in the play. One moment, William is blissfully playing with his son, Thomas (the role is being shared by three actors). The next, William is standing over the graves of Thomas and his sister, Catherine. Yet these scenes are interspersed with light-hearted moments.
 
I was impressed by the creative design of the play as much as the story being told. In theatres today, hi-tech equipment is used to create seamless transitions between scenes. There is none of this in William Wordsworth. Instead, beautiful string music plays in the background whilst the cast sway to and fro to put furniture and movable walls in their rightful places for the next scene. It adds to the authenticity of the play; the audience is kept within 1812, not transported back to 2017 for a couple of minutes whilst the backstage team do scene changes. The subtle shifts in lighting also effectively capture the many ups and downs in William’s life.
General - Pierpan
I was left confused about a couple of things. Firstly, the play is set in the middle of William’s life, before which many key events had occurred, such as the tragic death of his brother, John, in 1805. Yet unless the audience has a prior understanding of the famous poet, I fear that they will sometimes be confused about what they are seeing on stage. Background information about William’s earlier life at the beginning of the play could resolve this issue.
 
Secondly, where is Mary Wordsworth? The reason for her absence is not made clear to the audience. Also, only one of William’s five children appears in the play. This and Mary’s absence made it difficult for me to imagine how the Wordsworth household fitted together and how challenging it was to live in the cramped rectory. But these minor issues did not spoil my enjoyment of William Wordsworth.
 
I and fellow trainees got the chance to meet the cast after the play. It was a pleasure to talk to Emma about how she developed Dorothy’s character. Despite the stress of opening night, the cast took the time to ask about our work at the Trust and to share some behind-the-scenes secrets!
 
William Wordsworth is a beautifully-crafted play which sheds light on a lesser-known story of William’s life when he struggled to balance his poetic ambitions with his family responsibilities. It is an effective reminder that success did not come easily to many of our revered literary figures and that they were not flawless; they were only human, just like us.
 
William Wordsworth is showing at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, until Saturday 22 April 2017.
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Katherine Robson is a Collections Trainee at the Wordsworth Trust. Katherine helps to record and care for the Trust’s collection, develop Katherine Robsonexhibitions and works with researchers. She also delivers guided tours of Dove Cottage, welcomes visitors to the Wordsworth Museum and sells tickets and merchandise in the Trust’s shop. Her traineeship is funded by Arts Council England.
 

‘Homes at Grasmere’: The inspiration behind a new play about William Wordsworth

by David Ward

If you are going to stage a play about Wordsworth, it has to be in the Lake District. And if you are going to stage it in the Lake District, it has to be at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick which is roughly half way between Cockermouth, where Wordsworth was born, and Grasmere where, if you bend the rules to include Rydal, he lived for more than 50 years.


Which is a rambling way of explaining that Theatre by the Lake will present the world première of William Wordsworth by Nicholas Pierpan in a co-production with English Touring Theatre from 1 April to 22 April.
The play is set in 1812, not a happy year for the poet but it would give away too much of the plot away to say why. But it won’t spoil things too much to say that he was hard up that year.  With little cash coming in, his desire to be free to write, but not sell, his poetry is at odds with his need to provide for his extended family.  Part of my job at Theatre by the Lake is to write programme notes. After some time spent footling around and staring into space (I’m glad to see, Alan Bennett does quite a bit of staring too), I chanced upon a reference to Allan Bank, where the Wordsworths lived from 1808 to 1810. Allan Bank? I thought. Where’s that? I’d never heard of the house; didn’t know the National Trust owned it; didn’t know about the fire that gutted it in 2011. Please excuse my ignorance.
Separate footling led me to Dorothy’s letters, which again I didn’t know, although I know and love the journals, and which I found in the New York Public Library; not that I was in New York, though I once sat in Bryant Park above the library’s stacks to watch an open-air showing of High Noon.
The library has very helpfully digitised the two volumes of Wordsworth family letters published in 1907 and they gave many hours of happy serendipity. When I started to concentrate on the task in hand, I found that Dorothy had written often about her homes and I needed to look no further for a programme note.
William and Dorothy moved into Dove Cottage in Grasmere late in 1799 and ten months later Dorothy told her friend Jane Marshall it was now “neat and comfortable” though very small. She also refers to “a small low unceiled room which I have papered with newspapers”, a space that fascinates anyone who squeezes into it today.

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Conservation work on the ‘newspaper room’

Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson in 1802 and three of their five children, John, Dora and Thomas (who appears in Nicholas Pierpan’s play) were born in Dove Cottage. Mary’s sister Sara also lived with the family and the writer Thomas de Quincy became a permanent guest; the small 17th century home eventually became too crowded for comfort.
DC-Houseplace
So off they went in 1808 to Allan Bank, which William had described as “a temple of abomination” when it was being built on a fellside outside Grasmere. Late that year, Dorothy told Catherine Clarkson that the house, with smoky chimneys and wet cellars, was giving them “grievous troubles”. It was apparently overrun by builders trying to sort out “these evils”.

Allan Bank, sketched by Sarah Hutchinson in 1857

Allan Bank, sketched by Sarah Hutchinson in 1857

“This house is at present literally not habitable,” she complained. “You can have no idea of the inconvenience we have suffered. There was one stormy day in which we could have no fire but in my brother’s study, and that chimney smoked so much that we were obliged to go to bed.”
How familiar, how ordinary, this sounds; my heart went out to Dorothy. I wanted to tell her that as I writing about her troubles, I was confronting my own: a plumber who came to inspect a leak in our bathroom told me the only, and rather drastic, way to get at the problem was to cut a hole in my kitchen ceiling.
In 1810, the Wordsworths (William and Mary now had two more children) decided to move to the Old Rectory in Grasmere, where William Wordsworth is set. But the house needed a lot of work and in a letter to Mrs Clarkson Dorothy was sceptical about her brother’s skills as a project manager.

“William has undertaken the whole charge of getting the business done, and you know how unfit he is for any task of this kind. Mary and I are, however, determined not to enter upon it till it is finished completely; for we were thoroughly sickened of workmen when we first came hither.”

At once I bonded with William; I have a long history of being baffled by builders who instantly recognise my incompetence.
The family did not stop long at the Old Rectory and were on the move again in 1813, this time to Rydal Mount a couple of miles down the road to Ambleside. Dorothy told Mrs Clarkson it was “a paradise” and in another letter explained that she had been shopping. Like many of us, she tries to justify a bit of extravagance:

“Now I must tell you of our grandeur. We are going to have a Turkey carpet in the dining-room, and a Brussels in William’s study…The Turkey carpet (it is a large room) will cost twenty-two guineas, and a Scotch carpet would cost nine or ten. The Turkey will last out four Scotch, therefore will be the cheaper, and will never be shabby…The house is very comfortable, and most convenient, though far from being as good a house as we expected.”

Room at Rydal Mount
Rydal Mount may not have lived up to Dorothy’s hopes but there were no more moves. William died at Rydal Mount in 1850, Dorothy, free at last of builders and smoking chimneys, in 1855 and Mary in 1859.

William Wordsworth runs at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick from 1-22 April. For tickets phone 017687 74411 or book online at www.theatrebythelake.com
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David Ward is Theatre by the Lake’s literary consultant.

Romantic readings: ‘To My Sister’, by William Wordsworth

by Eavan Boland
I’ve always believed there are certain pieces of writing which are magic doors in locked houses. Just as we think we’ll never get entry, never be able to go in, this one door springs open at our slightest touch. And after that we can come and go as we please. Wordsworth’s “To My Sister” is one of these and one of my favorite poems. It is modest, quirky, and off the beaten track, a poem that goes along at a companionable walking pace—conversational, talky, and apparently throwaway. But appearances are deceptive. For all its downright reticence, this poem shines a challenging light on one of the most troubling aspects of Romanticism, one of its most problematic inheritances: in other words the corrosive history of the Sublime.
Although the idea may be as old as Longinus, at this moment in history it had a particular power. In the late 1740’s, some fifty years before the poem was written, the critic John Baillie wrote that “vast objects occasion vast Sensations and vast sensations give the Mind a Higher Idea of her own Powers.” In Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Treatise into the Origins of our ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, written just forty years before this poem, Burke defined the sublime as what appeared greater than us, what we therefore feared and were awestruck by—whether landscape or literature. At a moment when the claims of the un-rational mind were just beginning to be celebrated, these ideas gained a widespread currency. Critics and philosophers began to define the sublime as a system which challenged the inner world of man to equal the outer one, challenged sensibility and imagination to construct an inner lexicon which reflected the grandeur of these outer sights. The idea of grandeur, both in language and landscape, began to change the scale of the poem and the ambitions of the poet. Modesty was no longer a virtue. And that makes “To My Sister” all the more remarkable. “To My Sister” shows Wordsworth in a light that in some ways is uncharacteristic: as a poet, in other words, intent on disciplining the sublime rather than deferring to it.

An 1803 sketch of Wordsworth and Coleridge that includes what may be an image of Dorothy.

An 1803 sketch of Wordsworth and Coleridge in the Wordsworth Trust collection, which includes what may be an image of Dorothy.

The poem was written early in the year 1798, when Wordsworth was living near the beautiful Quantock Hills in Somerset. It was a year of change, of widespread upheaval. A bloody unsettled Europe stretched to the east, the fiery aftermath of the French Revolution. The clicking and swooping of the guillotine could still be heard, albeit in memory, even across the Channel. And even in the quiet part of England where Wordsworth lived, there were fears of a French invasion. Only a few months earlier, there had been reports that the Dutch Fleet was ready to bring a French invasion force to England.
Into this time of unrest and suspicion come Dorothy and William Wordsworth, a young man and woman, with strong ties to France. They had come to Somerset for this one year and were living in a beautiful house called Alfoxden Park near the Quantock hills. William was twenty-seven and Dorothy twenty-six. And they brought with them a child, Basil Montagu, the son of their widowed friend. They were taking care of him during these years, and he has a wonderful, walk-on part in the poem, although under a different name.
Alfoxden
Alfoxden Park was a long, low house with a view on its north-eastern side to the Bristol Channel. It came at a peppercorn rent, because it needed habitation. It was also beautiful and spacious. Dorothy would remember this all her life as a location of a special happiness. “There is everything here,” she wrote to a friend, “sea, woods wild as fancy ever painted, brooks clear and pebbly as in Cumberland, villages so romantic; and William and I—in a wander by ourselves—found out a sequestered waterfall in a dell formed by steep hills covered with full-grown timber trees.” Imagine how they must have looked: a young man and woman who spend their time out of doors, are unfashionably tanned and walk the countryside at all hours of the day and night. Not surprisingly, their neighbors are deeply uneasy about them. One wrote that Wordsworth must be “A French Jacobin for he is so silent and dark.”
It was in Alfoxden, in this spring of 1798, that Wordsworth’s long and wounded depression began to heal. He had left France—and his mistress and his child—years earlier. With hindsight we can see that his sympathy with French radicalism was not just a politic but also the shadow of his own deep conflicts about order and disorder. The conflicts had injured him. But here in the rural quiet of this part of England, his spirits began to heal. Over and over in the cold spring weather he walked the road between Nether Stowey where Coleridge lived and Alfoxden. Here on this road, in the conversations at their destination, the poems began to arrive which made the brilliant, surprising, and disruptive volume of the Lyrical Ballads. And this was where, occasionally, Wordsworth would read his poems aloud with a fierce intensity. Hazlitt, who was once there for such a reading, said, famously, “whatever might be thought about the poem, his face was a book where men might read strange matters.”

To My Sister

It is the first mild day of March:
Each minute sweeter than before
The redbreast sings from the tall larch
That stands beside our door.

There is a blessing in the air,
Which seems a sense of joy to yield
To the bare trees, and mountains bare,
And grass in the green field.

My sister! (’tis a wish of mine)
Now that our morning meal is done,
Make haste, your morning task resign;
Come forth and feel the sun.

Edward will come with you—and, pray,
Put on with speed your woodland dress;
And bring no book: for this one day
We’ll give to idleness.

No joyless forms shall regulate
Our living calendar:
We from to-day, my Friend, will date
The opening of the year.

Love, now a universal birth,
From heart to heart is stealing,
From earth to man, from man to earth:
—It is the hour of feeling.

One moment now may give us more
Than years of toiling reason:
Our minds shall drink at every pore
The spirit of the season.

Some silent laws our hearts will make,
Which they shall long obey:
We for the year to come may take
Our temper from to-day.

And from the blessed power that rolls
About, below, above,
We’ll frame the measure of our souls:
They shall be tuned to love.

Then come, my Sister! come, I pray,
With speed put on your woodland dress;
And bring no book: for this one day
We’ll give to idleness.

And so it was here in this blessed shelter of Alfoxden that Wordsworth wrote “To My Sister.” A few years later in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads he would argue that a poet was “a man speaking to men”—in other words that the poem must happen in a human voice, in a living dialect. After an ornamental 18th century it was a radical idea. Here is a place where that voice—and that vernacular ideology—can be heard in all its first, flamboyant bravery, and yet the theatre of the poem is deceptively modest. The scene is a March morning, the occasion is the mild, south-wind weather of an English spring. All he does is ask his sister to take her warm cloak, bring the child they were caring for with them—here he calls him Edward—and just take the day off. Nothing more than that. And yet the poem, which starts out with this mild invocation—which is talkative, casual, and almost invites its reader to be an eavesdropper—manages for all that to become a map of a shape-shifting new era in poetry.
This poem belongs to a group of four written in this spring. The others, “Lines Written in Early Spring” and “Expostulation and Reply” and “The Tables Turned” all share this quality of ordinary exuberant dailyness and belong to the magical quiet of Alfoxden. I admire this poem extravagantly for its freshness, for its advocacy of the ordinary, for its address to a woman that includes her in the human business of the poem—rare in that day of ornamental love poetry. In a way, however, these are secondary admirations. I admire it especially for its refusal of the sublime. No one could say that the sublime is altogether missing from this poem. The huge ideas of a natural order and the ordering of the natural are all evident. The signature claims of early Romanticism—that the heart can make “silent laws,” that instinct can triumph over “toiling reason,” that nature is the true text—are also here. But they are rooted, tied down, made to come to earth, made to stay only at the height of the eye-level human ordinary. This is a position paper for the everyday world. No one who reads this poem about a woodland walk can doubt that once it was finished that woodland walk really took place. No one need doubt that William and Dorothy went out into the early spring sun of Somerset and did indeed give that one day to idleness.
In Wordsworth’s late poems—although I think his great poem The Prelude casts a cold light of irony on it— the sublime becomes a feature of his work and gets deeply woven into the poetry of the Romantic Movement—so much so that Keats rather impatiently refers to Wordsworth’s “egotistical sublime.” But when I think of the place of the sublime in the Romantic Movement, I think wistfully not so much of the Wordsworth of “Tintern Abbey” or of the “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality” as of this blessed, daring poem to his sister where his own fresh and confident north of England voice can be heard so clearly.
The sublime seems to me a foreign import into this wonderful, radical, poetic movement that Romanticism was—at least in its inception. The poet of Alfoxden, who asked his sister to go into the woods, was not a natural seeker after the sublime. He was not in pursuit of the “vast sensations” described by John Baillie. He was a thorough-going radical, a witness to two revolutions, the French and the Industrial, an ardent supporter of the first, at least in the beginning, and a bitter opponent of the second. He was the seeker out of the Leechgatherer, of the Pedlar, of the woman who lost her son at sea. He was the witness, commentator, and elegist of the ruined pastoral world of post-Industrial England. And he was therefore, all the more plausible as the pastoral poet who called for a morning given to idleness so that instinct could be healed, and the mind re-constructed.
And whenever I think with affection and admiration of this poem I think also of those poets who in our day have refused the sublime. Of Elizabeth Bishop’s wayward seal for instance in ‘At the Fishhouses’—and her stubborn inclusion of him to make sure that nature stays comical, and humanly perceived. Or of Sylvia Plath’s Devon nursery where even the stars are made to plummet to their “dark addresses.” Or Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill where the sublime is kept firmly held at the apron strings of elegy and memory.
Four years after his time in Alfoxden Wordsworth wrote—in the glowing September of 1802—his great Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. It is aggressive, definite, defiant. It is anti-authoritarian on the very subject of the sublime. “Taking up the subject, then, upon general grounds,” he writes, “I ask what is meant by the word Poet? What is a Poet? To whom does he address himself? And what language is to be expected from him? He is a man speaking to men.” As it happens, in “To My Sister” he is also a man talking to a woman. But he is absolutely writing, in that poem, in the spirit of his great preface: against ornament, against the sublime, against the over-reaching meaning. If I could nominate a place, a text, a series of words as the river-mouth where are the beginnings of the wonderful, humane enterprise which early Romanticism was, it would be this poem, this morning in Somerset, this cloak hanging on a hook, and this refusal to make any of it less truthful than it was.

This post was reproduced from the Poetry Society of America website, with their kind permission

Coleridge in Wales at the Hay Literary Festival: Walking with Coleridge, Wordsworth and Thelwall

by Elsa Hammond

‘What has Coleridge got to do with Wales?’ This was the question most frequently posed by interested audience members, participants, walkers, and passers-by during the Coleridge in Wales events at the Hay Literary Festival this year.
In June 1794 Coleridge departed Cambridge to spend the summer on a walking tour of Wales. He stopped off in Oxford, and left buoyed after three weeks with his new friend Robert Southey, hatching Pantisocratic plans and dreaming of a new, just society together. Covering more than 600 miles in under two months, Coleridge and his walking companion, Joseph Hucks, climbed mountains, drank and discussed politics with the locals. Coleridge wrote poetry, notebook entries and letters along the way, and Hucks published an account of the journey in A Pedestrian Tour through North Wales in a Series of Letters the next year. Coleridge would “dart into Wales” again in 1798, to visit John Thelwall with Dorothy and William Wordsworth. However, he was particularly struck by this first uninterrupted experience of the Welsh landscape in 1794, and, as Richard Holmes observes in his biography, “for the first time [he] showed his passionate response to wild nature”.
Coleridge in Wales is an ambitious, exciting project, involving an 80-day journey around Wales and an extensive (and growing) programme of talks, events, conferences, collaborations, performances, readings, walks and swims. Inspired by Coleridge’s own travels through Wales and masterminded by classical singer and facilitator Richard Parry, it is a celebration of community, landscape and culture, and an ongoing conversation about Coleridge’s life and works. I joined the project as a journey-maker and travel writer with a personal and academic interest in Coleridge, and arrived in Pandy (16 miles from Hay-on-Wye on the English-Welsh border) to speak about my own experiences of solitude at sea in relation to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and to co-lead a walk over Hay Bluff as part of the Hay Festival.

Descending Hay Bluff (Coleridge in Wales)

Descending Hay Bluff (Coleridge in Wales)

After a rich evening of stories, discussion, poetry and song in Pandy, the morning of the walk saw an eclectic group – including a clockmaker, singers, poets, students, academics and Cardiff Metropolitan University artists Chris Glynn and Dan Peterson meet to hike the 16 miles to Hay along the Offa’s Dyke Path. One of the UK national trails, Offa’s Dyke path is 177 miles long, named after the dyke ordered by King Offa in the 8th century, and thought to have been built to divide his Kingdom of Mercia from rival kingdoms.
It was a hazy day, sunny but not too bright, and just right for walking. After crossing a rough field we had a steepish ascent up a small road, then a trackway, before arriving at the top of the ridge, which we stayed with throughout the day. The heather was not yet in bloom, but at one point we saw a red kite, and a little later a skylark sang loudly above us. In true Coleridgean diversity, conversation ranged from mountain navigation, to art, to ornithology, to humanitarian crises.
Foolishly, I had not taken quite as much water with me as I ended up needing (the day being particularly dry), but I reminded myself that Coleridge himself had encountered the same problem more than once during his tour of Wales. One of these episodes apparently inspired the gruesome moment of quenching intense thirst in Part III of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, after the ship has become becalmed in the doldrums:

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
We could nor laugh nor wail;
Through utter drought all dumb we stood!
I bit my arm, I sucked the blood,
And cried, A sail! a sail!

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
Agape they heard me call:
Gramercy! they for joy did grin,
And all at once their breath drew in.
As they were drinking all.

Years later, in 1830, Coleridge would recall the incident: “I took the thought of ‘grinning for joy’ in that poem from a friend’s remark to me, when we had climbed to the top of Plinlimmon [Penmaenmawr] and were nearly dead with thirst. We could not speak from the constriction, till we found a little puddle under a stone”. Earlier in the tour, he had written of a similar instance (in a letter to Southey on July 13, 1794): “From Llanvunnog we walked over the mountains to Bala – most sublimely terrible! It was scorchingly hot – I applied my mouth ever and anon to the side of the Rocks and sucked in drafts of Water cold as Ice”. Rather more prosaically, I accepted some extra water from kindly walking companions.
Coming down from Hay Bluff (677m) we followed the path through a few more miles of farmland, negotiating groups of cows with young calves, and wading through fields full of buttercups, which covered my boots with a yellowish-green veneer. It had been a long day, and we only just made it to the festival in time for the Coleridge in Wales talk; without stopping, we walked into Hay village, along the road to the festival site and onto the stage, with all the sweat and dust of the mountain to add an authentic element to the event.

Walking into Hay (Coleridge in Wales)

Walking into Hay (Coleridge in Wales)

The second day of Coleridge in Wales at the Hay Festival saw Richard Parry and eighteenth-century historian Penelope Corfield (Royal Holloway, London University) lead a walk from Glasbury, near Hay-on-Wye, to Llyswen in the steps of Wordsworth, Coleridge and John Thelwall. After visiting Coleridge and Wordsworth in Somerset in the summer of 1797, Thelwall went in search of his own simple retreat, finally settling at Ty Mawr in Llyswen where he lived, farmed and wrote between 1797 and 1801. He was visited there by Coleridge and the Wordsworths in 1798.
A mile or so into the walk our small band of writers, artists and academics were treated to an impromptu reading of Thelwall’s ‘The Phenomena of the Wye during the Winter of 1797-8’ by Steve Poole, Professor of History and Heritage at the University of the West of England.

 Steve Poole reading Thelwall on the banks of the Wye (Steve Poole)

Steve Poole reading Thelwall on the banks of the Wye (Steve Poole)

Thelwall had written this essay for the Monthly Magazine in March 1798, reflecting on his first winter at Llyswen and on the beauty of the Wye: “you might even fell every tree, and exterminate every shrub, without destroying the sublimity, or even the beauty of the scene; for the river and the mountains would still remain, the solid features of the landscape would be yet unaltered”.

The Wye (Steve Poole)

The Wye (Steve Poole)

Sitting on the banks of the Wye amid the green lushness of May, we found it difficult to imagine the landscape stripped of all vegetation. Richard decided to follow the reading with a powerful rendition of ‘Rolling in foaming billows’ from Haydn’s Creation, which describes the emergence of rocks and mountains on the earth before the existence of any flora.
On our arrival at Ty Mawr Penelope described how the house had been changed and extended since Thelwall had lived there. The current occupant kindly allowed us all to tramp through the old timber front door, which, despite having been moved from the other side of the house, was the door that would have been used by Thelwall, as well as by Coleridge and the Wordsworths when they visited.
The owner of Ty Mawr had also told Coleridge in Wales that this was the best place on the Wye for swimming, so I thought that it would be a shame not to test it out. Refreshing and not too cold (I estimated it to be around 12 degrees), we could swim to the shingle beach on the other side and look back at the steep bank and up towards the house. Two of us swam, and others dipped their feet in the fresh but cloudy water, which had been stirred up by a dramatic thunderstorm the night before. After swimming we were even treated to a shower in (the extended part of) Thelwall’s house, before heading back to the village hall for lunch and drinks (generously sponsored by the John Thelwall Society).

The swim (Steve Poole)

The swim (Steve Poole)

Over the remains of our picnic, we heard poetry declaimed in character by ‘Coleridge’ (Richard Parry), ‘Thelwall’ (Steve Poole), and ‘Wordsworth’ (Penelope Corfield), which complemented the conversations that we had been having. At the end of the event, Richard left on his bicycle to continue with Day 16 of the Coleridge in Wales journey and the rest of us headed back to Hay before dispersing back to normality.
Although the ostensible reason that walk participants might have chosen to get involved with Coleridge in Wales at the Hay Festival was to find more about Coleridge and to experience the type of landscape through which he travelled when visiting Wales, it also provided space for wide-ranging discussion. It was a fascinating event to be part of, and I look forward to the further collaborative events, research and writing that are likely to grow out of the connections that were established in the fields and rivers of Wales.

You can follow a good deal of the walk by following the relevant parts of the Offa’s Dyke Path here
Elsa HammondElsa Hammond is a PhD candidate at the University of Bristol, working on breath and death in the poetry of Coleridge, Tennyson and Hardy. She also writes poetry and is an award-winning travel writer, and journey-maker. She tweets about literature, nature, education and adventure @ElsaAHammond

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