Re-imagining Ireland – with Wordsworth?

by James Illingworth

When we think of William Wordsworth the landscape immediately conjured is that of the English Lake District. His connections to the area and his influence on the local culture are ever present, as the flocks of visitors to Dove Cottage and Ambleside will attest. What is much less celebrated is Wordsworth’s connection to the Irish landscape. The ‘Re-Imagining Ireland with Wordsworth’ project seeks to uncover and celebrate Wordsworth’s Irish connections.


The most enduring of Wordsworth’s Irish links is certainly his friendship with Sir William Rowan Hamilton. Born in Dublin in 1805 and educated there at Trinity College, Hamilton became Astronomer Royal in 1826 and from then resided at Dunsink Observatory at Castleknock. He first visited Wordsworth at Rydal Mount with fellow Irishman Caesar Otway in 1827, when he and Wordsworth became firm friends. This friendship would last until Wordsworth’s death, and in 1846 Hamilton proposed Wordsworth as an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy, an honour Wordsworth greatly appreciated, chiming as it did with his interest in what he calls the “sister country” and how he has “in everything calculated to promote its welfare.” It was also in large part due to his friendship with Hamilton that Wordsworth resolved to visit Ireland, which he eventually did in 1829. He arrived in Dublin Bay on August 29th in the company of his friend John Marshall M.P. and Marshall’s son, also called John. After three days in Dublin they toured the coast of the island of Ireland, primarily in search of new inspiration for his poetry but also because of his interest in the social situation; his correspondence reveals a growing attentiveness to the deteriorating conditions on the island.


Sir William Rowan Hamilton

Sir William Rowan Hamilton

As a source of fuel for his poetic imagination, Wordsworth’s Irish tour may well be considered a disappointment. In his Fenwick Notes he reveals that his time in Ireland was not as fruitful as he might have hoped, as he writes in reference to a line of his poem ‘Eagles’:

“Off the Promontory of Fairhead, County of Antrim. I mention this because tho’ my Tour in Ireland with Mr. Marshall & his Son was made many years ago, this allusion to the Eagle is the only image supplied by it to the Poetry I have since written. We travelled through that country in October & to the shortness of the days & the speed with which we travelled (in a carriage & four) may be ascribed this want of notices, in my verse, of a country so interesting. The deficiency I am somewhat ashamed of, & it is the more remarkable as contrasted with my Scotch & Continental tours, of which are to be found in these Vols. so many Memorials.”


There is an allusion to this same incident in another poem, ‘On the Power of Sound’, but beyond these sole references to a single moment off the Giant’s Causeway the Irish tour is absent from his poetry. As the Fenwick note to ‘Eagles’ makes plain, however, Wordsworth did not find the county uninteresting. Far from it. Whilst his poetry reveals little about his impressions of the Irish landscape, his time in Ireland is recorded in great detail through his correspondence. Throughout his trip, he wrote to his family at Rydal Mount and to his brother, and these letters disclose a much richer and more enthusiastic response to the Irish landscape than the lack of references in his poems might suggest.

The Giant's Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway

This might not be surprising. The Fenwick note to ‘Eagles’ implies that the time of year in which the tour took place and the pace of travel can be blamed for his lack of inspiration. The tour, admittedly, happened in the autumn, and was plagued by poor weather. He had also forgotten to bring his glasses, and complained of eye strain. This could explain the tone of his letters written during his tour, which is at times cantankerous, as he wrote to his sister: “The Irishwomen one meets, but do not repeat this, are never lovely, and scarcely ever handsome.” This grumpy disposition may well have coloured his perception of the landscape, and offer some indication as to why so little of his tour is reflected in his verse.


Wordsworth in 1832, around the time of his trip to Ireland

Wordsworth in 1832, around the time of his trip to Ireland

But this is conjecture, and as the trip progressed he did show a real appreciation of certain parts of Ireland. He very much enjoyed the Counties of Wicklow, Kerry, and Fermanagh, writing that with Kerry he had been “most pleased, and by some parts almost astonished.” He is similarly animated about the Killarney lakes and about Carrauntoohil, the highest peak on the island: “Carranthouel [sic] as a mountain is a much sublimer object than any we have; and Killarney’s three lakes with the navigable passage between the upper and lower lake, take the lead I think of any one of our lakes, perhaps of any one of our vales.” Coming from Wordsworth, arguably the definitive Lakes poet, this is high praise indeed. It is unfortunate, then, that these landscapes did not find their way into his poetry.


It is worth noting, too, that Wordsworth provides frequent thoughts on the people of Ireland in addition to the scenery. Writing from Cork about a third of the way into his trip, he expresses his disappointment thus far at the landscape, but does say that the Irish people “present a perpetual subject for thought and reflection.” His tour is punctuated by meetings with the Irish celebrities of the day. In addition to Hamilton who accompanied him to a number of locations he also met the Edgeworth family, including Maria Edgeworth, author of Castle Rackrent (1800) and Harrington (1807), whom he describes as “very lively” and she similarly offers a memorable description of him in a letter to Margaret Ruxton of September 27th (she deems Wordsworth to possess a “good philosophical bust”). Beyond his descriptions of Irish literary circles, though, his letters offer fascinating observations of daily life. His correspondence preceding his trip betrays a concern with the social situation in Ireland which his tour seems also in part intended to explore. In particular he appears particularly moved by an incident at St Kevin’s pool in Glendalough, a place Wordsworth calls the Seven Churches. A monastic settlement dating from the sixth century but ruined in 1398, Glendalough is a place of pilgrimage, and Wordsworth was greatly affected by a woman carrying her sick child to St Kevin’s pool hoping that this would cure its lameness, a ritual she had already performed three times. The fervent devotion of the Irish Catholic population is something that proves particularly striking for Wordsworth in his letters.


Maria Edgeworth

Maria Edgeworth

As historical sources, then, the letters are rich in material reflecting both the social situation and, quite literally, the lay of the land. He describes visits to places that no longer exist, such as Shanbally Castle, and provides descriptions of places that have undergone major change since 1829. Strabane, for instance, he describes as “a thriving town.” He mentions in his letters to Dora and Dorothy on numerous occasions maps of Ireland held at Rydal Mount, including a silk map he had received from Caesar Otway, and when describing locations he suggests they look to these maps to gain an idea of where these places are. This tendency recalls Wordsworth’s interest in maps and guides, embodied by his guide to the Lakes which upon return from his Irish tour he sent to Hamilton for publication in Ireland. We might well therefore read through Wordsworth’s letters something akin to his own guide to Ireland.


Wordsworth’s connections with Ireland go further, and in fact predate his friendship with Hamilton and his 1829 tour. In 1793, Wordsworth made an application to the Earl of Belmore in Enniskillen for the post of tutor to the young Somerset Lowry-Corry, the Earl’s son. By the time Wordsworth’s application reached the Lowry-Corrys, however, the position had already been filled. Given Wordsworth’s profound appreciation of the Fermanagh lakes expressed in his letters, had this application been successful perhaps Wordsworth’s legacy would be very different, perhaps he would have been an ‘Irish’ poet, the Lakes of Northern England replaced in his poetic imagination by the lakes of Northern Ireland…


The ‘Re-Imagining Ireland with Wordsworth’ project explores that possibility. Drawing on Wordsworth’s Irish connections, and his letters in particular, the project presents Ireland through Wordsworth’s eyes, with a view to promoting an artistic understanding of Irish natural beauty whilst at the same time highlighting a cultural relevance of Wordsworth that may have previously gone unnoticed. A travelling exhibition will follow his route through Ulster, accompanied by a range of events that will consider Wordsworth in multiple different ways and in varying Irish contexts. The collaborative project is a joint venture funded by the AHRC’s Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership, the Graduate School of Queen’s University Belfast, and the Department of Communities of Northern Ireland, in association with the Wordsworth Trust. To learn more about the project, see our website, which includes a digital map of Ireland chronicling Wordsworth’s tour through his own words.

‘A Rhymer and an Analyst’: The friendship of William Wordsworth and William Rowan Hamilton

by Eleanor Fitzsimons

You send me showers of verses, which I receive with much pleasure, as do we all; yet have we fears that this employment may seduce you from the path of Science, which you seem so destined to tread with so much honour to yourself and profit to others. Again and again I must repeat, that the composition of verse is infinitely more of an art than men are prepared to believe, and absolute success in it depends upon innumerable minutia, which it grieves me you should stoop to acquire a knowledge of.

With these carefully chosen words, William Wordsworth may have pursuaded one of our most accomplished mathematicians and physicists to relegate his passion for poetry to a hobby, in order to devote his life to science.

William Rowan Hamilton, born at 29 Dominick Street, Dublin at midnight on 4 August 1805, was a true polymath. His remarkable observations reshaped his fields of interest and have impacted profoundly on our modern world. A precocious child, he outshone his peers in every discipline, an achievement made all the more impressive given his Aunt Sydney’s observation: ‘How he picks up everything is astonishing, for he never stops playing and jumping about’. Little Willy Hamilton was three years old at the time. By the age of five he was proficient in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. At thirteen, he had a working knowledge of thirteen languages, among them Syriac, Persian and Arabic. By then, young Hamilton had turned his attention to mathematics and physics, a passion sparked when, aged twelve, he was pitched against thirteen-year-old American mathematical prodigy Zerah Colburn in a public display of numeric ability, during which Hamilton came off slightly worse.

Hamilton entered Trinity College, Dublin at the age of eighteen and excelled in maths and physics. He also composed poetry that was judged worthy of receiving the Vice-Chancellor’s prize for verse on two occasions. In ‘The Enthusiast’, Hamilton laments his doomed love for Catherine Disney, a disappointment that brought him to the brink of suicide, and honours his twin passions: astronomy and poetry. Aged twenty-two and while still an undergraduate, he was appointed Andrews Professor of Astronomy and Royal Astronomer of Ireland, yet his new responsibilities did not displace his love for poetry. Books of verse lay all around his home at Dunsink Observatory, ‘as often open as shut’; he listed his favourites as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Keats.
Three months after his elevation to Astronomer Royal, while on a walking holiday in the Lake District, Hamilton was introduced to William Wordsworth. In a letter to his sister Eliza, also a poet, he expressed his admiration for the master, ‘with whom I spent the evening – I might almost say the night – of yesterday, for he and I were taking a midnight walk together for a long, long time without any companion except the stars and our own burning thoughts and words’. He also met Robert Southey, who characterised him as ‘the young professor of astronomy, who is so fond of the stars and so full of life and spirits’.

By all accounts, Hamilton was a very personable man. His biographer Robert Perceval Graves confirmed that ‘smiles and witticisms gleamed and bubbled on the surface of the deepest current of discussion’. Little wonder Wordsworth was drawn to this ebullient young man more than three decades his junior: ‘seldom have I parted – never, I was going to say – with one whom, after so short an acquaintance, I lost sight of with more regret’, he assured his new friend, adding, ‘I trust we shall meet again’. Graves overheard Wordsworth describe Hamilton and Coleridge as ‘the two most wonderful men, taking all their endowments together, that he had ever met’.

Hamilton was overwhelmed by the beauty that surrounded Wordsworth’s home. Although he had hoped to gather ‘materials of thought and images of memory’ to sustain him for many years, he found instead that his mind was ‘too thickly crowded’. One playful image he shared with Eliza describes a valley filled with mist: ‘it seemed as if I could have thrown myself off into that sea of vapour and sported there, free from all risk of sinking’, he declared. He expressed a longing to live by the side of a beautiful rill, but only if he could bring his observatory with him.

Afterwards, a warm and regular correspondence sprang up between Wordsworth and Hamilton, and endured until the former’s death in 1850. That these letters are uncharacteristically playful indicates Wordsworth’s deep regard for the younger man. He shows great familiarity with the Irish political situation, questioning Hamilton about ‘the disturbances of your unhappy country’ before remarking ‘O’Connell and his brother agitators I see are apprehended’. Hamilton’s exceptionally warm and gossipy responses included samples of his verse, and that of his sister Eliza, which he invited Wordsworth to comment on. A series of meticulous evaluations commenced with words of praise: In my judgement,’ Wordsworth wrote,

Your verses are animated with true poetic spirit, as they are evidently the product of strong feeling. The sixth and seventh stanzas affected me much, even to the dimming of my eye and faltering of my voice while I was reading them aloud.

Yet his praise was qualified: ‘the workmanship (what else could be expected from so young a writer?) is not what it ought to be’, he counselled. Of Eliza’s poems, he declared: ‘they are surprisingly vigorous for a female pen’.

While grateful for the ‘kindness and freedom’ of Wordsworth’s criticism, Hamilton acknowledged that excellence in two such disparate disciplines would be almost impossible to achieve, and he lamented ‘the little likelihood that there is of one so devoted to Science as myself  ever attaining a high place in the ranks of poetical composition’. Yet, keen to make a case for his principal passion, he insisted: ‘Science as well as Poetry, has its own enthusiasm, and holds its own communion with the sublimity and beauty of the Universe’.

Wordsworth visited Ireland at Hamilton’s suggestion towards the end of August 1829. Eliza, meeting the great poet for the first time, thought him a ‘naturally very reserved man’ with a ‘slight touch of rusticity and constraint about his perfect gentlemanliness of manner’. Her reminiscence ‘Wordsworth at the Observatory, Dunsink’ provides an insightful pen-portrait: ‘Everything he did and said had an unaffected simplicity and dignity and peacefulness of thought that were very striking’, she declared. Discussions between Hamilton and Wordsworth continued to excite doubt that both disciplines could be pursued successfully. Realising that he possessed ‘original power of mathematical thought’, Hamilton believed this imposed ‘a duty and a destiny, a task while I live, an influence after I am dead’. Science won out.

Revisiting his decision almost two decades later, Hamilton confessed to his friend and fellow mathematician John Herschel, also a poet: ‘it would really seem to have been at one time a toss-up, whether I should turn out a rhymer or an analyst’. Although he opted for the latter, he never lost his love for poetry and argued that the disciplines were closely allied. In an astronomy lecture he delivered in 1832, Hamilton noted:

With all the real differences between Poetry and Science, there exists, notwithstanding, a strong resemblance between them; in the power which both possess to lift the mind above the dull stir of earth, and win it from low-thoughted care; in the enthusiasm which both can inspire, and the fond aspirations after fame which both have a tendency to enkindle; in the magic by which each can transport her votaries into a world of her own creating; and perhaps, in the consequent unfitness for the bustle and the turmoil of real life, which both have a disposition to engender.

Further reading:
Robert Perceval Graves, Life of Sir William Rowan Hamilton, Andrews Professor of Astronomy in the University of Dublin, and Royal astronomer of Ireland, including selections from his poems, correspondence, and miscellaneous writings (Dublin, Hodges Figgis, 1882)
For more on William Rowan Hamilton’s impact on Mathematics and Physics see

Eleanor Fitzsimons is a freelance journalist and researcher. Her work has appeared in publications including, The Irish Times, The Sunday Times, History Ireland and The Guardian, and she has researched documentaries for the Irish national broadcaster, RTÉ. She has an MA in Women, Gender and Society from University College Dublin. In 2013, she won the Keats-Shelley Prize and was runner-up for the Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Prize with ‘A Want of Honour’, her proposed biography of Harriet Shelley. She is represented by the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency.
Eleanor Fitzsimons