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

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.

Join us in the Big Wordsworth Bonanza

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
 
 

Wordsworth and waterfalls – the Wordsworthians' blogger weekend

by Sarah Doyle
 
As my husband, Allen Ashley, and I have each written a couple of articles for the Wordsworth Trust’s blog, we’d been invited to Rydal Hall in the Grasmere area of the Lake District, along with other blog contributors, for a weekend of talks, walks, and all things Wordsworth, kindly organised by one of the trustees, Lynn Shepherd.
 
I’d never visited the Lakes before, and even though I’d been told by friends and family who had done that it was an area of great natural beauty, I was unprepared for how powerfully the landscape would impact on me. There was something entirely magical about the solidity of the hills, with their dry stone walled lower pastures stippled with sheep, and their densely forested heights; the sparkle of water at every twist and turn; vast, ever-changing skies, alive with a brilliant wash of sunshine one minute, and heavy with dense, rolling clouds heaving with rain the next. One of the articles I’d written for the blog was a critical appreciation of Shelley’s meteorological masterpiece, ‘The Cloud’, which I chose in no small part because I’m a total weather obsessive. For me, weather is not the stuff of politely passing chit-chat, it is genuinely fascinating, and anyone who shares my nerdish appetite for a cumulonimbus or a stratocumulus would find themselves on (forgive me) cloud nine in the Lake District, where the vista is constantly renewed.
 
Our home for the weekend, Rydal Hall, is an extraordinary building, with magnificent symmetry, a glorious interior complete with dark wood panelling, and extensive grounds. It was the latter that was to form our first true experience of the weekend, as we met up on the Friday afternoon with a few other early arrivers and were treated to a short guided walk by Professor Stephen Gill. Despite being renowned and revered as a leading expert on Wordsworth, Stephen was thoroughly down to earth and could not have been more personable, approachable and yes, absolutely charming. He led our small group through the enchanting formal gardens at the front of the building, then further on into a shady wooded area where the flora has been allowed to grow altogether more freely. Beside us a fast-moving stream chattered over the rocks of its bed, and the air took on a new freshness.

Lower Rydal Falls

Lower Rydal Falls


At this point, Stephen suggested that we all closed our eyes and held hands, crocodile-fashion, while he led us along, as he had a special surprise for us. We must have looked rather strange, snaking our way slowly along the river bank! After a short while, and as the sound of churning water became increasingly insistent, Stephen told us to open our eyes. We found ourselves in a small, wood-lined grotto whose window looked out onto the thrilling sight of a waterfall. This, Stephen told us, was Lower Rydal Falls, and we were standing in a 17th-century sketching-hut once used by, among others, JMW Turner. The sight was mesmerising and the sound, exhilarating – full of shush and rush, as the water tumbled over its ledge. We spent some time taking in the atmosphere, before moving up to the stone bridge, from where we once again marvelled at the waterfall and grotto.
Rydal Falls from the grotto

Rydal Falls from the grotto


After a convivial dinner with fellow writers, Friday evening saw Stephen take centre-stage once again, this time giving the (now fully present) group an illuminating talk on Wordsworth, with readings from The Prelude and ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’. As a poet who gives readings of her own work, and as someone who uses metre on occasion, I’m always interested to hear how people present poetry as spoken word. I very much appreciated Stephen’s reading style, in which he brought out the natural rhythms of language, rather than emphasising the poems’ metrical structure, making the poetry feel fresh and accessible, enabling us to enjoy Wordsworth’s evocative image-making and to consider the themes he was exploring. Stephen sensibly left us wanting more, and concluded his talk and readings on the Saturday morning, giving us a great insight into Wordsworth – the man and the poet.
 
Saturday afternoon was spent at the Jerwood Centre, where the Wordsworth Trust’s generous and encyclopaedic curator, Jeff Cowton, treated us to a viewing of many rare and precious manuscripts. Highlights for me were first editions of Lyrical Ballads (one complete with ancient coffee-cup ring!), and touchingly fervent letters exchanged between William and Mary while he was away in the Alps. I find there is something very moving and intimate about seeing someone’s private words presented in their own hand-writing, it really brings the people to life, and it was a great privilege to be so close to these literary treasures.
Letter from Mary to William

Letter from Mary to William


 
As the afternoon progressed, however, I developed a strange desire to smell some of the books! What, I wondered, would a book from the early 1800s smell like? Jeff was very understanding and gracious about this, and humoured my odd request. Several of my fellow bloggers had a good sniff as well, so perhaps I’m not alone in being a book weirdo! The pages had that lovely old-book smell, but dry rather than mildewy, and quite subtle, which is a testament to how well the books are stored and maintained.
 
This was followed by a private visit to the Wordsworths’ nearby former residence, Dove Cottage. The windows here are small, giving the ground floor an almost subterranean feeling, and it’s incredibly dark inside, even on a June day, which makes the writing of any manuscript at all – let alone volumes of poetry or lengthy letters – quite a feat. It must have been crowded, too, with a growing family and William’s sister, Dorothy, also in residence! The cottage is fairly simple but homely, although it was chilly, and must have been very cold in winter if the fires weren’t lit.
Dove Cottage

Dove Cottage


 
By contrast, Saturday evening’s talk back at Rydal Hall took us to the balmy climate of Rome, when the congenial and knowledgeable curator of Keats-Shelley House, Giuseppe Albano, gave us an illustrated talk on another of the Romantics’ residences. I love Keats’s poetry and find his story such an interesting and tragic one, so this was a very engaging presentation for me. In fact, it had me thinking that perhaps we should all head off to Rome for our next group expedition!
 
That said, I can well understand why centuries of writers and artists have been drawn to and inspired by the Lake District’s breath-taking landscape. Our weekend in Grasmere really was fantastic and I feel so lucky to have had this experience. To spend time with like-minded people, to form new friendships, to view valuable manuscripts and to visit such meaningful places was a joy – and all in the company of those ever-present Cumbrian clouds, ensuring that I never wandered lonely, even once.
 
If you’d like to blog for us, and join our community of bloggers, please do get in touch.
 
Sarah Doyle is the Pre-Raphaelite Society’s Poet-in-Residence, and is currently in the final stages of a Creative Writing MA at Royal Holloway, University of London. She has been published widely in magazines such as Poetry News, Orbis, The Dawntreader and The Fenland Reed; and in many poetry anthologies. She won the William Blake Poetry Prize in Sarah B&W pic2015, and has been placed in poetry competitions such as The Frogmore Prize, Poetry on the Lake, Mslexia, Live Canon, Café Writers, York Mix, etc. She is co-author of Dreaming Spheres: Poems of the Solar System (PS Publishing, 2014). More at: www.sarahdoyle.co.uk
 

The winners of the 2017 Wordsworth birthday poetry competition

We had so many great entries for this it was really hard to come up with a shortlist, and our judge Jenny Uglow had an even tougher task coming up with a winner.  As she said, “The shortlisted poems were fascinating, technically and in their subject matter. For almost all the writers spots of time rightly meant memories rising up: of childhood, of a lost love, of youthful happiness, of a much-loved mother or grandmother,  seen in a precise time and place,, often with the surging life of springtime set against the darkness of loss. I was impressed by the fidelity to the spirit of Wordsworth, less in the occasional archaisms, than in the carefully observed details and natural imagery. It was intriguing, too, to see that several writers used their 140 words to write sonnets, again in a Wordsworthian vein.”

The winning poem is Boating by Alison Carter.
Jenny said this poem stood out because of its strong personal voice, and its clever shift of ‘spots of time’, seen unusually, from a parent’s perspective, from the observed boy to the adolescent – with a lovely sly tribute to Wordsworth in the boy in the lake. It is very vivid, both visually and aurally, and the images continue its theme of the delicacy, and the near-painful tingle of recapturing time, with the barely audible voices ‘ like midges on the water’s skin.’

Here’s the poem:

Time shifts, and here’s my eldest son,
ten years back, caught in a loop, dizzy,
trying to break the arc he perfects,
oars swimming free of rollocks,
drifting on the water like signposts
he cannot follow. And now he rows
to the centre of the lake with ease
the same little boat almost weightless,
as a light wind carries him and his girl
to a place where my sight dissolves,
where voices, barely audible, waver
like midges on the water’s skin, where
an openwork of light fastens to glitter,
till out there is nothing, and everything.

Jenny said “Runners up were very hard to choose, but the first selection is Luna Tumida by Tiffany Francis, with its Blakean child-vision of the eclipse, and the way that the near, living, ‘golden’ dog replaces the vanished sun.” Tiffany is actually one of our bloggers, so a special shout-out to her (though, for the record, Jenny did the judging without knowing the names of the poets!).

When I was seven years,
We all went to the garden
To gaze up at the sun because
The milky moon had swallowed it,
Like a whole edam set alight;
Rusted round the edges.

They gave us plastic glasses
to stop us getting eye tumours.
I put mine on the dog,
Who had a golden face
And glistening nose,
And was simply more important.

The second runner up is Bringing in the Washing by Annette Skade, “which manages to avoid sentiment through an energetically graphic scene, with the wild and the domestic beautifully balanced.”

Rain whips window
like flex,
we break mid-sentence,
head out.
At the side the washing line
takes off
in wild geese formation,
the prop
tethers and leads
the V.

You and me, snatching at
shirt flaps
grown strong against grey sea,
shape shifters
we pin by one cuff:
blue cliff,
chough’s wing,
bear hug,
creased headland,
tattered island.

We fold them fast into us,
tuck away,
the bundle swells under elbow,
rain-spotted.
And in before they’re soaked,
pile all
on the chair while we finish
our tea.
I take my leave of you – as usual,
arms full.

Jenny also wanted to give an ‘honourable mention’ to Spring Wish by Alison Brown, which she called “bold and inspiring” and “makes a carefully judged, and very moving, use of metre, rhyme scheme and sonnet form”.

Fling open jealous doors and let spring in
to sad, dark rooms asleep with winter warmth.
Slip shoes on and step out; expect the best:
warm skin, green shoots and whisperings of life.

Ignoring distant surge and thrust of road;
forgetting endless lists of jobs to do,
close eyes and feel the dappled touch of sun,
quite undeserved and randomly bestowed.

Then wonder at the fortune of your birth
that quiet mornings wait outside for you
to notice them, despite the constant rush
to text and read and speak and spend and do.

Let your indifference to the pulse of things
expire and be replaced with all that sings.

Huge congratulations to all the winners!  Alison Carter will receive a copy of Alexander Larman’s book Byron’s Women, and Tiffany and Annette will receive copies of Frances Wilson’s  Guilty Thing: The life of Thomas De Quincey,   Many thanks again to the publishers for generously offering the books as prizes.
Prizes

Thank you, also, to everyone who entered – it’s wonderful that Wordsworth’s work can inspire so much creativity today. A fitting birthday present I’m sure he’d have enjoyed.

Cataloguing Bewick’s letters

by Martin Hasted
The Wordsworth Trust is home to a vast treasure trove of documents extending beyond just the work of Wordsworth himself. Amongst this collection are kept the letters and notes of the engraver Thomas Bewick. These letters reveal all the little details about Bewick’s life, ranging from letters to and from his business associates to personal letters to his family and friends, before culminating in the letters of his daughter as she attempted to hold her father’s collections together after his death.

One of my roles as a trainee at the Wordsworth Trust has been the cataloguing of this collection of letters in order to make them accessible to future researchers.  This cataloguing process has two elements: cataloguing to allow future research, and cataloguing to establish the physical condition of the manuscripts with future conservation in mind.

Cataloguing to allow for research is about recording a letter’s origins, who it is from and who it is addressed to, when the letter was written, and also what the letter is about. This information is all placed on a digital archive which can then be searched by researchers. As a result of this, Bewick’s letters become instantly available to a much wider audience, allowing a larger range of researchers to delve beyond simply studying Bewick’s finished books and engravings. Access to Bewick’s letters can provide an insight into his networks of distribution across the country, about the publishing and manufacturing processes of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and even provide names of paper suppliers and the prices they charged for their services.  The letters can thus become an important source of information for social history, and not merely the study of Bewick himself.

Bewick two
The second aspect of the cataloguing process is cataloguing with conservation in mind. This means recording the physical condition of the letters, including any holes in the paper, tears, staining, folding or crumbling. We try to ascertain whether this damage was done at the time of Thomas Bewick –  such as tearing off of seals when letters were received – or if it occurred over subsequent years. By building up a picture of the physical condition of these letters we can create a conservation plan on how best to look after them and stop or slow down any ongoing processes of decay. Building a condition report is essential for any new item entering a museum, as it provides a base-line against which the item can be periodically checked in the future, enabling us to see if it has become damaged during our time looking after it.

The process of cataloguing is an immersive one, as we physically handle and read words written down two hundred years ago and gain access to the story of their authors’ lives, with each letter providing a snapshot in time. Reading about people’s lives on paper they touched, folded and sealed gives us a unique connection with the world of Bewick, a connection which is often missing when reading a printed book.

In amongst the selection of letters which I have been cataloguing are the letters of Thomas Bewick’s brother John Bewick. The letters which John wrote to Thomas throughout 1795 provide a perfect example of the story contained in collections of letters, revealing a tragic narrative of illness, optimism and the stoic acceptance of death.  John had for some time been suffering from the effects of TB, a disease which he knew was incurable. Despite this, he continued to work, describing to Thomas how he could often manage little more than two hours before bouts of coughing forced him to stop. John would also do his best to help Thomas’ business through his contacts and customers in the south of England. As a result, John’s letters are often a mixture of business  and private concerns.

By 14th June 1795, John had accepted that his condition was entering its final stages, writing to Thomas to describe ‘All the pains that I have taken for two Years past to restore my Health; instead of which I get weaker and weaker, therefore now begin to have but little hopes.’ As a result he determined to return to his home at Eltringham to see Thomas, and hopefully be eased by his ‘native air’. This letter transcends the 200 years which separate our modern world from  John’s, as he expresses his wish to spend his last days at his home surrounded by his family.

Bewick one
The story, however, did not end with John’s return to Eltringham. On his return, his health appeared to improve between July and October, and he wrote happily to his brother of the prospect of taking a walk together by the banks of the Tyne. On October 17th he described himself as being ‘free from that Fever and heaviness – my Appetite better’, John’s optimism is infectious and it becomes impossible for the reader not to be caught up in the sense of hope that pervades his letters at this time.

This renders John’s letter of the 11th November all the more devastating. This letter would prove to be the last he would write to his brother Thomas, and we can see that his health had deteriorated rapidly over the course of the previous month, and the hopes and optimism of only a few weeks earlier collapsed with it. In this letter John was clearly aware that his life was coming to an end, yet he still wrote in his typical style, devoting the majority of a page to the day-to-day concerns relating to signing legal papers. But he ended the letter with an understated, reserved goodbye to his brother, declaring that:

with respect to myself I can only say that it is with pain that I can now whisper out my wants, I think a few Days more will relieve me from all my Pains and Troubles here.

John died on the 5th December 1795, and as we handle his letters we cannot but feel that the fragility of the letters reflects a deeper sense of the fragility of all human lives.

Although it is a privilege to read these unique historical documents, moments like these become devastating. As we catalogue these letters it’s hard not to become attached to the people and the stories contained within them. To read a man’s acceptance of his fate in his own hand is an incredibly powerful moment. In a sense this is why the Wordsworth Trust exists, and why we’re conserving these letters – they provide us a with a window onto the past, and into the lives of human beings who were fundamentally no different from us .

Martin Hasted is currently working as a Trainee for the WordswMartin Hastedorth Trust. The role is a yearlong placement designed to give trainees experience of working in the heritage sector, and as such encompasses various roles from providing tours of Dove Cottage to working with the Trust’s extensive archival material. Martin is currently working towards cataloguing the large volume of material relating to the engraver Thomas Bewick which was acquired by the Trust in 2013.

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  • Dove Cottage, Grasmere,
    Cumbria, LA22 9SH

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