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:

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.
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 (   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.


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.

Wordsworth and old age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

which is echoed in what he writes in Book Thirteen.

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

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

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

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

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


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

The 2018 Wordsworth birthday poem competition

If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you’ll know we run a poetry competition for Wordsworth’s birthday every year. You can read the winning poems from 2017 here.
This year’s theme is ‘The child is father of the man’ – a reference to the famous phrase in Wordsworth’s poem ‘My heart leaps up’, and is a reference to the fact that childhood experiences shape our later lives:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

 We’re inviting short unpublished poems on this theme – either about the idea in general, or a particular example in your own life, or that you have observed. The poems must be no longer than 140 words (words, not characters). You can also submit up to three poems. Entries must be in by 4pm on March 30th.
We are delighted that celebrated writer and poet Fiona Sampson will be judging the competition this year. She is the author of the acclaimed new biography In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl who Wrote Frankenstein (you can read Fiona’s blog for us here).
She has also kindly donated copies of the book for the winner and runner-up.
Send your entries to Catherine Harland,, by 4pm on Friday 30th March. The winners will be announced on William’s birthday, April 7th.
Good luck!

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

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

Rydal Mount

Rydal Mount

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glowworm Rock 1890s

Glowworm Rock 1890s

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

The Language of Semblance in The Prelude

by Chris Townsend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View of Mount Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle, by Richard Wilson

View of Mount Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle, by Richard Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!
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.
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’'s ‘'Daffodils'’ and ‘'The Barberry-Tree'’: A curious relationship

by Fred Blick
The close relationship between Wordsworth’s 1804 ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (commonly called ‘Daffodils’) and his 1802 ‘The Barberry-Tree’ has been largely overlooked. The principal reason for this is that the 113 lines of ‘The Barberry-Tree’ were not discovered until 1964 and the poem was only accepted as part of the Wordsworth corpus after Jonathan Wordsworth, an Oxford academic and descendant of William, illustrated its parallels with ‘Daffodils’ in 1966. In 1986, he asserted again that the Barberry poem ‘screams out Wordsworth’. Indeed, the description of the blossoms of ‘The Barberry-Tree’ which the speaker recollects that he saw when, he says, ‘I wander’d forth’ (l. 3) and which ‘in hill or vale’ (l. 9) ‘laugh’d and danc’d upon the gale’ (l. 11) is clearly echoed in Wordsworth’s 1804 ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud … o’er vales and hills’, all at once meeting ‘dancing Daffodils’ in ‘laughing company’. Notably, the daffodils became ‘golden’ (like the Barberry’s ‘golden blossoms’, l. 26) as well as ‘dancing’ in the 1815 version.
‘The Barberry-Tree’ contains seemingly frivolous lines, as do ‘The Idiot Boy’ and ‘The Tinker’ (written on 27 April 1802). It reads like a self-parody – a bumbling recollection, addressed to someone called Jacob Jones, telling of how the speaker ‘wander’d forth’ one breezy, spring evening and came across the sweet sight of a flowering Barberry tree which seemed to be laughing and dancing in the breeze. The speaker wonders whether the blossoms, leaves and branches and even the moving, piping air around it might experience living pleasures, as we humans do. Filled with this joyful experience, the speaker falls into a trance, until stirred from his reverie by the church chimes when he realises he has missed an appointment to share nuts and cider with Peter Grimes. He moves on; but what he has experienced seems to go along with him as part of his very being, his inner self. He tells Jacob Jones how to share the same experience, and jokes with him that if he should go when it is dark and windless he will not enjoy the same sights and sounds; but if he goes when it is light and breezy, he will learn “a lore… never learned before; The manly strain of natural poesy”.
Barberry 1
The first known text of ‘The Barberry-Tree’ was found in a letter of 1807 from Charles Abraham Elton to his sister Julia Hallam containing his transcript of what he called ‘a curiosity’, an ‘M:S: of Mr. Wordsworth never publish’d’. It is now held among the Hallam papers at Christ Church, Oxford. A similar text can be read online, wrongly attributed to Coleridge.
What has escaped particular attention is that ‘The Barberry-Tree’ was possibly influenced in its wording by Dorothy Wordsworth’s well-known journal entry of 15 April 1802, as much as was ‘Daffodils’ two years later. The most relevant part of the Journal reads:

“I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing.” (my bolding)

Nine days after her journal entry about daffodils, Dorothy noted for 24 April, ‘A very wet day. William called me out to see a waterfall behind the Barberry tree’; and on 28 May she wrote ‘barberries are in beauty’. The fact that she called the barberry a ’tree’ rather than a shrub or bush, as it was generally known, helps to validate ‘The Barberry-Tree’ as a Wordsworth composition. The plant was berberis vulgaris, as she probably noted from An arrangement of British Plants: According to the latest Improvements of the Linnaean System, in Four Volumes, by William Withering, which William had acquired in early 1801.
Barberry 2
In my previous blog  I showed how ‘Daffodils’ inherited drew on Wordsworth’s knowledge of Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden, part II of 1789; and further, how the phrase ‘flash upon that inward eye’ was derived from Elizabeth Linnaeus’ article about flashing flowers of 1762. With this in mind, it is significant that the blossoms of ‘The Barberry-Tree’ ‘gleam’d’ (l. 15). Darwin had described the peculiar sensitivity and animation of the barberry in an Additional Note to The Botanic Garden in 1790 and he included it in a short list of sensitive plants in Zoonomia of 1794 (which Wordsworth borrowed in 1798). Darwin had already indicated that light, electricity, heat and air were involved in vegetable growth, and his poetic and scientific observations were endorsed by the work of Galvani and Volta on electricity, and by the experiments of Humphry Davy on electro-chemistry and laughing gas around 1800. In 1799 Coleridge and his brother-in-law, Robert Southey participated in the laughing gas experiments at Bristol with enthusiasm. Joseph Cottle, the Bristol publisher, recalled the scene in 1837:

Mr. Southey, Mr. Clayfield, Mr. Tobin, and others, inhaled the new air. One, it made dance, another laugh, while a third, in his state of excitement, being pugnaciously inclined, very uncourteously, struck Mr. Davy rather violently with his fist … (my bolding).

Likewise, the daffodils and the barberry leaves and blossoms laughed and danced in stimulating air. It would appear that the effects of laughing gas, like those of Coleridge’s opium, were already known at Dove Cottage in 1802.
Darwin died near Derby on 18 April 1802, only six days before Dorothy’s journal entry about the barberry, three days after her description of the daffodils and a week or two before the composition of ‘The Barberry-Tree’. It is tempting to conclude that when the Wordsworths heard of Darwin’s death, the topics of light, electricity, vegetable animation and ‘the new air’ of laughing gas were all in contemplation at Dove Cottage. This might also explain Wordsworth’s joke in ‘The Barberry-Tree’ where the speaker gives Jacob Jones the silly advice that if he wishes to experience the laughing and dancing of the barberry

… Jacob, you don’t go by night.
For then ’tis possible the shrub so green
And yellow, may not well be seen.
Nor Jacob, would I have you go
When the blithe winds forbear to blow;
I think it may be safely then averr’d
The piping leaves will not be heard.

There is a still a barberry the garden of Dove Cottage. It would appear from Dorothy’s note of 24 April 1802 that she may have feared that their own plant was in danger of being washed away. Dorothy’s concern would have been all the greater because the common barberry was both an attractive and useful plant, bearing yellow blossoms in late May and red berry fruit in the autumn. The berries were used in jams, jellies, sauces, sweets, garnishing and flavouring. An infusion of the bark in white wine made a purgative. The roots or bark, boiled in an appropriate solution, produced an excellent yellow dye for wool, linen and leather. William Withering gave a detailed description of the plant and its characteristics, noting how the stamens of its flowers would give a ‘sudden spring’ when touched, either by an insect or an implement like a pin, calling this ‘a remarkable instance of one of the means used to perform the important office of impregnation’.
However, the barberry had its enemies. By 1800, farmers had already found that its proximity to a wheat field damaged the crop. The reason for this was not then understood, but it was generally thought to be due to the odour it emitted. Withering noted this phenomenon, and speculated (correctly) that the damage was caused by fungus. It still grows freely in parts of Europe where it still has uses in cooking and herbal medicine. Its use in Chinese medicine goes back thousands of years. In Italy the barberry is known as ‘Holy Thorn’, because it is thought to have formed part of the Crown of Thorns.
The relationship between ‘Daffodils’ and ‘The Barberry-Tree’ casts an interesting light on the interests and concerns of those at Dove Cottage in the spring of 1802. William, Dorothy and Coleridge were in a literary, intellectual and emotional ferment. Lyrical Ballads was entering a third edition, and the loves and lives of the ‘Gang’ (as Coleridge called them in late April 1802) were getting more complicated. William was planning to marry Mary Hutchinson later in the year, with inevitable consequences for his relationship with Dorothy. The married Coleridge was addicted to opium and had fallen in love with Mary’s sister, Sara. William and Dorothy were planning to visit France to settle maintenance for his love-child by Annette Vallon. All this mental ferment is reflected in the excited, sometimes silly but entertaining mood and questioning of Coleridge’s ‘The Full Moon … in A Mad Passion’ and of its close contemporary, ‘The Barberry-Tree’ – ‘I do not know, I cannot tell!’ (l. 44). The latter emerges as a curious, seriously jocular poem of lasting significance.
Fred Blick is an independent scholar from a multi-disciplinary background. He has published a number of essays over the past twenty years; not only “Wordsworth’s Dark Joke in ‘The Barberry-Tree’” in “Romanticism” journal in October 2014, but also innovative essays in peer-reviewed academic journals worldwide on the subjects of the Sonnets of William Shakespeare and of Edmund Spenser. 

'The light in the depth of the Temple': Wordsworth and Rembrandt

by Brian Miller
The sculptor Auguste Rodin once denied the suggestion that he shared an ounce of genius with that Dutch nonesuch: “Compare me with Rembrandt! What sacrilege! With Rembrandt, the colossus of Art! We should prostrate ourselves before Rembrandt and never compare anyone with him!”
The imperative to place Rembrandt on a pedestal might have come from Rodin’s idea that art was a quasi-religion and the artist at his best (as Rodin considered Rembrandt to be) was very near a god. Even today, like Rodin we’re quite comfortable compartmentalizing not only personage and period, but artistic medium. Case in point: few people today, when they think of Wordsworth, tend to think of Rembrandt. Perhaps naturally so. One was a poet, the other a painter, and if there’s any misgiving, they were separated by 100 years and at least five times as many miles.
And, also quite naturally, we usually associate Wordsworth more with his artistic contemporaries. Fragments of the unique quality that filters through Wordsworth’s poetry are certainly identifiable in the pastoral scenes of John Constable, particularly in his attention to capturing the true face of his native Dedham Vale. And the diffusions of cloud, light, and land evident in JMW Turner’s oil paintings do invariably resemble that sense of sublimity and emotional frisson to be found in The Prelude (1850), when Wordsworth’s ascent of Mount Snowdon reveals to him

A fixed, abysmal, gloomy, breathing-place–
Mounted the roar of waters, torrents, streams
Innumerable, roaring with one voice
Heard over earth and sea, and, in that hour,
For so it seemed, felt by the starry heavens.

Storm over the Mountains c 1842-3, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Tate London

Storm over the Mountains c 1842-3, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Tate London

But history in one of its many lessons informs us that, in spite of the most vehement resistance, ideas, identities, and divisions all merge, distort, and overlap in challenging ways.
Another case in point: when Wordsworth thought of Rembrandt, he tended to think of Wordsworth – well, maybe. As William Hazlitt recorded in Spirit of The Age (1825), his inventive and critical chronicle of the circulating luminaries of his lifetime:
“[Wordsworth’s] eye also does justice to Rembrandt’s fine and masterly effects. In the way in which that artist works something out of nothing, and transforms the stump of a tree, a common figure into an ideal object, by the gorgeous light and shade thrown upon it, he perceives an analogy to his own mode of investing the minute details of nature with an atmosphere of sentiment, and in pronouncing Rembrandt to be a man of genius, he feels he strengthens his own claim to the title. “
There’s reason to doubt whether this intimate detail of Wordsworth analogizing his poetry to Rembrandt’s style of composition is really based in fact. Hazlitt was known for fudging the details. It might instead be a confabulation originating from Hazlitt’s own critical agenda or, perhaps, a jealous double-edged lunge at the poet who so easily achieved in verse what Hazlitt attempted in oils during his frustrated career as a portrait painter. For instance, in 1814, a decade prior to the publication of Spirit of the Age, Hazlitt wrote a lengthy maiden review of Wordsworth’s The Excursion for The Examiner periodical. In one paragraph, he veered for an allusion to high art, singling out the Dutch master, and wrote how Wordsworth’s poems in general
“bear a distant resemblance to some of Rembrandt’s landscapes, who, more than any other painter, created the medium through which he saw nature, and out of the stump of an old tree, a break in the sky, and a bit of water, could produce an effect almost miraculous.”
So, there are two possibilities: either Wordsworth had a disastrous habit amongst acquaintances of theorizing to dizzying heights about Rembrandt and his stumps… or Hazlitt drew on the ready-made image in both cases. The choice might seem obvious, but don’t dismiss the former out of hand.
The poet did indeed make noticeable forays into the world of pictures and painters, “professing their genius” on more than one occasion. The reason we don’t often think of Wordsworth in this light has to do in part with a critical reluctance to engage with Wordsworth’s approach to visual art, a reluctance based on a key set of polemical statements made in The Prelude and various correspondences. In these, Wordsworth relates how stodgy and constricting the medium of painting is when compared with the more free-flowing and versatile nature of poetry. Some took that to mean he hated pictures. But in other lines and other letters, Wordsworth assumes a less defensive, occasionally even an effusive, stance when it comes to fine art and what the eye can make of it.
While early in life he had associated with many traveling watercolourists and sketch artists venturing north to capture the wild scenery of the Lakes for a public growing more and more interested in seeing the remoter regions of their native England, it was after coming under the patronage of Sir George Beaumont in 1805, a former Tory MP turned dilettante after retirement, that Wordsworth began to wax finely artistic.
At the beginning of a correspondence with Beaumont postmarked 1808, Wordsworth mentioned a Rembrandt he had seen with Samuel Taylor Coleridge while touring the collection of John Julius Angerstein, whose accumulated store of paintings would later establish the basis for the National Gallery:
“Coleridge and I availed ourselves of your letters to Lawrence, and saw Mr. Angerstein’s pictures. The day was very unfavorable, not a gleam of sun, and the clouds were quite in disgrace […] The new Rembrandt has, I think, much, very much, in it to admire, but still more to wonder at, rather than admire. I have seen many pictures of Rembrandt which I should prefer to it. The light in the depth of the Temple is far the finest part of it; indeed, it is the only part of the picture which gives me very high pleasure; but that does highly please me. “
An immediate obstacle stands in the way of identifying the exact painting referenced here, for the simple reason it’s considerably difficult, to put it mildly, to say with absolute accuracy what Wordsworth actually saw. The description of a “light in the depth of the Temple”, though, might indicate the above, The Woman Taken in Adultery, a biblical scene executed by Rembrandt in 1644 and acquired by the National Gallery from the Angerstein collection in 1824.
The Woman Taken in Adultery, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1644, National Gallery, London

The Woman Taken in Adultery, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1644, National Gallery, London

Regardless of which painting he meant to bring up, this is a very different Wordsworth from the version we’re apt to imagine. At a juncture, were it in a different letter, where we might expect an interesting meditation on nature, we get a blunt and rather uninspired weather report. Instead of a rustic tableau midst the northern lakes or a scene recovered from a bucolic childhood, an image from a different era and a different country seizes the poet’s mind. He even airs a polite form of that terse hallmark of the snobbish art critic heard faintly in the exhibition halls of countless galleries ever before and ever since: ‘I’ve seen better.’
Distinguishing the quality of light, however, is entirely consonant with what we might expect from Wordsworth. The poet had always displayed an interest in light and vision, what is seen or unseen, as a way of achieving a unique variety of pleasure. In “Tintern Abbey” (1798), after all, recalling the features of the Wye landscape, he writes

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration.

The idea of “feeling” in these lines is key to understanding the importance of the Romantic image that Wordsworth outlines, but plain old seeing does all the work. If we arrive at that restorative inner sanctum of contemplation where images of abbeys (or daffodils) spring up to refresh us, it’s because the eye expended energy in ferrying us there. Certainly, the mind’s eye, the department of the imagination concerned with image, opens the setting. But these “forms” of the land are not simply intuited or recalled in a shallow way, but powerfully and overwhelming envisioned: they “have not been to me/as is a landscape to a blind man’s eye.” The negative is critical here. We cannot say with much precision that Wordsworth simply “imagined” or “remembered” this scene; as certainly as we can say he saw anything, we can only say that he literally saw it without seeing it.
The difference between the Wordsworth of ‘Tintern Abbey’ at age 28 and the Wordsworth of Rembrandt at age 38 is that, at least within the upper class circle to which Beaumont’s patronage permitted entrance, art became a topic of greater relevance to the poet and an object, like nature, available for admiration, critique, and inspiration.
In a qualified way, then, we can imagine Wordsworth accepting Hazlitt’s characterization of him, however spurious it might have been. But what was it about Rembrandt’s work in the first place that gave rise to this association?
To begin answering that question, we may turn to the Preface of Lyrical Ballads (1800). Here Wordsworth relates not only one of the central tenets of the collection but the intent of his poetic philosophy as a corrective to the artificial and emotionally stifled verse of the previous century, writing:
“The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these Poems, was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men, and at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; and further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.”
The collaborative vision of Wordsworth and Coleridge in Lyrical Ballads, though disproportional in its results, was partially a kind of aesthetic upcycling. What was old and tired, and for that reason noxious to the spirit, became simple and new. Coleridge later described this attribute of Wordsworth in more artistic terms in his Biographia Literaria (1817) as “the original gift of spreading the tone, the atmosphere, and with it the depth and height of the ideal world around forms, incidents, and situations, of which, for the common view, custom had bedimmed all the lustre, had dried up the sparkle and the dew drops.” Hazlitt, for his part, called it working “a common figure into an ideal object.”
If that upcycling characterized some aspect of Wordsworth’s intention for his poetry, here we might ask: what did Rembrandt, on the other hand, envision of his own art?
The answer quite simply is: very little, at least in quantity. Rembrandt only committed a single clause to paper regarding his artistic intentions – certainly nowhere near an entire preface. In quality, though, we sense in that autobiographical statement a hint of the revitalization and authenticity for which Lyrical Ballads set course. Writing to one of his patrons, the statesman Constantijn Huygens, Rembrandt plainly described two works, paintings of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, as containing “the greatest and most natural movement.”
Those two adjectives might convey so obvious a task for a painter as to be a little disheartening. An artist working in the tradition of realism for which the Dutch Golden Age is known would be remiss to paint in a manner anyway short of ‘great and natural.’ Yet the substance for which Rembrandt aimed, “movement” (translated from the Dutch beweegelijkheid, variously connoting mobility or dynamism) reveals a truly Sisyphean task: to express through a medium what in that medium it is impossible to express.
If Rembrandt sought to capture the spirited animation of nature, the rustling of leaves or the coy angles of a smile subdued by time, he must have been relentlessly disappointed. Painting may imply motion but it can never produce it; it may recommend and inspire the most sublime ideas, the most gruesome actions, but it will never stage them for all to see. Wordsworth knew this liminal reality intuitively. In painting, we see only a panel, a layer of conspicuously flat and thin emotion splayed out in space. By viewing that space and calling up our imagination, we reapply time, movement, and a fuller dimensionality to its surface – in a sense, seeing as the artist might have seen. Only 50 years after Wordsworth’s death in 1850 did film enable and normalize that kind of superlative vision.
Yet the depth, the colour and, more than anything, the division of light and dark present, for example, in The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633) emulate an earlier form of cinematic vision to a powerful degree.

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1633

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1633

Even without knowing the biblical story, the viewer intuitively feels the wind, the spray, the urgency and fear wrought by the storm. The brighter left portion of the composition dazzles the eye, drawing attention to the intense yet perhaps futile labour of the sailors to prevent the boat from capsizing. Moving lower away from the source of light, toward the pure sable depths of the sea, the eye encounters the disciples thronging Jesus, his head encircled with the dim but warm realist suggestion of a classical halo. The parallel illumination of his face, unwrinkled and calm, together with the immediate recognition of his status and place on the jeopardized vessel, instils in the viewer a sense of pacifying beauty, a sense of resolution at odds with the chaotic setting.
Hazlitt might have been onto something.
That grand balancing act between light and dark, “natural” and “great”, real and ideal, allegorized through Rembrandt’s sustained application of chiaroscuro in not just his historical paintings but his portraits as well, recalls the critic MH Abram’s concept of “natural supernaturalism” in High Romantic literature:
“A conspicuous Romantic tendency after the rationalism and decorum of the Enlightenment, was a reversion to the stark drama and supranational mysteries of the Christian story and doctrines […] Romantic writers revived these ancient matters with a difference: they undertook to save the overview of human history and destiny, the experiential paradigms, and the cardinal values of their religious heritage by reconstituting them in a way that would make them intellectually acceptable, as well as emotionally pertinent, for the time being.”
A visual precedent for that secularization of Christian experience in Romantic period England resonates powerfully in Rembrandt’s masterful realistic depiction and minute representation of biblical myth and history, literally conjuring up these ancient literary scenes into eternal physical reality. This wasn’t just about religion, but grafting the high drama of religion onto the visually self-evident and commonplace – making the ideal real.
Of course, we don’t and may never know if Wordsworth saw this or any other biblical narrative painting by Rembrandt. We may never even know if Wordsworth truly saw any Rembrandt at all or if, when we adjust for the poet’s ego and the unreliability of Hazlitt, all these references simply deflate to the status of a series of misinformed name-drops. But if we choose to believe Hazlitt, and we choose to believe Wordsworth, and we take a brief explorative glimpse at Rembrandt, there are certainly ways in which this slightly stilted, slightly strange comparison begins to glow with a faint truth.
Brian Lanahan Miller is currently a first year student in the Literary Studies PhD program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His interests revolve around the sociocultural and philosophical relationships Brian Millerbetween visual art, landscape, and poetry during the long-eighteenth century (1750-1850). This blog post developed out of research conducted during the dissertation stage of an MA in Romantic literature undertaken at the University of Leeds.

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