A Lake District Scene
For someone writing a brief biography of Wordsworth and the places associated with his life, there is a footnote in the biography by Kenneth Johnston which is salutary. This note describes a tourist film shown at Wordsworth's Cockermouth birthplace in the mid 1990s:
"Scene after scene is shown in glorious technicolour, sometimes with a snippet of poetry, but more often with a rich baritone voice-over driving home the lesson that 'this is the place.' ... Hardly anyone stays to the end: teenage couples leave first, cursing this confirmation of their worst school memories of Wordsworth; children and babies go next, literally bored to tears by its finally pointless connection of pictures and poetry. At the end there are only die-hard foreign tourists, grimly determined to take whatever is dished out, and British couples of advanced middle age, the husbands having abandoned themselves to their wives' wishes, secure in the knowledge of a pint in the pub once the ordeal is over. By the time the last sunset fades with the last symphonic chord, almost everyone left has learned the lesson of Wordsworth's contemporary cultural packaging: bliss it is in that dark to be asleep" (Kenneth Johnston The Hidden Wordsworth, Footnote P706).
Wordsworth was a keen tourist who put himself through the hardship of eighteenth century travelling in pursuit of beautiful places. But the places he went to characteristically seemed more impressive in imagination than reality. Inspite of what tourist videos may claim, no one place inspired his poetry. In fact it was the experience of travelling to many places and not quite finding what he was looking for that better describes the inspiration for his poems. Often inspiration would not turn up where it was expected, a grand vista not living up to expectations, while an unprepossessing place has an unexpected magical quality. In The Prelude Wordsworth remembers a country theatre set up in a barn, and finds that his experience there was as magical as any he enjoyed in ornate London theatres. Imagination has the potential to summon up a special place anywhere. A country theatre is a magical place, and it's only when afternoon sunlight creeps in through a gap in the planking that this magic is lost. At other times sunlight which ruined innocent illusions becomes magical in itself. Now for readers sitting indoors Wordsworth has this to say: "A shadow a delusion, those who pore on the dead letter, miss the spirit of things."
What Wordsworth searches for cannot be found in any one place. He is looking for something indefinable, which cannot be limited to one hill, or one vale, or one street in London. Conversely there also seems to be a chance to find what he is looking for anywhere, in a country barn or the finest of London theatres. Visiting Wordsworth places you may or may not feel their magic; you may see boring videos with lots of sunsets and mountains and daffodils waving about. There may be queues and no seats in Lake District tea rooms. But the magic may yet turn up, as it did for Wordsworth, sunlight ruining his moment, becoming sunlight that made his day.
The Matterhorn, Swiss Alps
For Wordsworth the restlessness of his spirit, and of life itself, was always a major theme. He was a bright and rather wild schoolboy at Hawkshead Grammar School in north west England's Lake District. Following the early death of his parents, his uncles paid for him to attend St John's College, Cambridge to train for a career in the church. But in spite of the pressure to fulfill obligations to his family who had paid for his education, Wordsworth did his best to slide out of them and cast himself on a different course. When he should have been studying he embarked in July 1790 on a vast walking tour of Europe, covering a staggering two thousand miles on foot. The early stages of the French Revolution were taking place, and Wordsworth's restless interest was taken, at least partly, by the republican cause. But Wordsworth wasn't the sort of man to commit himself completely to any one cause. His French girlfriend with whom he was to have a child was a royalist sympathiser. Just as no one place could hold Wordsworth, no one cause, or set of beliefs could hold him either.
Wordsworth restlessly wandered Europe trying to find something he could not quite pin down. In the Swiss Alps he saw the "stationary blast of waterfalls". I would suggest that Wordsworth felt himself in the waterfall, blasting around the place and yet staying stationary. He saw this waterfall whilst walking through the Gondo Gorge on the Swiss Italian border. Coming out of the gorge he spent a dark, traumatic night without sleep in a dreary mansion:
A dreary mansion, large beyond all need
with high and spacious rooms, deafened and stunned
By noise of waters, making innocent sleep
Lie melancholy among weary bones. (Prelude, Book 6, 577 - 580)
The noise of a nearby waterfall meant there was no rest; and yet the noise had the travellers "stunned". They were hopelessly tired, could not move, stunned by the same roaring waters that gave them no rest. They lay down amongst the bones of their own bodies, disembodied, their souls wandering without relief even as their bones lay in useless heaps on the floor. The journey had reached a bitter, and frankly scary ending. But this wasn't the journey's end. Once morning comes they would find relief in moving on. Wordsworth returned to England, and took his final exams at Cambridge in January 1791. He got his degree, without honours, and left for the "blank confusion" of London. He lived in the City of London for four months, seeming to love and hate it in equal measure. He stayed first at the Belle Sauvage Inn in front of St Paul's Cathedral, and then moved a little way along Cheapside to lodgings near Mansion House. It was here that he saw the prostitute who became Poor Susan in the poem by that name:
At the corner of Wood Street, when the daylight appears
Hangs a Thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years;
Poor Susan has passed by the spot, and has heard
In the silence of morning the song of the Bird.
'Tis a note of enchantment; what ails her? She sees
A mountain ascending, a vision of trees;
Bright volumes of vapour through Lothbury glide,
And a river flows through the vale of Cheapside
Silence is requird to truly appreciate birdsong, and perhaps London is the best place to dream of vales, trees and mountains. That boring 1990s tourist video kept saying that "this is the place...". Cheapside isn't the place, but it is here that the mountains look most beautiful. Not being at our destination is important, otherwise where else is there to go? Saying "this is the place" is rather boring. No wonder those restless teenagers walked out.
The tree at the junction of Wood Street and Cheapside still stands, though now it is a huge sycamore rather than the plane tree of Wordsworth's day. It is visited by pigeons and starlings rather than thrushes. As for Wordsworth's well known description of London in The Prelude, the walk he described can still be followed, along Cheapside, Ludgate, Fleet Street, the Strand to Charing Cross, then curving down towards Whitehall.
In May 1791 Wordsworth found his funds running low, and decided to go and see his friend Robert James in Wales. Now after dreaming of mountains he climbed one, Mount Snowdon. The description of this climb ends The Prelude. But even here Wordsworth seems to find the opposite of what he was looking for. He climbed Snowdon at night hoping to see a sunrise from the summit. His little group made better time than expected, and getting to the top they didn't find the sun, they found the moon instead, shining down on a sea of mist:
The moon hung naked in a firmament
Of azure without cloud, and at my feet
rested a silent sea of hoary mist.
A hundred hills their dusky backs upheaved
All over the still ocean (Conclusion, 41 - 45)
View from Snowdon
Wordsworth was using Thomas Pennent's guide to Wales, one of the earliest of all tourist guides. Pennant thought that sun and moon looked similar from Snowdon. Wordsworth went to find the sun, and found visions in the moon, lighting up a landscape almost as clearly as sunshine. Not finding what he was looking for, Wordsworth found something which was equally, if not more beautiful.
Following the Wales trip Wordsworth's uncles managed to arrange a job for their wayward nephew, informing him that the position of curate of a parish in Harwich was available to him. Wordsworth now had to play a difficult game. He was getting money from his uncles and didn't want to offend them, but he didn't want to take a dull curate's job either. Wordsworth claimed he was too young to be considered for the post. While this was true, the rule on age in reality could be easily bent. Wordsworth was getting off on a technicality, keeping his options open as usual. He was taking the "romantic" course, not choosing a clear course in life. Wordsworth then came under pressure to learn languages and become a tutor. The young man cleverly used this attempt to snare him as his means of escape, suggesting that if he was to learn languages he'd better go and live in France for a while, for his career you understand. His uncle, William Cookson grudgingly agreed.
So on the evening of November 26th 1791 Wordsworth sailed for France, away from a boring curate's job towards one of the most momentous adventures of his life. With a letter of introduction from writer Charlotte Smith, young William lived with a number of radical people in revolutionary France. In Orleans he met the Vallon family, and was very taken with their vivacious daughter Annette. Annette could be described as an underground fighter against the Revolution, and was eventually pensioned as a heroine of the royalist resistance to Napoleon. She and Wordsworth had an affair and a pregnancy resulted. The couple were then caught up in the dark days of September 1792 when the initially idealistic Revolution turned violent. Panic and paranoia led to thousands of "subversives" being arrested. Hundreds of nuns and priests were rounded up, people who were easy to catch and accuse of complicity with foreign powers. Massacres started to take place, and the Terror began. Annette, six months pregnant, was spirited away by her family, who didn't much like her republican leaning poet boyfriend with no great prospects. Wordsworth stayed in revolutionary Paris for a while, finishing his Descriptive Sketches and becoming involved with a republican group which quickly fell apart when the Revolution's violence became apparent. Wordsworth returned to England in December 1792. Now wanting to provide for Annette he asked for the Curate's job, but his uncles weren't having any of it.
Wordsworth responded by publishing An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches with Joseph Johnson whose shop stood near William's old lodgings in Cheapside. The atmosphere in Britain at this time was hysterical, with overblown fears of French plots for subversion and invasion. Wordsworth toyed with radicalism before coming up with the better plan of taking another trip. He now entered a mysterious period of his life. Kenneth Johnston thinks it is possible, that he actually returned to France, possibly from the Isle of Wight in September 1793. If this really happened, it would be like something from the annals of the SAS. William would have walked all the way to Paris, appearing to be royalist or republican, depending on who he met. His famous poem Tintern Abbey harks back to this time, suggesting he was walking along the Wye, when in fact he could have been in France. The date given in the retrospective first line of Tintern Abbey is the date of the assassination of revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat, famously killed in his bath tub. Wordsworth could have tried to get through to Annette living in Blois, and failing to do so may have returned to England in November 1793. I don't know whether I believe this story: Wordsworth could of course have been wandering around in the west country, as Tintern Abbey seems to suggest. As usual it is hard to tie Wordsworth down to one place.
Dorset countryside near Alfoxden
The years 1794 to 1795 saw Wordsworth finally settling his family inheritance, producing an income allowing some measure of financial independence. Now he didn't have to worry about taking tedious jobs as a curate or language tutor. Instead he went to live in Dorset, first at Racedown and then at Alfoxden. Here a small group formed: Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy, and the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his wife Sara. This group went on hikes, wrote poems and lived a life that got the locals talking. They were even reported as possible French spies. Coleridge's observations of a river for one of his poems was mistaken for a subversive survey to support a French invasion. They all found this life very "romantic", except for Coleridge's wife Sara, who was a down to earth girl and had to get on with the hard business of looking after a baby. Her husband got on with being a romantic poet, which of course was generally above such mundane things. Coleridge, like Wordsworth was ambivalent about places. On one occasion the group went off for a walk, leaving Coleridge behind. Sara had accidentally scalded her husband's foot with spilt hot baby milk. There is no record of the places seen on the walk itself. What we have is Coleridge's poem The Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, in which he imagines what his friends are seeing. He could not say, as that Cockermouth tourist video claimed, that "this is the place" but his imaginings turned out to be more memorable than the real places.
Wordsworth's group lived in Dorset until June 1798, which was followed by an unhappy time living in Germany. Then, after all this travelling, and many great poems, Wordsworth finally moved back to the Lake District, living in Grasmere, in a cottage now known as Dove Cottage. He felt as restless here as he'd felt at any of his other homes. In fact Dove Cottage was the smallest house he had ever lived in. But being in this small, cramped little house seemed to bring out his best poetry. He wrote much of The Prelude here. In many ways he overcame the limits of his living arrangements in the Lake District to write his poetry. The essence of his poems did not lie here, or anywhere else. The essence of his poems was something that could be found nowhere and anywhere. In more contemporary terms it was like the Beatles finding their spiritual centre in an ordinary street such as Penny Lane, somewhere you'd think could never play such a role.
Wordsworth then settled down to live the rest of his long life in the Lake District. He moved to his last house, Rydal Mount, in 1813, living here until his death in 1850. He did not die young like the other Romantic poets. There was no tuberculosis or drowning. The steady life that the young Wordsworth tried to escape came to get him after all. In many ways the older man tried to deny the younger one existed. This was partly a necessary ploy to escape prejudices that the French Revolution's terrible outcome brought on all former republicans. Wordsworth came to be associated with the Lake District almost to the exclusion of all the other places which he had passed through searching for that indefinable something. But all those places were equally worthy or equally lacking, and all went into making him and his work. So if you go to the Lake District on a busy bank holiday and it's all a bit much, just remember William Wordsworth sitting in his pokey little cottage. And if you're in the City of London walking down Cheapside, you might want to try and see the river that runs on by.