William Wordsworth within his beloved lakes, contemplating.
A smooth drive up the M6,my Nissan Serena purred like a contented kitten. The new exhaust was working well. The recently replaced water pump kept the coolant system going perfectly,”Ee ba’ gum. It were all workin’ a treat!!!!” After 131,000 miles on the clock, great stuff.
Myself and Clive, a good mate of mine, were entering the land of Romanticism and the Lakeland poets along the A590 and the A5074 heading for the heart of Lakeland and Ambleside north of Lake Windermere.
A distant view of Rydal Water from Allan House.
Romanticism was a very important movement of artists and poets who formed a new philosophy during the early part of the 19th century from about 1800 to 1840. They encompassed imagination, myth and symbolism. Enlightenment previously dealt with science, philosophy, politics and revolution and also encompassed subjectivism, rationalism, empiricism and scepticism. Enlightenment had marked the previous centuries in Europe from 1650 to about 1800 . It’s influence is still very much felt today and it shaped the modern world but Romanticism added another element to interpreting the human condition.
The calm surface on Rydal Water.
The Lakes are a rugged mountainous landscape punctuated by beautiful vistas of fells and glassy shimmering, silvery surfaced lakes. The lakes were the birthplace of William Wordsworth and the home of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the two most important Romantic poets. Wordsworth can be described as instigating the whole Romantic Movement and it was this landscape that made him into a romantic.He was born in The lakes at Cockermouth in 1770 and he died a few miles away at Rydal Mount in 1850.he loved travelling throughout Europe, especially in France but it was always Westmoreland that he came back to and lived most of his life. In his long biographical poem, The Prelude, Wordsworth writes,
“ , -Was it for this
That one, the fairest of all Rivers, lov'd
To blend his murmurs with my Nurse's song,
And from his alder shades and rocky falls,
And from his fords and shallows, sent a voice
That flow'd along my dreams? For this, didst Thou,
O Derwent! travelling over the green Plains
Near my 'sweet Birthplace', didst thou, beauteous Stream
Make ceaseless music through the night and day
Which with its steady cadence, tempering
Our human waywardness, compos'd my thoughts
To more than infant softness, giving me,
Among the fretful dwellings of mankind,
A knowledge, a dim earnest, of the calm
That Nature breathes among the hills and groves.
When, having left his Mountains, to the Towers
Of Cockermouth that beauteous River came,
Behind my Father's House he pass'd, close by,
Along the margin of our Terrace Walk.
He was a Playmate whom we dearly lov'd.”
The River Derwent running at the bottom of his childhood home in Cockermouth sparked his life of emotional and imaginative response to the world.
Romanticism might conjure a less than realistic view of the world. However, although Wordsworth emphasised the emotional and imaginative response, a response through the senses, he didn’t ignore the realities of life and especially rural life in the lakes of his time.
In the poem, “The Ruined Cottage,” Wordsworth relates the sad and depressing tale of a family brought low and destroyed by failed harvests and loneliness in those beautiful hills.
“ You may remember now some ten years gone
Two blighting seasons when the fields were left
With half a harvest. It pleased heaven to add
A worse affliction in the plague of war
A happy land was stricken to the heart…….”
And in the poem, The Thorn, ignorance, mythologising, and imagination appear to be used to express the detrimental ways of villagers who all but turn on a young mother, Martha Ray, when she loses her lover and baby. Romanticism is therefore not necessarily, about romantic things. It is about our emotional and imaginative responses.
Women’s contribution to Romanticism is less documented. William Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, is an obvious candidate. Dorothy lived her life emotionally in tandem with her brother. Her journals written ,”because I shall give William, pleasure,” describe everyday chores such as the manual labour of gardening, cooking, writing letters to friends, visiting neighbours and general household chores but they are also full of her detailed emotional response to nature and the fells and lakes where she lived. Comparing her descriptions of natural things in the environment and her emotional response you can see that many of her observations appear in William’s poems. She also wrote poems for children which were published alongside Williams poems in some publications and he she wrote other journals and accounts mainly for William alone or members of the family. Brother and sister must have discussed their feelings and observations and ideas together.
Helm Crag from Loughrigg Fell.
Friday morning 16th May 1800
“- all flowers now are gay and deliciously sweet. The primrose still pre-eminent among the later flowers of spring. Foxgloves very tall- with their heads budding. I went forward round the lake at the foot of Loughrigg fell- I was much amused with the business of a pair of stonechats.”
There is a discussion as to how Jane Austen fits into this Romantic period. She doesn’t seem to at all. She describes the interactions between people. She does not express an emotional and imaginative response to the natural world around her. She must have experienced the beauties of nature and felt their emotional impact where she was born and where she lived for many years of her life but her concerns were marriage, inheritance and close, small communities. Wordsworth was revolutionary in many respects. His introduction of Romanticism in contrast to Enlightenment might not have endeared him to The Reverend Austen, Jane’s father. Wordsworth was an advocate of the principals and ideologies that fuelled the French Revolution which again might not have endeared him to the Austens. He may not have been on the bookshelves at Steventon. The Bronte sisters in Haworth, on the other hand, used the landscape they knew well in their writing. They responded emotionally to the world around them. They could be classed as Romantics. Clive and I also visited Haworth and the Bronte parsonage on our trip. I will leave a discussion about the Brontes to a further post.
Wordsworth's office in Ambleside. He was the Distributor for stamps in Westmorland.
Wordsworth could not make ends meet by writing poetry as Byron was able to or would have been able to but for his debts. He worked from an office in Ambleside as the Distributor for stamps for Westmoreland. This gave him a comfortable living.
Wordsworth lived in various places in The Lakes. He also lived in Somerset at Alfoxden near his good friend Coleridge for a short while in 1797 but eventually he settled permanently in The Lakes. At Dove Cottage in Grasmere, close to Grasmere Lake, many of his most important poems were written and this is described in Dorothy's journal. In 1802 he married Mary Hutchinson , Dorothy, his sister, remained part of the family. The three of them living together for the rest of their lives. Her role as close mentor to, William, appeared to not miss a beat.
Dove Cottage where many of Wordsworth's most important poems were written and where Dorothy kept her main journal.
Here is Dorothy writing on November Wednesday 18th 1801.
“ We sate in the house in the morning reading Spenser. I was unwell and lay in bed all afternoon. Wm & Mary walked to Rydal – very pleasant moonlight, the lakes beautiful. The church an image of Peace- William wrote some lines upon it. I in bed when they came home. Mary and I walked as far as Saras Gate before supper.”
This sounds matter of fact but if you notice what is happening in this extract you can see the relationship William ,Mary and Dorothy had. It was definitely a threesome. Mary relates the emotional response William and Mary had to their walk. She would only have known this if it had intimately been told her. And later Dorothy and Mary go walking together.There is a seamless interchange between the three of them. They appear to be equally intimate with each other.
Allan House, on the north side of Grasmere overlooking Grasmere lake.
In 1808, Wordsworth and his growing family moved to the larger Allan House at the north end of Grasmere Lake with a wonderful view overlooking the fells. Over the years Mary gave birth to five children, John, Dora, Thomas, Catharine and William. In 1812 Catharine died of convulsions and in the same year Thomas died of measles.
Rydal Mount where the Wordsworths lived for the last part of their lives.
Finally they moved to Rydal Mount in 1813, not far from Grasmere and closer to Ambleside. Dora later died while living at Rydal Mount in 1847. William bought a plot of land at the bottom of the garden which was called Doras Field and had it planted with daffodils. It was at Rydal Mount, that William, Dorothy and Mary lived to the end of their days.
Doras Field which William, Mary and Dorothy planted out with daffodils in memory of Dora.
Clive and I wandered round Grasmere and Rydal. We visited Dove Cottage and learned the history and stories of each room. The learned guide was able to relate to us what happened in each room and the daily chores that were performed in each room. I enjoyed the garden at the back very much. Dorothy writes in her journal how she and William would sit there contemplating nature or reading Williams poems. It was a place William often used to write in too. They planted new shrubs and flowers and gardened in this patch of steeply rising land.
Saturday 17th April 1802.
“A mild warm rain. We sate in the garden all the morning. William dug a little. I transplanted a honeysuckle. The lake was still the sheep on the island reflected in the water.”
The graveyard in Grasmere church where all the Wordsworths are buried.
We walked through Grasmere village and paid homage at the Wordsworth graves including that of William. We wandered on to the far end of the village and walked up the side of a fell to see Allan House. We later drove to Rydal and spent a good hour or more inside Rydal Mount and gardens with its view over Rydal Lake. We saw William’s room where he wrote.
The Lakes are a wonderful magical place to visit. The mountains are based on volcanic activity some 100 million years ago. There is a volcanic substrata overlain by grey wackers, sandstones and slates that have been metamorphosed from siltstones and mudstones. Glaciation and erosion have much reduced the mountains in size but the many faults, intrusions, the cutting and erosion of mountain streams have created and left a high rugged landscape of beautiful calm lakes, many with islands in them, shear sided cliffs and high sparsely covered fells. Walking and mountain climbing, sailing on the lakes, mountain biking and horse trekking are many pursuits suitable to this landscape.
A dry stone wall in The Lakes.
This is my poor attempt at following Dorothy Wordsworth’s inspiration provided by her journal. Clive and I walked in the very footsteps of Dorothy and William around Rydal Lake and up onto Loughrigg Fell and saw the views they saw and experienced the natural world as they experienced it.
Clive and I looking chilled out. Must have had a couple of pints of local brew by now.
Thursday 12th July 2012
Coming off the motorway we entered a humped landscape, rises, dips and sharp cutting streams, narrow roads that steeply climb up to blind rises followed by near vertical dips and sharp angled left and right turns. The landscape was dotted with shaggy woolly black faced sheep. Walls of neatly stacked and split grey stones formed into snaking and twisting dry stone walls threaded across the sparsely green landscape. The landscape everywhere torn and ripped open by intrusive rocky lumps and gashed by bubbling streams hissing down over rocks and boulders. Mountains huddled in around us. The underlying geology always close to the surface. Those road numbers A590 and A5074 are a travesty. They need heroic names evoking emotions like a Wordsworth poem not clinical numbers that you might find on a storeroom list.
We had a pub lunch at The Badger Bar, a stone constructed pub built into the rocks at the side of the valley overlooking Rydal Water. The pub, built in the dry stone wall style seemed to hang against against the cliff face. It was cool and dark inside away from the bright sunlight of the day.
Later we walked across the road and passed through a gap in the stone wall edging the road and dropped into the shadowy depths of Fieldfoot Wood. Oaks, sycamores and ash all around; then walked across a wooden bridge joining the two banks of a steely grey sparkling tumbling mountain stream. We walked through this shadowy cool space along a rocky path our feet crunching on the stones until we came out into the bright blue skies of Rydal Water.Sunlight lit up the steep fells about us, Loughrigg Fell to our left, massive and mostly fern covered except for a barrenness and rock outcrops near the top. We made our way along a narrow path, bracken brushing our legs as we gradually climbed upwards. Thoughts of grass snakes and adders came to mind. Foxgloves, tall and slender still in their pink bloom stood erect randomly here and there. The views became more expansive and breath-taking as we rose near to the top of Loughrigg and looked back across the still, silvered water of Rydal lake and across to the massive hulk of Helm Crag on the other side of the valley.Helm Crag is hard muscled with bare rocks and sparsely grassed. Sunlight and clouds alternated bright illuminated patches with dark shadowy expannses on the sides of the fells.
We walked along the line of dry stone walls constructed with split slabs of Coniston Limestone and slate. Heathers and bracken carpeted all around. Bright red tiny Campions, periwinkle, vetch, stonecap, stitchwort, toadflax, Herb Robert, crosswort, cranesbill and mustard, packed the crevices of these stonewalls and were scattered between the roots of trees amongst the mosses. Soft downy mosses softened the hard angular edges of stones and boulders. Dark greens, light greens, mosses of complex intricate intertwining’s.
We stood on Loughrigg, just as William and Dorothy had done and looked out on the fells and photographed the scene we saw before us.
Wood pigeons cooed in Fieldfoot Woods. Red Kytes circled above Loughrigg Fell their distinctive V shaped tail feathers and the flash of white on the sides of their long bowed wings.
On the way back to our car near, The Badger Bar, we saw a canoe come out onto the lake. Three people rowing gently across the still surface. As we entered again Fieldfoot Woods a mother and father and their young children sat on a small beach next to Rydal Water and they went swimming.