The poet William Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth, Cumberland on 7 April 1770. Much of his poetry was inspired by the dramatic landscapes of the Lake District, and his work did much to alter public perceptions of that part of England.
It is 251 years since the birth of the great English poet William Wordsworth. A lover of nature, his poetry abounds with images of lambs, flowers in full bloom, windswept crags and woodland scenes. His pleasure in nature, particularly that of his home the Lake District, is famous.
His contemporary Samuel Taylor Coleridge once describes his genius as “not a spirit that descended to him through the air; it sprang out of the ground like a flower.” Wordsworth did find much inspiration in the natural landscape that he would revel in on his long walks. In these house-bound times and on this anniversary, we can all find inspiration in the great poet and his love of walking as we take our daily exercise.
Wordsworth changed forever the way we view the natural world and the inner world of feeling. He also connected the two indivisibly. We are his heirs, and we see and feel through him. His vision illumined our landscape.
In a comic article from 1839 entitled Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets: “Mr Wordsworth”, the writer Thomas De Quincey criticised Wordsworth’s unshapely legs while also noting that:
[He calculated], upon good data, that with these identical legs Wordsworth must have traversed a distance of 175,000 to 180,000 English miles
His name is inextricably connected with the Lake District, where he was born in Cockermouth in 1770. His mother died when he was only eight, his father five years later. These early losses gave him an acute apprehension of mortality, but did not impair the flow of his affections. His mother had loved him enough, and her love lasted beyond the grave. He had a free and happy country childhood, and joy is one of his themes: through his vocation as a poet he transformed fear of mortality to intimations of immortality. The story of his early life – his schooldays, his education at Cambridge, his wanderings in France, his response to the French revolution, his love of his sister Dorothy and his passionate friendship with Coleridge – are told in his great autobiographical work in blank verse, The Prelude, most of which written when he was in his 30s (only sections of it were published in his lifetime.) It is a work of astonishing originality, both in its subject matter (childhood and the growth of the mind, described with a pre-Freudian insight unprecedented in literature) and in its form. The verse is powerful, supple, subtle, freely flowing. Wordsworth revered both Shakespeare and Milton. His is the third great iambic voice in the English language.
His first volume of poems, Lyrical Ballads, written in collaboration with Coleridge and published in 1798, stakes his territory: the plain, the rustic, the thoughtful, the everyday, the organic: a poetry in which "the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature". It includes The Idiot Boy, a moving ballad treating its challenging subject (a mother's love for her "idiot" son sent out into the night to fetch the doctor for a sick neighbour) with the deepest respect and in the plainest language, and Tintern Abbey which records in higher language the intensity of the solitary poet's youthful response to a sublime landscape (his "aching joys" and "dizzy raptures") and his sense of a more "sober pleasure" associated with maturity, the presence of his beloved sister, and the power of re-creative memory and recollection.
Wordsworth was perhaps the most sober of the great romantics, a water drinker, a walker of the hills, an exemplary family man who had put behind him (though he had not denied) a youthful indiscretion and an illegitimate daughter. He liked to read with his wife and sister of an evening, and to listen to the kettle's "faint undersong". (Wordsworth loved the word under, as a prefix-adjective: it suggests to me his ever-present sense of the subconscious and the imminent, his ear tuned to music we can hardly hear.) He invested his hopes in family life and domesticity, in plain living and high thinking, with a tenderness towards his children inherited from the newly child-conscious theories of the enlightenment.
But children are hostages to fortune, and some of his finest poems pre-emptively record early death and the sorrow of losing a child. The enigmatic Lucy poems (1799), inspired by a winter sojourn in Germany with Dorothy before he had a family of his own, foreshadow loss. Were these poems connected with incestuous feelings for his sister, or with his apprehensions of the tragic risks of love, or with the early loss of his mother? Much has been written on this, little explained. The sources of the imagination are not as clear and simple as Wordsworth often makes them seem. Five years later, in 1804, he wrote The Affliction of Margaret, whose son is missing, perhaps dead:
Beyond participation lie
My troubles, and beyond relief.
If any chance to heave a sigh
They pity me, and not my grief.
In his summer vacation from Cambridge University in 1790, he walked right across revolutionary France, over the Alps and back through Germany (arriving late for the start of term). Wordsworth was still able to ascend Helvellyn, one of the highest peaks in the Lake District, aged 70 – a feat celebrated in Benjamin Robert Haydon’s portrait of him in 1842.
Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were not only interested in large-scale walking tours but walked almost every day, at all times of the day. Dorothy’s famous Grasmere Journal, documents their walks and is itself a wonderful example of nature writing. In it she logs the minute details they would see on their walks, like daffodils near the Lake District’s Gowbarrow Park:
I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew about 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.
Walking was not just for pleasure, though. We know that Wordsworth frequently walked to write. Dorothy’s Journal describes how:
Though the length of his walk maybe sometimes a quarter or half a mile, he is as fast bound within the chosen limits as if by prison walls. He generally composes his verses out of doors, and while he is so engaged he seldom knows how the time slips away, or hardly whether it is rain or fair.
In a poem entitled When first I Journey’d Hither to his brother John, who was away at sea, Wordsworth writes of the joy of finding a path carved into the earth by him:
With a sense
Of lively joy did I behold this path
Beneath the fir-trees, for at once I knew
That by my Brother’s steps it had been trac’d.
My thoughts were pleas’d within me to perceive
That hither he had brought a finer eye,
A heart more wakeful: that more loth to part
From place so lovely he had worn the track,
Out of his own deep paths!
The poem ends by imagining John, walking up and down on the deck of his ship at sea in tune with William as he also walks up and down to write the poem on the path that John has made for him. He imagines an empathetic connection between the two constrained spaces:
Alone I tread this path, for aught I knowWordsworth is known for composing in the rhythm with the pace of his walking. In his epic autobiography, The Prelude, Wordsworth describes himself doing this and sending his terrier (Pepper) ahead to warn him of others:
Timing my steps to thine
And when at evening on the public way
I sauntered, like a river murmuring
And talking to itself when all things else
Are still, the creature trotted on before;
Such was his custom; but whene'er he met
A passenger approaching, he would turn
To give me timely notice, and straightway,
Grateful for that admonishment, I hushed
My voice, composed my gait, and, with the air
And mien of one whose thoughts are free, advanced
To give and take a greeting that might save
My name from piteous rumours, such as wait
On men suspected to be crazed in brain
This is also a wonderful example of why walking alone can be freeing. It allows us to be alone with our thoughts and to act freely (till someone happens by that is).
As he grew older, he was to lose his powers, and he had premonitions of this, expressed in his Immortality Ode (1802-4) and most famously in his 1802 poem on the leech gatherer, Resolution and Independence:
We poets in our youth begin in gladness
But thereof come in the end despondency and madness