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     English Wordplay ~ Listen and Enjoy

These pages are dedicated to my beloved son, Seamus, because, like Wordsworth, we have enjoyed wandering together in wild and beautiful places.  I am sure Tate will share the same joy with his Mum and Dad.

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Bayreuth Festspielhaus
William Wordworth
portrait by R Carruthers

Based on the 1914 biography by F. W. H. MYERS



The year 1803 saw the beginning of a friendship which formed a valuable element in Wordsworth's life. Sir George Beaumont, of Coleorton Hall, Leicestershire, a descendant of the dramatist, was staying with Coleridge at Greta Hall, Keswick, when, hearing of Coleridge's affection for Wordsworth, he was struck with the wish to bring Wordsworth also to Keswick, and bought and presented to him a beautiful piece of land at Applethwaite, under Skiddaw, in the hope that he might be induced to settle there. Coleridge was soon afterwards obliged to leave England in search of health, and the plan fell through.

Sir George Beaumont
Sir George Beaumont
from a portrait by
Sir Thomas Lawrence

A characteristic letter of Wordsworth's records his feelings on the occasion. "Dear Sir George," he writes, "if any person were to be informed of the particulars of your kindness to me, if it were described to him in all its delicacy and nobleness, and he should afterwards be told that I suffered eight weeks to elapse without writing to you one word of thanks or acknowledgment, he would deem it a thing absolutely impossible. It is nevertheless true."

"Owing to a set of painful and uneasy sensations which I have, more or less, at all times about my chest. I deferred writing to you, being at first made still more uncomfortable by travelling, and loathing to do violence to myself in what ought to be an act of pure pleasure and enjoyment, viz., the expression of my deep sense of your goodness."

Sir George Beaumont
Landscape, with Jacques and the
Wounded Stag by Sir George Beaumont

The friendship of which this act of delicate generosity was the beginning was maintained till Sir George Beaumont's death in 1827, and formed for many years Wordsworth's closest link with the world of art and culture. Sir George was himself a painter as well as a connoisseur, and his landscapes are not without indications of the strong feeling for nature.

Wordsworth, who had seen very few pictures, but was a penetrating critic of those which he knew, discerned this vein of true feeling in his friend's work, and has idealized in a sonnet a small landscape which Sir George had given him.

Praised be the Art whose subtle power could stay
Yon Cloud, and fix it in that glorious shape;
Nor would permit the thin smoke to escape,
Nor those bright sunbeams to forsake the day;
Which stopped that Band of Travellers on their way,
Ere they were lost within the shady wood;
And shewed the Bark upon the glassy flood
For ever anchored in her sheltering Bay.
Soul-soothing Art! whom Morning, Noon-tide, Even
Do serve with all their changeful pageantry!
Thou, with ambition modest yet sublime,
Here, for the sight of mortal man, hast given
To one brief moment caught from fleeting time
The appropriate calm of blest eternity.

There was another pursuit in which Sir George Beaumont was much interested, and in which painter and poet were well fitted to unite. The landscape-gardener, as Wordsworth says, should "work in the spirit of Nature, with an invisible hand of art." And he shows how any real success can only be achieved when the designer is willing to incorporate himself with the scenery around him; to correct her with deference, and as it were to caress her without importunity.

Coloerton Hall
Coloerton Hall

"Laying out grounds may be considered as a liberal art, in some sort like poetry and painting. No liberal art aims merely at the gratification of an individual or a class. If this be so when we are merely putting together words or colours, how much more ought the feeling to prevail when we are in the midst of the realities of things; of the beauty and harmony, of the joy and happiness, of loving creatures; of men and children, of birds and beasts, of hills and streams, and trees and flowers; with the changes of night and day, evening and morning, summer and winter. What then shall we say of many great mansions, with their unqualified expulsion of human creatures from their neighbourhood, happy or not; houses which do what is fabled of the upas tree—breathe out death and desolation! For my part, strip my neighbourhood of human beings, and I should think it one of the greatest privations I could undergo. You have all the poverty of solitude, nothing of its elevation."

This passage is from a letter of Wordsworth's to Sir George Beaumont, who was engaged at the time in rebuilding and laying out Coleorton. The poet himself planned and superintended some of these improvements.


Nor was Sir George Beaumont the only friend whom the poet's taste assisted in the choice of a site or the disposition of pleasure-grounds. More than one seat in the Lake-country - among them one home of preeminent beauty - have owed to Wordsworth no small part of their ordered charm. In this way, too, the poet is with us still; his presence has a strange reality as we look on some majestic prospect of interwinding lake and mountain which his design has made more beautifully visible to the children's children of those he loved; as we stand, perhaps, in some shadowed garden-ground where his will has had its way, - has framed Helvellyn's far-off summit in an arch of tossing green, and embayed in towering forest-trees the long lawns of a silent Valley, - fit haunt for lofty aspiration and for brooding calm.

Grasmere Woods
Grasmere Woods

But of all woodland ways which Wordsworth's skill designed or his feet frequented, not one was dearer to him, than a narrow path through a wood near his cottage, known to the poet's household by the name of John's Grove." For in 1800 his brother, John Wordsworth, a few years younger than himself, and captain of an East Indiaman, spent eight months in the poet's cottage at Grasmere. The two brothers had seen little of each other since childhood, and the poet now had the delight of discovering in the sailor a character congenial to his own, and an appreciation of poetry, which was both intense and delicate.

In both brothers, too, there was the same love of nature; and after John's departure, the poet pleased himself with imagining the visions of Grasmere which beguiled the watches of many a night at sea, or with tracing the pathway which the sailor's instinct had planned and trodden amid trees so thickly planted as to baffle a less practised skill. John Wordsworth, on the other hand, looked forward to Grasmere as the final goal of his wanderings, and intended to use his own savings to set the poet free from worldly cares.

Wreck of the Abergavenny
The Wreck of the Abergavenny

Two more voyages the sailor made with such hopes as these, and amid a frequent interchange of books and letters with his brother at home. Then, in February 1805, he set sail from Portsmouth, in command of the "Abergavenny" East Indiaman, bound for India and China. Through the incompetence of the pilot who was taking her out of the Channel, the ship struck on the Shambles off the Bill of Portland, on February 5, 1805.

"She struck," says Wordsworth, "at 5 p.m. Guns were fired immediately, and were continued to be fired. She was gotten off the rock at half-past seven, but had taken in so much water, in spite of constant pumping, as to be water-logged. They had, however, hope that she might still be run upon Weymouth sands, and with this view continued pumping and baling till eleven, when she went down. A few minutes before the ship went down my brother was seen talking to the first mate, with apparent cheerfulness; and he was standing on the hen-coop, which is the point from which he could overlook the whole ship, the moment she went down - dying, as he had lived, in the very place and point where his duty stationed him."

"I feel that there is something cut out of my life which cannot be restored. I never thought of him but with hope and delight. We looked forward to the time, not distant, as we thought, when he would settle near us - when the task of his life would be over, and he would have nothing to do but reap his reward. By that time I hoped also that the chief part of my labours would be executed, and that I should be able to show him that he had not placed a false confidence in me. I never wrote a line without a thought of giving him pleasure; my writings, printed and manuscript, were his delight, and one of the chief solaces of his long voyages. But let me stop. I hope when I shall be able to think of him with a calmer mind, that the remembrance of him dead will even animate me more than the joy which I had in him living."

From this calamity, as from all the lessons of life, Wordsworth drew all the benefit which it was empowered to bring. "A deep distress hath humanized my soul," - what lover of poetry does not know the pathetic lines in which he bears witness to the teaching of sorrow?

   To the Daisy

   Sweet Flower! belike one day to have
   A place upon thy Poet's grave,
   I welcome thee once more:
   But He, who was on land, at sea,
   My Brother, too, in loving thee, 
   Although he loved more silently,
   Sleeps by his native shore.

   Ah! hopeful, hopeful was the day
   When to that Ship he bent his way,
   To govern and to guide: 
   His wish was gained: a little time
   Would bring him back in manhood's prime
   And free for life, these hills to climb;
   With all his wants supplied.

   And full of hope day followed day 
   While that stout Ship at anchor lay
   Beside the shores of Wight;
   The May had then made all things green;
   And, floating there, in pomp serene,
   That Ship was goodly to be seen, 
   His pride and his delight!

   Yet then, when called ashore, he sought
   The tender peace of rural thought:
   In more than happy mood
   To your abodes, bright daisy Flowers! 
   He then would steal at leisure hours,
   And loved you glittering in your bowers,
   A starry multitude.

   But hark the word! - the ship is gone; -
   Returns from her long course: - anon    
   Sets sail: - in season due,
   Once more on English earth they stand:
   But, when a third time from the land
   They parted, sorrow was at hand
   For Him and for his crew. 

   Ill-fated Vessel! - ghastly shock!
   - At length delivered from the rock,
   The deep she hath regained;
   And through the stormy night they steer;
   Labouring for life, in hope and fear, 
   To reach a safer shore - how near,
   Yet not to be attained!

   "Silence!" the brave Commander cried;
   To that calm word a shriek replied,
   It was the last death-shriek. 
   - A few (my soul oft sees that sight)
   Survive upon the tall mast's height;
   But one dear remnant of the night -
   For Him in vain I seek.

   Six weeks beneath the moving sea 
   He lay in slumber quietly;
   Unforced by wind or wave
   To quit the Ship for which he died,
   (All claims of duty satisfied;)
   And there they found him at her side; 
   And bore him to the grave.

   Vain service! yet not vainly done
   For this, if other end were none,
   That He, who had been cast
   Upon a way of life unmeet 
   For such a gentle Soul and sweet,
   Should find an undisturbed retreat
   Near what he loved, at last -

   That neighbourhood of grove and field
   To Him a resting-place should yield, 
   A meek man and a brave!
   The birds shall sing and ocean make
   A mournful murmur for his sake;
   And Thou, sweet Flower, shalt sleep and wake
   Upon his senseless grave.

Other griefs, too, he had - the loss of two children in 1812; his sister's chronic illness, beginning in 1832; his daughter's death in 1847. All these he felt to the full; and yet, until his daughter's death, which was more than his failing energies could bear, these bereavements were but the thinly-scattered clouds "in a great sea of blue" - seasons of mourning here and there among years, which never lost their hold on peace; which knew no shame and no remorse, no desolation and no fear; whose days were never long with weariness, nor their nights broken at the touch of woe. Even when we speak of his tribulations, it is his happiness which rises in our minds.

  From the Immortality Ode:
  In a season of calm weather
  Though inland far we be,
  Our souls have sight of that immortal sea,
  Which brought us hither;
  Can in a moment travel thither.
  And see the children sport upon the shore.
  And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.


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