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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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Willliam Wordsworth
William Wordworth
portrait by R Carruthers

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


The poet's cottage at Grasmere was becoming too small for an increasing family. His eldest son, John, was born in 1803; his eldest daughter, Dorothy or Dora, in 1804. Then came Thomas, born 1806; and Catherine, born 1808; and the list is ended by William, born 1810. In the spring of 1808 Wordsworth left Townend for Allan Bank, a more roomy, but an uncomfortable house, at the north end of Grasmere. From thence he removed for a time, in 1811, to the Parsonage at Grasmere.

Dora Wordsworth
Dora Wordsworth
Watercolor on ivory
by Margaret Gillies. 1839.

Wordsworth was the most affectionate of fathers, and allusions to his children occur frequently in his poetry. Dora - who was the delight of his later year - has been described at length in The Triad. Shorter and simpler, but more completely successful, is the picture of Catherine in the little poem which begins "Loving she is, and tractable, though wild," with its homely simile for childhood - its own existence sufficient to fill it with gladness:

      As a faggot sparkles on the hearth
  Not less if unattended and alone
  Than when both young and old sit gathered round
  And take delight in its activity.

The next notice of this beloved child is in the sonnet,
Surprised by Joy, written when she had already been
removed from his side.

  Surprised by joy - impatient as the wind 
  I turned to share the transport - Oh! with whom 
  But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb, 
  That spot which no vicissitude can find? 
  Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind - 
  But how could I forget thee? Through what power, 
  Even for the least division of an hour, 
  Have I been so beguiled as to be blind 
  To my most grievous loss? - That thought's return 
  Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore 
  Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn, 
  Knowing my heart's best treasure was no more; 
  That neither present time, nor years unborn, 
  Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.
Rydal Mount
Rydal Mount

She died in 1812, and was closely followed by her brother Thomas. Wordsworth's grief for these children was profound, violent, and lasting, to an extent which those who imagine him as not only calm but passionless might have some difficulty in believing. "Referring once," says his friend Mr. Aubrey de Vere, "to two young children of his, who had died about forty years previously, he described the details of their illnesses with an exactness and an impetuosity of troubled excitement, such as might have been expected if the bereavement had taken place but a few weeks before.

Rydal Mount
The view from the summerhouse at Rydal Mount

The impossibility of remaining in a house filled with sorrowful memories rendered him doubly anxious to obtain a permanent home. "The house which I have for some time occupied," he writes to Lord Lonsdale, "is the Parsonage of Grasmere. It stands close by the churchyard, and I have found it absolutely necessary that we should quit a place which, by recalling to our minds at every moment the losses we have sustained in the course of the last year, would grievously retard our progress towards that tranquillity which it is our duty to aim at." It happened that Rydal Mount became vacant at this moment, and in the spring of 1813 the Wordsworths migrated to this their favourite and last abode.

Rydal Mount
Another view of Rydal Mount

Rydal Mount has probably been oftener described than any other English poet's home since Shakespeare; and few homes, certainly, have been moulded into such close accordance with their inmates' nature. The house, which has been altered since Wordsworth's day, stands looking southward, on the rocky side of Nab Scar, above Rydal Lake. The garden was described by Bishop Wordsworth immediately after his uncle's death, while every terrace-walk and flowering alley spoke of the poet's loving care. He tells of the "tall ash-tree, in which a thrush has sung, for hours together, during many years;" of the "laburnum in which the osier cage of the doves was hung;" of the stone steps "in the interstices of which grow the yellow flowering poppy, and the wild geranium or Poor Robin,"

  With his red stalks upon a sunny day.

And then of the terraces - one levelled for Miss Fenwick's use, and welcome to himself in aged years; and one ascending, and leading to the "far terrace" on the mountain's side, where the poet was wont to murmur his verses as they came. Within the house were disposed his simple treasures: the ancestral almery, on which the names of unknown Wordsworths may be deciphered still; Sir George Beaumont's pictures of "The White Doe of Rylstone" and "The Thorn," and the cuckoo clock which brought vernal thoughts to cheer the sleepless bed of age, and which sounded its noonday summons when his spirit fled.

Robert Southey
Robert Southey
de Quincey
Thomas de Quincey

Wordsworth's worldly fortunes, as if by some benignant guardianship of Providence, were at all times proportioned to his successive needs. About the date of his removal to Rydal he was appointed, through Lord Lonsdale's interest, to the distributorship of stamps for the county of Westmoreland, to which office the same post for Cumberland was afterwards added. He held this post till August 1842, when he resigned it without a retiring pension, and it was conferred on his second son. He was allowed to reside at Rydal, which was counted as a suburb of Ambleside: and as the duties of the place were light, and mainly performed by a most competent and devoted clerk, there was no drawback to the advantage of an increase of income which released him from anxiety as to the future.

Thomas Arnold
Thomas Arnold
Hartley Coleridge
Hartley Coleridge

Though Wordsworth's life at Rydal was a retired one, it was not that of a recluse. As years went on he became more and more recognized as a centre of spiritual strength and illumination, and was sought not only by those who were already his neighbours, but by some who became so mainly for his sake. Southey at Keswick was a valued friend, though Wordsworth did not greatly esteem him as a poet. De Quincey, originally attracted to the district by admiration for Wordsworth, remained there for many years, and poured forth a criticism strangely compounded of the utterances of the hero-worshipper and the valet-de-chambre. Dr. Arnold of Rugby made the neighbouring home at Fox How a focus of warm affections and of intellectual life. And Hartley Coleridge, whose fairy childhood had inspired one of Wordsworth's happiest pieces, continued to lead among the dales of Westmoreland a life which showed how much of genius and goodness a single weakness can nullify.

          To H. C. SIX YEARS OLD
          O THOU! whose fancies from afar are brought;
          Who of thy words dost make a mock apparel,
          And fittest to unutterable thought
          The breeze-like motion and the self-born carol;
          Thou faery voyager! that dost float
          In such clear water, that thy boat
          May rather seem
          To brood on air than on an earthly stream;
          Suspended in a stream as clear as sky,
          Where earth and heaven do make one imagery;                 
          O blessed vision! happy child!
          Thou art so exquisitely wild,
          I think of thee with many fears
          For what may be thy lot in future years.
          I thought of times when Pain might be thy guest,
          Lord of thy house and hospitality;
          And Grief, uneasy lover! never rest
          But when she sate within the touch of thee.
          O too industrious folly!
          O vain and causeless melancholy!                            
          Nature will either end thee quite;
          Or, lengthening out thy season of delight,
          Preserve for thee, by individual right,
          A young lamb's heart among the full-grown flocks.
          What hast thou to do with sorrow,
          Or the injuries of to-morrow?
          Thou art a dew-drop, which the morn brings forth,
          Ill fitted to sustain unkindly shocks,
          Or to be trailed along the soiling earth;
          A gem that glitters while it lives,                         
          And no forewarning gives;
          But, at the touch of wrong, without a strife
          Slips in a moment out of life.

Many humbler neighbours may be recognized in the characters of the Excursion and other poems. The Wanderer, indeed, is a picture of Wordsworth himself - "an idea," as he says, "of what I fancied my own character might have become in his circumstances."

          We were tried Friends: amid a pleasant vale,
          In the antique market-village where was passed
          My school-time, an apartment he had owned,
          To which at intervals the Wanderer drew,
          And found a kind of home or harbour there.
          He loved me, from a swarm of rosy boys
          Singled out me, as he in sport would say,
          For my grave looks, too thoughtful for my years.
          As I grew up, it was my best delight                        
          To be his chosen comrade. Many a time,
          On holidays, we rambled through the woods:
          We sate--we walked; he pleased me with report
          Of things which he had seen; and often touched
          Abstrusest matter, reasonings of the mind
          Turned inward; or at my request would sing
          Old songs, the product of his native hills;
          A skilful distribution of sweet sounds,
          Feeding the soul, and eagerly imbibed
          As cool refreshing water, by the care                       
          Of the industrious husbandman, diffused
          Through a parched meadow-ground, in time of drought.
          Still deeper welcome found his pure discourse;
          How precious, when in riper days I learned
          To weigh with care his words, and to rejoice
          In the plain presence of his dignity!
The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution

Wordsworth had strong views on education and its relation to the countryside and to family life. "Heaven and hell," he writes in 1808, "are scarcely more different from each other than Sheffield and Manchester, &c., differ from the plains and valleys of Surrey, Essex, Cumberland, or Westmoreland." It is to be feared, indeed, that even "the plains and valleys of Surrey and Essex" contain many cottages whose spiritual and sanitary conditions fall far short of the poet's ideal.

But it is of course in the great and growing centres of population that the dangers which he dreads have come upon us in their most aggravated form. And so long as there are in England so many homes to which parental care and the influences of Nature are alike unknown, no protest in favour of the paramount importance of these primary agencies in the formation of character can be regarded as altogether out of date.

With such severe and almost prosaic themes is the greater part of the Excursion occupied. Yet the poem is far from being composed throughout in a prosaic spirit. "Of its bones is coral made;" its arguments and theories have lain long in Wordsworth's mind, and have accreted to themselves a rich investiture of observation and feeling. Some of its passages rank among the poet's highest flights. Such is the passage in Book I describing the boy's rapture at sunrise: Such was the Boy - but for the growing Youth What soul was his, when, from the naked top Of some bold headland, he beheld the sun Rise up, and bathe the world in light! He looked - Ocean and earth, the solid frame of earth And ocean's liquid mass, in gladness lay Beneath him: - Far and wide the clouds were touched, And in their silent faces could he read Unutterable love.

and the picture of a sunset at the close of the same book:

Sunrise: Grasmere from Heron Pike
Lake District Sunset
watercolour by Theresa Evans
Ere long the sun declining shot
A slant and mellow radiance, which began
To fall upon us, while, beneath the trees,
We sate on that low bench: and now we felt,
Admonished thus, the sweet hour coming on.                
A linnet warbled from those lofty elms,
A thrush sang loud, and other melodies,
At distance heard, peopled the milder air.
The old Man rose, and, with a sprightly mien
Of hopeful preparation, grasped his staff;
Together casting then a farewell look
Upon those silent walls, we left the shade;
And, ere the stars were visible, had reached
A village-inn, - our evening resting-place.

Such is the opening of Book IV:

Sunrise: Grasmere from Heron Pike
Sunrise: Grasmere from Heron Pike
If the dear faculty of sight should fail,
Still, it may be allowed me to remember                     
What visionary powers of eye and soul
In youth were mine; when, stationed on the top
Of some huge hill--expectant, I beheld
The sun rise up, from distant climes returned
Darkness to chase, and sleep; and bring the day
His bounteous gift! or saw him toward the deep
Sink, with a retinue of flaming clouds
Attended; then, my spirit was entranced
With joy exalted to beatitude;
The measure of my soul was filled with bliss,              
And holiest love; as earth, sea, air, with light,
With pomp, with glory, with magnificence!.

and the passage describing the wild joy of roaming through a mountain storm:

                                            How divine,
The liberty, for frail, for mortal, man
To roam at large among unpeopled glens
And mountainous retirements, only trod
By devious footsteps; regions consecrate
To oldest time! and, reckless of the storm
That keeps the raven quiet in her nest,
Storm Clouds over Langdale
Storm Clouds over Langdale
Be as a presence or a motion--one Among the many there; and while the mists Flying, and rainy vapours, call out shapes And phantoms from the crags and solid earth As fast as a musician scatters sounds Out of an instrument; and while the streams Descending from the region of the clouds, And starting from the hollows of the earth More multitudinous every moment, rend Their way before them--what a joy to roam An equal among mightiest energies; And haply sometimes with articulate voice, Amid the deafening tumult, scarcely heard By him that utters it, exclaim aloud, 'Rage on ye elements! let moon and stars Their aspects lend, and mingle in their turn With this commotion (ruinous though it be) From day to night, from night to day, prolonged!'

and the metaphor in the same book which compares the mind's power of transfiguring the obstacles which beset her, with the glory into which the moon incorporates the umbrage that would intercept her beams.

Storm Clouds over Langdale
Detail from Moon in Trees
by Loran Elizabeth Conley
                               As the ample moon,
In the deep stillness of a summer even
Rising behind a thick and lofty grove,
Burns, like an unconsuming fire of light,
In the green trees; and, kindling on all sides
Their leafy umbrage, turns the dusky veil
Into a substance glorious as her own,
Yea, with her own incorporated, by power
Capacious and serene. Like power abides                   
In man's celestial spirit; virtue thus
Sets forth and magnifies herself; thus feeds
A calm, a beautiful, and silent fire,
From the encumbrances of mortal life,
From error, disappointment--nay, from guilt;
And sometimes, so relenting justice wills,
From palpable oppressions of despair.

"It is impossible," he wrote to Lady Beaumont in 1807, "that any expectations can be lower than mine concerning the immediate effect of this little work upon what is called the public. I do not here take into consideration the envy and malevolence, and all the bad passions which always stand in the way of a work of any merit from a living poet; but merely think of the pure, absolute, honest ignorance in which all worldlings, of every rank and situation, must be enveloped, with respect to the thoughts, feelings, and images on which the life of my poems depends.

"It is an awful truth, that there neither is nor can be any genuine enjoyment of poetry among nineteen out of twenty of those persons who live, or wish to live, in the broad light of the world - among those who either are, or are striving to make themselves, people of consideration in society. This is a truth, and an awful one; because to be incapable of a feeling of poetry, in my sense of the word, is to be without love of human nature and reverence for God."

With his deep conviction of the world's real, though unrecognized, need of a pure vein of poetry, we can hardly imagine him as permanently satisfied to defer his own contribution till after his death. Yet we may certainly believe that the need of money helped him to overcome much diffidence as to publication; and we may discern something dignified in his frank avowal of this when it is taken in connexion with his scrupulous abstinence from any attempt to win the suffrages of the multitude by means unworthy of his high vocation. He could never, indeed, have written poems which could have vied in immediate popularity with those of Byron or Scott. Wordsworth was willing to accept some years of real physical privation, and of the postponement for a generation of his legitimate fame.


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