Lesley Choyce wanders through Celtic Cumbria in search of Wordsworth, wisdom and wonder. Read more here;
Today was our day to head north to Keswick and then back down to Grasmere itself, ground zero for Wordsworthian connections. I was giddy over the idea of simply being here, with my wife and my own intimations of immortality singing to me from every quarter. Already I was remembering back to my readings of The Prelude in Manhattan and how much the archaic language of Wordsworth’s prose had resonated with me when he wrote about where his inspiration came from. “Emotion recollected in tranquility,” he wrote makes for good poetry. My graduate school professor, who actually smoked a cigarette in a cigarette holder during classes, had taken the trouble to quote T. S. Eliot’s malignant view on this principle. Eliot had written, “Consequently, we must believe that “emotion recollected in tranquility” is an inexact formula – for it is neither emotion, nor recollection, nor, without distortion of meaning, tranquility.” And I had thought, Screw you, frigging Prufrock. Don’t even dare to eat a peach, eh?
Thus there would be no pilgrimages to Mr. Eliot’s birthplace in East Coker. No, today was all about the Wordsworths and connecting with the deep past. I admitted to myself, though, how much tougher it had become these days to find that tranquility the poet spoke of and indulge in the luxurious license to recollect old emotion. But he was right, of course, and I needed to remember that. Once we were young and our emotions were explosive. Once the world really was “Apparelled in celestial light, The glory and the freshness of a dream.” And did we always eventually lose sight of that, each one of us?
It is not now as it hath been of yore;
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
But enough of that, I said to birds outside my window, as I got up to make us coffee.
We passed through Grasmere first and then north along another skinny, glacially-formed finger lake known as Thirlmere with the heights of Great Dodd to the right and High Seat to the left. First stop was the stone circle called Castlerigg just shy of Keswick.
Rather than driving into Keswick and following well positioned signs on a substantial road, I took a shortcut I saw on my map which turned out to be yet another single-track lane with stone walls on either side and no pull offs to speak of. I booted it down the road lest we encountered an advancing car and it blessedly spilled us out the other end into a well-marked parking area and a field of visitors snapping photos with absurdly long-lensed cameras.
Wordsworth took his druggie buddy Samuel Taylor Coleridge here in 1799 and the author of “Kublai Kahn” wrote that here was “…a Druidical circle…the mountains stand one behind the other, in orderly array as if evoked by, and attentive to, the assembly of white-vested wizards.” The two poets did note that some of the stones had been splashed with white paint by vandals or sloppy eighteenth century graffiti artists, but that couldn’t quite diminish the full grandeur. On another occasion, Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy visited Castlerigg only to discover that those damn tourists from the south who had come in on the Windermere train had found it out and that, as a result, it had completely lost its charm due to the crowds.
More recently, Lonely Planet described it this way: “Set on a hilltop a mile east of town, this jaw-dropping stone circle consists of 48 stones that are between 3000 and 4000 years old, surrounded by a dramatic ring of mountain peaks.” Jaw-dropping, I will admit, is not an exaggeration. And, hey, it’s older than Stonehenge by a few thousand years, and it has been determined that the circle served some sort of astronomical purpose as well as a spiritual dimension because, even today, locals see strange lights coming from the stones at night.
I was just happy to be here, sidestepping sheep poop on such a generous morning and gloating over the fact that this ancient structure was less developed than Stonehenge and had a much grander view of the country around it as Coleridge had noted.
As we left, we took the wider well-maintained road to downtown Keswick. My first impression was that there wasn’t much of interest here. But I was wrong. For here was the Derwent Pencil Museum. Yes, a museum devoted to the history of the pencil with its own café and gift shop. What more could a writer ask for? One online reviewer, Michael Gooch, summed it up nicely:“We love this place. It’s a beautifully simple and happy museum – a celebration of a childhood tool. It always brings a smile to my face.”
Well said, Michael. I’m not sure where he is from or who he is but I envisioned him waking up his young family on a crisp Saturday morning saying something like, “Wake up kids. Guess what? Today we’re going the pencil museum in Keswick.”
If that weren’t enough excitement for one day, then Michael would probably take his crew on over to the Keswick Museum and Art Gallery where dogs are welcome and reviewers give it high marks for its cleanliness. Here are “musical stones” and a giant xylophone and more importantly a display of stone axes, other “industrial artefacts” (including pencils!), and for some strange reason, Napoleon’s very own teacup. How the French dictator’s teacup came to Keswick is another story but I grieved that I did not have my dog here with me to say, “Look, Kelty, there’s ole Napoleon’s cup from which he sipped tea.”
We probably should have lingered longer in Keswick, as it seemed bubbling with possibilities, but the dead poet was whispering in my ear that it was time to pay homage.
Thus, we backtracked south on A 591 to Grasmere where Wordsworth is not so much a poet as a cottage industry. I’d visited here once many years ago and what I most remembered was that there was a display of Wordsworth’s shoes and socks behind glass in the museum near Dove Cottage. Well, he was a hell of a hiker, so why not? And perhaps it was just a good reminder that even legendary poets put their socks on one at a time when they awake to the symphony of songbirds on a splendid morning in Cumbria.
Another book I had been carrying around was H.V. Morton’s somewhat-classic In Search of England. The author had visited Grasmere in the 1920s. He wrote,
“No matter what opinion you have of Wordsworth as a poet, you must recognize him as a great, but unconscious, publicity agent. The solitudes he once loved are now well populated.”
And, by 2018, they were even more populated. Grasmere was a most busy little burgh with crowded coffee shops and discount outdoor stores where you could buy a full complement of ordnance maps. There were more than a few hiking trails hereabouts where you could see wide-brim-hatted men and women poring over those ordinance maps spread out over large boulders, trying to determine if they could get to the next tarn by hiking over the beckoning fell.
I was trying not to share Morton’s cynicism, as I had plenty of my own to weigh me down in a place like Grasmere. However, Morton had written, “One of England’s great sights is that of a New York businessman, determined to get every cent of value from his tour, trying to work up enthusiasm for Wordsworth in the little churchyard at Grasmere.” This struck me as curious in that my own enthusiasm for the great poet was formed back in my seminar room twelve stories above Forty-Second Street and riveted into place later while reading Lyrical Ballads at lunchtime in Bryant Park.
And so it was time to park the car, pay the meter with appropriate contemporary coins recognized by the electronic machine, and drop into Dove Cottage itself. It was a guided tour, which I sometimes dread, but there was an articulate, spirited and informative guide who took our small group into a dark room and said, “And there is the chair where Wordsworth sat and wrote.” I was pleased to note a painting of a dog on the wall. According to our host, this was Wordsworth’s dog, Pepper, given to him to by none other than Sir Walter Scott. According to the BBC, “The great Scottish novelist was an amateur breeder and used to name his dogs according to their furs. The dogs were usually called Ginger, Pepper or Mustard.”
Well, I was mightily pleased to see the artwork of the handsome mutt first thing as we entered. It was indeed a dark and gloomy house throughout, but then most of the Wordsworth’s inspiration came from outdoors. These days, scholars recognize that Dorothy had much to do with her brother’s poetry, his fame and his success. She kept extensive journals about everything and, according to our guide, tried to write down William’s oral creation of his poetry as he muttered away while the two of them hiked mile after mile.
Wordsworth scholar Suzanne Stewart of St. Francis Xavier University had written to me about the extensive hikes taken by the two Wordsworths and sent along this quote from Dorothy’s 1818 journal:
“At 46 I can walk 16 miles in 4 and ¾ hours with short rests between on a blustering cold day, without having felt any fatigue except for the first ½ hour after my entrance into the house at my journey’s end when my body remembered the force of the blast and I was exhausted.”
Stewart notes, “I imagine her as a small woman, with little legs and wondered how she managed this,” and adds that by 1820 Dorothy was frail and unhealthy and spent the last twenty years of her life indoors, “confined” in her “prison house,” as she would say.
Both brother and sister loved the outdoors and they loved dogs. On a six day “holiday ramble,” Dorothy wrote, “Mrs. Luff’s large white dog lay in the moonshine upon the round knoll under the old yew-tree, a beautiful and romantic image – the dark tree with its dark shadow, and the elegant creature as fair as a Spirit.”
No wonder that a painting of a dog greeted the thousands of visitors as they first entered Dove Cottage.
Coleridge lived here with the Wordsworths for extended periods of time and, according to our cheerful guide, they rather accepted his opium habit without judgement. Robert Southey had stayed here too, she said, but the blank faces all around the dark room revealed that none of us knew a damn thing (or cared about) Southey.
Poets do mostly come and go in England and elsewhere and are quickly shuffled out of the national canon like so much dandruff brushed from the shoulders of gentlemen.
The Encyclopedia Britannica is not exaggerating when it says “Southey’s poetry is little read today…” although he wrote, “lucid, relaxed, observant accounts of contemporary life.” His portrait in the Wordsworth house suggested he was slightly effeminate as were many of the Romantic poets and he appears relaxed, yes, but somewhat aloof and full of himself – which I guess you can say of most of the well-known Romantic poets, if not most twenty-first century pop stars who may indeed be looked upon as the poets of our time.
Southey was heavily influenced by Wordsworth and Coleridge, and Walter Scott liked him enough to have him installed as poet laureate rather than giving him a dog for a pet. Southey was an opinionated man and disliked Lord Byron in particular. The two of them got involved with what Britannica called an “imbroglio,” which is a polite term that I had to look up. Apparently an imbroglio is “an unwanted, difficult, and confusing situation, full of trouble and problems,” according the The Cambridge English Dictionary.
And before we relegate the poet laureate to the dustbins of history, lest we forget that he wrote “The Story of the Three Bears” which trickled down over time as the traditional children’s Goldilocks tale. If Southey were alive, and could still collect royalties on the silly tale, he would be one wealthy fellow.
Our guide gave us the impression that William was more than a bit of a kook himself and, at times, a grumpy brother who was looked after by his sister and his sister’s best friend, his wife Mary Hutchinson. And the house really was a cramped, dark dungeon of sorts that was probably quite cold much of the year so I can see why it was preferable to be out hiking the hills soaking in as much sunshine as possible while conjuring up odes to everything under the sun. And let’s face it; Wordsworth was pretty much opposed to civilization with its industrialization, urban squalor, materialism, burgeoning tourism and wholesale destruction of nature. He preferred the forest, the field, the fells, the tarns, the esks, the waters and all the wildlife therein.
And yes, here was Wordsworth’s writing desk, his favourite chair, his wash basin, his bed and over there in the corner his chamber pot.
We were then directed out back into the garden where the bees were buzzing and the birds singing – all so perfectly orchestrated to seem like a poem that it’s possible they were staged by the foundation that kept the house in proper condition and raked in the cash of visitors like us.
Next up was a tour of the Wordsworth Museum that I had been looking forward to, including manuscripts behind glass and whatever personal artefacts had been saved after the great poet had gone on to his next incarnation. But just as we were about to enter, a fire alarm went off inside the museum. “Oh dear,” our guide said. “I’m sure it’s nothing but we can’t go in until a fire official comes to give us an all clear.”
England was, after all, a country with a lot of rules and regulations and fire or no fire, things were meant to be done properly. None of the staff were certain exactly who the proper authority was to give the all-clear, but they would look into it. With that in mind, Linda and I decided to wander the town and come back after the appropriate inspection had taken place. I made a mental note to write a poem called “Fire Alarm at the Wordsworth Museum,” as we made our way into the bustling town buzzing with tourists instead of bees but still charming and quaint – or at least as quaint as a Lake District tourist destination can be with busloads of visitors unloading near the chapel.
Linda was looking for some new sports apparel for running so we ended up in one of a dozen outdoor type shops that reminded me of just how much the English love to hike.
Here was a treasure trove of those massive folding ordinance maps and aluminum walking sticks, folding plastic dog dishes, expensive shiny backpacks, sleeping bags that would keep you warm down to – 20 degrees Fahrenheit, nylon tents with mosquito netting, endless quantities of expensive outdoor shoes and much more. I found myself studying a display case of compasses and found some satisfaction in thinking that not everyone afoot in the hills carries a GPS or some other device tuned in to a satellite. I almost always travel with a compass myself, on an airplane or hiking in the woods. It’s a habit that goes back to Boy Scout days. If I were truly lost in the fells near here I may not be savvy enough of the lay of the land to find my way back to civilization but I’d damn well know where north was. But then, most of the waters (lakes) hereabouts ran north to south (just like back home in Nova Scotia) thanks to the scraping of the long powerful claws of the glaciers. So, even without a compass, I’d have a 50/50 chance of finding north.
As Linda was finishing her shopping, I noticed that on the counter was a display of smallish hobby drones that were on sale. I asked the dapper looking clerk if the drones were popular with hikers. “Oh, yes. We just started carrying them. Folks come up from London and they either have their own or they like to buy them. One fellow said that if you get yourself good and lost, you just send up your drone high enough so you can figure out where you are.”
I was afraid to ask but I’m sure that, lately, the sale of compasses was well down from previous years.
Not knowing how swiftly the fire safety bureaucrats could do their job, we decided to have an early lunch at one of those nursery/garden supply establishments that doubled as a cafeteria style restaurant. So it was fish and chips at the Pot Shed. I had my copy of Man Seeks God with me and, once sated on the seafood and spuds, I thumbed through it while Linda looked over the plants and garden ornaments that we couldn’t possibly take with us back to North America. I was reading the chapter titled “God is a State of Mind” about Buddhism and noted that the author’s mentor on the subject – a young Jewish man from Long Island – insisted that for Buddhists, it’s all about intentions not results.
Wow, did that ever resonate with me, the sometimes king (or at least prince) of lost causes. My father, I suppose, was the one who taught me that you should always do the right thing – which I believe is different from the proper thing – even if you expect to fail. The right thing being the kind thing, the compassionate thing, dare I even say the noble thing.
Linda retrieved me from my mini-spiritual reverie just as the busloads of tourists were leaving the cafeteria line and looking for a place to sit.
Back at the museum, it was all clear as we showed our ticket stubs from the morning and were permitted entrance. Here were those artefacts and manuscripts and various quotes displayed by the poet who was either ecstatic or despondent about just about everything. William almost single-handedly launched poetry into an emotionally-heightened bipolar phase where one was either higher than a kite on the positive side of living or deep down in the basement of despair and celebrating that as well. If you are ever in doubt about the manic depressive nature of the Romantics, read Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy” – Ay, in the very temple of Delight, Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.
In the museum I remembered that in an old notebook, I had once scribbled a quote from Wordsworth:
Dreams, books, are each a world; and books, we know,
Are a substantial world, both pure and good:
Round these, with tendrils strong as flesh and blood,
Our pastime and our happiness will grow.
I sometimes wrote that line on the blackboard for my students to let them ponder the thought and would occasionally become despondent myself when the only questions that would arise would concern the oddness of the poet’s use of punctuation and capitalization.
Among the many paintings in the museum is one of Wordsworth with his right hand held to his forehead. He was either deep in thought or he had a headache or maybe both.
It is a famous painting, but to me it appeared much more human than so many of the other portraits I’d seen. “The world is too much with us,” it seemed to say. I was somewhat thankful that so much of Wordsworth’s world was preserved here – his letters, his handwritten manuscripts, his walking stick and, of course, there they were, shielded behind glass so they could not be touched and sullied – his shoes and his socks that I had marvelled at and written a poem about decades ago.
The world had changed greatly since the early 1980s when I had first arrived at Grasmere, but not Wordsworth’s socks. They were right there where I had seen them so long ago. For me, the sight was a kind of anchor in time. I felt confident that for years in the future, those socks would still be there, stared at by visitors from around the world. I thought about my daughter Pamela, who was expecting twin daughters. Sometime after the two girls turned 21 I would ask them to make a pilgrimage to Grasmere to check on those socks. When I shared this thought with Linda, possibly with moist eyes, I’m not sure, she said, “I think it’s time to get you out of here.”
And, as always, she was right. Alas, we retreated south through Ambleside
We drove further down the lake to Bowness-on-Windermere but couldn’t find a single place to park so returned home to Birthwaite Cottage, left the car and walked into town for a beer at the Crafty Baa with its cartoony images of sheep. (Get it? Crafty as in beer… Baa as in…). It was about as small as a pub could possibly be and a carpenter was doing some kind of repairs to the front door. He asked if he could put his hammer and level on our small round table which was a recycled cable spool, I believe. We said he could and he was careful not to knock our twin glasses of Cumbria IPA as he worked and retrieved his tools. My head was still swimming with thinking about Wordsworth, the future and a life lived with good intentions without worrying about results.
As you can tell, I can be a bit long-winded, prone to going on tangents, mental meanderings and near-purposeless ponderings. After going on a bit like that to my dear wife, the IPA finally settled me down. Think of a wind-up toy dancer as the spring is nearly fully unwound.
To sum up the rest of the day thereafter, I’ll quote directly from my succinct wife and her notebook where she wrote, “Walked path back from town. Cod for dinner.”