Wordsworthshire

THOUSANDS of people climb eagerly each year to the high seats of the cheery four-handed coaches which roll through the Lake District of England, upon white roads winding over hill and dale, on driveways as smooth as marble pavement; but among these travelers it was left for I Lowell to hit upon the happy name for the whole region, and to christen it Wordsworthshire. It is Wordsworth who represents its centre; in that region he was born, in that region he died, and the little churchyard at Grasmere, where his grave is to be seen, lies so close to the stopping place of the coaches that either the most deliberate English guest, or the most hurried American, is able to step from his hotel after dinner and take a look at the storied spot while his horses are being reharnessed. Grasmere is the point at which Lake roads mainly centre, and so moderate is the British taste for stately monuments, when compared with the more showy habit of us Americans, that the simple gravestone of Wordsworth yet remains without disturbance, having the graves of the family around, and poor Hartley Coleridge’s stone set close behind, with the pathetic motto, “By Thy cross and passion,” carved upon it.

Almost all travelers view these modest memorials hastily, and then drive on. But the American pilgrim who has come from afar among the heights of Wordsworthshire has perhaps experienced as he went onward what John Keats (in 1818) described as being his feelings when he climbed Skiddaw, as if he were “going to a tournament.” Thus impressed, the traveler gathers by degrees in imagination a group of companions around him, in the semblance of those honored heroes who dwelt in Wordsworthshire so long. From the letters and descriptions, and even satires, of their day, he recognizes them by their very looks. He conjures up for himself such a group as might have visited Grasmere when the smooth, white, winding roads did not exist, and when the dashing coachmen were not; and when those who met were simply friends and acquaintances, gathered for outdoor comradeship, unmindful of fame.

First comes, for instance, a tall man with drooping and narrow shoulders, and legs so ill-shaped that though he had, as De Quincey estimates, walked one hundred and eighty thousand miles with them, some feminine critic remarked that he ought to have a better pair for Sundays. He wears a blue-black cape over a frilled shirt, and an old-fashioned cutaway coat with a bit of an old “ boxer” hat, whatever that may be, reinforced by an umbrella above his head, and a green shade over his eyes. This is Wordsworth. Then imagination brings up a man broadly built, of middle height, clumsy and rolling in gait, heavy faced, yet with magnificent forehead, and with jet black hair, now turning gray. That is Coleridge, Then comes a younger man, under-sized, with shuffling gait, prematurely gray, carrying his cane as if it were a gun, alternately running and stopping short; that is Hartley Coleridge; “the children’s poet” they call him, and he seems a grown-up child himself. Then there appears a slender and spectacled man, wearing a cap on his head, and wooden clogs on his feet; carrying a book in his hand and looking at you vaguely, as if you were a book, but he could not read you; this is Southey. A smaller man, but also slender, with large brown eyes, is De Quincey, of whom Southey said to a friend, “I will thank you, sir, to tell him that he is one of the greatest scoundrels living.” And there again, looking as if sent into the world to be a contrast to all these wise philosophers, is a man of great height and superb shoulders, dressed in loosely-collared shirt and white duck trousers, and standing by the tiller of his boat as it comes up to the pier on Windermere. This is Christopher North, less well known as John Wilson, who, when he springs on shore, will seem to make the earth tremble under him, with his agile weight. This man has before now walked, it is claimed, fifty-seven miles in eight hours, and has jumped the Cherwell where it is twenty-three feet wide. Then comes a tall, dark-eyed man with clerical and commanding look, and two fine boys beside him; he is Dr. Thomas Arnold; and the schoolboy John Ruskin is here watching them all. Add to these two ladies, Mrs. Wordsworth, so exquisitely described in the noblest poem of wedded love ever written, beginning “She was a phantom of delight,” and Dorothy Wordsworth, with her small figure, stooping shoulders, quick movements, and wild brown eyes, who has rejected, according to Disraeli, half a dozen lovers, including Hazlitt, in order to stay with her brother. This is the group which fancy calls around us, and they have come together, sometimes walking long distances over mountain paths from the various headquarters of poetic life among the lakes and mountains of Wordsworthshire. The especial charm which the American visitor finds there, indeed, is to choose for himself some one point of interest and make it the centre of his explorations.

The region of Wordsworthshire, of course, includes Cockermouth in Cumberland, where Wordsworth and his brothers and sisters were born, and Hawkshead, a quaint little hamlet of a few streets only, with stone houses such as he called “gray huts” fronting in different directions. This is where Wordsworth was sent to school after his mother’s death in his ninth year. Here he used to make a daily circuit of Esthwaite Lake, five miles round, before school hours, with a favorite schoolfellow, John Fleming, —

Repeating favorite verses with one voice,
Or conning more, as happy as the birds
That with us chanted.

Here, in the winter, when the lake was frozen, he got his materials for the only poem on skating which has found a real place in literature, although Mr. W. T. Palmer has lately published an admirable prose sketch called “Skating on Windermere” (Lake-Country Rambles). We know of Wordsworth, moreover, that his inexhaustible love of outdoor things was not, as in the case of so many Englishmen, merely a minor incident in some form of athletic sports, but that his mind was full of images of natural beauty, and that he also loved all exercise which was in itself daring and even perilous. He says in The Recluse,

Nothing at that time
So welcome, no temptation half so dear,
As that which urged me to a daring feat:
Deep pools, tall trees, black chasms, and dizzy crags,
And tottering towers — I loved to stand and read
Their looks.

Wordsworth’s earlier poems were largely written afar from the Lake District, while staying with Coleridge at Nether Stowey, but he and his sister removed to Grasmere in 1799. The poet Gray had visited that lake thirty years before, and had described the region as one of the “sweetest landscapes that art ever attempted to imitate.” He thus portrays it: “ The bosom of the mountains spreading here into a broad basin discovers in the midst Grasmere-Water. Its margin is hollowed into small bays, with bold eminences, some of rock, some of soft turf, that half conceal and vary the figure of the little lake they command. From the shore, a low promontory pushes itself far into the water, and on it stands a white village, with the parish church rising in the midst of it. Hanging inclosures, cornfields, and meadows, green as an emerald, with their trees, and hedges, and cattle, fill up the whole space from the edge of the water; and just opposite to you is a large farm-house, at the bottom of a steep smooth lawn, embosomed in old woods which climb halfway up the mountain side, and discover above them a broken line of crags that crown the scene. Not a single red tile, no flaring gentleman’s house, or garden walls, break in upon the repose of this little unsuspected paradise; but all is peace, rusticity, and happy poverty in its neatest and most becoming attire.”

This, or something approaching this, was still the condition in which Wordsworth and his sister found that region; and in his Description of the Scenery of the Lakes he earnestly deplores the manner in which highroads and summer visitors were just beginning to intrude. It was not until 1726 that an extensive system of roads had been even attempted in that region, where heretofore the only communication had been by means of pack-horses on rough mountain paths, and it was not. established, after its fashion, until 1750. Not until then was that immortal couplet called forth by village enthusiasm, —

Had you seen these roads before they were made
You would lift up your hands and bless General Wade.

It was to this region of peace that the Wordsworths betook themselves previous to the writing of the poem called The Recluse; he dwelling with his sister, of whom he says,—

Where’er my footsteps turned,
Her voice was like a hidden bird that sang;
The thought of her was like a flash of light
Or an unseen companionship, a breath
Of fragrance independent of the wind.

Here he wrote The Brothers, based on an actual fact occurring at Grasmere; here, too, The Idle Shepherd Boys, which Southey criticised as making the shepherd boys trim their hats with rushes, although, as Wordsworth says proudly, “Just as the words had passed his lips, two boys appeared with the very plant entwined around their hats.” Here, in describing a tarn beneath Helvellyn, he says,—

There sometimes doth a leaping fish
Send through the tarn a lonely cheer,

a statement which was gravely censured by good Mrs. Barbauld as impossible. Here he wrote The Pet Lamb, and turned the head of “ Little Barbara Lewthwaite, a child of beauty rare,” the heroine, through the fact that the poem was unluckily copied into a child’s reading book which had been introduced into her school; here he made the poem On the Naming of Places, beside a brook of which he says, “I have composed thousands of verses by the side of it.” Here Coleridge and Lamb visited him, but we get the amplest picture of these poet-lives in the diary of Dorothy Wordsworth, where, day by day, the events which suggested the poems were minutely described, with the circumstances under which each was written, and also the time and place where she copied it. There was such unity between these two that Wordsworth observed as well through her eyes as through his own, and often he seemed simply to versify her written descriptions. Later, after his marriage, his wife shared this influence over him. One of the points oftenest visited by the modern pilgrim is that still charming scene at Ullswater, in the woods below Gowbarrow Park, where daffodils begin to grow along the shore, and continue, as I can testify, into what Dorothy Wordsworth well describes as “a long belt” of them. This is the scene of the poem beginning, —

“ I wandered lonely as a cloud,”

and nothing better illustrates the extent to which Wordsworth himself really created descriptive outdoor poetry of simple nature in English literature than that this poem should have been at first ridiculed in a degree to call forth from Wordsworth the retort that “there were two lines in that little poem which, if thoroughly felt, would annihilate nine-tenths of the reviews of the kingdom, as they would find no readers.”These two lines were in reference to the daffodils,— and were contributed by Mrs. Wordsworth.

They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,

As, in a poet-haunted region, the visitor easily follows up the wanderings of the poet for the sake of the harvest he brought back from them, so the same visitor wishes to follow the poet back to his home to reach the humblest traditions of his personality which still linger there. Thus at Grasmere you can either row on the lake with its abundant water-lilies, which so disappoint an American by their scentlessness; or you can linger round the rose-covered Dove cottage, where the cheery old custodian remembers Wordsworth well, and tells you that he was thought “naught o’, naught o’ at a’,” in his lifetime, and then tolls you how she could have made her fortune by buying up the poet’s furniture, which was sold for a song after he died. Alas! she only bought two rugs and a chair, and now there is nothing left of them but shreds. Or you can visit Rydal Mount, on high, hilly ground, with trees and flowers and terraced walks, where, as another old woman tells you, Wordsworth used to walk up and down, “bumming awa’ wi’ his poetry,” and leaving his sister to pick up his rhymes, and write them out. In the region about Rydal Mount, Canon Rawnsley tells us, he was not recognized as Poet Laureate by his country neighbors, but was “nobbut old Wadsworth o’ Rydal,” the “stamp-maister.” Within the house at Rydal Mount, if you are fortunate enough to be admitted, you will see the cuckoo clock of which the poet wrote, and Haydon’s fine picture of him, which must have a genuine resemblance, as it strongly suggests that man of very distinguished appearance, the present Mr. William Wordsworth of Capri, grandson of the poet, and himself a favorite of the Muse, although modestly hiding his gifts by refusing to publish his productions.

At Grasmere, too, you see the rushbearing, a festival now preserved only there and at Ambleside, and drawing children and parents from long distances to a quaint old church dedicated to St. Oswald. This building is supposed to date back farther than the Norman Conquest, as it is mentioned in Doomsday Book, and its extant records stretch back over nearly eight centuries. Up to 1840, it had no floor above the bare earth, which it was the custom to strew with rushes immediately after the hay harvest in each year; and though the floor is long since built, the rush-bearing still takes place annually on the Saturday next after August 5, St. Oswald’s day. Though the ceremony occurs late in the afternoon, the children are gathering in all day, and sit upon the stone wall around the church waiting for the village band, or occasionally break away in smaller groups of two or three, holding aloft their wreaths or high, decked staves and crosses,in every conceivable variety of structure. They refresh themselves during the day with hot little gingerbread cakes from a little shop just outside the churchyard, where the omnipresent English old woman dispenses her counterfeit men and animals to an ever renewing group of children. After the straggling procession has finally passed by there awaits the elder guests a different entertainment in a wrestling match, coeval with the rush-bearing, but taking place at the other end of the village, where country youths, standing in a circle, try falls with one another in turn, all criticised as freely by the bystanders and measured as closely by their previous laurels as if they were on a cricket ground in England, or a baseball ground in America. Both of these old-time festivals are honest, quaint, simple, and commanding interest from all, lay or clerical. Hartley Coleridge, himself, used to head the rush-bearing, while he lived; and when one thinks of him one must recall with pitying tenderness the “philosopher child,” as he was called, who could not enjoy a ride in a wheelbarrow in boyhood, because, as he said, “the pity is that I’se always thinking of my thoughts; ”— a child so dreamy that five minutes after his mother had whipped him he would go up and ask her to whip him again, and so sensitive that if any one began to read from a newspaper he would leave the room for fear there should be something dreadful in it.

We learn from De Quincey’s Literary Reminiscences at least one side of that laborious author’s life at Dove Cottage, and we feel a curious desire to know the precise dimensions of the little sitting room which he describes as being “also and more justly termed the library,” and as “populous with books.” He gives the dimensions of the room as “seventeen feet by twelve, and seven and a half feet high,” and when I asked his old housekeeper how he could have found room for his bookshelves, since De Quincey himself gives the total number of his books as six thousand, she replied with surprise that his books were piled all round the wall to the ceiling. Sometimes they were in two or three piles, one above the other, and wherever there were chinks in the corners or where books of different sizes met, he chose those places for the safe-keeping of his money. Whenever he wanted a sovereign or two, she said, he went to some corner and fished it out. HereDe Quincey lived and studied, wrote and thought, drinking tea, as another narrator says, from “eight at night to four in the morning,” unless engaged in drinking something stronger out of a decanter behind the teapot. Hither he came to live unmarried in 1808, — eight years before his marriage to Margaret Simpson, — and here he remained until he removed to London.

Windermere has fewer strictly literary associations than Grasmere, but Professor John Wilson and his home at Elleray furnish such associations through the traditions of his long residence. This was first in the one-storied house with its great sycamore tree, still visible, of which he said that “not even in the days of the Druids could there have been such another tree. It would have been easier to suppose two Shakespeares.” It was at Elleray that in building his large new house, opposite, he put down turf instead of boards in his dining room, that he might take his favorite pursuit of cock-fighting by way of dessert. The country side all knew him, know that he could, in his own phrase, “sail a boat, or jump a long jump, or wrestle, or fight a cock, or write a stanza,” against any man in that region. Looking down on Windermere, where the visitor is now surprised at seeing so little sailing, he may recall the day when the “Admiral of the Lake,” as Wilson was called, in his ten-oared barge, headed the gay procession of fifty boats with music and streamers, winding its way among the islands and along the shore, that he might show to Scott, Wordsworth, Canning, Lockhart, and the rest, the charms of Windermere.

It has been well said that Greta Hall is to Keswick what Dove Cottage is to Grasmere. Coleridge lived there first, then Southey for forty years, while Coleridge usually wandered afar, Southey supporting his family. Charles Lamb describes his visit to Greta Hall, under protest, as he thought the dirt and mud of London so much better than anything else, that he wished hills, woods, lakes, and mountains “to the Eternal Devil;” but every American student finds it full of delightful associations. They show you the very rooms where Southey’s enormous collection of books, numbering fourteen thousand volumes, was kept; more than a thousand of these having been bound in cambric of various colors by the ladies of the household. These were kept in an especial chamber which he christened “the Cottonian library.” They show also the very place where he used to sit for hours out of doors reading or writing, his chair being placed on the bowling green. One may see in the church the impressive reclining marble statue of Southey, with its fine face and wonderfully youthful head of hair, hair that absolutely grew dark again, his son tells us, after becoming almost white, and was, moreover, only thicker as he grew older.

Southey was for many years Poet Laureate, and had a comfortable pension; his literary work was highly paid, but no author ever worked harder and more continuously. His daily life is best summed up for us in a lettter which he wrote in 1814 declining a certain proposition from an editor: “I can not get through more than at present, unless I give up sleep, or the little exercise which I take (and I walk to the Crag [one mile] before breakfast); and, that hour excepted, and my meals (barely the meals, for I remain not one minute after them), the pen or the book is always in my hand.” His one recreation was in a mountain excursion or picnic enterprise, in which he shone, for he thought little of a walk of twenty-five miles; or in all-day excursions with his own and the Coleridge children, as far as Otterbield Bay on Derwentwater. But the reader can scarcely wonder, after tracing the records of a life so absolutely laborious, how the inexhaustible student who followed it should have dwelt with a certain delight in his Omniana upon the little town of Norcia in the papal territories, where a law was made that all men who could read and write should be excluded from taking any part in the government, so that their Board of Control, consisting of four persons, was called Gli quatre Illiterati (“The Four Illiterates”). Nor can it cause surprise that, before he was sixtyeight, mind and memory both failed, and his greatest pleasure was in wandering about his library, taking down his books mechanically, and sometimes hiding them one behind another, so that he might in his second childishness look for them again.

Yet so great was Southey’s enjoyment, on the literary side, during this long sedentary career, that he wrote to Coleridge (March 12,1804), “Talk of the happiness of getting a great prize in the lottery ! What is that to the opening of a box of books! The joy of lifting up the cover must be something like what we shall feel when Peter the Porter opens the door up stairs, [into heaven] and says, ‘Please to walk in, sir!’ That I shall never be paid for my labor according to the current value of time and labor, is tolerably certain; but if anyone should offer me ten thousand pounds to forego that labor, I should bid him and his money go to the devil, for twice that sum could not purchase me half the enjoyment.” Four years later he wrote, “Huzza! two-and-twenty volumes already; the Cid, when reprinted, will make two more; and, please God, five a year in addition as long as I live.”

You go from Keswick up over Windy Brow to Chestnut Hill and still find in its garden and among its rhododendrons the pretty cottage whither Shelley, just expelled from Oxford, came at the age of nineteen (1811) with his bride of sixteen, both so poor that he wrote, “We are in danger every day of being deprived of the necessaries of life;” and where the young bride said in answer to an inquiry, “The garden is not ours; but then, you know, the people let us run about in it whenever Percy and I are tired of sitting in the house.” The visitor finds himself in the very room where the young poet wrote his address to the Irish people and many poems; where he tried chemical experiments after dark, and his landlord, Gideon Dare, drove him out of the house next day, as being concerned in what he called “black art.” Members of the Dare family still live there, and preserve the tradition with that fidelity always shown by descendants in commemorating even the eccentricities of their lawful progenitors; just as old college alumni show a pride even in the pranks of their classmates.

Mrs. Shelley’s remark about the garden was made, according to De Quincey, to one of the ladies of the Southey family who called upon the young people at the suggestion of the Duke of Norfolk, who took an interest in them. De Quincey, himself, regrets not having called upon Shelley, although thirteen miles away, — which was a trifle in the Lake District, — and would have been glad, he says, to offer him the use of his library “which, being rich in the wickedest of German speculations, would naturally have been more to Shelley’s taste than the Spanish library of Southey.” This was, it must be remembered, six years before Shelley had made himself famous by the Revolt of I slam.

Passing up in the same direction by what is called Rakefoot Lane, you turn, as Thomas Gray did in 1769, into a cornfield on the right called Castelrigg and see the same circle of Druid stones, some fifty in number, which he described. Druid stones and gypsies always seem to the American traveler in England so naturally associated and so nearly coeval that I remember to have seen with delight a large and quite luxurious gypsy wagon stationed near us as we went toward the stones. There were the occupants, with their horses feeding near them, children gamboling about, and a swarthy and handsome woman smiling at us as we waved a passing salute. Unfortunately for the picturesqueness of the world, the gypsies are steadily passing over to America, where they cease to be picturesque, and sometimes become even useful; while the Druid stones are left behind, although there have been, it is said, propositions sent across the Atlantic for the removal, or at least the purchase, of Stonehenge.

Descending to Derwentwater, you come out on Friars’ Crag, and stand in the spot where Ruskin drew his first impressions of the beauties of nature. He says in Modern Painters, “The first thing which I remember, as an event in life, was being taken by my nurse to the brow of Friars’ Crag on Derwentwater; the intense joy, mingled with awe, that I had in looking through the mossy roots, over the crag, into the dark lake, has associated itself more or less with all twinings of trees ever since.” He said afterwards, “The scene from Friars’ Crag is one of the three or four most beautiful views in Europe. And, when I first saw Keswick, it was a place almost too beautiful to live in.” Farther down the lake, in Otterbield Bay, is the place where Southey used to take his own and the Coleridge children on the water, as Mrs. Coleridge described it, “all day” and “pretty often during the summer.”

The descriptions of the mountains in Wordsworthshire by the Lake Poets and prose writers are apt to impress an American coming to this region — perhaps from among the Alps, if not from the Rocky Mountains or the Himalayas — with a sense of extreme exaggeration. They are called “vast and towering masses,” “enormous barriers,” and Scott wrote of “the mighty Helvellyn and Catchedecam.” But all thought of comparative criticism soon passes from the visitor’s mind, since the mountains of the Lake District are so striking in themselves, and are set off in such a marked way by the valleys as to create their own standard of measurement; and one no more criticises them in respect to size alone than one complains of a family of tall and wellbuilt men for not being a set of Patagonian giants. The peculiarity of the valleys, moreover, pointed out long since by Wordsworth, is that they are not merely convex cups, as in most mountain regions, but are more like level floors, marking out definitely the abruptly rising heights, and so enhancing them. “They are not formed, as are most of the celebrated Welsh vallies,” Wordsworth says, “by an approximation of the sloping bases of the opposite mountains towards each other, leaving little more between than a channel for the passage of a hasty river; but the bottom of these vallies is, for the most part, a spacious and gently declining area, apparently level as the floor of a temple, or the surface of a lake, and beautifully broken, in many cases, by rocks and hills, which rise up like islands from the plain.”

These valleys, moreover, do not lie along large streams, and the lakes they hold are fed at most by a mountain torrent, justly baptized as a “force.” A “tarn” is usually a small lake, part wayup the mountain side, and has, as Wordsworth points out, no main feeder, and its name, perhaps, vindicates De Quincey’s derivation of the word, that it comes from the Danish “taaren,” a trickling, being a gradual accumulation of water from the surfaces of rock. There are often masses of rook or detached boulders around the edges of these tarns; and Tennyson, always an accurate observer of nature, says that his hero —

Roving the trackless realms of Lyonness Had found a glen, gray boulder and black tarn.

All observations of English natural scenery are sure, after all, to lead us back to Tennyson. Carlyle met him and his wife in the Lake District on their wedding journey and described him as having “a great shock of rough dusty dark hair, bright laughing hazel eyes, massive aquiline face, most massive yet most delicate, of sallow brown complexion almost lndian-looking, clothes cynically loose, free and easy. Hiis voice musically metallic, fit for loud laughter and piercing wail, and all that may lie between.”

The Laureate Wordsworth was then just dead, and a new Laureate was soon to reign in Tennyson himself, a literary sovereign whose throne was to be far from Wordsworthhire.