Wordsworth Slept Here

And so did Charlotte Bronte and James Murray and E. M. Forster and Beatrix Potter

NO country on earth takes more pride in its literary heritage than Britain does -- nor has any other place made such a thriving industry of it. In high season Stratford teems with bardolaters, and Haworth with busloads of Brontëans who troop through the parsonage and gaze at the prototypes for Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. In London almost every street has a house with a round powder-blue plaque informing you what Dickens or Dr. Johnson or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did there.

And no place on this bookish island is richer with literary associations than the Lake District, in Cumbria, England's northwest corner. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge launched what became known as the Romantic movement in literature with the publication of Lyrical Ballads (1798), in which many of the best and most popular poems were Wordsworth's meditations on the region's landscape and philosophical narratives about the lives of the people who lived there. His head full of democratic ideas after a sojourn in revolutionary France, Wordsworth wanted to show "that men who do not wear fine cloaths can feel deeply." He was a native of the Lake District, having been born in Cockermouth in 1770, and he lived in the area for most of his eighty years. In December of 1799, at the height of his powers, Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, set up their home near the village of Grasmere, in a former tavern, the Dove and Olive Branch, now called Dove Cottage. A few years later Wordsworth took a wife, Mary Hutchinson, who had been a childhood friend. The three lived together from then on.

The restored cottage, which has been open to tourists since 1891 (Woodrow Wilson came here on a cycling tour in 1899), is the Kaabah of a Lake District haj, a must-see for all pilgrims. Wordsworth wrote many of his finest poems here, including "Michael," "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," and the first version of his masterpiece, The Prelude. Every scribbling somebody dropped by for a visit at one time or another. Coleridge was a constant visitor, as, later, was the poet laureate Robert Southey, better remembered today for being the butt of Byron's derisive wit than for his own verse (though his children's story "The Three Bears" is as certain of immortality as anything ever written). Dorothy Wordsworth kept a trenchant, entertaining journal of her life with the poets in the cottage. And after the Wordsworths moved out, in 1808, to settle in another house nearby, Thomas De Quincey took the place over and wrote Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, a vivid, anecdotal account of his life and nightmares in Dove Cottage.

Fling an inkpot in Grasmere and you'll hit something with a literary association. A hundred feet from Dove Cottage is an ugly twentieth-century bungalow where Malcolm Lowry lived briefly (it's constructed of asbestos, and scheduled to be torn down soon). A hundred feet in the opposite direction is How Foot, a stately Victorian stone house that was the holiday home of the Reverend William Spooner (1844-1930), whose contribution to the language was the slips of the tongue called spoonerisms -- "God bless our queer old dean," for example, and "You have hissed the mystery lectures." How Foot is now a comfortable bed-and-breakfast run by the Wordsworth Trust, which also administers Dove Cottage.

Personally, I don't find it terribly edifying to look at the chairs and tables where great authors sat and wrote. (It's a bit like being shown George Washington's shovel at Mount Vernon: How do they know it was really his? Why is it more interesting than my shovel?) I confess, however, that I was fascinated by De Quincey's opium pipes and scales. And the tour of Dove Cottage is in fact well done and enjoyable, especially if the weather's fine and the guide lets you go into the garden. But the Grasmere and Wordsworth Museum, next door, is much more enlightening about the lives and works of the writers associated with the place. In addition to manuscripts of famous literary works, the museum has an excellent collection of portraits and landscape paintings of the region.

Over the years the director of the Wordsworth Trust, Robert Woof, has mounted a series of widely praised temporary exhibitions, which have helped to earn the Grasmere and Wordsworth Museum a reputation as one of the finest small museums in the United Kingdom. Some of these exhibitions have traveled to London and even as far afield as New York. This summer the museum is presenting an ambitious retrospective of the first thousand years of English poetry, from Beowulf -- in the form of Seamus Heaney's manuscript of his recent translation -- to Tennyson's In Memoriam and Wordsworth's final version of The Prelude. (These last two were published in 1850, the year Wordsworth died and Tennyson succeeded him as poet laureate.) The array of loans is impressive: Chaucer's manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, Paul Getty's copy of Spenser's The Faerie Queene, manuscripts of some of the best-known works of Donne, Shelley, Byron, Keats, the Brontës -- and even Browning's attack on Wordsworth for becoming poet laureate: "Just for a handful of silver he left us." The exhibition was opened in April by Britain's current poet laureate, Andrew Motion, and continues until October 31. Wordsworth attained such pre-eminence in his later life that Grasmere became a literary shrine almost immediately upon his death. Much in the village remains as it was: gray-slate houses and fences, cobbled pathways, and ancient trees, all encrusted with shaggy moss and lichen. Everybody has a favorite candidate for the most charming little village in England, and Grasmere is mine. A narrow winding lane crosses a brook (which does, in fact, babble), bringing you to the parish church, squat old Saint Oswald's, parts of which date back to the thirteenth century. West of the church is the Rectory, which the Wordsworths rented a few years after they moved out of Dove Cottage. The poet and most of his family are buried in the churchyard, along with Coleridge's brilliant, volatile son Hartley. Next to the churchyard gate is a preposterously quaint gingerbread shop, built in 1660, formerly the schoolhouse where the little Wordsworths learned their letters.

And so forth, and so on, all over the place. I've left out the inn where Walter Scott would go for a chop after eating the frugal meals served at Dove Cottage, and the tarn where James Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, had an ecstatic religious experience. The list of literary visitors to Grasmere -- from the arrival, in 1769, of Thomas Gray, who called it "a little unsuspected paradise," to the present day, when Britain's best-known poets come to give public readings of their work -- is pretty close to encyclopedic: Keats, Tennyson, Ruskin, Swinburne, Hardy, John Stuart Mill, Charles and Mary Lamb, James Hogg, Thomas and Matthew Arnold, Charlotte Brontë, Edward FitzGerald, Lewis Carroll, E. M. Forster, W. H. Auden, John Betjeman, C. Day-Lewis. There are more, entertainingly chronicled in A Literary Guide to the Lake District, by Grevel Lindop, who is a poet himself.

The writer and artist who is today Wordsworth's most formidable rival for the hearts (and pounds) of visitors to the Lake District, however, is Beatrix Potter. Hill Top, her farmhouse in the tiny village of Sawrey, to the south of Grasmere, attracts almost as many pilgrims as Dove Cottage. The Japanese are particularly fond of her. Hill Top is a lovely old house with a beautiful view, but dried-up brushes and ink bottles don't do much more for me than old shovels do. Nonetheless, it makes a pleasant morning's jaunt, and they do a good fish and chips at the pub next door, the Tower Bank Arms, which has been in business since 1650.

is the author of The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science, and the Natural Order of the Universe (1993).

The Atlantic Monthly; June 2000; Wordsworth Slept Here - 00.06 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 6; page 32-39.