How William Wordsworth changed our view of the landscape
PUBLISHED: 00:00 03 July 2020
Credit: Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy Stock Photo
Celebrating the 250th anniversary of William Wordsworth’s birth, Liz Hamilton looks at how his vision informed conservation and how we see the natural world.
William Wordsworth was born 250 years ago, on April 7, 1770; a timely anniversary as the nation rediscovers connections with nature, and will perhaps lead to a resurgence of interest in his work. More rooted in the natural world than any previous poet, he changed the nature of English poetry and our perception of the landscape. As a child he relished the freedom to explore the countryside around his home in Cockermouth, on the north-western edge of the Lake District. His mother died just before his eighth birthday, and his father five years later. Feelings of loss appear in his poetry repeatedly, but he found consolation in nature. He often walked alone and the working people and travellers he met appear in his poetry, as do the physical features of the landscape and its wildlife.
As a child Wordsworth experienced episodes when he felt mysterious forces emanating from the physical landscape. He referred to them as ‘spots of time’ when ‘our minds… are nourished, and invisibly repaired’. He took a boat out on to a lake at night and was alarmed by a towering cliff, which seemed ‘like a living thing’. On other occasions he felt a spirit or sublime presence emanating from the rocks and cliffs.
Wordsworth began writing poetry before he left his school in Hawkshead for Cambridge in 1787. Three years later he toured Europe with a friend during the long summer holiday. They visited France, Switzerland and Germany, and crossed the Alps, walking most of the way and sometimes covering 40 miles a day. They were in Paris on July 14, 1790, the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. At that time Wordsworth was greatly uplifted by the French Revolution; he later wrote:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven!
Returning to France the following year he experienced The Terror and became disillusioned about revolutionary political action. During that second stay he fell in love with a Frenchwoman who gave birth to their daughter. Being unable to stay with them added to his enduring feelings of loss.
Back in England his first volume of poetry was published in 1793. In 1795 his only sister, Dorothy, joined him. They were to live under the same roof for the rest of their lives. They moved to the West Country; later the poet Coleridge came to live nearby and together they explored the Quantock hills in Somerset. It was to be the start of Wordsworth’s most creative period. The two men produced a joint volume of poetry in 1798, Lyrical Ballads, received with mixed reviews. His acquaintance with Coleridge lasted for many years – it was not always a friendly one, but undoubtedly Coleridge had the greatest influence on Wordsworth’s poetry. In the same year William and Dorothy made a short walking tour in the Wye Valley, which William had visited alone five years earlier.
Later in 1798 William and Dorothy travelled to Germany, where they encountered the burgeoning Romantic movement. A year later they moved to Dove Cottage in Grasmere in the Lake District, the start of an idyllic period for them both. A second volume of Lyrical Ballads published in 1801 contained poems only by Wordsworth, many set in northern England and especially around the Lake District, all written with a strong sense of place.
Wordsworth wrote poems about a mysterious girl he called Lucy. Was she another lover or did she represent collectively the people he had loved and lost? The language of these poems is often simple yet powerful:
A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks and stones and trees.
Three years after settling in Grasmere a long-standing debt owed to their father was finally settled. It was enough money to enable William to marry a childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson. Before the wedding William and Dorothy travelled to France to break the news to William’s former mistress, and met his daughter, now aged nine.
Five children were born to William and Mary, although two died young – more loss to bear. In 1813 the family moved to Rydal Mount, a house big enough for the enlarged family, where they lived for the rest of their lives, joined by Mary’s sister until her death in 1835.
William’s relationship with his sister Dorothy has been the subject of much speculation. She was clearly devoted to him and although greatly distressed by his marriage, continued to share his house. Perhaps she had no choice but to stay in the household, although it’s said that she declined offers of marriage.
What is clear is that Dorothy had a talent for prose writing, especially evident in her journals which she began in 1802 (the first was eventually published in 1897). She wrote how she was: ‘always writing out, rewriting, stitching up’ her brother’s poems. She may have revised them as well. To what extent did she improve on William’s ideas? She certainly inspired his poetry by helping him to understand the beauty of landscapes and it’s clear that some of William’s recollections were prompted by her journals.
William continued to write and to publish his work, sometimes poems he had written years earlier. The books sold poorly and often received savage reviews: the poems were derided for their apparently simplistic depictions of natural objects and landscapes. Wordsworth’s 1804 poem about daffodils he saw on the shores of Ullswater in the Lake District is one of his best known, reflecting on the solace he found in memories of past encounters with the natural world:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the daffodils.
In 1813 Wordsworth was appointed Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland, an Inland Revenue appointment earning him £400 a year. With a large household to support he undoubtedly needed the money. It is fitting that to mark the Wordsworth anniversary the Royal Mail brought out a set of stamps featuring 10 poets, the first of them Wordsworth. His stamp features the opening two lines of his poem, The Rainbow, written in 1802:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So is it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
Between 1797 and 1807 Wordsworth wrote his most memorable poetry. Afterwards, his inspiration dwindled as his fame as a poet grew. Earlier critics revised their opinions, recognising the originality of his subject matter and the quality of his writing. Younger poets such as Keats and Shelley said Wordsworth had inspired them.
When Wordsworth campaigned in support of the local Tory candidate in the 1818 General Election, he was criticised by younger poets who admired his earlier revolutionary stance. He said he saw in the Tories the chance of stable government, as he never got over his fear and revulsion of the Reign of Terror. In 1845 a further establishment post came his way when he became Poet Laureate, succeeding his friend and fellow ‘Lake Poet’ Robert Southey, who had died. The third member of the Lake Poet trio was Coleridge.
While his poetry never sold well, Wordsworth’s prose guidebook to the Lake District became a bestseller. Visitors to Rydal Mount after his death sometimes asked if Wordsworth had written anything else. Wordsworth first published his guide in 1820 to accompany a volume of his poems. He wanted to describe the nature of the place he loved, and the farming community, remote from government, which he thought was an ‘almost visionary mountain republic’. He also criticised recent changes to the landscape including new ‘obtrusive’ houses built for incomers, and larch plantations so different from the woods formed by nature.
He went further, saying that the Lake District should be regarded as ‘a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy’ – as revolutionary an idea as any of his earlier writing. The guide was republished without the poems in 1822 as A Description of the Scenery of the Lakes in the North of England. The founders of the National Trust in 1895 and the Campaign to Protect Rural England in 1926 were successors to Wordsworth’s ambition for the area, eventually realised in 1951, 101 years after his death in 1850.
In the 1830s Wordsworth was credited with ‘the regeneration of our national poetry’ and in the 1870s was ranked with Shakespeare and Milton. In 1864 the label Romantics was given to Wordsworth, Coleridge and their successors, whose focus was the natural landscape, free expression of emotions and rebellion against the previous social order. The publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798 was seen as the starting point for the movement in Britain.