Monday, 11 January 2010


Wordsworth left Dove Cottage at some point late in May 1808. The cottage is of a liberal size but not enormous. Coleridge wished to live with the family, Mary was pregnant with their fourth child and more and more visitors came to call and required lodging.

The family moved into Allan Bank, a large house over the other side of the lake. In 1805 when it was built Wordsworth had called this new addition to the village a "temple of abomination", but with no other house of a sufficient size on offer he ended up renting the property from its owner Mr Crump. It is much larger than Dove Cottage, more of a stately home, with a large square central foyer surrounded by a grand stairway and balcony. Wordsworth commented that you could see the house from anywhere in the village. You can see it today, the colour of a smoker's tooth. The family never really settled there. Coleridge was staying with them and drinking a great deal as well as taking large amounts of opium. It was at this point the friendship between the Wordsworths and Coleridge began to seriously deteriorate.

The Crumps had let Allan Bank on the condition they should have it back when they required it. Around June 1811, the family were forced to move again, this time to the Old Rectory in the centre of the village. The house was large and damp, Sara Hutchinson, who had left the group - in order it seems to escape the attentions of Coleridge - prophetically called the Rectory "a deathly house". Two of the Wordsworth children died there in 1812. First three-year old Catharine, who had always been sickly and suffered from convulsions, and then six-year old Thomas caught measles in the winter. They were buried next to each other in the churchyard, and their graves could be seen from the house. It was perhaps because this constant reminder was unbearable, along with a felicitous increase in income when Wordsworth was appointed Westmoreland Distributor of Stamps in 1813, that the family again rehomed themselves, this time permanently, in Rydal Mount, halfway between Grasmere and Ambleside.

Wordsworth's final home was a memorial even while he lived. Whereas only the most intrepid and enthusiastic admirers, such as De Quincey, had traced him to Dove Cottage, Rydal Mount was marked in guidebooks of the time as the home of the eminent Victorian. But I wish to leave the story in Grasmere, as I myself prepare to leave, along with the rest of the class of 2009. When Wordsworth left his little home in Town End its life continued. First De Quincey filled it with his 5,000 books. Then it was a guesthouse. And then the Trust was born and the house saved for prosperity. Had it not been bought in 1891 the chances are the building would have been demolished, to make way for the hotels that were springing up all around the village to accommodate the growing demands of tourists. How and why Dove Cottage became a literary shrine is a tale told in our current exhibition, Romantic Poets, Romantic Places.

For me, Dove Cottage is a wonderful place precisely because it is not what so many tourists want it to be: that is, where he was born, or where he died. It is where he lived and wrote, and where people continue to live and write. We have become so familiar with it, knowing which floorboards creak, where the notch in the banister that gathers dust is. I almost forget sometimes this was Wordsworth's home. I like that lack of reverence. I hope the sense of a living place is one that we manage to give to all our visitors by guiding them round on tours and thereby doing away with labels and barriers. These visitors will often ask if it was a happy home. Happy to me doesn't seem quite right. There was tragedy here, most obviously when Dorothy and William lost their brother John on his final sea voyage, and there were momentous occasions, such as the birth of the first three children. For those that live in Town End now there is precisely the same experience, life with as many ups and downs as the fells themselves. And yet it is different in Grasmere. I think I can say that have never been better than I am here, never more interested or aware, never more at home. Of course, Wordsworth writes best of the "power and protection for the mind" that "here abides":

Embrace me then, ye Hills, and close me in;
Now in the clear and open day I feel
Your guardianship; I take it to my heart;
'Tis like the solemn shelter of the night.
But I would call thee beautiful, for mild,
And soft, and gay, and beautiful thou art
Dear valley, having in thy face a smile
Though peaceful, full of gladness. Thou art pleased,
Pleased with thy crags and woody steeps, thy Lake,
It's one green island and its winding shores;
The multitude of little rocky hills,
Thy Church and cottages of mountain stone
Clustered like stars some few, but single most,
And lurking dimly in their shy retreats,
Or glancing at each other cheerful looks
Like separated stars with clouds between.
What want we? have we not perpetual streams,
Warm woods, and sunny hills, and fresh green fields,
And mountains not less green, and flocks and herds,
And thickets full of songsters, and the voice
Of lordly birds, an unexpected sound
Heard now and then from morn to latest eve,
Admonishing the man who walks below
Of solitude and silence in the sky?
These have we, and a thousand nooks of earth
Have also these, but nowhere else is found,
Nowhere (or is it fancy?) can be found
The one sensation that is here; 'tis here,
Here as it found its way into my heart
In childhood, here as it abides by day,
By night, here only; or in chosen minds
That take it with them hence, where'er they go.
-- 'Tis, but I cannot name it, 'tis the sense
Of majesty, and beauty, and repose,
A blended holiness of earth and sky,
Something that makes this individual spot,
This small abiding-place of many men,
A termination, and a last retreat,
A centre, come from wheresoe'er you will,
A whole without dependence or defect,
Made for itself, and happy in itself,
Perfect contentment, Unity entire.
('Home at Grasmere' or Book I of 'The Recluse' lines 110-151)

The village changed, and is still changing. There are many more buildings than the stellar formations Wordsworth records. But few now can afford to make this their "abiding-place". The price of properties in Cumbria has forced many locally born people to leave. I have been fortunate to meet many present day villagers and I want to thank them all for their friendship, and for providing ale and pasties. Whereas in Wordsworth's time the main employer of the village was farming, now it is tourism and the service industries. As a result, the people I have come to know hail from all over the globe and their presence here is transitory because of the nature of the work on offer. The accent is being lost, the traditional trades and crafts. However, the village inhabitants, come from whereso'er they do, are unusually marvellous. The accent may be dying, but I can still hear the sentiment behind this account by a local contemporary of Grasmere's famous bard:

Ay, what we a kenned auld Wordsworth, though at times we were capped to kna what to make on him. He'd ga trailing aboot t'roads, talkin' to hisself, poor fella, sometimes wi' his hat on and wi ' his hat off, i' peltin' rain; but happen if ye nobbut knew it, he likely had as mich sense as me or yersel...

I wish I could leave on that note, but I must add a couple more words of thanks. It's been an immense pleasure to be here and I have been privileged to work with many wonderful people and take advantage of great opportunities. I'd like to thank our curator Jeff Cowton and all the staff. I'd like to make a special mention of Andrew Forster, our literature officer, who I have been lucky enough to work with. I want to thank Mark Ward for liberality with wine and making the fire and everyone else I have lived and danced and drank with for putting up with me. There is so much I am going to miss. Like the tenth doctor, "I don't want to go".

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

A Servant to the Supreme Majesty of the People

And so we have dried out, and have fared much better than the poor folk of Cockermouth. Back to business then ...

For the finale of this year's Bindman talks, Sir Geoffrey Bindman himself gave a lecture on a lesser-known character from the Romantic era. Daniel Isaac Eaton was a publisher in London, born in 1753. He inherited the family business bookselling and prospered. Eaton married and had a family and for 39 years he was a successful businessman. Then, between 1793 and 1812, he was prosecuted eight times for sedition. In his forties, Eaton proclaimed himself, 'Bookseller and Printer to the Supreme Majesty of the People'.

Eaton was inspired by the ideas that drove the French Revolution, and invigorated by the goings-on across the channel. It seems likely it was around this time that Eaton discovered the political writings of Thomas Paine and was moved to sell his books just at the time the government are suppressing his work with great vigour. In 1792, Eaton took up radical politics and joined the London Corresponding Society, a group that promoted universal suffrage and regular parliamentary elections. Eaton moved his business premises to Bishopsgate and started publishing the many pamphlets the society produced.

Suffrage and regular elections were not such contentious issues pre-1790, but the French Revolution caused alarm and the government, composed of many previous supporters of such 'radical' ideas, sought to stamp out all embers of an insurrection. Radical publishers, especially in the capital, were a major target. Whereas the government had overlooked William Godwin's tomes of radical philosophy, Eaton produced the works Tom Paine at the cost of one penny - an amount the working man could afford. The style Paine and other radicals wrote in was also new, reacting to the prose arguments of Edmund Burke by adopting the emotive and inventive style of rhetoric he employed in his 'Reflections of the Revolution in France'*.

Eaton, and those publishers like him, were wily. The government might try to suppress publications but they were unlikely to take the matter to court. Books could be banned, but trial proceedings were allowed to be reproduced in full. When up before the judge the publishers could read the entirety of the work they were standing trial for circulating and then publish the account with the 'seditious' material recorded within it.

Eaton used invention and humour to antagonise and attack. Eventually, he sought refuge in America. While he was abroad he was tried in his absence and declared outlawed. His stock of books was burnt, he was bankrupted and and his property was seized from his wife and children. On his return he served a spell in Newgate before being pardoned. The last seven years represent a quieter phase in Eaton's life, but even though he was finally silenced, his actions represent the tenacity of such figures, and the strength of the forces they opposed.

*For an overview of how Burke the Conservative strangely revolutionised politic writing, see Katey Castellano's article in Romanticism on the Net.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Water, water everywhere...

As I sit in the workroom of the Jerwood Centre, I am distracted by the way the water is streaming down the sides of Silver How. Unmapped tricklets and ghylls that catch the sun on a bright day are now bands you can make out from this side of Grasmere through the sheets of rain. I have never found the phrase 'sheets of rain' an accurate one before now.

The village is flooding. We have even more bodies of water than before, and roads are rivers. Luckily, or more likely with intent, Dove Cottage was built on a raise. But this is truly something I have never experienced. It has washed back memories of Enid Blyton tales where children battle through soup like floods to save the farm. And I remember how back home the end of our avenue would flood, and my best friend would join me building a small toll bridge for pedestrians from bricks and planks. But this is real and dangerous, threatening the safety of people and buildings.

It seems appropriate that I'm currently reading Jonathan Bate's 'Romantic Ecology'. Bate reminds the reader how the weather and seasons of Wordsworth's poetry are not only geographically-specific, but also act as markers that allows us to gauge the way our climate has changed since then. Dorothy's journals make no mention of flooding, but this description is worth reproducing:

Wednesday morning 9th December 1801
... The river came galloping past the Church as fast as it could come & when we got into Easedale we saw Churn milk force like a broad stream of snow. At the little foot-Bridge we stopped to look at the company of rivers which came hurrying down the vale this way & that; it was a valley of streams & Islands, with that great waterfall at the head & lesser falls in different parts of the mountains coming down to these Rivers...

A Mr Ostle, who lived in Northern Cumbria, kept a journal and recorded this incident that is as close to the conditions - and people's reaction - that I can find:

November 1861
Weather very stormy, heavy winds and large floods. Fields all covered with water. Different times there was the most water upon the ground since the memory of the oldest man in the holme. The floods they have done a great deal of damage in many places. I think it was the nearest the flood in the days of Noah.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Resolution and Repentance

Well, I break an unforgiveably long silence with a few updates and promises of more meaty future posts.

First, some notices:

- Horizon Review #3 launched a whole fleet of fascinating content, including my review of Richard Bronk's 'The Romantic Economist'.

- Our Poetry in Grasmere season has finished for 2009, but the Winter is packed full of things to do, see and make at The Wordsworth Trust.

- Lear has left us, but we are all already feeling more at home with our new exhibition 'Romantic Poets, Romantic Places'.

- You can now enjoy Romantic and contemporary poetry, including audio clips of the performances this year, in our poetry archive.

- And, last but most importantly, applications are now open for the 2010 internship programme. This is one of the few internships in the world of museums and arts administration that offers financial support and a properly defined programme of professional development. The range of experience is broad, the opportunities unique and the setting glorious; remote - yes, wet - almost interminably, but nevertheless the most beautiful place, wonderful people and for me the happiest and most influential year of my life. Other intern's experiences are recorded here.

And so, a hectic summer has finished and I should have slightly more time to bore you all with my thoughts. Posts should appear - and you may berate me if they do not - on:

- Lyrical Ballads
- Mary and Charles Lamb
- Resolution and Independence
- Our new exhibition, and the multitude of events going on here in the vale.

Also, any ideas for posts or topics you'd like to know more about would be welcomed.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Humphry Davy

Humphry Davy is best known for inventing the miner's lamp. Inventing it and then declining to patent the design. Here, I present a few notes, rather than a comprehensive guide to or even an overview of one of the most interesting figures of this historical period.

Born in Penzance in 1778, Davy went from provincial origins to become one of the most celebrated chemists of all time. He isolated many elements, including potassium and sodium, and the latter discovery made him the first ever subject of a clerihew:

Sir Humphry Davy
Was not fond of gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

I have not been able to discover anywhere what Davy's true feelings toward gravy were, but of poetry Davy was decidedly fond. He not only read, but wrote poetry. A few of his early pieces were anthologised by Southey in Bristol. It was in Bristol, while he was studying at the Pneumatic Institute with Thomas Beddoes, that Davy met both Southey and Coleridge. Experiments for Davy were not constrained by health and safety, or a sense of distance and objectivity. He would smell and taste chemicals, make himself part of an electric circuit and in examining the effects of laughing gas, Davy, Beddoes and Coleridge had a rather jolly time, supposedly spouting poetry as they danced about the laboratory.

Davy found it hard to shake the reputation created by his provincial origins and the early accounts of the unconventional methods he used. He is also portrayed as a fop and a dandy, especially as he adopted 'a green velvet jacket with gold spangles'. This makes me intensely fond of him. He was ridiculed because rather than banning women from his lectures he actively played to this part of his audience, making a theatrical display of the bangs and puffs of smoke side of chemistry.

In 1804, Davy visited Dove Cottage to meet Wordsworth, along with Coleridge and Walter Scott. Coleridge sends the manuscript of the second edition of Lyrical Ballads to Davy to edit, and while many biographers have sniggered at Davy's attempts at poesy or suffered them as briefly as possible, it seems the circle of writers he socialised with rated his abilities very highly. Coleridge writes in very warm terms about Davy, and their correspondence suggests a sincere and profound attachment. Coleridge wishes to learn about chemistry, and goes to scientific lectures to 'increase [his] stock of metaphors'. Later in life, Davy also befriended the second generation Romantics, including Byron and Shelley.

The current relationship between science and poetry has been at the forefront of debates this year, but the Romantic period offers a great example of the complex interweaving of the disciplines. The idea that the spheres of knowledge in the Romantic period are polarised is ridiculous, when we have so much evidence of the arts and sciences overlapping. Davy's approach to chemistry is a contrast to his poetic pursuits, but they inform one another. And for the Romantics more generally, even where the two disciplines appear in opposition, it is because they in dialogue, not because they are separate, uncommunicating camps.

Davy continued writing all his life, mostly in laboratory notebooks stained and burnt by his experiments.

Grasmere! The Lake District!! Summer!!!

My dear reader,

I hope you will forgive my recent shortfall of correspondence. It is not for lack of goings-on here worth noting, but from the abundance of activity. All Cumbria is confused as the weather turns manic-depressive and poor tourists require first aid after becoming dangerously entangled in their Ordance Survey maps.

The Wordsworth Trust has opened it's Edward Lear the Landscape Artist exhibition, which brings together for the first time Lear's sketches and watercolours of his tours in Ireland and the Lakes from 1835-6. I love Lear. I love that he got famous drawing parrots. I love the poems, the stories and the recipes. I love that he was the twentieth of twenty-one children, and that he called Kendal a 'slop-basin'. The exhibition contains letters from the tours. In these, Lear is so charming he makes the world around him - including his own travels, the rain that besieges him, and his illness and disappointments - into marvellous prose descriptions through humour and irreverence. This creates a wonderful contrast with the level of professionalism and obsession that he shows in his landscape drawings. The pictures are ridiculously topographically accurate, as demonstrated by a 3D digital map that makes you feel as though you're having an out-of-body experience.

Invigilating the gallery is also a little like having an out-of-body experience. I love everything I do here at the Trust, and it's all necessary, worthwhile work, but after an hour and half of patrolling a room (trying to tread the fine line between vigilant and stalkerish) I had lost all concept of space and time and thought my brain was in my knees. So, if you do visit, please give the people with walkie-talkies a kind smile, and possibly a lollipop - the exhibition couldn't be put on without us.

List of the Celebrated Invigilantes
who descend into nonsense but keep on walking

Heather Anderson, Lucy Clarke,
Amy Concannon, Jane Connolly,
Jeff Cowton, John 'Visitor Services' Coombe,
Helen Donald, Tomoko Egiuchi,
Catherine Harland, Emily 'me' Hasler,
Molly Heal, Catherine Kay,
Matty O'Neill, Rie, Esther Rutter,
Carrie Taylor,Rebecca Turner,
Victoria Weaver, Wendy Woodhead

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Back in the vale

I have been safely couched back in the vale for over a week now. Blog posting is becoming increasingly difficult as we enter the busy season, so apologies for the long silences. We have just opened the temporary exhibition here about Wordsworth and Tennyson; The Prelude and In Memoriam were published in 1850 and the exhibition explores that moment. The poetry season is also in full swing. So, in short, busy-busy - however, posts soon I hope.

In the meantime, save Salt publishing by buying a book...