Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Arts and Books Festival 2: Walter Scott

Early 19th century social-networking

In a weekend of informative and engaging talks, Stuart Kelly's was perhaps the one I enjoyed most, despite the fact I have never fostered an interest in his topic or read any of Scott's books. Kelly has a book called 'Scottland' coming out, and the subject is Scott and Scottishness.

Kelly talked about how Scott engaged in a literary marketplace and became a canny manipulator of the influence exerted by authorship. For years, Scott's books--and some that were not written by him at all--appeared under the name of 'The author of Waverley' or other enigmatic pseudonyms as Scott continued to veil himself in mystery. He took imitators and satirists in his stride, seeing that this rather nurtured than damaged his status as the great iconic author, able to be torn apart as he was so well-known. Much of his work, especially the later produce, was increasingly heavily editted by his son-in-law and later biographer John Gibson Lockhart. And when Lockhart himself came to write the life of Scott, James Hogg (who had a relationship with Scott that could be seen to fit the Wordsworth-Coleridge model of friendship combined with rivalry) offered his name as a guise in which Lockhart might write more freely about his father-in-law. Thomas de Quincey translated a work from the German that was claiming to be by the author of Waverley himself, when he knew full well it was not. Such discrepancies, dissimulations and psuedonomy tell us much about Scott's incredible popularity (Kelly reckons him to have been read by just about every literate English speaker of the time judging by sales and probable circulation), but it also tells us something about the attitude there was to authenticity and authorship. Just as Hogg accused Scott of stealing his plots, so did Coleridge bequeath his great idea to Wordsworth.

The closer we look at the writing process, at manuscripts and drafts, the more we see that poetry is not begotten onto the page by the author in one easy birthing. It bothers me greatly that people think of Romanticism as principly about 'the Poet' and 'solitude'. Romanticism is so much a collective and communal project, working through couplings and rivalries, evoking and representing voices.* These poets were concerned with community from a familial to a national level. Dove Cottage was an experiment in a new type of communal living for Wordsworth and Dorothy, when they left it was for lack of rooms to house the family and friends.

Even on a deserted hillside, Wordsworth will see a rock or raggedy thorn bush and attach to it a whole human life. The famous C D Friedrich painting, The Wanderer, is often used to demonstrate what Romnaticims is about, the man alone--stranded or willfully apart--in the sublime natural scene. And yet, what are we looking at? If we are being asked to consider what it is to be alone, then the frame should be an unobstructed porthole, but still here at the top of the mountain we see a man. This is much what happens in the poetry of Wordsworth; the nature is peopled, or we view the poet in his solitude, in even closer commune with him because our sensory prospects are aligned, but always distinct as he exerts a personal pronoun view of the world, an interpretation onto the scene--floating over it like a veil so that we may see through it, but certainly present in a rendering of its shifting changing forms.

Romantic poets, like poets today, did not live and work in isolation. The current poet-in-residence here was berated on a Guardian blog a few months back for using the internet rather than shutting the window, the door and all links with the outer world in order to write. But this is simply the modernisation of the communications that Romantic poets were involved in; letter writing, editing manuscripts, visiting. We only need to glance at Dorothy's journals to see the traffic of visitors that came and went through Dove Cottage on a daily basis, visitors including Walter Scott.

*Romanticism on the Net (I refuse to admit it's become Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net...) had an issue with excellent essay by scholars who have been valuable to me in formulating ideas about and looking at the idea of Romantic couplings and rivalries (issue 18, 2007). The latest issue is all about Romanticism and selfhood, a subject that for brevity I tried to cull from this post. Much more twittering on to be done about the self in Romanticism in future blogging I fear...

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Arts and Books Festival 1: Edward Lear in England

'Hail, Snow and Desolation!'

I know little about Edward Lear, but even the most eminent experts have been forced to reconsider their conceptions because of the findings of Charles Nugent. Nugent's research deepens our understanding of Lear by drawing attention to an overlooked aspect of his career; a sketching tour of the Lake District in 1836. The unique exhibition, Edward Lear in England, will be in the musuem here at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere later this year.

Lear's letters from this period, which Nugent sampled in his talk, are charming. He greatly enjoyed his trip to the area, but it appears he didn't fail to notice the region's shortfall--which is properly speaking the opposite, an overabundance. For several weeks after his arrival he saw no lakes at all, 'water being an unpleasantry too superfluous [...] to seek for more.' One town is particularly mauled in his epistolary accounts; Kendal is 'nature's slop basin, where it always rains' and there 'babies are born with fins, webbed feet and umbrellas under their arms'. He produced a sketch of the ladies on market day bearing their weapons against the weather and titled it 'Umbrellifera' as though they were an example of local flora.

Things combined for him, ideas and things seeping into one another or simply unable to be disentangled:

The castle, Mrs. Hornby, the prison and the lunatic asylum are all balanced in my mind and are all exquisite in their own way.

[You] sit among the armour and starched ruffs till you find yourself growing stiff.

The technique might be called surrealism (I think it is a worn out word these days, and an inaccurate one for his time) but it is less method than presentation. It is not illogical to see things connected surely, but rather madness to try to trim them back. In an admiring but almost baffled phrase he described the cultivated gardens at Levens Hall with 'the grass shorn short' as 'looking like fable and nonsense'; an odd description of stately fashion by a man famed now for not making sense himself. As a young man, to 'buy his bread and cheese', Lear drew pictures of parrots.

Winter Wordsworth

Friday, 23rd January 2009

I am now - to conjure a verb - interned.
The smattering of snow that fell last night remained this morning and seduced some of us into a small trek. We headed up the lane that separates our terraces from Dove Cottage to reach the footpath that forks in two, one way along the old coffin path, the other our chosen route up to Alcock Tarn. It's a steep if brief ascent. The tarn is preluded by a series of smaller pools along the way, each one larger and deeper than the last, glints of encouragement as the path inclined and grew icier. We celebrated our small conquest over nature when we finally made our goal, the tarn was high enough up to be surrounded by a foot-deep covering of unreceding snow. Then we began the tricky descent, hesitantly picking our stepping through the slush and loose rocks. On our way down, we were passed by a fell-runner. Ten minutes and a quarter of a mile or so further along, as we were wishing man never had the audacity to shed the status of quadraped, he hurtled past us in the opposite direction this time.

On our comparatively ponderous journey back, we recalled that snow and ice, all the accoutrements of winter, are largely absent from Wordsworth's poems. There are a few exceptions (in Lucy gray the snow reveals the path of the lost child) but where it occurs snow is something forborne not delighted in. Climatic conditions in Europe would have caused snow on the peaks around Grasmere to have persisted yet longer each year in Wordsworth's time. However, he chose to concentrate on Spring and - a phrase more often heard about the economy these days - green shoots. At first this seemed odd - snow is at least initially delightful and plenty of poets revel in it as much as schoolchildren do - but it is understandable. With even longer and harsher winters, how much more apparently miraculous the re-emergence of flowers; their shock of colour and scent after the stifling frost. The irrepressibility of it, as if it became more not less unlikely that the world could survive another yearly freezing. And flowers are so slender-necked as to appear yet more unlikely. To us they can often seem unnecessary even; used as a decoration, given as a gift whose precise charm is in their practical purposelessness. We forget sometimes their role: sex organs, productive, vital. In Wordsworth's time such considerations were more immediate perhaps (botany was a common passion in that era). Flowers were a part of the seasons, not an adornment.

Of course the first flowers to conquer the white are snowdrops. Today they can be seen on William and Mary's grave, heads bent toward the element from which it issues but which it will survive.

To a Snowdrop

Lone flower, hemmed in with snows and white as they
But hardier far, once more I see thee bend
Thy forehead, as if fearful to offend,
Like an unbidden guest. Though day by day,
Storms, sallying from the mountain-tops, waylay
The rising sun, and on the plains descend;
Yet art thou welcome, welcome as a friend
Whose zeal outruns his promise! Blue-eye May
Shall soon behold this border thickly set
With bright jonquils, their odours lavishing
On the soft west-wind and his frolic peers;
Nor will I then thy modest grace forget,
Chaste snowdrop, venturous harbinger of Spring,
And pensive monitor of fleeting years!

William Wordsworth, 1819


Coming from Felixstowe, a dock town in famously-flat Suffolk, there are immediately noticeable differences on arrival in Grasmere.


Inland forms in abundance. Clearer. And it tastes different, from the tarn and the tap.

Saw my first goosander today. She was very fine, wore her ginger crest like a bonnet. Goosanders are one of those rare species where the females are more showy in appearance than the males it seems to me. Our girl was swimming with the mallards, perhaps searching for a mate worthy of her good looks.

No salt to it.


Real dark, real quiet. No dock noise, no orange tinged black.

It's ups and downs.

Saturday, 10 January 2009


Dove Cottage was a home to William Wordsworth for just under a decade. Here he lived with his sister Dorothy, and later was joined by his wife Mary Hutchinson and their children. Wordsworth and his sister moved here in on December 20th 1799. This was around the same time of year that I visited the museum for my interview, and the view from our century was of the Cumbrian landscape quilted in snow. The lakes as black as pupils, holding the image of the white peaks all the more clearly. Under the climate of Europe's Little Ice Age we can assume that such sights greeted the siblings on their arrival. Then the house, previously the Dove and Olive inn, would have looked out over the mere itself as our terraces a future obstruction. When they took up their tenancy the building had been unoccupied since the inn had closed for business in the early 1790s. I wonder if someone had kindly gone in to make a fire before their arrival, so the flagstones should not be as unwelcomingly cold. I think for all the Romantic feeling in the world it is perhaps hard to fall in love with a house if it does not give some relief from the harsh natural world it is set within.

I had been to the cottage once before, and the memory had belied how small the place is. The rooms are not cramped--most citizens of the country at the time would surely have considered their proportions palatial--but they are not large, and the ceilings are low (which makes me feel of a normal stature for once). In that first experience my mind had adhered to peculiar historical facts, most insistently that tea was locked in a caddy while opium was less well guarded. On the subject of opium, Thomas de Quincey, author of the Confessions of an English Opium Eater, stayed with Wordsworth and loved the cottage so much that he took up the tenancy after the family left. De Quincey was far form being their only guest, and it seems one of the reasons for the Wordsworths left was apparently the lack of space, friends--among them many famous figures of their day--sleeping on the flagstone floor. However, such numbers pale in comparison to the present day; Dove Cottage now sees approximately 70 000 visitors a year.

It is less than a fortnight until I am resident in Grasmere. I will be part of a year-long internship programme at the Wordsworth Trust with nine others. At this stage I'm excited and totally unorganised for the move. As interns we will be working at Dove Cottage and the museum there, living just across the road in the terraced houses that make up most of Grasmere's beautifully monikered 'Town End'.

This blog will be about a multitude of things, including the conservation and heritage work I will be getting an education in. It will also be a space for writing about the Romantics, both those who made this place famous and those connected to them (and they are mostly connected, Romantic writing is about and of a community), and about contemporary poetry, which also has its place in the Wordsworth Trust.

It's this complementarity of Romantic and contemporary poetry that has brought me to the Wordsworth Trust. I hope you enjoy reading this journal.