Saturday, 24 January 2009

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

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