Explore the influence of the Lake District on Wordsworth with this free online course, filmed at his home…Through readings and discussions focusing on Grasmere and the landscape of the Lake District, the course will explore why this location was so important for Wordsworth.
Wordsworth lived at Dove Cottage in Grasmere from 1799 to 1808, producing much of his greatest work, including ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (aka Daffodils) and The Prelude. As an intro we are invited to pen a poem about a favourite place in the Romantic style and share it on #some tagged #NaturesPoets. So it looks like it’s more about the poetry, which I hated at school, than (the) place, which as a Scot I find rather tame, but we shall persevere, in particular as one of the team, Sally Bushell, was behind Mapping the Lakes (and v2) and is writing a book on reading and mapping.
Introducing Wordsworth and Lyrical Ballads
Week 1 is made up of 16 steps, yikes. Most useful is Sally on key principles of the ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads (1800), identifying Wordsworth’s four key ideas:
- the poet – “a man speaking to men”, ie a communicator speaking on behalf of others representing ‘the common man’, speaking directly to all rather than a writer, no different from you or I
- subject matter:
- the everyman, equally capable of feeling deeply and responding to the world; “it is not just gentlemen who have strong feelings…those living a rustic life have a truer, more authentic relationship to the land”
- common things and situations
- place, ie the world around you – celebrating the power of the mind to internalise the natural world and be strengthened by it, asserting the power of a subjective, individual response; Wordsworth liked a private space, where he could pace up and down as he wrote his poetry; he often wrote poems on the spot, in a direct response to the natural world
- language – as close to everyday speech as possible, but with a certain colouring of the imagination to freshen the experience
- “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”; it should communicate directly and to the heart
Also a useful PDF on close reading poetry and a vid on how to read and interpret manuscripts, stressing context and their uniqueness.
Sadly the two poems for the week have simply served to remind me of my issues with the Romantics, but it’s all very well done, even with a ‘make your own manuscript’ task. Best takeaway so far has been the brief account of Will and Dorothy’s trip to Germany in 1798 – I have a feeling he visited Copenhagen too. (Hmm…at the very least he wrote a poem called The Danish Boy and owned a copy of Molesworth.)
‘Spots of time’: childhood, education and memory in The Prelude
The week 1 round-up states that “Wordsworth has evoked powerful responses, not all of them favourable” and Sally admits in the summing up vid that he is uniquely polarising, so I feel partly vindicated in skipping the pomes. Maybe I will re-visit epi 3 of The Trip, which I haven’t watched yet this year. There’s more than one form of engagement in these changing times…
OK, week 2, with The Prelude and its 24 manuscripts spanning over 40 years.
Central to The Prelude are the two themes of childhood and memory. While much of the poem describes Wordsworth’s childhood adventures in the Lake District, the poet is equally concerned with how he remembers these episodes and what ongoing influence they have in his adult life. Wordsworth describes his most influential childhood episodes as ‘spots of time’…key moments in our life that continue to have an important influence on us, especially if we reflect back on them.
‘Spots’ are powerful memories where you can’t quite get to the root of that power, often involving an element of transgression, making you see the world differently – plus a process of defamiliarisation or even distortion when remembered. The spots themselves are often visual, and not a continuous memory.
From the week 3 email and summing up vid it’s clear that the team just love the Padlet exercise for the week, seemingly FutureLearn’s new thing: “Wordsworth’s concept of ‘spots of time’ has been inspirational for many of you and we’ve been particularly struck (and sometimes moved) by participants’ descriptions of their own ‘spots of time’.”
There’s also a make your own Goslar Letter task, which asks:
- How does the letter-form affect your response to the poetry?
- What difference does it make to read the poem in this context?
- How important is Coleridge (the recipient of the letter) to Wordsworth, as the first reader of this poetry?
The letter was a joint production from William and Dorothy to Coleridge, and is named after the German town in which it was written. It contains passages of poetry that would eventually be included in The Prelude. Very nice! In particular that the MOOC isn’t all about discussing.
‘Michael’ and Greenhead Gill: Wordsworth and the importance of place
Week 3 visited Greenhead Gill near Grasmere, the setting and inspiration for ‘Michael’, Wordsworth’s tale of a shepherd, first published in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800):
About half a mile from Wordsworth’s house, it was also the place in which the poem was written. At the opening of the poem Wordsworth invites us to come to this place and think about the poem being set and written there – it’s very space specific. He describes the fields and hills as a living being even more than his own blood. It’s almost as if Michael is a human embodiment of the landscape…
Wordsworth wrote the poem in a sheepfold. He takes this sheepfold, an ordinary, everyday object we might take for granted or overlook, and turns it into the key symbol for the poem, loading it with human meaning and emotion and significance. The poem makes you notice the sheepfold – it makes you think about it, an ordinary thing. So loading that ordinary object with meaning is making it stand for something greater than itself – it becomes a symbol. The role and meaning of the sheepfold as symbol changes throughout the course of the poem…
Is Michael’s relationship to the place unique and special or universal? Think about the ways in which we connect to the place in which we live, or the place in which we were brought up, and how this shapes our identities.
It’s a tragic tale, and by the end of the poem there is no trace of Michael’s cottage – nothing remains except the poem telling the story. (They weren’t called the Romantics for nothing…)
Next up, a personalising place exercise (NFM) to be posted on this week’s Padlet wall, while in manuscripts corner we looked at Wordsworth’s difficulty in writing the poem as well as writing outside. By linking the writing of the poem in the sheepfold to the representation of place in the poem he creates multiple layers of meaning:
He doesn’t just wander about aimlessly or roam the hills. He does have very specific sites and also he likes to walk up and down, sort of pace up and down, and various critics have make the point that the rhythm of the poetry that he’s writing is then sort of matched to the rhythm of his walking.
How important is setting and context for writing or working well? Can you think of examples in your own life of working better in one place than another, or of needing certain things around you or having particular rituals before settling to write?
Week 4 (24 steps!) explores the process of homemaking and engages more fully with Dorothy’s life and work.
The siblings arrived in Grasmere in December 1799 and established a household at Dove Cottage – see from Goslar to Grasmere. They made it into a ‘true home’ through their domestic arrangements, through cultivating the garden and through their writing. They also established a sense of community, frequently visited by friends.
Their writing included letters, such as one written by William to Coleridge on Christmas Eve in 1799, which is compared and contrasted with his unpublished poem, Home at Grasmere:
What differences in response to the Wordsworths do you experience between reading the account of coming home in prose and in poetry? What does the writer choose to emphasise, and why, in each case? How does the form (a private letter a poem written for publication) and sense of audience (to a close friend; to all readers) affect the writing?
Think about how important letters have been in your own lives. Are there particular letters that you remember vividly? What role did letter writing have in your life and has this role been taken over now by email and social media? Is there something different about the experience of writing and receiving a letter to these forms of communication?
William and his friends are generally referred to as The Wordsworth Circle. In the summer of 1802 William, Dorothy and their close friends, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Mary and Sara Hutchinson, carved their initials into a rock face, aka ‘The Rock of Names’ – the importance of inscription and the naming of places as a process of settling in to somewhere.
Marking local objects is important for the Wordsworths in developing their sense of home. The rock, now in the garden of Dove Cottage, was halfway between the cottage and Coleridge’s lodgings at Greta Hall in Keswick, hence a literal meeting place and personal landmark, symbolic of their friendship and illustrating their relationship to landscape…Have you created any names or nicknames for special places? Think about the type of places you named, how you named them and who uses these names.
Other Wordsworth places that took on special meanings:
- Sara’s Gate – named after Sara Hutchinson and described in a joint letter
- John’s Grove’ named after William and Dorothy’s younger brother
- Wordsworth’s Poems on the naming of places – marking local objects, naming them at a particular site where they can see a very nice view of the landscape, maybe along a favourite walking route or where a particular memorable incident happened (see also William Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes (1810/35) and Longfellow’s Poems of places anthology; 31 vols)
What do you notice about the process of naming? What different elements are involved? How do you think the different stages involved in the naming process contribute towards place-making? Naming as a kind of ‘possession of the local’ – what do you think this means? What are the positive and negative elements of taking possession of the local landscape and of local meanings?…
[Inscription] marks our being in a particular place at a particular time, celebrating a code of the private known to a few… a kind of possession of the local…relying on the fact that people won’t know them…it’s about personalising place…ordinary objects that could be easily overlooked…
So their relationship between landscape and writing is operating at a number of levels here. They’re marking the landscape, carving their names into it. They’re naming the landscape, giving these particular places special names, and they’re also writing about the landscape…for the Wordsworths, a sense of place and particularly home is something that has to be made, and it has to be practised. And it also has to be shared by a very close group of friends, and it requires a very active relationship between the landscape and those that use it…a shared use of landscape can enhance friendship and friendly experiences in places can bring forth feelings of togetherness, community, and a sense of home…for Dorothy, these names are particularly important because she uses them in a very specific way to recollect feelings of friendship – the names are as important as the places.
Dorothy wrote a journal in Grasmere between 1800 and 1803, recording her and William’s life in Dove Cottage, writing about the natural world, the people she met and those who lived in the village, and about William’s poetry. The MOOC concluded with that old favourite, a comparison between her account of seeing daffodils in 1802 and William’s account of the same incident in his most famous poem, ‘I wandered lonely’, written in 1804 and published in two versions (1807 and 1815).
How would you describe the way that Dorothy’s journal entry is written? What does she tell us in this passage about her daily life, her social circle, and the mundane physical experience of walking? Consider the encounter with the daffodils particularly. How does Dorothy come upon them? What is her relationship to them? How does she describe them? Do you think that there are aspects of this journal entry that are poetic? Do bits of it seem more like poetry than prose?
The wrap-up vid explored the importance of walking to the Wordsworths, for example as offering a sense of arrival after an epic and memorable event (on arrival in Grasmere), but also as an activity they chose for its own sake. Walking in (and into) the Lakes was part of their process of ‘claiming’ and (place)making a home. Also, in 1790 while at Cambridge William walked 1000 miles across Europe over the course of three months, taking in not least Revolutionary France, but also Switzerland and Italy.
Thorougly enjoyable and thought provoking throughout, even without going near the dreaded poetry!
For the record, there was a fair amount of Wordsworth (and Coleridge) at Placing the author. See also Mapping ‘Wordsworthshire’: a GIS study of literary tourism in Victorian Lakeland. And while we’re touching on poetry, here’s CAMPUS Poetry School, the social network for poets.