Sunday, September 08, 2013

from Grasmere

Wordsworth and Coleridge knew The Lakes as remote and sparsely populated, their beauty some ambivalent combination of rocky uplands too poor in soil to support more than sheep combined with long vistas, rapidly changing light, and a sense of the severe sublime. 

The Lakes are not now remote; it does not take days to arrive here: a dual carriageway takes cars from Penrith to Keswick.  But the landscape itself has not altered much.  The rocky ground still supports mostly sheep, and even now they may well outnumber the weekday, nontourist population.  The stone circle Keats referred to as "Druid" still commands its view, and most people still walk to it, as Keats did.  And the fells (mountains, hills, ridgetops) remain mostly bare except for grass and bracken, their silhouettes sharply lined against sky when they are not clouded.

Grasmere is (or was) the home, for a good while, of William Wordsworth.  The house (Dove Cottage) is larger than it appears from the now-paved road.  His barn adjoining the house is gone (it has become a side garden), and his view of Rydal Water has been blocked by a rather imposing pile of dark green Victorian lakeland slate.  But the stone floor he walked on is intact and functional, as are the stairs he and Dorothy (his sister) and Mary (his wife) and Sara (her sister) climbed.  The house has running water now -- not so in Wordsworth's time.  The Wordsworth Trust burns coal in two grates (two separate rooms), if it's chilly -- Wordsworth might more likely have burned peat, but peat is harder to get now than then.  One is guided through the rooms, told not to sit in any chair, for they date from Wordsworth's time, and the whole tour is at once brisk if not quite brusque.  Such are the demands of a tourist destination.

Better to walk the Coffin Trail that starts up the hill.   It's called the Coffin Trail because for years it saw the transport of coffins to the church in Grasmere.  One can still see resting stones used to set the coffin on while its bearers rested.  If one goes in reverse, starting from Grasmere's Town End, the trail goes to Rydal (the hamlet) and to Rydal Mount, Wordsworth's last and (by the standards of his day) luxurious home.  Alas, as Wordsworth moved from house to house, he wrote less and less of interest.  He seems to have known this and felt himself helpless to alter things.  One can speculate that some essential aspect of his imagination had been shut off at great cost, and once off it stayed off.  Perhaps this is what can come of leaving a wife and child in another country and pretending to oneself that they are no longer part of you.  Perhaps you simply wall off the imagination that would miss them and wonder about them.  That Wordsworth left a French woman he felt married to, and their child, and rarely acknowledged them afterwards is simply accurate.  The effects of all that can only be speculation.

Rydal Mount itself is now (and has for some time been) back in the hands of the Wordsworth family, who, one is told, occasionally still use the house themselves.  Many of their photographs and portraits are featured on the walls.  One can see where Keats left his note -- having planned to visit the great man, he arrived to find the house empty.  Wordsworth may not have been much of a writer of good poems while he lived in this house, but he was quite a landscape architect.  The gardens and grounds reflect his plantings and his design.  And one element of his writing while there -- his prose Guide to the Lakes -- is partly responsible for the entire area's development as a destination to visit.  Our afternoon there is rainy, with an occasional exclamation of sun to tease the sympathies.  It's still possible to see out Wordsworth's study window at the top of the house and quite easy to imagine being taken by the distraction of merely watching the weather change.

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