Over a dramatic six-month period in 1802, William Wordsworth, S. T. Coleridge, Wordsworth's sister Dorothy, and the two Hutchinson sisters Sara and Mary formed a close-knit group whose members saw or wrote to one another constantly. Coleridge, whose marriage was collapsing, was in love with Sara, and Wordsworth was about to be married to Mary. Throughout this extraordinary period both poets worked on some of their finest and most familiar poems, Coleridge's 'Dejection: An Ode' and Wordsworth's 'Immortality Ode'. In this fascinating book, John Worthen recreates the group's intertwined lives and the effect they had on one another.
Drawing on the group's surviving letters, poems and Dorothy's diaries, Worthen throws new light on many old problems. He examines the pre-history of the events of 1802, the dynamics of the group between March and July, the summer of 1802, when Wordsworth and Dorothy visited Calais to see his ex-mistress and his daughter Caroline and the wedding between Wordsworth and Mary in October of that year. In an epilogue he looks forward to the ways in which relationships changed during 1803 and in the years to come.
John Worthen is Professor of D. H. Lawrence Studies at the University of Nottingham.
|Publisher:||Yale University Press|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)|
Read an Excerpt
Many into One Incorporate
The Wordsworths and the Coleridges had elected to live in what was for middle-class people, especially writers, at the turn of the nineteenth century an extraordinary place: far from publishers, libraries, learning, the metropolis, society, friends. The journey to London took two or three days of expensive and (in winter) extremely uncomfortable travel. Even for Wordsworth and Coleridge to get to each other by walking between Keswick and Grasmere meant a journey of about fourteen miles by the road which went over Dunmail Raise (Dorothy, like contemporary maps, called it 'the Rays'); it took more than four hours to walk uninterruptedly between the two houses on a good day. Whether it was sensible even to undertake the journey would depend on the weather and the condition of the road; and (particularly in winter), with a stop along the way, trudging through the mud would take them all the hours of daylight.
They had chosen, however, to surround themselves with the mountains, lakes, fields and woods which actually formed the subject of Wordsworth's poetry, and at crucial times did so for Coleridge too. Nature was a subject of overwhelming interest to them. This does not of course mean that they agreed about it. In 1802 Coleridge cared too much about the Christian divinity, and Wordsworth too little, for full agreement to be possible. Major differences between what Coleridge would write about Nature in Dejection, and what by 1804, at least Wordsworth would be saying about it in his Odeshow that they disagreed profoundly. But they both wrote directly about the importance of Nature for the people they were, had been, and were involved with, and they drove each other into realising what they believed. And Nature was also the constant topic of their exchange with the group.
For this group of people constantly addressed themselves to the natural world, in their poems, in their philosophical attitudes and in the everyday relations of gardens, cooking, weather, view and walk. There is no better way of seeing this than in their constant habit of naming places, and by looking at what they made of the place which certainly for Dorothy, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Mary Hutchinson, and probably too for Sara Hutchinson became the centre of their joint existence: Grasmere.
Grasmere had not of course been just a lucky discovery. Wordsworth had been there as a boy:
At sight of this seclusion I forgot My haste for hasty had my footsteps been, As boyish my pursuits ... 20 Long did I halt I could have made it even My business & my errand so to halt For rest of body 'twas a perfect place All that luxurious nature could desire, But tempting to the Spirit ...
In April 1794, when he and Dorothy 'first began our pilgrimage together', they had stayed a night at Robert Newton's inn on the corner by the church; they had walked up from Kendal and Ambleside and over White Moss, to drop down into Grasmere Vale itself. Dorothy remembered how 'it was just at sunset. There was a rich yellow light on the waters and the Islands were reflected there'. They were looking at the view which years later she would regularly recall in her Grasmere journal. Wordsworth never forgot the stream (it may even have been the one running down beside the house they finally occupied) where they drank as they came down into the valley:
... when first 10 Two glad Foot-travellers in sun & shower My Love & I came hither while thanks burst Out of our hearts to God for that good hour Eating a Traveller's meal in Shady Bower We from that blessed water slaked our thirst.
They would have walked past the house at Town End, at the extreme southern end of the hamlet, where they came to live five years later: in 1794 it may still have been The Dove and Olive Branch inn.
Wordsworth returned to Grasmere at the start of November 1799. He came over from the Hutchinson farm at Sockburn in Yorkshire, where he had left Dorothy, Mary and Sara, together with their sister Joanna and their brothers Tom, George and Jack; and he came with his brother John as well as with Coleridge (Sarah Coleridge and Hartley being still down in Somerset). The ostensible point of the journey was for Wordsworth to look for a house in the area for himself and Dorothy, but another reason may well have been the fact that Wordsworth and Mary Hutchinson knew that one day they would marry. He would therefore have been looking for a home not just for Dorothy and himself or for John, whom they believed would also make his home with them when not at sea but for the long-term future, in which he would be married and have children. This 'small abiding-place of many men' was, ideally, to be
A termination and a last retreat
A Centre, come from wheresoe'er you will
whether you came from Somerset, or from Sockburn, or from the centreless life which both Wordsworth and Dorothy had been leading since 1794. The Coleridges would come up from Somerset to live near them: Wordsworth gave his friend an extensive tour of the region while they were there, to ensure that he began to become familiar with it. The fact that Coleridge and Wordsworth walked up to Keswick after finding the house in Grasmere shows, too, that they were looking for a house near a town which in such a region would have been necessary to convince Sarah Coleridge that she could indeed move up to the Lakes. And they found one 'that was being built and was to be let this midsummer'. From the very start, then, Wordsworth's choice of the place to live was involved with the plans and hopes of the rest of the group. In 1804, Mary and Sara's brother Tom would also come to the region, to work a farm near the Clarksons at the head of Ullswater, meaning that not only Sara Hutchinson but her sister Joanna would become regular visitors to Grasmere.
Wordsworth and Dorothy came over together at the end of December; again, they travelled from Sockburn, this time accompanied part of the way by George Hutchinson, as far as Leyburn, and on foot thereafter. Molly Fisher (who lived just across the road from the house at Town End, and worked for them for 2s a week) had lit fires in the house for a fortnight before they arrived, and never forget her first sight of Dorothy 'in t'laal striped gown and tlaal straw Bonnet'. The house (much later known not by the Wordsworths as 'Dove Cottage') would prove too small for the very long-term, but for two people was an excellent starting point: the place where he and Dorothy could bring the others together, in what had (appropriately) been an inn for nearly two hundred years, in what they now thought of as 'unity':
A Whole without dependence or defect
Made for itself and happy in itsef
170 Perfect Contentment Unity entire.
Although 'the Rooms are so small', it offered a good deal of accommodation: in the summer of 1800 it would sleep five adults and a child. John actually offered Wordsworth £40 to build a house in Grasmere, and although Wordsworth opted for the existing house, John's offer was another kind of blessing. What Stephen Gill has called the Wordsworths' 'hesitant but inexorable movement back to the Lake District' was complete, though I think it was by no means an accident that 'Coleridge was won over at the same time ...' It was part of their shared belief in each other, and in their joint activity, that he should be.
Being together in this place became seriously important for them. Visits from the group were constant, and one visitor stayed on with them when Wordsworth married Mary in October 1802. (Sara would eventually also make her home with the Wordsworths.) Wordsworth would write about this visiting and staying in Home at Grasmere.
Such is our wealth: O Vale of Peace we are
And must be, with Gods will, a happy band
Grasmere was where, despite 'the quietness / Of this sublime retirement', he would 'boldly say that solitude is not / Where these things are':
Society is here:
The true community the noblest Frame
Of many into one incorporate
That was a way of defining the group politically, and radically, as well as socially; as John Turner has pointed out, 'This is an enthusiasm in which the idealisms of pastoral and classical republicanism blend, not to picture the truth of common day but to give voice to an aspiration delighted to find that, after all, it may breathe the air of common day'. Above all it was an enthusiasm about how they could think of themselves as a group.
As a way, however, of keeping the group together even when they were separated, the Wordsworths started to celebrate places in their own immediate location by naming them after the people who came to Town End, and whom they loved. Naming places was a habit Wordsworth may well have known from his own childhood in the Lakes, and the Hutchin-sons certainly knew it too. It was on a visit to them that Coleridge first encountered it: 'In the North every Brook, every Crag, almost every Field has a name as a proof of greater Independence and a society more approaching in their Laws and Habits to Nature.' Dorothy Wordsworth records a number of names in her journal which may have been those she was told, or may have been those which she and Wordsworth themselves gave to the features they noticed, while Coleridge's notebooks are peppered by the names he was scribbling down, whether from the lips of Wordsworth during his first tour of the region in November 1799, or while out walking with someone else like John Ponsonby, his host in Ennerdale in August 1802 or whether he was simply reading the map he had drawn to take with him when walking and climbing.
But naming places was also a practice totally in keeping with their relationship as a group. The Wordsworths' first year in Grasmere was 1800. John Wordsworth came for a visit which lasted from January (only a month after Dorothy and Wordsworth had themselves arrived) to the end of September; and during that time Mary Hutchinson also came to stay for six weeks between February and April; while the Coleridges (with the four-year-old Hartley) arrived in June (Sarah Coleridge six months pregnant with Derwent) and stayed with the Wordsworths in Grasmere for a month before going on to their house in Keswick. So apart from Sara Hutchinson within six months they had all been there, and Sara came over in November for a four-month visit.
By 1 August 1800, the Wordsworths had taken to calling a little spit of land at the foot of Grasmere lake Mary Point; it would be partnered by Sara's Eminence, named after her sister when she came to stay in the winter. (In June 1802, Coleridge would go 'to S & M points' for a walk.) By October 1800, too, Coleridge had his own 'seat' in the neighbourhood; when he was over for a visit on the 22nd, Dorothy noted how 'C and I went to look at the prospect from his seat'. They constantly extended their range of named places. It was not just John's tragic death in February 1805 which made memories of his one and only stay in Grasmere so important: his sister and brother were naming things after him soon after he left them in 1800. The first reference in Dorothy's journal to 'John's Firgrove' appears in April 1801, and she mentions it twice in November 1801. Leading to it of course was 'John's path', while one of the Wordsworths' favourite walks was the half-mile from Town End up to 'John's Grove'. When they took that walk, there was a gate beside the road, offering the view over Grasmere which Dorothy had first seen in 1794 and described in November 1801: 'the whole scene impressive, the mountains indistinct the Lake calm & partly ruffled large Island, a sweet sound of water falling into the quiet Lake.' They christened it 'Sara's Gate': Sara Hutchinson had regularly taken that walk with them, and stood and admired that view, during her own first visit to Grasmere from November 1800 to March 1801. In April 1801, Wordsworth and Dorothy wrote to Mary Hutchinson how
This gate was always a favourite station of ours; we love it far more now on Saras account. You know that it commands a beautiful prospect; Sara carved her cypher upon one of its bars and we call it her gate. We will find out another place for your cypher, but you must come and fix upon the place yourself.
For another aspect of the naming was the actual at times the ritual inscription of the person's name or initials on the object named. Wordsworth would write in Home at Grasmere how, after only a few weeks in the valley, he had begun 'Already to inscribe upon my heart' his feelings for the place and its inhabitants: but the group would cut literal inscriptions on rocks and trees. I shall discuss later the extraordinary energy they all put into cutting their initials on what they originally called Sara's Rock (just Sara's initials had first been inscribed), half way between Grasmere and Keswick. But other objects were inscribed too: for example, while staying with Catherine Clarkson at Eusemere in April 1802, Dorothy 'marked our names on a tree' (she probably meant her name and Wordsworth's). And there was 'Mary's Stone', inscribed during her first visit: 'We sate by the roadside at the foot of the lake close to Mary's dear name which she had cut herself upon the stone. William employed [sic] cut at it with his knife to make it plainer.' This rock was still known by local people as 'Wordsworth's Seat' at the end of the nineteenth century. Yet another Hutchinson sister had her own rock: eighteen months after the younger sister Joanna had first visited Grasmere, Wordsworth cut her name on a rock, and also wrote his poem 'To Joanna' about it. And there were at least two further places connected with Sara Hutchinson besides her Rock: the seat started on 26 March 1801 on White Moss Common, when Sara herself laid the first stone, but which was not complete until 10 October 1801, when Wordsworth and Dorothy and Coleridge finally finished it we find the Wordsworths sitting on it in March 1802 and the so-called Sophs of Sods, built at Windy Brow near Keswick on 13 August 1800. This would be the subject of a poem written by Wordsworth but published by Coleridge, and it would be referred to as Sara's own particular place in Coleridge's Letter:
And yet far rather, in my present mood,
I would that thou'dst been sitting all this while
Upon the sod-built seat of Camomile
We know about most of these locations because Dorothy happened to mention them in her journal. There must have been others to which she never referred. But the naming of places had become part of their everyday lives. When that sudden gap opened up in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads in October 1800, Wordsworth and Coleridge quite naturally proposed to fill it with a section called 'Poems on the Naming of Places'.
Many of the walks they took also involved discovering, inhabiting, revisiting, and making places their own. On 23 April 1802, for example, Wordsworth, Dorothy and Coleridge were looking for a place to sit down while out walking, because 'The sun shone & we were lazy'; they were only about a mile from the Town End house, in fact, at the foot of Nab Scar at Rydal. But seats were one of their ways of making a place their own, where they would sit together. They were not looking for a 'prospect' or a view, as twenty-first-century tourists might be looking: a landscape to escape other human beings. The Wordsworths, Hutchinsons and Coleridge wanted a place to be together in. Coleridge was leading the way on this occasion, and 'pitched upon several places but we could not be all of one mind respecting sun and shade so we pushed on to the Foot of the Scar'. They left Wordsworth 'sitting on the stones feasting with silence & C and I sate down upon a rock Seat a Couch it might be under the Bower of William's Eglantine'. Wordsworth thus had no seat; but when they went back down to him, they found that 'He had made himself a seat in the crumbly ground'. Coleridge however remains determined to find something more their own and he does:
we found him in a Bower, the sweetest that was ever seen the Rock on one side is very high & all covered with ivy which hung loosely about & bore bunches of brown berries ... at the top of the Rock there is another spot it is scarce a Bower, a little parlour, one not enclosed by walls but shaped out for a resting place by the rocks & the ground rising about it. It had a sweet moss carpet We resolved to go & plant flowers in both these places tomorrow. We wished for Mary and Sara. Dined late.
Their resolution at the end of the day's walking and clambering is characteristic They plan to revisit: they will improve what they have found: and they will remember those who were not there. The Good Place is committed to the absent, whose bower it will become; it is dedicated to the future as much as to the present.
It would be too easy to dismiss such activity as the transient pleasure of a group of educated and high-spirited people who could afford to spend their days clambering round the Lake District, naming things. They were engaged in what we might now call emotional mapping: identifying the ways in which they belonged both to each other and to the place. The good lives they were determined to live, they would define as lives maintained in contact with the needs and feelings of the others, in a place as beautiful and as rich as possible in shared feelings. Wordsworth and his sister had, after all, known this particular country since childhood, though they had also lived away from it for a long time: but it had multifarious links with their past. Now possessed of their own place in it, they were the ones bringing the others into it, and creating new memories and new links. What Wordsworth and Dorothy brought forward from childhood, the others were now discovering, in a place where they could (in one way) be children together. It would be wrong to ignore this but also wrong to denigrate it.
No where, (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 ...
The Hutchinsons and Wordsworths were linked by their situation as orphans, while Coleridge was regularly looking for and enraged by the father figures he encountered. The group centred on Grasmere and Keswick, if at one level children, were children growing up into the possession of adult selves and the emotional recreation and repossession of their world.
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