Literary Landscapes: The Lakes of William and Dorothy Wordsworth

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View across Lakeland

Britain’s abundant literary history is made all the richer by the country’s many magnificent landscapes. In this series, we’ll be taking a look at the countryside that has served as inspiration for some of our most beloved works. In this our second installment, we look to the region that influenced one of Britain’s most beloved poets.

A lake carries you into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable. 

― William Wordsworth

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William Wordsworth by Margaret Gillies (1803-1887) [Public domain].

William Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth in the Lake District in 1770. His sister Dorothy was born one year later.  Although close as children, after the death of their parents, they went to live with separate relatives for several years. While Dorothy lived with an aunt in Halifax, William attended Cambridge University and spent some time in France. Once reunited, the siblings were inseparable for the rest of their lives. The two shared a deep love for writing and nature.

 

 

 

 

 

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Dorothy Wordsworth by W. Crowbent [Public domain].

William gained recognition as a Romantic poet, and became Poet Laureate in 1843. Meanwhile, Dorothy was known in her own right as a poet and diarist. She also assisted her brother with his poetry.

Life in Grasmere

As anyone who has visited the Lake District knows, it is almost impossible to not feel moved to creativity by the colours of the landscape. The multitude of greens, browns, blues, and even greys leaves one longing to capture every view in either words or paint. The area surrounding Grasmere provided much inspiration for both William and Dorothy. From 1799 to 1808, they shared residency of Dove Cottage. Visitors can tour the cottage and the museum, seeing a number of personal items and manuscripts by brother and sister. Some scholars believe this period to have been the most productive of William’s poetic career.

 

We are daily more delighted with Grasmere, and its neighbourhoods; our walks are perpetually varied, and we are more fond of the mountains as our acquaintance with them encreases.
Dorothy Wordsworth in a letter to a friend, dated 1800. 

 

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Rydal Water

 

The cottage, although rather small, provided excellent views across the lake at Grasmere to the fells beyond. Dorothy and William spent a great deal of time rambling about the meadows and hills. William’s poetry shows a strong connection with the nature that surrounded him. For him, the natural world provided an education far more valuable than that which could be found in any school.

 

 

 

 

The passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.

– William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads

Move to Rydal

In 1802, William married Mary Hutchison. Soon the tiny Dove Cottage was far too cramped for the growing family, and in 1808, William, Mary, Dorothy, and the children moved to nearby Allan Bank. Four years later they moved again. This time, they made their home at the much larger Rydal Mount. Here they remained until William died in 1850. Dorothy passed away in 1855. The house at Rydal Mount remains in the ownership of Wordsworth’s ancestors to this day. The extensive gardens overlook Rydal Water.

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Rydal Mount

The siblings, Mary, and other family members are all laid to rest at St. Oswald’s Church in Grasmere. Adjacent to the churchyard is the daffodil garden, built in 2003 in tribute to William’s most famous poem. Locals and visitors are encouraged to plant bulbs here, and in spring, the field is a veritable host of golden daffodils. 

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The graves of the Wordsworth family clustered in the grounds of St. Oswald’s.

Greenhead Gill

As well as the houses and the lakes, another spot worth walking to is Greenhead Gill on the other side of Grasmere village. A gill is a regional word for a mountain stream and this particular spot provided the setting for the poem Michael. 

Upon the forest-side in Grasmere Vale

There dwelt a shepherd, Michael was his name.

– William Wordsworth, Michael, 1800

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Greenhead Gill in the rain.

The poem, from Lyrical Ballads, is one of his best knownWilliam tells the story of a farmer who has tended the land as did his ancestors for generations before him. Michael is the human embodiment of the rural landscape, tied to a traditional way of life. He teaches these values to his son. Sadly, debt means that Michael must either sell his land or send his son away. He chooses the latter, hopeful that he has instilled in him a sense of the importance of place. However, his son is seduced by city life and never comes home. Michael dies of a broken heart. After his death, his tiny cottage is demolished, leaving nothing behind.

Wordsworth wanted the poem to emphasize the beauty of the location and the importance of protecting traditional family life as industrialization crept ever closer. He hoped that his words would give voice to those who otherwise had none.

Today, thousands of visitors flock to view Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount every year. But the spirits of William and Dorothy Wordsworth linger far beyond the walls of those two homes. High on the fell or along the lake shore, one cannot help but feel the power of the nature that inspired them both to such memorable creativity.

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By Tejvan Pettinger. https://www.flickr.com/photos/tejvan/6935512902

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