The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

In Britain, our poets have always had a very intense relationship with the places that matter to them. In this post, taken almost verbatim from Owen Sheers’ excellent television series on BBC, we look at a poem by one of the greats that has come out of this ongoing conversation between Britain’s landscape and her poets. The most famous such conversation was that between William Wordsworth and the Lake District. When we think of Wordsworth, the images that probably come to mind are lakes, wandering clouds and daffodils. And yet, in 1802, when he wrote, in what would become one of his best known poems, “Earth hath not anything to show more fair”, the beautiful view he was writing about wasn’t a mountain or some flowers he had stumbled upon. He was writing instead of this place - London.

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge (William Wordsworth) 
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
This poem is a fourteen-line sonnet about London at dawn, one of the great love songs to the city.

London It is a fabulous piece of writing that does all the things that a good poem should: in the incredibly short space of a page, it takes us somewhere, it manages to change the weather in our heads. It is also a poem very much of its time, and yet manages to travel remarkably well, in that were we to walk across Westminster Bridge today, we would still have the same basic experience. There would still be Wordsworth’s moment of stillness betwixt all that activity on the banks. We only need to talk to the people who cross it every day in the morning on their way to work to get a sense of this. The best thing for me about seeing the river in the morning is it’s a very small world shared with very few people. So very early in the morning when just the sun’s coming up, it feels like a little town. This is a beautifully simple poem about the city at dawn. So how come it was written by a poet from the Lake District? What was Wordsworth doing on Westminster Bridge that morning? Where was he going? What was on his mind?

The story behind the poem is the surprising tale of Wordsworth’s love life, the complex tale of his love for three different women.

Lake District Lakeland poet William Wordsworth was, of course, one of the towering figures of English Romanticism, alongside Keats, Byron, Shelley, and Wordsworth’s close friend Coleridge. When he started writing at the end of the 18th century, he was an idealistic radical. By the end of his life, in the middle of the 19th, he’d become the revered and grand old man of English verse. The Lakes was where he was born and bred, spent most of his life, and where his poetry seems indelibly inked on the landscape. For Wordsworth as a writer, the landscape of the Lake District was so much more than just his poetic canvas. It was his teacher, his muse, or as he said himself, “The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, the guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul, of all my moral being.” Although he was raised in the lakes, at 17 he moved away, first to university in Cambridge, then becoming something of a nomad, spending much of his time hiking across England and Wales, and further afield on trips to Switzerland, Germany, Austria and revolutionary France. During those years, he searched restlessly for a purpose for his life, aiming to define his ideas about nature and religion and politics. In 1800, at the age of 29, he found himself once again without a permanent residence and with a growing certainty that he was ready to go back home.

Dove Cottage In the autumn of that year he returned on a walking tour with Coleridge. It was on that tour that he discovered the cottage that became his home. Dove Cottage immediately seemed the ideal place in which to begin a new chapter in his life.

At this point in his life, it is fair to say that in the eyes of the world, he had achieved relatively little. But once ensconced in this place, all of that began to change. When he moved in here, the house was cold; apparently one of the chimneys smoked very badly; but Wordsworth didn’t mind: he was ecstatic finally to have a home. The publication of the radical collection of his and Coleridge’s verse, Lyrical Ballads, had started to make his name. But with the new-found security of this place, over the next three years, Wordsworth would go on to write some of the best poetry of his life.

But Wordsworth didn’t come to Dove Cottage on his own. He moved in with his sister Dorothy. William and Dorothy were brought up separately, after the death of first their mother and then their father. However, they retained a strong emotional bond, and in their mid-20s, out of friendship and convenience, they began living together. By the time they moved to Grasmere five years later, they were clearly devoted companions.

The fascinatingly intimate journal that Dorothy kept about their time together here is the main source of information about their daily routine. It’s also clear from the pages of this journal that brother and sister shared and discussed many of the experiences that would go on to become Wordsworth’s poems. There is still a strong echo at Dove Cottage of that intense literary and personal relationship between brother and sister, although neither these rooms, Dorothy’s journal, nor Wordsworth’s poems, answer the many outstanding questions about their artistic and emotional interaction.

Adam O’Riordan is the writer-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. What is it like for him to live with William and Dorothy?

There is this sense of the things that Dorothy and William and Coleridge and everyone else was pushing towards do still live on here in a way. I guess the role of the poet-in-residence is to embody that, and to be that, if that doesn’t sound too grand, which it’s not. You’re keeping that going, you’re writing the poems. There is something so winning and drawing about re-imagining the intimacies that existed between the Wordsworths, between Dorothy and Mary and William, and what went on in that house. It is a great starting point for poems. I know other poets have successfully written about them, but they are great places to go to fire your imagination.
A Double Wash Stand (Adam O’Riordan)

Before the age condemned such joint ablutions
You dip your hands in the tepid water
as geese come in low across the lake
landing on their shadows,
their shadows becoming their wake
breaking apart the imago
they seem to chase.
So you break this tension
shattering your own reflections.
There’s a complicity
in getting clean together
who knows what distances
you travelled in your sleep
back towards one another,
and the secrets
that those distances will keep
each movement fluid
and practised in the winter air
You revel in this intimate act,
not quite each other’s double.
Your easy mime of mannerisms
from other lives
like brother and sister.
No, I mean man and wife.

There will always be speculation about William and Dorothy’s relationship at Dove Cottage. But she certainly wasn’t the only woman in Wordsworth’s life. One of his closest friends at the time was a Lakeland girl, Mary Hutchinson. Wordsworth had actually been in the same school as Mary, so he’d known her almost all of his life. In the summer of 1787, she joined William and Dorothy on their rambles through the woods and hills of Penrith. Since their arrival at Dove Cottage, she’d been a regular visitor. At some point, possibly around the end of 1801, William decided to ask her to marry him. His marriage to Mary and her settling in at Dove Cottage would be the final keystone in the architecture of this newly settled life that Wordsworth was building for himself at Grasmere.

Annette In early 1802, William and Mary were more than ready to get married. But there was a problem. Several hundred miles from Grasmere there was another woman who had been calling herself Mrs Wordsworth for the last ten years. Annette Vallon, the third woman in this story, had met Wordsworth when as a hot-blooded young graduate he travelled to France to take a look at the Revolution in action. He met Annette in Orleans. One thing led to another and a couple of months after they met she was pregnant. Wordsworth left France before the baby was born, and although he may have planned to return, a few weeks after he came back, France declared war on England. Return to Annette and his newly-born daughter Caroline became impossible, and gradually, his thoughts of France began to fade.

In the spring of 1802, Wordsworth realised that he just couldn’t get married to Mary without first going to France to speak with Annette face to face. Thanks to a recent peace treaty with the French, this was, for the first time in a decade, actually possible. On the 9th of July, William left Grasmere for London on his way to Calais. As ever, he wasn’t travelling on his own. His companion was his sister, Dorothy.

Westminster Bridge Wordsworth had both enjoyed and suffered the maelstrom of London on a number of occasions before 1802, and his poetic responses sum up the sensory overload that the capital made on his Lakelander sensibility: “…the quick dance / Of colours, lights and forms; the Babel din; / The endless stream of men, and moving things, … / The comers and the goers face to face, Face after face …” This was the city in which William and Dorothy found themselves, when early on the morning of July 31st, 1802, they arrived at Charing Cross to catch a stagecoach for Dover. The Wordsworths had taken their seats on the top of the carriage, quite possibly because they were cheaper, and this meant that they were able to see over the bridge’s parapet, which at the time was much higher than it is today. As they crossed over Westminster Bridge, they were both enraptured by the view, which more than likely remained their topic of conversation as the coach carried on towards Dover. When Dorothy wrote about their trip to France some months later, her journal seems to pause for a moment to pay special attention to the view from the bridge.

It was a beautiful morning. The city, St Paul’s, with the river and a multitude of little boats, made a most beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge. The houses were not overhung by their cloud of smoke and they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such a pure light that there was even something like the purity of nature’s own grand spectacles.

This entry from Dorothy’s journal clearly shares William’s images and words, and we can only imagine that it was their conversation on the bridge that morning which brought the poem to life.

View of Thames painting The basic experience that Wordsworth is describing and is making us relive in this poem is one of course that all of us experience all the time in cities. When you’re on one side of the river, and you’re in those very close horizons of the streets, and you’ve got buildings all around you, you’ve got a lot of noise and activity; and then you step out onto the bridge, and you walk across the bridge, and then suddenly there’s this space in the air, you haven’t got buildings in front of your eyes. You’ve got the river there.

The movement of the poem is very simple, from that opening line of astonished statement through to that sense of a very deep calmness. But across that movement the poem is charged crucially by a sense of brevity, a brevity that explains the bridge itself; then there is the brevity of the form, the sonnet, which gives the poem its potency, its power. Even in the very first line: “EARTH has not anything to show more fair” the weight on that first syllable is total; imagine how much weaker it would have been had he said “the world” and we didn’t have that weight until the second syllable. That continues onto the second line when he says, “Dull would he be off soul who could pass by.” Who would want to be thought of as dull of soul? None of us, so we stay with the poet and we linger. And then again, the close of the poem is broken up with this quite surprising apostrophe - “Dear God!” – before it falls down to a sense of beautiful calm - “the very houses seem asleep; / And all that mighty heart is lying still!

It’s a sublime vision of London, in which the city becomes a sleeping, breathing, organic creature. Simon Armitage, a poet who shares Owen Sheer’s fascination for this poem, says that that dramatic first sentence, , might lead one to believe the poem was about a mountain or a lake or some such artefact of splendid nature. Instead, one is startled to find that the poem is about London; surely an antithesis of Wordsworth? But further readings reveal that there can be no beauty or sense of miracle in London (or in any city, for that matter) without the presence of nature. The city is transfigured by the morning sun. Not only that, the city is framed as well. There’s a phrase about being open to the fields and the sunlight … every part of the city has a border of nature: the sky, the sun, the fields, the river.

The evening of the day the Wordsworths crossed Westminster Bridge, they took a boat over to Calais. They arrived early next morning. William went ashore and met Annette almost immediately. In 1802, Calais was no more glamorous a town than it is today, but it must have been fascinating to visit after a decade of strife between France and England. Dorothy’s journal is quite detailed about some of their time here. She complains about the bad smells in her lodging, she waxes lyrical about the phosphorescence in the sea. She is frustratingly quiet on the things we really want to know about: what was it like for William and Annette to see one another again? was there still any spark? how was it for William to meet his nine-year-old daughter for the first time in his life? His already imperfect French would have been fairly rusty, so how did they even manage to talk to each other?

What we do know is that they spent a lot of time together on the beach. “We walked by the sea shore almost every evening with Annette and Caroline, or William and I alone. I had a bad cold and could not bathe at once, but William did.” This beach holiday lasted a whole month, and while there’s no surviving record, William and Annette obviously reached some kind of agreement which allowed him to marry with a clear conscience.

Calais Beach That month also afforded William plenty of time for writing poetry. He loved to form his poems while he was walking, ideally on uninterrupted ground so that his rhythms and thoughts were not disturbed. So the impressive expanse of the Calais beach would have been the perfect place for him to compose, especially because the dozen or so poems he wrote over that month were all sonnets, 14 lines, tightly packed, and easy to hold in the mind as he strode along the sands.

Once again, Dorothy had a crucial hand in this. She had been reading the sonnets of the great John Milton to her brother. It was these that prompted him to experiment with the sonnet himself. In one fantastic poem, a counterpoint to his sonnet about the dawn in London, he tenderly addresses his daughter Caroline.
It Is A Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free (William Wordsworth)
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven broods o'er the Sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder--everlastingly.
Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year;
And worship'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.

It’s curious that this unique and brief reference to the poet’s daughter, although fond, seems strangely detached, especially when compared to the passion that Wordsworth expresses about London. That summer of 1802, he appears to have focussed his energy on refining his skills as a sonneteer. The sonnets he wrote all are impressive, and they provide an important context for the sonnet on Westminster Bridge. What is really fascinating about the story around the writing of this poem is how it touches on so many exciting elements of Wordsworth. Nowadays his reputation is quite often drawn from the later part of his life, from his Establishment phase, but it should be remembered that he was, in his youth, quite the rebel. He was a father outside of wedlock, he was widely travelled, he was a sympathiser of the French Revolution, and he chose to lead a literary life outside of London. His poem therefore moves between these two places that really formed Wordsworth – the Lake District and the radical revolutionary France that he had known as a young man.

And right in the middle, halfway between those two places, is London. Seen in this context, it is not surprising that the poem, in its own way, is quite radical. As Simon Armitage says, it has been usual in traditional literature to see cities as places of evil intent, filthy, inhuman, murderous places. Wordsworth, though, takes the opposite view, a watershed moment in poetry. Although the poem is sentimental and romantic, it is still a brave poem, especially for Wordsworth (whose sympathies do lie elsewhere) to stand up and say at this moment that this is beauty.

The Vision (Simon Armitage)

The future was a beautiful place, once.
Remember the full-blown balsa-wood town
on public display in the Civic Hall.

The ring-bound sketches, artists’ impressions,
blueprints of smoked glass and tubular steel,
board-game suburbs, modes of transportation
like fairground rides or executive toys.
Cities like dreams, cantilevered by light.
And people like us at the bottle-bank
next to the cycle-path, or dog-walking
over tended strips of fuzzy-felt grass,
or motoring home in electric cars,
model drivers. Or after the late show -
strolling the boulevard. They were the plans,
all underwritten in the neat left-hand
of architects - a true, legible script.
I pulled that future out of the north wind
at the landfill site, stamped with today’s date,
riding the air with other such futures,
all unlived in and now fully extinct.

From London, the Wordsworths headed back north, where William finally got to marry Mary. He brought his new bride back to Grasmere where they lived for the rest of their lives, eventually ending up at the grand Victorian villa in Rydal Mount, barely twenty minutes’ walk away from Dove Cottage. Dorothy lived with his brother and sister-in-law for the rest of her life, in what was a fairly unusual but remarkably successful domestic arrangement. And the third woman from that summer of 1802, Annette, and her daughter Caroline, as far as we know, only met Wordsworth one more time, while he was on a holiday in Paris with his family twenty years later, by which point, he and Mary had three teenage children of their own.

In the end, we have no idea how Wordsworth responded to the complex situation he found himself in that fateful summer, meeting his mistress and a daughter for the first time on the eve of his marriage to Mary. But what we do know is that as a result of that journey, Wordsworth, our great poet of nature, wrote one of the most euphoric poems about a city in the English language. The resonance of the poem has strengthened over time. As London becomes more built up, as we find ourselves more and more surrounded and dwarfed by the buildings around us, the experience that the poem describes of the great sense of relief that washes over us as we cross the Thames has over the years become not less but more powerful.

Written and Narrated by Owen Sheers: A Poet’s Guide to Britain, BBC Four.


Rochelle's Roost said...

Thanks for your warm and passionate response to one of my fave poems. You have induced me to get to Westminster Bridge at dawn and look upon the same scene that William and Dorothy might have encountered 200 years ago.

I have to say on a more mdoern note, it is a journey on the upper deck of a red bus crossing over Waterloo Bridge on an overcast day that makes me wax, if not poetic, at least eloquent.


Fëanor said...

Rochelle: glad you liked it, but I must confess it's mainly Owen Sheers' words - I watched the programme and transcribed it. Good stuff, though, I agree.

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