Wordsworthian Reflections

 

 

By the time we arrived last night, the weather here was cold, gray, and drizzly.  And so it continued this morning and on into the evening, with occasional bouts of drenching rain.  This is scarcely our first visit to England, so we knew that such weather was a possibility, even a likelihood.  And this is at least our third visit to the Lake District, so we weren’t particularly upset.

 

We bought all-day boat passes, and sailed from Bowness to Lakeside and back again, and from Bowness to Ambleside (where we ate lunch) and then back again — the entire length of Windermere.

 

 

William Wordsworth loved this area:

 

With exultation at my feet I saw

Lake, islands, promontories, gleaming bays,

A universe of Nature’s fairest forms

Proudly revealed.

 

(I apologize that I seem to be unable to reproduce the proper formatting of the verses I’m citing here.)

And, yes, cruising on Windermere was pleasant.  But, frankly, the area wasn’t as wonderful as I’d remembered, and I thought to myself that, by this point in my life, maybe I’ve just seen too many beautiful mountain lakes to be very impressed any more by the English Lake District.  Bowness is more crowded and busy and commercial than I had recalled, and it was difficult to get into the mood.

 

We returned to our bed-and-breakfast — an okay place, but something of a disappointment in both accommodations and location — read, napped, and waited out a serious downpour.  Then we drove up to Grasmere, which Wordsworth (who hadn’t really traveled all that much) once pronounced “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found.”

 

Doing so restored my faith in the Lake District.

 

 

While it has many rivals for “loveliest spot” — Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomites, Lake Como, Lauterbrunnen and the Berner Oberland, and Banff would certainly be on my list of competitors –Grasmere is, indeed, a lovely place.  And Grasmere village fits its setting very well.  And, with the rich literary associations of the area, I could be happy coming back and staying for a easily a week or more.

 

And there I sit at evening, when the steep

Of Silver Howe, and Grasmere’s peaceful lake

And one green island, gleam beneath the stems

Of dark firs, a visionary scene.

 

No habitation can be seen, but they

Who journey thither and find themselves alone

With a few sheep, with rock and stones, and kites

That overhead are sailing in the sky.

It is in truth an utter solitude.

 

Grasmere, at about 9:45 PM

 

Just so.  Those who have been here, and who have had time to get away from tour buses and crowds and asphalt, know exactly what he was talking about.

We arrived at Grasmere late in the evening — we’re fairly far north here, so it stays light quite late during the summer — and it was quiet and clean following the drenching rains of the day.  There hasn’t been all that much wind; the sailboats on the lake have had to use their oars.  And, of course, it was past sunset.  But, otherwise, we could appreciate some of the verses of Wordsworth’s many locally-inspired poems:

 

There was a roaring in the wind all night,

The rain came heavily and fell in floods;

But now the sun is rising calm and bright;

The birds are singing in the distant woods.

 

All things that love the sun are out of doors;

The sky rejoices in the morning’s birth;

The grass is bright with rain-drops.

 

There’s joy in the mountains;

There’s life in the fountains,

Small clouds are sailing,

Blue sky prevailing;

The rain is over and gone.

 

 

We parked by St. Oswald’s church in the village — dedicated in honor of the king of Northumbria (d. 642) who was the brother and predecessor of Oswiu, who founded the abbey at Whitby (see yesterday’s blog entry).  John Wilson, a Scottish lawyer and literary critic who became a friend of Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge at Grasmere and who wrote verse under the pseudonym of “Christopher North,” wrote of it:

 

The old church-tower a solemn watch doth keep

O’er the sweet village she adorns so well;

Faintly the freezing stream is heard to weep,

Wild-murmuring far within its icy cell.

 

 

The graves of Wordsworth and his family, who were faithful worshipers at St. Oswald’s, are located in the churchyard, alongside the River Rothay, and, in honor of the poet, there are benches for reflection (and, perhaps, for reading) and a large stand of daffodils:

 

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils.

 

A less-reverent homage is paid to Wordsworth, alluding to the lines just quoted, by a nearby souvenir shop, which bids prospective customers to “wander in lonely, or as a crowd.”

 

Later in life, Wordsworth lamented that he had, to a certain degree at least, lost the sense of the numinous with which nature had once filled him:

 

There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,

The earth and every common sight,

To me did seem

Apparelled in celestial light,

The glory and freshness of a dream.

It is not now as it hath been of yore; –

Turn whereso’er I may

By night or day,

The things which I have seen I now can see no more. . . .

 

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting,

And cometh from afar:

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Shades of the prison-house begin to close

Upon the growing Boy,

But he beholds the light, and when it flows,

He sees it in his joy.

The Youth, who daily farther from the east

Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,

And by the vision splendid

Is on his way attended;

At length the Man perceives it die away,

And fade into the light of common day.

 

I agree that it’s partly a function of age.  As a Latter-day Saint, I suspect that it’s the growing interval of years that separates us from our arrival through the veil.  As Eliza Snow’s famous Mormon hymn lyrics put it:

 

O my Father, thou that dwellest

In the high and glorious place,

When shall I regain thy presence

And again behold thy face?

In thy holy habitation

Did my spirit once reside?

In my first primeval childhood

Was I nurtured near thy side?

For a wise and glorious purpose

Thou hast placed me here on earth

And withheld the recollection

Of my former friends and birth;

Yet ofttimes a secret something

Whispered, “You’re a stranger here,”

And I felt that I had wandered

From a more exalted sphere.

 

I know that I myself once sensed intimations of the eternal in the ordinary a bit more commonly than I now do.  Yet I still do sense them — in landscapes, in snippets of music, in lines of literature, even in everyday life — and sometimes with an intensity that almost aches.

 

Perhaps this is the same thing that the English Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins had in mind in “God’s Grandeur,” though it closes with an expression of  continued faith:

 

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed.  Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

 

Bowness-on-Windermere, Cumbria, England

 

  • Tracy Hall Jr

    It’s just like you to include the context of Wordsworth’s contribution to the LDS canon, which I confess I first heard from the lips of Richard L. Evans in “Man’s Search for Happiness.” Sadly, I also experienced “Shades of the prison-house begin to close Upon the growing Boy.”
    I wonder why we seldom allude to Robert Frost’s “Trial by Existence,” which appeared in his first compilation (A Boy’s Will, 1915). Indeed, I find very little commentary anywhere about this amazing piece, as if it is considered polite not to dwell on the excesses of “callow youth.”

    But always God speaks at the end:
    ’One thought in agony of strife 50
    The bravest would have by for friend,
    The memory that he chose the life;
    But the pure fate to which you go
    Admits no memory of choice,
    Or the woe were not earthly woe 55
    To which you give the assenting voice.’

    And so the choice must be again,
    But the last choice is still the same;
    And the awe passes wonder then,
    And a hush falls for all acclaim. 60
    And God has taken a flower of gold
    And broken it, and used therefrom
    The mystic link to bind and hold
    Spirit to matter till death come.

    ‘Tis of the essence of life here, 65
    Though we choose greatly, still to lack
    The lasting memory at all clear,
    That life has for us on the wrack
    Nothing but what we somehow chose;
    Thus are we wholly stripped of pride 70
    In the pain that has but one close,
    Bearing it crushed and mystified.

    http://www.bartleby.com/117/22.html

    Tracy Hall Jr
    Klagenfurt, Austria


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