I’m not a huge fan of anniversaries and commemorations (though I have recently contributed to an anthology for the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, and two years ago it was important for me to mark the centenary of Wilfred Owen’s stay at Craiglockhart, just down the road from here). 7 April 2020 was the 250th birthday of the pre-20thC poet who has probably influenced me more than any other.
I had a back operation when I was nineteen, after my first year at Newcastle University. Recovering a couple of days later I started on Wordsworth’s verse autobiography, The Prelude, from the 2nd year reading list (such girlyswottiness then was to contribute to other health problems later on, and I’d actually attempted to read Dryden the day before, but never mind). It was one of those transformative moments, an epiphany, or what Wordsworth would’ve called a ‘spot of time’ – even though for him, as for me normally, these tended to happen in quiet, outdoors, upland places. I went on to write a PhD on Wordsworth, Autobiography and 18th-century Psychology, and then to study Dorothy and Mary Wordsworth.
My thesis was supervised by the late Robert Woof, former director of The Wordsworth Trust, and I was lucky enough to be able to study the manuscripts of The Prelude, and later the Scottish and Continental travel journals of Dorothy and Mary Wordsworth, in the Wordsworth Library, Grasmere. The re-opening of Dove Cottage (where Wordswoth lived from 1799-1808, the home with which he is most readily associated), and the anniversary celebrations scheduled for 7 April in Grasmere are currently postponed due to the Corona virus pandemic.
Three and a half decades on from a hospital bed in Huddersfield, it’s easy for me to understand the effect that discovering Wordsworth had on a child of Northern England who had been scholarly and feral in equal measures. I can see how well the Romantic poet vocalised and lineated so much of her own experience – of the rural and seasonal, of the workings of memory and of attempts to record, represent and draw conclusions from that experience (though the specifics may have altered: she didn’t steal boats or rob nests, and she wasn’t orphaned at an early age). She was, too, lacking in role models from the women writers who were shortly to become more widely taught.
I’d read some of the Brontes – not a great deal was made of their local significance – and Jane Austen at school, but had been rather more excited by my discovery of the WW1 poets and the virtuosic style of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Then I read Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and was stunned by what was possible in prose (and I’ve since grown to hugely respect Austen’s syntax and to be more impressed by the Bronte novels’ connectedness to a locality), but I still hadn’t read any women poets at that stage. My first year at uni featured a lot of drama written by men; and Anglo-Saxon, also to become a great love and influence.
My own early attempts creative writing, after I moved to Scotland in 1995, were too much influenced by extensive reading of Wordsworth and Coleridge – far too much verbal solitary wandering above seas of mist. In the last couple of decades I haven’t read much from the Romantic period at all. Wordsworth exhorted readers to let nature be their teacher, but still spoke with the authority of the dominant-species lyric ‘I’. Thanks to the work of Jonathan Bate (especially Romantic Ecology) and others who have rehabilitated him as an eco-poet he is proving to be an important poet again in the time of climate emergency. He may be an important poet for lockdown. Certainly his work on the healing powers of nature and our relationship to our thoughts looks prescient of 21stC therapeutic techniques including Mindfulness and CBT. For the past week he’s the poet I’ve been reading on my permitted daily exercise in the hills I’m lucky enough to call home (with sincere apologies to RLS), walking to the beat of that most measured of blank verse; reading aloud, facing southwest towards a locked-down Lake District, those unsurpassed recollections of childhood adventures and fears.