Wordsworth 1770-2020 and 1984-2020

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.

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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.

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En route to Romanticism & Revolution conference, Lancaster University, ?1989, photo by John Goodridge

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.

 

 

 

 

Walking with Wilfred Owen

10 August 1917: a dozen walkers from the Craiglockhart War Hospital Field Club, including Wilfred Owen, walk in the Pentland Hills. According to an article Owen wrote for the hospital magazine The Hydra, the route took them from Balerno tram terminus to Threipmiur Reservoir, Bavelaw Castle, Green Cleuch, Loganlee and Glencourse.

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Threipmuir / heather

10 August 2017: a dozen walkers, and a dog,  from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Canada retrace Owen’s route, led by Neil McLennan, chair of the Wilfred Owen’s Edinburgh 1917-2017 committee, and indefatigable researcher of Owen’s time in Edinburgh, Tommy McManmon, Natural Heritage Officer (that’s a Ranger, pre-rebranding by the council), and me, poet of these parts.

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We departed, in both senses of the word, from Owen’s route, at Harlaw Visitor Centre, to have a cuppa, make introductions and do some warm-up exercises to prime us for walking as poets. Then along to Threipmuir to fall into century-separated step with Owen (I’m reminded of Nan Shepherd’s ‘one is companioned, but not in time’, The Living Mountain, ch 5).  We also fell into step, conversation, and companionship with each other, sharing stories of what brought us here, today, literally and figuratively. Periodically we  stopped and Neil took us back to 1917 and the findings of his own research.

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2017 historian / walkers

After a lunch stop at the Howe (‘Habbie’s Howe’ to Owen), we fell into silence for a spell, to observe, hear and generally ‘sense’ the experience of walking in August 2017 – both to be mindful of the present moment, and to remind ourselves of  the 1917 walkers, here as part of a rehabilitation that would make them fit to be returned to the front, that would see Owen unnecessarily killed a few days before the Armistice. Beneficiaries of post-WW2 peace and prosperity struggling to come to terms with Brexit and Trump, we used our minutes of silence to walk in an act of remembrance and maybe resistance, for peace, integration, tolerance; and to write. The results were stunning and I hope they will be in the public domain at some point.

 

A humbling, inspiring and companionable experience for someone who, like many, was introduced to, and became enthralled by, modern poetry when studying the WW1 poets at school; who has lived somewhere between Craiglockhart and the Pentlands for the last 7 years, and walked this route for over 20 without realising until now that it was the one taken by Owen. Not my average day’s walk in the hills of the adopted home.

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harvest / Harlaw