Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
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IN WORDSWORTH'S COUNTRY
NO other English poet had touched me quite so closely as Wordsworth. All cultivated men delight in Shakespeare; he is the universal genius; but Wordsworth's poetry has more the character of a message, and a message special and personal, to a comparatively small circle of readers. He stands for a particular phase of human thought and experience, and his service to certain minds is like an initiation into a new order of truths. Note what a revelation he was to the logical mind of John Stuart Mill. His limitations make him all the more private and precious, like the seclusion of one of his mountain dales. He is not and can never be the world's poet, but more especially the poet of those who love solitude and solitary communion with nature. Shakespeare's attitude toward nature is for the most part like that of a gay, careless reveler, who leaves his companions for a moment to pluck a flower or gather a shell here and there, as they stroll
paved fountain, or by rushy brook,
He is, of course, preŽminent in all purely poetic achievements, but his poems can never minister to the spirit in the way Wordsworth's do.
One can hardly appreciate the extent to which the latter poet has absorbed and reproduced the spirit of the Westmoreland scenery until he has visited that region. I paused there a few days in early June, on my way south, and again on my return late in July. I walked up from Windermere to Grasmere, where, on the second visit, I took up my abode at the historic Swan Inn, where Scott used to go surreptitiously to get his mug of beer when he was stopping with Wordsworth.
The call of the cuckoo came to me from over Rydal Water as I passed along. I plucked my first foxglove by the roadside; paused and listened to the voice of the mountain torrent; heard
"The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep;"
caught many a glimpse of green, unpeopled hills, urn-shaped dells, treeless heights, rocky promontories, secluded valleys, and clear, swift-running streams. The scenery was sombre; there were but two colors, green and brown, verging on black; wherever the rock cropped out of the green turf on the mountain-sides, or in the vale, it showed a dark face. But the tenderness and freshness of the green tints were something to remember, — the hue of the first springing April grass, massed and widespread in midsummer.
Then there was a quiet splendor, almost grandeur, about Grasmere vale, such as I had not seen elsewhere, — a kind of monumental beauty and dignity that agreed well with one's conception of the loftier strains of its poet. It is not too much dominated by the mountains, though shut in on all sides by them; that stately level floor of the valley keeps them back and defines them, and they rise from its outer margin like rugged, green-tufted, and green-draped walls.
It is doubtless this feature, as De Quincey says, this floor-like character of the valley, that makes the scenery of Grasmere more impressive than the scenery in North Wales, where the physiognomy of the mountains is essentially the same, but where the valleys are more bowl-shaped. Amid so much that is steep and rugged and broken, the eye delights in the repose and equilibrium of horizontal lines, — a bit of table-land, the surface of the lake, or the level of the valley bottom. The principal valleys of our own Catskill region all have this stately floor, so characteristic of Wordsworth's country. It was a pleasure which I daily indulged in to stand on the bridge by Grasmere Church, with that full, limpid stream before me, pausing and deepening under the stone embankment near where the dust of the poet lies, and let the eye sweep across the plain to the foot of the near mountains, or dwell upon their encircling summits above the tops of the trees and the roofs of the village. The water-ouzel loved to linger there, too, and would sit in contemplative mood on the stones around which the water loitered and murmured, its clear white breast alone defining it from the object upon which it rested. Then it would trip along the margin of the pool, or flit a few feet over its surface, and suddenly, as if it had burst like a bubble, vanish before my eyes; there would be a little splash of the water beneath where I saw it, as if the drop of which it was composed had reunited with the surface there. Then, in a moment or two, it would emerge from the water and take up its stand as dry and unruffled as ever. It was always amusing to see this plump little bird, so unlike a water-fowl in shape and manner, disappear in the stream. It did not seem to dive, but simply dropped into the water, as if its wings had suddenly failed it. Sometimes it fairly tumbled in from its perch. It was gone from sight in a twinkling, and, while you were wondering how it could accomplish the feat of walking on the bottom of the stream under there, it reappeared as unconcerned as possible. It is a song-bird, a thrush, and gives a feature to these mountain streams and waterfalls which ours, except on the Pacific coast, entirely lack. The stream that winds through Grasmere vale, and flows against the embankment of the churchyard, as the Avon at Stratford, is of great beauty, — clean, bright, full, trouty, with just a tinge of gypsy blood in its veins, which it gets from the black tarns on the mountains, and which adds to its richness of color. I saw an angler take a few trout from it, in a meadow near the village. After a heavy rain the stream was not roily, but slightly darker in hue; these fields and mountains are so turf-bound that no particle of soil is carried away by the water.
Falls and cascades are a great feature all through this country, as they are a marked feature in Wordsworth's poetry. One's ear is everywhere haunted by the sound of falling water; and, when the ear cannot hear them, the eye can see the streaks or patches of white foam down the green declivities. There are no trees above the valley bottom to obstruct the view, and no hum of woods to muffle the sounds of distant streams. When I was at Grasmere there was much rain, and this stanza of the poet came to mind: —
The words "vale" and "dell" come to have a new meaning after one has visited Wordsworth's country, just as the words "cottage" and "shepherd" also have so much more significance there and in Scotland than at home.
Every humble dwelling looks like a nest; that in which the poet himself lived had a cozy, nest-like look; and every vale is green, — a cradle amid rocky heights, padded and carpeted with the thickest turf. Wordsworth is described as the poet of nature. He is more the poet of man, deeply wrought upon by a certain phase of nature, — the nature of those sombre, quiet, green, far-reaching mountain solitudes. There is a shepherd quality about him; he loves the flocks, the heights, the tarn, the tender herbage, the sheltered dell, the fold, with a kind of poetized shepherd instinct. Lambs and sheep and their haunts, and those who tend them, recur perpetually in his poems. How well his verse harmonizes with those high, green, and gray solitudes, where the silence is broken only by the bleat of lambs or sheep, or just stirred by the voice of distant waterfalls! Simple, elemental, yet profoundly tender and human, he had
He brooded upon nature, but it was nature mirrored in his own heart. In his poem of "The Brothers" he says of his hero, who had gone to sea: —
and, leaning over the vessel's side and gazing into the "broad green wave and sparkling foam," he
This was what his own heart told him; every experience or sentiment called those beloved images to his own mind.
One afternoon, when the sun seemed likely to get the better of the soft rain-clouds, I set out to climb to the top of Helvellyn. I followed the highway a mile or more beyond the Swan Inn, and then I committed myself to a footpath that turns up the mountain-side to the right, and crosses into Grisedale and so to Ulleswater. Two schoolgirls whom I overtook put me on the right track. The voice of a foaming mountain torrent was in my ears a long distance, and now and then the path crossed it. Fairfield Mountain was on my right hand, Helm Crag and Dunmail Raise on my left. Grasmere plain soon lay far below. The haymakers, encouraged by a gleam of sunshine, were hastily raking together the rain-blackened hay. From my outlook they appeared to be slowly and laboriously rolling up a great sheet of dark brown paper, uncovering beneath it one of the most fresh and vivid green. The mown grass is so long in curing in this country (frequently two weeks) that the new blades spring beneath it, and a second crop is well under way before the old is "carried." The long mountain slopes up which I was making my way were as verdant as the plain below me. Large coarse ferns or bracken, with an under-lining of fine grass, covered the ground on the lower portions. On the higher, grass alone prevailed. On the top of the divide, looking down into the valley of Ulleswater, I came upon one of those black tarns, or mountain lakelets, which are such a feature in this strange scenery. The word "tarn" has no meaning with us, though our young poets sometimes use it as they do this Yorkshire word "wold;" one they get from Wordsworth, the other from Tennyson. But when you have seen one of those still, inky pools at the head of a silent, lonely Westmoreland dale, you will not be apt to misapply the word in future. Suddenly the serene shepherd mountain opens this black, gleaming eye at your feet, and it is all the more weird for having no eyebrow of rocks, or fringe of rush or bush. The steep, encircling slopes drop down and hem it about with the most green and uniform turf. If its rim had been modeled by human hands, it could not have been more regular or gentle in outline. Beneath its emerald coat the soil is black and peaty, which accounts for the hue of the water and the dark line that encircles it.
The path led across the outlet of the tarn, and then divided, one branch going down into the head of Grisedale, and the other mounting up the steep flank of Helvellyn. Far up the green acclivity I met a man and two young women making their way slowly down. They had come from Glenridding on Ulleswater, and were going to Grasmere. The women looked cold, and said I would find it wintry on the summit.
Helvellyn has a broad flank and a long back, and comes to a head very slowly and gently. You reach a wire fence well up on the top that divides some sheep ranges, pass through a gate, and have a mile yet to the highest ground in front of you; but you could traverse it in a buggy, it is so smooth and grassy. The grass fails just before the summit is reached, and the ground is covered with small fragments of the decomposed rock. The view is impressive, and such as one likes to sit down to and drink in slowly, — a
The wind was moderate and not cold. Toward Ulleswater the mountain drops down abruptly many hundred feet, but its vast western slope appeared one smooth, unbroken surface of grass. The following jottings in my note-book, on the spot, preserve some of the features of the scene: "All the northern landscape lies in the sunlight as far as Carlisle,
'A tumultuous waste of huge hilltops;'
not quite so severe and rugged as the Scotch mountains, but the view more pleasing and more extensive than the one I got from Ben Venue. The black tarns at my feet, — Keppel Cove Tarn one of them, according to my map, — how curious they look! I can just discern the figure of a man moving by the marge of one of them. Away beyond Ulleswater is a vast sweep of country flecked here and there by slowly moving cloud shadows. To the northeast, in places, the backs and sides of the mountains have a green, pastoral voluptuousness, so smooth and full are they with thick turf. At other points the rock has fretted through the verdant carpet. St. Sunday's Crag to the west, across Grisedale, is a steep acclivity covered with small, loose stones, as if they had been dumped over the top, and were slowly sliding down; but nowhere do I see great boulders strewn about. Patches of black peat are here and there. The little rills, near and far, are white as milk, so swiftly do they run. On the more precipitous sides the grass and moss are lodged, and hold like snow, and are as tender in hue as the first April blades. A multitude of lakes are in view, and Morecambe Bay to the south. There are sheep everywhere, loosely scattered, with their lambs; occasionally I hear them bleat. No other sound is heard but the chirp of the mountain pipit. I see the wheat-ear flitting here and there. One mountain now lies in full sunshine, as fat as a seal, wrinkled and dimpled where it turns to the west, like a fat animal when it bends to lick itself. What a spectacle is now before me! — all the near mountains in shadow, and the distant in strong sunlight; I shall not see the like of that again. On some of the mountains the green vestments are in tatters and rags, so to speak, and barely cling to them. No heather in view. Toward Windermere the high peaks and crests are much more jagged and rocky. The air is filled with the same white, motionless vapor as in Scotland. When the sun breaks through, —
Amid these scenes one comes face to face with nature,
as he cannot in a wooded country. The primal, abysmal energies, grown tender and meditative, as it were, thoughtful of the shepherd and his flocks, and voiceful only in the leaping torrents, look out upon one near at hand and pass a mute recognition. Wordsworth perpetually refers to these hills and dales as lonely or lonesome; but his heart was still more lonely. The outward solitude was congenial to the isolation and profound privacy of his own soul. "Lonesome," he says of one of these mountain dales, but
It is this tender and
sheltering character of the mountains of the Lake district that is one
source of their charm. So rugged and lofty, and yet so mellow and
shaggy, weedy growths or tangles anywhere; nothing wilder than the
which at a distance looks as solid as the grass. The turf is as fine
as that of a lawn. The dainty-nosed Iambs could not crave a tenderer
it affords. The wool of the dams could hardly be softer to the foot.
of July the grass was still short and thick, as if it never shot up a
produced seed, but always remained a fine, close mat. Nothing was more
what I was used to at home than this universal tendency (the same is
Scotland and in Wales) to grass, and, on the lower slopes, to bracken,
these were the only two plants in nature. Many of these eminences in
of England, too lofty for hills and too smooth for mountains, are
The railway between Carlisle and Preston winds between them, as
Tebay Fells, Shap Fells, etc. They are, even in midsummer, of such a
uniform green that it seems as if they must have been painted. Nothing
mars the hue; no stalk of weed or stem of dry grass. The scene, in
and purity of tint, rivals the blue of the sky. Nature does not seem to
and grow sere as autumn approaches, but wears the tints of May in