Wordsworth and the Lake District: A sense of ‘place’ and ‘home’

In this essay undergraduate Catherine Watts looks at how Wordsworth depicts his home territory, the Lake District, how it inspires his poetry, and how it enriches his thoughts about mankind.

1. Wordsworth's Native Land - 'Born among the hills / Bred also there' ('Home at Grasmere', lines 348-49)

Born in the town of Cockermouth in 1770, William Wordsworth's first home was in the Lake District, and it was one of many he would have there. Cumbria was where he spent most of his life, where he was schooled, raised his own family, wrote much of his poetry, and where he died in 1850, at his last home, Rydal Mount. Though Wordsworth would spend time away from the area at various points throughout his life, he would never be away from the Lakes for long, and, in the light of the thousands of lines of poetry he devotes to his and others' experiences there, we may rightfully doubt whether the place ever left him in mind even when the author was parted from it in body.

Wordsworth's relationship with his 'native land' was not one deriving from it merely as a location, but, since he refers to himself in his poetry as , , and , it seems that the Lake District formed part of his very identity. His great autobiographical poem, The Prelude, traces the 'Growth' of the author from his early years until the time it was written, and from this it is clear that Wordsworth's intellectual development, his ideas and philosophies, owe a great deal to the region in which he was born and raised, lived and died.

2. Imagination and Intellect

Nature was important to Wordsworth from his earliest years, as it fuelled his vivid imagination. Some of the most striking memories he would describe in The Prelude are of experiences he had as a child, when his impressionable mind was awe-struck, and sometimes even afraid of his surroundings. In Book I he tells of a night-time boat trip he once took which left him shaken, thinking 'grave and serious thoughts... for many days' (lines 416-18):

I dipp'd my oars into the silent Lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my Boat
Went heaving through the water, like a Swan;
When from behind the craggy Steep, till then
The bound of the horizon, a huge Cliff,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Uprear'd its head. (lines 402-8)

That Cliff, he writes, seemed to follow him 'like a living thing'. He rowed away 'With trembling hands', and was haunted afterwards both day and night by such forms moving slowly through his mind.

Wordsworth was certainly intellectually inspired by his surroundings - 'O Nature! Thou hast fed / My lofty speculations!' (lines 462-3) - and he devotes a whole book of The Prelude to the influence Nature had on helping him develop his philosophies towards mankind (VIII, 'Retrospect - Love of Nature Leading to Love of Mankind'). In his everyday life, his time amongst the vales and mountains gave him time to observe, consider and commit his reflections to verse - which he would often do aloud as he walked. Sometimes his sister, Dorothy, would accompany him and write her own observations down in her journal, which Wordsworth might use later to inspire his poetry. It was in this way that his most famous poem, 'The Daffodils', was conceived.

Yet Wordsworth also had a more domestic, emotional connection with Nature. Orphaned at the age of thirteen, and spending much of his time outdoors, it is unsurprising that Wordsworth later writes of Nature as a guardian, a comfort, and something which offered him company in his solitude:

I yet
Despair not of our nature; but retain
A more than Roman confidence, a faith
That fails not, in all sorrow my support,
The blessing of my life, the gift is yours,
Ye mountains! (lines 457-62)

Oh! That I had a music and a voice,
Harmonious as your own, that I might tell
What ye have done for me. (XI, 20-22)

3. Excursions Elsewhere

The Lakes were not Wordsworth's only home, however. His first extended period away came at the age of 17, when he went to study at Cambridge. Later excursions would take him not only to London, but abroad to France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. Well-documented in The Prelude, his experiences at Cambridge, London and France were especially important, for it is clear that his time spent in those places played an essential part in developing the poet's intellect and political beliefs. But it is also clear that being away reinforced his love of the Lakes. The young Wordsworth's joy is palpable in Book IV of The Prelude, at his return to the familiar sights and places of his home, following his first year at St. John's College:

I bounded down the hill, shouting amain
A lusty summons to the farther shore
For the old Ferryman; and when he came
I did not step into the well-known Boat
Without a cordial welcome. (IV, 5-9)

For Wordsworth, as is surely the case with many a student or traveller, his happiness was keenly felt in the simple pleasure of returning to his old home, which, as ever, seemed all the more comfortable for his having been away.

4. Humanity

Time away in the 'flat plains' of Cambridge or London, with its 'Streets without end', had not only acquainted Wordsworth with new landscapes, but with new people - the University academics, and the 'thickening hubbub' of 'the Comers and the Goers' of the capital. And yet, once more, it led Wordsworth back to a new appreciation of the Lakes. The anonymity of London's people left the author bewildered:

Above all, one thought
Baffled my understanding, how men lived
Even next-door neighbours, as we say, yet still
Strangers, and not knowing each other's names. (VII, 118-20)

The city lacked the intimacy and community of his native land, where, Wordsworth writes, 'if we meet a face / We almost meet a friend'.

Yet London gave Wordsworth a deeper insight into the sufferings of others, of types, and of a scale, different from those seen in the Lakes. He writes in 'Home at Grasmere' of his awareness that he was privileged to live in such an area where even the most needy were not beyond the help of others in the community ('They who want, are not too great a weight / For those who can relieve', lines 366-7). Wordsworth was himself generous with his time and money, and did what he could to help local people who were less fortunate than himself. He offered a home and job as a servant, for example, to the orphaned Sally Green, and raised money with the profits from a poem he composed to help the rest of her brothers and sisters. It was just one act of kindness which the author and his family liberally bestowed on both friends and strangers throughout his life.

It was his daily life in the Lakes from which he derived his empathy with others, Wordsworth writes:

The lonely roads
Were schools to me in which I daily read
With most delight the passions of mankind,
There saw into the depths of human souls,
Souls that appear to have no depth at all
To vulgar eyes. (VIII, 163-8)

Those 'vulgar eyes' are not those of monetarily deprived men, but men lacking in feeling or 'spirit', such as those with whom Wordsworth may have mixed with in Cambridge: 'Ye who are fed / By the dead letter, not the spirit of things' (VIII, 431-2).

Wordsworth's poetry makes loud appeal to such academic types, asking those who are intellectually curious to consider a new type of education - that offered both by Nature and by their fellow human-beings:

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can. ('The Tables Turned, lines 21-4)

5. The Poet's Purpose

Having led 'an undomestic Wanderer's life' travelling 'from place to place', a life in the Lakes was finally settled for Wordsworth in 1799, when a tour there with Coleridge resulted in the author's decision to live in Grasmere. He immediately took a lease at Dove Cottage, the first of four homes he would have in the Lake District. His return to the area inspired the same joy experienced by his youthful counterpart in Book IV of The Prelude. Writing in 'Home at Grasmere', he once again relishes his release into nature, enjoying what it offers all those who see it:

Majesty, and beauty and repose,
A blended holiness of earth and sky.
A termination and a last retreat,
A Centre, come from wheresoe'er you will,
A Whole, without dependence or defect,
Made for itself and happy in itself,
Perfect Contentment, Unity entire. ('Home at Grasmere', 143-51)

Starkly defending the notion that he may have returned to the Lakes to segregate himself from the rest of the world, Wordsworth describes instead all the company that he would have there in the form of birds and animals, plants, flowers, and the landscape. He dares readers to suggest that the place is one of solitude, when he is surrounded by such diverse forms of life:

Say boldly then that solitude is not
Where these things are: he truly is alone,
He of the multitude whose eyes are doomed
To hold a vacant commerce day by day
With objects wanting life - repelling love;
He by the vast Metropolis immured,
Where pity shrinks from unremitting calls,
Where numbers overwhelm humanity,
And neighbourhood serves rather to divide
Than to unite. (lines 592-601)

His appreciation of nature in the Lakes is, at the same time, an attack on a life elsewhere, such as that of the city-dwellers whom he had no doubt witnessed at work during his time in London. The sense of community and society in the Cumbrian countryside is directly contrasted to such a miserable existence of isolation from fellow men. Like that of his younger self free from the academic pressures of Cambridge on his Summer Vacation, Wordsworth's delight in the Lake District is one of freedom from the punishing regime and imprisonment of city institutions.

And yet, by expressing this liberation in his verses, Wordsworth demonstrates that his life in Cumbria was not merely to be one of personal privacy or escape. It would instead become his occupation - and he would write on it with purpose, seeking to affect his readers with the scenes and stories of the people he observed, as well as sharing the philosophies that he developed during his time reflecting on his surroundings. It is with this resolve that he ends his poem:

Yet in this peaceful Vale we will not spend
Unheard-of days, though loving peaceful thoughts.
A Voice Shall Speak, and what will be the theme?
On Man, on Nature, and on Human Life
Musing in Solitude. (lines 751-5)

Further Reading

  • Wordsworth, William, The Prelude: The Four Texts (1798, 1799, 1805, 1850) (London, 1995).
  • Biographical facts can be followed up in Wordsworth's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and in Steven Gill, William Wordsworth: A Life (Oxford, 1990).

Further Thinking

Lots of authors have been inspired by nature. In the light of this essay, and perhaps making comparison to another writer, what do you think is distinctive about the inspiration Wordsworth found in the natural world?

Wordsworth's poems have various specific places, or things, or moments, through which he thinks about nature and human beings in it - for example, the fragment of a wooden bowl in 'The Ruined Cottage'. Find one you think is interesting, and think about how it helps the poet think.

In the early twenty-first century, writers often focus on the precarious state of nature - in particular, because modernity, industry, human beings in general, are ruining it. Does that anxiety have a role to play in Wordsworth?

'Home at Grasmere', line 729.
The Prelude, Book V, line 587.
The Prelude, Book III, lines 34-35.

Comments are closed.