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Chapter 4. The English Lakes.
The lakes and mountains of Cumberland, Westmoreland, and Lancashire, are singularly fitted to supply such elements of moral sustenance as Nature’s aspects can afford to man. There are, indeed, many mountain regions of greater awfulness; but prospects of ice and terror should be a rare stimulant rather than an habitual food; and the physical difficulties inseparable from immense elevations depress the inhabitant and preoccupy the traveller. There are many lakes under a more lustrous sky; but the healthy activities of life demand a scene brilliant without languor, and a beauty which can refresh and satisfy rather than lull or overpower. Without advancing any untenable claim to British preeminence in the matter of scenery, we may, perhaps, follow on both these points the judgment which Wordsworth has expressed in his Guide to the Lakes, a work which condenses the results of many years of intimate observation.

“Our tracts of wood and water,” he says, “are almost diminutive in comparison (with Switzerland); therefore, as far as sublimity is dependent upon absolute bulk and height, and atmospherical influences in connexion with these, it is obvious that there can be no rivalship. But a short residence among the British mountains will furnish abundant proof, that, after a certain point of elevation, viz., that which allows of compact and fleecy clouds settling upon, or sweeping over, the summits, the sense of sublimity depends more upon form and relation of objects to each other than upon their actual magnitude; and that an elevation of 3000 feet is sufficient to call forth in a most impressive degree the creative, and magnifying, and softening powers of the atmosphere.”

And again, as to climate; “The rain,” he says, “here comes down heartily, and is frequently succeeded by clear bright weather, when every brook is vocal, and every torrent sonorous; brooks and torrents which are never muddy even in the heaviest floods. Days of unsettled weather, with partial showers, are very frequent; but the showers, darkening or brightening as they fly from hill to hill, are not less grateful to the eye than finely interwoven passages of gay and sad music are touching to the ear. Vapours exhaling from the lakes and meadows after sunrise in a hot season, or in moist weather brooding upon the heights, or descending towards the valleys with inaudible motion, give a visionary character to everything around them; and are in themselves so beautiful as to dispose us to enter into the feelings of those simple nations (such as the Laplanders of this day) by whom they are taken for guardian deities of the mountains; or to sympathize with others who have fancied these delicate apparitions to be the spirits of their departed ancestors. Akin to these are fleecy clouds resting upon the hill-tops; they are not easily managed in picture, with their accompaniments of blue sky, but how glorious are they in nature! How pregnant with imagination for the poet! And the height of the Cumbrian mountains is sufficient to exhibit daily and hourly instances of those mysterious attachments. Such clouds, cleaving to their stations, or lifting up suddenly their glittering heads from behind rocky barriers, or hurrying out of sight with speed of the sharpest edge, will often tempt an inhabitant to congratulate himself on belonging to a country of mists and clouds and storms, and make him think of the blank sky of Egypt, and of the cerulean vacancy of Italy, as an unanimated and even a sad spectacle.”

The consciousness of a preceding turmoil brings home to us best the sense of perfect peace; and a climate accustomed to storm-cloud and tempest can melt sometimes into “a day as still as heaven” with a benignant tranquillity which calmer regions can scarcely know. Such a day Wordsworth has described in language of such delicate truth and beauty as only a long and intimate love can inspire:

“It has been said that in human life there are moments worth ages. In a more subdued tone of sympathy may we affirm, that in the climate of England there are, for the lover of Nature, days which are worth whole months, I might say, even years. One of these favoured days sometimes occurs in springtime, when that soft air is breathing over the blossoms and new-born verdure which inspired Buchanan with his beautiful Ode to the First of May; the air which, in the luxuriance of his fancy, he likens to that of the golden age,— to that which gives motion to the funereal cypresses on the banks of Lethe; to the air which is to salute beatified spirits when expiatory fires shall have consumed the earth with all her habitations. But it is in autumn that days of such affecting influence most frequently intervene. The atmosphere seems refined, and the sky rendered more crystalline, as the vivifying heat of the year abates; the lights and shadows are more delicate; the colouring is richer and more finely harmonized; and, in this season of stillness, the ear being unoccupied, or only gently excited, the sense of vision becomes more susceptible of its appropriate enjoyments. A resident in a country like this which we are treating of will agree with me that the presence of a lake is indispensable to exhibit in perfection the beauty of one of these days; and he must have experienced, while looking on the unruffled waters, that the imagination by their aid is carried into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable. The reason of this is, that the heavens are not only brought down into the bosom of the earth, but that the earth is mainly looked at, and thought of, through the medium of a purer element. The happiest time is when the equinoctial gales are departed; but their fury may probably be called to mind by the sight of a few shattered boughs, whose leaves do not differ in colour from the faded foliage of the stately oaks from which these relics of the storm depend: all else speaks of tranquillity; not a breath of air, no restlessness of insects, and not a moving object perceptible— except the clouds gliding in the depths of the lake, or the traveller passing along, an inverted image, whose motion seems governed by the quiet of a time to which its archetype, the living person, is perhaps insensible; or it may happen that the figure of one of the larger birds, a raven or a heron, is crossing silently among the reflected clouds, while the voice of the real bird, from the element aloft, gently awakens in the spectator the recollection of appetites and instincts, pursuits and occupations, that deform and agitate the world, yet have no power to prevent nature from putting on an aspect capable of satisfying the most intense cravings for the tranquil, the lovely, and the perfect, to which man, the noblest of her creatures, is subject.”

The scene described here is one as exquisite in detail as majestic in general effect. And it is characteristic of the region to which Wordsworth’s love was given that there is no corner of it without a meaning and a charm; that the open record of its immemorial past tells us at every turn that all agencies have conspired for loveliness and ruin itself has been benign. A passage of Wordsworth’s describing the character of the lake-shores illustrates this fact with loving minuteness.

“Sublimity is the result of nature’s first great dealings with

the superficies of the Earth; but the general tendency of her

subsequent operations is towards the production of beauty, by

a multiplicity of symmetrical parts uniting in a consistent

whole. This is everywhere exemplified along the margins of

these lakes. Masses of rock, that have been precipitated from

the heights into the area of waters, lie in some places like

stranded ships, or have acquired the compact structure of jutting

piers, or project in little peninsulas crested with native wood.

The smallest rivulet, one whose silent influx is scarcely

noticeable in a season of dry weather, so faint is the dimple made

by it on the surface of the smooth lake, will be found to have

been not useless in shaping, by its deposits of gravel and soil

in time of flood, a curve that would not otherwise have existed.

But the more powerful brooks, encroaching upon the level of the

lake, have, in course of time, given birth to ample promontories

of sweeping outline, that contrast boldly with the longitudinal

base of the steeps on the opposite shore; while their flat or

gently-sloping surfaces never fail to introduce, into the midst of

desolation and barrenness, the elements of fertility, even where

the habitations of men may not have been raised.”

With this we may contrast, as a companion picture, the poet’s description of the tarns, or lonely bodies of water, which lie here and there among the hills:

“They are difficult of access and naked; yet some of them

are, in their permanent forms, very grand, and there are accidents

of things which would make the meanest of them interesting.

At all events, one of these pools is an acceptable sight to

the mountain wanderer, not merely as an incident that diversifies

the prospect, but as forming in his mind a centre or conspicuous

point to which objects, otherwise disconnected or insubordinated,

may be referred. Some few have a varied outline,

with bold heath-clad promontories; and as they mostly lie at the

foot of a steep precipice, the water, where the sun is not shining

upon it, appears black and sullen, and round the margin huge

stones and masses of rock are scattered, some defying conjecture

as to the means by which they came thither, and others

obviously fallen from on high, the contribution of ages! A not

unpleasing sadness is induced by this perplexity, and these

images of decay; while the prospect of a body of pure water,

unattended with groves and other cheerful rural images by

which fresh water is usually accompanied, and unable to give

furtherance to the meagre vegetation around it, excites a sense

of some repulsive power strongly put forth, and thus deepens

the melancholy natural to such scenes.”

To those who love to deduce the character of a population from the character of their race and surroundings the peasantry of Cumberland and Westmoreland form an attractive theme. Drawn in great part from the strong Scandinavian stock, they dwell in a land solemn and beautiful as Norway itself, but without Norway’s rigour and penury, and with still lakes and happy rivers instead of Norway’s inarming melancholy sea. They are a mountain folk; but their mountains are no precipices of insuperable snow, such as keep the dwellers in some Swiss hamlet shut in ignorance and stagnating into idiocy. These barriers divide only to concentrate, and environ only to endear; their guardianship is but enough to give an added unity to each group of kindred homes. And thus it is that the Cumbrian dalesmen have afforded perhaps as near a realization as human fates have yet allowed of the rural society which statesmen desire for their country’s greatness. They have given an example of substantial comfort strenuously won; of home affections intensified by independent strength; of isolation without ignorance, and of a shrewd simplicity; of an hereditary virtue which needs no support from fanaticism, and to which honour is more than law.

The school of political economists, moreover, who urge the advantage of a peasant proprietary—of small independent holdings,—as at once drawing from the land the fullest produce and rearing upon it the most vigorous and provident population,—this school, as is well known, finds in the statesmen of Cumberland one of its favourite examples. In the days of border-wars, when the first object was to secure the existence of as many armed men as possible, in readiness to repel the Scot, the abbeys and great proprietors in the north readily granted small estates on military tenure, which tenure, when personal service in the field was no longer needed, became in most cases an absolute ownership. The attachment of these statesmen to their hereditary estates, the heroic efforts which they would make to avoid parting with them, formed an impressive phenomenon in the little world—a world at once of equality and of conservatism—which was the scene of Wordsworth’s childish years, and which remained his manhood’s ideal.

The growth of large fortunes in England, and the increased competition for land, has swallowed up many of these small independent holdings in the extensive properties of wealthy men. And at the same time the spread of education, and the improved poor-laws and other legislation, by raising the condition of other parts of England, have tended to obliterate the contrast which was so marked in Wordsworth’s day. How marked that contrast was, a comparison of Crabbe’s poems with Wordsworth’s will sufficiently indicate. Both are true painters; but while in the one we see poverty as something gross and degrading, and the Tales of the Village stand out from a background of pauperism and crime; in the other picture poverty means nothing worse than privation, and the poet in the presence of the most tragic outcast of fortune could still

Have laughed himself to scorn, to find

In that decrepit man so firm a mind.3

3 The previous page ends midsentence, within an ordinary paragraph, sentence finished by this verse (probably an excerpt from a poem).]

Nay, even when a state far below the Leech–Gatherer’s has been reached, and mind and body alike are in their last decay, the life of the Old Cumberland Beggar, at one remove from nothingness, has yet a dignity and a usefulness of its own. His fading days are passed in no sad asylum of vicious or gloomy age, but amid neighbourly kindnesses, and in the sanity of the open air; and a life that is reduced to its barest elements has yet a hold on the liberality of nature and the affections of human hearts.

So long as the inhabitants of a region thus solitary and beautiful have neither many arts nor many wishes, save such as the Nature which they know has suggested, and their own handiwork can satisfy, so long are their presence and habitations likely to be in harmony with the scenes around them. Nay, man’s presence is almost always needed to draw out the full meaning of Nature, to illustrate her bounty by his glad well-being and to hint by his contrivances of precaution at her might and terror. Wordsworth’s description of the cottages of Cumberland depicts this unconscious adaptation of man’s abode to his surroundings, with an eye which may be called at pleasure that of painter or of poet.

“The dwelling-houses, and contiguous outhouses, are in many

instances of the colour of the native rock out of which they have

been built; but frequently the dwelling—or Fire-house, as it is

ordinarily called—has been distinguished from the barn or byre

by roughcast and whitewash, which, as the inhabitants are not

hasty in renewing it, in a few years acquires by the influence of

weather a tint at once sober and variegated. As these houses

have been, from father to son, inhabited by persons engaged in

the same occupations, yet necessarily with changes in their

circumstances, they have received without incongruity additions

and accommodations adapted to the needs of each successive

occupant, who, being for the most part proprietor,

was at liberty to follow his own fancy, so that these humble

dwellings remind the contemplative spectator of a production of

Nature, and may (using a strong expression) rather be said to

have grown than to have been erected—to have risen, by an

instinct of their own, out of the native rock—so little is there

in them of formality, such is their wildness and beauty.”

“These dwellings, mostly built, as has been said, of rough unhewn

stone, are roofed with slates, which were rudely taken

from the quarry before the present art of splitting them was

understood, and are therefore rough and uneven in their surface,

so that both the coverings and sides of the houses have furnished

places of rest for the seeds of lichens, mosses, ferns and flowers.

Hence buildings, which in their very form call to mind the

processes of Nature, do thus, clothed in part with a vegetable garb,

appear to be received into the bosom of the living principle of

things, as it acts and exists among the woods and fields, and

by their colour and their shape affectingly direct the thoughts

to that tranquil course of nature and simplicity along which the

humble-minded inhabitants have through so many generations

been led. Add the little garden with its shed for bee-hives, its

small bed of potherbs, and its borders and patches of flowers for

Sunday posies, with sometimes a choice few too much prized to

be plucked; an orchard of proportioned size; a cheesepress, often

supported by some tree near the door; a cluster of embowering

sycamores for summer shade, with a tall fir through which the

winds sing when other trees are leafless; the little rill or

household spout murmuring in all seasons,—combine these

incidents and images together, and you have the representative

idea of a mountain cottage in this country—so beautifully

formed in itself, and so richly adorned by the hand of Nature.”

These brief descriptions may suffice to indicate the general character of a district which in Wordsworth’s early days had a distinctive unity which he was the first fully to appreciate, which was at its best during his long lifetime, and which has already begun to disappear. The mountains had waited long for a full adoration, an intelligent worship. At last “they were enough beloved.” And if now the changes wrought around them recall too often the poet’s warning, how

              All that now delights thee, from the day

On which it should be touched, shall melt, and melt away,—

yet they have gained something which cannot be taken from them. Not mines, nor railways, nor monster excursions, nor reservoirs, nor Manchester herself, “toute entière à sa proie attachée,” can deprive lake and hill of Wordsworth’s memory, and the love which once they knew.

Wordsworth’s life was from the very first so ordered as to give him the most complete and intimate knowledge both of district and people. There was scarcely a mile of ground in the Lake country over which he had not wandered; scarcely a prospect which was not linked with his life by some tie of memory. Born at Cockermouth, on the outskirts of the district, his mind was gradually led on to its beauty; and his first recollections were of Derwent’s grassy holms and rocky falls, with Skiddaw, “bronzed with deepest radiance,” towering in the eastern sky. Sent to school at Hawkshead at eight years old, Wordsworth’s scene was transferred to the other extremity of the lake district. It was in this quaint old town, on the banks of Esthwaite Water, that the “fair seed-time of his soul” was passed; it was here that his boyish delight in exercise and adventure grew, and melted in its turn into a more impersonal yearning, a deeper absorption into the beauty and the wonder of the world. And even the records of his boyish amusements come to us each on a background of Nature’s majesty and calm. Setting springs for woodcock on the grassy moors at night, at nine years old, he feels himself “a trouble to the peace” that dwells among the moon and stars overhead; and when he has appropriated a woodcock caught by somebody else, “sounds of undistinguishable motion” embody the viewless pursuit of Nemesis among the solitary hills. In the perilous search for the raven’s nest, as he hangs on the face of the naked crags of Yewdale, he feels for the first time that sense of detachment from external things which a position of strange unreality will often force on the mind.

                                                    Oh, at that time

When on the perilous ridge I hung alone,

With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind

Blow through my ear! The sky seemed not a sky

Of earth—and with what motion moved the clouds!

The innocent rapine of nutting taught him to feel that there is a spirit in the woods—a presence which too rude a touch of ours will desecrate and destroy.

The neighbouring lakes of Coniston, Esthwaite, Windermere, have left similar traces of the gradual upbuilding of his spirit. It was on a promontory on Coniston that the sun’s last rays, gilding the eastern hills above which he had first appeared, suggested the boy’s first impulse of spontaneous poetry, in the resolve that, wherever life should lead him, his last thoughts should fall on the scenes where his childhood was passing now. It was on Esthwaite that the “huge peak” of Wetherlam, following him (as it seemed) as he rowed across the starlit water, suggested the dim conception of “unknown modes of being,” and a life that is not ours. It was round Esthwaite that the boy used to wander with a friend at early dawn, rejoicing in the charm of words in tuneful order, and repeating together their favourite verses, till “sounds of exultation echoed through the groves.” It was on Esthwaite that the band of skaters “hissed along the polished ice in games confederate,” from which Wordsworth would sometimes withdraw himself and pause suddenly in full career, to feel in that dizzy silence the mystery of a rolling world.

A passage, less frequently quoted, in describing a boating excursion on Windermere illustrates the effect of some small point of human interest in concentrating and realising the diffused emotion which radiates from a scene of beauty:

                                    But, ere nightfall,

When in our pinnace we returned at leisure

Over the shadowy lake, and to the beach

Of some small island steered our course with one,

The minstrel of the troop, and left him there,

And rowed off gently, while he blew his flute

Alone upon the rock—oh, then the calm

And dead still water lay upon my mind

Even with a weight of pleasure, and the sky,

Never before so beautiful, sank down

Into my heart, and held me like a dream!

The passage which describes the schoolboy’s call to the owls—the lines of which Coleridge said that he should have exclaimed “Wordsworth!” if he had met them running wild in the deserts of Arabia,—paint a somewhat similar rush of feeling with a still deeper charm. The “gentle shock of mild surprise” which in the pauses of the birds’ jocund din carries far into his heart the sound of mountain torrents—the very mingling of the grotesque and the majestic—brings home the contrast between our transitory energies and the mystery around us which returns ever the same to the moments when we pause and are at peace.

It is round the two small lakes of Grasmere and Rydal that the memories of Wordsworth are most thickly clustered. On one or other of these lakes he lived for fifty years,—the first half of the present century; and there is not in all that region a hillside walk or winding valley which has not heard him murmuring out his verses as they slowly rose from his heart. The cottage at Townend, Grasmere, where he first settled, is now surrounded by the out-buildings of a busy hotel; and the noisy stream of traffic, and the sight of the many villas which spot the valley, give a new pathos to the sonnet in which Wordsworth deplores the alteration which even his own residence might make in the simplicity of the lonely scene.

Well may’st thou halt, and gaze with brightening eye!

The lovely Cottage in the guardian nook

Hath stirred thee deeply; with its own dear brook,

Its own small pasture, almost its own sky!

But covet not the Abode: forbear to sigh,

As many do, repining while they look;

Intruders—who would tear from Nature’s book

This precious leaf with harsh impiety.

Think what the home must be if it were thine,

Even thine, though few thy wants! Roof, window, door,

The very flowers are sacred to the Poor,

The roses to the porch which they entwine:

Yea, all that now enchants thee, from the day

On which it should be touched, would melt, and melt away.

The Poems on the Naming of Places belong for the most part to this neighbourhood. Emma’s Dell on Easdale Beck, Point Rash–Judgment on the eastern shore of Grasmere, Mary’s Pool in Rydal Park, William’s Peak on Stone Arthur, Joanna’s Rock on the banks of Rotha, and John’s Grove near White Moss Common, have been identified by the loving search of those to whom every memorial of that simple-hearted family group has still a charm.

It is on Greenhead Ghyll—“upon the forest-side in Grasmere Vale”— that the poet has laid the scene of Michael, the poem which paints with such detailed fidelity both the inner and the outward life of a typical Westmoreland “statesman.” And the upper road from Grasmere to Rydal, superseded now by the road along the lake side, and left as a winding footpath among rock and fern, was one of his most habitual haunts. Of another such haunt his friend Lady Richardson says, “The Prelude was chiefly composed in a green mountain terrace, on the Easdale side of Helm Crag, known by the name of Under Lancrigg, a place which he used to say he knew by heart. The ladies sat at their work on the hill-side, while he walked to and fro on the smooth green mountain turf, humming out his verses to himself, and then repeating them to his sympathising and ready scribes, to be noted down on the spot, and transcribed at home.”

The neighbourhood of the poet’s later home at Rydal Mount is equally full of associations. Two of the Evening Voluntaries were composed by the side of Rydal Mere. The Wild Duck’s Nest was on one of the Rydal islands. It was on the fells of Loughrigg that the poet’s fancy loved to plant an imperial castle. And Wansfell’s green slope still answers with many a change of glow and shadow to the radiance of the sinking sun.

Hawkshead and Rydal, then, may be considered as the poet’s principal centres, and the scenery in their neighbourhood has received his most frequent attention. The Duddon, a seldom-visited stream on the south-west border of the Lake-district, has been traced by him from source to outfall in a series of sonnets. Langdale, and Little Langdale with Blea Tarn lying in it, form the principal scene of the discourses in the Excursion. The more distant lakes and mountains were often visited and are often alluded to. The scene of The Brothers, for example, is laid in Ennerdale; and the index of the minor poems will supply other instances. But it is chiefly round two lines of road leading from Grasmere that Wordsworth’s associations cluster,—the route over Dunmailraise, which led him to Keswick, to Coleridge and Southey at Greta Hall, and to other friends in that neighbourhood; and the route over Kirkstone, which led him to Ullswater, and the friendly houses of Patterdale, Hallsteads, and Lowther Castle. The first of these two routes was that over which the Waggoner plied; it skirts the lovely shore of Thirlmere,—a lonely sheet of water, of exquisite irregularity of outline, and fringed with delicate verdure, which the Corporation of Manchester has lately bought to embank it into a reservoir. Dedecorum pretiosus emptor! This lake was a favourite haunt of Wordsworth’s; and upon a rock on its margin, where he and Coleridge, coming from Keswick and Grasmere, would often meet, the two poets, with the other members of Wordsworth’s loving household group, inscribed the initial letters of their names. To the “monumental power” of this Rock of Names Wordsworth appeals, in lines written when the happy company who engraved them had already been severed by distance and death;

                                  O thought of pain,

That would impair it or profane!

And fail not Thou, loved Rock, to keep

Thy charge when we are laid asleep.

The rock may still be seen, but is to be submerged in the new reservoir. In the vale of Keswick itself, Applethwaite, Skiddaw, St. Herbert’s Island, Lodore, are commemorated in sonnets or inscriptions. And the Borrowdale yew-trees have inspired some of the poet’s noblest lines,—lines breathing all the strange forlornness of Glaramara’s solitude, and the withering vault of shade.

The route from Rydal to Ullswater is still more thickly studded with poetic allusions. The Pass of Kirkstone is the theme of a characteristic ode; Grisdale Tarn and Helvellyn recur again and again; and Aira Force was one of the spots which the poet best loved to describe, as well as to visit. It was on the shores of Further Gowbarrow that the Daffodils danced beneath the trees. These references might be much further multiplied; and the loving diligence of disciples has set before us “the Lake-district as interpreted by Wordsworth” through a multitude of details. But enough has been said to show how completely the poet had absorbed the influences of his dwelling-place; how unique a representative he had become of the lovely district of his birth; how he had made it subject to him by comprehending it, and his own by love.

He visited other countries and described other scenes. Scotland, Wales, Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy, have all a place in his works. His familiarity with other scenery helped him, doubtless, to a better appreciation of the lake country than he could have gained had he never left it. And, on the other hand, like Caesar in Gaul, or Wellington in the Peninsula, it was because he had so complete a grasp of this chosen base of operations that he was able to come, to see, and to make his own, so swiftly and unfailingly elsewhere. Happy are those whose deep-rooted memories cling like his about some stable home! Whose notion of the world around them has expanded from some prospect of happy tranquillity, instead of being drawn at random from the confusing city’s roar! Happier still if that early picture be of one of those rare scenes which have inspired poets and prophets with the retrospective day-dream of a patriarchal, or a golden, age; of some plot of ground like the Ithaca of Odysseus, τραεχσι αλλ αγαθαε κουροτροφο?, “rough, but a nurse of men;” of some life like that which a poet of kindred spirit to Wordsworth’s saw half in vision, half in reality, among the husbandmen of the Italian hills:—

Peace, peace is theirs, and life no fraud that knows,

Wealth as they will, and when they will, repose;

On many a hill the happy homesteads stand,

The living lakes through many a vale expand:

Cool glens are there, and shadowy caves divine,

Deep sleep, and far-off voices of the kine;—

From moor to moor the exulting wild deer stray;—

The strenuous youth are strong and sound as they;

One reverence still the untainted race inspires,

God their first thought, and after God their sires;—

These last discerned Astraea’s flying hem,

And Virtue’s latest footsteps walked with them.
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