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Chapter 12. Letters on the Kendal and Windermere Railway—Conclusion.
Wordsworth’s appointment to the Laureateship was significant in more ways than one. He was so much besides a poet, that his appointment implied something of a national recognition, not only of his past poetical achievements, but of the substantial truth of that body of principles which through many years of neglect and ridicule he had consistently supported. There was therefore nothing incongruous in the fact that the only composition of any importance which Wordsworth produced after he became Laureate was in prose—his two letters on the projected Kendal and Windermere railway, 1844. No topic, in fact, could have arisen on which the veteran poet could more fitly speak with whatever authority his official spokesmanship of the nation’s higher life could give, for it was a topic with every aspect of which he was familiar; and so far as the extension of railways through the Lake country was defended on grounds of popular benefit, (and not merely of commercial advantage), no one, certainly, had shown himself more capable of estimating at their full value such benefits as were here proposed.

The results which follow on a large incursion of visitors into the Lake country may be considered under two heads, as affecting the residents, or as affecting the visitors themselves. And first as to the residents. Of the wealthier class of these I say nothing, as it will perhaps be thought that their inconvenience is outweighed by the possible profits which the railway may bring to speculators or contractors. But the effect produced on the poorer residents,—on the peasantry,—is a serious matter, and the danger which was distantly foreseen by Wordsworth has since his day assumed grave proportions. And lest the poet’s estimate of the simple virtue which is thus jeopardized should be suspected of partiality, it may be allowable to corroborate it by the testimony of an eminent man, not a native of the district, though a settler therein in later life, and whose writings, perhaps, have done more than any man’s since Wordsworth to increase the sum of human enjoyment derived both from Art and from Nature.

“The Border peasantry of Scotland and England,” says Mr. Ruskin,7 “painted with absolute fidelity by Scott and Wordsworth,—(for leading types out of this exhaustless portraiture, I may name Dandie Dinmont, and Michael,) are hitherto a scarcely injured race; whose strength and virtue yet survive to represent the body and soul of England, before her days of mechanical decrepitude, and commercial dishonour. There are men working in my own fields who might have fought with Henry the Fifth at Agincourt, without being discerned from among his knights; I can take my tradesmen’s word for a thousand pounds; my garden gate opens on the latch to the public road, by day and night, without fear of any foot entering but my own; and my girl-guests may wander by road or moorland, or through every bosky dell of this wild wood, free as the heather-bees or squirrels. What effect on the character of such a population will be produced by the influx of that of the suburbs of our manufacturing towns there is evidence enough, if the reader cares to ascertain the facts, in every newspaper on his morning table.”

7 A Protest against the Extension of Railways in the Lake District,—Simpkin, Marshall, and Co., 1876.]

There remains the question of how the greatest benefit is to be secured to visitors to the country, quite apart from the welfare of its more permanent inhabitants. At first sight this question seems to present a problem of a well-known order—to find the point of maximum pleasure to mankind in a case where the intensity of the pleasure varies inversely as its extension—where each fresh person who shares it diminishes pro tanto the pleasure of the rest. But, as Wordsworth has pointed out, this is not in reality the question here. To the great mass of cheap excursionists the characteristic scenery of the Lakes is in itself hardly a pleasure at all. The pleasure, indeed, which they derive from contact with Nature is great and important, but it is one which could be offered to them, not only as well but much better, near their own homes.

“It is benignly ordained that green fields, clear blue skies, running streams of pure water, rich groves and woods, orchards, and all the ordinary varieties of rural nature should find an easy way to the affections of all men. But a taste beyond this, however desirable it may be that every one should possess it, is not to be implanted at once; it must be gradually developed both in nations and individuals. Rocks and mountains, torrents and wide-spread waters, and all those features of nature which go to the composition of such scenes as this part of England is distinguished for, cannot, in their finer relations to the human mind, be comprehended, or even very imperfectly conceived, without processes of culture or opportunities of observation in some degree habitual. In the eye of thousands, and tens of thousands, a rich meadow, with fat cattle grazing upon it, or the sight of what they would call a heavy crop of corn, is worth all that the Alps and Pyrenees in their utmost grandeur and beauty could show to them; and it is noticeable what trifling conventional prepossessions will, in common minds, not only preclude pleasure from the sight of natural beauty, but will even turn it into an object of disgust. In the midst of a small pleasure-ground immediately below my house, rises a detached rock, equally remarkable for the beauty of its form, the ancient oaks that grow out of it, and the flowers and shrubs which adorn it. ‘What a nice place would this be,’ said a Manchester tradesman, pointing to the rock, ‘if that ugly lump were but out of the way.’ Men as little advanced in the pleasure which such objects give to others, are so far from being rare that they may be said fairly to represent a large majority of mankind. This is the fact, and none but the deceiver and the willingly deceived can be offended by its being stated.”

And, since this is so, the true means of raising the taste of the masses consists, as Wordsworth proceeds to point out, in giving them,— not a few hurried glimpses of what is above their comprehension,— but permanent opportunities of learning at leisure the first great lessons which Nature has to teach. Since he wrote thus our towns have spread their blackness wider still, and the provision of parks for the recreation of our urban population has become a pressing national need. And here again the very word recreation suggests another unfitness in the Lake country for these purposes. Solitude is as characteristic of that region as beauty, and what the mass of mankind need for their refreshment—most naturally and justly—is not solitude but society.

The silence that is in the starry sky,

The sleep that is among the lonely hills,

is to them merely a drawback, to be overcome by moving about in large masses, and by congregating in chosen resorts with vehement hilarity. It would be most unreasonable to wish to curtail to curtail the social expansion of men whose lives are for the most part passed in a monotonous round of toil. But is it kinder and wiser,— from any point of view but the railway shareholder’s,—to allure them into excursion trains by the prestige of a scenery which is to them (as it was to all classes a century or two ago) at best indifferent, or to provide them near at hand with their needed space for rest and play, not separated from their homes by hours of clamour and crowding, nor broken up by barren precipices, nor drenched with sweeping storm?

Unquestionably it is the masses whom we have first to consider. Sooner than that the great mass of the dwellers in towns should be debarred from the influences of Nature—sooner than that they should continue for another century to be debarred as now they are— it might be better that Cumbrian statesmen and shepherds should be turned into innkeepers and touts, and that every poet, artist, dreamer, in England should be driven to seek his solitude at the North Pole. But it is the mere futility of sentiment to pretend that there need be any real collision of interests here. There is space enough in England yet for all to enjoy in their several manners, if those who have the power would leave some unpolluted rivers, and some unblighted fields, for the health and happiness of the factory-hand, whose toil is for their fortunes, and whose degradation is their shame.

Wordsworth, while indicating, with some such reasoning as this, the true method of promoting the education of the mass of men in natural joys, was assuredly not likely to forget that in every class, even the poorest, are found exceptional spirits which some inbred power has attuned already to the stillness and glory of the hills. In what way the interests of such men may best be consulted, he has discussed in the following passage.

“O nature a’ thy shows an’ forms

To feeling pensive hearts hae charms!”

“So exclaimed the Ayrshire ploughman, speaking of ordinary rural nature under the varying influences of the seasons; and the sentiment has found an echo in the bosoms of thousands in as humble a condition as he himself was when he gave vent to it. But then they were feeling, pensive hearts—men who would be among the first to lament the facility with which they had approached this region, by a sacrifice of so much of its quiet and beauty as, from the intrusion of a railway, would be inseparable. What can, in truth, be more absurd than that either rich or poor should be spared the trouble of travelling by the high roads over so short a space, according to their respective means, if the unavoidable consequence must be a great disturbance of the retirement, and, in many places, a destruction of the beauty, of the country which the parties are come in search of? Would not this be pretty much like the child’s cutting up his drum to learn where the sound came from?”

The truth of these words has become more conspicuous since Wordsworth’s day. The Lake country is now both engirdled and intersected with railways. The point to which even the poorest of genuine lovers of the mountains could desire that his facilities of cheap locomotion should be carried has been not only reached but far overpassed. If he is not content to dismount from his railway carriage at Coniston, or Seascale, or Bowness,—at Penrith, or Troutbeek, or Keswick,—and to move at eight miles an hour in a coach, or at four miles an hour on foot, while he studies that small intervening tract of country, of which every mile is a separate gem,— when, we may ask, is he to dismount? What is he to study? Or is nothing to be expected from Nature but a series of dissolving views?

It is impossible to feel sanguine as to the future of this irreplaceable national possession. A real delight in scenery,— apart from the excitements of sport or mountaineering, for which Scotland and Switzerland are better suited than Cumberland,—is still too rare a thing among the wealthier as among the poorer classes to be able to compete with such a power as the Railway Interest. And it is little likely now that the Government of England should act with regard to this district as the Government of the United States has acted with regard to the Yosemite and Yellowstone valleys, and guard as a national possession the beauty which will become rarer and more precious with every generation of men. But it is in any case desirable that Wordsworth’s unanswered train of reasoning on the subject should be kept in view—that it should be clearly understood that the one argument for making more railways through the Lakes is that they may possibly pay; while it is certain that each railway extension is injurious to the peasantry of the district, and to all visitors who really care for its scenery, while conferring no benefit on the crowds who are dragged many miles to what they do not enjoy, instead of having what they really want secured to them, as it ought to be, at their own doors.

It is probable that all this will continue to be said in vain. Railways, and mines, and waterworks will have their way, till injury has become destruction. The natural sanctuary of England, the nurse of simple and noble natures, “the last region which Astr?a touches with flying feet,” will be sacrificed—it is scarcely possible to doubt it—to the greed of gain. We must seek our consolation in the thought that no outrage on Nature is mortal; that the ever-springing affections of men create for themselves continually some fresh abode, and inspire some new landscape with a consecrating history, and as it were with a silent soul. Yet it will be long ere round some other lakes, upon some other hill, shall cluster memories as pure and high as those which hover still around Rydal and Grasmere, and on Helvellyn’s windy summit, “and by Glenridding Screes and low Gleneoign.”

With, this last word of protest and warning,—uttered, as it may seem to the reader, with, unexpected force and conviction from out of the tranquillity of a serene old age,—Wordsworth’s mission is concluded. The prophecy of his boyhood is fulfilled, and the “dear native regions” whence his dawning genius rose have been gilded by the last ray of its declining fire. There remains but the domestic chronicle of a few more years of mingled sadness and peace. And I will first cite a characteristic passage from a letter to his American correspondent, Mr. Reed, describing his presentation as Laureate to the Queen:—

“The reception given me by the Queen at her ball was most gracious. Mrs. Everett, the wife of your Minister, among many others, was a witness to it, without knowing who I was. It moved her to the shedding of tears. This effect was in part produced, I suppose, by American habits of feeling, as pertaining to a re............
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