Chapter 12. Letters on the Kendal and Windermere Railway—Conclusion.
Republished: Apr 22, 2018
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,[A Protest against the Extension of Railways in the Lake District,—Simpkin, Marshall, and Co., 1876.] “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.”
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 Astræa 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 republican government. To see a grey-haired man of seventy-five years of age, kneeling down in a large assembly to kiss the hand of a young woman, is a sight for which institutions essentially democratic do not prepare a spectator of either sex, and must naturally place the opinions upon which a republic is founded, and the sentiments which support it, in strong contrast with a government based and upheld as ours is.”
In the same letter the poet introduces an ominous allusion to the state of his daughter’s health. Dora, his only daughter who survived childhood, was the darling of Wordsworth’s age. In her wayward gaiety and bright intelligence there was much to remind him of his sister’s youth; and his clinging nature wound itself round this new Dora as tenderly as it had ever done round her who was now only the object of loving compassion and care. In 1841 Dora Wordsworth married Mr. Quillinan, an exofficer of the Guards, and a man of great literary taste and some original power. In 1821 he had settled for a time in the vale of Rydal, mainly for the sake of Wordsworth’s society; and ever since then he had been an intimate and valued friend. He had been married before, but his wife died in 1822, leaving him two daughters, one of whom was named from the murmuring Rotha, and was god-child of the poet. Shortly after marriage, Dora Quillinan’s health began to fail. In 1845 the Quillinans went to Oporto in search of health, and returned in 1846, in the trust that it was regained. But in July 1847 Dora Quillinan died at Rydal, and left her father to mourn for his few remaining years his “immeasurable loss.”
The depth and duration of Wordsworth’s grief in such bereavements as fell to his lot, was such as to make his friends thankful that his life had on the whole been guided through ways of so profound a peace.
Greatly, indeed, have they erred, who have imagined him as cold, or even as by nature tranquil. “What strange workings,” writes one from Rydal Mount when the poet was in his sixty-ninth year,—“what strange workings are there in his great mind! How fearfully strong are all his feelings and affections! If his intellect had been less powerful they must have destroyed him long ago.” Such, in fact, was the impression which he gave to those who knew him best throughout life. The look of premature age, which De Quincey insists on; the furrowed and rugged countenance, the brooding intensity of the eye, the bursts of anger at the report of evil doings, the lonely and violent roamings over the mountains,—all told of a strong absorption and a smothered fire. His own description of himself (for such we must probably hold it to be) in his Imitation of the Castle of Indolence, unexpected as it is by the ordinary reader, carries for those who knew him the stamp of truth.
Full many a time, upon a stormy night,
His voice came to us from the neighbouring height:
Oft did we see him driving full in view
At mid-day when the sun was shining bright;
What ill was on him, what he had to do,
A mighty wonder bred among our quiet crew.
Ah! Piteous sight it was to see this Man
When he came back to us, a withered flower,—
Or like a sinful creature, pale and wan.
Down would he sit; and without strength or power
Look at the common grass from hour to hour:
And oftentimes, how long I fear to say,
Where apple-trees in blossom made a bower,
Retired in that sunshiny shade he lay;
And, like a naked Indian, slept himself away.
Great wonder to our gentle tribe it was
Whenever from our valley he withdrew;
For happier soul no living creature has
Than he had, being here the long day through.
Some thought he was a lover, and did woo:
Some thought far worse of him, and judged him wrong:
But Verse was what he had been wedded to;
And his own mind did like a tempest strong
Come to him thus, and drove the weary wight along.
An excitement which vents itself in bodily exercise carries its own sedative with it. And in comparing Wordsworth’s nature with that of other poets whose career has been less placid, we may say that he was perhaps not less excitable than they, but that it was his constant endeavour to avoid all excitement, save of the purely poetic kind; and that the outward circumstances of his life,—his mediocrity of fortune, happy and early marriage, and absence of striking personal charm,—made it easy for him to adhere to a method of life which was, in the truest sense of the term, stoic—stoic alike in its practical abstinences and in its calm and grave ideal. Purely poetic excitement, however, is hard to maintain at a high point; and the description quoted above of the voice which came through the stormy night should be followed by another—by the same candid and self-picturing hand—which represents the same habits in a quieter light.
“Nine-tenths of my verses,” says the poet in 1843, “have been murmured out in the open air. One day a stranger, having walked round the garden and grounds of Rydal Mount, asked of one of the female servants, who happened to be at the door, permission to see her master’s study. ‘This,’ said she, leading him forward, ‘is my master’s library, where he keeps his books, but his study is out of doors.’ After a long absence from home, it has more than once happened that some one of my cottage neighbours (not of the double-coach-house cottages) has said, ‘Well, there he is! We are glad to hear him booing about again.’”
Wordsworth’s health, steady and robust for the most part, indicated the same restrained excitability. While he was well able to resist fatigue, exposure to weather, &c. there were, in fact, three things which his peculiar constitution made it difficult for him to do, and unfortunately those three things were reading, writing, and the composition of poetry. A frequently recurring inflammation of the eyes, caught originally from exposure to a cold wind when overheated by exercise, but always much aggravated by mental excitement, sometimes prevented his reading for months together. His symptoms when he attempted to hold the pen are thus described, in a published letter to Sir George Beaumont (1803):—
“I do not know from what cause it is, but during the last three years I have never had a pen in my hand for five minutes before my whole frame becomes a bundle of uneasiness; a perspiration starts out all over me, and my chest is oppressed in a manner which I cannot describe.” While as to the labour of composition his sister says (September 1800): “He writes with so much feeling and agitation that it brings on a sense of pain and internal weakness about his left side and stomach, which now often makes it impossible for him to write when he is, in mind and feelings, in such a state that he could do it without difficulty.”
But turning to the brighter side of things—to the joys rather than the pains of the sensitive body and spirit—we find, in Wordsworth’s later years much of happiness 011 which to dwell. The memories which his name recalls are for the most part of thoughtful kindnesses, of simple-hearted joy in feeling himself at last appreciated, of tender sympathy with the young. Sometimes it is a recollection of some London drawing-room, where youth and beauty surrounded the rugged old man with an eager admiration which fell on no unwilling heart. Sometimes it is a story of some assemblage of young and old, rich and poor, from all the neighbouring houses and cottages, at Rydal Mount, to keep the aged poet’s birthday with a simple feast and rustic play. Sometimes it is a report of some fireside gathering at Lancrigg or Foxhow, where the old man grew eloquent as he talked of Burns and Coleridge, of Homer and Virgil, of the true aim of poetry and the true happiness of man. Or we are told of some last excursion to well-loved scenes; of holly-trees planted by the poet’s hands to simulate nature’s decoration on the craggy hill.
Such are the memories of those who best remember him. To those who were young children while his last years went by he seemed a kind of mystical embodiment of the lakes and mountains round him—a presence without which they would not be what they were. And now he is gone, and their untouched and early charm is going too.
Heu, tua nobis
Pæne simul tecum solatia rapta, Menalea!
Rydal Mount, of which he had at one time feared to be deprived, was his to the end. He still paced the terrace-walks—but now the flat terrace oftener than the sloping one—whence the eye travels to lake and mountain across a tossing gulf of green. The doves that so long had been wont to answer with murmurs of their own to his “half-formed melodies” still hung in the trees above his pathway; and many who saw him there must have thought of the lines in which, his favourite poet congratulates himself that he has not been exiled from his home.
Calm as thy sacred streams thy years shall flow;
Groves which thy youth has known thine age shall know;
Here, as of old, Hyblæan bees shall twine
Their mazy murmur into dreams of thine,—
Still from the hedge’s willow-bloom shall come
Through summer silences a slumberous hum,—
Still from the crag shall lingering winds prolong
The half-heard cadence of the woodman’s song,—
While evermore the doves, thy love and care,
Fill the tall elms with sighing in the air.
Yet words like these fail to give the solemnity of his last years,— the sense of grave retrospection, of humble self-judgment, of hopeful looking to the end. “It is indeed a deep satisfaction,” he writes near the close of life, “to hope and believe that my poetry will be while it lasts, a help to the cause of virtue and truth, especially among the young. As for myself, it seems now of little moment how long I may be remembered. When a man pushes off in his little boat into the great seas of Infinity and Eternity, it surely signifies little how long he is kept in sight by watchers from the shore.”
And again, to an intimate friend, “Worldly-minded I am not; on the contrary, my wish to benefit those within my humble sphere strengthens seemingly in exact proportion to my inability to realize those wishes. What I lament most is that the spirituality of my nature does not expand and rise the nearer I approach the grave, as yours does, and as it fares with my beloved partner.”
The aged poet might feel the loss of some vividness of emotion, but his thoughts dwelt more and more constantly on the unseen world. One of the images which recurs oftenest to his friends is that of the old man as he would stand against the window of the dining-room at Rydal Mount and read the Psalms and Lessons for the day; of the tall bowed figure and the silvery hair; of the deep voice which always faltered when among the prayers he came to the words which give thanks for those “who have departed this life in Thy faith and fear.”
There is no need to prolong the narration. As healthy infancy is the same for all, so the old age of all good men brings philosopher and peasant once more together, to meet with the same thoughts the inevitable hour. Whatever the well-fought fight may have been, rest is the same for all.
Retirement then might hourly look
Upon a soothing scene;
Age steal to his allotted nook
Contented and serene;
With heart as calm as lakes that sleep,
In frosty moonlight glistening,
Or mountain torrents, where they creep
Along a channel smooth and deep,
To their own far-off murmurs listening.
What touch has given to these lines their impress of an unfathomable peace? For there speaks from them a tranquillity which seems to overcome our souls; which makes us feel in the midst of toil and passion that we are disquieting ourselves in vain; that we are travelling to a region where these things shall not be; that “so shall immoderate fear leave us, and inordinate love shall die.”
Wordsworth’s last days were absolutely tranquil. A cold caught on a Sunday afternoon walk brought on a pleurisy. He lay for some weeks in a state of passive weakness; and at last Mrs. Wordsworth said to him, “William, you are going to Dora.” “He made no reply at the time, and the words seem to have passed unheeded; indeed, it was not certain that they had been even heard. More than twenty-four hours afterwards one of his nieces came into his room, and was drawing aside the curtain of his chamber, and then, as if awakening from a quiet sleep, he said, ‘Is that Dora?’”
On Tuesday, April 23, 1850, as his favourite cuckoo-clock struck the hour of noon, his spirit passed away. His body was buried, as he had wished, in Grasmere churchyard. Around him the dalesmen of Grasmere lie beneath the shade of sycamore and yew; and Rotha’s murmur mourns the pausing of that “music sweeter than her own.” And surely of him, if of any one, we may think as of a man who was so in accord with Nature, so at one with the very soul of things, that there can be no Mansion of the Universe which shall not be to him a home, no Governor who will not accept him among His servants, and satisfy him with love and peace. (End)