He says of the District itself: “A sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy.” He speaks of its mountains: “In the combinations which they make, towering above each other, or lifting themselves in ridges like the waves of a tumultuous sea, and in the beauty and variety of their surfaces and colours, they are surpassed by none.” He even weighs in on the argument of the new railway: that it would bring so many people that they would destroy the beauty they had come to see… “Let then the beauty be undisfigured and the retirement unviolated.” Wishful thinking, some might have said. But I can personally say, albeit with a considerable detachment in years from the context of Wordsworth’s plea, that it was not uttered in vain, and still today this famed patch of the North rests resplendent in all its old and seemingly eternal glory. I wouldn’t want to merely lavish on the district words of praise that have been used and reused for more than two-hundred years, but when thinking on the Lakes in Literature, words are all.
In 2011, upon graduating with an English degree, I took it upon myself to take part in my own little (first and only) personal pilgrimage to the Lakes. Since I was years younger, I had seen almost every corner of its arcadian tapestry through the countless lines left to the world, and consequently to myself, by the Lake Poets; more specifically William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. These two were some of the first names of the Romantic Movement in England and particularly in English Poetry. They were friends making a difference before they were even conscious of it; literary brothers who would go from humble country backgrounds in the late 18th Century to reach their educated twenties, writing collaboratively one of the most famous works of literature known to man.
Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge was a statement of the time, one that would later reward them with, as well as the first flickers of fame that would last to this day, the first flickers of unfair criticism and scorn that by no means went unnoticed in their own day. Just as the (too) young Keats was said by Byron to have been killed directly by the considerably harsh criticism of his first serious effort, Endymion, Wordsworth and Coleridge, albeit both living on to ripe old ages, felt the full brunt of their own share of sly words both spoken and – almost worse – printed. And all just for trying to “shew that men who did not wear fine clothes can feel deeply.” (Wordsworth)
From Wordsworth’s academic beginnings at Hawkshead Grammar School to Dove Cottage in Grasmere to his final years in Cockermouth, the Lakes teem with the legacy of the man who put it on the map, and that of those he knew best to bring along for the literary ride. Still today as you wake with a hearty breakfast, put on your boots and head out in rain or sunshine to Grasmere by way of Rydal Mount, or climb to the highest pub in the Lakes, the Kirkstone Pass Inn, and the Red Screes with awe-inspiring views of Windermere, you’re left with a newfound and genuine faith in not only all that spreads out so timelessly before you, but in all the people through the centuries who have so passionately fought to protect from the speed and impatience of the modern world all that played a part in bringing some of “the best words in the best order” (Coleridge) to some of the best minds ever to have been born in this country.
Who doesn’t know of the daffodils poem? Not many. But everyone who visits the Lakes and wastes no time in taking to its fells and its falls and its lakes will feel come upon them a certain release, a realization of the same self or of a new self “that floats upon high o’er vales and hills”. Though it may not be wholly apparent during all the pace of a family holiday, later memories will serve only to strengthen those impressions that, once taken on at first light, were to remain forever.
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
My unshakeable conclusion after writing all of this? I need to go back.