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January 27, 2006

Hills 'n Trees 'n Watter - William Wordsworth's Guide to the Lakes

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Guide to the Lakes
by William Wordsworth
First edition published 1810
Pp. 203. Henry Froude, 1906 - an "exact replica" with appendices of the 5th edition published by Spottiswoode in 1835

Available as a paperback, Wordsworth's Guide to the Lakes (Frances Lincoln Publishers, 2004).

The Reverend Sydney Smith, born in 1771, made a point of closing the curtains of his carriage as he passed through the countryside. He had no desire to see the larcenous crows and odiferous rustics who populated the place. Not for him the new fashion of gawping at "landscape" or "scenery", of observing how a scene might be perfected if those two larches were replaced by a mighty oak. He had no intention of writing a poem about the shepherd on yonder knoll.

The high priest of the cult of landscape as a spiritual experience, William Wordsworth, was actually born the year before, in 1770. There is an amusing anecdote, repeated on postcards and in local guidebooks rather than in scholarly works which has Wordsworth and his gang discovering a very old lady in Kendal who had never seen any of the Lakes. She was duly transported in as much comfort as could be managed to a seat on Orrest Head where her comments finished:

. . . why make such fuss and chatter?
There's nowt to see, but 'ills 'n trees 'n watter.
When I was a boy this saying was well enough known among my contemporaries for us to intone it when required to look at a view.

To be fair to Wordsworth he was well aware that his seriousness about landscape was a new fashion and he dates it from around 1750. He offers a parallel old lady story of his own. His old lady remarks (p. 150):

Bless me! Folk are always talking about prospects: when I was young there was never sic a thing neamed.
The Guide is Wordsworth's principal prose work and a major contribution to a new literary form; there were many other guides, especially to the Lakes. It would have given him some literary significance even if his poetry had not become well known. Matthew Arnold told the story of a local clergyman who inquired of the elderly Wordsworth whether he had written anything other than the Guide!

A first edition was produced in 1810, but there were several later editions and my copy is probably the most common, a 1906 "exact reprint" by Frowde of the 1835 fifth edition with some very important appendices written in 1844. The net effect is of a series of essays. These cover, in the main text, the topography of the area, its social history, the buildings, an aesthetic consideration of what we would call appropriate development and a comparison with the Alps. There are then some excursions and advice, a letter written on the subject of landscape design and appendices concerned with the coming of the railway. The author addresses himself to "the tourist", "the naturalist", "the stranger" and, very occasionally, "the geologist".

Whatever its significance the Guide has charming idiosyncrasies of style. With supreme economy Wordsworth incorporates his sub-headings into his sentences, thus (p. 14):

We will conclude with
He introduces his own poetry with coy pomposity (p. 116):
. . . the following verses may be here introduced with propriety. They are from the Author's Miscellaneous Poems.
But these are minor curiosities. The major charm is Wordsworth's partisanship, his "support your local landscape" campaign. Comparisons are odious, he tells us, in both English and Latin, but that is not going to stop him making them. Contrary to what some people might believe, the features of the Lake District are the right size (p. 34):
In fact, a notion of grandeur, as connected with magnitude, has seduced persons of taste into a general mistake upon this subject. It is much more desirable, for the purposes of pleasure, that lakes should be numerous, and small or medium-sized, not only for communication by walks and rides, but for variety, and for recurrence of similar experiences.
The Alps, the subject of a lengthy comparison, are (p. 103):
. . . apt to present a jagged outline which has a mean effect.
The flora of the Lakes is more interesting to look at and the height and shape of the mountains is such that one can actually ascend them. The lakes of America and Asia are far too big from an artistic point of view and the landscape of Scotland is too desolate. The weather of England's North West which might be considered a weakness, becomes here a major strength. It's extreme variety and its cloudscapes make the (p. 46):
. . blank sky of Egypt, and the . . cerulean vacancy of Italy . . an unanimated and even a sad spectacle.
In support of his Alpine comparison Wordsworth quotes a Mr West, a Roman Catholic clergyman (who might therefore be more sympathetic to the Alps?). He does this (p. 111):
Lest in the foregoing comparative estimate, I should be suspected of partiality to my native mountains . . .
Not 'alf, Willy. But this reviewer is just as partial as you are. I could see the Lake District on a clear day out of the window at school from across the bay. And I did always find foreign lakes, for the most part, too big, like low grade seas. Not much point in a lake when you can't see the deep reflection of the mountains on the other shore!

The inclusion of the appendices from 1844 is a vital addition to the Guide. Written when Wordsworth was 73 and 74 to the Morning Post, they argue against the Kendal and Windermere Railway. They develop and give polemical direction to many of the arguments in the main body of the guide. The first protest is a sonnet which has been widely quoted (p. 146):

Is there no nook of English ground secure
From rash assault? Schemes of retirement sown
In youth, and 'mid the busy world kept pure
As when their earliest flowers of hope were blown,
Must perish; - how can they this blight endure?
This might serve as the anthem for all those whose love of a particular place is threatened by development. I heard a story some years ago from a County Planning Officer (as they were then) of a man who bought an idyllic cottage in the 1950s deep in the Northamptonshire countryside. What his solicitor failed to tell him (because it had not occurred to him to look it up because there were no motorways at the time) was that the M1 was to pass within thirty yards of the cottage. He committed suicide.

In the subsequent two prose letters Wordsworth (not the most consistent of thinkers) has to contend with an apparent contradiction. He has already hinted, well over a century before it happened, at a kind of National Park status. Right thinking people should (p. 92):

. . deem the district 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.
But now he wants to oppose the very machine which might make the enjoyment more widespread. It is not the railway itself which he dislikes for he is able to quote his own poem, Steamboats and Railways (p. 165):
In your harsh features, nature doth embrace
Her lawful offspring in man's Art; and Time
Pleased with your triumph o'er his brother Space,
Accepts from your bold hand the proffered crown
Of hope, and welcomes you with cheer sublime.
It is the appropriateness to the landscape and the number of people it will bring which are the problem.

Wordsworth's account of the nature of the love of wild landscape now becomes politically important. It is neither "natural" nor "intuitive" (unlike the taste for gentle, fertile lands) and is admittedly new. In England Gray is the first person to show any inkling of it while Wordsworth is keen to establish that Burns, from across the Solway Firth, has no feeling for it at all. But this enables him to insist that the taste for wildness is an advanced and cultivated taste, which will increase with progress and education. What we must not do, for the sake of the future, is to vulgarise the place for the existing masses else (p. 155):

. . . we should have wrestling matches, horse and boat races without number, and pot-houses and beer-shops would keep pace with these excitements and recreations, most of which might too easily be had elsewhere.
(It was to be more than forty years before Blackpool was invented to satisfy these demands, though Scarborough was already attracting thousands.) A particular target for the poet's venom is the "Manchester tradesman" who will seek to provide lake excursions for his workers, a practice which is as patronising as it is destructive.

Wordsworth's prose style is rather pompous and antiquated even for his own time. But his arguments are often valid and the issues with which he is concerned are astonishingly far-sighted. He is concerned with the nature of conservation. He foresees the idea of a national park. In doing so he envisages the content of a design guide (in which red roof tiles, whitewash and imported conifers are not welcome in the district, thank you). He is well aware of the complexities of trying to "preserve" something which must change. He also observes a tension between the preservation of the landscape and that of the local character and would detest a preserved landscape without people. The Lake District is a " . . a visionary mountain republic" (p. 68) whose origins lie in the rights accorded to farmers by the Abbots of Furness in return for military service against the Scots. There is even a theory of post-industrialism as he compares the mining past of the area with its future in living by its looks. He is drawn, inevitably, into arguments about elite and popular culture.

In short, Wordsworth, more than any writer in the 1840s except, perhaps, J. S. Mill, has important things to say about several issues which remain important in the twenty first century. This an essential text for understanding these issues as well as being A Guide Through the District of the Lakes in the North of England with a Description of the Scenery &c. for the Use of Tourists and Residents to give it the original, somewhat cumbersome, title. And when should you go? The poet is quite clear: contrary to the recommendations of other guides, the best time of year is between 1st September and 15th October.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

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