William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place (week 4)

Week one, week two, week three

Week four

This is the final week and I’ve been looking forward to it in particular, as Dorothy gets a bit more of a look in here.  We have seen snippets of her work and her writings have been used to support the learning about William but she was a writer in her own right and I think this often gets overlooked.

Letter writing

Both of the Wordsworth’s placed importance on letter writing.  At the time it was a way of maintaining relationships with people who didn’t leave nearby and it also allowed them to share works and news with friends such as Coleridge.

Are there particular letters that you remember vividly? What role did letter writing have in your life and has this role been taken over now by email and social media? Is there something different about the experience of writing and receiving a letter to these forms of communication?

– Questions posed in the course

Anyone who has the pleasure or misfortune of having given me their postal address will know that I love sending post.  I love seeing a card, a magazine article or a little something as I’m out and about and thinking of friends and then sending this token on.  My health means that I cannot see my friends as much as I’d like and I can’t always be there for them when things are hard.  So post is one way I show them that I love them and I’m thinking of them.  Sometimes it’ll be a little care package of chocolates and magazines.  Sometimes I send my sister some DVDs I think she’ll like.  Sometimes I’ll just send a postcard to say I’m by the sea and wish you were here.  An overused phrase for postcards but I mean it when I say it.  I don’t toss away words.

I will often communicate with these friends through social media whilst the post is on it’s way.  It’s not an alternative form of communication, it’s one that I use alongside, to say different things.  I love twitter, it is my social media platform of choice, and it limits you to 140 characters so interactions on there are inevitably different to those in letters or emails.  And for many users, their tweets are public which again shape what gets said.  I wonder if the Wordsworth’s would have changed their letters had they known they’d be read and analysed many years later?

Dorothy’s diaries

Next we looked at the writing within Dorothy’s diaries.  Her journals covered the day to day aspects of their lives, the natural world around them, the people they knew and William’s poetry.

Dorothy, as a person and as a writer, often falls into her brother’s shadow but she is an important woman in her own right. She was younger than William, born at the end of 1771, and she outlived him by five years.  Following the death of their parents, the two were separated, with Dortohy being bought up by a series of relatives across the country.  Despite being part of 5 siblings, Dorothy and William were closest to each other and on the occasion they were together, they would plan their futures.  Futures filled with dreams of writing and walking and reading and each other’s company.

William left Dorothy to visit Yorkshire in 1800 and this is when her journal began.  She writes: ‘I resolved to write a journal of the time till W. and J. return, and set about keeping my resolve, because I will not quarrel with myself, and because I shall give Wm. pleasure by it when he comes home again’.

William would marry Mary Hutchinson two years later and Dorothy would continue to live with her brother and his new wife, helping out with the household.  Towards the end of her life, illness confined her to her home and the local area for two decades.  For someone who had spent so much of her life independently exploring and walking and observing, this can’t have been an easy time.

Daffodils

One of the really interesting journal entries talks about an encounter with some daffodils.  Dorothy and William were returning home one day when they came across “a long belt of them along the shore”.  She writes:

I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them,
Some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed &
reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over
the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the
Lake to them. There was here & there a little knot & a few stragglers a few yards higher up
but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity & unity & life of that one busy
highway—

This was written on 15th April 1802, two years before William wrote his famous poem, “I wandered lonely as a cloud…”.  There are two published versions of this poem, one from 1807 and one from 1815.

Graffiti in the Lake District

Reading Dorothy’s version of the event, we can see how much poetic license William used in his poem.  In the journal entry, there is a furious wind which seized their breath.  The lake along which the daffodils danced was rough.  This is not the gentle breeze from William’s poem.  He omits the bad weather and suggests a gentle day, mostly free of cloud.  He also depicts the scene as if he had stumbled onto it alone, finding himself with only the company of the flowers, a choice which changes the tone of the experience.

His poem contains one of his “spots of time”.  He says that when he sees the daffodils he enjoyed the experience but didn’t think much about “what wealth the show to me had brought”.  But later, when “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.”  Poetry seemed to live within the home as we know that Mary, William’s wife, contributed two of those lines.

Naturally their differing purposes plays an important part in how their writings were shaped. Dorothy’s is more truthful, as it is a diary, and it’s more concretely descriptive instead of William’s looser, more poetic description. I think it also makes a difference that Dorothy writes within context of the rest of the day whereas for William it is a entire moment itself. He zooms in on the daffodils where she conveys a more panoramic picture.  Writing several years after the event also allows William to include reflections and to show the impact that moment had on him.

I wanted to respin the famous “I wandered lonely as a cloud…” to make it more reflective of the entry in Dorothy’s diary.  I’m sure this has been done before but I enjoyed the exercise.  And this is a version which does need editing!  I did try another attempt first using Dorothy’s words and phrases but it feels jilted and forced at the moment.

Daffodils, a retelling

We strolled together side by side
Bound for home past windswept fields.
We rested in the lane, to hide
A moment from the storm. Then peeled
Church bells and drew our eyes shoreward
And Oh! What sight was our reward!

There lay, beside the violent loch*
A host of golden daffodils
Some rested heads on mossy rocks
Whilst others danced and never stilled
Yet more trumpeted our delight
Smiling, laughing, t’was such a sight!

*I know we’re not in scotland but I’m taking poetic license until a better line comes to me!

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William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place (week 3)

Week 1 and week 2

Week three

Michael

This week we have been looking at a poem called Michael and the sense of place within it.  The poem is about a shepherd who has a strong connection to the land he lives and works in.  It contains a strong sense of place, using specific and detailed images to help anchor it in the land.

Wordsworth seems to admire Michael’s combination of strength of body and strength of mind. More specifically, it is Michael’s awareness and attention to the nature and landscape around him which Wordsworth values. I feel that Wordsworth holds Michael’s relationship with the landscape in high regard, and perhaps enviously as it is possible that a shepherd has a different relationship with the land to the poet.

Whilst Wordsworth holds Michael’s attention to nature above that of ordinary men, I think the extract (the second section of the full poem) suggests that it is possible to have this experience. That is, the depth of relationship to place could be there for anyone, but at the same time, the way of life for Michael means he has put in more days, more literal legwork than most of us ever would. Because of this, the land holds memories and this deepens his relationship to it. That said, the land has special meaning to Michael because it belonged to his family before him and this is something that most of us can’t weave into our relationship with place.

Place

Questions: How do we, as individuals, connect to the place we live in and the place where we were brought up?  How does this shape our identity?

Exercise

We were given some instructions to help us write about place.  I wanted to go outside to do this but it’s been a horrific week for my health and I’ve mostly been stuck in bed…  This writing is entirely unedited:

The longed for noisy peace of nature
Broken by the hum of traffic,
The shouts and screams of strangers.
An unseen plane whirrs
And a northwesterly wind
Carries a distant train horn.
A familiar woodpigeon, one of a pair
Calls out, cooing through the urban music;
A heart warming sound.

The sun bleeds through white mesh
Slowly brightening and darkening,
Nuances missed by most.

And if I lean slightly right
– not too far
A triangle of sky reveals herself
Clear and blue, for now.

The longed for joyful wonder of nature
Is found in unlikely places.

This is my bed, my nest, my nursemaid.
This is my bed, my prison, my shackles.

The Sheepfold

We also looked at the importance of the sheepfold in this poem.  We know from Dorothy Wordsworth’s diaries that William often wrote outside which may well have shaped his writing.  The course asks us then to think about setting and writing context within our own practices.  I think the importance of setting and context depend on the nature of the writing involved. If you’re writing about a specific place then the language and images used need to reflect that accurately and it is often best to jot notes when you are there and are tuned into the setting.  This touches on some of the arguments around language in my post about nature writing.

For writing which is less place specific I think the setting for writing is less important from the perspective of what you actually write. However we all work well in different places. I can’t write in libraries, I want to but just can’t, because they are too quiet and I get distracted by the quietness. Equally, I can’t write in busy places because I find the noise overwhelming and end up people watching… At different times in my life I’ve had different set ups for my writing. When I was a teenager I carried a notebook everywhere and could be found jotting things down on my maths homework if that was what was at hand… For a while I stopped writing and to get back into it I found I needed more structure and ritual around it. Now I have to write at a computer (due to a disability) which changes things again.

William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place (Week 2)

See also Week One of  Future Learn: William Wordsworth, Poetry, People and Place

Week two

This week is looking at the Prelude.  It is a long, autobiographical poem which Wordsworth worked on for a lot of his life, revising, editing and changing as he changed.  Because it spanned a significant part of his life, it can show us how Wordsworth evolved and how his writing developed over time.  As part of the course, in addition to looking at the poems, we’ve been able to look at the manuscripts which provide interesting insight into Wordsworth’s writing process.

In particular we’ve been looking at three extracts; Was It For This, Spots of Time and Boat Stealing.

Spots of time

This extract is Wordsworth telling us his theory about life, that there are “spots of time” which may seem insignificant but which will turn out to be important. These might be intense emotional experiences which can be recalled and bring strength and relief and restoration to the mind.  They bring together our past and our present. The moments themselves will turn out to bear fruit and have value later down the line.

My spots of time

Sitting on roughly poured concrete,
now set. Soil leaks from the strawberry patch
and baby hands reach out.

…ten years on, same spot,
no strawberries, concrete replaced by paving slabs.
A butterfly flutters and lands and rests
on a teenage hand.

Connection for the unconnected.

***

Dead fox. Oldest sister.
Duty calls a soldier.

Stand guard.

Youngest sister released.
Fetch back up. (Please hurry).

Eerie. Uncomfortable.
There is no protocol.

No training has prepared
or taught how best to act.

Stand guard.

Watch over russet corpse.

Stand guard.

Watch over the dead fox.

Stand guard.

(Please hurry).

And when it blinks, do not scream.
There is no instruction guide.
And no one told this small child
that death moves within the dead.

Boat Stealing

DSC_0492
Boats on Derwent Water

In Boat Stealing, Wordsworth is describing one of his own spots of time.  At this point in the course, having already engaged in discussion and creative exercises, we are asked to write a short piece, 250-500 words about this extract.  These will be marked by our peers and in turn we will provide feedback to others.  Here is mine:

Boat stealing is written in blank verse and this reflects the sense of Wordsworth telling us about the incident. The form echoes a stream of consciousness, like that of a dream or a recalled memory. It is conversational and story like, even starting with “one evening I went…”. This helps the reader to feel like they are there and makes it come alive. This line also suggests that the speaker is the adult Wordsworth retelling the incident.

The first part of the extract uses a lot of images about light eg “the moon was up, the lake was shining clear… small circles glittering…”. Despite it being night time, these bring to mind a sense of safety – it is dark but the boy can see and that light helps him to feel safe. He uses similes to describe the boat, “like a man who walks with stately step…” which help the reader to get a sense of the boy’s mindset and emotional landscape. He seems fairly confident, proud even despite knowing what he is doing is wrong. This “troubled pleasure” is one familiar to most people, that of pushing the boundaries in youth and feeling sure that even though what you’re doing is wrong, you’ll be ok. As this is a relatable feeling, the reader is drawn in and feels connected to the incident. The language all suggests a knowledge of the nature that surrounds him and this adds to the sense of surety.

About half way through the extract, emotions turn from confidence to something more lustful and potentially sexual:

She was an elfin pinnace; twenty tomes
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my Boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan.

Then suddenly, everything changes. What he thought was the horizon no longer is. “A huge Cliff, As if with voluntary power instinct, Upreared its head.” The descriptive, suggestive language is now replaced with more simple language showing a boy rendered almost speechless with shock. The contrast between the language of the first and second part make the image of the cliff as a dangerous being more powerful. Wordsworth personifies the cliff, suggesting it is alive and the boy no longer proudly rows but instead he paddles in a hurried way, with trembling hands. The urgency of the situation is reflected in the long sentence structure and repetition of “struck and struck again”. These images help the reader understand his fear. What the boy thought was the horizon, suddenly wasn’t. What he thought was a landscape and nature that he knew and felt safe in was suddenly unfamiliar and terrifying.

The extract ends with Wordsworth explaining how he was haunted by guilt and an uneasiness for many days. At this stage, I think we are hearing Wordsworth as a boy, but we know that since he is writing as a man the incident has stayed with him for many years.

William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

I’m doing an online course, Future Learn: William Wordsworth, Poetry, People and Place, which has been helping me look at poetry alongside my research into nature writing.  I’ve really been enjoying it and have raced ahead.  One of the things I’ve found very interesting is how I react differently to unseen poetry when I read it and when it is read to me.  As an avid reader of fiction, I tend to skim read and my eyes are darting ahead and providing clues as to where the words are headed.  When poetry, or anything, is read aloud to you, you can’t do this.  This has allowed me to focus more on the words being said and also led to some surprise twists in where the poem is going.

Week 1

This week has been an introduction to Wordsworth and looking at two of his poems; The Tables Turned and Old Man Travelling, neither of which I’d read before.

To help me slow down and ingest the poem, as opposed to my usual fast reading, I’ve been making notes and have written down some of my thoughts and reactions to the poem.  This has also created space for me to play with the ideas that Wordsworth touches on.

The Tables Turned was my favourite of the two.  It is helpful to know that this poem was published alongside a second poem, Expostulation and Reply. In this, Wordsworth depicts a scene where his friend Matthew was imploring him to read and be purposeful instead of sitting on an old grey stone dreaming his time away. Whilst that poem does contain a response, as the title suggests, it is in The Tables Turned that Wordsworth truly expresses himself.

The Tables Turned begins with lighthearted rhyme and a friendly rhythm. It is a jolly start to a poem and suggests that he is not preaching to his friend, indeed within the first three lines he says “my friend” twice. He gentle teases his friend whilst still encouraging him to rise from his books and step out into nature.

This poem has a very clear message, written explicitly in stanza four:

Come forth into the light of things
Let nature be your teacher

But like most poems, there is more to it than that. Throughout the poem, Wordsworth uses metaphor and imagery to weave three ideas of education; that of scholarly learning, that of religions preaching and that of nature as teacher. In the 18th century, when this poem was written, the idea of acquiring knowledge through reading was considered a superior way of learning. It was also an exclusionary one and, as we know from Wordsworth’s prelude, he wanted to write in such a way that his work was open to everyone. In the same way, learning from nature was much more accessible for most people that more formal methods of education. With this in mind, we can see Matthew as old fashioned, as having more traditional views and Wordsworth being on the cusp of new thinking. The use of form and language in The Tables Turned also reflects this idea of seeking to be understood by all.

Yet, and this is perhaps my favourite aspect of the poem, the lines are filled with irony. Whilst claiming to want all to read his poetry and suggesting that nature is the universal teacher, accessible to everyone, it was within books that his own work could be found. This irony is most deliciously expressed in the penultimate stanza:

Sweet is the lore which nature brings:
Our meddling intellect
Mishapes the beauteous forms of things:
– We murder to dissect.

And in analysing this poem, as so many people have, we are dissecting it ourselves.  Other examples of irony in the poem include Wordsworth begging his friend to quit his books (penned by writers such as himself) and declaring enough of science and of art, of which nature is both.

We were asked to consider which lines were our favourite and whilst many people chose the lines arguing that nature should be your teacher, I loved the image of murder, which contrasts strongly with the rest of the images.  I also really like the final stanza:

Enough of science and of art;
Close up these barren leaves;
come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives

It is the image of the leaves which chimes so strongly with me. It feels like this stanza is the poem in miniature with the leaves pivoting the reader from books to nature. On the one hand we have dry, brittle leaves of books, dead and crumbling (could this also be the old approach to learning?) and on the other we have the fresh, verdant, life filled leaves of the woodland. It could also be saying to the reader that books, as bits of nature which have been written on, can only contain a fraction of the wisdom that nature itself can teach. It begs the reader to question why they are spending time, and toil and trouble, in their books, dead snatches of nature, when they could be outside experiencing the true wonder of the living nature.

I found the gendered language in this poem interesting. It is not unusual for nature to be spoken of using feminine pronouns (a topic for another day) and in Expostulation and Reply, nature is referred to as feminine, as mother earth. But in The Tables Turned we have masculine birds and a masculine sun until half way through when we see Nature as feminine. From a factual perspective, Wordsworth is correct in talking of male birds singing but this is not normally something poets trouble themselves with. And in today’s convention, in many cultures, the sun is masculine with the moon as feminine. However the change being half way through the poem makes it feel like it could be something more significant than that. It feels like an interesting mirroring of the traditionally masculine book learning and the feminine emotional/experiential learning, or the polarity of scholarly or religious learning and learning from nature, that is to say learning from men vs learning from mother nature.