Lives in a Landscape

One of my favourite types of life-writing is the exploration of a particular life through a person’s connection to the landscape. Wordsworth does it for the first time English literature in the Prelude, his posthumously published 10,000 line epic on his own life, though I prefer his Valedictory Sonnet to the River Duddon, which for me perfectly encapsulates both the continuity between a person’s life and the place they love and the fact that we become shaped by those relationships.

Duddon Valley, Easter 2015

Duddon Valley, Easter 2015

Valedictory Sonnet to the River Duddon

I thought of Thee, my partner and my guide,
As being past away.—Vain sympathies!
For, backward, Duddon! as I cast my eyes,
I see what was, and is, and will abide;
Still glides the Stream, and shall for ever glide;
The Form remains, the Function never dies;
While we, the brave, the mighty, and the wise,
We Men, who in our morn of youth defied
The elements, must vanish;—be it so!
Enough, if something from our hands have power
To live, and act, and serve the future hour;
And if, as toward the silent tomb we go,
Through love, through hope, and faith’s transcendent dower,
We feel that we are greater than we know.
You can find out more about Wordsworth and the River Duddon on the Wordsworth Trust’s excellent Romanticism blog.
The book was eventually called 'A Time of Gifts'

Patrick Leigh Fermour’s A Time of Gifts

On this blog I have already explored the place/person interaction for Hannah Hauxwell, Monty Don, Sarah Moss, and Patrick Leigh Fermour, but I haven’t really explored the potential for other media outside books to articulate those experiences. But to my unexpected joy, I have just discovered a wonderful radio programme that charts how a person’s interaction with a places shapes and chanegs them both – perfect.
Friday morning saw me dashing around to schools across Edinburgh, frantically delivering Nairn’s oatcakes to schools who had been highly commended in a competition I ran through work. From Newcraighall to Forthview, I zoomed about in my little mint-opal Honda Jazz (nick-named the Duchess), battling traffic jams and delivery lorries to offload the oatcakes. Usually I would have found this hugely frustrating, but because it was also Friday in the world of Radio 4, I was very happy to sit and listen to Desert Island Discs (which has to be my all-time favourite radio programme), then Woman’s Hour (another regular listen), and then – Lives in a Landscape came on, and I was hooked.

Lives in a Landscape looks at ordinary people and their relationship with particular places. Each programme lasts 30 minutes and the series has looked at iconic British locations from Glastonbury to the River Cam alongside places which are important to their communities, but not widely famous: a primary school in West Yorkshire, the Fal estuary in Cornwall, a pub in Luton. Each little vignette beautifully articulates the importance of people and places, whether it be through farming, fishing, or simply living in and loving a particular environment. Community is at the heart of many of the programmes, giving the series a warm and inclusive feel, even when dealing with the most tragic of events.

The episode I listened to started with the harrowing tale of Claire Throssall, whose estranged husband murdered her children and destroyed the family’s home in a meticulously planned house fire, robbing her of her family and her future in one stroke. However, the programme focussed on the Penistone community’s response to this tragedy, from the church lending Claire their piano so she could play and thereby retain a certain sense of her identity, to hundreds of volunteers who have been working to rebuild her home so that she can sell what was a gutted shell (her husband had cancelled the insurance before the blaze) and rebuild some semblance of a normal life. You can listen via the BBC i-player here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06mv2nb

Although Claire’s experience is an extreme and upsetting one, the programme makes excellent use of interviews with the remaining Throssall family and the local Penistone population, so that it feels like they are really telling their own story, rather than going through the mouth-piece of a presenter. A little democratic gem on a Friday morning – or, thanks to the wonders of the internet, at any time you please – there are 21 series with 56 episodes!

Rooted in the distant past

Shepherds: not a group of people we often hear from, not a group of people many of us really know. The term is an archaic one, as there are few people in the UK who simply look after sheep these days, yet they crop up again and again in our culture and language. Our word ‘pastoral’ is taken directly from them (the Latin pastor meaning ‘shepherd’); they can be faithfully found draped in tea towels every December in school and village hall nativities; we make pies named after them; and those of us who are that way inclined are familiar with a drop of Shepherd’s Neame to boot.

John Clare portrayed their lives in the 19th century in The Shepherd’s Calendar; a few years earlier, Wordsworth had taken a early punt at popularising the pastoral way of life as he saw it, on the cusp of being subsumed into those infamously satanic mills of the industrial revolution. Not that either poet was a farmer himself, though Clare was far closer to the land, having worked as an agricultural labourer.

Newland's Valley. shaped by 100 years of farming

Newland’s Valley. shaped by 1000 years of farming

As the son of a lawyer, Wordsworth preferred to spend his time wandering about the landscape on which his fellowmen worked themselves to death, but Michael shows that he understood the yeoman farmer’s deep tie to the land. Their life and work utterly rooted them, and once that tie between themselves, their land and the next generation had been broken then something would be lost for ever.

Shepherds today, whilst being fewer than ever, are certainly much more vocal. Alison O’Neill has carved out a niece as The Shepherdess, and top of the Times best-seller list a few weeks ago is The Shepherd’s Life, the tale of the life of Cumbrian farmer James Rebanks. If you haven’t read it yet, you can listen to it on BBC 4 (albeit in abridged form). It is a fascinating read (or listen), being much more than simply the life story of 21st century man. Rebanks is well aware of his historical and cultural place as a shepherd: Wordsworth and ‘those tourists’ both get a nod as he stands ‘daydreaming like a bloody poet or day-tripper’.

Sunrise over Rydal, Cumbria

Sunrise over Rydal, Cumbria

He effortless elevates the language of his farming life to a quasi-religious state: ‘making good hay is like a commandment from God’. He follows those ‘threads of understanding’ which link him not just to his own forebears but to a thousand years of history and culture relating to the land which he farms. It is the book of a lifetime and no doubt will be as popular with those who have never met a shepherd and those who spend every day heaving sheep around alike.

I am intrigued by the book because one particular shepherd had a definite influence on my life. When I was five my father’s business collapsed and we had to move from our own heavily-mortgaged house to a rented cottage, tied like a tired balloon to the edge of an old family estate. In years gone by one half of it had been a dairy, and the house still had two front doors, one for the milk and one for the people. The whole house was only one room wide: a single stroke of flint, bricks and mortar. My bedroom was directly over the old dairy, now used as a kitchen, and on winter days the wind rustled up through the floor boards, which had nothing but newspapers packed below them for insulation. The house was called Farm Cottage: for that’s what it was, a cottage on a working farm.

In this cottage, the kitchen might now hold an abandoned or orphaned ‘pet’ lamb, one so tiny that it needed the warmth of our cooker and milk dispensed from a grubby bottle. Whilst I made my breakfast it might urgently head-butt my leg until I fed it, and would then proceed to pee all over the floor, carefully missing the newspaper laid down for soaking up these torrents. I loved these lambs because they needed me.

Herdwick sheep, raddled

Herdwick sheep, raddled

I was scared of the huge cows which ambled past the window every day, shit streaming from their tails, and I wasn’t too keen on the adult sheep with their vacant eyes and propensity to drop down dead at any given moment, but the lambs I adored. I would get up in the night to help with the lambing, trudge through thigh-high snow to feed them in the winter, and stripped down to my vest to helping out with the shearing (the men did it topless but I wasn’t encouraged to follow suit.)

My parents did not run the farm; it was tenant-farmed by an old Herefordshire farmer who seemed absolutely ancient to me at the age of 5, but since he is still farming 21 years later he can’t have been all that old at the time. He had an almost impenetrable accent: in Suffolk, one didn’t meet many (nearly) Welsh people and I couldn’t understand why he sounded so odd. (I had a similar problem with my uncle who was from Yorkshire. We didn’t travel much at that time: holidays were invariable taken on the Norfolk coast.) He smelt funny, his clothes were covered in holes – I was sure I could see his underpants through a tear in the seat of his trousers – and his trousers were held up with a knotted piece of thin orange string. I was soon to realise that holding up trousers was only one of the many uses for the ever-present bailer twine!

We have never once, in all the years our family has known him, called him by his first name. We know it, of course, and his middle names too, which were carefully printed inside his glasses case, held together with sticking plaster. No-one else I knew had any one of those names, let along all three – they were imbued with a sense of spell-like strangeness and we steered clear of speaking them. He had had three wives (two simultaneously, we were told), was a Mormon, and saw women as inferior to men, so that when my brother was big enough to help out on the farm he was paid £5 a day, whereas for the last three years I had done the same work without a penny. This didn’t bother me at the time, but it infuriated my mother!

Farm fence at dawn, Grasmere

Farm fence at dawn, Grasmere

What I instantly recognised in the shepherds in Rebanks’ book were the same complicated contradictions and inherent antagonistic behaviour that I’d seen in this farmer. The passionate love of animals (one oft-repeated phrase my whole family still use is ‘if I see a sheep, I have to have it’) combined with a hard-edged realism when it came to life and death decisions. The intense competitive need to rear sheep which were better than everyone else’s, juxtaposed with a huge amount of fellow-feeling displayed both at market day over a cup of tea and a greasy bacon roll and whenever another farmer was down on his luck. The desire to be right, to have the courage of your own convictions, but also to take the losses and hardships of the farming life philosophically, to recognise that there is a power beyond the individual when comes through farming that land. Farming allows strong characters to shape their own world, to immerse themselves in the physical rough and tumble of life. It certainly seems to be more than just a way of earning a living; it is a chosen path, and one that cannot be easily turned away from.

What to do about Dorothy’s Journal

I have been guest-blogging for Oxford Centre for Life Writing to celebrate the third biennial Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry. In each posts I have reviewed an event from the Festival, and looked at events which investigate intersections between life-writing and poetry.

Part I: What to do about Dorothy’s Journal 

Dorothy's Journal copyright the Wordsworth Trust

Dorothy’s Journal copyright the Wordsworth Trust

Incest. Plagiarism. Exploitation. Any biographer of William and/or Dorothy Wordsworth is immediately faced with the challenge of these three hugely controversial matters when talking about the nature of the relationship between these two remarkable siblings. At the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry two Wordsworthian heavyweights, Professor Lucy Newlyn and Dr Pamela Woof, both of whom have published biographies of Dorothy Wordsworth in the last year, tackled these fascinating and thorny issues.

First, what to make of the charges of plagiarism and exploitation? The title of the festival is a nod towards the influence of life-writing on poetry: Dorothy Wordsworth herself is best-known not for her poems (of which there are very few), but for that autobiographical Journal which documented the life of the Wordsworths during the early part of their time at Dove Cottage. This place became the crucible for experiments in life-writing by this unusual and inventive brother and sister: William wrote large parts of his major autobiographical poem the Prelude (‘a poem on the growth of a poet’s mind’) and Dorothy penned her now-famous Grasmere Journal.

However, this journal was never written for public consumption: Dorothy wrote that she kept it ‘so that I will not quarrel with myself’ and ‘to give Wm pleasure by it.’ Yet Dorothy was a skilled diarist: she had already kept an account of their life at Alfoxden and would go on to write Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland in 1803, which she hoped would be published. Her wish never came true within her own lifetime; the Wordsworth scholar Ernest De Selincourt remarked that she was ‘the most distinguished of English prose writers who never wrote a line for the general public.’

However the impact of her writing is undeniable, particularly the impact of her journals on her brother’s poetry. The nature of this creative relationship is a fraught topic of literary debate, as William’s poems seem to draw heavily on Dorothy’s diaries for not only descriptions of specific events (seeing daffodils on the shores of Ullswater, travelling through London at sunrise) but even in their use of metaphors, similes, and the emotional response felt by the viewer. But what was the true nature of that creative relationship – did William stifle Dorothy’s creativity? Worse, did he appropriate her words and ideas and publish them under his own name? Did Dorothy subvert her own creativity in order to support her brother?

Lucy and Pamela’s readings of the creative relationship between the siblings are similar, though not identical, but both believe that this relationship has been wilfully and anachronistically misunderstood by biographers. Lucy began by saying ‘history has made Dorothy William’s acolyte’. Not William, not Dorothy, but the critical reception to their writing has interpreted their relationship thus. Both Pamela and Lucy agree that Dorothy was not an ‘adjunct’ to William, that there was no exploitative element to their relationship. Dorothy, Mary and William all read – or at the very least, heard passages from – the journal, and Lucy paints a picture of the three sitting down together in 1804 reminiscing about the walk by Ullswater in 1802, the siblings’ memories aided by the journal in an (albeit imagined) conversation which drew Mary into their shared history. ‘William later attributed the lines ‘They flash upon the inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude’ to his wife, and said of Dorothy ‘she gave me eyes, she gave me ears’, so this collaborative creativity seems to have been genuine, and in part acknowledged.

Secondly – could their relationship be described as incestuous? The dialogue also focused on interpreting one key episode in the Wordsworths’ lives: what happened between Dorothy and William just before his marriage to Mary Hutchinson in 1802. Dorothy’s journal entry of 4 October of that year details her actions and emotions, but this poses an irresistible challenge to biographers, for several lines of the journal are crossed out and cannot easily be read. Theories abound as to who crossed these out, and why – do they, perhaps, contain the suggestion of an incestuous relationship between the siblings? Pamela Woof relates how, in 1958, an early editor of Dorothy’s Journal, Helen Darbishire, took the manuscript to be examined under infra-red light in an attempt to decipher the words hidden beneath the unknown censor’s scrawl. This confirmed that the ink itself dates from the same time as that which Dorothy used to write the original entry, dispelling theories that a later descendent of Wordsworth, the censorious Gordon Graham Wordsworth, excised passages from the Journals in this way. Pamela’s own reading of the lines is not ‘and blessed me fervently’, but the distinctly less passionate ‘as I blessed the ring gently’. Yet Pamela does not deny the strength of feeling between the siblings: ‘Dorothy certainly was in love with William’, but for her the incest ‘myth’ is just that, not a credible theory about the nature of their relationship.

For Lucy the exchange of the wedding ring by William and Dorothy of the morning of the wedding is without doubt ‘an important ritual at a threshold moment.’ She reminds us that sisters were, at that time when unmarried sisters were often supported by their married siblings, central to the wider family dynamic. But for her, too, the incest theory holds no water.

But Dorothy’s life and writing should not only been looked at in relation to her brother – what about the language of those autobiographical writings? Frances Wilson, author of The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (2008) described it thus: ‘Her prose is defined by modesty and reserve, by the fear of what might happen were she to let herself go.’ This is, however, only one possible interpretation. Pamela Woof, quoting Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’, says that one ‘might see, and notice not’ – but that in contrast, Dorothy always notices. What Wilson sees as ‘modesty and reserve’ Pamela sees as acutely reflective, referencing the image of ‘hawthorn on the mountain like orchards in blossom’ as indicative of Dorothy’s passion for nature and ability to respond sensually and creatively to the world around her. Pamela revels in the ‘less concrete images’ from the Journal, images elusive yet present: ‘a hidden bird, ‘a breath of fragrance independent of the wind’, perhaps allowing them to represent Dorothy herself – someone who is present in both the diaries and her brother’s poems, but only as a fleeting, though inspiring, presence.

William Wordsworth – revolutionary or Turdsworth?

So, we’ll start with William Wordsworth. Rivalled only by Robert Burns in terms of international reputation, this British poet has never been far away from adulation – or condemnation. Wordsworth - revolutionary or Turdsworth?

Named Poet Laureate in 1843, Wordsworth has regularly featured in publications like The Nation’s Favourite Poems and his reputation as the doyen of English poetry has been cemented through events like 2004’s mass recital of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (more commonly known as ‘Daffodils’). However, he has also been lampooned as ‘Turdsworth’ by Byron, been the inspiration (?) behind Francis Jeffrey’s infamous ‘This will never do’ review, and mocked by William Hazlitt as ‘the spoiled child of disappointment.’ Seamus Heaney champions him in this rather retro clip from 1974, but today his popularity seems to be on the wane as he missed out on being included in the BBC’s Top Ten of the Nation’s Favourite Poets in 2009 and he’s in the news again as education specialists and the Department of Education debate the value of studying his poetry, with GCSE examiners urging caution.

Whatever you think about the artistic merit of his poetry or the peculiarities of his temperament, Wordsworth caused a seismic shift in the way poetry was read and written through his assertion that poets should ‘choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men’ (Lyrical Ballads). Together with Coleridge he championed the lives and language of ordinary people for the first time in English literature, writing about a child with learning disabilities in ‘The Idiot Boy’ (‘idiot’ then being a medical term rather than a derogatory one) and a poor leech gatherer in ‘Resolution and Independence’. He also eschewed heavily formulaic Latinate language and his rhymes are peppered with a Northern inflection, rhyming ‘waters’ with ‘chatters’. (For a more in depth look at this, have a look at my blog post for OxfordWords.)
There isn’t time to look at more than one Wordsworth poem in this short blog post, or to go into his life story any further (however, the Poetry Foundation have produced a brilliant potted biography of Wordsworth, along with a list of his best-known poetry.) I have chosen my favourite of his poems, his Valedictory Sonnet to the River Duddon, because it is both beautiful and gives hope for humanity:

I THOUGHT of Thee, my partner and my guide,

As being pass’d away.—Vain sympathies!

For, backward, Duddon! as I cast my eyes,

I see what was, and is, and will abide;

Still glides the Stream, and shall for ever glide;

The Form remains, the Function never dies;

While we, the brave, the mighty, and the wise,

We Men, who in our morn of youth defied

The elements, must vanish;—be it so!

Enough, if something from our hands have power

To live, and act, and serve the future hour;

And if, as toward the silent tomb we go,

Through love, through hope, and faith’s transcendent dower,

We feel that we are greater than we know.

The subject of this sonnet is not, as is traditional, a lover – instead it is the River Duddon in Cumbria which draws along the full weight of Wordsworth’s sorrow and his hope. The octave deepens into the battle cry of the final sestet half-way through the ninth line – ‘be it so!’ – which is unusual as it breaks the internal rhythm of the line. However, this volta represents the real power of the sonnet, as Wordsworth moves from the past to the future, calling to the hands of every reader that they might have some power therein to change the world. I do not believe there is a more eloquent call to action in the whole of literature.