A Poet’s Guide to the Lake District

Travel via reading! Here is a poet’s guide to the Lake District, which originally appeared in the Spectator Life.

To wander ‘lonely as a cloud’ like William Wordsworth you must visit Ullswater in the Lake District, where the poem is set. Visit almost anywhere in the Lake District, in fact, and you will soon find yourself floating through Wordsworth territory – or perhaps even the territory of other poets besides. 

Wordsworth felt very passionately about the area. He was born at Cockermouth near the Lake District in 1770 and after years spent studying at Cambridge and abroad settled at Grasmere with his sister Dorothy.

At Town-End in Grasmere he wrote his Ode ‘Intimations of Immortality’ in which ‘the sunshine is a glorious birth’ and ‘Land and sea give themselves up to jollity.’ In ‘It was an April Morning,’ the banks of the brook that go through Easedale ‘ran with a young man’s speed’. No surprise that ‘soon did the spot become my other home.’ Clearly such natural beauty cannot be resisted and is perfect for transposing on to the page.

A great number of Wordsworth’s poems evoke the beauty of readily recognisable locations. ‘Lines Left Upon a Seat in a Yew Tree,’ for instance, as Wordsworth himself wrote, is set ‘near the Lake of Esthwaite,’ where ‘gloomy boughs had charms.’ It was the magical quality of this place that he wanted to capture in his work more broadly. 

For a time, Wordsworth was even better known for his ‘Guide to the Lakes’ (first published in 1810 and reissued in several different editions) than he was for his poetry. He described the Lake District in this guide as ‘a sort of national property,’ in reaction to the unwelcome changes that were occurring in the landscape. He hoped that his book would encourage ‘habits of more exact and considerate observation than, as far as the writer knows, have hitherto been applied to local scenery.’ He was evidently anxious to protect ‘that intermixture of delicious hues’, so unique to the Lake District, as described in his poem ‘To Joanna.’  

We learn a lot about the Lake District from Wordsworth’s poems: the way a cliff on the landscape ‘seems to send its own deep quiet to restore our hearts,’ as it does in ‘There is an Eminence,’ which records the scene from Grasmere Lake towards Keswick. The image from a mound in front of his abode at Rydal made him observe, ‘No sound is uttered, – but a deep and solemn harmony pervades the hollow vale from steep to steep,’ in ‘Ode, Composed upon an Evening of Extraordinary Splendour and Beauty,’ an apt title and neat summary, perhaps, of his attitude to the place as a whole. 

As Wordsworth wrote of the Lake District’s silence, Letitia Elizabeth Landon celebrated its unique sounds, ‘The sound of shout and music comes from the boats behind; And tin’ peal of youthful laughter makes glad the summer wind.’ Landon, or L.E.L. as she was known, died two months after relocating to the Cape Coast with her husband.   

Coleridge was drawn to the Lake District by Wordsworth and was joined later by poet Robert Southey. In 1800 he moved to Greta Hall in Keswick, which was beautiful, but his time here was coloured by his worsening addiction to opium. He started taking Kendal Black Drop, a type of opiate, which made his health deteriorate. 

Many of Coleridge’s observations of the Lake District went into a notebook during a nine-day walking holiday in the fells (‘I went directly cross it-upon soft mossy Ground, with many a hop, skip, & jump,’ says one).  He is purportedly the first to record his descent from Scafell to Mickledore, although his success in completing this may be due more to the fact that he got lost, rather than his enthusiasm for the outdoors.

Robert Southey might be the unsung hero of the Lake Poets. Born in 1774, he moved to the Lake District in 1803 and lived there for 40 years. He was the Poet Laureate for 30 years, holding the post just before Wordsworth. His poem ‘The Cataract of Lodore’ provides a lively picture of the Lodore Falls on the Watendlath. He tracks the water’s movement for his children: ‘Collecting, projecting, receding and speeding, and shocking and rocking and darting and parting.’ 

There are many attractions in the poets’ Lake District that can still be enjoyed today. In addition to the landscape, look round the Wordsworth House and Garden in Cockermouth owned by the National Trust; and, from Spring 2020, visit Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum which is undergoing renovations this year. We can only hope that Wordsworth would approve of the changes. 

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