The Site of the Evening Star

One of Wordsworth’s most famous poems, ‘Michael’ opens with a set of directions:

“If from the public way you turn your steps
Up the tumultuous brook of Greenhead Ghyll,
You will suppose that with an upright path
Your feet must struggle; in such bold ascent
The pastoral mountains front you, face to face.
But, courage!”


So today’s challenge: what happens if we follow these instructions?


To give us a proper bearing, a Romantic poet could have carried one of these…


A chronometer
…a fairly bulky travelling chronometer. This will give you a decent latitude and longitude reading. All the internet can tell me is that we’re headed for 54.49 latitude -2.99 longitude…




Tumultuous rating: 3    |   Reading Michael along Greenhead Gill, outside, in a light-breeze kind of tumult.


‘Michael – A Pastoral Poem’ was not in the original volume of the Lyrical Ballads from 1798, but was introduced into the back of the 1800 edition. The poem is a kind of prodigal son story in which the eponymous Michael, a shepherd and his wife, Isabel have made their home in a small, idyllic hillside cottage called ‘Evening Star’. They’ve fallen on hard times and Michael owes a debt he cannot repay. Although he is loathe to do so, he asks his son Luke to go to the city to work for a merchant and make some money. Luke can then come back, bail the family out, and take up the shepherd’s crook and cloak and continue the family farming tradition…


“Of remedies and of a cheerful hope.
Our Luke shall leave us, Isabel; the land
Shall not go from us, and it shall be free;
He shall possess it, free as is the wind
That passes over it.”




Inside the Wordsworth Museum there is a re-creation and a small layout to give you a sense of what Michael’s life might have been like: 


Tumultuous rating: 0   |    A diagram of future tumult


But [spoiler alert] the poem then takes a darker turn as Luke leaves for the great city, then loses it all, and Michael and his wife, ruined, die. The cottage falls into disrepair and is swept away, and all that remains are a few ‘unhewn’ stones and an oak tree beside a tumultuous brook. In today’s climate of food banks and austerity measures, the theme of ‘Michael’  strikes a familiar chord.


In a letter to leader of the Whigs (the equivalent to the Liberal Democrats) Charles James Fox in 1801, Wordsworth explains some of his reasoning:


It appears to me that the most calamitous effect which has followed the measures which have lately been pursued in this country, is, a rapid decay of the domestic affections among the lower orders of society. This effect the present rulers of this country are not conscious of, or they disregard it. For many years past, the tendency of society, amongst almost all the nations of Europe, has been to produce it ; but recently, by the spreading of manufactures through every part of the country, by the heavy taxes upon postage, by workhouses, houses of industry, and the invention of soup-shops, &c., super-added to the increasing disproportion between the price of labour and that of the necessaries of life, the bonds of domestic feeling among the poor, as far as the influence of these things has extended, have been weakened, and in innumerable instances entirely destroyed.





Tumultuous rating: 5   |    Not crashing water, but the prospect of it.


In the process of composition, on the morning of the 11th October 1800, Dorothy and William Wordsworth set off in search of Greenhead Gill, the very real place of the poem’s setting. Dorothy describes it in her journal as “a fine October morning”.


Find ‘the public way’. Today the public way is probably the A591 leading out of Grasmere. Next, ‘turn your steps’ to head ‘Up the tumultuous brook of Greenhead Ghyll’.


On the corner of the A591 there’s a pub, a payphone and a postbox which mark the turn…



Tumultuous rating: 4   |    A man smooths his eyebrows, another rests his pint of beer, the sound of finished work being pulled up.


At the end of a pristine tarmac driveway, there is the beautifully clear Greenhead Gill tumbling over the rocks. The view, the sound, the isolation, the breath of the air is elemental, meditative… From that same instinct of ‘Wherever I lay my head is home’ there is a kind of physical tuning in.


“But soon as Luke, full ten years old, could stand
Against the mountain blasts; and to the heights,
Not fearing toil, nor length of weary ways,
He with his Father daily went, and they
Were as companions, why should I relate
That objects which the Shepherd loved before
Were dearer now? that from the Boy there came
Feelings and emanations—things which were
Light to the sun and music to the wind;”



You quickly get a richer understanding of the effect, bodily, of being in such close contact with this landscape, reaching with the tips of your fingers for a handhold in the part-scarlet bracken which comes away, more fragile than you’d imagined.

Through the gate…



Tumultuous rating: 8   |    Far off water becoming its own descendant.



“For, as it chanced,
Their cottage on a plot of rising ground
Stood single, with large prospect, north and south,
High into Easedale, up to Dunmail-Raise,
And westward to the village near the lake;
And from this constant light, so regular
And so far seen, the House itself, by all
Who dwelt within the limits of the vale,
Both old and young, was named The Evening Star.”



…and open up Google Maps…




‘Re-centre-ing’ is not much help when your immediate area is a monochrome green. Time to head back to the poem for a bit of Wordsworthian SatNav advice… “The pastoral mountains front you, face to face…”



Tumultuous rating: 9   |    Loud enough to overpower the sound of a doorbell, the bark of a dog, or the slam of a book.


“Of an unusual strength; his mind was keen
Intense and frugal, apt for all affairs,”



Tumultuous rating: 10   |    A car backfires, you hear nothing. A tornado jet crosses the valley, you keep climbing.


The sound of Greenhead Gill:



“Near the tumultuous brook of Greenhead Ghyll,
In that deep valley, Michael had designed
To build a Sheepfold; and, before he heard
The tidings of his melancholy loss,
For this same purpose he had gathered up
A heap of stones, which by the streamlet’s edge
Lay thrown together, ready for the work.”



As you head upward, you unlock a rusty gate which lets out a chewed confession of its age and at a ledge you come to a bit of a dead end…


Tumultuous rating: 9   |    From under the bridge a bird darts through, the water tongues its falling echoes.


You abandon the path, hold low branches, each as thick as a piece of chalk, and where it glazes, clamber across the rush, and then into a steep climb, mud, dark mud, black mud, and on it sheep wool, a tuft. You may not be able to get back down, so you watch for the split in the cloud for the sun, if it winks out behind the opposite peak, that’s it, all dark, just your phone and torch and wherewithal to get you home. It may be necessary to memorise the shapes of trees, their crowns, whether the nests look lived in. 


“Fields, where with cheerful spirits he had breathed
The common air; hills, which with vigorous step
He had so often climbed; which had impressed
So many incidents upon his mind
Of hardship, skill or courage, joy or fear;”



Then, ahead, you see this picnicker, someone’s dog perhaps, imagine the clack clack of tupperware, or the slow ‘haltch’ of someone biting into an apple…



Tumultuous rating: 2   |    Something in your pillow beating, or your heart, or the heating.


Then, suddenly, suddenly, suddenly, suddenly, in the face of the hill… it was as if the hill had been struck by the spade of a colossus…



Tumultuous rating: 3   |    An empty suburban row of houses, the question of a bicycle, the answer, instead, of the postman pushing her red, reflectored trolley.


And, then at last, turning around:



“…he learned the meaning of all winds,
Of blasts of every tone; and, oftentimes,
When others heeded not, he heard the South
Make subterraneous music, like the noise
Of bagpipers on distant Highland hills.
The Shepherd, at such warning, of his flock
Bethought him, and he to himself would say,
‘The winds are now devising work for me!’
And, truly, at all times, the storm, that drives
The traveller to a shelter, summoned him
Up to the mountains: he had been alone
Amid the heart of many thousand mists,
That came to him, and left him, on the heights.”


This is the sound of where Michael might have lived, the site of their cottage, the site of The Evening Star:



Extract from William Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’ from Harry Man on Vimeo.



Noun Then

To kick us off, today, I’ve been looking at oulipo. Both radical and experimental, it would seem to fit with Wordsworth’s ideals as set out in his preface to the Lyrical Ballads. These poems, Wordsworth said, “are to be considered experiments.”

(Georges Perec: Source)

OuLiPo stands for “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle”, which translates loosely as, “The opening up of potential literature”. There’s also a bit of nuance there, and you could just as easily read it as the opening of “literary possibilities”. As such it seems like the right point to start from – a place where anything is possible.


Oulipo was founded in November 1960 by a group of writers, artists and mathematicians including Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Marcel Duchamp (famous for ‘Fountain’ – a urinal which he called his own art and displayed publicly in France in 1917) and François Le Lionnais. 

The founders of OuLiPo created poems which would take 200 million years to read end to end, and a detective novel which contained no letter ‘e’ in all of its 325 pages. The group were profoundly interested in breaking the surface of the language and to question language as a means to convey imagined experience. Simultaneously they wanted to show that literary invention could stem from self-imposed constraints as much as from the more traditional view – the inspired artist.


Raymond Queneau's Cent mille milliards de poèmes or 'Hundred Thousand Billion Poems' comprising 11 sonnets, with each line cut horizontally, making them interchangeable. When asked how long it might take to read he said, "Maybe 200 million years."
Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes or ‘Hundred Thousand Billion Poems’ comprising 11 sonnets, with each line cut horizontally, making them interchangeable. When asked how long it might take to read every possible sonnet he said, “Maybe 200 million years.”


In the 1800 edition of the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth speaks of the need to use the language of “conversation” and that readers expecting conventional poetry might “frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness” in order to enjoy the poems. In OuLiPo a favourite technique was “S + 7” (also called ’N + 7’) in which poets used existing, well-known texts and replaced every noun with another noun found seven places further along in the dictionary.

Using one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems which begins, ‘I wandered lonely as a Cloud’ I fed the 1815 version of the poem into an N+7 machine I found online…



Highlights of potential opening lines included:



I wandered lonely as a Cloudburst



I wandered lonely as a Clove



I wandered lonely as a Clubhouse





I wandered lonely as a Coachman


Wordsworth first published the poem in 1804, before revising it in 1815. Here’s the second, the 1815 version in its entirety.



I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden Daffodils;
Beside the Lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:-
A Poet could not but be gay
In such a jocund company:
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.





There’s a neat structural trick in ‘Daffodils’. Wordsworth plays with the idea of how much the experience of seeing daffodils is worth. The daffodils are ‘golden’ and from the exhilaration of seeing them for the first time, there is a lasting ‘wealth’. This we are told relatively directly, but the poem allows us the same experience. We arrive on the daffodils as they ‘flash upon that inward eye’ of the imagination, and are drawn back to Ullswater, to the sudden shock, against a grey sky of a bold, flash of yellow colour, to the consideration of the flowering of daffodils as ephemeral, as being like our own lives; short-lived and transient in comparison to the greater passage of time, for example says Wordsworth, think of the stars of the Milky Way.




Even as we consider these ideas, we are also thinking of daffodils, which, as the poem has told are a kind of bliss. The meditation which might otherwise be a daunting and melancholic ride comes with a kind of safety harness. We can experience feelings of existential crisis, but it’s okay, there is plenty of beauty to be found in thinking about how quickly our own lives will pass, and better still, the idea of thinking about how short our own lives are is something that is blissful to do. For me this cosmic consideration of mortality fused with the more humble experience of seeing daffodils is where the poem’s ambition lies, and that’s almost certainly part of the reason why ‘Daffodils’ is still so loved today.


Meanwhile, I’ve been plugging away, and by hand, working through my oulipo constraint of N+ something… I have been using a portable electronic Concise Oxford English Dictionary, which I have in my room, and at around N + 20 I have come up with my replacement nouns. I have taken a couple of liberties here and there by exchanging verbs too, largely because the resulting poem isn’t too serious. The daffodils of existential contemplation have been thus transmogrified from ‘dancing’ into ‘dandruffing’ and our ‘wandering’ to ‘waterskiing’…



“I water-skied lonely as a clownfish”





I water-skied lonely as a clownfish
That flusters on hijackings o’er vanishing creams and hindsight,
When all at once I saxophoned to a crow’s nest,
A hot air balloon of golden daisy chains;
Beside the lollapalooza, beneath the tree of life,
Flyfishing and dandruffing in the bric-a-brac.

Continuous as the stars that show-and-tell
And two-step on the Milky Way,
They were strewn in newly-wed lingua franca
Along the marinated beachfront:
Ten thousand I saxophoned at a glassworks,
Tractor-beaming their headings in sprightly dandruff.

The waxed jackets beside them dandruffed; but they
Outperformed the spawning waxed jackets in glissandos:
A point-of-departure could be nothing but geeky
In such a johnny-come-lately compatability:
I gelatinized—and—gelatinized but little thought-transference
On what weather stations the shutdown to me had built-in:

For oft, when on my local councillor I lie
When vacuuming or pensive moonwalking,
They flight simulator upon that inward eyeshot
Which is the blockbuster of soluble antibodies;
And then my heat-exchanger with plesiosaurs fills,
And dandruffs with the daisy chains.






So, how was it done? As well as looking more directly at nouns, I also looked at verbs, and perhaps unsurprisingly there are a lot of nouns in the English language that can be easily converted into verbs, think of the ‘padlocked’ shed or when someone ‘radioed’ for help. The challenge then is to stick fairly meticulously to the verb + 20 verb-positions along in the dictionary. I flexed the rules here and there to be slightly safer to use in a classroom, let’s just say ‘saxophoned’ is a safer alternative and leave it at that.


My portable Concise Oxford English Dictionary – found underneath some hardback books in a charity shop in Tooting. Sadly no instructions are available in English, so until such a time as I learn to read Simplified Chinese, the meaning of the buttons along the top of this lovely little device will remain a mystery.