This week I climbed Loughrigg Fell – twice. First at sunset on a clear day with Jennifer Essex, and again with the poet Matt Bryden in a long shower of rain which occluded much of what we saw in mist. It’s a beautiful fell and a regular walk for Dorothy and William Wordsworth. Dorothy records it several times in her journal. Here are some of her observations:
I went forward round the lake at the foot of Loughrigg Fell. I was much amused with the busyness of a pair of stone-chats; their restless voices as they skimmed along the water, following each other, their shadows under them, and their returning back to the stones on the shore, chirping with the same unwearied voice. Could not cross the water, so I went round by the stepping-stones…
A very fine warm evening. Upon the side of Loughrigg my heart dissolved in what I saw: when I was not startled, but called from my reverie by a noise as of a child paddling without shoes. I looked up, and saw a lamb close to me. It approached nearer and nearer, as if to examine me, and stood a long time. I did not move. At last, it ran past me, and went bleating along the pathway, seeming to be seeking its mother. I saw a hare on the high road…
After tea we rowed down to Loughrigg Fell, visited the white foxglove, gathered wild strawberries, and walked up to view Rydale. We lay a long time looking at the lake; the shores all dim with the scorching sun. The ferns were turning yellow, that is, here and there one was quite turned.
When the sun had got low enough, we went to the Rock Shade. Oh, the overwhelming beauty of the vale below, greener than green! Two ravens flew high, high in the sky, and the sun shone upon their bellies and their wings, long after there was none of his light to be seen but a little space on the top of Loughrigg Fell.
Daylight is precious in Grasmere. Today, for example, the sun will rise at 8:24am and then set at 3:46pm. This gives me seven hours and twenty-two minutes of daylight. Visibility is also quite low, especially today, when this is the view from my front door:
So it’s a good idea to awkwardly unfold and flatten the map by torchlight and plan your adventures. One of the advantages of the shorter days are the Ambleside Christmas lights. Between Kendal, Keswick, Ambleside and Grasmere, the switching on of the Christmas lights are staggered so that with a bit of luck anyone living locally can make each event. They are a cause for celebration, with a lantern procession through Ambleside with children and adults alike carrying aloft various rocketship and star-shaped lanterns through the streets in a festival atmosphere with market stalls, live music, spinning LED pinwheels and light-up swords.
Will Smith, lecturer in Canadian Studies and the poet Polly Atkin took me from Grasmere to Ambleside to the fireworks to soak up the atmosphere. Polly’s academic work is focussed on Dove Cottage and literary geographies, and she has two pamphlets out from Seren with a first collection Basic Nest Architecture in the works from Seren too, which will be – if her two other pamphlets are anything to go by – a stellar outing. As fellow university lecturers and engaged in academic research and creative output, there’s a strong kinship there for the highs and lows of working far from home and those we love, caring for and encouraging and inspiring students and our shared passion for our respective work and our subject.
Over the past few weeks, a question that comes up often from pupils is “What is it like to be a poet?” It’s hard to succinctly articulate the fact that much of it is taken up with crashing between the dimensions – on any given day you will need to be both a project manager, a teacher, a performer, a librarian, a technology whizz-kid, an academic, an accountant and a writer. If we tack on a few extras such as chef, scout leader, medical practitioner, safety expert, laundrette supervisor, detective, needlecraft wizard and driver, we’re probably getting close to the skills required for another key part of the human journey: parenthood.
Fireworks with their bursting lights and ricocheting crackles interrupting the icy-quiet night are analagous to 21st Century living. We get these furious, fire-lit burning moments of vision, love and awe in amongst all attempts to lead a normal life. So today I’m working on a poem on the subject of fireworks. Meanwhile, enjoy some of the sounds.
Also, here’s a quick plug for the Grasmere Players’ new production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ which is on December 15th – 17th at 7:30pm at the Village Hall in Grasmere.
During my seven day absence from the Trust, I decided to write a poem inspired bypantheism. Pantheism was a Christian theology which grew out of the thinking of philosophers such as Burach Spinoza and the Enlightenment. It changed the traditional role of God as simultaneously a divine adjudicator and divinely unknowable and instead took on the pagan view of all things being equivalent to God. Pan – means ‘all’ or ‘everything’ and ‘theos’ means ‘God’. In other words God was immanent and part of all of reality, just as all of reality itself was God.
To investigate the natural world in the name of science was to investigate the sacred. To some within the church this was problematic but throughout the last five hundred years pantheism has had some seriously high profile advocates amongst them:
Giordano Bruno, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Knut Hamsun in Norway as well as Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. This new approach to mankind’s relationship with God meant that as then, just as now, science and Christianity could be less in conflict with one another.
To William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the edict of ‘Let Nature be your Teacher’ meant that the natural world was display element to the vision of the divine. A key requirement however to any form of personal belief system is that it is subjected to due scrutiny prior to it being forced upon anyone else.
And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.
She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless—
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
From The Tables Turned – William Wordsworth
This is thematically picked up in H G Wells’ novel The Invisible Man.
The novel itself is loosely based upon a section of Plato’s The Republic called ‘The Ring of Gyges’. In the story of the Ring of Gyges, much like Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ a sherpherd discovers a mystical ring of power which grants him the power of invisibility.
In the ancient world, and in the absence of such things as thermal imaging, the bearer of the ring was given almost god-like powers.
“…he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result–when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared.
No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market … or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men.”
There is a profound question of ethics of what to do once endowed with the ability to become invisible. There is plenty of conversation on the subject throughout the internet, with many commenting that they would use their new-found power to spy on people which is markedly creepy.
In H G Wells’ novel, the Invisible Man has contrived a recipe to make a human being invisible by adjusting his own ‘refractive index’. In a rash decision, the protagonist, Griffin, tries the concoction on himself. His only confidante is his assistant Kemp. After very little time Griffin’s new circumstances as an invisible man overwhelm his moral sense of self and he thinks too little of robbery and murder.
‘I made a mistake, Kemp, a huge mistake, in carrying this thing through alone. I have wasted strength, time, opportunities. Alone—it is wonderful how little a man can do alone! To rob a little, to hurt a little, and there is the end.’
Unsurprisingly, it’s not long before Kemp, too, loses faith in his friend’s motivations.
“Kemp’s hand went to his moustache. Was that a movement downstairs? ‘And it is killing we must do, Kemp.’ ‘It is killing we must do,’ repeated Kemp. ‘I’m listening to your plan, Griffin, but I’m not agreeing, mind. Why killing?’ ‘Not wanton killing, but a judicious slaying. The point is, they know there is an Invisible Man—as well as we know there is an Invisible Man. And that Invisible Man, Kemp, must now establish a Reign of Terror.’”
This runs counter to the more benevolent Invisible Man to be found in the 1970s series of the same name, in which lead scientist Daniel Westin pulls one over his evil employers the Klae Corporation, who are interested in selling his technology to the military. Westin who is endearingly both romantic and virtuous, then destroys his original lab equipment to prevent it falling into the wrong hands and creates his own private detective agency within the company called ‘The Klae Resource’. In the process he uncovers clandestine plots, frees hostages, and tries not to get caught naked, despite the fact that the clothes he wore in the lab on the day he turned invisible are also invisible – affected by the injection that Westin put… inside… his body.
There are further physical issues with becoming invisible, such as light which enters and interacts with the retina. Your body would be, technically, unable to detect where light was coming from, in addition the lens in our eyes which we rely upon to focus what we see would also no longer function. It would not be long before the invisible man would be either completely nocturnal or entirely blind.
In any case, imagining that it was possible to account for hair growth, sweat, injury, illness, and perhaps with the addition of some specialised goggles, I wrote a new version of the Invisible Man, in which our scientist protagonist, rather than go mad, is drawn to carry on life as best he can, while taking advantage of a few of the nicer things involved with being a living god, or the embodiment of god in all things…
The Invisible Man Returns Again!
Having made him a cape from an old cushion cover, I took Nicholas my cousin’s kid, and flew him like Superman all the way to the newsagents, where he moved a Dime bar, two double AA batteries and a copy of the Times with his mind.
And once, in the De Luxe Casino, my aunt who’d lost her husband to a drunk driver, bet the month’s mortgage on red 12 and mysteriously won.
And before now, I’ve stroked a sleeping cheetah and felt her purr like the riffle shuffle of cards, a sound which still haunts me.
Sleeping in first class, I’d forgotten how transparent I’d become, and the floating headphones you might have seen online were mine, but I flew without food all the way to Auckland. Everything I drive or row looks remote-controlled, so it pays to have a few wires or old CD player parts handy.
I put pressure on myself to read the classics, come up with answers in graveyards to impossible questions. I stopped by a church once, but had to leave early, when I coughed and coughed amongst a group of mourners. After a round of denials, I found myself explaining how I came to be invisible which understandably nobody believed.
And in a way I was glad that the Pope visited the town a few months later, to kiss where I’d stood in my trainers. Accidents happen, as they say, but I was glad that this one brought everyone together.
I spend much of my time on what is and what isn’t. Apprenticing to a magician, I was struck on the ankle, off-guard, followed by a blow to the eye when I hadn’t seen in the stage lights the twist of an aluminium hoop.
So here I am now out of sorts, photobombing tourists, pretending I am the wind, or the voice of inner thoughts; sometimes I think of myself as kind of luck, from time to time a dog will bound up to me to lick the air of my hands as their concerned owner looks through me, which is when, more or less, I have to disappear.
The visit to Sweden was to take part in a collaborative poetry project called Enemies or ‘Fiender’ in Swedish. The concept is that two poets are paired up across languages and told to produce a piece of poetry collaboratively. My partner would be the poet Jonas Groen. Jonas has just released his second book of poems ‘Anthropocene’ – so named because mankind has so profoundly altered the surface of the planet, that many believe that we’ve entered a new geological era of our own making.
His poetry chimes with my own on themes of the ecological, and there’s a playfulness to his lines which have, rather than punctuation, added space which makes the eye hesitate between the words:
Animals From the depths of aeons Here
All I hear is rain and cars
You can’t help pausing between the lines too, the rhyming ‘Here’ and ‘hear’ which keeps us in the same position of considering the aeons and simultaneously being out in the rain, listening to the cars. For my money there’s also an echo of military cadences in the repetition. In army work songs, or ‘military cadences’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_cadence) men are encouraged to ‘Sound off’ in the style of a register, the typical response being ‘Here’. This is also commented upon in the popular science fiction show Battlestar Galactica in which a military greeting is, “What do you hear?” and the response, “Nothing but the rain.”
So came time to pack my bag. As you can see Wordsworth himself managed to slightly screw up the label on the inside, putting the H of ‘WORDSWORTH’ up slightly higher than the rest of his name…
First I had to select a suitcase which would broadly be about the same dimensions and age as Wordsworth’s portmanteau. Admittedly, I don’t have much that might fit the bill, however, one of the items rescued from my grandmother’s things before she passed away was an old suitcase.
When packing, Wordsworth said that all that you needed for a month was:
1 spare day shirt 1 spare night shirt 1 spare pair of socks 1 notepad 1 pencil
There seem to be a couple of missing items, namely a pair of trousers and some suitable shoes and/or boots and a pencil sharpener.
In general I would say the experiment was largely successful. I added in a scarf on the basis that I asked my friend’s cat, Komette, if one was needed and she agreed. Also there are other things a poet needs, a wash kit, some gloves, and it’s also helpful to have some reading material, preferably from the host country and a guide to the city, a dictionary and a phrasebook.
Wordsworth also used to take his passport with him, which was rather a different kind of affair to the biometric, RFID-ed modern UK equivalents.
On the front of this document it includes a general description of Wordsworth’s appearance which sounds painfully matter of fact:
I’m not sure what a ‘medium’ nose is, but it does make you think: did they have a nose chart? It’s reassuring that even then passport ‘photographs’ were a source of embarrassment.
This week I visited Belle Vue Primary School in Carlisle and together we responded to Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Rainbow’, or ‘My Heart Leaps Up’. Dorothy wrote on Friday 26 March 1802, ‘While I was getting into bed [William] wrote the Rainbow.’ Both of them had been walking through White Moss, possibly on the way to Ambleside and Wordsworth had been struggling to finish another poem, Silver How, and instead this short poem appears to have arrived quickly and organically.
‘My Heart Leaps Up’
My heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky: So was it when my life began; So is it now I am a man; So be it when I shall grow old, Or let me die! The Child is the father of the Man; And I could wish my days to be Bound each to each by natural piety.
The route to White Moss would have probably been along the same path which leads from Dove Cottage to Ambleside, where Dorothy Wordsworth often walked to collect the post. After nightfall, I took Jennifer Essex with me and retraced their steps…
Fred Blick picks this up in his essay on the subject. In the poem Wordsworth pushes us through the present, the past and the future. When I arrived at Belle Vue, the pupils were working on tenses, and this raised the question of if we were to send a poem into the future, what would we put in it that would serve both as souvenir of our time on Earth now, and what we hope for the time when we grow up? Quickly humans with superpowers took hold, and the desire for time travelling cars, invisibility or winning a golden football boot all had their place in the poems.
Here’s Wordsworth’s original poem, and below, a playlist of our responses:
This week on the One Show, Arthur Smith travelled to Ullswater to re-create the boat-stealing episode from Wordsworth’s autobiographical epic, ‘The Prelude’. The story goes that Wordsworth aged around 10 years old sneaks out to the water’s edge one evening, his stomach tingling with butterflies. Where he finds, “A little boat tied to a willow tree / Within a rocky cove, its usual home.”
The young Wordsworth resolves to steal the boat and to row it steadily across Lake Windermere. The lake is calm and still, and he dips his oars into the clear, moon-reflecting water.
Straight I unloosed [the skiff’s] chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light.
It is one of English literature’s most famous scenes. The visually arresting description of the lake, the round moon’s reflection turning to bootlaces as his oars enter the water. The silent power of Nature’s beauty quickly transforms Wordsworth’s initial awe at the size of a mountain’s shadow in the dark, with its broad silhouetted shoulders and bristling trees, into fear, as, in his young mind, he perceives the mountain’s shape as the embodiment of both a supernatural, parental power, and that of his better conscience. He gives a sense of scale, of the young boy he was, so small in comparison to the enormous – the overpoweringly enormous – size of the mountain:
a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head.
Here the shape – part-real, part-imagined – blots out the light from the stars, and appears to have a “purpose of its own, / And measured motion like a living thing.” For the Romantics this moment in the poem is an expression of the sublime; of beauty and terror becoming intermingled – a particular note on the scale of human sensations which was enormously fashionable and the Zoella’s recommendation of its day. This gave rise to expeditions to sublime hotspots around Europe including Fingal’s Cave where visitors, including Wordsworth himself, could experience the sublime in relative safety. Long after the Prelude was completed, Wordsworth made his visit and although disappointed by the “motley” crowds, he was once again over-awed by the scale of the place, saying that by “flashing to that structure’s topmost height, / Ocean has proved its strength.” (from Staffa the Island).
In The Prelude, the guilt of stealing the boat catches up with the young Wordsworth, and the whole incident of being pursued by the mountain Wordsworth takes as an object lesson in behaviour – the moral of the story is simple, don’t steal boats, but it comes from an encounter with the fantastical – the mountain that came alive.
That spectacle, for many days, my brain Worked with a dim and undetermined sense Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts There hung a darkness, call it solitude Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes Remained, no pleasant images of trees, Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields; But huge and mighty forms, that do not live Like living men, moved slowly through the mind By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.
Today I travelled to St Bees Village School to visit Year 6, to see if we couldn’t come up with some of our own boat adventures. The idea was to create an adventure of an entirely different kind. The fantastical elements would still be there, but rather than going out and stealing a boat, and being taught rather overtly, a moral lesson, we made some recipes instead. A recipe for a boat adventure.
The question we started with was quite simple: for our boat adventure what would we need in terms of ingredients? Very quickly we re-entered the realm of the fantastical. There were plenty of excellent young poets who felt that because there were no limitations whatsoever, why not have a cauldron that specifically melts other cauldrons? This is why, it could be argued, that including Mum on the trip specifically ‘so Mum can do the cooking’ is probably very wise, although there are plenty of other things that we agreed that Mum would also be good at if Dad did the cooking. Good idea. Or… or… can we have a book the size of Mars? And another important question, can I fit a mansion on a boat? Impressively smart and imaginative, St Bees Year 6 follow the saying of Robert Kennedy: “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
Here are some of their excellent offerings, ingredients first, followed by *methods…
*There was a certain amount of confusion surrounding how WiFi works, which became a strangely beautiful experimental motif…