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.
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 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: