And their EAST ANGLIAN CONNEXIONS
Firstly may I remark on the felicity of the name Wordsworth for one of our finest poets? What could be a more appropriate surname? It was William Wordsworth who went on to the most elevated career, but his siblings were also people of great intellectual attainments. We now know of his sister Dorothy’s acute observation and marvellous way with words from her journals, published long after her death. What are less well-known are the highly technical writings of their youngest brother Christopher, who became the Master of Trinity College Cambridge. One of his early works concerned the use of the definite article in the Greek of the New Testament – not the most endearing of subjects!
But what, I hear you ask, has all this to do with Norfolk? Surely the Wordsworths, William and Dorothy, were the writers who first discovered the beauties of the Lake District? Before their time mountains were regarded as wild and frightening places. While it is certainly true that we are right to associate the Wordsworths with their native Lake District, nevertheless in their early adulthood Norfolk played a small but significant part in the development of their careers.
The Wordsworths were all born in Cockermouth, Cumberland (since 1974 called Cumbria). They were orphaned at an early age and Dorothy was sent to live with her mother’s cousin in Halifax, Yorkshire. A welcome relief from this dour life came when she was sent to live with her uncle who was Rector of Forncett St Peter. It was in this Norfolk village that she first bloomed, spending her days doing good works and evangelising the local populace. This devotion to ecclesiastical affairs did not survive her living with her brother in Dove Cottage. William Wordsworth was a follower of Rousseau and although he was, like Rousseau, a believer, he was not as a young man at least an observant Christian. Throughout her Lake District journal Dorothy does not mention their going to church once. They were usually lying in bed while others were going to morning service.
While she was still living at the Rectory in Norfolk her brother William was an undergraduate at St John’s College, Cambridge. During the long vacation of 1790 he came to stay in Forncett. This South Norfolk village became a busy railway station on the London mainline fifty years later, but in the 18th century it lay just off the main road from Ipswich to Norwich and was quite remote.
The Wordsworths, brother and sister, moved away to Dorset and then Somerset to be near Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and finally to Dove Cottage in Grasmere. The Norfolk connections of the Wordsworth family do not end with the removal of Dorothy however. Their youngest brother Christopher followed William to Cambridge and while an undergraduate he became acquainted with the son of the Bishop of Norwich. In 1804 when Christopher had been ordained he was given his first living in the parish of Ashby with Oby and Thurne in the Flegg district of Norfolk. He did not remain long however, because the following year his patron was made Archbishop of Canterbury and Christopher Wordsworth was given a preferment in Kent.
Other members of the family went on to high office in both church and academic life. Elizabeth Wordsworth, the Master of Trinity’s granddaughter, became the first Principal of Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford in 1878. One of Christopher Wordsworth’s son’s, also called Christoher, was headmaster of Harrow for eight years and was appointed bishop of Lincoln in 1869. The family also produced a number of notable athletes.
We get a good idea of the life that William Wordsworth was living at the most productive time of his life in Grasmere. It was a mixture of country walks and literary activity. Dorothy and William were comfortably off but not attended by a raft of servants, as was normal in those days. Molly Ashburner was a neighbour and she acted as housemaid; she went to hire a horse for a visitor, did the washing and cleaned the rooms in Dove Cottage, but she did not live in. The brother and sister did not rely on Molly entirely and were occupied by the ordinary daily tasks like chopping wood (William) or starching linen and baking bread (Dorothy), but this housework did not take over their lives. There was plenty of time to read in both German and English. Dorothy mentions many writers that the two of them read; as a taster I will mention Chaucer and James Boswell. They were also both engaged in writing of course.
They were living deep in a remote part of England, but this did not mean they were removed from the intellectual centre of the country. The writing and receiving of letters was an essential part of their daily lives; in the days before train travel and the telephone this was the way people communicated. Letter writing was still an important part of life when I was a boy; it is now a lost art. Back in 1800 to live two hundred miles from your correspondent was almost the same as living twenty miles away; either was too far for personal contact, but even before the Penny Post was introduced the postal service was efficient, if expensive. Today, although artists may still make their home away from the capital, I rather think that a modern-day Wordsworth would be compelled to live in London, though this would of course destroy his muse.
As a final East Anglian connection with the poet I should mention his friendship with the local barrister, Henry Crabb Robinson. Robinson was born in Bury St Edmunds, and although he made his acquaintance with Wordsworth in London, he did much of his early legal work in East Anglia. Wordsworth made his second visit to Italy with Crabb Robinson in 1837. Wordsworth had written some poetry on his first visit, and although he wrote nothing on this later trip, we have a record of the journey in the journals of Henry Crabb Robinson.
I have referred to Wordsworth as one of the finest of English poets, and I should perhaps expand on my view of his verse. The best known of his poems is Daffodils, and with others like The Cuckoo it takes an element of nature and elevates it into art. Today the sentiments these poems express seem rather trite, but when they were first published they expressed a new and exciting view of the world. It is not these poems that earn my admiration however, but the longer and more philosophical works in blank verse such as The Prelude. In such works he still comes over as one of the greatest writers in English.