Posts Tagged ‘Coleridge’

grasmerePicture postcard Grasmere. Just a thirty minute drive, yet a world away from the Lake District I know, from the sublime beauty of the Wordsworths and Coleridge, and Southey. No, not in Grasmere, Lewis. The poets would not recognize themselves there any more.

In truth, I dislike the place immensely, dislike the moneyed incomers, the second homers, and the beleaguered locals equally, having found the latter in the past to be universally unfriendly, and paradoxically at war with us, the day-tourists who provide their living. Never been to Grasmere, Lewis? Take my advice and beware, the carparks have installed credit-card readers now, because no one carries that much coinage any more! Your secret camera reads our number as we drive on, and sends the fine directly to our address if we drive off again without paying.

So, it’s true, Lewis. You really do know where we live?

However, by way of protection, I possess something you do not: – a little local knowledge. There’s a long lay-by out on the main road, up to King Dunmail’s rise. I’m early enough to squeeze the Volvo in there for free. What was it Rebecca said? Nowadays all we have to go on are our wits? And small victories, in the face of overwhelming odds, mean a lot.

It’s begun to rain. Golfing-brolly aloft, I walk the mile back into the village. Woodsmoke forms a cap upon the vale, the leaden clouds a higher cap, cutting off the fells at a few hundred feet. The air is cool, a Lakeland summer maturing. I buy gingerbread, then repair to the churchyard to pay my respects. This is the tourist thing, you understand.

Now, just a moment, let me see:

Wordsworth, William; 1770-1850. Mary (wife), and Dorothy (sister), muses in their different ways. And Sara, third muse, Mary’s sister – beloved of STC. His children are here too, also Hartley, son of Coleridge. Old stories, Lewis, his best work done in his twenties, an age I can barely remember now, then a long life of contemplation, and one tragedy after another.

Is that where I am now? Surely, I am worth one last flourish!

American tourists are photographing shyly, as if they fear it might be a sin, or there’s a charge, because for everything else in our Buiscuit-tin-Lake-Wonderland, save the air we breathe, there is either a charge for it, or a notice to forbid it. I intuit they’ve already been told off for pointing their cameras in the hallowed halls of the Wordswortharium. They see me looking, so I smile to separate myself from the shadow of sour-faced officialdom.

The wide old gentleman, and his blonded dame sidle over, ask if I will photograph them together, St Oswald’s church in the background, then ask the way to Rydal Mount. I’m glad to oblige. I never fail to be charmed by the graciousness of Americans when abroad, and wonder how they can be so genteel, yet carry guns at home in case of argument. Forgive me, I’m generalizing, I know. I offer them a nibble of my gingerbread, and they accept.

It seems at least I have a face that people trust.

Story of my life, Lewis. Myths, remember? Half truths. Imaginings.

[Lifted entirely out of context from my novel “By fall of night “]

Read Full Post »

journals-of-dorothy-wordsworthDorothy was the sister of William Wordsworth, also friend to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Though a diarist, and poet in her own right, she never sought publication and it was only in 1897, some forty years or so after her death, her earliest hand-written journals were taken up and printed by the historian William Knight.

They concern just two months of the year 1798, spent at Alfoxden, when Dorothy was 27. We also have 1800 to 1803 at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, though of the latter, only 1802 is complete. The Helen Darbishire version takes another look at the handwritten originals for the Dove Cottage years. For Alfoxden, the William Knight version is the only academic source now, Knight having ‘mislaid’ the original. She kept other journals – accounts of travel in Scotland and Europe, but these are not included here.

What’s striking is the diaries are either neutral in their bearing or wholly positive of the persons mentioned in them. We must therefore assume Dorothy was, to a degree, self-censoring, and this is fair enough, especially since it’s known she wrote with the expectation that at least her brother would be reading them – and no one is that magnanimous if a journal is guaranteed its privacy. In short, there is nothing here for the muck-raker, not even in that much psychoanalysed pre-wedding scene of June 1802.

But let’s go back to 1798. This was a significant year, marking the collaboration of William Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the publication of their “Lyrical Ballads”, a book that kicked off the English Romantic movement. The preface, written by Wordsworth, can be read as a manifesto of the movement’s aims and, for anyone who wants to know what English Romanticism is, or was, this is still the best place to start.

Then we have the early years in Grasmere, this period marking several revisions of the Lyrical Ballads. But Dorothy’s presence at the birth of English Romanticism is more significant than that, though in ways not always easy to get at. For a start, it seems rather a small slice of a life, just fragments of three and a bit years. So what is it about Dorothy’s jottings that’s kept them in print all this time? Is it simply that she was the sibling of a famous poet, is it prurient interest in the nature of their relationship, or do we glimpse something special in Dorothy herself?

Though I admire the Lake Poets, I find them difficult. Dorothy on the other hand is immediately accessible, her journals capturing with great brevity the most colourful pictures of her life and of the natural world. She was, in a sense, the mind-camera for William and Coleridge, who used her diary as a reference, the result being you will find echoes of Dorothy’s words, and the scenes she captured, in their work. She was also, in a sense, the embodiment of everything the Romantic movement was trying to get at – something profound in its simplicity, in plainness of language, and purity of feeling.

I plead ignorance of Alfoxden, but I do know the area around Grasmere, a village now so overlaid with an impenetrable veneer of chocolate-box tourism and dotted with the weekend residences of city-gazillionaires, it’s impossible to imagine any sort of authentic life being lived there at all. If we want to know what that place contributed to the Romantic movement, two centuries ago, we turn to the Lake poets, but if we want to flip through the stunningly vivid mind-pictures of life in the Lakes back then, and rub shoulders with its characters, then we read Dorothy’s journals. And in them we discover all is not lost, that if we can get away from the honey-pots, and beyond the fell gates, it’s still possible to see and feel the world as she did.

Much of the charm of these journals lies in their capture of nature; of the land and the weather and the creatures great and small, also a sense of the people in the landscape, moving upon it more intimately than we do now, and mostly, of course, on foot. The lack of petty tittle-tattle, though marked, does not diminish their interest. There is also great pleasure to be had from comparing Dorothy’s seasons in that brief window of her life with our own, and the feeling, still, of a Romantic connection with times past, as if no time has passed at all.

Given the immense age of the universe, a single life is no more than a match in the dark, a brief enough time in which to blink and respond to what we see before the light flickers and dies. But some matches are brighter than others, and some minds quicker at seeing what needs to be seen and responding with genuine heart and feeling. It’s also valuable, during the brief flaring of one’s own light if we can be shown what others have noted as worthy, because it gives us a head start in the growing of our own souls. Of course, not everyone possesses such a talent as makes it worth our while, but to my mind at least, Dorothy Wordsworth did. And I think that’s why we’re still reading her journals today.

Read Full Post »

I’m conscious that a lot of stuff we write as bloggers soon gets buried, and unless our tags are as hot as the current A list female celeb’s bosoms, our thoughts become like the tired old newsprint headlines of yesterday and which we next see on the counter of the chip-shop being used as fish- wrap. So, I’ve been digging back, meditating on my stuff, and if you’ll forgive me, I’d just like to put a place marker here, a few paragraphs dredged from the archives, and of particular significance to the run of my thoughts this evening. I dust them down, wonder why they caught my eye, and reblog them with a view more to self provocation than revelation:

I believe the turn of the nineteenth century saw us on the threshold of a new understanding of the nature of man, but two world wars blew all that away and an era of utilitarian globalization and consumerism seemed to get sucked into the vacuum that was left behind. Technically we’ve advanced beyond all recognition in a hundred years, but spiritually, psychologically, we’ve gone nowhere at all, and when we look at the stuff the late Victorians and Edwardians uncovered, we’re tempted to smile indulgently and say – well it was all a long time ago, so it can’t possibly be reliable can it?

Basically, I think the world we can see has a flip-side, and that’s the unconscious plane which, as the likes of Blake and Wordsworth and Coleridge taught us, is a real place that you can visit if you have a mind to, or you can fall into it by accident, through a gap in time like I did in the Newlands Valley.

We’re all connected to it. We have no choice. We are alive, we are conscious, thinking beings, but this thing we call the brain is not the seat of consciousness, more of a one way valve through which a little bit of us is squirted into awareness when we’re born, and which also prevents us from flowing back into the endless ground of being from where we came. But sooner or later, that valve falls apart, we flow back, and then we wake up to who and what we truly are.

I’ll be pondering further on this in the coming week.

Thank you for your indulgence.

Graeme out.

Read Full Post »

So, what are you reading at the moment? I don’t know about you but my reading comes in waves, or moods – usually when I’m unable to write. So then I surf the tides of literature instead and can devour a novel in a couple of days, like I’m tearing it apart for the answer to why it is I can’t write. I started out with an idea about reading the Romantics, really settling in to Wordsworth and Coleridge for a bit, but an odd tide fetched up on Patrick Harpur’s shores instead, and in the space of a few weeks I’ve read both his “Mercurius” and “The Philosopher’s Secret Fire”. These books have in turn had me re-reading Carl Jung, and generally blowing the dust off that mysterious trail through the Perennial Philosophy, a thing that’s denied with equal vigor by both religion and science but is probably closer to being a description of reality than either of those curmudgeonly old sages will admit.

If you don’t know Patrick Harpur, but you’re interested in how you can tie up mythology, the Romantics, alchemy, Jung’s psychology, anthropology and even a belief in the fairies, then he’s your man. I wouldn’t say his books are easy going, but I’ve found them utterly engrossing, insightful and enlightening. I’ve just ordered his “Complete guide to the Soul”, and I’m looking forward to devouring that one as well.

I’ve also been reading “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, and a bleaker story I can’t ever remember having read, except perhaps for Hardy’s “Jude the obscure”, though both for completely different reasons of course. Jude was a reaction to a hypocritical morality, a bubbling up of unspoken nastiness through to the surface of the Victorian psyche. The backlash nearly ruined Hardy’s career. It’s thirty years since I read it and its  unrelenting break-heart bleakness has stuck with me ever since. Masterful though it is, it’s one the few Hardy novels I could never bring myself to re-read – it would just finish me off. In a similar vein, I’m wondering if McCarthy’s The Road is a similar bubbling up of something powerfully indigestible. It’s not  a very long book – you’ll get through it in a couple of days. The prose is beautiful but all the more shocking for the horrors it describes – you do need a strong stomach for it. It’ s a post apocalyptic vision that is surely without equal, and the benchmark against which all others will be measured.  I can’t remember the ending of a book that made me weep before, but this one did – and though it seems a long way off the other stuff I’ve been reading, I’m sure it’s all connected, all a part of the same meltings in the crucible of my imagination.

But apart from all that, and yet also similarly related,…

It’s summer, and it’s the weekend, and I’ve been sitting here in the garden thinking I should write something, if only to get myself in the contemplative mood. But that’s not how it works, so I’ve wasted most of the day, even to the extent of nodding off for a couple of hours this afternoon. All of this is trivial and not exactly what you want to hear, but there’s nothing much to tell, and certainly my reading isn’t yielding much by way of answers – at least not directly. The answers come like shy cats, and you can’t make a fuss or even look at them directly or they will melt away. But I’ve a feeling an answer is coming, and it has to do with the imagination, with the Romantic  sense, and an acceptance of its validity, though not in a literal way, and it’s this non-literalness that I’m beginning to see, thanks to Patrick Harpur,  is the important thing, the thing that keeps us on the straight and narrow. This is both complex and yet, I suspect, also very simple,… but I need to think about it some more.

At the moment my literal reality consists of this summer house I built back in the spring, and in which I am now sitting. It also consists of  a patch of garden, and some trees beyond. The sky is grey. It’s about 20 degrees, getting on for 9:00 pm and I’ve got work in the morning. I’ve just lit a vanilla scented joss-stick, and my head’s a little thick from too much cheap wine. But in imagination, I’m a long way from here…

In my mind’s eye I can see a  lake in a bowl of mountains, and by the shore there stands a pavillion, terracotta coloured, its pillars reflected in the gently rippling waters of the lake. I’m in the Swiss Alps somewhere, though perhaps not literally. It’s just somewhere that reminds me a little of the Alps. Anyway, this pavillion,… it has a domed copper roof, whose centuries old verdigris is luminous in the early evening light and inside, unseen, in the pavillion,  a woman is waiting for me, seated on cushions. I’m making my way to her. It’s been a while in coming and though I’m not exactly reluctant to have finally made this connection, I can’t hide the fact that I’m anxious, that there’s a gravity here I’m not sure I grasp properly, and I have to allow my unconscious to guide my hand now or my ego’s going to ruin the moment. I’ve no idea what she’s going to say to me because I’ve not written that part yet. It may yet be that she’s fallen asleep waiting for me, and I’ll spend the night just watching over her.

To what extent is this imaginative scenario a valid reality? Should one take any of it seriously? Where did the pavilion come from? I’ve never been there, but I know its shape, the feel of its pillars against my palm, the sound of the lake lapping at its base. I  did a watercolour of it yesterday just to explore it a little more deeply and if I were to see a photograph of it tomorrow I’d say: “Oh, yea: I know that place.”

It could be a subliminal suggestion of course, a pastiche of images, of experiences long forgotten. The thesis of  mentalist Darren Brown, for the degree to which we are suggestible is very convincing,.. and yet,…

Her name is Gabrielle. I don’t know where she came from, nor her sinister, gnome like parents who forbid me from having anything to do with her, nor the wily old hotelier, the white suited septegenarian, Herr Gruber, who seems bent on smoothing my way with her, if only I will take this thing seriously, he says. Indeed, he says I must, for all our sakes – his, mine and Gabrielle’s.

To be clear, I’m talking about a story I’m writing here – a story that may eventually be completed and stuck up on some free to download e-book emporium, or it may yet languish unfinished on my computer for years, like a puzzle unsolved until either time or carelessness results in its deletion. To some extent, the plot, the conflict, even the language,… these are literary devices that deliver up at the end of everything a story that someone else can read. It is a format for recording imaginary events, events that have no literal reality, no literal meaning,  but what about the abstract imaginative energy that created them? Where did that come from? And can it not mean something? That pavillion of my imagination – is it not a place someone else can travel to in their imagination, if I describe it well enough?

These are the themes that Patrick Harpur deals with – the daemonic reality, he calls it, and it’s the reason I’ve found his books so interesting. They are archetypal, and mythical, these themes – as all good stories are, and if I’d only studied the classical myths as a lad, instead of engineering, I might have a better idea of what my work is about instead of shunting myself into so many dead ends all the time. All right, if I’d clung to the writing at the expense of everything else, I would have starved to death by now, and I’m quite happy to be uncovering these kindergarten stories in my late middle age, thank you. You see, there are no new stories any more. They were all written down at the beginning of time, etched deeply into the bedrock of our mythology. Each generation of writers merely comes along and reinvents the myths in contemporary disguise and claims the stories as his own.

I think I’ve always  accepted the imagination is a window on a different kind of  reality, wherein dwell these mythical aspects of ourselves., these daemons – some of them close and personal, some of them much, much older, more fundamental, primeval, elemantary.  If we know how to balance our literal and non-literal realities, then I think we stand a chance of living as we should: we “think along the lines of nature”, as Jung said.

The trouble is modern man seems to have such an uneasy relationship with it. He can no longer think along the lines of  nature because two hundred years of Enlightement thinking has addled his brain. But we need to be careful in waking up from this delusion and jumping too far in the other direction. We can go too far in our acceptance of every little thing that comes out of the unconscious, not realising that it is the antithesis of logic, and that to analyse it in literal terms may be to tie ourselves in knots and waste decades of our lives until we can wise up and tell true insight from delusion. On the other hand it’s equally dangerous to deny the imagination any kind of voice at all  because it may end up coming back at us in ways we don’t like.

I’m almost convinced now of the ability of the collective imagination to manifest itself in some kind of  physical way. The thrust of  Dean Radin’s work on Conscious Entanglement is compelling, suggesting that human consciousness is capable of manipulating matter or events, that indeed conciousness itself may be the primary ground of being. It’s only a small leap therefore to speculate on what might happen when the collective unconscious becomes focused in literal reality.

People see things.

Only last summer a trio of tall angelic beings were spotted by a policeman near Silbury Hill in Wiltshire – part of the crop circle goings on that enliven that part of the world every year, and if that’s not a manifestation of a mythical reality, I don’t know what is! No amount of investigation ever yields a definitive explanation to these things. They are like smoke, and remain a mystery, fastened upon by the credulous and the needy and denied with equal fervour by the establishment as preposterous – yet people go on witnessing all manner of Forteana, all the time.

While we should be mindful of the reality of the imaginative dimension, and intuitively alert for any personal meaning coming out of it, it doesn’t do to spend too much time humoring its every whim. To be sure, the fairies are a beguiling crowd but we live in a literal reality while they do not. We are flip sides of the same coin so to speak, neither of us able to manage in isolation from the other, but equally neither of us are equipped to make way for long in the other’s realm, nor to make sense of it in any great detail. The literal reality is our domain, but it is perhaps the non literal that gives it, and our lives, its colour and its meaning.

Read Full Post »

Mad, bad, and dangerous to know. So said Lady Caroline Lamb of the Romantic poet, Lord Byron. Self centred, caring only for their art, living lives of outrageous sexual excess, racking up stupendous debts, dying young amid a sickly opium haze, and leaving behind as much scandal as is humanly possible,… all these things conjure up the image of the  archetypal Romantic poet. But it wasn’t just the poets; Romanticism was a way of thinking that informed all of the arts, and even the spiritual beliefs of its devotees, who veered away from mainstream Christianity into the realms of mystical apostasy.

The Romantics have always interested me, and my interest is explored in this piece, but I warn you, I failed English Literature at school. I hadn’t a clue what the subject was supposed to be getting at, and even after forty years, I still can’t look at copy of Dickens’ Great Expectations without feeling sick (sorry Charles). So, if you’re looking for something to copy in your homework essay, I’d be careful cutting and pasting any of the following, or you’re most likely heading for a “D”.

This isn’t about an examination for me, nor a line by line analysis of what the Romantic poets wrote. It’s about something more important – understanding what it was they were on about, and how it might shine a light on the texture and the moods of my own life. That’s not literature. It’s survival.

I started this quest long ago by going back in time to the early  twentieth century, and to the work of that great European thinker: Carl Jung. Jung took me in hand for a while and led me further back in time, to the East, to China, to the philosophies of Buddhism and Taoism, to the enigmatic wisdom of the I Ching and the Tao Te Ching.  But at the same time, sitting on a stone, half way up an English mountain, there was this other old guy whose acquaintance I kept nodding to as I passed him on the path up into the clouds. His name was William Wordsworth. I liked the look of him, but I never really engaged with him because there was also something formidable, something inaccessible in his gaze.

But the serendipitous turns of the way that have led me through Eastern mysticism and are now bringing me back to the native mysticism of the European Romantics. I’ve had my chat with Jung, and Lao Tzu, and now I see Wordsworth nodding, beckoning me with a fatherly smile, to follow him up into the mists of Helvellyn for a long walk and a talk about this and that, and I think I trust him to be a reliable guide. Romanticism, like the mountain scenery they revered, can be a dangerous place to wander unprepared, and you need to watch where you put your feet.

You might say all of this makes me a little out of date, possibly also a little mad, and if you’re a Lit student you can no doubt come up with a learned analysis, plagiarised from some recognised academic authority on the subject of human folly, supported by relevant quotations of course, which proves I’m no more knowledgeable than the bumpkin my exam result says I am. Being a Romantic however, I hold the trump card, because I view the world from the centre of myself, and through the peculiarly distorted optical apparatus of my own imagination, which may indeed colour things somewhat, but also makes my quest for the Romantics a Romantic quest in itself. I am a Romantic.

I therefore blow a raspberry, and continue with impertinence.

I believe the romantics were really onto something and I’d like to share with you my reasons for that belief. In the early nineteenth century,  human potential in western Europe seemed poised, ready to take a different path altogether to the one it ultimately took. It spat in the face of Materialism, of established religion, and the hypocritical moral values of the day, and we can only wonder what would have emerged from the Romantics if their fever had been only a little more infectious. These are timeless themes, old lessons you might say, as valid today as they ever were, but now, as then, although we nod sagely at the wisdom and the sentiment of the Romantics, we also dismiss them as unrealistic, and instead we embrace the Materialist world as being the only valid reality, the only reality that is in any way practical.

And look where that’s got us.

By contemplating the world from the centre of one’s self, in the Romantic fashion, one realises there is no difference between what one is looking at, and what any of us actually is, that we are all connected through this dream of the world, that the world is nothing, yet everything at the same time. Would we by now have had a western tradition of contemplative, non hierarchical mysticism, something akin to philosophical Daoism, or Buddhism? Would we have had a much greener world by virtue of our deeper connection with Nature?

The official closing date for the Romantic period was the accession of Queen Victoria, in 1837, but the Romantics weren’t consulted about this and carried on regardless, their influence informing the work, and the Bohemian ways of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, who began painting in the late 1840’s and went on, right through to the early 20th century. Indeed, their influence can still be found in the arts today, and also in the blogs of a certain kind of dreamer who writes essays like this one.

But from the middle nineteenth century, the voice of Romanticism was increasingly a voice without influence, as the rest of the world chose a path of unbridled Materialism: industrial development, urbanisation, and economic expansion, which led to the interconnected and thoroughly globalised world we live in today. Landscapes were transformed; Sylvan vales were lost beneath the sulphurous slag heaps of collieries, skylines were obliterated by forests of factory chimneys, and the countryside was drained of its population,  sucked by economic necessity into the mills where hands that had once steered horse-drawn ploughs or wielded a scythe, now became the hands of slaves, tied to machines. It happened across Europe in the nineteenth century. It’s happening all over the far east today.

I don’t think we had a choice really; this dark path was inevitable, but we seem to be reaching the end of it now – not because we’re waking up from the madness, but because the earth itself is showing signs of impatience, and is forcing our hand, making us look hard for different ways of living that are more in harmony with the natural heartbeat of the planet we’re sitting on. So, it’s time to be thinking of other things, before we destroy ourselves completely. Perhaps the Romantics still have something worth teaching us about the world?… but they lived so long ago: if only we could remember what it was they said!


From my armchair, here in the early twenty first century, I can see we’ve given birth to an age of machines that are capable of doing anything. A look at the sophistication of the humanoid robots we’re building tells us Asimov’s future is almost upon us, but none of these machines will ever tell us what it means to be human, nor indeed even how to be happy. Our machines are marvellously adept, but although they each have an apparent purpose in material terms, in a greater sense, there is no point to them at all.

The Romantics still feature large in the collective imagination; I read their poems at school, in the 60’s and 70’s but we need to be careful in unwrapping the neat packaging they’ve been presented in.  In Materialistic terms, they’re marketable, because there’s something in Romanticism that is easily confused with sentimentality, or cheap nostalgia. And then there’s all that sex! We listen to the soundbites of their poetry and fancy we hear in them the lament for a lost Arcadia. This is a sure-fire till-ringer, so the Romantics find themselves boiled down to just another stop on the conveyor belt of potted culture. Look too closely and you’ll find  their language difficult, their forms of verse too twiddly for the impatient modern ear, but back up a bit, look at them through half closed eyes and you might find you rather like the foppish clothes they wore, you might find the country houses they lived in rather quaint.


Arcadia was never a place, never a lost paradise. No one understood this more than the Romantics. Arcadia is here and it is now, but the only way to see it is to go inside your head. For that you need to know how to look – and they knew how to look. The Romantic sees Arcadia, where others see nothing, and therein lies the vulnerability of genuine Romanticism, and Romantics, for in an otherwise tainted world, where others see nothing, the blind have a habit of stomping all over the Romantics’ Arcadia and rendering it about as magical, mystical and meaningful as a graffiti-sprayed bus shelter.

I tend to think of Wordsworth as the most successful of the Romantics. I say “successful” because unlike many of his illustrious contemporaries, he managed to remain sane, coherent and genuinely beloved of others, into ripe old age.

If you visit the UK from overseas, on a packaged tour, and you come to the Lake District, you’ll no doubt find yourself in Grasmere and at the door of Dove Cottage, home to Wordsworth from 1799 to 1808 –  what are claimed to be, poetically speaking, his most fertile years. Be warned though: there may be a long queue, because you’re just one of the 70,000 pilgrims who cross the threshold every year in search of the Wordsworth vibe. For your £7.50 admission (2010 season), you’ll get a  thirty minute tour of the hallowed walls, of this rather gloomy little place, and then you’re out of the back door,  the next lot comes in, and there you are: everything you possibly need to know about the sage of Grasmere and his muses.

But to my mind the most poignant memorial to Romanticism, and Wordworth’s legacy, lies hidden away behind Dove Cottage. It wasn’t mentioned in the tour I made of the house, though I had gone there specifically to seek it out, and I had to ask the tour guide for directions; it is the Rock of Names. There’s  no charge to see it, and you get to it by wandering up by the side of the visitor centre, so when you’ve shuffled around the cottage, and before you empty your wallet on Romantic memorabilia in the shop, be sure to go and have a look at it. The Rock of names is interesting, and in its story I see a metaphor for both the story and the meaning of  Romanticism itself. Here’s a picture of it:

I think I’m okay showing this. There were no signs saying I couldn’t take it, but you have to be careful around museums.

What is it? Well, it’s an  outcrop of rock, worn smooth, glistening with water that spills down from the fellside. If you look more closely you’ll also see, chiselled into it, a kind of graffiti, but we’ll forgive the vandals on this occasion. The initials were carved with the blade of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s penknife in the summer of 1800. I’ve printed them here for clarity:


See if you can spot them!

WW  – you can probably guess is WiIlliam Wordsworth himself. M.H. is Mary Hutchinson, who just a few years later became William’s wife. D.W. is his sister Dorothy, mysterious muse, unsung heroine of the Romantic movement, and the maker of two of it’s finest poets – Wordsworth and Coleridge. STC is  Coleridge himself. JW is John Wordsworth, William’s brother who would be lost at sea in 1805. SH, is Sarah Hutchinson, Mary’s sister, and the love of Coleridge’s life, though not to be confused with his wife, who was also called Sarah.

It looks like it’s been there for ever, but the stone originally sat some six miles north of Grasmere, at Wythburn, in what is now a lost valley. The Wordworths would set off from Grasmere, in the south, Coleridge from Keswick, in the north, and they would rendezvous at a place equidistant from their respective abodes. On this particular occasion they were also moved to immortalise the spot and their presence in it. Here’s what Wordsworth wrote about it:

Rock of Names

Light is the strain, but not unjust,
To Thee and thy memorial tryst,
That once seemed only to express,
Love that was love in idleness,
Tokens, as year hath followed year,
How changed, alas, in character!
For they were graven on thy smooth breast
By hands of those my soul loved best;
Meek women, men as true and brave
As ever went to hopeful grave:
Their hands and mine, when side by side
With kindred zeal and mutual pride,
We worked until the initials took
Shapes that defied a scornful look.
Long as for us a genial feeling
Survives, or one in need of healing,
The power, dear Rock, around thee cast,
Thy monumental power, shall last
For me and mine! Oh thought of pain,
That would impair it or profane!
Take all in kindness then, as said,
With a staid heart but playful head;
And fail not Thou, loved Rock to keep
Thy charge when we are laid asleep.


Wordsworth died in 1850, but the mystical spell that he seems to have cast around this monument was later broken by controversy and the rising spectre of Victorian Materialism. By the 1870’s the city of Manchester, undergoing a stupendous expansion, and in desparate need of water for its factories, hatched a plan to create what is now known as the Thirlmere reservoir. This would mean the flooding of Wythburn, and submerging the Rock of Names. Reading contemporary accounts of the original vale, it was a place of great beauty, where two smaller natural lakes, Leathes Water and Wythburn Water, nestled among dramatic craggy outcrops. There was a public outcry, but  the reservoir scheme went ahead anyway and was finished in 1894.

When you visit Thirlmere today it’s easy to see you’re looking at a reservoir. In the dry months, it has a tide line all around it, and of course there’s a massive dam at one end. Time has softened its impact somewhat, and the surrounding mountain scenery still lends it a measure of dramatic power, but the truth of what was lost here will never really be known or understood by the modern writer. As for the Rock of Names, the solution was simple: if engineers could flood a valley and relay its water via an underground pipe some ninety four miles south, to Manchester, they could surely hack out a simple piece of rock and set it up somewhere else,… couldn’t they? Well, they tried but the rock shattered, like the romantic dream itself shattered under the inexorable pressures of technological progress, and materialism.

The pieces were gathered up and found their way to Dove cottage which, even as early as the 1890’s, had already become a shrine to all things Wordsworthian. They were reassembled  as neatly as possible, and that’s how you see them today (the joint lines are clearly visible in my photograph). Writing in 1887,  the historians Harry Goodwin and William Knight described the Rock in its original setting as “an upright mural block of stone, moist with pure water tricking down“. As a resting place then, the current site is as near perfect as can be, but in a crucial sense it’s not really the same, because the romantic spell is broken.

There’s something in Romanticism we think we should value, but in trying to fit it around our Materialist ways, we only end up breaking it. There is something uncompromising in its ideals, and the places you find its mysterious wisdoms aren’t always convenient or negotiable. The Rock of Names meant something, once, but only as Wordsworth meant it, in Wythburn, in the trysting place it once stood, as those his “soul loved best” saw, and felt it in the summer of 1800. To think you can pick it up and push it around like a trinket on a shop counter is simply to corrupt it. Though it remains today a fine and emotive memorial to the Lake poets, well worth seeking out, it would possess far more raw Romantic power had it been submerged and remained at the bottom of Thirlmere to this day.

If you’re visiting Dove Cottage, be sure to pester the tour guide and ask for directions to it. Unpot your Romanticism for a moment, and start feeing it!

So,… the Romantics lived in the Lakes, and nobody really got them, and the spectre of Victorian materialism rendered them obsolete? Well,… actually, no. Romanticism was a philosophical movement, not confined to the English Lakes. The only reason the Lakes is associated with Romanticism is because Wordworth and Coleridge, (and Robert Southey of course) decided to hang their hats there. Some would say Romanticism’s most revered academic and guru was Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher upon whose thesis, “The World as Will and Idea”, the whole of the Romantic credo can be said to rest.

You cannot ignore Materialism, any more than you can hide from it. It’s like life; there’s an inevitability about it, like the growth of Manchester in the nineteenth century, and it is motivated by nothing more complicated than the will to live, for life to  simply perpetuate itself, from the seething swamp, to the mightiest of cities. The theory of Evolution provides the scientific bedrock for what Schopenhauer defined as this “will” to live. Nature simply is, says Darwin; it swarms, it survives, it is red in tooth and claw, and by inference if something can be sold for even a penny profit, then it will be sold, because such is the natural law. However, human desires, engendered by this instinctive will are doomed to end only in spiritual bankruptcy, boredom, or in the birth of some new, equally shallow or self defeating desire. The Romantics, like anyone else, had no choice but to accept this, but while they agreed you could live this way, they were contemptuous of it,  and warned us that there was simply no point to it.

Schopenhauer’s “Will” is like “Maya”, the world of suffering and delusion described by the Buddhists, in which we identify ourselves through our Ego, through the false image we have of ourselves and its all-consuming wants. Living our life in thrall to the world of will, is to live a life constantly chasing gratification while remaining for ever unsatisfied. It is the instinctive anticipation of gratification that drives the machine of Materialism, and our instinctive blindness that renders us incapable of realising this machine will never deliver what it is we want.  But the Romantics were far from pessimistic in their vision; there was another way, they said, and this was what Schopenhauer called the world of “idea”, or “representation”.

This is a difficult concept for one steeped in a Materialist tradition to grasp, and it will sound like nonsense, but it essentially involves a more aesthetic experience of the world, an experience owing more to the imagination, and the inner sense, or by indulging what the psychoanalysts a hundred years later would come to understand as the psyche. It was only through this pursuit of the aesthetic experience, the Romantics believed we could open the door on our highest potential as human beings, something that raised us above the level of beasts and freed us from the shackles of Darwin’s Godless universe.

This was and still is the central paradox of the human condition: the more closely we look at the world, the more we must conclude we are nothing but a sophisticated kind of animal, yet ultimately of no greater nor less importance than all the other animals that roam the earth, that the light of our lives will eventually go out and everything we’ve known and felt will be as nothing in the void,…

And yet,… and yet,…

There is also something in us that disregards the evidence of our eyes and our intellect, and tells us it is not so, that there is something else underpinning the reality we see, and there is something telling us also that such speculation is not merely the result of wishful thinking. And then, occasionally, curious things happen, or can be made to happen, that reassure us we are not merely deluded.

This was the ground the Romantics trod.

At its most basic level, the aesthetic experience involves the contemplation or the expression of beauty, either through the arts or by going out into the natural world where you can find it freely, and in abundance.  A meadow of wild flowers, a sunset, or something more subjective – like the way sunlight filters down through autumn leaves, or the rising of morning mist from the still surface of a lake –  or subtler still – a romantic could look at an empty valley, or a ruined cottage and imagine the lives that had been lived there in the past, the more bucolic the better, a thing that would colour their imagination and transform an otherwise bleak wilderness into a place of warmth and inspiration. Such things are revealed by the sensitive eye, and felt in a meaningful way by a sensitive heart. The world we experience then, say the Romantics, is only half perceived through the physical senses – it is also half created through the higher the faculties of the mind.

The contemplation of beauty is without risk, but its rewards are limited. The serious Romantics, the Byronic heroes, were looking for more. What they sought went beyond beauty into the realms of a powerfully moving experience they called the sublime. To encounter the sublime, there had to be an element of danger, and the Romantics found this among the mountains, or anywhere where nature could be experienced in the raw, where the scenery had a dramatic or even terrifying effect on the observer, and where the rugged nature of the landscape, and one’s tenuous presence in it became altogether more challenging. To feel nature in this way, to feel one’s insignificance in the face of it, is paradoxically the key to glimpsing the underlying nature of reality, where one’s sense of “self” dissolves and we enter what some have described as the consciousness of the universe,… what in Buddhism is called “the big mind”. While one’s individuality may be said to be lost in such an experience, there is in fact no “sense” of that loss, more simply an awakening to the true and full nature of one’s own identity.

The quest for the sublime has its risks – not just the physical ones of falling to your death by slipping off a mountain. There are also psychological dangers. Touching “big mind” can generate a form of megalomania. It can also become compulsive, generating an insatiable thirst for ever more intense experiences, a kind of Materialistic Romanticism, which some devotees  greedily sought in opium-induced distortions of reality, with all its attendant side effects.

The sublime experience has its parallels in the form of psychological awakening that  eastern cultures explored a thousand years earlier, by a systematic analysis of the mind, and by formulating meditative techniques by which adepts could reliably attain the same insights as their teachers. It also has its parallels in Jungian analysis, his theories of the collective unconscious, and in the human development movement it spawned. All of these things are pointing in the same direction, like an innate sense, like a mystical compass.

The Romantics found this compass at the dawning of the nineteenth century, and used it to navigate around the edges of their known world. They concluded that there is a hard edge to reality. It obeys scientific principles, which, with patience and ingenuity can be gleaned from nature’s copy-book and used to our material advantage – but this version of reality is Godless, and empty, and if we submerge ourselves in it fully  it will leave us only half fulfilled, because we only half belong in it.

The strength of the Romantic is in their ability to look at the world and see it through the lens of their imagination, as well as their eyes. The result is a personal vision, one which might not be shared by others – nor even by fellow Romantics, because the thing about the Romantic lens is its individuality. The only common thing about it is its inability to function at all in a world that has been turned into a dustbin, or an aesthetic desert.

The nightmare of the Romantic is a world consisting of a single, giant Materialist construct, half city, half machine in which we are reduced to functioning as biological extensions of a mindless man-built pseudo-deity, something that acts without rhyme or reason, and sweeps us along in its own purposeless wake – something like “the globalised market-place” for example? The nightmare of the Romantic is also to see the last clean hillside obliterated by a forest of utilitarian wind-turbines, or the last Sylvan vale bunged up and flooded to feed the thirsty mouths of those gathered in cities hundreds of miles away, and who labour in soulless ignorance of the Romantic values sacrificed in order to sustain their unnatural existence.

But the psyche of man, infinitely older and wiser than man himself, will not stand for it. It will only take so much of a life void of the Romantic sense, void of the need to honour what is good and Godlike in itself, before it erupts into incomprehensible fits of madness. We are each of us God-like beings, crippled by the abiding delusion that we are only machines. This is what the Romantics saw, while lamenting that none but a handful of their fellow beings could ever share this vision, being too busy with the pursuit of wealth and other kinds of learning.

To be sure, the twenty first century is a hard time to be a Romantic, but then it always was. If you’re a Romantic, take courage – you’re the only hope we’ve got. Take courage also that, no matter how bad things might yet become, there will always be somewhere left on earth you will find your Arcadia, because there’s only you who knows how to find it.

Enjoy yourselves and keep safe.

Graeme out

Read Full Post »