The Lake District has long been famous for its association with great figures of English Literature. The tradition began with Thomas Gray, whose Journal of a World Tour, included an account of his visit to the Lakes in October 1769. Wordsworth, Coleridge and Robert Southey are known in literary circles as The Lake Poets, having all lived in the Lake District at various times during the 18th and 19th centuries, while scores of other writers and artists have made the Lakes their home, including Sir Walter Scott, John Ruskin, Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome, Hugh Walpole, Melvyn Bragg and Norman Nicholson.
The Lake District represented an untamed natural landscape that had all the qualities necessary for an exploration of new aesthetic concepts introduced by the Romantic Movement. Romanticism, which was partly a backlash against the social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment, and partly a revolt against the scientific rationalisation of nature, legitimized the individual imagination as a critical authority and prized strong emotions, often arising in response to dramatic, wild landscapes, as a source of aesthetic experience.
One of English Romanticism’s most famous sons, William Wordsworth, was born in Cockermouth within a few years of another well-known son of the town, Fletcher Christian of Mutiny on the Bounty fame.
Both William and his brother were educated at Hawkshead Grammar School, where the poet’s initials can still be seen carved into his desk. After completing his education at Cambridge University, Wordsworth lived in Somerset for some time, where he met the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had already achieved a measure of success with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Khubla Khan.
The pair became great friends and traveled together on the continent before Wordsworth, pining for the landscapes of his childhood, decided to live beside the lakes once again. He moved into Dove Cottage at Grasmere with his sister Dorothy and, for a time, Coleridge, and it was here that he wrote I Wander’d Lonely as a Cloud, the poem for which he is most famous today.
Wordsworth was a quietly political animal with firm ideas about the place of man in society. His Romantic poetry was his answer to the industrial revolution and he campaigned to keep the railways from destroying the countryside he knew and loved. Although he is best-known for poems like I wander’d, much of his work was far more serious and highly regarded. On several occasions he was asked to become poet laureate but refused as he did not wish to write to order. He eventually accepted the post when he was in his early seventies and continued until his death about seven years later, upon which he was buried with his wife in Grasmere churchyard. It is worth noting that he did not deviate from his principles and never wrote a piece of official poetry.
Wordsworth took over as Poet Laureate from Robert Southey, who had been recommended for the post by Sir Walter Scott, another fond and frequent visitor to the Lakes. Robert Southey was a well-regarded poet in his own right, although he’s been somewhat neglected in recent years, and he held the post of poet laureate from 1813 until his death in 1843. Southey acted as a sort of foster father to Coleridge’s children and perhaps it was for them that he wrote what is probably his best known work, the children’s story about Goldilocks and The Three Bears.
Coleridge’s life took a downward turn after his move to the Lakes. His marriage failed and he began to take opium. When he left the area in 1803, his life was in tatters and he never fully recovered.
During their time together in the lakes Wordsworth and Coleridge collaborated on The Lyrical Ballads, which was published in 1798 and embodied some of the new values of their time, seeking to reject lofty Augustan poetry in favour of the more direct speech derived from folk traditions.
All the properties associated with William Wordsworth are open to the public and can be visited together as part of a tour through what is billed as Wordsworth’s Lake District. Dove Cottage in Grasmere is an award-winning museum, celebrating the work of the Lakeland Poets and their friends. There are manuscripts such as Matthew Arnold’s 'Sohrab and Rustum' on display in the cottage, which was later the home of another writer, Thomas de Quincey, best remembered for his 'Confessions of an English Opium Eater'. Ironically, Quincey succumbed to this very addiction whilst living in Dove Cottage. The two other properties associated with Wordsworth are his childhood home at Cockermouth, which is owned by the National Trust, and his final and best-loved home, Rydal Mount and Gardens, which is owned and run by the Wordsworth family.