At the end of the 18th Century, the Lake District became the focus of a group of young poets. One of these already had a considerable reputation as a poet; he was Samuel Taylor Coleridge who, by this time, had already produced such well-known works as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan”. Coleridge’s greatest friend was instrumental in bringing him to this beautiful part of England. His friend was William Wordsworth, the Lake District’s best known son.
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 where he carved them on his desk. After completing his education at Cambridge University, Wordsworth lived in Somerset for some time and also travelled on the continent, partially with Coleridge who had been his neighbour in Somerset. But before too long, the young poet decided he wanted to return to the countryside of his childhood and to live beside the lakes once again.
In his own way, Wordsworth was a 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 country he knew and loved. Although his best-known, and perhaps best-loved, poem is “The Daffodils”, much of his work was far more serious and highly regarded. On several occasions he was asked to become the 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. It is worth noting that he did not deviate from his principles and never wrote a piece of official poetry.
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. He had collaborated with Wordsworth on “Lyrical Ballads” during his time in the Lake District.
One of Wordsworth’s homes in the Lake District was Dove Cottage in Grasmere. The house is a museum today, celebrating many of the Lakeland poets and their friends. There are manuscripts such as Matthew Arnold’s “Sohrab and Rustum” on display in the cottage. This was later the home of another writer, Thomas de Quincey. He is best remembered for his “Confessions of an English Opium Eater”; ironically he succumbed to this very addiction whilst living in Dove Cottage.
Robert Southey was Coleridge’s brother-in-law and a well-regarded poet in his own right, although somewhat neglected in recent years. He was poet laureate from 1813 until his death in 1843, when Wordsworth took the post. 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 composition today. Few realise that Southey wrote the children’s story of “The Three Bears”.
Sir Walter Scott had recommended Southey for the post of poet laureate and Scott himself was fond of the Lakes. On one occasion he climbed Helvellyn in the company of Wordsworth and another friend, Humphry Davy. This was shortly after the untimely death on the mountain of Charles Gough, whose body was guarded by his faithful hound. Scott wrote a poem about this tragedy.
Tennyson was another poet who knew and loved the Lakes and used descriptions of them in poems such as “Morte d’Arthur”. However, it was the radical and social reformer, John Ruskin, who continued the theme of Wordsworth’s work on nature, man and society. Ruskin arrived in the Lakes in 1830s, as a guest of friends from Cambridge. He was instantly captivated and spent most of his life in the area. Although he wrote little actual poetry, his poetic prose was highly thought of. Ruskin was a prolific writer. He had a passion for beauty which was channelled into many of his descriptive works about paintings, buildings and many other subjects.
These are just a few of the writers and poets associated with the Lake District. There have been many more including Beatrix Potter, creator of Peter Rabbit, Hugh Walpole, writer of “The Herries Chronicles”, and more recently Melvin Bragg of South Bank fame.