It wasn’t until the programme announcement for Hay Festival Digital that I realised that William Wordsworth is 250 this year. Having promised myself that I would spend some time filling a significant gap in my reading this year (pretty much the whole of the British poetic canon!), following my reading of John Carey’s marvellous A Little History of Poetry, where better to start than with Wordsworth?
I pulled down my copy of The Golden Store, which a friend brought back from Dove Cottage itself, and began.
Now we know I love an illustrated book, and this is a selection of poems, compiled and illustrated by Nancy Martin for children, is a wee beaut. Much of the selection itself is taken from Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem, The Prelude. It is a well-designed introduction to Wordsworth’s world, particularly his childhood in the Lake District, his later travels to London and abroad, his passion for nature. It also includes a couple of lyrical ballads, a few of his famous stand-alones, and a small selection from his sister Dorothy’s journals, showing how in Wordsworth’s words, “she gave me eyes, she gave me ears.” There’s no mistaking the poem this provided the basis for.
And so to Hay Festival Digital. Two events. The first a reading of Wordsworth’s poems, and what a stellar cast of performers! Simon Armitage, Margaret Atwood, Benedict Cumberbatch, Monty Don, Lisa Dwan, Inua Elliams, Stephen Fry, Tom Hollander, Toby Jones,Helen McCrory, Jonathan Pryce and Vanessa Redgrave. And a surprising number of the chosen poems contained in this little souvenir book, showing what a well-informed introduction to the poet it is.
The second event was given by Wordsworth’s biographer, Jonathan Bate, who discussed the problems caused by the second half of Wordsworth’s life. “It was very boring”, he said, 1790-1807 is the period of his greatest works; his creative powers declining after the break with Coleridge and him (Wordsworth) becoming a figure of the establishment. This later development viewed as a betrayal by the second generation of Romantics, Shelley and Byron. But although they turned against him, they remained admirers of his poetry.
My takeaway from Bate, who, incidentally thinks Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, is the finest poem in the English language, was his definition of “the sublime”. It is the strong emotional reaction we have to nature, to for example, mountains and storms. The example he gave was of Wordsworth’s boyhood experience of a mountain rearing up as he is a rowing a boat across the lake. Guess what – that just happened to be my favourite episode in The Golden Store.