William Wordsworth A Poet's Guide to Britain


William Wordsworth

Owen Sheers explores six great works of poetry set in the British landscape. This episode features Composed upon Westminster Bridge by William Wordsworth.


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Transcript


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This is the Skirrid on the edge of the Black Mountains in South Wales.

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It's a place that I love.

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I've been coming here nearly all of my life and I will never tire

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of the incredibly dramatic views that you get off this ridge.

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Look at that - absolutely stunning.

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When I first started to write poetry,

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this hill and all of the landscape around here

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found their way into the work that I was writing.

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I think that in Britain our poets have always had

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a very intense relationship with the places that matter to them.

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In this series I'll be looking at six of my favourite poems

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that have come out of this ongoing conversation

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between the British landscape and her poets.

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There are places that speak, telling the stories of us and them.

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A village asleep, loaded with dream.

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An ocean, flicking its pages over the sand.

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Eventually we reply.

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A conversation of place and page over time,

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inscribing the map so that each, In turn, might hold the line.

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The most famous conversation between a poet and the British landscape

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was that between William Wordsworth and the Lake District.

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When you think of Wordsworth, the images

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that probably come to mind

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are lakes, wandering clouds and daffodils.

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And yet, in 1802,

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when Wordsworth wrote in would become one of his best-known poems,

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"Earth hath not anything to show more fair",

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the beautiful view he was writing about

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wasn't a mountain or some flowers he'd stumbled upon

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or anything in his beloved Lake District.

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He was writing instead about this place -

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London.

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Earth has not anything to show more fair:

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Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

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A sight so touching in its majesty:

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This city now doth like a garment wear

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The beauty of the morning;

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silent, bare,

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Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

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Open unto the fields, and to the sky,

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All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

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Never did sun more beautifully steep

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In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;

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Ne'er saw I, never felt a calm so deep!

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The river glideth at his own sweet will:

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Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

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And all that mighty heart is lying still!

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This poem by Wordsworth, a 14-line sonnet about London at dawn,

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is one of the great love songs to this city.

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It's a really fantastic piece of writing

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that I think does all the things that a good poem should,

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in that over an incredibly short space of page,

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it really takes us somewhere.

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It really manages to change the weather in our heads.

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It's also a poem that's very much of its time

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and yet manages to travel remarkably well,

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in that were we to walk across Westminster Bridge now,

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we would still have the same basic experience

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that Wordsworth is talking about.

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There'd still be that moment of stillness

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in between all that activity on the banks.

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You only have to talk to the people who cross it every morning

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on their way to work to get a sense of this.

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It's two hours from house to work. I don't mind a bit.

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I can walk across here and it's just glorious.

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At 8 o'clock, half seven when not many people are around that's the best time.

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The best thing for me about seeing the river in the morning,

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is it's a very small world shared with very few people.

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So very early in the morning when just the sun's coming up,

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it feels like a little town.

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All the beautiful buildings, they kind of stand out.

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-You know, Lambeth Bridge.

-You're reminded this is a city

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who's main feature is the lovely river running through it.

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I think these are exactly the feelings that Wordsworth describes.

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This is a beautifully simple poem about the city at dawn.

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So how come it was written by a poet from the Lake District?

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What was Wordsworth doing on Westminster Bridge that morning?

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Where was he going? What was on his mind?

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The story behind the poem

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is the surprising tale of Wordsworth's love life,

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the complex tale of his love for three different women.

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To get to the bottom of this story,

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I headed for more familiar Wordsworth territory,

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the Lake District.

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Lakeland poet William Wordsworth was of course one of the towering figures of English Romanticism,

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alongside Keats, Byron, Shelley and Wordsworth's close friend Coleridge.

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When he started writing at the end of the 18th century he was an idealistic radical.

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By the end of his life in the middle of the 19th,

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he'd become the revered and grand old man of English verse.

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The Lakes is where Wordsworth was born and bred,

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lived much of his life,

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and where his poetry seems indelibly inked on the landscape.

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For Wordsworth as a writer, the landscape of the Lake District

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was so much more than just his poetic canvas.

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It was his teacher, his muse, or as he said himself,

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"The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse

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"The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul

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"Of all my moral being."

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Although Wordsworth was raised in the Lakes, at 17 he moved away,

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first to university in Cambridge.

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After that he became something of a nomad,

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spending much much of his time hiking across England and Wales

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and further afield on trips to Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Revolutionary France.

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During those years, he was restlessly searching for a purpose for his life

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and defining his ideas about nature, religion and politics.

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In 1800, at the age of 29, Wordsworth found himself once again

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without a permanent residence

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and with a growing certainty that he was ready to go back home.

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In the autumn of that year

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he returned on a walking tour with Coleridge.

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It was on that walking tour that he discovered this cottage.

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Immediately it seemed like the ideal place

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in which to begin a new chapter of his life.

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At this point in his life, it's fair to say that in the eyes of the world

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at the age of 29 Wordsworth had achieved relatively little.

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But once ensconced in this place, all of that began to change.

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When he moved in here the house was cold,

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apparently one of the chimneys smoked very badly.

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But Wordsworth didn't mind.

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He was just ecstatic to finally have a home.

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The publication of the radical collection

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of his and Coleridge's verse, Lyrical Ballads,

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had started to make his name.

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But with the new-found security of this place,

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over the next three years Wordsworth would go on

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to write some of the best poetry of his life.

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But Wordsworth didn't come to Dove Cottage on his own.

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He moved in with his sister Dorothy.

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William and Dorothy were brought up separately,

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after the death of first their mother and then their father.

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However, they retained a strong emotional bond

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and in their mid-20s,

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out of friendship and convenience, they began living together.

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By the time they moved to Grasmere, five years later,

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they were clearly devoted companions.

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The fascinatingly intimate journal that Dorothy kept

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about their time together here

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is the main source of information about their daily routine.

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It's also clear from the pages of this journal,

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that brother and sister shared and discussed

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many of the experiences that would go on to become Wordsworth's poems.

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There's still a strong echo at Dove Cottage

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of that intense literary and personal relationship

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between brother and sister.

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Although neither these rooms, Dorothy's journal, nor Wordsworth's poems,

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answer the many outstanding questions about their artistic and emotional interaction.

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I was once fortunate enough to be the writer-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust here in Grasmere.

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The man with that job today is Adam O'Riordan.

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I wondered what his response was to living with William and Dorothy.

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There is this sense of the things

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that Dorothy and William and Coleridge

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and everyone else was pushing towards do still live on here in a way.

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I guess the role of the poet-in-residence is to embody that

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and to be that, if that doesn't sound too grand, which it's not.

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You're keeping that going, you're writing the poems.

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There is something so winning and drawing

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about re-imagining the intimacies that existed between the Wordsworths,

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between Dorothy and Mary and William, and what went on in that house.

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It is a great starting point for poems.

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I know other poems have written successfully about them,

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but they're great places to go to fire your imagination.

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A Double Wash Stand.

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Before the age condemned

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such joint ablutions

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You dip your hands in the tepid water

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as geese come in low across the lake

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landing on their shadows,

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their shadows becoming their wake

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breaking apart the imago they seem to chase.

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So you break this tension, shattering your own reflections.

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There's a complicity in getting clean together

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who knows what distances you travelled in your sleep

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back towards one another,

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and the secrets that those distances will keep,

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each movement fluid and practised in the winter air.

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You revel in this intimate act, not quite each other's double.

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Your easy mime of mannerisms from other lives

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like brother and sister.

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No, I mean man and wife.

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There will always be speculation about William and Dorothy's relationship at Dove Cottage

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but she certainly wasn't the only woman in Wordsworth's life.

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One of his closest friends at the time

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was a Lakeland girl, Mary Hutchinson.

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Wordsworth had actually been in the same school as Mary Hutchinson,

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so he'd known her almost all of his life.

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In the summer of 1787 she joined William and Dorothy on their rambles

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through the woods and hills of Penrith.

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Since their arrival at Dove Cottage, she'd been a regular visitor.

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At some point, we think around the end of 1801,

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William decided to ask her to marry him.

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His marriage to Mary and her settling in at Dove Cottage

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would be the final keystone in the architecture of this newly settled life

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that Wordsworth was building for himself at Grasmere.

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In early 1802, William and Mary were more than ready to get married,

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but there was a problem.

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Several hundred miles away from here in Grasmere there was another woman

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who had been calling herself Mrs Wordsworth for the last ten years.

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Annette Vallon, the third woman in this story, had met Wordsworth

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when as a hot-blooded young graduate he travelled to France

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to take a look at the Revolution in action.

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He met Annette in the city of Orleans.

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One thing led to another

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and a couple of months after they met she was pregnant.

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Wordsworth left France before the baby was born,

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and although he may have planned to return,

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a few weeks after he came back, France declared war on England.

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Return to Annette and his newly-born daughter Caroline became impossible

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and gradually Wordsworth's thoughts of France began to fade.

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In the spring of 1802, Wordsworth realised that

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he just couldn't get married to Mary

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without first going to France to speak with Annette face to face.

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Thanks to a recent peace treaty with the French,

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this was, for the first time in a decade, actually possible.

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On 9th July, William left Grasmere for London on his way to Calais.

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As ever, he wasn't travelling on his own.

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His companion was his sister, Dorothy.

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Wordsworth had both enjoyed and suffered the maelstrom of London

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on a number of occasions before 1802,

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and his poetic responses sum up the sensory overload

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that the capital made on his Lakelander sensibility.

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The quick dance Of colour, lights, and forms;

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the Babel din;

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The endless stream of men and moving things

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The comers and the goers face to face, face after face.

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This was the city in which William and Dorothy found themselves,

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when early on the morning of July 31st, 1802

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they arrived at Charing Cross to catch a stagecoach for Dover.

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The Wordsworths had taken their seats on the top of the carriage,

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quite possibly because they were cheaper.

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This meant they were able to see over the bridge's parapet,

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which was much higher than it is now.

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As they crossed over Westminster Bridge they were both enraptured by the view,

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which more than likely remained their topic of conversation

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as the coach carried on towards Dover.

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When Dorothy wrote about their trip to France some months later,

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her journal seems to pause for a moment

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to pay special attention to the view from the bridge.

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"It was a beautiful morning.

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"The city, St Paul's, with the river and a multitude of little boats,

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"made a most beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge.

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"The houses were not overhung by their cloud of smoke

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"and they were spread out endlessly,

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"yet the sun shone so brightly with such a pure light

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"that there was even something

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"like the purity of one of nature's own grand spectacles."

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This entry from Dorothy's journal

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clearly shares William's images and words

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and we can only imagine that it was their conversation

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on the bridge that morning which brought the poem to life.

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Earth has not anything to show more fair:

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Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

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A sight so touching in its majesty

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This city now doth, like a garment,

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wear the beauty of the morning; silent, bare

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Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

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Open unto the fields and to the skies

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All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

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Never did sun more beautifully steep

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in his first splendour, valley, rock or hill;

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Ne'er saw I, never felt a calm so deep!

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The river glideth at his own sweet will:

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Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;

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And all that mighty heart is lying still!

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The basic experience that Wordsworth is describing

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and is making us live again in this poem,

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is one that of course all of us experience all the time in cities.

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When you're on one side of the river

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and you're in those very close horizons of the streets

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and you've got buildings all around you,

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you've got a lot of noise and activity.

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Then you step out onto the bridge and you walk across the bridge

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and then suddenly there's this space in the air.

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You haven't got buildings in front of your eyes.

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You've got the river there.

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The movement of the poem is very simple,

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from that opening line of astonished statement

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through to that sense of a very deep calmness.

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But across that movement, the poem is charged crucially by a sense of brevity,

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and you can really get a sense of that brevity of experience

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that Wordsworth was talking about when you see the bridge here.

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Then of course there's the brevity of the form, the sonnet,

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which I think really gives the poem its potency, its power.

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It's within those tight 14 lines

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that Wordsworth has to capture this moment of rare beauty.

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I mean, if you just have a look at that opening line,

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"Earth has not anything to show more fair:"

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The weight on that first syllable is total.

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Imagine how much weaker it would have been if he'd said "the world"

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and we didn't have that weight until the second syllable.

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That continues onto the second line when Wordsworth says,

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"Dull would he be of soul who could pass by".

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And who wants to be thought of as being dull of soul?

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None of us. So we stay with the poet and we linger.

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And then again, the close of the poem is broken up

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with this quite surprising apostrophe - "Dear God!"

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- before it falls down to this sense of a very beautiful calmness.

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"he very houses seem asleep:

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"And all that mighty heart is lying still!"

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It's a sublime vision of London, in which the city becomes

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a sleeping, breathing, organic creature.

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The poet Simon Armitage is a fan of Wordsworth,

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who shares my passion for this poem.

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It came as a great shock to me. I look at this poem, with the line,

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"Earth has not anything to show more fair",

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and I think it's going to be about a mountain or a lake or something.

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It turns out to be a poem about London,

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which you would imagine to be Wordsworth's nemesis, really.

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I think I always went on to think about it for a long time afterwards

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as a poem which simply celebrated the city

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and was a kind of anomaly in his work.

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But actually having gone back to the poem a number of times,

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I have a different reading of it now.

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If you look closely at the poem, the city cannot exist as something

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beautiful and miraculous without nature's presence.

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The city is entirely transfigured by the morning sun.

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Not only that, it's framed as well.

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There's a phrase in the poem about

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being open to the fields and the sunlight.

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Every part of the city has a border of nature.

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There's the sky, there's the sun, there's the fields,

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and there is the river.

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After crossing Westminster Bridge, the Wordsworths travelled to Dover

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and then took a boat that evening over to Calais.

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They arrived early the next morning.

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William went on shore and met Annette almost immediately.

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In 1802, Calais was no more glamorous a town than it is today.

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But it must have been a fascinating place to visit

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immediately after ten years of war between England and France.

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Dorothy's journal is quiet detailed about some of their time here.

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She complains about the bad smells in their lodgings

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and she waxes lyrical about the phosphorescence in the sea.

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She is frustratingly quiet on the things we really want to know about.

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What was it like for William and Annette to see one another again?

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Was there still any spark?

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How was it for William to meet his nine-year-old daughter

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for the first time in his life?

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His already imperfect French would have been fairly rusty,

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so how did they even manage to talk to one another?

0:20:260:20:29

What we do know is that they spent a lot of time together on the beach.

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"We walked by the sea shore almost every evening

0:20:370:20:39

"with Annette and Caroline, or William and I alone.

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"I had a bad cold and could not bathe at once, but William did."

0:20:430:20:48

This beach holiday lasted for a whole month,

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and whilst there's no surviving record,

0:20:510:20:53

William and Annette obviously reached some kind of agreement

0:20:530:20:57

which allowed him to marry with a clear conscience.

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The month on the beach also afforded William

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plenty of time for writing poetry.

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Wordsworth loved to form his poems while he was walking,

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ideally across uninterrupted ground

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so that his rhythms and thoughts weren't disturbed.

0:21:130:21:17

So the impressive expanse here would have been the perfect place for him to compose,

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especially because the 12 or 13 poems that he wrote over that month

0:21:230:21:28

were all sonnets, 14 lines, tightly packed,

0:21:280:21:32

and easy to hold in the mind as Wordsworth strode along these sands.

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Once again, Dorothy had a crucial hand in this.

0:21:380:21:41

She had been reading

0:21:410:21:42

the sonnets of the great John Milton to her brother.

0:21:420:21:45

It was these that influenced him to experiment with the sonnet himself.

0:21:450:21:49

Including one fantastic poem which I've always read as kind of

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a counterpoint to his sonnet about the dawn in London,

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in which he mentions his daughter Caroline.

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The poem begins with the evocative lines...

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It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,

0:22:040:22:08

The holy time is quiet as a Nun

0:22:080:22:11

And concludes with these words for his young daughter...

0:22:140:22:17

Dear Child! dear Girl! That walkest with me here,

0:22:170:22:21

If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,

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Thy nature is not therefore less divine:

0:22:240:22:27

It's curious that this brief and unique reference to the poet's daughter,

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although fond, seems strangely detached.

0:22:470:22:50

Especially when compared to the passion that Wordsworth expresses about London.

0:22:500:22:55

That summer of 1802, Wordsworth seems to have focused his energies

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on refining his skills as a sonneteer.

0:23:030:23:05

The sonnets he wrote are all impressive,

0:23:050:23:08

and they provide an important context

0:23:080:23:11

for the sonnet on Westminster Bridge.

0:23:110:23:13

What is really fascinating

0:23:150:23:16

about the story around the writing of this poem,

0:23:160:23:19

is how it touches on so many exciting elements of Wordsworth.

0:23:190:23:24

Nowadays the reputation of Wordsworth is quite often drawn

0:23:240:23:28

from the later part of his life,

0:23:280:23:29

Wordsworth when he was in his establishment phase.

0:23:290:23:32

But the story around this poem

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really reminds us exactly how incredibly radical he was.

0:23:340:23:38

It's worth remembering that as a young man,

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Wordsworth had been an extensive traveller,

0:23:410:23:44

a sympathiser with the French Revolution,

0:23:440:23:46

a father outside of marriage,

0:23:460:23:48

and a poet who chose not to live in literary London,

0:23:480:23:51

but in the Lake District.

0:23:510:23:53

The poem moves between these two places that really formed Wordsworth -

0:23:530:23:57

the Lake District and the radical revolutionary France

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that he had known as a young man.

0:24:020:24:04

And right in the middle, halfway between those two places, is London.

0:24:050:24:09

When you see the poem in this context, it's not surprising

0:24:090:24:12

that what Wordsworth writes is in its own way quite radical.

0:24:120:24:16

There's always been a tendency in, you know,

0:24:180:24:23

traditional forms of literature

0:24:230:24:25

to see the city as places of evil intent.

0:24:250:24:30

You know, filthy, murderous, inhuman places.

0:24:300:24:35

Wordsworth, in this poem, takes the opposite view.

0:24:350:24:40

I think that is quite a watershed moment really, in poetry.

0:24:420:24:46

Even the though the poem is, to a certain extent,

0:24:460:24:48

sentimental and romantic with a small R,

0:24:480:24:51

I still think it's a brave poem,

0:24:510:24:55

especially for somebody like Wordsworth

0:24:550:24:58

whose philosophies lie elsewhere,

0:24:580:25:01

to stand up and stay at this moment, "This is beauty".

0:25:010:25:05

A Vision.

0:25:100:25:12

The future was a beautiful place, once.

0:25:120:25:16

Remember the full-blown balsa-wood town

0:25:160:25:19

on public display in the Civic Hall?

0:25:190:25:22

Ring-bound sketches, artists' impressions,

0:25:220:25:26

blueprints of smoked glass and tubular steel,

0:25:260:25:31

board-game suburbs,

0:25:310:25:33

modes of transportation like fairground rides or executive toys.

0:25:330:25:39

Cities like dreams, cantilevered by light.

0:25:390:25:43

And people like us, at the bottle bank next to the cycle path,

0:25:430:25:48

or dog-walking over tended strips of Fuzzy-Felt grass,

0:25:480:25:53

or model drivers, motoring home in electric cars.

0:25:530:25:58

Or after the late show strolling the boulevard.

0:25:580:26:02

They were the plans,

0:26:020:26:04

all underwritten in the neat left-hand of architects...

0:26:040:26:08

a true, legible script.

0:26:080:26:11

I pulled that future out of the north wind at the landfill site,

0:26:120:26:17

stamped with today's date, riding the air with other such futures,

0:26:170:26:23

all unlived in and now fully extinct.

0:26:230:26:27

From London, the Wordsworths headed back north

0:26:410:26:43

where William finally got to marry Mary.

0:26:430:26:46

He brought his new bride back to Grasmere

0:26:460:26:48

where they lived for the rest of their lives,

0:26:480:26:50

eventually ending up here

0:26:500:26:52

at this grand Victorian villa in Rydal Mount,

0:26:520:26:56

just 20 minutes' walk away from Dove Cottage.

0:26:560:27:00

And Dorothy?

0:27:000:27:01

Well, she lived with her brother and his wife for the rest of her life

0:27:010:27:04

in what was a fairly unusual but remarkably successful domestic arrangement.

0:27:040:27:09

And what about the third woman from that summer of 1802,

0:27:110:27:14

Annette and her daughter Caroline?

0:27:140:27:16

As far as we know, Wordsworth only ever met them one more time

0:27:160:27:21

while on a holiday with his family in Paris 20 years later.

0:27:210:27:25

By which point he and Mary had three teenage children of their own.

0:27:250:27:29

In the end, we have no idea how Wordsworth

0:27:310:27:34

responded to the complex situation he found himself in that summer,

0:27:340:27:38

meeting his mistress and a daughter for the first time

0:27:380:27:42

on the eve of his marriage to Mary.

0:27:420:27:45

But what we do know is that as a result of that journey,

0:27:450:27:48

Wordsworth, our great poet of nature,

0:27:480:27:52

wrote one of the most euphoric poems about a city

0:27:520:27:54

in the English language.

0:27:540:27:56

What really fascinates me though

0:27:580:28:00

is how the resonance of the poem has actually strengthened over time.

0:28:000:28:05

What I mean by that is as the city of London

0:28:050:28:07

becomes increasingly built-up,

0:28:070:28:09

as it becomes increasingly more hectic around us,

0:28:090:28:12

the experience that the poem describes

0:28:120:28:14

of that great sense of relief that we get as we cross over the Thames,

0:28:140:28:19

has over the years actually become not less but more powerful.

0:28:190:28:24

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:400:28:43

Email [email protected]

0:28:430:28:46

Poet and author Owen Sheers presents a series in which he explores six great works of poetry set in the British landscape. Each poem explores a sense of place and identity across Britain and opens the doors to captivating stories about the places and the lives of the poets themselves. This episode features Composed upon Westminster Bridge by William Wordsworth.

In 1802, Wordsworth, the great Romantic poet of nature and the man famous for writing about the Lake District, daffodils and clouds, penned a short but electrifying poem about the stinking, filthy, heaving city of London. In fact, the poem was a captivating, sublime portrait of the city at dawn which still has the power to catch one's breath.

Sheers investigates what Wordsworth was doing when he wrote the poem on a summer morning in 1802, and uncovers a story that involves three different women. Wordsworth lived in Grasmere in the Lake District, sharing a small cottage in an unusual domestic arrangement with his sister Dorothy. In the spring of that year he decided to marry an old schoolfriend, Mary Hutchinson. However, in order to do so he first needed to clear the air with his French ex-girlfriend and mother of his daughter Caroline, a nine-year-old girl he had yet to meet.

In July 1802, William and Dorothy set out from Grasmere to Calais via London on the intriguing journey that would lead them across the bridge. Sheers follows their journey, discovers how the poem came into existence and examines exactly what Wordsworth wrote. He talks to Wordsworth fans including that epitome of Northern cool, poet Simon Armitage, the writer-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust, Adam O'Riordan, and some of the commuters who cross Westminster Bridge every morning on their way to work.


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