Wordsworth and the Lake District Rivers

by David Murray on 18 January 2011

in Cumbria, Poets, Rivers, William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth at 28

I sat down to write about the River Duddon, but something more emerged.

Recently I’ve been posting on Twitter a daily quotation from William Wordsworth, chiefly from his poetry.  The difficulty, though, is Twitter’s limitation to 140 characters.  It restricts one’s ability to do full justice to the bard.  Having started to write this morning I then thought it might be good to include here a few more extensive passages, and not only about the Duddon..

One of my most prized possessions is a leather-bound volume of “Wordsworth’s Poetical Works” inherited from my late mother. It was awarded to her in 1925 as the “Dorothy Fisher Memorial Prize” for “taking First Place in Form V” at Ulverston Victoria Grammar School. (There I go again, boasting my North Lonsdale/Cumbrian credentials, even though I’ve been away among the diaspora for more than sixty years). Well, down came the book from the shelf and this is what materialised.

Our poet was fascinated by the sound and sight of water. He loved the Cumbrian rivers. In Dungeon Ghyll Force (aka The Idle Shepherd Boys, 1800) he describes himself as;

A Poet, one who loves the brooks
Far better than the sages’ books.

At the commencement of one of his very early poems, An Evening Walk (1797), he recalls the shore of Derwent Water close to the Lodore Falls:

Far from my dearest friend, tis mine to rove
Through bare grey dell, high wood, and pastoral cove;
Where Derwent rests, and listens to the roar
That stuns the tremulous cliffs of high Lodore …

And as he comes to the end of his walk,

The song of mountain streams, unheard by day,
Now hardly heard, beguiles my homeward way.

He loved the stream and the falls at Aira Force (sometimes Airey Force), near Ullswater. A day or two ago I tweeted (from The Somnambulist),

“At eve; how softly then doth Aira-force,
That torrent hoarse, speak from the woody glen!”

On another day though (in Airey-Force Valley, 1842)  all was quiet. He describes how against logic the noise of the rippling brook seems rather to amplify the silence than to break in upon it.

Not a breath of air
Ruffles the bosom of this leafy glen.
From the brook’s margin, wide around, the trees
Are steadfast as the rocks; the brook itself,
Old as the hills that feed it from afar,
Doth rather deepen than disturb the calm
Where all things else are still and motionless.

From childhood rivers had been in his blood. His father’s house in Cockermouth, now preserved by the National Trust, backs onto the River Derwent.  He wrote of these early years in The Prelude (1799-1805):

The fairest of all Rivers loved
To blend his murmurs with my nurse’s song,
And, from his alder shades and rocky falls,
And from his fords and shallows, sent a voice
That flow’d along my dreams …..

He writes of swimming, fishing, boating in years long before “health and safety” considerations placed confining restrictions around much of centuries-old childhood exploration.

His poetry visits many rivers, not only in his native Lake District. The Thames, for example, gets its share of attention.

Glide gently, thus for ever glide, O Thames …

But the streams of his northern home take first place. Last weekend the BBC programme Countryfile visited the Duddon Valley, which Wordsworth had known since boyhood and which, until the 1974 creation of Cumbria, formed the boundary between Cumberland and Lancashire. Without doubt this was one of his favourite Lake District rivers.

Relaxing at leisure one evening in Ulpha churchyard he sees

… distant moonlit mountains faintly shine,
Soothed by the unseen River’s gentle roar.

Those words are taken from his 1820 series of twenty-four sonnets to The River Duddon. Here are more.

Pure flow the verse, pure, vigorous, free, and bright,
For Duddon, long-loved Duddon, is my theme!

… Duddon! as I cast my eyes,
I see what was, and is, and will abide;
Still glides the Stream, and shall for ever glide.

And as it reaches the estuary, the once roaring torrent, then gliding stream, is about to flow into the Irish Sea. He watches its

… radiant progress toward the Deep
Where mightiest rivers into powerless sleep
Sink, and forget their nature – now expands
Majestic Duddon, over smooth flat sands
Gliding in silence with unfettered sweep!

Past the Dunnerholme promontary to the south, watched over by Black Combe from the north, the Duddon, once “tumultuous”, flows smoothly on and, likening it to the end course of a redeemed human life, Wordsworth sees it as

Prepared, in peace of heart, in calm of mind
And soul, to mingle with Eternity!

For an affordable copy of The Collected Poems of William Wordsworth from Amazon.co.uk, click on the title.

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