Wednesday, 5 September 2012


Photo: Jo Taylor. One of the exhibitions at the
Wordsworth Museum. The shape of the
River Derwent, with manuscript and typed poetry
overlaid within it.
Anyone who says that poetry is dead should come to Grasmere. The economy of the village is predicated upon poetry; Wordsworth haunts the visitor, whether or not you really want him too. Every street corner has a different quotation from either his poems or Dorothy's journals; every bar and eaterie seems to be seeking authentication through a connection with the family. And, of course, the various Wordsworth abodes surround the village, from Dove Cottage to Rydal, and the newly-opened Allan Bank. Thomas Hardy, on a visit to Grasmere in 1911, wrote that
Wordsworth's grave and headstone are looking very trim and new. A group of tourists who have never read a line of him sit near, addressing and sending off picture postcards…
Not much has changed, apart from the tourists' reading habits; even if you've never read a line of Wordsworth before you arrive, you'll have read several (and several family members' besides) by the time you leave. This written presence is supplemented by the oral, in the guise of regular poetry readings organised by the Wordsworth Trust and patronised by locals and tourists alike. Last night (Tuesday), Grasmere welcomed former-laureate Andrew Motion to St. Oswald's church. It was an appropriate venue: Reading from his new collection The Customs House (thanks to Faber & Faber for the advanced preview) Motion conjured up the literary ghosts of, among others, Siegfried Sassoon, Keats and, naturally, Wordsworth. He spoke from beneath a plaque, Wordsworth's marble head gazing down, and Wordsworth's grave (lying amongst those of Dorothy, his wife Mary, and several of his children, with Hartley Coleridge nestled amongst them) just outside the window. Motion read from his novel, Silver, a sequel to Treasure Island. Motion explained that he thought sequels only work if they are far enough removed from the original to allow the audience to gain a fresh perspective of the new story. This theory of a novelist fit well with the poet standing in a graveyard of poets, putting his own spin on talking in the 'language of real men' to evoke emotions his audience could really feel. It was inevitable that this reading would be coloured with comparison; in a village where you're constantly reminded of the dead poets of the canon, the modern poet must push through these ghosts to make their own voice heard.

Photo: Jo Taylor. St. Oswald's Church
Motion's talk this morning, on the poetry of Edward Thomas, fulfilled a different function. Here was Motion the academic, returning to the topic he did his MPhil in, and bringing a new audience to the poet. As he said of his old English teacher, he invited the audience 'into his head'. And that, too, is what Grasmere seems to be doing. If its heart is the landscape, its head is the poetry inspired by it, and Grasmere is then in a constant state of issuing invitations to enter it. It seems to work; the descendents of the tourists Hardy encountered visit today, take photos of the graves, and leave feeling a little more connected to the poets who lie there. This process of passing on interest is in itself a form of inheritance; I was amused, and not a little gratified, when I went to take photos of Hartley Coleridge's grave (much more unkempt than those of the Wordsworth clan) to notice that when I left, my attention to the stone had piqued the interest of a lady standing behind me.
Photo: Jo Taylor. Hartley Coleridge's grave

Grasmere now, then, stands as a monument to poets past and an invitation to poets now; simultaneously, it recalls readers of the past, and invites modern readers to join them. And what's more, it seems to work.

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