October 21, 2020

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What the poet planted: William Wordsworth’s garden at Dove Cottage

How apt that this year is a milestone for the poet Wordsworth. It is the 250th anniversary of his birth. Since then, he has been hailed as a pioneering ecologist and is a trailblazer for lovers of nature and country life. Jonathan Bate’s new book on him is even called Radical Wordsworth, claiming that he changed the world. I doubt that, especially having read it.

He is, however, a perfect poet for times of social distancing. He lived in a social bubble with his sister, then also with his wife and children. He self-isolated on long walks in wild, remote landscapes. He seldom broke the six-person limit during his early to middle years. In this voluntary lockdown, he produced most of his greatest poetry.

His poetry on natural landscape and his changing relationship to it too are masterpieces, from “Tintern Abbey” to the unsurpassed “Prelude”. Yet he grew to appreciate gardened landscapes too. In 1805 he wrote to his patron, Sir George Beaumont, after a tour in Scotland, that “painters and poets have had the credit of being reckoned the fathers of English gardening”.

By “gardening” he meant landscape gardening. The Lake District and its peaks, the rolling vistas of Devon, the steep Monmouthshire hills round Tintern Abbey are classic Wordsworth territories, but he also became an authority on man-made landscapes. What about gardens as we understand them, plots of flowers and vegetables?

William Wordsworth, ‘a perfect poet for times of social distancing’
William Wordsworth, ‘a perfect poet for times of social distancing’ © Corbis via Getty Images

In 1806 Beaumont invited Wordsworth to make a winter garden at Hall Farm, Coleorton in Leicestershire. The garden is gone but the long letter survives in which he set out his plans. He specified evergreen trees round a small glade with a central pond in which two fish, silver and gold if possible, would be the “mute inhabitants”, contrasting with the blue sky and green grass.

It sounds rather limited, but he had none of the lovely winter-flowering plants that we now grow from China. He wrote of obeying the “control of good sense . . . to assist Nature in moving the affections”. That movement is a theme in his poetry too.

In later life, he planned plantings at Rydal Mount, his home on Lake Windermere. The modern garden there claims to trace back to his taste, but by then he had a steady income and was less dependent on his own labour. In his hard, early years, did he ever work in a productive start-up, a vegetable garden off which he had to live?

The prime site here is little Dove Cottage in Grasmere, overlooking the Lake District’s road to Keswick. In December 1799, Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy moved in. In 1802 Wordsworth married Mary and fathered three of his five children in the house.

He worked in the small garden with his brother John but, in 1805, John died in a shipwreck. Even so, it was at Dove Cottage that Wordsworth finished his first full text of “The Prelude”, that masterly poem of his early life.

Wordsworth lived at the damp and diminutive Dove Cottage for almost 10 years with his sister Dorothy, wife Mary and their children
Wordsworth lived at the damp and diminutive Dove Cottage for almost 10 years with his sister Dorothy, wife Mary and their children © Gareth Gardner

Within a year, the Wordsworths had tried to move out of the damp, cold place. They stayed, however, for another eight years. In the third, when Wordsworth prepared briefly to go wooing Mary, his fine poem “A Farewell” calls the garden “the loveliest spot man hath ever found”.

As the site of emotional and poetic dramas, Dove Cottage is unmissable. In the early morning, Dorothy would watch the swallows in their nests by the back wall. Unruly Coleridge arrived by moonlight. De Quincey, the young opium-eater, did the same and then took the lease in 1809. He changed the garden, probably for the worse.

Nonetheless, in 1890 the cottage was bought and put in a trust to preserve it for the nation. It has just been excellently restored with help from national funds and independent trusts. A new museum sits beside it, almost ready to open. It is a fascinating place to visit, a national must.

In the adjoining stables I began by enjoying a film of the poet’s life, with subtitles in Japanese. Wordsworth’s running theme of nature and his perceptions of it sit well with Japanese poetry. In 2016 Dove Cottage sent a well-devised exhibition, Wordsworth and Bashō: Walking Poets, out to Osaka. These two great poets of nature were solitary foot-sloggers on the open road.

Within a year, Dorothy was writing of the young roses and honeysuckle that she and William had planted on Dove Cottage’s wall. Productive red-flowered runner beans were growing there too. Letters show that Wordsworth hoed and grew parsnips, gooseberries, rhubarb, lettuces and spinach. Short of cash, he needed the crops.

One of his special projects was to be a hut, coated with heather and lined inside with moss “like a wren’s nest”. The idea for it came from a moss hut seen in Scotland in 1803. He set it at the top of steps ascending to a little terrace with views to the lake and hills. Somehow the moss stayed green inside.

In the garden there were fruit trees, Wordsworth’s vegetables and wild flowers that he and Dorothy brought back from their walks, celandines, primroses and so forth. There were also lilies received from village neighbours. Wild daffodils were planted too, like those he immortalised after seeing them in 1802 on a walk with Dorothy, not “lonely as a cloud”.

The garden’s original planting does not survive, but a professional gardener will be working soon to restore it. Even so, the little slope is powerfully evocative. Here Wordsworth composed poems to butterflies, observing them just as we do in these final flickers of warm autumn. He wrote about birds, a linnet, a robin and the blue eggs in a hedge sparrow’s nest.

With Jeff Cowton, expert curator of the Wordsworth Centre, I climbed the garden’s little slope and tried to decide where Wordsworth had grown vegetables beside the rocky outcrops.

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Inside the cottage my perceptions of life at Grasmere became more focused. The Wordsworths were so hard up and it was such a small space. In the upper rooms they used a technique to keep warm that may appeal in a carbon-light age. They lined the walls with newspapers, giving a new twist to the idea of a “print room”, though their papers were black and white, not pink.

Downstairs Wordsworth slept in a student-sized bed with his new wife Mary. Meanwhile Dorothy wrote her journal and cleaned at night in the adjoining kitchen with no passage between herself and them.

On their wedding day she entered words in her shortlived journal, which Cowton showed me, a treasure, in the adjoining museum. She slept the night before, she records, wearing the wedding ring and in the morning William took it off, then slipped it back on to her finger. In this private journal these six lines have been heavily scrawled over. We do not know by whom or why.

At Dove Cottage Wordsworth believed that a common nature is infused through the natural world and that all of us share it too. From a love of nature, therefore, follows love of man, as if ethics can derive from ecology.

In the evenings I sit and feel linked to the growth of my garden, but I do not therefore feel at one with humanity. There was more to that wedding ring than a nature shared with the daffodils.

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