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?
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