Plain Living and High Thinking Went On At William Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage

I ducked inside the front door of a little white house and stepped into a dimly lit, low-ceilinged room with slate floors and diamond-paned windows. A crackling fire took the chill off and a portrait of a Border Terrier named Pepper hung on the opposite wall. “Oh, wow,” I whispered.

Dove CottageThis was Dove Cottage, the home where William Wordsworth wrote the poems that would make him famous. Talk about starting my trip to the Lake District with a bang.

In late 1799, William and his sister, Dorothy, rented a six-room cottage on the outskirts of Grasmere, England that had once been an inn called the Dove and Olive Bough. Here, the Wordsworths entertained their friends, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who penned the well-known line, “Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink”; Robert Southey, who wrote The Story of the Three Bears; and Thomas de Quincey, the author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater who rented “the little white cottage gleaming from the midst of trees” after the Wordsworths moved and lived there for the next 27 years.

“Plain living and high thinking” went on at Dove Cottage, de Quincey said. The Wordsworths read aloud from the works of Spenser, Milton and Chaucer. They discussed books like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. They carved their initials on a boulder behind the cottage, calling it the Rock of Names.

William Wordsworth's initials on the Rock of Names, Dove Cottage

They wandered the countryside, thinking nothing of walking dozens of miles a day. Dorothy collected wild thyme, foxgloves, ferns, English primroses, bluebells and columbine to plant in their garden. She sowed peas, turnips, radishes, broccoli, bistort and runner beans. Honeysuckle, sweet peas and roses climbed the cottage’s white walls to cover them, since William didn’t care for white houses.

On the hillside behind the cottage, they hewed from the granite a strategically placed resting spot known as “Dorothy’s Seat.”Dove Cottage

They also built stone terraces on that hill. William paced these level, smooth surfaces as he composed, chanting the words in time with his steps.Dove Cottage

And they wrote. While William composed the poems that would be regarded as the beginning of the Age of Romanticism, Dorothy filled four journals with accounts of how they spent their days. These now-famous Grasmere Journals provide such a vivid picture of the Wordsworths’ daily life that they were an invaluable resource during Dove Cottage’s restoration.Dorothy Wordsworth journal entry about daffodils, Wordsworth Museum

Dorothy’s most famous journal entry, dated April 15, 1802, inspired William’s famous poem, “I wandered lonely as a Cloud.”

I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing,” she wrote.

In October 1802, Dorothy and William’s childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson, married William and moved in.  Three of William and Mary’s five children were born in the cottage, sleeping in a small room once used to store wood. Dorothy pasted newspapers on the walls to make it warmer.Dove Cottage

The little house was no match for William’s growing family…and fame. They were vexed by how cramped and noisy it became and were inundated with visits by tourists. William cut a door out of the cottage’s back wall to escape the din. When he still was unable to concentrate, they built a moss hut at the top of the steep slope behind the cottage as a quiet retreat. After eight years, they moved on.

Dove Cottage

Next door, the Wordsworth Museum holds a renowned collection of Wordsworth artifacts, including clothes, personal objects, letters, journals and poems.

My favorites were the Pace Eggs that James Dixon, the Wordsworths’ gardener, decorated for their grandchildren between 1868 and 1878. If they weren’t cracked and eaten during breakfast on Easter Sunday, Pace Eggs were traditionally given to friends, used as household decorations, played with in games or shared with performers in northern English villages known as Pace Eggers.

Pace eggs, Wordsworth Museum

The collection also includes a copy of Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poetry by William and Coleridge that was first published in 1798 and is regarded as the beginning of the Romantic movement in English literature. The volume includes Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.”

Dorothy’s journals provide a backstory to “Christabel,” a poem of Coleridge’s that was intended to be included in Lyrical Ballads until the friends had a spat. “Christabel” is first mentioned in an August 1800 entry, when Dorothy shares that Coleridge read it to them. In October, she records that William had determined not to print the poem in Lyrical Ballads.

The Wordsworths' copy of "Christabel," Wordsworth Museum

This torn page of the beginning of the preface of the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, printed in 1800, was a signal to the bookbinder to take “Christabel” out of subsequent copies of the book.Torn page, Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth Museum

Author Val McDermid researched the collection as part of her work on The Grave Tattoo, a murder mystery involving the connection between a tattooed body discovered on a Lake District hillside; Fletcher Christian, the leader of the mutiny on HMS Bounty, and his schoolmate, William Wordsworth.  (To learn more, read “Val McDermid of Tattoos and Christian Fletcher,” from Shots, a crime and thriller ezine. )

For more on Dove Cottage, the Wordsworth Museum and its terrific gift shop, click here.

To delve into the Wordsworths, check out William Wordsworth and the Age of English Romanticism, by Jonathan Wordsworth, Michael C. Jaye and Robert Woof; The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life, by Frances Wilson, and a March 22, 2009 NPR story about the book; Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday, by Carol Ann Duffy; The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth and Lamb, by Dove CottageStanley Plumly; A Passionate Sisterhood: The Sisters, Wives and Daughters of the Lake Poets, by Kathleen Jones; “William Wordsworth at Cockermouth and Grasmere,” a chapter in The Writer’s Garden: How Gardens Inspired Our Best-Loved Authors, by Jackie Bennett; Cooking and Dining with the Wordsworths: From Dove Cottage to Rydal Mount, by Peter Brears; Reminiscences of the English Lake Poets, by Thomas de Quincey; The Lakeland Poets: In the Footsteps of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey and Others, edited by Andrew Pagett; Dove Cottage, in Little Journeys to the Homes of Good Men and Great, by Elbert Hubbard; Some Portraits of the Lake Poets and Their Homes, by Ashley P. Abraham; Wordsworth’s Gardens, by Carol Buchanan, with photographs by Richard Buchanan; Delighted with Grasmere: An Idyll of the Vale, by Jane West; and Housman Country: Into the Heart of England, by Peter Parker.  Dove Cottage is mentioned in Freud’s Couch, Scott’s Buttocks, Brontë’s Grave, Simon Goldhill’s account of his literary pilgrimages. And “Ghosting Grasmere: The Musealisation of Dove Cottage” is a chapter in Literary Tourism and Nineteenth-Century Culture, edited by Nicola J. Watson.

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