Literature and the Lakes
At the end of the 18th Century the Lake District became the focus for a group of young poets.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge had already received recognition for his work when his friend arguably the Lake Districts most famous resident, William Wordsworth introduced him to the area. Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth and educated at Hawkshead grammar school where his initials remain on the desk to this day after he carved them into the desk.
After completing his education at Cambridge University Wordsworth lived in Somerset for some time before traveling the continent partially with Coleridge who was his neighbour in Somerset, however before long the Lake District countryside beckoned the young poet home and he returned to live in the Lakes. Wordsworth was a political character and his romantic poetry was his answer to the industrial revolution taking place at the time and he campaigned to keep the railways from destroying the countryside he knew and loved.
His most famous and best known poem is ‘the daffodils’ however much of Wordsworth’s work was far more serious and held in higher regard. He was asked on several occasion to become poet laureate but refused as he did not wish to write to order. When he eventually accepted the post he was in his seventies up until his death 7 years later, however he never deviated from his principles and never wrote a piece of ‘official’ poetry.
Coleridge’s life on the other hand took a downward turn when he moved to the Lakes, his marriage failed and he began to take opium. When he left the area in 1803 his life was in tatters and he never fully recovered. Coleridge and Wordsworth collaborated on ‘Lyrical Ballads’ during his time in the Lake District.
Wordsworth’s home Dove Cottage in Grasmere is now a museum celebrating many of the Lakes poets and their friends. The cottage was also the home to another writer, Thomas De Quincey who is best remembered for “Confessions of an opium eater” and ironically succumbed to his addictions whilst residing at Dove Cottage.
Robert Southey, Coleridge’s brother in law and a well renowned poet in his own right although somewhat neglected in recent years, was poet laureate from 1813 till his death in 1843 when William Wordsworth took the post. Southey acted as a sort of foster father to Coleridge’s children and it is believed during this time that he wrote the well-known children’s tale ‘The three bears’
Sir Walter Scott was also fond of the Lake District and had recommended Southey for poet laureate and on one occasion had climbed Hellvellyn in the company of Wordsworth and another friend Humphry Davy. This was shortly after the untimely death on the mountain of Charles Gough whose body was found on the mountain guarded by his faithful hound and inspired Scott to write a poem about the tragedy.
Another poet who loved the Lakes was Tennyson and used descriptions of the landscape in “Morte D’Arthur”, however it was the radical, social reformer John Ruskin who would continue the theme of Wordsworth’s work on nature, man and society. He arrived in the Lakes in 1830 and was seduced right away and spent most of his life in the area, even though he wrote little poetry his poetic prose was highly thought of. Ruskin was a prolific writer with a passion for beauty which he channelled in to his works about paintings, buildings and many other subjects.
You can learn all about William Wordsworth at Dove Cottage and also visit his final resting place at St Oswald’s church in Grasmere. Coniston is home to the award-winning Ruskin Museum which has the most comprehensive display in the Lake District about the life and work of John Ruskin as well as being a cabinet of curiosities detailing the story of Coniston.