The Gang
Coleridge, the Hutchinsons & the Wordsworths in 1802

By John Worthen

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2001 Yale University. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-300-08819-1



Chapter One


Many into One Incorporate


The Wordsworths and the Coleridges had elected to live in what was — formiddle-class people, especially writers, at the turn of the nineteenth century — anextraordinary place: far from publishers, libraries, learning, the metropolis,society, friends. The journey to London took two or three days of expensiveand (in winter) extremely uncomfortable travel. Even for Wordsworth andColeridge to get to each other by walking between Keswick and Grasmeremeant a journey of about fourteen miles by the road which went over DunmailRaise (Dorothy, like contemporary maps, called it `the Rays'); it took more thanfour hours to walk uninterruptedly between the two houses on a good day.Whether it was sensible even to undertake the journey would depend on theweather and the condition of the road; and (particularly in winter), with a stopalong the way, trudging through the mud would take them all the hours ofdaylight.

    They had chosen, however, to surround themselves with the mountains,lakes, fields and woods which actually formed the subject of Wordsworth'spoetry, and at crucial times did so for Coleridge too. Nature was a subjectof overwhelming interest to them. This does not of course mean that theyagreed about it. In 1802 Coleridge cared too much about the Christiandivinity, and Wordsworth too little, for full agreement to be possible. Majordifferences between what Coleridge would write about Nature in Dejection,and what — by 1804, at least — Wordsworth would be saying about it inhis Ode show that they disagreed profoundly. But they both wrote directlyabout the importance of Nature for the people they were, had been, andwere involved with, and they drove each other into realising what theybelieved. And Nature was also the constant topic of their exchange with thegroup.

    For this group of people constantly addressed themselves to the naturalworld, in their poems, in their philosophical attitudes and in the everyday relationsof gardens, cooking, weather, view and walk. There is no better way ofseeing this than in their constant habit of naming places, and by looking atwhat they made of the place which — certainly for Dorothy, Wordsworth,Coleridge and Mary Hutchinson, and probably too for Sara Hutchinson — becamethe centre of their joint existence: Grasmere.


II


Grasmere had not of course been just a lucky discovery. Wordsworth had beenthere as a boy:


At sight of this seclusion I forgot My haste for hasty had my footsteps been, As boyish my pursuits ... 20 Long did I halt I could have made it even My business & my errand so to halt For rest of body `twas a perfect place All that luxurious nature could desire, But tempting to the Spirit ...


In April 1794, when he and Dorothy `first began our pilgrimage together',they had stayed a night at Robert Newton's inn on the corner by thechurch; they had walked up from Kendal and Ambleside and over WhiteMoss, to drop down into Grasmere Vale itself. Dorothy remembered how`it was just at sunset. There was a rich yellow light on the waters and theIslands were reflected there'. They were looking at the view which yearslater she would regularly recall in her Grasmere journal. Wordsworth neverforgot the stream (it may even have been the one running down beside thehouse they finally occupied) where they drank as they came down into thevalley:


... when first 10 Two glad Foot-travellers in sun & shower My Love & I came hither while thanks burst Out of our hearts to God for that good hour Eating a Traveller's meal in Shady Bower We from that blessed water slaked our thirst.


They would have walked past the house at Town End, at the extreme southernend of the hamlet, where they came to live five years later: in 1794 it may stillhave been The Dove and Olive Branch inn.

    Wordsworth returned to Grasmere at the start of November 1799. He cameover from the Hutchinson farm at Sockburn in Yorkshire, where he had leftDorothy, Mary and Sara, together with their sister Joanna and their brothersTom, George and Jack; and he came with his brother John as well as withColeridge (Sarah Coleridge and Hartley being still down in Somerset). Theostensible point of the journey was for Wordsworth to look for a house in thearea for himself and Dorothy, but another reason may well have been the factthat Wordsworth and Mary Hutchinson knew that one day they would marry.He would therefore have been looking for a home not just for Dorothy andhimself — or for John, whom they believed would also make his home withthem when not at sea — but for the long-term future, in which he would bemarried and have children. This `small abiding-place of many men' was,ideally, to be


A termination and a last retreat
A Centre, come from wheresoe'er you will


— whether you came from Somerset, or from Sockburn, or from the centrelesslife which both Wordsworth and Dorothy had been leading since 1794.The Coleridges would come up from Somerset to live near them: Wordsworthgave his friend an extensive tour of the region while they were there, to ensurethat he began to become familiar with it. The fact that Coleridge andWordsworth walked up to Keswick after finding the house in Grasmere shows,too, that they were looking for a house near a town which — in such a region — wouldhave been necessary to convince Sarah Coleridge that she couldindeed move up to the Lakes. And they found one `that was being built and wasto be let this midsummer'. From the very start, then, Wordsworth's choice ofthe place to live was involved with the plans and hopes of the rest of the group.In 1804, Mary and Sara's brother Tom would also come to the region, to worka farm near the Clarksons at the head of Ullswater, meaning that not onlySara Hutchinson but her sister Joanna would become regular visitors toGrasmere.

    Wordsworth and Dorothy came over together at the end of December;again, they travelled from Sockburn, this time accompanied part of the wayby George Hutchinson, as far as Leyburn, and on foot thereafter. MollyFisher (who lived just across the road from the house at Town End, andworked for them for 2s a week) had lit fires in the house for a fortnightbefore they arrived, and never forget her first sight of Dorothy `in t'laalstriped gown and tlaal straw Bonnet'. The house (much later known — not bythe Wordsworths — as `Dove Cottage') would prove too small for the verylong-term, but for two people was an excellent starting point: the place wherehe and Dorothy could bring the others together, in what had (appropriately)been an inn for nearly two hundred years, in what they now thought of as`unity':


A Whole without dependence or defect

Made for itself and happy in itsef

170 Perfect Contentment Unity entire.


Although `the Rooms are so small', it offered a good deal of accommodation:in the summer of 1800 it would sleep five adults and a child. John actuallyoffered Wordsworth £40 to build a house in Grasmere, and althoughWordsworth opted for the existing house, John's offer was another kind ofblessing. What Stephen Gill has called the Wordsworths' `hesitant butinexorable movement back to the Lake District' was complete, though I thinkit was by no means an accident that `Coleridge was won over at the same time...' It was part of their shared belief in each other, and in their joint activity,that he should be.

    Being together in this place became seriously important for them. Visitsfrom the group were constant, and one visitor stayed on with them whenWordsworth married Mary in October 1802. (Sara would eventually also makeher home with the Wordsworths.) Wordsworth would write about this visitingand staying in Home at Grasmere.


Such is our wealth: O Vale of Peace we are
And must be, with Gods will, a happy band


Grasmere was where, despite `the quietness / Of this sublime retirement', hewould `boldly say that solitude is not / Where these things are':


Society is here:
The true community the noblest Frame
Of many into one incorporate


That was a way of defining the group politically, and radically, as wellas socially; as John Turner has pointed out, `This is an enthusiasm in whichthe idealisms of pastoral and classical republicanism blend, not to picturethe truth of common day but to give voice to an aspiration delighted to findthat, after all, it may breathe the air of common day'. Above all it was anenthusiasm about how they could think of themselves as a group.

    As a way, however, of keeping the group together even when they were separated,the Wordsworths started to celebrate places in their own immediatelocation by naming them after the people who came to Town End, and whomthey loved. Naming places was a habit Wordsworth may well have known fromhis own childhood in the Lakes, and the Hutchin-sons certainly knew it too. Itwas on a visit to them that Coleridge first encountered it: `In the North everyBrook, every Crag, almost every Field has a name as a proof of greater Independenceand a society more approaching in their Laws and Habits toNature.' Dorothy Wordsworth records a number of names in her journalwhich may have been those she was told, or may have been those which sheand Wordsworth themselves gave to the features they noticed, whileColeridge's notebooks are peppered by the names he was scribbling down,whether from the lips of Wordsworth during his first tour of the region inNovember 1799, or while out walking with someone else — like JohnPonsonby, his host in Ennerdale in August 1802 — or whether he wassimply reading the map he had drawn to take with him when walking andclimbing.

    But naming places was also a practice totally in keeping with theirrelationship as a group. The Wordsworths' first year in Grasmere was 1800.John Wordsworth came for a visit which lasted from January (only a monthafter Dorothy and Wordsworth had themselves arrived) to the end of September;and during that time Mary Hutchinson also came to stay for six weeksbetween February and April; while the Coleridges (with the four-year-oldHartley) arrived in June (Sarah Coleridge six months pregnant with Derwent)and stayed with the Wordsworths in Grasmere for a month before going on totheir house in Keswick. So — apart from Sara Hutchinson — within six monthsthey had all been there, and Sara came over in November for a four-monthvisit.

    By 1 August 1800, the Wordsworths had taken to calling a little spit of landat the foot of Grasmere lake Mary Point; it would be partnered by Sara's Eminence,named after her sister when she came to stay in the winter. (In June1802, Coleridge would go `to S & M points' for a walk.) By October 1800,too, Coleridge had his own `seat' in the neighbourhood; when he was over fora visit on the 22nd, Dorothy noted how `C and I went to look at the prospectfrom his seat'. They constantly extended their range of named places. It wasnot just John's tragic death in February 1805 which made memories of his oneand only stay in Grasmere so important: his sister and brother were namingthings after him soon after he left them in 1800. The first reference inDorothy's journal to `John's Firgrove' appears in April 1801, and she mentionsit twice in November 1801. Leading to it — of course — was `John's path',while one of the Wordsworths' favourite walks was the half-mile from TownEnd up to `John's Grove'. When they took that walk, there was a gate besidethe road, offering the view over Grasmere which Dorothy had first seen in1794 and described in November 1801: `the whole scene impressive, the mountainsindistinct the Lake calm & partly ruffled — large Island, a sweet soundof water falling into the quiet Lake.' They christened it `Sara's Gate':Sara Hutchinson had regularly taken that walk with them, and stood andadmired that view, during her own first visit to Grasmere from November1800 to March 1801. In April 1801, Wordsworth and Dorothy wrote to MaryHutchinson how


This gate was always a favourite station of ours; we love it far more now on Saras account. You know that it commands a beautiful prospect; Sara carved her cypher upon one of its bars and we call it her gate. We will find out another place for your cypher, but you must come and fix upon the place yourself.


    For another aspect of the naming was the actual — at times the ritual — inscriptionof the person's name or initials on the object named. Wordsworthwould write in Home at Grasmere how, after only a few weeks in the valley, hehad begun `Already to inscribe upon my heart' his feelings for the placeand its inhabitants: but the group would cut literal inscriptions on rocks andtrees. I shall discuss later the extraordinary energy they all put into cuttingtheir initials on what they originally called Sara's Rock (just Sara's initialshad first been inscribed), half way between Grasmere and Keswick. Butother objects were inscribed too: for example, while staying with CatherineClarkson at Eusemere in April 1802, Dorothy `marked our names on a tree'(she probably meant her name and Wordsworth's). And there was `Mary'sStone', inscribed during her first visit: `We sate by the roadside at the foot ofthe lake close to Mary's dear name which she had cut herself upon thestone. William employed [sic] cut at it with his knife to make it plainer.'This rock was still known by local people as `Wordsworth's Seat' at the end ofthe nineteenth century. Yet another Hutchinson sister had her own rock: eighteenmonths after the younger sister Joanna had first visited Grasmere,Wordsworth cut her name on a rock, and also wrote his poem `To Joanna' aboutit. And there were at least two further places connected with Sara Hutchinsonbesides her Rock: the seat started on 26 March 1801 on White Moss Common,when Sara herself laid the first stone, but which was not complete until 10October 1801, when Wordsworth and Dorothy and Coleridge finally finishedit — we find the Wordsworths sitting on it in March 1802 — and the so-calledSophs of Sods, built at Windy Brow near Keswick on 13 August 1800. Thiswould be the subject of a poem written by Wordsworth but published byColeridge, and it would be referred to as Sara's own particular place inColeridge's Letter:


And yet far rather, in my present mood,
I would that thou'dst been sitting all this while
Upon the sod-built seat of Camomile —


We know about most of these locations because Dorothy happened to mentionthem in her journal. There must have been others to which she never referred.But the naming of places had become part of their everyday lives. When thatsudden gap opened up in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads in October 1800,Wordsworth and Coleridge quite naturally proposed to fill it with a sectioncalled `Poems on the Naming of Places'.

    Many of the walks they took also involved discovering, inhabiting, revisiting,and making places their own. On 23 April 1802, for example,Wordsworth, Dorothy and Coleridge were looking for a place to sit downwhile out walking, because `The sun shone & we were lazy'; they wereonly about a mile from the Town End house, in fact, at the foot of NabScar at Rydal. But seats were one of their ways of making a place their own,where they would sit together. They were not looking for a `prospect' or aview, as twenty-first-century tourists might be looking: a landscape to escapeother human beings. The Wordsworths, Hutchinsons and Coleridge wanted aplace to be together in. Coleridge was leading the way on this occasion,and `pitched upon several places but we could not be all of one mind respectingsun and shade so we pushed on to the Foot of the Scar'. They leftWordsworth `sitting on the stones feasting with silence — & C and I satedown upon a rock Seat — a Couch it might be under the Bower of William'sEglantine'. Wordsworth thus had no seat; but when they went back down tohim, they found that `He had made himself a seat in the crumbly ground'.Coleridge however remains determined to find something more their own — andhe does:


we found him in a Bower, the sweetest that was ever seen — the Rock on one side is very high & all covered with ivy which hung loosely about & bore bunches of brown berries ... at the top of the Rock there is another spot — it is scarce a Bower, a little parlour, one not enclosed by walls but shaped out for a resting place by the rocks & the ground rising about it. It had a sweet moss carpet — We resolved to go & plant flowers in both these places tomorrow. We wished for Mary and Sara. Dined late.


Their resolution at the end of the day's walking and clambering is characteristicThey plan to revisit: they will improve what they have found: and they willremember those who were not there. The Good Place is committed to theabsent, whose bower it will become; it is dedicated to the future as much as tothe present.

    It would be too easy to dismiss such activity as the transient pleasureof a group of educated and high-spirited people who could afford tospend their days clambering round the Lake District, naming things. Theywere engaged in what we might now call emotional mapping: identifyingthe ways in which they belonged both to each other and to theplace. The good lives they were determined to live, they would define aslives maintained in contact with the needs and feelings of the others, in aplace as beautiful and as rich as possible in shared feelings. Wordsworth andhis sister had, after all, known this particular country since childhood,though they had also lived away from it for a long time: but it had multifariouslinks with their past. Now possessed of their own place in it, they werethe ones bringing the others into it, and creating new memories and newlinks. What Wordsworth and Dorothy brought forward from childhood,the others were now discovering, in a place where they could (in one way)be children together. It would be wrong to ignore this but also wrong to denigrateit.


No where, (or is it fancy) can be found
The one sensation that is here; tis here
Here as it found its way into my heart
In childhood ...


The Hutchinsons and Wordsworths were linked by their situation as orphans,while Coleridge was regularly looking for and enraged by the father figures heencountered. The group centred on Grasmere and Keswick, if at one level children,were children growing up into the possession of adult selves and theemotional recreation and repossession of their world.

(Continues...)