Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Wordsworths: Romantics at Christmas

William Wordsworth's ice skates
When I decided to write a post about the Romantics at Christmas, one family immediately came to mind: the Wordsworths. The festive season repeatedly punctuates William Wordsworth's work, from a community gathered together at Christmas in 'The Thorn' and the image of a family sitting 'Like happy people round a Christmas fire' in 'Michael' to the minstrels playing their 'Christmas tune' in the River Duddon sonnets. We encounter joyful recollections of the 'frosty season' in Book I of The Prelude, in which Wordsworth explains how 'cottage windows through the twilight blazed'. The poem reveals how the young William 'wheeled about' on his ice skates, 'Proud and exulting, like an untired horse / That cares not for its home'. 

Unfortunately, Christmas was not always a happy time for Wordsworth. In Book XI of The Prelude, he recalls the Christmas of 1783 in what has become known as the 'Waiting for the Horses' episode. Wordsworth recollects how at thirteen years of age he waited, 'Feverish, and tired, and restless', to return home for the holidays, only for his father to die within ten days. Although Wordsworth found something positive in this 'spot of time', returning to the memory in future years to 'drink / As at a fountain' and seek consolation, the episode certainly has a sombre tone.

Christmas Day was also an important time for the Wordsworth family for another, happier, reason: it was the date on which, in 1771, William's sister Dorothy was born. Dorothy clearly reflected a great deal on the date of her birthday, writing to Lady Beaumont on 25 December 1805 that:

[A] birthday is to every body a time of serious thought, but more so, I should think, when it happens to be upon a day of general festivity, and especially on Christmas-day, when all persons, however widely scattered, are in their thoughts gathered together at home. I can almost tell where every Birth-day of my life was spent, many of them even how from a very early time.

Dorothy proceeds to explain that for a number of years (between the deaths of her mother and father) she was 'never once at home' for Christmas, and talks with sadness about the memories of the season held by her brothers of which she is not a part. 

Dorothy Wordsworth
Understandably, the adult Dorothy clearly relished being with her family at this time of year. She writes contentedly in her journal on Christmas Eve 1802 that 'William is now sitting by me [...] I have been beside him ever since tea running the heel of a stocking, repeating some of his sonnets to him, listening to his own repeating, reading some of Milton's & the Allegro & Penseroso'. Within this tiny glimpse of one seemingly unremarkable Christmas Eve at Dove Cottage, we're able to view a picture of genuine harmony and tenderness between the two siblings. 

While Christmas may have had sad associations at times for both William and Dorothy, then, they certainly cherished being reunited as adults. Even simple pleasures such as a walk together were moments to be treasured; I shall close this post with Dorothy's journal entry for 26 December 1801, in which the landscape is described as being so still and quiet that the pair could be the only people in the world at that moment:

The rain went off & we walked to Rydale - it was very pleasant - Grasmere Lake a beautiful image of stillness, clear as glass, reflecting all things - the wind was up & the waters sounding. The lake of a rich purple, the field a soft yellow, the Island yellowish-green, the copses Red Brown the mountains purple. The Church & buildings, how quiet they were!

Thank you to all those who have read my blog in 2015; wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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