Dove CottagePosted: May 1, 2011
Dove Cottage is where William Wordsworth lived for eight years and wrote some of his most celebrated poetry. I went on a guided tour there during a trip to the Lake District last week, and was shown where William, Mary (his wife) and Dorothy (his journal-writing sister) lived, ate, slept and brought up children; in Wordsworth’s garden I sat and enjoyed the same views over Grasmere that he did (with an additional set of grey houses and some diggers); in the adjoining Wordsworth Museum I viewed manuscripts of The Prelude through glass (see the Digital Wordsworth resource for some examples); in the Gift Shop I could choose from a library of Wordsworth editions to take home.
I told a computerized visitor survey that my visit was ‘for leisure’. Nonetheless, the day-trip will inevitably affect how I read Wordsworth’s verse in future—to a point. I know more about the conditions in which Wordsworth wrote, but this understanding doesn’t make me any more sensitive to the thematic resonances of his poetry. His work is, among other things, about landscape, nature and the imagination: Wordsworth wasn’t completing a commission for the Lake District tourist board (though he did also write a guide to the Lakes). The knowledge I gained about Wordsworth’s poetry was valuable, but inessential.
You might reasonably ask, though, whether reading Wordsworth’s poetry is primarily a leisure activity, and therefore not something that needs to be studied in school. In other words: read Wordsworth if that’s your idea of fun, but don’t confuse it with proper work or study. Dove Cottage does indeed perform a variety of educational and cultural duties: in addition to preserving a Grade I listed building and promoting Wordsworth’s works, it is a centre for contemporary poetry and does lots of outreach work. Most visitors to Dove Cottage travel there, as I did, for a stimulating leisure activity. You might also wonder why we need professional scholars to devote their energies to Wordsworth’s poetry, when the Cottage and Museum’s curators are well-placed to protect Wordsworth’s legacy.
The soft answer to these questions (and a common one) is that Wordsworth forms part of the British cultural consciousness, and so wouldn’t it be a terrible thing if the next generation didn’t know ‘Daffodils‘? An alternative, stronger answer is that studying Wordsworth’s works, rather than just reading them, does not just transmit a time-worn appreciation of his poetry and its literary historical importance, but challenges us to respond anew to the poet, and push ourselves to read more closely and intently. Scholars are at the vanguard of this effort, since they expose blind-spots in previous interpretations, explore new connections and contextual information, and bring Wordsworth studies into line with the latest methodological developments.
The difference between studying and reading can be measured in the time and attention given to the activity. The additional concentration required when studying a poet (whether a researcher or GCSE student) is qualitatively different from having an amateur interest, and this is why it’s important to support this additional expenditure of energy in classrooms and research libraries.
I’d recommend a visit to Dove Cottage without hesitation. Beyond being tourist attraction, the Cottage has links with schools and professional scholars that are important to fulfilling its mission. The Cottage is a precious supplement to full-time education, but it is a different type of institution. Recreational activities—visiting a museum, watching a documentary or reading poetry before going to bed—are nourishing and important. But these pastimes have less intensity and mind-strengthening capacity than being made to pore over literature. Dove Cottage sparks enthusiasm to immerse yourself in the Wordsworths’ poetry and journals, but you don’t need to visit in order to appreciate or engage deeply with them.