John Keats’ prognosis of the “egotistical sublime,” for William Wordsworth, takes a significant course in the 1840s, immediately after his being crowned the poet laureate. Been assured by Minister Robert Peel “you shall have nothing required from you” (Myers, 166) there stood no reason betwixt Wordsworth and his acceptance of the crowning. The contradictions of the egotistical sublime literally mark the most important passage into the poet laureate’s very own Lake District.
The rural idyll that the district of the lakes was became in Wordsworth’s A Guide Through the District of the Lakes in the North of England (1835) a symbol of English high culture and writing the national imaginary of England. Wordsworth’s main concerns in curating this guide is a practical discourse on the consequences that might overtake the aesthetic appeal of the landscapes, for instance, of Kendal and Windermere, with the changing of proprietors from small statesmen to estranged cosmopolitan gentry. The economic rationale and the quasi-egalitarian spirit proposed by Wordsworth begs attention as well as scrutiny on the very justification for his conducting a literary guide to the tourist, addressing whom the writer begins his book in the chapter “Directions and Information for the Tourist.” Tourist features in the titular description of the book itself, presuming already an exterior which he must educate about the Lake District, or for whose benefit even Wordsworth subconsciously writes. In the conclusion, having crossed the preliminary background of the irksome intrusions of the machine Wordsworth commences as the arbiter of English high culture and nationalism in determining the Lakes of North England to be the property of “every man” with an eligible aesthetic sensibility.
The family of each man, whether a statesman or farmer, formerly had a twofold support ; first, the produce of his lands and flocks; and, secondly, the profit drawn from the employment of the women and children, as manufacturers; spinning their own wool in their own houses (work chiefly done in the winter season), and carrying it to market for sale…But, by the invention and universal application of machinery, this second resource has been cut off; the gains being so far reduced, as not to be sought after but by a few aged persons disabled from other employment…The consequence, then, is — that proprietors and farmers being no longer able to maintain themselves upon small farms, several are united in one, and the buildings go to decay, or are destroyed; and that the lands of the (statesmen being mortgaged, and the owners constrained to part with them, they fall into the hands of wealthy purchasers, who in like manner unite and…in a few years the country on the margin of the Lakes will fall almost entirely into the possession of gentry, either strangers or natives. It is then much to be wished, that a better taste should prevail among these new proprietors; and, as they cannot be expected to leave things to themselves, that skill and knowledge should prevent unnecessary deviations from that path of simplicity and beauty along which, without design and unconsciously, their humble predecessors have moved. In this wish the author will be joined by persons of pure taste throughout the whole island, who, by their visits (often repeated) to the Lakes in the North of England, testify that they deem the district a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy (Wordsworth, 1835: 88).
The machinic enterprise, however, that Wordsworth never apprehended before the 1840s was the Kendal and Windermere Railway that began work, with the acquirement of royal consent, in 1845 and was opened in 1847. In 1844, when the plan of construction came threateningly close to the Lake District, Wordsworth wrote fierily in The Morning Post describing the enterprise as “Utilitarianism, serving as a mask for cupidity and gambling speculations,” and pleading his cause with a plaintive apology for the aesthetic destruction of Lake Grasmere by the building of the railroad (1876: 338-39).
In the same year he wrote the following sonnet, to claim the workings of natural repossession of industrial landscapes by the wilderness in spite of the legal owner Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire, who was also the chief advocate for construction of the railroad:
At Furness Abbey (1844)
Here, where, of havoc tired and rash undoing,
Man left this Structure to become Time’s prey
A soothing spirit follows in the way
That Nature takes, her counter-work pursuing.
See how her Ivy clasps the sacred Ruin
Fall to prevent or beautify decay;
And, on the mouldered walls, how bright, how gay,
The flowers in pearly dews their bloom renewing!
Thanks to the place, blessings upon the hour;
Even as I speak the rising Sun’s first smile
Gleams on the grass-crowned top of yon tall Tower
Whose cawing occupants with joy proclaim
Prescriptive title to the shattered pile
Where, Cavendish, ‘thine’ seems nothing but a name! (1852: 236)
The fervor of the above dies in the subsequent sonnet of the same title he wrote in 1845 where he deploys an aesthetic appreciation of working class force drawn in doubly by the beauty of the Lake District and perhaps the marvel they themselves are constructing.
At Furness Abbey (1845)
Well have yon Railway Labourers to this ground
Withdrawn for noontide rest. They sit, they walk
Among the Ruins, but no idle talk
Is heard; to grave demeanour all are bound;
And from one voice a Hymn with tuneful sound
Hallows once more the long-deserted Quire
And thrills the old sepulchral earth, around.
Others look up, and with fixed eyes admire
That wide-spanned arch, wondering how it was raised,
To keep, so high in air, its strength and grace:
All seem to feel the spirit of the place,
And by the general reverence God is praised:
Profane Despoilers, stand ye not reproved,
While thus these simple-hearted men are moved? (1852: 237)
Yet, both the railways and Wordsworth cohabited the Lake District and eventually with mutual commercial interests, nonetheless. From 1842 A Guide Through the District of the Lakes in the North of England began receiving far greater attention for simple reasons of it acting as a grand tourist brochure, which in 1846 had gone into its third edition, having now been of the authorship of the poet-laureate himself. It anticipates, sans any disapproval, the completion of the Kendal and Windermere Railway, along with similar descriptions of other means of travel such as the steamboat. Finally, the 1853 edition dissolves all of Wordsworth’s earlier marked routes addressed to tourists resolving that the railroad had made the journey to the Lake District so comprehensive—needless to mention the basic paradox egalitarian high culture to be detrimental for industry—that the work itself becomes by now one last nostalgic dirge to be sung as the victory march of the industrial sublime.
Wordsworth, William. A Guide Through the District of the Lakes in the North of England: With a Description of the Scenery, &c.,For the Use of Tourists and Residents. Kendal: Hudson and Nicholson, 1835
——. Complete Poetical Works. Ed. Henry Reed. Philadelphia: Troutman and Hayes, 1852.
——. The Prose Works. Ed. Alexander B. Grossart. London: Edward Moxon & Son, 1876.