Posts Tagged ‘Brothers’ Parting Stone’

What is the connection between England’s most famous Romantic poet and the generally humble Grisdale family? Did Wordsworth ever know there was a connection and if he did would he have cared? A story of parallel universes.

Dove Cottage, Grasmere

Dove Cottage, Grasmere

On fine late September day in 1800, poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy walked with their brother John the few miles over the hills from their home at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, to Grisedale Tarn, a tiny mountain lake at the head of Grisedale Pass, overlooking Lake Ullswater, in the English Lake District. John had for some months been visiting his family in their native county, but now he had to return to his duties as a Captain of an East India Company ship. Grisedale Tarn was one of John’s favourite spots; he loved to sit and fish there. It was here that William and Dorothy made their farewells and ‘they had waved him off down the path to Patterdale where it leaves Grisedale Tarn’ – from there to proceed to Penrith.

Just over four years later John was shipwrecked and died.  ‘John Wordsworth had sailed early in 1805 in command of the East Indiaman Abergavenny, which was wrecked by the fault of a pilot off the Bill of Portland on 5 Feb. The captain, who behaved with great courage, and over two hundred persons were lost.’

Amelia Murray had seen the loss of the Abergavenny; she wrote:

One morning, coming down early, I saw what I thought was a great big ship without any hull. This was the Abergavenny, East Indiaman, which had sunk with all sails set, hardly three miles from the shore, and all on board perished.

Had any of the crew taken refuge in the main-top, they might have been saved; but the bowsprit, which was crowded with human beings, gave a lurch into the sea as the ship settled down, and thus all were washed off—though the timber appeared again above water when the ‘Abergavenny’ touched the ground. The ship had sprung a leak off St. Alban’s Head; and in spite of pumps, she went to the bottom just within reach of safety.

The Wordsworth siblings were very close, perhaps as a reaction against their rather severe and often absent father, and William was distraught following his brother’s death. It wasn’t too long before he started to put his feelings into his poetry. Later the same year he started to write an elegy to John called: Elegiac Verses in Memory of My Brother, John Wordsworth. The complete verses are reproduced at the end.

The Earl of Abergavenny

The Earl of Abergavenny

It is said that Wordsworth hadn’t wanted to visit Grisedale Tarn again for some time after his brother’s death – it would bring back too painful memories. But on 8 June 1805, in the company of a neighbour, he trekked up to Grisedale Tarn to fish. It was here he started to compose his elegy to his brother. It seems he left in tears, unable to remain, but he returned a few days later with Dorothy and Mary (his wife). “Leaving them behind at Grisedale Tarn, he began to walk in his brother’s footsteps… to Patterdale”

In Memory of My Brother, John Wordsworth, Commander of the E. I. Company’s Ship, The Earl Of Abergavenny, in which He Perished by Calamitous Shipwreck, Feb. 6th, 1805, to give it its full title, wasn’t published until 1842.

Dorothy Wordsworth wrote to her friend Miss Jane Pollard after her brother’s death:

Grisedale Tarn

Grisedale Tarn

… It does me good to weep for him, and it does me good to find that others weep, and I bless them for it. … It is with me, when I write, as when I am walking out in this vale, once so full of joy. I can turn to no object that does not remind me of our loss. I see nothing that he would not have loved, and enjoyed…. My consolations rather come to me in gusts of feeling, than are the quiet growth of my mind. I know it will not always be so. The time will come when the light of the setting sun upon these mountain tops will be as heretofore a pure joy; not the same gladness, that can never be—but yet a joy even more tender. It will soothe me to know how happy he would have been, could he have seen the same beautiful spectacle…. He was taken away in the freshness of his manhood; pure he was, and innocent as a child. Never human being was more thoroughly modest, and his courage I need not speak of. He was ‘seen speaking with apparent cheerfulness to the first mate a few minutes before the ship went down;’ and when nothing more could be done, He said, ‘the will of God be done.’ I have no doubt when he felt that it was out of his power to save his life he was as calm as before, if some thought of what we should endure did not awaken a pang…. He loved solitude, and he rejoiced in society. He would wander alone amongst these hills with his fishing-rod, or led on by the mere pleasure of walking, for many hours; or he would walk with W. or me, or both of us, and was continually pointing out—with a gladness which is seldom seen but in very young people—something which perhaps would have escaped our observation; for he had so fine an eye that no distinction was unnoticed by him, and so tender a feeling that he never noticed anything in vain. Many a time has he called out to me at evening to look at the moon or stars, or a cloudy sky, or this vale in the quiet moonlight; but the stars and moon were his chief delight. He made of them his companions when he was at sea, and was never tired of those thoughts which the silence of the night fed in him. Then he was so happy by the fireside. Any little business of the house interested him. He loved our cottage. He helped us to furnish it, and to make the garden. Trees are growing now which he planted…. He staid with us till the 29th of September, having come to us about the end of January. During that time Mary Hutchinson—now Mary Wordsworth—staid with us six weeks. John used to walk with her everywhere, and they were exceedingly attached to each other; so my poor sister mourns with us, not merely because we have lost one who was so dear to William and me, but from tender love to John and an intimate knowledge of him. Her hopes as well as ours were fixed on John…. I can think of nothing but of our departed Brother, yet I am very tranquil to-day. I honour him, and love him, and glory in his memory…. March 16th, 1805. Grasmere.

After the poet’s death in 1850, at a meeting of The Wordsworth Society held at Grasmere, in July 1881, it was proposed by one of the members, the Rev. H. D. Rawnsley, then Vicar of Wray, to erect some memorial at the parting-place of the brothers. In June 1882 Rawnsley wrote:

A proposition, made by one of its members to the Wordsworth Society when it met in Grasmere in 1881, to mark the spot in the Grisedale Pass of Wordsworth’s parting from his brother John—and to carry out a wish the poet seems to have hinted at in the last of his elegiac verses in memory of that parting—is now being put into effect. It has been determined, after correspondence with Lord Coleridge, Dr. Cradock, Professor Knight, and Mr. Hills, to have inscribed — (on the native rock, if possible)—the first four lines of Stanzas III. and VII. of these verses:

“Here did we stop; and here looked round

While each into himself descends,

For that last thought of parting Friends

That is not to be found.

Brother and friend, if verse of mine

Have power to make thy virtues known,

Here let a monumental Stone

Stand–sacred as a Shrine.”

The rock selected is a fine mass, facing the east, on the left of the track as one descends from Grisedale Tarn towards Patterdale, and is about 100 yards from the tarn. No more suitable one can be found, and we have the testimony of Mr. David Richardson of Newcastle, who has practical knowledge of engineering, that it is the fittest, both from shape and from slight incline of plane.

It has been proposed to sink a panel in the face of the rock, that so the inscription may be slightly protected, and to engrave the letters upon the face of the panel thus obtained. But it is not quite certain yet that the grain of the rock— volcanic ash—will admit of the lettering. If this cannot be carried out, it has been determined to have the letters engraved upon a slab of Langdale slate, and imbed it in the Grisedale Rock .

It is believed that the simplicity of the design, the lonely isolation of this mountain memorial, will appeal at once to the few who pass this way, Traveller or Shepherd.

And we in our turn appeal to English tourists who may chance to see it, to forego the wish of adding to it, or taking anything from it, by engraving their own names; and to let the Monumental Stone stand, as the poet wished it might ‘… stand, sacred as a Shrine.’

The Brothers' Parting Stone

The Brothers’ Parting Stone

The stone was duly engraved and is called The Brothers’ Parting Stone. English and other tourists can still see it to this day, though it is rather weather-worn.

I tell this story mainly because when I first heard it, while walking in the Lake District as a young man, I found it touching. But was the only connection Wordsworth had with the name Grisedale (or Grisdale as William and Dorothy tended to call it, using its older form) the name of the tarn? Not at all, as I will tell.

William Wordsworth was a Romantic poet and he didn’t really understand the working life and people of the Lakes he did so much to eulogize and popularize. Canon Rawnsley interviewed (to use an anachronistic term) quite a few local people after Wordsworth’s death regarding their dealings with the poet. One Westmorland farmer who had met Wordsworth answered Rawnsley’s questions thus:

Why… Wordsworth never said much to folk; quite different from li’le Hartley (Coleridge) as knawed the insides of cottages for miles around, and was welcomed in ’em all.

When asked, “Do you think that he had any friends among the shepherds?” he replied:

Naay, Naay, he cared nowt about folk, nor sheep, nor dogs – his hobby was potry.

It is just not the case that, as one rather starry-eyed American writer I recently had the misfortune to read wrote:

Wordsworth is not simply narrating to his readers what rural life is like; he is demonstrating it to them in the most realistic way that he knows how. Unlike other poets, Wordsworth knows rural life and can properly create a dialogue between two rural figures because he has been in conversation with rural people before. Not only is Wordsworth familiar with rural life, but he is also educated, making it that much easier for him to say what he wants to say in the way he wants to say it, thus portraying rustic living as accurately as he can to an audience that may not have been exposed to a realistic account of rural life before.

The life and work of William Wordsworth and the lives of the common people of the land he loved were parallel universes, they never really touched. If they ‘saw’ each other now and again they quickly ‘unsaw’; to borrow the language of China Mieville’s superb novel The City and The City.

Wordsworth House, Cockermouth

Wordsworth House, Cockermouth

William had of course been born in Cumberland, in 1770, in the ‘pocket’ – and decidedly ‘rotten’ – borough of Cockermouth. His parent’s house, now unsurprisingly called Wordsworth House, was and is ‘the largest, newest (built 1745), and most splendid house in Cockermouth in 1774, so large and splendid that it remains unmatched in the town to this day: this was his “father’s house.” Wordsworth’s birthplace was a spacious town mansion, with impressive drawing rooms on the first floor and plenty of bedrooms for a large family and servants on the second, plus a subterranean ground floor that opened out at the rear to an exquisite long garden running down to the river Derwent.’ Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described Wordsworth House in his book ‘The Buildings of England – Cumberland and Westmorland’ as ‘quite a swagger house for such a town’.

How had such a magnificent house come to be built in a tiny town which at the time ‘consisted of one road enclosed between the Derwent and a wall, with access to the countryside through gates at either end of the street’.

It had been built in 1745 by a gentleman called Joshua Lucock, the then High Sheriff of Cumberland, a member of an old but inbred and struggling aristocratic family. Eventually the family became so inbred that many of them ended up literally mad. And where did Joshua Lucock get the money for such a fine house? The answer is that like so many hard-up aristocrats before and since he had married into wealth derived from despised ‘trade’. He had married Mary Grisdale in 1729. Mary was the only surviving child of Wilfred Grisdale, a Matterdale man ‘made good’.

East End of London

East End of London

Wilfred had gone to London and made a fortune as a brewer in Goodman’s Fields – in the stinking sink of the East End. He soon used this wealth to make himself a gentleman. As early as 1707/1708 he had obviously already made a considerable amount of money because in that year he was able to buy ‘Wood Hall’ (Woodhall), a large manor house near Bridekirk, outside Cockermouth, from the Tolson family. In 1827 Wilfred bought and became the Lord of the Manor of Brigham and Hewthwaite, Bridekirk; and with this he also became the owner of Hewthwaite Hall. The seller was the indebted Jacobite Lord Wharton

When Wilfred Grisdale died in 1732, in his rather complicated will (of which I have a copy) he left the bulk of his wealth to his daughter and her husband – Joshua Lucock. Unfortunately Mary (Grisdale) Lucock didn’t live long enough to enjoy the fruits of her father’s work. She died in 1737, aged only 29. Eleven years late Joshua Lucock was married again, this time to Elizabeth Raisbeck. And in 1745 with the money he had got from his wife he had built what is now Wordsworth House in Cockermouth.

In 1756 the wealthiest and most powerful man in Cumberland and Westmorland (if not in England), James Lowther, later Earl Lonsdale, perhaps the most feared and hated man in England, basically bought Cockermouth lock stock and barrel, ‘at the astronomical cost of £58,000 (over £500,000, in modern terms)’, including, in 1761, Lucock’s house, and put it in his ‘pocket’. It became one of his many pocket boroughs, used to give him more clout in Parliament.

Lowther’s land buying was “not so much investing money … as buying up the perquisites of a social class, the undisturbed control of the life of a neighborhood.”

Lowther appointed William Wordsworth’s father John Wordsworth as his steward and agent for Cockermouth and gave him use of Lucock’s house.  As Kenneth R. Johnston puts it in his excellent study The Hidden Wordsworth:

John Wordsworth Sr. was Lowther’s law or land agent. In the late twentieth century this sounds like the steward or overseer of an estate. But in the mid-eighteenth century it signified mainly a political business agent, or nonstop campaign manager, comprising the tasks of borough monger, ward heeler, vote canvasser, election rigger, briber, and payer-off of innkeepers—none of which were regarded as reprehensible or, within reason, illegal activities. Such agents were not popular, since they tended to treat people as their master treated them.

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth

It was in this house that William Wordsworth and his brothers and sisters were born and raised. ‘John Wordsworth, the poet’s father, moved to Cockermouth as agent to Sir James in 1764, and in 1766 married Anne Cookson and moved rent free into what is now known as Wordsworth House. Here four sons and a daughter were born…. Their mother died on 8 March 1778 when William was eight, and he spent most of his time with relatives in Penrith. His father died in Wordsworth House five years later on 30 December 1783. In 1784 all the children finally left the house to be cared for by relations.’

The poet would later often write about his childhood in what he termed ‘my father’s house’. Here is just one example:

“I, a four years’ child,
A naked boy, among the silent pools
Made one long bathing of a summer’s day,
Basked in the sun, or plunged into thy streams,
Alternate, all a summer’s day, or coursed
Over the sandy fields, and dashed the flowers
Of yellow grunsel; or, when the crag and hill,
The woods, and distant Skiddaw’s lofty height,
Were bronzed with a deep radiance, stood alone
A naked savage in the thunder-shower….”  (1799)

I’m pretty sure that William Wordsworth never knew that his ‘father’s house’ had been built with Grisdale money; money earned in the squalor of the breweries and taverns of London’s East End. He lived, as I’ve said, in a parallel universe.

John Paul Jones' Raid on Whitehaven

John Paul Jones’ Raid on Whitehaven

There are of course other links between England’s most illustrious and revered poet and our simple Grisdale family. On 11 April 1778, when the poet was just eight, and through Lowther family influence, William Wordsworth’s uncle Richard Wordsworth had been appointed Collector of H.M Customs for the important Cumberland port of Whitehaven. A town created and controlled by the Lowthers. Only eleven days later Whitehaven was to witness the raid of Scottish pirate, turned founder Captain of the American Navy, John Paul Jones. After Richard’s death in 1794, two Grisdales were to hold the same position: Benjamin Grisdale, who I wrote about recently and, a little later, William Grisdale, the son of successful corn factor Matthew Grisdale. It would be good to find out what both their relationships were with the Lowther family; because without that family’s support they could never have hoped to be appointed to such prestigious and potentially lucrative positions.

What I call ‘Big History’ isn’t the sweeping narratives of Fernand Braudel’s longue dure, nor is it the deep history of life on earth (both of which I love). It is for me the fact that one can start anywhere at any time and quite easily find connections with other events or people anywhere else at any other time – even if they are parallel universes. How a Matterdale Grisdale’s money built William Wordsworth’s family house is just one example. It’s ‘Six Degrees of Separation’, though the connections often need fewer than six steps.

In Memory of My Brother, John Wordsworth, Commander of the E. I. Company’s Ship, and The Earl Of Abergavenny, in which He Perished by Calamitous Shipwreck, Feb. 6th, 1805:

I

THE Sheep-boy whistled loud, and lo!
That instant, startled by the shock,
The Buzzard mounted from the rock
Deliberate and slow:
Lord of the air, he took his flight;
Oh! could he on that woeful night
Have lent his wing, my Brother dear,
For one poor moment’s space to Thee,
And all who struggled with the Sea,
When safety was so near.

II

Thus in the weakness of my heart
I spoke (but let that pang be still)
When rising from the rock at will,
I saw the Bird depart.
And let me calmly bless the Power
That meets me in this unknown Flower.
Affecting type of him I mourn!
With calmness suffer and believe,
And grieve, and know that I must grieve,
Not cheerless, though forlorn.

III

Here did we stop; and here looked round
While each into himself descends,
For that last thought of parting Friends
That is not to be found.
Hidden was Grasmere Vale from sight,
Our home and his, his heart’s delight,
His quiet heart’s selected home.
But time before him melts away,
And he hath feeling of a day
Of blessedness to come.

IV

Full soon in sorrow did I weep,
Taught that the mutual hope was dust,
In sorrow, but for higher trust,
How miserably deep!
All vanished in a single word,
A breath, a sound, and scarcely heard:
Sea–Ship–drowned–Shipwreck–so it came,
The meek, the brave, the good, was gone;
He who had been our living John
Was nothing but a name.

V

That was indeed a parting! oh,
Glad am I, glad that it is past;
For there were some on whom it cast
Unutterable woe.
But they as well as I have gains;–
From many a humble source, to pains
Like these, there comes a mild release;
Even here I feel it, even this Plant
Is in its beauty ministrant
To comfort and to peace.

VI

He would have loved thy modest grace,
Meek Flower! To Him I would have said,
“It grows upon its native bed
Beside our Parting-place;
There, cleaving to the ground, it lies
With multitude of purple eyes,
Spangling a cushion green like moss;
But we will see it, joyful tide!
Some day, to see it in its pride,
The mountain will we cross.”

VII

–Brother and Friend, if verse of mine
Have power to make thy virtues known,
Here let a monumental Stone
Stand–sacred as a Shrine;
And to the few who pass this way,
Traveller or Shepherd, let it say,
Long as these mighty rocks endure,–
Oh do not Thou too fondly brood,
Although deserving of all good,
On any earthly hope, however pure!

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