Our university in Liverpool has an outdoor campus in Wales, and we spent two nights there this week doing some hiking, kayaking, zip-lining, archery, and so forth, stopping by Conway Castle on the way back up to Liverpool.
I had no hand in organizing this excursion. It was run entirely by the International Hub of the university as a deliberately non-academic getaway. In that spirit, I won’t write an essay for this post—I’ll just share a few pictures.
On our first afternoon, the staff at the campus noticed immediately that the students all tended to eat and socialize in the same tight groups. “This group’s really cliquey,” one of them said to me. “Going to have to mix them up a bit, aren’t we?” Which they did for a series of team games.
On the second day, students could choose from a number of activities. I opted for the hike.
And for the third day, we drove through Snowdonia to spend a couple of hours in Conway.
“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” With this simple opening line, Charlotte Brontë presents the confined situation of Jane Eyre. There are any number of ways in which Brontë could have signaled that Jane is trapped. She could have begun her novel with Jane locked in a room by her aunt or her cousins. She could have lodged Jane’s foot in a crevice or thick mud. She could have dressed Jane in constricting clothing that the growing orphan had really outgrown. Instead, Brontë made the point in a way that was probably most meaningful to Brontë herself: Jane couldn’t walk outdoors.
We could, though—and did we ever. Yesterday gave us cloudless skies for our visit to the Brontë home in Haworth, making a walk on the moors not only possible but practically imperative.
We have spent a good deal of time this semester talking about how stories are shaped by the places in which they’re written and, reciprocally, how places acquire meaning from the stories in which they appear. The first line of Jane Eyre is clearly influenced by the Brontë sisters’ habit of walking the very paths we walked yesterday. Charlotte and Emily, in particular, wrote stories shaped by their daily experience of the earth and air in North Yorkshire.
“What the Brontës cared for and lived in most,” wrote Charlotte’s dear friend Ellen Nussey, “were the surrounding of nature, the free expanse of hill and mountain, the purple heather, the dells and glens, and brooks, the broad sky view, the whistling winds, the snowy expanse, the starry heavens, and the charm of that solitude and seclusion which sees things from a distance without the disturbing atmosphere which lesser minds are apt to create.”
The title and poster of the 2016 movie on the Brontë sisters, filmed in several of the locations we visited yesterday, uses walking on the moors as a metaphor for the sisters’ lives and work.
If the Brontës’ experience of this place shaped their stories, however, the stories have now also shaped the place. The little town of Haworth now has Brontë Street, Shirley Street, Branwell Road, and Heathcliff Street—and those are just the ones I noticed myself. The shaping hand of those novels even reaches far out onto the moors. Top Withens is the name of the ruined farm to which we hiked, and the battered old barn bears a plaque that testifies to the mutual influences of fact and fiction that have defined the place:
“This farmhouse has been associated with Wuthering Heights, the Earnshaw home in Emily Brontë’s novel. The building, even when complete, bore no resemblance to the house she described, but the situation may have been in her mind when she wrote of the moorland setting of the heights. This plaque has been placed here in response to many inquiries. The Brontë Society, 1964.”
So the actual setting might have inspired Emily Brontë’s novel, which is now the filter through which many people see that setting. Top Withens, for many people, hovers in a liminal space between fact and fiction.
In fact, Jane Eyre explicitly uses liminal spaces to achieve many of its effects. Several significant encounters in the book occur at stiles, low places in a stone fence that allow humans (but not animals) to pass from one field to another. And throughout the novel, characters ask one another whether they are goblins, elves, sprites, or fairies. A first-time reader is often asking herself exactly what kind of book she’s reading: is this realism, or is it the kind of story where supernatural forces, creatures, and premonitions need to be taken seriously?
It is partly this tension between no-nonsense realism and fantasy that animates Jane Eyre herself. She is noted for the plainness of both her dress and her manner of speaking: she tells the plain truth, sometimes bluntly. There is an old anecdote in Yorkshire of a salesman calling into a shop to see whether the shop owner needs any of his wares, and the owner replies that he doesn’t. Because they’re both plain, direct Yorkshiremen, however, the entire conversation takes only two syllables:
Sorted. Jane has a bit of that Yorkshire directness about her, and she—like the men in the anecdote—might well have picked up this quality from the Yorkshire landscape itself: sparse, vigorous, and elemental.
At the same time, however, Jane is often described as having an elvish elusiveness, the mysterious, superhuman energy of a fairy or a spirit. “You have rather the looks of another world,” Rochester tells her. “I marveled where you had got that sort of face. When you came on me in Hay Lane last night, I thought unaccountably of fairy tales, and I had half a mind to demand whether you had bewitched my horse.”
The moors, too, feel as if they have a quality other than the four elemental ones of earth, air, water, and fire. It is a fantasy landscape, and not just because most of my group photos looked like a still from The Fellowship of the Ring. “Lunar” is the word that always came to mind. If I were riding across this moor when I encountered a plainly dressed young woman on her own, I too might think she had come from another world; and if my horse were suddenly to slip, I too might blame the woman for bewitching my horse. (And there, Lord willing, my similarity to Rochester ends.)
Above, I quoted Ellen Nussey’s memory of the Brontës’ deep love for their natural environment, which included “the charm of that solitude and seclusion which sees things from a distance without the disturbing atmosphere which lesser minds are apt to create.” Nussey continues, however, to clarify the kind of “seclusion” of which she speaks when remembering the sisters and their walks:
“For it was not the seclusion of a solitary person, such as Charlotte endured in after days, and which in time becomes awfully oppressive and injurious. It was solitude and seclusion shared and enjoyed with intelligent companionship, and intense family affection.”
It was a shared solitude: Charlotte and Anne and Emily were alone together. Charlotte Brontë outlived her siblings, however, and eventually she walked these moors alone, haunted by the memories with which they had filled the empty space. It was heartbreaking. I can only imagine that moors became, at that point, the very worst kind of liminal space: somewhere between past happiness and present grief, between literal loneliness and remembered companionship. I hung back from the group a bit on our long return to the bus, walking along with this image of poor Charlotte and gratefully reflecting on the fact that my own companions—the noisy, laughing students up ahead—were very much present.
Well, okay. The above reflections are all well and good, in their bookish sort of way, but I’ll bet that if you asked many of the students what they remember about the excursion to Haworth, they’ll immediately say, “the soup.”
Our guide for the day was the incomparable Johnnie Briggs of Bronte Walks, who took us all around the town, stopping for several minutes in various locations to tell us the full history of the Bronte family, beginning with the story of Patrick (the sisters’ father). Johnnie is a master storyteller who has been doing this for years. He doesn’t use notes, and he knows exactly how to ask questions to keep students engaged. I marveled at his teaching style.
When we first arrived, however, and sat down in a small church room to learn about the birth of Patrick Bronte, he wanted to make sure that we were well fed. There were apples, oranges, and fruit juices on the table. Johnnie himself made coffee and brewed tea for everyone. When returned from our tour of the town to set off on our moor walk, there was bread and cheese. And when we returned from the moor walk, there was all of that—plus a large pot of homemade soup, homemade scones (with jam and clotted cream), and a homemade cake. At several points throughout the day, as more food was revealed, several students turned to me with wide, disbelieving eyes. “Where did you find this guy?”
It turned out to be Johnnie’s birthday, no less. We all sang.
None of the food was fancy. All of it was delicious, and of course all the more so for being unexpected, made by hand, and offered by an exceedingly gracious host. As if a thorough history and vigorous walk were not enough, we also received a master class in hospitality.
Today I went to town with George Herbert, and I mean that literally: I sat down in three separate cafés with three groups of students to talk through three separate poems. And yes, there happened to be three students in each group.
The idea of these “Herbert Trios” came to me the hard way. When I directed this program in 2018, we read a handful of Herbert poems each week—as we are this semester—and I asked students to pick one on their own and write a critical analysis of it by the end of the term. Four of those analytical essays—20% of the entire group—turned out to be plagiarized. I made a note to myself that, if I ever ran the program again, I’d need to test their understanding of the poems in person, where I could look them in the eye and ask follow-up questions.
I chose to do that in trios and not individually, however, not just to save time but because the students in this group are the single greatest teaching resource at my disposal. Their energy and camaraderie is more powerful than anything I can manufacture, and my most common mistake in teaching has been to talk too much on my own. When they talk, the real education happens—mine included.
So I simply split them into groups of three and asked them to suggest a poem and a café where I could buy them all a cup of tea or coffee to have as they walked me through the text. I did give them some suggestions about the kinds of things to look for and the kinds of question to ask, and I did require that everyone in the group contribute equally to the conversation.
And I spent a good deal of time with each of their poems on my own, marking them up, tracking down words and references, reading notes in scholarly editions. I did much of this work in the fabulous Picton Reading Room in the Liverpool Central Library.
Looking up from the book at one point, I realized that this grand room looks and feels like a good poem feels once you’re inside it: ordered but open, cozy and vast.
My agenda with the trios was simple: I asked them to read the poem straight through out loud, then describe to me the process by which they had analyzed it, and then to walk me through the text however seemed best to them.
Each student had very good things to say. They talked freely without reading pre-written sentences and paragraphs. They laughed a lot and responded to each other. Their talk was far less polished than a written paper would be (I’ve read my share of those, so I know), but also far more genuine. The sharp literature students did about the same level of analysis I would have expected in a formal essay; the non-literary types did much better. I mostly just sat and listened—sometimes biting my tongue to keep myself from jumping in.
I had prepared questions for all three groups, and I listened especially for students who were hanging back and letting the other two do the work, because those would be the first students I’d ask. But everyone was fully present, and by the time each group finished, they had already answered most or all of my questions on their own. I didn’t agree with everything the groups said about the poems, but every group had clearly engaged a difficult text in a meaningful way.
Throughout these meetings, I felt like a grateful guest in two kinds of space: one literal and the other intellectual. The literal spaces were, in two cases, cafés that I myself hadn’t been to but students have been visiting for months. They were inviting me into their places. But I was also a guest inside the poems themselves, hosted by jovial scholars who were quite willing and able to show me around.
I left the three sessions with a headful of Herbert and a heart full of quiet joy. (Although that might have been because I had a lot of coffee.)
“Pity!” he said, and sighed, and paused. “It is always the way of events in this life,” he continued presently: “no sooner have you got settled in a pleasant resting-place, than a voice calls out to you to rise and move on, for the hour of repose is expired.”
Throughout our time here, students have been processing their personal experience of Britain both on their own and in small groups. Each of them has chosen a spot in Liverpool to visit every week for thirty minutes, with no screens. They simply sit. Then they write a short, ungraded reflection—for which I provide an optional prompt.
They also meet every week with what I call a “Through Group,” a three- or four-person cohort that remains consistent throughout the semester, people with whom they can talk through the ups and downs of life in Britain. Each week, someone from each Through Group emails or texts me a quick summary of where they met and what they talked about. Again, I provide a prompt that they’re free to ignore.
This is the first week since January when neither of those things is required, however—our host institution is keeping them very busy—so I devoted some class time Monday night to the personal aspects of our experience.
Specifically, I asked students about two things.
First, how to handle FOMO (fear of missing out; all students know this acronym—it’s a thing now). As we find our time here growing short, students will increasingly panic about the things in England that they haven’t seen—and might never see. To make the issue somewhat tangible, I asked them how they would respond to someone who said this:
As eager as I am to go home, I also really want to make the most of this one chance to live in England, and I already regret not seeing all of the things I won’t get to see, so I just need to try to see as many of them as I can before we leave.
Second, I asked students to make a list of practices and habits that they’ve picked up in England that they’d like to take home with them and continue in the United States. Then I asked them to list specific, concrete commitments that they’d need to make in order to keep those good intentions from evaporating as they flew over the Atlantic Ocean. We talked through some examples. It’s easy for me to say, “I don’t drive here, so I’m going to give up driving back home.” But of course that isn’t going to happen, so I need to say: “I’ll walk to work on Tuesdays and Fridays.” Etc.
As has happened so often this semester, I was humbled and heartened by the wisdom of these students. In response to the FOMO quotation, they recognized the dangers of panic-traveling, scurrying all over a country or continent checking off a bucket list, and they recognized the unique quality of our program—which is to dwell in a single city, with only sporadic trips to a few other places, for a prolonged period of time. It will be easy for most of them to grab two days in Paris in the years to come; living in a single city in England for three and half months is a more precious opportunity. But built into that opportunity isthe reality that we’ll miss out even on other parts of Britain. Taking advantage of this moment means being content to dwell well, and if you’re running all over the place, you’re compromising the unique quality of this situation. (I’m not sure that every student has actually lived by this wisdom—they’ve gone abroad at every opportunity, and I’ve heard some of their crazy mad-dash itineraries for after the program ends—but at least they were able to articulate it.)
I was most impressed with the thoughtful resolutions students were considering as they pondered the not-too-distant return home. All I wanted them to do was to make little lists for themselves to get them thinking, and because some of these issues are deeply personal, I hadn’t planned to discuss them. But when I asked, somewhat flippantly, whether anyone wanted to share what they’d written down, almost everyone in the room did want to share.
Some of them were unsurprising: it turns out we don’t need to buy clothes, wash those clothes, or drive a car nearly as much as we thought we did. But most of what they wanted to talk about were relational resolutions.
A number of students have made real strides in terms of independence: they’ve eaten alone in a café for the first time in their lives, and they’ve realized it’s okay. They’re willing to do things that interest them even if it takes them away from a group of friends. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how that virtue develops in a program like ours—which is intently, almost obsessively, driven by work in groups. But there it is.
Several students, however, did a beautiful job of making resolutions about building and maintaining connections to other people—especially people outside their close friend groups. One student resolved to say hi to international students back at Calvin, even if she didn’t know them very well, because she now saw in a new and feeling way the kind of alienation they might be experiencing.
Ruminating on that surprise discussion as I walked to the bus after class, I realized that the deepest, most moving wisdom had grown from wounds: the greatest growth has happened in the students who have had the hardest time. This is not new or surprising. But it’s also quite possible to have the wounds without the wisdom—to struggle and drown.
“What made the difference?” I asked myself. “What kept those students from drowning? What enabled them to turn their groans into growth?” It wasn’t me, I know that. It might have been the support of the other students. It might have been robust support networks back home invisible to me. It was surely the Holy Spirit, operating both indirectly through these human channels and directly in a student’s heart and mind.
And of course much of the credit goes to the students themselves. Some of them are still having a tough time. They might not feel like they’re drowning, but they feel like they’re treading water—which is not the same thing as walking on water, as other students seem to be doing. In conversation and in regular reflective writing, I’ve heard some notes of jealousy: everyone else seems to be doing better than I am. What I haven’t seen is a struggling student lashing out at the others. Life has thrown some pain and ugliness at a few of these people, and they’ve all been big enough not to throw all of that onto everyone else. They’ve caught what’s come to them and worked it the best they can.
Based on the midterm results a couple of weeks ago, I’m not entirely confident that all of these students will leave England knowing when the Normans invaded or even able to locate Liverpool on a map. But based on our discussion Monday night, I’m content that the program has already been successful in more important ways.
It turns out that glass doesn’t hold up very well after seven centuries. All of the fourteenth-century windows in York Minster are now on a twenty-year cycle for inspection, maintenance, and restoration. The York Glaziers Trust painstakingly removes each panel, each tiny pane of colored glass, puts it under a microscope, catalogs it, and tries to put it back in better shape.
One of the primary commitments of the glaziers is to make all of their work reversible. In a hundred years, when another generation of glaziers comes along to see what these technicians have done, it is crucial that they have the ability to undo even such careful, thoughtful work in order to bring a window back to an earlier stage of its history.
This astonishingly humble stance is something the glaziers have learned the hard way by grappling with the restoration efforts of the Victorians, who were quite content to intervene in dramatic, irreversible ways—as were those who removed and replaced the windows for protection from bombing in World War II.
The current project is to restore the Cuthbert panel—a series of windows telling the story of Saint Cuthbert. Previous “restorations” to the windows made some surprising changes. One window, for instance, shows St. Cuthbert talking to a small group of monks:
In researching earlier sketches of the windows, however, the Trust discovered that there had originally been a porpoise at St. Cuthbert’s feet in this image:
That detail is important, because it show which episode from the life of Cuthbert the window was trying to tell: the story of how he prayed for food and God miraculously provided him with a porpoise to eat. (It’s a strange story to us, but porpoises were commonly eaten in the seventh century.) The porpoise is the whole point of the story: without the porpoise, the panel has no purpose.
So where is the porpoise in the picture? It’s actually in a completely different picture, swimming beneath a boat.
The Victorians freely repaired windows with pieces of other windows. In another window, they simply replaced Cuthbert’s head with that of a common monk from another window, thus costing him the golden halo that had clearly identified him in the picture.
From the point of view of narrative studies—fragmentation, bricolage, intertextuality—this is of course fascinating and exciting. To a historian glazier, it must be maddening. “Today,” a plaque says somewhat laconically, “such practices would not be acceptable to curators and conservators.”
But the plaque goes on, however, with two sentences that particularly struck me:
“Losses and structural changes, over the centuries, to the glass and stonework, mean that it cannot be returned to its exact original state. These alterations, and the reasons for them, are part of the window’s long and fascinating history.”
What a wise and honest attitude not just toward the window but toward life itself, combining genuine lament with acceptance of—and even appreciation for—the losses being lamented.
We have reached the point in the semester when I am able to see my missteps as an administrator and as a teacher: choices I would make much differently the next time around. The coursework, in particular, needs to give students freedom to explore and take risks, but also give them requirements and structure that compel them to do things they simply will not do on their own. I can see in students’ copious writing all of the ways in which I failed to strike that balance. In some respects, I wish I’d rigged this ship with different sail.
But there’s no going back. I’m not going to re-rig the ship at this point. I’m making what adjustments I can along the way, but of course you can’t rebuild a program from scratch when you’re in the middle of it. Perhaps, I thought later in the day, I simply need to say that the mistakes I made, and the reasons for them, are part of the program’s long and fascinating history.
A few weeks ago I met a graduate student at our downtown campus who was about to launch a brand new program to bring children from the neighborhood—a hard-hit working class part of town—into the beautiful campus for free art and drama classes on Saturday mornings. She was terrified about how her first day was going to go. “As long as it’s the first day,” I said, “it can’t really go wrong, can it? There’s no benchmark, no expectation. However it goes is how it was supposed to go.”
I’ve probably needed to take a little of my own advice to heart. There are benchmarks and expectations for this program—some of them set by me when I directed it in 2018—but there comes a point where you have to say: “That happened. It shouldn’t have happened. But it’s part of the story now—and what a great story!”
I looked at my watch. 6:37. Not good. The train would leave York station at 6:54. I got out my phone while briskly walking (and mostly dodging oncoming pedestrians) to double check that time—only to discover that I had been wrong: the train left at 6:49. Extra not good. I didn’t want to leave any students behind, I really didn’t, but I picked up our already quick pace.
In all of the many times I attended Evensong at York Minster back when I actually lived in York—when I didn’t really care what time I left or got home—the service always ran to about 45 minutes. Tonight, with a group of students who needed to catch a train back to Liverpool, of course the service went over an hour.
I do not like to hurry with a group, and least of all do I like leading a group that needs to hurry. My preference is always for people to make their own way, at their own pace—especially when traveling through a city so rich in history, because it’s difficult to be attentive and appreciative when one is on a forced march.
The march into the Minster had also been a bit of a forced march. When I scheduled this excursion several weeks ago, I decided that I would require students to attend Evensong at 5:30.
I hemmed and hawed about this. I pondered it on long walks and runs. I do not like to compel worship experiences any more than I like to force people to hurry through a medieval city. But I was fairly certain that if I made Evensong merely optional, most or all of the students wouldn’t go—the heathens—even though they’d benefit deeply from attending. That benefit might amount to nothing more than articulating their objections to high church worship, but precious few of them have even experienced such worship in England on their own.
In any case, I called the Minster at some point in early February to purchase access to the building for a self-guided tour in the afternoon, when students would be free to wander at their leisure, and I happened to mention that we’d be attending Evensong, as well. The office at the Minster responded with two invoices, one charging me for the afternoon admission and one indicating a zero balance for Evensong—which is always free, although they graciously set aside a block of seats for us.
In the “Visit type” field on the invoice, someone had entered “Pilgrimage.”
On the one hand, that one word resonated deeply with the goals of our program. We spent a good deal of time in orientation talking about different ways of traveling—as crusaders, as explorers, as nomads, as tourists—and in particular the virtues of traveling as a pilgrim.
On the other hand, the word “pilgrimage” raised the question, for me, of whether a genuine spiritual journey can be a mandatory experience. Is there such a thing as a compulsory pilgrimage?
No. The way I understand the concept, even if a pilgrimage is a fairly defined part of a religious tradition, the journey itself needs to be driven by the voluntary choice of the pilgrim. A pilgrim, by definition, needs to be looking for something and choosing to go out and look for it. A pilgrimage is a journey of seeking and self-denial, and the self needs to be both the subject and the object of that denying.
So I decided that the stated reason for our visit was simply inaccurate—it couldn’t be a pilgrimage if students weren’t choosing to make it—but I did look forward to students ending a day in York with “the full Anglican”—the spiritual equivalent of a “full English” breakfast. I have such beautiful memories of Evensong: times when I dragged myself in, tired and anxious and not at all in the mood, but when—squirreled away in an oaken seat in the back—all of my cares dissolved, and I couldn’t tell whether heaven had come down or I had risen up, but I suspected both, and I knew for sure that God and I had touched.
Last Saturday night wasn’t one of those nights. Attendance was sparse; the choir was small; the chants just seemed too long. It was, if anything, colder than it was outdoors. The ushers had shown us to folding chairs beyond the choir itself, where there were no prayer books in which to read the words being sung. And I had chosen to sit on the side of the church facing the construction scaffolding on the opposite side, so the fourteenth century majesty of the building—always an important aspect of worship there—was largely obscured.
Even so, however—even when Evensong at the Minster fails to enchant—it strikes a balance that I find crucial in worship. The first half of the balance is hospitality, and this is largely accomplished by the Minster staff, from the friendly man in the scarf at the door who showed our group right in, to the usher who chatted with me while we waited—introducing me to a couple of other Americans in the queue—to the lector for the evening, who came up to our group in all of her clerical robes before the service started and bantered with the students for a bit. A couple of students were astonished when she approached the lectern at the beginning of the service and welcomed the group from Calvin University, the name of our little school back home echoing through fourteen centuries of space and stone.
The second half of the balance, however, is the sense of something bigger than oneself. I would almost suggest that it’s not really worship if some element of the service doesn’t somehow say, “It isn’t all about you, you know.” The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism is “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” and its answer begins, “That I am not my own….” A worship service ought to communicate this deep, difficult, counter-cultural truth. I need to be welcome there, but the service needs to bring me out of myself, to feel like something not my own.
In so many modern churches, the expectation is that a service will bring God to the worshipper: the music should be the kind I like to listen to, tuned to my taste; the Bible should be read in a clear, easy translation; the sermon should apply the Bible to my life. I should be able to sit back in a reasonably comfortable chair and simply receive all of that.
Evensong dispenses with most of those catering comforts. I am sure that, when my students sit down to write about the service, some will criticize it as being excessive: the robes, the organ, the nuanced harmonies. I suspect, however, that some of their discomfort springs not from these “excesses” but rather from felt deficiencies: a service like this doesn’t bend toward them the way their church back home does.
“Britain will not come to you,” I said to students during orientation; “you must go to Britain.” You can’t just sit in your dorm room in Liverpool and expect meaningful cultural experiences to come knocking at the door. You have to go seek those things, and doing so will involve some self-denial. It often won’t be easy, or comfortable, or even fun. Do it anyway. Get out there; get in there.
So I sat in my little folding chair Saturday night, staring at the construction scaffolding and shivering, not understanding many of the words being sung, and more than a little worried about the hustle we would have to make to the train station. “This isn’t what I’d hoped it would be,” I said to myself. “The magic isn’t here. Students are going to hate this.”
What I was doing, of course, was to project my own disappointment on the students and blame them for it—which is, among other things, a gross unfairness to the best group of students I’ve ever worked with. And at some level, I knew that I was doing that, and that I needed to follow my own advice: “It won’t just come to you tonight. Get in there.”
So I closed my eyes. I did slow breathing exercises. I meditated. And I prayed. Not really catching the lyrics of the psalms, I used my own words. And when I opened my eyes, I had the sense that my own words were becoming not my own, hovering upwards into the chilly air along with the harmonies of the choir, along with centuries upon centuries of other petitions, worries, griefs, and gripes that have risen in this place—little bits of lives as unintelligible to me as the words the choir was singing. I had been welcomed into a spiritual space far, far greater than its welcome of me.
We made the train. This is the other reality of Evensong: the reality of the real world that awaits just outside the great Minster doors, the long walk home or the worried hurry toward the rail station. Mundane concerns like this help to define the service by contrast, the slow time and huge space of Evensong somehow becoming even slower and huger in memory, compared to the rush-and-bustle of a busy street corner in downtown York. One cannot live in Evensong. It is, after all, tightly tied liturgically to just one moment of the fleeting day. So we found our train seats and settled in just in time for the train to hurry us out of York and off into the night toward Liverpool.
Yesterday was the first mild day of March here in northwest England, and we traveled up to the Lake District, eating lunch at a fine restaurant overlooking the lake in Windermere, riding a boat up the lake to Ambleside, and climbing a steep, slippery trail to see a waterfall before grabbing a bite to eat and heading back to Liverpool.
This was the first of our excursions that I had no real hand in organizing: the International Hub at our host university arranged everything about the trip, and the 16 of us joined 30 other international students, faculty, and staff for the outing.
“The trip will be a fun and relaxing day with no history or cultural commentary,” promised the email publicizing the trip, “just a day away from Liverpool and your studies, so you can enjoy the fresh air, beautiful views and meet other students.” Which reminded me of William Wordsworth’s poem “Lines written at a small distance from my house”:
It is the first mild day of March: Each minute sweeter than before, The red-breast sings from the tall larch That stands beside our door.
There is a blessing in the air, Which seems a sense of joy to yield To the bare trees, and mountains bare, And grass in the green field.
My Sister! (‘tis a wish of mine) Now that our morning meal is done, Make haste, your morning task resign; Come forth and feel the sun.
* * *
Then come, my sister I come, I pray, With speed put on your woodland dress, And bring no book; for this one day We’ll give to idleness.
We brought no books (well, okay, I had George Herbert in my backpack), but our group had read this poem and others the night before, so it was my hope that we at least had some academic framework for the experiences we’d have—or, to put it the other way around, we at least had some texts to put within the framework of the Lake District. (Wordsworth actually wrote the poem at Alfoxden in Somerset, but its tenor and atmosphere fit the environment of his northern home perfectly.)
I paused before teaching Wordsworth as a prelude to the trip. Wouldn’t it be more Wordsworthian to follow the lead of the invitational email—and of course the Wordsworth poem—to leave the academics, and simply go?
Maybe. Aside from the fact that my students’ trip was paid for by an academic program, however, I decided that there is no simply go.
Going is just not simple.
Both Windermere and Ambleside are now run on the same paradox that fuels almost any resort town: the allure is the natural beauty and the sense of “getting away from it all,” but the local economy is built on “having it all right here”—all of which attracts hordes of tourists (like us!) who are willing to pay to have it both ways.
You will find McDonalds and Starbucks most places. But they’re just selling the same old thing. The irony is most poignant in those upscale shops where the rugged, simple life itself—the “getting away from it all” ethos—is what’s being sold at exorbitant prices. The most popular business in both towns is easily the high-end hiking and climbing industry shops, where you can pay top dollar for a Yeti mug or a North Face jacket sold out of a rustic-looking nineteenthy-century stone building. The context is simple and quaint; the content is flashy and dear.
In fact, the Lake District is probably second only the Cotswolds as an epicenter for “cottage core,” the nostalgic aesthetic of pure, clean, simple country living far from the madding crowd—and copiously curated on Pinterest.
This paradox is not a twenty-first century invention. There is an irony, after all, in Wordsworth himself saying “bring no book” in a poem, in a book. There’s an irony at play here between the medium and the message.
The full original title of that poem is “Lines written at a small distance from my house, and sent by my little boy to the person to whom they are addressed.” It’s not a very good title by any means—it was later shortened to the more pithy “To my Sister”—but when Wordsworth first published the poem, it seems that he wanted to emphasize that the speech isn’t just a bookish fantasy: it was an event that first happened in the world of lived experience—and just happened to end up in a published volume.
Fair enough, but the only way we have access to it is through the book—which we did at least have the decency to read, discuss, and leave behind. (I doubt very much whether students thought much about our Friday night class during our Saturday afternoon on Lake Windermere.)
Machines in the Garden
The Machine in the Garden is the title of a landmark study of American literature, articulating the tension tension between pastoral ideals and the industrial revolution—especially the railroad, which quickly permeated the peaceful green landscapes of the North American continent.
Before the railroad existed in the United States, however, it crept into northwestern England, which is home to both the Lake District and to the world’s first inter-city rail line (the Liverpool-Manchester Railway).
We modern readers have one vehicle by which to access that day when Wordsworth asked his sister to join him, and that vehicle is a book—the very vehicle the poem itself rejects. Similarly, the access that many people had to the natural beauty of the Lake District was the railroad, which Wordsworth and other local Romantics fervently rejected.
There is a little stone church high up above Ambleside called the Chapel of St. Anne. I happened upon it and imagined generations of relatively rural English people flowing into that grey stone sanctuary to be baptized, married, and buried. But generations never did that. The church was built in 1812, but the railway into the areas was built in 1847 and brought so many tourists that the much larger St. Mary’s was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott and completed in 1854. St. Anne’s was eventually de-consecrated (what a concept!) because of the railroad and tourists.
As all 46 of us slowly climbed the difficult path to the waterfall, students made so much noise talking and laughing—American students tend to be quite loud, especially outdoors—that they drowned out the sound of the river rushing down below. Somewhat started playing a pop song on a phone. Several started singing along. I picked up my pace. A group of 46 tourists is going to make a lot of noise, even without phones and group singing, and it occurred to me that we didn’t a rail line up to the waterfall. We were a 46-car train of tourists. We were the machine in the garden. The least we could have done would be to build a mighty church.
“The Rapid Communication of Intelligence”
The railroad was only a later manifestation of a phenomenon that worried Wordsworth well before trains began arriving in the 1840s. He saw industrialism, urbanization, and rapid communication as threatening not just to the natural environment, but to the internal faculties of the human mind. It’s important to recognize that Wordsworth’s anti-bookishness is not all-out anti-intellectualism—a position to which some strands of Romanticism are easily reduced. It’s not that simple, either. These lines from his 1800 preface to Lyrical Ballads are quite arresting:
A multitude of causes unknown to former times are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the encreasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.
Wordsworth’s concern here is “the discriminating powers of the mind,” not just raw feeling, and he sees those powers threatened by—among other things—an appetite for sensational news, a hunger that is made more and more ravenous by rapid information technologies.
I’ve heard students complain that TikTok isn’t as good in Britain—they have to scroll through more boring videos to find something better. And here I had no idea that Wordsworth was even on TikTok.
The very worst thing we brought into the Lake District was our phones—and that is quite a statement, given the extremely ill-advised footwear in which some students climbed a steep, slippery, muddy trail.
My own boots were okay, but I, too, was digitally driven. I discovered the history of St. Anne’s Chapel, outlined above, only because I was climbing higher and higher above the town, looking for a better and more “extraordinary” (to use Wordsworth’s word) view of the city to adorn this very blog.
Our boat had not docked in Ambleside before I had received 13 pictures taken by other people since we had left Windermere half an hour earlier. I had taken nearly as many pictures myself. Most of did not stop on the hike without taking a picture. Most of us did not see a striking bit of nature without putting a camera between ourselves and that thing. I know I didn’t.
Now from one point of view, these photos might be versions of the Wordsworth poem: events occuring in the world of experience, collected into (visual) texts for later consumption and distribution.
The sequencing, however, seems important. Wordsworth wrote a text in order to provoke a context: specifically, a note to tell his sister, Dorothy, to stop doing her chores and “come forth and feel the sun.” It was intended as a text to end texts, at least for the day, and create an opening for experience. For my students and me, our texts were perhaps the ultimate end of the context. We put the garden into our machines.
And doing so, it seems to me, made us less receptive to the scene. In some cases this was dangerously true: students seemed genuinely unaware that they could slip and fall into the small ravine. “Nature never did betray the soul that loved her,” Wordsworth famously promises in another poem. I’m not sure how many of these students really did love Nature, however, and some of the rocks on which they stood for selfies seemed to me slippery characters of the betraying kind.
I couldn’t help but think that we all—myself included—had lost some mental discrimination: between bad and good hiking shoes, safe and unsafe rocks, and even the ability to recognize the “shut off” features of our phones and when to use them.
I don’t know if Dorothy came out to play with William that day, and if he brought his pad with him and constantly wrote poems about waterfalls and daffodils instead of actually looking at them.
I like to think she did, and I like to think he didn’t.