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.