|Words Worthy of Peasants
copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
22 July 2006
To see the peasantry, the rural poor, as Wordsworth
saw them is one thing: the main thing. To see Wordsworth as
the peasants saw him is quite another - in many ways it is a
surprise. The Reverend Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley (one of the
founders of the National Trust) noticed that very little interest
had been taken in Tennyson's works or fame in the part of Lincolnshire
where he lived, in the houses of either rich or poor. Moving
to the Lake District, Canon Rawnsley, as he later became known,
decided to ask around among local people who had known Wordsworth
and his family, and to set down what they told him in their
words, or as close as possible to their dialect.
He began in 1870, 20 years after the poet's
death, and in 1882 he read a paper in London at the annual meeting
of the Wordsworth Society. Robert Browning was in the chair.
This paper was further revised in 1902, but Rawnsley's Reminiscences
of Wordsworth among the Peasantry of Westmoreland (it was reprinted
by Dillons in 1968) is not at all remote from its subject, as
long as we understand that subject to be Wordsworth in old age.
He was not popular. That is, he was shy and
retired, and did not mix freely with the people. He didn't frequent
public houses, unlike Hartley Coleridge. Canon Rawnsley's interviewees
invariably think of Hartley as a preferable character, a friendly
man, a great drinker and a philosopher - a being superior to
a poet. Wordsworth's hobby, says one witness, was poetry. "It
was a queer thing, but it would like eneuf cause him to be desolate;
and I'se often thowt that his brain was that fu' of sic stuff,
that he was forced to be always at it whether or no, wet or
fair, mumbling to hissel' along t'roads."
This mumbling, this "continually murmuring
his undersong," as Canon Rawnsley puts it in his politer
register, features in the peasants' vocabulary as "bumming".
Here is Wordsworth on the grass walk at Rydal Mount: "...
he would set his heäd a bit forrad, and put his hands behint
his back. And then he would start bumming, and it was bum, bum,
bum, bum, stop; then bum, bum, bum reet down till t'other end,
and then he'd set down and git a bit o'paper out and write a
bit; and then he git up, and bum, bum, bum, and goa on bumming
for long enough right down and back agean. I suppose, ya kna,
the bumming helped him out a bit."
Another witness: "Mr Wordsworth went bumming
and booing about, and she, Miss Dorothy, kept close behint him,
and she picked up the bits as he let 'em fall, and tak 'em down,
and put 'em on paper for him. And you med be very well sure
as how she didn't understand nor make sense out of 'em."
Dorothy, known to all these neighbours as a clever women who
perhaps wrote some of Wordsworth's poems for him, but certainly
helped him out with them, is seen both in her latter days as
an invalid, and off her head, and earlier as a fellow walker
with her brother.
"And as for her, why, Miss Wudsworth,
she wad often come into t'back kitchen and exe for a bit of
oatcake and butter. She was fond of oatcake, and butter till
it, fit to steal it a'most. Why, why, she was a ter'ble cliver
woman, was that. She did as much of his potry as he did, and
went completely off it at the latter end we' studying it, I
suppose." That is, it drove her mad.
That Wordsworth never laughed, or whistled,
or sang, but only bummed and booed his way along the roads,
was clearly held against him. He was, they said, "no mountaineer",
stuck to the low roads, never sat on a horse, never asked people
about their work, or noticed the flocks or took any interest
in the farms. He "cared nowt about fwoak, nor sheep, nor
dogs". He was never at feasts or (except on one occasion)
at wrestling. He was "a man as hed nea pleasure in his
But he was universally acknowledged to have
been a great skater, who could cut his name in the ice. "He
was a ter'ble girt skater, was Wudsworth now; and he would put
ya [one] hand i' his breast (he wore a frill short i' them daays),
and t'other i' his wäistband, same as shepherds dea to
keep their hands warm, and he would stand up straight and swaay
and swing away grandly."