Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

DREAMS OF GREAT MEN

If your working life is much concerned with a famous person, it’s probably inevitable that you will occasionally dream about them.

images[1]A few years ago at the Dartington Festival, I bumped into Andrew Motion and we spent an evening chatting. Andrew was Laureate at the time, and somehow we got onto the subject of dreams. I asked him if he’d ever dreamed of previous Laureates.

Only once, he said. He’d dreamed he went out of his house, and parked by the kerb nearby was a white van. On the side of it was written:

WILLIAM WORDSWORTH: PLUMBER

Underneath was painted a neat image of a rainbow, and the motto:

The sounding cataract
Haunted him like a passion.

– lines adapted, of course, from ‘Tintern Abbey.’ Andrew later made a poem out of the dream.

images[1] (2)My dear friend Pete Laver, who died on Scafell aged 36 back in 1983, worked as Librarian at Dove Cottage. He too had his Wordsworth dream. Pete dreamed that he met the great poet (whose books and papers he spent his waking hours conserving and cataloguing) and asked him the question he’d always wanted to put: ‘Mr Wordsworth,’ he said – and you need to know that Pete wasn’t normally the deferential type, he was into punk rock and wore badges saying ‘Anarchy’ to work – ‘Mr Wordsworth, what is your personal favourite among your own poems?’

Wordsworth’s reply was: ‘Stanzas Suggested in a Steamboat off St Bee’s Head’ – which, as anyone who’s read their way through Wordsworth will know, is almost certainly his worst, and definitely his most boring poem.

‘And,’ said Pete, ‘I just couldn’t tell if he was joking!’

To complete a trio of dream encounters, when I was finishing my biography of Thomas De Quincey I dreamed that I met him. And I asked him something that had never crossed my mkind while I was awake: I asked him if he’d read Alice in Wonderland – not a bad question to put to the old opium-eater, I now think.

quincey[1]

De Quincey said ‘Yes, I’ve read it.’
‘And what did you think of it?’ I asked.
‘Well,’ said De Quincey, ‘I enjoyed it; but I learned nothing from it.’

And that was that. I’m still wondering what he meant.

Grasmere with David Morrell and De Quincey

Just back from Grasmere, where the Wordsworth Trust hosted an evening with thriller-writer David Morrell. David (who created the character of JohnRambo in his first novel, aptly titled First Blood, the basis of the Sylvester Stallone movie franchise) recently published Murder as a Fine Art, a serial-killer thriller set in Victorian London, with Thomas De Quincey – the famous ‘Opium-Eater’ – as action hero and detective.

DavidMorrellDeQAndAme

With David Morrell and De Quincey and his family (pastel by James Archer) – and a big thankyou to Ali S. Karim for the photo

 

We had great fun presenting an evening ‘in conversation’ between biographer and novelist at the Wordsworth Trust’s Jerwood Centre, just a few yards from Dove Cottage where De Quincey lived and wrote for so many years in the 1820s and ’30s.

We were also able to spend a day exploring Grasmere and its surroundings. We walked around both lakes – Grasmere and Rydal Water – by way of Loughrigg Terrace, Rydal Cavern, Rydal Mount and the Coffin Path.

And the next day David and his wife Donna were able to walk up the fell opposite the village to see the view De Quincey might have had when he first tried to visit Wordsworth in 1806 – walking up from Coniston and gazing across the lake at Dove Cottage, but finding himself too shy to come any closer!

photo

Andrew Forster of the Wordsworth Trust also gave us a special tour of Dove Cottage and a viewing of De Quincey and Wordsworth manuscripts at the Jerwood Centre.

To find out more about David Morrell’s Murder as a Fine Art, click on the panel below.

And for David Morrell’s personal website, click on this link:

http://davidmorrell.net/

Did Wordsworth’s Daughter Have Down’s Syndrome?

Catherine Wordsworth

With the recent news that M&S have chosen Seb White, a little boy with Down’s Syndrome, as a model for their children’s clothes, it seemed a good time to draw attention to the likelihood that William Wordsworth probably wrote one of his finest poems about a Down’s Syndrome child.

His beautiful sonnet ‘Surprised by Joy’ was written after he had lost two children, but its most likely subject is Catherine Wordsworth, who was especially dear to her father and used to delight him by playing in his study as he wrote. Here’s the poem:

SURPRISED by joy–impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport–Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind–
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss?–That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore, 10
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Sadly, Catherine (1808-12) had died at less than four years old and the poem records a painful moment when Wordsworth instinctively turns to the child and then realises, a split second later, that she is no longer there – something anyone who has suffered a bereavement will be able to identify with.

But how do we know that Catherine had Down’s Syndrome? It’s not certain but it is extremely likely. I noticed the evidence when I was researching the life of the essayist Thomas De Quincey, and a couple of years ago pointed it out to Muriel Strachan, who is writing a book on the Wordsworth children, and suggested she examine the evidence systematically. She did so and the case seems very clear.

Catherine was born when the poet and his wife were both 38. A loveable and delightful child, she was said by Dorothy Wordsworth to have ‘not…the least atom of beauty’, but a wonderful sense of humour and ‘something irresistibly comic in her face and movements’. Wordsworth used to call her ‘my little Chinese maiden’ – probably relating to the epicanthic fold of skin which gives some Down’s children an unusual shape to the eye. She seems to have had heart problems and suffered from convulsions and some problem with swallowing. All these symptoms point very strongly to Down’s Syndrome.

The whole Wordsworth Circle was fond of her, and Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, loved her especially: so much so that when she died he was heart-broken, and claims to have slept out on her grave in Grasmere churchyard for six summer weeks in passionate grief. It was probably depression following her death that tipped him into full-blown opium additicion, for his addiction took hold soon after she died.
Wordsworth wrote two poems about Catherine: the other, lesser-known poem is ‘Characteristics of a Child Three Years Old:

LOVING she is, and tractable, though wild;
And Innocence hath privilege in her
To dignify arch looks and laughing eyes;
And feats of cunning; and the pretty round
Of trespasses, affected to provoke
Mock-chastisement and partnership in play.
And, as a faggot sparkles on the hearth,
Not less if unattended and alone
Than when both young and old sit gathered round
And take delight in its activity; 10
Even so this happy Creature of herself
Is all-sufficient, solitude to her
Is blithe society, who fills the air
With gladness and involuntary songs.
Light are her sallies as the tripping fawn’s
Forth-startled from the fern where she lay couched;
Unthought-of, unexpected, as the stir
Of the soft breeze ruffling the meadow-flowers,
Or from before it chasing wantonly
The many-coloured images imprest 20
Upon the bosom of a placid lake.

Muriel Strachan presented an outline of her findings at the Wordsworth Museum last autumn. For full details we shall have to wait for her book on the Wordsworth children. Meanwhile, in the new edition of my book The Opium-Eater: A Life of THomas De Quincey (Crux Publishing, forthcoming) I’ve been able to point to the likelihood that Catherine was a Down’s baby, and to explore the part she played in De Quincey’s life.

To pre-order this e-book (likely price £6.99, tbc), or for more information, please email Crux Publishing at [email protected]

Down’s Syndrome was not identified as a medical condition until John Langdon Down described it in 1866, so the Wordsworths and their friends simply saw Catherine as a lovely and somewhat unusual child.

De Quincey and Rob Morrison at Dove Cottage

Dove Cottage: De Quincey lived here from 1809 after Wordsworth left

Dove Cottage: De Quincey lived here from 1809 after Wordsworth left

I went up to Grasmere yesterday: a special occasion. Thomas De Quincey (the ‘English Opium-Eater’) died 150 years ago that day, on December 8 1859. To mark the occasion, and to celebrate the fine new biography of De Quincey by my old friend Robert Morrison, the Wordsworth Trust decided to recreate ‘a winter’s evening at Dove Cottage’ just as De Quincey loved it, and recorded it in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater: a roaring fire, candlelight, an ‘eternal teapot’ and ‘a decanter of ruby-coloured laudanum’ – though yesterday mulled wine served as a very acceptable substitute. And of course the weather was terrible, just as De Quincey liked it. After all, as he said, why pay for coals and candles if you’re not getting a proper winter for your money?

Rob was signing copies of his new De Quincey biography

Rob was signing copies of his new De Quincey biography

Rob’s biography – the first since my own life of De Quincey came out in 1981 – is a great read, as well-written as you’d expect from a scholar of De Quincey, one of the best-ever prose stylists. And it’s packed with new information about the extraordinary life of England’s most famous literary drug addict. I’ll slot in a link to the book right here: it’s highly recommended. Ideal Christmas present, in fact.

A new life of De Quincey was much-needed because when Rob and I and nine other editors researched our 21-volume edition of De Quincey’s complete Works in 2000-3, we dug up so much new information that I knew my biography was now out of date. Rob took on the job and has produced an amazingly fresh story full of insights that even I never dreamed of.

Dove Cottage Wordsworth Trust Morrison De QuinceyRob and I discussed De Quincey – his addiction, his dreams, his wonderful writing, his phenomenal memory, his part in the making of modern literary biography, and many other aspects – with a moving crowd of around a hundred people in those candlelit cottage rooms where De Quincey lived and wrote, where he met Wordsworth for the first time, and where he dreamed of (or did he really meet?) the terrifying Malay addict who so unexpectedly knocked at his door one day.

If you were there, I hope you enjoyed it all. If you missed it, you can still catch Rob, when he gives the Bindman Lecture, ‘Thomas De Quincey and the Lake District’, at the Wordsworth Trust on Saturday 12 December at 3 pm. See www.wordsworth.org.uk for details.

Afterwards I dropped in for tea and mince pies with some old friends, Tim Melling and Liz Cooper at Nab Cottage, Rydal, where De Quincey courted Margaret Simpson, the beautiful daughter of a local farmer. Nab Cottage, a fine traditional Lakeland farmhouse on the shore of Rydal Water, is now a B&B and language school ( www.rydalwater.com and www.nabcottage.com ). They told me that during the recent floods they had water coming under the door (the house is right between the lake and the slopes of the fell with consequent water runoff) but it didn’t get serious and everything is now fine. Though it was pelting with rain outside as we talked!

Nab Cottage still has a small built-in writing cupboard with fold-down

Tim and Liz relax in the 'Opium Den': once De Quincey's writing space?

Tim and Liz relax in the 'Opium Den': once De Quincey's writing space?

desk, and since De Quincey owned the place briefly in the 1820s he may well have written there. Tim and Liz keep the room decorated as an ‘Opium Den’ in his memory.

They also got out their copy of the fascinating game Transformation which they tell me originated at Findhorn. Although it’s a board game it seems to provide real-life challenges and counselling for players, and they tell me it can actually change the lives of people who play it. I wasn’t able to stay long enough to play it (Liz tells me she has trained as a ‘facilitator’ to play the game in enhanced mode with people who seriously want to transform!) but I heard enough to want to give it a try. I’m putting a link in, but this is not an arbitrary plug because I am buying this myself. I delight in any spiritual/psychological/divination-type thing, and this one looks really good . If anyone out there has played Transformation and can write a comment about it, please get in touch; I’d love to hear from you!