Call for Papers: William Cowper, Art and Afterlife

Call for papers from postgraduate students and early-career researchers for a two-day seminar on William Cowper to take place in Olney, Buckinghamshire, from 3–4 September 2021.

Cowper lived in and around Olney from 1768 to 1795, and it was here that he wrote Olney Hymns (1779) with John Newton, Poems (1782), The Task (1785), and translated Homer. The seminar will be centred on Cowper’s career in verse (hymns, poems, and translations), with a particular focus on the formal and stylistic elements of this writing. Among a range of potential subjects, papers may wish to address Cowper’s place in the satirical tradition, the potential for ecocritical and environmental approaches to poems such as ‘Yardley Oak’ and ‘The Cast-away’, or Cowper’s critical heritage from Wordsworth and Coleridge to Empson and Davie.

Proposals should be in the form of 150-word abstracts for fifteen- to twenty-minute papers. Papers will be delivered in a sedentary roundtable format, with fifteen minutes for questions and conversation. No fee will be charged to postgraduates and / or early career researchers who are selected to give a paper, and we will provide them with free accommodation and meals.

Speakers include: Will Bowers (QMUL), Alexandra Harris (Birmingham), Andrew Hodgson (Birmingham), Gregory Leadbetter (Birmingham City), and Fiona Stafford (Oxford).

Email abstracts to w.bowers@qmul.ac.uk and a.hodgson@bham.ac.uk by 5th June 2021.

‘William Cowper’ by George Romney (1792)

Featured image: ‘William Cowper’ by George Romney (1792), National Portrait Gallery

Conference supported by the British Association for Romantic Studies, British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and Queen Mary, University of London

Listen to Alex Harris and Kate McLoughlin talking about Cowper’s poetry here.

Opportunity: Postgraduate Summer Placement

For current or past PGRs at the University of Birmingham.

We are looking to recruit a graduate student or post-doctoral researcher to work with Arts of Place this summer. The placement will be for 25 hours in total at Grade 6 (£16.67 an hour), flexibly distributed between 1 June and 9 July. The placement holder will develop technical skills, liaise with academics, artists, and external partners, write high quality copy, and make creative decisions about how to present new material online. Some experience of website development and/or other digital platforms would be an advantage.

Please send expressions of interest to artsofplace@contacts.bham.ac.uk by 12 May. All we need is a few lines about your current work, any digital experience, and any place-related interests you’d like to tell us about.

Image: detail from The River Severn at Shrewsbury by Paul Sandby, BMAG.

The Lives of Naturalists

Richard Mabey on Gilbert White of Selborne, in conversation with Alexandra Harris

The Summer 2021 Weinrebe Lecture, presented as part of a new collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing. Available to listen here now.

Portrait of Richard Mabey    Gilbert White: A biography of the author of The Natural History of Selborne: Amazon.co.uk: Mabey, Richard: 9781861978073: Books 

Richard Mabey, who celebrates his 80th birthday this year, has been bringing people closer to the natural world since his first books Food for Free and The Unofficial Countryside delighted readers with their subversive outings to the hedgerows in the early 1970s. He is on the side of the weeds that refuse to be tidied; he takes his cues from the playfulness and conviviality of swifts; he gives us all a ticket to join the exuberant ‘cabaret’ of plants.

In this conversation, Mabey reflects on his work as a biographer, and particularly on his long relationship with the great eighteenth-century naturalist Gilbert White of Selborne.

“White is talking about the possibility of birds being parallel citizens”

“I was able to find specific colonies of plants at the precise addresses where White had seen them”

Arts of Place is extremely grateful to OCLW for hosting and producing this lecture recording.

Related links:

The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW)

Richard Mabey’s website

Gilbert White’s House

Expand your Mabey reading list with help from Profile Books: Happy 80th Richard Mabey

Pallant House Gallery explores artist’s responses to The Natural History of Selborne in Drawn to Nature.

Edward Thomas: Out of Place

Monday Conversation, 19 April 2021, with Andrew Hodgson and Ralph Pite

“He handles the name Adelstrop as if he’s jiggling a key in a lock, expecting it to open up a feeling of connectedness”

Dr Andrew Hodgson (Birmingham) argued that, though Thomas is firmly associated with certain kinds of English landscape, his relationship to places is often deeply unsettled. Andrew read poems including Adelstrop and The Ash Grove as the work of a poet ‘out of place’, restlessly seeking forms for disconnection and doubt.

Professor Ralph Pite (Bristol) explored Thomas’s ‘terrestrial’ and ‘extra-terrestrial’ qualities – and the unpredictable relationship between them. Thomas emerged as a radical thinker, interested in non-proprietorial ways of belonging to the land.

“Thomas leads the conversation from a fanciful dream of escape, to disillusionment and world weariness, and after that pleasure in the everyday and he becomes therefore as perplexing a figure as the woman he meets…”


Dereliction and Healing among Coal Spoils

British coal mining is drawing to a close, with the last working mine in Durham extracting its final load in August 2020. The implications and legacies of coalmining are complex and often difficult, but abandoned spoil heaps provide unique habitats and opportunities for life which challenge common conceptions of what ‘healthy landscapes’ look like.

Essay by Michael Malay


A few summers ago, I was standing on a coal spoil in South Wales, overlooking the derelict structure of the Cwm Coking Works. I was there with Liam Olds, a young entomologist who specialises in the insect life of former collieries. ‘People see these places as eyesores,’ he said, ‘but they’re so much more than that. For animals, they’re a kind of shelter — a refuge from monoculture farms, conifer plantations and fragmented habitats. They’re important ecosystems in their own right. It just takes some time before you begin to see them.’  

‘How do you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?’ Meno asked Socrates. It is also a question for our times. Without any of our interference, and without any of our planning, some of the landscapes we call wastelands have become difficult paradises. They are places where life is learning to thrive again, but they are difficult because they do not conform to our ideas of what healthy landscapes might look like. The miners who scooped coal from deep inside the Welsh earth brought other things to the surface, among them clay, shale, sandstone, and ironstone. The materials were piled up in the most haphazard ways, first in little hillocks, and later, as the mining continued, into landscape-defining hills. Limestone mixed with shale, sandstone was thrown up alongside clay, and the stratigraphy of the earth, which had been gradually laid down over millions of years, and which ran in large folds and faults beneath us, came to be mixed in the strangest proportions. 

What followed was bizarre, wild, unpredictable. The spoil heaps formed complex topographies of their own, characterised by varying gradients and aspects, and because the spoils were composed of different materials, with different pH levels and soil structures, they provided the underlying substrate for different landscapes to emerge. During my tour of the spoils, I saw more distinctive habitats in two hours than I usually do over a day of walking. There were bilberry-filled heaths next to wildflower meadows; patches of open, free-draining ground next to bristling reed beds; woodlands next to boggy marshes; and, on the other side of the spoils, what Liam called ‘inland sand dunes’, habitats usually formed by wind, but which emerged here under less natural conditions. 

The habitats were home to a bewildering diversity of plants. On some slopes we found carline thistles, which thrive in calcareous soils, and the low-lying fields were filled with undergroves of bird’s-foot-trefoil and kidney vetch. Nearby we found southern marsh orchids, a plant of damp alkaline meadows, and, half a mile away, round-leaved wintergreens, a plant that typically grows on coastal dunes. And interspersed among these plants were a variety of moss and lichen species, including greasewort, Clay Earth-moss, Olive Beard-moss, and Whorled Tufa-moss. ‘The soil here is nutrient-poor’, Liam explained, ‘which is why these plants are here. They thrive in the stressed ground conditions left behind by the spoils. In fact, the more stressed the ground is, the more flowers they seem to produce.’
 
With the greenery came the insects. There were dingy skippers and graylings, mottled grasshoppers and meadow grasshoppers, dozens of bee species, as well as dragonflies the size of my hand. And, amongst this heady mix, there were the parasites: specialist hoverflies that preyed on a particular kind of ant, flies that preyed on beetles and moths, and a wasp that preyed on certain miner bees. (Later in the day, as Liam pointed out a miner bee’s burrow, the wasp he was talking about appeared right on cue, a yellow flash in the air.) Some of the creatures recorded here are common to Britain, others are nationally scarce. Others still are new to science, including a millipede Liam’s friend found on the Maerdy colliery spoil, duly named the ‘Maerdy monster’. And here they all were, the rare and the abundant, sharing the strange commonlands of the spoils. Since 2015, Liam has found more than 900 invertebrate species on the coal tips, but there are many more surveys to conduct, and he suspects his list will grow substantially in the years to come.
 
‘too ugly to care for…’
 
No-one knew these spoils would be so accommodating to wild life. Inadvertently, the impoverished landscapes left behind by mining generated pockets of richness. Wildflowers that could no longer be found on intensive farmland began appearing here, followed by beetles and bees, moths and butterflies. Some of these abandoned collieries are among the most successful rewilding projects that have taken place in Britain, although they have never been seen or described as such. People find them too ugly to care for, and today hundreds of spoil tips are threatened by reclamation projects, including proposals to ‘green’ the spoils. Liam shudders at the misnomer. He wants them recognised as sites of special scientific interest.
 
Some of the places we have spoiled will never heal again, at least in our lifetimes. The barn swallows of Chernobyl continue to be born with strange malformations — misshapen beaks, bent tail feathers, crippled toes — while open-cast mines in Appalachia have completely terraformed the geology of the earth. But if many landscapes are in need of healing, there are also those places that have found their way back to health, although not in ways we intended or planned. They rebuke us with their strength, but also educate us with their presence, reminding us of the vitality that can sometimes emerge from damaged places. We should celebrate them, too, not in order to excuse destruction, or to uncritically celebrate nature’s ‘resilience’, but to appreciate what happens when we stand to one side. The Latin term relinquere gives us the adjective ‘derelict’, a word for forsaken and abandoned things, and it also gives us the verb ‘relinquish’, to give up or desist from. Not all derelictions are bad, and some of our plundered places can come good again. We do not necessarily have to withdraw from these places, but rather inhabit them more skilfully and on different terms. Liam has taken up a family tradition — both his grandfather and great-grandfather were coal miners — but he works the land in a very different way now, noticing rather than extracting, and standing aside rather than digging down.


Michael Malay is a Lecturer in English Literature and Environmental Humanities
at the University of Bristol

A Street in a Global Pandemic

As part of a remarkable project to record lives on a single British street, documentary photographer Martin Stott has been capturing images from the age of coronavirus as it unfolds in a very local context. Here, Alexandra Harris chooses a small selection, and recommends a visit to Martin’s website where you can see the full series.

All images are © Martin Stott.

A cobbled kerb-side, with the usual detritus of twigs and wrappers and cigarette ends caught between the cracks, and, blown here or thrown here, a very 2020 kind of cast-off: latex gloves, still holding the mould of whoever wore them, still rolled at the cuff where they were peeled off. I’m tempted to say there’s something ghostly in the image, but Martin Stott tends to steer refreshingly clear of hauntings and freighted symbols. He likes bright daylight in which we can see how things are.


Martin has been photographing places and communities since the 1970s. His images of the co-operative movement, of people in Mao’s China, and of Bhopal in the wake of the 1984 disaster, are all now valued for the social and cultural histories they tell, as well as for their distinctive qualities of openness, clarity, and keen watching. Martin photographs things so ordinary you hardly noticed they were there and bothers with every nuance of detail in a humble setting. He lavishes attention on pavements and dog-eared notices; in his portraits, people often look straight at the camera – there’s no pretence: they are having their pictures taken – but they are surrounded by the intricate business of their lives.

In recent years, Martin has focused on what is to be found within a few metres of his own front door. That door opens onto Divinity Road in East Oxford, a long street of Victorian houses just off the busy and super-diverse Cowley Road. Martin has lived here for more than thirty years, and has been active in community-building initiatives throughout that time. When the lockdown came, Martin went out with his camera. Many of his subjects will seem very familiar. Chalked pavements, children’s rainbows, unreadable eyes behind a visor: these are the visual language of 2020, passing across our screens each day. But here is one particular street, part of the global story but not exactly the same as anywhere else and containing multitudes within it. In the tradition of Mass Observation, the pictures tell us something of what is shared while revealing a wealth of idiosyncrasies. Each arrangement of window posters is individual. Each household is in its own lockdown. The relations between inside and outside, private and public, are being renegotiated.

How much can we tell about the street? We can sense the Thursday night atmosphere: families emerging from behind privet hedges or peering between the parallel-parked cars to see each other. The lockdown has made some neighbours more visible and part of the community; others have disappeared. Someone has needed the paramedics’ stretcher. There’s a party spirit further down towards the Cowley Road: housemates are making the best of things with an outdoor drink, though the flat roof of the Co-op isn’t anyone’s ideal terrace. Another group stands ready with new turf and spades: they are clearly embarking on a garden together. In fact they are medical students working at the sharp end of the pandemic through long hours up at the hospital. Their new lawn will give them a place to relax during the difficult months ahead.

The images of gutters and kerbs remind me of the sculptures made by the Boyle Family when they focussed in on certain squares of ground and made faithful reproductions of them in fibreglass and mixed media to hang in a gallery. They made us look at the pavement markings and the texture of tarmac. But any similarity here points up a contrast. The Boyle Family aimed for objectivity; they went to places they didn’t know and examined them like scientists. Martin has been trying to know this street for thirty years. He’s poised between objective recorder and long-term neighbour. He’s photographing ‘his’ place, with a curiosity and attention that comes from loving it. But he knows the street is always changing and that neighbourhoods are best not taken for granted.

A Month in the Country

Hermione Lee reflects on the particular qualities and settings of J.L. Carr’s classic novel

 

“No book evokes so well as this the long vistas of that high ridge of North Yorkshire between Thirsk and Sutton Bank”

 

Joseph Lloyd Carr (1912-1994), better known as Jim, was a writer of laconic English humour, quiet precision, deep moral feeling, close knowledge of landscapes, buildings and history, and an interest in the heroism of obscure, unsuccessful, unprivileged people. Between 1963 and 1992 he wrote eight short novels. He was also a teacher and headmaster, a writer for children, an antiquarian, and an idiosyncratic publisher of pocket books, under the sign of the Quince Tree Press. His friend and admirer Penelope Fitzgerald said of him: “Carr is by no means a lavish writer, but he has the magic touch to re-enter the imagined past”.

His masterpiece, A Month in the Country, won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1980, was short-listed for the Booker and was made into a film. Carr, an obstinate man, didn’t care that it was already Turgenev’s title – besides, the novella has a Turgenevian mood to it. It’s a story full of sadness and nostalgia, told by a shell-shocked war-veteran, Tom Birkin. In the “marvellous summer” of 1920, he has come, a wrecked survivor, with no money and a failed marriage, to a remote Yorkshire village, in order to uncover a huge medieval Day of Judgement painting on the wall of the village church, the work of an unknown medieval artist who increasingly infiltrates his mind. Down below, another war-veteran with a secret history, Mr Moon, is excavating a 14th century grave outside the church. They are “two of a kind”, both quietly dedicated to their specialised work, and both beneficiaries of the late old lady of the decaying manor-house, whose shrewd eye still seems to be overlooking their work. An obstructive, stiff-necked vicar, his fragile, beautiful wife, and the friendly, level-headed Yorkshire villagers (source of Carr’s typical humane, low-key comedy), become Birkin’s whole world that summer. 

It is a war-novel set in peace-time, full of the horror and unspeakable fear of war-memories, which can’t be spoken about. It’s a love story of great poignancy about a missed chance, and it’s a memory of an irrecoverable past, of “blue remembered hills” that can’t be found again. “If I’d stayed there”, the sad narrator asks himself, “would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around each corner fades.  It is now or never, we must snatch at happiness as it flies”.

Above all, the novel is filled to the brim with a particular English place and time. Carr said he drew the village and its setting from his childhood in the North Riding, the church from Northamptonshire (where he spent most of his adult life), the churchyard from Norfolk and the vicarage from London: “All’s grist that comes to the mill”. Oxgodby, the name of the village, certainly echoes “Osgodby”, a village near where he went to school. And the novel brings us a vanished English country life in deep sunshine – haymaking, sleeping outdoors, Sunday School, rabbit pies, scythes, “ditches and roadside deep in grass, poppies, cuckoo pint, trees heavy with leaf, orchards bulging over hedge briars”. No book evokes so well as this the long vistas of that high ridge of North Yorkshire between Thirsk and Sutton Bank. “Day after day, mist rose from the meadow as the sky lightened and hedges, barns and woods took shape until, at last, the long curving back of the hills lifted away from the Plain. It was a sort of stage-magic – “Now you don’t see; indeed, there is nothing to see. Now look!” Day after day it was like that….”  “As it lightened, a vast and magnificent landscape unfolded. I turned away; it was immensely satisfying.”  

 

Hermione Lee was president of Wolfson College, Oxford from 2008 to 2017 and founding director of the Oxford Centre for Life Writing. Her books include Edith Wharton (2006), Penelope Fitzgerald (2013), and Tom Stoppard (2020). 

 

A World on the Table: Still Life Paintings and their Global Stories

Monday Conversation, 30 November 2020, with Lauren Working and Lucy Powell.

Jan Davidsz de Heem, Still Life with Parrot, c. 1655, Creative Commons.

Still life paintings from the seventeenth century present sumptuous arrangements of fruit, flowers, vegetables, silverware, and often animals or birds as well. They may be ‘still’, displayed for our visual enjoyment, but the subjects have been gathered from around the world. These pictures tell stories of travel, colonialism, displacement, power, and desire.

Our two speakers took us on an imaginative transcultural journey, bringing questions of locality, placelessness, and globalism to bear on scenes of feasting and beauty.

 

 

“We get tulips with pumpkins, maize with English strawberries, peonies with chillies…”

Lauren Working (Postdoctoral Fellow on the TIDE project, University of Oxford) gave a dazzling visual tour of the genre’s excesses and extremes, pausing in the queasy hinterlands between plenty and too much. Bringing an historian’s expertise to paintings by Dutch and English artists, she explored the tastes, networks, and trade routes, the invisible maps and webs of connection, that lie behind the shining objects assembled before us.

Lucy Powell (Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Oxford) looked closely at paintings of exotic birds by Jakob Bogdani, showing how closely they relate to still life and how much they have to tell us about cultures of collecting and displaying species brought to Britain from across the globe.

Our short clips will give you a taste, and a recording of the whole session is available below.

Difficult Paradises

For our ‘Monday Conversation’ on 26th October 2020, we welcomed Tim Dee, Michael Malay, and Liam Olds.

Stranger, turn back again, frustrate and vexed: 
This land, cut off, will not communicate …

(W.H. Auden, The Watershed)

In our newsletter, Michael Malay (English, University of Bristol) wrote about natural renewal on the sites of coal spoils and wondered about the role of writers in responding to such ‘difficult paradises’. To pursue these questions, Michael was joined online by entomologist Liam Olds (founder of the Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative) and by Tim Dee, widely considered one of our greatest living nature writers. Tim’s book Landfill is (in the words of Helen Macdonald) ‘a deep meditation on difficulty and waste, on the beauty of the disregarded, and on what we make of matter out of place’.

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing…
(T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land)

Wordsworth’s art of place

In the year of Wordsworth’s 250th birthday, Jessica Fay shows how Wordsworth responded to the craze for picturesque garden ruins and his affirmation of the slower, quieter stories of lives and places that ruins can evoke.

Myles Birket Foster’s frontispiece to William Wordsworth, The Deserted Cottage (1859) engraved by the Brothers Dalziel.

Myles Birket Foster’s frontispiece to William Wordsworth, The Deserted Cottage (1859) engraved by the Brothers Dalziel.

Imagining William and Dorothy Wordsworth out walking in the Lake District might involve thinking of them closely observing their surroundings, commenting on what they notice, talking about local news or Napoleon’s most recent campaign, or reciting poetry. We might imagine them pausing to refresh themselves with cold beef or leftover gooseberry pie that they carried in their pockets. But we might not think of them pausing to take out a tinted Claude Glass.

The fashionable activity of ‘picturesque tourism’, made popular by William Gilpin’s guidebooks of the 1780s and 90s, involved observing natural scenery through a small glass mirror or an imaginative filter. The mild absurdity of this practice of re-tinting and rearranging what was actually visible in a landscape is emphasized by a quip of Jane Austen’s in Northanger Abbey (composed 1798–99), where Henry and Isabella Tilney view ‘the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing’ and proceed to decide its ‘capability of being formed into pictures’ (with a pun on the nickname of fashionable landscape gardener Lancelot “Capability” Brown). The heroine, Catherine Morland, is considered ironically to be without ‘natural taste’ until she’s been instructed in picturesque principles.

Wordsworth intimates his opposition to the picturesque in Book XI of The Prelude (1805), where he describes the habit of looking at nature through the lens of art as ‘a strong infection of the age’. He objected to landscape appreciation in which ‘the eye [is] master of the heart’ and where insufficient attention is paid to ‘the moods | Of nature, and the spirit of place’. Although Gilpin and his followers recognised the importance of felt responses to scenery, picturesque tourism seemed (to the poet) to commodify nature. But the Wordsworths did own a Claude Glass and William’s engagement with the picturesque—as a gardener as well as a poet—was deep and considered.

In his Guide through the District of the Lakes (first published in 1810), Wordsworth sets out a key principle for gardening: ‘The rule is simple; with respect to grounds—work, where you can, in the spirit of nature, with an invisible hand of art’. This might appear to be an endorsement for the style of gardening initiated by William Kent at Stow in the 1730s, which helped catalyse the craze for all things ‘picturesque’. Kent’s invention of the ha-ha (or sunken fence) made it possible to conceal boundaries between a cultivated garden and the landscape beyond. In Kent’s sweeping open prospects, the ‘hand of art’ was far less visible than it had been when parterres and topiary were the order of the day. Yet Wordsworth agreed with gardeners such as Uvedale Price (whose Essay on the Picturesque was first published in 1794) that the conventions established by Kent, Brown, and their followers came to be applied too mechanically. Since features such as serpentine lakes, trees arranged in clumps or belts, temples, hermitages, or follies were so recognisable, the artifice of landscape gardening was in fact obvious. Disregarding the idiosyncrasies of a given place, these “improvers” often overlooked ‘the spirit of nature’.

A 19th century Claude Glass, or Black MirrorIn particular, Wordsworth agreed with Price that ‘improvers’ paid too little attention to timeworn characteristics such as ancient trees and dilapidated stonework. But Wordsworth and Price appreciated these rugged features for different reasons. For Price, any object is picturesque if it bears three specific visual qualities: roughness, sudden variation, and irregularity. Ruins of different kinds—the remains of once-consecrated monasteries, crumbling manor houses, mouldy humble cottages, or even purpose-made follies—are equally admirable when they exhibit these qualities. Wordsworth, by contrast, didn’t primarily value ruins for their surface appearance: he was less interested in form and texture and more concerned with the personal or communal histories attached to these objects. The ruins of medieval monasteries such as Tintern, Furness, and Bolton, were important as loci of regional heritage; the ruins of secular dwelling places similarly offered, for Wordsworth, means of connection with previous inhabitants through an experience of place. Importing faux ruins or follies into gardens as picturesque props—and for the sake of fashion—bypassed any such place-centred human connection.

An entry in Dorothy’s Alfoxden journal from April 1798 provides an example of what the siblings considered a misuse of garden-ruins. Dorothy describes a visit to Crowcombe Court in the Quantocks where she explored a garden laid out by John Bernard (son-in-law of the owner Thomas Carew) in the 1770s:

A fine cloudy morning. Walked about the squire’s grounds. Quaint waterfalls about, where Nature was very successfully striving to make beautiful what art had deformed—ruins, hermitages, &c., &c. In spite of all these things, the dell romantic and beautiful, though everywhere planted with unnaturalised trees. Happily we cannot shape the huge hills, or carve out the valleys according to our fancy.

The ruins at Crowcombe were fifteenth-century fragments of stone arches transplanted from nearby Halsway Manor, perhaps arranged to evoke contemplation or melancholy, or to give the Court (built in 1725) an air of antiquity. When Dorothy complains that Bernard has deformed nature, she recognizes that the ruins don’t belong there and is thankful that nature is visibly pushing back against the interfering ‘hand of art’.

A more complex example of nature counteracting cultivation is worked out in Wordsworth’s The Ruined Cottage. First composed at Alfoxden in 1797, the poem underwent several stages of revision before being published as the first book of The Excursion (1814). If it had appeared under its original title at the end of the 1790s, however, that title would have raised specific expectations. For readers well-acquainted with picturesque aesthetics, The Ruined Cottage promises riches: perhaps the poem will focus on quaint ruins like those commonly found in landscape paintings or used as garden ornaments? The opening lines, which describe the effect of ‘steady beams’ of sunshine on an expansive landscape, might also have encouraged readers to think they’d embarked on a conventional eighteenth-century prospect poem. But Wordsworth quickly subverts, or rather deepens, these expectations. As the cottage and its garden are placed in the context of the suffering of their inhabitants, the poem becomes a critique of purely visual, surface appreciation of ruins.

The Ruined Cottage narrates a meeting between a Poet and a Pedlar beside the dilapidated cottage of a woman named Margaret. As they look at the ruin, the Pedlar explains Margaret’s history. Following failed harvests, illness, and loss of work Margaret’s husband, Robert, was forced to enlist. She was left alone with two children and became increasingly despondent as she failed to discover news of Robert’s whereabouts or welfare. Under the weight of poverty, desolation, and loneliness, during a time of deprivation and war, Margaret neglected to take care of herself, her children, the cottage, and the garden. At length she was deprived of both children and of all hope that Robert would return; after five years of suffering, Margaret died.

At the start of the poem, the Pedlar and the Poet survey the deserted cottage and garden:

It was a plot
Of garden-ground, now wild, its matted weeds
Marked with the steps of those whom as they pass’d,
The goose-berry trees that shot in long lank slips,
Or currants hanging from their leafless stems
In scanty strings, had tempted to o’erleap
The broken wall. Within that cheerless spot,
Where two tall hedgerows of thick willow boughs
Joined in a damp cold nook, I found a well
Half-choked [with willow flowers and weeds.]
I slaked my thirst and to the shady bench
Returned, and while I stood unbonneted
To catch the motion of the cooler air
The old Man said, “I see around me here
Things which you cannot see: we die, my Friend,
Nor we alone, but that which each man loved
And prized in his peculiar nook of earth
Dies with him or is changed, and very soon
Even of the good is no memorial left. (ll. 54–72)

At Crowcombe, Bernard’s ruin was installed and positioned for picturesque effect; through later neglect, nature began to counteract the ‘fancy’ of the gardener, and this pleased Dorothy. In The Ruined Cottage, however, any assessment of nature’s reclamation of Margaret’s garden is more complicated. From the Poet’s perspective, this is a scene of deprivation: the garden wall has fallen down, the well is ‘half-choked’ by weeds, the gooseberry bushes are ‘lank’, strings of currants are ‘scanty’; it’s a ‘cheerless spot’ and there are implications of sinfulness and corruption in images of temptation, trespass, and forbidden fruit. The Poet (keen to find compelling material to write about) is inclined to indulge in the melancholy atmosphere. Yet the Pedlar sees things differently.

One reason why the Poet doesn’t see what the Pedlar sees is that, at this point, he hasn’t heard Margaret’s story. As the poem progresses, the Pedlar peels back layers of time and memory, revealing how the stages of Margaret’s emotional deterioration contributed to the development of the ruin. By the end of the poem, the tumbledown cottage and overgrown garden bespeak Margaret’s decline, and thus the Poet’s perception is changed: he doesn’t now appreciate the ruins for their picturesque form and texture (as Uvedale Price might have done) but rather for their human context. As Dorothy noted at Crowcombe, ruins are not moving in themselves; but the ruined cottage has a profound emotional effect on the Poet when history, imagination, and empathy are added to his visual experience.

The poem concludes, however, with the Pedlar asking the Poet not to indulge in the sadness of the scene but to walk away in calm happiness:

“My Friend, enough to sorrow have you given,
The purposes of wisdom ask no more;
Be wise and cheerful, and no longer read
The forms of things with an unworthy eye.
She sleeps in the calm earth, and peace is here.
I well remember that those very plumes,
Those weeds, and the high spear-grass on that wall,
By mist and silent rain-drops silver’d o’er,
As once I passed did to my heart convey
So still an image of tranquillity,
So calm and still, and looked so beautiful
Amid the uneasy thoughts which filled my mind,
That what we feel of sorrow and despair
From ruin and from change, and all the grief
The passing shews of being leave behind,
Appeared an idle dream that could not live
Where meditation was. I turned away
And walked along my road in happiness”. (ll. 513–24)

Wordsworth’s thinking about picturesque aesthetics helps explain these moving, yet difficult, lines. One of the purposes of the poem is to teach the Poet to be serene in the face of suffering and change: the extra unstressed syllable at the end of the first line denotes the cusp of what is ‘enough’. Ruins make visible processes of decay but they also reveal nature’s regenerative powers. As Margaret finds ultimate harmony with—and within—the earth (‘She sleeps in the calm earth, and peace is here’), the pace of the verse slows. The Pedlar recognizes that the tranquillity of nature endures, whereas grief is alleviated by time. The survival of the spear-grass and the sustained life and beauty of the garden, channelled through memory and expressed within an elongated sentence that entwines visual with interior experience, provide lasting consolation. The Pedlar’s speech affirms that poetry, and the empathy it produces, helps readers to apprehend the significance beneath the surface; reading ‘the forms of things’ more worthily involves attending to art and nature with an eye that is not ‘master of the heart’. Visual apprehension is transformed when it is supplemented with an underlying sense of what a place has meant to—and what it says about—the people connected with it. Picturesque gardening that clears away knotted or uneven features produced by the slow passage of time (in favour of smooth man-made lines) lacks these submerged human resonances.

Looking through a Claude Glass is, in this way, a less worthy (that is to say, less poetic) mode of viewing. But, for Wordsworth, shaping nature into art has its benefits, too. While the Wordsworths’ Claude Glass may have helped them to reimagine the landscape in a moment (perhaps between bites of cold gooseberry pie), practical gardening works with nature to produce visual and emotional effects over time. ‘Laying out grounds’, William once explained, ‘is some sort like Poetry and Painting, and its object … [is] to assist Nature in moving the affections’. But, he continued, ‘If this be so when we merely put together words or colours, how much more ought the feeling to prevail when we are in the midst of the realities of things’. Gardening that balances the ‘spirit of nature’ with the ‘hand of art’ is itself a kind of poetry; or, we might say, an art of place.