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250th Anniversary of William Wordsworth landing on England's greens

April 7th the birthday of William Wordsworth (Cockermouth, 1770). Both of his parents died during his childhood and he was put in the care of his uncles. In 1787 Wordsworth received a scholarship to attend St. John’s College at Cambridge, where his uncle was a fellow and intended to pass on the role to his nephew. But Wordsworth didn’t like Cambridge, and preferred to educate himself; he wrote later, “I was not for that hour / Or for that place.”

During the summer before his senior year, Wordsworth set off on a walking tour of Europe with his friend Robert Jones. They wanted to see the Alps and intended to travel through France, Switzerland, and into northern Italy. As he remembered it later, they were each equipped with a walking stick, £20 in their pockets, and all they needed for three months tied up in a pocket-handkerchief.

Wordsworth didn’t tell anyone in his family about his plan until the two men had arrived at their starting point in France. They arrived on July 13th, just in time for the one-year anniversary of Bastille Day, and were thrown into the celebrations and passion of the French Revolution. He described, “France standing on the top of golden hours, / And human nature seeming born again. / [..] How bright a face is worn when joy of one / Is joy of tens of millions.”

Wordsworth and his friend left behind the celebrations of France for the quieter villages and wilderness of the Alps. In the French Alps they visited the monastery of Grande Chartreuse in early August and spent two days resting there after three weeks of nonstop walking. He was deeply moved by the grand architecture and quiet monks in the sublime mountain landscape and wrote about the monastery many times over the years. From there the pair continued on, past Mont Blanc and through the Valley of Chamonix, “with its dumb cataracts and streams of ice.” They hiked south toward Italy, through the Simplon Pass and down the Gondo Gorge from Switzerland into Italy, at which point they had successfully crossed the Alps. Wordsworth described the woods, huge waterfalls, craggy rocks, and howling winds, and wrote that “Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light / Were all like workings of one mind.” Eventually they headed north again, took a boat up the Rhine, and arrived back in England in mid-October. Wordsworth sat for his final examinations and failed to distinguish himself.

Later in his life Wordsworth drew heavily on this trip in an autobiographical poem called The Prelude.

His Prelude described all of the experiences and places from his walking trip in 1790 and return trips to Europe: the Revolutionary celebrations in France, the Grand Chartreuse monastery, the Valley of Chamonix, the descent down the Gondo Gorge. He held off on making it public, saying, “It was a thing unprecedented in literary history that a man should talk so much about himself.” The Prelude was published in 1850, three months after Wordsworth’s death, and is generally considered his greatest work.

This info drawn from The Writer's Almanac..

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Two hundred fifty-one years and counting. What a remarkable tale! Orphaned but cared for by an uncle - that doesn’t happen all the rind these days.

How ahead-of-their-time the boys were, traveling light (really light), and planning a 3-month trip, predating the Schengen rules by quite some time.

How did they convert their Pounds Sterling to francs, or were international banks used to that kind of thing? At least they would’ve gotten a better exchange rate than had they gone to the counter at an airport!

The “dumb cataracts” is surprising to read. Waterfalls gushing down a hillside make a roaring noise, especially if there’s enough volume to constitute a “cataract.” Maybe they were at such a distance that there was no sound to be heard. That scenario reminds me of Skye, Scotland, following a drenching rainstorm. When the clouds cleared and the sun came out, the green hillsides spouted water from way up high, as if two dozen showers had been turned on, or if a massive green water balloon had been poked in several places and was leaking with sprays all over.