CHAPTER XXI

The Lake Poets

1770–1850

I. AMBIENCE

WE here gather Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey into one awkward and concurrent chapter, not because they established a school —they did not; nor because they displayed any shared spirit in their characters or works. Coleridge’s magic verse was wrapt in mystery, strange souls and secrets, while Wordsworth’s proseful poetry rambled contentedly with common men, women, children, and things. Coleridge lived and died a romantic—a creature of feeling, fancies, hopes and fears; Wordsworth, except for a romantic interlude in France, and a rebellious pronouncement in 1798, was as classic as Crabbe, and conservatively calm. As for Southey, his poetry was Romantic while it paid; his prose was restrained and worthy of Dryden; his mature politics hugged the status quo; and his life of marital stability and generous friendship safely balanced the emotional, philosophical, financial, and geographical wanderings of the fellow poet with whom he had once dreamed of a communal utopia on Susquehanna’s shores.

These men constituted a school only in the sense that they dwelt through many years in the Lake District of northwest England—the misty, rainy, mystic assemblage of cloud-capped mountains and silver “meres” that makes the area from Kendal through Windermere, Ambleside, Rydal Water, Grasmere, Derwentwater, and Keswick to Cockermouth one of the fairest regions of our planet. Not toweringly majestic—the tallest mountain reaches only to three thousand feet; not congenial to consumptives—the rain falls there almost daily; but the mists embrace the mountains amicably, the sun breaks out nearly every day, and accustomed denizens bear the wanderings of the weather because of the peace of the villages, the evergreen foliage, the abounding flowers happy in the dew, and the spirits of mad Coleridge and steady Wordsworth echoing through the hills. There at Cockermouth Wordsworth was born, and at Grasmere died; there at Keswick Coleridge lived intermittently, and Southey forty years; there, for diverse periods, stayed De Quincey, Arnold of Rugby, Ruskin; there, briefly, Scott and Shelley, Carlyle and Keats came to sample Eden, and recall its laureates.

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