Then and Now, 1906
This review was first published in the TLS of June 15, 1906.
Wordsworth wrote his Guide to the Lakes in 1810, to preface a work by the Rev Joseph Wilkinson, who had drawn a folio volume of select views. But the drawings were, as Wordsworth was the first to pronounce, so “intolerable” that he had his preface severed from the main volume and published separately. In spite of its popularity in this shape, however – some one asked him whether he had written anything else – the book has not been reprinted as a separate volume since 1864; and many readers will have reason to thank Mr de Sélincourt for his letter of introduction to a new and happily permanent friend. In his excellent preface, which, besides furnishing all facts, suggests the right way of approaching them, Mr de Séilincourt tells us something of the sentimental history of the Lakes. In 1810 they were already the subject of curiosity, although they had not been domesticated in the sense that they are to-day. The people who went went in the conscious spirit of explorers, to bring back tales of what they had seen and to figure hereafter as travellers, rather than as private people who might keep their emotions to themselves. It was the custom to preserve these experiences in prose or verse; but these volumes do not, as Mr de Sélincourt says, “afford invigorating reading.” There was, perhaps, some affectation in their appreciation, and a tendency to approach lakes and mountains with a mind on the defensive against any attacks upon its sensibility. Mountains are “horrid”, and when praise is given, the curiously obsolete and artificial sound of it suggests that it is inspired by a wish to save the writer’s reputation as a man of taste rather than by a simple desire to write the truth.
Wordsworth, coming after these somewhat perplexed and perfunctory tourists, wrote with the calm authority of one who had lived for all but three years of his life among the scenes he describes. He has all the courtesy and consideration of an old inhabitant who does the honours of the place to a stranger, and who not only undertakes to show him the beauties, but will explain from his abundant and well-ordered knowledge any fact of history or geography that seems to him worth observation. He is jealous for his country’s credit, but his familiarity with the place is so perfect that no view will drive him into hasty exaggeration; he admires what he has seen and tested during a life time and knows to deserve and require every word he bestows.At first, it is true, the reader may detect some old-fashioned formality in his guide; he uses still the somewhat rigid vocabulary that was then thought proper for natural things; he will talk of a view that is “rich in a diversity of pleasing or grand scenery”, of “prospects” and “situations”, and he condescends more than a poet should to direct you how best to secure beds at the inn, “as there is but one, and it is much resorted to in summer.” But this very sedateness has its value, and seems to prove that the beauty is real enough to suffer examination by a perfectly candid and conscientious temper. These sober details, moreover, give a tone of solidity to the whole, and suggest the rough surface of the earth, which is as true a part of the country as its heights and its splendours.
Let us station ourselves in a cloud, he begins, hanging midway between Great Gavel or Scawfell; “we shall then see stretched at our feet a number of valleys, not fewer than eight … diverging from the point … like spokes from the nave of a wheel.” After this general survey he goes on to follow out certain paths in detail, making general observations on the form of the country and gradually narrowing his gaze till he gives us those closely-observed trifles which only a very penetrating eye after long search could have selected and described.