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Wordsworth and Education

In this video Professor Simon Bainbridge of Lancaster University discusses the theme of education in Wordsworth’s life and writing.
This is Hawkshead Grammar School, in Hawkshead in the centre of the English Lake District. William Wordsworth attended this school from 1779 until 1787, so from the ages of 9 to 17. This was a long-established school with an excellent reputation. And it sent many boys to the University of Cambridge, including Wordsworth himself. It was here that Wordsworth received his formal education, studying the classics, Latin, and Greek. It was also here that Wordsworth began writing poetry. And he was encouraged in his love of poetry by the headmaster. Like a number of the boys, Wordsworth even carved his initials in the desks in the classroom inside. Perhaps more importantly, it was also in this area of Hawkshead that Wordsworth received his natural education.
Wordsworth believed that the environment and the landscape of this area shaped him and made him the great poet that he went on to become. This is the story that Wordsworth tells in “The Prelude,” his epic autobiography. And many of the incidents in “The Prelude” describe happenings from this area. Quite early on in “The Prelude,” Wordsworth describes what he felt to be the positive influence of this environment on his development. And I’m going to read you those lines now. So in the 1805 “Prelude,” Wordsworth writes as follows. “Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up foster’d alike by beauty and by fear, much favor’d in my birthplace, and no less in that beloved vale to which erelong I was transplanted.”
So here Wordsworth is paying tribute to the place of his birth, “my birthplace, Cockermouth,” and also to the beloved vale of Hawkshead. He believes that he’s been much favoured by having been born and brought up in these beautiful areas. What’s also striking, though, is that Wordsworth describes the natural influence on his development in two ways. He says he’s been fostered alike by beauty and by fear. So on the one hand, nature has had this beautiful influence on him. It’s been like a maternal figure, like a mother who’s nurtured him and looked after him, protected him. On the other hand though, it’s acted through fear. And we might wonder what Wordsworth means by fear.
What is the role of fear in his education? And immediately after this passage, Wordsworth goes on to give us an example of how fear has shaped him. So in the lines that follow Wordsworth describes one of his typical adventures in this area, in which he spends an evening trying to snare birds. He writes as follows. “Well I call to mind, ‘twas at an early age, ere I had seen nine summers, ‘twas my joy to wander half the night among the cliffs and the smooth hollows where the woodcocks ran along the open turf. In thought and wish, that time, my shoulder all with springes hung, I was a fell destroyer.”
So he’s carrying his snares on his shoulder as he sets out to try and catch these birds. “On the heights, scudding away from snare to snare, I plied my anxious visitation, hurrying on, still hurrying, hurrying onward, moon and stars were shining o’er my head. I was alone, and seem’d to be a trouble to the peace that was among them. Sometimes it befel in these night wanderings that a strong desire o’erpowered my better to reason, and the bird which was the captive of another’s toils became my prey, and when the deed was done, I heard among the solitary hills low breathings coming after me and sounds of undistinguishable motion, steps almost as silent as the turf they trod.”
This is a very typical incident from Wordsworth’s childhood, an outdoor adventure in which he’s exploring this environment of his beloved Hawkshead. But it’s also typically Wordsworthian in that it’s a troubled moment. As well as trying to catch birds, he’s also taking the birds from the snares that had been laid by the other boys. So he’s transgressing here. He’s doing something that he shouldn’t do. And as a result of this sense of transgression, Wordsworth has this sense that nature starts to haunt him. He feels nature coming to punish him for this transgression. He hears the “low breathings coming after me, and sounds of undistinguishable motions, steps almost as silent as the turf they trod.”
So it’s as if there’s someone else in the landscape who’s coming to chastise him, to tell him off for stealing these other birds. And this is very typical of Wordsworth’s early childhood. The sense of troubled pleasure is central to “The Prelude.” Wordsworth, though, believed that these kinds of adventures had a very powerful influence on his development, and that they made him the person that he became. And he has a particular phrase for them. He calls them “spots of time.” And in the next step of this course, we’re going to analyse what Wordsworth means by that phrase, “spots of time.”

In this video Professor Simon Bainbridge discusses the theme of education in Wordsworth’s life and writing.

The video is shot at Hawkshead Grammar School where the poet himself was educated. Simon looks at Wordsworth’s emphasis in The Prelude on his ‘natural education’ and at his description of how his development has been influenced by ‘beauty’ and by ‘fear’.

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William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

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