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The Goslar Letter

Jeff Cowton, curator of the Wordsworth Trust, shows Professor Simon Bainbridge one of the Trust’s treasures, the ‘Goslar Letter’.
This week, we’re looking at Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem, “The Prelude.” So far, we’ve examined that question with which he begins the poem, “Was it for this?” We’ve looked at Wordsworth’s concept of spots of time. We’ve looked at one of those particular spots, the so-called boat stealing episode. I’ve now come back to Grasmere to the Jerwood Centre, and I’m joined by Jeff Cowton, the Wordsworth Trust’s curator. And he’s brought with him one of the treasures of the Wordsworth Trust, which is an extraordinary work of art that will help us understand the process whereby the poet comes to write “The Prelude”. So Jeff, what is this extraordinary piece of work in front of us?
Well, it is extraordinary, and it’s behind plastic because it’s one of our permanent displays next door. It is a letter that was written by William and Dorothy Wordsworth to their great friend Coleridge. They were both in Germany in 1798, but they’d gone separate ways. So William and Dorothy were in Goslar and Coleridge was in Ratzeburg. And this is, as you say, an extraordinary letter full of prose but also full of poetry too. It’s a fantastic looking object, and writing all over the place. It’s quite confusing. It’s quite hard to understand. And the writing seems to be going in all sorts of different directions, and it’s upside down. Can you explain to us why that is?
Well, what we see on this side of the letter is Wordsworth writing to Coleridge. So there’s a piece of prose writing there. And in this passage, he mentions that he will be sending and Dorothy will be writing for Wordsworth some descriptions, as he calls them, of the poems from the poems that he’s been working on and also some rhyme poems that he hopes will amuse Coleridge. But what’s confusing is of course you have the address panel on the same side of the letter. People didn’t use envelopes till perhaps the 1830s. And so what you see is the letter and the envelope all in one. And these were called entires because you had the whole thing together.
And perhaps it’s easier to understand if we look at this small facsimile. So there’s the address panel that you see goes with that, a very simple address. Mr. Coleridge, Ratzburg, no street names, no hotels, anything of the like, and the stamp of Goslar, from where. the letter is sent. But then when we open it up, you can see how the stamp– the seal rather– is used to hold it together. And then there is the equivalent of what we have in front of us. So can you talk us through some of the things that are in the letter? If we go back to the original, you can see that on one side, we have an introduction by Wordsworth.
So he’s replying to a letter he’s received from Coleridge, and he’s explaining that in this letter, Dorothy has written the other side. And he says that she’s written some descriptions, and he also says that Dorothy has written out some rhyming poems, which you see at the bottom there which he says he hopes will amuse Coleridge. So introduction, the rhyming poems. And then on the other side, it’s just incredible really. It’s like a patchwork, a patchwork of poetry and of little comments. And you have here two great passages from the prelude. One is the boat stealing episode, and one is the ice skating passage. And also, a third narrative or story if you like of Wordsworth going nutting.
And that goes from there, and then to there, and then to there. So you can see they’ve used every available space. So Dorothy was copying out bits that Wordsworth had already written and sending them on to Coleridge. In this letter, Dorothy says that she’s taken pieces from the masses– that’s her word– the masses that Wordsworth has just been writing. So a little notebook in which we see was it for this and the other passage as well. Well, some from that notebook will have gone into this letter. But what’s interesting is that the passage about the ice skating, there is no other known manuscript. So the chances are that there’s yet another manuscript from their German time that has gone missing.
So this document shows us two early drafts of the prelude, fragments of it, or “The Spots of Time,” as they became known. It seems that Wordsworth was writing these episodes, these stories, and then they would be connected by reflective passages or philosophical passages. And it seems looking at the evidence that we have that that order of passages comes at a later stage. So he’s recording what he remembers and then making sense of it. So he’s almost writing his poetic self as he’s going along.
So this extraordinary document really helps us understand the process of writing, the process whereby writing is communicated to the great sort of friend and mentor, Coleridge, and also the origins of these early parts of the prelude. Well, if we remember that the poem, before it had its title was known in the family as the poem to Coleridge. So what this letter shows is that as soon as some of these drafts were written, it was important that Coleridge would see them as early as he could, as soon as he could. And you mention the word fragmentary.
In this letter, William I think it is, says to Coleridge, please hold onto this letter in case they are to lose any of the manuscripts from which they’re drawn. Well, there we have the ice skating, and the earlier manuscript of it has in fact been lost. So it was good advice, and well done Coleridge for holding onto it. Yes. Thank goodness he did hold onto it, because it remains– it must be one of the most fascinating single pieces of paper in the history of English literature. And as a museum exhibit it’s wonderful because as you said, it is like a work of art. It’s a beautiful thing.
And you have the poetry, but you also have these little comments, don’t you. So here’s Dorothy writing to Coleridge. If your eyes are not quite well, I’m afraid that you will suffer from this long and ill written letter. So that’s a nice personal note that she puts here. Well, thank you very much once again, Jeff, for bringing this fantastic object out of the museum to show to us, for sharing your critical insights, because I think it shows extremely well the creative process as it operates for William Wordsworth. You’re very welcome.

Watch this video in which Jeff Cowton MBE shows Professor Simon Bainbridge one of the Wordsworth Trust’s treasures, the ‘Goslar Letter’.

This letter, a joint production from William and Dorothy to their friend Coleridge, is named after the German town in which it was written. As Jeff explains, the letter contains passages of poetry that would eventually be included in The Prelude, giving a real insight into how Wordsworth created his masterpiece.

As you watch the video, you might like to pay particular attention to the layout of the letter. In the next step, you will get an opportunity to produce your own ‘Goslar Letter’.

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William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

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