Young writers will gather this summer for an award ceremony at the home of the poet William Wordsworth to be rewarded for their own efforts. The Rydal Mount Poetry Prize for young people is hosted by the descendants of Wordsworth who still own the house, near Ambleside in the Lake District. The aim is to encourage creativity among school students, but also to raise awareness of the man who is arguably Britain’s second finest poet ever, after Shakespeare.
“It seems hard to believe now, when poetry has become a marginalised art form, but 200 years ago it was said that that everybody in Britain knew that the prime minister lived at 10 Downing Street and that William Wordsworth lived at Rydal Mount,” says Christopher Wordsworth Andrew, the poet’s great great great great grandson.
The prolific genius, greatest of the Romantic poets, author of perhaps the world’s most famous poem (I wandered lonely as a cloud) was also the people’s poet. He wanted to bring poetry into the life of the everyday and in doing so he became one of the most important social influencers of this time. He was also, as much of his work indicates, a pioneering environmentalist with immense relevance for our time.
Now the Wordsworth family is determined to bring his work back into the popular domain, and also to establish Rydal Mount as a centre for poetry, not only the study of what has been written but also to encourage new poetry and creativity, with the messages of sustainability and environmental concern at its heart. They want to re-invest Rydal Mount with the literary and creative buzz it deserves and the Young Poets award is at the core of their plans. Christopher continues: “We believe Rydal Mount can once again become synonymous with poetry, its creation, its performance and its study.”
William Wordsworth moved to Rydal Mount in 1813 and lived there until his death on 23 April, 1850. His beloved daughter Dora died there, and in her memory, William planted the daffodils which return every year in Dora’s Field, just below the house, next to Rydal Church. The house became the focal point of the Romantic era and the disciples of romantic poetry, the Wordsworth family playing host to a ‘who’s who’ of the cultural elite, as well as members of the public, who were also made welcome and often had the chance to meet the poet.
He had rented the house, and it wasn’t until 1969 that the Wordsworth family had the opportunity to buy it, and open it to the public as a place of pilgrimage. Over the years they have accumulated many books, manuscripts and other possessions which had been largely unseen for more than 150 years. They have also been developing the naturalistic garden according to plans drawn up by William himself; he once said that if poetry had not taken over his life, he would have become a landscape gardener.
Under Christopher’s enthusiastic direction, the family had ambitious plans for a series of celebrations to mark the poet’s 250th birthday in 2020. They managed just one – a memorial service in Westminster Abbey – before the pandemic lockdown. But from that cloud came a remarkable and hugely popular silver lining when Christopher saw a way to mark the occasion virtually.
The project Wordsworth 250, was intended to be a low-key, small-scale affair, a website hosting YouTube films of people reading William’s poems. “I emailed everybody in the family – there are around 50 direct Wordsworth descendants – and said, why don’t you all send me your favourite Wordsworth poems, recording them on your phones. I thought Wordsworths reading Wordsworth would be amusing.”
It was initially intended to be just a family memorial and the majority did get involved. “But then Stephen Fry heard about it, and he was keen to join in, and suddenly we found ourselves with dozens of celebrities reading for the archive, including Tom Conti and Hugh Bonneville.” A veritable host of actors and celebrities – along with members of the public who loved poetry – jumped at the chance to record their favourite Wordsworth poems, to build a living archive of his writing online.
The Wordsworth family plans
There’s now a number of strands to the Wordsworth plans. The poetry competition is now in its 10th year, and in this time dozens of Cumbrian schools have taken part, and hundreds of poems have been submitted by young writers, on a distinct theme each year. The winners are celebrated on a plaque kept in the drawing room at Rydal Mount; the winning poem itself is framed and displayed for a year. In the Wordsworth tradition, they’re the new Romantics.
The Rydal Mount team are also hosting poetry events, including members of the family reading William’s own work in his own drawing room, at which the audience drink wine and eat local Grasmere gingerbread. And they have reprised their Poet in Residence scheme; this summer their resident is local writer Kerry Darbishire, whose work is rooted in the Lakeland landscape. Her two full collections were published by Indigo Dreams: A Lift of Wings (2014) and Distance Sweet on my Tongue (2018). Her biography Kay’s Ark was published by Handstand Press in 2016. Her poems have appeared widely in anthologies and magazines.
Alongside this, the Wordsworth’s with curator Leo Finighan are developing the house at Rydal Mount as a centre for the study and appreciation of Wordsworth’s manuscripts. They have been organising more formal academic study of this material, “not only the manuscripts themselves, and how to handle and deal with them, but also more academic study and discussion of Wordsworth, his poetry and his place in English literature”, says Christopher.
A sleepover in Wordsworth’s room
The house and gardens, open to the public, are also being used in other ways, to stage concerts and plays in the summer, as a wedding venue – Christopher and his partner Olly were married here last year – and also the ultimate Wordsworth experience, an overnight stay in William’s bedroom.
But poetry remains at the heart of their plans. Christopher explains:
“Wordsworth’s poetry, especially that of the ground-breaking Lyrical Ballads, was purposefully written in the language of ordinary people. Not for Wordsworth the overly poetical writing of earlier generations, he wanted to bring poetry into the lives of everyone.
“We believe that poetry has become unpopular now because it is thought of as too complex or difficult to understand. So breaking down these perceived barriers, especially using the more easily understandable poetry of Wordsworth, along with the physical place of Rydal Mount, we hope will start to reverse this process. Cumbria and the North West was the home of Romantic poetry and it should reclaim its position.”
If you would like to hear Christopher reading some of his great great great great grandfather’s poems, there’s a special evening of poetry at Rydal Mount on June 15 – you can reserve by booking online.