Wordsworth’s Wishing-Gate

Colour illustration of a lake and hills at Grasmere, including the wishing-gate

Contributor: Jeff Cowton

Location: The old Grasmere – Rydal Turnpike Road, Grasmere

Description: ‘Wordsworth’s Wishing-gate’, and what remains of it, tells a paradigmatic Romantic story of literary tourism in the heart of the English Lake District in the mid nineteenth century.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, literary pilgrimages around Britain were already popular with tourists from home and abroad. As Nicola J. Watson writes: ‘The French poet and scholar Auguste Angellier remarked on the huge numbers of literary pilgrims who came to Britain from the four corners of the world to pay homage to the country’s writers.’ From the 1820s, such tourists came to the Lakes in search of Wordsworth: the man himself and the places associated with his poetry. ‘Strangers’, as tourists were then addressed, were encouraged by published guidebooks to call on the poet at his Rydal Mount home for personal tours of his garden. An image showing Wordsworth standing in his library was included in a popular set of prints in the 1830s; by the 1850s his name was synonymous with the area: ‘Wordsworth Country’. One particular place of pilgrimage was ‘The Wishing Gate’, a humble farm gate on the old turnpike road overlooking Grasmere lake, just five minutes’ walk from Dove Cottage which the Wordsworths had made their home between 1799 and 1808.

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A Lock of Goethe’s Hair

A lock of hair framed with a portrait in an oval, gold frame.

A Lock of Goethe’s Hair

(cut on 2nd March 1823, now in the Taylor Institution Library, Oxford)

Clear as melt-water, the March air flows into the room,
Carrying the delicate notes of the birds’ first thin calls
In that garden in Weimar. The Herr Geheimrat, propped high
On his bulwark of pillows, the doctor dismissed at last,
Waits for his barber. Time to be tidy and kempt,
Fit for the salon, although his condition is still
Fragile as Meissen, and weaker than camomile tea.
The cold blade slides down his neck, gliding, and with it there falls,
As his dead hair scatters, the years of his well-worn past –
Italy, Frankfurt, the court and the theatre, the verse –
`One lock – as a favour?’ Yes – far in the past, those old Greeks,
They cut off a curl of their hair as a gift to the dead,
And the Roman boys severed a strand at their coming-of-age…
Outside, Frau von Goethe, her wholesome cheeks shiny and scrubbed
As a winter apple, goes bustling, shuffles and scolds.
Excellent woman! He thinks of Charlotte von Stein –
Her pale smile, ironic, her manners, that filigree cage
Of etiquette, trapping a passion that fluttered and cried…
Whose are those voices? Next door, or much farther away,
One, like a violin, springs in a light curving arc
While Mozart’s viola responds in its full rolling tone:
`…cut from the head of the poet as he convalesced…’
The barber is gleaning the scatterings in a white towel,
Murmurs excuses – but under the crop that remains
New rhythms and phrases are stirring, as down in the park
The tentative fronds are uncurling around the oak’s roots.
Yes, one slip of hair is a sacrifice he can afford,
In thanks to the Fates who have spared him their shears – just for now.

by Susan Reynolds

Read the blog post on Goethe’s Hair here.