Romantic Dwelling

The feeling for ‘dwelling’ within a landscape characteristic of Romanticism found expression in the increasing celebrity of poets’ homes and haunts. William Cowper’s house, Orchardside in Olney, along with its garden, and the surrounding landscape owed their grip on the cultural imagination to Cowper’s lengthy poem, The Task (1785), in which the poet influentially redefined Enlightenment concepts of space and time, recasting them as effects of memory and affect (see exhibit 1, ‘Cowper’s pocket-watch’). In The Task and in his letters Cowper presented himself as the poet of retreat from the world; the lived conditions and anxieties of that retreat are explored in exhibits 2, 3, 4, and 5 which variously respond to Cowper’s inward turn through considering the windows of the house, the famous summerhouse, his shaving-mirror, and a piece of garden netting. Exhibits 6 and 7 disestablish Cowper from the centre of the field of vision, to bring into visibility instead Mary Unwin’s life within the house, and the lives of the lace-makers of Olney outside the house. Cowper’s remarkable letter-cabinet (exhibit 8) serves as an equally corrective reminder that although the poet was withdrawn from the world physically, he corresponded with a large network of prominent persons.

The tea-caddy commissioned as a sentimental memorial after Cowper’s death by his friend and biographer William Hayley (1745-1820) compacts in material form the meanings of Cowper’s life and works for subsequent Romantics (exhibit 9). Conjecturally, that legacy was understood in the Wordsworths’ household in Grasmere as a shared shift to exploring the inner life; this may be the meaning carried by the otherwise obscure affective itinerary of William Cowper’s lavender-water phial. This little pharmacist’s bottle sits in a glass cabinet in the parlour at Orchardside. It bears an old, almost illegible cardboard label around its neck which claims that it once belonged to Cowper, that it was used by him just before he died, and that it had then been given to William Wordsworth. Wordsworth was an admirer of Cowper but it is not clear that he knew him personally. If the story the bottle’s label tells is true, it likely sat in Rydal Mount for much of the nineteenth century. It seems then to have been gifted by Dorothy Dickson, Wordsworth’s great grand-daughter, to the institution that preceded the Cowper museum, the Memorial Library, on the centenary of Cowper’s death. Thus, although this collection is bound to one Romantic home, its story as told here begins to set up resonances with other Romantic houses and with other experiments in Romantic dwelling.

Orchardside was famous from Cowper’s death in 1800 onwards, and would eventually be transformed into a museum in 1900, one of the earliest of such museums (see exhibit 10, the poster advertising the grand opening). What remains of this Edwardian celebration measures difference and continuity between the Edwardian and the modern experience of calling on Cowper at home. Yet, as the miniaturised essays in this collection demonstrate, Orchardside’s powerful, insistent locality can still activate Romantic residues within European culture — a wish to memorialise poets in place, a continuing valuation of experimental Romantic retreat and vision, the desire to set up personal relationships of inheritance and admonition between poet and reader, a special sense of an intimate relation between interiority and home, and — above all — a desire to materialise the experience of reading text.