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10 May 2017updated 04 Aug 2021 2:03pm

Today, Wordsworth would be dismissed as a curmudgeon in tweeds

Who most deserves to wander lonely as a cloud, in this hopelessly overcrowded land of ours?

By John Burnside

As the sun goes down on our east Fife ridge, and with the promise of new snow over the coming week, I find that the last clutches of wayside daffodils look particularly vulnerable. For now, they are still golden – fluttering and dancing, inevitably, in the hilltop breeze – but it won’t be long before they are gone for another year. It is hard not to think again of Wordsworth, that poet who found wonder in everything.

It seems that he is a little out of fashion today and, were he to return unannounced to wander the quieter lanes of the Lake District, he would quickly be identified as one of those “lone enraptured males” who haunt what is left of the countryside, sniffing the flowers and pausing, in the shade of some deep lane, to watch a passing badger vanish into the undergrowth.

I like to think of Wordsworth and his heirs more in the spirit of what Seamus Heaney calls “one of the venerators” than as a tweedy interloper, spoiling the precious solitude of – well, of whom, exactly? Who most deserves to wander lonely as a cloud, in this hopelessly overcrowded land of ours?

The accompanied? The unenraptured? Wordsworth had time and attention to spare for every living thing: celandines, primroses, daisies and so on. He was an unembarrassed champion of “the splendour in the grass” and “glory in the flower”. Oscar Wilde cleverly pointed out that he had a touch too much of the self-proclaimed “nature’s priest” about him. “Wordsworth went to the lakes,” he wrote, “but he was never a lake poet. He found in stones the sermons he had already hidden there.”

There is some justice in this, but Wordsworth possessed a commitment, especially in his later years, that seems lacking today in all but a few. He saw clearly how any one of us can be manipulated into supporting the worst schemes against our own environment. “In modern business it is not the crook who is to be feared most,” he said, “it is the honest man who doesn’t know what he is doing.”

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Arguing against the exploitation of the Lakes, he lost a great deal of his popularity by proclaiming: “Sacred as a relic of the devotion of our ancestors deserves to be kept, there are temples of Nature, temples built by the Almighty, which have still higher claim to be left unviolated.” And in 1844, protesting the damage that would be done by the projected Kendal and Windermere Railway, he demanded: “Is then no nook of English ground secure/From rash assault?”

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It made him sound like a pompous old curmudgeon, seeking to keep interlopers from his adopted Lakeland home – but his warnings have proved all too accurate in the century and a half since that first railway development.

Now the designated curmudgeons are asking about the rights and wrongs of ecotourism in Costa Rica and the proliferation of golf courses along our coasts. It’s all very difficult: a walk in the woods, or across the windy hills, should be the right of every citizen – but if we are not careful the exercising of such rights will do great damage. Is it better to paraglide through a tropical forest, or ascend on the téléférique to some Alpine meadow, than to use that same money to turn a suburban garden into a paradise for native plants and animals? It need not be filled with wildflowers: there could be room for hellebores, or rare dodecatheons, with their delicate, shooting-star flowers. And daffodils, of course.

What matters is that we bring to everything the sense of wonder that inspires us to defend unspoiled land against all that would snuff it out for a new car park, or yet another tawdry seaside hotel.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

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This article appears in the 03 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution