We have now reached the little cairn perched on a boulder rock above the road, just beyond the “Straining Well” for the Manchester water-conduit. The cairn, carefully built, contains only the fragments of certain letters, which are all that we are able to save from the cruel blasting powder of the contractor who wished to quarry the “Rock of Names” for material to make the water-dam. There, by the old road just beneath us, had stood, carefully guarded by the moss and lichen, unknown save to the readers of the bard, that memorial of the tryst of the poets. For they were all poets who wrought their initials painfully upon the hard volcanic ash, and graved upon the “rock’s smooth breast,” letters
That once seemed only to express
Love that was love in idleness.
Wordsworth, the tallest of the party, cut his initials highest up, W. W. Next to him, because she loved him so, were wrought out the initial letters of the maiden name of his late affianced bride, M. H. She has a face that bears a kind of family likeness to the poet’s, as much for its weakness as its strength. High brow, long cheeks, well arched eyebrow, and eyes darker of hue than his own. One of these has a slight cast in it, but the mouth is full of tenderness. It is a sweet face, “There never lived on earth,” wrote Dorothy Wordsworth, “a better woman than Mary Hutchinson.” One who knew her in later age, said that “she brought into Wordsworth’s life an element of repose and stability and intellect less brilliant and stimulating than Dorothy’s, with nature less highly strung, was gifted with a good sense and wisdom, and loving fidelity which proved to be the constant blessing of his life.” But here at the “Rock of Names” to-day, this Creature
not to bright or good
For human nature’s daily food
is happy beyond words. The dominant expression of her face is to-day what De Quincey described it as being, “a sunny benignity.” The clouds may roll over Helvellyn but nothing can put out that sun. The “Rock of Names” may sink beneath the waterflood or fall a prey to a contractor’s quarryman, but her name is graven on a rock that shall last for ever, the Rock of Love. And underneath the initials of Mary Hutchinson came the letters D. W. Below and close to Dorothy Wordsworth’s name was written the initials of the man who, more than any other, Wordsworth excepted, honoured and understood Dorothy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It was for his sake that the tryst was held here, he was then living at Keswick; and hither, in the Spring of 1800, I believe he came not once or twice, but many a time to delight in the flashing of those wild eyes of Dorothy’s, and the flashing of the soul’s wit, and wisdom that enlightened them.
“She is a woman indeed! in mind I mean, and in heart, for her person is such if you expected to see a pretty woman, you would think her ordinary; if you expected to see an ordinary woman, you would think her pretty; but her manners are simple, ardent, impressive. In every motion her most innocent soul out-beams so brightly, that who saw her would say, ‘Guilt was a thing impossible with her.’ Her information various. Her eye watchful in minutest observation of nature; and her taste a perfect electrometer.” WE turn away from the bronze-faced, gipsy-looking, intelligent face of Dorothy, and gaze for a moment at the man who has just spoken, and Dorothy’s first impressions of the poet she met at Racedown in 1797, come to mind. “He is a wonderful man. His conversation teems with soul, mind, and spirit. Then he is so benevolent, so good-tempered and cheerful, and, like William, interest himself so much about every little trifle.”
That is true to-day, for Coleridge has just been adjuring Wordsworth to deepen the cross cutting of the crosses or middle strokes in his capital W. W., and the bard has taken Coleridge’s penknife and is hard at work as may be seen by a reference to Dorothy’s Journal under date May 4, 1802.
But to continue Dorothy’s description: “At first I thought him very plain, that is for about three minutes. He is pale, thin, has a wide mouth, thick lips, and not very good teeth, longish, loose-growing, half-curling, rough, black hair. But if you hear him speak for five minutes, you think no more of them. His eye is large and full, and not very dark, but grey, such an eye as would receive from a heavy soul, the dullest expression; but it speaks every emotion of his animated mind; it has more of the ‘poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling’ than I ever witnessed. He has fine dark eyebrows and an overhanging forehead.”
A noticeable Man with large grey eyes,
And a pale face that seemed undoubtedly
As if a blooming face it ought to be;
Heavy his low-hung lip did oft appear,
Deprest by weight of musing Phantasy;
Profound his forehead was, though not severe.
We look across now, at the third of the group. The tall, somewhat gaunt-faced, almost horse-faced, weather-beaten man, with lack-lustre hazel grey eyes that are not large but changing in their light and tone; full forehead, large nose and mouth of much meaning; he is William Wordsworth. Beautiful are his teeth by contrast with Coleridge’s, and his hair is light brown of hue. T-day “as happy as a lover” does he seem. He does not often smile, but when he does, it is like sunshine from behind a thunder cloud, and he smiles to-day:
For happier soul no living creature has
Than he had, being here the long day through.
Some thought he was a lover, and did woo.
They were right, for Mary Hutchinson, to whom he had just been engaged in the Spring of 1800, and to whom he is to be married on the 4th October, 1802, is as aforesaid of the party.
Yet there is that in Wordsworth’s face that makes one feel that he is old beyond his years, “a withered flower-like” look in his pale and somewhat faded cheek, of which he must have been conscious, when he wrote those self-descriptive stanzas in his pocket-book of Thomson’s Castle of Indolence,—a premature expression of old age that once made a coaching passenger say to Wordsworth, “You’ll never see threescore I’m of opinion,” and when the Poet told him his real age and that he was but thirty-nine, rapped out, “God bless me, so then after all you’ll have a chance to see your children get up like and get settled, only to think of that!” It was in fact this “look of bloom killed before its time,” that made all the Dalesmen speak of Wordsworth, as “auld Wadswuth,” long before he had seen sixty summers. But what a tall man he is; “regular Cumberland yeoman mak” as we should say. One does not wonder that Coleridge felt, as he tells us, “a little man by his side.”
What a trysting place of friends this “Rock of Names” is! “We are three people,” wrote Coleridge once from Racedown, “but only one soul.” They are three to-day, the one soul binds them into closest harmony. And there they sit upon the wall, seeing the sun go down and the reflection in the still water. Coleridge looks well, and parts from them cheerfully, “hopping,” as Dorothy tells us, “upon the side stones.” It was not always that he parted in such good spirits from “Sara’s rock” or “Sara’s seat” as they used to call this spot, after Dorothy and Coleridge, in October 1801, built up the rough stones at the foot of the rock into a wayside seat. For one finds such an entry in Dorothy’s Journal as this in the autumn of the same year: “Poor C. left us, and we (that is Mary Hutchinson and Dorothy) came home together.”
But other poets’ names are on the Rock, for John Wordsworth and Sara Hutchinson had all the poet’s feeling within their souls, and they too laboured with the penknife; he, the sailor, perhaps, with more skill than they all. At least one infers that brother John, whose visits to Thirlmere are often noted during his stay at Dove Cottage from the end of January to September 27, of 1800, is responsible for the initials J. W. It is impossible to believe, had it been otherwise, that Wordsworth would have written the lines descriptive of the company of stone gravers:
Meek women, men as true and brave
As ever went to a hopeful grave:
Their hands and mine when side by side,
With kindred zeal and mutual ride,
We worked until the Initials took
Shapes that defied a scornful look.
It was with the sorrow of that brave sailor’s untimely end heavy upon him that Wordsworth wrote the poem entitled The Rock of Names; and pathetic it is to think of the power the Rock had to console and comfort:
Long as for us a genial feeling
Survives, or one in need of healing.
The power, dear Rock, around thee cast,
Thy monumental power shall last
For me and mine!
We, who after ninety years of sacred trust, see the old Rock of healing blown to shivers, though it be set up again in its poor mutilated fragments, may well feel the powerlessness of
The light that never was on sea or land,
The consecration, and the Poet’s dream,
to give our world-blinded souls light, and to preserve the wayside shrine of the poets, a sanctuary for high thought and inspiring association still.
(Literary Associations of the English Lakes, Vol. II, pp. 219-26)