At the marvellous Romantic Locations conference in Grasmere recently, I heard paper by Helen-Frances Pilkington from Birkbeck about Wordsworth’s opposition to the Kendal and Windermere Railway (by which transport I travelled to the conference). Wordsworth conducted his own literary campaign against the railway in 1844, notably by the writing of the sonnet ‘On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway’ as well as other poems and a number of letters to the Morning Post. For the poet who wrote ‘The world is too much with us’, it’s not surprising that he was opposed to a railway line which would bring yet more people to his beloved Cumbria (and there is more information on the railway and its opponents on the Wordsworth Trust’s website here). This sonnet uses the emotive language familiar from his other poems which eulogise the landscape, drawing on a tradition of pastoral which seeks to conjure up an already-fading rural idyll, soon to be destroyed. Wordsworth condemns those who place a ‘false utilitarian lure’ above the ‘beautiful romance of nature’. These arguments sound all too familiar, as HS2 draws ever closer (and, as I come from the Chilterns and work in Birmingham, HS2 is something I frequently hear discussed). Some of the arguments against the building of HS2 relate to the destruction of ancient woodland and beautiful countryside, and, set against the requirements of business and commerce, it’s not difficult to imagine which side Wordsworth would take. The parallels between the building of the two railways, nearly a century and a half apart, are striking, though the situations are in many ways different, but the conflict between the local economy and the countryside is one that is still being evoked. The nature of poetic protest is perhaps not as strong as other forms; ultimately, Wordsworth was unsuccessful (as I’m afraid the less beautiful poetic offerings on the Stop HS2 website will also be) but Wordsworth’s sonnet does, at least, give us the opportunity to think about what might be lost and what might be gained, and about the value of the countryside.
‘On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway’
Is then no nook of English ground secure
From rash assault? Schemes of retirement sown
In youth, and ‘mid the busy world kept pure
As when their earliest flowers of hope were blown,
Must perish;–how can they this blight endure?
And must he too the ruthless change bemoan
Who scorns a false utilitarian lure
‘Mid his paternal fields at random thrown?
Baffle the threat, bright Scene, from Orresthead
Given to the pausing traveller’s rapturous glance:
Plead for thy peace, thou beautiful romance
Of nature; and, if human hearts be dead,
Speak, passing winds; ye torrents, with your strong
And constant voice, protest against the wrong.