In each issue, we ask a contemporary poet for a poem which draws inspiration from another poet’s work. In this issue, Jessica Sneddon responds to Dorothy Wordsworth and Susanna Blamire (plus the LOST project, lichens, and hidden stories of the Lake District.)
Poet and prose author Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855) was born in Cumberland and educated in Halifax and Penrith. Although unpublished in her lifetime, her journals, travelogues and poems were published after her death and are appreciated by many readers. She enjoyed gardening and regular nature walks; these often provided inspiration for her writing. She remained close to her brother William Wordsworth and lived with his household.
Poet and songwriter Susanna Blamire (1747-1794) wrote in Cumberland dialect, Scots and Standard English. She visited Scotland, Ireland and London during her lifetime. Her poetry and songs were circulated among her friends and sometimes shared by being attached to trees, but she did not publish them herself. Her work was published in 1842, after being preserved by her sister.
Jessica Sneddon is an emerging poet based in Cumbria, whose current work explores the land’s hidden narratives. She has recently delivered poetry workshops with Plantlife’s LOST project; a selection of her poetry is touring Cumbria with LOST’s Photography Exhibition. Her work has won the inaugural Elizabeth Burns Prize and appeared in Tears in the Fence and Ink, Sweat and Tears.
YR: Jessica, your current poetry manuscript, ‘Forensic Traces of Falling Sunlight,’ responds to the home turf of some major writers, such as William and Dorothy Wordsworth. You’re based in Cumbria and it’s a landscape known for its literary heritage. You’ve been looking at the archives of various writers for inspiration, such as Susanna Blamire and Dorothy Wordsworth’s manuscripts at the Wordsworth Trust, and Beatrix Potter’s botanical drawings at the Armitt Museum. Can you tell me a bit about what you’ve found and how it’s different from the usual heritage narratives we hear about ‘Wordsworthshire?’
JS: With the writers I’ve looked at, such as Susanna Blamire and Dorothy Wordsworth, there’s an underlying interest in small things in the natural world. That’s also sustained in the lesser-known scientific drawings of Beatrix Potter and how she is interested in the small details of living things. With these writers and thinkers, the Cumbrian landscape they depict is one of small species such as lichens and fungi, rather than the larger, more massive and picturesque landscapes that we normally associate with the Lake District.
YR: That’s very different from the sublime mountains we often associate with William Wordsworth, such as the ‘huge peak’ in the boat-stealing section of The Prelude! Alfred Wainwright’s more recent hiking guides also make us think of huge vistas rather than small-scale close-ups.
JS: The massive fells that those writers focus on are replaced with a sense of the accumulative strength of the ecosystem, in my work. More a web of species, than a grand, picturesque scene. In my work, looking at these small details, both now and in the landscape’s past, creates an impression of a Cumbrian habitat that’s active and dynamic rather than static and historic.
YR: Like Dorothy Wordsworth, you’re using walking as a way of observing changes in the natural world, specifically at White Moss Common. What have you encountered on your walks?
JS: I have been focusing on species like lichens and mosses. Because they’re a seemingly otherworldly micro-habitat, using a hand-lens to observe them felt like an entry into a different world. Close-up images of them felt almost aquatic, which I thought was interesting at White Moss: the connection between the wetland and woodland, and the interplay between those two forces in one area.
YR: We see some of those forces at work in Blamire’s elegy for the plover as well – the dew and showers.
JS: I feel that in Blamire’s poem, there’s an overwhelming sympathy with the plover that comes from the brutality of human interactions with the natural world. She singles out that one bird as a significant poetic focus. The creation of sympathy in Blamire resonates with the conservation narratives we often hear about charismatic species in the Lake District: we are encouraged to sympathise with the red squirrel, for example. They inspire greater feeling than looking at the value of toadstools! My own work naturally moves more towards those overlooked species than the most characteristic ones.
YR: We also see smaller details of buildings that appear to have been ‘uncreated’ in your poems. Could you tell me more about how you came to write about them?
JS: We often view the dilapidation of a building as a loss. But the buildings I encountered on my walks were regenerating into another habitat, in much the same way that the woodland regenerates and breaks down its own material, feeding itself. I like the way that human constructions become a part of the landscape, and have the potential to benefit it, even if they started out with the detrimental extraction of natural materials.
YR: What was the atmosphere of those abandoned buildings like?
JS: White Moss Common is intersected by the road. I couldn’t actually get to the abandoned Bothy, a dilapidated agricultural structure, because it sits just within some private land. There’s an interplay between the private and the public in my work. In one of my lichen-poems, I focus on how the spores of the lichens don’t discriminate in that way: they trespass readily over the boundaries. It was a very mild winter, which was kinder for me as someone who wanted to walk and write in the Lake District. I saw the Bothy at the end of winter and really early spring, which always feels like a period of hesitation. I like that Larkin poem ‘The Trees’: ‘The trees are coming into leaf/ Like something almost being said.’ My poem ‘The whereabouts of the Cascade Hotel’ explores the former site of a rather grandly named refreshment hut, captured in an old photograph, dated 1905. The reason the list is deconstructed is because I had some uncertainty about whether what I was seeing really was that structure. I like the idea of doubt. It felt like the building retained some agency, because it was so deconstructed. I wondered if I was reading more into that stack of stones than was actually there. It’s the only poem that deals with the failure to find something. It’s the only one where I was concerned about imposing an objective: looking for something. To avoid taking possession of the natural world, I felt it was important to allow this building to remain elusive. I suppose leaving and letting things go is about exploring without intruding; as a poet, I want to observe without taking ownership. It’s a poem that feels as though it’s observing something, but also allowing it to naturally fall away.
YR: The vandalism signs definitely go against the picturesque image of the Lake District that the tourist industry likes to promote. It’s not all about Dove Cottage, Squirrel Nutkin and Grasmere gingerbread.
JS: What I enjoyed about writing my vandalism poems was that they were spontaneous, as I only discovered the signs on the walks. The third poem from my ‘Stonehenges’ sequence plays with our assumption or feeling of safety in the woodland; the feeling of confusion at finding that the gates that mark public rights of way had been hacked off. We’re used to land management and a human presence in the countryside: the unwritten rural code of shutting gates behind you. It felt like a violation. The poems move away from our romanticised perception of heritage landscapes like the Lake District: that they’re sheltered, unchanging places.
YR: William Wordsworth was famous for his lengthy walks, but Dorothy is becoming increasingly well known as a walker as well. Can you tell me more about your walking methods?
JS: My own method was to do weekly walks of White Moss Common, and they were unplanned. I didn’t pre-plan the routes or duration of each walk. I wanted to avoid imposing an objective, so that the poetry was led by the landscape itself. The routine of that walking structure unconsciously inherits Dorothy’s routine walking.
The walks were observational, because I didn’t want to intrude on the life of the woodland. And in looking at these small, hidden worlds within the landscape, there’s always the conflict between exploring them and exposing them, especially in such a heavily visited area where the carbon footprint becomes a physical reality. The main theme of my poetry collection-in-progress is symbiosis, and the idea that humans are a part of a diverse and interconnected ecosystem. Exploring its interconnections reveals its fragility.
YR: Drawing inspiration from Beatrix Potter’s botanical drawings, you’ve been working with conservation charity Plantlife. They want people visiting the Lake District to pay closer attention to overlooked species, such as lichens and mosses. Could you tell me more about what it was like to work with them?
JS: I am interested in including the interdisciplinary work, because in a contemporary context we separate sciences from poetry, when both are in fact exploring the landscape with the same level of detail and interest. Coincidentally, Plantlife are also delivering a project called Looking Out for the Small Things (LOST) in the Lake District, which explores the micro-life of Atlantic woodlands. Using a hand-lens to view lichens and mosses added another dimension to my observations, and their specialist insights gave me a deeper understanding of these micro-worlds. In my work, wonder at the natural world comes from exploring its processes rather than imagining them. What’s interesting in the work of Beatrix Potter is that she addresses that connection between romance and realism, that you can appreciate a woodland when you’re inspired by both its mythology and its ecological diversity.
YR: What about the forgotten human narratives that you’ve been exploring in your poems?
JS: My walks also encountered traces of lost or lesser-known human histories, which have left their imprints on the land. That’s where the buildings offer an alternative to the area’s well-documented literary heritage; the textual legacy of the Wordsworths meets the traces of the working-class lives that are largely undocumented.
YR: Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journal contains some striking meetings with families who beg from door to door. What have you found in the landscape and the archives that speaks of industrial, working-class and itinerant legacies?
JS: My observational walks revealed physical traces of the area’s industrial past, a past largely overshadowed by this valley’s literary heritage. I identified with John Glenday’s approach to writing about loss; I heard Glenday read his moving poem ‘The Walkers’ at this year’s Lancaster Litfest. He commented that he usually avoids writing about people, but in this haunting poem the victims of a plane crash are apparitions, walking across continents to the homes they can never really return to. I feel that my own work explores the continuing presence of the past in the current life of the woodland. In one of the poems that I wrote early on in my project, I observed a mushroom with the common name ‘Charcoal Burner’. White Moss was historically the site of charcoal burning, and many of the trees were coppiced. In the poem, there is a dualism in this image: it is both an observation of the woodland species and a recognition of the land’s past. Time cannot be closed off in the landscape. I suppose this is how I have engaged with the overshadowed human lives, lived and worked at White Moss. In another poem from the ‘Stonehenges’ sequence, ‘Navigators’, the orbital walking of the rural poor in Dorothy’s journals is enmeshed with the industrial workers who constructed the aqueduct from Thirlmere (north of Grasmere) to Manchester. I had heard that some of these workers and their families were housed at a temporary encampment on the common. I was only able to find a record of this underrepresented history by contacting the Grasmere History Group, via the Wordsworth Trust. Their signature on the land is the aqueduct, still directing the flow of water. The literary and industrial are intertwined in this ever-changing ecosystem.
from Grasmere: A Fragment
Peaceful our valley, fair and green,
And beautiful her cottages,
Each in its nook, its sheltered hold,
Or underneath its tuft of trees.
Many and beautiful they are;
But there is one that I love best,
A lowly shed, in truth, it is,
A brother of the rest.
Yet when I sit on rock or hill,
Down looking on the valley fair,
That Cottage with its clustering trees
Summons my heart; it settles there.
Elegy On The Death Of A Plover
Low bend thy head thou waving spray,
Soft drop the dew that falls on thee,
That still the early rising day
A tear on every leaf may see.
Soft may the zephyr whisper thro’
Thy rustling leaves, and seem to sigh,
For here beneath that pensive bough
The tender Plover closed her eye.
Tyrannic man with iron hand
Had snatch’d her from domestic love;
And in the soft connubial band
Distress her cutting thread had wove.
A harsh, unfeeling, cruel mate
Imperious held the lordly sway,
And seem’d to think the will of fate
Was but to make the weak obey.
The soft communicative hour,
The wish to please, the tender care,
The history of each opening flower
Were sweets of love she ne’er must share.
Contempt her distance threw between,
Unsocial hours their languor cast,
Joyless became each flowery scene,
And soon the fret of life was past.
Blow soft ye winds, descend ye showers,
Still murmur round this little heap,
That eve may from more gloomy bowers,
Be tempted here to stop and weep.
The fourth wall of the Bothy
melts into grass, stones scatter like loose change
its tenant is juvenile
a young hazel alight with catkins
roofless – it lets the sun in
ferns are like flames
long grass licks interior walls
blue plastic mesh, knotted into branches
the VANDALISM warning
lies torn at the perimeter
the abandoned finds a resident
The whereabouts of the Cascade Hotel
—-a. Stone chunk steps, promise a destination
—-b. uneven, jarring deep to shallow
—-e. like the hull of a ship, a stone cornice
——–i. land, in a concave impression
—d. within sight of the cascade, water tapping from the quarry from which it takes its name
h. Bramble and scrub –
————————-c. steep gradient
—–f. emerging from the parameter of the road-wall, that
k. a bench bears
—————————————————————–g. incises the common.
——-l. an inscription
————————m. no further clues or