William Wordsworth, born April 7, 1770, the romantic poet extraordinaire, also found solace in watching cricket. Arunabha Sengupta writes about the cricketing connections of the man instrumental in launching the Romantic Age of English literature.
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky
William Wordsworth, the romantic poet extraordinaire, penned these lines in 1802.
That was the same year that he returned from his trip to France with his sister Dorothy during the Peace of Amiens. And that very year, after his return from his continental journey, he penned other lines which hint that his noble poetic heart did leap up when he beheld other things as well, such as country folks engaged in playing the quintessential English game.
Yes, the man who was the major literary force behind the launch of the Romantic Age in English literature also loved cricket. We know from the lines he penned that cricket was a source of comfort, a reassurance of stability, of the permanence of eternal Englishness.
Wordsworth was more than a mere spectator to sporting pastimes, and his links to cricket go further.
While preferring non-competitive recreation for himself, he was a man with keenness for physical activity. He was an expert skater, and the Museum at Dove Cottage still possesses the pair of skates that belonged to the Poet Laureate. The entertaining Reminiscences of Wordsworth among the Peasantry of Westmorelandby the Reverend Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley talks about the poet’s fondness for skating. Indeed it spoke of the poet’s skating skills impressing the country folk rather more than his poetry. He supposedly was the best skater in those parts and could cut his name on ice. There is also account of Wordsworth watching wrestling matches with keen interest while out on his walks.
In The Prelude Wordsworth himself writes about skating in his youth. And later in life he had great fondness for the sport of angling.
However, cricket did give him particular comfort, although there is no record of his playing it himself.
Even in Dorothy Wordsworth’s notebooks, we find allusions to the game. She too found solace in the unchanging sporting fields of England, although her description lacks the softness of her brother’s pen. Her Journal of a Tour of The Continent reads: “When within a mile of Dover, saw crowds of people at a cricket-match, the numerous combatants dressed in ‘white-sleeved shirts’ and it was the very same field where, when we ‘trod the grass of England’ once again, twenty years ago we had seen an Assemblage of Youths engaged in the same sport, so very like the present that all might have been the same!”
This was written in 1820, and it seems that the allusion to the earlier cricket match involving the Assemblage of Youths is the same that Wordsworth and she saw in 1802 on return from France. On that occasion William Wordsworth had sat down and penned a sonnet entitled ‘Composed in the Valley Near Dover, on the Day of Landing’, one of a series of poems ‘Dedicated to National Independence and Liberty’.
“Dear fellow Traveller! Here we are once more,
The cock that crows, the smoke that curls, that sound
Of Bells, those boys that yon meadow ground
In white sleev’d shirts are playing by the score,
And even this little River’s gentle roar,
All, all are English. Oft I have looked round
With joy in Kent’s green vales; but never found
Myself so satisfied in heart before.
Europe is yet in bounds; but let that pass,
Thought for another moment. Thou art free,
My country! and ’tis joy enough and pride
For one hour’s perfect bliss, to tread the grass
Of England once again, and hear and see,
With such a dear Companion at my side.
The dear Companion was of course his sister Dorothy.
We see here how the landscape of the English meadowland with a boys’ cricket match means an image of idealised pastoral England for Wordsworth, symbolising political freedom in contrast to abject post-revolutionary France from which he has just returned. While the French Revolution had held great fascination for the young Wordsworth, by 1802 he had become disillusioned with the situation in France.
Wordsworth’s cricketing links, however, don’t end there. His nephew Charles Wordsworth later became an important figure in his own right and made significant contributions in the development of the game.
A cricketer, rower and athlete of considerable prowess, Charles Wordsworth later served as Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld and Dunblane in Scotland; he was also the author of the successful Greek Grammar. But equally important was the work he performed early in life to promote cricket in Public Schools and the Universities.
This nephew of the great poet went to Harrow in 1820. According to him, the games of cricket, racquets and football were being encouraged by the masters, but had not begun to be placed on par with intellectual achievements. It was while he was at Harrow that in preparation for the match against Eton, the authorities had a professional come down from Lord’s as coach.
Later Charles Wordsworth went up to Oxford and was the primary figure in organising the first cricket match against Cambridge in 1827. It was also his enthusiasm that materialised in the first boat race between the Universities in 1829.
Moving to Winchester as second master from 1835 to 1845, he took keen interest in the boys’ games and often joined in himself. He went on to persuade the Warden to finance the draining of Meads as a cricket ground.
Coming back to the poet, we find Wordsworth’s career categorised in terms of time and French leanings with some characteristic harshness by Bertrand Russell.
“In his youth Wordsworth sympathised with the French Revolution, went to France, wrote good poetry, and had a natural daughter. At this period he was called a ‘bad’ man. Then he became ‘good,’ abandoned his daughter, adopted correct principles, and wrote bad poetry.”
This is not really the place to discuss the accuracy of this evaluation.
But we do know that he did indeed sympathise with French Revolution as a young man, he did go to France and did get disenchanted and came back in 1802 to fall in love with England all over again. And we do know that during the transition phase, cricket did play a role and found a way into his complete works.