On my way to Ambleside: Stock Ghyll Force with John Keats

On the eve of my week long holiday in the Lake District, I thought I would post this excerpt from a journal letter John Keats wrote to his brother Tom, back in London, in the early stages of his walking tour in the Lake District and Scotland with Charles Brown in 1818.

I too will be staying in Ambleside, and will take the walk up to Stock Ghyll Force (‘the Ambleside waterfall’) as Keats does in this letter. His description is vivid and fresh as he describes the different shapes the water takes on as it thunders over the rocks and it easy to see how it inspired him to say ‘I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write, more than ever….’

Like Keats I disagree with William Hazlitt, who thought such scenery made men feel ‘little’. John Keats, who was only around 5ft 1inch tall, forgot his ‘stature’  ‘completely’ and I also lose myself in the sublime landscape, feeling with the poet that my mind is at last at rest.

For a week anyway……

27th June — We walked here to Ambleside yesterday along the border of Winandermere, all beautiful with wooded shores and islands. Our road was a winding lane, wooded on each side, and green overhead, full of foxgloves — every now and then a glimpse of the lake, and all the while Kirkstone and other large hills nestled together in a sort of grey black mist. Ambleside is at the northern extremity of the lake. We arose this morning at six, because we call it a day of rest, having to call on Wordsworth, who lives only two miles hence.

Before breakfast we went to see the Ambleside waterfall. The morning beautiful — the walk easy among the hills. We, I may say fortunately, missed the direct path, and after wandering a little, found it out by the noise; for, mark you, it is buried in trees, in the bottom of the valley. The stream itself is interesting throughout with “mazy error over pendant shades.”  Milton meant a smooth river — this is buffeting all the way on a rocky bed ever various — but the waterfall itself, which I came suddenly upon, gave me a pleasant twinge. First we stood a little below the head about halfway down the first fall, buried deep in trees, and saw it streaming down two more descents to the depth of near fifty feet. Then we went on a jut of rock nearly level with the second fall-head, where the first fall was above us, and the third below our feet still. At the same time we saw that the water was divided by a sort of cataract island on whose other side burst out a glorious stream — then the thunder and the freshness. At the same time the different falls have as different characters; the first darting down the slate rock like an arrow; the second spreading out like a fan; the third dashed into a mist — and the one on the other side of the rock a sort of mixture of all these. We afterwards moved away a space, and saw nearly the whole more mild, streaming silverly through the trees. What astonishes me more than anything is the tone, the coloring, the slate, the stone, the moss, the rockweed; or, if I may so say, the intellect, the countenance of such places. The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance. I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write, more than ever, for the abstract endeavour of being able to add a mite to that mass of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials, by the finest spirits, and put into ethereal existence for the relish of one’s fellows. I cannot think with Hazlitt that these scenes make man appear little. I never forgot my stature so completely; I live in the eye, and my imagination, surpassed, is at rest.

Hopefully I will have some wonderful memories to share with my blog on my return. If I can be dragged away that is….

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2 Responses to On my way to Ambleside: Stock Ghyll Force with John Keats

  1. People are often unaware of how good a prose writer Keats was – there’s always such acute observation and such energy of tone in how he expresses himself. Thanks for sharing it, Suzie!

    • keatsbabe says:

      Yes – I agree. His letters offer such an insight into the philosophy of poetry. they also reflect his personality – self-deprecating, generous, warm and often very funny.

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