Although I’d been to the Lake District several times before, for some reason I’d never visited Dove Cottage, the home for eight years of the region’s most famous son, the poet William Wordsworth. It was a damp gray morning in fall when I arrived in the small village of Grasmere, and doubtless because of the weather, there were few other people around. Having spent time in the adjoining Wordsworth Museum, looking at its unique collection of manuscripts and letters, I wandered over to the cottage itself. A modest white building, set behind a low stone wall and overshadowed by trees, it is where Wordsworth lived happily with his wife, Mary, and sister, Dorothy, from 1799 until 1808, a period during which he wrote many of his most celebrated poems. Inside, the cottage has been left much as it was just over 200 years ago, with the original furniture and many of the family’s possessions. The rooms are small and, on the first floor, very dark.
Those upstairs, including the sitting room where Wordsworth did much of his writing, are lighter, with more-generous proportions. In the adjoining main bedroom, I chanced upon one of Wordsworth’s belongings that seemed somehow to dissolve the intervening two centuries. On the washstand was an old battered leather suitcase — though it was so small it seemed as if it must have belonged to a child. On the fabric inside the lid, the poet had written “Wordsworth 1820” in shaky ink capitals, except that he hadn’t left enough room for his name and had been obliged to put the final “h” on a second line.
As a young man, Wordsworth had traveled extensively in Europe, both to the Alps, where he discovered the power of grand natural scenery, and in 1791, to France, during the French Revolution. These journeys provided many of the experiences that shaped his literary and political life. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when English people were free to visit continental Europe again, Wordsworth continued his travels. The suitcase in question, the guide at Dove Cottage assured me, was one that Wordsworth took on his European tours, possibly the one he made to the Rhineland in 1828 with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Clearly, all that was then felt necessary for a trip of several weeks could be contained within a suitcase little bigger than a woman’s handbag. I felt a sudden kinship, not with Wordsworth the poet but Wordsworth the traveler.