The Kendal and Windermere Railway was first proposed in 1844, and opened in 1847. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) opposed the building of a railway in his beloved Lake District, believing it would destroy the beauty of the landscape. Before we offer some words of analysis, here’s a reminder of the poem, ‘On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway’, which he wrote in opposition to the proposed railway.
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.
Wordsworth was dead against the development of the railway in the Lake District, where he lived and wrote some of his best poems. In addition to various letters to the Morning Post, he penned this sonnet, using poetry to put across the nature of his objections. In doing so, he became one of the first high-profile poets to write about the arrival of the railways – though admittedly, he is writing about the land before the railway was built. Nonetheless, Wordsworth’s impassioned plea shows poetry and the railways beginning an uneasy coexistence, even as he uses his poem to rail against (no pun intended) the building of a railway among such a quiet and beautiful part of the English countryside.
Wordsworth belonged to the movement known as English Romanticism, of course, and he blazed the trail for Romanticism with his (erstwhile) friend and collaborator, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in the 1790s and early 1800s. By the 1840s, when Wordsworth wrote ‘On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway’, Wordsworth was in his seventies, an elderly man and what we might now call a ‘national treasure’: he’d been appointed Poet Laureate in 1843 after the death of Robert Southey, just one year before the Kendal and Windermere Railway was proposed. But is ‘On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway’ merely the ranting of a miserable old man who wishes to stand in the way of progress? Is Wordsworth’s objection to the planned railway pure ‘nimbyism’ or something deeper?
On 15 October 1844, Wordsworth wrote to William Gladstone, who was a minister in Rober Peel’s government at the time (and responsible for the 1844 Railways Act), ‘We are in this neighbourhood all in consternation, that is, every man of taste and feeling, at the stir which is made for carrying a branch Railway from Kendal to the head of Windermere. […] When the subject comes before you officially, as I suppose it will, pray give it more attention than its apparent appearance might call for.’ Wordsworth’s poem isn’t just a personal plea: it’s on behalf of the English countryside he held so dear, and which many other people – and not just people, but other living things, from plants to animals to trees – lived among. Indeed, at the end of the poem, Wordsworth even declares that, if human objection proves unable to halt the building of the railways in such a serene and undisturbed part of the country, the nature itself should rise up and express its displeasure.
‘On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway’ is a sonnet, rhymed ababababcddcee. It thus combines aspects of both the Italian and English sonnet, adopting the repeated rhymes in the octave which we find in Italian sonnets (but ‘Anglicising’ the enclosed rhymes of abbaabba into the English alternate rhymes) but also the concluding rhyming couplet we find in an English sonnet. A sonnet is an effective poetic form for mounting an argument, and the concluding couplet can end the poem with just that: a conclusion or rousing close to the poem’s ‘thrust’.
If you enjoyed our analysis of ‘On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway’, you might like our pick of Wordsworth’s greatest poems.