Happy 250th Birthday Wordsworth! But What Did he Think of Geologists?

Written by Douglas Palmer, Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge.

William Wordsworth, one of the most famous poets in the English-speaking world, was born in Cockermouth 250 years ago last month on the 7th of April 1770. In his 1814 poem ‘The Excursion – book III’, Wordsworth wrote:

He who with pocket-hammer smites the edge

Of every luckless rock or prominent stone,…

…Detaching by the stroke

A chip or splinter,- to resolve his doubts;

And, with that ready answer satisfied,

The substance classes by some barbarous name,

…and thinks himself enriched,

Wealthier, and doubtless wiser, than before! ’

From this you might reasonably think that Wordsworth did not like geologists. Indeed Adam Sedgwick, the Woodwardian Professor of Geology in the University of Cambridge, who got to know him well, was sufficiently worried to apologise, writing in 1842 that – ‘One of your greatest works seems to contain a poetic ban against my brethren of the hammer, and some of them may have well deserved your censures:’

However, in reply Wordsworth gently admonished Sedgwick for being too literal in his interpretation. Wordsworth explained that the thoughts were those of a reclusive wanderer. Wordsworth further defended himself by claiming that anyway he was just referring to mineralogists! During the latter part of the 18th century mineralogical collecting was booming and becoming increasingly commercialised. Professional collectors sought out localities where attractive or rare minerals could be found. They removed them for sale in the numerous small curiosity shops that sprang up wherever the new-fangled fad for tourism had developed. The Lake District with its combination of spectacular mountains and lakes along with a rich local mining industry suffered from over zealous collecting.

Wordsworth in 1842 by Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846). Image in the public domain (painting held at the National Portrait Gallery).

The Lake District

Their exchange arose when Sedgwick eventually responded to a request from Wordsworth to describe the geology of the Lake District for his Guide to the Lakes, which first appeared in 1810. However, it was not until the 1820s that Sedgwick first got to know Wordsworth personally.

Within a few years of becoming the 7th Woodwardian professor of Geology, the young Adam Sedgwick took on the considerable challenge of trying to make sense of the complex geology of the Lake District. In his application for the post in 1818 Sedgwick had admitted to being a geological neophyte and is quoted as saying ‘Hitherto I have never turned a stone’ but promised that if appointed ‘henceforth I will leave no stone unturned’ in pursuit of geological knowledge and understanding. He kept his word and from 1822 made three successive long geological field trips to the Lake District. His geological guide was the local clockmaker and amateur geologist Jonathan Otley (1766-1856), who was already making geological maps of the region.

The Cambridge Network

From his undergraduate days in Cambridge, Sedgwick was already familiar with the work of the small band of Lake poets including Coleridge, Southey, Lamb and Wordsworth. Despite the ruggedness of its topography and physical remoteness from Cambridge and London, the Lake District was far from being an intellectual backwater. There was a well-established local network of people interested in the arts and sciences who visitors could contact, especially if they came with an introduction. Being a Cambridge professor and fellow of Trinity College opened doors for Sedgwick.

Like Wordsworth, Sedgwick was a northerner, having been born and bred in Dent just outside the Lake District, and took pleasure in the people, landscapes and rigours of outdoor life in the fells and moors. Like Sedgwick, Wordsworth was also a Cambridge graduate, moreover in 1820 his brother Christopher Wordsworth had become Master of Trinity College where Sedgwick was a Fellow. The prestige of this royal appointment was to rub off on William who paid regular visits to the College from 1820. Amongst William’s growing Cambridge network of friends and acquaintances were a variety of scientists including the mathematicians Peacock and Airy, the astronomer John Herschel, the mineralogist and polymath Whewell, and the geologist Sedgwick.

Adam Sedgwick aged 47. Portrait by Thomas Philips in 1832. © Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge.

Sedgwick and Wordsworth seem to have ‘hit it off’ with Wordsworth sometimes joining Sedgwick on his geological fieldwork in the Lakes. Clearly Wordsworth was anything but ignorant of science in general and geology in particular. Indeed he was sufficiently interested in geology to ask Sedgwick to write something about the local geology for his popular Guide to the Lakes, which went through successive editions. Sedgwick was actively involved in lecturing on geology through the Geological Society of London, the Cambridge Philosophical Society, his numerous clerical duties, and university reform. And, despite his considerable energies, he suffered bouts of illness and combined with all his other duties was somewhat notorious for the time that he took to complete writing projects.

It was not until 1842 and the 5th edition of the Guide that the first of Sedgwick’s geological letters was published in 1842. The third and final letter appeared in the 1853 edition after Wordsworth’s death in 1850.

2 thoughts on “Happy 250th Birthday Wordsworth! But What Did he Think of Geologists?

  1. Douglas, you might like to write a short piece for Earth Heritage magazine in the next issue in January 2021 as I am sure reades will be interested in Wordsworth’s poem and Sedgwick’s defence of the hammer. Mick Stanley.

  2. Another poet, although known for more than poetry, with Lake District connections is John Ruskin (1819-1900). At Oxford he attended geology lectures given by William Buckland, and made illustrations/diagrams for some of them. He also joined the Geological Society of London and some of his early poems and writings concern the landscape of the Lake District. Ruskin collected minerals, some of which can be seen in his home, Brantwood,near Coniston. Quite timely, the May 2020 edition of Geoscientist online has an article by Nina Morgan about Ruskin and his geology. https://www.geolsoc.org.uk/Geoscientist/Archive/May-2020/Distant-Thunder

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