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Saturday, 01 November 2014

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A host of golden daffodils, too many to tweet about

I wonder if William ever stopped to ask his sister Dorothy: “Hey, Dot – how much do you reckon a word’s worth?” He being a master of poetic artistry and she his constant, as close – some say too close – support and encourager, both must have had a passion for language.

How they must have sweated over syntax; passed long chilly nights in Dove Cottage dissecting and discussing the intricacies of English grammar; poring over its endless potential for rhyme, reason and adjectival enhancement.

A proper Cumbrian linguistic craftsman, was our William. But blimey, he wasn’t half long-winded.

Letters from William and Dorothy have gone on display at Wordsworth House, Cockermouth, for the first time –which will excite lovers of the poet’s huge body of work.

The first letter to be exhibited is from William and Dorothy to Lady Beaumont, dated August 7 1805, and contained in it is a poem To The Daisy.

It’s around 1,500 words long and requires a little help from an iPad to make it easily legible – but is a literary treasure nonetheless.

This signals two things. First: there was more to the man than daffodils – he liked daisies too. Second: he’d have been neither use nor ornament on Twitter.

“This is miles too long. I’ll have to cut it,” one of our frustrated sub-editors bleated as he attempted to squeeze the precious text into limited newspaper page space.

“You can’t cut Wordsworth!” I squealed.

“It would be like butchering Macbeth or rewriting the Sermon on the Mount into two snappy paragraphs!”

“Well,” he insisted, with exasperated annoyance. “Some of it will have to go. Too wordy.”

Something tells me he could actually quite fancy a shot at tidying up the Sermon on the Mount, given half a chance. Reducing the Ten Commandments to five neat bullet points – with an intro on the adultery bit – might be right up his street too.

Mind you, in defence of the butchery breed, we’re not talking tablets of stone here. Modern media calls for speed and brevity. Moses wouldn’t have understood that.

Tightness of language, for snug fit and high story-count, runs through the veins of newspaper sub-editors. They’re not bothered who the author is – Shakespeare, Dickens, Jesus, JK Rowling – it’s all the same to them.

Sometimes they have a point. I’ve long wanted to take a red pen to Jane Austen myself.

In compromising agreement, the first five paragraphs of William’s letter were reproduced.

“Anybody wanting the rest will have to visit Wordsworth House,” he said – which was fair enough, I suppose. “And thank goodness Wordsworth never had to Tweet!”

Now, there would have been a test. Condensing a 1,500-word letter into no more than 140 characters? A whole new kettle of spring blooming bulbs in that one. William may have known his 19th century lyrical onions – and daffodils – but he’d have been baffled by the evolved language usage of our 21st.

He wrote in 1805: “I was very poorly at the time I received the first of your affectionate letters, and in the intervals when I was a little better, my time was taken up by visitors; yet I should have written immediately if I had not thought that my extract from Coleridge’s letter would set you at ease respecting his residence in Malta.”

He might have written for Twitter: “Hi. Ill and bothered by callers. Sorry for delay in reply. John still in Malta but home soon. So chillax marra. No probs here.”

Not quite the same, is it? Marra, having made it into the Collins dictionary this week would have been verging on acceptable. Chillax, now used commonly in government circles, might just have passed muster. But even so...

William and his ilk obviously knew better than we do the worth of words, hand written and posted to drop on the mat in place of adverts for broadband and enticements to buy new window blinds. Bet he never had to ask Dot for her take either.

Mercifully free of Twitter oppression, he remained until death the sort of chap tempted to elaborate on the original, imperfect Sermon on the Mount.

My kind of guy, I think... might well see you in Cockermouth, after all.

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