Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Robert Woof: Wordsworth Trust Treasure 1931-2005

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Robert Woof: Wordsworth Trust Treasure 1931-2005

Article excerpt

How occasions do inform against us. This was intended to be an appreciative review of Treasures of the Wordsworth Trust, edited by Robert Woof for the occasion of the opening, last June, of the new Jerwood Centre at the Wordsworth Museum in Grasmere. Instead, it must become a memorial to Robert himself, long the Trust's best living treasure, who died of lung cancer on November 7, 2005.

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The Jerwood Centre, over ten years in the making, is in many ways the culmination of Robert's more than thirty years' work for the Trust. It is poetic justice that he lived long enough to participate in all the splendid events that marked its official opening, accented by Seamus Heaney's inaugural address. But I doubt that Robert though his work was finished. Indeed, it is as hard to imagine his ever retiring from his life's work as it is to imagine anyone else continuing it: the call for a new director reads like a set of marching orders for a squadron of culture workers, not a job for a single individual. But that is because it describes everything that Robert did: year after incremental year, the position grew up around him, his life more than his work, the material emanation of the spirit that he and his wife and co-creator, Pamela, diffused around them in the Lake District.

Robert edited and wrote a number of books and articles on Wordsworth and Romanticism during his scholarly career. Though they are clear markers to his progress, it is not by these that we shall know him best. He was, among many things, a man who understood and valued the material object: the printed book, the precious manuscript, the rare drawing, the splendid oil painting--not to mention, now, the spacious library, the brilliant museum, the bustling cultural center. One has to travel to Grasmere to see and appreciate what he did, especially as one realizes how much of what is there now was not when he started.

Americans may, perhaps, take British cultural shrines for granted, as if they were provided free of charge by an enlightened government policy. Nothing could be further from the truth. There was never anything "inevitable" about the complex of buildings that now forms the Wordsworth Centre in Grasmere. It had to be created by individual vision and effort. Robert Woof knew he stood in a line of talented and dedicated predecessors, like Canon Rawnsley, Stopford Brooke and Gordon Wordsworth, as his preface to the Treasures volume conveys, and he always praised the efforts of his large and growing staff (now nearly fifty persons) including such constant collaborators as Jeff Cowton, who has spent twenty-five years with him and now serves as Curator, and Stephen Hebron, Head of Exhibitions and Publication since 1991. But for our time in that place, he was the man who made it happen.

There are literary monuments and houses all over the British Isles, but very few that can compare with the Dove Cottage and Wordsworth Museum complex. More than a memorial site, it has become a pulsing center of local, national and international creative activity in itself. Though Wordsworth's birthplace in Cockermouth and his last residence at Rydal Mount are certainly excellent places to visit, they are only good examples of the somebody-famous-lived-here genre. Whereas the Wordsworth Heritage Museum in Grasmere is now a major cultural center for English Romantic art and literature, going far beyond the life and works of the poet who lived in nearby Dove Cottage for eight years. Wordsworth would be proud of it, and quietly pleased, as he was in life, that stiff but sociable man, to find himself surrounded by new generations of admirers and new circles of friends.

Thirty years ago, there was Dove Cottage and an unidentified stone building (a converted smithy) next door, which housed, in a virtually unheated--and wholly un-air conditioned--upper room, 90% of William and Dorothy Wordsworth's original manuscripts, one of the largest, most complete and coherent collections of manuscripts by any English author. …

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