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Sunday, March 16, 2008

The romance of poetry – and guidebooks

The Romantic English poet William Wordsworth was carrying a copy of a travel guide as he did a walking tour of the Wye valley in 1798 when he composed the lyrical poem Tintern Abbey. The guidebook was William Gilpin's ‘Observations on the River Wye’. In his poem, Wordsworth paints a portrait of the abbey ruins and the surrounding valley that is far more romanticized than that depicted in Gilpin’s book. Wordsworth writes of steep and lofty cliffs, the wild green landscape, and the fair river. In reality, the ruined abbey served as a home to the poverty-stricken, the destitute, beggars, and vagrants, and not far away noisy iron-smelting furnaces puffed out putrid-smelling smoke from the factory’s location on the riverbank, while the river’s water itself was polluted. A romantic, Wordsworth didn’t want to acknowledge the social realities of the time, the damage to the environment by new industries, unemployment, and homelessness. Gilpin’s guide is a rarity, even now. These days the situation is reversed – we’re more likely to read truths in a poem than in a guidebook.

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