American scholars help Britain get its Wordsworth

Want to invest in the future of tourism? Support a poet. Britain is dotted with the lucrative landmarks of the muses. Pilgrims still wend toward packed souvenir shops in Chaucer's Canterbury. Stratford-on-Avon does brisk business on the Bard's reputation, while Robert Burns has fattened more Scottish pocketbooks than his best-laid plans could have foreseen.

A mere half-century since he was young and easy under the apple boughs, Dylan Thomas draws visitors to Wales, and across the water the Irish tourist board regularly describes the Galway Bay area as "the Yeats country."

As a result, admission fees have flowed steadily into the maintenance funds of the cathedrals and cottages made famous by words.

But fewer funds find their way to the very thing that, according to scholars, most needs preserving: The words themselves embodied in the poets' manuscripts.

Now a group of scholars and poetry-lovers has come to the aid of one of Britian's greatest poets, William Wordsworth. And, very sensibly, they have aimed their appeal at a nation whose visitors have tramped through his beloved Laked District for decades: America.

The American Wordsworth Heritage Appeal aims to raise $200,000 in aid of Dove Cottage in Grasmere, the poet's home during the productive years from 1799 to 1808.

"It began with a sense of concern that everyone felt about the cottage deteriorating," Stephen Parrish, secretary of the appeal, told the Monitor. "Sixty thousand visitors a year were pounding it to pieces." Between one-third and one-half of them are usually Americans.

Professor Parrish, of Cornell University, is especially aware of the American connection. As editor of the massive 20-volume "Cornell Wordsworth," he spends summers and holidays poring over the Grasmere manuscripts -- which, lacking adequate climate control and conservation measures, are at risk. Naturally, he feels that Americans, whose education places high priority on what is loosely called "English lit," owe more than a tithe to help preserve them.

The impetus for the appeal came with the discovery in 1978 of a vast and hitherto unknown collectin of Wordsworth's love letters to his wife, Mary. When they came on the market at Sotheby's, Professor Parrish marshaled Cornell's resources and bought them for $:35,000 ($84,000). When British authorities refused an export licence, Cornell resold them to Grasmere -- but kept permission to publish. "That cemented our relationship," he said.

The letters, now paid for, will be published shortly. "They are soaring, passionate letters," says Professor Parrish, "one of the nicest collections of love letters I've ever seen." Written after 10 years of marriage, they "reframe the image of the man as a man," he says, and will have a significant impact on scholarship.

The appeal, however, is not without its incongruities. It was inaugurated at a gathering Oct. 21 of peers, professionals, and multinational executives at a crowded apartment in St. James's Palace. Oxford scholar Jonathan Wordsworth, chairman of the appeal and descendent of the poet's brother, presented a copy of the letters to US Ambassador Kingman Brewster for the Library of Congress.

What would the poet who praised the "humble and rustic life" of Cumbrian peasants and saw poetry as "emotion recollected in trinquility" have thought of all this fanfare?

Nobody thought to ask.

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