`THIS is a book of Wordsworth's poems that Coleridge took to Malta with him in 1804,'' said Robert Woof as he lovingly turned the pages. ``It was handwritten by Wordsworth's wife, Mary, to give to Coleridge before he went, and it includes the earliest known version of Wordsworth's `Ode on the Intimations of Immortality.'''
Dr. Woof, the secretary of the Wordsworth Trust, was holding one of some 400 of Britain's most precious literary and artistic treasures of the period 1750-1850. Here in the heart of England's Lake District, these artifacts of the Romantic Movement are being prepared for a public exhibition in the United States called ``William Wordsworth and the Age of Romanticism.''
Top British libraries and museums are contributing some of their most treasured possessions to the exhibition, which opens in the New York Public Library on Oct. 27. Many of the priceless books, manuscripts, drawings, and paintings have never left Britain before.
The exhibition is being organized by the Wordsworth Trust, which looks after Dove Cottage, the Grasmere home of William Wordsworth and his family during his ``Golden Decade'' from 1799 to 1808. Associated with the house are a new museum and the Wordsworth Library, which attracts scholars from all over the world, particularly the United States.
A quarter of the items in the US exhibition will come from the Dove Cottage collection.
Carefully lifting a book from a packing case especially made for to protect these treasures during transit, Woof drew my attention to one of the three original Journals written by Wordsworth's sister Dorothy.
``All three Journals are going - the first time they have ever left Grasmere,'' Woof said.
On the back of the pages of this Journal, which was written in 1800, were copies of Wordsworth's poems. ``They were always short of paper in Grasmere, and so they wrote on any paper they could find, even on the backs of the Journals and earlier poems,'' Woof explained.
To illustrate, he brought out of the case a copy of Wordsworth's poem ``Michael,'' written by the poet on the in-between leaves of an interleaved book of Coleridge's poems.
``A lot of conservation work has been done on them over many years to preserve [these books] for posterity,'' Woof said, ``and we are taking every precaution with them during the exhibition.''
One of Britain's top book conservators, Christopher Clarkson of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, is advising the trust on conservation for the exhibition.
``We must try to keep old books as far as possible in the same environment and atmosphere in which they have been kept,'' he said. ``If we take a book out of its environment, we must try not to give it a shock that would affect either the parchment or the inks. So both in transit and in the display cases we must achieve a smooth and even environment and maintain a constant balance between humidity and temperature.''
He said the trust had had to promise institutions that had lent books to keep to strict conditions of temperature and humidity throughout. British institutions lending works include the Bodleian, the British Library, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Academy, the Tate Gallery, and the Victoria & Albert Museum. Two French institutions and a number in the US are also contributing to the show.
As a result, one display case alone will contain manuscripts of Wordsworth's ``Prelude'' from Dove Cottage, Coleridge's ``Kubla Khan,'' and Blake's ``The Four Zoas'' (all from the British Library), Byron's ``Childe Harold'' and Shelley's ``Ode to the West Wind'' (from the Bodleian), and Keats's ``Ode to Autumn'' (from Harvard). Among the other items on display will be paintings by Turner, Constable, and Gainsborough.
``It will be an interpretive exhibition combining art and literature,'' Woof explained, ``with each object being interpreted in relation to something else. It will be a unique opportunity to see major Romantic works in relation to each other.''
Arrangements at the American end are being coordinated by Prof. Michael Jaye of Rutgers University and his ``Wordsworth Project'' team. The US National Endowment for the Humanities has contributed $918,000 to the exhibition project, and state humanities councils are setting up associated panel displays in all states and sponsoring related cultural events. Many US academic and cultural institutions will also be promoting the educational aspect.
Richard Wordsworth, the poet's great-great-grandson, who runs the annual Wordsworth summer conference attended by people from all over the world, thinks that his illustrious forebear offers something that we deperately need in the late 20th century.
``Wordsworth represented something that we need even more now than in his day,'' he said. ``The quietness, the appeal of the mountains and nature which he enjoyed about the Lake District, are becoming increasingly rare. I think he would be delighted with what we have preserved here, and that's part of what's being shared with America through this exhibition. There is still a lot of new light being shed on Wordsworth and his qualities, particularly his timelessness, which make what he represented even more valued and appreciated today.''
The exhibition will remain at the New York Public Library until Jan. 2, 1988. It will then be shown at the Indiana University Art Museum from Jan. 27 to March 6 and at the Chicago Historical Society from April 6 to June 5. Although the exhibition itself will not be seen outside the US, a poster exhibition will be marketed in the rest of the English-speaking world.