O Joy for me! by Keir Davidson

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O Joy form me! by Keir Davidson

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Category: Art
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Following Coleridge on his rambles around the Lake District is interesting in its own right, but on the whole the book doesn't seem to be focussed in on any of its potential audiences.
Buy? Maybe. Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 208 Date: September 2018
Publisher: Wilmington Square Books
ISBN: 978-1912242054

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Oh Joy for me! gives Coleridge credit for being the first person to walk the mountains alone, not because he had to for work, as a miner, quarryman, shepherd or pack-horse driver, but because he wanted to for pleasure and adventure. His rapturous encounters with their natural beauty, and its literary consequences, changed our view of the world.

Wow. That's some claim. The first part of it is almost certainly not true. We cannot possibly know how many people wandered off into the hills in the Lake District or anywhere else purely for the thrill of it, before the romantic poets arrived at the end of the 18th century.

What is true, however, is that Coleridge was famous and well-connected. He was a journalist and a poet. Not only could he do what was no by means common at the time – not least because not many people had the leisure and opportunity to indulge – he also had the access to the media of the day to share his responses to it – and he wrote letters extolling the virtues of his wanderings.

If we are going to look at the development of an appreciation of the natural world we possibly ought to start by acknowledging that the very concept of such a thing could not exist until there was something to contrast it to. Until the rapid growth of urbanisation and the industrial revolution in the late 18th century, the 'natural world' was just the world. It was where most people lived, worked and took their pleasurable ease. It was 'nothing special'. Davidson's assertion that until the mid-18th century Britain's barren mountains were regarded with fear by all thoughtful people is probably something of an exaggeration. Lowlanders might have been of such a mind, but those who lived and worked in the hills would be no less 'thoughtful' but would have taken a different perspective. It's also questionable as to how 'barren' those hillsides would have been.

Setting all that aside as imponderables, however, what we do know is that in the mid-eighteenth century a fashion grew up among the leisured classes for romance, for the picturesque, which included the quintessential ingredients of 'beauty, horror and immensity', as exemplified by mountainous terrain. Or even hilly terrain: there are only four peaks in the Lake District that pass the modern definition of a mountain (over 3,000 feet).

The picturesque tour had become a thing. It was led by artists and focussed on the view. Tours stuck to known roads and tracks and stopped at viewpoints. Perspective was the thing. Tourists were being taught what was beautiful in a technical sense.

Then Coleridge came along with a notion that what was beautiful, was whatever you reacted to…and you could only react if you got up close and personal…and did so preferably alone. Nothing between you and the planet, the hills, the weather. The sublime he appeared to say cannot be dictated, it can only be discovered…and it is fleeting. It is not a landscape, but a moment in such a landscape.

Davidson explores Coleridge's discovery of the Lake District through the notebooks he kept on his walks, through his letters to friends, and the diaries of some of those friends (such as Dorothy Wordsworth) which shed outside light on the poet's own words. He seeks to retrace the routes of Coleridge's wanders, providing clues as to where he might have been when the evidence is unclear, and contrasts the poet's views with those of the master of the fells Alfred Wainwright, using some of Wainwright's drawings in illustration – as well as his own modern-day photographs.

On the whole I found the book a little uncertain of its audience. I'm not sure whether it is intended to be literary (the poems, the letters) or biographical (the man – his relationship with the Wordsworths has specific focus) or historical (this is how and why fell-walking came to be a thing) or landscape and our relationship with it. It appears to flit among these ideas and not really settle on one of them.

I only marked one page, and it is one word that I will take away from the book: Kittenract.

I'm not a huge fan of Coleridge to be fair, and maybe this review should be read in that light – but I love him the more for coming up with that description of a small cataract. Kittenract. Not just a physical derivation of the word, but because it does also sum up the playful aspect of underfed waterfalls that skip about the rocks.

Unfortunately that one word alone came early in the book, and the remainder simply didn't keep me interested enough.

It's well researched – and I gather from the publishers adds to the Coleridge scholarship by its use of the 'unexplored Notebooks' – it makes good use of maps and other sources – but it did not manage to make me want to either grab my hiking boots, or head back to my poetry shelf.

For other personal takes on what it's like to walk in the mountains – albeit a hundred years later - we can strongly recommend: Into The Mountain, A Life of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock

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Buy O Joy for me! by Keir Davidson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy O Joy for me! by Keir Davidson at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy O Joy for me! by Keir Davidson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy O Joy for me! by Keir Davidson at Amazon.com.


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