He rode, I keeping pace with him; and now
I fancied that he was the very knight
Whose tale Cervantes tells, yet not the knight,
But was an arab of the desart too,
Of these was neither, and was both at once.
Wordsworth introduces Don Quixote into his poem in the mouth of a visionary friend, who is struggling with depression. The whole of Book 5 deals with the subject of reading: it starts with the idea that man might “almost ‘weep to have’ what he may lose” surviving “abject, depressed, forlorn, disconsolate.” Reading is at once a respite from the depressive reflection on things falling apart and a part of the problem. Don Quixote is the perfect vehicle for his lines on reading: the knight whose reading sets him on his strange adventures.
Why would you come to Spain to read Wordsworth? Don Quixote is a fragile link between Spain and Wordsworth: Asturias, where I live, is not La Mancha. It is green and mountainous. The link through Book Five is reading and that is the root and source of everything we do here: reading well, reading appropriately, combining reading with walking, and making the same rejection of school-style reading that Wordsworth does. He contrasts the reading of ballads, Arab tales and poems, often recited whilst walking with a friend, with the “monster birth Engendered by these too industrious times”:
‘tis a child, no child,
But a dwarf man; in knowledge, virtue, skill,
In what he is not, and in what he is,
The noontide shadow of a man complete.
His description of the Prodigy is a chilling reflection of the aspiration of our current education systems that fill children’s minds with learning and leave old Grandame Earth grieving. This is appropriate to read in England, but gains more sense being read abroad, because the triumph of school is international: school as a way of structuring knowledge; measuring, testing, cross-comparing. Would it even be possible for a child to grow up like Wordsworth today? What have we gained and what have we lost?
These are conversations that we have over dinner in the mountains. We read, walk and eat. The readings are continuous with no pause for opinions, clarifications or reflections. This must not be turned into a school exercise! The aim of the reading is to get into the flow of the words and to feel the power of the images coming one after the other, carried on the rhythm of the line. Reading this way is respectful to the deeper purpose and integrity of the text. We do not want prodigies dicing the text into quotations and making clever points. When we sit down to dinner, then, we all have an extra person in our midst; we have given Wordsworth himself life! Now we can say what we think and feel. Now we can fight against the text if it seems to us outdated, old-fashioned or merely wrong. Our voices matter, but only once we have really learnt to listen and to read.
Asturias is an ideal place for this reading. I pulled out Don Quixote to make a weak Spanish connection, but the relevance is deeper and broader. When I came to live here I was reading R.S. Thomas and the parallels between his vision of Wales and what I heard around me here were loud in my ears: a countryside that is aging with farmers struggling to make a traditional way of life pay; smart kids from the cities on European Union salaries handing out grant money for short-term rural regeneration projects; a rise in tourism with people seeking the picturesque. I have put the full text of the poem that stuck with me at the end of the post: A Welsh Testament; it could be talking about Asturias. Asturias also has its own language and culture. How appropriate to read a poet of international stature like Wordsworth in an environment with a strong local culture that is comparable to the Lake District in its integrity. Here we can take our reading seriously.
Reading is not a pastime. It is a thread that goes through our lives. The reader must listen to a text and allow it to speak. That is why the readings are continuous. We have our personalities, our tastes and our life experiences, but when we are reading we allow them to drop away to feel the presence of the text. Yet, the texts are not just pretty objects with details we may or may not like. They illuminate our lives and, in conversation, we can return to them again and again finding the roots and branches of ideas that affect the real purposes of our lives. The twenty-first century is not the nineteenth-century: you will probably not walk across France to get here; there are conveniences and benefits of our changing world; there are also opportunities and qualities we have lost sight of and, in Asturias, with its dramatic scenery and depopulated mountain valleys we can reflect on these changes as a group.
This is what the project …In The Mountains is about. It is not a business. It is a way of sharing reading. If I could make a lot of money doing something different I would not, because money is not the main concern. But to share walking and reading, to share good meals and conversation that explores what that reading might mean to us in our own lives: that seems like a project that is really worth struggling for.
It will be a unique experience.
Does the idea interest you? Drop me a line: email@example.com
The Prelude in the Mountains reading group will run from December 10-16, 2017. The price is 650€ including all food, accommodation and texts. I can also run Made to Measure student groups at a reduced price. Get in touch and we can talk.
A Welsh Testament
All right. I was Welsh. Does it matter?
I spoke the tongue that was passed on
To me in the place I happened to be,
A place huddled between grey walls
Of cloud for at least half the year.
My word for heaven was not yours.
The word for hell had a sharp edge
Put on it by the hand of the wind
Honing, honing with a shrill sound
Day and night. Nothing that Glyn Dwr
Knew was armour against the rain’s
Missiles. What was descent from him?
Even God had a Welsh name:
We spoke to him in the old language;
He was to have a peculiar care
For the Welsh people. History showed us
He was too big to be nailed to the wall
Of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him
Between the boards of a black book.
Yet men sought us despite this.
My high cheek-bones, my length of skull
Drew them as to a rare portrait
By a dead master. I saw them stare
From their long cars, as I passed knee-deep
On ewes and wethers. I saw them stand
By the thorn hedges, watching me string
The far flocks on a shrill whistle.
And always there was their eyes’ strong
Pressure on me: You are Welsh, they said;
Speak to us so; keep your fields free
Of the smell of petrol, the loud roar
Of hot tractors; we must have peace
Is a museum
Peace? I asked. Am I the keeper
Of the heart’s relics, blowing the dust
In my own eyes? I am a man;
I never wanted the drab role
Life assigned me, an actor playing
To the past’s audience upon a stage
Of earth and stone, the absurd label
Of birth, of race hanging askew
About my shoulders. I was in prison
Until you came; your voice was a key
Turning in the enormous lock
Of hopelessness. Did the door open
To let me out or yourselves in?