The Lake District in England and Its Literary and Poetic History

The Lake District, also known as The Lakes or Lakeland, is a stunning mountain region in England’s North West. It is also a part of literary folklore due to the region’s popularity among Romantic poets. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site that is a must-see for anyone traveling to England. The Lakes landscape is stunning green mountain peaks and serene lakes. This landscape profoundly influenced poets such as William Wordsworth and John Ruskin.

The region is associated with the Lake Poets. The Lake Poets were a group of English poets who lived in the Lake District in the 19th Century. While the poets associated with the region are not a distinct school of literature, they are primarily Romantic poets. The ‘Lake Poet School’ as a label was a criticism that the Edinburgh Review would first useAt the time, critics made fun of these overly romantic, sentimental, and dramatic poets who waxed lyrical about the lakes. 

The preliminary figures of the Lake School are William Wordsworth, Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey. They are the most famous or popular poets of this group. In addition, Dorothy Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, Mary Lamb, Charles Lloyd, Hartley Coleridge, John Wilson, and Thomas De Quincy are a part of the Lake School. Moreover, the famous English children’s writer and artist Beatrix Potter lived in and wrote about the Lake District. The history of the Lake District is entwined with this literary history. If you visit the region today, learn something about this famous group of writers.

The Lake District and Romantic Poetry

A photo of the Lake District shows high green mountains turning the tree lined lake below them into a blue-green hue.

Romantic poetry is the poetry of the Romantic era. It is an artistic, literary, musical, and intellectual movement that originated in Europe in the 18th century. It is a reaction to the dominant Enlightenment ideas for most of the 18th century.

The Enlightenment was a philosophical and intellectual movement called the Age of Reason. In addition, the Scientific Revolution inspired this era. The focus was to pursue knowledge, reason, scientific inquiry, and equality. Additionally, ideas like the separation of church and state were dominant.

The Romantic movement returned to a resurgence of sentimentality, nature, mysticism, imagination, and feeling. Moreover, the idea of the Sublime was the most important. The Sublime is a feeling of both awe and terror of nature. The brutality of nature inspired a sense of wonder and beauty.

Moreover, from a literary point of view, the poets would feel their writing. The Romantic poets wanted to evoke emotion instead of emphasizing the pure intellectual writing that the Enlightenment encouraged. The Romantic poets wanted the reader to feel awe, imagination, and feeling and often used powerful language about nature. 

Wordsworth and The Lakes

A photo of Woodsworth's idylli cottage in the Lake District nestled between two hills and surrounded by trees and gardens under a bright blue sky.

William Wordsworth is the most well-known poet in the Lake District. Wordsworth lived in a small cottage in the District. He was also responsible for introducing Coleridge to the region and often took him on great walks around the lakes. Wordsworth’s cottage had once been an inn in a small village. Although Wordsworth never named it, it is now known as Dove Cottage. The cottage is now a popular spot for visitors to see where the poet lived and took his inspiration. 

Wordsworth only lived at Dove Cottage for eight years. While this is not long, the cottage is forever linked with his name. Perhaps this is because he produced some of his best-known and most enduring works while there.

Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy also lived in the cottage with him. He was very close to Dorothy, and they often spent hours walking together. Thanks to Dorothy’s journals, we have many descriptions of their day-to-day life in the Lake District. Her journals also provide insight into the thoughts and processes behind their poems. 

At first, it was only William and Dorothy in the cottage. In addition, their childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson, whom Wordsworth was to marry in 1802, often came to stay, bringing her sister, Sarah.

Coleridge and his family followed the Wordsworths to the Lake District and rented Greta Hall, in Cumberland. He was a frequent and welcome visitor, too, although his visits meant a walk of 13 miles over a steep mountain pass. 

Coleridge left Greta Hall in 1803, and the poet Robert Southey moved in. Southey and Coleridge were married to two sisters. Despite this, they fought a great deal. However, they had a mutual friend in Wordsworth. So they’ve all been named together as ‘The Lake Poets.’

What the Lake District Represents

A painting of William Wordsworth depicts him with his head in his hand looking down.

The Romantic period was a push against the Enlightenment ideals, and its emphasis on the return to nature was essential to Wordsworth. He loved the Lake District because of its untouched, old-world qualities. As a result, when the Lake District started to become more populated and feel the effects of the Industrial Revolution, he spoke against it.

For example, he opposed the planting of regimented lines of Larches. Additionally, he was against the introduction of railways. When industrialists began to build big, grand houses in the area, Wordsworth opposed this also. His concern was also about how these changes would affect the community in the region, particularly the poor.

Radical political ideas inspired Wordsworth and many of the early Lake poets, which was also a large part of their writing. Wordsworth would use the ‘plain language’ of the ‘common man.’ His desire was for his poetry to be accessible to everyone and not be full of the complex flowery language of the upper class. Instead, the subjects of his poems were often just men and women, rather than Lords or Ladies. He wrote about ordinary people as well as for them.

The Lake District Poems

A photo of a group of daffodils growing by the side of a lake in the Lake District.

Despite the importance of the Lake Poets as a group, Wordsworth is the most well known and central poet of this period. He is also the most well-known in popular culture. No doubt at some point you have heard his famous poem entitled ‘I wondered lonely as a cloud’ sometimes entitled ‘the daffodils.’

‘I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line,
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.’

John Ruskin

A black and white engraving of John Ruskin.

Although not as well-known in popular culture, John Ruskin is just as central and important a Lake Poet as Wordsworth. Moreover, Ruskin lived in the Lake District for most of his life. Primarily known as an art critic, he was also a painter in his own right and a poet, creator of fairy tales, social commentator, conservationist, and social justice campaigner.

Ruskin’s broad interests included geology, architecture, meteorology, and religion. His writings on nature and politics, in particular, would have a significant impact on modern British society.

Ruskin lived in many places but eventually settled in the Lake District and made it his permanent home. He found the region genuinely inspiring. You can visit his home, Brantwood, in the Lake District today. In his house, you can also see a collection of his paintings and personal items.

Beatrix Potter

One of Beatrix Potter's most famous paintings shows Peter Rabbit with his siblings and mother in a landscape inspired by the Lake District.

Beatrix Potter is a beloved English writer and artist. You may know her children’s characters Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Mrs. Tiggywinkle, and Jemima Puddleduck. She has written some of the most famous children’s books of all time. In addition, she illustrated her work. Her illustrations and artwork are just as renowned and loved as her stories. 

Potter had a life-long love of the Lake District. She started taking family holidays there from the age of sixteen years old. Beatrix spent many summers in the Lake District, staying at Lingholm and Fawe Park near Derwent Water. During her stay there, she began to write picture stories for young relatives and acquaintances, including a tale of a mischievous rabbit named Peter. Derwent Water’s landscape inspired some of Beatrix’s earliest and most loved tales. The stories of Squirrel Nutkin, Benjamin Bunny, and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle are rooted here, the distinctive scenery serving as backdrops to Beatrix’s illustrations.

In 1905, Beatrix used the proceeds from her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, to buy Hill Top, a small working farm in the village of Near Sawrey. Beatrix made regular trips here from London, filling it with mementos, antiques, and paintings and tending to the cottage garden. Potter would come to Hill Top to write and paint, and she used the house itself and the surrounding countryside as inspiration for many of her books.

Not only was she a beloved writer and painter, but also a conservationist for the area. She worked with the National Trust to protect farms and parks against development. Potter’s paintings, primarily watercolors, were heavily inspired by the Lake District landscape. In addition, the background of many of her children’s book illustrations features the district’s mountains. 

Why is the Lake District So Popular Today?

A photo of Taylor Swift next to an background of the green mountains in the Lake District.

The Lakes have become a very popular place for visitors from both the United Kingdom and internationally. The Lake District is not only a beautiful place, but over time it has also come to represent the very things that the Lake Poets emphasized about it. People are often drawn to The Lakes for its serene quality, romance, remoteness, and sense of another time. Visitors will often go to ‘return to nature’ as the poets did. No doubt, this is partly because of their literary legacy and love of the region. 

In the literary canon, the Lake District represents a haven where people may go to escape harsh realities of industrialization and the fast pace of the modern world. Due to the writing and conservation of the Lake Poets and Beatrix Potter, the region has maintained this quality. 

The legacy is so strong that The Lakes are often referenced in popular culture. For example, Taylor Swift’s 2020 album, Folklore, features The Lakes. In this song, she sings of being inspired by the quiet solitude of Lakeland; ‘take me to The Lakes where all the poets went to die.’ Further along in the song, she also sings, ‘a red rose grew up out of ice frozen ground, with no one around to Tweet it.’

These lyrics express what The Lakes represent in modern, popular culture. In a world of cell phones, technology, and constant change and progress, the Lake District represents a return to the calm of nature. It also references the concept of nature in opposition to society. 

Cultural Significance

A photo of picturesque green mountains beside a large lake.

The Lake District has now been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2017. It is culturally significant not only for its literary history, but also because the region represents a quintessentially English landscape and is culturally very English.

This landscape reflects a unique communal farming system. The farming community has persisted for at least a millennium with improvements to villas, picturesque planting, and gardens during the 18th and 19th centuries. This combination has attracted and inspired writers and artists of global stature. The landscape also manifests the success of the conservation movement that it stimulated, a movement based on the idea of the landscape as a human response to our environment.

The diversity of the landscape is key to its beauty and significance and includes coast, lakes, distinctive farmland, fells, woodland, industrial activity, and settlement. Each of the thirteen valleys of the Lake District has an individual distinctiveness based on landform, biodiversity, and cultural heritage. The character of the Lake District cultural landscape has evolved slowly over many centuries. It will continue to grow in the future under the influence of the knowledge and skills of the local community.

Not only is conservation a primary reason why it is significant, but also the feeling and literary history. As people wander about the Lake District, they take on the spirit and atmosphere that drew in the poets and writers who lived there. You could say that the spirits of Wordsworth, Ruskin and Potter are still very present in the landscape. Both in their writing and in their conservation and defense of the landscape.

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