Ian McKellen Audio
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Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Read by Ian McKellen
for the Wordsworth Trust

     In academia, William Wordsworth may be honoured as the magisterial centre of British Romanticism, but as a fellow northcountryman, I've always thought of him as the local poet.  His subject matter is wide, but most telling when writing about his neighbours and his years in the Lake District, where he lived with his wife and devoted younger sister, the redoutable Dorothy.  Of course, throughout England he is best loved for 24 lines, "Daffodils", inspired by Dorothy's recalling how they danced along the banks of Ullswater, although in the poem he "wandered lonely as a cloud".  At Dove Cottage in Grasmere, the Wordsworths  entertained writers and friends, none closer than Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Wordsworth's  autobiography "The Prelude" addresses him through 13 long verse chapters, which recall for Coleridge his childhood and youth in The Lakes and at Cambridge; later to London and the Continent of Europe, climbing the Alps, and appalled by the Reign of Terror in Paris where his illegitimate daughter was brought up.  Initially, Wordsworth had supported the French Revolution, but in politics and society he quests in "The Prelude" to discover the relationship between men and nature, memory and action: there's never a mention of God.

     To mark the 200th anniversary of its publication,  the BBC recorded me reading highlights of "The Prelude", in the very upper room at Dove Cottage  where Wordsworth might well have first penned it.  I reverted somewhat to my native north country accent to match the poet's.  Another Lancastrian, Robert Woof, the inspirational director of the Wordsworth Trust, directed me and explained the trickier bits.  He also supplied the  commentary for the broadcast of the excerpts he had chosen.

     We had first met when Robert, I think,  chaired the drama panel at the Arts Council of Great Britain.  He procured me as patron of The English Touring Theatre, which he had rescued out of the defunct Century Theatre, whose tours I'd seen as a boy in Bolton.  His charisma was in his scholarship and in the easy way he shared it.  I often stayed under the stairs in the Woofs' smaller cottage opposite Wordsworth's, where the poet's housekeeper had lived: small windows, thick stone walls, small rooms packed with books ancient and modern, comfy chairs, and a sense, in the way the Woofs always talked of them, that William, Dorothy, Samuel and Tom de Quincey would be back soon from a climb up the fells that surround Grasmere.

     I spoke to Robert on the phone a year ago, the day before he died, a non-smoker, of lung cancer.  He asked me to finish what we had started, a recording of the entire poem.  I promised, and so last summer, with love, his widow Pamela welcomed back Sue Roberts, our producer from the BBC, and me.   Pamela checked we were keeping to the text of "The Prelude", as her husband had done, encouraging and exact.  It seemed just as Robert would have wanted it.  Twice for three days we recorded, so I slept over in the Wordsworth Trust's bed and breakfast or 20 miles away in Grange-over-Sands where Gladys, my step-mother was cared for by the sisters of Boarbank Nursing Home.

     September 2006, was the last time I saw Gladys, for her 100th birthday celebrations, a month before she died.  After a mid-morning visit, I slipped away from Boarbank and raced my hired car the back route along the western bank of Windermere, through Hawkshead where you can visit William's old school, round to Rydal Water where he also lived and on to Grasmere Old Town by the lake, where the daffs still bloom, the miniature variety that are still "dancing in the breeze".  This time Pamela, Sue and I were recording "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", Coleridge's masterpiece of gothic story-telling, begging to be read out loud, for those who like such things.

     I never read a poem that wasn't better heard rather than read silently. Poets are not always successful performing their own work: Dylan Thomas too booming, T.S. Eliot too dry, although Betjeman speaks from the heart and you believe him.  Actors can overact the emotion in poems, and experience of acting in dramatic verse makes me think it best not to interpret too much, except to clarify a meaning, and let the poet do the work.  Coleridge's title is a reminder that the horror story of the mariner's voyaging is told in verse.  So I arrived at Grasmere with my script marked for stress, noting rhyme schemes and alliteration.  Pamela was always appreciative of what I first recorded but, after her notes on the detail as well as the sweep of the narrative, the second take was invariably the one that Sue approved of and which is preserved on the DVD. — Ian McKellen, January 2007

Ian McKellen in the Lake District
Ian McKellen in the Lake District
Photo by Keith Stern

Excerpt (MP3, 1MB, 10-second lead-in)

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"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" will always be a part of my final memories of Gladys McKellen and Robert Woof.  Chris Smith, Chairman of the Wordsworth Trust, wrote the following obituary, with which I concur:

Obituary

Robert Woof, Museum curator who lovingly developed Wordsworth's legacy at Grasmere — Chris Smith, Friday November 11, 2005, The Guardian

Robert Woof, who has died at the age of 74 after a six-month battle with cancer, was one of the great scholars, writers and literary enthusiasts of our time. He led the Wordsworth Trust, at the poet's former home at Dove Cottage, at Grasmere in the Lake District, for 30 years, during which time the trust's collection, programme, activities and international standing grew beyond recognition.

It was Robert who insisted that the collection had to acquire important manuscripts, books, portraits, watercolours and drawings - in order to become the great embodiment of the Romantic spirit it now is. It was Robert who went out and raised the funds needed to do so. He began the major series of poetry readings and literary events that happen at Grasmere every year and brought contemporary poets and artists into residence at the trust, linking the marvellous heritage of the past with the truly modern. It was Robert who oversaw the award-winning education programme centred on Grasmere; he put together the exhibitions, wrote the catalogues and books and scholarly essays that had international resonance. And it was Robert who conceived, and saw to fruition, the construction of the new Jerwood Collections Centre, in Grasmere, that now houses the treasures of the trust.

Robert was born in Lancaster, educated at the Royal Lancaster grammar school and, at the age of 18, in an echo of Wordsworth's own discovery a century and a half before, first saw Dove Cottage on a day out cycling. He later wrote: "By the time I got back home, it was burned into my imagination that there was such a place." A degree at Pembroke College, Oxford, followed, and a PhD at the University of Toronto.

From 1971 to 1992 he was a reader in English at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. His wife Pamela was his devoted supporter, mentor and fellow scholar from their marriage in 1958, and they had two sons and two daughters. His distinguished literary career produced many publications, including Wordsworth: the Critical Heritage (2001) and Treasures of the Wordsworth Trust (2005). He was awarded a CBE in 1998 and became a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2000. In 1999 he received the Creative Briton Award for "an outstanding achievement in the world of arts and heritage".

It was his work with the Wordsworth Trust, however, that was the consuming passion of his life. His long association with it began in 1970 - initially as a trustee, then as secretary, and from 1989 as director; and he brought to the trust all the commitment, scholarship, determination and flair that he commanded.

No one but Robert could, in the last couple of years alone, have persuaded Michael Foot to open an exhibition on Hazlitt, Philip Pullman to do the honours for Milton and Blake, the Heritage Lottery Fund to help fund the acquisition of one of the most important collections of books from the Romantic period, Seamus Heaney to cut the ribbon for the new Collections Centre, the Huntington Library to lend a collection of Blake drawings not seen in Britain for a century, some 70 poets and writers to come and read their work, the Spooner collection of remarkable watercolours to come to Grasmere, and Sir Ian McKellen to make a recording of Wordsworth's entire Prelude, to mark its 200th anniversary. Robert did all of this - and much more - with a mixture of stubbornness and imaginative genius that left everyone else gasping.

And he did so right up to the end. He was diagnosed with cancer early this year; and through all the pain and difficulty that followed he continued to work at the height of his powers to take forward the life and spirit of the trust. The fundamental aim of the founders of the Wordsworth Trust in 1890 was to secure Dove Cottage and its collection "for the eternal possession of those who love English poetry all over the world". There has been no one in all the intervening years who has done remotely as much as Robert to make that dream come true.

He has left a legacy that will be an eternal possession, for scholars, visitors, poets and lovers of poetry alike to share. He took his knowledge and scholarship and made it come alive for everyone. He took the Wordsworth Trust and gave it the strength to endure for posterity. As Wordsworth himself wrote, following the death of his brother John in 1805, "Not without hope we suffer and we mourn." He is survived by his wife and children.

Robert Samuel Woof, museum director, born April 20 1931; died November 7 2005

 

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