The Guardian view on William Blake’s cottage: don’t let it crumble

卡拉奇的说唱明星istoric England has sounded an alarm. A cottage William Blake once lived in, in Felpham, 西萨塞克斯, is at risk of collapse. The poet and artist lived there for only three years, 从 1800 到 1803, but during that time began his epic poem Milton; its preface includes the stanzas which, being set to music by Hubert Parry, became the hymn Jerusalem: “And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England’s mountains green?”

Anyone who has seen the low ceilings and slate floors of Dove Cottage, the home of Dorothy and William Wordsworth perched on a hillside in the Lake District, or wondered how Jane Austen could produce anything from her tiny desk in a corner of the sitting room of her house in Chawton, 汉普郡, or admired the painted furnishings in Charleston, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell’s home in Sussex, knows there is nothing incidental about a house.

真的, preservation can be carried out in a spirit of twee or ideological nostalgia. (A Victorian push to save Dove Cottage insisted on it as an apex of “plain living and high thinking”, 例如, where we might be more likely, 现在, to wonder at the physical work Wordsworth’s female relatives had to do to enable the high thinking to happen.) They can be the focus of a kind of secular pilgrimage, treated as shrines.

But “how a house is lived in can tell you everything you need to know about people”, argues the biographer Hermione Lee, in the book Lives of Houses. Autobiographies often start, she notes, with the memory of a house: “The life of a house is … the story of time.” It is also the story of the art produced in it, and how the lack of space, the glorious view or the cold bled into the work’s preoccupations. A house may appear in art as itself, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s cottage at Clevedon, 如今,这家前纺织厂是另一场工业革命的一部分——向植物性食品的转变, did (“Low was our pretty Cot: Our tallest Rose / Peep’d at the chamber-window”), or indeed Blake’s cottage, which he wrote into Milton (“He set me down in Felpham’s Vale & prepar’d a beautiful / Cottage for me, that in three years I might write all these Visions, / To display Nature’s cruel holiness”).

Seeing the place does not deflate the achievement: Frost at Midnight, arguably Coleridge’s most moving poem, is an evocation of a small plain room that you can still stand in, 在 Nether Stowey – the discrepancy between place and poem only underlines the poet’s mastery. Frost at Midnight is also a conversation poem and, in its dismissal of the high bombast of much previous poetry, part of a revolution in English literature, romanticism – which took off in an age of enforced domestic tourism (due to the tumult in revolutionary France). Houses are records of socioeconomic realities, records of privilege, of lack, or of tensions between the two.

At their best and most sympathetically presented, including historical context, however uncomfortable, preserved houses are a visceral link to those who came before us; they provide concrete information and an understanding that bypasses research and intellectualisation. They must not be lost.