(Written by Juliet Gutch, edited by Esme Gutch)
‘It was also beautiful on the calm, hot nights to see the little boats row out of the harbour with wings of fire and the sailboats with the fiery track as they cut along and which closed up after them with a hundred thousand sparkles, balls shooting in streams of glow-worm night.’
From Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal, 1802
Wordsworth grew up as a young child to the sound of a river running over rocks. He responded spontaneously and intensely to water, finding in it an expression of some aspect – creativity, infinity, immortality, goodness, or unity – of the universal spirit which he recognised in humans and nature. Images of water from the sound and the surface of the sea to brooks, rivers, streams, fountains, waterfalls, and lakes occur frequently in his work and express his thoughts and beliefs. Of all the characteristics of water, the one which was of most poignancy to Wordsworth was that of motion, appearing as a prominent presence in his life and theme in his poetry. He composed poems as he walked, evoking the metre and rhythm of striding alongside mountain brooks and wandering around lakes. In Tintern Abbey he writes of the ‘motion that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought / And rolls through all things.’
One of the most significant descriptions of motion is in water in The Prelude. An early passage describes Wordsworth stealing a rowing boat and taking it out onto the lake at night. As he rows he notices the ephemeral shapes made on the surface of the water, and it is just after this, under the dark mountains which suddenly block out the light from the stars, that he is awed and realises for the first time that nature is not something which can be controlled. It is a moment on which the rest of his work hinges, the small circles of his early childhood disappearing in a new awareness of life and spirit.
In this way, we can see Wordsworth’s poems as a kind of wake, showing how he developed as a writer, and the legacy he left, which is constantly being re-interpreted. Even reading a poem on a page from beginning to end is a kind of motion, and its concrete form conjures the image of words streaming through the paper as a boat through water, leaving wake on the page and in the mind like a watermark. The breaks between and within lines and stanzas, which give a pause to the phrases, are the breath marks. They remind us that these poems, the living wood of the boat, and the wake on the waves which rise and fall in breath-like rhythms from her movement, live in their wake as we interact with them, in a fleeting motion which is defined by its very passing.
Whilst Ferry Mary Anne no longer makes any physical traces on water, I was moved by how, through the skilled craft and care of the conservation team, the boat continues to be resonant of many of Wordsworth’s beliefs about water, motion, and spirit. With this new series of mobiles,- Breath Water Marks – I hoped to evoke the sense of timelessness in the wake of a boat, of a poem, and of a memory, along with a sense of loss and the transient traces of life.
‘O joy! That in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!’
From stanza ix of Ode: Intimations of Immortality by William Wordsworth