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In the middle of a trip to England, in the middle of a Lake District hike, I found myself in the village of Grasmere, “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found,” according to the poet William Wordsworth, who lived there.

It wasn’t as small as I’d thought it would be. I looked up the main street, packed with just-so storefronts and a fair little crush of tourists, then down the main street, likewise stretching forever and no less adorable. I wondered how Wordsworth could stand living in a town so full of B&Bs and souvenir shops.

Looking up and down the street again, I realized I had no idea where Faery Glen was. I’d assumed that the town was a tidy little hamlet—then realized I’d based that assumption on Wordsworth-era etchings from 1802.

Grasmere has grown since then. It isn’t London, but it’s no Horton-in-Ribblesdale either.

I knew the Faery Glen B&B was at the top of the village. A sign across the way pointed in the opposite direction, downhill, to the little churchyard where the Wordsworths and two of their children are buried.



I sighed and considered the options. I was in “Wordsworth Country.” The meditative thread I’d been drawing through “Wordsworth Country” was my own contemplation of mortality. I was steps away—albeit steps in the wrong direction—from the burial place of the namesake of the region. So I was required to make the pilgrimage to his remains.

Like hell. William wasn’t even a momentary draw for me:

The cock is crowing
The stream is flowing
The small birds twitter
The lake doth glitter

If it was just William buried there, I’d’ve gladly gone straight to Faery Glen, kicked off my boots, and watched a BBC special on The History of Welsh Headgear or some such thing that was always, always on. Mere proximity to William’s bones wouldn’t move me to a detour.

It was little Catherine who gave me pause.

Catherine Wordworth

On the third of June in 1812, something unspeakable happened to the Wordsworths. Their little Catherine, just three years old, died unexpectedly of a fever. Worse yet, she fell ill, passed away, and was buried in the absence of her parents. Both were traveling at the time, and separately at that. William learned of her death only by mail—imagine it—and Mary, for better or worse, only upon returning home. Again, try to feel that, approaching the door in expectation of a running embrace, and learning instead… I just can’t make my heart grasp the enormity of the shock.

Six months later almost to the day, their six-year old son Thomas was dead of pneumonia.

There can’t be a greater disruption to the natural order of things than parents burying their children. The fact that the loss of children was more common in that era certainly can’t have made it easier to bear. So every word I speak against William’s poetry sticks in my throat just a bit, knowing as I do what he and his wife endured.

Yet I didn’t end up visiting Catherine, or Thomas, or the rest of the family there in the churchyard just steps away. I turned and walked right up the hill toward the promise of a hot bath. The reason is Thomas De Quincey.

De Quincey was a writer, a Wordsworth devotee, and a nice man, by all accounts, if you like tiny pale opium eaters, which he also was, again by all accounts. Every description of the man, without fail, mentions the same four qualities: small, nice, pale, and stoned. But De Quincey did one thing so strange that 200 years later it still had the power to keep me away from that churchyard.

It is said that Catherine Wordsworth had been a particular favorite of De Quincey’s, so he took her death rather hard. How hard? Let’s have De Quincey tell it.

“I returned hastily to Grasmere,” he later recalled to friends, “and stretched myself every night, for more than two months running, upon her grave, often passing the night there…in mere intensity of sick, frantic yearning after neighbourhood to the darling of my heart.”

My, what a, uh…lovely gesture.

I’m not suggesting De Quincey was a pedophile or some other easy beast. It’s something more subtle, but nearly as hard on my own personal stomach. I’m offering this freakish display as Exhibit A in the case against Romanticism.

Stretching one’s self out on the grave of a loved one, well, that’s touching, I suppose. Spending the night? Okay, that’s a little much, maybe even cause for concern. But doing that night after night, for two continuous months, on the grave of someone else’s child? Get this man some sort of trophy for self-centered Romanticism.

Oh, you heard me—self-centered. Do you really think this display was all about Catherine? Or might whatever drew him back to the churchyard night after night have had more to do with Thomas De Quincey, with his self-image as a man who loved so deeply, who felt so passionately, who hurt with such unbearable Romantic intensity that the very stones of the churchyard wall wept for his loss, for his pain, for his grief? Is there any doubt that he curled up before her headstone with a mind half devoted to maintaining the flow of tears while the other half counted those tears for their value as illustrations in his own personal mythic narrative, the Legend of the Man Who Loved Beyond Human Limits?

And there it is—beyond human limits. You know what? I like human limits, because I’m fond of reality. I think reality is plenty wonderful. Romanticism slanders reality by saying it just isn’t good enough. Human grief, normal and real, isn’t good enough for Thomas de Quincey, so he recasts himself as the fallen hero in a Greek tragedy of cosmic scale, the Seventh Chinese Brother with tears like the sea. Normal mountains and lakes and clouds aren’t good enough, say the Lake Poets – let’s make them the glowing, fairy-dusted set pieces of a me-centered universe. These are also the people who taught us that love is fireworks and a thousand violins or nothing at all, planting seeds of disappointment for us to harvest when we experience the lovely but generally less-theatrically-Olympian thing ourselves.

I could go on.

I despise what De Quincey did because I’m convinced his motives were mostly selfish, a fervent and fully Romantic attempt to draw attention to himself and his own suffering. And I try to imagine what on Earth the Wordsworths must have felt about a tribute so weird and mawkish and prolonged. It must have felt a bit like they were engaged in a wrongheaded competition for the title of Most Wounded Mourner of Young Catherine. Well why weren’t her parents prostrate in the churchyard? goes the implication. Clearly De Quincey loved her best.1

I stayed away from the churchyard because I knew that whatever remained of Catherine’s memory would be overwhelmed by the garish velvet wallpaper of De Quincey’s Romantic excesses. The grave itself would inevitably be “the place where De Quincey mourned,” no matter how I tried to resist it. He had effectively elbowed out the possibility of anyone else feeling their own unmediated sadness for Catherine. His ridiculous melodrama lies forever spreadeagled between us and that little girl. And I just wouldn’t be able to stand it, so I turned left instead of right, in search of Faery Glen.

My mind stayed with William and Mary Wordsworth. My youngest daughter was three at the time I aimed my boots away from Catherine’s grave. My other daughter was six, the last age of Catherine’s brother. I wasn’t sure I had it in me to lose either of them, much less both.

If I did, being entirely nonreligious, I couldn’t count on whatever consolation the Wordsworths found in their Anglican faith. I would have to confront their deaths as final, which I found harder to accept than my own death. I could give the Wordsworths my deepest sympathy, but they couldn’t help me with my contemplation of death from this particular angle.

For that, I had to turn to Thomas Henry Huxley.

Noel Huxley

Huxley was a biologist who earned the nickname “Darwin’s Bulldog” as the first major defender of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. I admired him as a brilliant and courageous writer and thinker. When I learned that he, like Wordsworth, had suffered the death of a child, I went looking for anything he might have written about it, because Huxley, unlike Wordsworth and like me, was not a religious believer.

In September 1860, Huxley watched a fever ravage his son, watched as he thrashed and cried in his bed for two days, and finally held him as he died. He wept over the boy for an hour, then carried his body into his study and laid him on the desk. He sat in the chair with his hand on Noel’s hand, then reached into the desk drawer and wrote in his journal—wrote about how much he loved his son, how devastating his loss was, how much he wanted him back. He had given up religious belief years before, so he knew there was no by-and-by when they’d be reunited. He was face-to-face with the implications of his convictions: real, irreversible loss without any comforting illusions.

He received letters of condolence, hundreds of them, all of which he answered with a line or two of thanks. Except one—a letter from the Reverend Canon Kingsley, Chaplain to the Queen and a personal friend. Kingsley had written that he himself could not face the loss of a loved one without knowing that that person would live on in another existence.  Fortunately, he said, he had that assurance. He invited Huxley to come to faith and be comforted in his time of loss.

I don’t fault Kingsley for this, I really don’t. He could’ve sat smug in his rectory and said, “God hath dealt a mighty blow to the unbeliever,” but he didn’t. He showed complete integrity within his own beliefs and tried to give Huxley what he had to give.

In reply, Huxley wrote the most moving testament to intellectual integrity that I’ve ever seen and gave me a model for my own grief should I ever face it at this level:

My dear Kingsley—

I cannot sufficiently thank you, both on my wife’s account and my own, for your long and frank letter, and for all the hearty sympathy which it exhibits. To myself your letter was especially valuable, as it touched upon what I thought even more than upon what I said in my earlier letter to you.

My convictions, positive and negative, on all the matters of which you speak, are of long and slow growth and are firmly rooted. But the great blow which fell upon me seemed to stir them to their foundation, and had I lived a couple of centuries earlier I could have fancied a devil scoffing at me – asking me what profit it was to have stripped myself of the hopes and consolations of the mass of mankind? To which my only reply was and is – Oh devil! truth is better than much profit. I have searched over the grounds of my belief, and if wife and child and name and fame were all to be lost to me one after the other as the penalty, still I will not lie.

I neither deny nor affirm the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing in it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it. Surely it must be plain that an ingenious man could speculate without end on both sides, and find analogies for all his dreams. Nor does it help to tell me that the aspirations of mankind–that my own highest aspirations even–lead me towards the doctrine of immortality. I doubt the fact, to begin with, but if it be so even, what is this but in grand words asking me to believe a thing because I like it.

Science has taught to me the opposite lesson. She warns me to be careful how I adopt a view which jumps with my preconceptions, and to require stronger evidence for such belief than for one to which I was previously hostile. My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonise with my aspirations.

Science seems to me to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this.

If at this moment I am not a worn-out, debauched, useless carcass of a man, if it has been or will be my fate to advance the cause of science, if I feel that I have a shadow of a claim on the love of those about me, if, in the supreme moment when I looked down into my boy’s grave, my sorrow was full of submission and without bitterness, it is because these ideas have worked upon me, and not because I have ever cared whether my poor personality shall remain distinct for ever from the All from whence it came and whither it goes.

And thus, my dear Kingsley, you will understand what my position is. I may be quite wrong, and in that case I know I shall have to pay the penalty for being wrong. But I can only say with Luther, “Gott helfe mir, Ich kann nichts anders.”

I know right well that 99 out of 100 of my fellows would call me atheist, infidel, and all the other usual hard names. As our laws stand, if the lowest thief steals my coat, my evidence (my opinions being known) would not be received against him.

But I cannot help it. One thing people shall not call me with justice and that is—a liar. As you say of yourself, I too feel that I lack courage; but if ever the occasion arises when I am bound to speak, I will not shame my boy.

I have spoken more openly and distinctly to you than I ever have to any human being except my wife.

If you can show me that I err in premises or conclusion, I am ready to give up these as I would any other theories. But at any rate you will do me the justice to believe that I have not reached my conclusions without the care befitting the momentous nature of the problems involved….

I don’t profess to understand the logic of yourself, Maurice, and the rest of your school, but I have always said I would swear by your truthfulness and sincerity, and that good must come of your efforts. The more plain this was to me, however, the more obvious the necessity to let you see where the men of science are driving, and it has often been in my mind to write to you before.

If I have spoken too plainly anywhere, or too abruptly, pardon me, and do the like to me. My wife thanks you very much for your volume of sermons.

Ever yours very faithfully,

T. H. Huxley

1“De Quincey, who had been so much loved by the Wordsworths, was now in disgrace. The relationship had begun to cool earlier, when the stricken parents had found his excessive display of mourning for Catherine tactless and intrusive.”—From Home at Grasmere by Penelope Hughes-Hallett

Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...

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