A letter written during lock-down by the Chairman of the Thomas Pennant Society,
Norman Closs Parry
Like most sensible citizens, I have felt very apprehensive, if not scared, during this lockdown period of the Coronavirus pandemic. As I heard some elderly ladies discussing on television (both had lived through the worst of the Second World War) how then, night after night, you knew what to expect, where it was coming from, and what to do. But with this one does not know where it is, or where or who is next! It currently appears as if the transmission of the virus is down (though not out, as the scientists tell us it could spike anywhere, anytime) and the politicans are playing catch-up until a vaccine is found.
For me, this has meant total shutdown. I have just received my second letter from Cardiff suggesting strongly that I stay indoors until August 16th. But to every cloud there is a silver lining, and the lock in/shut down has given me time to catch up with my reading. This period of being shut in has also coincided with my 80th birthday: all my family and friends pushed the rules to their limit, and have ensured that now, in my eighty-first year to heaven, I am drowning in reading material. Paul Brighton, my “friend of fifty years well nigh” presented me with Jonathan Bate’s new classic Radical Wordsworth: The poet who changed the world (2020), an excellent piece of research into the life and times of the great poet William Wordsworth. All of us remember him, of course, from school-days – ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud/ that floats on high o’er vales and hills.’ Back when I did my environmental science course at Bangor, I hung my argument on his poetry:
“One instance from a vernal wood
Will teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good
Then all the sages can…”
(‘The Tables Turned’)
And even now, when I see a rainbow, I recite his words;
“My heart leaps up when I behold
a rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man,
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.”
Reading and thinking about this book has helped me a great deal during the troubled times and the very long hours of solitude, and I have been particularly delighted to follow up the references to Wordsworth’s highly significant visit to Wales – memorialized in his great autobiographical poem ‘The Prelude’. A great walker and an admirer of nature from infancy (his passion for walking may have affected his Cambridge degree, which was a disappointing lower 2nd), while at college he befriended a Welshman, Robert Jones from Plas-yn-Llan, Denbigh. Jones accompanied him on his Alpine tour, also wonderfully described in ‘The Prelude’; and then, quite depressed, he came and spent the summer of 1791 with Jones (and his five good-looking sisters!!) at Plas-y-Llan, Llangynhafal, Denbigh.
Whilst at the Plas, he and Robert made excursions into the Welsh Countryside, and it is not beyond imagination that Wordworth picked up a copy of the Tours in Wales or Journey to Snowdon by Thomas Pennant in Plas-yn-Llan.
Over the last decade I have added tremendously to my knowledge and understanding of Pennant and his time and contacts through the involvement of Cymdeithas Thomas Pennant with ‘The Curious Travellers’ project based at the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies and Glasgow, and through other new scholarship by young academic researchers. These projects have often focused on connections between people, and on social and literary ‘networking’. This seems to me a very simple but effective example: let us imagine Wordsworth in Dyffryn Clwyd (Clwyd Vale), feeling a little sorry for himself. The ‘elan’ of The Great House’ with the laughter if these pretty sisters will have helped, I have no doubt, but he must also have found imaginative and intellectual challenge in The Tours. On enquiry with the Joneses he found that he knew somebody who knew Thomas Pennant (my guess would be the Rev John Lloyd of Caerwys, since young Robert Jones was destined for holy orders). I’m sure that two things were activated. Firstly, Wordsworth and Jones decided on the ‘Snowdonian Adventure’, an secondly that they would walk as far as Downing by arrangement for a consultation with Pennant who had written so splendidly about his climb up Snowdon. (See Radical Wordsworth, p. 83.) Wordsworth would have read how:
A vast mist enveloped the whole circuit of the mountain. The prospect down was horrible. It gave an idea of numbers of abysses, concealed by a thick smoke, furiously circulating around us. Very often a gust of wind formed an opening in the clouds, which gave a fine and distinct visto [sic] of lake and valley. Sometimes they opened only in one place; at others, in many at once, exhibiting a most strange and perplexing sight of water, fields, rocks, or chasms, in fifty different places.
Journey to Snowdon (1781)
Thomas Pennant too could be literary! I remember experiencing such phenomenon myself when we as youngsters we used to go ‘i weld yr haul yn codi…’ (to see the sunrise) from this same summit, usually at the time of Harvest Moon. But circumstances turned an experience shared by many into a defining moment in the life of William Wordsworth when, presumably after their consultation at Downing, he and Jones undertook the climb.
Without question, Wordsworth’s long autobiographical poem The Prelude is one of the great books in the English language. Unlike the great Wordsworthian sonnets ( ‘London 1802’, ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’ or, with Coleridge, the poems of the Lyrical Ballads’) it is in free verse, made up of fourteen ‘books’ – all in pure poetry observing and reflecting on his ‘seven ages’. It encapsulates much of his life philosophy, and understanding his way of looking at the ‘inside’ of things requires time and thought. What is most important to me, along with the idea that he sought Thomas Pennant’s advice regarding his night climb of Snowdon, is that this climb forms the concluding part of the Prelude; that the work where he brings all facets of his philosophy of life, learning and Nature together comes about because of what happened when he, Robert Jones and John Jones, a local guide (probably from Beddgelert) undertook the adventurous experience:
When at my feet the ground appeared to brighten,
And with a step or two seemed brighter still;
Nor was time given to ask or learn the cause,
For instantly a light upon the turf
Fell like a flash, and lo! as I looked up,
The Moon hung naked in a firmament
Of azure without cloud, and at my feet
Rested a silent sea of hoary mist.
A hundred hills their dusky backs upheaved
All over this still ocean; and beyond,
Far, far beyond, the solid vapours streched,
In headlands,tongues, and promontory shapes,
Into the main Atlantic, that appeared
To dwindle, and give up his majesty,
Usurped upon far as the sight could reach.
(The Prelude 1850, Book XIV)
For an introduction to the beauty of ‘The Prelude’, no one has written better than Earl Grey of Falloden, but I’m grateful that Jonathan Bate’s brilliant biography, Radical Wordsworth made the ‘Welsh connection’ for me. I urge you, for personal satisfaction – seek a quiet room, and read at leisure what can happen, when two great minds, Pennant and Wordsworth, experience and capture a similar natural phenomenon in prose and poetry!
Prophets of Nature, we to them will speak
A lasting inspiration, sanctified
By reason, blest by faith: what we have loved,
Others will love, and we will teach them how;
Instruct them how the mind of man becomes
A thousand times more beautiful than the earth
On which he dwells, above the frame of things
(Which, ‘mid all revolutions in the hopes
And fears of men, doth still remain unchanged)
In beauty exalted, as it is itself
Of quality and fabric more divine.
The Prelude, Book XIV: Conclusion
Norman Closs-Parry (July, 2020)
Post-script: a memory of meeting Pennant
In a letter written many years later, Wordsworth recalled his visit to Downing (either 1791 or a later visit in the early 1790s). He offers a lively portrait of Pennant:
“Five and thirty years ago I passed a few days in one of its most retired vallies at the house of a Mr Thomas some time since dead. His ordinary residence was upon an estate of his in Flintshire close to Mr Pennant’s of Downing with whom, I mean the Zoologist, then a handsome figure of a man in the freshness of green old age I passed several agreeable hours in his library; he was upwards of seventy, tall and erect and seemed to have fair pretensions for 15 years of healthful and useful life, but soon after he fell into a sudden languishment, caused mainly I believe by the death of a favorite Daughter, and died…”
Letter to George Huntly Gordon, 14 May 1829, cited in Donald E. Hayden, Wordsworth’s travels in Wales and Ireland, (Tulsa, Oklahoma : University of Tulsa, 1985). See also D Myrddin Lloyd, Wordsworth and Wales, National Library of Wales Journal, VI, (1950) 338-350.
Michael Freeman has compiled a list of many accounts of ascents of Snowdon, including Pennant’s descriptions of two ascents (1752 and the early 1770s), and Wordsworth’s climb with Jones.