Index  Dorothy Wordsworth

Tour in Scotland

genius loci

the (protective) spirit of a place, originally a Roman concept.

Modern meaning: the atmosphere and distinctive character of a place

If we (...) were in this place the guests of chance

This sentence appears to have two interrelated meanings:

  1. if we were here at the mercy of nature / fate;
  2. if we were here without purpose / if we were wandering around aimlessly here.

What! You are stepping westward!

A special meeting on the shores of Loch Katrine

Loch Katrine in the Trossachs had a great attraction for the Wordsworths. They visited the lake on the thirteenth and then again on the thirtieth day of their journey. The second time they walked beside the water, before them the red glow of the sun that had just set behind the mountains. The sky was clear, the lake was still, and a gentle breeze blew. In the 'sacred' atmosphere of this landscape, Dorothy and William had an unexpected and special meeting.

The path or road - for it was neither the one nor the other, but something between both - is the pleasantest I have ever travelled in my life for the same length of way, now with marks of sledges or wheels, or none at all, bare or green, as it might happen; now a little descent, now a level; sometimes a shady lane, at others an open track through green pastures; then again it would lead us into thick coppice-woods, which often entirely shut out the lake, and again admitted it by glimpses. We have never had a more delightful walk than this evening.  Ben Lomond and the three pointed-topped mountains of Loch Lomond, which we had seen from the Garrison, were very majestic under the clear sky, the lake perfectly calm, the air sweet and mild.  I felt that it was much more interesting to visit a place where we have been before than it can possibly be the first time, except under peculiar circumstances. 

The sun had been set for some time, when, being within a quarter of a mile of the ferryman’s hut, our path having led us close to the shore of the calm lake, we met two neatly dressed women, without hats, who had probably been taking their Sunday evening’s walk.  One of them said to us in a friendly, soft tone of voice, ‘What! you are stepping westward?’  I cannot describe how affecting this simple expression was in that remote place, with the western sky in front, yet glowing with the departed sun.  William wrote the following poem long after, in remembrance of his feelings and mine.

In the poem Stepping Westward that Dorothy then quotes, William dramatises the walk along the lake in such a way that the whole Scottish journey takes on a heroic aspect: to an inaccessible place beyond an ever-receding horizon. In his version, he and his sister travel far from home through a strange and inhospitable land ('wildish destiny'), exposed to the vagaries of nature ('in this place the guests of chance'). Behind them nothing but mud, cold and darkness. Before them the sunset glow, giving them courage to persevere. Walking westward toward the light gave them a sense of a 'heavenly destiny'. With the emphasis on 'wildish' and 'heavenly' - and the linking of these two adjectives to the same noun ('destiny') - Wordsworth emphasises the contrast between the dark, wild earth and the light, clear sky. At the same time he suggests their inextricable connection.

Genius loci
Stepping Westward starts with the surprised question (actually observation) 'What! Are you walking westward!'. The question seemed to sound out of the blue ('twas a sound of something without place or bound'). The woman who asked the question seemed to speak as a genius loci (the power of her voice and salutation was felt) who favoured them ('the voice was soft', 'the very sound of courtesy') and provided free passage ('the spiritual right to travel through that region bright ').

Wordsworth's mythical approach elevates the encounter in the enchanting landscape at Loch Katrine to a spiritual pilgrimage, a journey from dark to light. The poem thus expresses the human longing for redemption from the earthly trials. The reader may decide for themsselves whether a Christian heaven awaits at the end of the long journey of life or whether - as Wordsworth puts it elsewhere in more pantheistic terms - he finds his resting place 'Roll 'd round in earth's diurnal course / With rocks and stones and trees'.

'WHAT! you are stepping westward!' 'Yea.'

- 'Twould be a wildish destiny
If we, who thus together roam
In a strange land, and far from home,
Were in this place the guests of chance:
Yet who would stop, of fear to advance,
Though home or shelter he had none,
With such a sky to lead him on?

The dewy ground was dark and cold,
Behind all gloomy to behold,
And stepping westward seemed to be
A kind of heavenly destiny;
I liked the greeting, 'twas a sound
Of something without place or bound;
And seemed to give me spiritual right
To travel through that region bright.

The voice was soft; and she who spake
Was walking by her native Lake;
The salutation was to me
The very sound of courtesy;
Its power was felt, and while my eye
Was fixed upon the glowing sky,
The echo of the voice enwrought
A human sweetness with the thought
Of travelling through the world that lay
Before me in my endless way.