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Exhibition takes a new look at Wordsworth

William Wordsworth is one of the best-known poets of the Romantic period. Now a new exhibition at St John’s College is taking a fresh look at Wordsworth’s life and inspiration.

The public exhibition is being held as part of Art: Language: Location, a city-wide programme of art installations and displays around Cambridge from 15 October-2 November with support from the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. It features handwritten manuscripts of William Wordsworth’s poetry, first editions of his most popular books, and even Wordsworth’s life mask from 1815, alongside contemporary art, video and sculpture by multimedia artist Nick Gear.

The exhibition examines Wordsworth’s relationship with the landscape of the Lake District that inspired much of his poetry, including his most well-known work ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, also known as ‘Daffodils’, one of the most famous poems ever written which now graces thousands of postcards sold each year in Wordsworth’s former home at Grasmere.

Wordsworth studied at St John’s as an undergraduate, although his time in Cambridge was not marked with academic success.  In his autobiographical poem ‘The Prelude: or Growth of a Poet’s Mind’, Wordsworth discusses his early life and the influence his time at Cambridge had on his thought.

Wordsworth’s first impression of the flat fenland of Cambridge was underwhelming, when compared to the majestic hills and lakes of his native Cumbria. He writes in ‘The Prelude’ of “the wide plain o’erhung with clouds”, and complains about his rooms in St John’s, a “nook obscure” above the College kitchens. Despite his discontent with university life, Wordsworth did find enjoyment in Cambridge’s lively social and cultural scene, and in later years looked back at his old College with nostalgic fondness.

A specially commissioned sketch of Wordsworth, produced by renowned portrait painter H.W. Pickersgill in 1832, forms the centrepiece of the exhibition, flanked by Nick Gear’s intriguing landscape photographs.

In her book Wanderlust: a History of Walking, author Rebecca Solnit said:  “Wordsworth took the walk out of the garden with its refined and restricted possibilities”. In encountering the ordinary people of the Lake District, Wordsworth chose to write with a radical and fresh poetic voice. In Gear’s own work he engages with ‘Edgeland’ landscapes through walks in which key moments are catalogued by collecting debris, text, photo and video, providing prompts for associations and memory. In both cases our relationship to the landscape is explored and questioned.

The exhibition is open to the public Monday-Friday 9:00-5:00 in the Exhibition Area in St John’s College Library and is free of charge.

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For more information contact Ryan Cronin by email at or phone 01223 338711.