There were high slow-travelling Clouds in the sky that threw large Masses of Shade upon some of the Mountains. We walked backwards & forwards between home & Olliffs till I was tired William kindled & began to write the poem. We carried Cloaks into the orchard & sate a while there I left him & he nearly finished the poem. I was tired to death & went to bed before him – he came down to me & read the Poem to me in bed -- -- A sailor begged here today going to Glasgow he spoke chearfully in a sweet tone.

Dorothy Wordsworth, 17th March 1802*

Poor Dorothy! She needed sleep and a sweet tone. She should have skipped off to Glasgow with that sailor.

Last weekend, I was in Grasmere, a landscape of flat black water and steep high hills. I come from low country and so sky is what I see and know and remark on. Reading Dorothy, I had been surprised by how little the sky got mentioned and then I realised that if you’re walking among hills, you’re looking at hills, and if it’s pretty much always windy or raining then you’re keeping your head down.

Even so, I couldn’t stop looking up at the sky. This was a chance (already gone) to see it as empty as it would have been 200 years ago and it did seem profoundly empty.

People everywhere have had to reinvent their way home while those at home have had to stay there. One poet at Grasmere was about to miss a long-planned trip to see her son in Mexico. Another, due to fly in from Dublin, had finessed her way into the cab of a lorry (someone she knew who worked in exports cast her as a ‘logistics expert’) and so onto a ferry after which she negotiated a series of lifts. The navy went to pick up the army from Spain. In every aspect of life (schools, hospitals, weddings, examination halls, football games...) there are still people missing.

The empty sky has been interesting for some and a torment for others. Either way, it  imposed a kind of middle-distance, like Dorothy’ s - neither here nor there, neither Glasgow nor Grasmere, but somewhere restlessly, interestingly, in between.

*The Grasmere Journal, Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. Pamela Woof

Originally Published: April 23rd, 2010

Lavinia Greenlaw has published three books of poems, most recently Minsk. Her two novels are Mary George of Allnorthover and An Irresponsible Age and she has also published a memoir, The Importance of Music to Girls. Her work for BBC radio includes programs about the Arctic, the Baltic, the solstices...