Review All Before Me by Esther Rutter – the healing power of place and poetry

TThe concept of ‘genius loci’ – the spirit of a place, often with connotations of protection or nurturing – forms the basis of Esther Rutter’s stimulating mix of memoirs, literary history and travelogues. Combining three books into one, she explores her own terrifying mental collapse and tentative recovery, the lives of the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy and their confrere Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the efforts to preserve the Wordsworths’ cottage in Grasmere within the context of the Lake District as a whole. At times the reader may feel a little too aware of the compression mechanism at work, but the book is nonetheless alive with fascinating episodes and ingrained histories and, most importantly, a genuine commitment to the power of place and of poetry to sustain lives to hold. and ghosts.

Grasmere was not Rutter’s first attempt to transport herself to a completely unknown landscape and thus find a new direction for her life. As a 21-year-old, she left to teach English in a small Japanese village, living alone in a rented apartment with very little Japanese at her disposal. This wasn’t some grand gap year adventure born of a privileged upbringing – Rutter writes effectively about the challenges and fractures in her family environment – ​​but an attempt to get closer to a different culture and way of being.

‘An intense feeling of connection’: Esther Rutter. Photo: Chris Scott

And it worked, until her mental health suddenly collapsed, a kind of dissolution of itself: intense anxiety attacks, excitement and a deep-seated feeling in her body that “happiness would pass me by forever.” Within a few weeks, she was admitted to a psychiatric facility, where she was shown great kindness but remained unclear about the path to diagnosis and treatment; and then an abrupt return home. In a sense, she was back where she started; in another she was profoundly and permanently changed.

Where does Wordsworth come in? After a period of recovery – and with the jury still out on how lasting and sustainable the improvement would be – Rutter applied to become one of the annual group of interns who would work at Dove Cottage for a year, small, white house in Cumbria where William and Dorothy lived for many years. The cottage was decidedly ungrand and saw the composition of some of the former’s greatest works, including early incarnations of his long, autobiographical poem The Prelude, which was not published until 1850, the year of his death. It is this astonishing work, a breathtakingly ambitious synthesis of introspection and outward-looking inquiry, that evokes the possibility of having the Earth ‘all before me’ and confronting it ‘with a heart / joyful, nor fearful of its own freedom’ .

Rutter got the job, despite (and perhaps even because of) crying during the interview, and began helping with Dove Cottage maintenance, tours and the poetry reading program for a year. It is not surprising that the very special nature of the work, combined with the awe-inspiring beauty of the landscape, creates an intense feeling of connection; but Rutter senses something even more fundamental. What she is experiencing, she begins to realize, is a manifestation of ‘kith’ – a sense of being herself in a place, at home in both body and mind.

All for me also explores what William and Dorothy had been like
separated in childhood after the death of their mother, they created their own home, after several false starts (there is a particularly compelling account of their season in Germany, when they were virtually abandoned by Coleridge, who left with a few other friends ran off and left brother and sister freezing and virtually penniless). It was in Grasmere that the Wordsworths began to connect natural beauty with community and creativity, an identification with place that makes the small settlement of Townend feel to visitors not just a stop on the literary tourist trail, but the embodiment of a larger artistic impulse.

William and Dorothy did not spend their entire lives in Grasmere
nor Rutter; but she shows that once something gets inside you, it’s entirely possible to take it with you to pastures new.

Everything for Me: A Search for Belonging in Wordsworth’s Lake DistricT by Esther Rutter is published by Granta (£16.99). In support of the Guardian And Observer Order your copy via Delivery charges may apply