Wordsworth’s ‘fair dark eyed maids’ at Lake Como

Lake Como has been visited by some of the most illustrious figures in the history of literature and was an obvious attraction for the English ‘lake poet’ William Wordsworth. But was its appeal only the beauty of nature or also the charms of its female residents?

Wordsworth is often quoted describing Lake Como as ‘a treasure which the earth keeps to itself’, but I’ve yet to see anyone who reproduces that quote tell readers exactly what it means. The missing explanation may lie in some lines of his poetry, which reveal that for Wordsworth the treasure of Lake Como consisted not only of mountains and water but also of young Italian women.

Wordsworth arrived at Lake Como in 1790 in the course of a walking tour that had already covered France and the Swiss Alps, and which would later cross Germany on the way back to England. He wrote about the trip in a poem called ‘Descriptive Sketches’, first published in 1793.

The section of the poem dealing with Lake Como starts at line 80, and begins with descriptions of the scenery. But it’s not long before the mood becomes amorous, with references to the ‘sparkling eyes and breaking smiles’ of ‘fair dark-eyed maids’.

And there’s more. Around line 150 we encounter ‘stedfast eyes, that beating breasts inspire, to throw the “sultry ray” of young desire’. And two lines later we find ‘those shadowy breasts in love’s soft light array’d and rising by the moon of passion swayed’.

It’s clear that the young women of Lake Como made a big impression on Wordsworth, and a recent biographer has suggested that Wordsworth’s unexplained disappearance from the rest of his party for one night can possibly be put down to him spending the time with one of those fair dark eyed maids. That could be the meaning of these two lines:

‘Yet, arts are thine that rock th’ unsleeping heart
And smiles to solitude and want impart.’

It could also explain Wordsworth’s apparent remark that Lake Como was ‘a treasure which the earth keeps to itself’. It could mean that it’s buried treasure, a secret left behind when the poet moved on, with no X to mark the exact spot.

Alternatively, the explanation for the comment could be something completely different altogether.