‘Echo and allusion’: Tennyson and Wordsworth

by Jayne Thomas


In his 1879 essay on Wordsworth, Matthew Arnold maintains that by the publication of Tennyson’s 1842 Poems ‘the ear and applause of the great body of poetry-readers’ turn decisively toward Tennyson and away from Wordsworth, a transition of which Wordsworth himself was perhaps aware. Aubrey de Vere records a meeting between the two poets at a dinner given by Edward Moxon, Tennyson and Wordsworth’s publisher, in 1845. Tennyson was anxious to express to ‘the Old Bard his sense of the obligation which all Englishmen owed to him’. Wordsworth for his part was much pleased at the meeting, recording later in a letter to a friend:

I saw Tennyson when I was in London several times. He is decidedly the first of our living poets, and I hope will live to give the world still better things. You will be pleased to hear that he expressed in the strongest terms his gratitude to my writings. To this I was far from indifferent.

Yet, Wordsworth’s pleasure at Tennyson’s gratitude here mixes with a recognition that Tennyson is ‘decidedly’ the first of our living poets, and that the tide of public opinion is moving in his favour.

Tennyson in around 1840. Portrait by Samuel Laurence and Sir Edward Burne-Jones. National Portrait Gallery, London

In 1850 an actual transition did take place, as Tennyson succeeded Wordsworth as Poet Laureate. On becoming Laureate, Tennyson was keen to pay Wordsworth his due respect. Pondering his first Laureate poem, ‘To the Queen’ (1851), Hallam Tennyson records his father as ‘especially thinking of a stanza in which “the empire of Wordsworth should be asserted: for he was a representative Poet Laureate, such a poet as kings should honour, and such an one as would do honour to kings”’.


The ‘empire of Wordsworth’ notwithstanding, Tennyson’s relationship with Wordsworth was ‘never quite comfortable’, however, as Stephen Gill observes. They were on the surface two quite different poets; Arthur Henry Hallam in his famous review of Tennyson’s 1830 Poems, Chiefly Lyrical drew a distinction between the two, describing Wordsworth as the poet of the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘reflective’, and Tennyson as the poet of sensation, who, like Keats and Shelley, ‘trembled into emotion at colours, and sounds, and movements, unperceived or unregarded by duller temperaments’. But Tennyson nevertheless retained a profound respect for Wordsworth. Hallam Tennyson notes his father as saying in 1883 that Wordsworth was “‘at his best on the whole the greatest English poet since Milton’”.


Respect did not inhibit Tennyson from voicing his criticisms of Wordsworth, nonetheless, particularly in relation to the earlier poet’s prosaic poetic style: Wordsworth, Tennyson claims, is “‘thick-ankled”’, his work unequal, with a ‘heaviness of style seen somewhat too often in poems, the subject of which more or less defied successful treatment’. On a short tour of Europe in 1869 Frederick Locker-Lampson remembers Tennyson as saying:

You must not think because I speak plainly of Wordsworth’s defects as a poet that I have not a very high admiration of him. I shall never forget my deep emotion the first time I had speech with him. I have a profound admiration for ‘Tintern Abbey’.

And yet, Locker-Lampson notes how ‘even in that poem [Tennyson] considered the old poet had shown a want of literary instinct’; he thought the poem, for instance, ‘too long’ and too repetitive, a poetic trait to which he himself is not averse in his own work, however. Tennyson nevertheless ‘greatly praised the famous line “Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns” – “the permanent in the transitory”’, a praise he would reiterate in 1883, calling the line “‘almost the grandest in the English language, giving the sense of the abiding in the transient’”.


Tennyson remained fascinated by Wordsworth’s trope of the permanent in the transitory, reworking the themes of ‘Tintern Abbey’ in poems such as ‘Tears, Idle Tears’ (1847), ‘Tithonus’ and ‘In the Valley of Cauteretz’ (1864). ‘Tithonus’ works a ‘remarkable variation on the theme’, although ‘Tears, Idle Tears’ has to work with ‘heroic strenuousness to affirm a sense of continuity between past and present’, as Seamus Perry puts it.


Wordsworth’s poetic influence is also clearly felt in a group of poems that were later termed the English or Domestic ‘Idylls’; these include ‘Dora’, ‘Audley Court’, ‘Walking to the Mail’ and ‘The Gardener’s Daughter Or, The Pictures’. Tennyson attempts a Wordsworthian simplicity in ‘Dora’, such as that of Wordsworth’s blank verse narrative, ‘Michael: A Pastoral Poem’, which Edward Fitzgerald read to Tennyson in 1835 on a trip to the Speddings’ house, Mirehouse, by Bassenthwaite Lake, in the Lake District. Fitzgerald quotes Tennyson, in fact, as saying that he ‘remembered the time when he could see nothing in “Michael” which he now read us in admiration’. Wordsworth for his part is rather apocryphally accredited with saying of ‘Dora’: “‘Mr Tennyson, I have been endeavouring all my life to write a pastoral like your “Dora” and have not succeeded.”’ Like Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’, ‘Dora’ is one of ‘those domestic tales’ (‘Michael’, I. l. 22), a ‘history / Homely and rude’ (‘Michael’, I. ll. 34-5).


Despite his criticism of Wordsworth’s prosaic poetic style Tennyson re-channels a Wordsworthian ‘ordinariness’ in his so-called Lincolnshire dialect poems, ‘Northern Farmer, Old Style’ (1864), ‘Northern Farmer, New Style’ (1869), and ‘The Northern Cobbler’ (1880). Tennyson also turns to Wordsworth’s scenes of ordinary life in the 1880 Ballads and Other Poems such as ‘Rizpah’, ‘In the Children’s Hospital’ and ‘The Village Wife’, leading to suggestions that he turns away from his own ballad experiments of the 1830s and 1840s to adapt the Wordsworthian ballad, with its emphasis on incidents and situations from common life; the title of Tennyson’s collection is itself a reminder of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems (1800).

But there are other, subtle to connections to Wordsworth’s poetics in Tennyson’s poems, often working at the level of language and phrasing, echo and allusion. In Memoriam A.H.H., written in lament for Hallam, dead from a brain haemorrhage at twenty-two, is concerned with absence, or rather with making an absence present. The poem, an elegy, was published anonymously the year Tennyson took over the Laureateship, combining private grief with public expression, as it explores faith, God, and science in its attempt to come to terms with Hallam’s unexpected loss. Tennyson draws from Wordsworth to help find his own form of consolation in the poem, however tenuous this consolation subsequently proves to be, and therefore to make his accommodations with his faith – ‘a poor thing’, as T. S. Eliot says – and with the claims of nineteenth-century science and religion. Wordsworth helps Tennyson both to stabilise his ‘public’ voice in the poem and to develop the pastoral elements of elegy. Tennyson borrows liberally from Wordsworth’s elegies as poetic models, as poems that articulate grief and work toward consolation, weaving their language and phrasing into new configurations and connections. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst notes how ‘So many of In Memoriam’s literary echoes emerge from contexts of loss (the splintered remains of earlier elegies that rise unpredictably to the surface of Tennyson’s verse, like the debris of shipwrecks)’. Wordsworth’s elegies do not randomly rise to the surface of In Memoriam, however, and nor do they lie inert like the debris of abandoned shipwrecks; rather, Tennyson borrows from Wordsworth’s elegies to help him conceive and write the poem, weaving their language and phrasing into new configurations and connections; the poem’s trajectory toward the ‘one far-off divine event, / To which the whole creation moves’ (‘Epilogue’, ll. 143-4) is facilitated by Wordsworth in this sense.


Tennyson reading ‘Maud’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1855. Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery


Tennyson’s 1855 Monodrama, Maud, ‘a drama in lyrics’, is also heavily indebted to Wordsworth. Tennyson is keen to emphasise that in portraying the speaker’s phases of passion, he is developing a new form – the monodrama or monologue – but in so doing he is unable to break away from away from Wordsworth, relying on his predecessor to shape and structure his poem. Tennyson’s revisionary borrowings ‘reinvent’ Wordsworth’s ‘Lucy’ poems and to some extent ‘The Preface to the Second Edition’ of Lyrical Ballads (1800). Maud grows out of ‘The Preface’, in its concern with passion, but Tennyson loosens the poem from Wordsworth’s affiliation of passion with morality, communitarianism and sympathy. The speaker’s passion in Maud leads to madness, distortion, murder, and a sense of community found in the abstract concept of war rather than in the community of men and women. But echoes of Wordsworth’s language and phrasing also create thematic and structural links in the poem – the ‘Lucy’ poems underpin the trajectory of the later monologue, confirming Maud’s literary heritage and Maud’s destiny.

Wordsworth’s influence in Tennyson extends to the latter’s dramatic monologues, ‘Ulysses’ (1833) and ‘Tithonus’ (1860), poems ostensibly designed to break away from Romantic subjectivity through the creation of a fictional speaker. In ‘Ulysses’, Tennyson seemingly strengthens the form of the monologue, revising the universal subjectivity of the Wordsworthian speaker; and yet Wordsworth’s presence in the monologue remains vital, a fact underlined by Ulysses’ own search for that which the poem has itself defined as lost – the Wordsworthian imagination itself. ‘Tithonus’ and, in part the earlier ‘Tithon’ on which it is based, rewrites ‘Tintern Abbey’, effects achieved through echoes or borrowings from ‘Tintern Abbey’ itself, but also through the assimilation of words and phrases from An Evening Walk (1793) and ‘Resolution and Independence’ (1807). The rewriting of ‘Tithon’ in 1860 in dramatic form comes after the publication of In Memoriam and Maud, both of which see Tennyson as grappling with the complexities of religion, science, psychology and nature. Through the borrowing of Wordsworth’s language in ‘Tithonus’, Tennyson is able to rewrite the relationship between mind and nature, of the self reencountering itself in time, as it appears in ‘Tintern Abbey’. As a result, the later poet seemingly releases himself from a Wordsworthian trope that privileges a psychologised relationship with nature.

Wordsworth remains a vital presence in Tennyson’s major poetry until the end of his career. ‘Crossing the Bar’ was written in October 1889 whilst Tennyson was crossing the Solent, coming, Tennyson was to recall, “‘in a moment”’. It engages with familiar Tennysonian themes – death and what comes after it, the separation that comes with death – as well as with familiar Tennysonian tropes, such as the threshold (both between life and death and between day and evening), and the ‘boundless deep’. The poem also echoes with Wordsworth’s language and phrasing; in coming quickly to Tennyson, the poem reveals an automatic and instinctive recalling of Wordsworth. The ‘tide as moving seems asleep / Too full for sound or foam’ responds to Wordsworth’s ‘Elegiac Stanzas’ (1807). Writing as if his ‘had been the Painter’s hand’ (l. 13) to ‘express what then I saw’ (l. 14) Wordsworth’s speaker says of Peele Castle: ‘A Picture had it been of lasting ease / Elysian quiet, without toil or strife; / No motion but the moving tide, a breeze, / Or merely silent Nature’s breathing life’ (ll. 25-8). Wordsworth’s ‘moving tide’ in Tennyson becomes a ‘tide as moving seems asleep’, as the barely susceptible ‘motion’ of the tide in ‘Elegiac Stanzas’ reaches stasis. Tennyson’s speaker hopes to be carried home for one last time on his sleeping tide, as the stanza itself, in its wave-like rhythm, mimics the action of the tide itself, simultaneously confirming yet undermining the speaker’s wishes.

Tennyson thus reveals himself equally as reliant on the ‘Old Bard’ in 1889 as he is in any of his earlier poems. It is through Wordsworth that Tennyson is able to anchor himself as poet, Poet Laureate and Victorian cultural icon. If, as Arnold suggests, Tennyson overtakes Wordsworth in the public imagination from 1842, then this is a transition that is supported and facilitated by Wordsworth himself.



Dr Jayne Thomas is the author of Tennyson Echoing Wordsworth (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019). She is a Postdoctoral Researcher, specialising in Romantic influences in Victorian poetry. She received her PhD from Cardiff University in 2014. Her article ‘Tennyson’s “Tithonus” and the Revision of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey’” appeared in Connotations: A Journal for Critical Debate in 2017. She has also published book chapters on the Anglo-Irish author George Moore in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

Childhood, Nature, Light and Sound:
Wordsworth and Mahler

by Fred Blick

There is a rewarding connection between William Wordsworth’s literary work and Gustav Mahler’s musical compositions. They were both important exponents of Romanticism. Romantic artists throughout the nineteenth century were identifiable as being concerned with the pleasures, fears and pains of individuals and their relationship with Nature. I intend to show that the philosophical and artistic legacies of the fundamentally like-minded Wordsworth and Mahler are very relevant to the twenty-first century.

Sadak in search of the waters of oblivion, by John Martin (1812)

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was an Austrian, late Romantic conductor and composer of music, born about ninety years after the births of the English literary pioneers of Romanticism, Wordsworth and Coleridge. The most powerful influences upon Mahler and his preceding composers of the 19th century were the 5th and 6th Symphonies of the early Romantic, Beethoven (both these symphonies were premiered in 1808). These works symbolised dramatically the struggles, anxieties and joys of the individual in the ‘one’ environment of Nature.


Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler


The phrase ‘the one Life was used by Coleridge in ‘The Eolian Harp’, a poem in his 1796 Poems On Various Subjects. The sensing of motion, light, sound and music were for him key factors of that ‘one Life’. Coleridge wrote:

O! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light, ….
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument. ( ll. 26-33)

A most striking idea in these lines is “A light in sound, a sound like power in light” which implies a bond between motion, light and sound. Wordsworth had already adopted this combination in Descriptive Sketches (1791-2) when he wrote “He views the sun uplift his golden fire, / Or sink, with heart alive like Memnon’s lyre”. He was probably recalling Erasmus Darwin’s recent note of 1791, “The statue of Memnon …. is said for many centuries to have saluted the rising sun with cheerful tones, and the setting sun with melancholy ones”. The profound influence of light can be observed in Coleridge’s ‘Shurton Bars’, his ‘This Lime Tree Bower’ as well as in Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’, ‘Rainbow’ and his ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’, and elsewhere in their works.

Recollections of early childhood’s first instinctive impressions, both joyful and fearful, were seen by both Wordsworth and Mahler as part of a continuity or infinitude, in either pantheistic pre-existence and renewal, or in birth and Resurrection. In The Prelude (ll. 604-5) Wordsworth asserted “Our destiny, our being’s heart and home, / is with infinitude and only there”. Further, both were interested in the combination of childhood, music and light. In 1806 Wordsworth wrote ‘The Power of Music’ about a street musician who is “a centre of light”, charming all who hear him (including a mother who “dandles her Babe to the sound”), but whose music is ignored by the passing and roaring traffic. More generally, in 1828 he wrote ‘On the Power of Sound’. He seems to assert there, through aspects of the myths of Orpheus, Amphion, and Pan, how the power of the mind’s response to music becomes a means to conquer time, space and death i.e. as a key to infinitude. Connecting sound with Light, he writes:

A Voice to Light gave Being; ….
The trumpet (we, intoxicate with pride,
Arm at its blast for deadly wars)
To archangelic lips applied,
The grave shall open, quench the stars.

He had shown in the preliminary Argument of this same poem his interest in and understanding of Pythagorean musical theory. It commences “Thy functions are ethereal.” and he goes on to summarise the theme of Stanza 12 as “The Pythagorean theory of numbers and music, with their supposed power over the motions of the universe.” Speaking of music’s ‘one life’, the stanza reads:

By one pervading spirit
Of tones and numbers all things are controlled, ….
With everlasting harmony (ll. 177-184, my bolding).

In ‘Tintern Abbey’ the “one life” is seen associated with harmony, joy and light:

Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things. ….
…. a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. (ll. 40-50 and 97-104)

There is ample evidence that Mahler’s music was much concerned with childhood, Nature and light. His work is filled with childhood recollections, both pleasant or fearful. In a psychiatric session with Sigmund Freud the traumatised Mahler recalled that as a child he ran screaming into the house in agony to the strains of a hurdy-gurdy playing outside. He endured the deaths of eight of his own siblings, which experience, not unexpectedly, made him conscious of the deaths of children generally. This led him to compose in 1901-4 his orchestral song settings of five of Ruckert’s 1833-4 Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). In a more cheerful vein, he recalled from childhood bugle calls and military bands from a military garrison near to his home in Iglau, as well as coach horns or post-horns, folk songs and dances in the town square.

The first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (1887-8) is full of the sounds of Nature and of seeming bursts of light which were to persist in his later symphonic works. Das Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn) is a set of folk poems, two dozen of which Mahler set to music or incorporated as movements in his Symphonies No.s 2, 3, and 4. Drawing on Das Knaben Wunderhorn , Symphony No. 2 (also known as ‘The Resurrection Symphony’, 1888-94) ends with “Urlicht!”, a child’s fervent hope for the light of everlasting, transcendent renewal:

‘Urlicht!’ (Primal Light)

O little red rose,
Man lies in greatest need,
Man lies in greatest pain.
Ever would I prefer to be in heaven.
Once I came upon a wide road,
There stood an Angel who wanted to turn me away.
But no, I will not be turned away!
I came from God, and will return to God,
The loving God who will give me a little light,
To lighten my way up to eternal, blessed life!

Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Alte deutsche Lieder, Volume 1 (1806)

Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Alte deutsche Lieder, Volume 1 (1806)

This idea of the child’s view of the Light of Heaven is similar to the uplifting view in Wordsworth’s ‘Rainbow’ and the “glory” sensed by the “Child of Joy” in his ‘Immortality Ode’:

There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore: (‘Ode’, 1- 6)

The sequence of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 (1896) centres on the place of “Me”, in Nature:

‘Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In’
‘What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me’
‘What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me’
‘What Man Tells Me’
‘What the Angels Tell Me’
‘What Love Tells Me’

He originally envisioned a seventh movement, ‘Heavenly Life’ (alternatively, ‘What the Child Tells Me’), but he eventually dropped this. He used it instead in his Symphony No. 4 which, again, is much concerned with Nature and the joys and fears of childhood. The last movement in Symphony No. 4 (1899-1900), ‘The Heavenly Life’,” is another song from ‘The Boy’s Magic Horn’ – ‘Das himmlische Leben’ – a child’s vision of danger and of the eternity of Heaven in which laughing and dancing and joy (like that described in Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’) play a prominent part. Clearly, Mahler portrayed childhood’s recollections of light, joy, fear and pain in his music, just as Wordsworth had done in the Prelude and other poems.

Mahler’s ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ (‘The Song of the Earth’, 1908/9) is one of his last and greatest works. It is a song-symphony, a setting of ancient Chinese verse, which captures a vision of natural, earthly beauty and of Man’s pleasures and pains, enhanced or alleviated by the company of friends drinking together amidst music, light and water-mirrored scenes. The moving and more personal last section, ‘Abschied’ (‘Farewell’), is not only about parting and death but also hope, envisioned in eternal light and infinitude:

The dear earth everywhere blossoms in spring and grows green anew! Everywhere and forever blue is the horizon!
ever … ever … (the last words of “Abschied”).

The parallels between Mahler’s and Wordsworth’s Romantic themes and motivations, as set out above, are now clear. Further, both Wordsworth and Mahler were traumatised in childhood by fearful experiences and by the deaths of children and adults. The works of each were affected thereby.

One may fairly ask whether such parallels and motivations are particularly relevant to our own times. I suggest that they are for the following reasons. The factors at play in the early 1800s, the early 1900s, and in the first two decades of the 2000s, are similar in many ways. The late 1700s and the early 1800s were times of rapid change and progress in science, technology and industrialisation, which many, including Wordsworth and Coleridge, found very disturbing. Their friend Humphry Davy had been deeply involved in new, electro-chemical experiments and discoveries involving Light as the suspected motive-force of life. Davy had said “A worshipper of Nature is a worshipper of Light”. Oxygen, a product of light had, with photosynthesis, been discovered about two decades earlier.

Mahler also lived in a time of fast-developing technology. Before he died in 1911, the gramophone and the cinema had captured lifelike sounds and light. Motor vehicles trundled the roads. Aeroplanes and Zeppelins zoomed overhead. Skyscrapers pierced the sky in New York while he was conducting there. Weapons of death and destruction, such as gas, machine-guns, long-range guns and searchlights had been perfected, soon to wreak havoc in the dreadful war which was to break out in just over three years. Like Wordsworth in his own time, many of Mahler’s fellow intellectuals feared what was just around the corner.

Today, digital technology has speeded up communication and discovery in all the sciences and engineering, in previously undreamt-of ways, bringing new individual joys and conveniences, but terrible, overarching mass anxieties about global control and destruction.

In such fast-changing times individuals, and especially artists, tend to cling to and recollect the continuities of Nature, as did Wordsworth, Mahler and other Romantics.

The final scene of Death in Venice (1971)


In 1971 Luchino Visconti directed a film of Thomas Mann’s 1911/12 novella Death in Venice, adapting it controversially to Mahler’s music. Mann had written about the death of a writer named Aschenbach, though it is clear he had Mahler in mind. It is striking that Mann and Visconti should both end their pieces with their heroes’ tortured and dying visions of a beautiful boy, standing alone in the sea and beckoning towards the light of the sky; like an ancient statue of Memnon responding to the eternal music of light – an Adagietto of love and infinitude.



Fred Blick is an independent scholar from a multi-disciplinary background. He has published a number of essays over the past twenty years; not only ‘Wordsworth’s Dark Joke in ‘The Barberry-Tree’’ in Romanticism journal in October 2014 and ‘Flashing Flowers and Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’’ in the Wordsworth Circle Journal in 2017, but also innovative essays in peer-reviewed academic journals worldwide on the subjects of the sonnets of William Shakespeare and of Edmund Spenser.

The ‘Rock of Names’

by Ian O. Brodie

Behind and above the Museum at William Wordsworth’s Grasmere home, Dove Cottage, we find the celebrated, perhaps even infamous, Rock of Names, also known as ‘Sara’s Rock’. This reconstructed slab of a Lakeland volcanic outcrop used to be found, in situ, around half-way between the homes of the Wordsworths in Grasmere and that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who lived for a time in Keswick., This small rocky outcrop above the eastern lake shore of Thirlmere, alongside the old turnpike road, marked a not infrequent meeting place for the friends, and is marked by their initials:

W. W.

M. H.

D. W.

S. T. C.

       J. W.

S. H.



The names are, of course, William Wordsworth, Mary Hutchinson, Dorothy Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Wordsworth, and Sara Hutchinson. The obvious omission is Coleridge’s wife, also named Sara.

Painting of the Rock by Harry Goodwin. Courtesy of the Trustees of Dove Cottage.


So how did this slab of roadside rock come into being?

It’s possible the carving took place over a period of time, starting in 1802. On May 4th 1802, Dorothy noted, ‘We parted from Coleridge at Sara’s Crag after having looked at the Letters which C. carved in the morning. I kissed them all. Wm deepened the T with C.’s penknife.’ Around the same time Coleridge himself wrote ‘Cut out my name & Dorothy’s over the S.H. at Sara’s Rock.’

In other words, the first initials to be cut were those of Sara Hutchinson and were the work of Coleridge. Sara was his unrequited love and he inscribed her initials just as people have done on trees for hundreds of years. It also explains why the group always called the crag ‘Sara’s Crag’ or ‘Sara’s Rock’ – it only started to be referred to as the Rock of Names later in the nineteenth century. The friends had already carved their names before: in April 1801 William wrote to his future wife, Mary Hutchinson, ‘You will recollect that there is a gate just across the road, directly opposite the fir grove; this gate was always a favourite station of ours; we love it far more now on Sara’s account. You know that it commands a beautiful prospect; Sara carved her cypher upon one of the bars, and we call it her gate. We will find out another place for your cypher, but you must come and fix upon the place yourself. How we long to see you, my dear Mary.’

Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, a founder of the Wordsworth Society, discussed the Rock in his Literary Associations of the English Lakes of 1894. He noted how hard the volcanic rock was, and commented, “For they were all poets who wrought their initials painfully upon the hard volcanic ash, and graved upon the rock’s smooth breast ‘letters / That once seemed only to express/ Love that was love in idleness’ (the lines are a reference to Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Waggoner’).

Dorothy’s journal has several references to the Rock, and as already noted, William referred to it in his original draft of ‘The Waggoner’:

We worked until the Initials took
Shapes that defied a scornful look. –
Long as for us a genial feeling
Survives, or one in need of healing,
The power, dear Rock, around thee cast,
Thy monumental power, shall last
For Me and Mine! O thought of pain,
That would impair it or profane!
Take all in kindness then, as said
With a staid heart but playful head;
And fail not thou, loved Rock! to keep
Thy charge when we are laid asleep.

Wordsworth recognised that the initials would still remain when he had departed the earth. And they survived thus for the following half-century, protected only by the slow growth of algae, lichens and moss, which as Professor William Knight noted in his The English Lake District as interpreted in the poems of Wordsworth (1878), “secured it from observation, even from the highway.”

However, in the mid-1870s, the city of Manchester drew up plans for a new reservoir at Thirlmere, and a bill was put before parliament. There were several objections to the plan, however, notably from Wordsworth’s son, William, who argued that new reservoir would literally submerge the Rock of Names. However, Cumbrian author John Wilson argued that the carvings weren’t the work of the poets at all, but rather of an eccentric local called John Longmire, whose hobby was stonecutting.


Water engineer G. H. Hill’s plan for the scheme


There were certainly similarities between the carvings on the Rock and known examples of Longmire’s work, and one plausible theory is that Longmire augmented and deepened the original carvings, perhaps adding a more ‘professional’ Roman lettered finish.


Herbert Bell’s photograph of the rock and lettering c1880. Courtesy of the Armitt Library Trustees.


What happened to the rock when Manchester constructed Thirlmere reservoir?

The Manchester Corporation Act was passed in 1879, and the Manchester Water Works committee eventually started construction of the Thirlmere dam in 1890. By this time Canon Rawnsley and his wife were at the heart of the campaign to stop Manchester from destroying the Rock.


Picture of the Thirlmere dam opening ceremony with Canon Rawnsley, who said the prayers, on the extreme left hand side. Picture courtesy of United Utilities.


Nor were the Rawnsleys the only people involved: there had been huge public interest during the parliamentary debate about the Thirlmere scheme, and people were now aware of the Rock’s existence as they had never been before. As a result, Manchester City Council reluctantly gave permission to the Cockermouth-based Wordsworth Institute to remove the rock. As Alderman Harwood wrote, “The fragments containing the initials were preserved, and have been built into a cairn on the solid base of mountain stone, at a point above the new road diversion, in a line with the rock from which they were taken. This was carried out by persons in the neighbourhood.” The local ‘persons’ in question included the Rawnsleys. As the Canon later noted, “The cairn, carefully built, contains only the fragments of certain letters, which are all that we are able to save from the cruel blasting powder of the contractors who wished to quarry the “Rock of Names” for material to make the water-dam.”


The Rawnsley cairn: photo courtesy of Geoff Darrall.

The photograph confirms that only parts of the lettering to have survived intact.


How did the rock fragments leave Thirlmere and come to Grasmere and to be ‘reassembled’ behind the Museum?

In 1984 the cairn’s fragments were ‘spirited’ away to Grasmere. This was a combined effort by the then chairman of the Wordsworth Trust, Jonathan Wordsworth, and Lakeland hotelier Michael Berry, who funded the operation. He told the BBC in 1984 that he’d been inspired to ‘save’ the Rock by reading about it in Dorothy’s Journals. The removal took place with the agreement of the North West Water Authority, who by then owned the Thirlmere site. The fragments were restored and reassembled on a wall above the Wordsworth Trust museum.


What do we see today?

The question which must now be asked is how much of the Rock we see today was actually the work of Wordsworth and Coleridge? Can the panel above Dove Cottage really be the fragments blasted by dynamite by Manchester’s contractors?

The work of breaking up Rawnsley’s cairn was attended by the press and a BBC North-West film team. It shows the contractor using a crowbar and lump hammer to break up the cairn. The fragments were then taken to a stonemasons in Bowness, where the blocks containing the initials were cut into two-inch pieces, laid out in their original order and bonded into one piece. The whole face was then sand-blasted to obtain the uniform appearance we see on site in Grasmere.

Brian Johnson, Michael Berry and Dr Robert Woof at the unveiling ceremony of Sara’s Rock.


All that remains on the original site, just above the A591 at Thirlmere, is a plaque placed close to where the Rock of Names and the ‘cairn’ used to stand. This is at Grid Reference NY320153.

Perhaps the BBC chose a most appropriate title for their 1984 film about the restoration of the Rock: ‘A Marvellous Piece of Illogical English History’. Whatever the current shape and form of Sara’s Rock we see toda,y it seems William’s wish is being met:

And fail not thou, loved Rock! to keep
Thy charge when we are laid asleep.

John Keats and his Publishers

by Colin Silver


There is a degree of scholarly consensus around the notion that John Keats had his first book of poems – Poems 1817 – published ‘on commission’. In today’s terms we would say the book was self-published, that Keats personally paid for all of the work involved in its production and marketing. Keats was, of course, destined to become one of our very greatest writers so we may wonder why he did not attract a ‘conventional’ publishing contract, and what exactly was the process of publishing on commission.

In early 1817, in London, a former bank clerk called Charles Ollier and his younger brother, James, started a new venture trading as retail booksellers and publishers at 3 Welbeck Street, close to the wealthy residents of Cavendish Square and Portman Square. They also had a circulating library that charged for the loan of books by means of an annual subscription. Ollier had been a friend of the celebrated editor, poet and political agitator Leigh Hunt since 1810, after sending Hunt a theatrical review for one of his newspapers. By early 1817 Leigh Hunt lived in a modest (but elaborately furnished) cottage in the Vale of Health on Hampstead Heath and was the head of a literary set that met there on a regular basis.

Leigh Hunt, engraved by H. Meyer from a drawing by J. Hayter

Leigh Hunt, engraved by H. Meyer from a drawing by J. Hayter

Despite their veneer of residential respectability in Welbeck Street (their neighbours included a pianoforte manufacturer and a surgeon), the Ollier brothers were short of capital to invest in their business, but what they did have was their valuable connection to the Hunt circle. An early client was Hunt’s wealthy friend Percy Bysshe Shelley. He set up an account to buy books for the library of a house he had just taken in Marlow, Buckinghamshire (the library was large and furnished with classical statues) and requested that the Olliers forward his letters to his various friends and contacts in London – for these services the Olliers were paid on account. In return, the Olliers would have Shelley’s works printed, at Shelley’s own cost, by the printer Carew Henry Reynell at 21 Piccadilly.

Shelley’s first publication was a pamphlet that he wanted distributed to newspapers and Members of Parliament. It was called A Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote ‘By the Hermit of Marlow’ and it sold for one shilling. But why would Shelley choose the Olliers for the publication of his pamphlet when they could not even afford the cost of printing it, let alone the cost of acquiring its copyright? Quite simply, Shelley was an unknown author at this time and, considering his potential audience, the ‘C & J Ollier’ imprint gave his writing a degree of credibility that it would otherwise lack.

‘Shelley’s ‘A Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote’, Bodleian Library

As the months passed, the Olliers’ business attracted more of Hunt’s literary friends and acquaintances. They were in discussions with the journalist and essayist William Hazlitt, for example, about publishing his new book, The Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays. This was also printed by Reynell in Piccadilly and it eventually became a best seller.

Charles Ollier was aware that Leigh Hunt had publicly endorsed John Keats as one of a promising new generation of poets so when it became known that Keats was seeking a publisher for his first volume of poetry, Hunt’s influence once more came to the fore and a deal was struck with the Olliers. As had been the case with Shelley, Keats would have to pay the production costs of the book himself. The total was to be around £25, half the annual wages of a porter at the Royal Academy according to one contemporary report and a very large sum for Keats to risk on a speculative publishing venture. The Olliers would provide their imprint and then advertise and sell the book through their shop in Welbeck Street, taking 10% commission on all sales as payment.

Keats needed to employ a printer, and a young man called Charles Richards was approached. He was the brother of Thomas Richards, another friend of Leigh Hunt with whom Keats had recently spent an evening (a ‘whoreson a Night’ according to Keats, possibly referring to the atrocious weather at the time). Whether this was the occasion that Charles Richards was chosen is not known but he, too, had only recently set up in business. His printing workshop was at 18 Warwick Street, Golden Square. It was another respectable business address; his neighbours included a solicitor, an apothecary and a saddler.

In 1817, the typesetting, inking, pressing, drying, folding, stitching and binding of the pages in books were all done by experienced craftsmen, and all done by hand in a protracted and expensive process that had changed little for centuries. The manufacture of paper was more mechanised, but paper was likewise expensive – and watermarked – because it was heavily taxed. The paper that Charles Richards chose (and Keats ultimately purchased) for Poems 1817 bears the watermark ‘John Dickinson 1813’. Dickinson was an early industrialist and inventor with several paper mills in Hertfordshire. Though it was made from rags, mass-produced in a water-powered mill and sold in bulk (taxation rules prevented paper being supplied in less than half a ream, or approximately 250 sheets), his paper was of surprisingly good quality. Today, two hundred and six years after leaving one of Dickinson’s mills, the paper in a copy of Poems 1817 in the British Library is clean and fresh-looking.

Printing was done on heavy wooden presses that had changed little since Johannes Gutenberg began working with moveable type in fifteenth-century Strasbourg – indeed, the presses still owed a lot to the forerunners of the Gutenberg press, the wine and olive presses of the Roman Empire. The recently-introduced ‘Stanhope Printer’ – a weighty, cast iron contraption invented around 1800 by the 3rd Earl of Stanhope – could produce several hundred pages an hour but its cost was beyond the means of most small printers. It is not known from where Charles Richards sourced his printing ink, but he had a choice of several local suppliers – Richard Bell at 25 Brunswick Street, for example, or Blackwell & Colvin at 11 King Street.


Keats at this time lived with his brothers in lodgings in Cheapside near to the famous Bow Bells of St Mary-le-Bow. The Olliers’ office in Welbeck Street was a good half hour’s walk away and Charles Richards’ printing workshop in Warwick Street was a half hour’s walk beyond that, but there’s little doubt that Keats would have visited both to discuss his book and follow its progress through the press. Unfortunately, Charles Richards appears to have lacked experience in the printing of poetry – the little volume was, in fact, produced amateurishly. We know that Keats requested changes to the book as it was actually being typeset (not uncommon during the era of printing by hand) and that the changes were somewhat ineptly carried out. To give just one of many examples, Keats decided to insert a dedication to Leigh Hunt very late in the process (during a gathering of friends at his Cheapside lodgings). The request was transmitted to Charles Richards and the book duly appeared with the dedication, but without a contents page.

As the publication date of his book approached, Keats must have been both excited and nervous – he knew it was going to be a thin little volume with some fine poems in it (On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer had been highly praised by Leigh Hunt and others) but he also knew that some of the poems were among his very earliest (Imitation of Spenser, On Receiving a Curious Shell) and might appear somewhat juvenile. That wasn’t all. To My Brothers, written on his brother Tom Keats’ birthday, was undoubtedly sentimental and a poem called Great Spirits Now On Earth are Sojourning, written for a new friend he had met at Leigh Hunt’s cottage, the ever-controversial painter, diarist and essayist, Benjamin Robert Haydon, could well be taken as sycophantic.

The book, to be printed ‘in boards’, a common and cheap covering, had a selling price of six shillings (at the time of writing, you can buy a copy from a reputable London bookseller for £47,500). It is not known exactly how many copies were planned but the initial run was likely to be around 250 copies with further editions to be printed if demand were sufficient. Keats knew that if the book was a failure, he would find it very difficult to justify his considerable financial outlay. Unlike Shelley, he could not afford to lose such a sum, so any further publication ‘on commission’ would be out of the question.

Poems 1817 duly appeared in March, 1817. What followed is well known today, but was totally unexpected by Keats, Hunt and the Olliers. The book did not sell so George Keats wrote in protest to Charles Ollier and a famously indignant reply was received:-

3 Welbeck Street, 29th April, 1817

Sir, we regret that your brother ever requested us to publish his book… By far the greater number of persons who have purchased it from us have found fault with it in such plain terms that we have in many cases offered to take the book back…


It was fortunate for Keats that a devoted friend, the poet and journalist John Hamilton Reynolds, after writing a glowing review of Poems 1817, did not lose faith in him. Reynolds arranged for his own publisher to publish Keats’ next book and even to provide a little financial assistance to Keats. The publisher was called John Taylor and he was the son of a Nottinghamshire printer and bookseller. He was a refined and forward-thinking man who in 1817 was in partnership with James Hessey at their office, 93 Fleet Street (a street which, even then, had a long history of publishing and printing). Keats’ second book, the beautiful if very long poem, Endymion, was published in 1818 under the Taylor and Hessey imprint and though its 4000 lines are little read today, its first line, ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’, is known to almost everyone.

A letter from Keats to Taylor and Hessey


During a long and distinguished career, John Taylor published such luminaries as Lamb, Coleridge and Hazlitt but, unlike Charles and James Ollier, he never regretted his decision to publish Keats. On the 5th December, 1818 he wrote that Keats was a genius whose gifts will make him ‘the brightest ornament of this Age’.


The author extends his thanks to Mr John Boneham of the British Library’s Rare Books and Music Reading Room for his valuable assistance with the research for this article.

Colin Silver lived for many years near the Lake District. He developed a deep interest in the life and work of the great 19th century art critic John Ruskin whose house overlooked Coniston Water. Following Ruskin, Colin developed a love of the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Romantics, particularly Keats and Shelley. When he moved to Oxfordshire, Colin continued his studies and began writing articles on a freelance basis for the Oxford Times’ Limited Edition magazine. His subjects included Keats, Shelley, Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites, Shakespeare and the celebrated 19th century physician Henry Acland. His first book, John Keats and Benjamin Robert Haydon: The Pursuit of Beauty of Truth is available from Amazon.


A wander through Wordsworth’s ‘Christabel’ notebook

by Rachael Tarrant


A jade-coloured rectangular box is laid delicately and ceremoniously on the table; hidden inside lies another treasure of the Wordsworth Trust. Our little group – enthused students of Romanticism – have already been shown a first-edition copy of the Lyrical Ballads – ‘shown’ because the book is considered so valuable as an object that it is forbidden to touch, let alone open. What wonder could await us in this jade box? To my surprise, and rush of pleasure, the box is opened to reveal something apparently far less grandiose: a red leather travel notebook. Its cover is not simply ‘red’: it is rather a variegated motley of hues, a base rose colour overcome with deep patches of cherry, even shades of mahogany. This patchwork of colour; the book’s rough edges; the white wrinkles creasing its folding flap and webbing across intermittent areas of the cover combine to create the impression of a well-worn, weather-beaten journal. This travel notebook, we are informed, belonged to William Wordsworth. It contains fragments of verse written between 1797 and 1800.


Its cover immediately evokes outside space, just as the nature of the object’s materiality as a travel journal implies that the ideas and thoughts recorded within it have been inspired by the outside world. Having studied William’s poetry for several years now, I am well-versed in his great love of nature; I was thus struck by the idea of William wandering outside with this notebook by his side, ready to jot down poetic musings. Indeed, Rebecca Solnit asserts that “walking was [Wordsworth’s] means of composition. Most of his poems seem to have been composed while he walked and spoke aloud, to a companion or to himself” (Solnit, p 113). The outside form of the travel notebook seems to testify to the common conception of William, and, more generally, of the Romantic Poet, as the dreaming, solitary male musing in nature. Moreover, by considering this object in tandem with Solnit’s work, and Robin Jarvis’s 1997 study of the rise of pedestrianism in the Romantic period, one can understand William’s walking as part of a larger, radical move to explore the environment on foot.

Jarvis explains that walking had been traditionally associated with poverty, unrespectability and possible criminal intent. Though attitudes were to change during the first few decades of the nineteenth century, the increasing number of people choosing to travel on foot across the 1780s-90s were met with considerable prejudice. Jarvis thus sees an element of ‘deliberate social non-conformism, of oppositionality’, and a desire to pave one’s ‘own ideological space’ in the actions of late 18th century walkers. Elsewhere I have argued for William’s active rebellion against the forces of modernisation dominant in his society, seeing The Excursion, in particular, as William’s poetic endeavour to offer an alternative social vision. William thus seems to fit in with Jarvis’s model extremely well, and it is intriguing to consider walking as an intrinsic part of William’s method of conceptualising. My previous reflection on the “slow, ponderous pace of Wordsworth’s The Excursion” (Tarrant, p 5) takes on new meaning upon reading Solnit’s claim that William’s “steps seem to have beat out a steady rhythm for the poetry, like the metronome of a composer” (Solnit, p 114). Comforted by the rhythm of his feet through environmental space, William apparently felt best able to access his ‘own ideological space’ and compose unique poetry.


As a fellow student tentatively turns the leaves of the travel notebook, however, this idea of William as a solitary figure musing in nature is at once complicated. Within its scarlet cover lies the penmanship of many hands. Curator Jeff Cowton explains that the first hand is Dorothy Wordsworth’s, inking a fair copy of Samuel Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’. After several pages, and only part ways through ‘Christabel’, Dorothy’s handwriting stops. Abruptly, we are greeted with scribbled drafts and fragments penned by William. Jeff alerts us to the pin holes piercing these pages, indicating that this section was once stitched up. Following on from this, Mary Wordsworth’s hand resumes the work of inking ‘Christabel’. The inside of the travel book thus represents a meeting place for many voices. The space it evokes becomes one of domesticity, of talking and collaboration. The individual voices ring out in tangible, discernible styles, seen in the varying shapes and slants of the different handwriting and the blots of ink embodying different pressure and grasps. One page catches my eye in particular. An otherwise ordinary page with lines of neatly written poetry beginning half way down it; the page is made notable by a mesh of wild lines scribbled in circular motion, its focused web subsuming a third of the page, with looser, thinner lines sprawling off the edges. Jeff suggests this is the work of the Wordsworth children, gleefully drawing on the left-out notebook. In my mind the picture shifts; William’s solitary musings are rejoined with a chorus of other voices. The voices of his loved ones aid and inspire his creativity: he carries these voices with him as he wanders, composing drafts afoot, and he returns to them to “write the result down later” (Solnit p 113).


As a signifier of collaborative space, the inside of the travel notebook upsets the dominant conception of William as a solitary, self-obsessed figure. As Solnit quotes, William’s contemporaries recognised his focus on the self, with essayist William Hazlitt claiming “he sees nothing but himself and the universe”. Solnit echoes this view, over 150 years on, remarking that William’s “seems a remarkably impersonal life, since he remains reticent on his personal relationships” (p 106). Yet, this faded crimson notebook seems to testify to the importance of personal relationships to William, connecting him to a culture of community, sociability and collaboration. The incorporation of Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’ within William’s notebook further contributes to this conception of the importance of collaboration to William’s creative process. It seems likely that William flicked over Coleridge’s lines whilst musing upon his own. Coleridge’s verse hugs William’s ‘work towards’ famous titles like ‘The Prelude’ and ‘The Ruined Cottage’; I wonder: what might be gained from reading these poems in dialogue with ‘Christabel’ – in replica of their first formation? The placement of William’s drafts, encircled by Coleridge’s completed text, tangibly evokes the idea that poetry has no finite end, even when published. Coleridge’s verse, enmeshed in this space of literary creation, becomes part of the creative process once again. It sparks ideas in another creator’s mind, illustrating that spaces are never singularly marked off, but are always overlapping.


This object appeals to me in a way that even the unanimously revered first-edition copy of the Lyrical Ballads did not. Seeing and handling this object is so unlike the way I typically encounter Romantic period texts. Whether this is through an anthology or a website online, I normally blindly accept the text’s materiality, anaesthetised through repeated encounters with an authoritative presentation – standardized fonts; exact, uniform line spaces; each pristine word confidently declaring its aptitude to stand in the final, publicised version of that text. In contrast, the material presence of Wordsworth’s travel notebook is impossible to ignore. The human, living body, with its actively processing mind, positively leaps off every page. It is a place of testing and mistakes: countless words are scored out with varying degrees of vigour and thickness of line, replaced with better phrases which squeeze in between the lines above and below. It is a place for Dorothy Wordsworth to test her pen, writing ‘amen’ five times horizontally across a particularly intriguing page.


Far from making this page unusable, William’s handwriting accompanies Dorothy’s: his poetic attempts fill the page, writing right up to, and around, Dorothy’s testing. Leafing through the notebook, we also see that several pages have been cut out with a knife, perhaps to be transferred elsewhere. These details contribute to the look and feel of the object as a kind of hodgepodge or patchwork, a place of creativity in action. It offers a rare glimpse into those half-formed first thoughts and inner musings that lie behind the finalised versions of William’s poems. To see William’s drafts is to glimpse at the person behind the idolised figure – a man drawn, perhaps, to the colour red, surrounded and inspired by family, friends and his partner.

The relaxed, even rough, treatment of the travel notebook by the Wordsworths strikes a dramatic, almost amusing, contrast with our student group’s gentle, careful handling of the same. This item, having withstood violent scribbles and even the sharp blade of a knife, is now gingerly cradled by hands that apply the lightest touch to turning its pages. The passing of 200 years, and the reputation of its owners, has ensured the notebook’s status as an object of preservation. Quick musings and jotted-down thoughts become treasured inscriptions on a sacred text. I find myself wondering what William would think of this – of a group of students pouring over and dissecting his mistakes and drafts. It feels like an invasion of private space; this was not a text designed in mind for the public eye. Yet, it is for this very reason that the notebook has made such an impression on me – it evokes the human and imperfect, the work-in-progress rather than the finished product. It is, in fact, somewhat reassuring to see the author of so many magnificent works struggle at times to find the exact words he requires. It has been an encouraging thought whilst composing this paper: to imagine myself sharing in that experimental space of the red leather notebook.


Cowton, Jeff and Simon Bainbridge. 28 August 2015. ‘Why did William Wordsworth cut pages out of his notebooks?’

Garvis, Robin. 1997. Romantic Writing and Pedestrian Travel (Great Britain: Macmillan)

Solnit, Rebecca. 2001. Wanderlust: A History of Walking (London: Verso)

Tarrant, Rachael. 2o19. ‘The Impulse to Intervene: Tempering Accelerated Modernisation in Anna Laetitia Barbauld and William Wordsworth’, (unpublished postgraduate essay for the University of Glasgow), pp. 1-11


Rachael Tarrant holds a first-class honours degree in English Literature from the University of Glasgow. Rachael is currently pursuing her studies into the literature of the 18th and 19th centuries, and is especially fascinated by poetry and poetics. Compelling close-readings in particular bring her genuine joy and excitement, as does spending time with her boyfriend, friends, family and cats.


Chasing Coleridge

by Mark Patterson

It was after 12 noon on 1st August 1802 that Samuel Taylor Coleridge closed the front door of his home, Greta Hall in Keswick, and set off to walk to Buttermere and then Ennerdale, 16 miles to the west. This was the first stage of his planned nine-day walking tour of the Lakes and it’s probable that Coleridge had timed his trip to take advantage of good weather.

The route of Coleridge’s walk. Original map from Cumbria County Council



Certainly, it must have been a dry summer that year because when Coleridge reached the steep top of Newlands Pass, a mile or so above Buttermere, he found that the flow of water in Moss Force waterfall was much reduced. Perhaps pausing just briefly here, Coleridge descended to Buttermere, his half-way mark for the day, had a cup of tea at the Fish Inn, read most of Revelations, and then began the long ascent to the day’s second pass, Floutern Cop, which eventually brought him out over Ennerdale Water. As the light failed he kept walking a few more miles to reach his bed for the night, at the home of a friend-of-a-friend just beyond the village of Ennerdale Bridge.


Ascending to Newlands Pass and Moss Force

I’m describing Coleridge’s movements on this first day in some detail because when I set out to shadow his movements in August 2018 I soon found that I couldn’t match his distance without discomfort. In fact, having plodded up to Newlands Pass with a heavy rucksack on a hot shadeless day, and then down the other side to Buttermere, packed out with holiday-makers, I was happy to call a halt for the day by mid-afternoon. Ennerdale, Scale Force, Floutern Tarn and the magnificent wild glacial landscape leading up to Floutern Cop could wait until the next day.

Where Coleridge had walked 15 miles in a long day, I did eight and took the rest of the day off, bed secured at the youth hostel. Over the next week or so a few of my other daily walking distances also fell short of the Coleridgean ideal. Where Coleridge walked the last 16-mile stretch from Ambleside to Keswick in a day, pausing at Dove Cottage to make a meal, I stopped at Grasmere for the night and did the final 12 the next day. Was I ashamed of myself? A little. But, in truth, I wasn’t strictly seeking to replicate, step-by-step, Coleridge’s journey. That, after all, had already been done by the late Keswick rock climber and journalist Alan Hankinson, whose book Coleridge Walks the Fells (Ellenbank Press, 1991) recounts his attempt to follow the poet’s exact route, see what he saw and stay where he stayed. I was on a different mission, which was to gain a measure of insight into how Coleridge, and his circle, managed to regularly walk long distances with so little preparation or apparent discomfort. In essence, the subject of the walk, and my related research, can be summed up as, How did the Romantics Walk So Far with So Little? Their walking clothes, their food, their accommodation, the state of the roads and trails – this is what interests me.

As an inveterate long distance walker I find it impossible not to admire Coleridge. He may have been a poor husband and a frequently absent father, but he was in his element on the trail – intensely observant, curious, daring and blessed with tremendous physical stamina. Sixteen miles was his longest daily distance in the 1802 Lakes tour but he could do around twice that distance. In Scotland later that year he achieved an average of 30 miles a day (268 miles in nine days, at one point walking barefoot after accidentally burning his shoes at a fire). Earlier in the West Country he walked 90 miles in two days. Walking long distances over rough terrain in the dark held no terror for him. Nor did rock climbing, as we know from his celebrated descent of Broadstand on Scafell and frequent ascents of waterfalls. And that he was confident in his own speed and route-finding is shown by the fact that he often didn’t set out until after lunch. On at least two occasions on the nine-day tour of the Lakes, at Keswick and Eskdale, he wasn’t out of the door until after midday. Faced with a long day’s walk that might end in the dark, most of us try to set off after an early breakfast.


But Coleridge, while exceptional in so many ways (the most exceptional man of his generation, according to his publisher Joseph Cottle), was also typical of his circle and generation in the sense that these were people for whom walking was a daily necessity – and, increasingly, a sensual pleasure. William and Dorothy Wordsworth’s weekly trips to the post office in Ambleside were typical of their utilitarian journeys from Grasmere. Where many people in the western world today balk at the idea of walking a mile to anywhere, they regularly made six-mile round trips to collect their mail. On one occasion Dorothy mistakenly got to Ambleside in the morning, forgetting that the mail arrived in the evening, so walked back to Grasmere and returned to Ambleside at night. That was 12 miles just to get their mail. Of course, they walked because they had to; at that stage, living at Dove Cottage, they rarely hired a carriage. But what sets the Romantic generation off from previous ones was their delight in walking for its own sake, and their written articulation of that delight. Dorothy, no slacker herself when it came to distance walking, walked at every opportunity. That is abundantly evident in her Grasmere Journal and also the lesser-known journals of trips in Scotland and Europe. “I, being never at home, but where I can ramble on foot…” she wrote in her account of a tour of Switzerland in 1821.


But chief of the walkers among the ‘Wordsworth circle’ was Coleridge. How did he do it? Well, he travelled light – very light. Setting off from Greta Hall in 1802 he carried the shank of a besom broom for a walking stick, and a knapsack containing a spare shirt, cravat, two pairs of stockings, a book, paper and pens, tea and sugar, a night cap and an oilskin of some kind. So, with the shirt he was wearing, he had only two shirts for a journey of around 100 miles. He ate in inns but took no extra food or any cooking equipment.

His map, such as it could be called, and sketched on a single page in his journal, was really an illustrated aide memoire to the places he’d already visited or planned to visit on the coming tour. It wasn’t the kind of map that would help him get unlost with the aid of a compass. But then, he took no compass anyway. Yet Coleridge lost his way only once, on the way from Ulpha to Broughton Mills, and a local man soon put him on the right path.


There is a suggestion that he asked Wasdale shepherds for advice about the route up to Scafell but at no stage did he hire a mountain guide, which was a normal practice for gentlemen venturing into high places in those days. It wasn’t as if Coleridge didn’t have experience of using guides as he and Joseph Hucks hired two during their walking tour of Wales in 1794. It was the first guide, a lad of 17, who persuaded them not to indulge their mad idea of climbing Snowdon at 11pm. Eight years later, in the Lakes, Coleridge was still counting his pennies and not hiring guides may have been down to the need to economise.


All told, with just a coat and two shirts, lacking shelter, portable food or drink or the means to make fire, Coleridge appears to have been dangerously under-equipped for a nine day walk around the Lake District – judged by today’s safety-first standards, that is.


In his favour, he knew people and had connections in the area to secure beds and meals. On three occasions, in Ennerdale, Eskdale and Wasdale, he stayed overnight with friends-of-friends or people he had stayed with before. On a fourth occasion, while heading home to Keswick via Clappersgate, near Ambleside, he stayed over night at Brathay Hall, home of his friend and former pupil Charles Lloyd. At other times Coleridge relied on inns along the route for his bed and meals. And we know from his journal and letters a little about what he ate and drank. Buttermere: tea. St Bees: a glass of gin and water. Bonewood, near Gosforth: a pint of beer. Nether Wasdale: a “good dish” of tea (from his own stock). Eskdale: tea and “some excellent Salmonlings” brought from Ravenglass by his host. Broughton Mills: oatcake and cheese, with a pint of ale and two glasses of rum and water sweetened with preserved gooseberries. Dove Cottage, Grasmere; freshly shelled peas with a rasher of boiled bacon.

Entrance to Charles Lloyd’s former home, Brathay Hall, now a residential centre

Clearly, he didn’t worry about alcohol affecting his navigation skills. Nor did he feel the need to take any supplies of food to sustain his high-energy daily walking regime. In the 1860s, English adventurers such as Edward Whymper, conqueror of the Matterhorn, were sustained by specialist products such as bars of Fortnum & Mason ‘portable soup’, but such things were unknown in Coleridge’s time. In his day walking food meant stuffing everyday food such as bread, cheese or pieces of pork into knapsacks and pockets, as William and John Wordsworth did on their 118-mile walk from Grasmere to Yorkshire in 1800. Yet despite Coleridge’s untiring mileage over rough terrain in the Lakes he made only one brief comment about feeling hungry. This came at the top of Skafell where he wrote a letter to Sara Hutchinson in which he said he was “hunger’d & provisionless”. That was the only confession of want on his nine-day tour.


Hostels and civilian campsites were also unthought of in 1802, although there were inns, of varying standards. In Wales, Coleridge and Hucks encountered bad food, damp sheets and one place that was so stuffy they broke the windows to let air in. In the Lakes the worst place Coleridge admitted to was a “miserable Pot-house” in St Bees, where he slept in his clothes. Yet Coleridge’s willingness to ‘rough it’ (he happily slept in barns on his German walking tour) was an asset at a time when he was not well off. By contrast, it is arguably more difficult to rough it in the countryside today because security concerns and a general fear of strangers means that travellers are corralled into campsites, hostels and hotels. Who today dares ask a farmer for permission to sleep in his or her barn? Interestingly, Coleridge usually didn’t know where he was going to stay each night, trusting, just like many young backpackers do, that he would always find a bed somewhere. Alan Hankinson tried the same approach and got away with it, but only once managed to sleep under the same roof as Coleridge, at the Black Bull in Coniston. Hankinson, while not carrying a tent, food or cooking gear, still carried more weight than Coleridge. I, loaded down with tent, food, stove and gas in preparation for hostels and camping, carried more than Hankinson, which is why it was difficult to match Coleridge’s distances.

The Black Bull, Coniston


In a letter Coleridge once described his gait and walking style as “awkward” and as “indolence capable of energies” but, in contrast to my plodding with a heavy pack, Coleridge must have virtually flown across the fells. Of course, it is not possible now to talk of Coleridge without some acknowledgement of how his thoughts and actions may have been affected by opium addiction. The poet was a ‘user’ by 1802 and would be for many years afterwards. Did opium use suppress his hunger while he was walking? Yet if he was a user on this long walk he made no mention of it in his notes or letters – and he was no stranger to confessing his addiction to those close to him. Walking, it is true, does not magically rid one of drug or alcohol addiction. But it may be that the exuberance of sustained physical effort allowed Coleridge to keep his addiction at bay, even if for just for nine days.


Here then was Coleridge the ideal long-distance walker, a man capable of long daily distances with easy accommodation needs. On top of this, Lakeland residents and visitors must surely be amazed by Coleridge’s apparent immunity to bad weather. Yet only once did he actually experience rain and that was on the descent from Skafell to Eskdale when a thunderstorm caused him to seek shelter in the lee of a large rock near the river Esk. One brief rainstorm in nine days? He was fortunate. In August 1989 a heatwave broke on the very day that Alan Hankinson began his walk. He was soaked from head to foot by the time he reached Buttermere. The 2018 heatwave broke two days into my walk and good weather didn’t resume until the end. The intervening days were all drizzle and mist, and at Wasdale there was heavy rain driven by gale force winds.


Yet even had Coleridge suffered the same ‘Lakes weather’ as the rest of us there is good reason to believe he wouldn’t have packed up and gone home, and that’s because he loved the thrill and challenge of wild, bad weather. Hazlitt described how Coleridge had run bareheaded into a Quantocks thunderstorm to “enjoy the commotion of the elements”, and Coleridge later told how he walked stolidly on into a Lakeland storm for the sheer wild pleasure of it. Even drizzle had an aesthetic benefit as it “exhibits the mountains better than any”, as he told Southey in 1802.

Bad weather coming in across Wastwater in August 2018


One other aspect of the Lakeland landscape meant he could walk quickly and safely, and that was the quiet nature of the roads and tracks. The roads may have been narrow in his day (the single lane which runs past Dove Cottage, a remnant of the original road from Ambleside to Keswick, is a good example) but they were fit for the traffic of the day, when the fastest regular object was the mail coach. Itinerant beggars, tradespeople, horses and carts – this was the usual traffic on the Lakeland roads, as we know from Wordsworth’s poetry. Other routes trodden by Coleridge were basically as yet unpaved tracks. Contemporary prints show that the route along the side of Wastwater, for example, was still a rough track; neither was there yet a road fit for coaches along the Newlands valley to Buttermere; nor over the moors between Eskdale and Ulpha, a route which Coleridge found gloomy.


Across the moors to Ulpha


Contrast that with today’s situation, where most of Coleridge’s route is followed by busy roads and where walkers risk their lives. Even the narrow lane running along Eskdale, a route which Coleridge followed after descending from Skafell, is dangerous because of the volume of local and holiday traffic. But there is much worse for walkers than this; a large section of the road between Coniston and Hawkshead, for example, is horrible because of its blind corners and absence of pavements. And who today would willingly walk the fast road from Ambleside to Keswick? All this forces the modern walker to use caution or simply find alternative routes. If you want to follow Coleridge’s way in its purest, and safest, form you must skip the roads altogether and follow in his footsteps up from Buttermere to Floutern Tarn and over the top to Ennerdale; walk the old ‘coffin route’ from Wastwater to Burnmoor Tarn to Eskdale, not forgetting to ascend Skafell on the way; find his path from Eskdale up to Devoke Water; and tread the old narrow lane north from Ambleside which terminates outside Dove Cottage.


The stone boat house at Devoke Water, mentioned by Coleridge in his notes


The old ‘coffin road’ from Wasdale to Eskdale via Burnmoor Tarn


It is on these well-worn routes that Coleridge the walker can best be imagined. Poor, but with some money in his pockets, travelling light, unweighted by maps, spare food, spare this and spare that, and brought up in a tough physical culture where people walked long distances because they had to, Coleridge the exceptional writer and thinker became Coleridge the exceptional, pioneering, risk-taking, rock-climbing, ultra-lightweight, long-distance backpacker – the polar opposite of today’s cosseted, safety-conscious, expensively clad, leisure walker.



Mark Patterson is a freelance writer and journalist who has worked in newspapers, PR and marketing. He has written two books on Roman archaeology and is currently working on a series of essays and articles exploring various aspects of walking and walking culture including the influence of the Romantics.


When did John Keats die?

by Ian Reynolds


The poet John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five. Most scholars and biographers record that he died at around 11 pm on Friday, February 23rd, 1821, but his gravestone records the date as February 24th. (1)  So which is true? This post will seek to find the answer, and explore how the confusion arose in the first place.


Keats died of what we now know to be pulmonary tuberculosis. The story goes that in early February of 1820 he caught a fever and had a haemorrhage — coughed up blood — and by virtue of his medical training, Keats deemed this was arterial blood, thus signifying what he construed as his ‘death-warrant’. In August 1820, on the advice of his medical professionals, it was proposed that the best outcome for Keats would be to move abroad to somewhere with a milder climate. Funds were subsequently raised and in September he set off by sea bound for Italy, together with his friend the painter Joseph Severn. They arrived in Rome via Naples in mid November 1820. It is the Joseph Severn letters to others in the Keats circle, and later memoirs that are largely relied upon to record the tragic events leading up to his death.


He was buried on Monday February 26th at the Cemitero Acattolico (2)—the so-called Protestant Cemetery in Rome — the burial registry has the following entry:

John Keats, English Poet
Died the 24th of February, 1821

The gravestone reads:

On the fifty-eighth anniversary of his death an engraved plaque was placed in the wall of 26, Piazza di Spagna near to the window of the room in which Keats died:


Here is a brief summary (3) of other erroneous dates of John Keats’s death:

In the preface of later editions of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, Author of Endymion, Hyperion, etc, originally published in July 1821, it states that “John Keats died of a consumption, in his twenty-fourth year on the 27th December 1820.”

Leigh Hunt in Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries (1828) repeats the date as December 27th 1820.

Sir Vincent Eyre in ‘The Old Stones of Rome’ a lecture, given in Rome in 1875, has the date as February 21st 1821.

GC Williamson in The Keats Letters, Papers and Other Relics forming the Dilke Bequest (1914) has it as February 20th 1821.

Sir BW Richardson’s The Disciples of Aesculapius’(1900) has February 3rd 1821.

William Sharp in Century Magazine (1906) has February 27th or 28th 1821.

In 1861 Severn was considering a revised inscription for the gravestone. He first wrote Feb 26th but later changed this to Feb 24th (4).


For the purpose of this discussion it is best to ignore all of the above erroneous dates as they are clearly all obviously wrong (save for Severn’s Feb 24th). They are mentioned only to record the oft-repeated errors that can and did occur. In the immediate aftermath there was confusion because letters between Severn and other members of the Keats circle could take many weeks to reach England from Rome. When these actual letters eventually did arrive they were eagerly passed around, often being transcribed by one person, and given to another. Transcription in this context means that the original handwritten letter is copied by another person; sometimes errors in the original are ‘corrected’ in the copy, or if words are illegible the person doing the transcription will substitute or add what he/she thinks what the word, or intent was. It logically follows that the more transcriptions there were, the greater the chance for errors to creep in — particularly when we have subsequent transcriptions of transcriptions. Some material can become very inaccurate, especially in the case when the original letter has been lost, and all that’s left is a transcription.


To further compound the question of accuracy, some of the key witnesses, namely Joseph Severn and Charles Armitage Brown, wrote memoirs and letters in relation to Keats, often many years later. Some had transcription and factual inaccuracies which were later amended and embellished, including, for example, William Sharp’s, Life and Letters of Joseph Severn of 1892 (5). Brown’s Life of John Keats was not published until 1937, but his papers which he wrote in 1836-7 were included in Richard Monckton Milnes, later Lord Houghton’s, Life, Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats published in 1848 (6). Sharp’s biography of Severn became a primary reference source for many biographers and scholars, including Sir Sidney Colvin (1920), Amy Lowell (1925), Sheila Birkenhead (1944 and 1965), Aileen Ward (1963), Walter Jackson Bate (1963), and Robert Gittings. All borrowed from Sharp and Milnes. According to Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs, edited by Grant F Scott, Severn’s memoir ‘My Tedious Life’ was the main source for Sharp’s narrative of Keats’s final months in Rome (7). This memoir was written in 1873—six years before Severn’s death and fifty-two years after Keats’s.


Joseph Severn in 1849, from a drawing by his daughter


To return to the date of John Keats’s death. But what is death? For the purpose of this discussion the medical determination of death is the irreversible cessation of heartbeat and breathing (cardiopulmonary death) and the irreversible cessation of the brain (brain death). A review of the correspondence from Rome follows. Note in particular the circumstances and the reported timings leading up to the moment of Keats’s death: the actual time is critical.

Milnes records a Severn journal entry for February 27th, 1821 (8)

Feb.27th — He is gone; he died with the most perfect ease —he seemed to go to sleep. On the twenty-third, about four, the approaches of death came on “Severn — I —lift me up — I am dying —I shall die easy; don’t be frightened — be firm, and thank God it has come.” I lifted him up in my arms. The phlegm seemed boiling in his throat, and increased until eleven, when he gradually sunk into death, so quiet that I still thought he slept…

Amy Lowell (1925) quotes from Sharp (9)

He is gone. He died with the most perfect ease. He seemed to go to sleep. On the 23rd, Friday, at half past-four, the approaches of death came on “Severn—I—lift me up—for I am dying. I shall die easy. Don’t be frightened! Thank God it has come”. I lifted him up in my arms and the phlegm seemed boiling in his throat. This increased until eleven at night, when he gradually sank into death so quiet, that I still thought he slept.

Note that the Lowell letter differs slightly from the previous Milnes letter, notably the time of 4 versus 4.30, when the approaches of death, allegedly came on. There is a further unfinished letter dated March 3rd 1821 (Keats Shelley Memorial Bulletin, 1, p 43) (10)

—at ½ past four he said—to lift him up in bed—I kept holding him until 11 o’clock, when he died in my arms.

In a letter dated March 6th 1821, Severn writes to John Taylor (Keats’s friend and publisher) to confirm the events of the preceding days. The text is similar in places to the unfinished March 3rd letter (11):

—23rd at 4 oclock afternoon—the poor fellow bade me lift him up in bed—he breathed with great difficulty—and seemed to lose the power of coughing up the phlegm…” “…I held him in my arms—the mucus was boiling within him—it gurgled in his throat—this increased—but yet he seem’d without pain—his eyes look’d upon me with extreme sensibility but without pain—at 11 he died in my arms—

Keats on his Deathbed, by Joseph Severn. The inscription at the bottom reads “’28 Janry 3 o’clock mng. Drawn to keep me awake – a deadly sweat was on him all this night”



I have somewhat laboured the point about why February 23rd became the widely accepted view of the date John Keats died, even though ‘Feb 24th 1821’ is recorded on the gravestone and elsewhere. There are two factors to consider here. Firstly, the convention of Roman timekeeping prevalent at the time of his death; specifically the fact that any time after dusk would be attributed to the following day. In other words, the new day would begin at 6pm (12). So according to Roman convention, if Keats died after 6pm it would be deemed to be on the 24th, and not the 23rd. But there is significant doubt about the February 23rd date irrespective of Roman  timekeeping. In Severn’s letter of February 27th he writes “The phlegm seemed boiling in his throat, and increased until eleven, when he gradually sunk into death, so quiet that I still thought he slept…’. The obvious question is— at that point was he sleeping, dying or already dead?


Severn wrote that he had not slept for four, five or nine days (depending on which letter you read). He must have been a total emotional wreck — exhausted and worn-out by the grim reality of the situation he found himself in. Dr James Clark, the physician who attended Keats in Rome, was not present at the alleged time of death. It is not recorded if he visited 26 Piazza di Spagna between the hours of 11 and midnight on February 23rd, but he could have done, because he lived directly across from the house and had been routinely seeing Keats on a daily basis, reportedly often up to four to five times per day. Joseph Severn was the only witness. His is the only testimony.


Summary and conclusion

When questioned in later years about the date of Keats’s death, Joseph Severn would reply that the date on the gravestone was “the most reliable” record (13). That date is February 24th 1821.  In a letter written in 1937, Sir William Hale-White, head of Guys Hospital in London for many years and author of Keats as Doctor and Patient (Oxford University Press, 1938) wrote

It appears that at eleven at night on February 23rd Keats was dying. Whether he lingered until past midnight before his pulse stopped, it is impossible to say but it may have been that he did and thus the actual date of death became February 24th.
I much doubt whether we shall ever get any conclusive evidence as to the exact time at which his pulse stopped, but the entry in the Register of Burials in the Protestant Burial Ground in Rome is strongly in favour of the 24th. (14)


Perhaps we should leave it there: ‘The end came near to the midnight between the 23rd and the 24th of February, 1821’; this is according to the English clock time — by Roman time the date was the 24th.





Ian Reynolds is a retired mechanical engineer who lives in Oxfordshire. He has a personal interest in those associated with the Keats-Shelley Circle, and poets of the Romantic period, especially John Keats. He is unaffiliated. Ian’s other interests include reading, listening to music, particularly rock and jazz, road cycling and wine.








1. Everest, K. (2006, May25). Keats, John (1795–1821), poet. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: et al

2. John Keats is located in Tomb no. 159, Gravestone S31, (Zone A, Plot 51) of the Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners in Testaccio, Rome. For further information see http://www.cemeteryrome.it

3. Rollins, Hyder E, The Keats Circle: Letters, (2nd Ed 1965), Cambridge MA: V1, 107, fn5, p 225-226

4. Pershing, James H, ‘John Keats: When Was He Born and When Did He Die?’, PMLA, Vol.55, No3 (Sep., 1940)

5. Sharp, William The Life and Letters of Joseph Severn, (1892), London: Sampson Low, Marston and Co

6. Milnes, Richard H, Life, Letters and Literary Remains, of John Keats (1848), Edward Moxon, London: hereafter called ‘Milnes’

7. Scott, Grant F, Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs (2005), Aldershot/Burlington VT: Ashgate,: “My Tedious Life” included in entirety pp 625-664

8. Milnes, V2, p 93

9. Sharp, p 94

10. Pershing, p 806-807

11. Rollins, V1, 107, pp 223-228

12. Rollins, V1, fn 5, p 225-226

13. Pershing, p 810

14. Pershing, p 813


Further Reading

For further information on William Sharp’s process of writing see Scott, Grant F, ‘Writing Keats’s Last Days: Severn, Sharp and Romantic Biography’ Studies in Romanticism, Vol 42, No1 (Spring, 2003), pp 3-26

Davies, Michael (ed), Chantler, Ashley (ed), Shaw, Philip (ed); Literature and Authenticity 1780-1900: Essays in honour of Vincent Newey, (2011), Farnham/Burlington VT: Ashgate: see in particular pp 39-49 ‘Undefinitive Keats’ by Nicholas Roe

Setting William Blake to music

by Joseph Andrew Thompson

My introduction to William Blake came through a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience, lent to me by a high-school friend. Over the course of a few weeks, I read it through and through, enchanted by its elegant simplicity. Visually, it had the magic of a book of fairy tales, yet its perfect verse – a mix of hymn, nursery rhyme, and ballad – spoke to the mature listener. This was a book from a different era, with its own norms, but in mine, I had not yet encountered such a juxtaposition. I admittedly became a ‘Blake-head’, and though I went on to immerse myself in his extraordinary body of work, I have since returned again and again to this songbook with great joy.


As it does to so many Blake admirers, ‘A Poison Tree’ has always stood out to me amongst the collection’s poems. Blake placed the moral at the beginning, in a uniquely metered quatrain that serves as a rhyming proverb, complete even if read apart from the rest of the poem. Its meaning is simple: Speak your anger and it will dissipate, but bury it and it will grow. More so, voicing your anger is natural and perhaps preferred when directed at friends. With enemies, though, the opposite is true. It is from this second scenario that the dark narrative of the poem develops, laden with metaphor. In short, it relays that suppressed wrath can grow like a tree, which may one day bear a poisonous, yet tempting, fruit. Around this tree the fates of the speaker and his foe intertwine. Though Blake spoke to the conscience of his own time and culture, what makes ‘A Poison Tree’ appealing to so many is his use of universal imagery. With basic, easily recognized, and relatable symbols (friend, foe, anger, tears, fears, forbidden fruit, etc.), Blake tells an intriguing parable that is left open to interpretation. It is applicable across all cultures and eras, conveying a struggle that is common to all mankind.

In the title of the book, Blake refers to the poems as ‘Songs’, and it has been said he would at times sing them in social gatherings to the delight of those in attendance. Indeed, the opening song, ‘Introduction’, contains these couplets:

Piping down the valleys wild
Piping songs of pleasant glee, (1-2)

Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe,
Sing thy songs of happy chear: (9-10)

And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear. (19-20)


That these are works of a musical nature is evident, and as a composer, I have always found it hard to read this collection without imagining the kinds of melodies Blake might have paired with his words. In keeping with his storybook design, I hear them as simple, memorable songs, at times sweet, and at others, sinister. They might be sung in a playful voice, and when accompanied, illustrated by a vivid musical texture.


It is in this manner that I therefore approached the poem, when, while writing and recording my band Astralingua’s upcoming album Safe Passage, I elected to set ‘A Poison Tree’ to music. I used a basic ABAB form, alternating keys, and wrote the melody to be catchy, slightly taunting, and with enough space and pause throughout for the consideration of each line. Imagining the song as  something that a band of minstrels might play before a royal court – a theatre piece of sorts – I coloured it with mandolins and lutes, hoping to conjure in the mind of the listener a sense of the Old World that serves as the setting for many a fairy tale. I aimed for a version that would be fun and entertaining, yet still contain a deep message for the King to ponder.


Though only four stanzas long, ‘A Poison Tree’ is a poem of many layers, and fits well within the overarching themes of Safe Passage. The album discusses mortality, isolation, struggle, and the movement between worlds, all the while asking the questions: What is Safe Passage? From where to where is it granted? Who or what provides it? Who denies it? ‘A Poison Tree’ drives further this enquiry with its enigmatic tale of wrath. Is the narrator consumed or satisfied by his anger? Does the unsuspecting foe simply fall prey to a the narrator’s trap, or is it his own corrupt thirst for the ‘shiny apple’ that is his undoing? For what else is this narrative a metaphor? Finally, the duality of worlds operating within the poem – that of the schemer and that of the deceived – are mirrored in the other songs of Safe Passage, which intimate dreams within dreams and parallel realities dissolving into each other.

It has pleased me to no end that I should find such occasion to incorporate something of Blake’s in my own creative work. It is a union, an homage, and the continuation of tradition. Most importantly, it spreads even further the work of a great visionary Master. The world needs more poets and men like William Blake and with this adaption I hope to delight those that know him and introduce him to those that yet do not.   Enjoy!


Astralingua’s upcoming album Safe Passage is released on March 8th, 2019. It is now available for pre-order at Bandcamp.  

Joseph Andrew Thompson is a composer, musician, writer, and the creative mind behind the duo Astralingua. With a background in classical music and a keen interest in the spaces between this world and the next, he draws inspiration from classic literature, folklore, philosophy, astronomy, and the musics of old. Wandering the Land of Nod, he is ever at work on the next song. www.astralingua.com 



Nice ink, Keats

by Gareth Evans


An ephemeral post seems to be a good place to talk about doodles. In their purest form, you may have little idea when you start how either will finish. The youthful Keats’s marginal sketches in his 1815/1816 medical notebook are more purposeful than this but were nevertheless created to fill some unexpected vacuum of time. By any other hand they would be overlooked, however, this medical student was to become a poet, one who relished meaningful imagery. Together these miniature flower portraits appear like hieroglyphs that have yet to been interpreted. That they are so minute adds to their obscurity, the book itself is only 18.5 by 11 cm, while good graphic reproductions can be hard to access. In fact, I only first started thinking seriously about the sketches when I saw the original on display at the Keats House Museum some time ago.


Their instant of creation seems to be a hiatus in the course of a lecture during Keats’s study at the United Hospitals of Guy’s and St Thomas’. Unlike some other parts of Keats’s existing notes this is clearly not a fair copy, but raw notes taken down in the lecture room. Astley Cooper is a probable candidate for the lecturer, a draw for the Hospital’s prospective students, he came to be known as ‘the greatest surgical teacher in Europe’. The lines of Keats’s writing begin to curve as they move down the page around a hand that held the quick-moving pen with an iron grip. Then, mid- sentence, when an alternative manipulation of a dislocated jaw is about to be revealed, the writing stops.


Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London


Lectures within a hospital that housed the lecturer’s in-patients may have been liable to this sort of interruption. Keats was left in mid-flow with a pen nib quivering with ink. He may have just tapped the ink back into the inkpot before it dried up while the – no doubt mildly frustrated – students waited for any sign of whether the lecture would continue or not. If this indeed was the state of affairs, he seems to have dissipated his nervous energy by the dispatch of some small sketches.


First, he draws a flower, one that could be seen as having elements of both the ambiguous and the exact. The wild pansy (viola tricolor) is a native flower that is not short of cultural and poetical associations. Among the ragbag of names applied to it are heartsease and love-in-idleness. Traditionally some people have seen two, or sometimes three, faces kissing in the outline of the petals. A poetical book-name was added, sometime in the 1500s, from the French pensée (‘thought’).


Scientifically, the wild pansy does not conform to a precise description; the markings on the face of its flower being variable within certain parameters. The outline of the distinctive pansy of Keats’s time was still close to the wild type, called by plant breeders ‘horse-faced’ (always popular in gardens, early 19th-century plant breeders were beginning to bring it into the fold of ‘fancy flowers’ by selection and hybridisation, a process that was to eventually lead to the round-flowered, blousy type familiar to us from garden centres and supermarkets).  Ornate and diverse, the wild pansy has the appearance of being purposefully streaked with pigment. Often the upper petals, or ‘ears’, are purple, also spots can occur near the ‘eye’ of the plant around which there can also be radial streaks, or nectar lines as we now know they are.


As in his poetry, Keats could visually recall and characterise a flower without the need of a model. Interestingly, this species’ natural variability means that he can be accurate while at the same time have some license. Within the outline he added precise strokes to represent the top two petals in horizontal half-moon shapes and a splatter of dots around the central ‘eye’. Also, he characteristically captured what might be called the gesture or posture of the whole plant: in this case the wild pansy’s recognisable ‘chin-up’ flower on a high, articulated stem.


Leigh Hunt’s sister-in-law Elizabeth Kent deemed it an impertinence to describe such a familiar plant: as she says in her Flora Domestica of 1823, they could be had at ‘a nursery, or Covent Garden flower-market, six or more may be had for shilling, all of them covered with flowers and buds’. In terms of the purest contemporary scientific culture the pansy’s variability was an irritant; given its garden associations it was in danger of being too close to triviality. In the context of Keats’s formal studies his sketch can be seen as a similar act to drawing a likeness of ZZ Top in your lecture notes; a tremor of release, or even rebelliousness.


However, Keats’s sketch appears to be depicting something very particular, not rocker or punk, more Puck. Shakespeare’s ‘little western flower’ was a wild pansy, the source of functional magic that drives the action in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oberon tells of its conception

Yet marked I where the bolt of Cupid fell.
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound.
And maidens call it ‘love-in-idleness.’
Fetch me that flower. The herb I showed thee once.
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.
Fetch me this herb, and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.


In an age, and a class, which prided itself on exercising a new botanical literacy, authors (including Elizabeth Kent and Leigh Hunt) expressed no doubt in the identity of Shakespeare’s love-in-idleness. The botanical authority William Curtis gave this passage a serious, but also half jocular, justification in his attractive Flora Londinensis, 1777-1798:

Linnaeus remarks [on] the black lines which sometimes appear on the Petals, Milton had observed the same, ‘Pansies sreakt with Jet’. In a poor soil the purple and yellow in the bloom of this flower frequently become very faint, and sometimes fade into a perfect white, this variation in colour gives a propriety to the Metamorphosis of this flower in which Shakespear [sic] pays an elegant compliment to his royal mistress.

‘Viola tricolor’ from Curtis’ Flora Londinensis

In conjuring up the magic flower, the young Keats tapped into his then parallel literary life, while at the same time pointing to an early mentor. He was to go on to make a passionate study of Shakespeare plays in 1817 when, newly qualified, he had left the prospect of a medical career behind him. But as we learn from Robert White’s Keats as a Reader of Shakespeare (1987), of all the plays we can be sure of his familiarity with A Midsummer Night’s Dream during 1816 through his reading of it with Charles Cowden Clarke, son of the headmaster at his school at Enfield.


Keats’s fellow lodger Henry Stephens had still to devise his blue-black ink, so Keats’s ink was probably purple-black or purple-brown oak gall ink. Away from the study of a painful anatomical correction, with his surplus ink he streaks and splatters the white flower he had outlined, ‘now purple with love’s wound’. Was he playing with Cupid’s blot? Here Keats was – appropriately – enacting Puck’s gesture in marking numerous carefully placed spots with ink/juice on the flower’s face as Puck was to on the eyelids of random mortals;

Through the forest have I gone.
But Athenian found I none,
On whose eyes I might approve
This flower’s force in stirring love.
Night and silence.–Who is here?
Weeds of Athens he doth wear:
This is he, my master said,
Despised the Athenian maid;
And here the maiden, sleeping sound,
On the dank and dirty ground.
Pretty soul! she durst not lie
Near this lack-love, this kill-courtesy.
Churl, upon thy eyes I throw
All the power this charm doth owe.
When thou wakest, let love forbid
Sleep his seat on thy eyelid:
So awake when I am gone;
For I must now to Oberon.

Puck grasping pansies. Sir Joshua Reynolds for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, 1789


Sketching to the words of Shakespeare, little wonder that Keats could appear distracted at this time. Here is Charles Cowden Clarke’s story of the reply that the student Keats gave when quizzed about his attitudes to his medicinal training:

he expressed his grave doubt if he should go on with it. ‘The other day,’ he said to me ‘During the lecture, there came a sunbeam into the room, and with it a whole troop of creatures floating in the ray; and I was off with them to Oberon and fairy land’.


In this reading, Keats’s sketch is more a flower of the imagination than of the field or garden, holding multiple meanings during process of its creation. But what of the other three flower sketches? Here there are many things to question and consider. Frustratingly, some that can just be discerned in reproduction have a much greater potential interest; some that are a little clearer are difficult to positively identify. Collectively they can appear like a random chord sequence without obvious significance. However, it is possible that there may be a theme to the sequence, even between just two of them, as one completed sketch suggested another. Of course, there is also Keats’s other early reading; remembering that flowers take on several literary masks according to time and place: daffodil, narcissus, narcisse, asphodel. A passage in Keats’s own early work particularly strikes me. In a poem dated November 1815, he addresses an affected poet friend, George Felton Matthew, for criticising his poetry. With an earnestness which, at best, these sketches possess he chides Matthew; ‘For thou wast was once a floweret blooming wild / Close to the source, bright, pure and undefil’d’.


Whichever way this interesting subject may go, this thought-doodle is spent for now – my intellectual ink has run dry.



Gareth Evans writes articles on the history and culture of plants and their use (garethhevans.com). He worked in, and with, botanic gardens for 16 years, specialising in the history of plants and medicine. Recent Highlights include: ‘Seeds of Inspiration’, Linder Memorial Lecture, Beatrix Potter Society, March 2018, and ‘Keats’s Flight from the Vegetable Monster’, a paper at the 4th Bicentennial John Keats Conference 1817.

Bringing Frankenstein back to life

by Andrew Weltch


Think of the ‘original’ cinematic Frankenstein’s monster, and the image that comes to mind is probably Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. But you actually have to go back a further two decades for the genuine original and the creature’s first appearance on film – played by Charles Ogle in a 1910 short by the Edison Company.

Until recently, my only knowledge of that film was a well-known still of Ogle’s monster, twisted and staring at the camera, with his wild hair and claw-like fingers. Out of context, it looks ridiculous, almost comical, and I had long dismissed this lost film as unworthy of any attention.

But now that short is available to view online, expertly restored and free. And what a treat it is!

Experts at the US Library of Congress added missing intertitles and a score by Donald Sosin, and have restored the print to a condition that is a vast improvement on earlier uploaded versions. Frankenstein can now be viewed free on YouTube (and below). There’s quite a story behind the restoration. The film had been thought lost until the American Film Institute named it among its top 10 most wanted lost films in 1980, when a certain Al Dettlaff of Cudahy, Wisconsin, revealed he had acquired a print (almost certainly the only surviving print) as part of a collection of old nitrate films in the 1950s.

Unwilling to release it for restoration, Dettlaff had his own 35mm copy made and eventually produced DVDs of the film, which he sold at conventions. Those became the source of the previous relatively crude online versions. In 2005, Dettlaff’s decomposed body was found at his home. The eccentric and reclusive character had been dead for a month – from natural causes, aged 84. The Library of Congress bought the Dettlaff collection in 2015, and the restoration of Frankenstein was completed in 2018 – fittingly 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel.

The film was made at Edison’s studios in the Bronx, New York City, written and directed by James Searle Dawley, photographed by James White, and starring (uncredited) Charles Ogle as the creature, Augustus Phillips as Frankenstein, and Mary Fuller as his fiancée, Elizabeth. Described as “a liberal adaptation of Mrs. Shelley’s famous story”, Dawley shot the film in three or four days, and it was released in March 1910. The Edison Kinetogram, the Edison company’s film magazine, reported:

In making the film the Edison Co. has carefully tried to eliminate all actual repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale. Whenever, therefore, the film differs from the original story it is purely with the idea of elimination of what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.”


It may not be ‘repulsive’ – there are no severed limbs or unhealed wounds that would characterise later film versions of the story, but this debut appearance is no less scary.  The scene in which the monster is created is eery and bizarre, as it gradually takes human form from some kind of potion, which Frankenstein has concocted – a technique apparently achieved by burning a puppet and running the film backwards. The film opens with Frankenstein bidding farewell to his father and fiancée, and heading off to college. An intertitle tells us that two years later he has discovered the secret of life. (That’s a good college and a smart student!)

But instead of building the perfect human as he intends, another intertitle tells us the evil in Frankenstein’s mind creates a twisted creature, which will horrify its creator. Appalled by the sight of his creation, Frankenstein returns home to the loving arms of his fiancée. But, like some faithful puppy (but much less cute), the creature follows, only to become madly jealous at the sight of this rival for his creator’s attention, and shocked at the sight of himself in a mirror. The creature leaves, but returns to gate-crash the wedding night, before the story is resolved – and it’s all done, rather cleverly, with mirrors.



Hats off to Mike Mashon and the team in the Moving Image Section of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress for restoring and preserving this piece of movie history. This is an important film for many reasons – not least because it was the first Frankenstein film and therefore the cinematic ancestor of the hundreds (or even thousands) which have followed.  It’s also a fascinating and impressive film in its own right – especially for the sequences involving the creation of the monster and the mirror in Frankenstein’s study.

Definitely worth 12 minutes of your time.



Andrew Weltch is a writer, editor and public relations consultant, whose interests include film and history. He blogs about arts and entertainment and runs a communications consultancy.  

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