At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May


It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have a relatively new companion in another former home, Allan Bank.


DC 4


Wordsworth seems to have had more Lakeland homes than you can shake a stanza at. Dove Cottage is the most stereotypically poetic, the sort of white-walled slate-roofed idyllic cottage that could be advertised for a grand a week in the Cumbrian cottages brochures of today.


The Dove Cottage experience begins with the Wordsworth Museum, set in a new building made of local slate. It contains a number of portraits of Wordsworth and his fellow Lakeland poets, Coleridge Southey and de Quincey, and gives a sense of how, as with most writers, finances were always a concern.  Downstairs there are interactive areas. My 19-year-old daughter Lola and her friend Katie forget woke politics for a minute and delight in donning Wordsworthian jackets and hats, making hand on chin poetic poses for an iPhone selfie.  We take our place for the guided tour of Dove Cottage, which was Wordsworth’s home from December 1799 to May 1808. Twenty or so tourists stand in the reception room. It used to be a pub and that’s why the first two rooms have wooden panelling and slate floors. It’s dark but cosy. Above the mantelpiece is a picture of Peppa, the terrier that Sir Walter Scott gave to the Wordsworths. Apparently Scott had a bit of a dog habit, arriving with dogs and dispensing them to hosts as he travelled.



A stream runs under the floor of the pantry, acting as an early fridge for the poet’s food. “And this is Wordsworth’s coffee grinder,” says our guide, pointing out the wooden box with a metal grinding handle by the kitchen parlour’s window. Coffee would have been a luxury then and it would only have been used on special occasions. But it’s hard not to imagine William as a hipster barista of his time, sipping Cumbrian cappuccino with his poetic mates.

Coffee grinder


The Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth give a vivid picture of life at Dove Cottage. Dorothy cooks a lot of porridge and lamb chops for William. She studies flowers and enjoys the garden. Dorothy’s life is blighted by migraines, William is often ill too. Coleridge visits and leaps over the garden gate. The trio take lengthy walks outdoors and discuss poetry and the French Revolution. De Quincey and Southey drop in. Everything is geared towards William’s poetry, with Dorothy transcribing his verse and inspiring him with her description of dancing daffodils. He’d tried Cambridge, London, the Alps and revolutionary France, but here he’s found his mountain mojo and a soul mate in Coleridge. His imprecations of “O Friend!” in The Prelude still move me.


Though you wonder what the locals made of the young abstracted poet in their midst. Tourists would have visited since the days of Thomas West’s guidebooks, but even so, there couldn’t have been too many ex-students and Alpine travellers with an illegitimate child in France and a strange sister relationship renting in Grasmere. You can imagine the pub talk: “Aye there goes that bloody idiot Wordsworth, hanging out with the shepherds again…”


There’s a lovely anecdote recorded in The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth by Frances Wilson. While living at Alfoxden House in Somerset, William, Dorothy and Samuel Coleridge spent so much time going on long clifftop walks and looking out to sea while discussing metaphysics that the locals feared they might be anarchists spying for the French.  Really they were just a bunch of hippies, getting it together in a house in the country. When I first met my wife she was hanging out with a set of greens in Oxford, a set of intellectuals who spent a lot of time discussing climate change and carbon footprints. They played ultimate Frisbee but didn’t have any time for the commercialisation and tribalism of football. In many ways Wordsworth and his set of radicals must have been quite similar.


There’s also the question of just how deep was William’s love for Dorothy. Modern scholars have written reams speculating about a possible incestuous relationship. They lost their mother at a young age and then their father, after which Dorothy was sent to Halifax. So they didn’t know each other during childhood and when they met again, each became a kind of substitute parent for the other.


When William married Mary Hutchinson, Dorothy collapsed on the day of the wedding. Much was made of Dorothy’s journal entry where she describes sleeping wearing her brother’s wedding ring the night before the marriage and writes that William “blessed” her twice. Though I’d like to think that most academics are just a bit over-zealous in their interpretation and that William and Dorothy just enjoyed a particularly close bond as writers (frustrated in Dorothy’s case), lovers of nature and orphans.


Mary Wordsworth’s wedding ring, on top of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal entry describing the wedding, from the collection at Dove Cottage

Mary Wordsworth’s wedding ring, on top of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal entry describing the wedding, from the collection at Dove Cottage


Whatever the truth, Dove Cottage still feels like they’ve just left. You can feel the darkness of overcast Lakeland days, the cosiness of sitting by the fire, the fervent discussions between the Wordsworth siblings and Coleridge, and sense how cramped it must have been once William and Mary began having children.


Upstairs, Labour Party activists Lola and Katie are impressed with the socialist sentiments of Wordsworth’s quote, “Men who do not wear fine clothes can feel deeply.” We see his bed, his ice skates in a case and then the famous couch that is mentioned in his Daffodils poem.

WW skates

WW couch

There’s not too much evidence of the three young children William and Mary raised here, though the bedroom over the buttery was a nursery and is wallpapered with yellowing copies of the Times, dated 1800. This was an attempt at insulation, and it also suggests the trio might have been a bit bohemian in their attitude to home decor.


Elsewhere a cabinet displays a laudanum pipe used by Coleridge, always the Keith Richards to Will’s Mick Jagger. The Wordsworths left in 1808 and the following year their poet pal Thomas De Quincey rented it. In his Confessions of an English Opium Eater De Quincey describes chillaxing at Dove Cottage with a quart of laudanum, as you do. He upset the increasingly conventional Wordsworths by altering the house and garden and publishing a little too much detail in his essays, Recollections of the Lake Poets.


In the garden Wordsworth’s lines of poetry are displayed by the flowerbeds, as if it’s literally cultivating verse. At the top of the sloping garden is the wooden platform containing a seat with a roof, built by William and his neighbour, and making a fine ‘writer’s shed’. Here William, Dorothy and Mary would sit looking at the then-unencumbered view of the lake and the terraces of Loughrigg Fell.



As we sit in Dove Cottage’s garden platform overlooking Grasmere, Lola and Katie wonder if Wordsworth ever went on a Snapchat streak with Coleridge. “Maybe a laudanum streak,” I quip.


Perhaps the most interesting of Wordsworth’s former homes to visit today is Allan Bank, close to Grasmere on the path to Silver How. It was rented out by the National Trust until it was badly damaged by a fire in 2011. After basic repair work it was opened to the public in 2012, complete with undecorated walls and donated furniture. It all looks fashionably distressed. There’s no collections or portraits, but the visitors can use their imaginations instead. You can make your own free cups of tea and sit in any of the rooms in comfy chairs overlooking the fantastic views of Grasmere Island and Loughrigg. The Wordsworths lived here from 1808 to 1810. “Wordsworth had a lot of problems with the fires, the smoke kept blowing back into the rooms,” explains the National Trust guide. A bit like having poor Wi-Fi reception today, perhaps, though it seems a tremendous home to modern eyes.


Allan Bank, by Sarah Hutchinson

Allan Bank, by Sarah Hutchinson


But another part of the Allan Bank story is that Wordsworth was the hero of Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, who later moved into the house and was one of the founders of the National Trust. The wonderfully-named Hardwicke sounds an intriguing character, an Oxford graduate dubbed “the most active volcano in Europe” and “a peppery old swine” by his gardener. The house was smaller in Wordsworth’s time, but both Rawnsley and Wordsworth would have enjoyed the superb gardens, set against a series of rocky outcrops. Moss grows on tree roots and the dry stone walls. Visitors take a circular path that heads towards Victorian follies, a tunnel and a high-level stone viewing seat looking across to the Lion and the Lamb.


After Allan Bank the Wordsworths then spent two unhappy years at the Old Rectory in Grasmere. It’s been demolished now, but saw the death of their children Catherine and Thomas and an estrangement with Coleridge over his drug use.


Rydal Mount proved a much happier home. It’s an upmarket gaff, closer to Ambleside. Rydal Mount is set above St Mary’s church, where Wordsworth was a warden, and opposite the grounds of the 16th Century Rydal Hall. It’s the house of a man who has made it, without any of the dinginess of Dove Cottage. William Wordsworth lived at Rydal Mount for 37 years, finding contentment in the “happy gardens” until he died in 1850.


Rydal Mount, drawn by Sarah Hutchinson, Wordsworth's sister-in-law

Rydal Mount, drawn by Sarah Hutchinson, Wordsworth’s sister-in-law

Room at Rydal Mount

In the dining room is a portrait of Robert Burns — the two poets met and shared a belief in writing about normal farming folk.  The drawing room is spacious with French windows looking out at the gardens, designed by the poet himself. Above the fireplace is the only known portrait of a middle-aged Dorothy, whose devotion so helped to inspire her brother. The adjoining library is full of learned tomes. “The library is here, the study is outside,” remarked one of William’s servants.


Though it was here that Wordsworth probably got too comfortable. Dora Wordsworth once described it as “Idle Mount”. It was said by a friend that Wordsworth had “three wives” in Mary, Dorothy, and daughter Dora. If Dove Cottage was his punk period, fresh from walking the Alps and visiting the French revolution, Rydal Mount was his more AOR period, when the poet went mainstream.


On the wall of William and Mary’s bedroom is a framed copy of Wordsworth’s letter to Queen Victoria declining her offer of being Poet Laureate. William writes, “The appointment I feel, however, imposes duties on me which far advanced in life as I am I can not venture to undertake and therefore I beg to decline.” In a victory for romantic slackers everywhere, the Queen replied that Wordsworth wouldn’t have to write any poetry. He then accepted, dutifully not writing to order, the only poet Laureate who has got away with no workload of odes. Every room has a fine view. You can see the waters of Windermere from Wordsworth’s bedroom and the squat grandeur of Loughrigg Fell. Listening to the sound of rain falling on leaves outside Dorothy’s window you sense what a great environment for cultivating high thoughts this must have been.

Dora Wordsworth

Most touching is Dora’s room. It’s a small room with a creaking wooden floor and tiny bed. Wordsworth doted on his daughter, who from the age of 18 suffered from a latent form of tuberculosis. She married when she was 37 but six years later returned to Rydal Mount to be nursed by her mother Mary. She died in 1843 when William was 77 and he was distraught, saying, “She is ever with me and will be to the last moment of my life.” Fame could not protect even the most eminent Victorians from mortality. There’s something very human in the image of William and Mary, the grieving elderly couple, and Dorothy, now suffering from possible dementia, planting Dora’s Field, a field of daffodils below the Rydal Mount gardens. You can still enter Dora’s field via a metal gate from the church. It’s bracken, brambles and trees now with a lot of traffic noise, but on the circular path it’s easy to imagine William, Mary and Dorothy’s sad pacing among Dora’s daffodils.


My final Wordsworthian trek is to the family graves at Grasmere Church. The family plot is surrounded by a low railing but remains pleasingly simple and free of grandiose monuments. I wasn’t prepared for the emotional jolt of seeing William’s simple grave next to Mary and Dorothy, with Dora close alongside. A single bunch of flowers has been left on his grave. Anyone who has read The Prelude or Ode: Intimations of Immortality will feel they know the man. A slumber did his spirit seal. He was certainly prescient in concepts such as the early years of childhood creating the adult character and nature healing troubled souls.


What would he make of being next to the Wordsworth Hotel and Spa and the Wordsworth Daffodil Garden? The poet is part of a Lakeland tourist trap, yet also somehow undiluted by all the commercialisation. Wordsworth is quite a modern character, really. Today he’d be called Will, go off inter-railing, be dabbling in radical politics, trying to keep Sam Coleridge off the weed and probably running new age writing workshops by Rydal Water.


He was, like most visitors of today, a man who loved the crags and tarns and the beauty of the fells, and also, for all his self-absorption, was a literary genius who broke down barriers and helped create the cult of nature. And now he’s part of his sacred landscape.


This extract is from Pete May’s new book Man About Tarn: How a Londoner Learned to Love the Lake District.  


Pete May’s other books include Goodbye To Boleyn, Whovian Dad, The Joy of Essex, There’s A Hippo In My Cistern, Rent Boy, Hammers in the Heart and Sunday Muddy Sunday.  As a journalist he has written for the Guardian, Observer, Independent, Daily Telegraph, Time Out, New Statesman, Loaded, Midweek and numerous other publications. He is an associate lecturer in Sports Journalism at the London College of Communication. He lives in London with his wife, two daughters, a dog named Vulcan and a collection of Wainwright guides.



The picture at the top is an image of how the new ‘Reimagining Wordsworth’ project will bring the interiors of Dove Cottage closer to how they would have been when the Wordsworths lived there.





The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten


When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence after the great poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote their first collection together. But, as Emerson’s account of the two personalities shows to us, the collaboration was a strange one. In fact, in the first volume of Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge’s name didn’t even appear. As was typical of the man, he was either too lazy or too embroiled in his opium addiction to contribute many works to the volume, and only produced two that would feature.


Coleridge was the first of the collaborators whom Emerson would meet, and, as his account on their meeting shows, he was, like many others, baffled by the man. Borges writes that:

Emerson tells about how he went to visit him and how Coleridge spoke about the essential unitary nature of God, and after a while, Emerson told him that he had always believed in the fundamental unity of God. He was a Unitarian. Coleridge said to him: ‘Yes, that’s what I think,’ then kept talking, because he did not care about his interlocutor.

Ralph Waldo Emersom EOC


Emerson would then go on, after a brief tour of Scotland, to meet Wordsworth, who he found to be more immediately impressive, though quite rude. There are many stories about Wordsworth’s vanity and how he was difficult to talk to. Borges writes about their meeting that:

Emerson… paid him a visit and made an observation, and Wordsworth refuted him immediately – as was his habit, because no matter what anyone said, he would assert the opposite – and ten minutes or a quarter of an hour later, Wordsworth expressed that same opinion that he had found absurd. Then Emerson politely told him, ‘Well, that is what I told you a while ago.’ And then Wordsworth, indignant, said, ‘Mine, mine, and not yours!!’ And the other understand that one could not converse with a man with such a character.


Instead of being disappointed, however, Emerson came to admire the vain Wordsworth. He was, after all, a man easy to admire. One day, both poets went out on a walk and Wordsworth told him that, using only his memory, he had composed thousands of lines of verse along the same path, and only committed them to paper later on. Such a mind would impress anyone, but what most distinguishes Emerson’s meetings with these two men is, I think, how Wordsworth sought discussion, even though he only discussed matters for the sake of argument, and to prove himself right – whereas Coleridge was a man one could only listen to, rather than talk to.

William Wordsworth EOC

Emerson was surely disappointed by Coleridge, yet, if he had read what others had written about the man, he may have expected such a result. Coleridge was a man that baffled even his closest friends. His life and his actions were frequently absurd. Some were humorous, some quite tragic, but all of them have created an impression of a man that serves to elevate his works. As Borges wrote: “One of a writer’s most important works – perhaps the most important of them all – is the image he leaves of himself in the memory of men, above and beyond the pages he has written.” Coleridge never was as great a poet as Wordsworth, and if Emerson sought a poet it was only natural that he admired Wordsworth the more, but when we think of Coleridge we think of more than a poet, we think of a representative of a kind of spirit, like a character from a novel.


Coleridge’s life has informed us of the spirit of the Romantic movement as much as, if not more than, the few poems he left us with.

Unlike Emerson, who found Wordsworth to be the more impressive man, the ‘Lake Poets’, – that is, the illustrious literary set both Wordsworth and Coleridge were a part of – all of them, besides from Wordsworth, would be more likely to name Coleridge their master. He was a genius. A man whose breadth of reading and erudition was so immense that he seemed to have read every book. Yet, if Emerson had only read the accounts of Coleridge as a person, and not as a poet, he may have been able to better understand why he was considered to be such a genius.


For many, the way in which Coleridge spoke was unintelligible. Wordsworth, whilst talking to Emerson, said that he had wished Coleridge would take more care to be understood with his writing. The same can be said for his way of talking. Coleridge’s meeting with Emerson, as will be shown, was typical of the way he would treat his guests. Coleridge’s student, or it could be said, his disciple and fellow opium addict, Thomas De Quincey, wrote of Coleridge that, whenever he spoke, it was as if he were tracing a circle in the air. By this he meant that as he talked he would go further and further away from the subject. This would go on for hours without the need of an interlocutor, and, in the mean time, some of those listening would get up and leave, perhaps with the same baffled expression as I imagine Emerson had. But, at the end, those who had lasted would realise that his talk had, remarkably, returned to the point of the discussion.

Thomas De Quincy EOC


This absurd way of talking is just one of the few mysteries that surround our impression of Coleridge. The events of his life were just as absurd. Despite being a great student at Cambridge University, for some reason not yet truly understood, and I doubt we ever will really understand this man, he enlisted in a regiment of dragoons. He spent the next four months falling off his horse and never actually learned to ride. Unhappy about this, one of his officers was said to have walked in on him writing poems in Greek on one of the barrack walls, all of which expressed his despair at his impossible fate as a horseman – a fate that he had chosen himself. His only use in the regiment was in the writing of love letters for the other men to send home to their wives. “I am,” he once wrote, “the least equestrian of men,” which is a sentiment many of the officers must have agreed with, as he was officially discharged from the regiment for being “insane”.


Coleridge then returned to Cambridge and began plans to start a weekly journal. To fulfil this task he travelled around England in an attempt to get people to subscribe. He recounts that, on one of these trips, he arrived in Bristol and spoke with a gentleman. This gentleman asked him if he had read the newspaper, to which Coleridge replied that he didn’t think it was his duty as a Christian to read the newspaper – whilst at the same time trying to get the man to subscribe to his. It is stories like this that establish Coleridge as a comical figure. There is another story told about him, that, when asked to join in a conversation, his first act was to take great care with the filling of his pipe, half with tobacco and the other half with salt. He became ill in spite of this, for he was not even in the habit of smoking.

Coleridge EOC


Besides from wine, opium and prostitutes, Coleridge was in the habit of declaring that he would write ambitious works, such as a history of philosophy, and a history of English literature. These, like many of his best poems, were either left unfinished or barely started. He would write to his friends – even though they knew he was lying, and even though he knew, that they knew, he was lying – that the work was well under way. His friends made a few attempts to try and focus his genius on to something. With his friend, Robert Southey, he wrote a play called The Fall of Robespierre, and another on Joan of Arc, yet he would make the protagonist talk about subjects such as the Leviathan and magnetism, of which the saint would certainly not have spoken about. His friends then tried to give him an outlet for his genius through lecturing. These lectures were well subscribed to and well advertised, yet, when the date arrived, Coleridge would either not turn up, or speak about anything but the subject of the lecture. And the times he did turn up, he would speak about everything including the subject of the lecture. But these were only rare occasions.

Another odd tale about the man begins with his marriage. Borges tells us that:

Coleridge married fairly young. The story is that he visited a house where there were three sisters. He was in love with the second one, but he thought that if the second one got married before the first – that is, according to what he told De Quincey – this could wound the sexual pride of the first. And so, out of a sense of delicacy, he married the first, even though he was not in love with her. It is no big surprise to learn that the marriage failed. Coleridge had nothing to do with his wife and children and went to live with his friends.


All of these stories are quite funny. Though I can’t help but feel a little bit sad about the last one. In one of my favourite poems, ‘Frost at Midnight’, Coleridge muses on how he hopes for a better life for his son, Hartley. He writes:

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the night-thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.


It would be impossible to write a poem with such tenderness without true feeling. Thus, to think that he didn’t bother with his children, whilst being undoubtedly full of paternal love for them, is quite heart-breaking. Coleridge was the first person in English to use the term ‘bi-polar’, and whilst he used it to mean ‘androgynous’, we may use it now to talk about his mental state. One cannot be an opium addict and a parent at the same time. His erratic character, and his sharp decline when in the grip of his addiction, disallowed him of the many joys of life.


Coleridge died in 1834, but his friends had the impression that he had died long before. The essayist, Charles Lamb, once a schoolmate of Coleridge’s, wrote a famous passage where he says that, on the subject of Coleridge’s death: “I greave that I could not grieve.” Borges writes that, “Coleridge had turned into a kind of aesthetic ghost for many of [his friends].” He lived a purely intellectual life. He was a man for whom the world on the inside was far richer than the world on the outside. He did not have an interest in other people, but that is not to say he was misanthropic, only that he was one of those curious people who care more for ideas than anything else.

Coleridge 2 EOC


Though many of his poems were left unfinished, those that we have are some of the most captivating and musical in the English language. I would happily concede that Wordsworth is the greater poet, but I do believe that Coleridge was among the greats himself, with or without his association to Wordsworth. And, even despite his poetry, his life and his character are far more poetic, even, perhaps, far more emblematic of our popular notions of what it is to be a poet, than Wordsworth’s – and that – just as it is for Oscar Wilde – is enough for posterity – as Borges wrote:

the truth is, there is something in Coleridge that seems to fill the imagination to overflowing. It is life itself, filled with postponements, unfulfilled promises, brilliant conversations. All of this belongs to a particular kind of human being.

That human being is the Romantic. And whatever Romanticism is, its spirit owes a little to Coleridge.


Edward Platten is a writer from Kingston Upon-Hull who is currently doing research on Poetic Inspiration in order to obtain a Masters Degree. In his spare time he writes for the blog: about interesting stories and ideas associated with literature. He aspires to one day study for a PhD and lecture at a university.  

This post first appeared on his ForBooksSake blog

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone


‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration between the Wordsworth Trust and the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership. These words open the sound piece The Daffodils, crafted by sound artists Conor Caldwell and Danny Diamond. A simple, melodic figure follows these words: it’s as if a musical shadow emerges and ‘sprightly’ dances behind the students’ readings and observations:



There are in fact a number of shadows at play here. The music itself, but also within the poem. If you listened carefully, you would have heard echoes of I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud in the prose that followed it. The prose is the journal entry Dorothy (William Wordsworth’s sister) made on 15 April 1802. But, in reality, the poem came after Dorothy’s writings. The poem was inspired and informed by Dorothy’s writings, and not the other way round. Yet it is William rather than Dorothy who has long received all the credit for the poem. The Wordsworth Trust is working to raise awareness of William’s and Dorothy’s collaborations. It is fitting that the students’ artwork made on the day of recordings for the sound pieces should show Dorothy as William’s shadow, drawing attention to her key role in his creative process:

 WT soundpiece


The words ‘daffodils’ and ‘Wordsworth’ have long been synonymous, but ‘daffodil’ has more recently joined with the words ‘Marie Curie’, and, in Australia ‘Cancer Council’, with each charity/organisation taking the daffodil as its logo. While I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud might be the most famous poem in the English language, I only came across it in my late teens in Australia (where I was born and raised) when I faced and thankfully overcame cancer. I wanted to know the cultural significance of the daffodil. I began researching it and soon found the poem.


I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud became something of a Transitional Object (TO) for me. (Older) readers of the blog might remember something of Winnicott’s theory of TOs from teacher training courses in the 1960s or 1970s or his BBC broadcasts. Paediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott found that the TO, objects such as a blanket, doll or teddy bear that young children hold dear, could help children move from one state of being to another, such as from waking to sleeping by bridging children’s inner and outer realities (Playing & Reality, 1971). It is not only infants who use TOs, but also older children when faced with stress and anxiety at times such as illness.[1]


Moreover, it’s not just concrete objects that operate as TOs. Maria Tatar has thought about how reading can be like a TO for children, adolescents and adults: ‘Just as our hands once needed those concrete physical objects in childhood, so too do our minds seize on images and words from stories to help us make our way in the world’ (Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood 2009,). In this particular chapter of my life, it was the Wordsworths’ words which helped me. I walked by the lake in my mind, and between treatments, my father took me for walks by the sea, where, in my mind’s eye, the sea’s waves would ‘sparkl[e]’ as they would on the Cumbrian lake. In many ways, it has been words and nature that have really healed me over the years, and my love for and appreciation of literature and the great outdoors only continue to grow.


Robert Macfarlane’s writings really struck a chord with me, particularly his book Landmarks (2015) and his efforts to uncover, recover and discover the words of nature. Since setting out on this project, Macfarlane’s The Lost Words: A Spell Book (2017), a collaboration with illustrator Jackie Morris, has reached the hands of many children, parents/guardians and teachers and is working its intended magic to delight children in nature and save nature’s words from vanishing. Macfarlane kindly met with me in the lead up to our workshop with the Keswick School year ten’s, and his thoughts on the activities we might run were invaluable.


Dove Cottage runs its own fantastic programme of activities and events to foster links between the Wordsworths, their Grasmere home and its stunning surroundings, and we hope that our sound pieces might complement the museum’s programme for visitors. But we also want to encourage (young) people beyond the lakes and even across the seas to listen to the Wordsworths’ words and to take them into whatever bit of nature they might have access to, and let them ‘flutter’ and ‘danc[e] in the breeze’ as if they were daffodils.


[1] For a discussion on how, for example, children’s writer Catherine Storr (1913-2001) shows how older children use TOs in troubled times see Kimberley Reynold’s online article ‘“I Write to Frighten Myself”: Catherine Storr and the Development of Children’s Literature Studies in Britain’ here:

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham
In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an improvement in her health. They took tenancy of Albion Cottage in what was to be the first of their summer migrations.

John Constable by Ramsay Richard Reinagle, c1799. NPG London

John Constable
by Ramsay Richard Reinagle, c1799. NPG London

A year or two earlier, a young recently qualified medical practitioner and his younger brother moved into lodgings nearby. Qualifying in medicine by first serving an apprenticeship as an apothecary and then completing a couple of years of hospital training had not been easy, especially with the added distraction of being a published poet with a developing reputation. His younger brother, as it turned out was suffering from tuberculosis and, even though he was a doctor, he was unable to do anything other than nurse him and comfort him in the face of the inevitable. Following his bereavement a friend asked him to share lodgings, also in Hampstead, and they moved into Wentworth House together.
Keats House, Hampstead

Wentworth Place, Hampstead

This cast of characters brought together by infirmity and loss in the summer of 1819 proved to be a productive period for the two principals. The painter was John Constable—then around 43 years—and the doctor/poet, John Keats, 23. This was the summer Constable walked Hampstead Heath sketching many of his cloud studies and completing a number of works, notably Hampstead Heath with the house called The Salt Box. This large painting is a view of the Heath from a vantage point close to Albion Cottage, their summer home. Perhaps on one of Constable’s walks on the Heath with his sketchbook and bag of materials he encountered a young poet with his notebook, musing and listening to the song of a nightingale as dusk approached on a warm evening. Constable might also have seen Keats and his friend Charles Dilke engaged in the more prosaic pastime of ‘shooting tom-tits’ (John Keats, Robert Gittings, Pelican Biographies, 1971, p325).
Hampstead Heath, with the House Called 'The Salt Box' c.1819-20 John Constable, Tate Gallery, London

Hampstead Heath, with the House Called ‘The Salt Box’ c.1819-20 John Constable, Tate Gallery, London

There must have been many occasions when the two could have met. Keats had been introduced to Benjamin Haydon, a painter, at an explosive sounding dinner party together with Leigh Hunt, Shelley and another of Keats’ friends John Severn. (It was Severn who accompanied Keats to Rome in 1820, nursed him through his final few weeks and held him as he succumbed to tuberculosis. Severn was buried—at his own request—next to Keats in the Cimitero Acattolico, Rome.) Haydon, much older than Keats, was renowned as a loud, bombastic and opinionated man but there was something about the young poet that intrigued him such that he developed ‘a special proprietorial interest in Keats’ and indeed sketched him. Haydon was certainly drawn to the much younger, highly gifted, quiet and not at all argumentative poet.
Benjamin Haydon, by Georgiana Margaretta Zornlin, 1825, NPG London

Benjamin Haydon, by Georgiana Margaretta Zornlin, 1825, NPG London

It is also likely that Haydon knew Constable—how well we don’t know—as their time at the Royal Academy overlapped, Haydon being some ten years younger that Constable, who was a late starter. Constable was exhibiting at the RA at the end of his time as a student so Haydon, still a student, would have seen his paintings and met him. Haydon, for all his perceived faults, was an extraordinary man who, among his other achievements, was partly responsible for the purchase of the Elgin Marbles but whose legacy as a painter is overshadowed by his more famous Autobiography and Memoirs. Such as his accomplishments were, they were insufficient to prevent his imprisonment for debt and subsequent suicide. Haydon, a gregarious figure around in Hampstead at this time who collected around him other famous writers, poets and artists, may well have included his more famous contemporary at the RA in one of his gatherings. Sadly, there is no record of any contact between them at this time. But we do now that in the summer of 1819 both Constable and Keats will have spent a lot of time walking, looking, sketching and writing. This is the year in which Constable produced The Salt Box, the year he exhibited The White Horse, the first ‘six-footer’ canal scene, and the year he was elected Associate of the Royal Academy.
It was also the year of an extraordinary burst of creativity for John Keats. He wrote the ‘six great odes’, including the Ode to a Nightingale. We don’t know in what order Keats composed the Odes, and it probably doesn’t matter, but I want to believe that he and Constable heard the same nightingale; that they saw the same rainbow, the same cloud formations; that they bumped into each other several times on the Heath and perhaps nodded good morning or good evening as they passed each other and passed into greatness. Two of England’s geniuses spent that summer in the same place and we’ll never know if they met.
This post originally appeared on
Don has worked in and around education and learning for some years. He finished up spending most of his time writing and editing learning materials. He has now decided the time is here to concentrate on  Don Odifferent kinds of writing. Don’s interests include reading, art history and cricket. He lives in Budleigh Salterton and time not engaging in the above pursuits is often spent looking at the sea. 

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes
It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing is just the fading memory of someone sitting in a favourite chair, or leaning against the table they once spent so much time laying and clearing. The discarded photograph only slowly bleaches to white. But anyone who has ever visited the fields and trenches of the Somme has felt the loss and desolation in the air. So much trauma and death, they say, has seeped into the landscape that the texture of the world has been changed. In Simon Schama’s extraordinary book Landscape and Memory, he suggests that it is ‘our shaping perception that makes the difference between raw matter and landscape’. In other words, it’s us that make the difference, and it’s our culture-bound minds that shape what we see and feel in the world – although, as Schama roams through the Polish forests where his ancestors once worked as loggers, he does leave behind a little sliver of doubt.
I have less rigour – or more credulity – which is why I’m standing at the head of an obscure wooded valley in north Devon, not far from the village of Porlock, trying to pick up the ghostly presence of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It was here – or it was probably here – in a farmhouse just above this wood, that Coleridge fell into a drugged sleep after a long day’s walking, and woke to find that he had a poem fully formed in his mind, just waiting to be poured onto the page. The poem – the fragment of a poem – was ‘Kubla Khan’ and there would have been even more of it – it would, I am sure, have answered every question we have ever had about life, death, art, love and nature – but just as Coleridge was poised to reveal the secrets of the world ‘a person on business from Porlock’ came knocking, and Coleridge lingered too long at the door, and when he rushed back to his room to finish it, the poem had evaporated. Or so he tells us. And it’s certainly a more original excuse than ‘the dog ate it, Miss’. But imagine being the owners of this lonely farmhouse, just above –

 that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

 Fiennes post trees
Imagine having this man turn up at your home one night, exhausted but raving about demon lovers and the waning moon, high on opiates, crashing late and then lurching from his bed to answer your door, scaring the life out of your cousin from Porlock, scattering fragments of genius from his torn notebooks. Imagine trying to tell him, gently, that they’re not ‘cedars’ in the woods, but ‘woaks, Sir, woaks’. You’d be pleased to see the back of him, although for several months, through the years 1797 and 1798, Coleridge haunted these lonely woods, hills and slippery coastal paths. He walked for miles, for days, unable to settle at home (which was twenty-five miles from here in Nether Stowey); restlessly seeking out his neighbour, Wordsworth, and shaking him with a thrashy torrent of ideas and poetry; plunging through ‘wood and dale’ and ‘forests ancient as the hills’. ‘Kubla Khan’ is an explosion; it’s about creativity, or sex, or what it means to have bipolar disorder – we don’t know, except that it contains wild truths. And Coleridge, like Kipling, understood that all true magic must come in threes:

Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Well, we’ve heard it before, but it still packs a punch – and even more so if you are standing at the head of the valley, looking down at the wooded coombe just below the isolated farmhouse, where Coleridge first conjured this magic. It is May Day, traditionally the first day of spring, when the sun returns to a frost-ravaged land, and if I were a young maiden I should be wading through the dew at the foot of the hawthorn tree that is blossoming fretfully to my left, alone in a field of hungry young sheep. At my back is a dark line of pine trees (what else?), looming over the valley and being slapped around by a strong wind, but ahead and down the steep hill to the coombe is a more ancient land, a quieter spot, with a mass of broadleaf trees hazed in their first outpourings of green and, beyond them, a gratifyingly sunless sea.
The first day of spring is always a hard date to agree. Is it the vernal equinox, in most years falling on 21 March? Or is it, as the old tradition had it, on 1 May? Our ancestors lived in colder times, when the River Thames would freeze and the winters were bleak. To complicate matters, what is now 1 May was, until 1752, 19 April; and what is now 11 May was the old May Day. This is when the British calendar ‘lost’ eleven days, when the ‘Julian’ Calendar was replaced by the new-fangled ‘Gregorian’ one, and there were riots in the fields and the churches. Mrs J.H. Philpot in her 1897 book The Sacred Tree or The Tree, Religion and Myth has this story about the changing calendar and its effect on an offshoot of the Glastonbury Thorn that had survived in Quainton, Buckinghamshire:

 “[It] suddenly sprang into fame again when the new style was introduced into the Calendar in 1752, and the people, resenting the loss of their eleven days, appealed from the decision of their rulers to the higher wisdom of the miraculous tree. According to the Gentlemen’s Magazine for 1753, about two thousand people on the night of 24th December 1752 came with lanthorns and candles to view the thorn-tree, ‘which was remembered (this year only) to be a slip from the Glastonbury thorn.’ As the tree remained bare the people agreed that 25th December, N.S., could not be the true Christmas-day, and refused to celebrate it as such. Their excitement was intensified when on 5th January the tree was found to be in full bloom, and to pacify them the authorities were driven to decree that the old Christmas-day should be celebrated as well as the new.”


These days, the levels of consumption required to feed two Christmases every year would probably spell the end of the planet, but I mention Mrs Philpot’s exciting story because it doesn’t feel quite like spring yet, here on the hill above Coleridge’s coombe, with only that lonely hawthorn and a straggle of gorse in bloom (and when is the gorse ever not?).
The edges of woods are not simple places and it is sometimes not easy to pass from the open land into the close, skyless company of trees. I am walking down a flinty path, flanked by ragged hedgerows and curious lambs, with the sun now tentatively shining on the valley. Maybe it’s this sudden soft bath of sunshine, but there is an invisible barrier between the sunny fields and the dark wood, and it does take something – not courage, exactly, but a conscious effort – to step from the light into the shade. Once through the gate, though, I am home in the trees’ familiar embrace. Or, as John Clare would say:

 And this old gate that claps against the tree
The entrance of spring’s paradise should be.

‘Wood Pictures in Spring’

It is right, I think, to pause and lean on a gate at the edge of a wood, before passing through. In any case, there is a man coming up the woodland path, twisting through the trees, and just as he reaches me a cuckoo calls from higher up the valley, the first I’ve heard for years. ‘That was nice, wasn’t it?’ says the man, his face hidden under a broad-brimmed hat, ‘a cuckoo on 1st May’.
May Day should be a day of magic. The cuckoo is a sign of a happy marriage, or of imminent adultery, although it is hard to see how it can be both. Always carry elder twigs (they will help you quell the urge to commit adultery)… or sew them into your lover’s pockets. The cuckoo’s calls follow me down into the coombe, past light drifts of bluebells, fat young clumps of nettle and crowds of low-growing holly bushes, now fading back into the woods with the greening of spring. There are violets by the side of the path, their soft lilac faces marked by ‘honey guides’, the pale white tracks that have evolved to steer insects into their pollen-rich hearts. They’re rather like a runway’s landing lights, set up to bring the aircraft safely home; and I’m thinking that this coombe, with its infallible path, could be my own personal honey guide, drawing me in, looking for something out of the ordinary. Honey-dew, perhaps. That would… well, that would make it all worthwhile.
I pass a very grand holly tree, growing wild and jagged around its battered old trunk. I can hear the river now as it hastens towards the sea, and then I can see it, a tight-runnelled, restless stream, hustling past bracken and moss-drenched rocks, throwing up sprays of icy light. Coleridge must have walked this way, not so very long ago, and watched the river leap and tumble. And he will have known this oak tree, its great trunk and branches hung about with spring ferns, its young, lime-green leaves tinged with a fading red. There’s a tiny, sunken church here, in a tenuous clearing in the woods, and I sit and watch the river race by.
The sea is very close, although it is quiet and hidden from view. There are no cars, no people, just birdsong – and sunlight and lichen mottling the ancient church walls. There are sycamores all around, but I am thinking of lime trees, and their slow retreat from the woods, and of Coleridge writing in his prison bower, and of the time I came walking over the South Downs, scrambling down wild rabbit paths, through overgrown woods of ash and chestnut, and then, dropping down the banks of a dizzying gulley, I slipped and sprawled into the last remnants of a lime tree copse, about ten immense trees hidden in fountains of green from the grip of the modern world. They cannot have been coppiced or cut for centuries. These woods must have been here when the Saxons carved their farms from the Sussex Weald, or even earlier, when the Romans drove the British tribes from their hilltops and forests and marched them into slavery. I kneel and crane to look up at the limes’ scoured trunks, their fragile summer leaves, the beech trees all around, crowding in, and then, under a half-fallen elder tree, pushing through last year’s leaves, I find a very young lime sapling. It is heartbreaking, the sight of this slender thread with its five green leaves and blood-red buds, hiding in the last refuge of a long-vanished forest. I don’t know why, but staring at this sapling, with the holy warmth of these lost limes at my back, fills me with grief and joy.
In fact, I think there’s only one thing I do know, as I sit in the shadow of Coleridge, waiting for magic to emerge from the woods on this first day in May. If you go looking, it won’t be there.
© Copyright Peter Fiennes 2018. All rights reserved.
This is an edited extract from ‘Oak and Ash and Thorn: the ancient woods and new forests of Britain by Peter Fiennes (Oneworld Publications). The book explores our long relationship with the woods – their history, folklore and conservation – and the sad and violent story of how so many have been lost. 
Peter Fiennes
Peter Fiennes was the publisher of Time Out Guides – and is also the author of To War with God, an account of his grandfather’s time as a chaplain at the front in World War I.

The Byron effect

by Miranda Seymour
Any study of the lives of Lord Byron’s wife and daughter points towards one inescapable conclusion: the enduring power of Byron’s personality.

Annabella Milbanke married Byron in January 1815. Ada, born towards the end of their first turbulent year as a married couple, was only a few weeks old when Lady Byron removed both herself and her baby daughter from the marital home on Piccadilly Terrace in January 1816. She never went back.

George Hayter painted Annabella Milbanke in 1812, just before she met Byron

Few couples can have proved themselves to be more hopelessly ill-suited than Miss Milbanke and Lord Byron; she so virtuous, he so wild; she so rational, he so mercurial; she so earnestly faithful, he so brutally promiscuous. But why, precisely, did she choose to leave him? Rumours of sodomy, incest and even a historic murder ( it was whispered that Byron, when young, had killed one of his servants) swirled around the gaming clubs and assembly rooms of the day. Lord Byron had been both cruel and inconstant as a husband: this was established beyond any doubt.

Annabella’s need to establish the reasons for a separation at a time when it was almost unheard of for a woman, no matter how shocking the circumstances, to abandon her spouse, stopped short of accusing her husband – in public, at least – of incest. Many assumed that Byron went into exile in order to avoid further scandal, although his debts – the poet was being hounded by creditors and bailiffs – provide just as plausible a reason for his flight. Annabella’s accounts of Byron’s cruelty helped to persuade her lawyer, Stephen Lushington, to support the case for separation. To this day, it remains uncertain just how much Byron’s intimate relationship with Augusta Leigh, his half-sister, contributed to Lady Byron’s decision never to return to the house that she herself had invited Mrs Leigh to inhabit for months on end.

Byron’s moving ‘Fare Thee Well’ – it was published a month before his departure to the Continent – was widely read and admired. Its tender sentiments bore scant relation to Lord Byron’s actual feelings for his wife and child as he bade farewell to the country which had idolised him for four heady years – and by which he was now publicly chastised. George Cruickshank’s caricature of ‘Lord Iron’ waving his blithe adieux from a boat laden with buxom admirers came nearer to the truth about Byron’s feelings


Cruickshank’s mischievous cartoon shows a far from heartbroken Lord Byron bidding farewell to England and his wife

Byron had already surrendered to the overtures of an eager young mistress (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, using quiet, clever Mary as her calling-card). For Lady Byron, singled out for attention by the uniqueness of her name, such reckless behaviour was beyond consideration.

The idea of flirting with another man, let alone sleeping with him, was anathema to Annabella, a young woman who never ceased to pine for the extraordinary husband whom she had chosen to renounce. Out of sight was never out of mind. My aim here is to demonstrate how powerfully, even after his death in 1824, Lord Byron would continue to influence and even appear to direct the lives of his wife – the couple never divorced – and their singular daughter.

Best known today for her uncannily prophetic description of the first universal computer, little Ada Byron was first defined to her contemporaries by the words with which an apparently grieving father addressed his unknown child in the 3rd Canto of Childe Harold:

Ada, sole child of my house and heart
When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled
And then we parted, not as now we part,
But with a hope…. (1)

While her grief-stricken mother paid a secret visit to Byron’s ancestral home, recording in her diary for 1818 that she had almost fainted with emotion when she stood in his former rooms, young Ada remained remained endearingly unaware of just who Lord Byron might be.

Young Ada

Ada Byron’s life and spirit is wonderfully captured in this early portrait

Aged only seven when she was taken to see the Florida (the vessel in which her father’s embalmed corpse travelled back from Greece in 1824), Ada wrote about ‘Papa’s ship’ in a way that suggests she believed her late father to have been a naval captain. The mistake was understandable. The new Lord Byron, father to Ada’s favourite cousin George, had just set sail for the Sandwich Islands. Naval careers played a significant role in the history of the Byrons, a fact that she may well have learned from young George.

It’s probable that Ada’s first intimate acquaintanceship with her father came about through a painted image of Lord Byron in his glorious prime. Ada’s grandmother, Judith Noel, had celebrated her daughter’s marriage to the country’s best-known poet of the day by buying Thomas Phillips’ 1814 portrait of Byron, resplendent in the Albanian costume he had brought home from his travels in the Middle East. Following the separation, Lady Noel boxed the painting up and put it away in an attic. It was only after her mother’s death in 1822 that Annabella dared to bring the portrait downstairs and hang it in public view. Acutely conscious of the carping comments that would be made by sharp-tongued friends about such an act of homage, she concealed it behind a green velvet curtain.


Byron’s Albanian costume was cannily suited to his growing fame as the author of Eastern romances

It’s remarkable that biographers of the Byron family have never speculated whether Ada, a bold, inquiring and fiercely independent little girl, might have dared to twitch the green curtain aside. Ada, we are gravely informed, remained ignorant of her father’s appearance until the famous portrait was bestowed upon her for a wedding present in 1835. That idea is not only improbable, but incredible.

No mention of the Byron portrait appears in the diary of Ada’s first governess, but the careful detail with which Miss Lamont reported upon her wilful, charming charge shows how conscious this young Irishwoman was of Ada’s heritage. We think of Ada as Lady Lovelace, a farsighted predicter of the universal computer. To her contemporaries, and to herself, Ada was always defined first and last by her position as Lord Byron’s daughter.

Aged fourteen, Ada caught measles. That illness was followed by – but seemingly unconnected to – a severe form of paralysis which turned a vigorous little girl who had been planning to build a flying machine into a bed-bound and often tearful invalid. Towards the end of this sad period – it lasted for over two years – Lady Byron, to whom all new volumes of her husband’s poetry were sent from Murray’s at her own request – introduced Ada to her father’s poetry. The poems she chose included the ‘Fare Thee Well’ which Byron’s widow now regarded as a genuine expression of the dignified grief with which her spouse had accepted the terms of separation.

Ada, at a very young age, learned that mysterious forces had put an end to her parents’ happiness. Later, she was taught to identify her own good-natured but chaotic aunt, Augusta Leigh, as the destroying angel of her mother’s marriage – and as her enduring enemy. It’s likely that Lady Byron also passed along to her daughter the advice that she would later give to her grandson about Lord Byron: admire the poetry; distrust the personality.

The first sign that Miss Byron not only admired her father but planned to emulate him came in 1833, when she attempted to elope from her mother’s home in Ealing. The abrupt dismissal of William Turner, a young man who had been recruited to teach her shorthand – for taking lecture notes – is suggestive. Years later, Ada boasted that her intimacy with this young man had stopped just short of full penetration. A report in the New York Times upon the disgraceful character of Lord Byron’s daughter doubtless spurred Annabella’s eagerness to find naughty Ada a suitable mate and settle her into a respectable marriage.

The choice of Lord King as the ideal husband – it’s clear that both Lady Byron and Ada’s tutor, Mary Somerville, advocated the match – provides clear evidence of the degree to which Lord Byron’s ghost hovered above their lives. William King was wild about Byron. Employed in the Ionian Islands by an obliging relative until 1833, young William had himself painted in a pose and local costume which so conscientiously echoed his idol’s that Ada would always refer to it as William’s ‘Albanian’ dress.

In Albanian dress

Lord King prided himself upon looking Byronic

Returning to England in 1833, following the death of his father, William named the fields of his Surrey estate after Byron’s poems: Chillon, Lara, Corsair and even ‘Ali’. For such a Byron worshipper, Ada herself was the ultimate trophy. They married in 1835. Several years later, the proudly upgraded William, Earl of Lovelace (Annabella had secured the title for a beloved son-in-law through her close family connection to Victoria’s adored Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne) inscribed a mighty beam in his new Surrey house with a new family motto: Crede Byron.

Examples of this enduring obsession with the dead poet abound. Invited to bestow names upon Ada’s firstborn son and daughter, Lady Byron asked that they should be called Byron and Annabella. (The anxiety with which these two children were watched, reported upon and kept apart suggests that both their mother and grandmother feared a repetition of Byron’s relationship with Augusta Leigh.) In Ada’s new home, the great Thomas Phillips’ portrait of her father was given a place of honour, alongside one of her mother (painted in the year she first met Byron) and another of herself, painted in the first year of her marriage and designed – the commissioner was Annabella – to show off Ada’s most strikingly Byronic feature, a forceful, jutting jaw. It takes no great stretch of imagination to see William’s extravagant Somerset home, Ashley Combe, built by him on the actual cliffside where the young Coleridge had imagined Kubla Khan’s palace to arise, as a further homage to Byron. William and Ada were fully aware that it was Ada’s father who had provided the funds for the poem’s first publication.

The most powerful indication of the attachment Ada felt to her father came in 1850, when she and her husband paid their first visit to Newstead Abbey.

Newstead Abbey

Newstead Abbey as it looked when Byron first saw it

Annabella herself had paid an anonymous visit to the Abbey back in 1818. She was disconcerted when Ada declared that she herself had now fallen in love with ‘the old place and all my wicked forebears’. Before she left Newstead, Ada secured a promise from the Abey’s devoted new owner, Thomas Wyldman, that he would allow her body a resting place within the family vault, at her father’s side. Plans were discussed with Lady Byron – they were never executed – to buy the Abbey back.

Two years later, in 1852, Ada Lovelace died of uterine cancer. She was thirty-six, the age at which the father she never knew had ended his own hectic career. She was buried, as she had asked, beside her father. Annabella consoled herself with a private shrine to her daughter, erected in the churchyard of her own family estate at Kirkby Mallory in Northamptonshire. The fact that she never visited it is apparent from the fact that the tablet’s engraver has mistaken the year of Ada’s birth.

Annabella’s own devotion to her husband’s memory is most movingly apparent in the way that she channelled her enormous fortune into causes of which she believed Lord Byron would have approved. Byron had spoken up for the rebel weavers of Nottinghamshire when they smashed the new frames that threatened to extinguish their livelihood. Generous help was extended to the indigent frameworkers on Lady Byron’s own large estate. Byron had supported the Greeks in their fight for independence. Annabella saw to it that a large tract of land in Greece was purchased from a Turkish owner and benevolently run on her behalf by a member of her family whom she had taken under her wing. According to Florence Nightingale, one of Lady Byron’s most ardent admirers, she quietly continued to pay her husband’s debts and to meet his obligations, long after his death.

More controversially, Annabella took under her wing Medora Leigh, the troubled young woman whom she believed to be the secret love-child of her husband and his manipulative older half-sister.

Medora Leigh

Medora Leigh was believed by herself, her aunt Annabella and by Byron himself to be the poet’s own child

Medora, who would die obscurely in France in 1849 at the age of 35, was the chief culprit in convincing an all-too willing Annabella that it was Augusta Leigh who had finally persuaded Byron to hate his wife, even resorting to the forging of letters during his life in exile. ‘She-monster!’ was loyal Ada’s indignant description of Mrs Leigh. Annabella did not challenge the description.

It was Annabella’s growing belief that Augusta Leigh had both seduced her husband and destroyed her marriage that led to the most ignoble episode of Lady Byron’s long life. In 1851, the ageing and indigent Augusta Leigh was summoned to an interview at which she was interrogated and found wanting. (She had failed to supply Lady Byron with the desired confession of her sins.) The fact that Annabella sent a last healing message of affection to Augusta’s deathbed later that same year does not exonerate her from the charge of having betrayed Lord Byron’s most urgent request, that she should always care for his beloved but feckless sister.

An unexpected twist of fate gave Augusta the last laugh. In 1860,  respectful panegyrics were offered at Lady Byron’s death. (She was hailed by Harriet Martineau as a dedicated reformer whose death would be lamented ‘wherever our language is spoken’.) In 1868, Byron’s last mistress published a book in which Theresa Guiccioli, Marquise de Boissy condemned Lady Byron as a cold, unloving wife who had destroyed the reputations of both Byron and his innocent sister by her refusal to provide a public reason for leaving her husband.

The book was first published in Paris. In Britain, the press devoured it with glee. In Blackwood’s, The Athenaeum and The Quarterly Review, Lady Byron was now denounced as a calculating, cold-blooded fiend. What a hypocrite stood here! Lady Byron was a woman (so Blackwood‘s declared with uninhibited relish), whom the saintly Marquise had shown to be unfit to touch the tainted hem of even the most depraved member of her sex.

And Augusta Leigh? Most improbably, Augusta was transformed by a flurried sweep of Victorian pens into a perfect angel of the hearth, a loving sister and maligned madonna, a gentle wife around whom a brood of devoted children knelt to lisp their evening prayers. Lord Byron, much to the gratification of his media-savvy publishers, was meanwhile recast as a misunderstood paragon. Teetotal by preference, a model of chivalry, kindness and forbearance, Lord Byron was declared by one ardent admirer to represent above all, the spirit and manners of a thoroughgoing British gentleman.

Charting the stormy passage of these remarkable people in In Byron’s Wake, I hope that a fair sense of their strengths and weaknesses has been achieved. But the fact that Lady Byron is today still viewed by many as a repressed and vindictive prude, while the charismatic and lovably fallible Ada Lovelace is celebrated only for her remarkably prophetic account of Babbage’s unbuilt machine flags up the enduring problem. Gaining a true estimate of these women’s achievements requires as much of us, their judges, as it did of them. In a timeworn phrase, it’s still too early to tell.

(1) The 3rd canto was written in 1816, en route from Dover to the house on Lake Geneva at which Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was conceived, while Byron’s adoring mistress (Claire Clairmont was the instigator of the Shelleys’ own journey out to Switzerland) also discovered that she was pregnant. Cynics might question the depth of Lord Byron’s yearnings for his own daughter. He had counted upon a son.

Miranda Seymour is a novelist, biographer and critic.  She has been a visiting professor at Nottingham Trent University. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, she lives both in London and at her family’s ancestral home in Nottinghamshire, Thrumpton Hall. Miranda
Miranda  has written an acclaimed biography of Mary Shelley, and a prize-winning memoir, My Father’s House. Her latest work is In Byron’s Wake, a study of Annabella Milbanke and her daughter Ada Lovelace. 

Spring shoots and green peas: the Wordsworths and their kitchen garden

by Gareth Evans
Following six months of settled living with his sister Dorothy, one May morning William Wordsworth left Dove Cottage with his brother John to walk through Yorkshire.  Separated from her brothers in early childhood only to be permanently reunited as adults, an understandably emotional Dorothy found ways of coping with what was clearly an acute sense of loss on their departure.  That day, 14 May 1800, she resolved to start writing what was to become The Grasmere Journal.  The following morning she went out into the garden and hoed that season’s first row of peas, an activity that was both a distraction and a necessity.
DC garden
Away from the steeply-rising pleasure garden at Dove Cottage, Dorothy chiefly organised and tended the productive kitchen garden as part of her housekeeping tasks.  This she undertook with the help of the out-living day servants Molly, Aggy and John, who with William, helped perform heavy tasks: ‘Sauntered a good deal in the garden, bound carpets, mended old clothes.  Read Timon of Athens.  Dried linen – Molly weeded the turnips, John stuck the peas’ (19 May 1800).  Garden peas were a nutritious staple of the cottage economy they appear to be a long-time constituent of the Wordsworths’ plain diet, as was a wide range of other garden produce.
That first row of peas that Dorothy tended on 15 May 1800 had probably been sown from the end of March to the beginning of April, which suggests they were growing an ‘early’ variety bred to give especially quick results.  To plant each row the seeds were placed at regular intervals in a drill drawn across the ground.  Not fully above the ground in May, they were still vulnerable to competition from ramping weeds.  As Abercombie’s plain-speaking Every Man His Own Gardener (1767 onwards) advises in his entry for May, ‘There is no work in the kitchen garden that requires more attention than this; for weeds are at no time more dangerous to crops than the present.’  A week later the reward of Dorothy’s vigilance was recorded in the journal with the satisfied comment ‘all peas up’; a feat, along with the success of the whole plot, we should take too much for granted.   Peas are known for their rapid development, so soon shoots of that first row of peas at Dove Cottage would have vined, the point when the first tendrils appear.  Straggling on the ground, they would have required somebody to provide them with support, or to ‘stick’ them as Dorothy refers to it using a now obsolete term:

Stick: ‘to furnish (a plant) with a stick as a support’, (OED 3rd ed. 1972).

Stickings: ‘sticks used to support garden pea plants.’, (OED 3rd ed. 2017).

Pea sticks can be cut from such trees as hazel, beech or hornbeam, the previous winter.  The broom-like, prepared twiggy branches are placed in the ground like small leafless trees for the pea tendrils to bind to as the plant grows up into the supporting matrix.  In an alternative practice, tent-like frames were created from straight pollarded poles of hazel or birch.  As William was still making more pea sticks in June it appears he was, in fact, utilising the trees in the woods around Grasmere.  Most suitable for full-sized variety of peas, as opposed to the dwarf type, these unwieldy pea sticks could be over two metres long.  Whichever system was actually used, the pea and the support together created an intimately entwined and productive structure.

A man trims cuttings from a hedge on his farm in the Pennines, to re-use them as pea sticks in the garden. 1945

A man trims cuttings from a hedge on his farm in the Pennines, to re-use them as pea sticks in the garden. 1945

However, this is not the story of the simple cultivation of a single crop of peas.  The pea is most frequently mentioned vegetable in the Journal in 1800.  This was a consequence of the demanding horticultural procedure the Wordsworths had planned which prolonged the season of this quick growing crop.  Dorothy’s pea plot was not completely sown at once, in line with the established practice, the successive rows would have been sown at intervals to give a ‘constant supply of young peas for the table’.  The poorest cottager might be able to sow a single row of peas, or perhaps two rows in succession for an extended harvest.  The Wordsworths confidently planned at least six rows in succession, probably more.  If they had bought a pint of an established garden variety such as ‘Prussian Blue’, contemporary horticultural sources state confidently that it would have contained 1860 seeds, enough for 8 rows each 4 yards long.
John Constable, 'Golding Constable's Kitchen Garden', c. 1815, detail

John Constable, ‘Golding Constable’s Kitchen Garden’, c. 1815, detail

Although Dorothy’s journal starts too late in the year to record that first sowing of peas, nevertheless we can detect the rhythm of the Dove Cottage pea plot from the records of ‘sticking’.  If each reference to this essential task from 19 May to 13 June represents a complete row of peas, it would suggest that, at its height, the rows had been originally sown at the horticulturally approved interval of a fortnight.

19th May.  ‘Molly weeded the turnips, John stuck the peas’

2nd June.   ‘John Fisher stuck the peas.  Molly weeded and washed’

9th, 11th  & 13th June.  ‘In the evening I stuck peas, watered the garden & planted Brocoli [sic]’; ‘William stuck peas, after dinner he lay down – John not at home – I stuck peas alone – Molly washing.’; ‘Molly stuck peas.  I weeded a little.’

William had to make more pea sticks on 20 June so the cultivation cycle must still have been rolling on into the summer.  The first mention of a pea crop appears in an entry for Tuesday, 29 July; ‘still very hot, We gathered peas for dinner’.  After an evening walk Dorothy ‘was sick & weary’.
A new tempo now began as it was necessary to keep harvesting pods that were ready to pick.  By doing so the plants were stimulated into further flowering and pod production.  Each promising pod would have been carefully judged as picking too early was wasteful, but leaving the peas bulk up too much meant they were losing their tender sweetness.  From now on the consecutive rows of plants would be developing in steady sequence from seedlings to, finally, podding plants.

Pea cultivation. Dorothy Hartley's, 'Food in England'. 1954

Pea cultivation. Dorothy Hartley’s, ‘Food in England’. 1954

The many analogies between the organic growth and the creative process have the danger of being too glib.  Caught up in a laborious sequence of imperative tasks, the Wordsworths were probably too weary to care.  In spite of this it must be said that the figurative possibilities of the entire pea plot are too tempting to completely ignore, constructed as it is in the form of a metrical store of peas with its own tuneless prosody.  A creative idea or poem may be said to develop ‘organically’, that is as a single organism.  As we shall see there is a greater potential for structure, if not form, when they are considered collectively. When you next have an opportunity, consider a vegetable garden or allotment. As verse manipulates words and the ideas of language, the individual plots can be seen as imposing an order on the otherwise feral plants such as the unruly pea.  Both variously create something sustained, productive and, in some way, potentially nourishing.
Dorothy could now afford to be generous.  The day after the first peas were picked more pods were ready, this time they were to be a gift for neighbours.  Dorothy spent the following Sunday morning in the kitchen, that evening there were ‘peas for dinner’.  Considering the customary frugality of the household we might take this last statement literally.  The following Monday she ‘pulled a large basket of peas & sent to Keswick by a return chaise’.  The sugar content decreases sharply after picking, hence the need for urgency.  No doubt the Coleridges at Greta Hall relished the sweet, fresh peas which were presumably sent at some expense.
Bags and baskets of peas continued to be pulled over the coming weeks until, a month later, the season was turning and the longer rhythm of year was making itself felt.  It was time to let the peas that remained on the plants completely mature into viable seed.  When dried these would be stored to be the source of the follow year’s crop.  Stripped of all that was useful, the remaining unproductive plants could then be unearthed.  ‘Very cold – baking in the morning – gathered pea seeds & took up’ (22 August).
If the pea plot can be seen fancifully as a sort of horticultural verse form, then, as the final pods are left on the plants to mature into viable seed, we can see it as a some sort of sonnet.  In the course of the last few rows there is an abrupt change of focus and tempo from the immediacy of harvest to an anticipation of the coming year.  Certainly, insights of maturity and expectation are suitable subjects for a sonnet’s closing stanza.  William, of course, admired the sonnet form, in Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room (1807) he does refer to ‘the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground’.
Do gardeners feel the experience of cultivating in some way the same as being inside a tight verse form, either a creator or consumer?  I do not know.  If it is then to some degree it is in the maintenance of integrity and the creation of form and structure.
As far-fetched as the poetical analogy of the pea plot might be, there is one aspect that is authentic to the Wordsworths’ life and creative work, that is its embodiment and representation of order.   As with many vegetables in the kitchen garden, the cultivation of peas was an exercise in painstaking care, but in maintaining this horticultural order one was rewarded with abundance.  These gardening virtues feature by their absence in ‘The Ruined Cottage’ (The Excursion, 1814).  The humbleness of the cottager is indicated by the modest length of the rows of peas.  Her ‘peculiar pains’ have been applied to the cultivation of the carnation, a ‘fancy’ flower of the labouring classes, but also the sowing the two rows of peas, no doubt in succession.  The consequences of poverty brought on by political and economic forces are reflected in the ‘silent overgrowings’ of the neglected garden, which climaxes in the pea plot.  Here William invokes bindweed, one of the most nightmarish of garden weeds.  Described with funereal imagery, the overwhelming weight of its unimpeded growth pulls down anthropomorphically the whole structure, both the crop and its support.

              carnations, once
Prized for surpassing beauty, and no less
For the peculiar pains they had required,
Declined their languid heads, wanting support.
The cumbrous bind-weed, with its wreaths and bells,
Had twined about her two small rows of peas,
And dragged them to the earth.

Away from its use in imagery, the physical act of creating and maintaining the vegetable plot no doubt had its therapeutic effects on both brother and sister. The concentrated cycles of the kitchen garden are one of the most intimate everyday relationships between humanity and the plant world.  William formulated a joke on the sort of mental diversion that work in the kitchen garden can bring about, no doubt at times both necessary and welcome.

We plant cabbages … and if retirement in its full perfection be as powerful in working transformations as one of Ovid’s gods, you may perhaps suspect that into cabbages we shall be transformed. 

Wordsworth to William Matthews, Racedown Lodge, 21st March 1796.

Summer in the kitchen garden imposed an exacting external order on the Wordsworths, a mind-emptying physical exertion that helped support both their corporeal existence and creative lives.
Gareth Evans writes articles on the history and culture of plants and their use (   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.

The Gravestone of John Keats: Romancing the Stone

by Ian Reynolds

John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five on February 23rd, 1821 and is buried at the Cemitero Acattolico—the so-called Protestant Cemetery in Rome (1). Two years later, in the early spring of 1823 his gravestone with epitaph was finally laid at his burial site. (2) Much has been documented about Keats’s final days in Rome. The romantic view is that on his death bed, he declared to his friend and carer Joseph Severn, his dying wishes. These were then recorded in letters sent from Rome by Severn.

This discussion seeks to explore the evidence to determine what Keats’s declared dying wishes actually were in relation to the epitaph on his gravestone. The commonly accepted view is that he wanted the following; his name not to appear on the gravestone; and the sole inscription to read: “HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER”

The actual gravestone text reads:

This grave contains all that was mortal, of a young English poet, who, on his death bed, in the bitterness of his heart, at the malicious power of his enemies, desired these words to be engraven on his tomb stone

JK grave 2

Friends of Keats who were responsible for the epitaph, are principally Charles Armitage Brown (3) and Joseph Severn (4). Years later both were to admit regret for the epitaph. Severn wrote on July 13th, 1836 “…the present gravestone with its inscription is an eyesore to me and more…” (5), while Brown referred to it as “…a sort of profanation…” (6) . These belated pangs of regret help to establish the view that the epitaph was not what Keats wanted.

For the purpose of this discussion, dying wishes are defined as what is stated by the deceased and what is recorded before death. It logically follows that it is not possible to have a dying wish post-mortem (after death)—it must be made by the deceased whilst they are still living—ante-mortem (before death).

We have to look to correspondence from the period to support the common perception of what Keats’s dying wishes were. The most influential source material that many biographers and historians cite from is William Sharp, Life and Letters of Joseph Severn (7) first published in 1892 (hereafter referred to as “Sharp,1892”). Sharp wrote the biography based on “a great mass of letters, journals, reminiscences, and fragmentary records” (8) which Severn’s son Walter had provided. The biography of Severn’s long and varied life was initially planned to be in two volumes, such was the amount of information. But the publisher baulked at this and insisted that Sharp produce it in one volume only—so the book was somewhat squeezed, with voids of missing years, and a narrow focus on the Keats years either side of 1821.

The result is a sanitised version of Severn’s life—the negative played down, or airbrushed out completely, and rough non-complimentary edges smoothed. Whilst it is still an important record (in the absence of anything else) it cannot be entirely relied upon. Sharp had a habit of ‘stitching in’ to sections of the book snippets and paragraphs initially written by Severn, but edited and substantively revised by Sharp. Even for the careful reader, it is very easy to misinterpret—on one page you may have an apparently contemporaneous letter, interlaced with a much later “Recollection” or “Reminiscence” which has been extracted from a Severn memoir, edited or reassembled by Sharp to present a relevant and highly readable anecdote within the narrative. Additionally, Severn habitually added many postscripts to his letters, and it is very easy for the reader to confuse an actual postscript to a letter, with a Sharp “recollection”, based on a Severn “Reminiscence” written many years later.(9) It can become very confusing.

Much of the source material (the Severn papers) included in Sharp,1892 were presumed lost after Sharp completed his book.(10) The Sharp biography thus became the primary reference text in lieu of the original material. Amy Lowell (1925), Sheila Birkenhead (1944 & 1965), Aileen Ward (1963), Walter Jackson Bate (1963), Robert Gittings, et al, all rely heavily on Sharp,1892. The Severn papers eventually surfaced in March 1972 when they were donated to the Houghton Library at Harvard. (11)

Scholars who had access to the Severn papers began to notice discrepancies in Sharp’s interpretation of the material. As far as facts go, we have Severn’s almost contemporaneous letters—particularly those written before Keats’s death—these are relevant, as they are the only record of what Keats’s declared dying wishes were, if any. The significance of this is that Sharp developed the narrative about Keats’s last final days, by interlacing from the “great mass of letters, journals, reminiscences, and fragmentary records” provided to him in the late 1880s.

According to Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs (Ed. Grant F Scott, hereafter referred to as Scott, 2005), Severn’s memoir My Tedious Life was the main source for Sharp from which he developed the narrative for Keats final months in Rome. It was written in 1873—six years before Severn’s death and fifty-two years after Keats’s death. (12)

Consider a fact recorded about Keats’s dying wishes. In Sharp, Severn writes a long letter to Mrs Brawne (the mother of Keats’s fiancée Fanny Brawne) dated February 12th, 1821. This letter records that:

…Among the many things he has requested to me to-night this is the principal, that on his grave shall be this “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”’ (13)

According to the Life of John Keats by Charles Armitage Brown, this letter is actually dated February 8th, 1821 and is addressed to Brown himself. Sharp confused both the date, and Brawne with Brown, but the substance of it does remain relevant, as primary source evidence—in that before death John Keats had declared that he wanted these words on his grave: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”.

Keats on his deathbed, Joseph Severn, 1821

Keats on his deathbed, Joseph Severn, 1821

There is another source of potential confusion in a letter written by Severn to William Haslam on February 22nd, 1821.(14) This is the day before Keats died. Sharp records this letter as does Scott. However, Sharp continues on from the letter and quotes “a memorable passage” from Severn’s unpublished memoirs, included a commentary presented as if contemporaneous to the Haslam letter:

“…From time to time he gave me all his directions as to what he wanted done after his death. It was in the same sad hour when he told me with greater agitation than he had shown on any other subject, to put the letter which had just come from Miss Brawne (which he was unable to bring himself to read, or even to open), with any other that should arrive too late to reach him in life, inside his winding-sheet on his heart–it was then, also, that he asked that I should see cut upon his gravestone as sole inscription, not his name,(15) but simply, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’” (16)

Here in Sharp, we have a much later recollection by Severn, edited and enhanced by Sharp for readability, almost seamlessly stitched into the narrative.

As Keats makes no reference to “sole inscription” and “not his name” in any correspondence, the question remains as to where these ‘wishes’ emanate from. The root source can be traced to six months after Keats’s death. In August 1821, his friend and publisher John Taylor, writes to Severn: (17)

“…I find by your letter to Mr. Haslam that you have designed a tomb in the form of a Grecian altar, with a lyre, &c. This is said to be executing, I think, by some English sculptor, but you want an inscription. I can conceive none better than our poor friend’s melancholy sentiment, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ It is very simple and affecting, and tells so much of the story that none need be told. Neither name nor date is requisite. These will be given in his life by his biographer. So, unless something else is determined on, let this line stand alone. (18) I foresee that it will be as clear an indication to posterity as the plainest, every-day inscription that one may find in Westminster Abbey…”

The aforementioned was proposed perhaps for reasons of dramatic gravitas. In Taylor’s opinion, Keats’s name was not necessary, and that “Here lies one whose name was writ on water” should be the sole inscription. Severn and Brown both picked up on this. The Taylor suggestion was to be later transmuted into a ‘dying wish’ of Keats, although it originated some six months after he had died.

To conclude, before Keats’s death we have confirmation in the Severn letter to Brown dated February 8th, 1821 that Keats wanted: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. This was the single declared dying wish of John Keats in relation to his epitaph. The idea of the “sole inscription” and “not his name” was instigated posthumously by John Taylor in his August 1821 letter to Severn, and later executed by Joseph Severn. The evidence would strongly suggest that Keats’s dying wishes (such as they were) were duly fulfilled. Keats wanted “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. He got this, and more. Everything else that appears on the gravestone epitaph was created posthumously by others—and not by John Keats.

I am indebted to Grant F Scott, Professor of English at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, for taking the time out of his busy schedule to point me in the right direction on some dates to letters and events cited in this paper. For me the most important reference source was his Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs (2005)  which was a huge help and inspiration.
I am also grateful for access to Romantic Circles electronic edition. This is a scholarly resource which features New Letters from Charles Brown to Joseph Severn, Editors: Grant F Scott & Sue Brown ( 2007: Revised 2010).
I will be following this post with another on John Keats’ gravestone itself, looking particularly at the text ‘Who, on his death bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart, at the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired…’

1. 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
2. No exact date. Joseph Severn to William Haslam, June 1st 1823 “I have just put up the Tomb to poor Keats—it has cost me £16” p242 ed. Scott, Grant F, Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs (2005), Aldershot/Burlington VT: Ashgate.
3. Charles Armitage Brown. Born Lambeth, London 1787, died New Zealand 1842. Met Keats 1817. Walking tour of Lake District of England, Northern part of Ireland, & Scotland with Keats in early summer 1818. Keats lodged with Brown at Wentworth Place, Hampstead from December 1818. For further information on Brown see Richardson, Joanna, Keats and his Circle, (1980), London:Cassell pp 25-27. See also Grant F Scott & Sue Brown, New Letters from Charles Brown to Joseph Severn: Character of Charles Brown 15-18;
4. Joseph Severn. Born Hoxton, London 1793, died Rome 1879. Buried Rome Tomb no. 173, Gravestone S32, (Zone A, Plot 65) of the Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners. Painter and diplomat. Met Keats 1816. Travelled with Keats to Rome September 1820. See Richardson pp104-107. For character see also Scott, 2005 ‘The Eternal I’ pp 8-15 & letter 19, p149-151 & letter 48, p246 (underlined text).
5. November 26th, 1836. Sharp, William The Life and Letters of Joseph Severn, (1892), London: Sampson Low, Marston and Co: p165.
6.  New letters of CAB,Letter 42
7. Sharp, 1892
8. Sharp, 1892 preface p v (opening sentence)
9. For further information with illuminating commentary on Wm Sharp’s process of writing the book 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
10. Scott, 2005 p563
11. See Harvard Library Bulletin 21 (October 1973): 449
12. Scott, 2005 p567. Note: My Tedious Life included in its entirety in Scott, 2005 pp 625-664
13. Sharp, 1892 pp 89-90 & Life of John Keats by Charles Armitage Brown (1937) Oxford: OUP pp83-88 [letter dated February 8th, 1821], and Rollins (1965, no 166, 2:91 (essentially same as Sharp, 1892 pp 89-90)
14. Sharp, 1892 pp 92-93 – see also Scott, 2005 pp 135-136
15. Bold added to “as sole inscription” & “not his name” by this author
16. Sharp, 1892 p93
17. Sharp, 1892 p107
18. Bold added by this author

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.Ian Reynolds

The winners of the 2018 Wordsworth birthday poem competition

We had another wonderful set of entries this year, on the subject of ‘The child is father of the man’.  We’d like to thank Fiona Sampson, the poet and acclaimed author of The Girl who Wrote Frankenstein, for being this year’s judge, and for very kindly donating two copies of her book to the winner and runner-up.
The winning poem is by Gerald Schwartz. Fiona said: “This poem comes up fresh each time, no matter how often you reread it. It’s direct and yet mysterious, a moment in time and yet a whole lifetime of such moments. I love its intimate feel: like seeing in the dark.”
Early Photo

I’ve hung a photo of myself
At age seven in a metal frame
In the kitchen so I
Can see me in the dark
When and where I make
My pre-dawn coffee.
Then as now the same
But different, as my life
Trickles down the same
Dark and silver nerve
Of a station I don’t understand
But will always remind me
With its mystery, its living map
Long after I have lost
My mobile phone, reminding me
With that pulsar of identity
Where I am still free to go.

The runner-up is by Alison Carter, who was last year’s winner. Fiona said of this poem, “This very human, narrative poem leaves lots unsaid – which is just what we want from a story that lest us step into it. What’s special about this day? Is the man in the poem digging a grave for his father? Or just missing him? We don’t need to know: we can fill the poem with our own meanings.”
Digging to Australia

He learned lots of things
working the garden with Dad:
that a spadeful of soil
contains more living organisms
than there are people on the planet.

He knew the biscuit snap
of an ancient pot from a bit
of brick, that their soil
had ‘Good tilth’, the lovely word
light between tongue and teeth.

A Job shared was a job halved,
but that day he worked alone,
watched his knuckles whiten
on the warm wood of the grip,
swung onto the blade’s shoulder,

tucked his head deep into his chest
like a sleeping bird and dug.
Last night’s row worried his ears,
as he drove through surface litter,
the pale gulp of the clays below.

Once, he believed he could dig
down to Australia, but today
rasping metal strikes unbroken
rock, describing the weight
of all that is now ungovernable.

Congratulations to Gerald and Alison and thank you again to everyone who entered. We’ll be back next year!

Reimagining the Wordsworths II: Poetry and Diaries

by Hannah Piercy
The 5th June 2017 was not so much ‘a fine showery morning’, as Dorothy Wordsworth says of the 5th June 1802 in her diaries, but one of those days when being outside for a few minutes can get you soaked to the bone – so a typical rainy day in the Lake District, some might say! I grew up in the Lakes, not so many miles away from Dove Cottage in Grasmere, where the Wordsworths lived for almost nine years. And as a secondary school pupil, I attended Keswick School, so there was a special pleasure for me in meeting some of the current year ten students of Keswick School to workshop some creative and critical ideas about the poetry, diaries, and lives of William and Dorothy Wordsworth.
DC 4
To create a manageable plan for workshopping William and Dorothy’s work in less than five hours, we had decided on a shortlist of poems and diary entries to discuss and record with the students during the day. We ran four sessions, discussing and trying out creative exercises based upon one of William’s poems and one of Dorothy’s diary entries in each session. Some of the texts we chose, like I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, were obvious choices, but some, like The Tables Turned, perhaps seem less obvious. We chose to pair The Tables Turned with Dorothy’s diary entry for 15th April 1798 (written before the Wordsworths moved to Grasmere, when they were living in Alfoxden house, Somerset). The Tables Turned implores its addressee to ‘quit your books’ and ‘Come forth into the light of things, / Let Nature be your teacher’, while Dorothy’s diary discusses how ‘Nature was very successfully striving to make beautiful what art had deformed – ruins, hermitages etc’, and notes that ‘Happily we cannot shape the huge hills, or carve out the valleys according to our fancy.’ We wanted, then, to ask the students to think about how we perceive nature today, and to invite them to compose their own poems in response to the themes and issues raised by Dorothy and William’s writing.

As we read over the poems composed by the students, it was fascinating to see how many of them – the majority of the group, in fact – had fixated on the idea of more modern distractions from nature, and in particular, the role of smartphones in quite literally ‘filtering’ nature for us. While William’s poem admonishes its addressee to abandon books and ‘hear the woodland linnet’, the year ten pupils from Keswick School used their poems as a chance to reflect on the need to abandon their phones and enjoy nature in its own right. Natalie Williams’s poem, for example, expressed a poignant call for us to

Zoom in on a picture but know
in the real world nature has
a higher resolution than any screen.

Look up to the trees, to the branches and leaves.
Notice the veins that weave
across the surface like a thread,
unravelling like a map to the road ahead.

Some of the poems were forthright celebrations of nature and its constancy in our changing world, aligning closely with the sentiments of the Wordsworths – as Chloe Mackay wrote,

Year by year the fieldmice breed,
and green shoots sprout from every seed,
After all this trouble the birds still sing
Oh nature! what a marvellous thing.


It was fantastic to see this group of pupils enjoying and thinking carefully about their engagement with nature through the poetry and diaries of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Our hope is that that is what these soundpieces of young people reading and discussing the work of the Wordsworths, and the enjoyment of nature, will encourage, along with the Wordsworth Trust’s work on Reimagining Wordsworth more broadly. In the accompanying soundpiece to this post, you can hear the students’ voices overlaid into a chorus, with the sound of a river bubbling in the background, an apt accompaniment to a poem that celebrates the importance of nature. Young people today can still get a lot out of both poetry and nature, as illustrated by the poems these year ten students produced at the Wordsworth Trust. It is with one of these poems that I will end, written by Elspeth Leslie, and again dealing with the intersection of nature and technology:

Eyes fixated on a glaring screen
human turning into robots,     
surviving on wifi and phone signal,
they come alive as their
battery dies.

If you only looked up just
long enough to see the
mesmerising beauty of shimmering
lakes and the staggering
beauty of the mountains
rising, breathtakingly from
the ground.

The moment ends as the
addictive phone looms
up from the pocket and
snaps the ‘insta worthy’
shot. #beautifulview.

 You can read more about the project and hear the first instalment of the sound pieces here . Keep an eye out for part three, coming soon!
Thanks go to the following people, without whom this project would not have been possible: Lucy Stone, Michael Rossington, Sarah Rylance and Evie Hill (Newcastle University), Jeff Cowton, Bernadette Calvey, Melissa Mitchell, and Susan Allen (Wordsworth Trust), Tracey Messenger, Helen Robinson, and the Students of Keswick School, Deirdre Wildy (Queen’s University Belfast), Robert Macfarlane, sound artists Conor Caldwell (Queen’s University Belfast) and Danny Diamond, and project leaders Jemima Short and Kate Sweeney.

  • Dove Cottage, Grasmere,
    Cumbria, LA22 9SH


Enter your e-mail below to receive updates from us: