Coleridge in Wales at the Hay Literary Festival: Walking with Coleridge, Wordsworth and Thelwall

by Elsa Hammond

‘What has Coleridge got to do with Wales?’ This was the question most frequently posed by interested audience members, participants, walkers, and passers-by during the Coleridge in Wales events at the Hay Literary Festival this year.
In June 1794 Coleridge departed Cambridge to spend the summer on a walking tour of Wales. He stopped off in Oxford, and left buoyed after three weeks with his new friend Robert Southey, hatching Pantisocratic plans and dreaming of a new, just society together. Covering more than 600 miles in under two months, Coleridge and his walking companion, Joseph Hucks, climbed mountains, drank and discussed politics with the locals. Coleridge wrote poetry, notebook entries and letters along the way, and Hucks published an account of the journey in A Pedestrian Tour through North Wales in a Series of Letters the next year. Coleridge would “dart into Wales” again in 1798, to visit John Thelwall with Dorothy and William Wordsworth. However, he was particularly struck by this first uninterrupted experience of the Welsh landscape in 1794, and, as Richard Holmes observes in his biography, “for the first time [he] showed his passionate response to wild nature”.
Coleridge in Wales is an ambitious, exciting project, involving an 80-day journey around Wales and an extensive (and growing) programme of talks, events, conferences, collaborations, performances, readings, walks and swims. Inspired by Coleridge’s own travels through Wales and masterminded by classical singer and facilitator Richard Parry, it is a celebration of community, landscape and culture, and an ongoing conversation about Coleridge’s life and works. I joined the project as a journey-maker and travel writer with a personal and academic interest in Coleridge, and arrived in Pandy (16 miles from Hay-on-Wye on the English-Welsh border) to speak about my own experiences of solitude at sea in relation to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and to co-lead a walk over Hay Bluff as part of the Hay Festival.

Descending Hay Bluff (Coleridge in Wales)

Descending Hay Bluff (Coleridge in Wales)

After a rich evening of stories, discussion, poetry and song in Pandy, the morning of the walk saw an eclectic group – including a clockmaker, singers, poets, students, academics and Cardiff Metropolitan University artists Chris Glynn and Dan Peterson meet to hike the 16 miles to Hay along the Offa’s Dyke Path. One of the UK national trails, Offa’s Dyke path is 177 miles long, named after the dyke ordered by King Offa in the 8th century, and thought to have been built to divide his Kingdom of Mercia from rival kingdoms.
It was a hazy day, sunny but not too bright, and just right for walking. After crossing a rough field we had a steepish ascent up a small road, then a trackway, before arriving at the top of the ridge, which we stayed with throughout the day. The heather was not yet in bloom, but at one point we saw a red kite, and a little later a skylark sang loudly above us. In true Coleridgean diversity, conversation ranged from mountain navigation, to art, to ornithology, to humanitarian crises.
Foolishly, I had not taken quite as much water with me as I ended up needing (the day being particularly dry), but I reminded myself that Coleridge himself had encountered the same problem more than once during his tour of Wales. One of these episodes apparently inspired the gruesome moment of quenching intense thirst in Part III of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, after the ship has become becalmed in the doldrums:

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
We could nor laugh nor wail;
Through utter drought all dumb we stood!
I bit my arm, I sucked the blood,
And cried, A sail! a sail!

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
Agape they heard me call:
Gramercy! they for joy did grin,
And all at once their breath drew in.
As they were drinking all.

Years later, in 1830, Coleridge would recall the incident: “I took the thought of ‘grinning for joy’ in that poem from a friend’s remark to me, when we had climbed to the top of Plinlimmon [Penmaenmawr] and were nearly dead with thirst. We could not speak from the constriction, till we found a little puddle under a stone”. Earlier in the tour, he had written of a similar instance (in a letter to Southey on July 13, 1794): “From Llanvunnog we walked over the mountains to Bala – most sublimely terrible! It was scorchingly hot – I applied my mouth ever and anon to the side of the Rocks and sucked in drafts of Water cold as Ice”. Rather more prosaically, I accepted some extra water from kindly walking companions.
Coming down from Hay Bluff (677m) we followed the path through a few more miles of farmland, negotiating groups of cows with young calves, and wading through fields full of buttercups, which covered my boots with a yellowish-green veneer. It had been a long day, and we only just made it to the festival in time for the Coleridge in Wales talk; without stopping, we walked into Hay village, along the road to the festival site and onto the stage, with all the sweat and dust of the mountain to add an authentic element to the event.

Walking into Hay (Coleridge in Wales)

Walking into Hay (Coleridge in Wales)

The second day of Coleridge in Wales at the Hay Festival saw Richard Parry and eighteenth-century historian Penelope Corfield (Royal Holloway, London University) lead a walk from Glasbury, near Hay-on-Wye, to Llyswen in the steps of Wordsworth, Coleridge and John Thelwall. After visiting Coleridge and Wordsworth in Somerset in the summer of 1797, Thelwall went in search of his own simple retreat, finally settling at Ty Mawr in Llyswen where he lived, farmed and wrote between 1797 and 1801. He was visited there by Coleridge and the Wordsworths in 1798.
A mile or so into the walk our small band of writers, artists and academics were treated to an impromptu reading of Thelwall’s ‘The Phenomena of the Wye during the Winter of 1797-8’ by Steve Poole, Professor of History and Heritage at the University of the West of England.

 Steve Poole reading Thelwall on the banks of the Wye (Steve Poole)

Steve Poole reading Thelwall on the banks of the Wye (Steve Poole)

Thelwall had written this essay for the Monthly Magazine in March 1798, reflecting on his first winter at Llyswen and on the beauty of the Wye: “you might even fell every tree, and exterminate every shrub, without destroying the sublimity, or even the beauty of the scene; for the river and the mountains would still remain, the solid features of the landscape would be yet unaltered”.

The Wye (Steve Poole)

The Wye (Steve Poole)

Sitting on the banks of the Wye amid the green lushness of May, we found it difficult to imagine the landscape stripped of all vegetation. Richard decided to follow the reading with a powerful rendition of ‘Rolling in foaming billows’ from Haydn’s Creation, which describes the emergence of rocks and mountains on the earth before the existence of any flora.
On our arrival at Ty Mawr Penelope described how the house had been changed and extended since Thelwall had lived there. The current occupant kindly allowed us all to tramp through the old timber front door, which, despite having been moved from the other side of the house, was the door that would have been used by Thelwall, as well as by Coleridge and the Wordsworths when they visited.
The owner of Ty Mawr had also told Coleridge in Wales that this was the best place on the Wye for swimming, so I thought that it would be a shame not to test it out. Refreshing and not too cold (I estimated it to be around 12 degrees), we could swim to the shingle beach on the other side and look back at the steep bank and up towards the house. Two of us swam, and others dipped their feet in the fresh but cloudy water, which had been stirred up by a dramatic thunderstorm the night before. After swimming we were even treated to a shower in (the extended part of) Thelwall’s house, before heading back to the village hall for lunch and drinks (generously sponsored by the John Thelwall Society).

The swim (Steve Poole)

The swim (Steve Poole)

Over the remains of our picnic, we heard poetry declaimed in character by ‘Coleridge’ (Richard Parry), ‘Thelwall’ (Steve Poole), and ‘Wordsworth’ (Penelope Corfield), which complemented the conversations that we had been having. At the end of the event, Richard left on his bicycle to continue with Day 16 of the Coleridge in Wales journey and the rest of us headed back to Hay before dispersing back to normality.
Although the ostensible reason that walk participants might have chosen to get involved with Coleridge in Wales at the Hay Festival was to find more about Coleridge and to experience the type of landscape through which he travelled when visiting Wales, it also provided space for wide-ranging discussion. It was a fascinating event to be part of, and I look forward to the further collaborative events, research and writing that are likely to grow out of the connections that were established in the fields and rivers of Wales.

You can follow a good deal of the walk by following the relevant parts of the Offa’s Dyke Path here
Elsa HammondElsa Hammond is a PhD candidate at the University of Bristol, working on breath and death in the poetry of Coleridge, Tennyson and Hardy. She also writes poetry and is an award-winning travel writer, and journey-maker. She tweets about literature, nature, education and adventure @ElsaAHammond

Romantic readings: Robert Southey’s The Cataract of Lodore

by Andrew Ray
By the early 1820s Robert Southey, Poet Laureate, was writing serious historical books, reading Montaigne, teaching himself Danish and remarking that ‘my career as a poet is almost at an end’.

Robert Southey, by Thomas Phillips

Robert Southey, by Thomas Phillips

But in 1823 he published ‘The Cataract of Lodore’, a poem that illustrates a more playful side of his personality. He had mentioned a version of the poem in a letter of 1809, referring to his wife and their young son:

‘I hope also you will approve of a description of the water at Lodore, made originally for Edith & greatly admired by Herbert. In my mind it surpasses any that the Tourists have yet printed. Thus it runs – ‘Tell the people how the water comes down at Lodore! – Why it comes thundering & floundering, & thumping & flumping & bumping & jumping, & hissing & whizzing, & dripping & skipping, & grumbling & rumbling {& tumbling}, & falling & brawling, & dashing {& clashing} & splashing, & pouring & roaring, & whirling & curling, & leaping & creeping, & sounding & bounding, & clattering & shattering, with a dreadful uproar, – & that way the water comes down at Lodore.’

Lodore 2
Fourteen years later the published poem began ‘”How does the Water / Come down at Lodore?” / My little boy ask’d me…’ Sadly Herbert, that little boy, had died in 1816, and so the playful tumbling water that ends ‘all at once’ could be read in part as a poignant memory of his son.

‘The Cataract of Lodore’ traces the water ‘from its sources which well / In the Tarn on the fell’, ‘through meadow and glade, / In sun and in shade’, until ‘it reaches the place / Of its steep descent.’ There, the second part of the poem describes the cataract itself in onomatopoeic rhymes. Southey seems to have had a feeling for the music of landscape: he was able to mimic the sounds of birds and animals to entertain his children. If you converted the rhythms and rhymes of this poem to music, you might hear echoes of the water’s turns and twindles as it pours over rocks and stones. The singer Nick Drake carefully wrote the poem out in one of his school notebooks and it is intriguing to wonder whether he ever thought of it later in connection with his own music. One of his most admired songs, ‘River Man’, evokes in its unusual time signature and fluid guitar the nature of flowing water.
Southey’s poem may still be encountered at school as an exercise in style but it should also provide a vivid introduction to ideas of soundscape and the rhythms of nature. In recent years there have been two competing book-length editions for children produced by American illustrators – Mordicai Gerstein (best known for The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, one of many recent accounts of Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk) and David Catrow (author of the award-winning She’s Wearing a Dead Bird on Her Head!) Southey’s lines naturally lends themselves to being printed in creative ways – you can, for example, turn Gerstein’s book sideways so that the cataract falls down a long double-spread. Presumably future e-books will offer further possibilities.

… flowing and going,
And running and stunning,
And foaming and roaming,
And dinning and spinning,
And dropping and hopping,
And working and jerking,
And guggling and struggling,
And heaving and cleaving,
And moaning and groaning;
And glittering and frittering,
And gathering and feathering,
And whitening and brightening,
And quivering and shivering,
And hurrying and scurrying,
And thundering and floundering,
Dividing and gliding and sliding,
And falling and brawling and sprawling,
And diving and riving and striving,
And sprinkling and twinkling and wrinkling,
And sounding and bounding and rounding,
And bubbling and troubling and doubling,
And grumbling and rumbling and tumbling,
And clattering and battering and shattering;
Retreating and beating and meeting and sheeting,
Delaying and straying and playing and spraying,
Advancing and prancing and glancing and dancing,
Recoiling, turmoiling and toiling and boiling,
And gleaming and streaming and steaming and beaming,
And rushing and flushing and brushing and gushing,
And flapping and rapping and clapping and slapping,
And curling and whirling and purling and twirling,
And thumping and plumping and bumping and jumping,
And dashing and flashing and splashing and clashing;
And so never ending, but always descending,
Sounds and motions for ever and ever are blending,
All at once and all o’er, with a mighty uproar,
And this way the water comes down at Lodore.

The poem as it was originally written has a visual pattern that is easy to see in the lines reproduced above. It is not a purely visual poem like Simon Armitage’s, ‘Waterfallwater’ (1996), which consists of only one repeated word, ‘water’, cascading down the page. I tried erasing Southey’s words entirely and superimposing an image of the Lodore Falls – the shape below is formed from the full 71 lines describing the cataract. This photograph appears on the Footless Crow site, where it accompanies the text of a letter Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote to Sara Hutchinson in 1802. ‘Lodore’, he says, ‘is beyond all rivalry the first and best thing of the whole Lake Country.’ It is ‘broad and wide, and from top to bottom it is small waterfalls, abreast, and abreast’; so, not actually like the picture below at all… In fact, to convey a visual impression of the falls, the poem would need several columns of text cascading down the page, joining and dividing at various points. But Southey’s goal was to trace the water’s course rather than capture it in a sketch, and if there is music in the words it is not the sound of the falls at one particular place, but the noises the water makes on its journey down the rocks: moaning, groaning, rumbling, tumbling, clapping, slapping and ending in a mighty uproar.

Andrew Ray

Coleridge and the Pantisocratic pipe-dream

by Simon Court
One of the more spectacular experiments to emerge from the early Romantic movement was the idea of “Pantisocracy” which was the brain-child of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, assisted by his fellow poet and friend Robert Southey, who with youthful enthusiasm devised in 1794 a highly ambitious utopian scheme for an egalitarian society. Akin in many ways to setting up a hippie commune in the 1960s, the intention was to abandon the prejudices and constraints of life in England and, armed with the principle of anarchy and the assumption of human perfectibility which had been recently articulated by William Godwin in Political Justice, establish a community on the banks of the Susquehanna River, Pennsylvania. That the project came to nothing, and remained confined to the purely theoretical, may be unsurprising, but its failure came at a heavy personal cost to Coleridge, and cast a shadow over the rest of his life.

In 1794, Coleridge, a twenty-one-year old studying at Jesus College, Cambridge, set out on his first walking tour and, on arriving in Oxford, first met Robert Southey in his rooms at Balliol College. Southey, a tall, forbidding and idealistic twenty-year-old, was studying anatomy, and had already become well-known for his radical republican and atheistic views. They took to each other instantly, discussing such “metaphysical subjects” as Godwin’s theory of publicly shared property, Joseph Priestley and the American emigration movement, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the “back to nature” movement. These discussions and influences led to what Coleridge was later to call “Pantisocracy” (derived from the Greek pant-isocratia, an all-governing society). It was an intoxicating cocktail of progressive ideas, which envisaged a society of commonly owned property, communal labour and equal government by both men and women, whilst all delighting in idyllic pastoral seclusion.

Within three weeks of their first encounter on 17th June, Southey and Coleridge were embarked on canvassing support for their venture: Southey would return to his native Bristol, Coleridge would go to Wales, with a view to meeting again to plan how to finance the scheme (initially earmarked for Kentucky) by selling their current literary works. Yet the differences in their characters had already become apparent: whereas Southey was all earnest seriousness, prone to despondency, who told his brother, with a desperate edge, how “this Pantisocratic system has given me new life new hope new energy”, Coleridge was expressing the vision with blistering exhibitionism, imagination and light-hearted flights of fancy.
Thus we find him at the King’s Arms, Ross, scratching democratic verses on the shutters and, he later recalled, speaking in “wine-cheer’d moments” to the locals who are “nobler than King’s or king-polluted Lords”, and at Llanfyllen, where he “preached Pantisocracy and Aspheterism [meaning general ownership of property] with so much success that two great huge Fellows of Butcher-like appearance, danced about the room in enthusiastic agitation”.

But for all that it was Southey who produced the most striking and ludicrously impractical image of the Pantisocrats in action, when he declared, with totally unguarded optimism (and reminiscent of the ‘Lumberjack Song’ in Monty Python):

“When Coleridge and I are sawing down a tree we shall discuss metaphysics: criticise poetry when hunting a buffalo, and write sonnets whilst following the plough.”

By mid-August further details of the Pantisocratic plan had been sketched out: there were to be twelve couples, who would set sail from Bristol the following spring, each man providing capital of £125, and expecting to labour on commonly held land for only up to three hours a days. A classically utopian picture was captured by a (sceptical) friend, Tom Poole:

“The produce of their industry is to be laid up in common for the use of all, and a good library of books is to be collected, and their leisure hours to be spent in study, liberal discussions, and the education of their children”.

This generation of children, rationally educated with enlightened principles and untainted by the corrupting values of European civilisation, such as selfish materialism, would be freed from the main source of human evil, namely private individual property, and retain an innocence in the rural “cottag’d vale”. Even animals would live harmoniously with humans in this natural world: where, Coleridge enthuses, “I call even my Cat Sister in the Fraternity of universal Nature”.

The reality, of course, proved far more complicated to realise. Southey had introduced Coleridge to the Fricker family, who had all become engulfed by the Pantisocratic tidal wave, including the twenty-four-year-old Sara, who was handsome, witty and hot-headed. Although Coleridge was on the rebound from Mary Evans, he was attracted to Sara and, encouraged by Southey (who was himself pursuing Sara’s sister Edith) he and Sara became close. Southey clearly intended that both Sara and Edith were going with them to Pennsylvania, and what should, perhaps, have been merely a brief flirtation between Coleridge and Sara took on greater idealistic significance as, Coleridge later observed, it was easy to mistake “the ebullience of schematism for affection, which a moment’s reflection might have told me, is not a plant of so mushroom a growth”.

Coleridge returned to Cambridge for the autumn term, during which talk of Pantisocracy spread across the whole university as he argued furiously for his utopian vision. Yet one of Coleridge’s surprisingly practical recognitions was the need for all Pantisocrats to stop further “academic” indolence, and spend the winter getting their bodies into shape, “full tone and strength”, and learn the “theory and practice of agriculture and carpentry”. That this collective call to the gymnasium and the farm was never taken up is, of course, in itself revealing.

By Christmas the ideals of the project came under increasing strain. Southey argued that the servants who were to go with them should perform all the manual labour, and the women should exclusively raise the children and do the domestic work. Coleridge dismissed this succinctly enough as “nonsense”, and contrary to first principles. But Coleridge was himself clearly struggling with the commitment to go to the United States with Sara, and was still agonising over Mary Evans (who he continued to write to and who had argued against the plan) until Mary confirmed that she had got engaged, after which he agreed to live with Southey in Bristol.

Coleridge felt, with some bitterness, that Southey did not appreciate that the urgent push for emigration with the Fricker sisters had contributed to him forcibly breaking off his love for Mary, “as if it had been a Sinew of my Heart”. Sara herself considered another suitor, and Coleridge worried about marrying a woman he did not love. On 29th December 1794 he said that he would “degrade her, whom I call my Wife, by making her the Instrument of low Desire – and on the removal of a desultory Appetite, to be perhaps not displeased with her Absence!” However he said he was prepared to marry Sara as part, in effect, of the Pantisocratic cause: “I will do my Duty”.

During the course of 1795 the intensity of the friendship between Coleridge and Southey cooled, as they both faced continuing financial difficulties. The ambitions of emigrating had faded away, with Southey seeking the more modest task of purchasing a common farm in Wales, but Coleridge was dismissive, fearing that private resources would not be abandoned and that “we were to commence partners in a petty farming trade”. Yet although Coleridge angrily denounced Southey’s decision to leave Bristol in September to return to the financial security of his mother’s home as a “low, dirty, gutter-grubbing” compromise, and managed to convince himself that he would carry the mantle of the last of the true Pantisocrats, we find that all he achieves is to live in a cottage by the sea overlooking the Bristol Channel with Sara, whom he had married in October 1795. The pantisocratic pipe-dream was over, but the consequences of marriage remained.

Coleridge’s marriage to Sara quickly became an unhappy one (in 1799 he fell in love with Sara Hutchinson, the sister of William Wordsworth’s wife), and in 1802, writing of his marriage, he lamented that “Never… did the stern match-maker bring together two minds so utterly contrariant… Alas!” He eventually separated from Sara in 1806.

It is ironic that although Coleridge and Southey never went to Susquehanna, by 1796 some 2,000 others had, though many returned disillusioned. Reflecting back on the “stormy time” when “for a few months America really inspired Hope, & I became an exalted Being”, Coleridge recounted in 1809 how he had placed his hope “in a small Company of chosen Individuals, and formed a plan, as harmless as it was extravagant, of trying the experiment of human Perfectibility on the banks of the Susquehanna; where our little Society, in its second generation, was to have combined the innocence of the patriarchal Age with the knowledge and genuine refinements of European culture: and where I had dreamt of beholding, in the sober evening of my life, the Cottages of Independence in the undivided Dale of Industry……Strange fancies!”
A tax lawyer by profession and living with a novelist and two cats, Simon Court indulges his passion for history by diving into the Bodleian Library at every opportunity. He has previously written about the English Civil War and has also written a biography of Henry VIII for the ‘History in an Hour’ series. When not immersed in the past he can be found in the here and now, watching Chelsea Football Club.

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