A new start, a final stop
Woody River looks at the similarities and the differences that two of England's finest poets experienced in Dorset
Published in February ’14
When each was 25 years old, and separated by a period of 25 years, William Wordsworth and his fellow poet, John Keats, by chance found themselves in Dorset. In 1795, at the beginning of his long and successful career as a Romantic poet, Wordsworth moved to Racedown Lodge at the foot of Pilsdon Pen in West Dorset. In 1820, nearing the end of a tragically short career which had produced little success within his lifetime, Keats spent his last moments in England at what is often believed to have been Lulworth Cove. Both men were, on their arrival, in similar states of self-doubt and grief, yet the landscape of Dorset was to offer them some respite from their despair. Wordsworth sought refuge in the downs during his lengthy walks, while Keats experienced a brief sense of peace by the caves along the south coast.
Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, arrived at Racedown Lodge on 26 September 1795. The house was a large, two-storey Georgian building on the road between Crewkerne and Lyme Regis, not far from the village of Bettiscombe. It was owned by John Pinney, whose generous arrangement with Wordsworth would allow him and Dorothy to live there rent-free for as long as they wanted.
In the first book of the 1805-6 edition of The Prelude, we learn of Wordsworth’s state of mind before his move to Racedown Lodge. He had been living in London, a location which he described as a ‘prison where he hath been long immured’, and where in terms of his writing he experienced ‘a long-continued frost’. Before his time in London, Wordsworth had been living in France with his lover, Annette Vallon, who was pregnant with his child. A lack of money had forced him to return to England, during which time his daughter, Caroline, had been born. The following year, 1793, France had declared war on England and any hope Wordsworth had of returning to his new family vanished, so the opportunity to move to Dorset came at a time when Wordsworth’s unhappiness and uncertainty about his future were most acute. In Book 1 of The Prelude, he describes his belief that it
‘vernal promises, the hope
Of active days, of dignity and thought,
Of prowess in an honourable field.’
For Wordsworth, the ‘honourable field’ was poetry and Racedown Lodge would afford him the necessary requirements to write, namely peace of mind and access to nature.
In addition to writing, and because of his poor financial status, gardening was a vital part of daily life at Racedown Lodge if he and Dorothy were to grow enough food to eat. In February 1797, in the middle of an extremely harsh winter, Wordsworth wrote to his friend, Francis Wrangham, explaining his food situation: ‘I have lately been living on air and the essence of carrots, turnips and other esculent [edible] vegetables not excluding parsnips, the produce of my garden.’
Wordsworth was also a keen walker and on first seeing the local landscape, he ordered six pairs of shoes from London, based on his own design. His friend, Charles Lamb, described them as having ‘strange, thick-hoofed soles’. From Dorothy’s letters, we know that they both walked for ‘about two hours every morning’. As he walked, Wordsworth composed lines of poetry out loud in his strong north-west accent and surveyed the landscape with a small pocket telescope. Such behaviour soon roused the superstitions of the locals, who believed that he was casting spells over their livestock, so it is perhaps unsurprising that his initial opinion of them was not favourable. In a letter to William Matthews in October 1795, he wrote: ‘Now and then we meet a miserable peasant in the road or an accidental traveller. The country people here are wretchedly poor; ignorant and overwhelmed with every vice that usually attends ignorance in that class, viz – lying and picking and stealing.’
There are three recurring themes within the poems Wordsworth produced at Racedown Lodge: nature, rural poverty and the effects of war. Nature had always been, and would continue to be, Wordsworth’s dominant theme. Before his time in Dorset, he had published his first two poems – ‘Descriptive Sketches’ and ‘An Evening Walk’ – both of which were essentially landscape poems. In ‘Descriptive Sketches’, the perspective is often vague and the movement is indeterminate, while in ‘An Evening Walk’, a peasant and a shepherd are depicted in the distance, as part of the landscape. By contrast, the poems he wrote in Dorset not only brought the peasants to the foreground but also zoomed in on their poverty. No longer were such people simply embellishments within a landscape; rural poverty was now one of his subjects. Having been recently separated from his partner and daughter as a consequence of the French Revolution, Wordsworth used his experience to address within his poetry the impact war had on the lives of ordinary people, such as the female vagrant in ‘Salisbury Plain’ and Margaret in ‘The Ruined Cottage.’
In the latter poem, after two years of bad weather resulting in poor harvests, Margaret’s husband joins the army and goes off to war in an attempt to provide money for his family. As Margaret waits for both money and news of her husband, the years pass by and her situation becomes increasingly desperate and depressing; first one child dies and then the second child, and finally Margaret dies, too. Rather than simply describing Margaret’s poverty, Wordsworth invites us to consider its causes and to reflect upon the manner in which she deals with it. In his notes to his 1814 poem, ‘The Excursion,’ Wordsworth acknowledges that ‘for several passages describing the employment and demeanour of Margaret during her affliction, I was indebted to observations made in Dorsetshire.…’
A month after Wordsworth’s arrival in Dorset, John Keats was born in London. Twenty-five years later, in September 1820, Keats, who was a great admirer of Wordsworth and had met him several times in London, was on board a brigantine which was becalmed off the Dorset coast. For the past two years Keats had been suffering from tuberculosis and poor reviews for his poetry, while falling ever more deeply in love with Fanny Brawne. In a desperate but somewhat feeble hope that a warmer climate might improve his health, Keats had accepted the poet Shelley’s offer to spend the winter with him in Rome.
On 29 September 1820, Keats and his travelling companion, the artist Joseph Severn, set out from Portsmouth harbour on the Maria Crowther bound for Naples. The next day, Keats wrote a letter to his friend, Charles Brown, in which he revealed the full extent of his despair: ‘I wish for death every day and night to deliver me from these pains, and then I wish death away, for death would destroy even those pains which are better than nothing. Land and Sea, weakness and decline are great seperators, but death is the great divorcer forever.’ Despite the immense pain of his illness, it was the unrelenting torment of leaving Fanny Brawne that caused greater distress to Keats.
In his account of their voyage, Severn described Keats as ‘often so distraught, with moreover so sad a look in his eyes, sometimes a starved, haunting expression that it bewildered me.’ On either 30 September or 1 October, due to the lack of favourable wind, the ship put in along the coast of Dorset. Though the exact location is unknown, according to Severn ‘the shores’ had ‘beautiful grottoes which opened to fine verdure and cottages’. In his essay, ‘John Keats and the West Country,’ Nicholas Roe explained that Lulworth Cove was first suggested as a potential location in 1887, but that since then there have been numerous other speculations, such as Studland Bay, Holworth, Durdle Door, Cave Hole and Worbarrow Bay. Wherever it was, Severn noted that the scenery proved to be ‘the means of transporting Keats once more into the regions of poetry…. The change in him was wonderful, and continued even after our return to the ship.’
Once back on board the Maria Crowther, Severn claimed that Keats copied the sonnet ‘Bright Star’ into the front of Severn’s volume of Shakespeare’s poetry. Although Keats did not compose the poem at that moment, it proved to be the last sonnet that he wrote down, and that rocky shore of Dorset, the landscape of which had so favourably altered Keats’s mood, proved to be the place where he spent his last moments in England. He died five months later in Rome with Joseph Severn at his bedside.
It is tantalising to speculate why Keats chose ‘Bright Star’ to copy into Severn’s book, but it is possible that the lines, ‘The moving waters at their priestlike task / Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores’, give us an inkling of how the Dorset coast had soothed and inspired John Keats in the same way that the Dorset hills had soothed and inspired William Wordsworth. ◗
pic 2 and 3 National Portrait Gallery
Pic 5 Pat Sheehan