Friday, November 02, 2018

from Coleridge's to Wordsworth's

Today, sunny and clear, I walked from Coleridge's cottage in Nether Stowey over the brow of the Quantocks to Alfoxden Hall near Holford.

This was the surprisingly grand (though now derelict) house leased by the Wordsworths, for the peppercorn rent of £23 per annum,  in July 1797. They left on 25th June 1798 after receiving notice to quit (the St Albyns remaining concerned about Wordsworth's revolutionary sympathies despite Thomas Poole's assurances).

Coleridge, with his wife Sara and baby  son Hartley, had moved into 35 Lime Street, Nether Stowey, in January 1797, or perhaps late December 1796...  (he rented it from Poole, his friend and patron). He eventually gave up the house in October 1799, after his return from ten months in Germany.

Hartley had been born on 19th September 1796. Sara had a miscarriage in 1797, and on May 14th 1798 gave birth to Berkeley Coleridge. Pretty Berkeley suffered (and caused) great distress after a faulty smallpox innoculation; then he got consumption. Berkeley died in February 1799. Coleridge missed all this; he and the Wordsworths set sail from Yarmouth on 16th September 1798), and now he was studying in Germany (with the idea, as he conceived it, of being better able to support his family).

It's been remarked that it was really Sara who ran the cottage; a life of drudgery, children, damp, vermin and a lodger. Meanwhile Samuel enjoyed the long walks on the Quantocks, the almost daily Wordsworth visits, the residence in Germany... Though it should be added that he also did stints as a supply preacher as far away as the Midlands. (Coleridge seems to have been alternately super-energetic and utterly prostrated; probably he was bipolar.)

Prior to taking up residence at Nether Stowey, Coleridge had assured Poole that he intended to spend his days on practical horticulture, to do without a servant, and to work very hard indeed... that he no longer cared for society and that literature would always be for him only a "secondary object".

Poets are selfish creatures, especially needy ones like Coleridge. Anyway, he did write some rather special poems at Nether Stowey: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, This Lime-tree Bower my Prison, The Nightingale, Frost at Midnight, Kubla Khan, the first part of Christabel... On visits to Alfoxden he wrote Fears in Solitude and the Ode to Liberty.

At Alfoxden Dorothy wrote her first journal (20th January 1798 - 22nd May 1798) Her brother wrote, among other things, The Ruined Cottage (begun at Racedown), A Night Piece, The Discharged Soldier, The Old Cumberland Beggar, Lines Written at a Small Distance from my House, Goody Blake and Harry Gill, The Thorn, The Idiot Boy, Lines Written in Early Spring, Anecdote for Fathers, We are Seven, Simon Lee, The Last of the Flock, Peter Bell, and  The Tables Turned.

These poems (most of them) constituted the folky heart of Lyrical Ballads (1798). After leaving Alfoxden on 25th June 1798, the Wordsworths had no permanent home of their own. They stayed until July 2nd at Nether Stowey, then moved on to other friends, short-stay lodgings and walking tours until the voyage to Germany. William wrote "Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey",  the capstone of Lyrical Ballads, between the 10th and 13th July 1798, during a four-day walking tour in the Wye valley. Cottle published Lyrical Ballads in mid-September. William, meanwhile, seems to have had a break from composition;  his next dated poem is "There was a boy", written in Oct-Nov 1798 after settling in Goslar.

I looked all this up later. On the walk itself, untroubled by knowledge, I thought of other things than poetry.

My heathy stroll along the Coleridge Way is not the regular route that the poets took to visit each other. They took the more direct route along the road, a distance of only three miles rather than nearly five. But that would be an unpleasant walk today, all along the busy A39.

But both poets would have roamed up here. Coleridge was an inveterate hiker, despite his complete indifference to historical aspects of a landscape. So to "walk in the footsteps of Coleridge" is to adopt a totally different attitude to Coleridge's own.

In hindsight, I feel I saw the same view across the Bristol Channel that Coleridge hoped Charles Lamb would relish.

And on my return journey Holford Combe was indeed a "roaring dell", not because of a waterfall but because a helicopter pilot was practising sub-skyline hovering.

The shaded waterfall described in "This Lime-tree Bower My Prison" and in Dorothy's journal is actually downstream from the Combe, lying between Holford village and Alfoxden Hall in steep Holford Glen. I must have passed close to it, but the waterfall (a popular topic of Victorian guidebooks) is no longer easy to see or access, due to loss of an old bridge.

Coleridge's cottage at Nether Stowey

Alfoxden Hall, home of the Wordsworths in 1797-1798

The spelling "Alfoxton" is used today. The house is also called Alfoxton House. 

Holford Church, near Alfoxden Hall

View of the Bristol Channel from the Quantocks

Bilberry stems ("ris" in Swedish), 2nd November 2018

Western Gorse and Bell Heather, 2nd November 2018

Sheep's Fescue, 2nd November 2018

Sheep's Fescue, 2nd November 2018

False-Brome, 2nd November 2018

Holly trees

They, meanwhile, 
Friends, whom I never more may meet again, 
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge, 
Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance, 
To that still roaring dell, of which I told; 
The roaring dell, o'erwooded, narrow, deep, 
And only speckled by the mid-day sun; 
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock 
Flings arching like a bridge;—that branchless ash, 
Unsunn'd and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves 
Ne'er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still, 
Fann'd by the water-fall! 

(From S. T. Coleridge, "This Limetree Bower My Prison". Lamb's visit took place on 7th-14th July 1797. He walked with the Wordsworths, who were visiting from Racedown, Coleridge being confined to his home for the whole week after "dear Sara accidently emptied a skillet of boiling milk on my foot" (letter to Southey, c. 17th July 1797) .)

I heard a thousand blended notes, 
While in a grove I sate reclined, 
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts 
Bring sad thoughts to the mind. 

To her fair works did Nature link 
The human soul that through me ran; 
And much it grieved my heart to think 
What man has made of man. 

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower, 
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths; 
And ’tis my faith that every flower 
Enjoys the air it breathes...

(from William Wordsworth, "Lines Written in Early Spring")

Bright sunshine, went out at 3 o'clock. The sea perfectly calm blue, streaked with deeper colour by the clouds, and tongues or points of sand ; on our return of a gloomy red. The sun gone down. The crescent moon, Jupiter, and Venus. The sound of the sea distinctly heard on the tops of the hills, which we could never hear in summer. We attribute this partly to the bareness of the trees, but chiefly to the absence of the singing of birds, the hum of insects, that noiseless noise which lives in the summer air. The villages marked out by beautiful beds of smoke. The turf fading into the mountain road. The scarlet flowers of the moss...

(Dorothy Wordsworth, Alfoxden Journal 23rd January 1798)


Eavan Boland on the Wordsworths at Alfoxden and the poem "To my sister", originally titled "Lines written at a Small Distance from my house,  and sent by my little boy to the person to whom they are addressed".

The little boy, named Edward both in this poem and in "Anecdote for Fathers", was Basil Montagu, the son of a widowed friend of the same name. Young Basil's unexplained presence at Alfoxden was another source of disquiet to the St Albyns.

Basil the elder, later a pioneer of bankruptcy reform and a founder member of the RSPCA, was one of the five  illegitimate children of the 4th Earl of Sandwich with the singer Martha Ray (his wife was insane). Martha was murdered by a jealous admirer in 1779. Wordsworth oddly adopts the name Martha Ray for the protagonist of his enigmatic poem "The Thorn", written in March-April 1798 after being struck by the appearance  of a lone thorn-bush in miserable weather while walking on the Quantocks with Dorothy and little Basil (Dorothy's journal, March 19th 1798). It's odd, I mean, if you reflect that the real Martha was little Basil's grandmother, but Martha in the poem is pictured as insane from grief and perhaps guilty of infanticide. Reading "The Thorn" must have given the elder Basil rather a jolt.

Perhaps this was inadvertent. There was no special reason that Wordsworth would know the name of his friend's long-dead mother, and some reasons why he might not.  Wordsworth may have come up with the name independently, or forgotten where he had heard it before. Martha Ray joins a set of metrically similar names in the Lyrical Ballads: Goody Blake, Harry Gill, Simon Lee, Betty Foy, Susan Gale and (in this poem) Stephen Hill. Evidently the patterning was intentional.



"Sara Coleridge: Wife of an Opium-Eater" by Cheryl Bolen.

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