I’ve often thought it would be a nice idea to visit the places behind some of England’s most popular and enduring poems, and to ask why they have lasted so well. Is it simply because they are good, or written by already celebrated authors, or is it because the places that brought them about are themselves special in some way?
Is it a combination of all these factors? Does plain luck play a part in their exposure and their influence? And what does “good” mean anyway? Are these poems considered such because they make their meaning plain and their description clear, or do they gain our interest through some enticing degree of obscurity?
In making my selection of a first dozen, I reasoned, rightly or wrongly, that they only needed to be famous on one of three counts: the poem itself, the place, and the author. The more the better, obviously, which is why we’ve started with the well-known On Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold. This ticks all three boxes: the poem a fixture on Eng Lit reading lists; the location up to its neck in the national story; the author a renowned poet and social reformer, first-born of the formidable Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School and central figure in Tom Brown’s Schooldays.
Then there’s Adlestrop, famously bearing the name of the country station at which the poet Edward Thomas’s train stopped unexpectedly on the eve of the First World War. Unlike the poem, the station has long since vanished. There’s Thomas Gray’s Elegy written in the churchyard at Stoke Poges; A. E. Housman’s On Wenlock Edge, Thomas Hardy’s Wessex Heights; Tintern Abbey, which William Wordsworth wasn’t really writing about in the poem that carries its name, and Westminster Bridge, which he was. There’s the Winchester of Keats’s Ode To Autumn, The Manchester of Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy, the East Coker of Eliot’s Four Quartets,the Northamptonshire land enclosures of John Clare’s Lament of Swaddywell, the Canterbury of Chaucer’s pilgrims, and so on.
With my wife and photographer Ruth Gledhill, I’m travelling to these and other places in the next few months, looking for the light which the place, the poem and the poet shed on one another.