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.
Few pieces of writing can have been more bound up with the place they sprang from than Peter Grimes and the town of Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast. The story is part of a collection called The Borough, published in 1820, by the poet George Crabbe, a native of the town and son of a troubled alcoholic tax-collector. Though his descriptions of life and work here could be harsh and graphic, he and his town have contributed more to each other’s repute than either could have imagined.
John Clare – The Lament of Swordy Well
Just over a mile from the Northamptonshire village of Helpston, where the so-called peasant poet John Clare was born, baptised and buried, lies a peculiar, teeming patch of uncultivated ground. Westbound drivers passing the mouth of it on the farm-lined road between Peterborough and Stamford might catch sight of the hoardings for the Stamford Stone Company and Swaddywell Quarry. However, this would give them no sense of the landscape within, emphatically reclaimed by nature in a way that would have lightened Clare’s often troubled mood…..Read it all here.
Though Winchester makes no named appearance in To Autumn, its presence runs through these lines of Keats’s as surely as the River Itchen flows among the water meadows to the south of the city on its way towards Southampton. The rich, loaded autumnal verses which were inspired by his daily walks here have made the resulting ode one of the most anthologised poems in the English language. Read it all here.
As unscheduled stops go, this is surely one of the most famous in English literature. To judge from the poem of the same name, Edward Thomas was expecting his train on June 23rd 1914 to steam straight through such backwater stations in rural Gloucestershire on its way to Worcester and the Welsh border. Read it all here.
Matthew Arnold and On Dover Beach
In the room of his honeymoon hotel in Dover, Matthew Arnold beckons his young wife to come to the window and share the view. In doing so, he is also summoning the reader to look out across the Straits and share a prospect that is both alluring and daunting. Though we may see, flickeringly, the French coast for which they will soon be heading, the thought is compromised by the sound of the sea’s broken waves pulling down on the shingle. Read it all here.