Monday, 1 April 2019

Dead Poets

Some of Britain's most famous poets have connections to Somerset:
  • Siegfried Sassoon and T.S. Eliot are buried in Somerset. 
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth both lived in the county for a few years.
  • Alfred Tennyson and William Makepeace Thackeray both visited Clevedon
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1722-1834) was one of the great Romantic poets.  He was born in Ottery St Mary in Devon.  Samuel and his wife Sara spent the first few months of their married life in a cottage on Old Church Road in Clevedon in 1795. In 1797 they moved to a cottage in Lime Street, Nether Stowey, where they lived for three years.  Samuel went for long walks in the surrounding hills and countryside.  His epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is said to have been inspired by Watchet Harbour. While he was writing Kubhla Khan in a laudanum induced haze, he was famously disturbed by "a man from Porlock."  Frost at Midnight describes the interior of the house at Nether Stowey.

Coleridge Cottage in Nether Stowey is now owned by the National Trust and it is open to the public.

Cottage on Old Church Road, Clevedon where the Coleridges stayed

Coleridge Cottage, Lime Street, Nether Stowey

Plaque on Coleridge Cottage in  Lime Street, Nether Stowey
Statue of the Ancient Mariner and dead albatross, Watchet Harbour

Plaque on the Unitarian Chapel, Dampiet Street, Bridgwater

Plaque on the Unitarian Chapel, Mary Street, Taunton

In 1797 William Wordsworth met Samuel Taylor Coleridge for the first time in Bristol.  They became good friends and in 1797 William and his wife Dorothy rented Alfoxton House near Holford, which was only three miles away from Nether Stowey where Samuel Taylor Coleridge was living.  Wordsworth and Coleridge went for many walks in the Quantock Hills, along the coast and on Exmoor.  However, due to rumours about some of their radical house guests, the Wordsworth's lease was not renewed after a year and they moved on, first to Germany, before settling at Grasmere in the Lake District in 1799.

Alfoxton House

Alfoxton House
Looking very sad and semi-derelict in January 2019

Siegfried Loraine Sassoon (1886-1967) was one of the leading First World War poets.  He was born in Kent and educated at Cambridge University.  In 1914 he joined the Sussex Yeomanry and in 1915 he was posted to France. He was wounded in April 1917 and while he was convalescing at Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh he met Wilfred Owen.  Sassoon returned to active duty in 1918, first in Palestine and then in May he returned to France.  In July 1918 he was wounded in the head and that was the end of his military service.  He wrote angry but compassionate poems about the First World War. Some of his best war poems were published in Counter-Attack and Other Poems in 1918.  

After the war Sassoon wrote more poetry, but also prose and autobiographies.  In 1957 he became a Catholic.  He died on 1st September 1967 at his home in Heytesbury near Warminster in Wiltshire. He was buried in the churchyard of St Andrew's Church in Mells, close to the grave of the Roman Catholic priest Father Ronald Knox, who he greatly admired.

Siegfried Sassoon's grave in the churchyard of St Andrew's Church, Mells
St Andrew's Church, Mells

Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) was born in St Louis Missouri but he moved to England in 1917 and became a British citizen in 1927.  One of his Eliot ancestors had lived in East Coker before immigrating to America in the 1660s.

T.S. Eliot's best known poetic works include The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land, Ash Wednesday, The Hollow Men, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats and Four Quartets.  Four Quartets is a set of four long poems, the second of which is entitled East Coker.  He also wrote several plays and essays.

T.S. Eliot died of emphysema at his home in London on 4th January 1965.  At his request his ashes were interred at St Michael's Church, East Coker.  There is a commemorative plaque to him on the wall of the church, which quotes some lines from Four Quartets: "In my beginning is my end" and "In my end is my beginning."

T.S. Eliot's memorial plaque in St Michael's Church, East Coker
T.S. Eliot's memorial plaque in St Michael's Church, East Coker
St Michael's Church, East Coker

In the mid-18th century the author William Makepeace Thackeray was a frequent visitor of the Elton Family, who lived at Clevedon Court.  He is best known as a novelist but he did also write some poetry.

Alfred Tennyson had a close friend at Cambridge University called Arthur Hallam.  Arthur’s mother was a member of the Elton family of Clevedon Court.  Arthur, who was a poet and essayist, was engaged to marry Tennyson’s sister Emily but he died suddenly in Vienna in 1833 at the age of 22.  His body was brought back to England and he was buried in the family vault at St Andrew’s Church in Clevedon.  In 1850 Tennyson wrote a poem called In Memorium in tribute to his friend.  In the same year he made his first visit to Clevedon.  The house on Old Church Road in Clevedon, where he is said to have stayed, is called Tennyson House.   A nearby road is called Tennyson Avenue.

Tennyson House, Old Church Road, Clevedon

Tennyson Avenue, Clevedon

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