Poets

This year is the poet William Wordsworth’s 250th birthday. So why should we celebrate him?

From a 21st century point of view, the problem with William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is that it’s difficult to label him neatly. He was an early Romantic poet who held radical views. His fellow-poet contemporaries, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron, who knew him personally, all predeceased him by at least twenty-five years. We cannot know how Byron, Keats and Shelley would have turned out if they had lived, but Wordsworth, unromantically, became an Establishment figure, one of the nation’s most loved and respected poets, and ended up as Poet Laureate.

William Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1842. The poet is standing under the brooding mountain, Helvellyn, as darkness falls. Photo, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. 

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The short but tumultuous life of the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), one of the greatest of the Romantic poets of the early 19th century, shows him to have been a man of contradictions. He disapproved of matrimony – but married twice; he was a vegetarian (rare at the time), a republican and a Radical. He was thrown out of Eton for expressing atheistic views. But he was also intelligent and highly imaginative and has been described as ‘the poet of volcanic hope for a better world’. At his best, as in his sonnet Ozymandias, he is inimitable.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) by Amelia Curran, Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

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I’ve just returned from visiting ‘Yeats Country’, namely, Co. Sligo on the west coast of Ireland, following in the poet William Butler Yeats’ footsteps. Yeats had a very varied life; he was: a poet and a playwright; interested in theosophy and the occult; a co-founder of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin; appointed Senator in the first Irish Senate in 1922; a lover of Irish myth and folklore; and passionately involved with a number of women. Any of these would make an interesting post. However, today, I’m looking at places which stirred his imagination as a child.

W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) by George Charles Beresford

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On December 16th, 1775, in the rectory at Steventon, Hampshire, on a freezing winter’s day, the rector’s wife, gave birth to a daughter. The baby was, of course, Jane Austen, and she was to become one of our greatest novelists. Her books have given us so much pleasure, as well as inspiring numerous film and television adaptations. Then there are those books her works have influenced from Marghanita Laski’s completion of Sanditon in 1975, 200 years after Jane’s death; Amanda Grange’s clever Mr Darcy’s Diary; to Val McDermid’s witty and perceptive modern take on Northanger Abbey, and Joanna Trollope’s terrific 21st century version of Sense & Sensibility, to name but a few. Many Jane Austen characters have also had interesting afterlives as detectives, vampires or zombies; and some of them have even met up with Austen characters from her other books.

So today, on her birthday, it’s only fitting to pay tribute to many people’s favourite author, including mine.

Sanditon, a novel by Jane Austen and Another Lady, 1975

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Lord Byron (1788-1824), Romantic poet; a man fatally attractive to women; a friend of many literary figures of his day, including the atheist poet, Shelley; a fighter for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire; and an intrepid traveller, was a man who tended to leave scandals in his wake. In 1809, when he was twenty-one, he left England for the continent on what he called a ‘pilgrimage’. In effect, it was a Grand Tour, taking in Portugal, Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, Albania and Greece, and it seems to have involved a lot of drinking, stupendous scenery, and sex.

Ancient Apollonia, the Agonothetes Monument; a reminder that Albania was once part of Greece  

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On a cold winter’s morning, in the 3rd century A.D., a centurion called Parnesius of the Ulpia Victrix stood on Hadrian’s wall and gazed at the bleak, heather-covered hillside to the barbarian north. This was not a posting he’d wanted, and he missed the olives and wine of his native Tuscany, but he had a job to do and he must make the best of things.

Mithras slaying the sacred bull, Ostia museum

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