Turning left to Poets’ Walk

Lookout

In recovery mode, so short a time after our hasty retreat from a yurt in the border country, we remember Clevedon. When were we last there? That we can’t remember. But it’s close, barely a dozen miles away; we don’t have to return the car until tomorrow; and there will be sea. We drive. Turn left, the Librarian murmurs, left. When? I ask. Back there. Ah. But there will be other turnings, surely. And there are.

Clevedon: seaside town with a fine pier overlooking the Bristol Channel (you can have coffee overlooking the pier). You can gaze across to Wales: on your extreme right the Second Severn Crossing. Ahead of you, the guide to the vista notes, among other allurements, ‘Swansea, 48 miles, not visible.’

There’s a bandstand, a marine lake and, apparently, the oldest purpose-built cinema in the world—the Curzon—which is still in working order. Arthur Hallam, subject of Alfred Tennyson’s immense poem, In Memoriam, is buried here. Tuppence Middleton, whom I’ve been watching lately in Sense8—and previously saw in the BBC’s War and Peace—grew up here. But the most famous cultural association is probably with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who lived here with his wife, Sara Fricker, after their marriage in St Mary Redcliffe in October 1795. ‘After all the upheavals of life with Southey’, Richard Holmes comments—Coleridge and Robert Southey had ‘quarrelled irrevocably’—‘these first few weeks of domestic calm and intimacy were poetically very rich for Coleridge.’[1]

Coleridge-Cottage-Clevedon

Coleridge cottage on Old Church Road
Via http://discovernorthsomerset.co.uk/

It was ‘probably not the cottage now bearing a commemorative tablet’, Tom Mayberry remarks, adding that Coleridge and Sara, ‘in further disregard of the proprieties’, first stayed there over a month before their marriage.[2]

The headnote to Coleridge’s ‘Effusion XXXV’ does indeed read ‘Composed August 20th, 1795, at Clevedon, Somersetshire’. It was revised as ‘The Eolian Harp’, the first of what came to be known as the ‘Conversation Poems’.

My pensive Sara! thy soft cheek reclined
Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is
To sit beside our Cot, our Cot o’ergrown
With white-flowered Jasmin, and the broad-leaved Myrtle,
(Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!)
And watch the clouds, that late were rich with light,
Slow saddening round, and mark the star of eve
Serenely brilliant (such would Wisdom be)
Shine opposite! How exquisite the scents
Snatched from yon bean-field! and the world so hushed!
The stilly murmur of the distant Sea
Tells us of silence.

The harp is a stringed instrument with a sound box: placed in a window or at a point where the wind can play over it, it emits ‘a natural music’. Coleridge shaped it as ‘an image of inspiration in which the poet was a harp over whom the winds of inspiration blow.’[3]

And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?[4]

Idyllic, perhaps, but the cottage, myrtle and jasmine notwithstanding, would not do for long. Clevedon proved to be too far from Bristol—the library, literary contacts, not least friend and publisher Joseph Cottle—for Coleridge to walk there and back in a day.[5] What milksops these Romantic poets were: a snivelling twenty-seven miles round trip. Today, most people can walk almost as far as the car park without complaint.

Lookout-plaque

Poets’ Walk (Coleridge! Thackeray! Tennyson!) is a popular footpath which runs along the coast and around Wain’s Hill and Church Hill at the southern end of Clevedon. Along the way is the Lookout, with its plaque detailing the watched-for arrival of sugar ships from the West Indies in the nineteenth century. The slave trade was formally abolished in the British Empire in 1807 but slavery was not finally abolished until 1833. Notoriously, the colonial slave owners were handed millions of pounds in compensation by the government: the former slaves were offered nothing.

Poets-Walk

That sloping path under the trees is blessedly cool on those days, quite frequent lately, when the English summer has become a little unhinged.

We make a marginal note: Clevedon again. Soon. Turn left there.

 
References

[1] Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989), 100, 103.

[2] Tom Mayberry, Coleridge and Wordsworth: The Crucible of Friendship, revised edition (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2000), 45.

[3] Paul Magnuson, ‘The “Conversation” Poems’, in The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge, edited by Lucy Newlyn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 34.

[4] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Eolian Harp’, in The Complete Poems, edited by William Keach (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 87, 88.

[5] Rosemary Ashton, The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 78.

 

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