Thursday, January 17, 2013

Edward Thomas, the Lakes and Coleridge.

I am reading about the Lake poets and their families a great deal at the moment and have to admit that links with Edward Thomas are quite thin, but they do exist. He had a friend, the verse-dramatist Gordon Bottomley, who lived first in Cartmel then Silverhowe, on the western edge of the Lakes. He was an invalid so didn't travel and Edward visited him, but chiefly he wrote to him. Gordon called him Edward the Confessor as he treated his friend as a therapist - less so once he had met Frost and began to write poetry.
Edward visited in June 1914, just before my novel begins, and again on his 'farewell tour' in November 1916. On the way home from that visit he wrote the poem about Gordon's house,The Sheiling and its artistic, warm ambience.

Coleridge or STC.
He was a great admirer of Wordsworth, Coleridge and the Lyrical Ballads. Surely that volume influenced the thinking, with Frost, that one or the other of them, or both, should write a book on the theory of poetry. He considered Coleridge a great critic. But in his 'A Literary Pilgrim in England ' he insists that Coleridge was a West Country man and that all his best work was written there.

The Coleridges' cottage, Nether Stowey, Somerset.
Once he had moved to the Lakes, away from what Thomas saw as his natural home: 'His notebooks reveal how much he saw, and thought to use in writing, and never did. '    Thomas sums up his decline:

But Coleridge did not get on with his wife; he took opium; he had
passed thirty, and not reached forty. He went to Malta. He lectured in London. He revisited Stowey.
' The Friend' it is true, issued from Greta Hall.[
their Lakes home
But by 1810 Coleridge had fallen back on London, whence
he could go to Bristol to lecture, or to Calne to write
' Biographia Literaria," and by chance to see his
own " Remorse " acted there by a travelling company.
From Calne he went to Highgate, to the Gillmans, in
18 1 6, and he stopped there till he was quite dead.
With Lamb for company he could still walk twelve
miles ; he even wrote ' The Garden of Boccaccio,' and
could taste the spring, but he was a man in exile, and
had been once he decided to follow Wordsworth out
of the West. 

That phrase ''did not get on with his wife" is a colossal under-statement. I have been reading this fascinating work by Kathleen Jones about the women who shared the 'tribe' of Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge. As I took notes I found myself having to express my own emotions myself, with lots of exclamation marks and 'this man is a monster' 'what a B....!' sort of comments about STC.

I had somehow seen his wife Sarah as a dull, unimaginative woman who didn't care for poetry and whose only effect was to spill boiling milk on STC's foot and ruin that  day out with his friends.
How wrong I was - she was a lively, clever, educated, resourceful and cheerful woman whom he treated abominably: the confinements alone while he disappeared without writing to her  for 8 months, 10 months, two years at a time. His not being there when her little toddler died and not coming home when she begged him in her grief. No money sent and all her pretty hair fell out.

And then after only four years of marriage while she continued to love him,  falling for another Sarah and hectoring the first about jealousy and the need to love who he loved. He even wanted the second Sara, or 'Asra'  of the poems, to look after her at her third confinement while he was off somewhere - the Med I think.

What makes it so painful is that she was so often pregnant or had just had a baby. He had been an enthusiast for the Rights of Women but entirely changed - it was a wife's duty to have 'no personality' and to devote herself without a single ' remonstrance' to her husband. She wouldn't flatter him or devote herself exclusively to him alone and that seems to have been her chief fault - he was so self-absorbed and needy that eventually the three women who cared for him - Dorothy Wordsworth, Sarah and Sara Hutchinson - all gave up on him.
And the lies! Don't let me get started on the lies! And the drugs - of course it was the selfishness that inevitably follows addiction that was behind much of it - "the primacy of the substance-seeking drive" as we called it in my drug and alcohol-counselling days.

OK I know I'm ignoring the poetry.

What has struck me very forceably is the contrast with Edward Thomas: it's widely accepted that Thomas was a poor husband, depressive, irritable, could get angry with the children and Helen. Compared with Coleridge he was a saint - he suffered  remorse about his behaviour, tried to get help to change, did not stay away from home anything like as much as we think, and worked extremely hard to support them all. Nor did he lie to Helen.  I am increasingly coming to believe that the view of their terrible marriage has been rather exaggerated.

Well - the Lakes - Thomas's writing on Wordsworth emphasises how more than any other poet he is assocated with one place.  Somehow I'm not convinced that Edward was greatly drawn to the area - I may be wrong. He said of Wordsworth: ' he wrote a guide to the Lakes and a poem[The Prelude] that is not quite so useful as a guide book but much better.' On his friend Bottomley's place he wrote just a few words about bare turf and stones, and this poem, which is about the interior of the  house in contrast to the outside.
 It may be that homelier gentler South country helped sustain a calmer state of  mind more than the 'storm coming from the Kirkstone pass to the north' could. The ordered Beautiful rather than the terrible Sublime.

The Sheiling
It stands alone
Up in a land of stone
All worn like ancient stairs,
A land of rocks and trees
Nourished on wind and stone.

And all within Long delicate has been;
By arts and kindliness
Coloured, sweetened, and warmed
For many years has been.

Safe resting there
Men hear in the travelling air
But music, pictures see
In the same daily land
Painted by the wild air.

One maker's mind
Made both, and the house is kind
To the land that gave it peace,
And the stone has taken the house
To its cold heart and is kind.


  1. Thanks for mentioning my book Margaret - what a nice surprise! A lovely piece on Edward Thomas and Coleridge, and I didn't know the poem at all. Love the line 'nourished on wind and stone' - that's how it feels living there.
    Look forward to the book.

  2. Thank you so much for your comment, Kathleen - that was a very nice surprise for me. I've almost finished 'A Passionate Sisterhood' and have loved it.