A doctor and a poetBMJ 2007; 334 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39136.522500.59 (Published 01 March 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:479
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Reborn in the hands of each generation, the literature of England was made by Wordsworth two hundred years ago. This is the two hundredth September since his writing of the poem “September 1815.” William Wordsworth is associated with a celebrated era of poetry and indeed his creative life defined that epoch. Versions of Wordsworth’s poems exist owing to his impulse to constantly revise earlier efforts. At his death in 1850, at the age of eighty, the curtain descended on a fertile phase in English literature – the era of the Romantics.
The Age of the Romantics (1790-1850) was a rebellion against the forerunning Age of Enlightenment (1620-1790) . Emerging from the darkness of the Middle Ages, the 1600s-1700s in Western Europe was a time of huge intellectual leaps. Figures such as Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, and Sir Isaac Newton, Lucasian Professor at Cambridge, contributed abundantly to the Age of Enlightenment. They were exponents of classical diction and the merchants of rational thought. Also termed the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment was enhanced considerably by the circulation of books. Literacy in Britain increased by the greatest extent in the 1600s after the printing-press appeared in 1470. Triggering a scientific revolution, Newton published his “Principia Mathematica” in 1647.
Creatures of a different clay, the Romantic poets of England wanted to escape the Enlightenment of the 1600s-1700s. They were repelled by its formality and its complex language. Science and logic were insipid and sterile for them. Calling for plain-spokenness, the Romantics valued Nature and magic, myth and the artistic imagination. Their interest, furthermore, was in the ordinary rustic people of the villages. Hence their poems are not sketches of grand scenes, but meditations on those stricken by poverty and sickness. For instance, a Wordsworthian poem such as “The Idiot Boy” (1798) has the protagonists of a mother and her disabled son living out in the country. Such a social bias was mixed with the Romantics' emphasis on nature. The sensory faculties of the poets converted the natural world into a mirror in which to view the reflections of their feelings.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was born in the Lake District in the North of England. He lived almost all his eighty years in the Lake Country, landscapes of such beauty that an application has been made for the region to become a World Heritage Site in 2016. Orphaned in childhood, the poet lost his own children, wounds that are evident in his autobiographical “The Prelude : Growth of a Poet's Mind.” Commenced in his twenties, Wordsworth continued writing this endless poem in his last years, a work which staggeringly fills several books. It is a text in which a poet explores his own life and nature, and through internal discussion points to the relevance of poetry in understanding human experience. Only academics scrutinise a tract as formidable as “The Prelude” whereas a reader of the current age typically pauses amongst the short, self-contained poems.
Wordsworth’s “Address to My Infant Daughter,” for example, is a 35-year-old poet’s musings when marvelling at Dora, his child. Tuberculosis caused the death of Dora Wordsworth in 1847 when she was in her early forties. Her elderly father, the poet, William Wordsworth, numbed by grief, lost the inclination to compose any more poetry. But it is joy, not sorrow, which underpins the poetry of the poet from the District of the Lakes.
Attuned to the elements, the poet in “September 1815” considers a month of delicate contrasts. September in the British Isles is the bridge from the summer to the autumn. By its final, thirtieth day the roads still thickly murmur with leaves, but some types of trees have become radiances of rust and yellow. On one hand, September days are laden with the maturity of summer but, on the other, the ninth month heralds the cooling decline.
Scanning the English landscape in 1815, Wordsworth turned to his page and wrote :
While not a leaf seems faded, while the fields
With ripening harvest prodigally fair,
In brightest sunshine bask; this nipping air,
Sent from some distant clime where Winter wields
His icy scimitar, a foretaste yields
Of bitter change, and bids the flowers beware;
And whispers to the silent birds, “Prepare
Against the threatening foe your trustiest shields.”
For me, who under kindlier laws belong
To Nature’s tuneful quire, this rustling dry
Through leaves yet green, and yon crystalline sky,
Announce a season potent to renew,
‘Mid frost and snow, the instinctive joys of song,
And nobler cares than listless summer knew.
—the poem “September 1815” by William Wordsworth
Speaking of summer fields reared into a “ripening harvest,” Wordsworth tells also of September’s “nipping air” which suggests the looming winter. Similarly, the calm of autumn in “whispers to the silent birds” is contrasted against the winter as a “threatening foe.” Images of warfare are evoked, as the cold is personified as a sword-waving enemy (“Winter wields/His icy scimitar”) against which must stand a barrier of the “trustiest shields.”
After initially presenting winter as an ominous force the direction of the poem changes. The closing lines depict winter as a panorama of crystal skies (“yon crystalline sky”) which has within its bleakness the scope for rebirth (“a season potent to renew.”) Winter is not the end. Winter encompasses continuity. Winter evenings have a regenerative nobility which surpasses the wilting laziness of summer afternoons. But to reach a winter from which the rising of the spring is possible the seasons must first cycle through the falling yellownesses of the autumn – which begin tentatively in the month of September.
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Two men browsed along a lane in the November of 1914. The First World War had begun some months earlier in the summer. In the amiability of their banter, they were discussing poetry and on occasions returning to the subject of the war. There had been a rainfall overnight and the grass mirrored with water, the rays of the morning splintering across the fields. After the rain, the soil was frothing, its odour sifting across the soft acres of farming landscape. The men were in Dymock, a Gloucestershire village, some fifty miles from Oxford as the crow flies towards the singing valleys of Wales. One of the men was American, the other an Englishman of Welsh ancestry.
Robert Frost, the American, was forty, but had yet to publish any work that had made a cultural impression. Back in New Hampshire, he had worked as a schoolteacher and at times veered into farming. Edward Thomas, the Briton, was mildly younger at thirty-six. A writer by profession, he had lathed out numerous books but despite the prodigiousness had felt dissatisfied with his bounty. Since these labours had hardly accrued a fortune for him, he had spent much of his time accepting openings in the broadsheets. Book reviews had slithered from his table, a form of writing undertaken to support a young and money-needing family. But all the straight journalism, all the making of popular biscuits, had started to exhaust his patience. On the axis of literature, he wanted to slide away from the exoteric to the esoteric.
Frost was ideal for Thomas since he could compass him out of the paragraphed prairies of prose into the versific gardens of poetry. Thomas estimated that he knew everything of worth in proseform by having written a stonehenge of twenty books by his thirties. Such stamina could only have come from a highly differentiated species of mind, and so it was Thomas himself, with the penetration of his intellect, who first praised the poems of the American resident in Britain. It would be Thomas who would lead Frost from the wing of obscurity onto the publishing stage of 1910s London. And by reciprocal action, it would be Frost who would impel his British friend into smithing out his prototypes of poetry.
Their accents mingled in the to-and-fro of the conversation, each tuned to the opinion of the other as they pottered along in the laze of the rural lane. They were on the border of Worcestershire and Gloucestershire on the midwestern side of England. Outdoors seemed a better place in which to be expansive than the cottage which Frost occupied with his wife and clamour of four children. Both had marriages that were continually troubled. Some inadequacy had clearly brought Robert Frost steaming across the Atlantic to Britain. But of the two, Thomas was the more restless when feeling confined by the walls of domesticity. Punctuated by spates of depression, Thomas's life contained tantrums that were so fiendish that he would abandon his wife and children for days. These surges would be neutralised by lying spreadeagled in bed continuously for a whole day and night. The cocoons of their personal lives were crowded with catastrophes, and in the never-endingness of the outside world there was also much in the air. The country which they inhabited had turned alien through the paralysing overlay of the First World War. With Britain at war, Frost had the consolation of returning to America, a regression he pursued months after his autumnal wanderings with Thomas. In that autumn of 1914, thousands of his countrymen were rushing to war but Thomas wanted to discuss the symphonics of poetry with a likeminded Frost.
Lost in conversation, they came away from the lane in the November of 1914 and began kneeing through a Gloucestershire field interspersed with chopped-down trees. Startling them both, a man appeared from the shufflings of the hawthorn bushes at the edge of the clearing. He was lanky, around fifty, with a deeply-lined face and stubbled cheeks, standing with the sheened barrel of a shotgun fluted up at them. Facing the two poets, he asked what they were doing on his land, considering them too fresh-faced and too well-dressed to be poachers. Thomas began retreating, nonplussed. Frost upbraided the gun-toter, telling him that he was entirely within his rights to walk in the fields since he lived in a cottage down the lane. The voices of the two quarrelling men turned feral. Thomas tugged at Frost’s elbow, as the American stood intransigently, a stance of manliness which contrasted against Thomas’s cowering. More choice exclamations were exchanged, Thomas coaxing his friend into leaving the gun-loaded confrontation. Eventually they walked away, Thomas expressing his incredulity at the gamekeeper’s oafish attitude.
Frost listened intently to his friend, looking down at the ground, and in a fury turned on a sixpence and ran back across the field. Thomas followed reluctantly. Finding the gamekeeper’s cottage, Frost hammered on the door, and shouted, telling the man that if he ever threatened him again he would meet a bloodcurdlingly nasty end. Thomas stood well away. The gamekeeper emerged with his gun and, after a louder verbal joust, Frost was again cajoled away by the tractive arm of his friend. Reflecting later, Thomas wondered whether he should have been as fearlessly bellicose as his friend, the American poet, Robert Frost. It was a feeling of lacking mettle during this encounter which contributed to Thomas’s voluntary enlisting for the war.
By the spring of 1915, Frost had returned to America. Thomas was killed in the spring of 1917 at Pas-de-Calais in northern France. A posthumous poem was published which he had written on the Oxford to Worcester train during the days of his friendship with Robert Frost. On this journey, the train had stopped in the Gloucestershire village of Adlestrop, a wait which for Edward Thomas had been :
Yes, I remember Adlestrop
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat, the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop – only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire
“Adlestrop” by Edward Thomas (1914)
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A poem is an answer to a question or problem. Poets are philosophers who
ponder questions and problems, and occasionally come up with an answer,
which they call a poem. If you want to write a poem, think about a question or
problem, but don't try to answer it. Let the question or problem sink from your
conscious into your unconscious. Then wait until your unconscious contacts
you, in a dream, a random thought, or a sudden insight, with an answer. This
answer will be your poem.
Competing interests: No competing interests