In the footsteps of romantic poets

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Starlight Wood: Return to the Romantic Countryside

Fiona Samson

Corsairp. 350£20

Shelley, boyishly walking through his “starwood”, searching for ghosts and filled with “hope to speak loudly with the dead who have passed away”, found nothing in answer. Nothing reflected. The ghosts were silent. But he felt something else unhuman: the spring breezes bringing a sense of the wonder of life itself. And so in that moment (or so he says), his mind changed. No more searching for gothic horrors or pining for the worst; no longer listen to the dead. Instead, “the spirit of beauty” descended upon him, illumined him, shaped his life, becoming his goddess, the only force he could imagine that “could liberate / This world from its dark bondage”.

Fiona Sampson’s account of ten short walks, mostly in the southern half of England, continues this spirit of romance. She’s a poet and a scholar, with some of the astringency that comes with both disciplines, so the book is no casual stroll through the Lake District. “Romanticism is not a cultural artifact,” she writes. “It’s a way for thought to move.” She takes her own mind for a ride and while there’s a lot about keys, cars, GPS’s, dogs and late arrival at rental cabins, the essence is intellectual and fully charged . The list of actors is long and international and the changing method, subtle and demanding.

A visit to the Quantocks, for example, where in the late 1790s the Wordsworths and Coleridges wandered day after day and night after night, composing the poems that appeared in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads, turns out to be only obliquely around them and hills. Their walks, as Coleridge would later describe them, in which “moonlight or sunset streamed over a known and familiar landscape”, became the foundations of a frame-busting poetry that was concerned with both “the truth of nature” and “in the colors of the imaginary” – the raw material, surely, of an exploration of the “romantic countryside”?

But it is not in their company that Sampson walks there. Visiting Nether Stowey, she begins with the Brownings in Florence, turns to Shelley in his illness in Venice and the portrayal of him in Rome, now London, (with his “always so weak phallic feather” and “Aussie Rules footballer mullet’), then TS Eliot, Philip Massinger, the Jacobean playwright, and back to Browning. Then came Blake, Byron, Dickens, “the favelas of the developing world”, Elizabeth Morison and Frances Lamont, the Shelley household again, the Browning again, Marina Tsvetaeva, Freud, Schubert, a game warden we remember Johnny, the Estonian poet Jaan Kaplinski, Wollstonecraft, Godwin, Byron again… and so on. All these figures are linked in the essay -walk by their interest in food. But Sampson omits one of the great romantic and culinary scenes set in the Quantocks, when young William Hazlitt gazed admiringly at Wordsworth (in brown fustian jacket and striped trousers) “doing havoc on half a Cheshire cheese on the table’ while dissipating the luxury of Robert Southey’s life.

Coleridge and Wordsworth are mentioned elsewhere, but in the Quantocks chapter merely in passing. The only continuity is in the mind of the writer. You have to jump when she jumps and reconnect when she resumes a scene left several pages earlier. This can make a certain fullness impatient: what about these writers, engaged with this country then? What was the interaction of spirit and place? Why was it important? How were they in these places? How much, in fact, of our way of seeing is still shaped by their way of seeing? The mind of Richard Holmes, the most generous of topographers and biographers, whose footprint is the masterpiece of the genre, hovering courteously in the background.

Given Sampson’s multiplicity of subject matter and scattered approach, it becomes difficult to know exactly what the book means. It is full of expertise on music, poetry, botany and even geology. He drops moments of lyricism and observation: “A kid on a piece of paper, with an asymmetrical bag slung over his shoulder”; the crow’s feet of the water in the “long mermaid strands”; ‘the first earthy smells of the year… light as an autosuggestion’; how bad it feels to walk in the dark ‘to break the membrane of the summer night with speech’.

But you yearn for a sense of home. So much of Romanticism was, in its youthful and vital way, dynamically grounded in the realities of the world that it is almost impossible to represent its spirit by the kind of intellectualized narrative that puts a distance between what has been lived and the way it is described. Sampson quotes Ruskin:

The greatest thing a human soul has ever done in the world is to see something and to say clearly what it has seen…To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion – while a.

She calls this statement a “picturesque tradition.” But all its interest, and in fact the still reverberating value of romanticism, is its desire to go beyond the picturesque, out of the frame, into what one might call the actualist, the illuminating power of what is vividly alive.

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