A Secret Romantic Landscape
250 miles south of William Wordsworth's Lake District, on the wild edges of Somerset, a very different landscape tells the tale of a very different man, and of how Romantic poetry was born...
Think of Romantic poets, and you might think of the Lake District, daffodils, and William Wordsworth wandering “lonely as a cloud” through the mountains. You probably wouldn’t think of the hills of west Somerset, with their wind beaten trees, hardy ponies and lush green woods. In fact, it was in the foothills of the Quantocks, home to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and briefly also to Wordsworth, that Romantic poetry as we know it began.
The Quantock Hills do not soar to the same dramatic heights as the mountains of Cumbria, but from their gentle summits the two poets could see across the flat landscape of the Somerset Levels over to the Mendip Hills, and across the Bristol Channel to the Brecon Beacon mountains in Wales. Dorothy Wordsworth, William’s sister, mentions seeing the islands of Steepholm and Flat Holm with Coleridge in her diaries:
“Walked with Coleridge over the hills. The sea at first obscured by vapour; that vapour afterwards slid in one mighty mass along the sea-shore; the islands and one point of land clear beyond it.” – Dorothy Wordsworth, 3rd February 1798
With their pocket writing kits and folding chairs, Coleridge and Wordsworth took to the hills, exploring the landscape, and getting inspiration for a brand new type of poetry. The poetry they produced became the first edition of Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems the likes of which had never been seen before.
Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ was full of vivid, dark imagery, and the horror of a cursed sailor who shot an albatross. Wordsworth’s poems starred normal country people like those they would have met on their walks, and showed the cultured social elite who would read their poems the lessons that could be learned from the lives of these people, who were often ignored and disdained by high society. These poems inspired future Romantic writers, the ‘second generation’, including Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats, as well as later poets such as Ted Hughes, changing the face of English Literature forever.
In the footsteps of the Romantics
Today, the Romantic landscape of the Quantock Hills has stayed the same, even though trees, houses, and roads have grown up within it. From the top of the hills you can still see Steepholm and Flatholm rising from the sea, as well as Glastonbury Tor, Cardiff, and the Brecon Beacons. ‘Dorothy’s Dell’ is a popular walking spot in Holford, a nearby village, and for a taste of what the poets would have seen, Stowey Castle is a short walk from Coleridge Cottage, where Samuel Taylor Coleridge spent his three extraordinary years.