From William Wordsworth to Stevie Smith, generations of English poets have been inspired by place.
Stirred by the buildings and boatyards, stations and suburbs of their days, each have found a muse in both extraordinary and commonplace surroundings.
For this National Poetry Day, we take a look at 6 poems that have been inspired by England’s glorious places.
1. A Mind’s Journey to Diss, John Betjeman
“Above the chimney-pots we’ll go
Through Stepney, Stratford-atte-Bow
And out to where the Essex marsh
Is filled with houses new and harsh
Till, Witham pass’d, the landscape yields
On left and right to widening fields,
Flint church-towers sparkling in the light,
Black beams and weather-boarding white,
Cricket-bat willows silvery green
And elmy hills with brooks between,
Maltings and saltings, stack and quay
And, somewhere near, the grey North Sea.”
The former Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, is renowned for poetry imbued with nostalgia, as well as for highlighting issues about architecture and contemporary society. His evocative and imaginary train journey from Liverpool Street to Diss brings to life the early 20th century suburbs and countryside of East Anglia that so inspired him to write the poem.
2. An Arundel Tomb, Phillip Larkin
“Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd—
The little dogs under their feet.
Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.”
The stone figures in Larkin’s poem are thought to be those of the 10th Earl of Arundel and his second wife Eleanor of Lancaster that lie in Chichester Cathedral. On visiting the cathedral in 1955 he said that the effigies were “extremely affecting”. Larkin draws inspiration from the figures, pondering the nature of love, time and mortality in his poem.
3. Chinatown, Carol Ann Duffy
“Writing it, I see how much I love the sound.
Chinatown. Chinatown. Chinatown.
We went down, the day of the Year of the Monkey,
dim sum and dragons bound.
Your fair head
was a pearl in the mouth of the crowd. The fireworks
were as loud as love, if love were allowed
Chinatown provides the backdrop and inspiration for Carol Ann Duffy’s poem about falling in love. ‘Chinatown. Chinatown. Chinatown’ is like a mantra for her loved-one and the place is a central character in the poem that helps to highlight her feelings. Duffy has been Britain’s Poet Laureate since 2009 and is the first woman to hold the position.
4. Cargoes, John Masefield
“Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays”.
Poet John Masefield went to sea aged fifteen. His experiences whilst working on a large ship gave him the inspiration and material to write many sea poems for which he is famous. In 1902, he published Salt-Water Ballads, a collection of sea poems which included “Cargoes”.
5. From England, With Love, Bridget Minamore
“If you listen, buildings whisper in the wind:
“Make your commitments inside me,
come back to me on anniversaries,
point me out when you see me in the distance.
Know me as yours and I will keep your memories
deep in my foundations.
I am your place now.
I am with you both
and I will stay when you are gone.
Standing tall against the elements,
and counting every couple’s heartbeats,
sheltering people who are madly in love,
protecting memories and dreams from the famous English weather.”
We worked with poet Bridget Minamore to create a poem about love and historic places for Valentine’s Day. The poem celebrates the beauty and inspiration of the historic environment and also champions the places where people have found love in England. Watch Bridget read the whole of From England, With Love below.
6. The Wasteland, TS Eliot
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.”
TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ is widely thought to be one of the most important poems of the 20th century. The narrator describes watching a crowd flowing over London Bridge like zombies, comparing the life of a commuter to living in hell. Eliot wrote part of the poem in a seaside shelter in Margate in 1921 whilst recovering from a nervous breakdown. The shelter is now listed at Grade II.
What other English places have inspired great poems? Tell us about them in the comments.