biography ever veering into historical fiction, she consistently succeeds in bringing what might otherwise seem dusty and remote to vivid life. Writing about the road that linked Pliny’s Tuscan estate to Rome, for instance, she describes how ‘the Via Flaminia had recently been relaid with black basalt from the volcanic provinces just north of the region, each luscious slab swollen and organic, like a loaf that had burned and spilled over its tin’. It is not just immediacy that Dunn gives us,
however. If there is much about Pliny’s world that she makes seem familiar, then there is just as much that she makes seem very strange. Putting the book constantly in its shadow is the Natural History, that incomparable compendium of Roman knowledge. Be it menstruation or painting or oysters, we see the world of the nephew through the eyes of the uncle. In the Shadow of Vesuvius may be a biography of Pliny the Younger, but it would have been considerably less stimulating without the presence of Pliny the Elder.
The result is a portrait of the Roman Empire that gives the reader something of the shiver down the spine that Herculaneum can inspire: a sense that we are as close to the vanished world of two millennia ago as we are ever likely to get. Is it enough? That depends, of course, on whether you see the amphora as half empty or half full. To order this book from the Literary Review Bookshop, see page 19.
The Pen & the Spade The Making of Poetry: Coleridge, the Wordsworths and Their Year of Marvels
By Adam Nicolson (William Collins 390pp £25)
Returning to England from Belfast, where I taught for a time, I frequently footstepped the Quantock Hills in Somerset, from Wills Neck to West Quantoxhead, following the stream in Holford Combe before crossing the bridge into Alfoxden Park. On one of my treks I paused at the beeches above Alfoxden, startled by two initials cut into the wood of a tree: ‘W W’. Although splayed and faded, the letters were still quite distinct, dating perhaps from a day when the Wordsworths and Coleridge had passed that way. Crisscrossed by tracks and studded with thorns, the Quantocks had lured and inspired the poets during their marvellous year of poetry-making, July 1797 to July 1798. The ‘Great Road’ across the ridge inspired Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’; the Bicknoller Post, an ancient waymark, led Wordsworth to write his most notorious lines: ‘You see a little muddy pond/Of water, never dry;/ I’ve measured it from side to side:/’Tis three feet long, and two feet wide’. Day by day Dorothy Wordsworth celebrated spring’s arrival in her ‘Alfoxden Journal’ while her brother and Coleridge wrote the poems that would make up one of the world’s most famous books, Lyrical Ballads.
Adam Nicolson has written a remarkably fresh and perceptive account of the poets’ ‘Year of Marvels’, illustrated with
Tom Hammick’s vividly coloured woodcuts. It all began in June 1797, when Coleridge summoned the Wordsworths from their retreat at Racedown Lodge, deep in remotest Dorset. He was already settled with his family at Nether Stowey, Somerset, and the Wordsworths were soon installed nearby in Alfoxden House. The poetic incomers were helped with their arrangements by a 28-year-old tanner called Thomas Poole, a well-known democrat who was rumoured to have a ‘private army’ at his command.
To write his book, Nicolson ‘embedded’ himself in the Quantocks for a year, living there as the poets had done more than two centuries ago. Month by month he walked the combes and heights, in all weathers and at all hours of the day and night, attentive to the sights and sounds of sea and hill and wood, feeling every wind that blew. One model for all of this is Richard Holmes, who has followed in the footsteps of the Romantics, seeking to recover the poets, including Dorothy Wordsworth, as living people – young, unsettled and ambitious, ‘dreaming of a vision of wholeness’ yet confronted by the contradictions of their world and themselves. Another powerful influence throughout the book is Seamus Heaney, the poet of ‘opened ground’, of ‘bedding the locale/in the utterance’.
Like most of their generation, Coleridge and Wordsworth had embraced the French Revolution and its ideals of liberty and equality, then lived through the shattering reversals of massacre and war that ensued. By the mid-1790s, many of the poets’ acquaintances were racked by mental and emotional stress. Some of them fled the country; others opted for internal exile, hidden, they hoped, from the spies and informers patrolling the cities. Nicolson argues convincingly that the fragmentary, fierce and strange poetry Wordsworth produced before Lyrical Ballads was composed on the cusp of madness. It was only by going to ground in England’s West Country that Wordsworth was able to cope. We get a rare glimpse of him at that time in Dorothy Wordsworth’s remark that her brother is ‘dextrous with a spade’. Like Heaney, Nicolson’s young Romantics are energised by ‘touching territory’ – digging in to renew themselves and their writing. The idea, Nicolson suggests, ‘that the contented life was the earth-connected life, even that goodness was embeddedness … had its roots in the 1790s’. As furze bloomed brightly on Longstone Hill, Coleridge and Wordsworth began to write poems that would challenge ‘pre-established codes’, change how people thought and so remake the world.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that there was nothing inevitable about any of this. Living day by day, wandering here and there across the hills, none of them had any sense at the time that something extraordinary was happening. Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ came to him by chance at a lonely farmhouse on the edge of Exmoor,
Literary Review | june 2019 10