Over on the Literature Stack Exchange, someone asked:
Thomas Hardy’s short poem ‘At Lulworth Cove a Century Back’ is a sort of ode to John Keats, who apparently left England from near Lulworth Cove on his way to Rome:“Good. That man goes to Rome—to death, despair;
And no one notes him now but you and I:
A hundred years, and the world will follow him there,
And bend with reverence where his ashes lie.”
Apparently Hardy once corresponded with a biographer of Keats who wanted to know exactly where he left England in 1820, and this correspondence inspired the poem quoted above. But why was Hardy in particular considered an authority on Keats and being consulted by his biographers? And why did he consider it a noteworthy enough thing to write a whole poem about?
Keats suffered from tuberculosis, and in 1820 his doctors advised him to move abroad to a warmer climate. On 17 September 1820 he embarked from Gravesend on the Maria Crowther, along with his friend Joseph Severn, whose journal and letters are the main historical sources for this part of Keats’ life.
The Maria Crowther was beset by adverse winds as it beat down the English Channel, and this meant that the passengers were able to put ashore at various places, including Dungeness (or “Dundee Ness” as Severn spells it), Portsmouth, and Studland. On or about 1 October 1820, the ship was becalmed off the Dorset coast, somewhere between Studland and Portland, and the passengers went ashore. Severn wrote several accounts of this episode. In a letter dated 21 January 1846, printed in the Union magazine for that year:
The present exquisite Sonnet was written under such interesting circumstances that I cannot forbear making them public. Keats and myself were beating about in the British Channel in the autumn of 1820, anxiously waiting for a wind to take us to Italy, which place, together with the sea-voyage, were deemed likely to preserve his life; for he was then in a state of consumption, which left but the single hope of an Italian sojourn to save him. The stormy British sea, after a fortnight, had exhausted him; and on our arrival off the Dorsetshire coast, having at last the charm of a fine and tranquil day, we landed to recruit.
The shores, with the beautiful grottoes, which opened to fine verdure and cottages, were the means of transporting Keats once more into the regions of poetry; he showed me these things exultingly, as though they had been his birthright. The change in him was wonderful, and continued even after our return to the ship, when he took a volume (which he had a few days before given me) of Shakespeare's Poems, and in it he wrote me the subjoined Sonnet, which at the time I thought the most enchanting of all his efforts.
In his autobiography ‘My Tedious Life’ (1873; printed in Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs, ed. Grant F. Scott, 2005) he wrote:
Ariving on the Doncaster coast Keats was persuaded to land with me & for a moment he became like his former self, he showed me the splendid caverns & grottos with a poets pride, as tho’ they had been his birthright & when we returned to the ship he wrote for me in vol of Shakespeare’s Poems that magnificent sonnet [‘Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art’] … I am not aware if this was not the first transcript of the fine Poet[r]y for it seemed inspired by our recent visit to the seacoast—I believe certainly that this sonnet was the very last poetical effort the poor fellow ever made …
These passages from Severn have raised two questions for biographers of Keats. First, where exactly are these “splendid caverns and grottos”? And second, how much (if anything) can we read into Severn’s phrase “as though they had been his birthright”? Keats was born and raised in London and there was no evidence that he had any connection with Dorset.
Complicating these questions is the problem that Severn is far from reliable—where they can be corroborated, his recollections have often proved to be incorrect. In the passage from ‘My Tedious Life’, “Doncaster” must be a mistake for “Dorchester”, and ‘Bright Star’ was not “the very last poetical effort the poor fellow ever made”—it is now thought to have been composed in 1818 or 1819. What is worse, some biographers have, unconsciously or otherwise, embellished Severn’s accounts. In particular, William Sharp, in The Life and Letters of Joseph Severn (1892), quoted Severn as follows:
For a moment he became like his former self. He was in a part that he already knew, and showed me the splendid caverns and grottos with a poet’s pride, as though they had been his by birthright. When we returned to the ship he wrote for me on a blank leaf in a folio volume of Shakespeare’s Poems which had been given him by a friend, and which he gave to me in memory of our voyage, the following magnificent sonnet
Unless there is another version of the episode by Severn, that Sharp consulted but has since been lost, the words I emphasized in bold must be interpolations by Sharp.
Severn’s unreliable memories, and the creative embellishments of biographers like Sharp, led to the following general beliefs: that Keats had a family connection with Dorset; that he had visited Lulworth Cove in 1820; that he had composed ‘Bright Star’ there or aboard ship soon afterwards; and that it was the last poem he wrote. In this context, it is natural that Hardy should write a poem linking his own visit to Lulworth Cove in 1920 with Keats’ (supposed) visit in 1820, and reference the composition of ‘Bright Star’ in the lines:
And as the evening light scants less and less
He looks up at a star, as many do.
In 1914, Sidney Colvin was working on John Keats: his life and poetry; his friends, critics and after-fame (published in 1917), and was researching these questions. Hardy was a friend, or at least a literary acquaintance, of Colvin’s, and the latter must have written to Hardy for help with the location of the “splendid caverns and grottos” described by Severn. Hardy had lived in Dorset for much of his life, was familiar with the Dorset coast, and had used Lulworth Cove (under the light disguise of ‘Lulwind Cove’) as the location of Sergeant Troy’s disastrous swim in chapter XLVII of Far from the Madding Crowd, so he was a natural authority for Colvin to consult.
In The Colvins and their Friends (1928), Edward Verrall Lucas quotes two of Hardy’s letters in reply. First, 14 June 1914:
My dear Colvin,—We have been weighing probabilities in the question of the “splendid caverns and grottoes” of Severn, that you write about, and have come to the conclusion that he must mean “Durdle Door,” close to Lulworth Cove. […] Why we think it must have been Durdle Door is that it impressed my wife just in the same way when she first saw it as a girl.
To see it from the inside (which would give the impression) they would have landed in the cave1, & have walked over tide cliff to the west, & down behind the “Door.” The walk would have taken them only a few minutes.
There is a smuggler’s cave in Worbarrow Bay, But it is difficult to find, though in Keats’s time it would most likely have been clearer. The only other cave I know about here is Cave Hole, Portland. But that is difficult of access except at low and quiet tides. […]—Sincerely yours, Thomas Hardy
P.S.—I assume that Swanage would be too far east. There are, of course, the Tilly-Whim Caves near that place.
Second letter, 29 July 1914:
My dear Colvin,—“Beautiful grottoes” is certainly rather an exaggerated description of what one finds at Durdle Door, and Stair Hole close by, yet an enthusiastic young Londoner might on a first impression use such words. Besides, if not Durdle Door, Stair Hole, &c., what place can it be that Severn meant? The “Door” is an archway in the cliff, as you know: Stair Hole has caves & fissures into which the sea flows, & there is another cave at Bat’s Corner, also close at hand.
At any rate I cannot think of another point on the Dorset coast, easily accessible from a boat, which so well answers the description.
The “cottages” would be those of the adjoining Lulworth Cove & village, but they do not, of course, face the “grottoes,” as Severn seems to imply. I put that down to his fancy, as such a position would hardly be possible anywhere. With kind regards—Sincerely yours, Thomas Hardy
↩ Lucas has “cave” but I think this must be a misread or misprint for “cove” (that is, Lulworth Cove). The tide cliffs are to the west of Lulworth Cove, and there is a path above them that runs, after a mile or so, down behind Durdle Door (pictured below). It is about twenty minutes’ walk.