When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love; — then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
— John Keats
Back when I was a child (no, really — I was still in my teens), I took a course on the English Romantic poets. The first semester was all about William Blake and the Lake Poets (Coleridge and Wordsworth, among others). The poets known as the Late Romantics— Byron, Shelley, and Keats — took up the second semester.
It was a challenging course; in her feedback to a paper I wrote on Keats, my professor gently suggested I was perhaps more inclined towards studying history than literature. (She was right.)
But those young poets never left me, in their way, and so, less than a year later, I found myself wandering through a Roman cemetery looking for John Keats’ headstone. He died of consumption — what we now know as tuberculosis — on February 23, 1821. Like so many ex-pats in Rome, he was buried in the Protestant Cemetery. Unlike most people, he insisted his headstone not bear his name, but rather “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”
On that same visit to Rome, I also visited the Keats–Shelley Memorial House beside the Spanish Steps. It’s the house on the far right in the next photo. It was sobering to see where Keats died, but also thrilling to see the incarnation of my entire Romantic poetry course in three rooms.
I stopped by the Keats House in Hampstead, in the north part of London, on my next trip overseas. Hampstead Heath, a marvelous open space of almost 800 acres that beckons when you are museumed out, lies just behind the house.
Since I keep bumping into Keats on my travels, I thought it only right that I acknowledge the 200th anniversary of his death.
But back to the Romantic poetry course that started it all for me. One morning, my prof began class by asking who among us had life insurance. Her point was how unusual it was for someone as young as Keats to be so aware of his own mortality.
Unusual, but understandable. Keats lost both parents before he was grown and then watched his younger brother die of tuberculosis. He had also trained as a doctor. By his early twenties, Keats had seen far more death and dying than most of us will see in a lifetime. His sense of how fleeting life is inspired him to write poems like the sonnet I started this post with, which he wrote a month after his brother died.
More death and dying than most of us will see in a lifetime — that, of course, refers to those of us who will live through this pandemic more or less unscathed. And those of us who do, have far more privilege than most.
I wasn’t planning on writing a post to celebrate the birthday of the English poet William Wordsworth, but somewhere on the Interwebs today, I came across the last verse of his most famous poem. That would be “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” — or, as many people call it, “that daffodil poem.”
Here’s the verse I’m talking about:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
What hit home for me about this particular verse today is the realization that the one-time Poet Laureate of England was doing exactly what we are all being asked to do right now: living a virtual life. Long after he wandered through those daffodil fields, Wordsworth wrote about the feelings he experienced as he did so, and how those memories sustained him.
As our memories are sustaining all of us during this pandemic.
Here then, as a nod to Mr. Wordsworth and on the happy occasion of his 250th birthday, is a photo taken back in the time of before, when we could walk side-by-side without a care along a seawall adorned with daffodils.
Every once in a while, I manage to be in the right place at the right time.
Such was the case this afternoon.
The Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows have been on a North American tour. This afternoon, they did several flypasts over Burrard Inlet.
I was there.
Are you tired of all the royal baby talk? There’s been an awful lot of it this month. Bear with me though, because we should all take a moment to mark a significant anniversary of yet another royal birth.
Two hundred years ago today, Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent was born in Kensington Palace. With her birth, she became fifth in the line of succession to the British throne.
Fifth seems a long ways away from the throne these days. (Archie Mountbatten-Windsor is seventh at present.) But due to a series of monarchs and heirs to the throne dying without legitimate heirs, Princess Alexandrina Victoria ended up becoming Queen of the United Kingdom in 1837. She had just turned 18.
This statue of Queen Victoria stands in front of the Parliament Buildings in Victoria, British Columbia. Many places in the Commonwealth are named after Queen Victoria; Canada is the only country to honour her birthday with a statutory holiday. It falls on the Monday before May 24. I grew up referring to Victoria Day as the “May long weekend.” It wasn’t until I moved to Toronto that I first heard it called the “May two-four weekend.” For a long time, I thought that was because Queen Victoria’s birthday is actually on May 24.
But, no. It’s because beer is sold in cases of 24. I had never heard a case of beer called a “two-four” — that’s not a common term in Western Canada — and was completely oblivious to its link with beer.
And why is beer on the mind of patriotic Canadians during this particular weekend in May, you ask? It’s because the May long weekend is the unofficial start of Cottage Season in Ontario. (Don’t get me started on the whole cottage vs. cabin debate.)
Regional differences. Long may they reign. Just like British queens.
The Internet is rife with rumours that Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex are honeymooning in Jasper National Park.
Yeah, right. And I’m the Queen of England.
What I find most remarkable is that one of the online tabloids’ headlines said the couple were honeymooning in “the world’s most boring place.”
Canadians are known around the world as polite folks, typically slow to anger. But mock our icons — like one of our oldest, most spectacular national parks — and we sit up and take notice.
That headline got noticed. And ridiculed.
As for that most boring place? Here’s what it looks like.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
The photo of daffodils I posted the other week had me thinking back to my lovely ramble through the hills of England’s Lake District. It was a sunny, autumn afternoon a couple of decades ago, and although it had been many years since I had studied English romantic poetry, William Wordsworth’s poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” was firmly imprinted on my brain.
Likely because I was wandering. And alone. And in the middle of the Lake District (aka Wordsworth’s backyard). I believe I took this photo above Rydal Water on my walk from Dove Cottage to Rydal Mount.
I had arrived in Windermere around dusk the evening before and started off that morning intending to walk to Ambleside. All over England are public footpaths, known as right of ways, where anyone can walk, even if the land is private. The delightful thing about these footpaths is you can take a bus or train to the start of the trail, do your walk, and then hop on another bus or train to get to where you need to be.
To my memory, the paths are well marked. However, I was soon confused and turned around and, well, lost. I asked another walker for directions, showing him my tiny hand-drawn map bought that morning at the Windermere Tourist Information Centre for 20 pence. To his credit, he did not laugh, but he immediately pulled out his full-size Ordnance Survey map — at which point my map felt woefully inadequate and I felt like a silly tourist.
This gentleman set me straight, but it was not long before I was once again lost. I gave up on that path and made my way back to the road where I knew I could catch a bus to Ambleside.
After lunch, I tried another footpath and this time successfully found my way from one of Wordsworth’s former homes (Dove Cottage) to another (Rydal Mount). In the end, it all worked out for the better because by cutting short my morning walk I had more time for my afternoon walk — a walk so beautiful it turned out to be one of the most memorable walks of my life.
A walk so beautiful I started reciting poetry to myself. And, believe me, I’m not the reciting-poetry type.
Several of the English Romantic poets lived in the Lake District, so they are also known as the Lake poets. And the Lake District is truly one of the most spectacular parts of England.
Because I was there in autumn — a lovely time of year, for sure — I saw no daffodils. But someday, one day, I hope to go back in April and see me a crowd of golden daffodils.
I could not let today’s date go by without acknowledging the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s death. She died 200 years ago today at the age of 41. Bibliophiles around the world are celebrating her legacy and the new British £10 note featuring her image will come into circulation later this year.
Jane Austen lived in Bath between 1801 and 1806 — which is where I took this photo — and two of her novels are set there. I went to Bath because I’m a Jane Austen fan, but the city is well worth a visit regardless of your reading preferences.
For Palm Sunday, I’m posting a photo of a wall of windows from Fountains Abbey. These windows are located on the bottom level of the abbey’s tower, which was built not long before the abbey was surrendered to the Crown. As I explained last Sunday, after the surrender, the lead and glass were removed from all of the abbey’s windows, allowing in the elements and causing the abbey to quickly fall into ruin.
The Crown sold Fountains Abbey to a merchant from London. Eventually, it was purchased by Sir Stephen Proctor, who used stone from the abbey to build a home for his family. It took from 1598 until 1611 to build that house, which he named Fountains Hall.
What was left of the abbey became the estate’s “folly” — essentially a giant lawn ornament. Such features were common in formal English gardens.
Since 1983, Fountains Abbey has been owned by the National Trust. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986.
Here is a photo of the narthex of Fountains Abbey, which I am posting for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. A narthex is the entrance to a church. Nowadays, we usually call it a foyer.
You get an idea of the size of the church at Fountains Abbey from this photo. It wasn’t until I visited this abbey that I began to understand why so many of England’s abbeys lie in ruins. Which is ironic, considering that Fountains Abbey is one of the best-preserved abbeys in all of England.
It’s because once you take away the roof, the building doesn’t stand a chance against the unpredictable English weather.
Why is there no roof? That’s easy. When the deed of surrender was signed at Fountains Abbey in 1539, the abbey had to be made unfit for worship. The roof was torn off, and the windows were stripped of their lead and glass. Some of the stone was carted off to be used for building projects elsewhere; the rest was worn down by the elements. During the Dissolution, many of the abbeys were also burned to ensure that the monks would leave.
The Dissolution came about because of Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church. More than 900 religious houses — home to some 12,000 people — were destroyed between 1536 and 1541. Initially, the proceeds from the monasteries was intended to provide an income for the Crown, but eventually many of them were sold off to fund Henry’s wars.