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The History Behind the Lake Poets

This national poetry month, we are celebrating The Lake Poets, a group of poets that became synonymous with the Lake District in Cumbria.

Recently mentioned by Taylor Swift in her song 'The Lakes' this is essential knowledge for Swift fans everywhere.

The formation of The Lake Poets

A book about the Lake Poets by Stuart Andrews

The name “Lake Poets,” is a term used to refer to writers from the Lake District and was originally a derogatory term created by the Edinburgh Review.

When speaking about the group, Francis Jeffery, a Scottish literary critic, referred to them as: the School of whining and hypochondriacal poets that haunt the Lakes.” as reported by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the three key figures of the Lakes Poets.

It was a misnomer as the group wasn’t born out of only the Lake District and wasn’t a disciplined school of poetry. The school’s approach was ironic because readers of their work would then be inspired to go to the Lake District.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

A portrait of William Wordsworth

Wordsworth is perhaps one of the most famous British poets and writers of his time. He was a Romantic and naturalist poet. Born in Cockermouth, just north of the National Park he went to school at Hawkshead grammar school after being orphaned at the age of 13.

At Hawkshead he studied classics, literature, and maths and fell in love with the natural scenery. One of Wordsworth’s earliest important poems ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ was inspired by his surroundings: “that nature never did betray the heart that loved her.”.

While living with his sister Dorothy Wordsworth in 1795 Bristol, Wordsworth became friends with fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and in 1797 began writing some of his best-remembered poems that were tributes to his sister, nature, and countryside life. Alongside Coleridge he helped launch the Romantic Age of English literature with their publication of Lyrical Ballads.

Dorothy Wordsworth in 1820 with her dog

Wordsworth and Dorothy headed to the Lake District in 1799, settling at Dove Cottage in Grasmere; Robert Southey and Coleridge lived nearby.

In 1802, repayment of substantial debt owed to his father enabled Wordsworth to marry Mary Hutchinson. Life at Grasmere inspired some of his greatest poetry, including ‘I wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ and ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’ – and the prose book ‘A Description of the Scenery of the Lakes in the North of England’ (1822).

In 1813, Wordsworth and his sister moved to Rydal Mount, Ambleside. He continued to write poetry, including The Excursion (1814) and The River Duddon (1820), but the conservatism of his later work annoyed radical friends.

Rydal Mount Wordsworth's residence in 1813 in Rydal, Cumbria

Wordsworth died on 23 April 1850 and was buried in Grasmere churchyard. His great autobiographical poem, The Prelude, which he had worked on since 1798, was published shortly after his death.

Wordsworth’s poetry is what brings many tourists to the Lake District to this day and it’s all thanks to his adoration for the natural realm. Without Wordsworth and Coleridge, there would have never been a Romantic Age making him a pioneer of his time.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge portrait in 1795

Coleridge, born in Ottery Devon, 1772 is remembered alongside Wordsworth as one of the minds behind the Romantic Movement in England.

From a young age, he immersed himself in literature and studied at a local grammar school in Ottery. Coleridge then went on to his secondary education at Christ Hospital in London after his father passed away in 1781.

In 1791 Coleridge attended Jesus College in Cambridge where he was absorbed by reading literary works that concerned imagination and philosophy.

A chance meeting with fellow Lake Poet, Robert Southey meant Coleridge left Cambridge to become a public lecturer in Bristol alongside Robert. This is where Coleridge was to meet Wordsworth.

With his philosophical mindset of a “life consciousness” Coleridge partnered with Wordsworth on Lyrical Ballads. Whilst working on Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge was developing a new informal mode of poetry that had a colloquial tone and rhythm which gave the poems unity. One of these was ‘Frost at Midnight’ which drew on his philosophical musings.

Lyrical Ballads cover a book by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth

His work was often darker than Wordsworth’s and Samuel used elements of the supernatural, imagination, and naturalism.

Coleridge suffered from addiction to laudanum and opium for most of his life. His most famous works – 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 'Kubla Khan' and 'Christabel' – all featured supernatural themes and exotic images, perhaps affected by his use of the drugs.

Coleridge's legacy has been tainted with accusations of plagiarism, both in his poetry and critical essays. He also had a tendency to leave projects unfinished and had large debts.

Frost at Midnight, one of Coleridge’s most famed poems

Coleridge died in Highgate, London on 25 July 1834 as a result of heart failure compounded by an unknown lung disorder, possibly linked to his use of opium.

Coleridge is regarded as a ground-breaking and at his best, a powerful poet of lasting influence. His idea of poetry remains the standard by which others in the English sphere are tried.

Robert Southey (1774–1843)

A portrait of Robert Southey

Robert Southey is chiefly remembered for his association with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, both of whom were leaders of the early Romantic movement in England.

Southey was born in Bristol in 1744. He began to write while attending Westminster School in London. When he entered Balliol College, Oxford, in 1792, he expressed his passionate sympathy for the French Revolution in the long poem Joan of Arc (1796).

When Southey met Coleridge they shared the same liberal views on the revolution and in 1794 together they wrote a verse drama, The Fall of Robespierre (1794).

The Fall of Robespierre in the Convention was a significant series of events throughout the French Revolution]

Robert became acquainted with Wordsworth after he moved to Keswick in 1803 with his wife Edith Fricker alongside friend Robert Coleridge and wife Sara Fricker.

At some point Coleridge abandoned his family in the Lakes and it was down to Robert to support both households and he continuously wrote poetry, criticisms, historical books, and articles to support them.

In 1813, Southey was appointed poet laureate through the influence of Sir Walter Scott, and he eventually gained financial security through a government pension.

His last years were clouded by his wife’s insanity and by his own failing mental and physical health. He died on March 21, 1843, in Keswick, England.

Robert Southey is remembered today for his lyrical verse, sonnets, odes, prose poems, and ballads that dealt with topics like social injustice and the supernatural.

He, like Coleridge and Wordsworth, became more conservative throughout his lifetime, acquiring deep respect for British social institutions.


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