Four poets’ houses

Essays Published October 15, 2016 in Dark Mountain issue 10

1. Dove Cottage, Grasmere, England

Until now, poetry has meant nothing to me. I’ve never understood it, or much cared. Most of the other stuff I’ve been forced to read in Mr Mitchell’s sixth form English class has been suicidally tedious. Alexander Pope’s verbose dribblings. Jane Austen’s yawnsome bonnets and carriage rides. What was it with the eighteenth century? Was everybody boring, or just the ones who wrote books?

Now we’re doing Wordsworth. I’ve heard of him, of course: he wrote a poem about daffodils. Now I have to read something called Tintern Abbey, which is far longer than any poem should ever be, and is about some stones that used to be an Abbey. I fear the worst.

It isn’t about the Abbey, though, not really. It’s about a man who loves nature, and who is trying to put that love into words. And even though those words include ‘sylvan’ and ‘perchance’ and ‘wilt thou’ and ‘hither’, somehow I get this straight away. ‘Nature never did betray the heart that loved her,’ says William, and I agree, I feel the same, but I’m too embarrassed to tell anyone I know. I’ve been up on the same mountains as this man, and I’ve experienced, like him, ‘A motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things.’ He gets it, even from two hundred years in the past.

Wordsworth was my first poetic love, and you always remember your first love. He was a Romantic, and so am I, and Romanticism, as I later discovered, was not a floppy-wristed affectation for people who prefer flowers to football, but a radical proposition. Freshly returned from a stint in revolutionary France during which, as a supporter of the revolution, he narrowly escaped death, Wordsworth took up residence near his friend Samuel Coleridge in a tiny peasant’s cottage in the Cumberland village of Grasmere, and began composing poems which would be thrown like bombs at the orthodoxies of rationalism, humanism, progress and empire. Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth and Coleridge’s first book together, contains an introduction which reads like a manifesto for both poetry and life: against the machine, for the human heart and spirit. With the industrial revolution beginning to turn the world upside down, this stuff must have felt dangerous.

I didn’t visit Dove Cottage until years after I first read Wordsworth, by which time it had long since stopped feeling dangerous. These days, the poet’s old house is one of the north of England’s major tourist attractions. Grasmere has been broadsided by a vast car park designed to accommodate the coach tours which pour into the cottage every five minutes, to take the guided tours around the tiny rooms. After your tour, there are some fetching Wordsworth postcards and pens and mugs and notebooks which you can buy in the attached gift shop. Or you can wander into the village and visit one of the many boutiques, cafes, hotels and fudge shops named after the poet. You can also visit his grave, which has daffodils planted on it. Everyone knows the poem about daffodils. The first bit, at least.

Once this little place was a den of hallucinogens and radical notions, of outsiders and freaks and rebels against the future. But that kind of thing is achingly old-fashioned now. The machine has outlasted it, because the machine can package and sell you anything, including hallucinogenic poems written by freaks and rebels. Romanticism is no longer threatening, but it does a very nice line in tea towels


2. The Boathouse, Laugharne, Wales

Dylan Thomas has never interested me much. Writing this essay, I realised I don’t even have any of his books on my shelf. Why do some writers connect with you and others just sail past? Nobody knows, and it probably doesn’t matter. When I read Thomas, I can admire what he did with language at the same time as being unmoved by his message. Perhaps that’s because he didn’t have a message. Perhaps I’m the sort of person who needs messages, and perhaps that isn’t good. But who makes the rules here? Is it me? I suppose it must be.

The boathouse, though, is another matter. A tiny wooden shed nestled under a cliff on the edge of the astonishing Taf estuary in south Wales, the view from the window is wonderful. There is space, air, water, freedom. I visited it when I was a student, and I thought that this was exactly the kind of place a poet should write in. Everything made of wood, and whisky bottles on the desk, and prints pinned up at angles on the walls and nothing in view from the window but sand and sky and wheeling gulls. I wanted to be a poet myself by this point: in fact, I already was. I had a folder crammed with execrable sub-Larkin verse in my small student room. One day, I was going to work in a shed like this. Maybe I would drink myself to death too, like Thomas did, just to show I was the real thing. That hasn’t happened yet, but there’s still time.

You can still visit the boathouse. It’s very popular. People remember that poem Dylan wrote about his dad dying. Like Dove Cottage, the boathouse now has a nice little tearoom attached. It doesn’t do whisky, though. It doesn’t have a licence.


3. Casa de Isla Negra, Isla Negra, Chile

This does not count. This should not even be on the list. Really, this is not right

Casa de Isla Negra is one of Pablo Neruda’s three large houses. He designed it himself, in the shape of a ship. It sits on a cliff overlooking an azure sea. Neruda was a collector, and the house is filled with beautiful collections: ships’ figureheads, glasses and ceramics, paintings, ships in bottles, seashells (a whole room is dedicated to these). There are huge stone fireplaces, still stained black with soot, and balconies designed to look like the crows’ nests of ships. Every space is crammed with something elegant and interesting and expensive, and though everything is unique, it all somehow fits together.

This is not a poet’s house. It is a politician’s house, a diplomat’s house, a socialite’s house, the house of a man who was high up in the Chilean political establishment and who, had he not died soon after Pinochet’s 1973 coup – murdered, it now seems likely, by the new dictator – would have led Chile’s government-in-exile. Instead, he is buried outside, with his wife, overlooking the sea. Given all that, it seems churlish to complain. It seems petty.

Still, I can’t help it: a poet should not have a house like this. And he certainly shouldn’t have three of them. Perhaps you will put this down to envy, and if you did, you would be right. Not only is this house in a beautiful place, but it is filled with beautiful things. I would love to have a house like this, I would love to be the sort of person who could create a house like this, but I know I’m not. Even if I had the money, I wouldn’t have the breeding or the style or the panache or the self-belief.

But let’s not lose track of the problem, for there is a high literary principle at stake here. Poets should live – and, ideally, die – in garrets like Chatterton, or in little dark cottages like Wordsworth, or in whisky-sodden boatsheds like Thomas, or in locked bedrooms like Emily Dickinson. They should not live in palatial seaside mansions crammed with expensive antiques. It is not right.

There’s a great passage in Geoff Dyer’s book about D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, in which he finds himself in the well-appointed London street where the novelist Julian Barnes lives. ‘I knew,’ he writes, ‘that in one of these large, comfortable houses Julian Barnes was sitting at his desk, working, as he did every day. It seemed an intolerable waste of a life, of a writer’s life especially, to sit at a desk in this nice, dull street in north London. It seemed, curiously, a betrayal of the idea of the writer.’

The idea of the writer: that’s the thing. Writers, and especially poets, are supposed to sit outside the world and look in. They are not supposed to run the place. They have to be outsiders. They have to be hungry and uninterested in worldly success. They have to be poor, or at least not rich, because if they become rich they become fat and complacent and then they have nothing to say.

Neruda, presumably, would not agree with any of this. Unlike me, he was no Romantic. He was a communist, a supporter of Castro and Stalin, and he believed in the social and political obligations of writers. ‘Come and see the blood in the streets’, he famously demanded. Yet he also believed in having three houses, and in owning beautiful wine glasses and in the wonderful views of the sea from his large terrace. There is a clear contradiction here. But perhaps there is a clear contradiction at the heart of poetry; perhaps this is where it comes from. Show me the man who doesn’t betray himself, and I will show you the man who can’t write.


4. Thoor Ballylee, County Galway, Ireland

Forty minutes drive from where I live in the west of Ireland is the former home of Ireland’s greatest ever poet, W. B. Yeats. As a building, it perfectly represents both his poetic ideals and his political prejudices. Thoor Ballylee – the poet himself named it, the word ‘Thoor’ being a variant on the Irish for ‘tower’ – is an old square Norman tower, of the kind that were built in their hundreds across this country in the early Middle Ages. Attached to the tower is a low, traditional thatched Irish cottage. They both nestle next to a stream by a beautiful arched stone bridge in a valley that even today seems out of time. Since Yeats’s death in 1939, his country has changed almost beyond recognition, but this valley, and this building, have mostly survived the onslaught.

Yeats, like all great poets, never really lived in anybody else’s version of accepted reality. His ideal Ireland was already past by the time he was born (‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone’, he wrote in 1915, even before the Easter Rising a year later), and he found its whispers and echoes in old towers and thatched cottages, in hedges and boreens, in the dying faerie lore and in the mystical practices which he took seriously, and from which he drew much of his poetic strength.

Close to Thoor Ballylee is the Lady Gregory Museum, in the village of Kiltartan. Lady Gregory was Yeats’ aristocratic patron. The museum is now run by an old nun who remembers the poet from when she was a child. He used to walk down the streets of Gort, she says, in a long flowing cloak, muttering poetry to himself, oblivious to those around him. Once he was coming down the stairs in Lady Gregory’s grand house at nearby Coole Park, when he met a small boy on his way up. ‘Hello little boy,’ said the poet, his mind on greater things, ‘and who might you be?’ ‘I’m your son’, the boy replied.

Yeats, like Wordsworth, was a Romantic. He was also a feudalist. He believed there was true nobility in both the peasantry and in the aristocracy, and Thoor Ballylee symbolically joins these classes together: the castle and the cottage represent the twin pillars of his ideal Ireland. The class that Yeats despised, and which he predicted would destroy his country, was the commercial bourgeoisie. It took them a while to get going, but his prediction has been largely fulfilled. Sixty years after his death, the phenomena known as the ‘Celtic Tiger’ erupted across the landscape, scattering it with ugly newbuild McMansions and motorways and superstores and the headquarters of Google and Facebook. By the time the bubble burst, Ireland had a quarter of a million unwanted and uninhabited houses scattered randomly across the landscape which the poet had once hymned. Many of them are now rotting away, back into the fields, their cheap concrete weeping, their plastic fascias collapsing onto the dirty gravel. The valley in which Thoor Ballylee sits is one of the few places in rural Ireland from which a newbuild concrete house cannot be seen. Yeats might have been pleased at that, if nothing else.


Four houses in four countries. Four poets. Four ways of longing for a world that is no longer there, or which never was there, or which may one day be here but for now is still far away. Four approaches to constructing a scaffold made of words which attempts to contain the world but always fails. There are as many scaffolds as there are poets, writers, human beings.

I think I could spend a lifetime visiting poets’ houses, with or without the tearooms. I think now of others I would like to see: Robinson Jeffers’ magnificent Tor House, self-built on what were once the wild cliffs of Northern California; now the centre of yet another soul-destroying American suburb. The house of Emily Dickinson’s parents, where she spent most of her brief life in the upstairs bedroom, looking out of the window and cramming poems into her drawers. R. S. Thomas’s low, ancient cottage, built into the stone of the Lleyn peninsular in North Wales, as bleak as the man and his verse. W. S. Merwin’s Hawaiian plantation of rare palms. Perhaps I could do a world tour. If only poetry paid better.

Or perhaps this is all wrong. Fossilising buildings, attaching tearooms and gift shops, taking the easiest and the fluffiest and the rhymiest bits of the poems and putting them on postcards, smoothing out the contradictions. When poetry is true it comes from a deep and ancient place. It is not for sale, really. Why preserve the building? Why build up a reputation? The poet is dead, the poems are still here. Do we need to see the poet’s whisky bottle on the poet’s table? Yes, it interests us: but do we need to see it?

When Yeats first found Thoor Ballylee it was a ruin, like so many other Norman towers across Ireland. He restored it, and when it was finished he inscribed a poem on a slate that he had fixed to the tower’s outside wall. The poem described how he had restored the tower for his wife, using materials from the local landscape. But it was also written in the expectation that one day the place would return to its previous state. ‘And may these characters remain,’ it ends, ‘when all is ruin once again.’

It costs a lot of money to install fire doors and attach a tearoom. It costs little or nothing to get hold of a second-hand book of poems. A true poem, unlike a house, can’t be fossilised. If it contains truth or beauty, it will always contain them. It will outlast brick and stone. We should hope so, anyway.

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