Exploring the stories behind Harpenden’s Poets’ Corner
PUBLISHED: 15:08 20 July 2018 | UPDATED: 15:08 20 July 2018
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From the Bard to the author of the epic Faerie Queene, the romantics through Kipling and the 20th century’s longest-serving Poet Laureate, the streets of east Harpenden pay tribute to some of the greatest figures of English literature – and others who are perhaps more obscure.
The so-called Poets’ Corner of the town includes Byron Road, Cowper Road, Kipling Way, Milton Road, Shakespeare Road, Spenser Road, Shelley Court, Tennyson Road, Townsend Road, Masefield Road and Wordsworth Road.
But although many of the names are familiar, others might even challenge graduates of English literature to identify them or their works.
Described by Caroline Lamb as “mad, bad and dangerous to know…” George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) was of course a leading figure in the romantic movement, the author of works including Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
But did you know that his only legitimate daughter, Ada Lovelace, is regarded as the world’s first computer programmer after recognising the potential of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine? Or that the first recorded notable example of open water swimming saw Byron swim from Europe to Asia across the Hellespont Strait in May 1810?
Fellow romantic Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) is also remembered, a visionary poet best known for his works Ozymandias, To a Skylark and his masterpiece Prometheus Unbound, but of course also married to Frankenstein author Mary. He was also an outspoken political commentator who influenced the likes of Karl Marx and Leo Tolstoy.
Shelley drowned in a storm on the Gulf of Spezia less than a month before his 30th birthday, following which his close friend Byron paid a rare tribute: “I never met a man who wasn’t a beast in comparison to him.”
Mike Rutherford, bass player and guitarist of rock group Genesis, is a descendant of Shelley’s maternal aunt.
The celebrated romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote such renowned pieces as She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud and Tintern Abbey.
Inspired by the English landscape, he was a close friend of Samuel Taylor Coleridge until they became estranged over the latter’s opium addiction. He was the only Poet Laureate not to write any official verses during his tenure.
Born just down the road in Berkhamsted, English countryside poet William Cowper (1731-1800) was a forerunner of the Romantics and fervent campaigner for the abolition of slavery.
He became an evangelical Christian after being institutionalised for insanity, writing religious verse including the poem Light Shining out of Darkness, which featured the famous lines “God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform”.
His anti-slavery poem The Negro’s Complaint was frequently quoted by Dr Martin Luther King, and his work The Task introduced the phrase “variety’s the [very] spice of life” into common usage.
The author of poems including Mandalay, Gunga Din, The White Man’s Burden and If -, Rudyard Kiping (1865-1936) was also responsible for fiction including The Jungle Book, Kim and The Man Who Would Be King. He also scripted the first Royal Christmas Message, delivered by George V in 1932 on the BBC’s Empire Service.
In 1907 he became the first English language writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, and aged just 42, remains its youngest recipient to date. He remains a controversial figure because of his jingoistic and imperialist attitudes, which were very much a product of his day, although his extraordinary talent as a writer is undisputed.
“Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven…” Paradise Lost, the epic blank verse poem about the Fall of Man and the temptation of Adam and Eve is perhaps the most famous work by 17th century poet John Milton (1608-1674), reflecting the political and religious upheaval of his day.
One of the most learned of all English poets, his knowledge incorporated philosophy, science, politics, history and theology, and he was proficient in languages including Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, French, Italian, Old English and Dutch, leading to his appointment as Secretary for Foreign Tongues under the Commonwealth government.
His sonnet, ‘When I consider how my light is spent’, concludes with the oft-quoted line “They also serve who only stand in wait”.
The author of 39 plays and 154 sonnets, William Shakespeare (1564 [baptised]-1616) is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language, and his inclusion in Harpenden’s Poets’ Corner was inevitable. His legacy was assured only by the publication of the First Folio - a collected edition of his plays - by two of his friends in 1623.
Edmund Spenser (1552/53-1599), the author of epic poem The Faerie Queene, is also considered one of our language’s greatest poets, but was also a campaigner for reform in Ireland, albeit in a manner which involved eradicating the Irish language, deploying a scorched earth policy and destroying established native customs.
Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) was Poet Laureate for much of the Victorian era, during which time he penned works including The Charge of the Light Brigade, In Memoriam AHH (after the death of Prince Albert) and The Lady of Shalott. TS Eliot described him as “the saddest of all English poets”. His own readings of some of his work was preserved on wax cylinder recordings made late in his life.
He was responsible for now commonplace phrases such as “’Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all”, ‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new” and “Theirs not to reason why,/Theirs but to do and die”.
Perhaps to avoid misspellings on addresses, but the street named after Cavalier poet Aurelian Townshend (1583-1649) is actually renamed as Townsend Road.
Very little is known about his life, other than he was closely associated with architect and theatre designer Inigo Jones and the more famous Thomas Carew. His most well known work was the masque Tempe Restored, which was performed in the royal court in 1632 and featured an appearance by the queen herself.
Finally, John Masefield (1878-1967) was one of the longest serving Poet Laureates, holding the title from 1930 until his death. He spent several years working on board ships as a young man, developing a love for story-telling and sea lore during this time.
His children’s novels including The Box of Delights, and among his best-known poems are The Everlasting Mercy and Sea-Fever.
So the next time you take a walk through this part of the town, spare a thought for the literary legends who inspired those various street names.