William Cowper’s garden netting: weaving nets for bird-alluring fruit

Cowper's Garden Netting

Contributor: Stephen Bending

Location: unknown

Description: As a souvenir, this small square of garden netting signals the peculiarly domestic nature of William Cowper (1731-1800) as a poet. Made by Cowper and his household, the tied strands of thread seem trivial perhaps—a quirky, amusingly antiquarian delight. But that triviality is also an announcement of authenticity. In it we are given a little piece of Cowper—the net is not simply an object, but an act, a winter evening’s task, part of the fabric of Cowper’s life. The net is ephemeral (but it has lasted), domestic (but it is treasured), it is the product of careful labour, and in its small way it recognises Cowper’s garden—or any garden—as a place of tenuous and temporary delight.

Samuel Johnson’s pleasing definition of a network as ‘the intersection of interstices’ offers us an insight into the peculiar nature of nets – at once the twine and the holes between the twine, where each is as important as the other but where the net is neither one nor the other. Nets, that is, are nothing if not liminal, and they help us to understand both Cowper’s retirement and his fascination with the world from which he retired, both his sense of being a part of nature and his recognition that—like all men—he was separated from it.

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William Cowper’s Shaving Mirror

William Cowper's Shaving Mirror

Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney, 3945

William Cowper’s Shaving Mirror

It is morning and the poet
still in white nightshirt
is shaving

at his washstand, a mirror
catches his bedroom
backwards

adding a sliver of town
all-night drunks stumbling
out of the Red Lion

the poet’s face is long and bony
wide mouth, soft eyes are sensitive
his faculties are god-given

every day, scrape away
sin
a mirror within

every morning he looks in his shaving mirror
to perceive himself
as cheek and chin

no mark of sin
upon cheek and chin
upon throat his hand trembles slightly

percussive birdsong merely
blackbird hymn
praising the God of Light and upper lip

he dips his blade in cold water
his skin stiffens
his nightshirt is thin

whinny of horses beyond
clatter of pattens below
rustle of leaves, spit-splat of rain

every morning
new promise, good faith
benediction of cheek and chin

every morning this mirror frames his face
his face fills this mirror
innocent

his hands are clean
our Redeemer’s blood
all washed away

leaving love
of God
of shaven cheek and chin.

Clare Brant

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William Cowper’s Summer House

William Cowper's Summer House

Contributor: Joanne Reardon

Location: Olney, Milton Keynes

Description:

I catch your eye from the bottom of my garden, my hidden place.

The season smiles high in the great blue vault of the sky, the cold catches corners of the wind, whispers around my wattle and daub box. I watch you narrow-eyed, pulled down towards dust, my lilting walls tipping to the place where I keep my secrets buried deep in earth.

My damp plaster will dry in the cold bite of early Spring which my wooden door is too fickle to keep out. Crammed with too many voices dug deep into my walls, I would cover my ears, yet it hurts when they leave me. I long to hear them again, what they have to say to me, calling me out of silence.

I sense him still, sitting with a friend ‘as close pack’d as two wax figures in an old-fashioned picture frame’.

You stand outside, looking in, leaning through the half-door imagining it, the figures trapped behind glass. I know you want to release them.

You imagine, beneath his feet, the trap door, the desk above it, his shoes tapping a rhythm as he writes. You watch his words spiral outwards, unravelling as their fingertips touch the four walls, slip through the window, under the door. Always a door you think, always shut, the world on one side and he on the other.

But it wasn’t like that.

Life slips in when doors are shut. Under cover of darkness it comes: through a mole hole, a crack in the plaster, the glass in the round window hollowing will let in light from the moon, the voices on the ceiling will sing their sorrow and the names on the walls will always have stories they are waiting to tell.

If you let the outside in, it will blossom like a bee-bitten flower.

The ‘two wax figures in an old fashioned picture frame’, this tugs a memory in you of a pendant belonging to someone who loved you, long gone. A scene unfolding in a glass bowl on the end of a chain, small enough to fit like a teardrop in the palm of your hand. A whole world was living in there, a gathering of tiny wooden figures seated in a clearing, spinning threads of bright silk, trapped forever in time. A memory so small you had forgotten it, but you remember her, the woman you loved, the way she twirled you high above her head, reciting poetry, always letting the outside world in.

You leave me in the spaces between time, slowing as night approaches, falls. Mice scuttle through the grass and rain casts its spider-webbed fingers in curtains across the garden and, wait…here he comes, making his way through the pathways, trailing thoughts in his footsteps as he always does. The veil of fading light settles on my eaves as he opens the door, finds his chair waiting, his pen ready, his heart full.

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William Cowper’s Pocket Watch

William Cowper's Pocket Watch

Contributor: Will Bowers

Location: Olney, UK

Description: This watch became the property of the poet William Cowper (1731-1800) after the death of his uncle Ashley Cowper in 1788. Ashley Cowper held the prestigious office of Clerk of the Parliaments and was the subject of a famous arcadian portrait by William Hogarth, ‘Ashley Cowper with his Wife and Daughter’ (1731), now in the Tate. Ashley was the father of Theodora Cowper, and it was he who intervened to stop the marriage of William and Theodora in the 1750s on the grounds of his nephew’s limited means, and attempted to advance William’s legal career in the 1760s.

As one might expect of a man with an important station in public life, Ashley Cowper’s pocket watch is a desirable object. It is a repeater (i.e. it chimes the hour of the day when the button is depressed) mounted in a gold case, and is protected in two further cases of shagreen and brass. It was made some time between 1740 and 1788 by Thomas Martin, of the Cornhill and later at the Royal Exchange, who was made a Liveryman of the Clockmakers’ Company in 1780, and whose timepieces are held in the British Museum. At a biographical level the beautiful pocket watch represents the sophisticated political world of Ashley Cowper, one that his nephew distanced himself from at Olney, while in William Cowper’s poetry a repeater serves to ‘strike the hour’ for the many recalibrations in European thought that he prophesied for the close of the century.

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Cowper’s Windowpane

Cowper's Windowpane

Contributor: Fiona Stafford

Location: Orchard Side, Market Place, Olney, Buckinghamshire, UK, MK46 4AJ

Description: In the Cowper and Newton Museum, you can still see some of the original eighteenth-century windowpanes, flecked, blurry, bubbled and much more individual than modern mass-produced glass. It is easier to see why the poets of earlier centuries scratched poems and signatures into the windows of inns when looking at such attractive surfaces. Although William Cowper (1731-1800) was not in the habit of inscribing impromptu lines on panes of glass or, indeed, to making overnight stops in inns, the windows of this house are indirectly responsible for some of his finest poems, including The Task (1785) and ‘The Diverting History of John Gilpin’ (1785).

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John Thelwall’s Summer Study

Ruins and greenery, labeled 2004 and 2019

Contributor: Judith Thompson

Location: Ty Mawr, Llyswen, Wales LD3 0UU

Description: This site brings together two iconic romantic objects, a waterfall and a hermitage. They are the more Romantically compelling because both are in ruins, remote and hidden from the public eye, part of a mysterious history only recently and partially recovered, and at the heart of a landscape associated with Druids and legends of King Arthur. Located in the village of Llyswen Wales, overlooking the Wye River below the Black Mountains, they were built by John Thelwall, romantic radical and acquitted felon, poet and polymath, and the original of Wordsworth’s “Recluse.”

Reclusive hermits and and dashing waterfalls have a long association in Romantic-era literature and culture, as Jonathan Falla has shown. Together and apart, they epitomize the neo-gothic sensibility that defined the age, associated with outlaws and bards in northern and border regions, but also stock features of late eighteenth-century landscape aesthetics and fashionable tourism, part of the process of constructing a British nation by assimilating and commodifying its margins. But Thelwall’s was neither the fashionable folly of a propertied dilettante nor the residence of a professional hermit; instead it was a labour of love by an eccentric exile and activist, a retreat for a notorious Jacobin fox-on-the-run, and a place to seek and test philosophies of revolutionary hope and renewal he shared with the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth. In fact, in both cultivating the persona of “New Recluse” and building his modest hermitage and waterfall, he was directly inspired by his friends, and inspired them in turn. Continue reading “John Thelwall’s Summer Study”

Herries & Co Circular Note

Contributor: E.J. Clery

Location: Lloyds Bank Archive and Museum, UK

Description: This creased and uncharismatic scrap of paper bears a name to conjure with, Robert Herries, visible in the design at either end: in addition to the Herries armorial bearings there are three ‘hurcheons,’ otherwise known as hedgehogs. This is a ‘circular note,’ precursor to the travellers’ cheque. It is a rarity; these notes were routinely destroyed after cancellation but this one is unused and therefore uncancelled. It was scanned from a guard book [ref A/26/b/3] by Karen Sampson of the Herries archive at Lloyds Bank. We do not know its provenance.

The template is in French, the international language of the day, and indicates that payment can be drawn at the Paris headquarters of the bank. The bank also had offices in Dover and London. On the note, there are spaces for the addition of a date and the customer’s signature. Upon completion, with presentation of a letter of ‘indication’ or identification, and after a wait of ‘sept jours,’ the circular note would yield cash in the local currency at banks and businesses in a network stretching from Calais to Moscow, and even further afield. It permitted a new, more informal, style of travel across Europe in the Romantic period.

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Manuscript of 40 verses of Mickiewicz’s “Pan Tadeusz”

Image of two manuscript pages side by side

Contributor: Teresa Rączka-Jeziorska

Location: Central State Historical Archives of Ukraine in Lviv, 3a Soborna sq., Lviv

Description: This piece of paper was found in 2015 in Lviv in the collection of the Central State Historical Archive of Ukraine. Written on it are the first forty verses of “Pan Tadeusz czyli ostatni zajazd na Litwie. Historia szlachecka z r. 1811 i 1812 we dwunastu księgach wierszem” [“Pan Tadeusz. A Story of the Gentry from 1811 and 1812. Comprising Twelve Books in Verse”], an epic poem that the Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), inspired by love and longing for his homeland, created while in Paris (1832-1834). The handwriting is that of Mickiewicz; it has in addition a title and a legible signature in the same hand. The manuscript contains a previously unknown version of the ‘Invocation’ of the Polish national epic. It is possible to date this autograph to Mickiewicz’s residence in Paris through the paper. The manufacturer’s watermark (located in the right bottom corner, front — seashell and “WEYNEN” caption in an irregular octagon), identifies it as Timothée Weynen paper that was very popular in France in the 1830s. Mickiewicz used it mostly in the period from 1832 to 1836, writing most of “Pan Tadeusz” on it, including the so called Dzików manuscript of “Pan Tadeusz”, as well as his translation of Byron’s The Giaour (1833). It became part of a Romantic era collection of “Autographs of Illustrious Men” which documented authors both old and contemporary made by bookseller and antiquarian Ambroży Grabowski (1782-1868). Its story exemplifies how and why European Romantic culture was invested in holograph manuscript associated with poets.

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Le Temple de la Nature, Chamonix

Image of a stone building - Temple de la Nature

Contributor: Patrick Vincent

Location: Montenvers, Chamonix, France

Description: Built in 1795 as a refuge for travellers visiting the Mer de Glace, the Temple de la Nature immediately became a popular tourist attraction and one of European Romanticism’s most recognizable landmarks. It normally took travelers two and half hours by mule to ascend from Chamonix to the Montanvers meadow, located 1915 meters above sea-level. Accompanied by guides and porters, they often rested half-way at Claudine’s fountain, named after the heroine of Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian’s Claudine, nouvelle savoyarde (1793), before braving a ravine infamous for its avalanches. At the refuge, they were welcomed by a resident shepherd and could take refreshments, including milk mixed with kirsch, or purchase crystals, stone paper weights, and other curiosities. The most popular activity, however, was looking through the visitor book, leaving one’s own name with comments, but also copying the choicest inscriptions. A visit to the Temple de la Nature thus enabled ordinary tourists and celebrities alike to admire one of the Alps’ most spectacular glaciers in the last years of the Little Ice Age, while also participating in the period’s vibrant album culture and contributing through it to a transEuropean tourist sensibility.

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Transcript of Poems, by John Keats

Image of the handwritten title page of a book, reading "Poems by John Keats"

Contributor: Deidre Lynch

Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

Description: Though its title page, imaged here, identifies this as the book Romanticists know as Keats’s debut volume, and though the pages following this one contain, in the identical order and layout, each line of verse that Poems, by John Keats contained in 1817, this is not that book, not exactly. This handwritten transcription of Poems was created in 1828, seven years after Keats’s death. It was commissioned by the poet’s friend Charles Cowden Clarke, who presented it to his sister, the juvenile fiction author Isabella Jane Towers, as a birthday gift. (A notice on the page facing the book’s half-title commemorates Clarke’s gift.) As a consequence of this arrangement this book has, as this title page informs us, both an author –John Keats– and a writer, J. C. Stephens (likely a professional scrivener), whose name is referenced at the foot of the page, along with Towers’s.

The value of Clarke’s gift appears to have derived as much from the labours of that writer’s pen as from the literary content the pen conveyed. For Towers did not require this transcription as a reading copy: a (printed) copy of Poems with her ownership signature can be found at Keats House in Hampstead. Why then was this book created? It is hard to say. What we can say is that its existence challenges some of our usual assumptions about Romantic-period books and European book-culture.

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