Monday 3 October 2011

Keats in Teignmouth

Teignmouth - SW toward Shaldon

I really fancied a day out today - I was feeling fragile after flu, and thought fresh air would help - so we went to Teignmouth for the first time today, I was surprised. I'd been told, on the basis of friends' experience a decade or more ago, that it was rather seedy, but it was by no means that. It came across as a mix of rather quiet off-season resort and sympathetically-renovated Georgian, with some remarkably folksy corners. We had a pleasant afternoon pottering between tea shops - marred only by the end, on finding at 5.20pm that all the facilities at the railway station (ticket/information office, cafe, toilets, waiting room) were shut. That's pretty lame, but I'm trying not to let that detract from the general niceness of Teignmouth: a pretty town, flanked at one end (north-east) by the long sea-wall walk by the railway leading toward the Parson and the Clerk rocks; and at the other (south-west) by a view across the outlet of the Teign estuary to the headland of Shaldon. We must go again when I feel better.

Teignmouth - NE toward 'Parson and Clerk'.

The Devon Heritage website has an interesting page - John Keats comes to Teignmouth - about the romantic poet John Keats's visit to Teignmouth, when his brother Tom (ill with tuberculosis) came there in the hope of remission/cure. Keats wrote a poem, that he called "some doggerel", about the area:

by John Keats

For there’s Bishop’s teign
And King’s teign
And Coomb at the clear Teign head -
Where close by the stream
You may have your cream
All spread upon barley bread.

There’s arch Brook
And there’s larch Brook
Both turning many a mill;
And cooling the drouth
Of the salmon’s mouth,
And fattening his silver gill.

There is Wild wood,
A Mild hood
To the sheep on the lea o’ the down,
Where the golden furze,
With its green, thin spurs,
Doth catch at the maiden’s gown.

There is Newton Marsh
With its spear grass harsh -
A pleasant summer level
Where the maidens sweet
Of the Market Street,
Do meet in the dusk to revel.

There’s the Barton rich
With dyke and ditch
And hedge for the thrush to live in
And the hollow tree
For the buzzing bee
And a bank for the wasp to hive in.

And O, and O
The daisies blow
And the primroses are waken’d,
And violets white
Sit in silver plight,
And the green bud’s as long as the spike end.

Then who would go
Into dark Soho,
And chatter with dack’d-hair’d critics,
When he can stay
For the new-mown hay,
And startle the dappled Prickets?

The commentary to this poem, in the 1818 Gowans & Gray edition of The Complete Works of John Keats, Volume 2, notes that that the poem, sent in a letter to BR Haydon, must have involved an extremely active travelogue if he had really visited all the places mentioned in the "three fine days" he described.

The 'doggerel' on Teignmouth and its surroundings has collateral interest out of all proportion to its merits. Keats's correspondence for the Spring of 1818 shows that on his arrival in Devonshire he had on his hands, besides attendance on his sick brother, the final work connected with the publication of 'Endymion.' At the end of the first ten days he writes to Haydon of having copied the fourth book for the press; and between the completion of that operation and the end of April, when the poem was out, he must have been more or less busy with it. The greater part of' Isabella' was composed at Teignmouth, whence he wrote of it to Reynolds towards the end of his stay, as about to be copied out. These circumstances would account for the limited extent of the series of poems special to Devonshire. These, although inferior in interest to the Scottish series of the Summer of 1818, are full of the individuality of Keats. The first piece belongs to the 14th of March 1818. It occurs in a letter to Haydon published by Mr. Tom Taylor in Haydon's Autobiography without any date beyond "Teignmouth, Saturday morning"; but the verses form, with the next song, the staple of the letter, and appear from the context to have been written off as a part of it, and not copied into it . The date of the letter is to be fixed thus: Keats says in the prose paragraph of which the verses are the continuation—" the six first days I was here it did nothing but rain; and at that time having to write to a friend I gave Devonshire a good blowing up—it has been fine for almost three days, and I was coming round a bit; but to day it rains again—with me the County is yet upon its good behaviour. I have enjoyed the most delightful Walks these three fine days beautiful enough to make me content..." Now on the 25th of March Keats wrote to Reynolds or the weather as if the county's trial had lasted three weeks: this gives the 4th as the day of his arrival; and the tenth day from that (when he was writing to Haydon) would be the 14th, which was a Saturday. Keats describes these verses as "some doggrel." If he had gathered all their local details in the three fine days, he had not been idle; for he had been exploring both sides of the Estuary of the Teign. Starting from Teignmouth along the right-hand bank he would come to Bishop's Teignton about three miles distant, and King's Teignton or Teignton Regis about five miles distant; and crossing the ferry at Teignmouth to get to the left-hand hank he would go through Shaldon and Ringmore to get to the village of Coomb-in-Teign-Head—perhaps three or four miles from his lodgings. He oonld not have had his cream and barley bread close to the stream in the village proper; but twenty or thirty years later, and onwards, there was certainly every accommodation of that kind in a group of curious old oottages perched up over the mud-banks, and known as Coomb Cellars—a favourite place for pic-nics, not so celebrated for cream as for cockles, raked out of the mud bottom of the Estuary at low tide. He would cross Arch Brook, or Archy Brook, by a single-arch bridge just before he reached Coomb Cellars. Of 'Larch Brook' I know nothing except that it rhymes with 'Arch Brook.' It may be either the brook in Brimley Vale or the brook in Coomb Vale, both on the Teignmouth side of the Estuary. The "Wild wood" of stanza 3 answers to any of the thick plantations of little Haldon on the Exeter road. —a down such as Keats describes—furze and all. Newton Abbot, about six miles from Teignmouth, lies in a marshy situation enough, though the name of "the Marsh" has been appropriated to a spot near the Railway station. The town still has, like most country towns of any consequence, a Market Street. Of the dykes, ditches &c. of "the Barton" I can give no account, as I do not know to what particular manor-house and demesne the term was ever applied at Teignmonth. There is a touch of "local colour" in the white violets of stanza 6; for, though primroses and violets are found in almost all parts of the country, white violets are not quite common about Teignmonth, but are to be found at Bishop's Teignton. It is a pity that this choice little hit of trifling should be disfigured by the false rhyme "critics" and "Prickets". Keats does not seem to have been quite certain when he despatched his letter whether his "doggerel" had been written seriously or not; for he resumes prose with—" I know not if this rhyming fit has done anything; it will be safe with yon, if worthy to put among my Lyrics." We must consider these trifles worthy to go among his lyrics, in virtue of their fine sense of rhythm and their keen relish for out of door life. It is clearly to the present poem, and not to the Epistle to Reynolds, that the title 'Teignmouth' belongs of right; and I have therefore headed it accordingly. The text has been very copiously amended from the original letter—quite clearly written; and I need not detain the reader with the details of the absurd perversion of it by Mr. Taylor. But I must mention that "Barton" as a place-name instead of "the Barton " was suspicious on the face of it, as there is no such place there; that the critics are clearly described, not as dark-hair'd or as dank-hair'd, but as dack'd hair'd (=shock-headed); and that the dappled creatures are certainly not crickets, but Prickets, or two-year-old deer.
- pp207-210, The Complete Works of John Keats, Volume 2, John Keats, Gowans & Gray, 1818

The modern poet Charles Causley
wrote a poem - Keats at Teignmouth - commemorating Keats's visit, that I think conveys beautifully both the nature of Teignmouth and of Keats himself.

Keats At Teignmouth - Spring 1818

By the wild sea-wall I wandered
Blinded by the salting sun,
While the sulky Channel thundered
Like an old Trafalgar gun.

And I watched the gaudy river
Under trees of lemon-green,
Coiling like a scarlet bugle
Through the valley of the Teign.

When spring fired her fusilladoes
Salt-spray, sea-spray on the sill,
When the budding scarf of April
Ravelled on the Devon hill.

Then I saw the crystal poet
Leaning on the old sea-rail;
In his breast lay death, the lover,
In his head, the nightingale.

- Ray

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