A Discussion of Hardy's September 1920 Poem Commemorating Keats's Visit to Lulworth Cove

Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Victorian Web; Faculty of Education, Lakehead University (Canada)

Then in September [1920] he [Hardy] wrote "At Lulworth Cove a Century Back," apparently recalling an exchange of letters he had had with Sidney Colvin, Keats's biographer, in summer 1914, in which Colvin had sought Hardy's help in identifying the Dorset location at which Keats might have put ashore on his final journey to Rome in September of 1820. Hardy had suggested that Lulworth Cove was a likely spot and that some of the geological features there matched up with the notes in Joseph Severn's diary account of the landing. (Bill Morgan, Thomas Hardy Poem of the Month for October 2001, http://webboard.ilstu.edu/~TTHA_POTM_DISCUSSIONS)

At Lulworth Cove a Century Back

Had I but lived a hundred years ago
I might have gone, as I have gone this year,
By Warmwell Cross on to a Cove I know,
And Time have placed his finger on me there:

'You see that man?' -- I might have looked, and said,
'O yes: I see him. One that boat has brought
Which dropped down Channel round Saint Alban's Head.
So commonplace a youth calls not my thought.'

'You see that man?' -- 'Why yes; I told you; yes:
Of an idling town-sort; thin; hair brown in hue;
And as the evening light scants less and less
He looks up at a star, as many do.'

'You see that man?' -- 'Nay, leave me!' then I plead,
'I have fifteen miles to vamp across the lea,
And it grows dark, and I am weary-kneed:
I have said the third time; yes, that man I see!'

'Good. That man goes to Rome -- to death, despair;
And no one notes him now but you and I:
A hundred years, and the world will follow him there,
And bend with reverence where his ashes lie.'

The Hardy-Keats Connexion in "At Lulworth Cove a Century Back" (1920)

Lulworth Cove A late-Victorian or Edwardian photograph of Lulworth Cove. Click on image for a larger picture and more information about the connections to Hardy's work.

The literary connexion with a place closer to Hardy's own home animates the dialogic "At Lulworth Cove a Century Back." Instead of transporting Keats to the present as in "At a House in Hampstead" Hardy in imagination transports himself back to the Channel cove, perhaps to dramatise the lack of popular recognition Keats would have received on the occasion of his landing there in September, 1820. Geniuses walk among us, but sometimes it is only after their deaths (Van Gogh is a fine example) that their true merit receives appropriate acclaim. "At Lulworth Cove a Century Back" seems a more vigorous and personal tribute to Keats as Hardy equates himself with the unknowing countryman impatient with the omniscient interlocutor (the present-day Hardy?) who knows both what will befall the young poet at the end of his journey and how future generations will reverence his memory as the thousands of Catholic pilgrims who travel to Rome annually venerate the one who denied Christ three times and then went on to lead His Church, as Thomas Hardy, descended from Dorset folk, went on to become one of England's greatest poets with John Keats as his shining example of what might be achieved in verse.

The setting of the poem reinforces the connexion that Hardy must have felt between his own writing and that of Keats, for where the twenty-five-year-old Romantic poet composed the exquisite sonnet "Bright Star!" the thirty-four-year-old Victorian novelist placed the memorable scene of Sergeant Frank Troy's plot-shaping Channel swim in Far from the Madding Crowd (so admirably illustrated in The Cornhill for Nov., 1874, by Helen Paterson Allingham). Since Paterson-Allingham's having actually visited the spot herself is unlikely, she was probably working from a description and perhaps even a rough seascape provided by Hardy himself. What Paterson-Allingham shows us of the cove, prominently marked on Thomas Hardy's 1895 map of the Wessex of his fiction, is consistent with the physical description afforded by The Dorset Page at http://www.thedorsetpage.com/:

Situated about 8 miles east of Weymouth is Lulworth Cove--a cove which has a very smooth, almost semi-circular shore-line. The geology of the area is most unique with exposed twisted rock strata indicating the once violent forces which shaped this corner of England. . . . .

Stair Hole, just to the west of Lulworth Cove, is a remarkable small cove with natural arches cut into steeply-dipping Portland and basal Purbeck limestones. Through these arches and a gap where one has collapsed the sea enters to erode the softer parts of the Purbeck limestones and shales.

Although the illustrator has provided an example of such erosion just left of centre, the plate's version of the cove does not contain the "miniature Pillars of Hercules" at its moth, a peculiar feature that Hardy would mention later in "The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid" (The Graphic, 25 June 1883), when he describes the place where the Baron has anchored his steam yacht.

Clearly, then, Lulworth or Lulwind Cove was a numinous place for the younger Hardy, and one may wonder how much the Keatsian connexion played a part in Hardy's interest in both his prose and verse. To accommodate the intertextuality of Hardy's poem about the Wessex coast and Keats' sonnet one should place them together.


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Last modified September 1, 2002