Exmoor and the Romantic Poets

Valley of Rocks

Valley of Rocks (© ENPA 2011)

Exmoor’s stunning landscape inspired the most famous of the early Romantic writers and poets, the literary coterie which gathered around Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth at the end of the 18th Century. In 1796, Coleridge moved with his family to Stowey (now called Nether Stowey), and in the summer of 1797, Wordsworth and his younger sister Dorothy moved to nearby Alfoxden House at Holford so they could be close to the Coleridges. Coleridge rated Wordsworth’s work highly and occasionally borrowed from it; in turn he influenced Wordsworth’s early writing. Dorothy Wordsworth’s thoughts and writings were an important stimulus for Coleridge and her brother, and it is from her journals that we know much about their visits to Exmoor.

Culbone Church set within woodland (© ENPA 2014)The collaboration of Wordsworth and Coleridge saw the publication in 1798 of their joint work, Lyrical Ballads, which inaugurated the English Romantic movement in literature and revolutionised the world of English poetry. This collection of poems was originally conceived by the two friends when they were taking one of their favourite walks along the Exmoor coast to the Valley of Rocks near Lynton. The landscape of this strange and spectacular valley inspired an unfinished prose tale, The Wanderings of Cain. Soon afterwards they set out again for Exmoor, agreeing to write jointly a poem to cover the costs of the outing. Gradually a new poem, Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, began to emerge. Wordsworth later recalled, “Coleridge, my sister and myself started from Alfoxden pretty late in the afternoon with a view to visit Linton and the Valley of Stones”. Wordsworth records, “in the course of this walk was planned the poem of the Ancient Mariner.” Further planning and composition was undertaken during another walk which passed through Dulverton. This marvellous work was to take Coleridge some months to complete; Wordsworth contributed certain parts to the poem, and inspiration was taken from the walks. The harbour from which the mariner set out is said to be Watchet and the woods at Culbone the inspiration for the hermit’s home. 

Coleridge himself records that Kubla Khan, one of the most famous poems in the English language, was written “at a Farm House between Porlock & Linton, a quarter of a mile from Culbone Church” (possibly Ash Farm?). The sequence of events after Coleridge wrote the poem is part of literary mythology. He relates how he took two grains of opium to relieve a slight indisposition, and in his subsequent reverie composed two or three hundred lines of poetry. When he awoke, he retained “a distinct recollection of the whole”, but in the process of writing down the poem he was interrupted by ‘A Person on Business from Porlock’. As a result, the rest of the poem was not recorded. Knowing where Coleridge wrote the poem, one can easily imagine that Culbone’s landscape provided much of the inspiration. 

The Ship Inn, Porlock (© ENPA 2014)It was not only Wordsworth and Coleridge who were influenced by Exmoor’s landscape.  The third of the so-called Lake Poets, Robert Southey, produced a number of beautiful pieces of prose inspired by Exmoor; most famously he likened the beautiful village of Lynmouth to a Swiss village – ‘Little Switzerland’.  And, in later life, while visiting the Ship Inn at Porlock (see image to left), he composed a sonnet dedicated to the small coastal town.

In the second wave of Romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was influenced by Wordsworth and Coleridge, came to Lynmouth in 1813 with his teenage wife, Harriet. There he worked on the poem Queen Mab, and on radical leaflets, which he despatched from Lynmouth’s beach in tiny home-made boats and in silk-covered fire balloons sewn by his young wife. Because of his radical activities, Shelley subsequently left Lynmouth after being watched by government spies.

The legacy from Exmoor’s associations with the Romantic poets reaches far and wide. All these poetic pioneers have been associated in their different ways with Exmoor, and thus Exmoor’s landscape has inspired some of the most important poetry of the early Romantic movement.

Elizabeth McLaughlin

Further Reading

Holmes, R. 2005. 'Coleridge: Early Visions'. Harper Perennial, London.

Holmes, R. 2008. 'The Age of Wonder'. Harper Press, London.

Keene, P. and Pearce, B. 2000. 'Valley of Rocks', Lynton, Thematic Trails, Oxfordshire.

SEM8304 Mayberry, T. 1992. 'Coleridge and Wordsworth in the West Country'. Alan Sutton Publishing, Stroud.

Sisman, A. 2007. 'Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Friendship'. Harper Perennial, London.

Watters, R. 2003. 'Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The West Country Years'. Friends of Coleridge, Nether Stowey.

SEM8291 Yeates, J. 1995. 'An Endless View: The Artist and Exmoor'. Exmoor Books, Tiverton.