A Poet's Guide to Britain

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Poet and author Owen Sheers presents a series in which he explores six great works of poetry set in the British landscape. Each poem explores a sense of place and identity across Britain and opens the doors to captivating stories about the places and the lives of the poets themselves.

Episode Description

1

William Wordsworth

This episode features Composed upon Westminster Bridge by William Wordsworth. In 1802, Wordsworth, the great Romantic poet of nature and the man famous for writing about the Lake District, daffodils and clouds, penned a short but electrifying poem about the stinking, filthy, heaving city of London. In fact, the poem was a captivating, sublime portrait of the city at dawn which still has the power to catch one's breath. Sheers investigates what Wordsworth was doing when he wrote the poem on a summer morning in 1802, and uncovers a story that involves three different women. Wordsworth lived in Grasmere in the Lake District, sharing a small cottage in an unusual domestic arrangement with his sister Dorothy. In the spring of that year he decided to marry an old schoolfriend, Mary Hutchinson. However, in order to do so he first needed to clear the air with his French ex-girlfriend and mother of his daughter Caroline, a nine-year-old girl he had yet to meet. In July 1802, William and Dorothy set out from Grasmere to Calais via London on the intriguing journey that would lead them across the bridge. Sheers follows their journey, discovers how the poem came into existence and examines exactly what Wordsworth wrote. He talks to Wordsworth fans including that epitome of Northern cool, poet Simon Armitage, the writer-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust, Adam O'Riordan, and some of the commuters who cross Westminster Bridge every morning on their way to work.

2

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath is one of the most popular and influential poets of recent history but her poetry is often overshadowed by her life - the story of her marriage to Ted Hughes, her mental health problems and her tragic suicide at the age of 30. A rich and important area of her work that is often overlooked is the wealth of landscape poetry which she wrote throughout her life, some of the best of which was written about the Yorkshire moors. Sheers explores this rich seam, which culminated in a poem called Wuthering Heights. It takes its title from Emily Bronte but the content and style is entirely Plath's own remarkable vision of the forbidding Pennine landscape. Sheers visits the dramatic country around Heptonstall where the newly-married Plath came to meet her in-laws, a world of gothic architecture and fog-soaked landscapes, where the locals have a passion for ghost stories that connect directly with the tales that were told in the kitchen of the Bronte parsonage. His journey eventually leads out onto the high moors and the spectacular ruin known as Top Withens. Here amongst the wind and sheep 'where the grass is beating its head distractedly', Plath found the material for some of her most impressive writing.

3

George Mackay Brown

George Mackay Brown, who died in 1996, was the great poetic voice of the Orkneys and one of the foremost Scottish poets of the 20th century. Sheers travels up to the place the locals call the Venice of the North, the Orkney town of Stromness, which was Mackay Brown's home and the backdrop for much of his work, including his great poem Hamnavoe. In Hamnavoe, the Viking name for Stromness, Mackay Brown takes the reader on a nostalgic and blustery tour of the town in the footsteps of his father, the local postman. Sheers uses the poem as a tour guide to Mackay Brown's Orkney life and work, exploring the narrow streets where George was born and wrote his first poems and taking diversions to the great cathedral of St Magnus, the Norse patron saint of the islands and the remote island of Rackwick. The poem opens up a moving story of a father and son and showcases Mackay Brown's exquisite, concise, gem-like writing. With ravishing views of the islands in the distinctive Orcadian light, the programme is a hymn to a unique corner of Britain. It also features, among other friends and fans of Mackay Brown, the contemporary Scottish poet Don Patterson.

4

Matthew Arnold

In 1851, a young school inspector and his wife spent a night of their honeymoon in a hotel in Dover overlooking the beach. Standing at the bedroom window and staring out at the moonlit sea, this newly-married man wrote a poem that sent a chill through his own and future generations - a poem that ends with the shocking conclusion that there is no hope, no comfort and no purpose in life. Sheers goes in search of this poet, Matthew Arnold, and discovers what drove him to write his bleak but tremendous poem Dover Beach. He goes to Rugby School to delve into Arnold's relationship with his father, the great Victorian headmaster Dr Arnold, and visits Oxford to explore the extraordinary impact that the religious thinker John Henry Newman made on so many young people of the age. He also travels to the Swiss lake resort of Thun, where Arnold lost his heart to a mysterious woman called Marguerite. It's the story of a rebellious young man trying to make sense of the world and includes contributions from Archbishop of Canterbury and poet Rowan Williams and rising poetry star, Daljit Nagra.

5

Lynette Roberts

Lynette Roberts is not a famous poet. She only published one full collection of poems and her work has been almost forgotten, but her vivid, modern, hot-blooded writing about a Welsh village and her time there during the Second World War reveals an extraordinary woman and a brilliant poetic voice who Robert Graves described in the 1940s as 'one of the few true poets now writing'. Roberts was brought up in a wealthy family in Argentina but married a writer from Carmarthenshire in 1939 at the outbreak of war and spent the next nine years living in poverty in a Welsh-speaking village. She involved herself in every aspect of village life and despite being accused of being a spy found a fierce passion for the local people and the landscape. Sheers visits the unassuming village of Llanybri where she lived and is now buried, and uncovers the moving story behind her poem called simply Poem from Llanybri, an invitation to the young soldier poet Alun Lewis to pay her a visit. He talks to locals who remember her and admire her work, and to the National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke.

6

Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice was one of the big guns of British poetry in the 1930s and 40s but is less well known today. Sheers takes a stroll into one of his finest poems, called simply Woods, a brilliant evocation of one of the most English landscapes but also a poem that takes you into the life and mind of a fascinating poet. MacNeice was born and brought up in Ireland until the age of nine, when soon after the death of his mother he was sent to school in England. His split identity was to become a major preoccupation for the rest of his life. In Woods, the middle-aged MacNeice takes stock of who he has become, unsure that he taken the right path. It is wonderful lyrical, melancholic writing that makes a powerful case for the restoration of this poet's reputation Includes contributions from poets Dannie Abse and Paul Farley as well as actress Jill Balcon, who knew MacNeice and was married to another great poet of the era, Cecil Day-Lewis.