The white house stands at the top of a hill, just a little past two neat stone pillars with the words “Greta Hall” inscribed on them. As I drove up the drive and parked my minuscule rental car in the turnaround, I couldn’t help feeling a bit of amazement and awe. For months, I had been researching the lives of the British poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, and now I was standing in front of the house where Coleridge lived with poet laureate Robert Southey and a house where Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy often visited.
As I stood outside the house, I wondered which set of windows was Coleridge’s study, the room where he wrote poems like: “Frost at Midnight,” and “Dejection: An Ode.” I wondered about how Wordsworth approached and even what door he came up to. You see, these are the things I think about.
For me, the stories in literature come alive when I can see the places that inspired them. The lives and places of poets and writers have always fascinated me. As a teacher, I had my students study not just James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but the Dublin and Ireland that gave rise to it. As a traveler, I was the one who chose to go to William Shakespeare’s cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon when my friends hit the pub. And now, as a writer, I am drawn to subjects connecting the literary with geography.
My first two books were what we’ve called “literary travel guides.” The first, A Journey into the Transcendentalists’ New England , explores the nineteenth century New England that fostered the thinking and writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and others. My second book is one in the same series and is titled A Journey into the Irish Literary Revival. In it, I was able to visit the towns, towers, and tenement streets that inspired the poetry of William Butler Yeats, the drama of John Millington Synge, and the folk collections of Isabella Augusta Gregory. Even my third book, Walking Boston, wove in places and stories from writers like Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe.
In fact, it was what I was doing standing in front of “Greta Hall,” just outside of the town of Keswick in England’s Lake District. I was there to research Coleridge’s life there and actually spent a full week living in the house (you can rent rooms there), spending a few nights sleeping in Coleridge’s study. I will tell the stories of that visit in a book I’m still working on, A Journey into the Romantic’s Lake District.
But my favorite story of place and literature actually spans my first two books. In an earlier post on this A Traveler’s Library, I talked about the impact of Henry David Thoreau’s book, Walden . It has been used around the world for everything from buttressing philosophical arguments to selling yoga tapes. It has inspired world leaders, rock stars, and bumper sticker makers. It also inspired a young, lanky Irish boy whose father read Walden to him in the mornings before school. On summer holidays in the west of Ireland, that young boy dreamed of building a cabin on an island and living as Thoreau did. He even picked out the perfect island and spent a night reconnoitering it. As it turned out, the boy never lived out his dream, but years later in London, the young man, now a poet, heard the sound of water and it reminded him of his former dream. He then wrote a poem about it. The poem is called “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and the boy is the Nobel-prize winning Irish poet William Butler Yeats.
I love to tell that story at book events because it connects the shore of a small lake in New England and the thoughts and aspirations of a man who lived there for a time with an island in a much larger lake in Ireland and the thoughts and aspirations of a man who wanted to live there. It shows how literature of place can inspire even the most inspirational of poets. The echoes of Walden in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” are clear:
I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
So, as I wrap up this post, I’m interested in the literary places near you. What is closest to you and what is special about that place? What inspirational moments have you had at a literary site? What do you read and where? If you leave a comment, you have a chance to win an autographed copy of Walking Boston. You can also find out more about literary travel at Open Page, Open Road. You can see more photos from all three books at my Photoshelter page. Good luck and thanks for listening,
Robert Todd Felton