No matter what time of year you visit Exmoor, there is a wonderful romantic atmosphere, so it is no wonder why so many of the great romantic poets chose to make themselves at home there. In fact, several of them even claim to have discovered Exmoor! Here are some of the poets who were inspired by the beautiful Exmoor landscape.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
4th August 1792 – 8th July 1822
As you would expect from one of the major Romantic Poets, Shelley lived fast and died young. Famous, not only for his poems, which received critical acclaim after his untimely death, but also for his social and political views and his second wife, Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.
Shelley would visit Lynmouth on Exmoor during the summer of 1812 after eloping there with his first wife. During his stay, he worked on several political pamphlets as well as his piece Queen Mab. The pamphlets caused such a stir with his radical views, that he was under government surveillance for much of his time in Devon. Ironically, he was the son of a Whig MP and there was an assumption that Shelley would inherit his father’s seat in parliament when he moved into the House of Lords.
Shelley wrote about his time in Lynmouth, saying the following about the village: “Little Lynmouth, then some thirty cottages, rose clad and myrtle clad, nestling at the foot of the hills. It was enough.”
It is documented that Shelley spent much of his time wandering the countryside alone and visiting the Valley of Rocks which he frequently sketched on the back of old letters. It is believed that he stated at Blackmore’s Lodgings, which belonged to the aunt of the author R D Blackmore. The property was later demolished and a new one was built in its place named Shelley’s Cottage, which later was rebuilt as Shelley’s Cottage Hotel.
Shelley, his wife and their friend who was staying with them, secretly left Devon leaving many unpaid debts. It was after leaving Devon that he met his second wife, Mary Goodwin and became involved with Lord Byron. He died at the age of 29 while out boating in Italy.
7th April 1770 – 23rd April 1850
Along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who we’ll hear about later, Wordsworth was one of the poets that launched the Romantic Age in English Literature. Their joint publication Lyrical Ballads is believed to have been inspired by Exmoor, where the pair would regularly walk.
He moved to the Quantocks with his sister to be close to Coleridge who was living on the Devon/Somerset border and the three would meet up for discussions, walks and to try out their poetry on one another.
Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy, a poet in her own right, recorded the events of their walks while in the area, including one where they walked around Lynton and the Valley of Rocks which impressed the three of them greatly, so much so that an area of Lynton featured in his poem Reflections on Leaving a Place of Retirement.
He was poet laureate from 1843 until his death in 1850, only accepting the title after the prime minister insisted that he wouldn’t actually have to do anything, he became the only poet laureate to write no official verses.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
21st October 1772 – 25th July 1834
As a poet, critic, philosopher and theologian Coleridge was hugely influential in literary fields and alongside fellow poet and friend, William Wordsworth launched the Romantic Movement in England.
For a time, Coleridge lived on the Quantocks and would regularly visit Exmoor, bringing many of his literary friends to the region. As a child, he lived in Devon, having been born into a religious family in the village of Ottery St Mary. After receiving an education in London, he returned to the west country, settling on the Devon/Somerset border and spending his time exploring the countryside of Exmoor.
Coleridge’s most popular works, Kubla Kham, the Ancient Mariner and Christabel are all said to have drawn influences from Exmoor, something that is clear through his many notes and sketches that were made during his daily walks.
Towards the end of the 1790s, while living in Porlock and suffering from an opium addiction, he went on a long walk which inspired him to finish his poem Osorio. Around the same time, it is said that he completed around 200 lines of poetry while in an opium induced trance.
Later, after meeting Wordsworth and his sister, the trio embarked on a variety of walks around Exmoor, particularly in the Lynton and Lynmouth area where they would discuss poetry and jointly create one of their best known works.
Coleridge’s last visit to the region was thought to be in 1807 when he was deep into his addiction and wondered aimlessly around the countryside for several days. He spent the last 18 years of his life under the care of a doctor in Highgate, London.
12th August 1774 – 21st March 1843
Another poet laureate, Southey was also a member of the Romantic Poets created by Wordsworth and Coleridge that are known as the Lake Poets, at one point, Coleridge and he were close friends, as their wives were sisters and as such, was drawn to Exmoor and the surrounding area. It is Southey that is credited with likening Lynton, Lynmouth and the Valley of Rocks as being like Switzerland, which is why there are still buildings in a Swiss style in the region today.
Southey was born over the border in Somerset and spent much of his childhood between Bath and Bristol before leaving for school. It was while at university that he met Coleridge and the pair began meeting for walking tours before being introduced to their wives. He is best known for writing the original version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears and was known to give advice about poetry to Charlotte Bronte.
In 1799, the Southeys met up with the Coleridges and embarked on a tour of the Exmoor coast, starting out at Minehead and then heading further into North Devon. He wrote about the journey in his personal diaries, stating that: “Even without the sea, this would be one of the finest scenes I ever beheld; it is one of those delightful and impressive places from which the eye turns to rest upon the minutest home object.”
In his later years, he would return to Exmoor and North Devon, visiting Barnstaple, Bideford and Hartland, staying in the abbey there.