For National Poetry Day, Chris Hilton shares an unlikely offering from our collections.
We’ve often said that if the Wellcome Library needed a mission statement, one possibility would be “more than you think”: a collection built around the central organising theme of medical history turns out to ramify in all sorts of directions. The themes of health and medicine are of course broad ones in any case, and cover writings both by medical professionals and by lay people; once one starts to collect material by patients, those suffering from disease themselves or discussing their own health, obviously almost anyone and anything can creep in. With that in mind, it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that we have a reasonable amount of poetry in our holdings (as well as other, more domestic writings by poets).
Here we highlight a poem that is not, as far as we know, by a ‘proper’ poet, but an enthusiastic amateur: the item is anonymous and there is nothing to suggest that it was published. It certainly flies against the poetic fashions of the time: written in 1817, nearly twenty years after ‘Lyrical Ballads‘ began the British Romantic movement in earnest, it is resolutely 18th century in style, composed in rollicking rhyming couplets. And in contrast to the Romantics’ often anguished reflection and self-reproach, its gaze is outwards, gleefully describing the society around the writer.
The anonymous little volume (Library reference: MS.6108) records time spent in Buxton in 1817, with prose passages describing Derbyshire and maps of the route travelled, but starts with a rumbustious ode to “Buxton in both seasons”. Those two seasons, the writer expands, are wet and dry, but (unsurprisingly, to anyone familiar with north-west England) it is wet that is established by the poem’s opening line:
Buxton – the washpot of the North.
The town – described, in a nod to the Duke of Devonshire’s position as major local landlord, as “Devon’s own vase” – sits surrounded by mountains honeycombed by caves: in a particularly bawdy 18th century style, the writer alludes to the huge Peak Cavern in nearby Castleton by its old name, the Devil’s Arse. On these hills:
“… as I am nothing dubious
Sits Jupiter surnamed pluvius [i.e. the rain-bringer]
Who, thro’ the gaping fissures sends
The torrents of his odds and ends…
And still below, in Devon’s vase,
Warm waters issue out apace,
Warm, as are waters fundamental,
And pay the Duke a handsome rental.”
If the comparison of the warm springs to urine (“waters fundamental”) were not sufficiently off-putting, the writer expands on what those who bathe in the waters for health leave behind and how it accumulates during the day: invalids come determined:
“…if Rheum and Gout abide,
To souse them in the flowing tide,
A tide so foul’d by rank abuse,
Of even those who feel its use,
By hawking, sniveling and spitting,
And other things alike unfitting,
That I’d as soon plunge into Styx,
As dip my Quarters after six.”
At times, the writer assures us, the sun does come out – “The street is clean – the Sun is bright / And all is pleasure and delight” – and with this the invalids and other genteel tourists climb Constitution Hill and stroll along the Crescent, engaging in polite conversation and flirtation:
Lord! what the etiquette of meeting!
Oh! how significant the greeting!
What nods, and writhes, and jutting bums,
What shaking hands, and squeezing thumbs….
On this sex-charged note our writer leaves us: the next page is given over to a prose description of Derbyshire, with due attention paid to its mines and manufactures. We have no idea who wrote this lovely little pamphlet; no idea what they were doing in Buxton, no idea whether they took part in this flirtation or not, and no idea – if they did – whether their labours were crowned with success. It is clear, however, that in 1817 they were having fun and expressing it in their verse.
The classic image of the Romantic poet – all flashing eyes, flowing locks and complicated love-life – is all very well, after all, but British seaside-postcard humour endures for ever and there will always be a place for it in our poetic tradition.