Tom Mayberry


(The Coleridge Bulletin  New Series No 1, (Winter 1992/93) pp 5-7)



Sir George Beaumont (1753 1827), collector, amateur artist, and founder of England’s National Gallery, was among the most remarkable artistic and literary patrons of his generation. Sir Walter Scott remembered him as ‘by far the most sensible and pleasing man he ever knew’, and many others had reason to recall his practical generosity, his gift of friendship, and his persuasive and knowledgable enthusiasm for art and letters. The circle which gathered round him in the course of thirty years included Constable, Wilkie, Humphry Davy, and Benjamin Robert Haydon. But no relationship was to prove more important to Beaumont himself than that which he formed with William Wordsworth. His friendship with the poet was, he said, one of the ‘prime blessings’ of his life, a compliment which Wordsworth repaid in almost identical terms when in 1815 he dedicated the first collected edition of his poems to Beaumont. [1]


The origins of their friendship have until now been imperfectly known, and the first meeting of Beaumont and Wordsworth, which took place in the Lake District during 1803, was thought to have left no significant record. The discovery of a letter written by Beaumont in August 1803 to Anne Bowles, daughter of his great friend Oldfield Bowles, now provides a detailed account of that meeting, and casts a vivid and all too fleeting light upon the relationship of Coleridge and Wordsworth at the moment it was entering a long period of transition. The full text of the letter is given below.  [2]


Beaumont first visited the Lake District in 1777, and in many subsequent visits confirmed his devotion to .its landscape. When, after an absence of three years, he and Lady Beaumont returned there in the summer of 1803, they lodged with William Jackson of Greta Hall, Keswick, at first unaware that in another part of the house lived Coleridge and his family as Jackson’s tenants. The coincidence was remarkable, and by no means pleasing to Beaumont. The two men had met in London shortly before at the home of William Sotheby, a minor poet and translator who had recently become Coleridge’s firm friend. Beaumont’s first impressions on that occasion had been unfavourable, not least because of his ‘Great objection’ to Coleridge’s political opinions. But now, lulled by the great natural beauty that surrounded him, and enthralled by Coleridge’s wonderful talk, his antipathy was transformed into deep admiration.


Wordsworth’s poetry was evidently Coleridge’s major theme during his conversations with Beaumont, and his advocacy was outstandingly successful. The Beaumonts were ‘half mad’ to see Wordsworth by the time Coleridge wrote to him at Grasmere on 23 July. ‘Lady B. told me, that the night before last as she was reading your Poem on Cape RASH JUDGEMENT, had you entered the room, she believes she should have fallen at your feet.’ [3] Beaumont’s rediscovered letter makes it clear that a first meeting took place soon afterwards when Wordsworth arrived at Greta Hall for a visit lasting some days. Beaumont was clearly moved and fascinated by his observations of the ‘two genius’s’ in whose company he unexpectedly found himself, and his brief description of their relationship as it appeared to him that summer is a precious survival. Five years earlier at Nether Stowey and Alfoxden, William Hazlitt had been impressed chiefly by what distinguished the respective characters of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Beaumont’s less penetrating eye found it more pleasing to observe the emotional and intellectual sympathy which even in 1803 still bound the two poets to one another.


It was soon to become apparent how much the true nature of their relationship had changed since the days when they had sat writing at the same table in the Alfoxden parlour. Wordsworth significantly failed to take up a generous offer from Beaumont of land on which to build a house close to Greta Hall; and immediately after Beaumont’s visit to Keswick came to an end, open quarrelling was barely avoided during the Scottish tour on which Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Dorothy Wordsworth set out in mid August.


Coleridge’s envy of Wordsworth’s poetic fluency and domestic happiness, and Wordsworth’s exasperation with Coleridge’s neglect of his family were increasingly to distort their friendship from that time onwards. Beaumont’s letter thus pictures the two poets for us at almost the last moment before their old intimacy began to be visibly fractured.





                                                                            Keswick August 6 1803.

My dear Anne


Here we are on a rising ground in the middle of the vale of Keswick & a more delicious scene than that within view is not to be found I believe in Europe. I must with some regret allow that the rides about us are far more varied & interesting than those about Bennarth, [4] & I only wish you were here upon Dun, Lucy upon Moel Siabod Laura upon some other mountain & Fanny upon a cockle shell to enjoy them. [5] We have had Italian weather till lately which silenced our torrents but now they roar in full Chorus, we have two magnificent & rapid rivers under the window, the Derwent & the Greta, & about nine capital waterfalls among which is none within our view. I sometimes throw up the window when all is still & the moon shines to listen to their varied sounds & the shrill notes of some mingling with the deep tones of those engulphed in rocky caverns is impressive beyond description.


When we arrived here we found Coleridge whose poems you have heard of if not read in possession of part of the house, I will confess to you this was not pleasant news to me at first for I had met him once at Sothebys, & was by no means prejudiced in his favor, I had moreover a Great objection to his political opinions—but I hope in future I shall be more cautious in forming my opinions of men—for whatever may have been his former errors he has utterly renounced them, & as far as I can judge a more amiable man with a more affectionate & kind heart does not exist, his information is boundless, & he seems to have elevated his mind above every mean & selfish passion—his friend Wordsworth, the author of the Thorn (which I read to you in London) & various poems lives about 13 miles off at Grasmere & paid him a visit lately, so that I saw them both every day—he has a mind truly poetical & will I am satisfied produce something “which will not die”. It is most pleasing to see the pure affection which subsists between the two bards, free from all bias of jealousy or weakness they correct the errors of each other with manly freedom, & to their mutual advantage. Wordsworth is now employed on a work called the Recluse, I believe it is (for I have not seen it) a history of his own feelings,& will probably take up years in the completion, for his health will not permit him to work upon it at all times, he says it prevents his sleeping & he is obliged to quit all thoughts of it for months together. Coleridge has written part of a poem called Cristobel [- ] he repeated some of it the other day & it seems full of imagination he is a great metaphicician & sometimes soars a little above my comprehension but he soon descends & is truly instructive and entertaining - I could write on about these two genius’s till you would be tired to death. So I suppose I must become a soldier at last, I shall be enrolled at Cole Orton & now let Bonaparte beware—but he would drive one to it & now he must take the consequence.


Lady Beaumont joins with me in love [to] Mrs Bowles Pappany Charles & all the [?]chums,—  I am my dear Anne ever affectionately yours        G Beaumont


We mean to stay hear at least a month longer. [6]


© Contributor 1992-2005

[1] For a biography of Beaumont see Felicity Owen and David Blayney Brown, Collector of Genius: a Life of Sir George Beaumont, (Yale and London, 1988).

[2] Ann Bowles was one of the nine children of Oldfield Bowles of North Aston, Oxfordshire, and later the wife of the politician William Sturges Bourne. Beaumont’s letter to her now forms part of the Wickham papers at the Hampshire Record Office, Winchester (ref. 38M49), and is quoted by kind permission of the County Archivist, Miss Rosemary Dunhill. I owe thanks to Miss Sarah Lewin of the Hampshire Record Office who discovered the letter and drew it to my attention. The Wickham papers contain a total of eight letters from Beaumont to Miss Bowles, written at scattered dates between 1803 and 1824. Two of the Beaumont letters, in particular, demonstrate a remarkably acute critical instinct, and a belief in Wordsworth’s greatness as a poet which the scorn of Beaumont’s London friends could never undermine (cf. Stephen Gill, William Wordsworth: a Life (Oxford, 1989), 220). In a letter dated from Beaumont’s country seat at Coleorton, Leicestershire, on 27 September 1807, he writes to Miss Bowles, ‘Have you read Wordsworths poems with attention, to taste the pleasure they are capable of communicating, the mind must be in unison with his, mere worldlings will never relish them—they will I know be severely criticised, but the remarks of insensibility, & the shafts of envy will be directed against them in vain—the firm conviction upon my mind is that they will live at least until the death of the language—& you who will live I hope half a century or more will see my prophecy confirmed so far.’ In a letter written on 18 October 1807, chiefly devoted to an analysis of Sir Walter Scott’s popularity as a . poet, he writes, ‘Sir Joshua [Reynolds] says well that the highest efforts of art in all directions afford pleasure only to highly cultivated minds, and Coleridge that all great & original poets must create the taste by which they are to be relished as far as they are great &original [...] I do not pretend to say there are not many obscure passages in Wordsworth’s poems & many which I should have advised him not to publish at the present moment—all I wish is, you would consider him as having been dead a century, his beauties will then rise in your mind, instead of his defects & you will enjoy a rational & improving pleasure in spite of malice idleness & insensibility.’

[3] Earl Leslie Griggs (ed.),Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge,(Oxford, 1956), II, 957.

[4] ‘Bennarth’ is the mansion now called Benarth or Pennarth 1 mile SE of Conway, North Wales. For some years Beaumont leased the house as a holiday retreat ( see Owen and Brown, op. cit., 106).

[5] Lucy, Laura and Fanny were three of the sisters of Anne Bowles. Another sister, Jane, was the subject of a celebrated portrait by Reynolds, now in the Wallace Collection, London. Oldfield Bowles had no fewer than eight daughters in all, and a son Charles (Burke’s Landed Gentry (1882): ‘Bowles of North Aston’). ‘Dun may be Dunmail Raise (a high pass on the road from Ambleside to Keswick), or Dunmallett (a conical hill at the foot of Ullswater), or one of a number of mountains in the British Isles which bear the name; Moel Siabod is a mountain 6 miles E of Snowdon, North Wales.

[6] Though they remained in the Lake District, the Beaumonts left Greta Hall soon after the letter was written. When Coleridge wrote to the Beaumonts on 12 August, his letter was addressed to them at Lowther Hall, Penrith, the home of Lord Lowther (Earl Leslie Griggs, op. cit.,II, 964).