Poets’ Houses: Sitwell, Moore, Gray


Edith Sitwell, ‘Woodend’, Scarborough

When it comes to interior shots of Edith Sitwell houses, this blog certainly spoils its readers. This is the room in which she was born in 1887, currently the offices of the lively Scarborough-based Valley Press. (Many thanks to VP’s editor Jamie McGarry for the photos.) Valley Press don’t publish any Sitwell – monstrously, nobody does at the moment; she really could do with somebody editing a good Selected. On the other hand, they do publish marvellous books from Rowena KnightJohn Wedgwood Clarke and Di Slaney, along with loads of others, so get stuck into those in the meantime.


Nicholas Moore, 86 Chesterton Road

All of the Chesterton Road is a bit grim these days, but the house where Nicholas Moore was born might be the single grimmest house on the whole grim thoroughfare. I’ve no idea who currently occupies it – my theory is ‘sinister cultists’. It’s a shame; the life story of Moore is very sad, and this house might well be where he was happiest, and could at least put on a brave face for the chroniclers. Peter Riley – to whom everyone who loves Moore’s work owes an unpayable debt – gives the outline:

Nicholas Moore’s life was split in two by the sheer reversal of fortune which occurred at the end of the forties and which was only partly a personal fate. In 1945 he was a conspicuously successful and prolific young poet living in Cambridge and working at Tambi’s office of Poetry London, author of eight books, writing and editing at the centre of a vigorous new national poetry. By 1955 he was living obscurely in his Kent flat working as a horticulturalist; he had lost his publisher and his public, and all contact with the literary scene, and was involved in a continuing series of personal disasters which had left him without wife and children, without income, and eventually was to leave him without health. For the rest of his life he remained isolated and was unable to get a further full-length book of poems published or even to place poems regularly in periodicals. More importantly than this, he had lost his theme. For Nicholas Moore’s achievement in the forties was founded on a new realisation of the poem set in the individual life-experience, not in the reductive and self-distanced mode of the poetry popular in the fifties, but as richly as possible, bearing the entire lyric past on a personal fulcrum. There are many registers and much of the spectrum is observed, or extrapolated into fiction or into surrealistic displacement, but I think the centre was an optimistic, celebratory and serious engagement with the distances of poetry grasped in the success of personal experience, and especially interpersonal love. All this was gone.

(From his Afterword to Spleen, the whole text of which is free at that link – and as funny and brilliant as everyone says it is – and which you owe it to yourself to read immediately, if not right now then at least this afternoon)

Moore’s father was the philosopher G.E. Moore, who meant a great deal to Woolf and the other members of the Bloomsbury Group. This house, 86 Chesterton Road, would have also been familiar to Anne Stevenson’s dad – who was a Ph.D. student of Moore’s. (Stevenson’s house in Grantchester will be the subject of a future, cheerier, blogpost.)

UPDATE: Further information from Peter Riley: ‘Nicholas Moore after he got married lived nearby in Montague Road (I don’t know the number) for most of his Cambridge writing career, before moving to Kent. In the 1980s Timothy Moore, the composer, was living at 86. It was a house which never changed. In the kitchen they had not only one of those big old wheel-shaped knife-sharpeners, but in a cupboard a store of the red powder you needed to operate it.’


Thomas Gray, Peterhouse College

I can’t believe that nobody told me before about Thomas Gray’s homemade fire escape, which you can still see on the outside of Peterhouse College – the top window. Robert Mack, in his biography of Gray, has an engagingly detailed retelling:

In the first week of January 1756, Gray happened to notice in one of the London newspapers an advertisement announcing the sale of rope ladders at the shop of one Ephraim Hadden, near Hermitage Stairs, Wapping. He immediately wrote to Wharton, asking him to purchase such a device and send it on to him at Peterhouse. ‘I never saw one’, Gray admitted of the article in question, ‘but I suppose it must have strong hooks, or something equivalent, a-top, to throw over an iron bar to be fixed withinside of my window’. He further specified: ‘It must be full 36 foot long, or a little more, but as light and manageable as may be, easy to enroll, & not likely to tangle’. Wharton promptly sent such a ‘machine’ to Cambridge – complete, apparently, with ‘Firebags’ designed to carry one’s hastily-gathered valuables to safety as well – and Gray at once set about attaching the contraption to his bedroom window.

(from Thomas Gray: A Life, Robert L. Mack)

About six months after Gray had got everything set up, some undergraduates decided to test out the machinery, and shouted ‘Fire’ from underneath. Accounts differ as to what happened next – the introduction to my edition of Gray spends several pages trying to refute the charge that he flung himself down the rope ladder in a nightgown, and landed in a cold bath the undergraduates had concealed at the bottom – and perhaps this is indeed an embellishment. (It sounds like something from Last of the Summer Wine.) In any case, Gray complained about their behaviour to the Master, decided his concerns weren’t being taken seriously enough, and within a week changed colleges.

Sometime later, when Gray was happily living in ground-floor rooms at Pembroke across the road, his contemporary Christopher Smart observed that ‘Gray walks as if he had fouled his small-clothes, and looks as if he smelt it’.

Originally posted at Poets’ Houses.