Poets’ Houses: Elizabeth Bishop, Edgell Rickwood, Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Bishop, 27 Park Parade
27 Park Parade, along with 31 Panton Street, is one of the liveliest houses in Cambridge for poetic associations. For a long time it was the home of Elaine Feinstein, who played host here to some incredible poets: Paz, Holub, Amichai and Yevtushenko all slept in the guest bedroom at one time or another.
But Elizabeth Bishop isn’t just an incredible poet, she’s the best poet of the 20th century, and houses with a Bishop association are not easy to find in England. I get the feeling she didn’t like it here very much; she visited just four times (in 1935-6, 1977, and 1979), and never stayed long. It must have been in one of the two 1930s visits when she stayed in 27 Park Parade, at that point a boarding house. Feinstein commemorated her stay in a poem:
Park Parade, Cambridge
in memory of Elizabeth Bishop
Your thoughts in later years must, sometimes,
have visited this one-time lodging house,
the wood then chocolate brown, the plaster
veined, this bedroom floating over
spongy grass down to a shallow river.
As a mild ghost, then, look with me tonight
under this slant roof out to where
the great oak lies, its foliage disguised
with flakes of light. Above us, clouds
in these wide skies remain as still as sandbars.
Sleeplessly, together, we can listen
to the quiet song of water, hidden
at the lock, and wait up for the first
hiss of cycle tyres and whistling builders.
Fellow asthmatics, we won’t even cough
because for once my lungs are clean,
and you no longer need to fight for breath.
And though it is by chance now I inherit
this room, I shall draw both tenderness and strength
from the friendly toughness of your spirit.
The ‘great oak’, I think, is the one in the grounds of Jesus College, which is easily visible across Jesus Green from the bedroom window.
Edgell Rickword, the Fitzroy Tavern
Lots of poets drank at the Fitzroy. It was a haunt of Dylan Thomas and William Empson and Nina Hammett and Malcolm Lowry; it gets a mention in Briggflatts (‘left breast of a girl who bared it in Kleinfeldt’s’ – Kleinfeldt was the proprietor, and the line gets the single best annotation in the whole of Don Share’s magisterial edition of the Complete Poems).
But there’s only one poet I can think of who’s associated with the Fitzroy and nowhere else. (Thomas has the Wheatsheaf; Empson, the Rosslyn Arms; Bunting, the Bridge Hotel in Newcastle.) That’s Edgell Rickword: here’s Empson’s remembrance of him holding court:
There was a time, around 1929, when Edgell Rickword was the Sage of the Fitzroy Tavern in Charlotte Street; much jostled by other sages, and very unassertive, indeed he could hardly be got to speak, and then hardly above a whisper, but he was the real one, if you happened to know. John Davenport knew, and advised a few other Cambridge students, including myself; we felt that a visit to London had to include looking for him there. I remember straining my ears, and of course I often succeeded in hearing him, but I cannot remember anything he said. This is the less odd because what he said was remarkable for its studied moderation, and respected for that, even by us; to renounce poetry on becoming a communist, as we all supposed he had done, seemed such a vehement thing, almost like Rimbaud – after that, a man had the right to speak placidly about current quarrels.
(from a PN Review festschrift for Rickword; included in Empson’s Argufying)
Rickword today is remembered only for a handful of WWI poems, and barely remembered at that; which is a shame, because one of them especially, ‘Trench Poets’, deserves to be much better known. I read it as an attack on Owen; so the opening lines are pastiche; but it’s really far too good for pastiche, and Owen, I think, never managed anything so genuinely terrifying and haunting:
I knew a man, he was my chum,
But he grew darker day by day
And would not brush the flies away
Nor blanch, however fierce the hum
Of passing shells…
Of course he can’t keep up this level right through, and the facetious ending almost spoils the poem. But those opening lines stay in the head for a long time.
The Fitzroy these days, incidentally, is a very pleasant Sam Smiths joint, and just as jostle-y as it was in 1929.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 50 Wimpole Street
Emily was asleep in the pushchair when the train pulled into London, so to give her a decent-length nap I thought we’d wander over to Wimpole Street and have a look at the house which Elizabeth Barrett Browning escaped from. (Lots of great poets around with the initials E.B. – Emily Brontë as well, now I think of it.) Everybody knows the story, and if you don’t there’s a mediocre film, The Barretts of Wimpole Street (starring John Gielgud and Jennifer Jones), probably playing on a daytime TV channel near you right now. It has something for everyone – bad Victorian medical advice, a tyrannous but ultimately weak-willed Victorian patriarch, a tense moment with a dog (SPOILER ALERT: the dog stays quiet and so the elopement is successful).
Here’s my favourite part of the story, from the best re-telling (G.K. Chesterton, in his magnificent Browning biography):
On the day on which it was necessary for [Elizabeth Barrett] finally to accept or reject Browning’s proposal, she called her sister to her, and to the amazement and mystification of that lady asked for a carriage. In this she drove into Regent’s Park, alighted, walked on to the grass, and stood leaning against a tree for some moments, looking round her at the leaves and the sky. She then entered the cab again, drove home, and agreed to the elopement.
(This was probably the furthest she’d been from Wimpole Street in five years.)
The house today is still incredibly dingy-looking (like all the North-South roads in Marylebone – is there a more depressing street in London than Harley Street, for instance?). Kyte’s Interiors were busy on the inside but I’m afraid it’s wasted effort, the bad vibes in that spot are ineradicable. (Incidentally, all the stonework on the front of the house is an addition from 1936, and not at all an improvement.)
The text on the plaque is pretty disastrous and someone should get round to replacing it soon.
ELIZABETH BARRETT BARRETT
POETESS, AFTERWARDS WIFE OF ROBERT BROWNING
LIVED HERE 1838 – 1846.
Especially since all of Aurora Leigh and the Sonnets from the Portuguese were written in that ‘afterwards’.
Abridged versions of original posts by John Clegg at Poets’ Houses.