Not long after leaving Uppingham, Hardwicke wrote: ‘I have longings of being some day a poet’.1 This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has read Hardwicke’s comments about his upbringing, for poetry featured strongly in his childhood memories. On leaving Shiplake when only eleven years of age he recorded his farewell in verse in ‘Ode to Shiplake’. The Poet Laureate Tennyson was a family friend and Hardwicke recalls his father’s visits to the poet and the many discussions and readings of his poems that took place on a regular basis. But it was at Uppingham, under Edward Thring, that poetry took hold of him. Hardwicke’s lifelong reverence for the poetry of Wordsworth was also first stimulated by Thring, who took him on visits to the Lake District and the haunts of the great poet. Two of Hardwicke’s poems, ‘To-day’ and ‘Wooing of the North Wind’, were awarded prizes at Uppingham.
A small number of unpublished poems from his days at Uppingham have survived. Interestingly, considering the prevalence of sonnets in his later poetry, there is only one sonnet from this period in the notebooks. This is ‘Sonnet to Chatterton’, dated August 1869, with a note added that this was ‘the first sonnet I ever wrote’.
Hardwicke’s verse writing continued whilst at Oxford, although not to the liking of Benjamin Jowett, the Master at Balliol College, who told him: ‘I would not advise you to spend time on verses . . . [and] never mind how much you write, burn it all’.2
A noticeable development in the poems of the early 1870s that have survived is the use of the sonnet form. A major factor on Hardwicke’s decision to use the sonnet would appear to be the influence of Charles Tennyson Turner, the Poet Laureate’s elder brother. Turner’s guidance and support for Hardwicke’s early poetic ventures have not received the recognition that they deserve and have been overshadowed by the impact of his more illustrious brother.
Although regular correspondence with Turner had taken place for a number of years, it was not until January 1876 that they first met when Hardwicke visited the old parson at his house in the Lincolnshire village of Grasby. Hardwicke was clearly overwhelmed by the gentleness, humbleness and sincerity of Charles Tennyson Turner. The latter’s sensitivity in caring for God’s creatures, be they birds, insects or other animals, particularly struck Hardwicke. It was during a discussion on Turner’s sonnet, ‘The Lover and His Watch’, that Hardwicke claimed:
[He] showed me how much we miss, by refusing to see poetry in common things, and especially in thinking of all the mechanisms of our day as if they have no poetry in them.3
It might have been Thring and Wordsworth who showed Hardwicke that there was poetry in nature, but it was Charles Tennyson Turner who opened his eyes to the poetry in everyday scenes and life, in the ordinary existence of daily living. Nowhere is this more splendidly illustrated than A Book of Bristol Sonnets, Hardwicke’s first published poetry book.
A Book of Bristol Sonnets
The book was published in March 1877, just over twelve months after Hardwicke became curate at the Clifton College Mission in Bristol. He uses the sonnet form to capture the sights, sounds, smells, and spirit of a large modern industrial town and its environs. The book is a bold and innovative experiment in the use of the sonnet. He called it ‘a hand-book of . . . suggestions jotted down at odd moments’.
What induced Hardwicke to write sonnets to capture life in Bristol? The sonnet, of course, had been brought back into fashion by Wordsworth in the early part of the nineteenth century. Such was the stature of the Poet Laureate, however, that many poets refrained from writing sonnets while he was still living. In the decades after Wordsworth’s death there was a resurgence in sonnet-writing and, in one sense, Hardwicke was simply following a poetic trend.
Other, more personal reasons, can be adduced why the sonnet was taken up by Hardwicke whilst working in Bristol. He had learnt from Charles Tennyson Turner that the sonnet’s brevity and form was ideally suited to describing commonplace events and scenes. With most of his time taken up by his work at the Clifton College Mission, Hardwicke must have had very little spare time for writing and so the sonnet was the perfect vehicle in which to jot down suggestions at odd moments. The sonnet also acted as the textual equivalent of a photographic record. For someone who was very visually aware of all that went on around him the sonnet enabled Hardwicke to capture his observations in a disciplined format.
Many of the poems have historical notes attached to them, and the book shows how quickly Hardwicke imbibed not only present-day Bristol but also its historical past. The first two sonnets in the book, ‘Bristol of To-Day’ and ‘A Dream of Ancient Bristol’, are clearly juxtaposed so as to provide a contrast and a link between present and past. In the first of these, the city is teeming with people who no longer have time to stop and talk to each other. The factories belch out smoke and pollute the air. The harbour is the centre of excitement and international trade. Such a frenzied environment, however, leaves no place for God. Only when evening falls and the city slows down do ‘men feel that God is there!’ This is in complete contrast to the second sonnet, ‘A Dream of Ancient Bristol’. Once again maritime trade is at the centre of the city’s life but the merchants, seamen and residents have time to talk and mingle. There is a calmness and togetherness, of which God is a part, which contrasts with its modern-day counterpart.
Past and present are contrasted in other sonnets such as ‘Bristol Castle and the Tramcars’. Unlike some Victorian commentators such as John Ruskin, Hardwicke is not longing for a return to a nostalgic past. He wants to preserve the past for the lessons that can be learned, such as the need to make time for other people and to remember that God is an essential aspect of everyday life.
Buildings and other remnants of the past feature prominently in A Book of Bristol Sonnets. The city’s castles, forts, churches, gates and cemeteries are all the subjects of sonnets. But it is not simply their architectural purposes and beauty that Hardwicke sees. More importantly they are vivid reminders of the art, customs, traditions and beliefs of the people who inhabited them. These man-made objects have meaning beyond their shape and use. They are entities that link the present and the past. They are examples of living history. The same view was expressed by William Morris when arguing against the Victorian trend of ‘restoring’ old buildings rather than ‘preserving’ them.
Hardwicke loved to walk around the city, especially at night, absorbing its sights, sounds and smells. But he also ventured to many localities outside Bristol, such as ‘Tintern Abbey’, ‘Berkeley Castle’, ‘The Drakestone Edge’ and ‘Carter’s Lane, Portbury’. It is the history of these places that is the starting point for his reflections on modern life. Such locations often evoke patriotic pride in the greatness of England. Their history and modernity are timeless. In ‘The Wynd-Cliff’, for example, he tells the reader that if someone should ask him where England might be proud, ‘I’d set him here, upon an April day’.
Nature, rather than localities or buildings, is also the subject of many sonnets. Flowers, trees, birds and other aspects of nature are keenly described. ‘Clematis in Leaf on the Downs’, ‘The Knotted Elm, at Abbot’s Leigh’, ‘On Finding the Wild Strawberry in Nightingale Valley’, and ‘To a Thrush, Heard on Clifton Down in a January Morning’, are but a few examples. Neither is nature only to be found in the countryside. The city abounds with its presence as in ‘Tumbler Pigeons over Bristol’.
While some aspects of modern life, such as the disconnection with God and the hurly-burley of commerce, are to be regretted, there are many developments that are to be welcomed. Hardwicke makes reference to the schools, orphanages, museums, concert and lecture halls that have brought progress and pleasure to many. Modern engineering feats such as the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Avonmouth Docks bring progress and enable Bristol to maintain its standing as a modern progressive city.
Contemporary events are not ignored in A Book of Bristol Sonnets. Examples include the celebrated court case ‘Flavel Cook v Jenkins’, ‘The Great Fire in Christmas Street, 1876’, and ‘The Opening of the Avonmouth Docks, February 24, 1877’.
Animal cruelty was anathema to Hardwicke and he deplored the caging of wild animals in Bristol Zoo, opened in 1836. ‘The Eagle’ has been reduced to such a pitiable sight that the only friend left to him is death. The subject of the sonnet, ‘Hannibal’, is a lion, an animal who is a ‘king in chains’. To profit from such spectacles is wrong: ‘Hard profit makes vile peepshow of might’s lair’.
Whilst A Book of Bristol Sonnets covers a multitude of topics it is interesting to note what Hardwicke does not write about. As a mission curate he worked amongst the poorest and most downtrodden of the city’s dwellers but the lives of these parishoners are almost totally absent from his poems. Hardwicke tells us nothing about his missionary work, the degradation, ill-health, poverty and unemployment of those he worked with on a daily basis. This is surprising for someone who was a keen observer of what went on around him and who had great sympathy for the people he served.
Although many of the individual sonnets are not of a high poetic quality, and some are weighed down by too much detail in their historical footnotes, the collection is unusual for its time and a bold endeavour to record everyday life in a bustling Victorian city.
Sonnets at the English Lakes
Published in 1881, Sonnets at the English Lakes was dedicated to the memory of Charles Tennyson Turner. Given that Hardwicke was now living in the Lake District it is no surprise that the landscape is a major feature in this second book. ‘Nature’s Gospel’ is a conservation manifesto for the Lake District. It is a clarion call to his readers as to why such beautiful surroundings are so important:
When weary of the stilling city’s hum,
I seek the quiet of the hills and dales,
I do rejoice to know the man that ails
In heart, or hope, or head, may hither come,
And here may learn how Nature, seeming dumb,
Can soothe where life’s tumultuous current fails—
Here find the still communion that avails
To fire imagination almost numb.
Such a landscape embodies the truth and word of God, it is a visual Gospel. Many of the poems in Sonnets at the English Lakes were written after Hardwicke returned from his trip across the Biblical Middle East in mid-1879, and in some sonnets he directly links the two environments. Yewdale becomes ‘England’s Sinai’ in ‘At Yewdale Farm’. Similarly, just as Moses was given the Ten Commandments by God, so Hardwicke tells the reader in ‘Yewdale Crags’ that God has given the Lake District to man.
The scenery of the Lake District was sacrosanct for Hardwicke. Everywhere he went he saw evidence of God’s creation. Often he stands breathless at what he sees, loving this land with passion and reverence: ‘Grant me a heart, O God, to live, and love / My fellows as I love this rocky moor’ he asks in ‘Wild Flowers on Loughrigg’. There are numerous poems on trees and flowers, birds and other animals. Hardwicke delights in the different seasons and the changes that they bring, as well as the transformation from morning to night. He is equally delighted at watching ‘The Squirrel’ or ‘The Great Tit’ as he is in surveying the magic of ‘Helvellyn’ or ‘Moonrise over Wansfell’. In his ‘Valedictory’ sonnet that closes the book he acknowledges that it is nature that has given life to his poems.
Not only does the locality give immeasurable pleasure to Hardwicke as he travels around the Lake District but it also rouses him when he feels despondent, unsure of himself or doubts his suitability as a clergyman. The restorative power of the Lake District cannot be overestimated. In ‘A Return to the Lakes’ he recalls travelling by train through an industrial landscape where ‘the corn was pale and dead’ and where the workers ‘Cursed the black fields wherein its seed was sown’. Getting nearer home he can see the hills and his melancholy disappears: ‘Forth from the train I stept, / New-made already in the home of sleep’.
This restorative power of nature is one theme that Hardwicke’s first two books have in common, even though their settings are very different. There are other similarities.
In A Book of Bristol Sonnets, Hardwicke places great emphasis on the historical past and its importance for understanding the present. There are reminders of this in his second book. Poems such as ‘The Runic Cross in Gosforth Churchyard, ‘Crusader’s Tomb’, and ‘Stone Arthur’ are examples. Such links with the past are a positive influence on the present. ‘Kendal Castle’ is given the sub-title the ‘Power of Tradition’ and Hardwicke reminds us that ‘hearts are helped by that old fortress still, / Though moat be dry and castle keep decay’.
In Sonnets at the English Lakes, Hardwicke additionally looks at the literary associations between past and present, often using Wordsworth as the connection. More than half-a-dozen sonnets feature Wordsworth directly and many more indirectly. Over the next twenty years Hardwicke wrote extensively on the Lake District’s literary association with its past, but it is in Sonnets at the English Lakes that this theme makes its first appearance. Literary connections with the past are just as important to preserve as other types of associations.
Protests against animal cruelty is another theme that Hardwicke’s two books share in common. Probably inspired by Turner’s ‘On Shooting a Swallow in Early Spring’, Hardwicke’s ‘Pigeon Shooting in Ambleside’ is sub-titled ‘A Protest’. He asks ‘Did God descend in likeness of a Dove / That men, in sport, might take the life they spurned?’ ‘War Notes in Rydal Vale’ makes a similar protest.
Local traditions and festivities were always dear to Hardwicke’s heart and he delights in bringing a number of these to the reader’s attention in poems such as ‘Grasmere Sports’, ‘Harvest Thanksgiving’, ‘Char Fishers’ and ‘Lent Lilies’. Such events are as much a part of the locality as the fauna, flora, hills, lakes and other natural scenery.
Though Hardwicke paints an idyllic picture of life in the Lakes there are aspects that meet with his disapproval or sadness. Although the Lakes can bring goodness and edification to those who visit them, the latter can also fail to appreciate such gifts. In ‘Nature’s Music Dishonoured’, he bemoans those noisy visitors who do not see the beauty before them but are more content with the ‘cheap buffet song, / Or bursts of flashy music’ that entertains them on the steam boat. Even worse are the actions of those who ignore the meaning of holy days such as Good Friday, seeing these occasions as no more than a holiday in which to enjoy themselves.
As with A Book of Bristol Sonnets Hardwicke gives very little insight into his daily life as a clergyman. There is little in the way of who his parishoners are, what they are like, or how he ministers to them. The flora, fauna, hills and lakes that he comes across daily are given full descriptive scope but his parishoners and his life as a clergyman are largely missing. Why this should be so is hard to fathom.
There were not many reviews of the book. One commented that, ‘In many of Mr. Rawnsley’s sonnets there is a freshness which seems to take us into the presence of the veritable atmosphere of the lakes’.4 This was probably the impression left on many of its readers. Hardwicke, however, was doing more than this. He was championing the view that the Lake District was not only beautiful but that it was unique and special. It was a gift from God, and had so much to offer all those who came to it, if only they would seek out such treasures. This was a land that had to be preserved in all its glory. It is no surprise that Hardwicke titled his second book as Sonnets at the English Lakes. The Lake District belonged to the whole of England, not just the geographical area it encompassed.
In A Book of Bristol Sonnets and Sonnets at the English Lakes Hardwicke lays bare his conservationist credentials. He uses his poetic energies to stress that the past is a living entity that is inextricably bound with the present and should be preserved. Above all, the Lake District is God’s gift to mankind that belongs to everyone.
- Rawnsley, Eleanor. Canon Rawnsley: An Account of His Life. Glasgow: MacLehose, Jackson & Co., 1923, p. 18.
- ibid. pp. 24-25.
- Rawnsley, Hardwicke Drummond. Memories of the Tennysons. Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1900, p. 241.
- Western Daily Press. 1881, 15 October, p. 6.
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