Six centuries of famous Chiswick poets

Images above: John Donne; James Berry, photograph from the Black History Month website

From the metaphysical poet John Donne to the Windrush poet James Berry

Guest blog by Torin Douglas, Director of the Chiswick Book Festival, who has been researching the history of writers who have lived in Chiswick through the ages

A few months ago, we added Dylan Thomas to the Chiswick Writers Trail, which features notable novelists, poets and playwrights who lived in Chiswick or had strong links here.

I was pretty chuffed when we proved that he lived for a while in the Vicarage at St Paul’s Grove Park. We also added the Windrush poet James Berry, who had lived in Bedford Park and spoken at the first Chiswick Book Festival in 2009.

READ ALSO: Poets Dylan Thomas and James Berry claimed as Chiswick writers

These were two illustrious names to add to a list which already included WB Yeats, Harold Pinter, Dame Iris Murdoch, John Osborne, WM Thackeray, Alexander Pope, Sir John Betjeman, EM Forster, JG Ballard, Anthony Burgess and Nancy Mitford.

Since we created the first Writers Trail in 2018, residents have suggested we should add other notable writers who lived in Chiswick and, after checks by local historians and others, we chose a dozen to join the list which we are gradually revealing to the waiting world.

Images above: Stephen Potter; Michael Flanders

Home to two of Britain’s most influential humourists

In May we added the humourists Stephen Potter and Michael Flanders, who were both internationally famous in their day, but less well-known now.

Partly to put that right, we shall be celebrating Michael Flanders’ legacy at a Chiswick Book Festival event on September 14 when his daughters Laura and Stephanie Flanders will be speaking, after the unveiling of a plaque on his former home by Ealing Civic Trust.

Historian Graham McCann will be expounding his view that Flanders & Swann are Britain’s most influential British comedy duo, ahead of Morecambe & Wise, The Two Ronnies and Peter Cook & Dudley Moore.

Now, as Chiswick prepares to celebrate its Nobel Prize-winning poet WB Yeats with a sculpture and a Poetry Hour event, we are marking the occasion by adding six more poets to our Writers Trail. And yes, that headline is right. Chiswick really has been home to acclaimed poets for six centuries, from the 16th right through to the 21st. Who knew?

The latest additions to Chiswick’s hall of fame

John Donne

Top of the list, and not just chronologically, is the metaphysical poet John Donne, who was the prebend of Chiswick in the 16th century. We have yet to find documentary evidence that he visited Chiswick, but the presumption by historians is that he must have done. His entry reads:

John Donne (1572-1631). Poet, priest, Prebend of Chiswick 1621-31. The Flea, Death Be Not Proud, The Sun Rising. Sermons on the Psalms and Gospels. As prebend, Donne ‘doubtless’ visited Chiswick from St Paul’s Cathedral, where he was Dean, staying in College House, the prebendal mansion house on Chiswick Mall.

College House, Chiswick Mall (demolished).

On the 400th anniversary of his ordination, the Church Times wrote:

“At St Paul’s… he preached all through the year… Among his finest sermons are five on the psalms (62-66) that he was required to recite daily as Prebendary of Chiswick.”

William Morris

Portrait of William Morris by Frederick Hollyer

In terms of fame, next on the list comes William Morris, the writer, designer and father of the Arts & Crafts movement, who is strongly associated with Hammersmith but lived in Chiswick first. His Writers Trail entry reads:

William Morris (1834-96). Poet, novelist, designer, printer, social activist, Arts & Crafts pioneer. The Earthly Paradise, News From Nowhere. Lived in Chiswick 1872-8, prior to Kelmscott House, Hammersmith.

Horrington House (demolished), near The Roebuck and Thornton Avenue.

It also carries weblinks to the William Morris Society and Morris & Company, and also a page devoted to ‘William Morris in Chiswick’ on the Chiswick Timeline of Writers and Books.

Lady Mary Sidney

Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke by Nicholas Hilliard, circa 1590. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Less well-known – but more fascinating in my view – are two pioneering women poets who lived in Chiswick in the 16th and 17th Centuries – Lady Mary Sidney and Elizabeth Moody.

Lady Mary Sidney was the daughter of a close confidante of Elizabeth I – confusingly, also named Lady Mary Sidney, nee Dudley – who lived behind Strand on the Green, from 1574 to 1586.  As a girl, the poet Lady Mary lived there, where they were visited by her older brother, Sir Philip Sidney, the godson of Philip of Spain. She married Henry Herbert and became the Countess of Pembroke.

According to the Mary Sidney Society:

“Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, was known to be a hot-tempered redhead, brilliant, multi-talented, strong, dynamic, passionate, generous, and a bit arrogant. She was born three years before Shakespeare and died five years after.

“For two decades, she developed and led the most important literary circle in England’s history, Wilton Circle, taking the mantle from her mentor, her brother Sir Philip Sidney, who died in the Queen’s Protestant war. Her work, the work of her brother, and the work of many of the writers in her circle were used as sources for the Shakespearean plays.”

There was even speculation that she wrote Shakespeare’s sonnets.

This is her Writers Trail entry:

Lady Mary Sidney (1561-1621). Poet and literary patron. Sidney Psalter. Turned Wilton House, Wiltshire, into a “paradise for poets”. Daughter of Elizabeth I’s confidante – also named Lady Mary Sidney, nee Dudley – who lived behind Strand on the Green, 1574-86.  As a girl, Lady Mary lived there, visited by brother, Sir Philip Sidney. Speculation she wrote Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Sidney House, close to Stile Hall and Strand on the Green (demolished)

Elizabeth Moody

Elizabeth Moody by Thomas Gainsborough, Dulwich Picture Gallery

Elizabeth Moody was born almost 200 years later and was married to the vicar of Turnham Green. She was a poet and critic and her poems seem as modern – and sharp – today as they must have done in the 1700s. Her poem To a Lady Who Sent the Author a Present of a Fashionable Bonnet was chosen as the Guardian’s Poem of the Week in 2018.

Much more succinct is this one:

To A Lady Who Was A Great Talker
If your friendship to take I must take too your clack,
That friendship, methinks, I could almost give back;
Yet for worlds would I not with your amity part,
Would you lock up your tongue when you open your heart.

This is her entry:

Elizabeth Moody 1737-1814. Poet and critic, Monthly Review, St James’s Chronicle. To a Lady Who Sent The Author a Present of a Fashionable Bonnet, To a Lady Who Was A Great Talker, To Dr Darwin. Married to vicar of Turnham Green; neighbour of Ralph Griffiths (ibid).

Turnham Green Terrace, W4

Revd Henry Francis Cary

Living just up the road a few years later was the Revd Henry Francis Cary, who was a Reader at St Nicholas Church, lived at Hogarth’s House and is buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. His translation of Dante’s Inferno and Divine Comedy was the best translation in any language, according to the Italian poet (and Chiswick resident) Ugo Foscolo, who was on the original Writers Trail.

His Writers Trail entry reads:

Rev Henry Francis Cary (1772-1844). Poet. Translated Dante’s Inferno and Divine Comedy – the best translation in any language according to Ugo Foscolo (ibid). 1814 Reader at St Nicholas Church, leased Hogarth’s House till 1833. Buried in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey.

Hogarth’s House, Hogarth Lane (admission free, see days/times on their website)

Sir John (JC) Squire

Our sixth poet is Sir John (JC) Squire, who was a poet, journalist and one of the most powerful literary figures during the first half of the 20th Century, as editor of New Statesman and the London Mercury.

He lived on Chiswick Mall and his biography, by John Smart, was published last year – Shores of Paradise – The Life of Sir John Squire: The Last Man of Letters.

On its cover it says “He was both loved and detested… TS Eliot was an implacable foe but he enjoyed the friendship of Thomas Hardy, Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, and ruled the roost over literary society for the best part of twenty years.”

This is his entry:

Sir John (J. C.) Squire (1884-1958). Poet and man of letters; editor, New Statesman, the London Mercury for 20 years; loved (and detested) by great names of literary society; satirised by Evelyn Waugh in Decline and Fall; founder of legendary cricket club (immortalised in England, Their England). Lived at Swan House, Chiswick Mall, 1913 to 1925.

Swan House, Chiswick Mall, W4 2PS

These six poets join a list which already contained WB Yeats; Alexander Pope, who has a blue plaque in Chiswick; Sir John Betjeman, who campaigned to save Bedford Park from developers; GK Chesterton and Anthony Burgess, both well-known poets as well as novelists; and, as mentioned, Dylan Thomas and James Berry. Quite an anthology!

This year’s Festival will be celebrating the work of James Berry as well as WB Yeats and Michael Flanders.

For the past 12 years, we have run a Young People’s Poetry Competition to encourage children’s creativity. This year, we’re giving all the prize winners copies of Only One of Me, Berry’s poems for children. The book has just been republished to mark its 20th anniversary and copies have been kindly donated by the publishers, Pan Macmillan.

We hope they – and everyone else – will appreciate, and want to learn more about, Chiswick’s illustrious poetic heritage.

You can see the full Writers Trail (plus weblinks) here: chiswickbookfestival.net

The Chiswick Book Festival runs from September 6th to 17th 2022. Tickets are on sale here: chiswickbookfestival.net

Torin Douglas is the Director of the Chiswick Book Festival and is a former BBC News correspondent.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Yeats sculpture to be unveiled Tuesday 6 September

See also: Cahal Dallat publishes new book of poetry

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