by Elizabeth Jones
Overstrand, on the North Norfolk coast, at the very heart of Poppyland, was not really discovered until the 1880s. For most of the 19th century the hamlet was quiet and sleepy, a remote fishing village.
Nearby Cromer was still a small, select watering-place before the area was given exposure by the London journalist, Clement Scott, and accessibility by the railways. In August 1883 the first in a series of articles that were to change the face of Overstrand appeared in the Daily Telegraph.
Visitors came flocking to see for themselves this romantic haven, Poppyland, of which Scott had written. Many stayed at the Mill House, turning it into a meeting place for poets, actors, playwrights, a bohemian retreat.
The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne read that first article out loud to his friend Watts-Dunton, pronouncing the name to be "highly aesthetic", and the place to sound "delicious". Thus, by the middle of September 1883, the "Seagull" poet and his mentor had left their home at Putney and set off in search of Poppyland.
Swinburne was born in London in 1837, although he spent the years of his happy childhood at the family home in Northumberland and a rented house on the Isle of Wight. A lifelong passion for the sea began early, Algernon being nicknamed Seagull as he was never far from the shore. Whilst at Oxford Swinburne met not only his later friend Watts-Dunton, but also William Morris, Burne-Jones, and Rossetti. Elements of the poet's formative years can be seen in the semi-autobiographical novels Lesbia Brandon and Love's Cross Currents (1905).
The poet who was expelled from Oxford in 1860 had both the appearance and the sound of a fragile child. Red hair crowned a strangely large head that sat on the sloping shoulders of a small, wiry body. A high-pitched voice and a tendency towards nervous fits characterised a man who was nevertheless polite and popular. Friendship with various of the Pre-Raphaelite painters and their associates continued throughout the poet's life, strengthened by the influence of Lady Pauline Trevelyan, herself a patron of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Swinburne was strongly influenced by the painters' medievalism, often linking love and sadness in his poems, as did the painters in their work. Many of Swinburne's verses have Pre-Raphaelite overtones, in particular The Sundew, (1866), and yet by 1876 he had voiced a wish that his poetry be no longer associated with the name.
The first series of Poems and Ballads, (1866) inspired a storm of abuse from critics, but also some degree of enthusiasm. Robert Buchannan denounced Swinburne as "unclean for the sake of uncleanliness", whilst John Morely led the cries for censureship of the poems for their "pagan spirit". The popularity of an article entitled The Fleshly School of Poetry was no doubt assisted by the scandalous accounts of the poet's lifestyle.
Rumours abounded of homosexual affairs, cannibal dinners, bestiality and patronage of flagellation brothels. Wild behaviour brought on by an inability to control his drinking did little to improve Swinburne's sinking reputation. An American paper called him "a perfect leper and a mere sodomite," whilst 'Punch' simply referred to him Swineborn." Ironically, by the 1890's Swinburne was being hailed "as the greatest living English poet," and Queen Victoria was considering him as a replacement for Tennyson, the late poet laureate.
Responsibility for such an astonishing change in public attitude can largely be given to Walter Theodore Watts-Dunton. When Swinburne's drinking threatened his life, Watts-Dunton quickly removed him from London and set up a home for them both at Putney. For the remaining thirty years of his life Swinburne lived a sober, routine, respectable existence at The Pines, guided and protected by his friend. Watts-Dunton has been criticised for caging a free spirit, indeed, Swinburne admitted that he wrote poetry in those years to escape from boredom, and read novels as a substitute for life.
T.E. Welby pictured Swinburne as a small child, cared for and cossetted, living in a dream world of his own. But if the "child" had not been weaned off brandy onto beer his dreams might have been shattered and his life ended sooner. Swinburne lived to the age of 72, described at his death as both a polluter of English poetry, and as "one of the most lovable men of the later Victorian age."
In his letters, Swinburne often refers to his friend Watts-Dunton as his 'Major', a term that would seem to sum up the nature of their relationship. Once established at The Pines, Swinburne was kept to a strict regime of healthy walks and meals, polite conversation and a little writing. Visitors were vetted by Watts-Dunton; he actively discouraged friends from the past and visits home in the interests of peace and quiet, or perhaps his own jealousy. Praise and persuasion were used to wean his charge off his favourite spirit, also from his desire to shock the public through his writing. Instead Watts-Dunton encouraged the writing of descriptive poems on nature and odes to various heroes. In this respect he has been criticised for a lack of insight into Swinburne's talent, and for exercising a harmful influence.
At the age of forty Watts-Dunton had abandoned his profession as a solicitor and taken up a literary career. As a member of the staff of the Athenaeum from 1876 to 1902, he became a highly respected authority on poetry and a distinguished critic. He also gave lectures on poetry and was himself "at a few moments an achieving poet". The Daily News described Watts-Dunton as the "greatest living critic of poetry, and with one exception (Mr Swinburne) the greatest living master of its art."
Watts-Dunton's life work Poetry and the Renascence of Wonder (1914) shows that he too drew inspiration from nature, and from a mysticism linked with the gypsy way of life.
The character of Watts-Dunton has been described in various terms; genteel, suburban and professional. Additionally, he was said to possess "a genius for friendship". Through this later talent and his apparent self-confidence he won the devotion of such men as Swinburne, William Morris, George Borrow, and Rossetti. The Fortnightly Review neatly assessed the nature of the influence that Watts-Dunton exercised over such friends; in fact, "he pulled many of the strings that moved the rest."
Another contemporary referred to him rather unkindly, as a "bright-eyed, umpire-like little man." Supposedly, Watts-Dunton once hid Swinburne's boots to prevent him from going out, certainly he concealed chapters of the novel Lesbia Brandon until after the author had died, so anxious was he to prevent publication.
Financial worries and legal difficulties with publishers were removed from Swinburne's shoulders. In return, Watts-Dunton not only received friendship, but also prestige and money, especially after the poet's death. In a touching sonnet that prefaces the poem Tristram of Lyonesse (1882) Swinburne paid tribute to this literary friendship ...
There is a friend that as the wise man saith
Cleaves closer than a brother; nor to me,
Hath time not shewn, through days like waves at strife,
This truth more sure than all things else but death,
This pearl most perfect found in all the sea
That washes towards your feet these waifs of life
Ever year the poets spent some time at the coast, often at Southwold. In September 1883 the venue became Overstrand, for both men were inspired by the romantic beauty of Poppyland. In his book Literary Geography (1907) William Sharp attempted to define the appeal of the East Anglian landscape. Sharp claimed that for too long the area had been sadly neglected by romantics. The "more desolate regions of maritime East Anglia," he wrote, "through their solitude bring a sense of tragedy and melancholy. In such places the spirit is uplifted to ponder on the importance of nature and its symbolism." Stories of spectacular landslips, he claimed, remind the reader of "the brevity and insignificance of the material world."
According to Clara Watts-Dunton, it was the sight of a landslip that inspired her husband and his companion to write of Poppyland. Both men seemed to find the experience awesome. Watts-Dunton based part of his novel Aylwin (1898) on the area, including in the book a passage describing just such an event .. "... it was as though I were witnessing some dreadful sight, unutterable and intolerable ... At my feet spread the great churchyard, with its hundreds of little green hillocks and white gravestones, sprinkled here and there with square box-like tombs. All quietly asleep in the moonlight. Here and there an aged headstone seemed to nod to its neighbour, as though muttering in its dreams ..."
During one of his stays at Overstrand, Swinburne was inspired to write some of the poems in a collection entitled A Midsummer Holiday (1884). He too had fallen under the spell of Poppyland.
A deserted graveyard and church tower on the poppy-covered cliffs provided another fruitful source of inspiration for the poets. It was this spot that had moved Clement Scott to write his poem The Garden of Sleep and to name the area Poppyland. This, in fact, was used as part of the setting for Aylwin, the remainder of which is set in Wales. Swinburne revealed that he disliked "esplanady" places like Cromer, preferring those isolated, unspoilt areas of the coast. His appreciation of the peace and beauty of Poppyland is evident in the following extract from the poem The Haven...
... East and North a waste of waters, south and west
Lonelier lands than dreams in sleep would feign to be,
When the soul goes forth on travel, and is prest
Round and compassed in with clouds that flash and flee.
Dells without a streamlet, downs without a tree,
Cirques of hollow cliff that crumble, give their guest
Little hope, till hard at hand he pause, to see
Where the small town smiles, a warm still sea-side nest,
On a country road...
After a brief stay at Cromer's Bath Hotel, the two friends settled into the Mill House at Overstrand, as the guests of Miller Jermy and his daughter Louie. Swinburne wrote of the delights of the setting in a letter to his sister Alice: "The whole place is fragrant with old-fashioned flowers, sweet William and thyme and lavender and mignonette and splendid with great sunflowers."
His enthusiasm for the picturesque cottage and its scented garden also produced the poem The Mill Garden. Swinburne had always enjoyed swimming, especially, when the sea was very rough, declaring the bathing at Overstrand to be far superior to that at Southwold.
"Louie of the blackberry puddings", as she was known, must have made her literary guests welcome for they returned year after year. In an article in The Referee in 1914, George Sims, himself a regular guest, gave an amusing picture of the poets at the Mill House. Louie, it appeared, was at times exasperated by the eccentric behaviour of the two friends, especially concerning mealtimes. Never, it seems, was she able to produce a hot meal and two musing poets in one room at the same time! If Swinburne were missing, Watts-Dunton would disappear to search for him, both returning hours later, having completely forgotten the meal. Louie's father seemed to relate well to them both, often lending an ear when Swinburne wished to read his poems out loud in the garden. The villagers must have been somewhat wary of these two strangers, though, for by this time Swinburne was "the most talked about man in England."
Towards the close of the 19th century, owing to the influx of the rich and famous, Overstrand became known as the "village of millionaires." Politicians and publishers bought property there, amongst them Churchill and Sir Frederick Macmillan. Clement Scott's writing drew a host of artists to stay at the Mill House and nearby, including Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, Edward Burne-Jones, and the Punch artist George Du Maurier.
The quiet village stirred with stories of "middle-aged lunatics from London" careering about the lanes at night. The writer George Sims became known for his pranks in his guise as an escaped lunatic under the care of actor Henry Pettitt. A post office and general stores was renamed the Sardinia by the guests and was a place for them to lounge around and gossip, no doubt to the amusement of the local people!
Louie Jermy, the "Maid of the Mill" as she was nicknamed, thrived on caring for her bohemian guests. She had aspirations towards the theatre herself that were never realised, except in terms of the many friendships she made in the theatrical world. After world war one the character of Louie's guests changed and she had to contend with "midnight bathes, hilarious singing and shouting, and a growing laxity of general behaviour."
In The Referee in 1919, George Sims paid tribute to the hostess thus: "Miss Jermy of Poppyland has been the guardian angel of famous men. Swinburne wrote some of his finest poetry at her house."
Long before Swinburne and Watts-Dunton visited Poppyland many other sources of inspiration had shaped the lives and the artistry of the two poets. Holidays at the Mill House must have been an important part of those lives, though, to inspire both men to write of their experiences. Their friendship was one firmly based on a common passion for the arts, poetry in particular, and it survived over a period of seventy years until Swinburne's death in 1909. In his essay No. 2 The Pines (1920), Max Beerbohm provided a lasting account of his visit to his contemporaries' home. At the end of the piece he imagined himself in heaven, reintroducing himself in the hope that he had not been forgotten ...
" .. I can just see how courteously Swinburne would bow over my hand, not at all remembering who I am. Watts-Dunton will remember me after a moment ... he will not have changed. He will still be shaggy and old and chubby, and will wear the same frockcoat, with the same creases in it. Swinburne, on the other hand, will be quite, quite young, with a full mane of flaming auburn locks, and no clothes to hinder him from plunging back at any moment into the shining Elysian waters from which he will have just emerged."
Ref: Jones, Elizabeth. 1984. The Poppyland Poets. Norfolk Fair. Sep. 26-27