Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week: Racedown By Peter Sansom


He leaps the gate, his party piece, and cuts
the corner of a pathless field. She looks up,
waves a trowel, and calls to her brother. Smiles.
She’s twenty-five and will remember this
the rest of her days, even when most of the days
are lost: Coleridge as he was. Closer to,
soup-stained, and with a days-long odour.
He walked city to city talking all the way.
But what she sees is how he listened to her.
They are orphans together minding a child
in a borrowed house; they read to each other
through the night and talk about the sea.
Next day they set off in their newly-wedded lives,
the three of them, to the mountains and the lakes,
where we look out for them with their books.

Peter Sansom’s poetic eavesdrop on the ménage à Wordsworth at Dorset in the 1790s is a remarkable piece of inference and research, from which the reader may construct a persuasive picture of the hugely influential triumvirate that helped shape a new way of seeing. That the Romantic view sustains is self-evident: Sansom’s poem, along with Lucy Newlyn’s brilliant series of sonnets in Vital Stream bear out an ongoing preoccupation with, particularly, William’s sister, Dorothy. The resurgence of interest in Dorothy as a creative influence on her brother’s writing is a timely corrective to the lionisation of Wordsworth and Coleridge, whose pre-eminence seemed hitherto unassailable.

Sansom’s detailed meander in Racedown, is realised in a convincing present tense which draws the reader, as observer, into the tableau. The poet’s extensive knowledge of the protagonists’ lives enables a reinvention of the dynamics that animated the relationship between the three. The energy is palpable, and it is a characteristic of Sansom’s work to release information naturally, allowing us to shape a sense of that context by accretion. By degrees, Sansom builds an image of Coleridge through Dorothy’s eyes: the careless leap over the gate, the soup-stained clothes, the stale odour, the endless, but thrilling talk, coalesce to yield a three-dimensional image of the poet we think we already know. Then William, the stolid presence in the shadows, the brother whose lifelong companionship Dorothy embraces in her spinsterhood.

And finally Dorothy herself, whose devotion to Wordsworth is reciprocated, no more so than when her mind fragments, and the early days whose memory she fervently cherishes ‘are lost’ to the occlusion of dementia. Here, Sansom’s poem gives seamlessly on to a new landscape of suggestion, inviting the intrusion of the later times at Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount, and in some sense, sealing the ‘visionary gleam’ of these charmed early years at the fin-de-siècle of the eighteenth century in a halcyon bubble.

Which is why Racedown is so wonderfully affecting. Creating a universe in a series of moments, Sansom, in fittingly measured metre, casts a spell on this small group, whose time in Dorset as tutors to an orphaned boy, the bastard son of a minor aristocrat, is dignified by what we know of the years that will follow. Privileged by foreknowledge, the reader’s understanding is enhanced by the poet’s skill at divulging telling nuances: the thrill of talking through the night, the generously attentive ear, the books. Sansom’s final line underlines our continuing fascination with the ‘newly-wedded lives’, now decanted to the Lakes and mountains, and into history.

‘Racedown’ is taken from Lanyard, published by Carcanet (2022), and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the publisher.

Lucy Newlyn’s sonnet sequence may be found in Vital Stream, also published by Carcanet.