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Starlight Wood: Walking back to the romantic countryside by Fiona Sampson

25 November 2022

This author’s mind moves quickly, says Suzanne Fagence Cooper

FIONA SAMPSON is a poet and the biographer of Mary Shelley and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In Starlight Wood, she weaves together her deep knowledge of Romantic literature with more personal stories.

Using Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1776-78) as her framing device, Sampson writes about ten walks. She includes grid references at the end of each chapter, so that we can follow her, if we choose, as she strides out in the Welsh Marches, or around Coniston Water, or along the shingle at Aldeburgh. Each walk allows her to contemplate her engagement with 18th- and 19th-century writers, painters, and philosophers, as well as her own family history. She describes it as “walking down the thought”.

Along the way, we learn about Frankenstein, his Monster, and the icy journeys made by the Shelley family. The poets and their creations become constant figures in this shifting landscape, in which Sampson’s writing often jumps abruptly from the past to the present. These jolts can be disconcerting. One moment, Sampson is unravelling the origins of Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave” Overture; and the next, she is pointing to her dogs “fossicking earnestly for rabbits” on the shoreline of Kintyre.

Quotations from Wordsworth, or memories of childhood holidays in Romney Marsh, or explorations of the picturesque, the pastoral, the poetic, are overlapping and jostling for space. We frequently lose sight of the real landscape in which she is walking. Instead, she reanimates alternative spaces, other times: Mary Wollstonecraft in Norway; Percy Bysshe Shelley at Cwm Elan; the Brownings in Florence.

Sampson asks us to track her train of thought down narrow by-ways of architectural history, or into the thickets of geology — with unexpected paragraphs on the nature of flint, for example, in the middle of a walk through the water meadows by the River Stour. She wants us to join the dots, here between the flint and “the scintillations on Constable’s trees and grass, water and sky”. And then swiftly on to Samuel Palmer’s delight in making images “sprinkled and showered with a thousand pretty eyes, and buds”.

Then, without stopping for breath, Byron in the Bernese Alps, and Robert Schumann writing about “a small bright dot . . . that is no star”. It is clever, but too much for me.

Dr Suzanne Fagence Cooper is a cultural historian with an interest in Victorian and 20th-century Britain.


Starlight Wood: Walking back to the romantic countryside
Fiona Sampson
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