An interesting short article at The Spectator this week, by Austen Saunders. It shows that Charles Cotton’s poem “The Retirement” (1676) could well have been a key ideological template for English Romanticism. I’m no expert on Romanticism, but it’s a convincing argument, and all the more so if you also know that Cotton was highly praised by both Coleridge and Wordsworth.

If so, then this would put the root ideological template of the Romantic impulse not in a reaction to the stirrings of the Industrial Revolution, but rather in the political arrangments arising in the aftermath of the English Civil War. Specifically, in the tactical and tactful retreat of Royalist gentlemen into a quietist rural pastoralism. (Although the ‘template’ for this was undoubtedly the much earlier literary engagement with the countryside by Sir Philip Sidney, after his disappointments at the Royal court of Elizabeth I).

If so, it would also serve to establish one of the key roots of English Romanticism on the fringes of the Midlands. Cotton lived in North Staffordshire, just short of the moorscape of the Derbyshire border. Specifically at Beresford Hall at Alstonefield near the village of Hartington, North Staffordshire. The Peak District at Dovedale, and the Staffordshire Moorlands east of Leek, were thus Cotton’s stamping and fishing grounds. Presumably also Leek town, which would have been the nearest large market town and on his easiest route to the London road at Newcastle-under-Lyme. His long topographical Peak District poem The Wonders of the Peake hymns the rocky barren places, later made beloved of Romanticism…

“Black heaths, wild rocks, black crags, and naked hills […] who is it, but must presently conclude that this is Paradice

I imagine it may also have been that he frequented the idyllic lowland summer fishing owned by his close friend and pioneering fisherman Izaak Walton (The Compleat Angler), which is in mid Staffordshire between Stafford and Stone.

In the words of The Spectator‘s Austen Saunders, Cotton’s poem shows that…

“Even if you’ve been forced to live in the back of beyond, you can love it in a way no-one else can”

…and that this approach can be seen as a form of quietist rebellion against snide metropolitan elites.

One might even see Shakespeare’s almost complete effacement of London’s topography in his works — as was recently detailed in an excellent BBC Radio 3 programme — as a similarly subtle literary snub by a Midlands man to the metropolis. In Cotton’s time, Shakespeare’s work had been canonised and the bard was widely hailed as a national ‘divine’. Shakespeare’s implicit snubbing of London may thus have given a subtle underpinning to Cotton’s rethinking of the wild and the regional.

As I’ve previously mentioned here on D’log, the other end of the rural Midlands also made a strong contribution to developing the idea of the Romantic ‘picturesque’, in the form of Gilpin’s famous 1770 tour up the River Wye valley, in Herefordshire on the western borders of the West Midlands…

“On a sunny day in the summer of 1770 a vicar and a few traveling companions departed Ross-On-Wye (Wales) towards Monmouth in a covered boat, directed by three hired men. […] The trip would take three days total, travelling from Ross to Chepstow and back. The journey required overnight stays in local inns, meals, maps, and some knowledge of the arts to fully understand and appreciate the sights along the river. […] Gilpin’s [aquatint-illustrated] account of the voyage, published in 1782 became a primary source for early Romantic period excursions into the countryside of England and Wales in search of the landscape”