The Poetry of The Thames

The Poetry of The Thames - blog post image
BY Julia Thum | 0 Comment(s)

Riverside Lane is set in a Thameside village and my WIP (work in progress), The Witches Punchbowl, is set in a hidden valley high above the river.  Taking a break from fiction, I've written a short piece on how 'my bit' of the Thames has inspired so many artists in the past:-

The River Thames has been an artery of artistic inspiration for centuries and setting my novels on its banks gave me the excuse to research the mercurial muse that has inspired musicians, writers and artists since before the Magna Carta.

“Serene yet strong, majestic yet sedate, Swift without violence, without terror great.” (Matthew Prior)

What is it about this mass of water making its stately progress towards the sea that brings out the poet in us? Something in its uncompressed beauty takes hold of artistic souls, surrendering them to the drifting water to gather spiritual sustenance from the flotsam and jetsam they then harness into songs, paintings and poetry.

The stretch of water from Bray to Marlow is littered with literary landmarks and punctuated by poetry and blue plaques. A walk along the river path takes you tip-toeing in the ghostly footsteps of some of the country’s greatest artistic geniuses.

For they were young and the Thames was old, And this is the tale that the River told” (Rudyard Kipling)

Marlow’s literary tales date back to before 1816 when Thomas Love Peacock wrote his Gothic satire Nightmare Abbey and his friends, Percy and Mary Shelley composed the symbolic parable The Revolt of Islam and the horror story Frankenstein from their home in West Street. Seventy years later Jerome K Jerome returned to the town from his boating honeymoon on the Thames and wrote part of his comic novel Three Men in a Boat at the local pub, the Two Brewers. T.S Elliot, brooding after the fall out of the menage-a-trois between him, his wife Vivienne and political activist Bertrand Russell, is said to have expressed his resentment at the entrapment of marriage in”Ode on Independence Day, July 4th 1918", written from the house they rented together in Marlow’s West Street.

“The river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.” (Kenneth Grahame)

The watery wanderings of Kenneth Grahame’s characters from Wind in the Willows were dreamed up within earshot of the river. The Wild Wood, to which Ratty traces his friend Mole’s defiant footsteps, are an image of Quarry Wood on the borders of Bourne End. Follow the flow further towards the village and you come across the Edwardian boathouse, said to be the model for Mr Toad’s boathouse, before you reach the riverside garden that inspired novelist Enid Blyton.

Not all novels spawned by the river are for children. Three locks downstream from Bourne End is Monkey Island, where Rebecca West and HG Well’s - lovers since West’s public derision of Wells whom she called “the Old Maid among novelists” in her provocative review of his novel Marriage - conducted much of their affair. They often stayed on the island where she wrote her first novel, Return of the Soldier, telling the tale of a traumatised young war hero pining for his first love, the innkeeper’s daughter on Monkey Island.

It is easy to see why Rebecca West was so inspired by the beauty and romance of her historic hideaway on The Thames. We set our novel Riverside Lane at the site where we wrote it and the setting provides the narrative spine to our story, the river giving life blood to our plot and flowing through every character and every chapter of the book. 

“You can’t walk by the river at Cliveden Reach and not believe in God” (Stanley Spencer)

A writer aspires to a literary snapshot and I often pass people sitting by the tow path, pen in hand, toes in the water and head in the clouds. Another common sight along the banks of the most painted river in the world is an artist and easel. A hundred years ago Stanley Spencer used a pram to transport the painting equipment and delicate brushes he used to produce some of the Thames most legendary paintings; ‘The Crucifixion’, ‘Swan Upping’, ‘The Resurrection’ and the unfinished ‘Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta’.

Many famous artists have been caught by the river. Soon after the bridge was finished in 1838, JMW Turner depicted Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Sounding Arch in his work ‘Rain, Speed & Steam’, now hanging in London’s National gallery. Edward Gregory famously painted Boulter’s Lock , a popular place to visit on the Sunday after Royal Ascot when the wealthy and well known could be seen passing through on their way to Cliveden at the end of the nineteenth century. Shortly afterwards Henry H Parker depicted a more peaceful scene in his painting “The Silent Waters of the Thames”.

“Sweet Thames, run softly, ‘till I end my song.” (Edmund Spenser & T S Eliot)

Sometime between the hubbub of a ‘Sunday Afternoon at Boulters Lock’ and Henry H Parker’s ‘Silent Waters’, Edward Elgar is said to have composed his Violin Concerto from The Hut on Monkey Island. As I walk from lock to lock dreaming up stories, I have often wandered whether his refrains were audible to the fishermen and the artists sitting quietly by the river.

Around that time Australian opera star Dame Nellie Melba would practice her arias in Quarry Wood and it is said that her exquisite notes carried along the river on the breeze. The river’s creative pulse continued to beat fast when Kate Bush sang of “that old river poet that never, ever ends”. Perhaps now, if you listen carefully, the ghosts of this magical river may sing you a song. Stand silently with the herons and the fishermen and, as it meanders with quiet purpose through its serpentine curves, The Thames might just tell you a tale.

Those who have succumbed to the River Thames' seductive spell have been moved to call it “the silver Thames” (Daniel Defoe and Alexander Pope), “the silver-streaming Thame” (Edmund Spenser) and “my silver-footed Thameses” (Robert Herrick). Nowadays the river is affectionately known as Old Father Thames, most probably because it feeds over fifty tributaries, but I prefer think of the boundless works of art, music, fiction and poetry it has sired as the children of this noble river.

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Teachers - have you discovered @BookPenPals? A new initiative pairing authors & illustrators with schools to make reading recommendations via postcards. They're pretty oversubscribed, but if you're interested it might be worth getting your name on the waiting list. They have some fabulous authors on board.