We think we know the Romantic countryside: that series of picturesque landscapes familiar from paintings, poems and music that are still part of Britain’s idea of itself today.
But for the Romantics themselves, the countryside was a place where radical change was underway both within and around them. ‘Romanticism isn’t a cultural artefact; it’s a way for thought to move,’ writes highly acclaimed biographer and poet Fiona Sampson in this transporting and vividly evocative book, in which she spends a year walking in the Romantics’ footsteps, from Kent to Kintyre. Setting out across ten landscapes, as the Romantics once did as they wrote, travelled, settled, or tried to define the rural environment, Fiona Sampson walks not with a sense of nostalgic cliché, but radically alive to interaction between the human and the natural world.
So how were poets, writers, artists and philosophers of the time shaped by their natural environment? And how can we return to the vividness with which they experienced it? Starlight Wood is part group biography, part cultural history, and part an essay about place. In it, we find Percy Bysshe Shelley and Elizabeth Barrett Browning using diet as a symbol of radicalism, and John Constable revealing the emptiness of the post-Enclosure British countryside; while the young William Wordsworth follows the ideal of radical sensibility into the heart of Revolutionary France, and the biggest military structure in Britain since Hadrian’s Wall is engineered on Romney Marsh to keep Napoleon at bay.
Moving intuitively between art, politics, agriculture, science and philosophy, and punctuated by the author’s personal reflections – most movingly on the death during the pandemic of her artist father, whose line-and-wash drawings act as gateways through which we embark on each walk – Starlight Wood brilliantly examines the importance of the countryside in shaping Romantic attitudes, and offers a gripping insight into the lives of some of the most influential figures of the age.