Series 3: Inspirations


This is the source of the river Sorgue, for many hundreds of years regarded as a natural wonder. Of a startling aquamarine hue, it bursts from a cavern at the base of a great white limestone cliff which stands at the head of the narrow and remote valley of Vaucluse, making it indeed a ‘closed valley’. The source itself was said until early twentieth-century exploration to be bottomless. From it the river flows in a series of lacy white rapids over boulders down past a few houses and a castle perched high on an outcrop. Romantic, wild, inaccessible, or at any rate, once all these things, it was the preferred writing retreat of the poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), who reputedly took the best house in the place, complete with a riverside garden. Here he was said to have met his platonic love Laura, here written his famous sonnets of frustrated love, and here admirers have visited to pay homage ever since his death. Nowadays there’s a whole slew of tourist tat and a rather lovely museum, displaying the earliest book that marks Petrarch’s house, and much else.  But what has always really been the draw is the sense that the wonder of the spring bursting from the rock is both symbol and inspiration for poetic genius. Napoleon, never one to miss a PR opportunity, understood the importance of appearing at and marking celebrity sites as imperial territory; to commemorate his visit in 1804, he had a column installed right smack at the centre of the cavern.


Vaucluse was largely branded to Petrarch after his death. Like Vaucluse, the Lake District was already a draw for the eighteenth century picturesque tourist but it would become Wordsworth’s Lake District in his own lifetime. This was owing to his celebration of Grasmere and Rydal throughout his poetic oeuvre, from Lyrical Ballads onwards, combined with biographical sketches of him written by friends and acquaintances including William Hazlitt (‘My First Acquaintance with Poets’ (1823)) and Thomas de Quincey (Recollections of the Lake Poets (1839)). After his death in 1850, the effect was much increased and extended by the publication of his autobiographical poem The Prelude which celebrated memories of his childhood and youth in Cockermouth and Hawkshead, arguing for the fundamental effect of this landscape upon the formation of the poet’s mind.


Oxford is an odd sort of literary location. It has opened its gates to many writers as young men and women, many of whom have written about the experience subsequently. This stone marks one place where this experience is summed up, the view of the city from Boar’s Hill associated with Matthew Arnold’s drop-out student, the ‘Scholar-Gipsy’. All the same, Oxford is remarkable for appearing not so much as the ground of inspiration but as the ground of fantasy written by long-standing inhabitants – think of Alice in Wonderland, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights Trilogy, Lyra’s Oxford and The Book of Dust. Or think of the strange fact that the map co-ordinates of Oxford correspond exactly on Tolkein’s working maps for The Lord of the Rings with Hobbiton. Even Morse’s Oxford is a sort of fantasy, Colin Dexter dreaming up all sorts of sordid wickedness breeding under Arnold’s dreaming spires.

Also on literary Oxford see

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