Thomas Hardy's short poem "At Lulworth Cove a Century Back" is a sort of ode to Keats, who apparently left England from near Lulworth Cove on his way to Rome:

"Good. That man goes to Rome — to death, despair;
And no one notes him now but you and I:
A hundred years, and the world will follow him there,
And bend with reverence where his ashes lie."

Apparently Hardy once corresponded with a biographer of Keats who wanted to know exactly where he left England in 1820, and this correspondence inspired the poem quoted above. But why was Hardy in particular considered an authority on Keats and being consulted by his biographers? And why did he consider it a noteworthy enough thing to write a whole poem about?

What was the connection between Keats and Hardy?


2 Answers 2


TL;DR: (i) Keats’ biographer Sidney Colvin consulted Hardy, not as an expert on Keats, but rather as an expert on Lulworth Cove. (ii) Hardy (wrongly) believed that Keats had written ‘Bright Star’ at Lulworth Cove.

Keats and Severn

Keats suffered from tuberculosis, and in 1820 his doctors advised him to move abroad to a warmer climate. On 17 September 1820 he embarked from Gravesend on the Maria Crowther, along with his friend Joseph Severn, whose journal and letters are the main historical sources for this part of Keats’ life.

The Maria Crowther was beset by adverse winds as it beat down the English Channel, and this meant that the passengers were able to put ashore at various places, including Dungeness (or “Dundee Ness” as Severn spells it), Portsmouth, and Studland. On or about 1 October 1820, the ship was becalmed off the Dorset coast, somewhere between Studland and Portland, and the passengers went ashore. Severn wrote several accounts of this episode. First, in an 1846 letter in The Union Magazine:

The present exquisite Sonnet was written under such interesting circumstances that I cannot forbear making them public. Keats and myself were beating about in the British Channel in the autumn of 1820, anxiously waiting for a wind to take us to Italy, which place, together with the sea-voyage, were deemed likely to preserve his life; for he was then in a state of consumption, which left but the single hope of an Italian sojourn to save him. The stormy British sea, after a fortnight, had exhausted him; and on our arrival off the Dorsetshire coast, having at last the charm of a fine and tranquil day, we landed to recruit.

The shores, with the beautiful grottoes, which opened to fine verdure and cottages, were the means of transporting Keats once more into the regions of poetry; he showed me these things exultingly, as though they had been his birthright. The change in him was wonderful, and continued even after our return to the ship, when he took a volume (which he had a few days before given me) of Shakespeare's Poems, and in it he wrote me the subjoined Sonnet, which at the time I thought the most enchanting of all his efforts.

Joseph Severn (21 January 1846). ‘Sonnet by the late John Keats’. In The Union Magazine 1:2 (February 1846), p. 157. London: Madden & Malcolm.

Second, in his autobiography ‘My Tedious Life’:

Arriving on the Doncaster coast Keats was persuaded to land with me & for a moment he became like his former self, he showed me the splendid caverns & grottos with a poets pride, as tho’ they had been his birthright & when we returned to the ship he wrote for me in vol of Shakespeare’s Poems that magnificent sonnet [‘Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art’] … I am not aware if this was not the first transcript of the fine Poet[r]y for it seemed inspired by our recent visit to the seacoast—I believe certainly that this sonnet was the very last poetical effort the poor fellow ever made …

Joseph Severn (1873). ‘My Tedious Life’. In Grant F. Scott, ed. (2005). Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs. Routledge.

These passages from Severn have raised two questions for biographers of Keats. First, where exactly are these “splendid caverns and grottos”? And second, how much (if anything) can we read into Severn’s phrase “as though they had been his birthright”? Keats was born and raised in London and there was no evidence that he had any connection with Dorset.

Complicating these questions is the problem that Severn is far from reliable—where they can be corroborated, his recollections have often proved to be incorrect. In the passage from ‘My Tedious Life’, “Doncaster” must be a mistake for “Dorchester”, and ‘Bright Star’ was not “the very last poetical effort the poor fellow ever made”—it is now thought to have been composed in 1818 or 1819 (see below for details).

What is worse, some biographers have, unconsciously or otherwise, embellished Severn’s accounts. In particular, William Sharp quoted Severn as follows:

For a moment he became like his former self. He was in a part that he already knew, and showed me the splendid caverns and grottos with a poet’s pride, as though they had been his by birthright. When we returned to the ship he wrote for me on a blank leaf in a folio volume of Shakespeare’s Poems which had been given him by a friend, and which he gave to me in memory of our voyage, the following magnificent sonnet

William Sharp (1892). The Life and Letters of Joseph Severn, p. 54. London: Sampson Low, Marston & Company.

The parts emphasized in bold are interpolations by Sharp.

Severn’s unreliable memories, and the creative embellishments of biographers like Sharp, led to the general belief that Keats had a family connection with Dorset; that he had visited Lulworth Cove in 1820; that he had composed ‘Bright Star’ there or aboard ship soon afterwards; and that it was the last poem he wrote. In this context, it is natural that Hardy should write a poem linking his own visit to Lulworth Cove in 1920 with Keats’ (supposed) visit in 1820, and reference the composition of ‘Bright Star’ in the lines:

And as the evening light scants less and less
He looks up at a star, as many do. […]

Note.—In September 1820 Keats, on his way to Rome, landed one day on the Dorset coast, and composed the sonnet, “Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art.” The spot of his landing is judged to have been Lulworth Cove.

Thomas Hardy (September 1920). ‘At Lulworth Cove a Century Back’. In Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922), p. 84. London: Macmillan.

Colvin and Hardy

In 1914, Sidney Colvin was working on John Keats: his life and poetry; his friends, critics and after-fame (published in 1917), and was researching these questions. Hardy was a friend, or at least a literary acquaintance, of Colvin’s, and the latter must have written to Hardy for help with the location of the “splendid caverns and grottos” described by Severn.

Hardy had lived in Dorset for much of his life, was familiar with the Dorset coast, and had used Lulworth Cove (under the light disguise of ‘Lulwind Cove’) as the location of Sergeant Troy’s disastrous swim in chapter XLVII of Far from the Madding Crowd, so he was a natural authority for Colvin to consult.

In The Colvins and their Friends (1928), Edward Verrall Lucas quotes two of Hardy’s letters in reply. First letter, 14 June 1914:

My dear Colvin,—We have been weighing probabilities in the question of the “splendid caverns and grottoes” of Severn, that you write about, and have come to the conclusion that he must mean “Durdle Door,” close to Lulworth Cove. […] Why we think it must have been Durdle Door is that it impressed my wife just in the same way when she first saw it as a girl.

To see it from the inside (which would give the impression) they would have landed in the cave,† & have walked over tide cliff to the west, & down behind the “Door.” The walk would have taken them only a few minutes.

There is a smuggler’s cave in Worbarrow Bay, But it is difficult to find, though in Keats’s time it would most likely have been clearer. The only other cave I know about here is Cave Hole, Portland. But that is difficult of access except at low and quiet tides. […]—Sincerely yours, Thomas Hardy

P.S.—I assume that Swanage would be too far east. There are, of course, the Tilly-Whim Caves near that place.

Thomas Hardy (14 June 1914). Letter to Sidney Colvin. In Edward Verrall Lucas, ed. (1928). The Colvins and their Friends, pp. 318–319. London: Methuen.

† Lucas has “cave” but I think this must be a misread or misprint for “cove” (that is, Lulworth Cove). The tide cliffs are to the west of Lulworth Cove, and there is a path above them that runs, after a mile or so, down behind Durdle Door (pictured below). It is about twenty minutes’ walk.

Durdle Door

Second letter, 29 July 1914:

My dear Colvin,—“Beautiful grottoes” is certainly rather an exaggerated description of what one finds at Durdle Door, and Stair Hole close by, yet an enthusiastic young Londoner might on a first impression use such words. Besides, if not Durdle Door, Stair Hole, &c., what place can it be that Severn meant? The “Door” is an archway in the cliff, as you know: Stair Hole has caves & fissures into which the sea flows, & there is another cave at Bat’s Corner, also close at hand.

At any rate I cannot think of another point on the Dorset coast, easily accessible from a boat, which so well answers the description.

The “cottages” would be those of the adjoining Lulworth Cove & village, but they do not, of course, face the “grottoes,” as Severn seems to imply. I put that down to his fancy, as such a position would hardly be possible anywhere. With kind regards—Sincerely yours, Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy (29 July 1914). Letter to Sidney Colvin. In Lucas, p. 319.

The date of ‘Bright Star’

The evidence for the date of composition of ‘Bright Star’ was considered by Aileen Ward:

The first date assigned to this sonnet—September 28, 1820—held for almost a century. When Milnes printed the poem in 1848† from the copy which Keats made for Severn on board the Maria Crowther, he repeated Severn’s account of the sonnet which implied that Keats had composed it that very day, his last on English soil.‡ This story of his “last poem”—“a beautiful and consolatory circumstance,” as Colvin described it—was discredited when Colvin came across an earlier version transcribed by Charles Brown and dated 1819.

Aileen Ward (1955). ‘The Date of Keats’s “Bright Star” Sonnet’. Studies in Philology 52:1, pp. 75–76.

† Richard Monckton Milnes, ed. (1848). Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats, volume II, p. 306. London: Edward Moxon. ‡ Ibid., p. 72.

Ward considers and rejects various claims for the date of composition—Colvin suggested February 1919; Amy Lowell, April 1919; Robert Gittings, October 1818—before agreeing with Ernest de Sélincourt’s suggestion of July 1819. But regardless of which (if any) of these theories is correct, the transcription by Brown dated 1819 is evidence that Severn was mistaken.

Severn in later life clearly cherished the impression that the sonnet had been actually composed for him on the day of the Dorsetshire landing. Lord Houghton† in his Life and Literary Remains distinctly asserts as much, and it had seemed to us all a beautiful and consolatory circumstance, in the tragedy of Keats’s closing days, that his last inspiration in poetry should have come in a strain of such unfevered beauty and tenderness, and with images of such a refreshing and solemn purity. But in point of fact the sonnet was work of an earlier date, and the autograph given to Severn is on the face of it no draught but a fair copy.‡ […]

The sonnet is copied in this form by Charles Brown, under date 1819, in the collection of transcripts from Keats’s fugitive verses which from the spring of that year he regularly made as soon after they were written as he could lay hands on them. His dates I have found always trustworthy […]

Sidney Colvin (1917). John Keats, pp. 493–494. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

† Richard Monckton Milnes. ‡ I guess that Hardy did not read this passage, or not soon enough at any rate, to correct the note in Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922), quoted above.


Several of Thomas Hardy's neighbours at Higher Bockhampton were named Keats. One of them was my 4x great grandfather, James Keats. He was orphaned at the age of two, in 1779, along with his six year old brother, Thomas Keats. My essay, "John Keats's Father: A New Theory", published in The Keats-Shelley Review vol.26 number 2, September 2012, theorises that this Thomas Keats was the poet's father, and throws a bit more light on the connection between Hardy and Keats.

  • 1
    Is there an open-access version of your essay? Commented Apr 10, 2021 at 15:16

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