It’s been a wet June, but it’s warming up, and I’ve been investigating someone known as the ‘Laureate of Spring’.
Alfred Austin (1835-1913) was born in Headingly near Leeds. After a Roman Catholic upbringing, he joined the Inner Temple in London, and then went on to practise as a barrister on the Northern Circuit in 1857.
However, an inheritance from his uncle, Joseph Locke MP for Honiton in Devon, meant that Alfred abandoned his fledgling legal career, to devote his life to literature. One might’ve wished his uncle had not left this earth so soon. His poetry was generally considered to be awful and was rarely critically well-received.
In 1866 he began to work for the Tory newspaper The Standard and would continue to be its leader writer for the next 32 years.
Following a two year honeymoon in Italy, Alfred and his wife, Hester Jane Mulock, leased Swinford Manor in Hothfield within the borough of Ashford, where they lived until his death.
On 1 January 1896, four years after Tennyson’s death, Austin was appointed poet laureate in his place (Austin had described Tennyson as not even a third-rate poet). This appointment was almost certainly based more on his association with the prime minister, Lord Salisbury, and with his journalistic service to the Conservative party in The Standard and the National Review, than on his poetic ability. It may be apocryphal but Austin is said to have written of the Prince of Wales’s illness in 1871:
Flash’d from his bed the electric tidings came,
He is not better; he is much the same.
Alfred was sometimes called the ‘laureate of the English Spring’, because it was felt that his nature poetry was his best. Judge for yourself. Personally, I find his poem “The Springtime, O The Springtime” pretty cloying:
The Spring-time, O the Spring-time!
Who does not know it well?
When the little birds begin to build,
And the buds begin to swell.
When the sun with the clouds plays hide-and-seek,
And the lambs are bucking and bleating,
And the colour mounts to the maiden’s cheek,
And the cuckoo scatters greeting;
In the Spring-time, joyous Spring-time!
But, at this spring-time of year, since I moved to Ashford, I’m always reminded of a poem written by someone who turned down the offer of Poet Laureate: Philip Larkin. No: not the sweary one about parental influence … But Cut Grass:
Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death
It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,
White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer’s pace.
The above two photographs of Queen Anne’s Lace were taken on a (wet) road and by a wheatfield in Hothfield. I’m sure Alfred Austin would’ve been livid …