On the 24th June, 1914, two days before the birth of Laurie Lee, a famous literary gathering took place in Gloucestershire. Just outside the village of Dymock, a group of friends met at The Old Nail Shop – the home of Wilfrid Gibson and his wife. Also present were fellow writers Lascelles Abercrombie, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, and Robert Frost. There they shared their poetry, their words, their wit and wisdom and dreams. They went on to inspire each other to write some of the best-loved poems in the English language (‘Adlestrop’, ‘The Road Not Taken’, ‘The Soldier’ among others), many of which first saw light in their self-published anthology, New Numbers. They became known, years later, as The Dymock Poets. That first night was immortalised by Gibson in his poem ‘The Golden Room’ and on Saturday modern writers (many of them from Stroud and Gloucestershire) gathered in the Subscription Rooms to celebrate their legacy.
The day was co-organised by Stroud-based poets Kevan Manwaring and Jay Ramsay, with the former arranging the daytime programme of speakers and presentations, and the latter, the evening showcase of poetry and music.
The day started with a keynote speech from Chair of the Friends of the Dymock Poets, Jeff Cooper, who had come all the way down from his native Lancashire to introduce the Dymocks. As he is the grandson of their founder, Lascelles Abercrombie, this was especially resonant.
Next we had Anglophile American Linda Harte (a long-term resident of Malvern), the author of Once They Lived in Gloucestershire, to give a more detailed survey of the Dymocks, focusing on her fellow compatriot Robert Frost. She brought with her rare editions of Georgian Poetry (the movement-defining anthology of the era) and a complete set of New Numbers.
After the break we had the first of two short films by Scott Anthony and Geoff Poole – evocative interpretations of the works of Edward Thomas in music and image, and a welcome break to overheating left-brains.
There followed an engaging presentation on editor and critic Edward Garnett by Anthony Nanson, related to Garnett through his grandmother Barbara Newstead-Garnett. This once key figure, who mentored major literary figures of the early Twentieth Century (DH Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, HE Bates, WH Hudson, and Edward Thomas among others) was justly brought into the limelight at last. Nanson emphasised not only Garnett’s perspicacity as a critic, but also his conviction that literary worth should be the chief criteria for publication, not commercial potential. This, and his championing of writing with environmental sensibilities, makes him an avant-garde and topical figure.
After lunch we were shown a film about composer and First World War poet, Ivor Gurney, entitled ‘Severn and Somme’, named after his iconic collection. This was made by Bristol-based film-maker Diana Taylor, who showed up just in time to answer questions about her self-funded, and moving portrait of the impact and tragedy of war.
Richard Carder, a composer and poet from Bath (Chair of the English Song and Poetry Society) followed this up with a presentation on Gurney and his music, giving several examples of his pieces – settings of the works of Thomas, himself and others – some of which Carder himself plays on in the recordings selected. Musicality and awareness of musical genres (folk, classical, music hall) run through much of the Dymocks’ work so this was a welcome addition to the day.
The final paper of the day was by Kirsty Hartsiotis, Curator of Decorative arts and Designated Collections at the Wilson Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum. She talked to us about ‘Cotswold Characters’ – focusing on Dymock poet John Drinkwater and his connection with the Arts and Crafts Movement in the Cotswolds in a fascinating and well-illustrated presentation which unearthed many treasures – some of which can be found in the Wilson!
The daytime programme concluded with a plenary discussion about the themes of the day. Creative fellowship is the main thread that underpins not only the Dymock Poets story, but also the very special Stroud scene, which this was largely the fruit of (and which the evening showcase especially illustrated). An environmental sensiblity (what Nanson, Manwaring, Hartsiotis & Metcalfe term ‘ecobardic’) and a strong anti-war sentiment were also perennial themes that the works of the Dymock poets convey to us across the century, making their legacy more relevant than ever.
The evening showcase, hosted gracefully by Jay Ramsay, kicked off with the hypnotic sound of the HangHang Duo – Barry Mason and Lina Lotto playing the Swiss hang drum. There followed an exemplary succession of strong Stroud voices: Adam Horovitz, Marion Fawlk, Steve Morris, Gabriel Millar, Jay himself, followed after the break by Rick Vick, Jehanne Mehta, Karen Eberhardt-Shelton, Polly Howell, and Anna Saunders (from Cheltenham Poetry Festival). Each poet took at least one of the poems of the Dymocks and responded to it in their own way – conducting a conversation across a hundred years. These creative responses critically brought the focus of the event into the present day – for these are (some of) the Gloucestershire writers living and working in the county today, and, each in their way, carry on the work of the Dymock Poets, especially through the spirit of creative fellowship which pervades in this remarkable town.
This long, hot day of poetry and colloquy celebrated a special gathering and in doing so created its own ‘golden room’ – and whenever kindred spirits and creative souls gather together and share their awen, that golden room lives on.
For Kevan Manwaring, co-writer (with Terence James) of the Dymock Poets screenplay, The Road Not Taken, this event was the culmination of several years’ interest. His ‘Dymock fever’ brought him to the county and he hopes that he and his fellow contributors managed to pass it on to the audience by the end of the day!