Alfoxden and Buddhism

Alfoxton is the name of a country house in Somerset, in the Quantock hills in south Somerset, near the village of Holford. It has a lovely setting, and it was a country house hotel through much of the twentieth century, but its main claim to fame is that it was the home of William and Dorothy Wordsworth between July 1797 and June 1798. This short year’s residence might seem to have been merely a passing-through, before brother and sister settled at Dove Cottage, in the Lake District, but in fact it was a time with its own inner significance. It was the scene of a year’s deep collaboration with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who lived with his family in nearby Nether Stowey, a year of wonders in which each of them wrote some of their best work (for instance, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ for Coleridge, ‘Tintern Abbey’ for Wordsworth). One result was the volume of poetry, Lyrical Ballads, which marked a turning-point in English poetry, towards the ordinary unadorned language and elevation of the everyday which characterise a great deal of modern verse.

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind…[1]

William, Dorothy and Samuel called Alfoxton House ‘Alfoxden’, the den of all foxes, a suitably shamanic, conspiratorial name for a place tucked into the Quantocks like some old ant-hill, surrounded by an ancient deer-park, looking out towards the islands in the Bristol Channel and the Welsh hills beyond Cardiff. Adam Nicolson has recently written an evocative and compelling book, The Making of Poetry, about the year the poets spent in the area, chasing them through the woods, along the water-courses, and among the politics and characters of the late eighteenth century, when excitement and distrust of the French revolution mixed like rival football fans even in the country towns and villages of Somerset.[2]

The book is illustrated with strange, bright prints made by Tom Hammick, of scenes from that year, carved from fallen timber from Alfoxton Park. For years the house has been empty, its Georgian windows and plasterwork crumbling, while its deer park has maintained its thousand-year-old balance of tree and beast and bracken all by itself. Then in summer 2020 it was bought by some Buddhists, to begin a new phase as a land-based retreat centre. These Buddhists belong to the Triratna Buddhist Order and community, of which I am also an Order member, and the purchase of Alfoxton was less to do with poetry than with place. The project to renovate a near-derelict country house, and turn it into a beacon of sustainable, land-based Buddhist life has begun in a quiet way, with the deer coming down to inspect everything every night.[3]

Yet there is more to the acquisition of Alfoxton by Buddhists than that. Sangharakshita (1925–2018), the founder of Triratna, always emphasised the importance of the arts for western Buddhists. The arts, whether classical music, poetry, painting or architecture, hold core spiritual values for western culture, and enable western Buddhists to practice going beyond the ego and ‘surrender to the beautiful’, a process with much in common with the path of insight meditation.[4]The Buddhist scholar David McMahan has also traced the way in which the Buddhism of Triratna, in common with several (though not all) strands of western Buddhism, has engaged with the Romantic movement in art, as if it were simply a western expression of the Dharma. Some characteristic themes of Romanticism include the refusal of scientific materialism, a holistic conception of the human being in a universe evolving towards self-consciousness, and a re-emphasising of the rootedness of imagination in the world of nature.[5]

Therefore it is a very happy coincidence that Alfoxton has become a retreat centre of our particular Buddhist tradition. In fact, because Alfoxton is on the Coleridge Way, and because it is such an important place for literary history, many pigrims and walkers come to see the old house, in its atmosphere of run-down authenticity. For those living or meditating at Alfoxton, the visitors and pilgrims are a constant reminder of its connection to poetry. This year the connection was made particularly explicit, as Vishvapani and I led a retreat, exploring some of the poems and prose that the Wordsworths and Coleridge wrote around the time they spent at Alfoxden, in the context of a week of meditation and retreat life. At the end of it I felt that, through their writings, we had a spent a week in the company of the poets, and in doing so we could not help but want to wander at night in the deer park, to take in the view up on the Quantock hills, to spend time being with the ancient trees in the park, keeping up a connection that helped root our Buddhist practice into a living relationship with English poetry and landscape.

The poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and their whole pantheistic, revolutionary worldview at the time they lived in Somerset, manifests the arising of what later became known as Romanticism: a feeling for nature and the universe, a radical social vision, a sense ‘Of something far more deeply interfused’,[6] linking spiritual vision to the cosmos, the individual soul to friendship. But in the experience of our week-long retreat at Alfoxden, I feel that the true significance of the year that the Wordsworths and Coleridge spent in the West Country is to do with collaboration. The three friends met, and walked, and talked, almost every day. They shared their thoughts, their insights, their new ideas. There is a living, breathing, three-dimensionality about the idea of the ‘One Life’ that moves through all living things, as it is transmitted from Coleridge’s visionary imagination, to Wordsworth’s philosophical reflections, via Dorothy’s vivid journal-entries.

One of those journal entries concerns an early spring walk:

24th [March 1798]. Coleridge, the Chesters, and Ellen Crewkshank called. We walked with them through the wood. Went in the evening into the Coombe to get eggs; returned through the wood, and walked in the park. A duller night than last night: a sort of white shade over the blue sky. The stars dim. The spring continues to advance very slowly, no green trees, the hedges leafless; nothing green but the brambles that still retain their old leaves, the evergreens and the palms, which indeed are not absolutely green. Some brambles I observed to-day budding afresh, and those have shed their old leaves. The crooked arm of the old oak tree points upwards to the moon.[7]

There is the detailed, accurate observation of nature that Dorothy excelled at. But at the end there is the one mention in the Journal of the ‘old oak’, in the grounds of Alfoxton. It is still there. It is about 1,000 years old. It is not immediately obvious, among the many old trees, but in fact it is the hidden power-centre of the place. It is older than the house, it was old when the Wordsworths lived there, it is itself a great, living poem, made of earth and sea and sky, knotted into the landscape, inviting awe and a certain kind of deep respect. It has turned out to be the focal point of Buddhist ritual devotion at Alfoxton too, with the area under its canopy being a thin place where the powers of nature meet the comings and goings of human beings, in a kind of temenos or sacred space. It’s no coincidence that, in Coleridge’s strange, long poem ‘Christabel’, the maiden Christabel finds herself in prayer beneath an oak which is really that very Alfoxden oak:

She kneels beneath the huge oak-tree,
And in silence prayeth she.

And no surprise when the strange figure of Geraldine self-manifests out of the oak, to woo and seduce the young woman: 

The lady sprang up suddenly,
The lovely lady, Christabel!
It moaned as near, as near can be,
But what it is she cannot tell –
On the other side it seems to be,
Of the huge, broad-breasted, old oak tree.

The poet Ted Hughes argues that the appearance of Geraldine out of the old oak marks the appearance of Coleridge’s ‘pagan self’, which also appeared in mythic guise in the water-snakes of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and in the whole landscape of ‘Kubla Khan’ (all three poems written not far from the old oak).[8] I would like to think that the uncanny beauty and seductive power of nature might still spring from the oak tree, into the meditation and life of Buddhists now living there, as she has done before, in the great poetry written at Alfoxden. In this way, poetry and Buddhism together may help contribute to the deep transformations our culture needs.


notes

[1] From William Wordsworth, ‘Lines Written in early spring’, in Lyrical Ballads.

[2] Adam Nicolson, The Making of Poetry: Coleridge, Wordsworth and their year of marvels, London: Collins, 2019. 

[3] See https://sites.google.com/view/alfoxtonpark/home for more details about what’s happening. 

[4] See Sangharakshita, The Religion of Art, Windhorse Publications, 1988 (and reprinted since). 

[5] Explored in David McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism, Oxford University Press, 2008, especially ch.5, ‘Buddhist Romanticism: Art, Spontaneity and the Wellsprings of Nature’.

[6] From Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’, the concluding poem of Lyrical Ballads.

[7] Taken from the edition ed. Pamela Woof, Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals, Oxford University Press, 2002, p.150. This edition has particularly good notes.

[8] See Ted Hughes, ‘Myths, Metres, Rhythms’ and ‘The Snake in the Oak’, in Winter Pollen, Faber, 1994, and my essay ‘Coleridge at the Border of Midnight’ in Urthona, issue 20.

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