Ten Things You Might Not Know About Famous Poets

In this special guest post, Ana Sampson offers some fascinating facts about classic poets

Matthew Arnold struggled a bit with the ageing process

At Oxford University, Matthew Arnold made a name for himself as something of a dandy. It was only when he fell in love, and needed to prove that he had prospects, that he finally settled into the position of Schools Inspector, rattling around provincial Victorian Britain on the newborn railway network. Most of his poetry was written during his younger years – he once said that after his thirtieth birthday he felt ‘three parts iced over’. His most famous poem, ‘Dover Beach’, was begun during his honeymoon in 1851, but was not published until sixteen years later.

There was a sad story behind Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s beard

Longfellow, best remembered now for The Song of Hiawatha, numbered among New England’s ‘Fireside Poets’, so called because their verses were easy to learn and recite due to their musical rhythms, and were written to be shared with families. Longfellow’s first wife, Mary, died young and his second, Frances, burnt to death while using sealing wax on a letter. He grew his iconic bushy beard to hide the burn scars he sustained while trying to save her.

Edward Lear went to extraordinary lengths to make moving house easy on his cat

Lear suffered from epilepsy – which he termed ‘the Demon’ – and depression – ‘the Morbids’. He was also rather ugly, though happy to lampoon his own odd appearance (‘His nose is remarkably big… his beard it resembles a wig’). As well as being one of the world’s best-loved nonsense writers, Lear was a talented artist and gave Queen Victoria drawing lessons. He found Court etiquette understandably confusing (the Queen was almost certainly not amused.) There has been some speculation that his verses were actually written by his patron the Earl of Derby, ‘Lear’ being an anagram of ‘Earl’. The Owl and the Pussy-cat was inspired by Lear’s tailless cat Foss, whom he adored so much that, on moving, he had his new house built as a replica of the old to make the move easier on the cat.

G. K. Chesterton was prone to getting lost

Despite being rather a scatterbrain, Chesterton managed to produce journalism, biographies, short stories – including the Father Brown mysteries – and the anarchic thriller The Man Who Was Thursday as well as poetry. Considerable credit must go to his wife, Frances, who occasionally redirected him by telegram when he had misjudged public transport and arrived at the wrong town. Chesterton was a large man, but happy to lampoon his own bear-like figure. He once told his lean friend George Bernard Shaw, ‘To look at you anyone would think there was a famine in England,’ to which Shaw retorted: ‘To look at you, anyone would think you caused it.’

Robert Frost recited the wrong poem at John F Kennedy’s inauguration

Frost was dogged by poor health and bereavements: his father died young leaving his mother with only $8, only two of his six children outlived him, his wife predeceased him by twenty-five years, and mental illness haunted the family. Despite these setbacks, Frost achieved huge popularity, winning the Pulitzer Prize four times and declaiming at JFK’s 1961 inauguration aged eighty-six. He had written a new poem for the occasion but, with the sun half blinding him, found he couldn’t read it, and so recited his 1942 poem ‘The Gift Outright’ from memory to rapturous applause.

John Betjeman helped inspire Brideshead Revisited’s Sebastian Flyte

Betjeman threw himself into undergraduate life at Oxford with a vengeance – the friendships and carousing, though, rather than the academic side of things. He had brought his teddy bear, Archibald Ormsby-Gore, along for the ride, thereby providing inspiration for his fellow undergraduate Evelyn Waugh. During the Second World War Betjeman worked in the British Embassy in Dublin, where the IRA considered assassinating him as a spy, something only revealed many years later. Betjeman was knighted in 1969 and was a popular choice for Poet Laureate in 1972 – he replied personally by hand to every member of the public who sent him a poem.

Poe’s biographer had a gruesome talking point at his dinner parties

Poor old Poe died in poverty, despite his lack of self-doubt: he called ‘The Raven’ ‘the greatest poem that was ever written’. Poe was orphaned at three and it is no surprise that he suffered night terrors as a child; drink and depression haunted him all his life. He married his thirteen year-old cousin Virginia who died from tuberculosis aged only twenty-four. Her bones fell into the hand of an early biographer of Poe, who displayed them to lucky dinner guests until they were finally reburied with those of her husband.

It could have been ‘The Walrus and the Butterfly’

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a stammering professor of mathematics at Oxford who found himself most at home in the company of children, to whom he recounted fantastic tales. His pseudonym Lewis Carroll was created by translating his first and middle names into Latin, reversing the order of them, and translating them back into English, a typically scholarly piece of word play. Carroll gave his illustrator John Tenniel three choices of second character in ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’: Tenniel was to choose between a carpenter, a butterfly or a baronet as each one would scan equally well.

Wordsworth was prone to tantrums

By the last decade of his life the rural idylls Wordsworth depicted were in many places already being gobbled up by Victorian industrialisation. He was quite the firebrand as a child, throwing terrible tantrums and once skewering a family portrait with a fencing sword. How did the young iconoclast, fired up by the French Revolution, whose poems peppered with ‘farmyard’ language shocked critics, end up as the eminent Poet Laureate? His reputation helped: he was the least scandal-ridden of the racy Romantics (the fact that he had an illegitimate daughter was hidden for a hundred years), as well as the longest lived. Wordsworth’s vast output was studied in schools during his lifetime, and tourists flocked to his beloved Lakes hoping to glimpse him striding about.

Robert Herrick’s pet pig drank out of a tankard


Rather suspiciously, the infant Herrick’s father fell out of a window two days after writing a will, though the courts generously didn’t confiscate the family’s estate as they did in those days in the case of suicide. His support for the Royalist cause during the Civil War lost Herrick his position as vicar of Dean Prior, Devon, but he was reinstated at the Restoration of Charles II. Initially he found life as a country parson dull, though he eventually grew to love Devon. Teaching his pet pig to drink from a tankard presumably helped to pass the time.

Best-Loved Poems by Ana Sampson is published by Michael O’Mara Books, priced £9.99.

Ana tweets as @Anabooks