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Topographical Poetry

Grongar Hill, The Seasons, per se, Briggflatts, Four Quartets, Paterson

local century landscape poems

a mode of verse which in its essential form is an eighteenth-century phenomenon, typified by works like John Dyer's Grongar Hill (1726) and James Thomson's The Seasons (172630); much of its character survives, however, in the prevalence of local description and landscape imagery in a substantial body of twentieth-century poetry. Dr Johnson defined topographical poetry as ‘a species of composition…of which the fundamental subject is some particular landscape’, adding that ‘embellishments may be supplied by historical retrospection, or incidental meditation’. Its emphatically visual and descriptive nature was much modified by Wordsworth, who made landscape the medium for his moral, imaginative, and spiritual intuitions; approaches to topographical poetry in the twentieth century generally follow his example in avoiding the constraints of being exclusively concerned with locality per se. Many of Thomas Hardy's poems are sufficiently rich in details drawn from his Wessex surroundings to function on one level as topographical poetry. In the work of various Georgian poets, notably Andrew Young, local description predominates. The ascendancy of Imagism from around 1910 onward tended to promote the visual dimension intrinsic to topographical writing. Numerous poems by authors strongly associated with Modernism have distinct topographical aspects: Basil Bunting's Briggflatts (1966), the Four Quartets (193542) of T. S. Eliot (who also produced a series entitled ‘Landscapes’), and William Carlos Williams's Paterson (194658) are sustained to a large extent by local elements. Sir John Betjeman's work is perhaps closest to topographical poetry in its strict sense, displaying a high incidence of poems remarkable for their detailed fidelity to specified English locations. Others notable for poetry making extensive use of landscape include Charles Causley, Ted Hughes, Norman MacCaig, Norman Nicholson, and A. L. Rowse, some of whom are also describable as regional poets.

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