The Forgotten Poet of Wootton Wawen; the Works of an 18th Century Poet Had Even Dr Johnson Admitting Admiration

The Birmingham Post (England), February 3, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Forgotten Poet of Wootton Wawen; the Works of an 18th Century Poet Had Even Dr Johnson Admitting Admiration


Byline: By CHRIS UPTON

The 18th century was not English poetry's finest hour. The influence of the classics was just a little too heavy, the verse a bit too didactic, and competence and learning were valued more highly than inspiration. Augustan they called it, and Augustan it was.

Not surprisingly, then, Warwickshire's most successful poet between William Shakespeare and Philip Larkin is not a household name today. Not unless you live in a very strange household, that is.

I confess never to have heard of him myself, until one day last December, musing upon the monuments in Wootton Wawen church, I came across him.

Yet in his day, he was as popular a poet as any in England and drew grudging admiration from the hyper-critical Dr Johnson.

Birmingham Central Library has half-a-dozen editions of his works, though significantly there are none since the late 19th century. His name was William Somerville, or Somervile, if you want to follow contemporary spelling.

The Somerviles were proud possessors of Edstone Hall, four miles or so from Wootton, from as far back as the Wars of the Roses. Fervent Catholics at one time, they knuckled down to life in Protestant England and switched allegiances.

William himself was a Whig. Born in 1675 he was extremely well-educated for a country squire, going to Winchester College and New College, Oxford, where he held a fellowship. Only the death of his father in 1705 tore William from the bosom of academia and a possible career in the law.

After that eventful early life it was to be Edstone Hall for the rest of his life, but William made it as interesting as he could with his twin hobbies of writing and hunting.

It's not easy to tell which took up the greater part of his time. He published four books of poetry, including a large volume of occasional verse and translations (published in 1727) that runs to almost 400 pages.

As for his hunting, William Somervile pursued everything that moved, though he avoided coursing. No hare, fox, badger or otter was safe anywhere near Edstone. Somervile hunted at least three times a week, particularly on his favourite horse called "Old Ball", and his kennels housed a large assembly of beagles, otter hounds and fox hounds. Even at the age of 65 (the year before his death), Somervile was still claiming to be the nimblest huntsman in the neighbourhood, and won a pounds 50 wager to prove it.

That pounds 50 must have come in handy, because William (like many another country gent before and since) lived well beyond his means. The pounds 1,500 annual revenue from his estates might have been sufficient, but it was undermined by the pounds 600 a year his father's will allowed to his mother.

She had the impertinence to survive to the grand old age of 98, dying only a few months before her son. By then, beset with financial problems, William had taken to drinking heavily, his favourite tipple of rum and blackcurrant jelly turned to harder stuff.

Yet it was part of the character of a good squire not to let shortage of cash cramp one's style or hospitality.

Somervile was, by all accounts, generous to all, his tenants and servants including. As his good friend William Shenstone said of Somervile shortly after his death (and it might have made a rather good - if pretentious - epitaph): "I loved him for nothing so much as his flocci-pauci-nihili-pili-fication of money. …

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