Friday, April 02, 2021

Transpositions of Hartley Coleridge: the end of British Standards (and of The English Strain project)

On this blog I’ve documented ‘The English Strain’ project as work has progressed, through to its third (and final) book, British Standards. Yes, part three is finished; ‘The English Strain’ is finished (I think). And it's worth repeating so that I remember it. I’m posting today because Petrarch first saw Laura on Good Friday 1327, as recorded in his third poem and my ‘transpositions’ of it in Petrarch 3. (See here: Pages: Robert Sheppard: the Petrarch sonnet project finished with poem 100  ) I also finished Book One around Eastertide.  

For your guide, the ‘books’ of ‘The English Strain’ are:

1. The English Strain (Shearsman, published. See below, and: here)

2. Bad Idea (Knives, Forks and Spoons, published; also see below, and  here )

3. British Standards (just finished, as I say: you can smell the ink drying, as this posting demonstrates. A possible last poem here: The shepherd’s brow, fronting forked lightning | IT (

[4. Some ideas for a fourth book here:  Pages: Should I write a fourth ‘book’ of The English Strain project? (]

Unlike other projects, I decided to live its writing in the blare of blogging publicity, particularly since videos have been added. That's because its subject matter is contemporary, political, and part of a fast moving story. (The poems are usually fastidiously dated.) There are two ways (at least!) of looking at the project as a whole: it either consists of accounts of the capering of Bo and Go and other clowns across the post-Brexit dogging site that newly independent ‘Bressex’ has become, or it’s the subtler story of the English strain of the sonnet form. I hope I will send readers back or away to the ‘originals’. Part of my poems’ meaning has to lie in intersectional readerliness between one (or two) of Hartley Coleridge’s sonnets, say, and mine. That’s one role of the reader here, although general knowledge of transposition will be enough to see what’s going on. I’m not dismissing tradition; I’m invoking it. Book one is called The English Strain: the project begins with Petrarch, picking up the ‘Brexit’ theme in a number of sonnets of my own, until Milton, Wyatt, Surrey, Charlotte Smith and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, provide the frames for me to hang my boots on. (There are a couple of sequences in 'my own voice', which deliberately 'fail'.) This continues in book two, Bad Idea, though there I stick to Shakespeare’s contemporary Michael Drayton, a fine sonneteer. I’ve spent almost as long on this project as on Twentieth Century Blues. ‘No man can know, of himself, whether he is, or is not, a poet… and the result of the experiment may not be known for years,’ stated Hartley Coleridge in the preface to his 1833 book.

But here I am at its end, at the short sequence 'Partly from Hartley'. I was pleased to find Coleridge used Drayton (to whom he wrote a fine homage sonnet) as an epigraph to his poems, and I thought of using it as an epigraph myself, to link the books together, but in the end it wasn't appropriate: ‘I write, indite, I point, I raze, I quote,/I interline, I blot, correct, I note,/I make, allege, I imitate, I fain.’  

 However, a quote from Hartley’s letters makes an appearance as epigraph to the pair of double sonnets, which forms the totality of my 'Partly form Hartley' section: ‘Politically speaking, I am much more a Tory than a Whig, and least of all, a Democrat.’ Letters, pp. 124-5. In the first pair of sonnets you can see that he is not a red wall Tory (as I originally thought I’d make him) but the (illegitimate) son of one, living in the Lakes and occasionally visiting the Northern City represented by his Pops. The Frank Zappa song 'Idiot Bastard Son' was the muted soundtrack to my thinking him into existence. (Hartley had his parallel Oedipal problems, of course.) But I found I couldn’t sustain the voice, as I actually say in the second half of the first poem in the pair of doubles: I cannot ventriloquise the Tory voice without feeling queasy. (It’s like reading mainstream poetry.) In the second double-poem, I leave evidence that I actually abandoned an Ur-text (sort of, at one point, or in imagination only!) and the sequence, and I have – and I haven’t. (You can have your cake and eat it, obviously! The poem is still essentially fictive, as well as fictional.) Indeed, I thought at one point that I was writing chapters of a verse-novel on the life of a certain ‘Hartley Coleridge’, but I'm glad that idea hasn't bourn fruit on this occasion. (I’d just finished reading my first contemporary verse-novel, the brilliant The Emperor’s Babe by Bernardine Evaristo.)


The double sonnets remained on this blog temporarily, though this post has transposed into a hubpost for British Standards, is a guide to all the previous guides to British Standards - and to the whole project, for that matter, through the labyrinthine links that take you to different parts of the work’s inception, publication and reception. It has been to a certain extent written on this blog, with blogging of the day’s poem. This itself is a novel rhythm of writing for me. Oh, yes: I've vowed not to write any further sonnets! [But, of course, there was one more to go: see below!]

H.C.'s Grave


Part of that ritual of composition (since January 2020, when the technology became available) has been to post short films of the poem in draft and above is one of those. Of course, the final version of the poem differs somewhat from this (particularly as the form of the double sonnet, a form picked up from the works of Clare rather than Coleridge, reshaped the writing.

The double sonnets refer to the following sonnets by Hartley Coleridge, found in all three editions listed below, especially as they appear in The Complete Poetical Works of Hartley Coleridge. ed. Ramsay Colles, London and New York: George Routledge and Co: 1908: ‘Dedicatory Sonnet’, 2; ‘When we were idlers with the loitering rills’, p. 3; ‘In the great city we are met again’, p. 3; ‘I loved thee once, when every thought of mine,’ p. 5. Allusions to, memories of reading, the following poems also manifest: ‘We parted on the mountains, as two streams’, p. 4; ‘I left the land where men with Nature dwelling’, p. 15; ‘’Tis strange to me, who long have seen no face’, p. 15; and to ‘From Petrarch’, p. 93. Here’s one of them. I believe Hartley to be a neglected sonneteer:

In the great city we are met again,
Where many souls there are, that breathe and die,
Scarce knowing more of nature’s potency,
Than what they learn from heat, or cold, or rain,
The sad vicissitude of weary pain:—
For busy man is lord of ear and eye,
And what hath nature, but the vast, void sky,
And the throng’d river toiling to the main?
Oh! Say not so, for she shall have her part
In every smile, in every tear that falls;
And she shall hide her in the secret heart,
Where love persuades, and sterner duty calls:
But worse it were than death, or sorrow’s smart,
To live without a friend within these walls.


All the poems I am transposing also first appeared in Hartley Coleridge, Poems, Songs and Sonnets (Leeds: F. E. Bingley, 1833). Pre-Daguerreotype! Accessible online here:

Poems, songs and sonnets : Coleridge, Hartley, 1796-1849 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

They are also collected here: Coleridge, Hartley, Poem . London: Moxon, 1851 contains a lengthy memoir by his brother;

Poems : Coleridge, Hartley, 1796-1849 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

 though, as I say, I am using Ramsay Colles’ edition, London and New York: George Routledge and Co: 1908, of which I found a hard copy on AbeBooks.

Some sympathetic background reading may be found in Nicola Healey’s PhD:

Nicola Healey PhD thesis (

 And sympathetic background there should be: I am convinced that Hartley was autistic (which I have hinted at in the poem). He shows a number of giveaway characteristics, but I’ve no idea whether this is a commonplace identification, or my own alone.

I am thinking of using the following quotation from Hartley’s letters as an introduction to British Standards as a whole.

Have you read Wordsworth’s anti-railroad Sonnets? As Petrarch with all his Sonnets could never prevail on Laura to more than admire him, and I believe no man by Poetry ever won any woman that would not have run away with a Strolling Player, how could the Bard imagine or fancy that 14 lines, though each line were instinct with living fire like an Electric Telegraph, would mollify the philanthropic no-heart of a Railway Company? (Hartley Coleridge: 1847)


I will now give details of the whole of British Standards. Please follow the links for the major page on each part of the work (which itself will guide you to online poems and other relevant snippets). 

The first section of British Standards was finished late March 2020, just after the (first) lockdown was belatedly, fatally for some, announced. For this, I transposed poems from Wordsworth’s ‘Poems Dedicated to National Independence and Liberty’, and retitled them ‘Poems of National Independence’, and even more cheekily subtitled them, ‘liberties with Wordsworth’. I write about that sequence here: . There are links to online publication of some of the poems too (as there are in most of these links).

In the sequence of British Standards, after Wordsworth, there followed ‘14 Standards’, the lockdown poems (quite a few online now, plus some print poems out in the States soon, and one in the current Tears in the Fence), and in turn, two additional ‘Double Standards’ about the now-departed Cum’s disgraceful lockdown infringements – I transposed a couple of Shelley’s sonnets – and his elitist refusal of apology and regret. See here for the ‘standards’ (and links to online publication):

One of Hartley Coleridge’s sonnets had been one of my models (as was a sonnet by his father about his birth!) in ’14 Standards’. (Little did I know at the time, by the way, that I would return to him more fully, though I had clocked that Hartley’s sonnets were better than his father’s.)


‘Tabitha and Thunderer’, interventions in the terrific sonnet sequence ‘Sappho and Phaon’ by Mary Robinson, followed, and they may be read about (with video) here:

 About this time in the process, I wrote a poetics piece to help guide me through the rest of the project/book. You may read it here:

Then I turned to Keats. I had some trouble getting going; you can read about that struggle here:

The Keats poems are called ‘Weird Syrup’. The first 7 are entitled ‘Contrafacts and Counterfactuals from Keats’, the last 7, ‘Curtal Song-Nets from Junkets’.

This post operates as a hub post about the Keats transpositions:

 Then I read more than I had hitherto of the brilliant poems of John Clare, for writing my ‘Unth(reading) Clare’ sequence. Read about it here:  Pages: The final sonnet transposition from John Clare (

The intervallic ‘Shelley’ poems, (I mean: they appear singly between the other sections) of which another, with its 'original', is recently published online here (Lift Not the Painted Veil | IT ( are discussed here in their own hub-post: 

[NOTE August 2021: Transpositions of Shelley's sonnets appear between the sequences here described, AND, on 30th August 2021, I wrote yet another one of these, to complete the book; i.e., it appears after the Hartley Coleridge work here, at the end. Although Coleridge did finish it off, I felt the book's need for a coda, and this was helped by the discovery of a Shelley sonnet that I'd not seen before. This allowed me to allude to the defeat in Afghanistan. Over the Bank Holiday, August, 2021, I was reading Davis, Amanda Blake, ‘“Ephemeral are Gay Gulps of Laughter”: P. B. Shelley, Louis MacNeice, and the Ambivalence of Laughter’, English, vol. 70, no. 268, Spring 2021, 23-46, and discovered, printed in full, a sonnet by Shelley only published after 1973, excluded from my predated ‘collected’ and my postdated ‘selected’ volumes. I had thought to add a further intervallic sonnet by Shelley (they occur between and before, and now after, the sections of British Standards) and here it came, some months after the project was (effectively, dramatically and half-deliberately) abandoned. Here was a sonnet about humour, the device that guides ‘The English Strain’ project, in a way ‘unprecedented’ (the Covid word) in my work (though there is humour in my earlier work, but almost incidentally, as it were). My first line is a paraphrase of Hazlitt’s definitions of humour and wit, quoted by Davis, though it also alludes to Shelley’s poem. Of course, there is still the question of whether to include a poetics piece as an appendix to Book Three. Tellingly, I've not integrated their bibliographies yet in the typescript so I can't be sure! Nevertheless, the relevant poetics may be read here: Shifting an Imaginary: Poetics in Anticipation – New Defences of Poetry ( .]

 As might be gathered from what I have said in this post (and others), British Standards, as a whole, presents transpositions of admired sonnets of the Romantic period, from William Bowles to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Chronologically, they broadly lie between those of Charlotte Smith, which I’ve already worked on here, and those of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that I’ve also worked on, both of them in the final parts of Book One, The English Strain.

Here are two comprehensive posts to check out, each with further links to earlier stages of the project, the first that looks at Book One, The English Strain here (written after I’d completed it but before it found its title!).


There’s another post on Book Two, Bad Idea here . (The final part of Bad Idea is slightly different; called ‘Idea’s Mirror’; that’s described here: ).

I am delighted to say that Book One, The English Strain, is available from Shearsman; see here:

I am also delighted to say that Book Two, Bad Idea is available from Knives Forks and Spoons, so you may buy it HERE:


Read the first review of both books, by Alan Baker, in Litter here: Review - "The English Strain" and "Bad Idea" by Robert Sheppard | Litter (

 Read the second, by Clark Allison, here, on the Tears in the Fence website: HERE:

 Read the third review, by Steve Hanon, of Bad Idea, in the Manchester Review of Books, here:

Pages: BAD IDEA reviewed by Steve Hanson in The Manchester Review of Books (

I hope one day I will update this post with details of how to purchase Book Three. Until then this post, or rather, the links from it, will direct you to periodical publication of its contents-in-assembly.

Pages: Robert Sheppard: My Poetics of the Sonnet in 'The English Strain' / excerpt from 'Idea's Mirror' in The Lincoln Review