William Lisle Bowles - The Poetic Canon
Blog written by library volunteer Ken Smith.
Reputed to be the last person actually buried in Salisbury Cathedral itself, William Lisle Bowles was born in Northamptonshire, England, in 1762. As a child, he moved to Somerset when his Vicar father was given the living of Uphill with Brean.
Bowles spent most of his childhood in Shaftesbury, Dorset at the home of a great uncle whose estate was bequeathed to Bowles’ father. He went to Winchester School in 1776 and on to Trinity College, Oxford in 1782. During 1787 Bowles made several tours of the north of England as well as to Antwerp and Switzerland. Whilst away he wrote a number of sonnets, perhaps with a view of publication to offset his £70 college debt.
In 1788, he was ordained deacon and appointed as a curate to East Knoyle, in Wiltshire, at £40 per year. Later that year, his first publications appeared in the “Gentleman’s Magazine”. In 1789, his 14 Sonnets Elegiac and Descriptive Written during a Tour were published, attracted attention and sold well. Bowles’ early sonnets are often considered his finest. “The simplicity and earnestness of Bowles had all the charm of novelty and contrast. His pensive tenderness, delicate fancy, refined taste and, above all, his power to harmonise the moods of nature with those of the mind…” (William Hunt).
Other collections followed, including African Slave, published at a time when the suffering of thousands of slaves was belatedly coming to public recognition. Bowles perhaps hoped it would spur on the abolitionists striving to end the slave trade. At this time Samual Taylor Coleridge was given a copy of 14 Sonnets by a schoolfellow and it made a deep impression on him.; t is possible that reading this collection made him turn his attention to poetry rather than metaphysics. Wordsworth, Lamb, Madame de Stael and Southey were also deeply affected by their first readings of Bowles’ Sonnets and it can be argued that, if not a founding father, he influenced the development of English Romanticism.
Two sonnets by Bowles (photos taken from 'The Poetical Works of William Lisle Bowles', compiled by Rev George Gilfillan, 1855)
Tragedy struck in 1793 when his intended bride, Harriet Wake, died of typhus. For the next few years, Bowles’ muse seems to have left him and he immersed himself in parochial duties.
In 1795, he was presented to the living of Chicklade and, like many other 18th Century clergy, paid a curate to carry out his priestly duties there whilst he remained in East Knoyle. Bowles slowly rose through the Church hierarchy, preaching in Salisbury Cathedral in 1795 and in St Paul’s Cathedral in 1801. Having resigned the living of Chicklade, he was presented with that of Dumbleton, in Gloucestershire. As before, he did not reside at Dumbleton but paid a curate to stand in for him.
In 1797, he married the dead Harriet’s sister, Magdalene, in East Knoyle. As well as being a poet Bowles was also a proficient amateur musician, playing the violin, cello and flute. He wrote glees and patriotic songs including “Britons’ March to Glory” which was sung, to much applause, at a concert held in the Salisbury Council Chamber (the Guildhall) in 1803.
By the early 1800s Bowles’ poems had fallen out of fashion, Coleridge had recovered from his extreme enthusiasm for Bowles’ verses and Byron later mercilessly lampooned them. Bowles must have found this hurtful. He was finally presented to the living of Bremhill, in Wiltshire, early in 1805. This living was a good one, Bremhill being a rural parish of some 600 acres and 1300 people. Although the parsonage was rather dilapidated, Bowles was able, thanks to his increased income and interest on his parent’s investments, to carry out repairs and extend the garden. In 1806, his 10 volume Life of Pope appeared which can be found in the Cathedral library.
Bowles was described at the age of 44 as having “….a blunt almost rough manner which did not quite answer my preconceived …idea of a poet. I had imagined that I should see a melancholy man, pressed down by love disappointed and solemn… I found a cheerful married man with no symptom of weakness or sentiment about him…” (Bryan Waller Proctor). We learn something of the quantity of drink consumed by Bowles and his contemporaries, when a friend recorded in his diary, “…paid my share of the dinner and a pint of Madeira but allowed the rich poet to treat me to a bottle of Claret...”
As time went on Bowles spent his free time improving his garden at Bremhill, adding grottoes and cascades. He and Magdalene were frequent dinner-guests of the local landowner, the 2nd Marquis of Lansdowne and his wife. He continued to write, penning Hermes Brittanicus – a dissertation on the Celtic deity Tentates… the stone circle at Abury (Avebury)… as well as The Parochial History of Bremhill. Both of these volumes are in the Cathedral library collection.
In 1827, he caused controversy when, as a magistrate, he interceded on behalf of a poor woman. For the theft of some crockery she had been sentenced to prison for six months and fined the enormous sum of £40. Being unable to pay this she faced a further sentence of six months in solitary confinement. Bowles successfully petitioned the King to mitigate the sentence. Whilst censured by most of his fellow magistrates, he received popular support “for his exertions in the cause of humanity”. Bowles probably found himself sympathising with the plight of the agricultural labourers who struggled to survive on pitifully small wages. In the light of the agricultural unrest and riots of the period, he decided he could no longer serve as a magistrate, stepping down in 1830.
In 1830, Bowles produced a two-volume Life of Bishop Ken (a 17th century cleric). All 500 copies of this sold quickly, including a copy of Volume 1, which came to the Salisbury Cathedral library.
Inscription in Bowles' handwriting recording his gift of 'Life of Bishop Ken' to Salisbury Cathedral Library
As he grew older, Bowles sometimes became prey to irrational fears such as burglars, unruly horses and being locked into Salisbury Cathedral. Of the latter fear, he stated “…If I were shut up in that place one hour….(I should) be in Finche’s madhouse*…”
He was made a residentiary Canon at Salisbury Cathedral in 1828. He chose to spend most of the year at Bremhill, moving to Salisbury Close only for the winter months. Bowles died at his residence, Aula La Stage, in the Cathedral Close in 1850. He was buried next to his wife in the Cathedral, where their gravestones may still be seen. There is a portrait of Bowles as an older man in the Salisbury Cathedral Library (reproduced at the beginning of this blog - the artist is unknown).
Bowles was a man of his time, a pluralist clergyman paying small stipends to curates to carry out his duties whilst pocketing most of the income. Yet he was humane and kindly, a sociable neighbour and a loving husband. Although largely forgotten today, his poetry influenced the work of other far more famous names and helped establish the English Romantic movement.
As a Cathedral library volunteer, my interest in Bowles was stimulated by his portrait and by the varied books written by him in the library collection. These include history, biography, literary criticism and an investigation into ancient monuments in the landscape. I wanted to know more about a man who could write on all these topics, yet also be a poet and a Church of England cleric. He must have been an interesting dinner guest.
*Later known as the Old Manor Hospital in Wilton Road, Salisbury.
The bulk of the information in this account is based on The life and letters of William Lisle Bowles, poet and parson 1762 -1850 by Robert Moody and published by the Hob Nob Press in 2009.