Romney Marsh is a wetland area stretching through Kent and East Sussex, with a long and extensive history. Although it was the property of the Priory of Canterbury in the 9th century, the first tenant on the land was a man called Baldwin, and a drainage ditch called ‘Baldwin’s Sewer’ is still in use, even though the marsh itself has been covered by a network of drainage ditches and was once the place of several large farming communities. Although Romney Marsh is no longer a large farming community, it has since turned to arable farming. There is also a wind farm, located at Little Cheyne Court, which was the subject of some controversy.
Before the turn of the century, Romney Marsh was perhaps one of the largest economies in sheep farming in the United Kingdom, with the Romney Marsh sheep reaching the height of success in terms of sheep: they could feed in ‘wet’ situations, thereby making them ideal for humid places, and were also more resistant to parasite and other forms of rot. That said, Romney Marsh was not an ideal place to live before then; the wetlands were susceptible to malaria, and Romney Marsh saw high mortality rates up until at least the 1730s, and probably a little bit after that, with a total of about five species of mosquitoes native to the Marsh carrying the strain of malaria that was earlier known as ‘marsh fever’.
The creation of the wind farm at Little Cheyne was the source of some controversy back in 2008 when it was first planned. It was opposed by everyone from the parish to the local MP as being visually unappealing, as well as a threat to wildlife, however, the project went ahead regardless, and the turbines were built-in June-October 2008. Nowadays over 70% of the population supports the Little Cheyne wind farms, though there is still some opposition from people over their creation. That being said, it is therefore not at all surprising to see why John Davidson wrote In Romney Marsh, and particularly why the poem is written in the way that it is written. At the time of John Davidson’s writing, there was, and potentially still is, a resurgence of appreciation for a simpler way of life and a return to the British ideal of simple living; this can be seen in poems by writers going as far back as Philip Larkin. Suffice it to say, it is perhaps accurate to say that there was a widespread revolt among British novelists and poets were disillusioned with the broken promises that their government-issued them, with the spread of war and the onset of the Industrial revolution, and therefore turned to writing in an attempt to make sense of the world that they had carelessly pulled away from them.
This is not tied in any particular way to just John Davidson, who was writing at the onset of some of the most tumultuous periods of history in the United Kingdom. Following the Second World War, there was a similar spread of disillusion and misery, and poets such as Philip Larkin turned back in an attempt to make sense of a world that had ceased, for him, to make sense. It is therefore a particularly British reaction to periods of unease, and this can be seen in Davidson’s poem with particular emphasis.
In Romney Marsh is a landscape poem written at a time where landscape poems were considered to be a little bit out of fashion – in most areas, Romanticism had already faded, lending the poem itself a dated feel to it; although it was written much later than 1857, it still feels like a Romantic poem, and therefore feels like it should have been written much earlier.
In the poem, the poet describes, in great and loving detail, his love for the place Romney Marsh, with a particular reverence given to the beauty and the placement of Romney Marsh, and with a familiarity that makes the poem read almost like a love poem. Wordsworth is still, perhaps, the better-known landscape poet, the one who has written ditties to nature and particularly to man’s influence on nature, but a Wordsworthian poem is always slightly removed from the reality of the situation. In Romney Marsh does not have this problem: the love the poet has for it is a visible and obvious love that lasts despite the place’s flaws, and influence on other things. It is particularly important to read knowing that it is still an area of beauty that exists, and is safeguarded by the British government, though its purpose has changed ever since the switch from sheep farming to arable production. That being said, a lot of British landscape poems betray a familiarity to the area that is almost loving, and this is certainly true of Romney Marsh. It is easy to believe that he has grown up there, despite the fact that John Davidson is a Scottish poet.
Analysis of In Romney Marsh
As I went down to Dymchurch Wall,
I heard the South sing o’er the land
I saw the yellow sunlight fall
On knolls where Norman churches stand.
Dymchurch Wall is a Roman-era sea-wall that was built to protect the port from damage, and was later strengthened to also protect the Marsh. Most recently, a sixty million pound investment saw the building of a new sea wall that also included the creation of a time capsule which included memorabilia from the parish council, a mobile phone, and coins among the items to be found within the capsule, which will be opened in July 2111.
Part of the difficulty in analyzing landscape poems is the issue that very few people will be familiar with the places being described, particularly if the places described are out of the way or in the countryside, or at a specific juncture that the poet might be used to but that the reader definitely will not. It is hard to gauge whether or not the author’s reaction is genuine without knowing the place that they speak of; however, In Romney Marsh circumvents this by not only placing such a heavy emphasis on the author’s love for the area, but also by making sure that the reader knows, at any given moment, what he is describing. It is impossible not to picture Romney Marsh with the above stanza in one’s head; to hear the South wind (‘I heard the South sing o’er the land’), and to imagine the ‘yellow sunlight fall’ on Norman-era churches. Even just the first stanza brings forward such a feeling of complete peace to the poem.
And ringing shrilly, taut and lithe,
Within the wind a core of sound,
The wire from Romney town to Hythe
Along its airy journey wound.
That peace is only strengthened in the second stanza, although the first line is jarring when compared to the mellow imagery of the entire opening stanza: ‘and ringing shrilly, taut and lithe’, brings up the image of a flexing snake; it is unclear what the author means from ‘the wire from Romney town to Hythe’, though it is very likely that he is speaking about the spread of technology, or perhaps about the spread of deepening connection between the small farming communities that had set themselves up in Romney Marsh. That being said, not the softness in the first stanza, and how the indication of humans in the second stanza upsets it; it is the antithesis of Wordsworthian landscape poetry, where man very much found his place in nature. Here, man is disturbing nature, and nature is helpless to resist the influence of man.
A veil of purple vapour flowed
And trailed its fringe along the Straits;
The upper air like sapphire glowed:
And roses filled Heaven’s central gates.
The second stanza appears to abandon the idea of connection in lieu for further description; as such, it is a startling presence in a poem where there is very little conflict or presence. The personality of the entire poem comes from the environment, and from its description; notice how, in the third stanza, the peaceful feeling returns as the poet writes about dusk on the water, comparing Romney Marsh both to jewels (‘the upper air like sapphire glowed’) as well as to divinity (‘and roses filled Heaven’s central gates’). Putting aside, for a second, the obvious beauty of the description, the form of writing is far more reminiscent of chivalrous love poems than landscape poems themselves; Wordsworth’s idea of nature, for example, was that it was a pure return to the state of man as he ought to be, and that nature was close to divinity; here, the allusion to Heaven is only cursory, but what there is there in droves is a very palpable sense of love, over-exaggerated and well-meant. It is almost as though the Marsh itself is being personalized through the creation of its environment, as though it is being treated like a woman that the poet is halfway in love with.
Masts in the offing wagged their tops;
The swinging waves pealed on the shore;
The saffron beach, all diamond drops
And beads of surge, prolonged the roar.
The presence of colour does little to dissuade this line of thought – note that all the colours mentioned are otherworldly, elegant colours (saffron and sapphire are both exotic colours that bring to mind far away beaches, and not a stretch of Marsh in England, but their usage pinpoints how very precious the Marsh is to the poet). Also note the phrase ‘the singing waves pealed on the shore’ – the action given there to the waves personalizes the Marsh even more, and makes it a far stronger character than one anticipates.
As I came up from Dymchurch Wall,
I saw above the Downs’ low crest
The crimson brands of sunset fall,
Flicker and fade from out the West.
It is perhaps easy to forget that the poet himself is still a human presence in the poem; the landscape takes the forefront, steals every impression of him and his presence, and it is the landscape that is alive, and not the poet himself. In reverse to other styles of the time, and perhaps even against the norms of Romantic poetry, the poet here is a negligible presence. It is the Marsh that speaks, the Marsh that is characterized, the Marsh that is given all the points of beauty; the poet is merely a vehicle through which the reader can share and admire the marsh.
Again, there is the presence of exotic colour – ‘crimson bands of sunset fall’ – and the idea that the Marsh itself is a place that is almost ethereal in its creation, that the Marsh does not exist as a place, almost, but as a liminal space. With the fading of the light, one half-expects it to disappear, because there is very little tangible evidence that the Marsh exists aside from the rigorous attention to its beauty, though modern conveniences like the Internet can bring up half a dozen images of the Marsh. However, there is something wholly fantastical and almost threatening about the beauty of the Marsh, the beauty that the poet focuses on; it seems to be a swallowing beauty, something that takes humans and absorbs them, and there, like in the chivalry poems of the late Medieval, is something almost false about the strenuous focus on its beauty.
Night sank: like flakes of silver fire
The stars in one great shower came down;
Shrill blew the wind; and shrill the wire
Rang out from Hythe to Romney town.
Night falls, and the description of it further adds to the air of threat. The poet compares the stars to ‘flakes of silver fire’ and describes how ‘in one great shower’ they fell on Romney Marsh; writes about how the wind screamed, and how ‘the wire / Rang out from Hythe to ROmney town’. The marsh at night, in a storm, is no longer beautiful, but a threatening place; however, there is no real focus given to the threat it poses, and therefore it makes it seem almost toothless. It could be easy to consider that there is an underlying darkness to Romney Marsh, but there is no attention paid to this by the author, which somehow makes the idea even more threatening.
The darkly shining salt sea drops
Streamed as the waves clashed on the shore;
The beach, with all its organ stops
Pealing again, prolonged the roar.
In the last stanza, the poet continues to describe the storm. Here, the sea roars, and tries to swallow up the Marsh – ‘waves clashed on the shore’ gives the idea that there is a battle ongoing between the land and the sky, and that the sea is winning (‘prolonged the roar’). This is, of course, impossible to verify, but the beautiful language still used to describe Romney Marsh helps to solidify the idea that it is still a wonderful place, and a source of nostalgia for the author.
About John Davidson
The interest he’d shown in literature from a young age grew to become a true passion by his teens. His devoutly religious parents were not thrilled by either his enthusiasm for literature or his drinking. John’s scorn for their religious beliefs continued to grow throughout his adolescence and would provide fodder for a number of his later literary works. – The Accuracy Project, John Davidson.
Poet, playwright, and a hundred things in between, John Davidson was best known for his ribald ballads, which were later performed on stage; he also formed part of what was known as the ‘tragic generation’, and counted, among his friends, the poet William Butler Yeats, with whom he socialized within London. He had many careers throughout his life, though his first major success was a ballad called Fleet Street Eclogues, which was published in April 1893. However, despite many other successes to follow, John Davidson wrote a suicide note, and in 1909, jumped into the English Channel. His body was found six months later, and he was buried at sea on September 21st, 1909.