Most English counties can call upon a famous poet or two but Suffolk has the proud claim to have inspired two of the greatest and most celebrated poems in the English language. These poems are so separated by time and spirit that no one to this date has ever linked them but Suffolk is the link. Explore by car and on foot key locations linked to these masterpieces.
End the suspense immediately! Name the poems...
Well the first is Beowulf, the great Saxon epic which has impacted hugely on our imagination, our sense of heroism and valour, and the triumph of good over evil.
The second of my masterpieces is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the brilliant and inspired translation of a 12th Century Persian poem by Edward FitzGerald of Boulge and Woodbridge. This poem startled the intellectual world in the mid 19th century and has continued to fascinate readers ever since.
Beowulf was the centre piece of entertainment in the great halls of Saxon kings and leaders. A few warm-up poems and then came the moment of pure drama and excitement as the best story-teller of the day stood to recite the epic tale of battles and monsters and heroes. "Listen", he began in a commanding voice, and the audience fell silent.
They knew the tale but its telling many times over never diminished their willingness to listen and enjoy.
Beowulf begins with the tale of King Hrothgar, whose warriors are killed by the devilish Grendel. The young warrior Beowulf comes to help and, in spite of losing heroic comrades to the monster, manages to overcome him, single-handily tearing off his arm.
Grendel dies. (Oh no. Big mistake.)
Grendel's mother arrives the next evening killing Hrothgar's bravest follower. Beowulf follows the beast beneath the waters to a dolorous cavern and after a fearsome battle beheads her.
The hero becomes a king in his own right and faces yet another challenge in the shape of a quite fiery dragon. Our hero prevails but is mortally wounded in the moment of triumph.
It is the description of mighty funerals that makes the link with Suffolk; burials in boats, burials surrounded by treasure, burials under mounds. On Sutton Heath a burial ship was found in 1939 that echoes all the images of the great poem. Other burials there and in Snape reinforce our belief that these heroic tales so poetically described are built upon the true events surrounding the first invasions of Britain by the fearsome Saxons.
So you will need to visit Sutton Hoo; see treasure and weapons laid out in the museum and then walk out to the site, standing beneath the mounds with your eyes closed and your mind open to hear the echoes down 1500 years of the lives and deaths of the first English that gave us that great poem, Beowulf.
So different now is the second of these great poetical works, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Edward FitzGerald of Boulge and Woodbridge, a man of leisure and a man of reading, made a free translation of the verses of a 12th century Persian mystic and these were published in 1859. At first, no one purchased the booklets but suddenly they were recognised for their genius and the erudite middle classes snapped them up and have continued to do so.
"Live now, for the moon will find us not in the garden tomorrow."
Hmmmm. I think we understand.
The pleasures of life - a flask of wine, a book of poetry under the shade of a friendly tree, the companion of our choice - well what more could we want? A loaf of bread, of course, but no more than that. There IS more to the philosophy of this masterpiece, but enough for now. FitzGerald spent the greater part of his life in the county, wrote volumes of letters and died in 1882.
Walk through Market Hill in Woodbridge and opposite the Bull Hotel spot the plaque EFG on the wall, marking the pretty dingy lodgings FitzGerald occupied before moving to a more prestigious home in Pytches Road, Little Grange. This is now a private dwelling.
The Bull Hotel is key to the story for it was there that Alfred Lord Tennyson, the poet laureate, stayed when he visited old Fitz. Not a lot around this lower half of Market Hill has changed in 150 years. Drive out across the A12 to Boulge and visit the church where Fitz is buried. You will find him in the small and atmospheric churchyard and beyond are the fields where he walked as a young man.
Finally, you poetry lovers, remember that a visit to Aldeburgh is a must. There the poet George Crabbe was born and lived some of his extremely varied life. His poem, The Borough was an often cruel insight into the locals.
"... a wild amphibious race,
With sullen woe displayíd in every face,
Who far from civil arts and social fly,
And scowl at strangers with suspicious eye."
He wrote of the denizens of an impoverished and primitive town in heroic couplets and it has been said he even finished off that poetic style!
Do not try to find the old scowling townspeople that Crabbe depicted. Aldeburgh is now such a civilised town and enjoys its own annual poetry festival - showing that poetry and the love of poetry is still very much alive in this delightful county.
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