Poetry and Visions of the River Severn

Image: Ruins of Montgomery Castle from the Severn. This is one of the most picturesque of Harral’s views, a portrayal which is consistent with Milton’s pastoral vision of the river in Comus.

Visitors to the river were entranced by its beauty. John Milton in his masque, Comus, which was first performed at Shropshire’s Ludlow Castle in 1634, personified the Severn in verse:

There is a gentle nymph not farre from hence
That with moist curb sways the smooth Severn stream,
Sabrina is her name, a virgin pure….
Made goddesse of the river; still she retaines
Her maiden gentlenesse, and oft at eve
Visits the heards along the twilight meadows;
Helping all urchin blasts and ill lucke signes
That the shrewd medling ele delights to make,
Which she with precious violed liquors heals;
For which the shepheards at their festivalls
Caroll her goodnesse lowd in rusticke layes,
And throw sweet garland wreaths into her streame
Of pancies, pinks, and gaudie daffadills.

John Milton, Comus, a Masque (1637 edition).

In 1785, the Severn attracted another visitor, Anna Seward. Her poem, Colebrook Dale transformed Milton’s pastoral vision into a scene of industrial rape:

Scene of superfluous grace, and wasted bloom,
O, violated Colebrook! in an hour,
To beauty unpropitious and to song,
The Genius of thy shades…
Slumbers! – while tribes fuliginous invade
The soft, romantic, consecrated scenes;
Haunt of the wood-nymph, who with airy step,
In times long vanish’d, through thy pathless groves
Rang’d; – while the pearly-wristed Naiads lean’d,
Braiding their light locks o’er thy crystal flood,
Shadowy and smooth.  What, though to vulgar eye
Invisible, yet oft the lucid gaze
Of the rapt Bard, in every dell and glade
Beheld them wander; – saw, from the clear wave
Emerging, all the watry sisters rise,
Weaving the aqueous lily, and the flag,
In wreaths fantastic, for the tresses bright
Of amber-hair’d SABRINA. – Now we view
Their fresh, their fragrant, and their silent reign
Usurpt by Cyclops; – hear, in mingled tones,
Shout their throng’d barge, their pond’rous engines clang
Through thy coy dales; while red the countless fires,
With umber’d flames, bicker on all thy hills,
Dark’ning the Summer’s sun with columns large
Of thick, sulphureous smoke, which spread, like palls,
That screen the dead, upon the sylvan robe
Of thy aspiring rocks; pollute thy gales,
And stain thy glassy waters. 

Anna Seward, Colebrook Dale, c. 1785 (see the website and Digital Library for a full version of the poem).

Seward’s poem is important; it was one of the first commentaries on the polluting effects of industry upon landscape at a time when the application of technology and the exploitation of nature were generally portrayed as progress. Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden for example, celebrates industrial achievement in verse. In time the Severn became a tourist attraction, not just for what remained of its natural beauties, but for its record of industrial activity. Harral’s Picturesque Views… describes the factories, forges and foundries along the river’s bank. His description of Coalbrookdale, based on Samuel Ireland’s words, presents an awesome picture of the industrial energy of the place. Elsewhere his picture of industry is more factual.

Image creators: Image from Thomas Harral, Picturesque Views of the Severn, 1824.
Image courtesy of: Shropshire Records and Research

Continue browsing this section

1532-0A Journey down the Severn from Thomas Harral’s Picturesque Views of the River (1824) 562-0Introduction: the Severn Waterway 517-0Poetry and Visions of the River Severn 514-0The Severn and its Origins in Wales 516-0Newtown to Montgomery 518-0Powis Castle to Welshpool 519-0Welshpool to Shrewsbury 520-0Shrewsbury 521-0The English Bridge, Shrewsbury 522-0The Welsh Bridge, Shrewsbury 524-0Atcham Bridge, Shropshire 525-0The Wrekin 526-0Buildwas Bridge and the Severn Earthquake of 1773 529-0Coalbrookdale and the Ironbridge 530-0Madeley, Broseley and Lilleshall 535-0Bridgnorth 536-0Bridgnorth’s Economy 537-0Bridgnorth Castle 538-0Quatford and the nearby Landscape 539-0Bewdley 540-0The Wyre Forest 542-0Stourport 543-0Stourport Bridge 545-0Worcester 546-0Worcester to Upton-on-Severn 547-0Tewkesbury 550-0Gloucester 551-0Gloucester’s Economy and the Severn Trade