7 Feb 2014

Water, water, everywhere: Romantic about the floods

Beleagured Environment Agency chairman Lord Smith wrote his doctoral dissertation on the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge. What might the Romantic poets have taught him about floods?

Flooding on the Somerset Levels (Getty)

Lord Smith of Finsbury has said he has no intention of resigning from his post, and refused to apologise for the agency’s handling of flood defences.

The former Labour cabinet minister was heckled by angry residents when he visited the flood-stricken Somerset Levels for the first time today.

But he said: “I have no intention of resigning because I’m very proud of the work the Environment Agency and its staff have been doing right round the country in the face of the most extreme weather.”

Baron Smith of Finsbury (Getty)

About 5,000 homes have been hit by flooding across the country, including 40 in Somerset, and more floods are expected, with severe weather alerts in place for south east England, the South West and Wales.

Chris Smith, who is due to step down as head of the Environment Agency this summer, was Labour’s shadow environment secretary in the early 90s, and says he owes his love of nature to childhood walks in Scotland and a fondness for the Romantic poets.

After taking a double first in English at Cambridge, he completed a PhD thesis on the work of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1979. He is the chairman of the Wordsworth Trust.

Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner famously lamented “Water, water, everywhere” while gazing out at the pitiless ocean from his drifting ship. The next line “Nor any drop to drink” is regularly misquoted as “but not a drop to drink”.

The Ancient Mariner (Getty)

Residents of the inundated Somerset Levels might sympathise with the cursed sailor. But if Lord Smith feels that he is being blamed for extreme weather that is out of his control, he could also quote Coleridge: “Ye Ocean-Waves! that, whereso’er ye roll/ Yield homage only to eternal laws!”

If you can quote anything by Coleridge, it is likely to be the opening lines of Kubla Khan, with its description of Xanadu, “where Alph, the sacred river, ran/Through caverns measureless to man”.

The poet doesn’t tell us whether the river was dredged regularly to protect the surrounding “twice five miles of fertile ground” from flooding.

Coleridge’s friend Wordsworth has also given us many memorable images of floods and water.

In his long autobiographical poem The Prelude, Wordsworth paints a scene that sums up the recent spell of bad weather:

Tis storm; and hid in mist from hour to hour
All day the floods a deepening murmur pour;
The sky is veiled, and every cheerful sight,
Dark is the region as with coming night.
Wordsworth (Getty)

In the same poem Wordsworth tells the story of a shepherd boy left stranded on an island by flash floods.

And he describes a dream in which he sees an Arab “riding o’er the desert sands/ With the fleet waters of the drowning world/ In chase of him”.

Then there is the famous passage where the poet decribes rowing a boat across a lake at night and feeling a sense of supernatural awe as the dark cliffs loom over him.

I dipp'd my oars into the silent Lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my Boat
Went heaving through the water, like a Swan

Whether residents of Somerset who have been reduced to rowing themselves around their flooded villages will feel the same sense of magic remains to be seen.

Royal Marine commandos are currently helping to evacuate 140 homes in the village of Moorland.