February 18 – the poet, his grave, Highgate cemetery

We bury a poet today. This London History Bulletin tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Another day, another London poet.

Wonder if we’re in danger of getting a tradition started here? A tradition within a tradition. 

The other thought that’s crossed my mind in this connection is maybe, at last, I’m on a true North alignment. Everything before was magnetic north. But since my first love has always been English literature and poetry… Well, yes, maybe this, if it is the beginnings of a London Walks podcast tradition, is true north.

And what I like about this one is this a poet you won’t have heard of. This is going to be well and truly new to you.

His name is Philip Bourke Marston. And we’re burying him today, On February 18th, 1887. Burying him in unconsecrated ground without a religious service at Highgate Cemetery. As per his request.

So who was Philip Bourke Marston? A Londoner through and through. He was born in Camden Town in 1850. The son of a solicitor who packed in his legal career for the theatre and poetry. The novelist Dinah Mulock Craik was a godparent. She wrote a poem, ‘Philip, my King’ for her baby godson.

The poem begins, hauntingly, with the lines,

“Look at me with thy large brown eyes, Philip, my King.”

Hauntingly because when that baby boy became a three-year-old toddler, his sight became impaired. We don’t why. It’s been suggested that it may have been caused by an infection following an accidental blow. Or the use of belladonna against scarlet fever. Or even cataracts. Growing up he had some sight. In his own words, he could see “the tree-boughs waving in the wind, the pageant of sunset in the west, and glimmer of a fire upon the hearth.”

But by the time he was 20 he was completely blind. Those large, beautiful, dark brown eyes that Dinah Craik had fallen in love with when he was a baby and that everybody was transfixed by when he grew up – a point all of his biographers commented on – those large, beautiful dark brown eyes were sightless.  

And a consequence of his disability, he never learned to read. His poetry was always dictated.

Poetry-wise he was to the manor born. The great Victorian poets Algernon Charles Swinburne and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were regular visitors to his family home. Rossetti famously declared that some of Philip Marston’s lyrics were worthy of Shakespeare. Praise doesn’t come any higher than that. 

It ends badly, though. His mother died in 1870. His fiancee in 1871. A close friend in 1874. By 1880 he’s out of money. His health declines. He becomes an alcoholic. Despite it all he manages to establish a literary club that met monthly at his house at 191 Euston Road, where the Wellcome Collection stands today. I will have walked by there hundreds of times when I was a student at University College. One’s ignorance, it’s humbling. As is the power of London to surprise and astonish with its wonders. 

Philip Marston died at home, of apoplexy, on February 14th. As I said, we’re burying him today. 

And doing so, let’s read one of his greatest poems. So appropriate in the circumstances. 

It’s called After Summer.

Goes like this.

After Summer by Philip Marston.

We’ll not weep for summer over,–

No, not we:

Strew above his head the clover,–

Let him be!

Other eyes may weep his dying,

Shed their tears

There upon him, where he’s lying

With his peers.

Unto some of them he proffered

Gifts most sweet;

For our hearts a grave he offered,–

Was this meet?

All our fond hopes, praying, perished

In his wrath,–

And the lovely dreams we cherished

Strewed his path.

Shall we in our tombs, I wonder,

Far apart,

Sundered wide as seas can sunder,

Heart from heart,

Dream at all of all the sorrows

That were ours,–

Bitter nights, more bitter morrows;


Summer gathered, as in madness,

Saying, “See

These are yours, in place of gladness,–

Gifts from me”?

Nay, the rest that will be ours

Is supreme,–

And below the poppy flowers

Steals no dream.

You’ve been listening to the London History podcast for February 18th. Emanating from www.walks.com – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya next time.

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