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Swinburne's constitutional

Thursday, 4 Nov 2021

Rose and Crown on Dr John Dunn. Swinburne's constitutional

Clara Watts-Dunton, The Home Life of Swinburne, A. M. Philpott, London, 1922

pp. 93-5

The Rose and Crown, Wimbledon

Swinburne's daily walk across the Common to Wimbledon and back has been done to death. Every yard of the way has been described; and, indeed, stretches of the heath which were not included in his itinerary have been ‘written up' and photographed. Imaginative writers have boldly identified his favourite spots. But these enthusiasts have, as a rule, ended their narratives at the very point where cynics might suppose the human interest of the story to begin, namely, the village of Wimbledon itself.For the limit of Swinburne's walk was the old-fashioned inn known as ‘The Rose and Crown.': Elsewhere I have described one of my walks with the poet over his beloved common, with the remarks he made to me on his favourite trees. Here I follow him to his favourite inn, and to the shop at which he bought a daily paper and sometimes ordered, from a catalogue, some rare old book which the owner of the shop would procure for him. At both the inn and the shop Swinburne's memory is still cherished with affectionate reverence.

Visitors will find the exterior of ‘The Rose and Crown’ exactly as it was in the poet's day. The interior has, alas! been altered out of recognition. I shudder to think what the effect on Swinburne would have been had the architectural transformation been effected in his time. The cosy little ‘coffee room' which he entered from the street has disappeared, and with it has disappeared the chair in which he always sat. But it is in safe keeping;and I just loved the widow of the late landlord when she told me that she would not part with it for any sum that might be offered.

When once Swinburne had established himself as a daily customer at ‘The Rose and Crown’ he was spared the usual formality of ordering. From the bar his entry was noted. They had been keeping a look-out for him, and a waiter ‘entered from without’ bearing a bottle of Bass with a replica of the peculiarly thick tumbler which the Bard used at home. It is related, with a note of tragedy in the recital, how this sacred beaker, which was kept for his use, was smashed by a careless barmaid. Unfortunately there was not another such glass in the house. Swinburne was greatly ‘put out’ by the accident. He did not relish his Bass from any other vessel; was moody and silent during his stay, leaving the place abruptly after but a very short rest. Happily, on the same afternoon a stock of tumblers like that which had been broken was procured, and from the morrow until the end the poet was provided with the vessel that he preferred.

The cosy little apartment which he used was not much frequented during the time of his visit; but it was not, of course, a private room, and a stray visitor would sometimes enter it while the poet was in possession. Then one of two things happened. If Swinburne had nearly finished his bottle, he would get up and disappear into the village High Street. If, on the other hand, he had only just begun to refresh himself, he would seek sanctuary in the landlord's private room. As all his movements were watched by the host or his assistants with a really pious solicitude, he would immediately be followed to his retreat by a servant bringing with him the bottle and the glass which the poet had abandoned in the ‘Coffee Room…'

…A little higher up the village High Street he came, during his first exploratory ramble, on the shop of a bookseller and stationer. Here he established himself on an excellent footing with the proprietress, and here, for thirty years, he repaired every week day of his life while he was living at Putney to buy newspapers. Books he also bought here, and, in December, Christmas


…Sometimes the Wimbledon purchases grew to a considerable bulk. Swinburne in a book-seller's was something like a schoolboy in a tuck-shop. Temptation was on all sides of him, and he found it irresistible. For the carriage of his treasures he had two very large pockets in his coat. We called them his " poacher-pockets." One of the self-imposed duties of the kindly bookseller at Wimbledon was to see that these poacher-pockets balanced nicely. The poet himself was not deft in stowing away his purchases ; and with one heavy pocket weighing down on one side and a light one on the other, the walk home across the Common would have been fatiguing even to such an excellent pedestrian.

I can fancy him now, impatient but tractable, as he stands while the adjustment of the parcels is proceeded with, his relief when the balance is decided to be "just so," his courtly bow on departure and his quick, springy walk home across the Common.

Posted by John Dunn.

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