Inside the Ultimate Writers’ Retreat
On the Grounds of Hawthornden, William Drummond's Castle of Poets
When Charles Dickens wrote in Bleak House that, “the one great principle of English law is to make business for itself,” perhaps Dickens should have substituted—for the word ‘law’—the word ‘literature.’ A recent issue of the TLS devoted its cover to Trollope’s 200th birthday; inside the next week’s supplement were articles about the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, and the upcoming 100th birthday of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Publishers and marketers, alike, cherish the commemoration of the centennial, or the bicentennial, or—God help us—the tricentennial. The literary world’s mania for anniversaries shows no signs of abating.
It would be tough to argue, though, that these dates aren’t worth commemorating. Has there been a more significant document written on English soil than the one embossed with the Great Seal of the Realm by King John at Runnymede on June 15, 1215? And this year’s centenary celebrants—Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, and Kafka’s Metamorphosis—are pillars of mid-20th century popular literature. They helped—through their widespread circulation—both to describe and define modernity.
Yet a significant moment will likely come and go next year without any fanfare, at all. 2016 will mark the 400th anniversary of the publication of William Drummond’s first book-length work: Poems Amorous, Funeral, Divine, Pastoral, in Sonnets, Songs, Sextains, Madrigals.
Drummond’s work is astonishing. In her essay,“On Fear,” first published in Poetry in June 2012—and subsequently included in the collection, Madness, Rack, and Honey—Mary Ruefle describes the work of Keats: “The suffering in these poems remains intact,” she writes, “it is neither resolved nor negated… perpetual fear is a propellant into the innocent, fearless, and vulnerable world of the senses.” This analysis could easily stand as an analysis of Drummond—who wrote with a fluidity and antipodal imagination that compares to Keats. Like many other Cavalier writers—who broke from the metaphysical concerns of their contemporaries and focused on everyday things—Drummond delved into the daily cruelties of human life:
If sorrow’s death is but new sorrow’s birth;
If this vain world be but a sable stage
Where slave-born man plays to the scoffing stars,
If youth be tossed with love, with weakness age,
If knowledge serve to hold our thoughts in wars;
If time can close the hundred mouths of fame,
And make, what long since past, like that to be,
If virtue only be an idle name,
If I when I was born, was born to die;
Why seek I to prolong these loathesome days?
The fairest rose in shortest time decays.
And Drummond’s biographical sketch readily betrays the roots of this kind of dark speculation. In 1613—or possibly 1614, the record is not completely clear—Drummond’s fiancée, a daughter of the Cunningham family of Barns, took ill with fever and died on their wedding day. The poet was shattered.
He’d inherited—four years earlier—Hawthornden, the family’s 120-acre estate to the south of Edinburgh. It was to this property that the young man retired—and began to fashion a solitary life for himself. Though he wasn’t quite a recluse, nearly all of Drummond’s friendships were epistolary. When the Marquis of Douglas invited him to visit the Marquis’ library, in 1639, Drummond demurred: “Being nearer manye historyes in diverse languages in myne own studye,” he wrote, “I can more convientlie peruse them than in your Lordship’s Castell, where I will be but like an artizan without tooles.”
His chief love became his estate’s many acres, and the grounds of the castle, itself, to which he even addressed poems. “Dear wood,” he wrote, “and you—sweet solitary place.” Until his death, in 1649, Drummond rarely ventured from its confines.
* * * *
Four hundred years later—the wooded solitude of Hawthornden still exists. The castle sits on top of a cliff overlooking the River North Esk. Over the centuries it has been renovated, somewhat, but the original footprint remains essentially in place. In all likelihood, some kind of structure has occupied that promontory since the Bronze Age.
And today—much like it was in 1615—Hawthornden is a peaceful retreat for writers. Mrs. Drue Heinz—the publisher of The Paris Review and formerly of Ecco Press, and one of the world’s foremost patrons of the literary arts—purchased the castle in 1985 to serve as an artist’s refuge. Over the last thirty years it has hosted hundreds of playwrights, poets, biographers, novelists, and short story writers from around the world. Ian Rankin, Helen Vendler, Jonathan Coe, Alasdair Gray—and many other luminaries—have been guests at Hawthornden.
There is no online application. You must request the forms in writing. They arrive, in turn, in an oversized A4 envelope—embossed with stamps from the Royal Mail—like a missive from another time. Their pages must be typed. Or—fascinatingly—written by hand.
“Many of the readers,” Director Hamish Robinson told me during my stay at the Castle this April, “are from the decades when legibly drafted handwriting was perfectly fine for official documents.”
This spring, I came to Hawthornden—with five other writers—at the turn of the seasons. The estate’s hills are densely wooded—studded with ash, hazel, Scots pine, wych elm, wild cherry and, yes, hawthorn. The effect of this is that a walk within Hawthornden’s gates feels like a walk beneath a canopy of birdsong.
There is no Internet. There is no cell phone service—except from a single place in the driveway, a little patch of asphalt where the trees have been cleared. And the days at Hawthornden are marked by a strict rule of silence. No one speaks between the hours of 9:30am and 6:00pm. No visitors are allowed.
Halfway through our time in residence, Mr. Robinson gave the Fellows a tour of the property. He lifted a grate in the castle’s central courtyard and we climbed down a ladder into a dungeon, one that—he indicated—had probably never been used for prisoners.
“What was it used for, then?” I asked.
“Storage, most likely,” Robinson said. “And we lock you in there if you post photos from the castle on Facebook.”
There was nervous laughter. Was he joking?
There was also an air of mystery around our patron. Mrs. Heinz—who is now 102 years old—rarely visits Hawthornden. But she did arrive—or seemed to arrive—at one point during our stay. Her driver appeared, as did a mysterious, eggplant-colored Lexus, which would meander between the library and the castle. We’d see it parked but never see it moving. It was a bit like a ghost, gliding along the gravel roads of the estate without making a sound.
One morning, we saw Mrs. Heinz’s driver leaving the kitchen, carrying a shotgun under his arm—possibly to hunt grouse in the surrounding countryside.
“Oh God,” the playwright said. “It’s the gun in the first act.”
We began reading, every evening—during the sherry hour before the formal meal—from books of Drummond’s verse. What became immediately evident was the vast power—and even more vast sorrow—at the center of his work.
O cruel beauty, meekness inhumane—
That night and day contend with my desire,
And seek my hope to kill, not quench my fire,
By death, not balm, to ease my pleasant pain.
Here we were, in 2015: A novelist from Zimbabwe, a short story writer from Austria, a playwright from Manhattan, a novelist from Canada, a biographer from Boston, and me—and Drummond could not have been more relevant to our lives. Two of us were finishing book manuscripts beneath the very roof that had sheltered him in his darkest days. We felt protected and safe and, most importantly, that our art was cared for—that it was significant, a worthwhile endeavor. This is something that everyday life in the modern world rarely—if ever—provides.
* * * *
No visitors allowed. It turns out that this policy has its roots in bygone centuries, as well. It seems that Charles Dickens tried to visit Hawthornden at the height of his fame—drawn by his admiration of Drummond, the poet, and by his desire to see a space that had been, so palpably, consecrated to the cause of literature. A periodical based in Boston, Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, reported the following in its 1859 edition:
During his recent visit to Edinburg, Dickens sought out the beautiful and classic scenery of Hawthornden… Mr. Dickens went there with an order for admission. When he got to the gate with his party, the old wrinkled woman who acts as Cerberus, refused most decidedly to let them in. Mr. Dickens was so astonished at the insolence of the old Scotch beldame in refusing admittance to such a respectable party as his, and such a handsome put-on as himself in particular, that he was driven to the desperate resource of appealing to his fame. ‘My good woman, my name’s Dickens, and I can’t come here every day.’ ‘I neither ken nor care what your name is,’ responded Cerberus, ‘but ye cana get in excep’ on regular days.’
This was, then, the lasting magic of William Drummond, the thing worth celebrating. The poet’s sanctuary—the physical embodiment of the poetry, itself—turned out to be as much a part of his life’s work as anything else. His legacy was manifold. Though time could ‘close the thousand mouths of fame,’ the castle would endure—unbreachable even by celebrity—its pale pink limestone walls standing as sanctuary above the meandering currents of the Esk.