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Literary Connections - Dover

© Paul Wells

Literary Connections - Dover


Literary Connections - Dover

Dover stands as the gateway to England. Over the years, many travellers have passed through on their way to the continent, and some have paused for long enough to give us their impressions – although not always complimentary!

Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), writing in 1724 in A TOUR THROUGH THE WHOLE ISLAND OF GREAT BRITAIN, was unimpressed by Dover. 'Neither Dover nor its Castle has anything of note to be said of them,’ he remarked, adding that the harbour and the pier were 'ill repaired, dangerous and good for little'.

But by 1823, William Cobbett (1763-1835) in his RURAL RIDES, found the town of Dover to be 'like other sea-port towns; but really much more clean, and with less blackguard people in it than I ever observed in any sea-port before. It is a most picturesque place, to be sure'.

More recently, in 1982, the American, Paul Theroux (1941-), gathering material for his book THE KINGDOM BY THE SEA, observed that 'Dover had a slight continental tang' ­'the town had a slightly garlicky flavour'.

Why not find out more by clicking on the headings below.

  • Seafront

    In 1851, the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) brought his new wife to Dover where the couple stayed before setting off for their honeymoon on the continent. That night, looking out from his window, Arnold captured the scene in verse. From this came the poem, DOVER BEACH, which was eventually published in 1867.

    The sea is calm to-night.
    The tide is full, the moon lies fair
    Upon the straits;
    on the French coast the light
    Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
    Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
    Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
    Only, from the long line of spray
    Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land,
    Listen! you hear the grating roar
    Of pebbles, which the waves draw back, and fling,
    At their return, up the high strand,
    Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
    With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
    The eternal note of sadness in.

  • St Mary's Church

    In 1816, Lord Byron (1788-1824) left England for good. He had become a villain in the popular imagination, accused of adultery, cruelty, incest and sodomy - and probably feared for his safety. In April, he came to Dover and stayed for two nights before sailing for Ostend. Such was his reputation that local women are said to have disguised themselves as chambermaids at the inn where he was staying, in order to see the infamous aristocrat for themselves. Waiting for the wind to change, Byron passed the time by visiting St Mary's churchyard where Charles Churchill - a well-known poet ­had been buried in 1764. The experience moved him to write an elegy when he reached Lake Geneva later that year. The grave is no longer there, but the poem remains.

    Churchill’s Grave

    I stood beside the grave of him who blazed
    The comet of a season, and I saw
    The humblest of all sepulchres, and gazed
    With not the less of sorrow and of awe
    On that neglected turf and quiet stone,
    With name no clearer than the names unknown,
    Which lay unread around it.

  • Dover Harbour

    In 1818 BYRON began his famous poem DON JUAN which contains several references to Dover, including this

    Don Juan now saw Albion’s earliest beauties,
    Thy cliffs dear Dover! harbour and hotel;
    Thy custom house, with all its delicate duties;
    Thy waiters running mucks at every bell;
    Thy packets, all whose passengers are booties;
    To those who upon land or water dwell;
    And last, not least, to stranger uninstructed;
    Thy long bills whence nothing is deducted.


  • Shakespeare Cliffs

    Did William Shakespeare (1564-1616) ever visit Dover? We cannot be sure but there is a scene in his play KING LEAR which takes place near the town. The old Earl of Gloucester, who bas been cruelly blinded, comes to Dover, wanting to end his wretched life. He knows of a cliff overlooking the sea and asks to be led there. The man he asks is - unknown to him - his son, Edgar, whom he had earlier banished. Filled with pity for his father, Edgar makes him believe he does in fact climb the cliff and throw himself off. Of course, Gloucester is unharmed - but there are some powerful descriptions of the view from the top of the cliff.

    'Come on, sir; here's the place: stand still. How fearful
    And dizzy 'tis to cast one's eyes so low!
    The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
    Show scarce so gross as beetles; half way down
    Hangs one that gathers sampire, dreadful trade!
    Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.
    The fishermen that walk upon the beach
    Appear like mice, and yond tall anchoring bark
    Diminish'd to her cock, her cock a buoy
    Almost too small for sight. The murmuring surge,
    That on th'unnumber'd idle pebble chafes,
    Cannot be heard so high.

    KING LEAR Act IV Scene VI (/608)

  • Samphire Hoe

    Samphire Hoe is an amazing place. Made from the material dug to create the Channel Tunnel and originally known as the Lower Shakespeare Cliff site, the famous quotation from King Lear above was the source of inspiration for the new name. In 1994, Eurotunnel and the Dover Express organized a competition to name this ‘newest piece of England’. Hundreds of entries were received from which the judges chose Samphire Hoe.

    Rock Samphire grows on the Hoe. For many years it was an important local plant, being collected and eaten.

  • Dover Castle

    Ian Fleming (1908-1964) - who has many links with the area­ describes Dover Castle as 'the wonderful cardboard castle' in his James Bond novel MOONRAKER, published in 1955.

    Lord Warden Square

    Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was a frequent visitor to East Kent. He knew the Lord Warden Hotel well enough to mention the proprietors - Mr and Mrs Birmingham - by name in his short piece THE CALAIS NIGHT MAlL of 1865. He tells of being in Dover, waiting on board the night packet 'for the South-Eastern Train to come down with the Mail'. He describes the 'many gay eyes of the Marine Parade' twinkling in the distance and then the arrival of the train itself: 'A screech, a bell, and two red eyes come gliding down the Admiralty Pier.' Only when the mail and the train's passengers are safely on board can the packet set sail for France.

  • White Cliffs

    A magnificent view awaits those who climb the cliffs above the town, as Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855) discovered. She had travelled with her brother, the poet, on a visit to France in 1802, and had been seasick on the return journey from Calais. So the pleasures of Dover acted as a great restorative, as she recalls in her diary entry for 30th August 1802.

    It was very pleasant to me, when we were in harbour
    at Dover, to breathe the fresh air, and to look up and
    see the stars among the Ropes of the vessel. The next
    day was very hot. We both bathed, and sat upon the
    Dover Cliffs, and looked upon France with many a
    melancholy and tender thought. We could see the
    shores almost as plain as if it were but an English lake.

    And, of course, we must include the lyrics from The White Cliffs of Dover written in 1941 by Walter Kent and Nat Burton. Vera Lynn made the words famous with her version in 1942 to lift the spirits of the troops during the Second World War.

    There'll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover
    tomorrow, just you wait and see.

    There'll be love and laughter and peace ever after
    tomorrow, when the world is free.

    The shepherd will tend his sheep
    The valley will bloom again
    and Jimmy will go to sleep
    in his own little room again.

    There'll be bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover
    tomorrow, just you wait and see.

  • East Cliff

    George Eliot - the pen name adopted by the novelist Marian Evans (1819-1880) - stayed at Sydney Villas, East Cliff, for five weeks in the spring of 1855. She set herself a rigorous routine, translating in the mornings, walking up Castle Hill or along the beach in the afternoons, and then returning to her lodgings to read and translate again. She wrote in a letter that she was enjoying the 'perfect quiet' and 'a bright sun shining on cliff and softly rounded hill and fringed sea'. When she left for London in April, it was to go and live with George Henry Lewes, who had finally separated from his wife.

    The other sonnet expresses his pleasure in seeing familiar country sights again, after the political turmoil of Europe.

    Peace greets us; - 
    rambling on without an aim
    We mark majestic herds of cattle free
    To ruminate couched on the grassy lea,
    And hear far-off the mellow horn proclaim
    The season's harmless pastime.


  • Admiralty Pier

    On 7th November 1820, William Wordsworth (1770-1850), with his wife and sister, Dorothy, landed in Dover - to their great relief. Their boat had struck the rocks just outside Boulogne, leaving them stranded. Fortunately they had been rescued by carts once the tide had turned - but the experience had not been a happy one. Wordsworth's delight at being safely back in England inspired him to write two sonnets. One opens with the poet standing on the Pier, looking back at the town.

    From the Pier's head, musing, and with increase
    Of wonder, I have watched this seaside Town,
    Under the white cliff's battlemented crown,
    Hushed to a depth of more than Sabbath peace.

    (AT DOVER - 1820)