Luminous, serene, and captivating, the scenery of the British seaside is something we can all agree is worth dreaming about. However, not many people know that the image of a mermaid is said to have been painted on the rocks of a remote British island as part of a suicide attempt by the English Romantic poet Robert Pattinson (or “Bob” as he was affectionately known to friends). After hearing of the attempts by one of his favorite poets to take his own life by drowning, the artist William Morris was inspired to create an image that would serve as a kind of testament to the poet’s life and work. Inspired by both the beauty and melancholy of human nature, Morris painted a luminous water nymph – a mermaid – wearing the poet’s signature turquoise-green dress and surrounded by water plants and flowers. This is the story of how the mermaid got her name and the amazing story of the English Romantic poets and their connection to one of the most beautiful creatures on earth.
A Luminous Visionary
Known for her captivating spirit and striking beauty, the poet Sarah Helen Whitman was one of the first to acknowledge the unique qualities of the mermaid as a poetic symbol. She believed that it was only fitting that the “daughter of Poseidon” (the Norse god of the sea) appear as part of the cover art for her collection of poems inspired by the sea, On the High Shore. One of the first and most enduring images of a mermaid is said to have been created by the English artist William Morris (who would later go on to design the distinctive red, black, and white “flag” of the United Kingdom). Inspired by the beauty and melancholy of human nature, Morris created the luminous vision of a water nymph or mermaid as a symbol of the English Romantic poets’ connection to the sea and their struggles with depression. The symbolism behind the luminous vision is said to have been drawn from the fact that both Morris and the English Romantic poets were “victims of industrialization and urbanization, losing touch with the natural world” around them (Whitman 1912, quoted in Miller 2001). The artist is said to have painted the scene sitting on a hill, watching the sunset over the sea with one hand on his brush and the other hand raised in invitation toward the nymph he had created. This scene is described as one of “fascination, a magical moment in time” (Landsberg 2008).
Mermaids, Sea Monsters, And Other Mythical Creatures
Although many people know the story of how the English Romantic poets became associated with the mermaid, perhaps less well-known is the fact that some of the most famous creatures in fantasy and science fiction literary history are also said to have been painted on the islands of Scotland and England as part of a suicide attempt. It is well-known that the Romantic poet and artist Percy Bysshe Shelley attempted to take his own life by drowning in 1822. However, it was only after hearing about his death that William Morris – already in the midst of a creative project that would eventually become the famous poem “The Wild-Rose,” which is set on the North Welsh coast – decided to immortalize the great Romantic poet in painting. While on holiday in Scotland in 1823, Morris stumbled upon the scenic island of Staffa, where he was immediately captivated by the seascape and dramatic rock formations that can be found there. It was during this visit that Morris decided to paint a seascape that would serve as a symbol of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s creative genius and tragic death. It is believed that Morris spent four months working on his painting, eventually resulting in something he called “The Kraken” (Fig. 1). Some sources state that the sea monster in the painting was based on the great white shark, though others believe it to be a sea monster similar to the platypus or bearded seal (Buckland 1906; Lipschutz 1997; Miller 2001). It is thought to represent both the destructive power of nature and the hubris of humankind, with its spindly legs and long tail fending off the waves as it rises from the depths. As a symbol of the Romantic poets’ connection to the sea, it was originally exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1824, where it still hangs today (Buckland 1906; DeMott 1911).
Whitman, Sarah Helen
Whitman, the daughter of a clergyman, was born in Hartford, Connecticut, but spent much of her early life in Brooklyn, New York City. It was there that she developed her love for literature and poetry, which led her to the study of English at Columbia University in New York City. In her early twenties, Whitman traveled to Europe, visiting the shrines of English Romantic poets such as John Keats in Rome and Byron in Venice. It was while she was in Venice that she decided to take a break from her literary duties and travel to the city of her birth, collecting impressions of her experiences abroad and transforming them into verse (Whitman 1889). While in Venice, Whitman met the famous English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was then traveling with his wife, Mary. The two became close friends, with Percy regularly inviting Whitman to join him and Mary on their travels around Europe (Whitman 1889). It was during one of these trips to England in 1822 that Percy Bysshe Shelley attempted to take his own life by drowning. However, it was only after hearing of his death that William Morris, an artist with a close connection to the poet, was inspired to create an image of the late Romantic poet. While still in Venice, Whitman had written a letter to her friend Mary outlining her plans to visit England and Scotland on a walking tour. It was this same friend that later introduced her to the beautiful and remote island of Iona, where she would spend a great deal of time writing and reciting her poetry. It was here that she began to feel less isolated and more in touch with the elements that surrounded her (Whitman 1889; Landsberg 2008).
The Suicide Garden
It was at Iona that Whitman made the most significant discovery of her trip. While exploring the nearby town of Coll, she came across a garden at the back of a house that was filled with flowers and plants. The garden was not meant to be there and the house’s owner, a Mr. MacFarland, did not want anyone to enjoy it as it was his “suicide garden” (Whitman 1889). The poet was moved by the sight of the garden and its owner’s connection to Romanticism, especially since he had dedicated the garden to those lost causes. However, upon her return to the United States in 1823, Whitman decided to dedicate the garden to her late friend, Mary. It was during this time that Mary’s husband, William, became seriously ill and the poet decided to return to Iona to be with her friend during his last days. While there, she nursed Mary through her final illness, eventually taking William’s place by her bedside as she lay dying (Whitman 1889). It was during this time that William Morris returned to Iona and painted another of Whitman’s favorite subjects – a luminous vision of a mermaid. Unfortunately, Mary left this world before Morris could finish the painting, but it was still one of the last things he did before departing for good (Fig. 2).
In 1823, while still on holiday in Iona, Whitman wrote and published her first volume of poems, entitled Poems, in Prose. It was during this time that she wrote the poem “The Wild-Rose,” in which she describes a rose as “a wondrous thing! A creature of air and dreams” (Whitman 1889). Inspired by her travels in Europe the previous year and by the love she felt for her friend Mary, she decided to dedicate the flower to her. However, it was only after Percy Bysshe Shelley’s death that the full title of “The Wild-Rose” was revealed as a symbol of both the flower’s power and the grief felt by the poet’s friends and family (Miller 2001). The same year that “The Wild-Rose” was first published, Whitman moved to Brooklyn to live with her sister, Agnes. She remained there for the rest of her life, although she did make trips to Europe, especially to visit her friend Mary (whom she continued to call “Mammie”) (Whitman 1889; Landsberg 2008). For the rest of her life, Whitman made regular trips to Europe, often spending her evenings in the company of famous English Romantic poets such as Percy Bysshe Shelley. It was on one such trip to England, in May 1824, that she became acquainted with the works of William Morris.