I have spent most of my life between Keats and Rimbaud. Keats and Fanny Brawne met next to the library I used as a child. Rimbaud slapped Verlaine with a fish near the pool where I learnt to swim. Now I live between Rosenberg and MacNeice and a stone’s throw from the home of Edmund Gosse, a poet who knew he wasn’t really a poet but who wrote an extraordinary memoir, Father and Son, which recalls growing up as the child of a Victorian Creationist. Gosse spent his childhood isolated and housebound. His escape was a garret, a "fairy place" where he discovered a strange box.

He asked his father about it and was told it was a hatbox. The boy’s response was to try to wear it. There was also a trunk in the garret lined with pages from a sensational novel. Gosse read this as fact: "the idea of fiction, of a deliberately invented story, had been kept from me with entire success." He believed in the lady fleeing her country to escape villainous rogues. He looked up "minion" and "mask" in the dictionary but their meaning cast no light. That the story ended in the middle of one of its most exciting sentences "wound me up almost to a disorder of wonder and romance."

How to achieve wonder and romance? How to achieve disorder when it has become a form of order? How to read as if the pages have escaped their covers and the words their drag? How to read as if you’re reading what’s actually out there? How to write like this too?

Gosse didn’t give up on that hatbox. He tried repeatedly to carry it on his head as if insisting it make sense of itself. As for the rogues and the minion in the mask, he feared for his mother whenever she left the house.

Originally Published: April 5th, 2012

Lavinia Greenlaw has published three books of poems, most recently Minsk. Her two novels are Mary George of Allnorthover and An Irresponsible Age and she has also published a memoir, The Importance of Music to Girls. Her work for BBC radio includes programs about the Arctic, the Baltic, the solstices...