A Journey Through the History of Bristol Poets


Poetry has long been an integral part of Bristol’s rich cultural heritage. As a vibrant city in the southwest of England, Bristol has produced numerous celebrated poets who have contributed significantly to the evolution of English literature. This article aims to shed light on the history of poetry in Bristol, focusing on the contributions made by renowned Bristol poets, as well as the cultural milieu that nurtured their creativity.

A Flourishing Literary Scene

The history of poetry in Bristol can be traced back to the medieval period when the city was a prominent hub for trade and commerce. Bristol’s strategic location as a port city fostered a thriving community of writers and artists, who were drawn to its bustling atmosphere and dynamic intellectual environment. It was during this period that poets such as Thomas Rowley and William Canynge emerged as leading literary figures in Bristol.

Thomas Rowley and the Fifteenth Century

Thomas Rowley, a 15th-century poet and cleric, is one of the earliest known Bristol poets. Although much of his work has been lost to history, Rowley is best remembered for his poems inspired by the everyday life of Bristolians. He combined a keen observation of the human experience with a deep understanding of local customs and traditions, creating works that resonated with the people of his time. Rowley’s poetry is a valuable window into the social and cultural landscape of 15th-century Bristol.

William Canynge and the Merchant-Poets

Rippingille, Edward Villiers; The Funeral Procession of William Canynge (c.1399-1474), to St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, 1474; National Trust, Clevedon Court; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-funeral-procession-of-william-canynge-c-13991474-to-st-mary-redcliffe-bristol-1474-99629

Another prominent poet from Bristol’s history is William Canynge, a wealthy merchant who served as mayor of the city multiple times during the 15th century. Canynge’s poetry often reflected his mercantile background, drawing on themes related to trade, commerce, and civic life. His works provide an insight into the mindset of the city’s merchant-poets, who were both active participants in and keen observers of Bristol’s burgeoning economy.

The Romantic Period and the Birth of the Bristol School

The Romantic period witnessed a resurgence of poetic activity in Bristol, with the emergence of the Bristol School, a group of Romantic poets whose works were characterized by a focus on nature, emotion, and the individual. Founded by Robert Southey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Humphry Davy, the Bristol School played a significant role in shaping the trajectory of English Romanticism.

Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were two of the most prominent members of the Bristol School. Southey, a prolific poet and writer, is best known for his epic poems “Thalaba the Destroyer” and “The Curse of Kehama.” His works often touched on themes of exoticism, mythology, and the supernatural. Coleridge, on the other hand, was a groundbreaking poet and philosopher who, along with his close friend William Wordsworth, published the influential poetry collection “Lyrical Ballads.” Coleridge’s most famous poems, such as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan,” were characterized by their vivid imagery and innovative use of language.

Hannah More and Women Poets of Bristol

Women poets also made significant contributions to the literary scene in Bristol. Hannah More, an influential writer and social reformer, used her poetry to advocate for social change and the abolition of slavery. More’s works, such as “The Search After Happiness” and “Slavery, A Poem,” reflected her commitment to social justice and her belief in the power of poetry to transform society.

The Twentieth Century and Beyond

The 20th century saw the emergence of a new generation of Bristol poets who continued to shape the city’s poetic landscape. Charles Tomlinson, a leading figure in 20th-century British poetry, was born in Bristol and studied at the University of Bristol. His work was influenced by his experiences in the city, as well as his extensive travels. Tomlinson’s poetry often examined the relationship between the individual and the environment, exploring themes of nature, memory, and the passage of time. His innovative use of language and keen observation of the world around him earned him international acclaim.

Contemporary Bristol Poets

Miles Chambers Bristol Poet

In recent years, Bristol has continued to be a hub for innovative and diverse poetry. Poets such as Miles Chambers, Vanessa Kisuule, and Rebecca Tantony have emerged as leading voices in the city’s contemporary poetry scene. These poets draw on a range of influences, from spoken word and hip-hop to traditional literary forms, reflecting the multicultural and dynamic nature of modern Bristol.

Miles Chambers, a spoken word artist and poet, is known for his engaging performances and powerful exploration of social and political issues. His work often delves into themes of identity, race, and belonging, reflecting his own experiences growing up in Bristol. Vanessa Kisuule, the former Bristol City Poet, is an acclaimed writer and performer whose work similarly addresses themes of identity, culture, and the complexities of modern life. Rebecca Tantony, an award-winning poet and performer, is known for her evocative, sensory-rich poetry that transports readers into the landscapes and emotions she explores.

Poetry Festivals and Events in Bristol

Hotfest 2023

Bristol’s vibrant poetry scene is further supported by a thriving network of festivals, events, and workshops that celebrate the city’s rich literary heritage. The Bristol Poetry Festival, held annually, showcases local and international poets, offering readings, workshops, and panel discussions that engage both seasoned poets and newcomers to the art form. Other events, such as the Blahblahblah spoken word series, highlight the city’s flourishing spoken word and performance poetry scene, providing a platform for emerging and established poets to share their work.


The history of poetry in Bristol is a testament to the city’s enduring status as a hub for creativity and artistic expression. From the early days of Thomas Rowley and William Canynge to the pioneering voices of the Bristol School, and the contemporary poets who continue to push the boundaries of the form, Bristol’s poetic heritage has evolved in step with the city’s social, cultural, and economic transformations. Today, Bristol remains a vibrant center for poetry, with a diverse community of poets who continue to explore new forms, themes, and perspectives, ensuring that the city’s rich tradition of poetic excellence endures well into the future.