With a Wreath of Laurel

While researching for my project, I stumbled upon an interesting history involving California’s first poet laureate, a bay tree on Mt. Tamalpais, and one of my favorite poets–the famous English Romantic Lord Byron. With a wreath of laurel leaves plucked from the branches of a California Bay, Ina Coolbrith resurrected the grave of Lord Byron. Here’s the story:



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Lord Byron’s burial site was in a grave state: the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, where he was buried, had fallen into ruin. Reports of Byron’s dilapidated resting grounds appalled Ina Coolbrith and her friend and fellow author Joaquin Miller, who both admired Lord Byron. Together they hiked around Mt. Tamalpias and made a laurel wreath with leaves from a bay tree growing along the trail. When Miller later traveled to England, he left the wreath at Byron’s gravesite. This sparked a bitter dispute between the clergy at St. Mary’s about whether a laurel wreath from California should adorn his grave. Eventually, the Bishop of Norwalk contacted the King of Greece, who sent a laurel wreath from his country, where Byron actually died. The two wreathes hung side by side over Byron’s grave. All the attention from the wreaths generated renewed interest in the church, and with financial support from England and Greece, the church was rebuilt in 1888.


In her poem “With a Wreath of Laurel,” Ina Coolbrith offers an ode to the laurel wreath that honored this fallen Romantic. She published it in 1881 in A Perfect Day and Other Poems.


The Literary Ranger