Monday, 10 December 2012

The Modern Sublime? Gaming and the Romantic Imagination

Edmund Burke
Perhaps the best-known definition of the sublime is from Edmund Burke's 1757 work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Here, Burke described the now-familiar dichotomy between the "feminine" beautiful and the "masculine" sublime. Beauty is found in objects or landscapes which are visually 'smooth' (rolling hills, for example); beauty is "that quality or those qualities in bodies by which they cause love, or some passion similar to it". The sublime, on the other hand, is accessed through experiences of the 'terrible'; that is, objects, landscapes or experiences which invoke fear or notions of vastness: "it is impossible to look on any thing as trifling, or contemptible, that may be dangerous". Felix Baumgartner's recent jump from space may be identified as a sublime experience: his view from the top of the jump incorporated the vastness of the globe, and the jump itself was undeniably sublimely terrifying.

Clearly, not all of us - not even most of us - are able to access sublime experiences in this way. Like the Romantic poets before us, we must find more everyday ways of locating the sublime. Unlike the Romantics, however, we are not looking to the natural world to access it, but to a virtual one. Jane McGonigal, from the Institute for the Future, describes in her 2010 lecture "Gaming can make a better world" how "we" currently spend 3 billion hours per week playing online games like World of Warcraft. She argues that the reason that spending such vast amounts of time in virtual worlds is appealing is because it is in those online landscapes and as part of those gaming communities that we can become "the best version of ourselves". Games like World of Warcraft, so McGonigal suggests,  allow gamers to experience deep bonds of trust as part of a collaborative community who work together to achieve world-changing goals, or an "epic win". In light of the 10,000 hours it is estimated many gamers will have already been interacting within such gaming communities by the age of 21, McGonigal asks how the skills learned in these virtual worlds may be applied to solving real-world problems like climate change and global hunger.

Part of the map of Skyrim.
World of Warcraft first came into existence back in 1994. It has since constructed (and continues to expand  upon) an "epic story"; players of WoW have accumulated a staggering 5.93 million years of gameplay, and have contributed to the second largest Wiki after Wikipedia. It is this vastness of time and resources that make WoW a sublime experience: as Burke suggested, "when we go but one step beyond the immediately sensible qualities of things, we go out of our depth". If the player's individual experience is that "immediately sensible" quality, then the huge virtual world, and its vast number of inhabitants, is something "out of our depth". Gameplay on this scale is in itself a sublime experience.

Game designers now are increasingly exploring the sublime possibilities of gameplay. Bethesda's 2011 game The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is the latest installment of The Elder Scrolls series which, like WoW, also emerged in 1994 (although this is not an online multi-player game). Like WoW, The Elder Scrolls series is formed around a central epic narrative which stretches back thousands of years. Like WoW, too, it has its own impressive Wiki. Skyrim takes advantage of the rapid graphical developments of the last few years; the player may go almost anywhere on the vast map, and the mind of the Skyrim player is, in Burkean terms, "bounded by the bounds of the object" - in this case, the map. Skyrim re-imagines the sublime mountainous landscapes of the northern hemisphere into this virtual world: the natural experiences of the Romantic poets are transfigured into the virtual experiences of the modern gamer.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above a Sea of Fog.
This image became iconic for Romantic explorations
of the sublime.

Ikmik the High Elf surveying the Skyrim landscape.
Arguably nothing encapsulated the Romantic sublime experience more than the re-imaginings of the mountain experience. Whether it was Percy Bysshe Shelley's Alpine descriptions, Frankenstein's polar excursion, or Wordsworth's climbing of Snowdon, the Romantics almost universally located the sublime in the ice-tipped peaks of the highest regions of the world. Wordsworth described his ascent of Mount Snowdon in The Prelude (1850):
There I beheld the emblem of a mind
That feeds upon infinity, that broods
Over the dark abyss, intent to hear
Its voices issuing forth to silent light
In one continuous stream; a mind sustained
By recognitions of transcendent power,
In sense conducting to ideal form,
In soul of more than mortal privilege.
One function, above all, of such a mind
Had Nature shadowed there, by putting forth,
'Mid circumstances awful and sublime,
That mutual domination which she loves
To exert upon the face of outward things,
So moulded, joined, abstracted, so endowed
With interchangeable supremacy,
That men, least sensitive, see, hear, perceive,
And cannot choose but feel.
 The awe-inspiring landscape ignites similarly vast thought's in the poet's mind; his imagination becomes "mighty" through its contemplation of this "awful and sublime" sight. The mountain is sublime because it excites sentiments of eternity: the mind "feeds upon infinity", and the poet can look into "the dark abyss"; that is, his mind can reach inestimable heights and unfathomable depths, and the fear inspired by both is sublimely terrible. The poet's mind is formed through its experiences of the natural world.

More scenes from Skyrim.
Similarly, in Skyrim the inhabitants are frequently described as being necessarily hardy: their approach towards romantic love and marriage encapsulates the effects of the inhospitable landscape on their lives. The people of Skyrim, we are told, marry quickly once they have decided on a mate, because lives are precious in a land of extreme weather and unstable politics. The player is, then, submerged into a narrative predicated upon this imagined landscape, but the game goes further than this. The game seeks to enthrall the player through its use of the virtual, visual sublime; the player who remains stationery inside can nevertheless vicariously experience the "awful" natural world. Just as the Romantics seemed to retreat into the natural world, the modern gamer, according to Edward Castronova, is partaking in "a mass exodus to virtual worlds and online game environments". If McGonigal is to be believed, these gamers, like the Romantics, may use their experiences in these imaginative or virtual landscapes to impact upon the real world.

If, as McGonigal suggests, gamers partake in these worlds because there they can become the best they can be, then they can also use these worlds to engage in experiences they will probably never have in their own, real lives. The modern gamer does not need to leave their home in order to experience the "mode of terror" which, Burke argues, "is always the cause of the sublime". Games developers can involve them in a world whereby they can access both the vast landscapes of the natural world, and those of their own "mighty mind[s]".

Thursday, 8 November 2012

'In the family': living with the Coleridge surname

In her memoir In Pursuit of Coleridge, Kathleen Coburn remembered her first visit to the then Lord Coleridge in 1930. Lord Geoffrey Coleridge (a descendant of Samuel Taylor’s elder brother James and nephew John ‘Justice’ Coleridge) was less than enthusiastic about the memory of his famous ancestor. Coburn recalled his somewhat intrepid response:
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1795
Old Sam was only a poet, you know, never did anything practical that was any good to anybody, actually not thought much of in the family, a bit of a disgrace in fact, taking drugs and not looking after his wife and children. Of course STC must have been a wonderful man – in a way – he was somehow clever enough to take in so many great men – but why a young girl like you should spend your time on the old reprobate, I can’t think! All those badly-written scribblings – couldn’t even write a decent hand that ordinary people can read – full of stuff and nonsense. But all you pedants live on this sort of thing. Useless knowledge, perfectly useless. Now I at least know something about beef cattle... 
Lord Geoffrey unwittingly encapsulated the trouble with his great-great-uncle: simultaneously ‘a bit of a disgrace’ and a ‘wonderful man’, Samuel Taylor cannot be an easy ancestor to bear the brand of. His surname could act as a powerful talisman for the Coleridges who followed him. His daughter Sara suggested that they would be of interest to posterity only as ‘psychological curiosities’, and that is, perhaps, still where the interest begins, even if it is not where it ends up. Literary agent Gill Coleridge, a descendant of Lord Justice Coleridge, kindly spoke to me about her experiences of her surname. ‘When she set us poetry to write for homework, my English teacher used to say to me, ‘I shall expect something extra special from you,’’ Gill remembered. ‘Of course, she completely put me off.’  Gill’s childhood experiences of the expectations invoked by her surname recall Sara’s complicated responses to it; because of her surname, Gill, too, became another Coleridgean ‘psychological curiosity’, for her English teacher at least. ‘But it was not a curse,’ Gill is careful to reiterate; for her and other family members it has been far more a blessing than otherwise.
Lord John 'Justice' Coleridge

Anthony Coleridge, whose career titles are diverse enough to rival his polymathmatical ancestor’s, includes in his Twitter description the titillating accolade ‘Poet Relation’, and has blogged under the title ‘The Proclamations of A Young Opium Eater’. Here, of course, the drug-taking Samuel Taylor is invoked as a point of something like pride; Anthony, we can assume from this title, has inherited the visionary, artistic side-effects which allegedly resulted in poetic masterpieces like ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘The Pains of Sleep’. In the dual invocation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey, Anthony self-consciously styles himself as a modern Romantic, moving through an artistic scene just as his ancestor did two-hundred years ago.

Jacques Derrida suggested that a surname,
risks to bind, to enslave or to engage the other, to link the called, to call him/her to respond even before any decision or any deliberation, even before any freedom.
A surname – any surname – can trap the individual, can ‘bind’ them to a specific idea that is constructed even before they are born; it is this nominal slavery that Sara and Hartley Coleridge’s critics responded to; that, in the 1890s, responses to Mary Elizabeth Coleridge continued; and that, well into the twentieth century,  Gill Coleridge’s English teacher persisted in maintaining.  It is, then,  other people who use the name as an enslavement; for the bearers, it is a site of engagement, a place of recalling and reinterpreting past associations of the name, and challenging them until they become, once again, individual.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Wikipedia and Academia

Wikipedia: the undergraduate essay marker's nightmare. How many of us have been reduced to tears of anguish at seeing a bibliography full of citations derived from that capricious source?

Wikipedia can be a really great resource; who hasn't Googled an unknown fact, and clicked on the first link to find out more? Inevitably, that first link will be from Wikipedia. Which is fine, so long as we never admit to it in a professional or academic setting.

Photo: Jo Taylor. The British Library - just as proof that the sun
has shone a bit this year.
But - and those of a nervous disposition should look away now - times are changing. At least, so hopes the British Library's "Wikipedian in Residence," Andrew Gray. Andrew is the first to fulfill a post that reveals much about the new directions being explored research institutions: this AHRC-funded position reveals not only the British Library's interest in the potential of Wikipedia, but also funding councils' awareness of its ever-increasing importance for individual researchers and academia more broadly.

On Friday afternoon, I attended the AHRC's Wikipedia workshop, run by Andrew and held at the British Library. It aimed to introduce arts and humanities researchers into the somewhat daunting arena of Wikipedia contribution. As well as an overview of the history of Wikipedia, and providing a sense of the project's immense scale in 'real', numerical terms, the workshop helpfully guided us Wiki-beginners through the process of constructing a profile, engaging with other users and contributing our own knowledge to that vast compendium of knowledge, useful and otherwise. Several issues were thrown up: the construction of that all-important online identity; communicating (nicely) with our fellow Wikipedians; and disseminating our own research in that increasingly-important public-friendly manner.

The online identity is an issue well explored by several others (see, for example, this Guardian article or this post by Charlotte Mathieson), and all that should be added to these already great discussions is a reminder (and one stressed throughout the workshop) that Wikipedia is completely open access - so, if you're going to use a name identifiable with your real one, make sure that you're happy for anyone and everyone (including potential employers and funders) to read your contributions. Even if you delete something later, the action will be visible in the site's easily accessible history. If that sounds scary, it should; to quote an old cliché, everything you say can and will be used against you.

A screen-grab of the edit history page of Samuel Taylor
Coleridge's Wikipedia entry.
Don't, then, fall into the trap of disrespecting your fellow users. Yes, of course it will be frustrating when someone changes something you've added. It may be something that you're an expert on; you may be completely certain that you are right, and your new Wiki-nemesis is not. Nevertheless, be nice. Be sympathetic. That goes, too, for the way you write your posts: Wikipedia may be a uniquely helpful resource for the academic looking to hone their pubic engagement skills. If you write something incomprehensible to the average reader, it will be changed - often, quickly. (As Ben Fenton noted on Twitter this morning, it took 90 seconds for the news of Alvin Roth's Nobel prize to make it onto Wikipedia.) Wikipedia entries are dynamic texts: they are constantly changing, revised by contributors the world over. It's not difficult to imagine Wikipedia being used as a resource for the academic of the future; the changes made to those pages can reveal much about changing attitudes towards institutions, people, or ideas. They can reflect general attitudes towards knowledge as much as the growth of that knowledge itself. Don't assume, too, that your topic will already be there, or that there won't be something you can add - in all likelihood, you will be able to contribute something new.

Anyone wondering who actually cares about their research, head to Wikipedia; you may be surprised by who is already engaging with your area of interest. And if no-one is already, make a page - they soon will be.

Monday, 8 October 2012

The short Romantic

"I am brief myself," Hartley Coleridge declared, "brief in stature..." It is enough to make the short researcher rejoice - "Hurrah!" I cried (or should have), "I have something in common with my researchee!" - until we read on: "...brief in discourse, short of memory and money, and far short of my wishes." "Li'l Hartley", as he was called by his Grasmere neighbours throughout his adult life, was a part of that select group of nineteenth-century writers: those who, in John Keats's words, were "five feet hight." Derwent Coleridge recalled in his "Memoir" of his brother that
The singularity of his appearance, by which he was distinguished through life, and which, together with the shortness of his stature, (possibly attributable in some measure to his premature birth,) had a marked influence on the formation of his character, was apparent from the first...
Hartley Coleridge - possessed of a
"singularity of appearance"
Samuel Taylor Coleridge noted this "singularity" of appearance, writing to a friend after his wife had told him of the similarities between his own looks and the baby's that "in truth, I have received finer compliments in my time." Hartley was not destined to be the looker of his family (that accolade was left for his younger sister Sara, a renowned beauty in her youth). That his looks affected his life Hartley was in no doubt; he was painfully aware of the affect of his appearance on women. But Derwent's suggestion that they affected his character from a young age is telling; it is an early indication of the self-conscious connections between his body and his mind that Hartley was to acknowledge increasingly as he got older, and which others were to notice more and more as his alcohol consumption increased. For Hartley, as for his relatives, his short stature was taken as a metaphor for his disappointing creative output. Echoing his brother's essay, Derwent Coleridge suggested that "all who knew my brother with any degree of intimacy, are agreed that his written productions fall far, very far short of what he might, under happier circumstances, have achieved."

For John Keats, too, this sensitivity about his short stature was self-consciously bound up with his anxieties regarding women. As he wrote in July 1818,

I am certain I have not a right feeling towards Women--at this moment I am striving to be just to them but I cannot--Is it because they fall so far beneath my Boyish imagination? When I was a Schoolboy I thought a fair Woman a pure Goddess, my mind was a soft nest in which some one of them slept though she knew it not--I have no right to expect more than their reality. I thought them etherial above Men--I find them perhaps equal.... I do not like to think insults in a Lady's Company--I commit a Crime with her which absence would have not known--Is it not extraordinary? When among Men I have no evil thoughts, no malice, no spleen--I feel free to speak or to be silent--I can listen and from every one I can learn--my hands are in my pockets I am free from all suspicion and comfortable. When I am among Women I have evil thoughts, malice spleen--I cannot speak or be silent--I am full of Suspicions and therefore listen to no thing--I am in a hurry to be gone--You must be charitable and put all this perversity to my being disappointed since Boyhood–. . . I could say a good deal about this but I will leave it in hopes of better and more worthy dispositions--and also content that I am wronging no one, for after all I do think better of Womankind than to suppose they care whether Mister John Keats five feet hight likes them or not.
John Keats: just "five feet hight"
However, Keats's concerns about women seem to be a cipher for his height-related anxieties about his creative abilities. When he was young, before his shortness upset him, women could sleep in the "soft nest" of his mind; that young mind was then a willing receptacle, open to divine inspiration. This older, self-consciously small poet is affected to his creative detriment: the "Goddess" of his youth resided in his imagination, producing "fair", fruitful thoughts; the real women he meets as an adult inhibit this creative process. It is not a process which men can help him with: although men enable him to "speak" or to "listen," they do not engage his mind in an active process of poetic creation. Keats's poetic power is, it seems, androgynous; a feminine aspect is necessary. His identity as a man, too, is bound up with his awareness of his perceived unmanly height: "five feet hight" seems almost an addition to his name, as if it is both of these attributes which defines the poet to both himself and to "Womankind."

Fortunately, perhaps, for those short people who long for an extra few inches, neither of these men are remembered predominantly for being short, just as Byron is not remembered for his height. It is those other connotations of brevity which are far more damaging. Hartley's complaints of his shortness are from a rather long essay entitled "On Brevity", which Hartley cuts short from an awareness that he has already exceeded his point. It is a playful essay, and indicates the extent to which this creative or professional "brevity" lies entirely in the writer's hands to solve.

(Brevity of money, on the other hand, he provides no answers for. Sorry.)

Wednesday, 5 September 2012


Photo: Jo Taylor. One of the exhibitions at the
Wordsworth Museum. The shape of the
River Derwent, with manuscript and typed poetry
overlaid within it.
Anyone who says that poetry is dead should come to Grasmere. The economy of the village is predicated upon poetry; Wordsworth haunts the visitor, whether or not you really want him too. Every street corner has a different quotation from either his poems or Dorothy's journals; every bar and eaterie seems to be seeking authentication through a connection with the family. And, of course, the various Wordsworth abodes surround the village, from Dove Cottage to Rydal, and the newly-opened Allan Bank. Thomas Hardy, on a visit to Grasmere in 1911, wrote that
Wordsworth's grave and headstone are looking very trim and new. A group of tourists who have never read a line of him sit near, addressing and sending off picture postcards…
Not much has changed, apart from the tourists' reading habits; even if you've never read a line of Wordsworth before you arrive, you'll have read several (and several family members' besides) by the time you leave. This written presence is supplemented by the oral, in the guise of regular poetry readings organised by the Wordsworth Trust and patronised by locals and tourists alike. Last night (Tuesday), Grasmere welcomed former-laureate Andrew Motion to St. Oswald's church. It was an appropriate venue: Reading from his new collection The Customs House (thanks to Faber & Faber for the advanced preview) Motion conjured up the literary ghosts of, among others, Siegfried Sassoon, Keats and, naturally, Wordsworth. He spoke from beneath a plaque, Wordsworth's marble head gazing down, and Wordsworth's grave (lying amongst those of Dorothy, his wife Mary, and several of his children, with Hartley Coleridge nestled amongst them) just outside the window. Motion read from his novel, Silver, a sequel to Treasure Island. Motion explained that he thought sequels only work if they are far enough removed from the original to allow the audience to gain a fresh perspective of the new story. This theory of a novelist fit well with the poet standing in a graveyard of poets, putting his own spin on talking in the 'language of real men' to evoke emotions his audience could really feel. It was inevitable that this reading would be coloured with comparison; in a village where you're constantly reminded of the dead poets of the canon, the modern poet must push through these ghosts to make their own voice heard.

Photo: Jo Taylor. St. Oswald's Church
Motion's talk this morning, on the poetry of Edward Thomas, fulfilled a different function. Here was Motion the academic, returning to the topic he did his MPhil in, and bringing a new audience to the poet. As he said of his old English teacher, he invited the audience 'into his head'. And that, too, is what Grasmere seems to be doing. If its heart is the landscape, its head is the poetry inspired by it, and Grasmere is then in a constant state of issuing invitations to enter it. It seems to work; the descendents of the tourists Hardy encountered visit today, take photos of the graves, and leave feeling a little more connected to the poets who lie there. This process of passing on interest is in itself a form of inheritance; I was amused, and not a little gratified, when I went to take photos of Hartley Coleridge's grave (much more unkempt than those of the Wordsworth clan) to notice that when I left, my attention to the stone had piqued the interest of a lady standing behind me.
Photo: Jo Taylor. Hartley Coleridge's grave

Grasmere now, then, stands as a monument to poets past and an invitation to poets now; simultaneously, it recalls readers of the past, and invites modern readers to join them. And what's more, it seems to work.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Dibble in the Slices

This week finds me in the Lake District; specifically, I'll be spending my days in the Jerwood Centre at Dove Cottage. Blogging this week will temporarily offer different fare, then: my week among the 65,000 manuscripts and rare books on offer in this idyllic part of England. (A shorter way of saying this would be "Romantic researcher heaven".) I will try and refrain from harping on about the amazing breakfasts, courtesy of my base for the week at the rather lovely Forest Side Hotel (but they deserve several posts on their own).

Photo: Jo Taylor. Young enters North Staffs, leaving Cheshire
with a dig about their rubbish horses.
Aside from attempting (badly) to decipher the letters of Coleridges writing in various degrees of sobriety, I'm doing a few tasks for the Jerwood Centre team. My first task this morning involved delving in to Arthur Young's four-volume account, A Six Months Tour Through the North of England (1771). The account begins near Hull, and follows Young on his journey south, along the way taking in Newcastle-on-Tyne, Yorkshire, the Lake District, Liverpool, Lancashire and Cheshire, among other places. Young toured the country, visiting local landmarks and, essentially, comparing the different methods of cabbage-growing. Young discusses the soil quality of the areas he visits, examines the local industry (including the wages of the workforce), and includes diagrams of the farm machinery in use. 

Fascinating though I undoubtedly find the growing habits of different varieties of 'ternips', it wasn't the agricultural information that caught my eye. No, what really got my attention was scan-reading a page, only to see the phrase "I had the pleasure of viewing... Burslem". Naturally, I had then to read on. 

Top photo: High Street, Newcastle, 1895.
Bottom Photo: Jo Taylor. All praise Wedgwood (and, specifically, his
canny business partner)
Young enters into a detailed description of the various manufactories around "Newcastle-under-line". He credits the famous Mr. Wedgwood with establishing a thriving local economy; all other potters, he says, are "little better than mere imitators". Mr. Wedgwood has, it seems, 
lately entered into partnership with a man of sense and spirit, who will have taste enough to continue in the investing plan, and not suffer, in case of accidents, the manufactories to decline.
How this relates to the Potteries now, I will leave for others to discuss; needless to say, perhaps, that a similar man "of sense and spirit" would find plenty to do nearly two and a half centuries later! Regardless, Young's congratulation of North Staffordshire generally, and the Wedgwood potteries particularly, serve as a quaint reminder of the hope invested in the Stoke-on-Trent area at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when the Burslem potteries were on the cutting edge of industrialisation and the technology that went with it.

Photo: Jo Taylor. Newcastle: home of hats.
Newcastle and the land south of it towards Stone, on the other hand, is praised for its "beauty" - but it's not the picturesque description Young indulges in when discussing the Yorkshire fells or the "cataracts" of the Lakes (invocations of the sublime and beautiful that would make Coleridge and Wordsworth take to their notebooks). No, Newcastle and the surrounding land is praised for a different kind of beauty; a more specialized version, if you will: "From Newcastle southwards the country improves greatly in beauty: The soil towards Stone is generally a sandy loam." Young, to give him due credit, has the mind of the truly optimistic pragmatist: Burslem is fortunate to lie in the midst of such an apparently unending profusion of coal, and Newcastle's ability to grow a wide variety of crops (although sadly some farmers adopt 'a vile as well as strange' course in the rotation of these). Newcastle did not only rely on agriculture, however: it also possessed "a considerable manufactory of shoes and hats". The shoe workers earned significantly less than those in the hat business: a worker in a shoe factory earned between 10d and 2s a day, whilst those in the hat line earned 7-10s a week. (Young seems to engage in some subtle social criticism when discussing wages; his alternations between daily and weekly calculations often seems designed to shock the reader.)
Photo: Jo Taylor. Young considers local agricultural practices.
 Cows & potatoes good.
Beans bad.

Nevertheless, Young presents an image of North Staffordshire that fits in well with his idyllicised descriptions of the more northerly parts of England. Certainly, it is an optimistic representation to the point of outright falsehood; although we may find traces of social criticism, Young deliberately overlooks the poor working and living conditions of the "Poor man". Regardless, it's a good reminder of the things Stoke still does have to offer. We're told that Hollywood directors are being invited to Stoke; maybe they should follow Young's footsteps.
Photo: Jo Taylor. Young heads on towards Rugeley

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Coleridge at the Olympics

So, it's all over, and we must now come back down from the highs of London 2012 and recommence our usual griping about what David Cameron isn't doing, Ed Miliband says he would never have done, and Nick Clegg says he would have done if only the circumstances had been right and he got what he wanted in return anyway.

I will, genuinely, quite miss the Olympics. I was fully prepared to spend the fortnight indulging in various 'look how we've messed it up today' conversations, and in the event had none. Further than that, I actually spent a large proportion of the Olympics praising the organisers, the volunteers, and the athletes. I must even confess a newly-discovered soft spot for Lord Coe. But I also must confess that I was drawn to the Olympics by an ulterior motive: a quest to see how many Coleridge references made it into the Games.

Probably not what Coleridge had in mind.
Now, of course, literature was set up as a reference point from the earliest moments of the games; the opening ceremony was themed for Blake's 'Jerusalem' and the 'satanic mills' became the Miltonic 'Pandemonium' on Danny Boyle's gloriously frenetic stage. I was already hooked, and engaged on my new Olympic mission, by the time the cameras swept down into the pastoral stadium, though. My post-Coleridge conference euphoria was maintained by the introductory sequence of the opening ceremony, the 'Isles of Wonder'. Starting at the source of the Thames, we follow the river from its source, through the countryside of pre-Industrial England, passing poppy fields, cricket matches and Wind in the Willows characters, into the heart of the City. Coleridge would have, perhaps, been proud to see one his several unfulfilled poetic ideas come to fruition on such an epic stage - and only 178 years and 2 days after his death (I can't imagine why this momentous anniversary wasn't highlighted). In his 1817 sort-of-autobiography, sort-of-social-commentary, sort-of-just-a-general-whine-about-critics-and-other-writers-who-were-more-successful-than-him Biographia Literaria, Coleridge outlined his grand idea for a long poem:
I sought for a subject that should give equal room and freedom for description, incident and impassioned reflections on men, nature and society, yet supply in itself a natural connection to the parts, and unity to the whole. Such a subject I conceived myself to have found in a stream, traced from its source in the hills among the yellow-red moss and conical glass-shaped tufts of bent, to the first break or fall, where its drops became audible, and it begins to form a channel; thence to the peat and turf barn, itself built of the same dark squares as it sheltered; to the sheep-fold; to the first cultivated plot of ground; to the lonely cottage and its bleak garden won from the heath; to the hamlet, the villages, the market-town, the manufactories and the sea-port. My walks, therefore, were almost daily on the top of Quantock and among its sloping coombs. With my pencil and memorandum book in hand I was making studies, as the artists call them, and often moulding my thoughts into verse, with the objects and imagery before my senses.
 Clearly Boyle sympathises with Coleridge's theory; his opening ceremony brought the 'objects and imagery' from a conglomeration of the real (/ideal) and imaginary Thames. It's as apt a metaphor for the vision of London 2012 as it was for Coleridge's subject: the 'parts' - the multitude of sports and nationalities - are brought together and 'unity [given] to the whole' under the flag of the Olympics. So, at least, we're meant to believe, and so it seemed to be throughout the fortnight of the games.

Although my favourite, and perhaps the most poignant, Coleridge Olympics moment, it wasn't the only one. One British cyclist (in the excitement of the pun I forget which) was congratulated on their win in the velodrome under the tagline 'Pleasure Dome' - my sincerest congratulations to whichever BBC tagline writer came up with that one. Kubla Khan's 'stately pleasure-dome' beside the 'sacred river', Alph, becomes Lord Coe's sporting velodrome beside the Thames.

The last I noticed is maybe somewhat tenuous, and we get to Coleridge via Pink Floyd.   During Ed Sheeran, Nick Mason, Mike Rutherford and Richard Jones's performance of Pink Floyd's 'Wish You Were Here', an LED albatross could be seen soaring above the sea around the stadium seating.  It's a dual reference: the albatross recalls that in Pink Floyd's 'Echoes':

Overhead the albatross hangs motionless upon the air
And deep beneath the rolling waves in labyrinths of coral caves
The echo of a distant tide
Comes willowing across the sand. 
This static albatross is an ancestor of Coleridge's. London 2012 may have been the albatross around the organisers' necks these last few years, but they can breathe a sigh of relief now that it has passed. Like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, they had to work with a ghostly presence - the largely unseen, but much applauded, volunteers - to get their Olympic ship home safely. Now it passes over the 'wide wide sea' to Rio - but not before the tale is told to unwitting guests around the world. Repeatedly. We've all got our different Olympic stories after all. No Brits will be invited to another wedding for years... just in case.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Fire, Food, and Laughter: Coleridge Summer Conference 2012

The biennial Coleridge Summer Conference, organised by the Friends of Coleridge, is a highlight of the Coleridgeans' calendar. Last week, I discovered why. A week in the Quantocks would be an unmissable opportunity anyway for that delicate breed, the Coleridge researcher. Combine that with the welcome arrival of some long-awaited British summer and the world's leading Coleridgeans and you have an experience that may be best summed up by the non-academic expression 'eeee!'

I had gained the sympathies of many in the weeks leading up to the conference, thanks to my 6am train. My 4-hour journey faded to complete nothing when we arrived, and the American tales of 24-hour flights were shared by rather jet-lagged travellers. There is no rest for the researcher, though, and having been welcomed with a glass of local Cannington and the first of the delicious lunches provided by Bridgwater College, we headed to the Animal Management Centre (home of Hercules the giant one-eyed rabbit and our daytime residence for the week) for the first panel. Anya Taylor's paper 'Catherine the Great: Coleridge, Byron and Erotic Politics on the Eastern Front' started us off. Taylor explored the representations of the infamous Russian empress Catherine the Great in the poetry of Coleridge and Byron, in particular examining the differences between the two poets' responses to Catherine's reputedly busy sex life. Taylor offered an intriguing parallel with thing theory when she suggested that the horror of the 'erosion between persons and things' is played out in Coleridge and Byron's representations of Catherine. Matthew Sangster followed with a paper entitled '''Coleridge, Authorship and Society', providing an overview of the literary society into which Coleridge was seeking admittance. Sangster interrogated the term 'author', suggesting its slippery connotations in Romantic society. His paper was punctuated by well-chosen anecdotes illustrating the relationship between the author and early-nineteenth-century society, including a meeting between David Williams (founder of the Royal Literary Fund) and Edmund Burke which went badly and examples from the exchanges between Coleridge and Francis Jeffrey of the Edinburgh Review. The panel closed with Heather Stone's superbly-titled paper 'Books, Pigs, and Friendly Benevolence: Charles Lamb's letters to Coleridge and the Essays of Elia.' Stone explored the relationship between the textual and the actual in Charles Lamb's Elia essays, using the essays as a platform from which to analyse the Romantic relationship with the text.

Photo: Jo Taylor. Coleridge Country
The second session of the afternoon was the first parallel, and as such my account becomes rather subjective here. The panel I attended offered re-readings of Coleridgean texts via external sources. Jeff Strabone's 'Revising the Nation through Poetic Metre: Coleridge's Christabel and its sources' explored the influence of Thomas Percy on Christabel, particularly that of Percy's metrical innovations. Strabone suggested that the metrical arrangement of Christabel implied a return to an English poetics, recovered from the medieval texts which the Romantics helped to revive. Next, Beatrice Turner presented on '"Bodily Disorder," Inherited Bodies and Being "Face to Face": Sara Coleridge Edits her Father and Herself.' Turner explored the representations of Sara Coleridge as a non-human entity by examining accounts from S.T.C. and Dorothy Wordsworth, positioning these ethereal representations alongside Sara's own hyper-awareness of the sick body she felt she'd inherited from her father. Contrary to those representations of her as an 'eternal' being, or, to use Turner's phrase, something 'timeless', Sara felt herself to be 'time-bound.' Finally, Rahul Sharma's discussion, 'Time and Poetics in Biographia Literaria' focused on chapter XIII of Coleridge's text . Sharma used Thomas Hobbes's Answer to D'Avenant (1650) to explore Coleridge and Wordsworth's representations of the relationship between time and poetic creativity.

We followed these first sessions with drinks in the beautiful Cannington Walled Gardens, before heading to St. Mary Magdalene Church for a talk on 'Coleridge's Somerset' from Tom Mayberry. Mayberry demonstrated his phenomenal knowledge of the area, providing those of us unfamiliar with it a detailed introduction to the county we were to spend the week in. Mayberry anticipated many of the Quantock views we would be introduced to over the following days.

Tuesday confirmed that there's nothing like a good breakfast to get you up in the morning, or to keep you going through a morning of panels. Lorne Mook began the day with a paper entitled 'When the Blessing Isn't Wide Enough: Sleep as One of the Insufficient Refuges in Coleridge's Poetry.' The paper accomplished far more than it promised, and we were guided through an exploration of the ways in which sleep related to other 'insufficient refuges' in Coleridge's works, including hope, love and, less ephemerally, the garden. Mook explained that sleep was a 'wide space', both temporally and imaginatively, and one thus capable of a wide range of roles and interpretations. After discussion, William Pidduck of Adam Matthew  guided us through the new online resources created as a collaboration between the publisher and Dove Cottage. Pidduck successfully demonstrated how far our research could be broadened and assisted by such tools, and took us through a virtual tour of the new, undoubtedly impressive database.

After a quick (ish - Tim Fulford may disagree!) break, we were back inside for the next parallel session, consisting for me of Katy Beavers's 'The Legacy of the Ancient Mariner: Romantic Interpretations of "The Wanderer"' and Peter Moore's 'Associations, Broken and Unbroken: The Wanderings of Cain.' Beavers explored the legacy of the Ancient Mariner through Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, suggesting how the peripatetic tradition begun by Coleridge was carried through to Shelley's novel. Beavers interrogated the characters of the novel through Coleridge's poem, arguing that Walter took the place of the wedding guest, with the monster as Mariner. Beavers explored the associations between the Wanderer's nomadic lifestyle and the immortality that both characters, she suggested, were tied to. Moore, on the other hand, interrogated the allegories inherent in Coleridge's fragmentary work The Wanderings of Cain, and challenged the traditional compositional story of the work. Moore explored the implications behind the various forms adopted in the text, and interrogated Coleridge's switching between poetry and prose in order to suggest an accurate dating for the text. The first plenary, from Nicholas Halmi on 'Coleridge's Ecumenical Spinoza,' came before lunch. Halmi noted the issues inherent  in dating Coleridge's reading of Spinoza, and observed the necessity of acknowledging Joseph Priestley's re-expression of Spinozan theories and their influence on Coleridge's religious thinking. Halmi's plenary was punctuated by the jokes based on mishearing that Coleridge so delighted in, and which lead to the infamous Spy Nozy confusion.

Photo: Jo Taylor. Dubbed 'Treeception' by Joe Donovan, this
tree is rumoured to have been engraved with
Coleridge & Wordsworth's initials.
Cue excited academic fandom.

Lunch was followed by another parallel session. Lloyd Davies's 'Creatio Ex Nihilo  and the Creative Imagination' proposed a reading of Coleridge through the philosophy of Jean Luc Nancy, and explored the relationship between sex and creation. Davies aligned Nancy's theory of the womb as a creative space with Coleridge's approach to writing. Davies was followed by Tom Duggett, whose paper 'Southey's Reformation: The Monitorial Controversy and the "New System of Education"' provided an excellent background to educational theory in the early nineteenth century. Dugget summarised the opposing Bell and Lancastrian theories, and compared them to Southey's works in particular. His exploration of Southey's educational pamphlets and ideas about the status of men of letters provided a clear insight into some of the sociological issues with which these Romantic writers engaged.

 A walk along the Quantocks above Kilve filled up the remainder of the afternoon, providing an opportunity to chat with people we hadn't yet been introduced to, with the ever-present, ever-beautiful backdrop of Coleridge's Quantocks before and behind us. We returned to Cannington for dinner before heading to Nether Stowey and the newly-restored Coleridge Cottage (@coleridgent for Twitterers). Sympathetically restored to approximate what it would have been like in Coleridge's day, the cottage is a mix between museum and activity; although the more valuable artifacts are locked away, there are others (a bonnet and Coleridgean walking costume being the highlights) designed for interaction. The cottage is lit by 'candles', one of which the visitor is given upon entrance, encouraging the visitor to imagine life pre-electricity. After we left the cottage, we gathered to light our flaming torches. Flames alight, we set off up the hill (to the amusement of the locals, including one who clearly thought we'd got the date of Hallowe'en wrong, and said simply, 'spooky'). Having negotiated a rather narrow path - a tip for anyone wanting to follow in our footsteps might be don't look to your right (oh, and mind the cliff) - we reached the castle ruins. David Fairer read out lines from 'Frost at Midnight' as a Chinese lantern was released (only nearly landing in some bracken, and successfully avoiding one small plane). We reached Nether Stower and its 'dear gutter' again just as the final flames went out.

Photo: Jo Taylor. Thomas Poole's house; there was an entrance
from Coleridge's garden, so that Coleridge could
get to Poole's book room easily.
Wednesday dawned sunny and bright, but we turned our backs on the outside heat and dutifully returned to the Animal Management Centre for a full day of panels. Michael Raiger was first, with a paper exploring 'The Influence of Coleridge's Romanticism on John Henry Newman's Rejection of Nature as Providing Evidence for God's Existence.' Raiger noted that Newman felt increased sympathy towards Coleridge throughout the 1840s as he acknowledged the importance of literature in mid-Victorian society.Raiger suggested that Newman's use of Romantic poetic imagery to describe religion complemented his belief in an intellect grounded in feeling. Lisa Lappin followed. Her paper, 'Poe and the Albatross of Coleridge's Legacy,' explored Poe's ambiguous relationship towards Coleridge, particularly from the mid-1830s onwards. Poe, Lappin suggested, imported imagery and direct quotations from Coleridge into his works, whilst publicly disdaining him. Lappin focussed on Poe's short story 'The Black Cat', and argued that Poe invoked but subverted the imagery of 'The Ancient Mariner' in order to satirise the Coleridgean legacy.

David Ruderman opened the second panel with a paper entitled 'The "Becoming-Animal" of the Infant in Samuel Taylor and Sara Coleridge.' Ruderman argued for a three-part structure to the human psyche: the animal instinct, the becoming animal and the human (although he was careful to argue that this development is not tautological, nor irreversible). He suggested that the mother and child seem, to the child, to be enmeshed in its early years; as the child matures, however, it begins to comprehend its existence as an individual and to become aware of objects external to itself (including the mother). The mother-child relationship seems to work in the opposite direction; by returning to the becoming animal state, the mother can empathise most with her child's needs. Through readings of Samuel Taylor's sonnets on the birth of Hartley and manuscripts of Sara's diaries of her children's early years, Ruderman explored the ways that the problems of early parenthood became manifested through the bodies of the parents. Joshua King's paper, 'Coleridge's Clerisy and Print Culture,' followed, and explored the relationship between Church and Press through Coleridge's understandings of them. He suggested that the heterogeneity of Coleridge's clerisy responded to the emerging sociological theories of his contemporaries. Because of the increasing professionalisation which occurred throughout Regency society, King demonstrated a parallel between the two professions, whereby the clergy become separate from the church, just as journalists do from literature. He suggested that an ideal press could be found through the harmonising of the individual and state.

I, unfortunately, missed the next panel (due to a last-minute editing mission on my own paper), and so must leave that to someone else to account for. After lunch, the panel with perhaps the strongest theme of the week: Coleridge and music, with papers from Olivia Reilly and Joseph Donovan. Reilly's paper, 'Coleridge's "inner ear": music and selfhood', suggested that Coleridge inner ear acted as a translation mechanism, transferring ideas from one medium to another (in this case, music to poetry). She read the play Remorse through its music, suggesting that music represents a sub-conscious, non-lingual mind; instead, it is centred around the body, the musical chord corresponding to the heart string of the poetical body. She cites the poem as a place for the poet and listener to join in a place of harmony, whilst music acts as a way for the poet to reintegrate himself with nature. Donovan's paper, '"This Mighty Art Magic": The Influence of Music on Coleridge' complemented Reilly's superbly. Donovan observed that, of all the arts, Coleridge was the least educated in music. He performed a reading of the 'Dejection' Ode through musical terms, suggesting that Coleridge saw musical expression as analogous to the imagination. He noted Coleridge's sensitive receptivity to music, and finished by playing the piece Coleridge is likely to have heard in the Sistine Chapel and which he found so 'ennervating.'

The second panel of the afternoon was begun with Philip Aherne's exploration of 'Coleridge's Intellectual Processes.' Aherne (talking, Coleridge-style, with the help of only a few notes) focussed on Coleridge's post-1817 publications, and positioned Coleridge's talk as an object between listener and talker. He followed Henry Nelson Coleridge's suggestion that writing represented Coleridge's public persona, whilst talking indicated the private. He concluded with an exploration of Aids to Reflection as a form of written conversation, and briefly looked at the American response to that text. Charles Mahoney came next with a paper entitled 'Elegy or Apotheosis? Coleridge's Hamlet.' The paper suggested that traditional criticism on Coleridge and Hamlet has erred in its insistence on conflating Coleridge with Hamlet, and argued instead that Coleridge used Hamlet to think about his own philosophical and poetic methods. Hamlet thus becomes a platform from which Coleridge may explore his own ideas, and not a character in which Coleridge found himself. Alan Vardy's discussion of 'Coleridger on Broad Stand' closed the panel. Vardy explored Coleridge's writings on his descent from Scafell, demonstrating the ways in which Coleridge's various feelings on the climb down are mirrored by the texts he wrote on the descent. Vardy suggested that the sublimity of Coleridge's surroundings was undermined by the terrifying difficulty of the climb down, and interrogated the ways this tension was explored through the texts. Vardy demonstrated the effects of this experience on Coleridge's other poetry, showing how 'The Vale of Chamouni' poem was altered to reflect Coleridge's own mountain adventures.

The second plenary of the week closed the day. Alan Bewell explored the topic of 'Coleridge and Communication,' using Berkeley's theories of nature as a communication tool to interrogate Coleridge's approach to his own communications. Bewell noted that contemporary accounts of Coleridge the talker seemed to subsume Coleridge into that talk, and the fact that so many audiences did not really listen demonstrates a converse failure of communication. However, Bewell suggested that Coleridge's real communication happened through these failures, arguing that, in the early and Conversation poems, silence is the means for successful communication; Coleridge left nature to do the communicating, whilst he simply described the lessons it gave. In the later works, Coleridge succeeded through creating an illusion of face-to-face contact, as in Aids to Reflection or the posthumous Table Talk.

That evening, Bridgwater College treated us to a 'Somerset Supper,' providing local Cannington wine to ensure that our own communications flowed. We were sumptuously fed with all-local produce, including pork pies, rabbit stew, venison pie, Eton mess and cheeses. Over-full but unavoidably contended, we made our way to the local pub, the Rose and Crown, to finish the day.

Thursday began with Kerri Andrews's paper '"With Social Love and Friendship Fraught": Cottle, Yearsley and Bristol Radicalism.' Andrews, a self-confessed non-Coleridgean, explored the group in which Coleridge moved in the 1790s, particularly in relation to the under-studied poet Anne Yearsley. Andrews's aim, to situate Yearsley in the influential circle of Bristol radicals in which she moved, broadened the traditional concept of that group. Andrews explored Cottle's difficulties in being accepted as a poet in his own right, and discussed the ways poems were given as gifts between Cottle and Yearsley. She finished with a close-reading of Yearsley's poem 'To Mira', demonstrating the ways Yearsley challenged traditional gender roles whilst seeming to accept them. Emily Stanback's paper, too, explored Coleridge's wider circle. 'Tom Wedgwood's Body in Pain' used papers from Stoke-on-Trent's Wedgwood archives  to explore the relationship between Tom Wedgwood's body and works. By looking at both accounts from others (including Josiah 'Jos' Wedgwood, Tom's brother) and Tom himself, Stanback explored the idea that bodily weakness helped forge social bonds; because Tom frequently had to stay for long periods of time in other families' houses, he developed deep bonds with a wide range of people. Stanback suggested that Tom experienced an intense imaginative physicality which, unable to enact himself, he sought to achieve through others' bodies; she noted his establishment of a military unit in the Lake District for this purpose. On the other hand, she interrogated Tom's and Coleridge's belief in the medicinal properties of correspondence.

Photo: Jo Taylor. Culbone Church
The second session was a parallel panel. Robin Schofield's paper was first in mine: '"One / Inseparable Communion": Hartley Coleridge's Poetry of Religious Devotion.' Schofield agreed with Andrew Keanie's recent biography of Hartley that Hartley's interest in minutiae demonstrates a commitment to detail, and proceeded to discuss Hartley's ability to see beyond the surfaces of face-to-face spirituality. Hartley's poetry, as Schofield suggested, confronts notions of failure through his religious poetry, which takes redemption as its focus. Schofield interrogated Hartley's choice of the sonnet form to explore these matters, arguing that he uses the 'feminine' - and so traditionally weak - sonnet form to undercut conventional notions of failure, turning this apparent weakness into poetic strength. Within the strict rules of the sonnet form, Hartley locates a space in which to interrogate his own inherited sense of failure. My own paper, '"My Father's favourite child": Negotiating the Legacy of Christabel in the Coleridge family's poetry,' followed; it sought to explore the ways that Hartley and Mary Coleridge in particular explored and exploited the themes of Christabel, and how these themes were interrogated in three ways: biographical, metrical and narrative.

We went straight into the next session, Jeff Barbeau's paper 'The Good Child: Sara Coleridge, Personhood, and Religious Education.' Barbeau provided a detailed contextual background against which to position Sara Coleridge's approach to education. He suggested that her theory of education, whilst never explicitly written about in her publications, may nevertheless be gleaned from her correspondence. He explored Sara's commitment to the National Society in the 1830s, and explored Sara's disagreements with suggestions of teaching children through negative example, advocating instead an increased focus on visualisation, and an approach to lessons whereby they became a space for development. After a swift break, we went into the final session of Thursday. Ewan Jones's paper, 'Coleridge, Hyman Hurwitz and Hebrew Poetics,'explored Coleridge's approach to translation through his translations from the Hebrew of Hyman Hurwitz. Using Hurwitz's Etymology and Syntax in Continuation of the Elements of the Hebrew Language as a starting point, Jones explored the ways in which the specific words used by the translator (Coleridge) represented, not simply the text, but the subjective thoughts of the translator. Jones employed playful passages from Coleridge's Logic to explore the principles of 'self-mirroring' evident in Coleridge's translation tasks. Andrea Timár's paper, '"There Was a Ship" in Malta: Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, Wordsworth's Peter Bell and Sir Alexander Ball's 'Appeal to Law,'' followed. Timár  explored Coleridge's textual relationship with Sir Alexander Ball, examining Coleridge's essay on Ball in The Friend. She went on to explore ideas of education and love in Wordsworth and Ball's texts, suggesting that in Peter Bell education and love are shown to be necessarily unified through the sympathetic figure of the donkey.

Thursday afternoon divided us: some went to Fairfield House, some returned to the Quantocks. Those up for the walk, described by Peter Larkin as one for which walking boots were advisable, but that it nevertheless merely contained 'a few steady uphill gradients,' were taken to Porlock Weir to begin. Our first target was Culbone Church, the smallest church in England. We quickly came to distrust Peter's definition of an easy walk. From the very picturesque church we made our way deeper into 'Kubla Khan Country.' It was certainly not a 'sunless sea' that we beheld from the top, but it was so muggy that sea and sky seemed to blend together - so much so that a spectre ship seemed to appear from nowhere. We ambled back down under the welcome shade of the trees, and were frequently disconcerted by Peter Larkin's appearances in front of us, when he had been behind moments before. We reached the pub once more, had time for a couple of drinks, and were briskly whisked away to Halsway Manor, the scene of the conference dinner. The opulent surroundings acted as backdrop to a delicious three-course meal (notwithstanding the waitress's clear disgust that all around our table had united in a love of butternut squash soup), supplemented by a generous amount of wine. After the meal, it transpired that Jeff Strabone had skipped dessert thanks to his discovery of a Maypole. It was carefully unravelled and a score of revellers assembled to dance around the Maypole. With the guidance of pagan-master Alan Vardy and the gong skills of David Ruderman, Joseph Donovan and Michael Gamer, we tripped (sometimes literally - Robin Schofield was saved from a fall by excellent skills in clinging to his ribbon) around, tangling/wrapping the ribbons back around the central pole. Coleridge, we felt, would be proud. We were taken back to the College, where it was decided by some that bedtime was not yet upon us. So, we resurrected the flaming torches, Jeff located his Princeton Coleridges, and at 'the midnight hour' we let fly another Chinese lantern (it missed the tree somehow) and gathered in a circle to read Christabel. (The atmosphere was helped by the breeze that blew up every time Geraldine was mentioned!) A few more poems in the recital later, and the flames once more subsided, we went to our beds for the final time.

Photo: Jo Taylor. Midnight reading of Christabel.
Julia Carlson's paper 'Punctuating Friendship: The Wordsworths and the 'Poem to Coleridge'' started us off on Friday morning. Carlson compared the 1979 Norton Critical edition of Wordsworth's Prelude and proceeded to perform a reading into the revisions to the punctuation from the manuscript to that edition. She noted the increasing presence of an 'I' throughout the revisions, and observed its relationship with the word 'Friend' in the manuscripts, particularly the Goslar letters. She studied these letters, where verses from the Prelude first appeared, and situated them amongst the annotations which initially accompanied them in order to suggest the initial desired reaction from the audience - or, the recipient of the letters, Coleridge. Natalie Tal Harries was sadly taken ill on the morning of her paper, and so we must wait for a future date to hear of Thomas Taylor and Coleridge. Stuart Andrews, therefore, followed Carlson with a paper entitled 'Coleridge, Southey and Life in a Warm Climate.' This lively paper explored Southey's hopes to move to a warmer climate in the early part of the nineteenth century, and the irony that it was, in the end, Coleridge who achieved the desired diplomatic station in the Mediterranean. Andrews was followed by yet another legend of the Coleridgean world: John Beer's paper 'How Big Was The Albatross?' entered into the two-centuries' old debate as to the actual size of the Albatross shot by the Ancient Mariner, and subsequently hung about his neck. Beer explored several accounts debating the issue from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, providing several theories correlating to the various breeds of Albatross known to Coleridge.

Karen Swann gave the final plenary, entitled 'Coleridge the Talker.' She opened with a comparison of the various accounts given of Keats's one and only meeting with Coleridge to demonstrate the differing interpretations of Coleridge's conversation. Swann explored the impulse behind people listening to Coleridge, whom they frequently did not understand and whose talk was often forgotten. She suggested that there was something spellbinding about his talk, and noted how it was frequently discussed as an intangible echo or dream. She concluded that, despite listeners' claims that Coleridge's talk couldn't be 'typed', it can nevertheless be grouped by the language of magic and sorcery used to describe it.

Following one final delicious lunch, at which we heartily thanked the catering staff for their extremely hard work, we returned to the Centre one final time for the two closing papers. Fred Burwick opened the session with a paper on 'Coleridge and Greek Drama.' Burwick suggested that, rather than plagiarise Schlegel's theories of Greek drama, Coleridge actually opposed them. Burwick explored the ways in which these two theories differed, suggesting that Coleridge entered into a dialogue with Schlegel and Schelling in which these different theories were interrogated. Finally, Murray Evans's paper closed the session and the conference. His title, 'Reading Coleridge's Later Prose,' anticipated an exploration of the existing frameworks through which we can read Coleridge's later prose, including the notebooks and Opus Maximum. Evans noted that the Opus does not necessarily correlate with the discourse of the later notebooks, but that the discourses within the Opus nevertheless mirror each other. Simultaneously, however, he suggests that the Opus offers many successive definitions of divine ideas which do not coalesce; the Opus, Evans concluded, offers no claims of truth.

It was an appropriate way to end the conference, the heterogeneity of the ideas expressed throughout the week metonymized through Evans's paper. Of course, with social media it doesn't really 'end' in the same way; with Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere these conversations can keep going beyond the time constraints of one conference. Sadly, though, whilst we can carry on these conversations over distances, we can't dance around a Maypole, or sit reading Christabel by firelight. We'll have to wait until 2014, and the next conference, to do that again.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Bridging the Gulf (14th May 2012)

This Saturday marked the end of a long, significant process for 3 of us Keelites (Katie McGettigan, Emilie Taylor-Brown and I)- it was our first organised conference: Two Cultures or Co-evolution? Science and Literature 1800-present.

All ready to bridge that gulf
It probably wasn't the easiest topic to pick for our first one; we were determined that it be truly interdisciplinary, and so were not only grappling with the organisational issues inevitable for this kind of event, but found ourselves in the very practical process of 'bridging the gulf.' Our keynotes comprised of two literature professors (Prof. David Amigoni of Keele University and Prof. Sharon Ruston of the University of Salford) and one microbiologist (Prof. Joanna Verran of Manchester Metropolitan University); a good start in bridging that gulf, we thought. The papers engaged with a phenomenal breadth of topics; the three panels took us from Romantic to contemporary literature, from England to Australia, from astonomy to neurology. Our delegates and keynotes can't be thanked enough for the quality of the papers, and the range of discussion generated from them. Two things did stand out however: one a discernable thread through all the papers, the other a fiery roundtable discussion.

Delegates arrive in the Claus Moser Research Centre, Keele University.
Note the sciencey statue in the middle of the humanities building.
The two cultures already at work!

That the first surprised me may be a sign of being too conditioned by propaganda from the likes of Google and Apple, and my deep love for the BBC Science web page: if someone mentions 'science', I think of newness, progression, development. The papers, from Professor Ruston's keynote (on Frankenstein and natural history) in the morning onwards, shared a vocabulary of destruction and degeneration. Our first panel title, 'At what price progress?', seemed to be answered by an overwhelming consensus that progress has come at a cost to individuality and social identity. Stella Pratt-Smith's paper, 'Technology and Civilization: the Questionable Progress of 19th-century Prowess', explored the representations of electricity as it began to enter into everyday life. What struck me most was that her discussion of its enabling (almost superhuman, by one personification) qualities was situated among reflections that it simultaneously 'invalidated' and 'invalided' the user; if electricity could take over, what need for the individual? The Wallace and Gromit-style house of inventions thus assumes a sinister, controlling role (electricity as the evil penguin, perhaps). Ann Loveridge's paper on vivisection continued this language of dehumanization, and Christine Chettle's examination of Gwendolen Harlow's loss of selfhood, which adopted the language of Lacan's 'mirror-stage' theory, likewise looked at the non-human side of Gwendolen; her reflection, not her person. Rebecca Bitenc suggested that representations of dementia suggest a 'struggle against dehumanization and Chris Mourant's discussion of the image of the disembodied eye on the poster for the First International Hygiene Exhibition (think the eye of Sauron with less fire) continued to complement this theme; this eye, at the intersection between Victorian and Modern society, looks Janus-like across the de-individualisation processes of both eras. Grace Halden's discussion of the 'apocalyptic imagination' in cold war literature took these dehumanizing readings out of the text, and suggested that the death of the self was intertwined with the death of the reader; in the twentieth century, it is not only the characters who lose their autonomy, but the readers too.

The second stand-out aspect was most obvious in the round table discussion, although several of the papers anticipated it; that is, the practicalities of bridging the gulf between Snow's 'two cultures'. Thomas West's discussion of J. H. Prynne's Wound Response interrogated Prynne's use of scientific language within his poetry, and concluded that Prynne used it playfully, deliberately mocking the gulf. It was a point emphasized by Professor Verran's keynote, and, indeed, by several of the delegates during the final discussion; Professor Verran confessed that, the first time she attended a literature class the word 'trope' seemed something quite alien (cue laughter from literature delegates, all guilty of over-using the word in seminars at some stage). Prynne's deliberate (mis-)use of scientific terms highlights the ways that language itself can widen the gulf; every delegate could nod in sympathy at the suggestion that projects have remained in some way incomplete because of the seeming impossibility of learning about something from 'the other side'. A sense of mutual bitterness was apparent; Adam Palay's suggestion that, for Humphry Davy, poetry was a thing of youth and science one of age could perhaps be translated to the evident feelings of the humanities delegates. The sense that we are often made to feel that projects with something scientific about them are more valuable (not least because they are the ones which attract the most funding) was palpable, and so the sense that something purely literary was a thing of youth, but not of 'serious' academics. On the other hand, the scientists felt unfairly pigeon-holed as an unimaginative bunch, with little creative flair and poor social skills. Both groups felt that they were in some way mocked or derided by the other 'culture'. Both, however, agreed that it is down to us - maybe starting with academics - to change that, and that, of course, is what this conference was trying to do.

Mark Taylor's paper perhaps provided the most suitable metaphor: the two cultures (mental and vertebrael states in that paper) must be balanced, else there can only be a 'mob state'. At the moment, it seemed clear, we do feel trapped in that 'mob state', neither side fully comfortable with accessing the other. Events like this highlight the way that, even if 'incomprehension' is mutual, so too is the desire to overcome it - and, moreover, that we have no excuses for continuing not to do so.

#Coleridge (12th April 2012)

Joining Twitter a couple of months ago revolutionised my days in surprising ways. I had guessed that it would give me another site on which to procrastinate - although at least checking the most up-to-date Leveson tweets seemed more productive than scanning through the photos of someone a friend of a friend once met on a night out several years ago. For the first couple of weeks, I was blown away by the sheer volume of tweeters and bloggers talking about my topic specifically, or, more often, research generally. I spent the first 3 days of my Twitter life obsessively clicking on links from the likes of @phd2published or @thesiswhisperer, my browser buried in mounds of newly-opened tabs as I greedily collected more and more Twitter-inspired online reading. Although, a lot of the time, reading these resources is deflecting from that paper I should be writing, or that book I should have already finished, the psychological effects are worth the addition to my workload; the sense of being a part of an online community, even when you're in the midst of an intensive week when the only other being you've seen is next door's cat, is an invaluable addition to life as part of a small researching body, whilst anecdotal research blogs and a seemingly constant stream of career advice help to keep me looking ahead.

What I hadn't thought of was the influence of non-researchers and non-academics. I've never seen Coleridge as being a particularly popular subject; when asked what I'm doing, my summary usually ends up along these lines: 'I'm studying the Coleridge family. As in 'The Ancient Mariner.' Umm... 'Kubla Khan'? He was a poet in the nineteenth century.' Once, the addition of 'no, he didn't know Chaucer personally' was necessary. As the Telegraph helpfully observed a few weeks ago, nineteenth-century poets are not a part of the popular consciousness; unlike the most popular of Victorian novelists like, say, Dickens or Gaskell, their works are transferred to screens big or small only infrequently, and so don't form a part of the pop culture conversation. Nevertheless, one unproductive day I searched for Coleridge on Twitter, thinking that I would at least be spending my time-wasting reading the relevant name, even if I wasn't doing anything with it. On that day, I was surprised that there was so much being posted about Coleridge over the course of a day; a couple of tweets an hour, usually repeating a 'quote of the day'.

This week, however, something of a Coleridge renaissance has been occurring. The Daily Victorian (@Daily_Victorian) has quoted Coleridge five times since Monday; @1812now has mentioned him six times since Sunday. A quick search shows that he has been mentioned, in various capacities, fifteen times in the past hour. Once again, a lot of those mentions are 'inspirational' quotations. (Today's favourite seems to be: 'All men, even the most surly, are influenced my affection.') Clearly, taking quotations outside of any reference point means that the meaning becomes problematic. But that doesn't necessarily matter on Twitter. The sentiment's the thing, and Coleridge was nothing if not sentimental. In spite of the Telegraph's implication that nineteenth-century poetry is no longer relevant, and despite my inevitable weekly defence of what I do (researching Coleridge=wasting taxpayers' money), Twitter today demonstrates that there remains a significant number of people who still connect with the poet in some way. (Two more posts have appeared just in the time I've been writing this paragraph.)

Inevitably, I wonder what Coleridge would have made of Twitter. I imagine it would have suited him - his notebook entries, for instance, are often short enough to be compressed into a tweet. On the other hand, he would be plagued with constant updates from the Tweeter from Taunton (or something), and 'Kubla Khan' could then have been nothing more than a tweet in itself. Regardless, whether it's bored students 'learning Coleridge,' quotation sites cashing in on him, or ordinary tweeters posting some of his pithier remarks, for today at least Coleridge is a hot topic.