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.

Weighing the mischief with the promised gain

Back in March, I decided the time had come to begin a blog. I intended it, as I said, to act as a platform for dialogue between the lonely researcher (me) and the plethora of similarly isolated researchers evident from the sheer amount of other blogs on the subject, publicised often through the various phd/researcher hashtags on Twitter. It had a wider aim, too: to disseminate my research on the extensive Coleridge clan. These two aims, as it turned out, rather predictably, did not sit together well. A choice, I felt, must be made, between researcher and research. And, well, there's a reason (many, in fact) that there isn't a worldwide community researching me.

I imagined in my first post what Coleridge would have made of this expanding online world. He would, I thought, have been:

"among the Stephen Frys of the online world: his notebooks and letters acted then in much the same way as the tweets and blogs of today. His notebooks recorded fragments of his thoughts, and, although they were written for his personal perusal, he was always aware of their potential to be published. His letters, meanwhile, discussed all aspects of contemporary life, from his own deeply private issues, to long theses on, amongst other things, politics, religion, travelling, finances, publishing and biography. Again, Coleridge was constantly aware of the ways that his correspondence was disseminated beyond the person to whom it was addressed."

The same is, of course, true, of all the Romantics: think, for instance, of Byron writing his letters to John Murray, knowing they would be read to an audience. Coleridge advised his son, Derwent, that 'old Books' would 'dissipate [his] time and thought', in the same way that new technology is constantly deplored now. The great thing about media like blogs is their ability to look back to the old whilst engaging with the new, but it is an area seemingly neglected by Romanticists; a quick browse through Twitter reveals the extent to which the field is being left behind, among those 'old Books', whilst other fields (notably Victorian studies) have shot off along the tracks of technological advancement. A quick 'Blogger' search reveals the same trend (but you're in luck if you've a penchant for trashy romantic novels). It's always changing, of course, and that's the great thing. So what I said in my introductory blog six months ago no longer holds true. I've moved a couple of the posts from that old one - the ones which fit in well with the principles I've learned and established since, and aim to continue to apply - but I introduce my new blog as a site to share research tales and odd facts found about that strange old group, the Romantics.