Wednesday, 30 December 2009

A Servant to the Supreme Majesty of the People

And so we have dried out, and have fared much better than the poor folk of Cockermouth. Back to business then ...

For the finale of this year's Bindman talks, Sir Geoffrey Bindman himself gave a lecture on a lesser-known character from the Romantic era. Daniel Isaac Eaton was a publisher in London, born in 1753. He inherited the family business bookselling and prospered. Eaton married and had a family and for 39 years he was a successful businessman. Then, between 1793 and 1812, he was prosecuted eight times for sedition. In his forties, Eaton proclaimed himself, 'Bookseller and Printer to the Supreme Majesty of the People'.

Eaton was inspired by the ideas that drove the French Revolution, and invigorated by the goings-on across the channel. It seems likely it was around this time that Eaton discovered the political writings of Thomas Paine and was moved to sell his books just at the time the government are suppressing his work with great vigour. In 1792, Eaton took up radical politics and joined the London Corresponding Society, a group that promoted universal suffrage and regular parliamentary elections. Eaton moved his business premises to Bishopsgate and started publishing the many pamphlets the society produced.

Suffrage and regular elections were not such contentious issues pre-1790, but the French Revolution caused alarm and the government, composed of many previous supporters of such 'radical' ideas, sought to stamp out all embers of an insurrection. Radical publishers, especially in the capital, were a major target. Whereas the government had overlooked William Godwin's tomes of radical philosophy, Eaton produced the works Tom Paine at the cost of one penny - an amount the working man could afford. The style Paine and other radicals wrote in was also new, reacting to the prose arguments of Edmund Burke by adopting the emotive and inventive style of rhetoric he employed in his 'Reflections of the Revolution in France'*.

Eaton, and those publishers like him, were wily. The government might try to suppress publications but they were unlikely to take the matter to court. Books could be banned, but trial proceedings were allowed to be reproduced in full. When up before the judge the publishers could read the entirety of the work they were standing trial for circulating and then publish the account with the 'seditious' material recorded within it.

Eaton used invention and humour to antagonise and attack. Eventually, he sought refuge in America. While he was abroad he was tried in his absence and declared outlawed. His stock of books was burnt, he was bankrupted and and his property was seized from his wife and children. On his return he served a spell in Newgate before being pardoned. The last seven years represent a quieter phase in Eaton's life, but even though he was finally silenced, his actions represent the tenacity of such figures, and the strength of the forces they opposed.

*For an overview of how Burke the Conservative strangely revolutionised politic writing, see Katey Castellano's article in Romanticism on the Net.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Water, water everywhere...

As I sit in the workroom of the Jerwood Centre, I am distracted by the way the water is streaming down the sides of Silver How. Unmapped tricklets and ghylls that catch the sun on a bright day are now bands you can make out from this side of Grasmere through the sheets of rain. I have never found the phrase 'sheets of rain' an accurate one before now.

The village is flooding. We have even more bodies of water than before, and roads are rivers. Luckily, or more likely with intent, Dove Cottage was built on a raise. But this is truly something I have never experienced. It has washed back memories of Enid Blyton tales where children battle through soup like floods to save the farm. And I remember how back home the end of our avenue would flood, and my best friend would join me building a small toll bridge for pedestrians from bricks and planks. But this is real and dangerous, threatening the safety of people and buildings.

It seems appropriate that I'm currently reading Jonathan Bate's 'Romantic Ecology'. Bate reminds the reader how the weather and seasons of Wordsworth's poetry are not only geographically-specific, but also act as markers that allows us to gauge the way our climate has changed since then. Dorothy's journals make no mention of flooding, but this description is worth reproducing:

Wednesday morning 9th December 1801
... The river came galloping past the Church as fast as it could come & when we got into Easedale we saw Churn milk force like a broad stream of snow. At the little foot-Bridge we stopped to look at the company of rivers which came hurrying down the vale this way & that; it was a valley of streams & Islands, with that great waterfall at the head & lesser falls in different parts of the mountains coming down to these Rivers...

A Mr Ostle, who lived in Northern Cumbria, kept a journal and recorded this incident that is as close to the conditions - and people's reaction - that I can find:

November 1861
Weather very stormy, heavy winds and large floods. Fields all covered with water. Different times there was the most water upon the ground since the memory of the oldest man in the holme. The floods they have done a great deal of damage in many places. I think it was the nearest the flood in the days of Noah.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Resolution and Repentance

Well, I break an unforgiveably long silence with a few updates and promises of more meaty future posts.

First, some notices:

- Horizon Review #3 launched a whole fleet of fascinating content, including my review of Richard Bronk's 'The Romantic Economist'.

- Our Poetry in Grasmere season has finished for 2009, but the Winter is packed full of things to do, see and make at The Wordsworth Trust.

- Lear has left us, but we are all already feeling more at home with our new exhibition 'Romantic Poets, Romantic Places'.

- You can now enjoy Romantic and contemporary poetry, including audio clips of the performances this year, in our poetry archive.

- And, last but most importantly, applications are now open for the 2010 internship programme. This is one of the few internships in the world of museums and arts administration that offers financial support and a properly defined programme of professional development. The range of experience is broad, the opportunities unique and the setting glorious; remote - yes, wet - almost interminably, but nevertheless the most beautiful place, wonderful people and for me the happiest and most influential year of my life. Other intern's experiences are recorded here.

And so, a hectic summer has finished and I should have slightly more time to bore you all with my thoughts. Posts should appear - and you may berate me if they do not - on:

- Lyrical Ballads
- Mary and Charles Lamb
- Resolution and Independence
- Our new exhibition, and the multitude of events going on here in the vale.

Also, any ideas for posts or topics you'd like to know more about would be welcomed.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Humphry Davy

Humphry Davy is best known for inventing the miner's lamp. Inventing it and then declining to patent the design. Here, I present a few notes, rather than a comprehensive guide to or even an overview of one of the most interesting figures of this historical period.

Born in Penzance in 1778, Davy went from provincial origins to become one of the most celebrated chemists of all time. He isolated many elements, including potassium and sodium, and the latter discovery made him the first ever subject of a clerihew:

Sir Humphry Davy
Was not fond of gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

I have not been able to discover anywhere what Davy's true feelings toward gravy were, but of poetry Davy was decidedly fond. He not only read, but wrote poetry. A few of his early pieces were anthologised by Southey in Bristol. It was in Bristol, while he was studying at the Pneumatic Institute with Thomas Beddoes, that Davy met both Southey and Coleridge. Experiments for Davy were not constrained by health and safety, or a sense of distance and objectivity. He would smell and taste chemicals, make himself part of an electric circuit and in examining the effects of laughing gas, Davy, Beddoes and Coleridge had a rather jolly time, supposedly spouting poetry as they danced about the laboratory.

Davy found it hard to shake the reputation created by his provincial origins and the early accounts of the unconventional methods he used. He is also portrayed as a fop and a dandy, especially as he adopted 'a green velvet jacket with gold spangles'. This makes me intensely fond of him. He was ridiculed because rather than banning women from his lectures he actively played to this part of his audience, making a theatrical display of the bangs and puffs of smoke side of chemistry.

In 1804, Davy visited Dove Cottage to meet Wordsworth, along with Coleridge and Walter Scott. Coleridge sends the manuscript of the second edition of Lyrical Ballads to Davy to edit, and while many biographers have sniggered at Davy's attempts at poesy or suffered them as briefly as possible, it seems the circle of writers he socialised with rated his abilities very highly. Coleridge writes in very warm terms about Davy, and their correspondence suggests a sincere and profound attachment. Coleridge wishes to learn about chemistry, and goes to scientific lectures to 'increase [his] stock of metaphors'. Later in life, Davy also befriended the second generation Romantics, including Byron and Shelley.

The current relationship between science and poetry has been at the forefront of debates this year, but the Romantic period offers a great example of the complex interweaving of the disciplines. The idea that the spheres of knowledge in the Romantic period are polarised is ridiculous, when we have so much evidence of the arts and sciences overlapping. Davy's approach to chemistry is a contrast to his poetic pursuits, but they inform one another. And for the Romantics more generally, even where the two disciplines appear in opposition, it is because they in dialogue, not because they are separate, uncommunicating camps.

Davy continued writing all his life, mostly in laboratory notebooks stained and burnt by his experiments.

Grasmere! The Lake District!! Summer!!!

My dear reader,

I hope you will forgive my recent shortfall of correspondence. It is not for lack of goings-on here worth noting, but from the abundance of activity. All Cumbria is confused as the weather turns manic-depressive and poor tourists require first aid after becoming dangerously entangled in their Ordance Survey maps.

The Wordsworth Trust has opened it's Edward Lear the Landscape Artist exhibition, which brings together for the first time Lear's sketches and watercolours of his tours in Ireland and the Lakes from 1835-6. I love Lear. I love that he got famous drawing parrots. I love the poems, the stories and the recipes. I love that he was the twentieth of twenty-one children, and that he called Kendal a 'slop-basin'. The exhibition contains letters from the tours. In these, Lear is so charming he makes the world around him - including his own travels, the rain that besieges him, and his illness and disappointments - into marvellous prose descriptions through humour and irreverence. This creates a wonderful contrast with the level of professionalism and obsession that he shows in his landscape drawings. The pictures are ridiculously topographically accurate, as demonstrated by a 3D digital map that makes you feel as though you're having an out-of-body experience.

Invigilating the gallery is also a little like having an out-of-body experience. I love everything I do here at the Trust, and it's all necessary, worthwhile work, but after an hour and half of patrolling a room (trying to tread the fine line between vigilant and stalkerish) I had lost all concept of space and time and thought my brain was in my knees. So, if you do visit, please give the people with walkie-talkies a kind smile, and possibly a lollipop - the exhibition couldn't be put on without us.

List of the Celebrated Invigilantes
who descend into nonsense but keep on walking

Heather Anderson, Lucy Clarke,
Amy Concannon, Jane Connolly,
Jeff Cowton, John 'Visitor Services' Coombe,
Helen Donald, Tomoko Egiuchi,
Catherine Harland, Emily 'me' Hasler,
Molly Heal, Catherine Kay,
Matty O'Neill, Rie, Esther Rutter,
Carrie Taylor,Rebecca Turner,
Victoria Weaver, Wendy Woodhead

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Back in the vale

I have been safely couched back in the vale for over a week now. Blog posting is becoming increasingly difficult as we enter the busy season, so apologies for the long silences. We have just opened the temporary exhibition here about Wordsworth and Tennyson; The Prelude and In Memoriam were published in 1850 and the exhibition explores that moment. The poetry season is also in full swing. So, in short, busy-busy - however, posts soon I hope.

In the meantime, save Salt publishing by buying a book...

Monday, 11 May 2009


So I've made my first visit back to Suffolk - my county of origin - since I moved to the Lakes. All is summer hot, Constable country of greens and yellows. The soil is more dirt than soil, baked hard and purple-brown already. There's something unsettling about the sudden lack of hills that I'd never noticed before. And there's an eeriness to what is on the skyline; giraffic cranes, circular watertowers, pylons. But it's beautiful too, not just the At the Fishhouses parts and rivers that barely move with flitting white scalene sails, but the perennial bulbs along the seafront at Felixstowe (the town I come from) all hardy colours: blue, cerise and what passes for gold. And it's a port town, so there's always the sense of being about to move on.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Free Poetry

A great online edition called Poets on Poets with audio of modern poets reading various Romantic works. From the site Romantic Circles who have a number of fantastic resources. Interesting to see the Romantics that these poets have chosen to read and the ways they adapt them to their style of performance.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

The Wordsworth Effect

Either I'm becoming increasingly sensitive to a real conspiracy or I'm going mad. Wordsworth is everywhere. Places you'd expect to find him, of course. My place of work obviously. And many pieces of writing about poetry. But recently it's been becoming a worrying trend that I can't get past the first paragraph of something without finding him there. The editorial of the latest Poetry Review isn't that much of a shocker, but escaping the confines of Town End for a stand up gig in Warrington with a few work mates, I opened the program to find a reference there again. First paragraph. Mixed feelings of validation and of being stalked by my day job on a night out. Then there was a reference to Keats and Shelley within the first fifteen minutes of the act.

Now, I'm well aware the above proves little more than that I am attracted to comedy with literary appeal and spend far too much time reading. I also know that we're liable to see what we want to or are trained to in things, or to pluck at them when they are only a thread of the whole fabric. But Wordsworth and his contemporaries are woven into a good deal of things so that we quote them without realising or date ideas back to their time. Then there's the relatives. The literary relatives. The things, the places, and the words words words.

It's wonderful. It makes me very happy. It gives me a job to do. It means I never leave work.

Sunday, 19 April 2009


The system works guys. A nice person from Cambridge University Press sent me a copy of Bronk's 'The Romantic Economist'. So, if anyone wants a review of this book I'll be happy to do one for you.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Wordsworth's Birthday (was yesterday)

Wordsworth was born on April 7th, 1770. He died on April 23rd 1850, but this did not stop us from celebrating his 239th birthday yesterday. (1770-1850 is a marvellous date for remembering and making calculations from.)

In honour of this day we did all the typically Wordsworthian things such as eating pizza and drinking large amounts of wine. We also had some entertainment: a song, a few readings and a Wordsworth vs. Coleridge rap battle with hand puppets...

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Update on the Decent

I walked up to Easedale Tarn on one especially hot day the other week and found shallow pools with frogspawn dimpling the surface. Which is a way of saying that Spring has come to Grasmere, complete with lambs and daffs and some quite ridiculously glorious weather. The mornings are radiant and sultry though most afternoons about half twelve or one the sun slips off early and the rain rehearses its customary showers.

April is the coolest month, however, promising the new Luke Kennard book Migraine Hotel and the arrival of the poetry season to our little village. First up is Tomas Venclova and Ellen Hinsey on the 21st. It'll be held in St Oswald's Church as our old venue is being pawed at by diggers. Hinsey's two full collections The White Fire of Time and Update on the Descent have been a revelation for me over the past couple of days; forms which fuse aphorism, dialogue and transcript, a belief in language despite its flaws and shortcomings, and an overwhelming sense of urgency and importance. Audaciously ambitious and that's fine as far as I'm concerned. As Andrew said after seeing the books, "Not what I expected", which is a rather sad reflection on much that's out there.

Oh yeah... New issue of Warwick Review out now, in which I have a round-up review of poetry pamphlets, but if that's not enough reason for you to check it out there's also some lesser names: Peter Porter, George Szirtes and John Kinsella amongst many more.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Romanticism in the news - Richard Bronk and The Romantic Economist

Some cruel people would have me believe my discipline is not relevant. Well, the answer to the current economic crisis is in the works of our Romantic forbears, according to Richard Bronk. On Saturday he made an argument for an imaginative, Romantic approach to economics in a Guardian article. It is not really possible for me to comment on the economic judgement of the piece as someone who, frankly, is too fiscally-inappropriate in her own finances to comment on the country's.

Here's a bit that I think I understand and rather charmingly applies Keats' negative capability to the situation:

The great danger is that we exchange the market fundamentalism of recent years with a similarly hubristic conviction that the great policy brains of the world can devise a single "New Deal" that will solve all our problems. Not only does this fly in the face of the dangers of universal solutions, but in a world made uncertain by constant innovation and self-reinforcing emotional reactions to events, we also need to realise the limits of any such grand plan and, indeed, of reason itself. Far better to learn from Keats the merits of "negative capability" - being willing to remain in uncertainties without "irritable reaching after fact and reason" - and stay imaginatively receptive to pointers as they emerge.

I'm hesitant about this kind of approach to Romanticism and use of the label. When we wield the term in this way we make a generalisation about a movement that as we discover more writers and thinkers of the time we find was diverse and complex. I can't make any judgements without reading Bronk's full-length work The Romantic Economist*, but the idea of this book fascinates me and I'm dying to read it. In an apt state of affairs, however, I can't afford to buy it... ** So, should anyone know Richard Bronk, his publisher, or his agent, or should they simply spot him on the underground, I'd love a copy to review for this blog or for another publication. I think a Romantic, non-economic perspective would be an excellent standpoint from which to read the volume.

Rally the troops, bring me Bronk! Please and thank you.

*The book's been sort of reviewed in a wider article here. The full url ends in a beautiful collection of words: 'recession-depression-economy-wordsworth'. I'm suggesting this as the new tagline for our museum. 'Recession = Depression. Economy? Wordsworth!'
**I'm a fulltime volunteer for the Wordsworth Trust.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

World Poetry Day

Town End, World Poetry Day Celebrations, March 21st 2009.


19.00: Wine
19.15: Omelette
19.30: Participants to scatter to rooms to find poems, muffins and wine
20.00: Participants to resume places at the kitchen table
Rest of the evening and into the early morning: Drinking, searching for tobacco and reading aloud poems.

Not a UNESCO-endorsed event I must admit, but that's how the impromptu night played out in Terrace Two. It's a level of pretension I'm very comfortable with. Some of us had never read poetry aloud before (Heather's cynical Glasgow drawl a revelation in this context), others debuted new work or read their own for the very first time. Highlights included: Molly's Spanish; getting a room of people to listen as I read the entirety of Pessoa's 'The Tobacco Shop' in translation; Jane Learing; prose poems read by Helen; and Mark's bemused face when he came into the kitchen get a drink.

Rather a success I think.

The Great Poet Boreateship Debate

In which, after employing a bad pun in the title, our blogger indulges in a Brooker-esque ejection of bile about the continuing press babble ... paradoxically adding to the mountain of superfluous words that have already been sacrificed to the great poet laureate debate.

There was a time when people in the media wrote about all sort of fancy things. There was a time when poetry did not even make the book section of national newspapers. There was a time when people I met found out I liked poems and mocked me, shunned me or patted me on the head as if it was a great wonder I had managed to get along like a normal human being. Those happy days are gone. Now the only thing anyone cares about is who is going to be the next Holder of an Archaic Monarchical Office that Impairs Creativity and Causes Poetry to be Belittled in the Public Eye, to give it its full, official name. Don't get me wrong, I am against the role entirely. In my time the laureates have done some great things for poetry: the Poetry Archive is fantastic and I hope it continues to expand, but we don't need royal permission for websites (Poetcasting is good example of how a similar--and in many ways more diverse though smaller-scale--project can be gotten off the ground without the Queen's help.)

Here comes the Romanticism bit...

The only plus to the furore I can see is that it makes a handy point of modern reference when I show visitors Wordsworth's royal warrant and tell them how Robert Peel himself wrote to convince him to take the laureateship in 1842. Wordsworth had turned down the post twice. The official line, I believe, is that he thought a younger poet should take up the position rather than any antipathy toward the role. When he did finally agree to the laureateship it was under the stipulation that he didn't have to write any official poetry unless the inspiration took him. And so he spent seven years not writing official poetry. At this stage in the tour I make a joke about how laureates would probably like it to be that way now. Sometimes it even gets a laugh. The fact is it was different. In Wordsworth's time poetry was revered by the public, a poet was a great figure; manly, inspiring and relevant. It wasn't his job to make people care about poems, but that's the way the office has been interpreted in recent years. But is the best way of encouraging debate, pluracy and engagement with poetry--hell, of just getting people to read it--to have a figurehead? Or are the internet forums and blogs, the journals, the increasing culture of putting poetry into and onto buildings and landscapes a better route.

So, I don't care whether the person appointed is male, female, straight, gay, black, white, English, or actually any good. I don't think the office is going to be scrapped. It may be renamed and the process for appointment may be changed. But when the next person asks me who I think it should be, I'll tell them as I have told everyone else that I hope it's someone I don't admire, so that I'm not pained by their acceptance, possible decline and inevitable embarrassment. I couldn't sneer at anyone I knew or liked taking it because for most poets £5000 is a fortune. And they might take the role willingly, enthusiastically and light-heartedly--realising that it's not the beginning and end of contemporary poetry.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Hamlet, Hazlitt, Hancock.

I know, I know, nothing for weeks but rants and prose poetry, apologies. In my defence, it's been pretty manic.

More to come soon, but a few curios for the time being:

A few years ago I wrote an essay on the way that Hamlet, as a character, has been interpreted. Part of the brilliance of the play is its flexibility. Hamlet is a prince and an everyman. It wasn't a successful essay but great fun to research as it meant I could avoid the drama side of things altogether. I was intrigued to discover that the Russians--who have a fascinating and complex relationship with the Dane--consider him to have been a fat man. Not altogether obese, but flabby, corpulent.* In reading Hazlitt's Spirit of the Age I discovered this was a prejudice the Romantics held too. Hazlitt described Coleridge as Hamlet-like in appearance as well as manner because he is on the chubby side.

It's a presumption partially based in the original text. Gertrude claims Hamlet is out of breath because he is fat, which could mean flabby or simply unfit, out of shape. But for the Romantics and the Russians he's a portly figure. It's interesting that Hamlet goes on to describe his age as 'the fatness of these pursey times', because this added to the previous conception makes him a reflection, an embodiment of, his age. Hazlitt is a figure who writes portraits of individuals not to identify them specifically but to capture and distill the zeitgeist, so it's significant that he sees Coleridge as a Hamlet. That is Hazlitt sees Coleridge as an indecisive but brilliant figure, and as such the spirit of his age. Appearances meant everything, yet they were manipulated to suit.

Anyway, in case we should be in danger of taking ourselves too seriously I am recommending all my Romantic colleagues listen to the episode of Hancock's Half Hour called 'Lord Byron Lived Here'.

*My fallible memory suggests there's a phrase by the narrator of Turgenev's 'Hamlet of the Shchigrovskii District' where he claims that the subject even looks like him, tending to fatness. In the political climate of doubt, indecision and looking both ways, Hamlet seemed to embody a certain Russian hero. There's some great essays on this somewhere. The lineage of the Russian Hamlet is a complex one, as they originally receive the play through a French 'adaptation'.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Nightshapes, Town End

The moon is full, or almost. Maybe the tiniest fingernail crescent to be added. We were at a party. Someone was talking about fairies. Someone was reading palms.

Took the old road, past the Dove and Olive. Heard the stream finally. The puddle of a tarn at the top which doesn't even make the map. The road became grass, became mud, became water. Turn and run. Down. Your feet will do this for you. You hear them like water in the carless air. Follow the satisfying curvature, the line of the road, through feel alone. Passing the Mound of Venus, I run and run and run. It branches at the bottom, and I head for home, words, sleep.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Again, again.

It was my good fortune to be present when Tony Harrison read here last week, for the Robert Woof Memorial Reading. Every morning, when I check the museum before opening, I put each audio system to my ear and check they are still reeling round. In the far corner, under some of the most austere visions of Wordsworth committed to paint, is a set that constantly play a few of Keats' sonnets, read by Harrison. I always linger longer than I should here, hearing the each word tripped out as though it were never written, never spoken before; the form capturing that true brilliancy of strict meter where it spools out naturally, as though birthed from the Poet's mouth each time.

Harrison's ability to read form well, I suppose, comes from the fact he writes so steadfastly in it, and knows it's a mechanism there for a reason and you just let it do the work for you. Other than looking to the punctuation and at the words themselves, you are led by the tongue through the sound-shapes you need to reproduce to the audience.

I've heard form read very badly too. Often by people who don't understand how it works, how simple it is to bring into being. They act the piece and get put off by punctuation, linebreaks and will end up mis-stressing and even mis-reading words. When we're confronted with a poem not in anything we can put can label as in a specific form the problems increase. Readers become obsessed with the line. Even where the line is not end-stopped they build to it, letting the intonation congeal at the end of each line, like wax dripping down a candle. This is considered good reading, it makes for an ominous, poetic style that supposedly captures an audience. In reality, that stress isn't there in most lines of most poems, the enjambment is lost, and the listener looses the natural flow of the poem, channelled away by the reader. I've heard people do this with their own poems.

And so my vitriol sighs and expires, patient reader. I do not claim to be a great performer of poetry, but I feel these issues should be addressed. There's enough to put people of coming to poetry readings (or worse yet 'recitals') as it is without bad performances.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

So long since my last post?

In Town End the weeks hurtle through as quickly as the tourists. Some posts to come which have been brewing for a while, but first a quick update.

I've begun research on the poets who are coming here as part of my work. First up is Tomas Venclova. I'm looking forward to comparing his readings to the translations I've read as I'm unclear on his relation to meter and rhyme; some of the English versions hold form but later poems by other translators don't, I'm intrigued to see whether it's a change in Venclova's style. The programme displays from the start an international feel which I think is great.

Well, that's all that is necessary for you to know for now. Posts to come on De Quincey and Romanticism, Poetry and Science.

Emily xx

Monday, 9 February 2009

Thomas De Quincey and Dove Cottage

The 14 Steps

The most famous tenants of Dove Cottage were of course the Wordsworths, but the house was occupied much longer by the family of Thomas De Quincey who inhabited for almost 30 years intermittently. He'd visited the house while Wordsworth lived there, having been a fan and finally finding the courage to meet his literary idol, and while his admiration for Wordsworth waned, his love for the cottage grew. It was, if nothing else, so far north that his debtors would not make the journey to repossess his library and other belongings. In most contemporaries' accounts he is reported as being a remarkably short man, but since he was never one to flatter in his representations of his acquaintances' physical appearance maybe this was a caricatured feature, a riposte.

De Quincey is vastly entertaining to read, lambasting and debunking the Lake Poets as he is in the very process of memorialising them and cementing their reputation--it seems to me that many of the ideas, the myths, we have about poets as people today are in part De Quincey's fault, certainly he sold well enough to spread that particular virulent strain. Yet, despite being guilty of the approach to poetry I despise, I love De Quincey. I love him with the shameful lust for gossip, and because he can be as warmhearted and generous as he can spiteful. It was him that I read after my own first visit to the site. Confessions of an English Opium Eater was great, but better still the essay on Levana and the Three Mothers, which inspired Dario Argento's sprawling trilogy of films.

Since I've been here again, I'm reading the memoirs Reminiscences of the English Lake Poets. De Quincey had a great line in anecdotes, many almost definitely fabricated, and an anecdote can be a tricky beast to get down into print well. Indeed, we should never forget that he is hardly the most reliable of writers. At one point he miscalculates Wordsworth's age, despite knowing how long the poet had been resident at Dove Cottage, he doesn't appear to know Wordsworth's date of birth. But we don't read Lake Poets for an accurate or an exhaustive reportage, we read it because it contains so much flavour, and moreover--I think--because De Quincey writes so well. Most of his work, if not all, was produced at great speed to meet financial demands or the irregular Westmoreland post. It is also written to sell, containing gossip and 'colour'. There are points where you can tell that he has forgone the editing process but these are rare and show what a skilled hand he was at what we might not-inaccurately term hack writing. His sentences incorporate many clauses and he adds flourishes of parenthetical humour or exclamation. It's writing where you forget you're reading off a page and the long, dense paragraphs become long, indulgent, one-sided conversations.

De Quincey's notorious inaccuracy is easy to spot because, knowing how much readers love the local and exact, he peppers his prose with details, with measurements to the hour or inch. The effect is fantastic, we totally believe in the enormous, insatiable memory of our author, we understand his sprawling disorganised style as if we had upset a cupboard containing the whole world and its falling out upon us could not be controlled or condemned. He notes the number of stairs between the ground floor and the upstairs of Dove Cottage--14--so we feel him tripping up each step, awake to the significance; a man who knows greatness when he's near it and will never forget. A slight-of-hand of course, he had years in which to measure the rooms length and breadth and height, to count all the steps and yet he presents it as if these calculations and remembrances were burnt into his mind, singed into him then and there like a pail of hot coals on pine. Surely we would follow such a man anywhere? Into the bowels of opium dependence, into his nightmares, behind the curtain of fame to see what our heroes really are? I have a feeling even later De Quincey did no more than make an approximate guess at the dimensions of the house, I can't imagine him with a tape-measure.

There are 12 stairs to the first floor.

Friday, 6 February 2009


Having resolved to keep a journal Dorothy Wordsworth wrote that she continued to do so "because I will not quarrel with myself". An excellent determination for a diarist and a sentiment that I think a good one generally.

In my first post I wondered whether the fires had been lit for the Wordsworth's arrival in darkest last winter of the eighteenth century. I now know that they were welcomed by the warmth that had been fostered for them by Molly Fisher, who lit the fires in the cottage for two weeks before they came. Welcomes here are still warm, and we even have a Molly amongst us, though in our house the fires are thanks to Mark Ward who makes these happen as well as poems and many other things. It's been a fortnight since I arrived here and a happily busy one, so apologies for the lack of frequent posting to those of you who have complained which flatters me and scares me at the thought that my little blog has readers. Town End as it is now appears to me a fitting tribute to the Wordsworths and their poetic community. Living, working and writing together gives the place a lively and unique atmosphere.

The only slight disappointment has perhaps been the postponement of the Tony Harrison Robert Woof Memorial Reading, but this will still take place on March 3rd. There is also the exciting 2009 programme of 'summer' poetry readings now up on the website to look forward to.

So, I shall be back soon with more to say. If you want to read about anything in particular let me know and I shall endeavour to satisfy your curiosity.

For now,
Emily xx

Read and recommended

Jonathan Morley's 'Backra Man'--buy it and buy me the accompanying CD.
Mario Petrucci's 'somewhere is january'--looking forward to the extended sequence and frankly in love with Perdika Press.
Dorothy Wordsworth's 'Grasmere Journals' as edited by Pamela Woof--strikingly beautiful introduction.
Thomas De Quincey's 'Lives of the Lake Poets'--TDQ's a master of the anecdote though hardly the most reliable, like Heat but with literacy.
Selima Hill's 'Gloria' and Christopher Middleton's 'Collected Poems'--working my way through both of these hefty portions. Hill's poems are a constant delight, Middleton I'm newer too but like very much.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Arts and Books Festival 2: Walter Scott

Early 19th century social-networking

In a weekend of informative and engaging talks, Stuart Kelly's was perhaps the one I enjoyed most, despite the fact I have never fostered an interest in his topic or read any of Scott's books. Kelly has a book called 'Scottland' coming out, and the subject is Scott and Scottishness.

Kelly talked about how Scott engaged in a literary marketplace and became a canny manipulator of the influence exerted by authorship. For years, Scott's books--and some that were not written by him at all--appeared under the name of 'The author of Waverley' or other enigmatic pseudonyms as Scott continued to veil himself in mystery. He took imitators and satirists in his stride, seeing that this rather nurtured than damaged his status as the great iconic author, able to be torn apart as he was so well-known. Much of his work, especially the later produce, was increasingly heavily editted by his son-in-law and later biographer John Gibson Lockhart. And when Lockhart himself came to write the life of Scott, James Hogg (who had a relationship with Scott that could be seen to fit the Wordsworth-Coleridge model of friendship combined with rivalry) offered his name as a guise in which Lockhart might write more freely about his father-in-law. Thomas de Quincey translated a work from the German that was claiming to be by the author of Waverley himself, when he knew full well it was not. Such discrepancies, dissimulations and psuedonomy tell us much about Scott's incredible popularity (Kelly reckons him to have been read by just about every literate English speaker of the time judging by sales and probable circulation), but it also tells us something about the attitude there was to authenticity and authorship. Just as Hogg accused Scott of stealing his plots, so did Coleridge bequeath his great idea to Wordsworth.

The closer we look at the writing process, at manuscripts and drafts, the more we see that poetry is not begotten onto the page by the author in one easy birthing. It bothers me greatly that people think of Romanticism as principly about 'the Poet' and 'solitude'. Romanticism is so much a collective and communal project, working through couplings and rivalries, evoking and representing voices.* These poets were concerned with community from a familial to a national level. Dove Cottage was an experiment in a new type of communal living for Wordsworth and Dorothy, when they left it was for lack of rooms to house the family and friends.

Even on a deserted hillside, Wordsworth will see a rock or raggedy thorn bush and attach to it a whole human life. The famous C D Friedrich painting, The Wanderer, is often used to demonstrate what Romnaticims is about, the man alone--stranded or willfully apart--in the sublime natural scene. And yet, what are we looking at? If we are being asked to consider what it is to be alone, then the frame should be an unobstructed porthole, but still here at the top of the mountain we see a man. This is much what happens in the poetry of Wordsworth; the nature is peopled, or we view the poet in his solitude, in even closer commune with him because our sensory prospects are aligned, but always distinct as he exerts a personal pronoun view of the world, an interpretation onto the scene--floating over it like a veil so that we may see through it, but certainly present in a rendering of its shifting changing forms.

Romantic poets, like poets today, did not live and work in isolation. The current poet-in-residence here was berated on a Guardian blog a few months back for using the internet rather than shutting the window, the door and all links with the outer world in order to write. But this is simply the modernisation of the communications that Romantic poets were involved in; letter writing, editing manuscripts, visiting. We only need to glance at Dorothy's journals to see the traffic of visitors that came and went through Dove Cottage on a daily basis, visitors including Walter Scott.

*Romanticism on the Net (I refuse to admit it's become Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net...) had an issue with excellent essay by scholars who have been valuable to me in formulating ideas about and looking at the idea of Romantic couplings and rivalries (issue 18, 2007). The latest issue is all about Romanticism and selfhood, a subject that for brevity I tried to cull from this post. Much more twittering on to be done about the self in Romanticism in future blogging I fear...

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Arts and Books Festival 1: Edward Lear in England

'Hail, Snow and Desolation!'

I know little about Edward Lear, but even the most eminent experts have been forced to reconsider their conceptions because of the findings of Charles Nugent. Nugent's research deepens our understanding of Lear by drawing attention to an overlooked aspect of his career; a sketching tour of the Lake District in 1836. The unique exhibition, Edward Lear in England, will be in the musuem here at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere later this year.

Lear's letters from this period, which Nugent sampled in his talk, are charming. He greatly enjoyed his trip to the area, but it appears he didn't fail to notice the region's shortfall--which is properly speaking the opposite, an overabundance. For several weeks after his arrival he saw no lakes at all, 'water being an unpleasantry too superfluous [...] to seek for more.' One town is particularly mauled in his epistolary accounts; Kendal is 'nature's slop basin, where it always rains' and there 'babies are born with fins, webbed feet and umbrellas under their arms'. He produced a sketch of the ladies on market day bearing their weapons against the weather and titled it 'Umbrellifera' as though they were an example of local flora.

Things combined for him, ideas and things seeping into one another or simply unable to be disentangled:

The castle, Mrs. Hornby, the prison and the lunatic asylum are all balanced in my mind and are all exquisite in their own way.

[You] sit among the armour and starched ruffs till you find yourself growing stiff.

The technique might be called surrealism (I think it is a worn out word these days, and an inaccurate one for his time) but it is less method than presentation. It is not illogical to see things connected surely, but rather madness to try to trim them back. In an admiring but almost baffled phrase he described the cultivated gardens at Levens Hall with 'the grass shorn short' as 'looking like fable and nonsense'; an odd description of stately fashion by a man famed now for not making sense himself. As a young man, to 'buy his bread and cheese', Lear drew pictures of parrots.

Winter Wordsworth

Friday, 23rd January 2009

I am now - to conjure a verb - interned.
The smattering of snow that fell last night remained this morning and seduced some of us into a small trek. We headed up the lane that separates our terraces from Dove Cottage to reach the footpath that forks in two, one way along the old coffin path, the other our chosen route up to Alcock Tarn. It's a steep if brief ascent. The tarn is preluded by a series of smaller pools along the way, each one larger and deeper than the last, glints of encouragement as the path inclined and grew icier. We celebrated our small conquest over nature when we finally made our goal, the tarn was high enough up to be surrounded by a foot-deep covering of unreceding snow. Then we began the tricky descent, hesitantly picking our stepping through the slush and loose rocks. On our way down, we were passed by a fell-runner. Ten minutes and a quarter of a mile or so further along, as we were wishing man never had the audacity to shed the status of quadraped, he hurtled past us in the opposite direction this time.

On our comparatively ponderous journey back, we recalled that snow and ice, all the accoutrements of winter, are largely absent from Wordsworth's poems. There are a few exceptions (in Lucy gray the snow reveals the path of the lost child) but where it occurs snow is something forborne not delighted in. Climatic conditions in Europe would have caused snow on the peaks around Grasmere to have persisted yet longer each year in Wordsworth's time. However, he chose to concentrate on Spring and - a phrase more often heard about the economy these days - green shoots. At first this seemed odd - snow is at least initially delightful and plenty of poets revel in it as much as schoolchildren do - but it is understandable. With even longer and harsher winters, how much more apparently miraculous the re-emergence of flowers; their shock of colour and scent after the stifling frost. The irrepressibility of it, as if it became more not less unlikely that the world could survive another yearly freezing. And flowers are so slender-necked as to appear yet more unlikely. To us they can often seem unnecessary even; used as a decoration, given as a gift whose precise charm is in their practical purposelessness. We forget sometimes their role: sex organs, productive, vital. In Wordsworth's time such considerations were more immediate perhaps (botany was a common passion in that era). Flowers were a part of the seasons, not an adornment.

Of course the first flowers to conquer the white are snowdrops. Today they can be seen on William and Mary's grave, heads bent toward the element from which it issues but which it will survive.

To a Snowdrop

Lone flower, hemmed in with snows and white as they
But hardier far, once more I see thee bend
Thy forehead, as if fearful to offend,
Like an unbidden guest. Though day by day,
Storms, sallying from the mountain-tops, waylay
The rising sun, and on the plains descend;
Yet art thou welcome, welcome as a friend
Whose zeal outruns his promise! Blue-eye May
Shall soon behold this border thickly set
With bright jonquils, their odours lavishing
On the soft west-wind and his frolic peers;
Nor will I then thy modest grace forget,
Chaste snowdrop, venturous harbinger of Spring,
And pensive monitor of fleeting years!

William Wordsworth, 1819


Coming from Felixstowe, a dock town in famously-flat Suffolk, there are immediately noticeable differences on arrival in Grasmere.


Inland forms in abundance. Clearer. And it tastes different, from the tarn and the tap.

Saw my first goosander today. She was very fine, wore her ginger crest like a bonnet. Goosanders are one of those rare species where the females are more showy in appearance than the males it seems to me. Our girl was swimming with the mallards, perhaps searching for a mate worthy of her good looks.

No salt to it.


Real dark, real quiet. No dock noise, no orange tinged black.

It's ups and downs.

Saturday, 10 January 2009


Dove Cottage was a home to William Wordsworth for just under a decade. Here he lived with his sister Dorothy, and later was joined by his wife Mary Hutchinson and their children. Wordsworth and his sister moved here in on December 20th 1799. This was around the same time of year that I visited the museum for my interview, and the view from our century was of the Cumbrian landscape quilted in snow. The lakes as black as pupils, holding the image of the white peaks all the more clearly. Under the climate of Europe's Little Ice Age we can assume that such sights greeted the siblings on their arrival. Then the house, previously the Dove and Olive inn, would have looked out over the mere itself as our terraces a future obstruction. When they took up their tenancy the building had been unoccupied since the inn had closed for business in the early 1790s. I wonder if someone had kindly gone in to make a fire before their arrival, so the flagstones should not be as unwelcomingly cold. I think for all the Romantic feeling in the world it is perhaps hard to fall in love with a house if it does not give some relief from the harsh natural world it is set within.

I had been to the cottage once before, and the memory had belied how small the place is. The rooms are not cramped--most citizens of the country at the time would surely have considered their proportions palatial--but they are not large, and the ceilings are low (which makes me feel of a normal stature for once). In that first experience my mind had adhered to peculiar historical facts, most insistently that tea was locked in a caddy while opium was less well guarded. On the subject of opium, Thomas de Quincey, author of the Confessions of an English Opium Eater, stayed with Wordsworth and loved the cottage so much that he took up the tenancy after the family left. De Quincey was far form being their only guest, and it seems one of the reasons for the Wordsworths left was apparently the lack of space, friends--among them many famous figures of their day--sleeping on the flagstone floor. However, such numbers pale in comparison to the present day; Dove Cottage now sees approximately 70 000 visitors a year.

It is less than a fortnight until I am resident in Grasmere. I will be part of a year-long internship programme at the Wordsworth Trust with nine others. At this stage I'm excited and totally unorganised for the move. As interns we will be working at Dove Cottage and the museum there, living just across the road in the terraced houses that make up most of Grasmere's beautifully monikered 'Town End'.

This blog will be about a multitude of things, including the conservation and heritage work I will be getting an education in. It will also be a space for writing about the Romantics, both those who made this place famous and those connected to them (and they are mostly connected, Romantic writing is about and of a community), and about contemporary poetry, which also has its place in the Wordsworth Trust.

It's this complementarity of Romantic and contemporary poetry that has brought me to the Wordsworth Trust. I hope you enjoy reading this journal.