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...

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