Tuesday 22 December 2015

The Wordsworths: Romantics at Christmas

William Wordsworth's ice skates
When I decided to write a post about the Romantics at Christmas, one family immediately came to mind: the Wordsworths. The festive season repeatedly punctuates William Wordsworth's work, from a community gathered together at Christmas in 'The Thorn' and the image of a family sitting 'Like happy people round a Christmas fire' in 'Michael' to the minstrels playing their 'Christmas tune' in the River Duddon sonnets. We encounter joyful recollections of the 'frosty season' in Book I of The Prelude, in which Wordsworth explains how 'cottage windows through the twilight blazed'. The poem reveals how the young William 'wheeled about' on his ice skates, 'Proud and exulting, like an untired horse / That cares not for its home'. 

Unfortunately, Christmas was not always a happy time for Wordsworth. In Book XI of The Prelude, he recalls the Christmas of 1783 in what has become known as the 'Waiting for the Horses' episode. Wordsworth recollects how at thirteen years of age he waited, 'Feverish, and tired, and restless', to return home for the holidays, only for his father to die within ten days. Although Wordsworth found something positive in this 'spot of time', returning to the memory in future years to 'drink / As at a fountain' and seek consolation, the episode certainly has a sombre tone.

Christmas Day was also an important time for the Wordsworth family for another, happier, reason: it was the date on which, in 1771, William's sister Dorothy was born. Dorothy clearly reflected a great deal on the date of her birthday, writing to Lady Beaumont on 25 December 1805 that:

[A] birthday is to every body a time of serious thought, but more so, I should think, when it happens to be upon a day of general festivity, and especially on Christmas-day, when all persons, however widely scattered, are in their thoughts gathered together at home. I can almost tell where every Birth-day of my life was spent, many of them even how from a very early time.

Dorothy proceeds to explain that for a number of years (between the deaths of her mother and father) she was 'never once at home' for Christmas, and talks with sadness about the memories of the season held by her brothers of which she is not a part. 

Dorothy Wordsworth
Understandably, the adult Dorothy clearly relished being with her family at this time of year. She writes contentedly in her journal on Christmas Eve 1802 that 'William is now sitting by me [...] I have been beside him ever since tea running the heel of a stocking, repeating some of his sonnets to him, listening to his own repeating, reading some of Milton's & the Allegro & Penseroso'. Within this tiny glimpse of one seemingly unremarkable Christmas Eve at Dove Cottage, we're able to view a picture of genuine harmony and tenderness between the two siblings. 

While Christmas may have had sad associations at times for both William and Dorothy, then, they certainly cherished being reunited as adults. Even simple pleasures such as a walk together were moments to be treasured; I shall close this post with Dorothy's journal entry for 26 December 1801, in which the landscape is described as being so still and quiet that the pair could be the only people in the world at that moment:

The rain went off & we walked to Rydale - it was very pleasant - Grasmere Lake a beautiful image of stillness, clear as glass, reflecting all things - the wind was up & the waters sounding. The lake of a rich purple, the field a soft yellow, the Island yellowish-green, the copses Red Brown the mountains purple. The Church & buildings, how quiet they were!

Thank you to all those who have read my blog in 2015; wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Lost P. B. Shelley Poem Acquired by the Bodleian

In my access and outreach work I often tell potential applicants to Oxford about our wonderful Bodleian Library, and one fact that I like to reel off is that the library holds well over 11 million books. Well, this week marks a significant milestone, as the library has just acquired its 12 millionth book! And not just any book - the latest acquisition is a long-lost poem by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The pamphlet, 'Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things', was printed by Shelley in 1811, but scholars had long since considered it lost. The copy now in the Bodleian was found in a private collection in 2006 and was purchased with the help of a benefactor for an undisclosed sum.

Composed in the autumn and winter of 1810-11 when Shelley was an undergraduate at Oxford, the 172-line poem was written in support of an Irish journalist, Peter Finnerty, who had been imprisoned for libel. The poem is anti-war, and considers the abuse of press freedom and dysfunctional political institutions. Written in rhyming couplets, the text is attributed to 'A Gentleman of the University of Oxford' and is dedicated to 'Harriet W-B-K' (Harriet Westbrook, who subsequently eloped with Shelley).

I was extremely pleased to hear that the Bodleian has digitised the pamphlet and made the images available for anyone to view for free at a special dedicated website. This website also contains biographical information about Shelley, detailed background information about the text, two short videos, notes to the poem by Dr Nicholas Halmi, and links to further resources.

As Stephen Hebron - a curator at the Bodleian - explains in one of the short films featured on this site, pamphlets were 'a way of getting your opinion across' before the days of blogging and Twitter feeds. The poem is full of youthful passion and conviction, talking of 'legal murders' and those who lie in 'manged heaps' on 'War's red altar'.

The pamphlet will be on public display in the Weston Library until 23 December 2015.

Further details about the discovery of this text can be found here and information on viewing the pamphlet at the Weston library can be found here.

Saturday 31 October 2015

Mary Shelley's 'On Ghosts' (Featuring the King of the Cats)

I look for ghosts - but none will force
Their way to me; 'tis falsely said
That there was ever intercourse
Between the living and the dead.

William Wordsworth, 'The Affliction of Margaret' (1807)

As a big fan of the Gothic, I do like to read a spooky poem or two on Halloween. The Romantics wrote plenty of dark, ghostly, and eerie verses; some old favourites of mine include Wordsworth’s ‘The Vale of Esthwaite’, Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, Blake’s ‘Fair Elenor’, Keats’s ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, and, of course, Byron’s 'Darkness'. For something a bit more off the beaten track, I’d really recommend M. G. Lewis’s Tales of Wonder, and P. B. Shelley’s youthful attempts at Gothic poetry featured in Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire are good fun (if rather silly at times!).

Mary Shelley
Today, though, I’m going to be re-reading Mary Shelley’s ‘On Ghosts’, an essay that was printed in the London Magazine in March 1824. In this piece, Mary laments the lack of mystery and wonder in modern times, explaining that the ‘strange tales’ believed by our forefathers are no longer seen to be part of reality in our wiser age:

What has become of enchantresses with their palaces of crystal and dungeons of palpable darkness? What of fairies and their wands? What of witches and their familiars? and, last, what of ghosts, with beckoning hands and fleeting shapes, which quelled the soldier’s brave heart, and made the murderer disclose to the astonished noon the veiled work of midnight?

Mary proceeds, however, to question whether we really don’t believe in ghosts in our modern time. Granted, she explains, it is easy to dismiss the possibility of spectres in the light of noon-day; but at midnight, in a lonely house with flapping curtains and a dusky passage, when reading about the Bleeding Nun, we’re not so certain.

While Mary explains that she has never seen a real ghost herself, she relates the tales of Thomas Jefferson Hogg, who claimed to have seen the benevolent ghost of a recently-deceased friend, and Angelo Mengaldo, who saw the headless ghost of a companion who had killed himself after falling in love with a woman who did not return his passion. These tales may come across as rather far-fetched, but both men are presented as being reliable and of sound mind; Hogg is described as a person of ‘strong and virile intellect’, and Mengaldo is said to be ‘by no means addicted to superstition’.

M. G. Lewis
The essay closes with a final account that Mary describes as ‘not probably so authentic [as the other tales], but perhaps more amusing’. The story, Mary explains, was told by M. G. Lewis, the famous author of The Monk. It is certainly a strange supernatural tale, but is it true? I’ll leave you to make up your own minds…

The King of the Cats

A gentleman journeying towards the house of a friend, who lived on the skirts of an extensive forest, in the east of Germany, lost his way. He wandered for some time among the trees, when he saw a light at a distance. On approaching it he was surprised to observe that it proceeded from the interior of a ruined monastery. Before he knocked at the gate he thought it proper to look through the window. He saw a number of cats assembled round a small grave, four of whom were at that moment letting down a coffin with a crown upon it. The gentleman startled at this unusual sight, and, imagining that he had arrived at the retreats of fiends or witches, mounted his horse and rode away with the utmost precipitation. He arrived at his friend’s house at a late hour, who sate up waiting for him. On his arrival his friend questioned him as to the cause of the traces of agitation visible in his face. He began to recount his adventures after much hesitation, knowing that it was scarcely possible that his friend should give faith to his relation. No sooner had he mentioned the coffin with the crown upon it, than his friend’s cat, who seemed to have been lying asleep before the fire, leaped up, crying out, ‘Then I am king of the cats;’ and then scrambled up the chimney, and was never seen more.

The King of the Cats wishes you a Happy Halloween!

Tuesday 29 September 2015

The Pre-Raphaelites: Romantic Victorians

Kelmscott Manor, William Morris's Cotswold retreat
Over the past couple of years, my research and teaching interests have been extending further into Victorian territory. It will come as no surprise that I’m particularly interested in the dark Gothic and dystopian texts of the fin de siècle period; indeed, the ‘Last Man’ theme crops up time and again in literature of the 1880s and 1890s. Beyond the Last Man, though, I’m also really interested in the depiction of subterranean spaces in fin de siècle texts, and have just finished a chapter on this topic which will appear in a forthcoming edited collection on William Morris and H. G. Wells.

News from Nowhere: frontispiece
Having spent the summer immersed in the work of Morris and Wells, I felt that I was justified in taking a ‘research’ trip (albeit with a fair bit of cake, ice cream, and tea!) to Kelmscott Manor, the former Cotswold retreat of Morris and his friends and family. The house and grounds were just as wonderful as I was expecting them to be, and it’s easy to see how the Manor was a source of inspiration for Morris’s art. Morris – a pioneer of the Arts and Crafts movement – originally leased Kelmscott Manor with his friend, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. As a result of this partnership, the house is filled with a variety of works – from tapestries to paintings – produced by the two men and their wider circle.

The house, which features in Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), boasts some real treasures; one favourite of mine was Rossetti’s portrait of Morris’s wife, Jane, entitled 'The Blue Silk Dress'. Jane apparently made the blue dress herself, and her creativity is reflected throughout the house, with many examples of her needlework on display. Other artists featured in the Manor’s collections include Burne-Jones and Breughel.

D. G. Rossetti's 'The Blue Silk Dress'
If you’re visiting Kelmscott Manor, be sure to leave time to explore both the grounds and the local village. The church (St George’s) was locked by the time that I’d torn myself away from the house but I was able to locate Morris’s grave, which is marked with a commemorative headstone designed by his friend Philip Webb.

I am, of course, a Romanticist at heart, so one of the things that I love about the Pre-Raphaelites is their interest in, and response to, the Romantic movement. The famous Pre-Raphaelite ‘List of Immortals’ features Byron, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Leigh Hunt, but Kelmscott Manor also indicates an interest in William Blake. This silk-on-silk textile (below), known as the ‘The Homestead and the Forest’ quilt, was designed by Morris’s daughter May, and embroidered by Jane. The quilt features an array of exotic animals, including a tiger, underneath which is a line from Blake’s poem 'The Tyger'. I managed to chop the bottom of the quilt off in this picture, so you'll just have to trust me on that one!

'The Homestead and the Forest'
The Pre-Raphaelite poets frequently refer to the Romantics in their work – some good poems with which to start if you’re interested are William Michael Rossetti’s ‘Mary Shelley’ and Christina Rossetti’s ‘On Keats’, both of which can be found in Dinah Roe’s superb anthology. I’ll leave you with a personal favourite of mine by another Rossetti: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘John Keats’, in which the Romantic view of the tragic life and death of this young poet very much lives on.

‘John Keats’, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The weltering London ways where children weep
And girls whom none call maidens laugh, - strange road
Miring his outward steps, who inly trode
The bright Castalian brink and Latmos’ steep: -
Even such his life’s cross-paths; till deathly deep
He toiled through sands of Lethe; and long pain,
Weary with labour spurned and love found vain,
In dead Rome’s sheltering shadow wrapped his sleep.
O pang-dowered Poet, whose reverberant lips
And heart-strung lyre awoke the Moon’s eclipse, -
Thou whom the daisies glory in growing o’er, -
Their fragrance clings around thy name, not writ
But rumour’d in water, while the fame of it
Along Time’s flood goes echoing evermore.

Thursday 6 August 2015

'Rising Universe': The Controversy of the Shelley Fountain

It was P. B. Shelley’s birthday a couple of days ago, and so my Twitter and Facebook feeds were filled with snippets of his poetry, various articles, and several pictures of the birthday boy himself (including one of Shelley surrounded by celebratory confetti and streamers – I’m looking at you, @1815now). There were, of course, numerous images of the University College sculpture and the famous Amelia Curran portrait, so I was interested to see that the Keats-Shelley House in Rome had taken a different angle and shared an image of the ‘Rising Universe’ fountain in Horsham, West Sussex.

Otherwise known as the Shelley Fountain (or, among some locals, the Cornish Pasty), this sculpture by Angela Conner was installed in 1996 to commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of Shelley, who was from Horsham. The fountain is made up of a large globe mounted on a pillar; the globe slowly rises and falls, releasing a torrent of water at intervals. Or at least it’s meant to: the fountain was switched off for some time in order to save water, and then shortly after it was switched back on, it broke. The fountain’s water feature has not functioned properly since 2013. Horsham District Council has been discussing the future of the 'Rising Universe' over the past 12 months, and has looked into the cost of scrapping it, but no decisions appear to have been made yet.

The fountain attracted a lot of controversy when it was first installed, and it continues to do so. A quick google reveals the strong feelings that locals have about the sculpture, with various residents of Horsham describing it as ‘ugly’, ‘obtrusive’, and a ‘waste of money’. Indeed, in 2011 the landmark was named ‘the ugliest fountain in the world’ by Google. Some feel that a work of art commemorating Shelley just isn’t relevant any more, with one local describing the poet as ‘rarely read today’ before concluding that ‘It’s the 21st century and a contemporary theme should be found’.

As someone who grew up in Horsham, I would argue that this sculpture has an important function and should be kept. Far from being irrelevant, it serves to introduce each new generation to Shelley’s work. I was 12 years old when the fountain was installed, and I remember being fascinated by the extract from ‘Mont Blanc’ that appears on a plaque on the sculpture:

The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark – now glittering – now reflecting gloom –
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters, – with a sound but half its own,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume
In the wild wood, among the mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.

I hadn’t come across Shelley’s poetry before, and I can’t say that I felt I completely understood these lines, but I could nevertheless see their power and energy reflected in Conner's sculpture. I went away and looked up Shelley in the copy of the New Dragon Book of Verse that I used to borrow from the library and found ‘Ozymandias’; again, I wasn’t quite sure what it all meant, but it stayed with me. I should imagine that I haven't been the only person over the years to be inspired to find out more about Shelley by the fountain, and think it would be a great shame if we lost this public acknowledgement of his life and work.

Horsham Museum
In many ways, I don’t think that Horsham does enough to celebrate its links with one of the greatest Romantic poets – I don’t remember ever being told about him in school, for example. An exception to this is the wonderful Shelley Gallery at the local museum, which offers a really interesting collection of artefacts (including a rare bronze bust of Shelley), manuscripts, and first editions. The museum has a very dedicated curator in Jeremy Knight, who over the past 25 years has done a tremendous job in building up one of the largest collections on Shelley in the country. People won't seek out this collection, though, if they don't know who Shelley is, which is why we need a public monument such as the 'Rising Universe'.

So I’m with Keats-Shelley House on this one, and agree that the Shelley Fountain is a fascinating and important work that deserves to stay. I reckon that Shelley would have really liked it, too; he certainly would have enjoyed all the controversy he'd caused!

Monday 29 June 2015

Romantic Women's Travel Writing

A street in Pompeii
I became interested in women’s travel writing of the Romantic period entirely by accident during the course of my PhD research. Part of my doctoral thesis explores the link between depictions of abandoned cities in Romantic Last Man literature and contemporary accounts of visits to the newly-rediscovered cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. What fascinated me about these travel accounts was the way in which Pompeii and Herculaneum are not presented as ruins in the traditional sense; rather, they are described by early nineteenth-century tourists as appearing to have been only recently abandoned, Mary Celeste-style. Just as the Last Man wanders around deserted cities encountering half-eaten meals in people’s homes, so, too, did contemporary visitors to the sites come across chilling scenes of abandoned domesticity.

An article printed in an 1824 edition of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine suggests a strange feeling of the uncanny in its account of Pompeii. The city is described as rooted in the ancient past and yet simultaneously imbued with a sense that it was inhabited up until the previous day, with the author stating that ‘the narrow streets, the little Greek houses, with their remnants of ornamental painting, their corridores [sic] and their tessellated floors, are seen, as they might have been seen the day before the eruption’. Likewise, in a poem of 1827, Robert Stephen Hawker observes the ghostly traces left by the seemingly recently-fled inhabitants of Pompeii, noting the ‘print of frequent feet’ left in the street and describing the ‘gate unclos’d, as if by recent hand’ .

John Martin's 'The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum' (1822)
One of my favourite accounts of a trip to the lost cities, however, was written by someone who never even visited the sites. Sarah Atkins’s Relics of Antiquity, Exhibited in the Ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1825) was written ‘for the Use of Young Persons’, and in her Preface Atkins explains that she merely ‘assume[s] the character of traveller’, using other people’s accounts to inform her descriptions. Atkins’s travel narrative is, nonetheless, atmospheric, and she captures her young readers’ attention by invoking the sense of the uncanny found in other, authentic descriptions of the sites, remarking that ‘[Pompeii] is, in truth, an ancient town, the inhabitants of which appear to have fled but yesterday’.

Drawing on the account of one Mr Eustace, Atkins explains to her intrigued reader that:

While you are wandering through the abandoned rooms, you may, without any great effort of imagination, expect to meet some of the former inhabitants, or, perhaps, the master of the house himself; and almost feel like intruders, who dread the appearance of any of the family. In the streets, you are afraid of turning a corner, lest you should jostle a passenger; and on entering a house, the least sound startles, as if the proprietor was coming out of the back apartments [...] All around is silence; not the silence of solitude and repose, but of death and devastation: the silence of a great city without a single inhabitant.

This description certainly sends a shiver down my spine, and leads me to wonder whether it gave some of her young readers nightmares!

Given my interest in Atkins as a travel writer who never went travelling, I was delighted to discover that her work is included in the new Database of Women's Travel Writing. The database, which is free to use, provides full and accurate bibliographical records for 202 titles: all the known books of travel writing published by women in Britain and Ireland between 1780 and 1840. The site can be searched not only by title, author, and date, but also by genre (including narratives, guidebooks, letters, topographical descriptions, and collections) and place of publication. The database has been created as part of a larger project, based in the University of Wolverhampton's Centre for Transnational and Transcultural Research, which will eventually include all the travel books published during this period.

I was really pleased to see Sarah Atkins represented on the site, and through searching the records have discovered that she also published accounts of 'travels' to Egypt and Nubia which I'll certainly be looking up!

Sunday 17 May 2015

Byron's Newstead Abbey

Through thy battlements, Newstead, the hollow winds whistle:
Thou, the hall of my Fathers, art gone to decay;
In thy once smiling garden, the hemlock and thistle
Have choak’d up the rose which late bloom’d in the way.

Lord Byron, ‘On leaving Newstead Abbey’ (1803)

A couple of weeks ago, I headed up to Nottingham for the 11th Annual Newstead Abbey Byron Society Conference to give a paper on Byron’s ‘Darkness’. The conference theme was ‘Byron and the Bible’, and I heard some great papers by Gavin Hopps, Peter Cochran, Marina Ragaczewskaja, Peter Francev, and Emily Paterson-Morgan over the course of the day.

Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips (1813)
What made this conference really special was the fact that it was held at Byron’s ancestral home, Newstead Abbey. I’d never visited before, but I was familiar with all the stories that make this place seem so romantic and mysterious, from the cloisters and skulls to the ghost of the Goblin Friar. The Abbey certainly didn’t disappoint, and the fact that the weather was a bit gloomy and miserable made it all the more atmospheric as we approached up the long driveway in our minibus!

Newstead Abbey was founded as a monastic house in the 12th century, and was acquired by Sir John Byron from his patron Henry VIII following the dissolution of the monasteries. By the time that our Lord Byron inherited the Abbey, however, the house had fallen into disrepair. His great uncle William, the 5th – or ‘Wicked’ – Lord Byron, had lacked the funds to keep the estate in good order, selling off its timber and using the reception hall and refectory of the old Priory for storing hay.

A reconstruction of Byron's study, complete with skull cup!
Unable to restore the entire house to its former glory, Byron famously used to practise pistol shooting in Newstead Abbey’s Great Hall, and allowed his pet bear and wolf to roam the house. He decorated his study with skulls found within the Abbey’s grounds, and even had one particularly large skull polished and turned into a drinking goblet, a replica of which is now on display in the house.

It was great to have the chance to look round the house at the end of the conference, and I got to see some really interesting artefacts, including Byron’s boxing gloves! The Abbey houses an extensive art collection, and I particularly enjoyed seeing Thomas Phillips's famous 1813 portrait of the poet. Byron isn't quite such a heartthrob in all of the portraits on display, however, and looks decidedly less dreamy in the miniature painted by Girolamo Prepiani that is also on show at the Abbey! Other highlights of the collection for me were Amelia Curran’s portrait of Claire Clairmont and Clifton Tomson's paintings of Byron’s dogs, Boatswain and Lyon.

'Boatswain' by Clifton Tomson (1808)

Anyone who has read Byron’s poetry will be familiar with the Gothic image of Newstead Abbey as ancient and decaying; from the early collection Hours of Idleness  (1807) to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-18) and Don Juan (1818-24), Byron’s work depicts the house and estate as a place of ruin and hauntings. I’m really glad that I finally got to visit, and certainly feel that I came away with a better understanding of Byron’s life and poetry having looked around the Abbey and its grounds. I’d highly recommend it as a place to visit, but don't just take my word for it; as the Gothic novelist Horace Walpole commented, ‘Newstead is the very abbey’. 

Wednesday 11 February 2015

New Thomas Chatterton Society Website

Henry Wallis's 'The Death of Chatterton (1856)

Commonly held to be one of the first English Romantic poets, Thomas Chatterton is an intriguing figure known for his pseudo-medieval poetry and tragically early death aged just seventeen. Referred to as 'the marvellous Boy' by William Wordsworth in 'Resolution and Independence', Chatterton's great imagination, revolutionary spirit, and 'martyrdom' stemming from his apparent suicide appealed to the Romantics who followed him. In 1803, Robert Southey edited his poems, while John Keats dedicated Endymion (1817) to Chatterton and Percy Shelley features him in 'Adonais' (1821).

Born in Bristol in 1752, Chatterton was a voracious reader as a young child, devouring Chaucer, Spenser, Gray, Collins, Shakespeare, Macpherson, Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, and the Ossian fragments. This led to Chatterton beginning to compose his own poetry from the age of eleven, and between 1768 and 1770 he produced an astounding number of literary works, including poetry, elegies, and satires.

Engraving of one of the 'Rowley' parchment fragments
Chatterton's most famous works are his 'Rowley' poems, which he also wrote during this period. Chatterton claimed that Rowley was a 15th-century monk whose works he had discovered in a chest in St Mary Redcliffe Church, even going as far as to transcribe some of the works onto antique parchment so as to give the impression that they were genuine! It wasn't until 1782 that these texts were accepted to be the work of Chatterton, as few were willing to believe that such works could have been composed by a fifteen year old boy.

The Thomas Chatterton Society was founded in 2002 to celebrate the life and works of this fascinating figure, and they have recently relaunched their website. The site features details of news and events from the Society, as well as an excellent biography of Chatterton. One of my favourite parts of the site is the recitations of Chatterton section, which currently features an extract from 'An Excelente Balade of Charitie', one of Chatterton's Rowley poems. The recitation is beautifully produced, and I hope that the Society will add further recordings in the future.