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Other Romantics

This year I gave myself the task of reading more deeply in the 'minor' Romantics. Whether for good or bad, I didn't do a Romantic Studies MA (opting for theory and interdisciplinarity instead), and despite carving out a bit of a niche in Romantic women's writing, I have generally stayed pretty canonical and this was an attempt to patch a few holes.
As usual with these things, life got a little bit in the way (I still have a forlorn and unopened edition of Hazlitt on my shelf), but here are the links to the seven authors I did manage to have a good crack at: A Bit on Robert Southey (on exile, elegy and politics)A Bit on Mary Robinson: Blindness, Sensation, EmpiricismA Bit on Charles Lamb: Perfect and Imperfect SolitudeA Bit on John Thelwall: Jacobin RevisionsA Bit on John Clare: Alternate TopographiesA Bit on Leigh Hunt: Passion and MaterialismA Bit on L.E.L.: Eroticism and Style

And, although it's cheating somewhat, since I did this research for a talk at the Royal…

A Bit on L.E.L.: Eroticism and Style

We recently had a esteemed visiting speaker at the Penryn Campus, who spoke about the eroticism of the tuberose (a heavily perfumed flower) in late Victorian/decadent poetry. My question was about a distinction in the way sensuosity seemed to work in the verse she was discussing, which played into some of my previous work on D.H. Lawrence and John Donne. There's an eroticism of laying bare, of exposure, of consummation. But there's also an eroticism of anticipation, deferral, and lingering. Depending on how you look at it, and how the erotic works in a particular text, either one could be 'more' erotic and indeed either one could be, in fact, 'non-erotic'.

So, for example, one can privilege deferral over exposure in the sense that, for instance, the half-veiled body is more sensuous than the starkly naked one. The erotic lies in the drawing out of the moment. Possession destroys the erotic (the problem of the post-coital, in Donne, for instance.) Conversely, on…

Seminar Notes #11 (Rider Haggard)

Only one week to go!

This week was on Rider Haggard's imperial romance, King Solomon's Mines.

1. Rider Haggard, Novel(ty), Origin. One interesting segment of discussion considered the novel's immense - and perhaps puzzling - popularity. One way of thinking about this, which one seminar pursued, is to trace the differences between 'high' and 'low/mass' culture, noting chains of association (e.g. depth vs. surface, reflection vs. consumption, slowness vs. speed, permanence versus ephemerality). The other is to think about what literary newness or novelty is. One model that has stuck with me, after studying it at MA level, is the Russian Formalist Yuri Tynyanov's ideas around dialectical literary history, whereby every literary mode stagnates, but contains within it the seeds out of which an opposed, experimental way of writing will emerge: 'every dynamic system inevitably becomes automised, and dialectically delineates the opposite constructive princi…

Seminar Notes #10 (Dickens Again)

This week, our second on Bleak House, allowed me to partly recreate my own undergraduate experience by using the seminar to run small 8-10 minute intensive discussions with 1:2 ratios. The idea was to make student positions more robust through strings of questions, digressions, counters and critiques. Although it was harder for me to keep track of the ideas (given there were so many of them!) there was plenty of really interesting stuff, of which I'll try to give a sense through a few notes.

1. The Ancient City. An obvious way to read the Dickensian metropolis is through its modernity: we are thinking the old undergraduate essay canards of industrialisation and urbanisation. Slums and rookeries, of the Tom-all-Alone's variety, are to some extent a purely Victorian - that is, for Dickens, contemporary - phenomenon. Yet the London of Bleak House is also a gothic space of ancient, primordial rhythms: some students, quite correctly I think, connected the novel's famous opening…

A Bit on Leigh Hunt: Passion and Materialism

I've had a long-term ambition to read a bit more Leigh Hunt, who was a fascinating figure on the margin (if one is talking about posterity's judgements) or very close to the centre (if one thinks in terms of the 1810s and 1820s) of the circle that included Shelley and Keats. An editor, an imprisoned radical, a philosopher of the senses, a secular theologian: he's an interesting writer. Sadly, it's quite hard to get modern texts of his work, but there's a decent Selected Writings published by Fyfield which I've been reading this month. His most memorable (and controversial) poem - The Story of Rimini - is worth a look; there's a quite superb if strange poem on how fish might view humans; and two essays on 'the now' are fine examples of experimental Romantic prose. But it was Leigh Hunt as a reviewer and critic that shone through for me. His barb at the young Tennyson, for instance - 'how can he condescend to write such fantastic nothings, pretend…

Seminar Notes #9 (Dickens)

One of the questions I asked my students this week about Charles Dickens' Bleak House was designed to confront the very obvious thing that any undergraduate notices on first picking up the text: its intimidating length. What, I queried, does Dickens do with such an enormous canvas?

One set of answers, perhaps following on from an excellent lecture by Paul Young, highlighted complexity. Bleak House is a novel of interconnections, of strands, and of rippling effects. The scale of the novel is needed, or exploited, to represent this interconnection. For some critics (e.g. Georg Luk√°cs), this is precisely why the nineteenth-century novel is greater than its fragmented and alienated twentieth-century counterpart: because the complexity it presents is one of social totality, and of individuals the lives of whom are always encompassed by greater economic and ideological systems. Students picked up on this rapidly and effectively.
If we venture into the issue of complexity in Dickens, the…

Seminar Notes #8 (Rossetti)

#8 because weeks 6 and 7 were a reading week and a periodicals/practical week respectively...

1. Although some extensive discussion of Robert Browning meant that we didn't get a lot of time to talk about Christina Rossetti's 'In an Artist's Studio', the discussion did provoke one of the more interesting thoughts (for me) of the seminar.

I've taught and blogged about the sonnet before, and the approach I took (in the blog at least) is fairly well-established - and probably the one which students gravitate towards as well. Rossetti is read as deconstructing the male gaze and its objectification of the effaced female model, and this dynamic is usually read biographically to refer to her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti. So far, so good, although it is such a well-worn reading that I wonder if I would want to recommend it to students: indeed, I toyed with the idea of shifting the sonnet off the module precisely because I wanted something that could generate more dive…

St. Michael's Mount and Savage Beauty

No seminar blogging this week because we were working with Victorian periodicals, which was a practical session with only limited time spent on set texts. However, to link in with the From a Cornish Window festival, I have written a blog on William Lisle Bowles' 1798 poem 'St. Michael's Mount', which you can find by clicking here (please do: and do take a look around our website).

From a Cornish Window is one small part, organised by lecturers in the English department of the University of Exeter (Penryn Campus), of a large national celebration of the humanities called Being Human. The festival on a national scale aims to showcase the relevance of research in the arts and humanities to the public, and our segment aims to explore how literature, the arts and humanities can be used to rethink and reimagine our relationship to local space and place.

There's been plenty going on - a set of schools workshops, a trail around the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro - and four f…

Seminar Notes #5 (Tennyson)

It's turning out to be a busy week, because I am being drafted into cover for an injured (yes, injured!) colleague, but I wanted to continue some form of seminar blogging after three very productive seminars on Tennyson's In Memoriam. It's heartening that even though I've taught this poem several times over the years, I'm still seeing it in new ways, and still watching seminar discussion wind in interesting directions.

1. This week, I became a bit obsessed by temporality in In Memoriam. No small part of the poem's sophistication and complexity comes from the collision and overlapping of multiple time-scales: ritual time, historical time, resurrectionary time, geological time, cosmic time, seasonal time, even the poem's own internal, 'stanzaic' time. So much of the texture comes from the way these time-scales work together: the subtle interweave of ritual time with seasonal time, for instance, or the way that Tennyson feels he is falling out-of-sync …

A Bit on Clare: Alternate Topographies

I've been wanting to write this blog for a long time. As part of my procession through the minor Romantics (Southey, Lamb, Robinson, Thelwall), I started reading John Clare over a delicious glass of Portuguese red wine in a bar in Lisbon back in August. Termtime being termtime, my grand project has been disrupted much in the same way as my ill-fated 40 (er, 26) monograph challenge. However, I've finally managed to lunge my way through at least most of my Penguin edition of Clare.*

I was taken by the beautiful first poem in that collection, 'Early Images', which pictures a dawn landscape 'sweeter in its indistinct array / Than when it glows in morning's stronger light'. Made up of two Italian sonnet-stanzas, the final lines of the first just resonated and stuck in my mind as I read on: 'and see the mist up-creeping like a cloud / From hollow places in the early scene' (p.31). It seems to me that a lot of Clare's poems are made up of a landscape …

Seminar Notes #4 (Austen)

After three weeks on relatively familiar territory, this week's seminars were on Jane Austen's Emma - a refreshing shift of genre, and a move into critical discussions that aren't part of my day-in-day-out research life. I think the aspect of the classes that I enjoyed the most were probing the slightly skewed familial dynamics that seem to exist in Emma. I've been in Dublin this week giving a paper on Byron and Shelley in UCD, so apologies if these notes are more fragmentary than usual...

1. Emma Woodhouse, famously, declares that she has no interest in marrying. It's not unusual to note that this displaces her from the normal economies of courtship. Indeed, despite the fact that the scope of Emma is a small and self-consciously conservative community - on in which, one assumes, the values of stability and hierarchy are rigidly observed - there are actually many figures, including Emma, who are slightly 'out of place' or oddly placed. Some of the student c…

Seminar Notes #3 (Byron)

This week: Byron. Always a bit nervy setting Don Juan (even bits of it), not only because students generally baulk at the idea of a poem that runs into hundreds of pages, but also because it's simply one of my favourite texts. Lots of interesting discussion this week, and I wanted to follow up on two points.

1. Women, Emotion, Pain. My second seminar spent longer on questions of gender, as well as points around the 'de-masculinisation' or effeminacy of the 'hero' (I'd hardly call him an anti-hero; maybe 'un-hero' would be better...) There was also some interesting revision and critique of the polemic position I had put forward in the lecture which, in a way that echoes Leigh Hunt's sympathetic and defensive 1817 review of the poem, attempted to read Juan and Haidee's love as natural and idealistic. Can we really read Juan/Haidee (as I attempted to do) as emotionally transcendent when, in fact, many of the same motifs (gazes, kisses, yearnings) h…

Seminar Notes #2 (Beachy Head)

I've decided to dedicate this blog to Charlotte Smith's Beachy Head, which means it is now a poem I have blogged about three times (see here for 2011 at NUIM, and here for early 2014 in Exeter), which I think is probably unprecedented! Regardless, there was some excellent, ranging discussions of it in my seminars this week.

1. Unity, Layer, Ecosystem. It was my general impression, last year at least, that students wanted to read Beachy Head in terms of discontinuity and fracture (see both the linked posts above for textual examples). What appeared to shift this year was a desire to claim that a sense of place or land or ground was, in essence, constant. Maybe it's a little trivial to claim that the poem is by definition unified under the facticity of Beachy Head itself, but students took such 'grounding' in several interesting directions.

So, for instance, some talked of the 'layered' nature of the poem. Not only is this an interesting way to reorientate ta…

Seminar Notes #1

One of the great things about seminar teaching - at least when you are teaching a truly rich text - is that free group discussion can verify and embody the well-worn assumption that literature is inexhaustible. Even if as a lecturer you've been teaching a text for many years, coming to it with a battery of 'expert' methodologies and critical histories, and perhaps even in possession of a cherished, published reading of it from your own work, it is still entirely possible for an undergraduate to show you something you had never seen or thought of before. And so it should be.

I've used this blog frequently if intermittently in the past to spin off from discussions and ideas raised in seminars, and I'd like to try to do it more systematically this term for my two seminars on Romanticism to Decadence, a nineteenth-century literature course running at the University of Exeter's Penryn Campus. I'll try to make it as clear as I can what students said and suggested…

Commitment and David Hare's "Skylight"

Theodor Adorno, in a brilliant and provocative essay on 'commitment', gives us one of the most sophisticated critiques of art that is too closely tied to a political aim. (It should be pointed out, for those who haven't come across his work, that in no way does Adorno absolve art of politics: quite the opposite, in fact.) I thought of Adorno's essay recently, after seeing a NT Livescreening of David Hare's playSkylight.

Being such a died-in-the-wool academic, I don't feel totally confident commenting on a play without reading the script, but going on my first impressions, something left me unsatisfied.

The basic thrust of the drama is intimate (Hare notes he deliberately chose to right a 'one room' play because he'd never done so before). A school teacher living in a sink estate is visited by a father and son from a wealthy family with whom she had previously lived. It turns out she had had a long affair with the former, and left when his wife had f…

200th Post

It took me two and a half years to reach 100 posts, and it's taken me almost exactly the same (despite a radical slackening of pace recently, which I have to ascribe to a new baby) to reach 200. A lot has changed since then: I'm back lecturing at Exeter, a few more articles written, the somewhat reluctant second monograph significantly closer to finding its endpoint. Some other things haven't changed too much at all! As I did back in January 2012, I'd like to pick out my five favourite posts from the last 100.

1. A Note on Realism (March 2012). Strangely, the only post from my time in Ireland, even though there are several that I like a lot: this on digital humanities, for instance, or these notes on death. But this post on realism, which was sparked by one of the video microlectures I did at NUI Maynooth, is one of those ones where I feel there is a line of enquiry I'd love to take further if I had the time and expertise. That realism in painting is about spacings…

A Bit on Thelwall: Jacobin Revisions

Over the last two months I have been reading (as part of my year's project to dip into so-called 'minor' Romantics) John Thelwall's The Peripatetic. It's hard to describe, since it thematises its own eccentricity both as an ethical and existential principle, and through its very structure and form (based around a series of meandering walks). It's a sometimes wonderful - and sometimes frustrating - collision of essays, meditations, descriptions, travelogues, sentimental encounters and political statements: all interspersed with fragments of verse in all sorts of genres.

Perhaps because of this, I wouldn't really know where to start with it. I found myself jotting down provocations and notes - eccentricities, we might say - all the time. I wondered whether Wordsworth had used some of it as a model for the colloquies in The Excursion. There is something very interesting going on with the aesthetics of weather. In one of several defences of the imagination, The…