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Showing posts from 2017

Transience, Quaker Poetics and 'Softer Grace': Bernard Barton's 'A Day in Autumn'

'Who has not heard of Bernard Barton,' wrote poet laureate, Robert Southey in the pages of the Quarterly Review in 1831. The answer to the rhetorical question was, of course, meant to be virtually no-one - for the Quaker literary culture of which Barton was a part was so surprisingly vibrant that 'the poems of [fellow Quaker writers] Mary and William Howitt are known to all lovers of poetry'.

Of course, in age where Southey himself is a writer for specialists, the Howitts and Barton are forgotten. Unlike the American 'Quaker poet', John Greenleaf Whittier, there are no perennial school-taught verses to give the British 'Quaker poet' (for Barton needed no other appellation in the periodical press of the time) a prolonged posterity.
Yet this is the corner of nineteenth-century literary culture that I'm currently spending an enjoyable time rooting about within. So here's a reading of Barton's 'A Day in Autumn' (full text link here; ori…

Spring Term Notes #3: Influence and (Im)personality in Dorian Gray

I think it's been twelve years since I first took an undergraduate seminar - on Aeschylus' Oresteia - and I was thinking recently which text I have taught the most. I think there is a good chance that it is Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray, an irreducibly popular text that has been a fixture on Exeter Penryn's nineteenth-century module since before the financial crash. I certainly see that I have not one but two blogs on it, from 2016 and 2010 respectively.

I was pretty fascinated by Wilde as a student, but it might surprise the undergraduates who routinely turn to it in essays and exams to know that Dorian Gray certainly wouldn't be my first choice of text to write about. The problem of reading is always one of negotiating a relation between surface and depth, and Wilde is deceptively elusive insofar as this novel is both about absolute surface (style, performativity, 'mere' beauty) and absolute depth (secrecy, the impasse of paradox, and the deliberate with…

Spring Term Notes #2: Three Poems of Irish Nationhood

Appropriately enough insofar as I'm writing this in Dublin, I'd like to continue my series of short blogs on last term's teaching by turning to poems of Irish nationhood. Engaging early Yeats and the poetry of Young Ireland as one week on a nineteenth-century 'British' literature survey module, in a university in south-west England predominantly attended by English-born students, obviously looks very different to how it might in Trinity College Dublin: or indeed an institution once home to two of the lecturers on this module, Maynooth. Not least, I'm no expert in the critical field surrounding it. Yet it led to vibrant seminars, and I'd like to point to one discussion about Yeats' 'To Ireland in the Coming Times', Davis's 'A Nation Once Again' (1845), and Mangan's 'To my Native Land' (1832).

An intriguing way of organising the three texts was suggested by one small group, who claimed that whilst Davis and Mangan's idea…

Spring Term Notes #1: The Figure of the Artist in Wildfell Hall

Despite the best of intentions, the strains of living between Cornwall, Exeter and Ireland have meant that I have barely been able to use this blog to support my teaching in 2017: which is a shame, since I've had three really fine seminar gorups over the last 11 weeks, with lots of discussion. So, having jotted down nascent ideas throughout semester, I'd like to bear some witness to this term's work by posting three short blogs in the next few days.

First up, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the major novel of the 'other' Brontë. It's the narrative of a mysterious woman arriving in a provincial community with a dark secret, and engages themes of abuse, morality and family. Whilst I'll immediately declare myself a Charlottiste (not a word), and defend Jane Eyre and Villette rigorously, I'll go out on a limb and say I find Anne Brontë's novel far more interesting and textured than Wuthering Heights. In any case, it works well on my third year module, and …

Tennyson: Times of Mourning, Hallowed Spaces

A little belated, but last week I had two very good seminars on Tennyson's In Memoriam. I suppose it is testament to the slow, sad richness of this text that whilst every discussion of it tends to hit some predictable beats, it is also an endlessly reinventable text. (See, for instance, a blog from a 2014 seminar here.) You never get bored teaching it - or at least I don't.

One thing I very much liked was a discussion of cyclical time in the text. To some extent I set this up by deliberately picking out the two anniversary stanzas (LXXII and XCIX) as objects for a class exercise, but I think even before this we were broaching the idea that the poet shapes his grief into cycles, where the forward progress of consolation is marked, almost by definition, by also referring back and remembering. Whether articulated through calendrical or seasonal motifs, there's a logic of mourning here. To articulate the elongated time of Tennyson's (unusually extended) elegy, each moment …

Things as They Are: Ironic Gothic in Caleb Williams

Nine months away from seminars - and pretty much the same away from this blog - and I'm back in the thick of things, facing a blur of John Clare, Charlotte Smith, Thomas de Quincey and, for the second time, William Godwin's strange novel of the 1790s, Caleb Williams.

I find this quite an odd book to place and position, and the first thing I asked my students to do was to scattergun ways of reading it as a gothic novel, a political novel, a psychological novel and a self-reflexive/aesthetically experimental novel respectively. As we worked this through - and especially in contrasting the first two genres - I queried how we reconcile the intensely inward plane of gothic distortions and anxieties with the realist promise of the text's subtitle: 'things as they are'.

After all, here is a narrative that freely appropriates gothic conventions - fires, secrets, murders, bandits, imprisonments, vengeances, pursuits - whilst also coming from the pen of one of the era's …