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BARS Blog

News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Matthew Sangster

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BARS First Book Prize, 2017-19

The British Association for Romantic Studies

is delighted to announce the current round of

The British Association for Romantic Studies

First Book Prize, 2017-19

Awarded biennially for the best first monograph in Romantic Studies, this prize is open to first books published between 31 January 2017 and 1 January 2019. In keeping with the remit of the British Association for Romantic Studies, it is designed to encourage and recognise original, ground breaking and interdisciplinary work in the literature and culture of the period c.1780-1830. The prize will be awarded to the value of £250 and will be presented at the BARS Biennial Conference, ‘Romantic Facts and Fantasies’, to be held at Nottingham University, 25-29 July 2019. Authors on the final shortlist will receive £100 each.

Eligibility and nomination procedures

The competition is open to books by authors who have not published a monograph before. Books must be nominated through the BARS membership or by publishers. Publishers should send books directly to the address below, while member nominations should include publisher contact details. In all cases, copies of nominated books must be received by the committee by the closing date, 31 January, 2019. Books received after this date are not eligible for consideration. 4 copies of each nominated book should be sent to Dr Daniel Cook, School of Humanities, University of Dundee, DD1 4HN.

Flyer Download: BARS First Book Prize Flyer 2017-19

Five Questions: Katie Garner on Romantic Women Writers and Arthurian Legend

Katie Garner is a Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of St Andrews.  She has published work on subjects as diverse as Angela Carter, Mary Wollstonecraft, liminality, feminism and children’s literature, but her core academic interest is in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Arthurianism, a subject on which she has published a number of articles and which lies at the heart of her first monograph, Romantic Women Writers and Arthurian Legend: The Quest for Knowledge (Palgrave), which we discuss below.

1) How did you first become interested in women’s responses to Arthurian legend in the Romantic period?

As part of a very flexible MA programme I took a module on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Arthurian literature.  We were given copies of Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s ‘A Legend of Tintagel Castle’ to look at alongside Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and I remember being surprised and excited to find out that a woman poet was writing a poem about the Maid of Ascalot at almost the same time as Tennyson.  After that I wrote my MA dissertation on Anne Bannerman’s Tales of Superstition and Chivalry (1802), which includes her Arthurian poem ‘The Prophecy of Merlin’.  I looked into some of the Arthurian texts that Bannerman cites in her notes to the poem, and which I didn’t know much at all about then: Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, Drayton’s Poly-Olbion, and Evan Evans’s Some Specimens of the Poetry of the Ancient Welsh Bards.  The question surrounding women’s sources remains central to the book, which is based on my subsequent PhD.  Throughout the PhD I was most eager to find out how women accessed information about Arthur in practical terms, and through what channels of knowledge their interest in the myth was first piqued.  I also suspected that if Felicia Hemans and Landon had both written Arthurian poems, then it was likely that there were more, and I started to keep an annotated list of Arthurian items and allusions by women that had been missed by previous bibliographers.  Mary Russell Mitford, Caroline Norton, Eleanor Anne Porden, and Mary Howitt all wrote poems that draw on aspects of the legend in some way, and the book also covers Arthurian material in prose in women’s travel writing, fiction, and scholarship.

2) To what extent do you perceive distinct traditions of response to Arthurian legends that are peculiar to female readers and writers?

I have become more and more convinced that female readers and writers experienced the legend in different forms and contexts to their male contemporaries, and that this shaped their imaginative responses.  Women with Arthurian interests (or even more general antiquarian ones) were unable to access manuscripts in libraries or gain membership of antiquarian clubs as gentlemen could.  In the few cases where Arthurian texts were specially prepared for women readers, the texts they were offered were censored and curated by editors (male and female) looking to protect female readers from the legend’s violent and sexual content.  In the book I spend some time discussing two notable instances of this: an much abridged version of Percy’s Reliques, entitled Ancient Ballads (1807) that extracted a high proportion of Percy’s Arthurian poems, and an edition of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur from 1816, censored so that ‘it may no longer be secreted from the fair sex’.  When these bowdlerised editions are the main source for an Arthurian piece by a woman writer, the effects of textual alterations to the myth or added ambiguities made in the pursuit of an ‘improved’ text leave their mark, and aspects of women’s treatment of the legend that might seem original, imaginative, or just plain odd, start to emerge as interpretive traces of the compromised text that inspired it.

3) Your book spans chronologically from 1770 to 1850 – why did you select these dates in particular, and what would you identify as being the key phases in women’s writing about the Matter of Britain within this period?

The 1770s seem to be the point at which conversations about women reading medieval romances start up again with new energy, as part of the broader debate about women’s novel reading.  Many of these discussions take place in periodicals, but are deepened in works that engage more closely with medieval scholarship, such as Susannah Dobson’s Memoirs of Ancient Chivalry (1784) and Clara Reeve’s The Progress of Romance (1785).  Both Reeve and Dobson are thinking through the intellectual benefits of medieval romance reading for women, which includes the Arthurian romances.  There’s an acceleration in the amount of Arthurian material in women’s travel writing from the 1790s onwards, as women on the home tour explore Arthurian locations in Wales and Scotland, and interest is also evident in accounts of France before and after the Revolutionary wars.  Alongside this, the coexisting vogue for the Gothic in the 1790s ushers in some further interest in using the legend to generate fear, both as part of a generalised ‘medieval’ backdrop in Minerva Press novels, and in greater depth as an available supernatural plot, often focused on Arthur’s undead return or Merlin’s prophetic and magical abilities.  From the 1820s onwards, women begin to produce their own translations of significant Arthurian works, facilitated by new, beginner-friendly editions of Arthurian romances, as well as increasing access to libraries and manuscripts.  Around the same time women also start to produce individual poems on the legend’s female characters.  The book introduces what might well be the earliest Maid of Ascalot poem, published in 1821 in the Ladies’ Monthly Museum, a full decade before Tennyson and Landon.  I also argue in the final chapter that the vogue for literary annuals and their ornamented, decorative style of verse helped to set the dominant aesthetic for the Arthurian myth in poetry as it moved into the nineteenth century.

I hope it’s not straying too far from the question to mention one date that looks like it should be key for women’s Arthurian writing, but actually isn’t.  In 1816 Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur was republished for the first time for nearly two hundred years, in two competing editions.  But rather than transforming women’s knowledge of the legend, there are few references to Malory by Romantic women writers before or immediately after this republication.  Instead women continue to work with other sources and a more eclectic mix of materials, and only really turn to Malory in any significant imaginative way after Tennyson and the first instalment of Idylls of the King (1859).  This lack of knowledge of and reliance on Malory is particular to Romantic women writers, and therefore it seemed right to stop the book at 1850, when Malory moves in to become a dominant source for women for the first time.

4) Which of the female-authored Arthurian works that you read for the project do you think are the most deserving of wider readerships in the academy?  Are there particular texts that you’d recommend to scholars thinking about covering Romantic-period Arthurian writing in an undergraduate context?

I’m very keen to promote Anna Jane Vardill, who might already be known to some.  She’s one of the writers in the book whose depth of interest in Arthurian material means that she reappears in a number of chapters – as Gothic poet, antiquarian satirist, and potential plagiarist.  She came briefly back into view in criticism at the turn of the twentieth century, and again in the 1960s, when she was finally identified as the author of a continuation of ‘Christabel’ in the European Magazine that appeared before Coleridge got his poem into print.  Vardill puts Merlin at the centre of her sequel: the wizard raises Christabel’s mother from the dead, disguises himself as Bard Bracy, and eventually succeeds in exposing Geraldine and banishing her to hell.  It’s a hugely entertaining and sensational piece, and one of a few Romantic poems to give Merlin a dramatic role, but more importantly I’d like Vardill to be recognised for her substantial involvement in the European Magazine more broadly.  She was the magazine’s largest female contributor by far, and also managed to deceive many of its antiquarian readers into thinking that she was Sir Walter Scott.  The antiquarian satires she wrote for the magazine are very much in the spirit of Scott’s The Antiquary, and I think she’s a significant figure to consider as part of the wider discussion of women’s satire in the early nineteenth century.

I’ve taught Landon’s ‘A Legend of Tintagel Castle’ to undergraduates a number of times myself now, alongside Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’, and Louisa Stuart Costello’s ‘The Funeral Boat’ (1829), if time and space permits (available at The Camelot Project and also in Clare Broome Saunders’s Louisa Stuart Costello: A Writing Life (Palgrave, 2016)).  I currently teach Bannerman’s ‘The Prophecy of Merlin’ as part a module on Romantic Gothic, alongside ‘Christabel’ and William Taylor’s ‘Ellenore’.  Bannerman’s poem is perhaps useful for prompting discussion about the critical assumption that the Gothic isn’t seriously invested in medieval topics and settings, and I agree with Elizabeth Fay that Bannerman’s Queen of Beauty is obliquely vampiric: like Coleridge’s Geraldine, she undergoes a transformation in front of King Arthur that is only ever described obliquely, as ‘something, like a demon-smile’.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

Much of the book focuses on recuperating forgotten works, but I’m now working on something at the other end of the scale completely: an edition of Jane Eyre for Bloomsbury.  I’m still very much committed to adding new voices to the Arthurian canon, however, and I’m preparing an article on Mary Ann Browne, who wrote a Guinevere poem in the 1830s that never made it into the book.  I’m also writing a chapter on the broader topic of medievalism in women’s periodicals in the nineteenth century.  The 1820s and 1830s in particular continue to fascinate me, as do Hemans and Landon, and my next book will be located somewhere in that broad terrain.

BARS President’s Report 2018

From BARS President Ian Haywood:

I am delighted to be President of BARS at such an exciting time. We are a very busy and resourceful organisation, striving to fulfil our mission of promoting Romantic studies in the UK and beyond. Our financial situation is healthy which means we can support and expand existing initiatives and develop new methods of supporting our membership. Since I became President in 2015, we have made a big push to support Early Career scholars as we recognise that this can be a difficult stage in the career path. We have therefore introduced three new awards: the Wordsworth Trust Fellowships, the Nineteenth Century Matters Fellowship (in association with BAVS), and the Scottish Romanticism Research award. I would like to expand these schemes and introduce new ones, perhaps in new national or regional centres, and/or focused on public engagement and impact, and/or linking up with international partners. I invite all members to submit ideas for new awards with clearly defined outcomes that will benefit the holders: please send ideas to the Executive via the BARS Secretary (email address on the BARS website).

Another major new development is the launch of ERA, European Romanticisms in Association. We are proud to have been a driving force behind this network, particularly in light of Brexit. I am delighted to report that ERA has been awarded a Network grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council for a two-year programme of events (2018-20) entitled ‘Dreaming Europe’ (http://www.euromanticism.org). ERA currently hosts a BARS European Engagement Fellow and there are plans for this to continue. Congratulations to BARS Past President Nicola Watson (Open University) and her team.

Our international biennial conference in 2017, ‘Romantic Improvement’, was held at York University’s Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies and it was a great success; my thanks to the local team, in particular Jim Watt, Jon Mee and Catriona Kennedy. The next conference, ‘Romantic Facts and Fantasies’, will be held at the University of Nottingham in 2019. I am delighted to announce that the 2021 conference will be jointly organised with the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR) and will be at Edge Hill University, Liverpool.

At the York conference, the BARS First Book Prize was awarded to Julia Carlson (Cincinnati) for her monograph, Romantic Marks and Measures (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). I want to thank Professor Nigel Leask (Glasgow) for his sterling work as Chair of the sub-committee for 2015-17. We are delighted that the new Chair for 2017-19 is Professor Claire Connolly (University College Cork). The next round of the book prize will begin soon: if you wish to nominate a book, please contact Professor Connolly: claireconnolly@ucc.ie.

I have tried to ensure that all members of the Executive have a specific role which they have been asked to develop with allocated resources. This model seems to be working well and the total number of Executive members (elected and co-opted) is at a record high, a reflection of the amount of activity we are generating. I have increased the budget for our current schemes: the Copley bursaries, the regular subventions for conferences, and the BARS First Book award. The ECR conference continues to be a great success. This year it will be held in Glasgow, 15-16 June: the topic is ‘Romantic Exchanges’.

Thanks to Professor Anthony Mandal (Cardiff), we now have BARS postcards, to be used for publicity purposes (all members are welcome to a bunch! Please contact the Secretary).

These achievements would not have been possible without the commitment and enthusiasm of the BARS Executive Committee (see the website for full list). I want to pay particular tribute to members who have recently left or will soon be leaving the committee. Dr Susan Valladares (Oxford), formerly the editor of the BARS Review, stepped down in 2017 after several years of dedicated and meticulous work. We are very pleased that Professor Mark Sandy (Durham) has taken her place. Dr Helen Stark (University College London) is stepping down as Secretary after doing this job outstandingly well since 2013; Helen’s place will be taken by Dr Jennifer Orr (Newcastle); again, we are delighted to welcome this new colleague.

Finally, I would like to report another BARS success: one of our nominees for the 2021 REF (Research Excellence Framework), Professor Simon Kövesi (Oxford Brookes), has been appointed as an assessor for the English Language and Literature panel. We wish Simon all the best in this important role and we are delighted that Romanticism has a voice on the panel.

I look forward to another year of exciting and productive work.

Ian Haywood, University of Roehampton

March 2018

The full text of this report can be downloaded here: BARS President’s Report 2018.

 

Five Questions: Simon Kövesi on John Clare: Nature, Criticism and History

Simon Kövesi is Professor and Head of the Department of English and Modern Languages at Oxford Brookes University.  He tweets as @kovesi1.  He has published widely on contemporary fiction (with a particular focus on the Scottish novelist James Kelman), on working-class literature and on the relationship between writing and the natural world.  At the heart of his work, though, is his abiding interest in and love for John Clare, on whom he has published numerous essays and book chapters.  He is the editor of the John Clare Society Journal and the co-editor (with Scott McEathron) of New Essays on John Clare: Poetry, Culture and Community (Cambridge University Press, 2015).  He has recently led a high-profile campaign to highlight the threat posed to Clare’s archives by ongoing local authority cuts.  His passion for Clare’s work has also led to his being one of the very few academics to have sparred with a straw bear on the silver screen.  Below, we discuss his most recent monograph, John Clare: Nature, Criticism and History, which was published by Palgrave in September 2017.

1) What first drew you to John Clare?

I was an undergrad on an exchange year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  It was clear to me then that the world needed my dreadful poetry, and (boldly) I showed it to a Professor of Romanticism, the brilliant Robert Kirkpatrick, who took pity on me, and kindly invited me to an evening poetry group at his house.  I’d written this nostalgic thing about watching a fox doing a wee – I suppose I was missing seeing them rifling through the bins of suburban London (to this day I’ve never actually seen a fox doing a wee).  Nevertheless, making the best of it, Kirkpatrick read us Clare’s ‘The Vixen’.  I’d never known of anything poetical about a fox and I’d never read any nature poetry of such precise clarity, all propelled by sharp, delicate sympathy, yet beneath no ostensible organising ego.  I stopped writing poetry straight away, and thankfully.  That was in 1993 – 200 years after Clare was born – and so it happened to be a great year for high profile celebrations and publications about his work.  When I returned to Glasgow for my final year, I became obsessed.  More often than not, I read Clare instead of revising for finals.  Early on, the rich pickings of his nature poetry were extended for me by the stylisations and politics of his (seemingly) wild language; by the capitalisation of land he occasionally protests about; by his diverse insights into folk culture and local traditions; by his unique prose; by his inversions of accepted valuations of nature; by his lyrical verse (which can be nothing but ego of course); by his playfulness, his cheekiness, his political lubricity, his isolation.  Like so many, I was haunted by the sad, depleted, often-romanticised story of his life.  At the start, however, it was his late love poetry that grabbed me most of all and that was the focus of my PhD with John Goodridge.

2) In your new book, you contend that ‘nature, feeling, fidelity persist as limitations on readings of Clare’, tracing the longstanding currency of characterisations such as ‘down-to-earth’ that serve to place and constrain him.  To what extent do you think that modern criticism of Clare is still shaped by the social and critical conditions of his original reception?

Those terms come from very early comments on his work.  I argue in the book that while they have been blown apart by the best of Clare criticism, they have been latently reaffirmed by the polemical accommodation of Clare to the agendas of contemporary green criticism especially, particularly because criticism can have a deaf ear, or a ham-shaped fist, when it comes to class.  The old model of Clare as ‘honest John’ does harm to the way we read his work – many have said so but it still creeps back.  Many critics reveal discomfort in the way they deal with Clare’s class; often, this manifests through treating his work as simple documentary evidence of landscaped fact, or a kind of social realism – as if he’s not capable of slippery, literary sophistication.  Partly this is Clare’s own fault – he often romanticises his agency out of the window – he denies his art and artfulness even in the manner in which he frames its conception.

In the book I also explore the ways critical awkwardness with Clare’s class can sometimes be downright insensitivity.  Calling Clare ‘homeless’ for example, is an historical nonsense, and yet it has such traction in Clare criticism, as it works well for a prevalent version of his relationship to land, or his supposed full-spectrum alienation.  But ‘homeless’ is now a dead metaphor in Clare, and if anything serves to stop us thinking about the subtlety and variety of his versions of ‘home’, and his constant, learned attention to people without one.  Perhaps because of its origins in conservation, but also because of founding tensions with the left and industrially-born socialism, ecocriticism has never been great on class; this is compounded in Clare studies by an understandable confluence between the sentimentalising of Clare’s location with the turn to the local in moralising green criticism – which of course many green critics worry about.

From all kinds of politicised critical approaches, you can track tendencies to reduce Clare to a kind of naïve holy fool whose knees and identity wobbled if he walked beyond the bounds of his parish – and that modelling (down to Clare himself of course – or at least partially so) has been entrenched by the blunter end of green criticism, but also by the crass end of historicism which can only see straightforward autobiography in a poem like ‘The Flitting’ (there’s certainly a reductive channel of class prejudice in assuming every time Clare writes ‘I’ it is uncomplicatedly and ‘honestly’ him).  Clare said himself in one of his most unbelievable and deliberately fragmentary poems – the wilfully fraudulent ‘Child Harold’ – that his life had been ‘one chain of contradictions’.  He did wear a green suit to go dining with his new London Magazine friends who all wore ‘sable’ – but a rich friend bought it for him.  Clare did mostly live in Helpston throughout his life, but that doesn’t mean he wanted to stay there.  Clare did write himself into a tradition of anti-enclosure poems, which have convinced everyone of their veracity, but we should not forget that he worked in enclosure gangs for many years, wrote his best nature poetry after enclosure, and continued to do so after he’d left Helpston – and by no means all of it is looking back to a pre-enclosure Edenic childhood – not at all.  Clare did thresh in a barn from the age of 8 or 9 – but by his own account, he suffered deep and lasting trauma over it.  He did that labour alongside his father so that he could help pay for his schooling, not because he lusted after labour.  He fantasised about having a domestic servant – we ignore these elements if we want honest John back.

It’s indicative of the romanticisation of Clare that no one has ever asked, before me, why he was able to find work in lime kilns.  Why were there so many lime kilns across the countryside in the Romantic period?  The answer is obvious: lime was pretty much the only material cheaply available that could help drain, fertilise and regulate the acidity of newly-enclosed land.  Lime was the main tool of enclosure and Clare helped make it, just before his launch as a poet; indeed the lime-kiln money was supposed to go towards funding his first publication of poetry.  It doesn’t mean he is a hypocrite – and I don’t care about it morally at all – it just means he is not a green messiah.  If we judge him, we have to be completely unhistorical to do so.  He was a poor labourer, and working in enclosure gangs or slaking lime in a kiln was decent money, if offering extremely low social status.  The only thing he seems to have worried about when working the enclosure gangs was the ‘wild and irregular habits’ of the itinerant men he was working with: not the ‘wild and irregular’ countryside they were enclosing.  I think critics need to start incorporating the moral messiness of Clare into their valuation of him – else we’re just forging self-affirming narratives and forgetting the contingencies of a life lived.  We don’t think any the less of the poems Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote, just because Lyrical Ballads was designed to fund a trip to Germany.  Clare is robust enough for these paradoxes, these tensions and multiplicities, to surface.  Too much criticism of Clare is sentimental and patronising – delicate, even.

3) In seeking to move beyond that echoing phrase from By Our Selves – ‘John Clare was a minor nature poet who went mad’ – which occluded aspects of Clare’s life and art do you think should be emphasised more strongly?

We need to think about what we do when we emphasise Clare’s ‘lack’ of education.  What did he gain by not having a ‘formal education’?  What forms of knowledge and routes to understanding did he have open to him that other poets ‘lacked’?  Could Byron play the fiddle like Clare?  What does Byron’s poetry lack because he didn’t go to the pub and listen to storytellers spinning folk narratives?  It’s as if academics just don’t know what to do with writers who have never been to a lecture, and so we flock to the poets who have.  People like us, right?  What we tend to do is express astonishment at writers like Clare and move awkwardly on: that’s the history of the reception of working-class writing in academia in a nutshell.  Clare’s education was incredibly complicated – it needs much more attention.

In the book, I talk about ‘place’ being not just a liberation for Clare – it was not merely a ‘positive’ platform for his locally ‘botanising’ focus.  Place was also a narrowing problem: being placed, knowing his place, keeping to his place, being regarded as ‘down to earth’ – the organicist impulse is still prevalent in contemporary criticism and you can see it in the accident of phrasing sometimes.  Clare talks about feeling like a donkey tied to a post in his relation to Helpston.  Too often we turn what was a severe limitation on the life of this poorest of poets, conflate it with a certain mood in some poems, and construct a magical green or folksily happy commitment to place, particularity and soil.  This move can be dangerously patronising, dismissive of material suffering, and can mean we ignore Clare’s constant changes of mood and temperament – let alone his shifting desires.  To shift all of this into blanket ‘alienation’ is also to obfuscate things.  Clare loved London, he loved travelling to the largest seasonal body of water in England (Whittlesea Mere – drained by one of his patron’s sons when Clare was in an asylum), he loved going beyond the ‘edge of the orison’ – he wasn’t ruined by doing so.  And he loved Helpston too – but he resented its parochialness, the lack of anyone to talk to about books, and wanted it to move closer to London.  There is a funny early poem where he speculates what his fantasy home will be like one day, when he’s made it, and while the house he builds for himself is determinedly rural, someone else will be doing the labour and chores while he writes, and there’s no family around to bother him, just a maidservant.  He hated being poor and not being able to buy the books he wanted, or food for his kids, or travel.  It is amazing we have to say this, but the fact is Clare criticism ignores it.  The fraudulent Reverend of a quack who ran Clare’s asylum – Matthew Allen – thought in 1840 that the only reason Clare needed help was what we would now call ‘anxiety’ over money coupled with a poor diet across decades.

There’s no romance in poverty, rural or urban, just as there’s little romance in hand-work or pre-mechanised agriculture – pre- or post-enclosure – though Clare does manage to squeeze a good deal of emotive nostalgia out of it, for sure.  He can be sentimental and conservative, as much as he can cry for reform and protest against the monied and the greedy.  His politics are as slippery as his accounts of grammar: in this mobility he is the most Byronic of poets.  Like all good poets, Clare is an unstable subject, and we need to be aware of that much more – and stop reducing a very long writing career to a moment of fury, passion or creative depression.  I think some of his greatest poems are not about enclosure or nature: they are about human poverty, about social mores, about status, ignorance and prejudice.  And to answer the question directly, Clare could have been a great satirist but nobody encouraged him, for example, when he wrote ‘The Parish’, while his sonnet parodying Wordsworth’s use of enjambment is brilliant, and his reworking of Byron by way of poetical masculinist empowerment is as foul as can be.  He also writes light comic verse of which John Hamilton Reynolds and Thomas Hood would have been proud.  He is so knowingly playful in rummaging amongst others’ styles and techniques – a sociable yet solitary magpie – stealing shiny bits – lining his own poetic nest.

4) Which of Clare’s works do you think are particularly ripe for reconsideration from a broader range of perspectives?  Which texts would you select for an undergraduate seminar to try and give a balanced sense of his value and achievements?

In Clare studies this is a sore point.  There just are not enough editions of his verse – particularly cheap ones or selections with good scholarly notes.  There are some good collections but they do not yet amount to easy access to the full range of his work.  I hope scholars reading this blog will one day produce their own editions of Clare, according to a wide variety of editing principles and presentational styles.  Imagine the possibilities of a manuscript-based facsimile edition online, with all sorts of reading texts (as the Cornell Wordsworth called them), of all the variants – which included (rather than demoted) lifetime published texts too?  That’s got to be the future of editing Clare.  To answer the question, I think Clare’s work offering social commentary does not get enough attention: sometimes it is satire, sometimes straight narrative, sometimes polemic, and some prose moments are also unique in the period; the letters can be really pointed in this area.  We have good engagement with the nature poetry, for sure, though I think more emphasis on the work of the early 1830s would reveal some real gems – and I think it is in this period that Clare’s writing about nature becomes super-sophisticated.  Though most commentary would have it that after leaving Helpston he loses his mojo, the poetic evidence just does not support it.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

A big travelling exhibition of Clare portraits, original manuscripts, books and ephemera, to kick off in January 2020, 200 years after the publication of Poems Descriptive.  It’s a good time to take Clare on the road, I hope – just need to locate some funding.  I’ve just signed a contract with Palgrave to co-write a book with Bridget Keegan entitled The Occupations of Labour: Labouring-Class Writers, 1800–1900; this will group what shoemaker Chartist poet James Dacres Devlin (one of my personal favourites) called ‘hand-producer poets’ into their occupations for thematic consideration.  With Erin Lafford, I am putting together a collection of new Clare essays to propose to a publisher soon.  The longer-term book I’ve been chewing on for a while now is to be called British Literature and Poverty: 1800–2000, and the reading for that is opening up all sorts of new avenues for me.  It’s probably too big a project to ever finish, but I’m happy to give it a go.  Before any of that, I’ve got to finish an essay on poverty in the Romantic period – especially in agricultural improvement debates – and another on Clare’s reading, and rewriting, of Byron.

Five Questions: David Stewart on The Form of Poetry in the 1820s and 1830s

David Stewart is Senior Lecturer in Romanticism at Northumbria University.  He has published widely on figures including Lord Byron, William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, Robert Southey and Charles Lamb and on topics including short fiction, ephemerality, paradox, commerce, mass culture and the politics of style.  His first monograph, Romantic Magazines and Metropolitan Literary Culture, was published in 2011 and considered the qualities of the extraordinary wave of periodicals that burgeoned in the period after the Napoleonic wars.  His new book, The Form of Poetry in the 1820s and 1830s: A Period of Doubt, which we discuss below, has just been published by Palgrave.

1) When do you first remember encountering the poetry of the 1820s and 1830s, and what led you to want to write a monograph about it?

For a long time I didn’t know that I was writing a book about it.  I’d been teaching Leigh Hunt’s Story of Rimini for a few years and kept having fascinating discussions with students who loved it, and yet found it oddly unstable, almost, but not quite, laughable.  There are some kinds of poetry that we don’t quite know how to read: do we look for a deep and serious philosophy or a buried political context beneath the surface, or do we delight in its seemingly superficial charms?  I found some other poets who provoked the same reaction in me, and I realised what linked them was that they fell somewhere between ‘Romantic’ and ‘Victorian’ poetry.  A poem like Rimini might be the beginning of a poetic history that never quite took shape.  The usual story is that the poetry market collapsed in the mid-1820s, and the few poets who did produce poetry were not very good.  The fact that neither part of this is true (the market did not collapse, and these poets are just joyous to read) was something I wanted to correct.  Equally, though, I kept coming back to my own unstable reactions to these poets: the wavering uncertainty with which we view this hinterland might be its most valuable feature.  I wanted to bring the period’s poetic scene to a fuller attention, but without giving it the firm outlines of a clearly demarcated ‘literary period’.

2) Your subtitle characterises the two decades as ‘a period of doubt’, a doubt manifested both in poets’ responses to their contexts and in later critics’ attempts to frame their achievements.  How can working to understand the doubts that poets struggled with help us to gain a better understanding of their cultural moment?

I find doubt a fascinating state of mind.  Doubt can be active, even aggressive, but it can also be comic, a matter of being baffled; it might even produce wonder.  It is not a fixed state; instead, when we are in doubt we can test things out, we can speculate on what things are, or how things might be.  Byron writes so well about doubt in Don Juan, and I like especially these lines in Canto 1: ‘What is the end of Fame? ‘tis but to fill / A certain portion of uncertain paper: / Some liken it to climbing up a hill, / Whose summit, like all hills, is lost in vapour’.  The poets of this period are remarkable partly because they thought so often, and so playfully, about the possibility that critics like me might come along and sift and sort them into a period.  The form that that writing takes – the fact that it is on ‘uncertain paper’ – is the means by which it can be transmitted to future readers, but equally is itself a matter that prompts doubts.  Are some ways of ‘filling’ that paper (some metrical techniques) more ‘certain’ of Fame than others?  Are some kinds of paper (some methods of publishing) more ephemeral, more ‘uncertain’, than others?  The lesson that I hope I’ve taken from these poets is that doubt can be a pleasure.  To ‘gain a better understanding’ of this ‘cultural moment’ means, I think, accepting that we’ll always be groping around in vapour.

3) Introducing the book, you stress the divide between emergent formalist and commercial aesthetics, and also discuss the prominence of light verse during the period, but you stress that these three strands have more in common than the discourses surrounding them often admitted.  How would you characterise the defining qualities of these three modes, and what are the main things that unite them?

One of the real pleasures of writing this book has been getting back to reading poetry attentively.  We tend to associate this kind of ‘formalist’ close reading with a detached idealism, and also with only particular kinds of poet.  One group of poets might seem to fit that model.  I discuss the young Browning and Tennyson, but also poets like Hartley Coleridge, George Darley, and Thomas Lovell Beddoes who have always found ‘fit audience, though few’, admirers who pride themselves on hearing the delicate modulations of their metre.  We can place these poets as the first buds of a Victorian aestheticism that comes into full bloom with Walter Pater.  They are opposed to another group associated especially with the material form of their commercial books: the poets of the literary annuals, Felicia Hemans, and Letitia Landon.  These poets use metres, of course, but metre is deemed an irrelevance in books that are merely objects for display in the drawing room.  A final group – Thomas Hood, Winthrop Mackworth Praed, John Hamilton Reynolds, for example – provide something like what Kingsley Amis calls ‘light verse’: punning, bright-eyed wit that skims over the surface of society, valuable for the very perfection of the metrical surface they create and polish.  The attempt to create oppositions between kinds of poet is important, most particularly the role that gender plays in that process.  But they all share a curiously enabling doubt about categorisation.  Landon, for example, plays brilliantly with verse form and its relation to the books in which she appears; that tactic is mirrored by George Darley who, when he was not writing poems about fairies, was busy writing abusive articles about Landon.  The fact that Darley, Hood, and Hemans are all bound up in the green silk covers of the annual The Amulet in 1828 suggests some of the possibilities and perplexities this culture presents.  All of them think carefully, and with a disarming self-consciousness, about the place their poetry might have in culture, and how their poetry might form itself (metrically and materially) for readers in their own time and in an unguessable future.  It’s a conversation that is worth tuning in to, particularly in our own critical moment as we attempt to rethink critical methods like ‘formalism’, ‘historicism’ and ‘book history’.

4) If you were selecting a few key poems as standard-bearers for the poetry of this period (for a MA seminar, say), which would these be?

This feels like a slightly mischievous question: I feel uncomfortable with the idea of ‘standard bearers’, poets marching under the banner of a territory that I would prefer to remain bewitchingly vague!  But no MA seminar can try to cover everything.  Some of these poets are well known: Hemans, Landon and Clare need no introduction for Romanticists.  There’s been excellent recent work on poets I look at like Hartley Coleridge and Thomas Lovell Beddoes.  Others will, I hope, prove more interesting than they have hitherto: George Darley and Winthrop Mackworth Praed especially.  I end with a section on the young Tennyson, who hardly needs my help to find fame, and consider how his work starts to change when we place him alongside Clare, Landon, Praed, Hood, Hunt and others.  I think we might learn the lesson from the editors of annuals like The Amulet and Friendship’s Offering: place a diverse selection of poems together, and see what chance lights are thrown out.  If I had to choose one poem, though, that gives a glimpse of what I love about this period, it’d be Praed’s ‘The Fancy Ball’ from the New Monthly Magazine of 1828.

5) What new projects are you currently at work on?

I’m working on place and fiction in the Romantic period.  My focus is on the Anglo-Scottish borderlands, and on writers including Walter Scott, Allan Cunningham and James Hogg.  There’s a relationship between humour, lies, fiction, and the experience of movement that I want to track.  I’ve been approaching it from a longstanding interest in this ‘region’ and these writers, but also via theories of place and mobility in geography and anthropology.  The anthropologist Tim Ingold’s work has been a revelation for me, as has work that sits between the creative and the critical by Rebecca Solnit and Kapka Kassabova.  I have an article on James Hogg that is the first fruit of this work: it should be coming out in The Yearbook of English Studies in a special issue on the 1830s.  I’ve also got a piece about Wordsworth and parody coming out this year in European Romantic Review.  I secretly want to write something about V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, but don’t tell anybody, least of all my research lead.

Five Questions: Tom Mole on What the Victorians Made of Romanticism

Tom Mole is Reader in English Literature and Director of the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Edinburgh.  He has published extensively on Byron, Romantic-period celebrity, periodicals and print culture.  His recent books include The Broadview Introduction to Book History and The Broadview Reader in Book History (both with Michelle Levy); he is also a member of the Multigraph Collective, which authored the recently-released Interacting with Print: Elements of Reading in the Era of Print Saturation.  His new book, What the Victorians Made of Romanticism: Material Artifacts, Cultural Practices, and Reception History, which we discuss below, was published by Princeton University Press.

1) How did you come to realise that you wanted to write a book about what the Victorians made of Romanticism?

This project grew out of my previous work on Romanticism and celebrity culture.  One of the things I discovered in that research was that people at the beginning of the nineteenth century often talked about celebrity as a second-rate kind of fame.  Celebrity was a kind of fleeting recognition you received in your own lifetime; true fame was usually posthumous, but it lasted much longer.  Once the idea was established that these two kinds of fame were mutually exclusive, it became easy to assume that people who had been famous in their lifetimes – Byron, Scott – would be forgotten after their deaths.  Lots of people actually said that these poets would be forgotten.  And yet they weren’t.  So my starting question was – why?  What kinds of cultural work were necessary to keep those writers in the public eye?  That question, in turn, led me to others, as I started to uncover what I’ve come to call the web of reception – all the material artefacts and cultural practices that shaped the reception of Romantic writers and their works.

2) In your second chapter, you set what you’re doing in the book against a tradition of ‘punctual historicism’ that privileges moments of composition, first publication and initial reception.  What are the principal kinds of insight that you believe we can gain by turning to longer and more diverse reception histories?

The trouble with punctual historicism, as I see it, is that it focuses on one context to the exclusion of all others.  This can make literature seem like something that’s tied to a particular historical moment – the moment of its production – and that cannot operate outside of that moment.  But one of the things that makes literature special is that it outlives its moment of production.  I don’t want to go back to the old idea that great literature transcends its historical moment and becomes timeless because it appeals to some kind of universal humanity.  Instead, I want a kind of criticism that recognises that works of literature can be reactivated in historical moments beyond the imaginations of their authors, and even that they might make their most important impacts when they are redeployed in new historical, social, political and media contexts.

3) After an initial section on the web of reception, your book mainly focuses on four media through which Victorian culture remade Romantic-period authors and texts: illustrations, sermons, statues and anthologies.  How did you come to select these four media to make your case, and were there others that you explored during the process of composition?

These four strands of the web of reception give me a broad range to explore.  They allow me to take in artefacts and practices, verbal and visual responses to Romanticism, mass-produced books and one-off sculptures.  They allow me to tell stories of remediation, as works produced in one medium were mediated through another to new audiences.  These strands of the web also constitute their own self-aware traditions, so that, for example, anthologies refer back to earlier anthologies and sustain an ongoing debate about what a good anthology should be like.  But I could certainly have divided my material along other lines.  Photography is discussed in relation to both illustrations and statues, but it could have had a section of its own.  There are other strands of the web, and I hope I’ve identified enough that other people will be able to unpick them, taking up where I’ve left off.

4) You argue convincingly that ‘complex acts of selective forgetting’ were as crucial as acts of memory for Victorians making use of Romantic poets and their works.  What, for you, are the most telling things that the Victorians sought to forget, either about the individual poets you examine (Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Scott and Hemans), or about the Romantic-period generations more generally?

It wasn’t surprising to learn that the Victorians found Shelley’s atheism to be a problem. But I was surprised to discover the lengths they went to in their effort to forget it. First, they claimed that his atheism wasn’t important for his poetry.  Second, they went so far as to argue that his poetry carried a Christian message, even if Shelley the man would have denied it.  More generally, commemorating the Romantics meant forgetting many of their political commitments.  This wasn’t just true for radicals like Byron and Shelley, but also for a Tory like Scott – the problem wasn’t a particular set of political views, it was politics per se.  Romantic poets had to leave political commitments behind them as they were absorbed into the canon of English Literature.  Some critics have approached reception history through the lens of cultural memory – but I think that cultural memory studies are only helpful up to point.  We need to grasp that this process is as much about motivated forgetting as it is about remembering.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I have a number of articles coming out: one about the connections between celebrity and anonymity in the Romantic period; one about John ‘Walking’ Stewart, the Romantic pedestrian traveller and philosopher; and two about Byron – ‘Byron and the Good Death’ and ‘Byron and the Difficulty of Beginning’.  After that I have some ideas for another book, but it’s really too early to talk about them at the moment.

Call for Papers: Romantic Exchanges, 1760-1840 – 2018 BARS Early Career and Postgraduate Conference

Call for Papers

Romantic Exchanges, 1760-1840

British Association for Romantic Studies Early Career and Postgraduate Conference

University of Glasgow, 15–16 June 2018

 

Keynote Speakers: Professor Gerard Carruthers (University of Glasgow) and Dr Susan Manly (University of St Andrews)

 

The BARS Early Career and Postgraduate Conference will explore the concept of exchange in Romantic-period literature and thought. It will bring together postgraduate and early-career researchers whose work addresses this idea from a wide range of perspectives: from the economic exchange of objects and commodities, to the transnational circulation of books and ideas, to neglected connections between writers, texts and contexts.

We invite proposals for themed panels, as well as proposals for the traditional individual twenty-minute paper. Applicants might choose to address some of the following, though we also encourage you to interpret the theme more widely:

  • Commercial exchange: trade, commodities, the literary marketplace, economic value.
  • Epistolary exchange: letters, correspondence, bills of exchange, legal documents.
  • Financial exchange: money, gifts, credit, indebtedness, political economy.
  • Historical exchange: transmission and reception of writers and works across generations.
  • Intellectual exchange: literary networks and coteries, periodicals and print culture, public opinion.
  • International exchange: travel, intercultural encounters, translation, transnational circulation.
  • Interpersonal exchange: influence, collaboration and conversation between writers.

Please send abstracts of up to 250 words for individual papers or 750 words for themed three-person panels (including name and institutional affiliation of all proposed speakers) to bars.postgrads@gmail.com by 9 March 2018.

Follow us on Twitter @BARS_PGs

Organisers: Honor Rieley (Glasgow) and Paul Stephens (Oxford)

Download this CfP here.

Call for Papers: Frankenstein – Parable of the Modern Age

Please see below for a Call for Papers from the Inklings Society for Literature and Aesthetics for a September 2018 conference on Frankenstein in Ingolstadt, close to the very building in which Frankenstein – if he had existed – would have attended his medical studies and worked on his creation.

CALL FOR PAPERS
Deadline February 15 2018
Please submit proposals of up to 500 words, along with a short CV to: karl.kegler@hm.edu

 FRANKENSTEIN — PARABLE OF THE MODERN AGE
1818 · 2018
International Symposium of the Inklings-Society
Ingolstadt, 28th – 29th September 2018

 

The year 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of a novel that has had a lasting impact on literary fantasy, but also on thinking about ethics and science. The fact that Mary Shelley thought of more than a mere scary story when she anonymously published her novel Frankenstein in 1818 is illustrated by the alternative title: The Modern Prometheus. By referring to the ancient myth of Prometheus, it implies the relationship between creator and creature. One of Shelley’s fundamental literary innovations is to tell the story from the creature’s own point of view over substantial parts of the book. Coming into existence, Frankenstein’s creature at first desires nothing more than to be accepted as a human being in the community of humans. He becomes a danger, because even his own creator refuses to acknowledge him. Shelley deals with an existential question that can be extended from Frankenstein’s fictional laboratory in Ingolstadt to the phantasms and the real sceneries of contemporary history. If This Is a Man one might ask with the title of Primo Levi’s autobiographical report. Is fictional Frankenstein a myth standing for imagination creating monsters and then being afraid of them?

For our conference we are looking for contributions that deal with Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, its adaptations to the present day, and their potential as a model of interpretation for the modern age. The organizers encourage comparative studies that may – among others – reflect upon following topics:

– Battlegrounds: Shelley and Frankenstein between revolution and restoration
– Gods: literary perspectives on and of creators and creatures
– Enlightenment at its limits: abysses between sensibility, rationality and horror
– Poles and laboratories: Topographies of progress between the slaughterhouse and the permafrost
– Vivisections: Interpretations of the Frankenstein parable in later adaptations
– The Last Man: Images of the future between zombie and superhuman

The symposium will take place on September 28 and 29 2018 at the very place where Frankenstein – if he had existed – would have attended his anatomical and medical studies in Ingolstadt around 1800. The building complex now houses the German Medical History Museum.

A limited number of travel allowances might be available for successful applicants.
Lectures should not exceed 25 minutes. Conference languages are English or German.
Contributions will be published in the next issue of the Inklings Yearbook for Literature and Aesthetics.

Please send your abstract of up to 500 words and a short CV until Thursday 15 February  2018.

Entries should be submitted to:
Inklings Society for Literature and Aesthetics
c/o Prof. Dr. Karl R. Kegler
karl.kegler@hm.edu

Five Questions: James Whitehead on Madness and the Romantic Poet

James Whitehead is a Lecturer in English Literature at Liverpool John Moores University; he is also correspondent for the Hazlitt Society and The Hazlitt Review and a former lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary.  His major interests include Romanticism and its legacies; psychiatry and mental illness in nineteenth-, twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature; and autobiographical and biographical life-writing.  These interests all combine in his first monograph, Madness and the Romantic Poet: A Critical History, which was published earlier this year by Oxford University Press and which we discuss below.

1) How did you first become interested in the putative links between Romantic creativity and madness?

The book began some years ago as an undergraduate essay.  I still have it somewhere written out longhand, which tells you how old it is!  At that point I was probably more of a callow enthusiast for the idea of ‘mad genius’, but even as I wrote about it then, and tried to assess Cowper, Smart, Blake, Clare, etc. on those terms, I think I realised that a more sceptical and historically defined account might be in order.  (I never finished that essay to my satisfaction.)  When I returned to academia and was formulating a PhD proposal, I was surprised to find nothing comprehensive on the topic; in addition to which Dino Felluga’s Perversity of Poetry, which set out several useful lines of interpretation and argument that I wanted to extend, had just been published, as had the unabridged translation of Foucault’s History of Madness, at last (this was in 2006).  So the timing seemed right.

2) You write in your introduction about the dangers of perpetuating ‘a cycle of endorsement and denial’ when discussing poets and madness.  How did you come to fix upon the form you describe in your subtitle as ‘critical history’ as a means for escaping this cycle?

From the moment of formulating the book as a PhD topic, I always imagined it as a reception study: a study of the posthumous mythologizing of the lives and writings of the relevant Romantic poets.  But I didn’t want it to be just a dismissive debunking of this mythologizing (that would be the ‘denial’).  For a start, that wasn’t really necessary on a case by case basis, because of the amount of information easily available about these canonical writers.  I doubt that anyone who has read any amount at all of Shelley or Blake, for example, and certainly any modern biography and criticism on them, is going to straightforwardly dismiss or celebrate them as simply ‘mad’ any more, although this did once happen in spades, as the book shows.  At the same time I felt that a lot of general critical writing on literature and madness still vaguely assented to or gestured towards the ‘mad genius’ or ‘mad poet’ idea, without really examining it as the product of particular historical moments or discourses (that would be the ‘endorsement’).  In terms of Romantic studies specifically, I also wanted to strike a balance between acknowledging some of the ideologically constructed aspects of canonical Romanticism or ‘Romantic genius’ and providing an account of its real continuing appeal and productivity as a category and idea, rather than making it a bad object to be violently ejected, which recent scholarship has sometimes tended to do; so again, neither endorsing or denying.  ‘Critical history’ is a pun, of a sort, with which I wanted to convey a sense that the book is a sceptical history, critical of the myth from the beginning, but also that it is (in one small way) a history of the critical; of critical assumptions and practices specifically developed around Romantic writers, but also wired into the later construction or study of ‘English’ generally.  In many ways it’s a book about how hard it can be to escape such assumptions once they set in.

3) What would you identify as being the most important forms and discourses that fed into the nineteenth-century construction of the figure of the Romantic mad poet?

For me, they are undoubtedly: periodical reviews and reviewing; literary biography; and pop psychology about genius, in its nineteenth-century manifestations in medical writing.  Each of these gets a chapter, and each concatenates with the others.  Early reviews fed into periodical sketches, and thence biographies; biography provided data-sets for later (pseudo) medical studies; and medical writing had originally provided many of the diagnostic attitudes and ideas that underpinned the reviewers’ rhetoric of madness.  The modern form of the ancient idea of ‘poetic madness’ (furor poeticus) was the product of reviewers, and the new persona of the ‘mad poet’ (the old vesanus poeta) was the product of biographers.  And the last part of the book, chronologically, discusses writing about degenerate genius from the fin de siècle, which I came to see as the unholy alliance of journalism, life-writing, and popular science (the book gives a more detailed summary about how these discursive domains fit together on pages 207–8.)  Again, this pattern seemed compelling to me in the ways that it foreshadowed the piecemeal combination of formal scrutiny from the perspective of the reviewer, the assessment of ‘life and mind’ from the perspective of the biographer, and the systematic elaboration on the nature of the imagination or creativity from the perspective of the scientist or theorist, that characterizes so much later literary critical practice.

4) Do you think that madness, properly contextualised, deserves to continue to occupy an important place in modern conceptions of Romantic artistry, or would you argue for its decentring or reformulation?

Well, while I hope the book provides some new information or a new frame for thinking about the connection between Romantic poetry or creativity and madness, as it was discussed across the nineteenth century and beyond, by writers who mostly were not poets themselves, I can’t pretend that I offer much here that is new on the real nature of literary creativity or poetic artistry.  Because it is mostly a reception study, it is limited to epiphenomena, which may not say anything at all about this, indeed.  However, I think it does raise some interesting questions about whether any conception of ‘Romanticism’ has always been a constellation of reactions and receptions, as well as of primary texts.  And one of the consequences of moving Foucault’s ‘great confinement’ of unreason from physical institutions in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries into cultural institutions and symbolic forms of confinement in the nineteenth century (a necessary move following various critiques of Foucault, and one which I hope the book partly effects) is that Romantic madness cannot then simply be a ‘lightning flash’ of reaction and protest (Foucault’s characterization) against Enlightenment reason: it comes before the real ‘great confinement’.  So Romanticism and its associated stereotypes of madness come to be seen not just as reactions to but as auguries of instrumental rationalism; as part of the powerful processes of conformity and control in modernity where rebellion and deviance from norms are accommodated or projected onto special classes of homines sacri.  But obviously, and more plainly, a genuine openness and willingness to admit the irrational, non-rational, or anti-rational remains an important and enduring part of why we (and I) value the great poetry of this period, and I don’t think I’ve even begun to sound this out fully.  So I hope to continue thinking about this question!

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I have two other ongoing larger projects, although neither of them is really new, and neither is about Romanticism.  There is a sequel of sorts to this book in the form of a monograph, in Liverpool University Press’s Representations: Health, Disability, Culture and Society series, which addresses the representation of schizophrenia in twentieth-century culture.  It’s a sequel in so far as it picks up from where Madness and the Romantic Poet’s account of the modern mythologizing of the connection between madness and creativity ends, in the fin de siècle, and explores how this mythologizing continued into the twentieth century, in divergent ideas about (supposed) schizophrenia or the schizophrenic, and especially in the appropriation of these ideas by modernism and other avant-garde movements.  My other project is amends for writing so much about cultural myths of madness: a book about actual mental illness, and a history of how its experience is communicated in autobiographical accounts.  As a Romanticist, along with the usual teaching, I do practical things for the Hazlitt Society, and continue to think about Romantic prose writing and literary criticism in particular.

Five Questions: David Fallon on Blake, Myth and Enlightenment

David Fallon is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton.  He has published widely on topics including the debates surrounding the French Revolution, London bookselling and Romantic-period notions of sociability, but has a particular interest in William Blake, on whom he has published a series of articles and book chapters that have now culminated in his first monograph, Blake, Myth, and Enlightenment (Palgrave, 2017), which we discuss below.

1) How did you first become interested in Blake’s tangled relationship with Enlightenment thought?

I’d originally got interested in Blake through music and he seems to combine the dreamy utopianism of psychedelia with the hard-headed opposition and disillusionment of punk.  I was always drawn to Blake as a contradictory writer and artist, whose difficulty to pin down was part of his fascination.  From my undergraduate days I found him sitting uneasily with traditional notions of Romanticism.  I’d always been captivated by the deep and creative spiritual vision in his poetry and art, but I felt that Blake was too hard-headed to simply be a flaky mystic dreamer, in the way he can sometimes be dismissed.  The work of a number of Blake specialists, including Donald Ault and Matthew Green, suggested there was more to Blake and Enlightenment than opposition and I was keen to trace how this intellectual side emerged through the structures of meaning in his art and poetry.

2) How did you come to choose apotheosis (in Samuel Johnson’s words, ‘Deification; the rite of adding any one to the number of the gods’) as your key point of focus in the book?

The original project, in the earliest days of the PhD was rather broad, looking at Blake and the idea of heroism.  As part of this, I was looking at the pair of ‘spiritual form’ paintings of William Pit and Horatio Nelson from the 1809 exhibition.  They were pretty bewildering, but I noted that the Descriptive Catalogue labelled them ‘grand apotheoses’.  I started tugging away at the key term ‘apotheosis’ and that became the end of the golden string that I spent many years unravelling.  I’d always been fascinated – albeit confused! – by Blake’s interest in transformations and his use of star imagery in his poetry and designs.  I felt I had discovered a context in which these began to make more sense.  The term’s many strands (art history, anthropology, classical culture, religion, political satire and so on) were particularly appealing, as they took me towards a focus which allowed me (hopefully) to do justice Blake as an artist who gleefully capered across disciplinary boundaries.

3) What for you are the most important insights that we can gain from seeing Blake as actively engaged with Enlightenment, as opposed to ‘an exemplary Romantic opponent’?

Blake can be a bit straightjacketed by the label ‘Romantic’, so I hoped that this approach might make room for a lively, different sort of Blake to wriggle out.  The book hopefully allows us to situate Blake’s hermeneutics and myth-making historically.  While rather unBlakean in resisting the embrace of Eternity, this helps to show how his poetry and art could have been more meaningful to his contemporaries and it shows how his model of ‘contraries’ in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is fundamental to the ways in which he conceived of his creativity.

4) You contend that ‘Blake came ultimately to give precedence to mythopoesis over critical thought’.  How do you conceptualise Blake’s early position on this issue?  Do you see his movement towards mythopoesis as happening in a relatively smooth manner across his artistic career, or was his engagement with Enlightenment and myth (as expressed in his works) more complex and conflicted?

To me, there always seem to be two key features at play in his work, one partaking of Enlightenment scepticism towards myths of power, the other celebrating myth as a powerful mode of collective vision.  Approaching Blake’s visionary imagination in a dynamic relationship with Enlightenment critical approaches allowed me to sketch out shifts in his thought over his career, with his later works representing something of a recovery from his pronounced radical scepticism of the mid-to-late 1790s, albeit still attacking institutions of state repression and deploying that critical impulse productively to enable creative, utopian imaginings.  Some of his annotations from the 1780s and early 1790s suggest he saw himself as a sort of philosophe and the later works are clearly more emphatically Christian, but rather than there being a linear progression, these identities seem to rub along together in different permutations throughout his career.  I’d go for ‘complex and conflicted’…

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m gleaning grains of information about the lively world of eighteenth-century and Romantic publishing, working on my next monograph which is on literary sociability, production, and booksellers’ shops from about 1740 to 1840.  I’ve also co-edited a special issue of Romanticism with Jon Shears on Romanticism and Ageing, which will appear in 2018.  I have an essay on Caleb Williams in the pipeline for William Godwin: Forms, Fears, Futures, which should be out in 2018 too.  There will undoubtedly be a few essays on Blake, too, developing material which has been sparked off by writing the book.