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Romantic Reimaginings: Mapping Keats’s Progress

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email ebryan@lincoln.ac.uk.

Today on the blog, Suzie Grogan discusses the reimagining of Keats’s journey through the Mapping Keats’s Progress website.

As students of Romantic poet John Keats we might sit, hushed, in a library surrounded by books. We may have open next to us the latest critical thinking, the biographies by Roe, Motion, Gittings, Bate. In our files we may have, printed off, the latest academic papers or edited collections of the same.  Or we could be trawling JSTOR or British Library sites, intent on ensuring we miss nothing, note everything.

Mapping Keats’s Progress website

But reimagine that scene. We could be sitting quietly at a computer, or in a café with our tablet, perusing the Mapping Keats’s Progress website at http://johnkeats.uvic.ca/ notebook beside us, finding and re-finding, reflecting and diverging and walking with Keats through his development as man and poet, using location and life events to associate and connect in a way that is more difficult when surrounded by the paper equivalent. Books are a wonderful thing, but referencing and cross referencing is a demanding and time consuming process for all scholars, and is exclusive of those with a general interest who have only the most minimal access to the work. Re-imagining the critical book – or indeed the book in general terms – is inclusionary and revolutionary. We must ensure the relevance of the Romantic is taken on into the 21st century. Widening access is a necessary part of this process.

Mapping Keats’s Progress  (MKP) is a project that, despite already having over 150 ‘micro-chapters’ is still developing alongside our knowledge and interpretation of Keats’s life and letters. The architect and main brain behind the project is Dr Kim Blank, Professor of English at the University of Victoria, Canada. His published work includes books on William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley, edited books of original essays on Shelley and 19th-century poetry and he is author of numerous papers and articles. His credentials are impeccable and his dedication to an understanding of Keats’s development is extraordinary. He says:

‘MKP is a critical work, biographical study, and a resource for Keats studies. I am also aware that, professionally, the site occupies the odd space of scholarly limbo-accomplishment: I didn’t want or need a grant (these days a grant is apparently some indicator of success and credibility), and neither is it refereed by peers, though continuing feedback from peers governs some of the site’s directions’

The website states three main aims:

  • To map some of Keats’s life in in London (in fact it maps Keats’s journeys around the British Isles)
  • To re-imagine the critical book
  • To account for Keats’s remarkable poetic development, mainly between 1816-1819.

If you are reading this whilst connected to the internet, flick backwards and forwards between this blog post and the MKP website. You will immediately notice just how much information there is available, taking us  through Keats’s life chronologically, but with opportunities to refer to previous pages, to articles of interest outside the main chapter and onwards into what is, as Blank says, the ‘never-ending story’. This infinite quest for what Jonathan Bate describes as the ‘holy grail’ of understanding Keats’s remarkable period of poetic development, most particularly in 1818/19 is partly due to the ‘Junkets’ factor, what Blank describes as ‘Keats’s complicated, unique, and ultimately unknowable capacities—his innate creative and imaginative potential, his unlearned emotional and intellectual nature, and his profound ability to fuse novel relationship with inductive thinking.’ We can never know or understand enough.

Blank challenges the ‘irresistible habit of hopping around online’ by working with it. The current need for speed and the endless searching, clicking on and clicking away from web sources can, in other circumstances, result in a loss of context, an habitual search and re-search for the original. Worse still, there is the possibility of the total loss of credibility that comes from an incorrect reference, a basic factual error or research that results in a generic reproduction of well-worn facts lacking in original thinking. Within the MKP website, Blank has utilised what he calls ‘progressive reduplication’ – the micro-chapters overlapping and repeating key facts thus offering a productive stay for any user, at whatever level and recognising that the needs of each user is different, their knowledge at a different stage.  There is much of general interest, but graduate study and scholarly article will most benefit from the myriad references, cross references and context that only a site such as MKP can achieve.  It offers discoveries unavailable on other websites and certainly difficult to replicate using a physical book.

In response to a suggestion that the site itself might encourage random roving at will, Blank says:

‘The purposeful structure of MKP does indeed encourage moving around. The difference between moving around within the site and non-discriminatory, attention-deficit research is, I hope, that something knowable about Keats’s story is gathered with most of the definable micro-chapters, that then begins to form the larger picture after not too many stops. That is, most of the parts (the 157 micro-chapters) are both parts and wholes.

The MKP site is the ultimate in ‘reimagining’ as it is a genuine experiment, examining the traditional critical model and working with it to come up with an alternative method of exploration. But can Blank’s approach ever change our relationship with the monograph? Can it replace the book? Blank again:

‘Digital media, and more specifically for us, the digital humanities, is after all, an uncontrollable, utterly diverse force of possibility that powerfully impacts how we do and see and use our work. But I admit that within the profession there remains something of a fetish relationship with The Book—that 3D object that physically surrounds us in our libraries and offices, offering the sight and weight (and with old books, the smell) of materialized tradition and rippling nostalgia; the book also represents metaphysical safekeeping…’

It is not an attempt to replace the book, Blank adores them as much as any of us, insisting they remain ‘a joy forever’, but MKP offers the opportunity to evolve, move, expand, correct, revise – all those things a book can’t do. ‘Thinking-through becomes an unending process, rather than the terminus that a published book offers’.

The Mapping Keats’s Progress site spent a significant amount of time in beta to identify bugs, ensure everything works and to get feedback from users, making sure it was launched in  a ‘robust and lasting form’.  It is a complex structure, already used regularly to support new critical works and student study alike.  There are 721 maps and images on the site, many of which will be new to the user. There are 157 micro chapters, 177 transcribed poems and the word count (not including those poems) is approaching 200,000. The site has received plaudits and unsolicited praise from respected colleagues that have justified the amount of work Blank has undertaken and the most important thing is that it respects and loves the life and work of John Keats himself, positioning him as a leading member of the vast Romantic circle the site features, and highlighting how remarkable is the poetry for which he is best known.

Suzie Grogan is a professional writer, researcher and editor.  She is published in the fields of social history and mental health, her most recent books being Shell Shocked Britain on the lasting legacy of the Great War health and Death Disease & Dissection on the life of a surgeon apothecary 1750-1850, inspired by her lifelong study of John Keats. John Keats: Poetry Life & Landscape is commissioned for the bicentenary of the poet’s death in 2021. See www.suziegrogan.co.uk for more details.

Romantic Reimaginings: Tension in Coleridge’s ‘Fears in Solitude’

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email ebryan@lincoln.ac.uk.

Today on the blog, Mariyah Mandhu (University of Sheffield) discusses tension in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Fears in Solitude’.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Fears in Solitude (1798) is frequently considered as one of the poet’s most political works.[1] The volatility of this lyric has often been attributed to Coleridge’s political torment,[2] yet the implications of his experimentation with genre have largely been ignored. Sponsoring Carl Woodring’s observation that politics ‘agitated the body of [Coleridge’s] verse with severe but local storms’,[3] Coleridge uses the pastoral to inform his tale of nationalism. Rupturing the unified, idyllic landscape of pastoral, the poet darkens the natural world to a point of high anxiety, creating an insoluble tension in his poem. Reconsidering Fears in Solitude as an exercise in genre, this blog post will explore how the pastoral informs the political drive of this ‘Conversation Poem’.

Fears in Solitude opens with a typical scene of pastoral retreat in the Quantock Hills. A sight close to the poet’s heart, he tells us of a ‘green and silent spot, amid the hills’ (Fears in Solitude, l. 1) where ‘No singing sky-lark ever poised himself’ (Fears in Solitude, l. 3). The beauty of the scene is complemented by the fresh greenness, the soothing sibilance and the skylark, a joyous symbol of the divine spirit. There is a nostalgic overtone implied in the lushness of landscape as it embodies a ‘quiet spirit-healing nook’ (Fears in Solitude, l. 12). Erecting ‘a different kind of world to that of realism’,[4] Fears in Solitude begins in the conventional pastoral mode, instating physical and spiritual unity in the natural world.

Obliterating nature’s beauty almost immediately, the pastoral is suddenly upended in the next stanza. Contemplating the possibility of ‘What uproar and what strife may now be stirring / This way or that way o’er these silent hills—’ (Fears in Solitude, l. 34-35), there appears to be an inherent anxiety stirring in Coleridge’s mind. Where the hills previously denoted calm, their silence now operates as a perturbation that anticipates the impending French invasion. Registering a sense of immediacy, the use of ‘now’ draws this tension into the present, completely overturning the idyllic opening of the poem. The pastoral is suddenly overwhelmed by a cacophony of noise, ‘the thunder and the shout, / And all the crash of onset; fear and rage’ (Fears in Solitude, l. 36-37). Notwithstanding the obvious onomatopoeia, Coleridge rejects what Simon Jarvis terms a ‘nihilated theory of the living, healthy and whole’.[5] Pastoral degenerates into a threatening, alien and loud presence, representing the ‘groan’ (Fears in Solitude, l. 40) of political torment, an efficient expression of national fear.

The poem then descends into an admonition as Coleridge reprimands his countrymen for the gross offences they have perpetrated. Unlike Wordsworth who seems to criticise the urban commercial world, Coleridge draws attention to man’s offences as a nationwide, rural and urban, issue. Pastoral sheds its status as a pure genre, admitting that the rural sphere is just as polluted as the urban, weakening the genre’s typical city/country contrast. Highlighting the hypocrisy of man, Coleridge muses:

Forth from his dark and lonely hiding-place,

(Portentous sight!) the owlet Atheism,

Sailing on obscene wings athwart the noon,

Drops his blue-fringed lids, and holds them close,

And hooting at the glorious sun in Heaven,

Cries out, ‘Where is it?’

(Fears in Solitude, l. 81-86)

Adding a strong grain of satire to Fears in Solitude, Coleridge redirects the pastoral to criticise mankind. The ‘owlet Atheism’ holding its ‘blue-fringed lids’ close symbolises wilful, intellectual blindness. Mocking the type of person who would stare at the sun without seeing it, there is a genuine fear that the deluded countrymen will listen to such hooting blindness, and thence degenerate further. With pastoral now embodying Coleridge’s main fear in solitude—a fruitless future for his nation—the genre takes on a darkened aesthetic power in order to expose the consequences of man’s apathy.

Offering a solution to this great national issue, Coleridge calls out to God to ‘spare us ye awhile!’ (Fears in Solitude, l. 130) in order that his countrymen may redeem themselves. Suggesting collective action as the chief antidote to this ‘Alarm of an Invasion’,[6] the poet commands:

Stand we forth;

Render them back upon the insulted ocean,

And let them toss as idly on its waves

As the vile sea-weed,

(Fears in Solitude, l. 146-149)

Drawing the ocean into his pastoral, Coleridge affirms that the British must undertake the arduous task of defence. Reducing the enemy down to ‘vile sea-weed’ demonstrates Coleridge’s contempt of, and determination to defeat the French. That the opposition should ‘toss as idly on its waves’ suggests a lifelessness, allowing the pastoral to consider more sinister and hostile subject matter. Modifying nature, and particularly the ocean, to such an extent that ‘a person [becomes] unsure of his way around’,[7] pastoral becomes uncertain, cold and intimidating.

Having battled through such a brutal and unforgiving vista, Coleridge attempts to instil pastoral calm as he remembers the ‘green and silent dell’ (Fears in Solitude, l. 238). Grateful for ‘nature’s quietness / And solitary musings, all [his] heart / Is softened’ (Fears in Solitude, l. 239-241). Acknowledging the pastoral turmoil that we have just weathered, this retreat brings with it ‘a tension of values’ as we are asked to reconsider the efficacy of the serene bucolic against the backdrop of the chaotic, anxious darker pastoral.[8] Against William Empson’s view that Coleridge’s main business is ‘to reconcile nature to his tribe’,[9] Coleridge seems unreconciled with nature himself, as is reflected in the fracture and tensions of the poetry.

Works cited:
[1] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Fears in Solitude (1798)’, in The Major Works including Biographia Literaria, Oxford World Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 92-98.
[2] See for example, Peter Larkin, ‘”Fears in Solitude:” Reading (from) the Dell’, The Wordsworth Circle, 22. 1 (1991) < https://www.jstor.org/stable/24042639> [Accessed 30 July 2019] and Paul Magnuson, ‘The Shaping of “Fears in Solitude”’, in Coleridge’s Theory of Imagination Today, ed. by Christine Gallant (New York: AMS Press, 1989).
[3] Carl Woodring, ‘The Language of Politics’, in Politics in the Poetry of Coleridge (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1961), pp. 33-44 (p. 33)
[4] Terry Gifford, ‘The Discourse of Retreat’, in Pastoral (London; New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 45-80 (p. 45).
[5] Simon Jarvis, ‘Life’, in Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 153-194 (p. 155).
[6] Coleridge, ‘Fears in Solitude (1798’), p. 92.
Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, in The Uncanny: Translated by David McLintock with an Introduction by Hugh Houghton (London: Penguin, 2003), pp. 121-159 (p. 125).
[8] Stuart Curran, ‘Pastoral’, in British Form and Romanticism (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 85-127 (p. 88).
[9] William Empson, ‘The Beggar’s Opera: Mock-pastoral as the Cult of Independence’, in Some Versions of Pastoral (London: Chatto & Windus, 1968), pp. 195-252 (p. 207).

Mariyah Mandhu is a PhD student in Romantic poetry at the University of Sheffield. Her project reinterprets the use of the pastoral genre in the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Adapting Timothy Morton’s concept of ‘dark ecology’, she argues that in Romantic poetry there emerges an ambivalent, treacherous version of nature, unseen in such an extensive capacity until Coleridge’s ‘Conversation Poems’ in 1975. Revealing the existence of a Romantic subgenre entitled the dark pastoral, she explores its usage in poems that span the full length of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s careers.

Romantic Reimaginings: Adaptation and Convergence in Poe (Part 3 of 3)

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email ebryan@lincoln.ac.uk.

Today on the blog our article is the final article in a 3 part series in which Jeff L. Wright (University of Arkansas) discusses adaptations of the works of Edgar Allen Poe. His first article (link below) examined Poe’s The Raven in the context of Halloween. Parts 2 and 3 examine Richard Corben’s comic book adaptations of Poe, tracing the evolution of these adaptations from the cultural ‘memeplex’ to the individual ‘selfplex’.

Part 1: bars.ac.uk/blog/?p=2721

Part 2: bars.ac.uk/blog/?p=2724

Part 3:

For this Romantic Reimagining, I would like to continue our exploration of the bio-evolutionary model of memes in Richard Corben’s comic book adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe’s, “The Raven”. In part one, I discussed the ways in which memes are transferred from the cultural memeplex into our own individual brains, called the selfplex. Richard Corben’s original adaptation of this poem incorporated a painterly, watercolor style of pen-and-ink to create an almost impressionistic version of Poe’s protagonist. Material items such as the room or the Colt-style revolver the man carried were heavily detailed, as if drawn, and the human figure was less detailed. Perhaps this was Corben’s attempt to hedge himself against the fact that there is no clear description of the character in the poem, and Corben’s rendition of the man leaves us with more of a visual impression of a character. I also discussed how some elements, such as the protagonist’s appearance, are more controversial in our own minds than other elements, such as what the raven, a gun, or the room would look like in this poem. Once rendered, Corben then regurgitates this new adaptation back into the cultural memeplex for a survival-of-the-fittest test to see if fans liked it or not.

I would like to continue with an exploration of another of Corben’s adaptations of “The Raven” roughly a decade later. Edgars Allen Poe’s The Raven and the Red Death (EAPRRD) was done with Darkhorse Comics. Like Haunt of Horror, EAPRRD is still mostly Corben doing the writing and the artwork, with some lettering done by Nate Piekos. I mention this because in the case of Corben’s work, he is handling both the writing and drawing duties, whereas most comics have separate writers and artists (even a whole team of them), which is another reason Corben’s work is good for this sort of memetic evolutionary analysis, as there is little question as to where the ideas originated from.
In the previous rendition of “The Raven,” Corben worked in black-and-white. However, in his later version he switches to color, but also steps the artwork back into what looks more like the retro/vintage horror comics of old, such as Tales from the Crypt or Vault of Horror. This style is somewhat “cartoony” in that the human form is often exaggerated into a caricature of sorts. Mag the Hag, a narrator in the vein of the Cryptkeeper, is somewhat of a cross between a hunchback and a witch with a round, bulbous nose, balding head, and sagging cleavage (fig. 1).

Figure 1: The Slime Effect

Whereas the first version of “The Raven” featured an impression of a man in the story/poem, Corben’s second adaptation creates a very distinct idea of what the character looks like. We are shown two things in the first few frames that set a clearly different visual tone than his first adaptation. First is the man himself, with muttonchops and details that make the character look older or at least more haggard than in the first adaptation. The second element we see is what I usually just refer to as the “slime effect” in horror comics. Rain on a window sill, and in the next frame on Mag the Hag’s nose, is drawn to look more like globs of spit or slime oozing down these things rather than raindrops (fig. 1). This slime-visual alone is a clear link to horror comics and serves as a sort of signal that this will likely be grotesque in some way.

Figure 2: Lenore and Arnold

Corben has also created more detailed imagery in this adaptation of both the man and Lenore, as the use of a flashback sequence is employed early in the story in the man’s pondering over “forgotten lore.” The lore, in this case, being thoughts of his Lenore, who is shown to be an attractive woman in his memories of their lovemaking. This is a major departure from his previous adaptation of this poem in that he is now drawing these characters with very distinct details, but also employing visual elements that were not part of the original poem’s story. Lenore, like the man in the poem, is never described. Corben is taking artistic license regarding this, essentially having to add these romantic memories to visually represent lines in the poem that read as inner dialogue or that Poe never fleshed out for the reader. Corben even goes so far as to name the originally unnamed man, Arnold (fig. 2).

Figure 3: Death at the beak of The Raven

In Corben’s previous adaptation he worked more as an impressionist doing, for lack of a better term, an “artistic” comic. Now, he is switching styles, which almost feels a bit like a genre shift from arthouse-comic to good ole’ fashioned worm-and-guts, pre-CCA, horror comics. Which brings us to the raven itself. In his former adaptation, Corben chose to go with a fairly realistic version of a raven, at least as realistic as a talking antagonist raven can be made to look. In this version, Corben has chosen to get a little more horrific with the raven, and honestly this is the first time this poem actually came across as remotely scary or horrifying to me. After goring Arnold with its beak, the raven is depicted as some sort of demonic-undead bird hovering over the fallen body of Arnold, now laying before Lenore’s gravemarker.

In this version, Corben adds more than just visuals to this poem, he also has to create new, additional elements of the story to turn this into a 10-page comic book story. While visual elements will always be seen as addition to a textual story, the visual additon of the blood and gore into this version seem to amplify the horror aspects of this poem or contemporize the graphicness of these elements to sell to modern horror audiences that may be used to much more violent or grotesque depictions. In terms of Convergence Culture and Adaptation Studies, Corben’s work on “The Raven” serves as a good source for analyzing the way that, in this case, this has grown from an impressionistic visual adaptation of the poem, to that of a full blown horror story using the poem as a foundation for other horror elements, especially visual elements, to be added to it.

Jeff L. Wright is currently working on PhD in Cultural Studies and as a writing instructor at the University of Arkansas. He has a BA and MA in interdisciplinary studies in the fields of Anthropology, Rhetoric-Composition, Gender Studies, Film Studies, and Theatre. Jeff’s writing ranges from academic research to playwrighting, and he is currently working as one of the official bloggers for the Sam Walton College of Business. His current research is focused on “Bitch-Rhetoric” in comic books and tattoos.

 

Romantic Reimaginings: Adaptation and Convergence in Poe (Part 2 of 3)

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email ebryan@lincoln.ac.uk.

Today on the blog our article is Part 2 in a 3 part series in which Jeff L. Wright (University of Arkansas) discusses adaptations of the works of Edgar Allen Poe. His first article (link below) examined Poe’s The Raven in the context of Halloween. Parts 2 and 3 examine Richard Corben’s comic book adaptations of Poe, tracing the evolution of these adaptations from the cultural ‘memeplex’ to the individual ‘selfplex’.

Part 1: bars.ac.uk/blog/?p=2721

Part 2:

My childhood fascination with horror comics would eventually come full circle as I conducted my research in grad school where, amongst many other interdisciplinary interests, the Dawkins/Bartolotti/Hutcheon evolutionary concepts of memes became a prime ingredient in most of my research. In terms of Romantic Reimaginings, I would like to take a look at the ways in which the bio-evolutionary theory of memes and adaptation work using adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”, in the comic books of Richard Corben.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary/Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore… tapping… on my tablet I came across some contemporary horror comics I had been meaning to get around to reading. There has always been a place in comics for good ole fashioned worm-and-guts horror, and famed underground comic book artist, Richard Corben, is probably one of the most creative Eisner Inductees to ever put pen to paper in this genre. In the days of Marvel’s “adult” label, Max, Corben penned several issues for the Haunt of Horror series that adapted stories and poems to great effect. Haunt of Horror: Edgar Allen Poe #1 (2006) featured one of Corben’s earlier adaptations of “The Raven” and “The Conqueror Worm,” both of which are re-imagined again by Corben in later works.

In my work, I prefer Susan Blackmore’s terms from The Meme Machine in referring to the world where art and literature live in our culture (memes) as the memeplex, and when those memes enter our minds it is entering the selfplex. The concept is simple. Memes from the memeplex, such as the poem “The Raven”, are absorbed into the mind/selfplex, via visual transmission of signs and images that represent the thoughts contained in the brain cells of someone else. Once absorbed into our brains, those signs are interpreted and become transmissions between our own brain cells, and if we deem it worthy, or if it is just too memorable to forget, or too forgettable to remember, it may get stored in our own selfplex/brain as memory. Following this bio-evolutionary model of memes, the meme/thoughts, can either stay relatively fidelitous to the original meme or it can mutate, either by accident because human memory is very fallible, or because we consciously mutate it. The meme is then regurgitated back into the memeplex where it will undergo a sort of survival of the fittest test, being accepted or rejected by the culture as a whole, or some degree in between, where it can then go through the whole process again as it enters and is regurgitated by numerous other selfplexes. This is an evolutionary process that can take place in a matter of seconds, rather than hundreds of thousands of years of biological evolution.

As someone focused on visual rhetoric/theories in adaptation studies and convergence culture, I am always either enamored or repulsed by another person’s idea of what a character looks like. It used to drive me bonkers the way an artist would render Frodo to look like a cherub with pants or made Strider look too clean-cut in the Tolkien calendars. In visual adaptations of “The Raven”, we often see a Poe-like caricature portraying the narrator, who we are never given any description of by Poe whatsoever. I think this is partly to blame for why so many people think Poe himself was an alcoholic and drug addict. We know the character is tired and lonely and that’s about it. So, any visual elements added to this poetic story are going to be coming mostly from the mind of the artist.

Figure 1

In this case, Corben is taking the poem from the memeplex, rolling it around in his own brain, Corben’s selfplex, and then he draws the comic book and puts it back out into the memeplex as a new adaptation, which is also a prime example of aspects of Convergence Culture phenomenon. We get to see a visual representation of his thoughts manifested into a material reality.

Corben’s artwork in this story is painterly, using what appears to be ink-and-paper in a more watercolor-styled fashion. You can see that the protagonist is fairly generic, while details abound in material objects like the revolver the character carries (fig. 1). It’s almost as if Corben doesn’t want to give too much detail to the character, instead creating the impression of the character, while the room around him and material objects are detailed. There is really only one controversial element of this poem’s imagery; what does the guy look like? We’re less likely to get hung up on what the room and objects should look like. Even an artistic expression of a raven would still be relatively fidelitous so long as we recognize it as the raven. But the protagonist’s appearance is the only element our minds are likely to find debatable. If you try to substitute a Pomeranian for a St. Bernard in Cujo, our minds are going to reject it. But changing the car in that story from a Ford Pinto to a Ford Fiesta; they are almost the same economy car, so who cares.

From a Convergence Culture standpoint, analysis such as this becomes a useful tool in looking at the adaptation process. Richard Corben’s work is a great piece of data, because as I mentioned before, he creates other renditions of this and other Poe stories, so one could analyze his visual adaptations of Poe on a specific textual meme in the same way art critics have analyzed Monet’s numerous water lily paintings. In Part 3, I will continue discussing Corben with one of his more recent adaptations of “The Raven”, where we see a shift in his visual style and color, as well as how he is approaching the written adaptations of Poe, specifically what elements are being added to this otherwise sparse story from one of Poe’s most famous poems.

Jeff L. Wright is currently working on PhD in Cultural Studies and as a writing instructor at the University of Arkansas. He has a BA and MA in interdisciplinary studies in the fields of Anthropology, Rhetoric-Composition, Gender Studies, Film Studies, and Theatre. Jeff’s writing ranges from academic research to playwrighting, and he is currently working as one of the official bloggers for the Sam Walton College of Business. His current research is focused on “Bitch-Rhetoric” in comic books and tattoos.

 

 

 

Romantic Reimaginings: Adaptation and Convergence in Poe (Part 1 of 3)

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email ebryan@lincoln.ac.uk.

Today on the blog, in the inaugural article of a three part series, Jeff L. Wright (University of Arkansas) discusses adaptations of the works of Edgar Allen Poe. His first article examines Poe’s The Raven in the context of Halloween. Parts 2 and 3 examine Richard Corben’s comic book adaptations of Poe, tracing the evolution of these adaptations from the cultural ‘memeplex’ to the individual ‘selfplex’.

Part 1

Growing up in the woods of Sherwood may seem like some sort of magical childhood full of secret gardens and talking lions, but in reality, Sherwood, Arkansas was your typical run-of-the-mill suburban, U.S. town in the “South.” Every year there were fireworks on the 4th of July, pastel suits and Easter egg hunting, and of course lights and parades to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. The holidays were always a lot of fun; they broke up the monotony of school with guaranteed days off and the hope of material goods in the form of presents. But of course, we always had to dress up in our “Sunday clothes” to eat what was otherwise an ordinary meal with the same people you ate with yesterday, or in the case of the 4th, you had to plan to weather what was usually a 36 degree day by slathering on tons of sunscreen and bug repellent to fend off the pinky sized mosquitoes coming out of the nearby creek. Of all the holidays to dress up for, though, Halloween was always my favorite. Costume planning went from weeks before to a full year of prep time by the time I was nearing the end of my Trick-or-Treating days (I think somewhere around the age of 40).

As Halloween approached again this year, I was reflecting upon my early school days when we were allowed to wear our costumes to school and we would all have a parade of classes, and Suzy was lying about getting to see Alien (1979), and the teachers and staff would hand out candy, and there was that one year that Johnny’s single, low-income mom “forgot” it was costume day and Johnny tore rips in his school clothes and said he was “a punker” and the teacher chastised him in front of everybody for it, and… well, there are always a lot of tangled memories tied up in childhood. But, the one thing that always stood out in my mind was when they would take large groups of costumed students to the library where the school librarian would be dressed up looking exactly like the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz (1939), which wickedly scared the pants off the really little kids. Scaredy-cat babies! There was more candy and we always got to watch the Bing Crosby narrated The Legend of Sleep Hollow (1949), which in the days before VCRs was a big deal to get to see a Disney cartoon in the library.

But before that, every time, we had to sit through a reading of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. It was like they had to get it out of the way first. Teachers would scurry around hushing and shushing the fidgety ones while the Wicked Witch read the poem out loud to us… from a book that didn’t even have any pictures in it! Why oh why would anybody think that little kids would be fascinated by this poem is beyond me. We whispered to each other, pulled our neighbors cape, popped the elastic string on the back of a mask; fidgeters every last one of us! Getting to watch cartoons and eat candy was fun, having to listen to someone drone on and on about a stupid raven tapping on a window sill??? “More like crapping on the window sill!” The wit and wisdom of the juvenile mind.

As a result, I was conditioned at an early age to be weary of “one of the U.S.’s greatest authors,” and like those awful, bottom-of-the-bag, all-that’s-left Halloween licorices or star mints, it put a bad taste in my mouth whenever it came to Poe for years afterwards. One of our few “canonical” U.S. authors, a good ole’ red blooded patriotic ‘Merican for crying out loud, and we were taught as schoolchildren to hate him, or at least note him to be the most boring aspect of Halloween, which to a kid is pretty much the same as saying “you’re the old lady coffee candy someone fished out of their old lady purse and put it in your Trick-or-Treat bag.” Realistically, in the eyes of a 7 or 8yo child, how was some ancient poet ever going to compete with It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966). And even though it was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, it was still an era in which the Universal Monster Movies were considered “G-rated” and family friendly. So, a poem that harkens back to middle-English about a dead girlfriend and a raven were about as scary or creepy to me then as when my little sister went as the Looney Toon, Tweety Bird, for Halloween. I’ll pit The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) against any Poe antagonist any day, any time.

In truth, looking back, I realized this was my first foray into the controversy of canonical literature. “Why do they get to say who we read?!” And as the Wicked Witch read the poem out loud, I remember a girl, maybe a grade lower than me, interrupting with “Who’s Lenore?” Unfortunately, I do not recall the witch’s response, but it had to be something to the effect of “Well, that’s his dead wife and the man is sad about it.” Which you can just imagine the slew of questions that is going to follow that: “Why’s she dead? How do you know he’s sad? Why do people drink when someone dies? Can you make my mommy stop drinking? Will a raven come and peck my eyes out?” What the hell were those educators thinking?

It’s an example of how easily we can (please tell me it was inadvertently) warp the minds of young readers and turn them away from authors by trying to introduce them at too early an age. In all fairness, it was also the same public school district that taught us that Frankenstein was about “not playing God because it’s a sin.” Unfortunately, it would not be until years later that my opinion of Poe would change. At this point, Edgar Allen Poe’s, The Raven, still stands out in my mind as one of the worst aspects of Halloween and those witchly open-mic readings were an epic fail.

Jeff L. Wright is currently working on PhD in Cultural Studies and as a writing instructor at the University of Arkansas. He has a BA and MA in interdisciplinary studies in the fields of Anthropology, Rhetoric-Composition, Gender Studies, Film Studies, and Theatre. Jeff’s writing ranges from academic research to playwrighting, and he is currently working as one of the official bloggers for the Sam Walton College of Business. His current research is focused on “Bitch-Rhetoric” in comic books and tattoos.

The Meeting: Reading and Writing through John Clare

As part of an Arts Council England- & John Clare Society-funded outreach and inclusion project, Simon Kövesi has edited a short collection of readings of John Clare poems and prose by celebrated actor Toby Jones, now online at Oxford Brookes University. The readings are available via standard browsers, and via Spotify and iTunes as free podcast-style subscriptions. Reading texts are also provided on the project website. The hope is that Toby’s readings will support the study and enjoyment of Clare, at any level of interest.

Toby will perform as Clare, in the project’s final musical stage show, in Oxford in February, and in London in April, by way of celebrating 200 years since the publication of Clare’s first collection, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery. More details soon.

Project website: https://www.brookes.ac.uk/the-meeting/

Toby Jones readings: https://www.brookes.ac.uk/the-meeting/toby-jones-reads-john-clare/

Romantic Reimaginings: Adapting Mary Shelley’s Female Monster

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email ebryan@lincoln.ac.uk.

Today on the blog, Gracie Bain discusses the adaptive history of Mary Shelley’s Female Monster.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), the female creature Frankenstein creates for his monstrous son is assembled but not animated. In a fit of regret and concern for humanity, Frankenstein rips her body apart—creating what is arguably the most explicitly violent scene in the novel. He suspects that she may become rational, or worse yet, willful: “She, in who in all probability, was to become a thinking and reasoning animal” (129). In the film, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), directed by James Whale, she is animated but destroyed by the male monster when she refuses him. Though she is the title character, the Bride’s only dialogue is her scream of terror/horror. I, like many others, was unhappy with the female monster’s portrayal. What happens when the Bride desires and wills? What exactly is it about the female body that provokes violence? It is my argument that in each of these texts, she is destroyed because she either has the potential to will or she does actually enact her own will.

The Bride’s scream in Bride of Frankenstein

Elizabeth Hand’s novel, The Bride of Frankenstein: Pandora’s Bride (2007), embodies the cultural fascination with Frankenstein’s female monster as an adaptation of an adaptation. In the novel, the Bride survives the fire intended to kill her in Bride of Frankenstein. She teams up with Dr. Pretorius and escapes to Berlin—followed by both the Frankensteins and the male monster. Eventually, Elizabeth Frankenstein kills her husband, reanimates him, and attempts to convince the Bride to join her in what is essentially an all-woman murder squad. The Bride refuses and kills Elizabeth. If we look at Frankenstein as her origin, Bride of Frankenstein as her animation, and Pandora’s Bride as the enactment of her will and desire, we can read the character’s progression as reflective of the power of monstrous bodies—specifically female ones. If adaptations function as a place of critical analysis, then Whale’s film and, perhaps more interestingly, Hand’s novel, allow our culture to work through what exactly happens when female monstrosity is paired with a monstrous will. What exactly is monstrous about the female will and body?

In Willful Subjects, Sara Ahmed argues we name someone willful when “they are not willing to be means” (42). To be willful is to refuse the “right” kinds of authority. It is to “‘snap the bond,’…understood as snapping the affective tie of the family as well as the bond reproduction, understood as fate, or even fatality” (Willful Subjects 113). In Shelley’s novel, it seems that it is the potential for the Bride to enact those reproductive bonds in the wrong way that gets her destroyed. Frankenstein rationalizes that she may want to destroy humanity—that she might not will the right way. She could potentially destroy humanity by accepting the male monster as her mate or by refusing him. In Bride of Frankenstein, she does snap the familial bond between her, the monster, and Frankenstein when she screams in terror at the male monster. In Pandora’s Bride, Pandora refuses to go with Henry Frankenstein peacefully. Instead, she defeats the evil Frankenstein and his wife, Elizabeth, who eventually turns her husband into an animated monster himself. One could read the Bride’s will in Whale’s film and Hand’s novel as simply doing the right thing. It would be morally wrong to create “a race of devils” as Victor puts it in Frankenstein (129). I am more interested in the ways that her willful refusal is read as being willfully hopeful. Reading the Bride’s refusal as a decision of morality is undercutting the potential for the action of willing.

Cover of The Bride of Frankenstein: Pandora’s Bride by Elizabeth Hand

In Hand’s novel, when her will is fully realized, there is a repetition of mind language: “I already knew my own mind…. you will recall that I did actually possess a mind” (Hand 11-12). She chooses her own name after refusing the one suggested by Pretorius—Lilith, the fallen woman— because she does not see herself as a fallen woman. When Donna Haraway argues in “A Cyborg Manifesto” that unlike Frankenstein’s monster, the cyborg is not looking for a father or a creator, she forgets the Frankenstein’s monstrous daughter. While Haraway argues for a being without myth, the female monster is the creature and creator of her own myth. She chooses the name of Pandora: “That should be my name…. Dr. Pretorius said that someday a woman will write of the New Eve. So I will be the New Pandora. I will not be any man’s bride or any man’s toy. Whatever strengths I possess, whatever I have hidden inside of me, whatever I unleash upon men, I will do so knowingly” (32). She refuses to be a bride, to be an Eve, instead, she chooses to open the box and find hope: “I thought of the legend from which I had drawn my name….one moral to be drawn from it—Woman as the cause of Humanity’s misfortune–was cruel and egregious. Yet there was solace…to be drawn from its other conclusion…hope survives” (198). The development of reason that urges the male monster to reconnect with his creator urges the female monster to be willfully hopeful in herself. To be willfully hopeful is to ignore that which makes us avoid Pandora’s box.

Mary Shelley’s text may give us an unsatisfactory ending for the female creature, but it does provide a springboard to explore the themes of willfulness and desire that are more subtly represented in her novel. Contemporary adaptations that engage Shelley’s female monster explore the complicated relationship between desire, willfulness, and hope.

Works Cited:
Ahmed, Sara. Willful Subjects. Duke University Press, 2014.
Bride of Frankenstein. Directed by James Whale, performances by Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, and Elsa Lanchester, Universal Pictures, 1935.
Hand, Elizabeth. The Bride of Frankenstein: Pandora’s Bride. Dark Horse Books, 2007.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. Edited by Susan J. Wolfson. 2nd edition. Pearson, 2007.

Gracie Bain is a first-year PhD student at the University of Arkansas. Her research looks at the intersections of Victorian popular literature, affect theory, and crime literature.

 

Romantic Reimaginings: Victor Victorious? Frankenstein’s Creation as Failed Romantic Revolution

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email ebryan@lincoln.ac.uk.

Today on the blog, Garrett Jeter discusses Frankenstein’s monster as a metaphor for a failed Romantic revolution.

When Victor Frankenstein gazes at his Creature in admiration, then horror, in reality he contemplates a failed revolution. More, he witnesses the failure of a Romantic project. What had fuelled a passion, a glowing vision for radical improvement in human existence, ended in wrecked hopes: “I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but … the beauty of the dream vanished” (43). Victor had employed science to advance a revolution in the human condition, dethroning the tyrannical rule of Nature, and realising a utopia of human happiness. As Peter Vernon notes, he speaks of his experiments “in visionary terms” (278). Fred Randel asserts that Frankenstein (1818) is Shelley’s “astute extension and complication” involving revolution and revolutionary ideas (466). In his estimation, Nature’s imposition of mortality on humanity constitutes oppression. Victor’s creative process and quest set two ideals of Romanticism – revolutionary spirit and the glorifying appreciation of both Nature and beauty – at odds. The result is the debacle of a revolutionary dream. With Frankenstein, Mary Shelley critiques the failure of Romanticism to achieve that vision – namely, the perfection of human existence.

Victor maintains a conflicted attitude toward Nature that undermines his revolutionary dream. She is both wondrous and oppressive. He admires her but wishes to subdue her in her “secret hiding places.” As a Romantic admirer, Victor extols her aesthetic achievements in human appearance and design. He seems “to view creation as a mystery” (Vernon, 274). Nature practices artistry in endowing “beauty” and a “fine form” to mankind (40). This handiwork includes fashioning physical perfection: “strength” (40). A creator himself, Victor lauds Nature as a transcendent creative force. Nature is the perfect Designer and Builder of “the wonders of the eye and brain” (40). His science, much like Romantic humanism, honours Nature in that it desires to recreate – to imitate – and preserve what Nature gives. Certainly, Victor’s Romantic secular humanism admires man as an ideal of Creation, but glowing praise of the human form and construction implies a Romantic exaltation of Nature’s divinity.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, painting by Richard Rothwell

Yet, the same Nature that giveth taketh away; she is both Creator and Destroyer. For this scientific revolutionary, Nature is an obsolete medieval aristocrat, an ancient relic of privilege that tyrannizes man with mortality as an encastled lord. He besieges “fortifications and impediments that seemed to keep human beings from entering the citadel of nature” (25). Victor regards himself as a liberator of man from mortality’s chains. Authors have used the Gothic to “align the author and reader with the supposedly enlightened against the anachronistic and benighted” (Randel, 466). A revolutionary needs an army. His new species is a legion of “soldiers” who will conquer death and overthrow the ancien régime of Nature. A revolutionary desires to liberate the common people: the Creature’s parts originate from the corpses of the anonymous masses.

Victor’s Creature’s body incarnates both the success and failure of the Romantic revolution. At his birth, he is a corporealized locus of Romantic and anti-Romantic principles, his physique contradictorily marrying exaltation and mockery of those ideals. Some features recall those of the Greek heroic ideal: he has proportion, perfectly balanced beauty according to natural measurements; here the Creature honours Nature. In terms of physique, he has “the work of muscles and arteries,” Victor’s gesture to artistry and aesthetics, including the handiwork of Nature herself (43). His hair is a “lustrous black” and his teeth are pearly white, all “luxuriances” (43). In forming his Creation, Victor attempted to emulate aesthetic sensibility, for he “selected the features as beautiful” (43). However, Victor subverts his own glorious revolution with a “horrid contrast” of Romantic ideals and parodic-Romantic (43). The eyes and skin are yellow, the eyes dull, suggesting sickness and lifelessness. Dull, watery eyes mock Romantic optimism and the “vision” of a glowing future, metaphorizing failed foresight. Shrivelled skin opposes beautiful appearances with ugliness. Furthermore, Victor forcibly enlists Nature in his hideous experiment, raiding slaughterhouses; comely Nature participates in a grotesquerie of itself. A crowning Romantic achievement of the noble heroic ideal becomes the corporealized travesty of the Revolutionary New Human.

Frontispiece for Frankenstein, 1831 edition

Victor’s valorization of the body over mind and spirit completes the Romantic failure. Privileging ancient over modern science exacerbates that debacle. In “infus[ing] a spark of being,” Victor employs a mystical, neo-alchemical vivification (43). The terms Victor employs “relate more to alchemy and miracle than they do to science. … [H]e is … like a magus” (Vernon, 275). In Romanticism’s credo, the human being’s soul possesses a divine spark; that ideal valued intuition, spirit, aesthetic sensitivity—transcendent components of mind. However, Victor neglects this aspect. If revolution espouses “progress,” Victor states that modern science encourages him: “I considered the improvement which every day takes place in science and mechanics” (39). His mention of mechanics is notable; it implies privileging exclusively physical design over attention to intellectual and emotional development. He forgets to equip the revolutionary body with the necessary revolutionary mind and soul. Abdullah identifies the crux of this failure in a confused scientific perspective: “In order to go out of the infinite circle of obsolescence and achieve the desired scientific finalization, Frankenstein uses the right means, but with faulty procedure. He uses the means and resources of modern science, but he maintains the attitude of ancient chemists” (47). When that body sprung from the anonymous masses in its parts, the Romantic Victor failed to imbue it with the uplift of spirit and beauty. Instead of elevating humanity, it is destroyed by undeveloped souls and conscience. Mark Hansen argues that Victor’s methods undermine Romanticism: “Shelley highlights the impotence of inspirational science (and romantic poetry) to control its creation; the inspirational leap, she suggests, gives rise to forces which act beyond the poet-scientist’s control” (582). Ironically, Victor’s liberatory dreams turn on themselves. While his vision is to free man to thrive, he also unchains destructive drives. Life and existence are not necessarily synonymous; full life entails the Romantic values of intuition, spirit, and aesthetic appreciation. The alchemical elixir of life contemplates only freedom from disease and mortality, not a dark heart. Perhaps the greatest travesty of Nature lies in this failed emancipation. Narcissistically, Victor sought to liberate humanity from Nature’s restrictive boundaries, but unwittingly removed the restraints on the Creature’s natural primitive impulses. The Romantic appreciation of Nature’s beauty is mocked when he negligently frees her equally ugly side to reign.

In its depiction of a hideous creation’s horrific consequence, Frankenstein critiques Romantic revolutionary ideals and their failure to achieve the radical purpose of overturning an old order for a liberated utopia. Frankenstein articulates our contemporaneous society’s reluctance to shape the ideal individual during periods of radical social change (Abdullah, 48). The Romantic Movement reacted against what it saw as the cold, sterile rationalism of the Enlightenment. What it substituted was spirit, sensitivity, and intuition. However, Victor neglects these in his reanimation. Shelley wrote to promote the liberal version of enlightenment “as the only alternative to the spread of violent revolution” (Randel, 466). Frankenstein’s visions of beauty suffer from a conflicted perspective of Nature as both creator and destroyer, of science as working both within and outside of Nature’s limits; he represents the “ideals of the present  … that modern science should not adhere to certain limits” (Abdullah, 48). In so doing, he both exalts and debases the Movement’s ideals in the Creature’s body. Romantic liberatory drives emancipate the horrific along with the comely. Shelley captures the hellish reality of the Romantic project’s disaster in Victor’s shocked realization; after the beauty of the dream vanishes, “breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. … [The Creature] became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived” (43, 44). In this way, Victor and his Creature both uneasily combine the twin antagonists of the beautiful and the hideous.

Works cited:
Abdullah, Shamil Taha. “The Moulding of the Scientist Individual in Frankenstein.” The Eskişehir Osmangazi Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi Aralık 19:2 (2018). 37-50.
Hansen, Mark. “Not Thus, after All, Would Life Be Given”: “Technesis”, Technology and the Parody of Romantic Poetics in “Frankenstein” Studies in Romanticism 36:4 (1997). 575-609.
Hindle, Maurice. “Vital Matters: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Romantic Science. Critical Survey 2:1 Science and the Nineteenth Century (1990). 29-35.
López-Varela Azcárate, A. and Saavedra, E. “The Metamorphosis of the Myth of Alquemy in the Romantic Imagination of Mary and Percy B. Shelley.” Icono14, 15:1, 108-127.
Randel, Fred V. “The Political Geography of Horror in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” ELH (2003), 70:2. 465-491.
Sha, Richard C. “Romantic Skepticism about Scientific Experiment.” The Wordsworth Circle, 46:3 Romanticism and Experiment (2015). 127-131.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818. Introd. Diane Johnson. New York: Bantam, 2003.
Vernon, Peter. “Frankenstein: Science and Electricity.”  Études Anglaises (1997), 50:3. 270-83.

Garrett Jeter has a Ph.D. in English literature with a focus on 19th-century Gothic. His dissertative work addressed the Gothic as an intellectual, empirical reader experience. He currently teaches Composition and Literature as an Assistant Professor of English at Georgia Military College in Warner Robins, GA.

Romantic Reimaginings: The Ecstasy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email ebryan@lincoln.ac.uk.

Today on the blog, Adam Neikirk provides a personal account of his work on poetical biographies of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Seamus Perry, author of Coleridge and the Uses of Division (Oxford English Monographs, 1999) once commented to me that his task of writing his contribution for the Oxford Handbook of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Oxford UP, 2009), on ‘Coleridge’s Literary Influence’, felt “a bit like trying to describe an alp”. “The achievement is so various,” writes Perry at the beginning of the article, and the literary influence so diverse, that no generalization here can be useful: there is no single distinctive ‘Coleridgean’ idiom or manner for later poets to appropriate or reject … Neither are the lines of influence always clearly defined: no subsequent ballad can hope to escape the example of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ … (661).

Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Peter Vandyke, 1795

Perry’s alp remark, while more compact, is perhaps even more illuminating of our general attitude to STC: there is something vast and yet indistinct which we attempt to reckon; so much so, that sometimes it is tidier to compare him (or his literary achievements) to an inanimate object, even if it be a stream or what Coleridge himself once called a “spring with the little tiny cone of loose sand ever rising and sinking at the bottom, but its surface without a wrinkle” (CN I, 980).

Virginia Woolf famously did this in her enraptured essay “The Man at the Gate,” in which she described “an immense mass of quivering matter” (getting right at the protean source), a “great swarm” of words, and “pendent drops” which roll down across a pane smeared by weakness, emblematic of the clarity of Coleridge’s mind struggling with its capaciousness to settle upon just one subject, to articulate just one idea. Whenever anyone, be they a critic,[1] another poet,[2] or prose writer,[3] has tried to do more than paint a mere caricature of Coleridge, there is almost always an attendant metaphysical confusion, as if by thinking hard about him, we summon up some kind of meddling or muddling arch-spirit to haunt the willed homology of our thoughts.

We seem to innately turn to poetry or to the possible beginnings of poetry (“describe an alp”) in order to imagine what we consider to be his full fullness. STC is almost himself a kind of writing prompt (“write about the edge of the universe; now write about Coleridge standing at the edge of the universe, scribbling away at what he sees”). My dissertation takes this tendency to veer into the poetic more literally by purporting to offer a “poetical biography” of Coleridge (that is, a series of poems which, taken as a whole, will give the reader the same sense of his life and person as a prose biography). Thus, I have found that Coleridge himself seems to have a poeticizing influence that cannot be ignored and, in fact, should probably be explored. The challenge lies in asking how we can write about Coleridge without reducing him to an image, either of our own values, or to some other set of interlinked values which we think we recognize (we might be tempted to do the same thing with the Alps or some other ‘natural’ object); in other words: how can we articulate him in such a way that he can evolve beyond what he has been seen as, as this or that apostate or champion, and become more like a process of inquiry, “[thriving] on the dynamic of contraries and contradictions, never finding any one church, political party, social theory, or philosophical creed to satisfy his sense of the subtleties of the human condition” (Richards 1962, xviii).

Although this quote is taken from I.A. Richards’ Coleridge on Imagination, it is Kathleen Coburn’s conviction that shines through, an image of a pluralistic Coleridge and a kind of intellectual world citizen who is also a wanderer. It is my conviction that, try as some have, it is not possible to communicate the whole of Coleridge from a critical position only, due to the fact that by the very act of assessing Coleridge, we must occupy a position outside of his life and work and his times, and render our judgment (as he often says) ab extra. Of course, I do not believe in time travel or telepathy, exactly; but believe there is more involved in the uses of poetry as a form of writing than merely versification (and there is a lot to versification as well). This is where the notion of ecstasy as ‘standing outside oneself’ derives from: in reimagining Coleridge through verse, we not only must in some measure put ourselves aside, and step out of ourselves and our times, but we also open ourselves up to Coleridge’s world. His world is the virtual space that is connected to all his writings, as well as to all of the writings about him. It is like the mansion in Bleak House, filled with chambers and twisting hallways, a bit of narcissism in this one, a German hexameter here, a travelogue here, the Lowesian origins[4] of Kubla Khan in a chandelier, the legacy of the “Opus Maximum”[5] leaking into the kitchen sink. The goal is to take the poetic tendencies of prose writings about Coleridge—which I have argued are always there in force—to their logical conclusion: the esemplastic power of poetry itself.

Works Cited:
Beer, John. Coleridge’s Play of Mind. Oxford UP, 2010.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Collected Notebooks I. Princeton UP, 1957.
Perry, Seamus. Coleridge and the Uses of Division. Oxford English Monographs, 1999.
Richards, I.A. Coleridge on Imagination. Routledge & Paul, 1962.
Woolf, Virginia. The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. Heritage Books, 2019.
Wordsworth, William. Lyrical Ballads. Longman, 1815.

Footnotes:
[1] John Beer said of Coleridge (in response to Thomas Carlyle’s description of him as “a mass of richest spices putrefied into a dunghill”) that he was the embodiment of “an aporia, a deadlock between equally demanding, yet essentially irreconcilable, forces”—in the case of Coleridge, these forces are the competing discourses of science and the humanities. See John Beer, Coleridge’s Play of Mind, Chapter 16 (“Questioning Closure”).
[2] Wordsworth’s “Castle of Indolence” stanzas come to mind, wherein STC is described simultaneously as an overgrown child, and as a kind of sage to whom “many did … repair” because “he had inventions rare” (ln. 53-54).
[3] Aside from Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens and Henry James (both cited in Woolf’s essay) also attempted portraits of Coleridge in Bleak House and the short story “The Coxon Fund” respectively.
[4] John Livingston Lowes, The Road to Xanadu (1930).
[5] See, for example, Coleridge’s Assertion of Religion: Essays on the Opus Maximum (2006).

Adam Neikirk is a PhD Candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Essex. His dissertation is entitled “Your Very Own Ecstasy.”

 

Romantic Reimaginings: Luke Howard, Namer of Clouds

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email ebryan@lincoln.ac.uk.

Today on the blog, Tess Somervell explores the resonance of Luke Howard’s writings on clouds.

A contender for the best English Heritage blue plaque in London is that commemorating the chemist and meteorologist Luke Howard (1772-1864), at 7 Bruce Grove, Tottenham. Howard is listed simply as ‘Namer of Clouds’.

In December 1802, Howard gave a lecture to the Askesian Society called the ‘Essay on Clouds’, published the following year as an essay ‘On the Modification of Clouds’. Previously most meteorologists had held that clouds were too transient and variable to classify. But Howard argued that clouds shifted between a limited number of fundamental forms or ‘modifications’, for which he proposed the Latin nomenclature that we still use today: cumulus, cirrus, stratus, nimbus, and their various combinations.

Luke Howard blue plaque. Photo by Acabashi.

Howard’s theory of cloud formation immediately caught the imaginations of Romantic poets and artists: its influence can be seen in Percy Shelley’s 1820 poem ‘The Cloud’ and in the landscape paintings of John Constable. Howard’s cloud terminology has become so familiar that most people who are familiar with the cloud names aren’t aware that they are Romantic inventions. Over the last century, as well as providing titles for paintings, sculptures, and musical and literary compositions, Howard’s cloud names have been repurposed in product branding: you can buy Cumulus and Nimbus running shoes, or a Cirrus Ironing Board.

Portrait of Howard by John Opie

Howard’s essay on clouds, then, is a Romantic text that has been reimagined in varied ways. But from the first, readers were intrigued as much by the figure of Howard himself as by his work. In 1815, Goethe read a German translation of ‘On the Modification of Clouds’ and was stirred by Howard’s method of giving form and order to formless, boundless nature. He wrote a poem ‘In Honour of Howard’ which, before describing the cloud types themselves, begins with lines celebrating the namer of clouds: ‘Howard gives us with his clearer mind / The gain of lessons new to all mankind… As clouds ascend, are folded, scatter, fall, / Let the world think of thee who taught it all.’ (trans. George Soane and Sir John Bowring). Goethe wanted to know more about the man behind the science. He wrote to the British Foreign Office, requesting ‘even the barest outline of Howard’s life… Thus I could see how such a mind took form, and how it was led to view nature in a natural way, give itself over to her, recognize her laws…’ (trans. Douglas Miller) He was delighted when this request was met with a letter from Howard himself, containing a brief autobiography, which Goethe then translated into German and had published.

In recent decades, artists and writers have continued to reimagine Howard as a figure and a personality. Many are just as if not more romanticising in their depiction of Howard as is Goethe’s poem. In his excellent book, Clouds: Nature and Culture, Richard Hamblyn (also Howard’s biographer) lists several works of art that have taken Howard the man, rather than the clouds-as-understood-by-Howard, for their theme. These include Lavinia Greenlaw’s poem ‘What We Can See of the Sky Has Fallen’ (from A World Where News Travelled Slowly) and Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Luke Howard, Namer of Clouds’ (from The Bees). It is telling that both Greenlaw’s and Duffy’s poems draw more from Howard’s memoir letter to Goethe (and also, in Greenlaw’s case, an account of him written by his granddaughter), than from the essay on clouds. In his letter, Howard recalls watching the weather from his bedroom at school, especially the strange weather of 1783 and a dramatic meteor: ‘We were roused from our beds by the intense light it afforded’. Greenlaw echoes but reworks this as ‘A childhood of freak weather – roused from your bed / To see the night lit by a meteor’. Duffy’s account is even more Romantic: ‘Smitten / he stared up evermore; saw / a meteor’s fiery spurt’.

One of the most recent reimaginings of Howard is ‘Namer of Clouds’, the title song of the debut album by folk singer-songwriter Kitty Macfarlane. The song begins with that same image of Howard as a child: ‘A small boy stands / Face pressed to the glass…’ The first half of ‘Namer of Clouds’ celebrates, as did Goethe, Howard’s ability to name and give meaning to an elusive sky. However, in the second half, a note of disturbance enters. ‘How did we become so bold,’ Macfarlane asks, to ‘seize the heavens, claim control’? These lines reverberate to the song’s close, so that the refrain ‘namer of clouds’ assumes an ambivalence. Is naming an act of inspired imagination, as for Goethe, an expression of love, as for Duffy, or is it, as Macfarlane suggests, a way of claiming ownership that may be arrogant, even violent?

It is amusing that Howard has been reimagined so often as a Romantic lone visionary, more closely resembling Wordsworth’s image of Newton as ‘a mind forever / Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone’ than Howard’s portrait of himself in the letter to Goethe: ‘a man of domestic habits and very happy in my family and a few friends’. But romanticising Howard at least reminds us of the human creativity, and the emotional and cultural currents, that underlie seemingly objective scientific theories and terms, in the Romantic period and in any age. Imagining and reimagining the ‘Namer of Clouds’ is a way into thinking about the ethics of observing, analysing, and labelling the natural world.

Works Cited:
– Duffy, Carol Ann. The Bees. Picador, 2011.
– Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Scientific Studies. Ed. and trans. Douglas Miller. Vol. 12 of Collected Works. Princeton University Press, 1996.
– Greenlaw, Lavinia. A World Where News Travelled Slowly. Faber and Faber, 1997.
– Hamblyn, Richard. Clouds: Nature and Culture. Reaktion Books, 2017.
– Macfarlane, Kitty. Namer of Clouds. Navigator Records, 2018.
– Scott, Douglas. Luke Howard (1772-1864): His Correspondence with Goethe and His Continental Journey of 1816. William Sessions Ltd, 1976.

Tess Somervell is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Leeds. Her current project is titled ‘Georgic Climates: Writing the Weather in Eighteenth-Century Poetry’.