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Conference Report: Romanticism Takes to the Hills

The BARS-sponsored conference ‘Romanticism Takes to the Hills’ was held at Edge Hill University on 29 April 2017. The following conference report is by Hannah Britton (University of St Andrews).

 

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‘Romanticists Take to Edge Hill’

 

Location, shadowed by its uncomfortable opposite, dislocation, was at the heart of the one-day ‘Romanticism Takes to the Hills’ conference hosted by Edge Hill University, which took place at the end of April. The gentle word-play of the title (the second in a triad that includes last year’s successful ‘Edgy Romanticism/Romanticism on Edge’ and what I’m reliably informed will be next year’s ‘Romanticism Goes to University’) set the stage for a day that would see Romanticism and its embodied figures climb mountains and scramble back down them (most likely on all fours), travel along the British coastline as well as through the Wye valley, and head to distant shores. Those of us who gathered at Edge Hill’s leafy, out-of-the-way campus came from all over—from the nearby universities of the North-West of England and the Midlands, to the far-flung edges of Scotland (the six-hour journey from St Andrews on the previous day, I think, permits me this liberty), to Denmark, Sweden, Italy, and the United States. Although set in the quiet Lancashire countryside, this was an international conference with an international perspective.

The day opened brilliantly with a keynote from Professor Tim Fulford entitled ‘Beings of Energy: Poets, Geologists and the Science of Mountaineering’. The paper explored the communal culture of enquiry that emerged on the mountainside in the Romantic era between poets and scientists whose experiments and explorations would forge the new science of geology. Tim paid particular attention to the relationship between Sir Humphry Davy and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose shared desire for a scientific practice that would lead to social levelling found voice through, and in, their mountain experiences. Tim was the first of a number of speakers to engage with Coleridge’s (in)famous descent of Broad Stand, a point of return that would remind all present that the mountain sublime of the Romantic era also contains mountain ridiculousness. Coleridge’s letters detailing this feat and other of his mountain excursions were drawn within Tim’s discussion of the idea of the Romantic mountain conversation, a dialogue both of, and on, the mountain. Tim concluded with a thought-provoking look at the poem that perhaps most clearly embodies and explores this idea: Wordsworth’s The Excursion.

The keynote set the tone for a day that would have dialogue at its heart. Not only did epistolary conversations and transcultural exchanges play a leading role in several papers, the communal culture of enquiry that Tim located in the Coleridge/Davy circle was shared by the conference attendees. The inspired choice to arrange the conference room in the style of a seminar, rather than a lecture, fostered the openness of the discussions that were had by all, and of the sense of the day itself as an on-going conversation. The well-timed refreshment breaks enabled conversations to be carried on over revivifying cups of tea and coffee, and I certainly gained as much from these moments of dialogue as from the papers themselves. It should also be noted that the conference catering was excellently done, and I’m sure I won’t be the only person disappointed if the next academic event I attend doesn’t include a specially scheduled break for petit fours…

The first panel of the day explored Romantic travels and travel-writing from the Lakes to the Scottish lochs to the seashores of Britain. Kirsty Anne McHugh’s opening paper examined the experience of the ‘home tour’ through the correspondence of Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Marshall, and the way in which this dialogue sheds light on how the discourse of domestic tourism shaped and defined expectations and experiences on the ground. A real tour of Scotland was followed by an invented tour of the Lakes as Carol Bolton discussed Robert Southey’s 1807 pseudonymous work, Letters from England: By Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, and the poet’s complex response to the influx of ‘Lakers’ and the business of Lake District tourism. Zoë Kinsley’s concluding paper sounded a darker note as it explored the literary representations of lighthouses in Romantic-era travel accounts and uncovered in these narratives anxieties over the liminal lives of the lighthouse-men and their troubling existence outside the boundaries of culture and society.

The second panel imaginatively transported the conference from Britain to Denmark with three papers that considered the place of Denmark in British Romanticism and the importance of place in Danish Romanticism. Cian Duffy opened the panel with a discussion of the changing place of Denmark—and Copenhagen in particular—in the cultural imagination of Romantic-era Britain. In responses to the two British attacks on Copenhagen in 1801 and 1807, Cian traced the rise and fall of a sense of cultural fraternity between Britain and Denmark that centred upon a shared ‘northern’ identity, in opposition to the Napoleonic ‘south’. Both Robert Rix and Lis Møller went deeper into the topography of Denmark itself in their corresponding explorations of the way in which specific sites—both real and imaginary—were invested (or re-invested) with a sense of national identity, with Robert focusing on domestic travel-writing and Lis on the revival of the Danish ballad tradition.

Panel Three continued the focus on Romanticism beyond the geographical borders of Britain, and the figures of the exile, the migrant, and the stranger set a new tone for the ongoing discussion about travel and place writing. Val Derbyshire’s opening paper examined the marginal space of the text in relation to the marginalised place of the author-in-exile, as she unpacked the complex gender dynamics present in Charlotte Smith’s translation of Manon L’Escaut. Gioia Angeletti extended the discussion about edges and peripheral spaces in her exploration of colonial discourse and transcultural negotiations in the poetry of John Leyden and Thomas Pringle. Gioia examined the ways in which a changed geography resulted in a refashioning of identity for Leyden in India and Pringle in South Africa, and considered the complex expression of otherness and in-betweenness in each poet’s verse. Julia Coole rounded off the panel with a paper on Washington Irving’s experience of being a quasi-outsider in England, as expressed in his phenomenally successful The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon (1819), and suggested that Irving’s liminal position enabled him to create space for American writing and writers within the British literary and cultural landscape.

In a fitting conclusion to the day, the final panel looked to new approaches and methodologies for engaging with the ideas of place and space in Romanticism. Brennan Sadler opened up the vast potential of the digital humanities for teaching and research as she walked the conference attendees through her own digital scholarly edition of ‘Tintern Abbey’, which importantly enables the reader with no personal experience of the Wye Valley to engage with the poem in its locational context. This was followed by Sean Nolan’s nuanced exploration of moments in Coleridge’s poetry of dejection in which the poet’s psychic landscape may be mapped onto a physical topography, and how such affective mapping sheds light on Coleridge’s experience of acedia. The final paper, given jointly by Joanna Taylor and Christopher Donaldson, continued the theme of mapping in its demonstration of the use of Geographical Information Systems in reading Romantic accounts of climbing Scafell. Having begun the conference thinking about mountain climbing and mountain poetics, it was appropriate that Joanna and Chris brought us full circle in their exploration of the physical geography of the mountain and the alternative geographies and cartographies of the text.

A BARS-sponsored wine reception, held in the rooftop garden of the Business School, was the perfect coda to an inspiring day of scholarship—a suggestive reminder that for us, as for the Romantics, dialogue matters and it matters where that dialogue takes place.

 

– Hannah Britton, University of St Andrews