In the second of our pieces following on from Romantic Locations, Anna Fleming, of the University of Leeds, reflects on the conference and its aftermath.
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Over three days, thoughts on the Romantic conception of place were explored from within perhaps the most Romantic of locations: Dove Cottage, in the heart of the Lake District. Papers addressed the relationship between different authors and particular locations. From the Wordsworths’ process of making Grasmere a home, to continental tours, literary tourism, and the history of mountaineering, the papers were wide-ranging and probing. Alongside the stimulating discussions, the place itself provided the opportunity to directly experience a location in which Romantic ideas and poems were composed. (A candlelit drinks reception in the cottage itself certainly added to my sense of how the Wordsworths inhabited that space!) Jeff Cowton, curator of the Wordsworth Trust, treated us to a glimpse of some physical treasures from the archive, including manuscripts by Dorothy Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I then found many of the ideas raised in the conference were played out in the wider ‘Romantic location’ when I left the conference to explore another part of the Lake District with some mountaineering friends.
The walks we did on Saturday and Sunday elaborated upon the difference between the sublime and picturesque which emerged as a debate during the conference. On Saturday, icy winds brought frequent batterings of snow and hail as we headed to the summit of Dale Head. This was far from a picturesque experience. Visibility was reduced to a few metres in the cold damp clouds, and one was guarded, watching each step whilst cautiously navigating and guzzling snatches of flapjack for sustenance. Yet during this onslaught there were stunning moments – times when the cloud shifted, sunshine appeared and you became aware of neighbouring mountains, suggesting the immense region you were part of even whilst all was obscured within the clouds’ embrace.
There were also weirdly disorienting experiences. As a blizzard blew across the ridge, I looked ahead and saw two black birds, perhaps crows or ravens, hopping along side by side. I thought how strange it was for birds to move like that, together, but perhaps the severity of the conditions had caught them. I then realised they were not birds nearby, but humans far away. The authority of vision was suddenly subverted, giving me an appreciation of the way in which knowledge is based on perception – and that it can be entirely misled. This felt like a version of the threshold experience, outlined in a conference paper on Keats’ poetry, as I crossed into a new suspicion of the things I assumed I know.
Sunday, on the other hand, was a beautiful day of blue skies and sunshine, untroubled by bewildering experiences. The cold air and snow on higher fells made distant peaks stand out in a panorama of clear scenery. This was certainly closer to the picturesque version of the Lakes, yet the prevailing wind and the patches of deep, wet, cold bog on our route once again impeded a purely luxurious pleasure in the surroundings. These bogs gave rise to a more performative use of mountain space, demanding some bold leaps to avoid a foot drenching before the long journey back to the city.
Underlying many different reflections at the conference on the Romantic engagement with place was the role of a guide: a person or a text that introduces you to unknown surroundings and helps you to find your way in that physical or intellectual terrain. In my explorations this weekend, I found myself indebted to the maps I was carrying, one from the Ordnance Survey and others in the process of being charted by a new generation of Romantic scholars.