‘The Death of Keats’: An Immersive Video Story from the Keats-Shelley House narrated by Bob Geldof premiering 23 February 6.30 pm
This February the Keats-Shelley House will commemorate the bicentenary of John Keats’s death with the release of two immersive video experiences, both of them collaborations with legendary rock star, philanthropist, and Keats-Shelley200 Ambassador Bob Geldof.
On 23 February, the bicentenary of Keats’s death in Rome, we’ll premiere ‘The Death of Keats’ narrated by Bob Geldof. This will be an innovative immersive video story which is best enjoyed with a VR headset but fully accessible without. Recounting, through readings from letters, Keats’s trip to Italy, his time in the House, and his death, this will be the first in a series of video stories from the Keats-Shelley House to mark the bicentenaries of Keats’s and Shelley’s deaths.
Also, don’t miss the Immersive Video Tour of the Keats-Shelley House with Bob Geldof which will premiere on 8 February.
From 23 February it will also be possible to take your own Panoramic Tour of the Keats-Shelley House with a Live Guide.
1) How did you come to realise you wanted to write a book on Shelley’s poetics of reticence?
The ideas for this project began in my MA thesis; particularly through an analysis of the ending of Julian and Maddalo: A Conversation, which has its own chapter in this book. It occurred to me that Julian withholds things from the reader in the poem’s closing lines – ‘I urged and questioned still, she told me how/ All happened – but the cold world shall not know’, because he is ashamed. Julian attempts to formulate a psychological “theory” which would explain and soften the “maniac’s” experience of unrequited love, but stalls at the moment he imagines the bathos that may follow. This prompts the question, is Julian ashamed for attempting to too simply explain the Maniac’s life or for failing to adequately explain it? My thinking went on to focus on the more abstract aspects Shelley’s use of reticence to mark such complex moments of self-doubt. My PhD thesis examined how moments of narratological omission and reserve make the reader more aware of his or her interpretative responsibility to engage with or resolve strategic gaps which indirectly figure what Shelley saw as alternative versions of ‘the poet’. Shame was never far away though, as I also argued that Shelley’s poems, by destabilising their own processes, produce dynamic intersubjective experience that work upon the reader’s sense of shame. The viva voce process made me realise that shame needed to take centre stage once more, as it became clear to me that reticence marked moments of complex, philosophical shame, where the Subject was made to confront its own failings. I came back to the idea of connecting Shelley’s desire for self-transcendence to a historicism which attempted to imagine the future, rather than the contemporary, reader who might resolve, even exculpate, the reticence of the past. And it is shame which best describes both Shelley’s self-transcendence and his historicism: shame, because it is so often objectless, is like poetry without a contemporary audience. It is only in being responsible for an unknown future audience, by making one’s present language rich enough, that we can rationalise our failings, our unfinished projects of the self, and our desire to have these exonerated.
2) You argue that shame is a crucial theme in Shelley’s poetry. What qualities define his conception of what is shameful?
When Shelley uses the word ‘shame’ it indexes forms of psychological self-division used to justify violence or hatred towards others, as well as inert self-denigration. More importantly, what is implicitly present in his oeuvre is an overriding sense that shame is simultaneously merited by and corrective of situations where one remains trapped in one’s own existential and historical immanence. He felt ashamed when he felt he failed to communicate his own enthusiasms in a philosophically productive and democratising way. But it is in the development of a sense of shame that Shelley grounds his optimism for the future, because shame is its own recuperation. The importance of values that one has failed to advance are reaffirmed by the consequent regret the feeling of shame engenders. Hence, shame becomes the affect which accompanies Shelley’s tortuous anxieties that a poetry with high philosophical aspirations might become either not prophetic enough in its bold untimeliness, or, conversely, too involved in diagnosing its immediate historical concerns.
3) How did you select the works the main run of chapters focus on (these include Alastor, The Cenci,Julian and Maddalo, ‘A Defence of Poetry’ with Shelley’s odes and Adonais, the Jane poems and The Triumph of Life)? Are there further Shelley poems that you’d be interested in extending the book’s lines of analysis to in further work?
My choice of texts aimed to identify moments in Shelley’s work where anxieties about the nature and status of ‘the poet’ are most acute. I wanted to pinpoint moments where feelings of being limited and trapped by historical and ideological modes were used to produce awareness of the inherently divided nature of consciousness: yearning both to consolidate and to expand the self. I wanted to show the richest examples of where reticence acts as an affective marker of and incitement to experiencing the various shames sustained by Shelley, his characters, and, most importantly, his readers. Shame is not overtly present, thematically or affectively, in all of the texts I examine. But my aim has been to show how shame, and sensitivity to shame and shamefulness, allowed Shelley to navigate interpersonal, metaphysical and political situations which blur straightforward antitheses between benevolence and aggression, self-destruction and self-respect. Though not as consistently reticent as some of his texts, I would consider extending this line of analysis to Epipsychidion. Shelleyan shame, as I define it, could be said to model a version of Platonic desire which seeks to inveigle its object (the reader) by presenting them with their own ability to be sensitive to shame; I think such a dynamic is at work in this text.
4) In introducing the book, you contend that ‘Shelley’s poet-figures yearn to transcend their historical moment but also attest to its particularity’. For you, what aspects of Shelley’s poetry and philosophy travel best from his moment to ours?
I feel that Shelley tries to de-centre the Subject in ways which speak both to the post-structural and the more recent affective and ecological moment. A key part of my argument about Shelley’s shame is that it is activated by moments when thinking and feeling become too defined by essences, and essentialist thinking. I have used an existentialist and Marxist vocabulary to explicate this type of critique, but I think there are other critical vocabularies which use reticence as forms of resistance that could be productively used with Shelley. Connections between Adorno’s thought and Shelley’s have been noted before, and I think this is a helpful dialogue for addressing the ways that Shelley wanted to hold thinking to account whilst not insisting upon self-identicality. This also perhaps explains most clearly Shelley’s desire to value and love historical and personal particularities whilst attempting to cleanse them of ideological corruption. I think Shelley’s insistent linkage of Love and metaphysics has not until recently translated particularly well to our time. But this is changing rapidly due to the scholarly interest in ecocriticism, affect theories, the influence of Lucretius on Romantic metaphysics, and the brilliant work of Richard C. Sha, who has drawn out the close connections of mental and material conceptions of ‘force’ in Romantic literature. There is also a need to quiet or transcend the ego in Shelley’s work which, I think, resonates with the ethical (and for many, spiritual) self-awareness of our time. Shame can accompany such meditations; but this is not a linear experience that proceeds smoothly from deprecation to redemption, but an affective moment of pause and self-accounting.
5) What new projects are you currently working on?
I am currently working on an essay which reads Shelley’s lyric A Magnetic Lady to Her Patient alongside Sara Ahmed’s theory of affects which “stick” to bodies (The Cultural Politics of Emotion). I use this dialogue to explore the erotic potential of both Shelley’s lyric and Ahmed’s theory and consider how a theory of affective “stickiness” might challenge Roland Barthes’ influential notion that erotic textual pleasure is defined by inference and suggestion, rather than by the representation of “erogenous zones.” This research may develop into a larger project examining Shelley’s and Keats’ erotic poetics and the way erotic experience attempts to bridge the gap between the psyche and the senses.
Anna MercerComments Off on BARS Digital Events: ‘Burns Night Supper’ Recording Now Online
The Burns Supper is a tradition with its roots in the Romantic period. BARS Digital Events was delighted to host some virtual entertainments at a Burns Supper on Zoom – celebrating Scottish Romanticism with an interdisciplinary excursus on whisky production in the Romantic period. Watch online now if you missed it!
With thanks to the excellent speakers: Andrew McInnes (Edge Hill University); Gerard Carruthers (Glasgow University); Darroch Bratt (University of the Highlands and Islands); Ainsley McIntosh (Editor of the Edinburgh Edition of Walter Scott’s Poetry); James Kelly (University of Exeter); Zayneb Allak (Edge Hill University).
1) How did you come to realise you wanted to write a book on the nexus between Classics, Sinology and Romanticism?
At first I thought I had set aside classical reception, a focus of my earlier research, in favour of Chinese culture, which had long been a personal interest and which led me to Singapore as a postdoc. But the Anglophone texts I read on Chinese subjects kept alluding to Graeco-Roman antiquity in a number of ways. It seemed inadequate to me that existing theories of how the West gazes at the East disregarded the fact that there is intervening matter which informs or distorts views of the other culture. There was a story to tell about how Anglophone writers constructed visions of China from imaginative materials sourced in (say) Aeschylus’ universe alongside those from the Qing Empire. Wanting to tell that story involved a series of triangulations which were enjoyable and rewarding to work on, such as that between Macartney Embassy narratives, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, and Edward Gibbon’s TheHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; and W.B. Yeats’s ‘Lapis Lazuli’, Matthew Arnold’s Empedocles on Etna, and a Chinese stone inscribed with a poem by the Qianlong Emperor.
2) Why did Anglophone writers default to classical precedents when seeking to explain encounters with China, and which Greek and Roman works did they use most commonly in their attempts?
To the likes of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, classics was the master-knowledge. Graeco-Roman antiquity offered paradigms of what art and culture should (supposedly) be, historical precedents for diplomatic encounters, narratives which could be used as frameworks to explore important themes, and a set of familiar touchstones which might introduce unfamiliar ideas by analogy. At times, writers used classics to negotiate Chinese topics that were simultaneously international news and personally significant. For example, both Sara Coleridge and Tennyson invoked Homer and Lucretius in considerations of the opium crisis which were intensified by their families’ experiences of addiction: reimagining those problems in classical universes appears to allow the authors perspective.
At the height of Victorian imperialism, Virgil’s Aeneid was the dominant classical presence in Anglophone writing on China, largely because Britain became obsessed with empire and the perceived Roman inheritance. But earlier literature on Chinese themes drew from a wider range of ancient works. In Lamia – a poem with peculiar Chinese connections – Keats’s interest in Apollonius of Tyana ensued attention to early church history in Gibbon and others. Charles Lamb’s reinvention of Porphyry’s tale as Chinese in ‘Roast Pig’ followed citations of that philosopher in debates on vegetarianism. Such textual range reflects the diversification of classics during the Romantic period, although I suggest too that offbeat or eccentric classical figures corresponded with Keats’s and Lamb’s feelings of marginality in relation to the elitism of classical studies.
3) Did the extent to which Anglophone writers relied on classical lenses to interpret China diminish over the course of the period you examine, or were the interactions you perceive more complex?
Broadly, as Sinology advanced, classics was used in more sophisticated considerations of Chinese culture rather than disappearing from the discussion. Tennyson’s ‘The Ancient Sage’ (1885), one of the later texts studied in the book, is a response to Laozi’s Dao De Jing, which Tennyson read in translation. Framed as a Socratic dialogue, the poem attempts to encapsulate the ideal Daoist life in a set of quasi-Semitic commandments, and wonders whether the sage’s professed knowledge of a universal substance amounts to an Augustinian experience of faith. It’s a long way from the eighteenth-century accounts of Chinese culture which say tersely that ancestral tablets are the same as Roman household-gods.
But classical presences persisted in Anglophone treatments of China for other reasons too. For instance, a narrative arose about the Willow pattern which was reiterated in poems and musicals. These claimed that the Willow narrative was an ancient Chinese tale. The source for this story of transformation is actually Metamorphoses – but Ovid was neglected for much of the nineteenth century, which I suspect is one reason why the origin of the Willow narrative went unnoticed.
4) Was the use of classical works to frame China inevitably occlusive, or did classical mediations sometimes provide a framework for genuine cultural interchange?
It could prove occlusive at times. If you read John Barrow’s account of China you’ll find that he dismisses Daoism by repeating Jean-Baptiste Du Halde’s claim that it’s mere Epicureanism. From such neat associations you can see why Anglophone scholars were dissuaded from taking Chinese spirituality seriously until the Baptist translators who followed some decades later. Yet rich dialogues were possible too. The Chinese diplomat Zeng Jize authored a famous English-language essay about the destruction of the Summer Palace at the hands of Anglo-French soldiers in 1860. As a figure for China’s political weakness he mentions the fallen Saturn, which I suggest is taken from Keats. Although the image was probably supplied by Zeng’s assistant with the essay, Samuel Halliday Macartney – who was related to the early ambassador – it’s evidence that Graeco-Roman antiquity came to be seen as a means to mediate Sino-British relations from the Chinese side too. Accordingly, modern debate about the possible repatriation of treasures taken from the Summer Palace is interrelated with that on the Parthenon Sculptures.
5) What new projects are you currently working on?
I’m looking more specifically at Anglophone receptions of Daoism. This develops my contribution to a special issue of The Wordsworth Circle on Romantic Asia, and involves not only translations of Chinese texts, but Western encounters with inner alchemy and the Daoist quest for immortality. With Willa Murphy I’m editing a volume on Religion for the Cambridge University Press series Cambridge Themes in Irish Literature and Culture. I’m involved in CNSCI, a research consortium that unites Monash, Durham, McGill, Aarhus, and other institutions, and am exploring ways to collaborate on my projects internationally and perhaps to establish new research networks.
Come and see The Collected Works of Allan Ramsay team as they discuss the editions they are working on, and what has surprised them about the research so far. The Principal Investigator, Professor Murray Pittock, also provides some insight into his inspiration for the project. Finally, Dr Craig Lamont and Dr Brianna Robertson-Kirkland discuss some of the public engagement activities we have been involved in including the recent exhibition at the National Library of Scotland and the annual Allan Ramsay Festival.
1) How did you first become interested in ephemera?
I would date this interest to how as a child I used to pore over a shoebox filled with documents from the First World War preserved by a relative, such as crumbling newspapers, drill manuals, guides to useful French phrases, and field service postcards asking you to mark phrases as appropriate such as ‘I am quite well’. (Luckily this material was eventually given to the local museum). In researching my first book The Theatres of War, I was reliant on ephemeral material such as playbills, posters, newspaper clippings, caricatures, etc. but it was only much later that I became interested in how that material had been preserved, often in named collections. For example, Sarah Sophia Banks’s collection on private theatricals which included material on military theatricals was very important to The Theatres of War but it was only much later that I became interested in Banks as a collector.
Another important influence was my involvement in events associated with the return from Canada to Australia in 2007 of the earliest document to be printed in Australia which is a playbill for a performance in Sydney of Nicholas Rowe’s tragedy Jane Shore in 1796. This experience led me to think more about the playbill in general and also about how institutional contexts shape the meaning of a document, in this case investing a fragile scrap of paper with national historical significance. As a result of my work on sociability, I was also interested in how ephemera such as tickets and playbills can be a way of accessing eighteenth-century consciousness of the ephemerality of sociable life. The fact that some tickets were virtual art objects is a sign of investments in the uniqueness of particular social occasions that might otherwise be missed in the historical record.
2) What do you think are the most important things we miss when we confine book history to books? How does examining ephemera help to address this gap in our understanding?
To be fair to book historians they have argued for a long time that we shouldn’t confine book history to the study of the codex-form book. The importance of ephemera as part of the spectrum of print has been recognised by doyens of book history such as D. F. McKenzie and Michael Harris. Peter Stallybrass and James Raven have also drawn attention to the importance of jobbing print. The reasons why printed ephemera hasn’t featured more in book history have been because of assumptions, created by the category itself, that not much of it survived and also because we lack the descriptive tools and methodologies by which to analyse it. Cataloguing protocols influenced by the codex-form book that are focused on author, title, publisher, and date of publication are not easily applicable to e.g. a playbill or advertising handbills. TheEighteenth-Century Short Title Catalogue project in the late 1970s actually excluded playbills and other kinds of ephemera relating to sociability because a) there was too much of it and b) it was difficult to describe. Digitisation has been transformative in making the existence of collections of printed ephemera and their contents more visible. When I began the project in the early 2010s, for example, the only way to access Sarah Sophia Banks’s vast collection in the British Museum was to go to the Department of Prints and Drawings. Now a lot of what she collected is available to view online. Digitisation is no replacement for the ‘real thing’ though, as I explore in the book in relation to the 1796 Sydney playbill.
3) In what ways would you see the ephemeral eighteenth century as differing from the ephemeral seventeenth century and the ephemeral nineteenth century?
Not surprisingly, in the light of my affiliation, I see the ephemeral eighteenth century as being very long. I argue that there’s a remarkable continuity in the kind of ephemeral material collected by individuals from the 1640s to the 1860s. Ephemeral print expanded and diversified as technology changed, for example in the use of larger type for posters in the early nineteenth century, but what printed ephemera could do, in terms of publicizing and recording quotidian life in the form of print to the moment remained consistent between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Indeed, you could say that the ephemeral eighteenth century is still with us in the form of the ephemerality of social media, as well as the survival of the printed notice that has played a significant role in marking the experience of lockdowns in 2020-21.
4) Studying ephemera is complicated both due to the potential scale of the kinds of materials that could be considered and due to the rarity and particularities of survivals. How did you come to locate and select the forms of ephemera you focus on in your chapter (Sarah Sophia Banks’s collections, playbills, visiting cards, the print surrounding frost fairs)?
The main challenge I faced in writing the book was how to communicate the breadth and diversity of printed ephemera and the significance of the work of collectors in amassing this material. My initial plan was to focus on Sarah Sophia Banks but I gradually realised that a) there was too much in her collecting to cover and b) I wanted to convey the fact that she wasn’t the crazy eccentric that she’s sometimes represented as, but rather part of a tradition of popular antiquarianism going back to the seventeenth century. (Marilyn Butler’s work on popular antiquarianism was very helpful in that respect). I deal with the tip of the tip of the iceberg of Banks’s collecting, focusing on particular items and subjecting them to techniques of close reading that we use in literary analysis. I see the book as laying the groundwork for future study in this field e.g. in relation to how imaginative literature, particularly the novel, incorporates and remediates printed ephemera. I address this in the book in relation to Edgeworth and Austen.
5) What new projects are you currently working on?
I’ve been interested in Charles and Mary Lamb for a number of years and am beginning to work on an edition of Lamb’s Specimens for the Oxford University Press edition, helmed by Greg Dart. Also, I haven’t finished with ephemera. I’m planning a project on collectors of ephemera in Yorkshire and Scotland and down the track I’d like to do some work on printed ephemera in Irish history.
Anna MercerComments Off on Report from the North West Long Nineteenth Century Seminar on the theme of ‘Melmoth’s Afterlives’.
The North West Long Nineteenth Century Seminar takes place at Manchester Metropolitan University (Manchester Met). This year it has hosted a special seminar on the theme of ‘Melmoth’s Afterlives’ as part of a series of online events to celebrate the bicentenary of C. R. Maturin’s novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), supported by generous funding from the Keats-Shelley Association of America and the Byron Society of America’s ‘Romantic Bicentennials’ initiative. The seminar involved contributions from postgraduates, early career researchers and established academics, and was organised by Sonja Lawrenson, Matt Foley and Emma Liggins.
The ‘Melmoth’s Afterlives’ series seeks to explore the lasting influence that Melmoth has had on the Gothic mode and the ways in which the novel’s titular figure, and the Wandering Jew figure in general, have been re-animated by a variety of writers from the nineteenth century until today. The potency of Melmoth is evidenced in homages such as Honoré de Balzac’s Melmoth Reconciled (1835), Oscar Wilde’s moniker ‘Sebastian Melmoth’ and Sarah Perry’s 2018 novel, Melmoth, to name but a few.
The UK’s second coronavirus lockdown made an online presentation of this year’s seminar a necessity. While attendees may have been secure in their own domestic spaces rather than in the cells, subterranean vaults and isolated islands of Maturin’s gothic imagination, this online presentation offered an ideal atmosphere to consider a novel that revels in themes of detachment and isolation. For this research seminar an international trio of leading and early career scholars presented papers that evaluated afterlives of Melmoth from the nineteenth century onwards. Dr James Kelly (University of Exeter) opened with a paper titled ‘’The love of fame, the hope of profit, the vacuity of idlesness’: Maturin, Melmoth and Romantic authorship.’ Princeton’s Colin N. Azariah-Kribbs discussed the concept of curiosity as compulsion in the paper ‘Curiosity, Suffering, and Narrative in Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer’. The seminar concluded with Professor Lisa-Lampert Weissig’s presentation of the paper ‘Melmoth and the Wandering Jew Tradition’.
Opening the seminar, Dr James Kelly discussed the moral and financial connotations of Maturin’s gothic output. Establishing the importance of Ireland as the country in which Maturin’s novel was forged, this social and historical background was valuable when assessing the critical responses to Melmoth the Wanderer following its publication. Kelly’s paper examined the bifurcated nature of Maturin as an Irish Protestant clergyman, on the one hand, and writer of gothic literature that was perceived as blasphemous and nihilistic, on the other. By describing how Maturin had to disavow the shocking content of Melmoth’s fictional oratory, Kelly reminded us of how Oscar Wilde was similarly forced to defend certain passages in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) during his trial for gross indecency in 1895. Questioning if Maturin’s emphasis on theatre is linked to his Irishness, Kelly went on to outline the importance of oratory when assessing the power of Melmoth’s entreaties within Melmoth the Wanderer. It was noted here that Maturin’s novel undercut certain Romantic idealisations of the author figure, questioning the nature of gothic authorship as one in which writers may be more detached from the moral implications of their narratives. Kelly discussed how Maturin seemed proud to class himself as a playwright, a notion evidenced by the fact he referred to himself as the creator of the play Bertram; or the castle of St. Aldobrand (1816) in many of his prefaces. Such avowals point to a desire to distance himself somewhat from this authorship of Melmoth the Wanderer. By scrutinising the multi-faceted nature of Maturin’s authorship Kelly’s paper demonstrated the ways in which writers like Maturin were often torn between commercial and moral motives when producing tales of gothic dread. Describing how Maturin himself was often conflated with his most famous character, Kelly’s paper allowed for an interesting discussion upon authorship and Melmoth’s lasting influence on European Romanticism, as attendees pondered whether a text like Melmoth the Wanderer can ever be independent of its author.
Colin N. Azariah-Kribbs’ paper ‘Curiosity, Suffering, and Narrative in Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer’ was able to pinpoint myriad important instances of curiosity within the narrative, illustrating how the motivation of curiosity is a fundamental aspect of the novel. The paper presented the character John Melmoth in an interesting new light, defining him as not just the titular Melmoth’s great nephew but an ‘avid consumer of narrative’ and the driving force behind the piecing together of all of the novel’s disparate tales. From here Azariah-Kribbs was able to discuss certain tendencies towards narrative consumption and a striving towards greater knowledge, allowing them to chart the ways in which certain characters are drawn into cycles of suffering. Interestingly, the paper defined Melmoth himself as a figure lacking the passion of curiosity and Azariah-Kribbs followed this assessment by suggested that while Maturin uses curiosity as a perilous and destructive force a lack of it can come with its own perils. The paper’s argument upheld that suffering brought about by curiosity cannot be fully comprehended in the novel where a sense of amorality seems to pervade all. While Azariah-Kribbs’ presentation upheld Melmoth the Wanderer as a culmination of observing curiosity in the gothic it also shrewdly emphasised the inherent amorality of Maturin’s brand of curiosity.
The final paper ‘Melmoth and the Wandering Jew Tradition’ saw Lisa Lampert-Weissig, Professor of English and Comparative Medieval Studies (University of California, San Diego) present a detailed historical contextualisation of the Wandering Jew Legend. Enhanced by a slideshow containing various historical illustrations, Lampert-Weissig began by outlining how the legend was borne. As a supposed witness to the crucifixion of Christ the Wandering Jew has been interpreted as a cursed (and sacrificial) figure by a variety of writers. This paper sought to expose the complex strands that have been woven into the Wandering Jew tradition over the centuries as writers and artists have re-imagined notions of eternal life. By discussing the differences in Jewish and Christian readings of this figure the paper offered valuable insight into how certain gothic writers may have been influenced by earlier incarnations of the Wandering Jew, a figure that can be read here as a proto-Melmoth, addled by negative medieval representations of the Jew and once synonymous with apocalyptic prophecy and threat. Lampert-Weissig’s chronological approach to representing the multi-cultural iterations of the legend meant that the audience had a clear idea of this symbolic figure’s roots and evolution. The paper explored the ‘development’ of the Wandering Jew legend during the long nineteenth century when its popularity rivalled that of the Faust Legend. Wandering Jew characters of this era were used to represent more generalised human suffering. Composers, artists and writers purloined it resulting in a popularity that often led to the Jewish elements of the wanderer’s identity fading. While presenting a series of nineteenth century artworks depicting the Wandering Jew, including etchings by French artist Paul Gustave Doré and Polish painter Samuel Hirszenberg, Lamper-Weissig discussed conflicting uses of the legend. With the horrors of the Second World War in mind, the audience saw each slide speak to the mounting sense of danger and fear that became enmeshed with representations of the Wandering Jew. Offering a powerful and historically intriguing background to Maturin’s Melmoth character, Lamper-Weissig’s discussions encouraged a fascinating post-paper debate. Many of the themes discussed in the Q&As were pertinent to the following week’s seminar with Sarah Perry whose 2018 novel re-imagines Melmoth as a female wanderer and witness, proving once more that it is the fate of Melmoth to live on.
As we said goodbye, shut down our computers and looked forward to the next seminar, I was reminded of how Melmoth’s gothic presence was so portable, shifting between countries as he sought his victims. This sense of gothic globe-trotting extended to the research seminar itself with contributors and attendees from all over the world. That the online nature of the event allowed better access to a host of global perspectives reminds us that even in uncertain times we can benefit from new ways of expanding our knowledge of the Gothic.
Plenary Speakers: Prof. Deidre Lynch, Harvard University and Prof. Alison Lumsden, University of Aberdeen
In the 250th year since the birth of Walter Scott the University of Edinburgh, his alma mater, will host a conference on his work and global legacy. Proposals for papers or panels on any aspect of his writing, collecting, or curation of his estate at Abbotsford are invited. Particularly welcome will be those which address Scott’s understanding of the historical landscape, the interrelation of human societies and their environment, and landscape as both aesthetic and economic resource.
Given the continuing uncertainty over international travel due to the pandemic, and (in harmony with the environmental element of its theme) our concern to limit the carbon footprint of our conference, it will be held in a hybrid format, with contributors participating either in Edinburgh or online. All contributors, whether present in Edinburgh or not, will record their papers as audio or video files, and these will be available for participants to view before or during the conference. Discussion of these papers will take place in the afternoon and early evening among those physically present and those joining us by video conferencing.
Proposals will be accepted on a rolling basis and should be sent to the organiser, Robert Irvine, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Join Keats House on the last Friday of the month for a wide-ranging and light-hearted discussion on matters poetic, literary and cultural.
‘The Feast of the Poets’ was a poem written by Leigh Hunt, first published in 1811. The poem took a satirical swipe at poets good and bad and was later republished along with an introduction and notes, speculating on the future reputations of what became the British Romantic Poets. Join us on the last Friday of the month for a wide-ranging and light-hearted discussion ‘from a principle of taste’ to help us decide who should feast with Apollo and Artemis and who should be turned to stone.
Joining Rob Shakespeare (Principal Curator, Keats House) this month will be:
Ian Haywood (Professor of English at the University of Roehampton and working with Keats House to support a TECHNE funded research student placement); and
Anna Mercer (Lecturer in English Literature at Cardiff University who has also been working with Keats House to support the Keats200 project); and
Laila Sumpton (poet and current Keats House Poet in Residence, working on ‘Poetry versus Colonialism’, looking at the colonial histories of the Keats House collections).
I love birthdays, especially my own. Although last year’s celebrations were non-existent due to Covid, generally I indulge in a week-long round of drinks and dinners and general frolics, using the birthday as an excuse to try and see everyone I care about. The older I get, the more excited I am to see the next birthday come around (I’ve already started planning my 40th, and that’s not for another 5 years!)
However, inexplicably, many people do not enjoy birthdays. Lord Byron is a classic example of this, and never more so than on the occasion of his 33rd birthday, 200 years ago today.
Shortly before midnight on the 21st of January 1821, Byron notes in his journal that ‘in twelve minutes, I shall have completed thirty and three years of age!!!’ Writing of his ‘heaviness of heart’, Byron does not seem to have been overly happy at the prospect, and decides to go to bed and sulk. A few minutes later, however, and he is back at his journal having heard the clock strike midnight. These chimes announce that he is ‘now thirty-three!’, a melancholy signal inspiring Byron to scrawl a quote from Horace, ‘Eheu, fugaces, Posthume, Posthume, / Labuntur anni’ [Alas, O Postumus, Postumus, the years glide swiftly by] (Ode 2.14).
He continues in this gloomy vein, dashing off a deeply dismal little squib which offers a clear indication of his unenthusiastic state of mind:
Through life’s road, so dim and dirty, I have dragged to three-and-thirty. What have these years left to me? Nothing – except thirty-three.
The next entry is even more lugubrious, as the poet glumly envisions an epitaph (complete with a scribbled outline of a sort of gravestone):
1821. Here lies interred in the Eternity of the Past, from whence there is no Resurrection for the Days ― whatever there may be for the Dust ― the Thirty-Third Year, of an Ill-spent Life, Which, after A lingering disease of many months, sunk into a lethargy, and expired, January 22nd, 1821, A.D. Leaving a successor Inconsolable for the very loss which occasioned its Existence.
In these lines, Byron offers an intriguing image of the debauched ‘Thirty-Third Year’ dying of its excesses (‘sunk into a lethargy, / and expired’) and leaving the Thirty-Fourth year as its lonely ‘successor’. The past 365 ‘Days’ are dead and gone, never to be remembered without remorse; and while man’s rotting carcass might be resurrected by a lenient deity, the time wasted in the course of an ‘Ill-spent Life’ cannot be redeemed or revived. Yet, the markedly mournful tone is characteristically undercut by a wry gleam of levity in the humorous image of the newly birthed Thirty-Fourth year slumped in despair at the grave of its dissipated predecessor, rendered foolishly ‘Inconsolable’ not only by the ‘very loss which / occasioned its / Existence’ but also by the thought of having to endure another such year of degenerate excess.
Byron’s dislike of birthdays, and despondency each year as yet another one loomed, is well known. (On his thirty-sixth birthday he writes with an almost gleeful morbidity of his ‘funeral pile’, a splenetic outlook that was unfortunately proved eerily prescient three months later). This gloomy stance was intensified by the poet’s melancholic disposition and a susceptibility to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), rendering dark wet Januarys particularly difficult. However, in later years personal vanity, as much as depression, undoubtedly play a part in the moody poetry Byron produced each birthday.
In 1818, he bemoans the fact that ‘now at thirty years my hair is grey’ and looks fearfully ahead to when he is ‘forty’ and must wear a wig (‘peruke’) to conceal his bald pate. This was not an isolated occurrence. Byron was increasingly obsessed with his appearance, especially after his scandalous separation from his wife and ignominious retreat from England’s shores in early 1816.
Shortly after arriving on the Continent, he writes to his sister Augusta Leigh about his white hairs, rotting teeth and extra poundage, concerned that he looks older than his years:
My hair is growing grey, & not thicker; & my teeth are sometimes looseish though still white & sound. Would not one think I was sixty instead of not quite nine & twenty?
(BLJ, 5, 120)
This conviction intensified in the coming years. In 1822, Byron is agonising over Bartolini’s bust to his publisher John Murray, worrying that it makes him look ancient and gloomily prognosticating his imminent demise:
Bartolini’s is dreadful – though my mind misgives me that it is hideously like. If it is – I can not be long for this world – for it overlooks seventy.
(BLJ, 9, 213)
A year later, and Lady Blessington records Byron’s seemingly endless discussions about his encroaching decrepitude. ‘To hear Byron talk of himself’, she writes cattily, ‘one would suppose that instead of thirty-six he was sixty years old’ (Lady Blessington’s Conversations of Lord Byron, 229).
Despite merrily claiming to be over one hundred years old in one hotel guestbook in Geneva, as he left his twenties behind Byron undoubtedly grew increasingly sensitive about his age and appearance – particularly when people assumed he was much older than he was. And many people did think he looked old for his years. In 1818, on visiting the poet in Venice, Newton Hanson (who had known Byron since his youth), cruelly observed that:
Lord Byron could not have been more than 30, but he looked 40. His face had become pale, bloated, and sallow. He had grown very fat, his shoulders broad and round, and the knuckles of his hands were lost in fat.
This appears to have been a common refrain. On arriving in Pisa in 1821 and catching his first sight of the famous poet, Thomas Medwin was shocked to see a short man ‘apparently forty years of age’ (Medwin’s Conversations of Lord Byron, 7).
Medwin’s account of this meeting draws attention to one of the main sources of Byron’s self-consciousness in 1821 – the loss of the luscious locks immortalised by Thomas Phillips and Richard Westall, etched in prints, and distributed to tens of thousands of readers. Though, as Medwin notes, his hair still ‘waved in natural and graceful curls over his head’, it had become ‘thin’ and ‘grey’, and his head ‘was assimilating itself fast to the “bald first Caesar’s”’ (7-8). This change is captured in Alfred D’Orsay’s 1823 sketch of Byron, in which the receding hairline is striking (though Byron was going through one of his periodic bouts of abstemiousness and is particularly slender).
Byron was obsessed with his thinning hair, so obsessed in fact, that he even resorted to a noxious old wives’ remedy sent to him by his friend and factotum Douglas Kinnaird, involving eggs and other less-savoury items being plastered across the scalp each day:
What’s that you say about “Yolk of Egg for the hair”? The receipt―the receipt immediately.
By the way, your hair receipt costs me an egg a day. ――Does it nourish as well as embellish the hair?
(Any user of modern hair-loss treatments will appreciate the desperation driving Byron at this point!)
Thomas Moore, meanwhile, noted during a visit in 1819 that Byron’s features had lost their ‘romantic character’, coarsened by his dissipate lifestyle. This observation draws attention to the other aspect of the poet’s vanity, the sneaking sense of personal culpability and conviction that his dissolute excesses – particularly the ‘fuff-fuff and passades―& fair fucking’ with countless ‘Seminal vessels’ in his ‘Whore-hold’ in Venice (BLJ 6.40) – were to blame for the rapid deterioration of his looks. Certainly, Byron ruefully echoes Moore’s views, sheepishly admitting that his dissolute habits would soon see him fall, like a ‘yellow leaf’ to ‘the ground, with all deliberate speed’ (BLJ, 6.106), the same guilt inflecting the 1821 birthday squib on the evils of his ‘Ill-spent Life’.
By January 22nd 1821, the beautiful youth who enraptured Ali Pasha with his delicate features and shell-like ears was long gone, as was the dashing young poet lionised by London and eagerly pursued by countless women. In their place was an aging Lothario who would – a mere three years later – be reduced to bribing his lovers with costly gifts, no longer able to rely on the allure of a handsome face and physique. As Byron morosely admitted later in 1821, ‘it was one of the deadliest and heaviest feelings of my life that I was no longer a boy’ (BLJ, 9.37).
Yet, while Byron might have worried about the loss of his looks and feared he would be ‘interred in the Eternity / of the Past, / from whence there is no / Resurrection’, 200 years on we’re still celebrating his life and works (and his birthday) – so I’d say he’s aged pretty well, all thing’s considered!
Dr Emily Paterson-Morgan is Head of Publishing for Knowledge E and the Director of The Byron Society. In addition, she sits on the editorial boards of The Byron Journal and the Gender and Culture in the Romantic Era series for Anthem Press, and is currently researching Byron’s engagement with adultery discourses in English print culture. Contact her via Twitter: @epatersonmorgan or email: email@example.com