Five Questions: Robert Morrison on the Regency and Thomas De Quincey

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Robert Morrison is currently British Academy Global Professor at Bath Spa University and Queen’s National Scholar at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He is a leading expert on Thomas De Quincey and Romantic-period periodical culture and has published major editions of works by writers including De Quincey, Leigh Hunt, Jane Austen and John Polidori, as well as numerous essays on topics including magazine writing, John Galt, William Blackwood and twentieth-century music. His biography of Thomas De Quincey, The English Opium Eater, was published in 2009, and shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize. Below, we discuss two books that he published last year: the 21st-Century Oxford Authors edition of Thomas De Quincey (Oxford University Press) and The Regency Revolution (Atlantic Books; published by W.W. Norton as The Regency Years in North America). The Economist named The Regency Years one of its 2019 Books of the Year.

1) How did you first become interested in Thomas De Quincey?

My interest in De Quincey began at Oxford, where I did my M.Phil. degree in Romanticism under the supervision of Jonathan Wordsworth. In Hilary term of my first year, Jonathan asked me to write an essay on each of the four major non-fiction prose writers: De Quincey, William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, and Charles Lamb. Jonathan was not very impressed with what I produced (to say the least of it), but he did seem to feel that my essay on De Quincey had a little more energy and depth than the other three.

Looking back now over more than three decades, I feel very fortunate to have chosen De Quincey, and to have had Jonathan’s encouragement in making that decision. I remember at the time being told that if I wanted to work on a hopeless drug addict who lived in the Lake District, read Kant, and worshipped Wordsworth, I should write on Coleridge. He was a major figure who published books. De Quincey was ‘a hack’ who wrote for the magazines. Leslie Stephen sneered that De Quincey spent his career producing ‘respectable padding’. But after re-reading Biographia Literaria, or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions and then Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, I decided to stay with De Quincey, and to continue trying to unravel the various contradictions, denials, and insights that lie at the crux of his ‘Literary Life and Opinions’. For De Quincey, as I realized much later, self-representation is often the subtlest form of self-concealment.

I also remember sitting in a pub during my second year in Oxford speaking to a D.Phil. student who was writing on William Godwin, and who after three years of work had decided that he didn’t like William Godwin at all. I’ve managed to avoid that pitfall. De Quincey for me remains endlessly interesting. He spent the vast majority of his career publishing almost exclusively in leading – and often rival – monthly magazines, a decision that had a profound impact on his work. He wrote incisively on all manner of topics, from science, history, theology, economics, and aesthetics to classical scholarship, German philosophy, English literature, and contemporary politics. And he combined these various interests and decisions with a prose style that can range effortlessly from the humorous through the anecdotal to the suspenseful, while in his ‘impassioned’ mode he produced prose that was, as Alfred Tennyson observed, ‘not poetry…but as fine as any verse’.

2) What were your main criteria for selecting texts for the 21st-Century Oxford Authors edition? Were there particular elements of De Quincey’s creativity you were keen to reveal, and what works did you consider essential for a volume designed to introduce him to new readers?

In my experience, a selected edition invariably involves agonizing. What stays? What gets cut?

The recent Pickering and Chatto edition of The Works of Thomas De Quincey is twenty-one volumes. The 21st-Century Oxford Authors editions are very liberal with word limits, but that still means that fitting De Quincey into one of them involves excluding roughly 95% of what he wrote. In such circumstances, I found it very helpful to establish clear criteria for the selection of texts. I wanted the volume to contain the essays for which he is best known and most often studied and cited, and which represent his finest work as autobiographer, biographer, rhetorician, satirist, true crime reporter, and literary critic. The essays appear in chronological order, and have been newly and comprehensively annotated. The edition, I hope, makes De Quincey accessible to first-time readers, but also contains information that scholars will find fresh and illuminating.

The edition opens and closes with Confessions. The original version of 1821 is printed in its entirety, complete with the most important manuscript material related to it. The revised version of 1856 appears in a series of selections, including ‘What was it that did in reality make me an opium-eater?’, ‘The Whispering Gallery’, ‘My great central sun of opium’, and ‘The Daughter of Lebanon’. All of Suspiria de Profundis (1845), De Quincey’s sequel to Confessions, is included, together with an extensive selection of manuscript material, and a newly-discovered fragment, ‘Oh sweep away, – angel with angelic scorn’, that is published here for the first time. ‘The English Mail-Coach’ (1849), also printed in full, was originally conceived by De Quincey as belonging to Suspiria, but he later published it separately. In 1853, he ranked Confessions and the various parts of Suspiria as ‘a far higher class of compositions’ than his other work, in part because they contained his most successful attempts to ‘clothe in words the visionary scenes derived from the world of dreams, where a single false note, a single word in a wrong key, ruins the whole music’.

De Quincey’s three essays ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’ (1827, 1839, and 1854) are given in full. The first essay bristles with black humour and ironic deflations, while the second includes the funniest joke he ever told: ‘For if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop’. In the third essay, however, De Quincey dramatically changes directions to produce a taut and blood-soaked account of the Ratcliffe Highway murders. Often cited as helping to establish true crime as a literary form, the essay influenced a host of subsequent writers in the genre, including Dorothy L. Sayers, Raymond Chandler, Truman Capote, and Vincent Bugliosi, as I contend in the Introduction.

In addition, the volume contains extensive selections from De Quincey’s reminiscences of ‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge’ and ‘William Wordsworth’. De Quincey celebrated their poetry across his career, but his personal relationship with both men eventually collapsed into bitterness and self-justification. He was especially angry at the way Wordsworth had treated him, but he later reached a more balanced viewed. The failure of the relationship was partly ‘Wordsworth’s in doing too little’ and partly ‘mine in expecting too much’. The edition also includes De Quincey’s most famous piece of literary criticism, ‘On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth’, his two inquiries into the nature of the ‘Literature of Knowledge and the Literature of Power’, and selections from his essays on ‘Rhetoric’ and ‘Style’.

3) When writing The Regency Revolution, how did you select the focuses for your five chapters (Crime, Punishment, and the Pursuit of Freedom; Theatres of Entertainment; Sexual Pastimes, Pleasures, and Perversities; Expanding Empire and Waging War; and Changing Landscapes and Ominous Signs)?

I selected the five chapters gradually as I worked through the material I wanted to include, and the process of trying to present it in the most cogent form possible. At one point I was up to seven chapters, and at another down to four, but I had a very strict word limit for the final manuscript, and so I kept arranging and re-arranging, and writing and rejecting and trimming and revising, until I had it down into five chapters. From the start I knew that I did not want to write a chronological history or a dutiful survey. What I wanted to do was to paint a picture of the Regency world. I wanted to try and capture some of the flux, colour, innovation, anger, and immense creativity that defines the period. And I knew that, as often as possible, I wanted to do this from a literary standpoint. I wanted Jane Austen on travel, Maria Edgeworth on Elizabeth Fry, Lord Byron on the Duke of Wellington, John Keats on the arctic expeditions, Robert Southey on Robert Owen, Mary Russell Mitford on Orientalism, Harriette Wilson on Beau Brummell, William Wordsworth on emigration, Matthew Lewis on slavery, and so on.

The first three chapters concern, respectively and broadly defined, politics, entertainment, and sex. Chapter One opens with John Bellingham’s assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, explores crime and punishment, government crackdowns, Luddism, the Highland Clearances, radical satire (George Cruikshank is everywhere in the Regency), and Peterloo, before closing with Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. Chapter Two delves into the fun on offer at theatres, sporting events, fashionable clubs, private dinners, gambling and drinking dens, outdoor fairs, and holiday resorts, as well as the more serious pleasures to be found in museums, lecture halls, art galleries, and the reading of books, especially the novels of Walter Scott, and the poetry of Lord Byron. Chapter Three considers the many restrictions on female desire, the last defiant huzzah of male and female rakes, the vicious sex trade, Thomas Rowlandson’s pornographic prints (the Regent was an avid collector), Anne Lister’s joyous experiences of same-sex love, the state-orchestrated execution of ‘sodomites’, and flagellation: a ‘peculiar and sexual degradation’, De Quincey emphasized.

The final two chapters look at the inventions, ambitions, and competitions transforming, first, the British empire, and then Britain itself. Chapter Four features Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the looting of the Parthenon Marbles, Lady Hester Stanhope’s travels in the Middle East, the exploits of the British East India Company, Thomas Stamford Raffles’s founding of Singapore, the blights of slavery, the search for the Northwest Passage, and the tens of thousands of people who left Britain looking for a better life in Canada or the United States. Chapter Five investigates the inexorable economic and industrial forces altering both the cities and the countryside, the dramatic reimaginings of people and place by artists such as Henry Raeburn, Thomas Lawrence, J. M. W. Turner, and John Constable, the technologies pioneered by George Stephenson, Charles Babbage, Humphry Davy, and Michael Faraday, and the medical and scientific debates that Mary Shelley brings to life in her modern prophecy, Frankenstein.

4) What are the most important insights you developed by considering the Regency as a distinct period?

I emerged from the process of writing the book with, I think, three central insights. The first is that, no matter how much you think you know, you don’t really know that much at all. I should have known this going in, as I remember clearly reading Jerome McGann in the ‘Introduction’ to his edition of Don Juan, where he writes that ‘the work has involved an education in Byron (whom I thought I knew fairly well)’. I have taught the Regency and its major writers for a long time, and before I started to write the book I thought I knew the contours of the period quite well. I didn’t.

The second insight is that it is good to resist trends. There have been many studies in recent years of the ‘long eighteenth century’ or the ‘long nineteenth century’, and there are clear advantages to reconceptualizing periodization in this way. But I started to wonder what would happen if I moved the other way – if instead of expanding either backward or forward from the Romantic period, I moved inward to explore a subset of years within the wider Romantic movement, if I highlighted, as it were, a ‘period within a period’. This led me quickly to the Regency, which spans less than a decade (1811-1820), which exists in British history as a constitutional reality, and which falls right in the middle of the dates we traditionally assign to the British Romantic movement. Concentrating on a short period as opposed to a long century generated very different questions about periodization and literary history, and produced a series of paradoxes, collisions, and parallels that I do not think would be quite so available in a study that encompassed a longer span of years.

The third insight is that studying the Regency puts a good deal of pressure on longstanding notions of what we mean by ‘Romanticism’. The Regency prized sociability and an outward gaze as opposed to the solitariness and inwardness we typically associate with the Romantic era. Yet the one is located right at the heart of the other. Where does this leave us? I have taught Byron, the Shelleys, Keats, and Coleridge as Romantic authors on many occasions. All five feature prominently in the book, and all five look very different when they are seen as Regency authors who published some of their finest work alongside other major Regency figures such as George Crabbe, Thomas Moore, Walter Scott, Maria Edgeworth, and William Hazlitt. Above all, I hope the book makes it harder to see Austen, whose six published novels all appeared during the Regency, as a writer whose ‘values’ – as it is often put – align her with an earlier literary period. If Austen is commonly set to one side in accounts of Romanticism, she towers in any assessment of Regency literature.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I am editing The Oxford Handbook of British Romantic Prose. It is intended as a kind of companion volume to David Duff’s The Oxford Handbook of British Romanticism. The volume contains essays on topics extending from ‘Africa’, ‘Biography’, and ‘Crime’ through ‘Literary Parody’, ‘Metropolitanism’, and ‘Natural Science’ to ‘Sports’, ‘Translation’, and ‘War’. The focus is on non-fiction prose, but the Handbook also emphasizes the permeability of Romantic fiction and non-fiction, so that novelists like Austen, Edgeworth, and Scott also play prominent roles. One of the primary objectives of the volume is to try and redress the longstanding imbalance between British Romantic Poetry and British Romantic Prose, and to put British Romantic Prose at the centre of our thinking on the British Romantic project broadly defined.

With the support of the British Academy and the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, I am curating a lecture series on addiction, including drugs, of course, but also gambling, eating, shopping, sex, and so on. The series will bring together creative writers, psychologists, historians, and medical professionals, as well as those working in counselling, law enforcement, and public policy. It will begin with talks focussed on what exactly we mean by ‘addiction’, move through a series of multidisciplinary perspectives on it, and then conclude with narratives that involve recovery and hope.

I am guest editor of a special issue of Romanticism devoted to the bicentenary of the publication of De Quincey’s Confessions. The issue will appear in September 2021 to coincide exactly with the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of the first instalment of Confessions in the London Magazine for September 1821. It contains eight new essays on Confessions, including its relationship to Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Baudelaire’s Les Paradis artificiels, and China’s first ‘city novel’, Courtesans and Opium.

For Oxford University Press, I am producing the first collected edition of The Letters of Thomas De Quincey. There are approximately 800 extant De Quincey letters. Some of these have been published in previous selected editions. Others have been printed in literary journals or in auction catalogues. Still others have appeared – in whole or in part – in biographies of De Quincey. In total, these published sources print just over 200 De Quincey letters in full, and selections from another 100 letters. Of the 800 extant De Quincey letters, then, approximately 500 of them have never been published, and another 100 have never been published in full. Work on the new edition includes a comprehensive search for lost or hitherto unknown De Quincey letters. All letters are being freshly transcribed and thoroughly annotated.

Five Questions: Nigel Leask on Stepping Westward

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Nigel Leask is Regius Chair of English Language and Literature at the University of Glasgow. He will be well-known to readers of this blog from his many publications in the field of Romantic Studies, including the monographs British Romantic Writers and the East: Anxieties of Empire, Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing, 1770-1840 and Robert Burns and Pastoral: Poetry and Improvement in Late-18th Century Scotland; the edited collections Enlightenment Travel and British Identities: Thomas Pennant’s Tours of Scotland and Wales and Romanticism and Popular Culture in Britain and Ireland; and the first volume of the Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns, Commonplace Books, Tour Journals, and Miscellaneous Prose. His latest monograph, Stepping Westward: Writing the Highland Tour c. 1720-1830, which we discuss below, was published by Oxford University Press in March. His plenary lecture from BARS’ 2017 conference in York was also recently published as Philosophical Vagabonds: Pedestrianism, Politics, and Improvement on the Scottish Tour.

1) How did you come to decide that you wanted to write a book on the Highland Tour?

There’s a parallel between the genesis of Stepping Westward: Writing the Highland Tour and my earlier book Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing (2002). My interest in travel writing about the ‘antique lands’ of Egypt, India and Mexico developed while researching the footnotes and settings of orientalist poems by Lord Byron, Thomas Moore, and Robert Southey when I was writing British Romantic Writers and the East (1992). Before the 1980s, travel writing tended to be regarded as ‘background’ for social and cultural historians: reading the work of Mary Louise Pratt, Elizabeth Bohls, Ina Ferris or Peter Womack persuaded me to read travel as a distinctive literary genre, indeed one of the most successful and widely-read varieties of romantic literature. The emphasis on antiquarianism and natural history, as well the inclusion of maps and topographical engravings, also made it one of the most visually splendid and interdisciplinary genres in the period.

Correspondingly, Stepping Westward emerged from later research on Robert Burns (Robert Burns and Pastoral, and my Oxford edition of Burns’s Commonplace Books, Tour Journals, and Miscellaneous Prose). Editing Burns’s fragmentary Highland Tour journal of 1787 taught me that the poet was following an already well-established cultural practice in touring the Highlands, and one with a huge literary hinterland (I love Alec Finlay’s definition of the eighteenth-century tour as ‘a journey accompanied by a surfeit of books’!) A great many canonical literary, artistic and intellectual figures made the tour before and after Burns: Daniel Defoe, Dr Johnson, James Boswell, Thomas Gray, Elizabeth Montagu, Sir Joseph Banks, James Macpherson, Hester Piozzi, William Gilpin, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, S.T. Coleridge, James Hogg, Walter Scott, John Keats, William Turner, etc. etc. And while all wrote and/or published narratives of their tours, hundreds of manuscript tours by lesser-known travellers gather dust in libraries and archives in Britain and further afield, many of them full of original insights and wonderful writing. Whereas relatively few women published Scottish tours in the period, numerous manuscript tours survive written by women, all of which richly reward further study, further consolidating the importance of woman’s writing in this period.

Originally my research encompassed the Scottish tour in general, but I soon realised that there was simply too much material, and I decided instead to focus on travel to the Gaidhealtachd, the Highlands and Islands. The majority of Scottish tours made in the period were directed to the Highlands, even if travellers also visited and described the Scottish Borders, the Lowlands, or Orkney and Shetland. Another inspiration was a wonderful four-year collaboration with Mary-Ann Constantine on the AHRC-funded Curious Travellers project, focused on the Scottish and Welsh tours of the 18th century Welsh travellers Thomas Pennant and creating digital editions of Pennant’s correspondence, as well as unpublished contemporary manuscript tours. Although Pennant’s two Scottish tours of 1769 and 1772 were eclipsed by Dr Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (published in 1775), it was Pennant (not Johnson) who really established the paradigm for writing the Highland tour, informing the experiences (and writings) of travellers and tourists over the next century. That is why my chapter on Pennant is the keystone of Stepping Westward

Consolidating a lifelong interest in Highland culture and topography, around 2013 I had started learning Gaelic, which proved to be a major theme in the contemporary travel literature, and one that plays a central role in the book. Working on Pennant with Welsh-language researchers at CAWCS in Aberystwyth made the Highland tour especially interesting to me, because as in Wales (and in common with Ireland ‘beyond the pale’), tourists from England and the Scottish Lowlands were travelling in a different linguistic as well as cultural zone. This problematized a common notion of a ‘domestic’ or ‘home’ tour in the period, as travellers discovered that Britain was not a homogenous anglophone state. (In this respect collaborating with colleagues in Glasgow’s Gaelic and Scottish History departments was also a great learning experience.) And yet these tours of the Scottish Gaidhealtachd were a bit different from colonial tours that I’d addressed in Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing. Military occupation, state-financed ‘improvement schemes’, linguistic repression and missionary activity, as well as forced clearance and emigration, certainly make the Highlands look distinctly ‘colonial’, at least more like Ireland than the Scottish Lowlands. Yet the indigenous Highland elites benefited massively from the colonial economy, and an ideology of ‘Highlandism’ knitted Gaelic tradition and military prowess into service of the British Empire. So I have tried to allow the interesting question of a ‘post-colonial Highlands’ to remain an open one in the book.

2) How did the Highlands change for tourists across the period that the book examines?

A great deal. The laying out of General Wade’s new roads to quell Jacobite resistance to the Hanoverian state opened up Scotland not only to the forces of British militarism but also to commerce and trade, as well as to philosophical and scenic tourism, as a recent theatre of war became imbued with aesthetic and topographical significance. Visiting sites of ‘improvement’ became a powerful ideological motive for many British travellers in the century after the 1707 Union, as they assessed its effects on a ‘primitive’ culture and environment that had been considered an intractable problem. Travellers like Richard Pococke and John Walker, and later Pennant and Joseph Banks ( as well as to a lesser extent Dr Johnson) were more engaged in ‘surveying’ the country than in leisure tourism. But that would change in the 1770s and ’80s as two distinct itineraries were opened up through the Highlands, described by Pennant as the ‘long tour’ and the ‘petit tour’ respectively. In general, the Highland tour was probably more ‘literary’ than any other variety of the British home tour in this period. Antiquarian travellers carried copies of Tacitus’s Agricola in their baggage and sought for the sites of Roman camps and Caledonian resistance: after 1760, the Poems of Ossian were a ‘must-have’ accompaniment for tourists, supplemented after about 1810 by the poems and novels of Walter Scott. In some respect Ossian was Scotland’s answer to Burke’s Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful, and it certainly imbued rugged Highland scenery (and challenging weather!) with sublime resonance. Gilpin and his picturesque disciples made the pursuit of scenery a motive in itself, thereby encouraging women tourists like Hester Piozzi, Sarah Murray, and Dorothy Wordsworth, as well as those boasting no particular antiquarian or naturalistic expertise, to travel and to write up their tours. Talking my title from Wordsworth’s tour poem ‘Stepping Westward’ underlines the close relationship between travel writing, poetry and the novel in the romantic period. By giving myself a ‘long duree’ (over a century from the building of Wade’s military roads in the 1720s to the death of Sir Walter Scott and the beginnings of railway travel in the 1830s), I had a great opportunity to explore the development of a specific genre of travel writing, during a century of massive change, especially in the Highlands.

3) To what extent did the Highland tour become a generic proposition (as knowledge of particular routes accrued and travellers were taught what to feel by the recorded experiences of their forebears), and to what extent did it provide space for idiosyncrasies and the articulation of difference, both on the ground and between book covers?

My book argues that the first significant Highland tour to be published was Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland (pub. 1754 but written in the 1720s and ’30s), almost certainly the work of Edmund Burt, an employee of the London government with the unenviable task of collecting rent from forfeited Jacobite estates. For Burt the solution to Highland backwardness was the construction of military roads by his friend and patron General Wade, and it was these roads (and subsequent transport networks built by Major William Caulfeild and Thomas Telford) that enabled tourism: both the long and ‘petit’ tours followed the military roads, except when travellers crossed to Skye or the inner Hebrides. But despite its extraordinary ‘thick description’ of Highland life, Burt’s book was so Scotophobic that Pennant, Dr Johnson, and subsequent eighteenth-century travellers anxious to make the tour an ‘act of union’ made no explicit reference to it.

By contrast, Pennant’s practice of circulating questionnaires to Highland ministers and gentlemen and incorporating ‘local knowledge’ into his travel books made his two Scottish tour narratives a compendium of miscellaneous knowledge, structured around his actual itineraries. For the first time they included numerous engravings, many of them based on the paintings and drawings of Pennant’s ‘artist servant’ Moses Griffith. For at least the next forty years the Pennantian model dominated both published and manuscript travel accounts of the Highlands, although from the 1780s the search for the Gilpinian picturesque made a great impact on both the practice and the writing of tours. I argue in the two final chapters of Stepping Westward that around 1810 the Pennantian model of the Highland Tour as (in Ina Ferris’s words) ‘a knowledge genre’ became exhausted, as proclaimed by Walter Scott in a devastating 1809 review of Sir John Carr’s Caledonian Sketches. There was simply nothing new to say about Scotland that hadn’t been already stated by Pennant and his legion of followers. So the Highland tour took a new literary turn: Scott’s verse romances Lady of the Lake and Lord of the Isles, as well as his novels like Waverley and Rob Roy created the conditions for a new wave of ‘romantic’ literary tourism to the Highlands. This was increasingly facilitated by organised tourist guides and steam boats to remoter destinations like Fingal’s Cave, and Loch Coriusk on Skye. 

4) If a modern reader asked you to recommend just three of the many eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Highland tours you’ve read as part of this project, which would you pick, and why?

Edmund Burt’s Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland (1754). The book captures the edgy feel of the Highlands in the 1720s and ’30s, in the interim between the two major Jacobite wars. Written in the ‘polite’ epistolary style of Addison and Steele, albeit displaying a deep cultural prejudice against the Gaels, it presents a unique ethnographic view of traditional Highland society on the eve of its destruction. No wonder Scott plundered it for his description of Fergus McIvor’s stronghold at Glennaquoich in Waverley.  I am fascinated by Burt’s struggle to describe the nature of Highland topography without the resources of sublime or picturesque aesthetics. 

Thomas Pennant’s Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772 (1774-6) Pennant’s reputation for being a ‘dry old stick’ is completely belied by the inventive, witty, and imaginative writing which distinguishes this travel account. Along with Gilbert White (whose Natural History of Selborne was addressed to him), Pennant deserves to be credited as a key influence on British nature writing, and there is lots more here besides. Because he was accompanied by Dr John Stuart, a native Gaelic speaker and expert on the culture, Pennant shows a nuanced and accurate understanding of the Gaels, and especially the social problems linked to ‘improvement’. His highly political ‘Vision at Ardmaddie’ at the end of the first volume describes a dream in which an Ossianic warrior denounces modern Clan chiefs for having degenerated into ‘rapacious landlords’.

Dorothy Wordsworth, Recollections of a Tour in Scotland, 1803. Like many travel accounts written by women, this was never published during the author’s lifetime. But in my view it is really the masterpiece of the whole genre, making a decisive break with the Pennantian ‘knowledge genre’, and successfully practicing a gendered version of her brother William’s poetics of ’emotion recollected in tranquillity’. Dorothy had learnt so much from Gilpin and his picturesque disciples, but her powerful gift for natural description enters new territory, as well as presenting a context for her brother’s superb tour poems like ‘Stepping Westward’ and ‘The Solitary Reaper’. Recollections also paints a moving and sympathetic portrait of a plebeian Gaelic world in a moment of deep historical crisis.

5) Now that this book’s finished, what new projects are you planning?

I’m currently co-curating an exhibition entitled Old Ways and New Roads: Travel in Scotland 1720-1830 with Glasgow art historian John Bonehill and curator Anne Dulau. It was to have opened in Glasgow University’s Hunterian Art Gallery in August of this year, but because of the pandemic, it has been postponed until the start of 2021. Although the show develops many of the themes discussed in Stepping Westward, it is more focused on paintings, topographical drawings, and maps relating to the tour, including a section on tourist satire. I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity of working with experts in visual culture and museum collections. We’re co-editing a book entitled Old Ways and New Roads to be published by Birlinn Press in Edinburgh to coincide with the exhibition, with nine essays by invited contributors, and nearly 200 illustrations.

Beyond that, I’m collaborating on an edition of the only travel account of this period written in Gaelic, Dugald McNicol’s manuscript ‘Barbados Diary’ (1809-13), and also have plans to produce an edition of Burt’s Letters from the North of Scotland with Gabriel Cervantes. I’m co-editing one of the volumes of Burns’ Correspondence for the Oxford edition, and there is a lot more work to be done on Ossian and the tour. Mary-Ann Constantine and I also have plans for another Pennant bid, with a view to editing his Scottish and Welsh Tours, so I will certainly be keeping busy during the lockdown and beyond.

Five Questions: David Chandler on Charles Dibdin

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David Chandler is Professor of English Literature at Doshisha University in Kyoto. His publications range widely across eighteenth- and nineteenth-century culture, including work on provincial society, the Lake Poets, George Borrow, Charles Dickens, Romantic essayists, theatrical performance and musical culture, including opera and popular song. He is also a director of Retrospect Opera and has been involved in two projects reviving and recording the music of Charles Dibdin (1745-1814): Christmas Gambols and The Jubilee. We discuss his interest in Dibdin below.

1) How did you first become interested in Charles Dibdin?

I can’t say there was one eureka moment. I became aware of his immense importance back in the 1990s, when I spent hundreds of hours in the old, much-missed British Newspaper Library at Colindale, reading both national and regional newspapers from the 1780s and 90s. Dibdin seemed to pop up all the time, and it was clear that he was a household name in that period: a celebrity, you might say. But my interests were elsewhere back then, and I didn’t look into why he was so omnipresent. Needless to say, he was never featured, indeed scarcely named, in discussions of the Romantic period. Much later, probably around 2006, I first read Roger Fiske’s classic study English Theatre Music in the Eighteenth Century (1973), and learned why Dibdin was so important. After that interest and knowledge gradually, but erratically, increased. I did volunteer a paper for the 2014, bicentenary “Charles Dibdin and His World” conference at King’s College, London. It wasn’t accepted, and I still regret the loss of that opportunity to be in a room full of people interested in Dibdin. But perhaps it was salutary, in a way – it made me focus more on the need to actually revive Dibdin’s music.

2) What have the main challenges been when seeking to reintroduce Dibdin’s productions to modern audiences?

Hmmm, there are several big challenges for sure. First, I suppose there’s the enormous inferiority complex that the British have about their own music, at least before Elgar, perhaps even before the Beatles! In a sense it keeps things simple to say “it just wasn’t very good, and hey, there’s no shortage of Bach and Mozart to listen to.” But I’m going to quote Fiske on this, as I think what he wrote in 1973 is still very apropos:

… we shall find no composers the equal of Bach, Handel, Haydn, or Mozart [in the British eighteenth century]. We would not find any in Italy either, or in France apart perhaps from Rameau. But in recent years less exalted composers have been giving increasing pleasure, and at the Vivaldi-Paisiello level English composers can compete with confidence.

Related to this, is the sense among literary scholars that the music of their period just doesn’t matter. A Romanticist who knows nothing of Turner and Constable, and increasingly of Gillray and Rowlandson too, say, will probably be marked down as pretty limited in their interests. But with British music of the period, ignorance isn’t merely safe, it’s kind of expected. The soundscape just doesn’t exist. I know that when Mike Leigh made his film Mr. Turner (2014), it was suggested to him that he incorporate actual British music from the period, as we know that Turner loved the popular songs of his time, including Dibdin’s (he transcribed several Dibdin songs in his notebooks). But Leigh didn’t want to, even though in other ways he was trying to really reflect Turner’s period. In the same sort of way, Dibdin was the best-represented composer in Jane Austen’s music collection, but I’m not aware of a single Austen screen adaptation that actually uses Dibdin’s music. We think we know what that period looked like, but we seem to have very little curiosity about what it sounded like. In addition to all this, classical music types tend to pigeonhole Dibdin as “popular music,” and therefore outside their area, while popular music lovers, even members of the professoriate, often seem to think that pretty much all music from before 1900 was somehow “classical music.” There are remarkably few people actually interested in the popular music of the past.

3) How would you characterise the nature of Dibdin’s creativity and accomplishments?

Dibdin was an extraordinarily prolific, protean figure. Too prolific in two senses: first, that a lot of what he did was slapdash; and second, that studies of him can easily end up overwhelmed by the immense quantity of his production. He’s remembered most of all as a composer, but in fact the bulk of his literary work is remarkable as well. I’m currently working on the two large quarto volumes of his Observations on a Tour Through Almost the Whole of England, and a Considerable Part of Scotland, in a Series of Letters of 180102, and that’s 800 pages just for a start! He had tremendous self-belief and drive, some of which probably masked insecurities, though he’s a difficult man to psychologically profile. The central concept in his aesthetic is always “Nature”: he believed all the arts should take their basic principles from nature, though of course he wasn’t always clear or consistent about what that meant. In music, he believed in the paramount virtue of melody, and was very suspicious of what he saw as unnaturally complicated, “technical” music, which he associated most of all with the German-speaking lands. He was perhaps above all a supreme impersonator. He became famous as an actor-singer before he became famous as a composer, and in his performance career he gravitated towards the one-man show where he would impersonate a whole series of characters, and sing songs in character. His songs may not always look much on the page, but they are nearly always suited to the sort of singer who can really inhabit them, who can imaginatively become the person who’s supposed to be singing the song. I’ll stick my neck out and say I think there’s something quite Dickensian about him, and I’m fascinated by the fact that Dibdin ended up writing novels, just as Dickens ended up doing one-man shows.

4) In what ways do you think that Dibdin’s works might be used to help students and scholars get a better grasp on the historical realities and breadth of culture in the Romantic period?

I’d say Dibdin was to the 1790s what the Beatles were to the 1960s. Some people will probably say that’s a huge exaggeration, but if anything it’s an understatement, for the Beatles had far more competition. Of course it’s possible to study the highbrow “literature” of the 1960s and never mention the Beatles, but to me that would be a rather thankless attempt to draw lines and erect boundaries. Historically, needless to say, Romantic studies have tended to be rather precious, and rather suspicious of popular culture unless “popular culture” could be narrowed down to Wordsworth writing ballads, or Byron’s poems flying off the shelves, or whatever. I suppose it’s only since 1990 that we’ve seen a broader opening up of the interface between literature and popular culture in English departments, and the fact that so much work is being done in this area makes me hopeful that eventually Dibdin will receive his due. Young people are almost always very aware of how their lives and sense of identity are shaped by and mirrored in popular music, so I believe they would be very open to sort of tuning in to the soundscape of the 1790s when studying the literature of that period. But for this to happen, we do need much more of Dibdin’s music to be recorded, and recorded not according to the rather sanitized norms of some “classical” music, but with a sense of its abundant, popular energy. Having said that, it needs to be emphasized that Dibdin, in a quite extraordinary way, interacted with every social class: in 1788 he gave a private concert to the Prince of Wales, the future George IV.

5) What other projects are you currently working on?

Dibdin seems to be taking up a lot of my time, one way and another. I recently completed an essay on his third and final novel, Henry Hooka (1807), which has never been discussed before, and I’m now writing about his landscape paintings, for Dibdin was an accomplished amateur artist as well as everything else, and ever since studying English and History of Art at undergraduate level I’ve had an itch to write about pictures. But my major Dibdin project in the foreseeable future is an edition and recording of The Wags (1790), Dibdin’s most successful one man show. The idea is to make this available as a free online resource, so hopefully people who’ve so far hesitated about seriously listening to Dibdin, or teaching him, will be persuaded to take the plunge. In the slightly more distant future, I would love Retrospect Opera to revive Dibdin’s The Waterman (1774), by far the most successful of his theatrical works (Dibdin wrote both the words and the music). I want to quote Kurt Gänzl, the great chronicler of popular musical theatre on this: “for more than a century the show enjoyed a popularity second to none (not even The Beggar’s Opera) amongst English ballad operas. [It was] played endlessly through Britain and its colonies”. If there was one theatrical work that almost every single London theatregoer knew in 1800, it was The Waterman, and I find it very sad that something that should be recognised as a national treasure has been so comprehensively forgotten. Just to fill out the picture, though, I’m also working on a book about the Italian composer Italo Montemezzi (1875–1952), a favourite of mine, who’s different from Dibdin in almost every possible way, apart from being unjustly neglected.

Wordsworth250: Online Celebrations and Royal Mail issues ‘Romantic Poets’ stamps

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Tomorrow – 7 April 2020 – is William Wordsworth’s 250th birthday.

Look out for exciting virtual celebrations from Wordsworth Grasmere on social media:

Wordsworth Grasmere Twitter: Follow #Wordsworth250 @WordsworthGras @CuratorWT@WTdirector.

Wordsworth Grasmere: Facebook, Instagram.

You can also check out their YouTube channel.

More news for Wordsworth’s birthday…

‘The Romantic Poets – Special Stamp Issues’

Royal Mail issues 10 new Special Stamps on the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Wordsworth.

The stamps also celebrate other major Romantic poets: William Blake; John Keats; Lord Byron; Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Mary Robinson; Percy Bysshe Shelley; Walter Scott; John Clare; and Letitia Elizabeth Landon.

Each stamp uses an extract from one of their most popular and enduring works, along with a specially-commissioned illustration that reflects the theme of the poem.

Five Questions: Peter Cheyne on Coleridge’s Contemplative Philosophy

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Peter Cheyne is an associate professor at Shimane University, where he teaches British Literature, Culture and Philosophy. He has published widely on intellectual history and Romantic and post-Romantic thinking, including articles in the Heythrop Journal, Intellectual History Review, the Journal of Romanticism, the Coleridge Bulletin and the Journal of Scottish Thought. His edited collection Coleridge and Contemplation was published by Oxford University Press in 2017. His first monograph, Coleridge’s Contemplative Philosophy, which we discuss below, was published by OUP earlier this year.

1) How did you first become interested in Coleridge’s philosophy?

My previous research, on nineteenth- and twentieth-century existential philosophy, led me to the poetics of thought in articulating meaning and value in relation to mood and intuitions of one’s general situation. While Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre commenced from analyses of despair, anxiety, and nausea, I grew interested in how Wordsworth and thinkers he influenced, such as A. N. Whitehead and C. S. Lewis, discovered joy as an encompassing state that perceives transcendent value in immanent and often otherwise ordinary contexts. Making notes on how writers found ways to communicate apparently ineffable or elusive experience, Keats also seemed very promising, and I kept a box of jottings on the poetics of thought in an abstract, philosophical sense illustrated by concrete instances drawn from poetry and poetic prose. From here, I went to F. H. Bradley, the British idealist, and his idea that the ‘sensuous infinitude’ of any perceived object always reveals relations. I also recalled reading something in Mary Warnock’s foreword to Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, where she claimed that Coleridge, more than any other writer in English, demonstrated the belief that careful observation and detailed description in a philosophic mind could somehow reveal the meaning of existence at large. So that’s the circuit of how I was drawn to Coleridge’s philosophy. I soon found Coleridge as Philosopher, by J. H. Muirhead, another British idealist, and Owen Barfield’s What Coleridge Thought, both luminous in their different ways, as I read through Shedd’s old multi-volume edition of Coleridge’s Complete Works—which I later replaced with the more complete and better-edited Bollingen edition. Books on Coleridge by S. V. Pradhan, James Cutsinger, and Alan Gregory were also very helpful in illuminating the dynamics of Coleridge’s thought in its own terms, as were those by Douglas Hedley, Mary Anne Perkins, and James Vigus, in relating his thought to Platonic, pagan, and Judeo-Christian sources.

Unlike many writers on ideas that transcend conceptual comprehension, Coleridge avoided trailing off prematurely into shrouds of mystery through his commitment to the ‘enlightened understanding’ as illuminated by the higher reason and articulated in the ‘discourse of reason’ (The Friend, 1: 156). This was what I was after: not a noble sigh given up to the negativity of apophasis, but a positivity that pushed to the edge of what could be described or intimated and which understood the poetics of thought in the search for meaning in life and its communication. My research initially explored Coleridge’s philosophy primarily in terms of imagination, and towards to the end of that process I moved on to what became Coleridge’s Contemplative Philosophy, progressing more fully into reason and the ideas.

2) How did you come to pick ‘contemplative’ as a key term for your analysis?

This term arose in connection with a well-known aspect of Coleridge’s thinking, namely, his version of the distinction between the understanding (and its concepts) and the reason (and its ideas). While this distinction has been much discussed, what is generally less well attended to is his insistence that the ‘Understanding is the faculty of Reflection. Reason of Contemplation’ (Aids to Reflection, 223). Readers who even loosely synonymize reflection and contemplation will miss this crucial point of his later thinking.

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The Difference in Kind of Reason and the Understanding: Autograph manuscript reproduced courtesy of the University of Iowa Library (Special Collections, MS, corresponding to Aids to Reflection, 223–4.

Coleridge’s philosophy is characterized by the pursuit of ideas, which he also calls noetic powers, ‘eternal verities’ that include God, freedom, beauty, truth, the soul, and the infinite. ‘Ideas’, as he wrote in a notebook entry of December 1825, ‘are not conceived but contemplated. They may be apprehended but cannot be comprehended’. However imperfectly we behold them, he claims in On the Constitution of the Church and State (47 fn.), their apprehension is essential to human dignity and moral being. Concerning the understanding, its concepts, and its categories, Coleridge shares much with his contemporaries, such as Schelling and Hegel, and with recent forebears, such as Kant, and even with empiricists such as Locke, Hume, and Hartley. His view of the imagination, too, is worked out from tangles with contemporaries, especially Schelling and Wordsworth, and he overlaps here in some important points with Blake. But it is with his thinking on the reason and the ideas that Coleridge steps further back into his Christian, Platonic, neo-Platonic, and even Pythagorean, Orphic, and Eleusinian sources. Contrary to thinkers for whom the ideas of reason arose from the human mind, as Kant held, or from an immanent Absolute, with the early Schelling, Coleridge consistently argued for the ‘the transcendency of the Nous’, i.e. of the transcendence of reason and its ‘ideas’, as that ‘more than man which is one and the same in all men’ (‘Lecture on the Prometheus’; ‘Ideal of an Ink-stand’).

The ideas in this sense increasingly intrigued Coleridge. An idea is not something one can contemplate in the ordinary sense, he argued, as a subject contemplates an extraneous object. Rather, an idea can only be beheld as a living subject in self-contemplation, as a subject that is its own object, the human mind realizing in this activity what was earlier only potential in its being. To apprehend an idea, that is, the human mind must realize the idea in self-intuition; it must create in itself what it will contemplate. As Coleridge puts it, ‘the νους [noûs] is that in which the idea is at the same time the reality; the knowing is the thing known’ (Logic, 93). This advances a very specific sense of contemplation which goes back to what Plato called noesis. Coleridge, acknowledging this tradition, calls his own higher logic ‘Noetic’ and describes his schema of it as the ‘universal Form of Contemplation’ (Marginalia, 5: 631, on Jeremy Taylor). As he says in Aids to Reflection, such contemplation is an ‘inward Beholding’, ‘a direct Aspect of Truth’, being an intellectual ‘relation to the Intelligible or Spiritual’ that is analogous to the sensible intuition of the material or phenomenal. That passage paraphrases Richard Hooker, in one among many instances where his recourse to the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Anglican divines reflects his commitment to what he called, in his beloved notebooks, ‘the spiritual platonic old England’, which had in a sense gone underground, still cultivating, but now concealed by the largely empiricist and ‘commercial G. Britain’ (Notebooks, 2: §2598).

In that passage in Aids to Reflection, he starkly contrasts, in two parallel columns, the understanding versus the reason. His sense of contemplation as opposed to reflection is at the nub of my reconstruction of Coleridge’s contemplative philosophy. He firmly holds apart reflection, as a discursive, mediating, and analytic function of the understanding, from contemplation, as the fixed, immediate, and intuitive act of the reason. Because his philosophical aim was to behold the ideas of reason and to come to terms with their role as constitutive powers not only in the human mind but in the cosmos at large and, ultimately, in the divine Logos, his was a contemplative philosophy.

This reading brings into focus Coleridge’s identifying intuitive reason with contemplation, his preoccupation with immediate beholding, and his placing ‘Noetic’ at the apex of his hierarchy of the sciences, where the ‘Empiric’ deals with sense and phenomena; ‘Mathematics’ with the same but more abstractly, in the a priori conditions of space and time; ‘Logic’ with the categories of the understanding; with ‘Noetics’ being the highest science, beyond ordinary logic, treating of ideas and first principles as ‘the evidence of reason’ (Logic, 44). This sense of contemplation is synonymous with reason, understood as the human access to Logos, and with noesis, as the inward beholding of ideas as formative, divine powers that order the moral and physical cosmos. So, my book could have been titled Coleridge’s Noetic Philosophy, although I think that Contemplative Philosophy better conveys the Christian frame of his thinking that is not at the fore in the more Platonically oriented term, ‘Noetic’.

3) Many studies of Coleridge focus on his early poetry, and while your book pays due attention to what you call his ‘imagination period’ (1795–1816), your focus is on the later part of his life (a second phase, stretching from 1816–30, examining the philosophy of ideas, and an overlapping third phase, covering 1822–34, focusing on theology).  What do you think are the main things that scholars have to gain from paying more attention to the later Coleridge?

One of the main things to gain, I think, by greater attention to the later writings is progression into Coleridge’s own project after he launches, with the symbols of the imagination, into the sea of ideas and then onto the ocean of a spiritual realism where he plumbs the depths of a cosmically aboriginal will and charts the skies of a philosophical theology of the ‘divine Ideas’. Twentieth-century Coleridge studies were dominated by his early imagination period, from John Livingston Lowes’ Road to Xanadu and his more-or-less associationist study of poetic process, and I. A. Richards’ secularized reduction in Coleridge on Imagination, to more thoroughly Coleridgean accounts that acknowledge symbolism beyond scientistic naturalism, such as Robert Penn Warren’s essay, ‘A Poem of Pure Imagination’, and Robert Barth’s sacramentalist study, The Symbolic Imagination. Lowes’ and Richards’ works were tours de force in terms of their authors’ aims, but they stripped Coleridgean theory of the metaphysics that motivated it, in line with the Anglophone philosophy of their time. Also, while volume 1 of Biographia Literaria remained entangled in an attempt to deduce and define the imagination, Coleridge was more at ease to move beyond this in The Statesman’s Manual, where the symbols of the imagination aim towards the ideas, the ‘self-circling energies of the reason’. His subsequent works continue this pursuit of reason and the ideas, the objects of contemplation. Coleridge insisted that while the imagination remained important for him, it was not an end point, but rather a means of reaching or anticipating the ideas of reason, the living powers, or rays of the Logos, as he sometimes puts it, that exist beyond the human mind and which give moral purpose and physical shape to the universe. I hope the thrill of this pursuit comes across in the book.

Regardless of one’s own philosophical outlook, Coleridge’s idealism is profound and fascinating. I think there is much good work to be done on how Coleridge uses his various modes of prose and poetry to pass on a spark or awaken readers to what he says cannot be contained within comprehension, and how he develops the ‘discourse of reason’ as a conceptual space that can be, as he puts it, enlightened by reason. This research area is fruitfully interdisciplinary, requiring analysis in terms of literature, linguistics, philosophy, history, and religion.

Coleridge’s aim through and beyond imagination, into reason and the ideas, did not come from an abrupt swerve after the Biographia, but already exists as a sensibility in the high points of his earlier writings, though it took him the rest of his life to work out his terms and arguments. I am thinking of sublime moments as when he gazes on the ‘moon dim-glimmering thro’ the dewy window-pane’ of his ‘sky-chamber’ in Valetta and is overtaken by an intuition of the deep connection of outer perception and inner significance as the ‘dim Awaking’ within of ‘Λογος [Logos] the Creator’ (Notebooks, 2: §§2370, 2546). And, going back to his poetic annus mirabilis, one finds numerous images of this sense of profound, noetic contemplation, such as the revelation or intimation of the soul and nature itself reflecting back to its supernatural source, in the symbolism of ‘the secret ministry of frost’ and its ‘silent icicles | Quietly shining to the quiet Moon’.

In my book, a culminating chapter on the ‘Limbo’ sequence of poems (1811) draws together various modes of contemplation, and its rejection, with Coleridgean thoughts on freedom, metaphysics, and eschatology, especially in relation to the writings of the mystic philosopher Jakob Böhme, who had a profound yet complicating influence on Coleridge. Coleridge drastically modified Böhme’s radically anti-hierarchical lines of thought into a Christian Platonist hierarchy while retaining elements such as the mystic thinker’s logic of qualities; an almost alchemical dynamic of transmutation; and the theo-philosophical precedence of will. The ‘Limbo’ sequence presents a breathtakingly bounded vision of all existence—and nothingness, or ‘blank Naught at all’—dramatically mapped out along opposed poles of dazzling contemplation, in heaven, and a steady but uncertain inner gazing, on earth, on the positive side, versus the light-shrinking, materialist moles, also on earth, the emaciated shades in Limbo, and the ‘Condensed Blackness, and Abyssmal Storm’ of Satan, the ‘Dragon’, at the diabolical, light-rejecting extreme of ‘positive Negation!’ While ‘Moles’, ‘Limbo’, and ‘Ne Plus Ultra’ are usually categorized as ‘later poems’, coming almost a decade years after ‘Dejection: An Ode’ (1802), they still occur within Coleridge’s ‘imagination’ period. I also draw on number of later poems in the book, such as ‘What is Reason?’ (1821–2, 1829), which directly relates to Coleridgean ‘Noetics’, and wish I could have had more space to discuss ‘What is Life?’ (1804), ‘Human Life’ (1811–15?), and ‘Self-Knowledge [Γνῶθι σεαυτόν]’ (1834?), three poems in which Coleridge returns over a very wide span of years to the ‘big questions’ of philosophy. Relatedly, Jim Mays has written to me to suggest that ‘Alice du Clós’ (1828–9)—which Mays explicates in an appendix to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner—surprisingly reinforces the argument of my book on the ethical need for contemplative purpose to steer an innocent but directionless will.

4) One of the canards about Coleridge is that he never finished anything.  To what extent do you see his philosophical thought as an achieved system, and to what extent an assemblage of fragments that don’t fully cohere?

In the prose books he brought to publication—from the Biographia; Statesman’s Manual; the revised, more philosophical Friend; Aids to Reflection; to Church and State—Coleridge not only pushes against his British contemporaries’ common-sense frames of commercialism, mechanism, and empiricism, and against the immanentizing tendencies of Kant, Schelling, and other German thinkers whose transcendental methods he redirected towards transcendence, he also advances an increasingly cohesive, positive philosophy. Besides these later works that he saw through the press, we also have his later letters; his Lectures on the History of Philosophy; the Logic; the Opus Maximum; Table Talk; the Marginalia; and the Notebooks, an invaluable record of the human mind inquiring into its own possibility and value, progressing interweaving filaments of thought over years and often decades. The Logic, as Robin Jackson’s historical and contextual introduction to the Bollingen edition emphasizes, is far from fragmentary, and two bound volumes exist in fair copy, volume 1 being 90 continuous folios, and volume 2 containing 467. Coleridge tried to publish it in 1823, 1826, and again in 1829. Although he wished to add a final section on the ‘Noetic’, or higher logic of ideas, the noetic material comes into its own through the Opus Maximum, Aids to Reflection, Church and State, many of his notes and letters, and numerous texts collected in Shorter Works and Fragments.

This ‘Noetic’ was the culmination of his philosophy, the spire, tapering towards ideas. My method of reconstruction involves a diachronic study of the development of his thought and a synchronic analysis of what I call the nodal points of his later philosophy, testing different statements against each other and locating points of stability. This method identified notable, recurrent patterns that are further illuminated by many of Coleridge’s own schemata, such as his Schellingian upward-and-downward ‘fountains’ of concepts, his tetracti and pentads, and various other, often chiastic, formulations, the tracing and inter-comparison of which brings out much of the internal coherence and dynamic structure that permeates his later work.

A fundamental and in some sense simple pattern of thought that Coleridge maintains throughout his middle and later writings is his unilinear, ‘upward’, reason- and Logos-directed hierarchy, where the spiritual and intelligible in nature and humanity is based on the empirical and sensible, which are in turn shaped and directed by the subsuming reason-in-nature. I shed further light on this in the book via a comparison of Coleridge’s hierarchy of intuitive and epistemic powers with Plato’s divided line (Republic, book 6) that proceeds from imagistic thought, through common-sense opinion, through more organized and abstract understanding, and then through dialectic and rational intuition to noesis, or contemplative reason. Coleridge’s counterpart to this Platonic progression is modified by his adding a chiastic mediation, which complicates the unidirectional line of development into a bipolar, circulating, or rather spiralling evolution. It is spiralling, or ‘refluent’ as Coleridge puts it, because despite the bipolarity and the mediating chiasmus (bridging spirit, ideas, and freedom, with matter, concepts, and mechanism), the tendency is idealizing, achieved via a downflow of reason to the sense and matter that it gives direction to, in an energizing, elevating circulation. This is one of the formative patterns of thought that structure Coleridge’s philosophy and give it internal coherence. Though his later thought was increasingly intellectualist, it was not in the style of cool reason divorced from feeling; rather, it was a heady blend of philosophy, religion, and the self-articulation of a deeply immersed and highly engaged mind thinking at its limits while feeling its implications.

The gravitational pull of transformative mediation—the crucible, or mixing middle, of chiasmus—shapes an otherwise simpler Christian Platonism into the characteristically Coleridgean philosophy. What distinguishes it even from other post-Kantian philosophies, i.e. those which also challenge Kant’s limits on metaphysical ambition regarding ultimate questions and intellectual intuition, is that Coleridge adheres to traditional Christian and Platonic views of the transcendence of the divine ideas. This is what draws him to the Prometheus myth, for to account for the possibility of the human intuition of transcendent reason, or ‘Nous’, requires that the mind which contemplates the transcendent is itself a spark of transcendence, and from this position on the transcendence of reason flow his streams of thought on human dignity, freedom, conscience, and the evolution of natural and human history.

So, while I do not argue that Coleridge presented a finished system with itemized propositions and scholia, I have charted what I found to be the organizing lineaments, articulating joints, and directing dynamics of his philosophy, in which reason is an ultimately subsuming and mindful Logos.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

Earlier this year saw the publication of The Philosophy of Rhythm: Aesthetics, Music, Poetics, a collection I co-edited for OUP, and Andy Hamilton and I plan to start work on volume 2 later this year. I’m looking forward, too, to getting back to a few works-in-progress on some quite diverse topics, including one-world versus two-world interpretations of Plato; Kierkegaard on spirit; and the paradox of fiction, or how we are moved by characters we know to be fictional. Also, because I cut about half the material from Coleridge’s Contemplative Philosophy, I have a few excised chapters that I should rearrange as journal articles.

Other directions include a couple of international, interdisciplinary projects that I’m running. One of those is on the ethics and aesthetics of imperfection, and I organized a conference on that at Kansai University, Osaka, a few weeks ago (February 2020). Three people pulled out of the symposium due to coronavirus worries, and the next conference I organized, at the University of Tokyo, had to be postponed for six months. That second project is called ‘Living Ideas: Dynamic Philosophies of Life and Matter, Reformation to Romanticism’. The project looks at how various idealist thinkers, such as the Cambridge Platonists, transcendental and/or transcendent idealists of various stripes, including, Kant, Schelling, and Coleridge, up to the objective idealism of Hegel, conceived the existence and development of matter and biological life.

Romantic Europe: The Virtual Exhibition

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A message from Alice Rhodes, BARS European Engagement Fellow (University of York)

Dear all,

Hopefully you’re staying safe and well in these challenging times. 

As many of us move our teaching and research online, we’d like to draw your attention to Romantic Europe: The Virtual Exhibition (RÊVE) as a digital resource to use both with your undergraduate and graduate students and in your own research.

From inkstands, books, and travelling cases to trees, clouds, and volcanos, RÊVE brings together iconic objects of Romanticism from across Europe alongside original commentary and cutting-edge research from academics and heritage professionals around the world. 

We’re now releasing new exhibits every Friday and you can follow us on Twitter (@euromanticism) for updates on our latest posts. We’d also love to hear how you’re making use of the exhibition in online teaching, whether it’s to explore the materiality and geography of Romanticism, as a research tool, a model for writing or research tasks, a creative prompt, a way of thinking about collections, curation and the way that objects speak to one another, or something else entirely. 

Last but not least, we’re delighted to announce the release of the first in our series of bi-weekly collections. The collections are designed to bring together individual exhibits from locations across Europe to facilitate productive juxtapositions and conversations. They are meant to make it easier to use the virtual exhibition. They are also meant to serve as a model for how users might themselves construct their own collections from within the virtual exhibition more generally. 

Our first collection, Romantic Authorship features “Petrarch’s Inkstand” by Nicola J. Watson, “The Table of Inkwells” by Jean-Marc Hovasse, “Adam Mickiewicz’s Tie Pin” by Małgorzata Wichowska, “Lord Byron’s Autograph at the Castle of Chillon” by Patrick Vincent, “Sir Walter Scott’s Elbow Chair: The Seat of Power” by Kirsty Archer-Thompson and “Two pages from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journal” by Jeff Cowton and can be viewed here

BARS First Book Prize 2019: Judges’ Report

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Thanks to everyone who submitted their first books to the 2017-2019 round. In total, the judging panel received 29 titles from which we created a short list of 8. In terms of gender breakdown, 14 of the nominated books were by men and 15 by women. Of the final 8, 3 books were by men and 5 by women with 3 published by Cambridge University Press, 2 by Oxford University Press, 1 by University of Virginia Press, 1 by Bucknell University Press and 1 by Palgrave. Shortlisted authors were based in the UK, the US and Australia. It was a real privilege to read across our dynamic field and encounter so much excellent work. Warm congratulations to all authors of first books, especially to the winners and runners up!

Claire Connolly (University College Cork; Chair), Daniel Cook (University of Dundee), Jane Moore (Cardiff University) and Mark Sandy (University of Durham).


Thomas H. Ford, Wordsworth and the Poetics of Air (Cambridge UP)

We are familiar with atmosphere as a figure that names the air that surrounds us: as historical situation, emotional environs or prevailing psychological climate. These metaphorical meanings draw on early modern discoveries in the natural sciences and began to circulate more generally in culture from around 1800. Thomas Ford’s book, Wordsworth and the Poetics of Air thinks about how, when and where this powerful new vocabulary of atmosphere took shape. The book guides readers through territory at once literal and figurative, helping us to see anew the elements, moods and impressions that seem to surround and pervade poems, novels and plays. In the writing of William Wordsworth in particular, and amidst the ‘winds, clouds, fogs, mists, breezes, breaths and sighs’ of romantic poetry more generally, Ford finds a vocabulary and grammar of atmosphere and air. The result is a wholly original and deeply researched book that joins literary, historical and environmental forms of interpretation in harmonious ways and offers a genuinely original reading of ‘Tintern Abbey’. Wordsworth and the Poetics of Air draws an impressive range of critical sources into the flow of its own argument and moves beyond new historicist and ecocritical readings alike in its reinterpretation of the ways in which form both breathes and is shaped by climate. The very permeability of atmosphere seems to be reproduced in the disciplines that surround and support Ford’s approach, as anthropology, chemistry, politics, philology, physiology, meteorology, philosophy and aesthetics all mediate and colour the work of literary criticism. Above all, Wordsworth and the Poetics of Air enables an address to Romanticism both as defined period or object of knowledge in the past and as the writing of an unfixed and uncertain present. For that we thank Thomas Ford warmly and are proud to confer upon him the BARS First Book Prize for 2019.


Melissa Bailes, Questioning Nature: British Women’s Scientific Writing and Literary Originality: 1750-1830 (Virginia UP)

An impressive new history that allows the natural sciences to reclaim a central cultural place via a close focus on the work of women writers of the period. The book shows how women writers appropriated the hierarchies of contemporary natural history and geology in order to subvert them for their own artistic, social, and political means. The book makes a very strong and deeply researched case for rethinking Romanticism’s engagement with discourses of natural history and revising established gendered readings of the period.

Manu Samriti Chander, Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century (Bucknell UP)

A strikingly original analysis of late nineteenth-century colonial poets who testify to the influence of an earlier nineteenth-century Romanticism while simultaneously calling into question its imperial ideology. The book tracks the experience of colonial marginalization across the empire, considering the crossing of universalist ideals and particular cultural experiences in the work of three poets in particular (Henry Derozio in India, Egbert Martin in British Guiana, and Henry Lawson in Australia). In its detailed research and close attention to newspapers as a publishing output for colonial poets, the book expands our understanding of Romanticism and reorients the field.

Dahlia Porter, Science, Form, and the Problem of Induction in British Romanticism (Cambridge UP)

An original and deeply researched book that makes a case for a new understanding of induction as both method and form in Romanticism, fresh and compelling in its attention to the composite forms that shape the Romantic book. Porter’s monograph addresses a key Romantic idea – that print is out of control – and finds historical, critical and cultural ways to reimagine that diagnosis as a constitutive aspect of Romanticism. Her argument extends from citational practices around 1800 to thinking about how composition becomes self-referential and historical by the 1820s and 1830s.

Update on the 2020 BARS ECR & PGR Conference

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The BARS ECR & PGR ‘Romantic Futurities’ Conference has been cancelled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but the organisers hope to offer a digital alternative to their delegates. Head over to the ‘Updates’ page on the ‘Romantic Futurities’ site for more information.

Romanticism: online resources list

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Following our recent call to share online resources, we’re delighted to say we’ve had a great response to this so far.

This list is not complete yet, as we are working through the messages received and adding to the list as time goes on. You can therefore still send us further resources to add to the list:

Please do let us know if we have missed anything!


Open University Openlearn
Free resources on Romanticism. An OpenLearn search by writer’s name (e.g. Byron, Shelley, De Quincey, Wordsworth, Hoffmann, Austen etc) will return plenty of hits. Search also by module code: specifically A207, AA316. Resources include images, audio, video, animations, BBC programmes and teaching materials including seminar-style and independent activities, all geared to undergraduate level.

Romantic Textualities
An online resource on ‘Teaching Romanticism’, in which contributors consider the ways in which we lecture on and discuss individual authors, whether during author-specific modules or broader period surveys.

NeuRoN: Digital Resources for Researching British Romanticism
Part of ‘Romanticism on the Net’. NeuRoN functions as a new nerve center for digital research on British Romanticism, offering a stable, extensive, and up-to-date catalog of web-based resources in the field. NeuRoN lists, describes, and links to online archives, databases, indexes, and editions that are at once sufficiently reliable for scholarly use and directly relevant to British literature and culture of the “Romantic Century” (1750-1850).

Romantic Europe: The Virtual Exhibition (RÊVE)
An online research project by European Romanticisms in Association (ERA), supported by BARS. The virtual exhibition is designed to address both an academic and a general audience as an interdisciplinary project showcasing and sharing Romantic texts, objects, and places through collaborations between academic researchers, museums, galleries and other cultural groupings.

The K-SAA Blog
News, articles and interviews from the Keats-Shelley Association of America (K-SAA). Recent features include the ‘What Are You Reading?’ series, which presents interviews with Romanticism scholars. They are also currently running a competition (open to all) with the Thomas Chatterton Society: can you write a new ode or elegy to Chatterton?

Romantic London
A research project exploring life and culture in London around the turn of the nineteenth century.

Romantic Circles
A refereed scholarly website devoted to the study of Romantic-period literature and culture.

The Real Percy Bysshe Shelley
A website featuring reflections on the philosophy, politics and poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The Shelley-Godwin Archive
Providing the digitised manuscripts of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft.

The Romanticism Blog via The Wordsworth Trust
Here you will find lively and engaging explorations of the literature, history and culture of the Romantic period (1750 to 1850) from a variety of contributors. 

Cambridge Core
Cambridge Core has made around 700 of its online texts open access until the end of May 2020.

Museo Glauco Lombardi
Museum in Parma with a collection of nineteenth-century art and cultural works. The collection is online (see main link above – there is a search tool), and they also present a virtual tour.

Shelley’s Ghost
Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family (via Bodleian Libraries) explores how the reputation of the Shelley-Godwin family was shaped by the selective release of documents and manuscripts into the public domain. It also provides a fascinating insight into the real lives of a family that was blessed with genius but marred by tragedy. Exhibits can be viewed online.

Catherine Redford’s Romanticism Blog
A blog on Romanticism that also has its own useful list of other online Romanticism resources!

The Free German Hochstift / Frankfurt Goethe Museum
View their digital catalogue, and two new online projects: ‘Gesichter für das Romantik-Museum’ (‘Faces for the Romantic Museum’) and ‘Das Album der Maxe von Arnim – Souvenirs aus Rom‘ (‘The album of the Maxe von Arnim – souvenirs from Rome’).

The John Clare Society
The journal is free to read online. You can also enjoy the actor Toby Jones reading Clare’s work, and the society have compiled a list of recordings and programmes about Clare.

The 18th-Century Common
A public humanities website for enthusiasts of eighteenth-century studies. The 18th-Century Common offers a public space for sharing the research of scholars who study eighteenth-century cultures with nonacademic readers.

The Online Resource for ERIN, or Europe’s Reception of the Irish Melodies and National Airs: Thomas Moore in Europe
This open-access resource charts the reception of music inspired by Lalla Rookh as well as the reception of the Irish Melodies and the National Airs from 1808-1880 through the following media: a union catalogue, a total of eight OMEKA collections and exhibits, over 50 recordings, and a blog.

The Keats Letters Project
By publishing each letter on the 200th anniversary of its original composition alongside reflections on that letter by some of today’s most exciting scholars and poets, the Keats Letters Project offers a new Keats for the 21st-century – one inspired by both the material traces of Romantic-period correspondence and our own digital media environment, and one that aims to respond to the playful, heartfelt, and speculative spirit of Keats’s letters.

Romantik: Journal for the Study of Romanticism

Enlightenment and Dissent, journal hosted by Queen Mary Centre for Religion and Literature in English

Dissenting Academies Online 

Peter Cochran’s annotated Byron texts 

Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net 

The Coleridge Bulletin
– back issues mostly available online. 

Works of Mary Hays, ed. Timothy Whelan. 

Timothy Whelan’s Romantic-period resources for the study of religious dissent 

CRIER Italian journal for Romantic studies
, articles in various languages including English.

Project: ‘Other languages, other weapons: English, French, German and Portuguese pro-Spanish poetry from the War of Independence (1808-14); edition, translation and study’

Forthcoming project: ‘The Poetry and Triennium project: English, German, Italian, Portuguese and French poetic texts on the Spanish liberal revolution (1820-1823)’

Online tours of Newstead Abbey (1. September 2019 Exhibitions, 2. Edward Burne-Jones) and YouTube videos (example – you can search for others).

Guerra e Historia Pública – a resource in English and Spanish, containing more than 600 resources and other items focusing on the Peninsular War.

‘What Jane Saw’ – You are invited to time travel to two art exhibitions witnessed by Jane Austen: the Sir Joshua Reynolds retrospective in 1813 or the Shakespeare Gallery as it looked in 1796.

Resources via British Library – Discovering Literature, Romantics and Victorians / Discovering Literature: Restoration and 18th Century / Picturing Places

Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present.


MOOC – Walter Scott: The Man Behind the Monument
Starts on Monday 23 March. This course was produced as a partnership between the Walter Scott Research Centre at the University of Aberdeen and Abbotsford, Scott’s home in the Scottish Borders. It was filmed mostly at Abbotsford and explores topics such as Scott’s ballad collecting, the work behind the production of the Edinburgh Editions of Scott’s fiction and poetry and the relationship between Scott’s collecting activities and creativity. 

Immersive courses at the Wordsworth Trust
The Trust can offer hour-long online sessions highlighting the collection, and showing students key texts and manuscripts. Includes discussions of original materials brought to life by the Trust’s experienced curatorial team.

MOOC – Jane Austen: Myth, Reality and Global Celebrity
Started 16 March 2020. Includes learning activities focusing on Austen and her novels, but also sections that present extracts from Mary Wollstonecraft and Hannah More on female education, early biographies and translations of Austen, as well as material on adaptation and more. Many videos were filmed at both Chawton House and the Jane Austen House museum and beyond.

MOOC – Writing the West: Literature and Place
The interactive aspect of this course is no longer present but people can still work their way through the articles, videos, and quizzes. This course focuses on writers from the late eighteenth- and nineteenth centuries associated with Bristol and the West Country: Samuel Coleridge, Robert Southey, Robert Lovell, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Thomas Hardy. It looks at both the importance of place to these writers and the importance of the writers to the culture and economy of the region today.  

MOOC – Robert Burns: Poems, Song, and Legacy
Opening soon, this free course from the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, University of Glasgow, will introduce you to the life, works and global celebrity of Robert Burns. You’ll examine poems, songs, manuscripts, and objects used to commemorate the poet. You’ll also develop your understanding of Robert Burns’s posthumous reputation – from Burns Suppers and Burns Night through to Hogmanay.


Resources from Wordsworth and Humphry Davy FutureLearn online courses:

Video: How did the Lake District inspire William Wordsworth’s poem ‘Michael’?

Video: Explore Dove Cottage – once home to Dorothy and William Wordsworth

Video: Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journal 3rd September 1800

Video: Wordsworth’s ‘Boat Stealing’

Video: Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature and the Lamp

Video: Overview of Davy’s Life

Video: Davy’s Nitrous Oxide Experiments

Video: Davy Among the Poets I 

Video: Davy Among the Poets II 


Several resources can also be found here on the BARS Blog, including:

The ‘Archive Spotlight’ series
Blog posts from researchers documenting their experiences of using an archive to look at Romanticism-related materials.

The ‘Five Questions’ series
Authors of new monographs discuss their research in Romanticism.

The ‘On This Day’ series
Blog posts celebrating the 200th anniversary of literary and historical events of the Romantic period.

The ‘Romantic Reimaginings’ series
A series of blogs that seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate.


Charlotte Smith and the Sonnet by Bethan Roberts

Jane Austen Speaks Norwegian: The Challenges of Literary Translation by Marie N. Sørbø

Irony and Idyll: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park on Screen by Marie N. Sørbø (eBook)

A list of recent Romanticism publications can be found here (via K-SAA).


‘Byron and Greece: A Poet’s Fight for Freedom’
A documentary about Byron’s last journey (free with a subscription to Amazon Prime).

Shelley’s The Cenci
As performed on Dec. 4, 2019 in London, Ontario (a #Romantics200 event). The theatre program at Western University staged this production of Shelley’s play from December 4-7 2019 at TAPS: The Arts Project Centre for Creativity.

Call to share online resources

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We hope all friends of BARS are keeping well in these challenging times. BARS Communications is seeking to develop our online community and conversations during this difficult, isolating period. Do you have any recommendations for online resources, related to teaching/research in Romanticism, that you think could be useful for members and followers of BARS? If so, please send ideas for bulletins to: and we will circulate a collated list via email and on social media. 

You can join the BARS community on Twitter (@BARS_Official), and on Facebook by searching for ‘British Association for Romantic Studies’.

– Anna Mercer (Communications Officer)