Report from ‘Romanticism and the South West’: day conference, 29th June 2015, University of Bristol

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Goldney Hall, Bristol

I arrived in Bristol on a rainy Sunday. Fortunately, the summer weather soon returned and by Monday morning on the 29th July I was in the beautiful surroundings of Goldney Hall, Clifton, feeling thoroughly inspired by the talks at the conference on ‘Romanticism and the South West’. It was a day that reminded me just why a non-sentimental evaluation of the significance of place for Romantic authors is so important. As the conference blurb explains:

The South West is sometimes no more than a tableau for Romantic writers, a wild region of myth and mystery, exciting because so different from the urbanity of London. But for other writers the region is essential to their writing, less a concept than an active element in how they thought and wrote.

The day was organised by Ralph Pite and his doctoral students and colleagues. The conference incorporated a wide range of papers on both established and lesser-known connections between the Romantic period and the South West (including Bristol, Devon, Somerset, and South Wales). There was a clear focus throughout on well-researched discoveries of connections, on crucial insights and on the appreciation of the texts written by the authors discussed. There were some fantastic readings of poetry given in detailed context revealing just how important this area of the world was for the Romantics, and still is to the study of Romanticism.

The conference’s legacy is embodied in an exciting new app called ‘Romantic Bristol: Writing the City’. This can be found on Apple’s App Store and downloaded for free (just search ‘Romantic Bristol’). The app features an interactive map of Bristol locations associated with Romanticism. If you allow the app to see your location, the app will also ‘supply GPS data […] to a secure database in the University, that will show users’ pathways through the environment, their choices, preferences and explorations.’ This will allow researchers to ‘study how people choose to walk through a city, with raised awareness of its history and culture but not following a guidebook track’. I’ve already had a go: it’s easy to use and full of detailed information about the city and its links to this period in history.

The first plenary talk at the conference was by Nick Groom, and he discussed the Bristolian writer Thomas Chatterton as a Gothic/Romantic author but not in the traditional sense of Walpole’s Gothic; instead he considered Chatterton in the context of the Gothic of antiquarian political/social history (therefore less the Gothic of medievalist terror). This was an interesting reading of the poetry Chatterton wrote as he began his (albeit very short) poetical career in the West Country before moving to London.

The panel following this considered ‘Landscape and Verse’: Adrian J. Wallbank discussed S T Coleridge’s Kubla Khan and the Valley of Rocks near Lynton, Exmoor. Could this ‘desolate’ landmark have been a vital inspiration for the astounding imagery in that poem, written during Coleridge’s residence in Somerset? Sites like this in the West Country allowed Coleridge to explore his study of science (it being a natural phenomenon) and also his interest in the supernatural. Wallbank’s talk was taken from a chapter that will appear in the forthcoming book Romantic Sustainability. A joint paper by Catherine Boyle and Phil Vellender followed, discussing the materiality of P B Shelley’s verse: in particular his sonnet ‘On Launching Some Bottles Filled with Knowledge into the Bristol Channel’. There were some fascinating close readings here, as after considering the early materialism in Shelley’s poetry (in contrast to his later immateriality), Boyle and Vellender considered the concept of the Romantic sonnet and the links to Leigh Hunt’s writing circle, and Shelley’s experimentation with poetical forms. Sue Edney concluded the panel with a discussion on Chatterton and William Barnes. She considered ‘semantic redundancy’, the purity of language as a suitable medium for classical expression, and the paradox of Romantic ideas of purity and the Gothic. Her talk also included prose from Ruskin and concluded with Coleridge’s stunning lines from ‘Frost at Midnight’, composed of course, at Nether Stowey, a small town less than 40 miles from Bristol, and the birthplace of Lyrical Ballads:

But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze

By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags

Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,

Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores

And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear

The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible

Of that eternal language, which thy God

Utters, who from eternity doth teach

Himself in all, and all things in himself.

Attention to the Gothic and landscape in this panel conjured up the image of the South West as a wild, untameable place, and a definite contrast to London.


The afternoon plenary talk (after an al fresco lunch in the stunning gardens of the venue) was by Tim Fulford. One of his many academic roles is editor of the letters and works of Robert Southey. Entitled ‘Oxygenating Romanticism; or, Humphry Davy goes to Tintern’, this paper considered the eighteenth-century scientific experiments in ‘vital air’ or oxygen and how this corresponds to stimulation as a factor in poetic inspiration: i.e. inspiration revitalises the mind of the poet, and ‘over-stimulation’ and ‘under-stimulation’ were considerations in the progressions of health science. Fulford considered Humphry Davy’s excursion to the Wye and his experiments with a eudiometer. In going to Tintern Abbey, Davy wanted to back up Wordsworth’s enthusiastic nature-worship with objective measures – this would also validate his own poetry. Fulford reminded us that the great Romantic lyric is a creation of the 1790s in the West Country. Coleridge appeared in this paper too: in Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, July 13, 1798’ the poet echoes Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’ by being soothed in nature, a consequence of being over-stimulated by the city:

                                         And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.


The two final panels entitled ‘Landmarks’ and ‘The Radical South West’ presented four more fascinating papers. Annika Bautz gave a history of Plymouth Public Library, built in 1811-13. Plymouth’s geographical location produced a need for such an establishment so that people could access key texts. Julia S. Carlson discussed Wordsworth’s ‘The Discharged Soldier’: I found this talk particularly interesting in the way in which it considered Dorothy’s role as a collaborator in 1798 and the start of the Alfoxden journal. Dorothy’s prose response to a place would later initiate Wordsworth’s developments in blank verse. John Williams continued the discussion on Wordsworth with a paper on The Ruined Cottage and the influence of William Crowe, an eccentric public orator at Oxford who wrote ‘Lewesdon Hill’. Crowe’s work referred to areas around Racedown, Dorset that Wordsworth knew well. Kerry Sinanan’s talk on John Stedman’s ‘Tiverton connections’ considered the role of irony and satire in abolitionist and anti-slavery texts, and how this links to Tiverton, a town in Devon, where Stedman eventually settled with his wife and children.

The keynote address was given by Tim Dee: writer and BBC radio producer, editor of The Poetry of Birds (with Simon Armitage) and author of ‘The Running Sky – A Birdwatching Life’. His talk, entitled ‘The Mild, Mild West’, is difficult to sum up because of its range: its content included personal recollections, an ‘album of snapshots’ attempting to capture the concept of ‘Romanticism in the South West’. As Bristol PhD candidate Rachel Murray put it on Twitter:

Dee considered Bristol in a tender and engaging way as the most rurally inflicted of the UK’s major cities. Dee’s work and time spent with Simon Armitage links to Armitage’s own 2015 expedition of the South West Coast Path, documented in his book Walking Away and recently featured on Radio 4’s ‘Book of the Week’.

Coleridge was again the star of the show here, as Dee’s favourite Romantic poet. Coleridge’s ‘The Nightingale’ is the first recorded reference to a nightingale in the West Country – it is not a bird usually found in those parts. Dee has lived in Bristol most of his life, and therefore his talk included comic notes on ‘romantic’ (i.e. personal) love and affection which were very touching and clever, but he also included serious comments on the ephemeral nature of life. Dee placed emphasis on the brilliant effects one can experience if they visit a favourite poet’s former abode – such as Coleridge’s house in Clevedon where he wrote ‘The Eolian Harp’ – and how amazing it feels to be there and be surrounded by the same air as that which the poem was written in. Though Dee’s talk was very broad and touched on so many subjects, it also felt at times like we were tracing a part of Coleridge’s journey through the West Country in the years leading up to the creation of Lyrical Ballads. Dee’s talk included one of my favourite quotes from Coleridge’s notebooks, on the inquisitiveness of his first-born son, Hartley:

Tuesday – Hartley looking out of my study window fixed his eyes steadily & for some time on the opposite prospect, & then said – Will yon Mountains always be?

Overall, the day represented for me a recent focus in academia/Romantic studies on the importance of literary places – by focusing on the South West, this conference took us from Pre-Romanticism and Chatterton to Shelley and Coleridge and beyond. Don’t forget to download the app (‘Romantic Bristol’)!

Anna Mercer, PhD Candidate at the University of York