An engrossing review of the 2016 winter school written by Brandon Chao-Chi Yen shall help prepare your expectation:
by Brandon Chao-Chi Yen
We left Cambridge early on Monday 22 February, the first day of what would turn out to be an utterly unforgettable week. Blackthorn flowers lined the A1 in heavy clusters. Milky-white in the long, mellow light of February, they were a lovely contrast to those yellow tufts of ragwort that blaze under the August sky near Scotch Corner. Cumbria was still recovering from December’s flood damages – roads were being repaired, and debris could be seen along the road, in the woods and fields. Instead of taking the usual route from Keswick to Grasmere, we drove along the western shore of Ullswater, up the Kirkstone Pass, and down the Struggle. As we descended the Kirkstone Pass, Wordsworth’s Kirkstone Ode sprang to mind: ‘Hope, pointing to the cultured Plain, | Carols like a shepherd boy’. Two gravid sheep smiled at us. The promise was great. We reached Rydal in good time to receive Gordon Bottomley and Carrie Taylor’s hearty welcome. Old Rydal was tremendously beautiful in this season, despite the damaged road – another gaping wound caused by the floods – sloping down from Rydal Mount to the A591.
This year’s Winter School – organised around the theme of Wordsworth & Coleridge Reinvent Themselves? Poetry & Prose after 1814 – featured nine fabulous lectures. Will Christie and David Chandler elucidated the complexities of three important Romantic prose works. Will’s lecture delved into the ‘derangement’ of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, asking one question that has vexed readers since Coleridge’s time: ‘how do we make it cohere?’. Will suggested that Biographia Literaria could be read as Coleridge’s attempt to establish a ‘taste’, ‘attitude’ and ‘authority’ and to achieve ‘self-composure’, ‘self-composition’ and ‘personal authentication’. The lecture culminated with a close reading of Coleridge’s treatment of Michelangelo’s Moses at the end of Chapter 21 of Biographia Literaria, an episode which, Will argued, epitomised the kind of ‘comprehensive and intensive reading’ that Coleridge espoused in Biographia Literaria.
David Chandler’s lecture looked at Wordsworth’s 1815 Preface and ‘Essay, Supplementary’. David proposed to read these two prose documents – first published in Poems (1815) – as the ‘outside door’ and ‘inside door’ of the ‘gothic Church’ to which Wordsworth compares his poetry in the Preface to The Excursion (1814). These ‘doors’, David argued, reflected not so much the purpose of worship as that of fortification against a long siege. David offered a close analysis of the authoritative, but often-ambiguous, manner in which Wordsworth presented his ideas in the Preface and ‘Essay, Supplementary’, suggesting that it was in the spirit of the 1815 ‘system’ that ‘the latter half of Wordsworth’s career commenced’.
Stephen Gill’s lecture, beautifully read by Helen Boyles, examined Wordsworth’s ‘vocational crisis’ in the context of post-Napoleonic socio-political and economic turmoil, as well as Wordsworth’s own domestic, financial and creative anxieties in the period between 1815 and 1819. Stephen focused upon two poems composed in 1817 and first published in The River Duddon (1820): ‘Ode Composed upon an Evening of Extraordinary Splendour and Beauty’ and ‘Ode: The Pass of Kirkstone’. The textual complexities in these odes, Stephen convincingly showed, witnessed how Wordsworth – even in his ‘vocational crisis’ – remained resolved, as Seamus Heaney states in his poem ‘A Daylight Art’, to ‘practise the art’.
Three other lectures afforded valuable insights into Wordsworth’s poetry. Anthony Harding cogently analysed several poems from The River Duddon (1820), Ecclesiastical Sketches (1822) and elsewhere, assessing Wordsworth’s claim to be a ‘national poet’. Anthony concentrated upon those moments in Wordsworth’s poetry when ‘remote locales’ and ‘local attachments’ became imbued with a national significance capable of reaching a wide British audience. The lecture looked closely at how Wordsworth regarded the Church as embodying the nation’s past, present and future, and how Wordsworth’s poetry, through images such as ruined castles and torrents, exerted a ‘unifying force’, offering ‘reassuring signs’ of continuity to the nation.
Richard Gravil’s lecture on Tone presented very helpful ‘notes towards a general theory of Wordsworthian Dislocation’. The word ‘dislocation’, as Richard pointed out, came from an 1804 letter to Thelwall, where Wordsworth elucidated how the ‘passion’ of the subject may lead to the ‘dislocation of the verse’, that is, of the ‘general rule’ of his metrical arrangements. In the letter, Wordsworth rejected strict ‘limits to the dislocation of the verse’: ‘I know none that may not be justified by some passion or other’. Richard selected a few prominent passages – from The Excursion, Home at Grasmere and elsewhere – and carefully teased out the effects created by varying numbers and positions of beats and caesuras in individual lines. The lecture also provided fresh insights into the uses of italics in the 1850 Prelude, with the italicised words contributing to what Wordsworth called the ‘variety of musical effect’, which could inflect our understanding of the poem’s meaning.
Peter Dale’s lecture, Lyrical Ballads and Ballad Lyrics, explored the influences of sung – as distinct from printed – ballads upon Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads. Through attention to a series of ballads and songs which had been enjoyed and sung by the common people long before Percy, Scott and others printed them, Peter argued that ‘the Lyrical Ballads share a well-spring with a very deep-stained, penetrating, but not necessarily immediately visible culture of popular myth, popular religion’. It was through partaking of this ‘culture’ that traditional ballads distilled a sense of Englishness. Peter then offered a remarkably nuanced analysis of how this ‘culture of popular myth, popular religion’ – with particular reference to the Passion – fed into one of Wordsworth’s lyrical ballads, ‘The Thorn’. At the close of his lecture, Peter elegantly and convincingly posited a ‘Common Muse’, ‘a library of stories and symbols and ideas, a frame of mind, that secularises the originally sacred, that makes numinous the primitively secular’ and that ‘makes connections between the high arts and the folk-loric hand-weave’.
Two brilliant lectures looked at Coleridge’s poems. Joanna Taylor presented a rich account of how ‘Christabel’ was received in and after 1816, the year of its first publication. The lecture traced the afterlives of ‘Christabel’ in several nineteenth-century re-writings, parodies, burlesques and sequels, including William Frederick Deacon’s ‘The Dream, a Psychological Curiosity’ (1824), the anonymous, sexually explicit Christabess (1816) and Martin Tupper’s ‘Geraldine: A Sequel to Coleridge’s Christabel’ (1839). But despite her focus upon reception, Jo did not pass over Coleridge’s textual nuances. Rather, she paid admirably close attention to the ‘chaunt’ and the ‘voice in “Christabel”’. The lecture closed with an account of Christabel’s significance in Coleridge’s own family, as well as the recurrence of the name Christabel (on some very unexpected occasions!) in the 1870s and beyond.
Fred Burwick’s lecture looked at ‘Kubla Khan’, another of Coleridge’s great poems published in 1816. Fred examined the genesis of ‘Kubla Khan’, noting the nuances involved in Coleridge’s claims of ‘profound sleep’ and ‘Reverie’, as well as contemporary critical reactions to the poem. Bringing Coleridge’s theory of imagination in Biographia Literaria to bear upon ‘Kubla Khan’, Fred carefully analysed the ‘primary and secondary visions’ in the poem, which he regarded as composed of two parts. Fred’s masterful reading charted out the spatial and conceptual movements in ‘Kubla Khan’, along with the socio-political background and literary sources such as the story of Arethusa in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Mount Amara in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
On 25 February, we spent the afternoon in the Jerwood Centre. There, Debbie Pfuntner gave an illuminating lecture on Dorothy Wordsworth’s re-invention of herself, through her commonplace book, during the Rydal years. Debbie explained the differences between early modern commonplace books and commonplace books in the Romantic period, elucidating how Dorothy Wordsworth’s commonplace book broke new ground in combining personal, literary works with more conventional materials. Impressively, the lecture showcased such lovely manuscript details as sealing wax, stitches, a sketch of a landscape garden, newspaper clippings, and handwriting showing Dorothy Wordsworth’s compositional processes. The rest of the afternoon was spent in the Wordsworth Museum, where, after an introductory talk by Jeff Cowton, we enjoyed the exhibition Shepherds to Char-a-bancs. Curated by the Grasmere History Society, the exhibition provided precious glimpses of social life in nineteenth-century Grasmere: real and tangible histories seen through maps, writings, drawings, photographs, household objects and tools.
The lectures – jargon-free but nevertheless intellectually stimulating – were supplemented by seminar discussions, where participants from different backgrounds shared their ideas about poetry and prose. The seminars were by no means hair-splittingly academic, and there were moments when some passing comments – and even smiles and gestures – reminded us of why we loved and studied literature in the first place. Another attractive feature of the Winter School was the poetry readings by Richard Gravil and John Rowe, both of whom did full justice to the musical qualities and tonal complexities of Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s poems. These readings – covering the texts analysed in the following day’s lectures – helped us grasp the lectures more easily. On the evening before his lecture, for example, Richard’s spellbinding reading of passages from The Excursion and Benjamin the Waggoner vividly illustrated how and why Wordsworth’s varying metrical arrangements are crucial to our understanding of these poems.
The glorious weather lasted all week, making the daily walks and excursions immensely enjoyable. The walkers conquered Nab Scar, Alcock Tarn and Helm Crag. The excursionists visited three Cumbrian churches, Brantwood, Swarthmoor Hall and Cumbria Crystal. The Italianate Hoy Trinity Church was serenely perched upon a hilltop in Brathay. Under a sturdy yew tree, the churchyard of Holy Trinity bloomed with daffodils, and there were a couple of Celtic crosses – very beautiful indeed. Jesus Church in Troutbeck is celebrated for its Pre-Raphaelite east window. There, we basked in the light cascading through the richly patterned garments of the saints. We admired the exuberant greenery designed by William Morris and then spotted the four trout that gave a local flavour to the magnificent stained glass. The churchyard was breath-taking: snowdrops endowed the place with an ethereal otherworldliness, and the pair of Irish yews flanking the gate exuded a dignity not to be matched by marble and gilded monuments. St Mary’s Church in Ambleside was equally good, even though, situated in a bustling town, it did not partake of so much mountain solitude. There we stood amazed by Gordon Ransom’s 1944 wall painting of Ambleside’s ‘rush bearing’ ceremony.
The second excursion took us to Brantwood. We marvelled at Ruskin’s manuscripts, drawings, and various household objects. Ruskin’s gardens were still enjoying their sweet winter slumbers, but the Zig-Zaggy – a garden based upon Ruskin’s sketches and representing Dante’s Purgatorial Mount – was refreshingly interesting even in this season (with a tremendous woollen knot on the terraces symbolising ‘the choices in your journey from Anger’!). Below Brantwood, Coniston Water throbbed with life. White yachts shimmered under the clear blue sky. The lake and the snow-capped hills on the far side looked like a pastel drawing, so soft and harmonious.
The final excursion brought us to Swarthmoor Hall, a stern-looking sixteenth-century mansion known as the cradle of the Quaker movement. The tour guide brought back to life the early days of the Religious Society of Friends, shedding light on those furnishings, carvings, costumes, draperies and paintings that quietly preserved the history of a vastly influential movement in a secluded nook of Ulverston. We wrapped up the excursion by visiting Ulverston’s Cumbria Crystal Factory, where we observed the glassmaking processes and feasted our eyes on the exquisite glassware.
Under the new directors Gordon Bottomley and Claire Lamont, this year’s Winter School had two innovations. The evening of 24 February saw a lively debate, Fred Burwick and Will Christie on one side, Richard Gravil and Patricia Welch’s Rabbit (!) on the other. The motion was: ‘This House believes that STC was more influential than WW in the post-war years, 1815-1820’. Arguing for STC, Fred highlighted Coleridge’s international reputation in Italy and Germany. Richard, on the other hand, admitted that Wordsworth’s influence was much more visible in the later nineteenth century and the twentieth century, but he also underscored Wordsworth’s generative influence upon writers in 1815-1820, such as Byron in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Shelley in ‘Mont Blanc’. Countering Richard’s argument, Will suggested that if we considered literature in a wider sense, Coleridge’s influence could be seen in Mill, Carlyle, Arnold and others, and this influence survived into the twentieth-century English curriculum and beyond. Lastly, through Richard’s mouth, the Rabbit (now revealed as Sir Herbert Read!) eloquently argued for the ‘magnitude’ of Wordsworth’s influence: ‘the course of literature in the nineteenth century was determined by Wordsworth’. The debate ended in a jovial mood, with Richard and the Rabbit winning the laurels.
The second new event was an amusing play written and directed by David Chandler: The Siege of Dove Cottage; or, The Savage Tamed. The excellent cast included David Chandler himself, Peter Shrubb, Peter Christie, Tony Reavell, Joanna Taylor and John Rowe. The play – featuring Coleridge’s (John Rowe’s) mesmerising recitation of ‘Kubla Khan’, which ‘tamed’ an English outlaw – earned much hearty laughter. The actors deserved to be commended for their subtle interpretations of the roles, particularly demanding if you were The Door. It is hoped that performances of a comparable nature will be staged again in the future.
The traditional last night of readings and music on 26 February proved to be a splendid gallimaufry of items ranging from the musical to the dramatic to the poetic, with a walk-on part for Piet de Jong’s dog Joop. And a good time was had by all, in expectation of meeting again in twelve months’ time.