'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

Page 1

by Peter Fiennes
 
It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing is just the fading memory of someone sitting in a favourite chair, or leaning against the table they once spent so much time laying and clearing. The discarded photograph only slowly bleaches to white. But anyone who has ever visited the fields and trenches of the Somme has felt the loss and desolation in the air. So much trauma and death, they say, has seeped into the landscape that the texture of the world has been changed. In Simon Schama’s extraordinary book Landscape and Memory, he suggests that it is ‘our shaping perception that makes the difference between raw matter and landscape’. In other words, it’s us that make the difference, and it’s our culture-bound minds that shape what we see and feel in the world – although, as Schama roams through the Polish forests where his ancestors once worked as loggers, he does leave behind a little sliver of doubt.
 
I have less rigour – or more credulity – which is why I’m standing at the head of an obscure wooded valley in north Devon, not far from the village of Porlock, trying to pick up the ghostly presence of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It was here – or it was probably here – in a farmhouse just above this wood, that Coleridge fell into a drugged sleep after a long day’s walking, and woke to find that he had a poem fully formed in his mind, just waiting to be poured onto the page. The poem – the fragment of a poem – was ‘Kubla Khan’ and there would have been even more of it – it would, I am sure, have answered every question we have ever had about life, death, art, love and nature – but just as Coleridge was poised to reveal the secrets of the world ‘a person on business from Porlock’ came knocking, and Coleridge lingered too long at the door, and when he rushed back to his room to finish it, the poem had evaporated. Or so he tells us. And it’s certainly a more original excuse than ‘the dog ate it, Miss’. But imagine being the owners of this lonely farmhouse, just above –

 that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

 Fiennes post trees
Imagine having this man turn up at your home one night, exhausted but raving about demon lovers and the waning moon, high on opiates, crashing late and then lurching from his bed to answer your door, scaring the life out of your cousin from Porlock, scattering fragments of genius from his torn notebooks. Imagine trying to tell him, gently, that they’re not ‘cedars’ in the woods, but ‘woaks, Sir, woaks’. You’d be pleased to see the back of him, although for several months, through the years 1797 and 1798, Coleridge haunted these lonely woods, hills and slippery coastal paths. He walked for miles, for days, unable to settle at home (which was twenty-five miles from here in Nether Stowey); restlessly seeking out his neighbour, Wordsworth, and shaking him with a thrashy torrent of ideas and poetry; plunging through ‘wood and dale’ and ‘forests ancient as the hills’. ‘Kubla Khan’ is an explosion; it’s about creativity, or sex, or what it means to have bipolar disorder – we don’t know, except that it contains wild truths. And Coleridge, like Kipling, understood that all true magic must come in threes:
 

Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

 
Well, we’ve heard it before, but it still packs a punch – and even more so if you are standing at the head of the valley, looking down at the wooded coombe just below the isolated farmhouse, where Coleridge first conjured this magic. It is May Day, traditionally the first day of spring, when the sun returns to a frost-ravaged land, and if I were a young maiden I should be wading through the dew at the foot of the hawthorn tree that is blossoming fretfully to my left, alone in a field of hungry young sheep. At my back is a dark line of pine trees (what else?), looming over the valley and being slapped around by a strong wind, but ahead and down the steep hill to the coombe is a more ancient land, a quieter spot, with a mass of broadleaf trees hazed in their first outpourings of green and, beyond them, a gratifyingly sunless sea.
Hawthorn_Blossom
 
The first day of spring is always a hard date to agree. Is it the vernal equinox, in most years falling on 21 March? Or is it, as the old tradition had it, on 1 May? Our ancestors lived in colder times, when the River Thames would freeze and the winters were bleak. To complicate matters, what is now 1 May was, until 1752, 19 April; and what is now 11 May was the old May Day. This is when the British calendar ‘lost’ eleven days, when the ‘Julian’ Calendar was replaced by the new-fangled ‘Gregorian’ one, and there were riots in the fields and the churches. Mrs J.H. Philpot in her 1897 book The Sacred Tree or The Tree, Religion and Myth has this story about the changing calendar and its effect on an offshoot of the Glastonbury Thorn that had survived in Quainton, Buckinghamshire:

 “[It] suddenly sprang into fame again when the new style was introduced into the Calendar in 1752, and the people, resenting the loss of their eleven days, appealed from the decision of their rulers to the higher wisdom of the miraculous tree. According to the Gentlemen’s Magazine for 1753, about two thousand people on the night of 24th December 1752 came with lanthorns and candles to view the thorn-tree, ‘which was remembered (this year only) to be a slip from the Glastonbury thorn.’ As the tree remained bare the people agreed that 25th December, N.S., could not be the true Christmas-day, and refused to celebrate it as such. Their excitement was intensified when on 5th January the tree was found to be in full bloom, and to pacify them the authorities were driven to decree that the old Christmas-day should be celebrated as well as the new.”

Glastonbury_thorn

 
These days, the levels of consumption required to feed two Christmases every year would probably spell the end of the planet, but I mention Mrs Philpot’s exciting story because it doesn’t feel quite like spring yet, here on the hill above Coleridge’s coombe, with only that lonely hawthorn and a straggle of gorse in bloom (and when is the gorse ever not?).
 
The edges of woods are not simple places and it is sometimes not easy to pass from the open land into the close, skyless company of trees. I am walking down a flinty path, flanked by ragged hedgerows and curious lambs, with the sun now tentatively shining on the valley. Maybe it’s this sudden soft bath of sunshine, but there is an invisible barrier between the sunny fields and the dark wood, and it does take something – not courage, exactly, but a conscious effort – to step from the light into the shade. Once through the gate, though, I am home in the trees’ familiar embrace. Or, as John Clare would say:

 And this old gate that claps against the tree
The entrance of spring’s paradise should be.

‘Wood Pictures in Spring’

 
It is right, I think, to pause and lean on a gate at the edge of a wood, before passing through. In any case, there is a man coming up the woodland path, twisting through the trees, and just as he reaches me a cuckoo calls from higher up the valley, the first I’ve heard for years. ‘That was nice, wasn’t it?’ says the man, his face hidden under a broad-brimmed hat, ‘a cuckoo on 1st May’.
cuckoo
 
May Day should be a day of magic. The cuckoo is a sign of a happy marriage, or of imminent adultery, although it is hard to see how it can be both. Always carry elder twigs (they will help you quell the urge to commit adultery)… or sew them into your lover’s pockets. The cuckoo’s calls follow me down into the coombe, past light drifts of bluebells, fat young clumps of nettle and crowds of low-growing holly bushes, now fading back into the woods with the greening of spring. There are violets by the side of the path, their soft lilac faces marked by ‘honey guides’, the pale white tracks that have evolved to steer insects into their pollen-rich hearts. They’re rather like a runway’s landing lights, set up to bring the aircraft safely home; and I’m thinking that this coombe, with its infallible path, could be my own personal honey guide, drawing me in, looking for something out of the ordinary. Honey-dew, perhaps. That would… well, that would make it all worthwhile.
 
I pass a very grand holly tree, growing wild and jagged around its battered old trunk. I can hear the river now as it hastens towards the sea, and then I can see it, a tight-runnelled, restless stream, hustling past bracken and moss-drenched rocks, throwing up sprays of icy light. Coleridge must have walked this way, not so very long ago, and watched the river leap and tumble. And he will have known this oak tree, its great trunk and branches hung about with spring ferns, its young, lime-green leaves tinged with a fading red. There’s a tiny, sunken church here, in a tenuous clearing in the woods, and I sit and watch the river race by.
Culbonechurch
 
The sea is very close, although it is quiet and hidden from view. There are no cars, no people, just birdsong – and sunlight and lichen mottling the ancient church walls. There are sycamores all around, but I am thinking of lime trees, and their slow retreat from the woods, and of Coleridge writing in his prison bower, and of the time I came walking over the South Downs, scrambling down wild rabbit paths, through overgrown woods of ash and chestnut, and then, dropping down the banks of a dizzying gulley, I slipped and sprawled into the last remnants of a lime tree copse, about ten immense trees hidden in fountains of green from the grip of the modern world. They cannot have been coppiced or cut for centuries. These woods must have been here when the Saxons carved their farms from the Sussex Weald, or even earlier, when the Romans drove the British tribes from their hilltops and forests and marched them into slavery. I kneel and crane to look up at the limes’ scoured trunks, their fragile summer leaves, the beech trees all around, crowding in, and then, under a half-fallen elder tree, pushing through last year’s leaves, I find a very young lime sapling. It is heartbreaking, the sight of this slender thread with its five green leaves and blood-red buds, hiding in the last refuge of a long-vanished forest. I don’t know why, but staring at this sapling, with the holy warmth of these lost limes at my back, fills me with grief and joy.
 
In fact, I think there’s only one thing I do know, as I sit in the shadow of Coleridge, waiting for magic to emerge from the woods on this first day in May. If you go looking, it won’t be there.
 
 
 
© Copyright Peter Fiennes 2018. All rights reserved.
 
This is an edited extract from ‘Oak and Ash and Thorn: the ancient woods and new forests of Britain by Peter Fiennes (Oneworld Publications). The book explores our long relationship with the woods – their history, folklore and conservation – and the sad and violent story of how so many have been lost. 
Peter Fiennes
Peter Fiennes was the publisher of Time Out Guides – and is also the author of To War with God, an account of his grandfather’s time as a chaplain at the front in World War I.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

David Bowie and Romanticism

Page 1

By Matthew Sangster, Emily Bernhard Jackson, Joanna Taylor and Beatrice Turner
 
In thinking about the developments of the Romantic period, scholars often place a great deal of emphasis on examining works’ receptions around the time of their original composition or publication. However, in re-inscribing the importance of Romantic-period developments, it is important to acknowledge the continuing power that Romantic authors and works exert in the present, where they continue to foster moments of inspiration, re-engagement and reconfiguration. As the Wordsworth Trust’s ongoing work demonstrates, Romanticism is in many respects a movement that continues to happen, shaping the ways in which we think about nature, consciousness, art and selfhood. While the ideas developed by writers like William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Jane Austen and John Clare have been altered and modified in the centuries since their deaths, their influences linger on in modern art in diffuse but potent manners.
David-Bowie_Chicago_2002-08-08_photoby_Adam-Bielawski
Our panel at the British Association for Romantic Studies conference sought to explore these enduring patterns of influence by focusing on an artist who seemed to us to be both powerfully inspired by elements of Romanticism and capable of realising new aspects of its potential. If the rock stars of the sixties presented themselves in manners that were often unreconstructedly Romantic, David Bowie offered a series of self-aware alternatives to this model, challenging many of its underlying assumptions about masculinity, sexuality, genius, aesthetics and performance. His oeuvre engages with a number of common Romantic-period themes – including desire, drugs, innocence, space, death, identity and the nature of childhood – but it also pushes forward in manners that iterate on, improve and sometimes reject previous Romantic conceptions. Through examining this multifaceted and self-consciously constructed artist and his works, we sought to consider how Romantic-period modes of making art and selves constitute a living tradition that later artists have drawn upon and challenged in their seeking to improve our ways of being, seeing and understanding.
 
The accounts below give a sense of the angles from which each of us approached Bowie’s engagements with Romanticism.
 
Beatrice Turner
Hunky Dory (1971) is a record in which things are everything but, voiced from the caustic perspective of the kids who have been left, as ‘Changes’ has it, ‘up to our necks in it’ by their parents’ generation. At its centre, however, is ‘Kooks’, a track which I’ve always found far more compelling than it seemed to deserve, and a strange choice to place at the album’s heart. Set against the lyrical cynicism and extravagant orchestrations of ‘Oh You Pretty Things’ or ‘Life on Mars’, or the visionary anti-prophecy of ‘Quicksand’, ‘Kooks’’ simple, jaunty arrangement and twee sentimental parental address feels wilfully naïve, at odds with the rest of the album’s grim sense of history unfolding.
In my paper, I tried to resolve this apparent contradiction in tone by suggesting that we understand ‘Kooks’ as belonging to the same Romantic lineage as poems like Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’, or Wordsworth’s ‘We Are Seven’, or the Immortality Ode. These are Romantic poems in which a ‘real’ child is overinscribed by the adult speaker as an idealised figure, preserved in eternal innocence and as a creative potential by its seclusion from formal education, society, the city, or any other form of experience that might taint its intuitive connection to nature. If you know the song, perhaps you might agree with me that the adult speaker’s feelings in those poems belong to the same order as ‘Kooks’, warning that ‘If you ever have to go to school ǀ Remember how they messed up this old fool’, and its gently anarchic suggestion, ‘If the homework brings you down ǀ Then we’ll throw it on the fire and take the car downtown.’
David_Bowie_-_TopPop_1974_11
With its appeal to the holding-off of adult experience and induction into the social order, ‘Kooks’ imagines Bowie’s baby son as the same Romantic child, who, as Wordsworth says, comes ‘trailing clouds of glory’ before adulthood regretfully sets in, and who, as Coleridge says, can read in nature the ‘eternal language’ of God. This image of the child, and the adult speaker who doesn’t want him to grow up, gives force to Bowie’s surrounding cast of angry, knowing adolescents and their rejection of Romantic innocence. While the Blakean awakening into nightmare reality of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ (‘look out the window, what do I see? ǀ a crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me’) represents one of the album’s many authentic moments of anger, ‘Kooks’ ventriloquises a reactionary adult incursion into teenaged self-awakening that renders all the sharper the rest of the album’s call to ‘wake up, sleepyhead’. The adult speaker, who repeatedly entreats his baby son to ‘stay’ in the adult lovers’ ‘story’, can’t or won’t see that the adolescent generation who’ve inherited his world have far more urgent concerns than simply ‘driving their mamas and papas insane’, as the bathetic chorus of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ has it. Like the children, biological and literary, of the first Romantic authors, I think Bowie understood himself and his generation at this moment as poised finely on the cusp of a new world that would turn away from Romantic optimism in the post-1960s comedown to face painful knowledge instead.
 
Emily Bernhard Jackson
Writing about David Bowie’s habit of slipping in and out of different personae over the course of his career, David Buckley stated that ‘before Bowie…nobody had ever…conceived of his or her career as the adoption of a succession of masks and alter egos.’ But as Romanticists know, someone had: Lord Byron. My paper explored the connections between the ways in which Byron and Bowie stretch the concept of identity.
 

 
In the video for his 1984 song ‘Jazzin’ for Blue Jean’, Bowie gestures backward to Byron by donning a costume that obviously draws on Thomas Phillips’ portrait of the poet in Albanian dress.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron replica by Thomas Phillips. Picture courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron replica by Thomas Phillips. Picture courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery.


However, it is possible to read Bowie’s entire career – certainly between 1972 and 1983, and possibly later – as a continuation of Byron’s exploration of the concept of self, and as building on the poet’s eventual conclusion that there was no such thing as a single or stable ‘self.’
For one thing, both men had no trouble seeing, and announcing, that there was a difference between the poet or singer and his productions. While Byron was fully complicit in spreading a manufactured version of himself, for instance demanding alterations to portraits he found unflattering, Bowie created public selves that could possibly be taken as real as an acknowledgement of fundamental falseness involved in being onstage. At the same time, however, both men smeared the line between their fictional and actual selves, as well as their selves and their characters, suggesting through doing so that it is a mistake to think of the self as a single entity.
Bowie_1983_serious_moonlight
Where Bowie appears to build on Byron is in extending Byron’s conception of the self as multiple (expressed most clearly in Don Juan) out of multiplicity and into absence. For Bowie, during the period a persona exists, it is the self: when Bowie assumes a persona, there does not seem to be any other person underneath. Interestingly, Byron himself suggests something similar in The Vision of Judgement, although he does not explore the idea in any depth. It took a hundred-and-fifty years for David Bowie to live its truth.
 
Joanna Taylor
The Romantic period witnessed a profound shift in understandings about lived experiences of everyday spaces. This change was attributable to a number of factors, not least – as Norbert Lennartz points out – political events in France and enclosure in Britain. For writers like the Wordsworths, Charlotte Smith, John Keats and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, liberty depended upon the knowledge of the limits which contained the self.
It was Coleridge, though, who thought about this relationship most extensively. In Biographia Literaria, that tension was central to his conceptions of selfhood and poetic creation. He declared that ‘[w]here the spirit of a man is not filled with the consciousness of freedom (were it only from its restlessness, as of one still struggling in bondage) all spiritual intercourse is interrupted, not only with others, but even with himself’. Coleridge suggests that knowledge of freedom can only exist with an awareness of ‘bondage’. The boundaries themselves, though, are not self-evident; what makes the ‘spirit of man’ aware of his entrapment is his struggles against it. It is his ‘restlessness’, or what elsewhere Coleridge would call ‘motion’, that elucidates the connection between containment and expansion. In my paper, I suggested that David Bowie’s music enacts restlessness with a similar aim; that is, to elucidate a spatial oddity whereby close confinement can – and in Bowie’s corpus usually does – result in freedom.
David_Bowie_1976
In my reading, Bowie emerges as an artist who self-consciously engaged and played with Romantic spatial strategies. Tracks from ‘Space Oddity’ to ‘Blackstar’ make clear that Bowie considered questions about expansion, containment and their effect on the self throughout his career. ‘Space Oddity’, for instance, mingles the fictional spatial narrative with the listener’s experience of the song as a spatial construct, and immerses the listener in the dialectics of containment and expansion that ‘Space Oddity’ both describes and enacts. The oddity is both Major Tom’s experience of outer space, and the strange way that the song uses and engages with spaces. This oddness is inherited from Romantic writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth – but it might also offer us new ways through which to understand Romantic spatialities.
 
Matthew Sangster
The Romantic period saw the reification of the modern idea of the artist, as poets brought their own identities to the centre of their works by making heightened claims for the special nature and implications of their sensibilities. In no previous era would it have been possible to conceive of an epic poem whose central subject was the ‘growth of a poet’s mind’. In defining powerfully what an artist should be – albeit in various and often conflicting manners – the poets of the early nineteenth century and the Victorians who synthesised their ideas created kinds of cultural authority that served powerfully to legitimate their heirs, but which also imposed considerable obligations upon them.
 
My paper explored the ways in which David Bowie engaged with the legacy of the heroic Romantic artist by showing it simultaneously to be absolutely ersatz and absolutely true. His work built on one of the Romantic period’s unquestionably great legacies – the radical expansion of the boundaries of representation in literature – by including previously marginalised figures, modelling new kinds of language and defending the value of oft-neglected subjectivities. As he put it in ‘Changes’, ‘These children that you spit on/ As they try to change their worlds/ They’re immune to your consultations/ They’re quite aware of what they’re going through’. The affordances of modern mass media allowed Bowie to reach audiences on a scale that was almost unimaginable in the Romantic period, performing to thousands in theatres and projecting himself to millions through carefully-designed records and TV appearances that deliberately distorted the line between stagecraft and self. As Shelley once wrote enviously of Byron, Bowie’s representations ‘touched a chord to which a million hearts responded’.
David Bowie en "Rock in Chile"
However, Bowie was deeply suspicious of another key Romantic paradigm: that of the visionary artist’s transcendent capacity for communication. For Bowie, as he worked through a series of characters and selves compromised by recognisably Romantic maladies, such as self-love, madness and addiction, the artist was simultaneously a visionary and a fraud. He was fully capable of ‘play[ing] the wild mutation as a rock & roll star’, but in showing this to be play, albeit of a serious kind, he argued implicitly for more fluid notions of genius that recognised the roles played by change, chance and foolishness. Over the course of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, it becomes clear that the title character is at least in part a terrible person, self-absorbed and self-regarding. Crucially, however, this does not mean that Ziggy’s project is necessarily a failure. What matters is not so much the artist himself, but the inspiration that other people draw from him and build upon. What’s reported of the Starman’s ‘hazy cosmic jive’ is pretty vague and garbled; what’s important is how his transmission makes his listeners feel, creating a community united for a moment in the ecstasy of shared excitement. Bowie shows both the medium and the message to be fallible, but their human fallibility is intrinsic to their effectiveness as a form of art that can mean something for others, saying with certitude, ‘Oh no love, you’re not alone.’
 
This post arose from a panel at the recent British Association for Romantic Studies  ‘Romantic Improvement’ conference, held at the University of York.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

'The Albatross': From Rime to opera

Page 1

by Sinéad O’Neill
Melville was right when he wrote, of the Albatross, ‘that white phantom sails in all imaginations.’ It sailed then, and it sails still. Coleridge’s poem on the same subject also haunts the collective imagination. It has certainly caught my fancy, enough to make me want to create an opera. Even people unfamiliar with the Rime of the Ancient Mariner get a certain sort of chill down the spine when it’s mentioned, along with a feeling that it somehow deals with fate, wildness, the merciless emptiness of wide seas, and the terrible, haunting burden of one’s former actions. This eerie atmosphere that coalesces around the poem makes it perfect for operatic treatment. Like Poe’s The Raven (which I also made into an opera) the Rime has a life of its own. We don’t need to bring the poem to our audience; we can play (and sing!) into the place it already occupies in the audience’s imagination.
The albatross
For a start, we don’t have to begin by trying to set the whole text to music. To my mind, that would miss the point: the Rime already has a textual life. A stage, though, is made out of space, not words. An opera is made out of music, singing, and movement; yes, there might be words too (there usually are!), but an essential feature of live opera – and what differentiates the form from an audio recording, a radio performance, a book, a film, a photograph – is that it uses movement through space as an expressive tool.
 
To make an opera out of Coleridge’s poem, then, I started by thinking about spatial imagery. The poem is full of it. The masts dropping down and down; the direction of sunrise and sunset; relentless southward progression; the impersonal, driving winds; ice dwarfing the ship; the vastness of the lonely oceans; the individual imprisoned on his tiny vessel; sea-going creatures swarming in savage freedom. Distance and closeness, changing perspectives, speed and stillness all imbue the poem with a constant feeling of movement. The mariner is at the mercy of the forces that move him, right up until the moment he grabs the oars of the pilot’s boat and rows like the devil for land.
The albatross, of course, is completely free and at home in this shifting landscape of sea and air. The winds that coldly command the mariner’s course are freely ridden by the albatross, which can come and go as it chooses. The ocean-treading wanderer is as thoroughly at home in this wilderness as the sailor is at sea.
Movement, then, is the first kernel at the heart of this new opera. How does the sea move? How does the ship ride the sea? How does the bird use the air?
Wanderer Angus Wilson
Artists, scientists and seafarers throughout the ages have found their souls struck by the shocking strangeness and beauty of these great birds striding free in their element: ‘I now belong to that higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the Albatross’ wrote Robert Cushman Murphy, in Logbook for Grace. Thus, I imagine, the mariner. The moment of encounter is surely key in his journey, as much as it was for ‘Ishmael’ in Moby Dick: ‘I remember the first Albatross I ever saw… Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets that took hold of God.’
Here is the second kernel: the moment of encounter. Imagine that first eye-contact between the strange, black eyes of the albatross and those keen, glittering eyes that so entranced the Wedding Guest. It’s the stuff of dreams, which makes it the stuff of opera. The encounter will furnish a ‘memory’ aria: ‘I remember the first Albatross I ever saw…’ It’s a memory that haunts the mariner; part of what compels him to tell and retell his tale.
Albatross photo
I’m about to delve into these ideas during two days of workshops and exploration with composer Kim Ashton, countertenor Christopher Ainslie, actor Jofre Carabén van der Meer, and accordionist Bartosz Glowacki. We will also have the following: some sheets of paper, some fine wooden batons, and some wire. Our task during the two days is to develop stage images that will use movement and music to evoke my ‘kernels’ in the minds of the audience.
Alb music
On 11 August, at RADA Studios in Central London, we’ll show these images to the public as part of Tête-à-tête The Opera Festival. That is the first step; then we move on to the meat of the writing and composition process, building up to a finished opera in about a year’s time. I’ll keep you posted…!
There will be a work-in-progress performance on 11 August 2017 at RADA Studios, London, as part of Tête-à-tête The Opera Festival.
 
Sinéad O’Neill is Founder and Director of Cambridge City Opera, which she created to commission and produce new opera. As well as The Albatross, she is currently developing The Barrington Hippo (Kate Whitley) a piece for children about a fossilised hippo from the Cambridgeshire countryside. Cambridge City Opera’s first work was On the Axis of this World (Matt Rogers) a meditation on Antarctic Sineadexploration developed with the Scott Polar Research Institute. In 2016, Sinéad directed And London Burned (Matt Rogers), a new opera about the Great Fire of London commissioned by the Temple Music Foundation. In Autumn 2017, Sinéad will direct the revival of Il Barbiere di Siviglia for Glyndebourne Tour.
 

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Wordsworth in Leicestershire

Page 1

by Jeanne Rae
Coleorton is an unremarkable village in North West Leicestershire, where the landscape was defined for almost 500 years by a coal industry that’s long since gone. The old colliery site has been planted over by the National Forest and Coleorton Hall, a Grade II listed building that once hosted a buzzing hive of Coal Board offices, is now an apartment complex. Rewind a couple of centuries, however, and Coleorton had a very different story to tell.

Coleorton Hall by John Constable, c 1823

Coleorton Hall by John Constable, c 1823


 
In 1804, Sir George Beaumont was busy building a new hall in grounds that had been owned by his family since the 1400s. Beaumont was an important patron of the arts and many of the creative celebrities of the day visited Coleorton Hall, such as Southey, Reynolds, Mrs Siddons and Lord Byron. Scott began Ivanhoe there, and Constable drew in the grounds. Although opposed to new trends in art, Beaumont’s delight in poetry was forward looking. He was a friend to the Lake Poets, especially William Wordsworth, whom he saw as a kindred spirit. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was also a visitor but Beaumont didn’t establish the same rapport with him. Wordsworth, however, remained a lifelong friend.
 
Sir George Beaumont by Thomas Lawrence

Sir George Beaumont by Thomas Lawrence


 
In1806, when their home at Dove Cottage proved too crowded, Beaumont invited Wordsworth, his wife Mary, sister Dorothy, and their family, to stay at Hall Farm, part of his estate. Creating the new gardens at Coleorton Hall, Beaumont felt that the large number of mine works in the area spoiled his view of Charnwood. Therefore he had his gardener plant trees in strategic places in order to hide the mines. Lady Beaumont invited Wordsworth to help with the planning of a winter garden within the grounds, and William wrote poetry inspired by it. In a letter to Lady Beaumont he set out extensive plans for the new garden, which incorporated an old quarry, recently used as a builder’s dump. Features included a grotto with shell work by Dorothy Wordsworth and an early 19th-century pedimented ashlar monument incorporating a verse by Wordsworth.
 
Wordsworth’s brother John, a ship’s captain, had recently drowned after his ship ran aground and sank off Weymouth Sands, and the family was still deeply affected by his loss. On Christmas Eve, Samuel Taylor Coleridge joined them in Coleorton, bringing with him his own demons, most of them caused by his addiction to opium.
 
Writer and Director of Mantle Arts, Matthew Pegg, was drawn to this fascinating period in Leicestershire history.

What interested me was the relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge, who were friends for much of their lives but in many ways very dissimilar characters. Wordsworth led a very domestic life, supported by family: his wife, her sister, his children and Dorothy. Coleridge had an unhappy marriage, from which he tried to escape, and was prone to addiction, relying heavily on drink and opium. My radio play focussed on the two men, their friendship, and the tensions between them. Coleridge envied Wordsworth’s family and fell in love with Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, Sarah Hutchinson. Paul Conneally, a Leicestershire poet, told us a scurrilous story about a vision of Sarah that Coleridge had in a pub at Thringstone. That incident also found its way into the play. The other theme in the script was the way Wordsworth reacted to the death of his brother, and the idea that, in creating the winter garden at Coleorton, he was working through his grief. In the script he calls it ‘a place to walk in winter,’ and Coleridge says ‘A walk for melancholy times. Yet when we emerge, it will be spring.’ By the end of the play he is able to say goodbye to his brother, though the experience has changed his poetry forever. We were very lucky to get project funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to make this forgotten piece of North West Leicestershire history more widely known.

 
Using Matthew’s script, Mantle Arts created a community audio drama with a cast drawn from Ashby-de-la-Zouch, the nearest town to Coleorton Hall, and the surrounding areas of Leicestershire. Ashby Museum supported the project offering access to books and material from their archives as well as donating crucial rehearsal space. The play was directed by East Midlands-based director Julian Hanby. After a public rehearsed reading at the Venture Theatre in Ashby, accompanied by an illustrated talk on the background to the play from local poet and Wordsworth expert, Paul Conneally, it was recorded over two weekends at Aspect Studios in Loughborough, with the recording process directed by Martin Berry. The final recording is available on CD from Ashby Museum and can be streamed or downloaded from http://www.red-lighthouse.org.uk/events-and-projects/wordsworth-in-leicestershire/
If you would like a copy of the CD please visit http://www.ashbymuseum.org.uk/shop. You can also read more about the play and listen to some clips here
 

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

‘Homes at Grasmere’: The inspiration behind a new play about William Wordsworth

Page 1

by David Ward

If you are going to stage a play about Wordsworth, it has to be in the Lake District. And if you are going to stage it in the Lake District, it has to be at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick which is roughly half way between Cockermouth, where Wordsworth was born, and Grasmere where, if you bend the rules to include Rydal, he lived for more than 50 years.


Which is a rambling way of explaining that Theatre by the Lake will present the world première of William Wordsworth by Nicholas Pierpan in a co-production with English Touring Theatre from 1 April to 22 April.
The play is set in 1812, not a happy year for the poet but it would give away too much of the plot away to say why. But it won’t spoil things too much to say that he was hard up that year.  With little cash coming in, his desire to be free to write, but not sell, his poetry is at odds with his need to provide for his extended family.  Part of my job at Theatre by the Lake is to write programme notes. After some time spent footling around and staring into space (I’m glad to see, Alan Bennett does quite a bit of staring too), I chanced upon a reference to Allan Bank, where the Wordsworths lived from 1808 to 1810. Allan Bank? I thought. Where’s that? I’d never heard of the house; didn’t know the National Trust owned it; didn’t know about the fire that gutted it in 2011. Please excuse my ignorance.
Separate footling led me to Dorothy’s letters, which again I didn’t know, although I know and love the journals, and which I found in the New York Public Library; not that I was in New York, though I once sat in Bryant Park above the library’s stacks to watch an open-air showing of High Noon.
The library has very helpfully digitised the two volumes of Wordsworth family letters published in 1907 and they gave many hours of happy serendipity. When I started to concentrate on the task in hand, I found that Dorothy had written often about her homes and I needed to look no further for a programme note.
William and Dorothy moved into Dove Cottage in Grasmere late in 1799 and ten months later Dorothy told her friend Jane Marshall it was now “neat and comfortable” though very small. She also refers to “a small low unceiled room which I have papered with newspapers”, a space that fascinates anyone who squeezes into it today.

??????????????

Conservation work on the ‘newspaper room’

Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson in 1802 and three of their five children, John, Dora and Thomas (who appears in Nicholas Pierpan’s play) were born in Dove Cottage. Mary’s sister Sara also lived with the family and the writer Thomas de Quincy became a permanent guest; the small 17th century home eventually became too crowded for comfort.
DC-Houseplace
So off they went in 1808 to Allan Bank, which William had described as “a temple of abomination” when it was being built on a fellside outside Grasmere. Late that year, Dorothy told Catherine Clarkson that the house, with smoky chimneys and wet cellars, was giving them “grievous troubles”. It was apparently overrun by builders trying to sort out “these evils”.

Allan Bank, sketched by Sarah Hutchinson in 1857

Allan Bank, sketched by Sarah Hutchinson in 1857

“This house is at present literally not habitable,” she complained. “You can have no idea of the inconvenience we have suffered. There was one stormy day in which we could have no fire but in my brother’s study, and that chimney smoked so much that we were obliged to go to bed.”
How familiar, how ordinary, this sounds; my heart went out to Dorothy. I wanted to tell her that as I writing about her troubles, I was confronting my own: a plumber who came to inspect a leak in our bathroom told me the only, and rather drastic, way to get at the problem was to cut a hole in my kitchen ceiling.
In 1810, the Wordsworths (William and Mary now had two more children) decided to move to the Old Rectory in Grasmere, where William Wordsworth is set. But the house needed a lot of work and in a letter to Mrs Clarkson Dorothy was sceptical about her brother’s skills as a project manager.

“William has undertaken the whole charge of getting the business done, and you know how unfit he is for any task of this kind. Mary and I are, however, determined not to enter upon it till it is finished completely; for we were thoroughly sickened of workmen when we first came hither.”

At once I bonded with William; I have a long history of being baffled by builders who instantly recognise my incompetence.
The family did not stop long at the Old Rectory and were on the move again in 1813, this time to Rydal Mount a couple of miles down the road to Ambleside. Dorothy told Mrs Clarkson it was “a paradise” and in another letter explained that she had been shopping. Like many of us, she tries to justify a bit of extravagance:

“Now I must tell you of our grandeur. We are going to have a Turkey carpet in the dining-room, and a Brussels in William’s study…The Turkey carpet (it is a large room) will cost twenty-two guineas, and a Scotch carpet would cost nine or ten. The Turkey will last out four Scotch, therefore will be the cheaper, and will never be shabby…The house is very comfortable, and most convenient, though far from being as good a house as we expected.”

Room at Rydal Mount
Rydal Mount may not have lived up to Dorothy’s hopes but there were no more moves. William died at Rydal Mount in 1850, Dorothy, free at last of builders and smoking chimneys, in 1855 and Mary in 1859.

William Wordsworth runs at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick from 1-22 April. For tickets phone 017687 74411 or book online at www.theatrebythelake.com
Wordsworth play banner
David Ward is Theatre by the Lake’s literary consultant.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Making the film ‘Swimming with Byron’

Page 1

by Christopher Flynn
About 12 years ago I started working on a series of pieces related to Romantic tourism. Not the tours the Romantics took, but my own wandering in their wake. Narcissistic, yes, but as many have pointed out, the Romantics started the navel gazing we all do now so persistently. Keats may have referred to it as the “egotistical sublime,” but there’s a lot of Keats in Keats as well. None of the Romantics were immune.
 

It’s not as if I haven’t fought it. I set out to make a film about the Romantics and their travels. Trips I took in 1999 and 2003 put the idea into my head. The first one took me to the Lakes. The second was all focused on London. Later, in 2011, I went to Missolonghi to see where Byron died, and Rome, to see where Keats and Shelley were buried. That was a death tour, pure and simple. I saw the crypt of the Capuchin friars, a ghastly, beautiful set of little rooms ornamented with skulls and bones, the Museum of Criminology with its models of drawing and quartering. I spent hours in the Protestant Cemetery. The idea wasn’t to commune with the spirit of Keats or anything fuzzy like that, but just to spend time there and figure out what the place had to teach. I suppose that’s fuzzy as well.

In the middle of those trips I taught abroad in France. We had a crisis: low enrollment. There were fears that my university would shut down the program. A colleague of mine came up with a brilliant plan on the spur of the moment, literally. The moment spurred her the way a cowboy spurs a horse (and we work in Texas, so …). She would teach French – she’s multilingual, and can easily slip into the role of elementary French teacher – which left me jumping in and saying I’d take over her French cinéma class. She was going to teach it as a language class. I’d been watching the great French movies of the past 70 years and learning about them in order to improve my very wobbly command of the Gallic tongue. So I said:

“I’ll teach it, but as the history of French cinéma.”

And so I became a film professor.

The class was fun and we – the students and I – all learned a lot. Before I began it I asked several film professors what they thought I should do with a bunch of first year students in a film class. They all said: “they should make a movie.” So in a bumbling fashion that’s sadly typical for me, I asked my university for a couple of camcorders, some microphones, and we made a documentary about their semester in France.

I was hooked on film as the media I wanted to work in by the end of that semester. I never studied it; I never worked on a film. But I’d been reading about the French New Wave, and Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, Rivette, and many of the rest had started as enthusiasts, graduated to film journalism, and then just started making films without any real training. I’m not saying I’m the next Godard or Truffaut, but I’ve always been the type to think: if they can do it, I can do it.

It’s not like I had no background in the arts. My father was a playwright, and he wrote for television. I’d spent years in the theatre as a spectator because of him, and not just for the final performances. I was there from the initial readings of works in progress through dress rehearsals.

I was a music student at Juilliard. I’d played at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center many times. I’d been on stage from age 10.  Film was the missing piece for me. I’d worked on Romanticism as a scholar and loved it, and had been teaching it for years. I’d written essays, chapters, reviews, and a book. I’d given about 40 conference papers. But I’d always felt the outsider in my own field. I’d felt as if I were working in genres that were close, but not quite.

Film answered that final question, so I started making little ones for my classes. I loved them. But I’m absurdly ambitious, and little films for class instruction were never going to be enough. I posed the question to my partner at my university on these shorter films: what if we make a BIG one? A feature film. He – Eric Trimble – said that’s what he’d always wanted to do as well. So I said I’d been thinking of a series of essays about Romantic travels, but would much prefer making a movie about the same thing.

We raised the funding with crowdfunding. We ran a Kickstarter campaign, and raised $13,000. A tiny amount, but enough to get us on planes and to feed and house us in the seven countries we’ll visit for our film. I’m using students as crew in London, and am paying most people with IMDB credits and the joy of working on a movie about Romanticism. With a lot of people that’s been enough. I’m grateful to them.

We’ve had brilliant scholars volunteer their time. The peerless Kenneth Johnston, emeritus of Indiana University (where I got my own undergraduate degree in music after leaving Juilliard), came out to talk with us at the British Library. Danielle Barkley, Ph.D. McGill University, talked with us at the Keats House in Hampstead. Patrick Duggan of the University of Surrey, an old friend from a conference on trauma in Swansea years ago, came to talk with me in Tavistock Square and quarrel about my simple questions about Romanticism vs. classicism.
Several acting students came out to Westminster Bridge to read the sonnet Wordsworth wrote about crossing the span in 1802.

Left to right: Rebecca Pingree (actor), Victoria Cavazos (sound), and Sara Radebaugh (sound monitor). Photo Daniel Sullivan

Left to right: Rebecca Pingree (actor), Victoria Cavazos (sound), and Sara Radebaugh (sound monitor). Photo Daniel Sullivan

We’ll have more, and we’ll also have people connected to Romanticism who aren’t scholars. I went to Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave and tried to soak in everything Percy Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin must have been feeling when they courted in that spot. I’m going to Newington Green to talk with the people behind a campaign to get a proper memorial to Wollstonecraft built there. I’ll talk with others working in Manchester for a memorial to the Peterloo Massacre, famously chronicled by Percy Shelley in “England in 1819.”

We’ll go to Watchet and talk at the Ancient Mariner statue erected by the people who run the museum there. Tintern Abbey, of course.

And then we’ll be up in the Lakes, talking to locals, scholars, and to the mountains and tarns. I haven’t been there since 1999, when I was a graduate student at UCLA, presenting my first professional paper at the Wordsworth Summer Conference.

It was about Coleridge and language, and at one moment one of the less tall leaders of the group got up on a chair and yelled at me that I was getting it wrong, that remarks I made about the differences between American English and British English were incorrect, and that I should take it back and apologize.

“I’m sorry,” I told her. “But I’m not taking it back.”
And I thought: “This is academic discourse? How exciting.”

We’ll be in Cockermouth, Grasmere, and Hawkshead, and wherever else we’re encouraged to go. I’m looking forward to being back at Tintern Abbey, and back at the Lakes. It’ll be like a Wordsworthian memory trip. In my case it’ll be more like: “Sixteen years have passed: Sixteen summers with the length of sixteen long winters.” It doesn’t scan well, but it has the benefit of being the truth.

After all this English traveling, we’ll go to France, Switzerland, Italy, and Turkey. I’ll hike Wordsworth’s 1790 route to the Alps, hang out with the ghost of Helen Maria Williams in Paris, mourn at Keats’s grave in Rome, and swim the Hellespont.

Yes, you read the right. The movie ends with the director swimming the Hellespont (as all movies should).

But all these later bits might be the subject of another blog post.

 

Christopher Flynn is an associate professor of literature and film at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. He has published a book, Americans in British Literature, 1770-1832, and many essays on Romanticism and 18th-century literature. His first film, New Eyes/d’autres yeux, (2010), focused on American students
studying in France. He has also made several shorter films, most recently, Defoe in the Pillory (2015), a study of Daniel Defoe’s punishment for seditious libel.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

From stanza to screen: How a Keats poem is inspiring 21st-century film-makers

Page 1

By Suzie Grogan
In the twenty-first century it sometimes seems that only the things that are ‘up to date’ ‘relevant’, or ‘on trend’ matter. Our fast-paced lives leave little time for contemplation and today’s new technology is next year’s museum piece. We have to learn ‘mindfulness’ to appreciate the moment, drink in meaning and appreciate the sublime beauty of the planet.

So – contentious question – how can the Romantic imagination hope to ‘speak out loud and bold’ to a new generation, as Chapman’s Homer did to John Keats nearly 200 years ago?

As someone with a long-standing love of Keats’s poems and letters, it is an issue I contemplate quite regularly as I seek to encourage an appreciation of his work. Of course, each generation is in some way influenced by long dead forbears. Keats read widely in Spenser, Milton and Shakespeare for example, learning his craft through inspiration and imitation. Contemporary poetry speaks the language of the present day heart, taking new forms and perhaps breaking old rules; so can new creative and innovative methods inspire enjoyment of long dead poets in those who might never have considered them as having anything significant to say?

As I write regularly on Keats and his life on my blog, I am lucky enough to hear from those keen to share their own thoughts and have in the past year been contacted, on separate occasions, by two graphic novelists and two film-makers who have taken Keats’s poetry and exposed it to new treatments, testing its importance to today’s audience. Interestingly, all four have used the same poem – La Belle Dame Sans Merci – and although the graphic novels were fascinating, it was the films that most interested me. One is completed and ready to view, the other cast and ready to go, but still in need of funding. I thought I would find out why this poem had so caught the imagination of two independent film makers, and in the past few months have interviewed them both.
Christopher Smith began his career with Addictive TV, where he was Production Manager of the ITV1 series Mixmasters, the Optronica Festival at the British FiIm Institute and he has produced a wide range of experimental films. He has also been involved in the creation of award-winning ad campaigns for big brands but in 2012 he left the advertising industry to focus on film, launching the production company Modern. 2014 saw the release of his short film Arterial, based on La Belle Dame.


I asked Chris to tell me a little more about the background to the film, why he chose the location, and what it is about the poem that so inspired him:
I grew up in Essex which imprinted me with a lasting impression of the landscape. In constant view from my home was the huge Shell Oil refinery that features in this film, a twisted metal monster that sits between the mouth of the Thames and the overgrown hinterlands.

This clash of natural and synthetic and ancient and modern can be found all over this part of the world carved by the industrial and suburban spill of London. I’ve made a fair few brand and more experimental films, but for my first narrative film I wanted to explore not only this landscape, but the impact of such a landscape on its inhabitants.

I had always wanted to adapt ‘La Belle Dame…‘ and thought this was a great opportunity to do that in combination with exploring those themes. This poem itself evokes nature in a powerful way and has, over time been interpreted with multiple meanings. I decided to eschew dialogue and incorporate certain repeated motifs to give the entire film a feel of reverie.
Had he, I asked, experienced any negative responses to his treatment of a classic work?

The negative responses I have had (which are few luckily) were general – relating to the fact that I had updated the poem and explored (what the critic considered to be) my own themes into the poem. Or more specifically, relating to my casting of an actor that was too young, as the critic had previously interpreted the knight in the original poem to be older and more weary.
Chris has explored the audience response widely, on online forums and face to face. I have shown the film to a number of friends – poets and readers of poetry- who find the film visually stunning. Those who claim not to like poetry (and there are still some out there to be converted!) also found it powerful and didn’t need to read La Belle Dame to appreciate it.

The second film, entitled The Merciless Beauty, is in pre-production and will be made by film maker Michael Groom. The cast is in place, and the location settled. It will be filmed in the Lake District, a place I love and which Keats acknowledged as an environment that would nourish his poetry.

Michael’s approach seems quite different to that adopted for Arterial. Michael graduated from the University of York in 2003 and went straight into the film industry, working with Michael Winterbottom and other high profile directors. He has written and directed short films, most recently the award-winning The Selkie’s Lover (Georgina Strawson, Jason Langley, Shirley Henderson), which was shot entirely on location in Caithness in the far north of Scotland.

I asked him why he had chosen La Belle Dame:

I first studied Keats in secondary school and was instantly enchanted by his work. I studied him more intensely at university and the enchantment grew. LBDSM struck me as soon as I read it, during my A Levels, probably because of the archetype of the strange mysterious female; but more than this, I loved the Gothic tone and the vivid imagery and the fact it harkened back to those oral tradition fairy stories of old in which someone is spirited off to another realm.

He is updating the setting to the modern day, saying:

It’s as if what Keats wrote about happens cyclically and my story is just the most recent instance of it. The Gothic, medieval feel will still be there in the tone of the piece and the fact that the Beauty’s costume will have medieval influences.

Michael grew up in the Lakes and instantly envisaged the events of the poem to take place in the Lake District – from the very first line of the poem. He feels there is a link to Arthurian legend, as Carlisle has claims to be Camelot and Bassenthwaite Lake the lake from which the lady of the lake came. He is keen to draw on the paranormal belief that lakes and caves are portals to other realms and dimensions, and express that dream (or nightmare) like quality that pervades the poem.

He still needs about £1500 to ensure the film is made as he would like it but is determined it will happen in any event, his love of John Keats fuelling his ambition. ‘We have enough to make it more guerrilla style, which I’ll do if necessary’.

John Keats Guerrilla style – now there’s a thought.

It was really interesting to hear why two young men felt so drawn to Keats as a basis for their films. These are no amateurs, utilising high production values and ambitions for wider distribution, which I think they deserve.

Yes, La Belle Dame taps into the current focus on the supernatural in young adult fiction, and offers countless opportunities for interpretation in relation to gender roles and relationships. But surely it is more than that? To return to the original question; what can the romantic imagination, and specifically John Keats, offer to the twenty-first century psyche? Michael Groom sums it up well:

Keats is truly a poet of the senses and we’re still the sensual beings today that we were back then. He’s very spiritual, at least in my understanding, and I think he was a metaphysicist as well as a humanist and naturalist. He talks of moments of time and elevates seemingly everyday things into marvellous wonders, sometimes epically. I know many poets do this, but Keats does it on such a level that resonates with us still today.
_______________________________________________________________________
Suzie Grogan is a London-born professional writer and researcher, working in the fields of social and family history and mental health. Her first book Dandelions and Bad Hair Days: Untangling lives affected by depression and anxiety was published in 2012 and her second, Shell Shocked Britain, will be published by Pen & Sword History in October 2014. She has two further commissions, including one on the life of an apprentice surgeon-apothecary in the early 19th century.Suzie Grogan
A lover of the written word in all its forms, Suzie has a popular blog at No wriggling out of writing and also presents a local radio show ‘Talking Books’ . Married with two children – one a philosopher, one a high jumper – she lives in Somerset but has her heart in the Lake District and London. Her long-standing passion for poetry, especially John Keats, has led to the wicked rumour that there are three people in her marriage….
www.suziegrogan.co.uk

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More
Contact
  • Dove Cottage, Grasmere,
    Cumbria, LA22 9SH

Newsletter

Enter your e-mail below to receive updates from us: