Mapping literary landscapes


Lit Long map page

Today’s post is just a brief one – up to my eyeballs in work-related reading, which no doubt will get distilled into a post or two once I’ve had time to think and digest. Getting my head round all of Edinburgh’s literary history is no small task, but I have a found a wonderful thing to help: Lit Long.

As part of the Palimpsest project, the universities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen have created a huge literary database of place-name mentions from books set in Edinburgh, visually mapping this onto the city: in their words: ‘you can walk your own path through the resonant locations of literary Edinburgh.’ Click on the link to have a go – it is fascinating, particularly for those who love Edinburgh and her literature.

I’ve not come across a literature-centred project like this before, only historical ones like Locating London’s Past or decorative ones like Geoff Sawers’ Literary Map of Great Britain (which is beautiful and unowned as yet by me…just sayin’!) and its little sister, Literary London. I find it fascinating to bring together the written word with the phsyical space, making the psychogeography of places visually apparent.

Literary London

Literary London

Does anyone else know of projects elsewhere which directly connected specific locations with their geographic counterparts? I can think of a few more locations ripe for the mapping: Grasmere and the central Lake District (one for you I think, Wordsworth Trust), Paris, Norwich… any other suggestions?

Letters and reputations

And here’s my final post from the Dorothy Wordsworth Women’s Poetry Festival, as published on the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing blog. Enjoy!

The Wordsworth Trust’s collection of letters written by the women of the Wordsworth household and their circle provides a fascinating insight into their lives, relationships, and changing roles in this intricately connected family group. The first event of the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry, Women’s Lives through Their Letters, examined some of that correspondence in detail, in particular those by Sarah Coleridge (wife of Samuel Taylor Coleridge), Sara Coleridge (her daughter), and Maria Jane Jewsbury (great friend of Wordsworth’s daughter Dora).

Maria Jane Jewsbury's letter to Dora Wordsworth, The Wordsworth Trust

Maria Jane Jewsbury’s letter to Dora Wordsworth, The Wordsworth Trust

The talks were given by current trainees of the Wordsworth Trust, recent graduates who are on a year-long traineeship at the Trust to gain experience of working in museums and with literary archives.

Letters are a curious sub-genre of autobiography and a vital tool and resource for the biographer. As well as being the only means of communicating with someone who lived too far away from you to speak to in person, they were also a way of maintaining friendships and providing companionship, and to the biographer they are a huge help is deciphering the particulars of events and characters. In a time before telephones and the internet, before newspapers were affordable and widely available, letters were often the only source of information about the world outside your own house, village or town. Although a modern audience may assume that a letter is only for its addressee, letters were often written for consumption by whole households, to be read aloud to those family members who might be too blind, illiterate or busy to sit and read them alone. In the words of Maria Jane Jewsbury, whose letters to her sister were published in 1828 as Letters to the Young, ‘letters are a great deal.’

Maria Jane Jewsbury was a gifted writer who befriended both Wordsworth and his daughter Dora, who was almost four years younger than Jewsbury. Dora herself has recently been the subject of a fascinating dual biography with Sara Coleridge, The Poets’ Daughters by Katie Waldegrave, but a solo Jewsbury biography remains unpublished. Trainee Jessie Petheram focused on the letters between Dora and Jewsbury, which show that the friendship has the intensity of a love affair, particularly for Jewsbury. Her handwriting changes as her words to Dora become more passionate, as she struggles to contain her feelings: Dora is ‘enshrined in my heart’ and Jewsbury writes the following when she announces her engagement to the Reverend William Fletcher: ‘[a]nd now dear Dora, prepare for a surprise…I was called on to decide whether I would be married or not. I found it a harder matter than expected – because I was not in love.’ Some of the surviving fragments of their communication still bear the (fortunately unheeded) legend to ‘burn after reading’, words that both thrill and guilt-trip the reader.

Letter from Sara Coleridge, The Wordsworth Trust

Letter from Sara Coleridge, The Wordsworth Trust

Trainee Adam Lines has been researching the letters of Sarah Fricker Coleridge, the long-suffering wife of the brilliant but opium-addicted Samuel Taylor, who has not been well represented in the surviving letters of those who wrote to and about her. Dorothy Wordsworth described her to Wordsworth’s soon-to-be wife Mary Hutchinson as ‘a sad fiddle-faddler’ and Mary added insult to injury by calling her ‘a stuffed turkey’. She therefore cuts a rather marginalised and unappealing figure, with none of the greatness gifted to her husband or his friends, none of the quickness of Dorothy or the supportive domesticity of Mary. Her biographer Molly Lefebure calls her ‘the most maligned of great men’s wives’, painted as an ‘ill-tempered, unloved ninny’ by biographers of Wordsworth and Coleridge (The Bondage of Love, 1986). As Lefebure notes, biographers have tended to use the published letters of William, Dorothy, Mary and Samuel Taylor when researching their relationships with Sarah Coleridge, as – rather obviously – those letters are published and therefore readily accessible. Sarah’s letters have had no chance to defend her. Those letters are far less easy to access (most of them remain unpublished), but also far less numerous. This is not because she wrote any less than other people of her time, but because she enforced a type of self-censorship in an effort to protect her husband’s reputation, destroying many of the letters relating to the years early of their marriage, Of the 200 or so that survive, those that do are often heart-rending in their emotional honesty.

One particular period of Sarah and Samuel’s lives which was brought to light in this talk was the birth and death of their son Berkeley. Before he left for Germany, Sarah and her husband agreed that she would not ‘burden’ him by writing to him about matters which would distract him from the reason he went there – to improve his mind and develop his writing. With the support of their friend and neighbour Thomas Poole, Sarah struggled not to involve her husband in the increasingly serious domestic crisis that had developed – the illness of their second son Berkeley, who was not yet two years old. Following an as-yet imperfect smallpox inoculation, Berkeley became seriously ill and Sarah finally broke the censure of silence to write to her husband: in her own words ‘I am sorry I let my feelings escape me so’. But the mechanics of the 18th-century postal service worked against her (this was a time before the penny stamp and when postage was paid by the recipient of the letter, not the sender): the letter was sent back to Somerset from the port of Yarmouth as the correct fee for sending the letter abroad had not been paid. In the meantime her husband had written to Sarah asking why he had not heard from her. This letter is just one in a cycle of missed communications, and culminates in the sad fact that it was many months before Samuel Taylor Coleridge knew of the death of his son. Sarah Coleridge puts her finger on the problem: writing to her husband, a man whose vivid imagination had produced ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’, she says, “I pray to God that I may never live to behold the death of another child, for O my dear Samuel! it is a suffering beyond your conception!”


Water, water every where

National Poetry Day

Water, water every where...

Water, water every where…

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

The theme for this year’s National Poetry Day is ‘Water, Water, Everywhere’, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem of 1798 ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. It’s a gift of a theme for us here at the Wordsworth Trust, where STC and his work feature in our daily tours of Dove Cottage, and also because we live in the wettest part of England, the Lake District. If you’re not already familiar with the poem, you can listen to the mellifluous voice of Ian McKellen in a special recording for the Wordsworth Trust here.

‘Rime’ is not, I must confess, my favourite poem. Although its lines have passed into common idiom (‘an albatross around one’s neck’, along with the aforesaid ‘water, water’) and the images of Life-in-death and the ghostly ship remain with me long after I have closed the book, the rather lengthy preamble is somewhat off-putting, as is the ‘wedding guest’ device.

Coleridge's life mask

Coleridge’s life mask

However, today I performed the entire poem as part of a NPD Poetry Marathon: it took about 25 minutes and it really made me engage with poem’s language. I realised how repetitive it is, but also how effectively that repetition has been deployed. I loved the nightmarish feeling as each new episode loomed into view, more horrific than the last, and felt quite giddy as I recited the final lines (whether from elation or exhaustion, I’m not sure). The audience and performers agreed that one really good outcome of the Marathon was that it gave us the freedom to recite longer poems, which are often overlooked in favour of something sort and snappy which fits in with the usual pigeon-brain poetry-span of people’s attention. In fact, the whole day has been a bit like being tuned into a radio channel playing exclusively poetry, rather than the drone of typing, phone calls, and the whine of the heating system. Huge thanks to everyone who read today – you are all champions of poetry and thoroughly good eggs to boot. You can read the poetry of two of our readers here and here.

Before I go, I just want to mention two of my water-themed favourite poems, ‘Inversnaid’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins  and ‘Amphibians’ by Neil Rollinson, which you can find on page 33 of this anthology. ‘Inversnaid’ is the most evocative of Hopkins’ sound poems, rich in internal rhyme and bubbling with the streams, burns and becks which run through it. The Bodleian Library have the manuscript of the poem (and a wonderful recording to boot) – treat yourself to a listen. Although Inversnaid is in Scotland, the poem feels like an invocation to the Lake District and it often springs to mind when I am out walking.

Neil Rollinson's Amphibians

Neil Rollinson’s Amphibians

‘Amphibians’ was inspired by a long period of persistently wet weather here in the Lakes, when Neil Rollinson was Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust. He was one of the first poets I met in person: lying on a sofa, with greasy hair and a leather jacket, smoking a cigarette. The poem describes so accurately the kind of desperation and depression that endless rainy days can induce, yet it is a vibrant poem which is comforting and humorous to read.

One more piece of poetry to send you on your way: the Scottish Poetry Library have produced this beautiful video, incorporating 8 water-themed poems for you to enjoy. Happy National Poetry Day!

Literature –who wants a textually transmitted disease?

What is literature? – a nice easy question to get this blog started…

Some best-loved books in my collection

Some of my best-loved books – but do they count as literature?

Jane Yolen describes it humorously as ‘a textually transmitted disease, normally contracted in childhood’ – catchy, but perhaps not altogether definitive. A quick search of some popular online sources gives definitions ranging from Wikipedia’s short and sweet ‘the art of written work’ to Oxford Dictionaries’ ‘written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit’ . This then raises the question of who considers them superior or lasting. For those contemplating studying English at university it can often be bewildering to realise that favourite books are not considered ‘literature’. To me, for example, Rumer Godden’s works are hugely important for the role they played in developing my love of literature. Well-written and witty, they absolutely made me realise that ‘You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.’ (Great soundbite, F Scott Fitzgerald.)

For the purposes of this blog I think it is important to keep the definition broad – the work has to be published in the UK, originally in English, and the person blogging about it only has to to demonstrate that, for them, it has artistic merit. I’m reminded of a competition run by the Scottish Book Trust in 2009, which encouraged people to recommend ‘The Book That Changed My Life’ and thereby illustrating the power of the written word to deeply influence people.

As I work in literary heritage education (at The Wordsworth Trust, since you ask) I hope to be drawing on the knowledgeable enthusiasm of my colleagues at various Lit Houses, as well as some friendly literary bloggers from the interweb (you rather spring to mind, Stuck-In-A-Book…)

Each post will look at a different author or literary work and signposted a few bits of further reading or viewing. As this post doesn’t really give you much literature to get your teeth into, let’s start with a look at the building blocks of literature – the language. Some marvellous folks at the Open University have made this handy little 10-minute video guide to English – enjoy!