Pandaemonium

Pandaemonium

A while ago, I wrote a post for the Wordsworth and Romanticism blog. I then forgot about it and voila – it is now published! You can pop over for a look here or read it in full below:

Anyone who is even faintly familiar with the major events in the lives of Wordsworth and Coleridge will have a field day watching Julian Temple’s quasi-biopic Pandaemonium. I recommend inviting your literary-inclined friends round for an evening of riotous entertainment, watching the film whilst taking part in the following themed drinking game which embodies the ‘spirit(s) of the age’ and gets you through the film’s 125 minutes without spiralling into artistic despair and literary indignation:

  • Challenge your guests to each bring a beverage inspired by Romantic literature. Suggestions could include: Rime of the Ancient Grand Marnier, Hartley Wallbanger, or even Sex on the Bysshe.
  • Line up your beverages within easy reach of the screen, along with plenty of snacks to soak up the alcohol. With revolution in mind, and tongue firmly in cheek, how about some revolutionary biscuits? – Garibaldis and Bourbons should be first on your list.
  • The rules are: drink every time you spot an anachronism or gross misappropriation of historical events. Eat a biscuit every time a government agent appears to spy on a revolutionary writer.
  • Drunk on inaccuracies and high on sugar, plot the revolution (or even just the film) anew with your inebriated acquaintances.

Of course, this is all in jest – but you have to hope that the film was made in this spirit too. The major questions of historical accuracy and authentic portrayal of characters and events have already been dealt with at length by the Guardian’s John Sutherland when the film first emerged. It would be tedious for me to simply list all the travesties of inaccuracy and character assassinations; this is really a film which attempts to posit Coleridge as the true –though flawed – genius of the Romantic age, portraying Wordsworth as a jealous power-hungry snitch, Byron as a foppish social commentator à la Russell Brand, and Dorothy Wordsworth as a rude and prematurely maddened bossy boots with a predilection for ill-advised romantic attachments. The characters verge on caricature and the past is awkwardly melded with images from the present (STC on the London Eye is a particular low point). High art it ain’t.

But the trouble with Pandaemonium is that you can’t simply dismiss it as a bad work of fiction. It is underpinned by just enough instances from the lives of Coleridge and Wordsworth to be partly plausible: Coleridge and Wordsworth really did create Lyrical Ballads together in the Quantocks in the late 1790s, Coleridge really did write ‘Frost at Midnight’ inspired by the birth of his son Hartley, and the composition of ‘Kubla Khan’ really was interrupted by the infamous ‘person from Porlock’ (although I think this is the first time that Wordsworth has been suggested as that person). It is also a rare example of a film which details the process of literary composition (other notable examples are Jane Campion’s brilliant Bright Star and the popular Shakespeare in Love), and for that alone it is to be commended. It falls between the two stools of fantasy and biography, and as such it gives the discerning viewer a bit of a genre headache – is it simply too inaccurate to be trusted, but it does contain a few kernels of fact.

Instead, the film seems to be an experiment in cinematic biofiction, a curious genre that takes people and places from real life but shapes them in a new image through fantasy dialogue and narrative. Could it even be viewed more as a kind structured reality, a literary prototype of shows like Made in Chelsea and The Only Way is Essex, in the way it melds fantasy and reality? Like them, it isn’t critically acclaimed, but both challenge what we trust to be ‘real’ and what we perceive as ‘truth’. As an aside, Dorothy Wordsworth is portrayed by Emily Woof, the daughter of the foremost authority on Dorothy Wordsworth, Pamela Woof. Whilst one can imagine the horror of the academic at the inaccuracies of the film, one does have to marvel at life and art’s continued intertwining.

But is the film faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of the work of those early Romantics? Let’s look to that great manifesto for the Romantic movement, the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, penned by Wordsworth during the time shown in Pandaemonium:

The principal object…was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them… in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.

Does Pandaemonium use incidents from real life, in accessible language, imaginatively portrayed? Yes, yes it absolutely does. Does it encourage its audience to consider aspects of human nature and what drives people creatively, whether it be inspiration, opiates, jealously, or companionship?  Again, yes. The only trouble with the film is that is it just doesn’t do it very well. Their lofty aims are to be applauded, but the film fails on its execution. And in that, perhaps, they share something with those first efforts of Wordsworth and Coleridge – without the Preface mentioned above, the Lyrical Ballads poorly received and misunderstood by its first audience. Perhaps someone needs to go back and help Julian Temple and Frank Cottrell Boyce to hone their ideas, place them within a tangible and relevant context, and for goodness sake give Dorothy something other than that dreadful leather jacket to wear.

Cover of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 1829

The Notorious Maga

Hello blogworld – apologies for the rather lengthy absence but today I have some news! Ever since I wrote my undergraduate thesis on life-writing I have wanted to return to the subject to write a book. And finally, after two failed attempts at securing phD funding, I have decided to submit a proposal to some publishers to garner interest in Fame is the Monster: Celebrity and the Notorious Maga (admittedly a working title).

Cover of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 1829

Cover of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1829

For those of you not familiar with ‘the notorious Maga’, the title refers to the incendiary literary publication more commonly known as Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Scandal, hot-headed opinion and unequivocal outrage: Maga was a byword for the type of provocative literary criticism which scandalised and intrigued the public in equal measure. As 2017 marks the bicentenary of the first publication of Maga, 2014 seemed like a good time to submit a proposal, giving me three years to complete the writing and research. Maga was in effect launched twice: once in April of 1817, but following low sales and problems with the editorial staff, the eponymous William Blackwood re-launched the magazine in October of that year. This time it immediately grabbed the public’s attention with its seductive and salacious mix of reportage, reviews and satirical sketches. Maga was clever, but not academic; popular, but not populist. It was mass media before the term was coined, and shaped the way we view literature to this day.

Part of the reason that the second Maga was so much more popular than the first was because Blackwood engaged contributors like John Wilson, whose written style set the tone which came to define the magazine. Blackwood’s also attracted the brilliant minds of John Gibson Lockhart, who became famous as the biographer of his father-in-law Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg (better known at the time as the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’), and the Irish eccentric and classicist William Maginn.  The ‘nasty little opium-chewer’, Thomas De Quincey, also wrote for them and writers like Byron, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth felt the lash of Maga’s sharp tongue in its blistering critiques.

John Wilson by Sir John Watson Gordon (NPG, public domain)

John Wilson by Sir John Watson Gordon (NPG, public domain)

Individual biographies have been written of some Maga’s contributors but the true nature of their genius (and notoriety) is the way these writers used their interchangeable identities to laud or lambast writers, critics and themselves. So successful was this dissembling that to this day little is known about the workings of Blackwood’s. My book will drag the magazine kicking and screaming back into the spotlight, revealing the clever intricacies of its satirical skill and the critical inter-dependency of its writers’ identities.  Maga has been described as ‘a collective consciousness, a narcissistic personality pool, a mutual society’; this book is the first non-academic publication to examine Maga as whole, rather than simply the individuals who contributed to it.

My aim to is write a book of between 90,000 and 100,000 words, divided into between 10 and 15 chapters of between 5 and 10,000 words each. The chapters will focus on the major people and events who contributed to the reputation of Blackwood’s, namely:

  1. William Blackwood: who was he? Blackwood’s kept its name for over 150 years, but who was the mysterious and eponymous ‘Blackwood’?
  2. Pseudonyms and pseudoscience: the 19th century use of pseudonyms is key to understanding Blackwood’s, as its contributors almost always assumed one: but why, how, and who was behind them?
  3. John Wilson: the longest-serving contributor to Blackwood’s, Wilson wrote as both Christopher North and Mordecai Mullion
  4. James Hogg: the Ettrick Shepherd was often mocked by the other contributors for his ‘rural’ style of writing in Scots
  5. John Gibson Lockhart: wrote as William Wastle and Timothy Tickler; also biographer of his father-in-law Sir Walter Scott
  6. William Maginn: the ‘classical embalmer’, also known as The Doctor and Sir Morgan Odoherty
  7. ‘Don Juan Unread’: Wordsworth and Blackwood’s
  8. The Chaldee controversy: taking the literary establishment for a ride
  9. Keats, Shelley and Blackwood’s ‘Cockney School’: mocking the younger Romantics
  10. Byron and Blackwood’s: two great satirists go head to head
  11. Tavern Sages: the boozy tales of the Noctes Ambrosianae

So that’s the plan! Let me know what you think and hopefully I’ll be able to post individual chapters (or parts of chapters) as and when I am able to. Now, just to secure that publishing deal…

William Wordsworth – revolutionary or Turdsworth?

So, we’ll start with William Wordsworth. Rivalled only by Robert Burns in terms of international reputation, this British poet has never been far away from adulation – or condemnation. Wordsworth - revolutionary or Turdsworth?

Named Poet Laureate in 1843, Wordsworth has regularly featured in publications like The Nation’s Favourite Poems and his reputation as the doyen of English poetry has been cemented through events like 2004’s mass recital of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (more commonly known as ‘Daffodils’). However, he has also been lampooned as ‘Turdsworth’ by Byron, been the inspiration (?) behind Francis Jeffrey’s infamous ‘This will never do’ review, and mocked by William Hazlitt as ‘the spoiled child of disappointment.’ Seamus Heaney champions him in this rather retro clip from 1974, but today his popularity seems to be on the wane as he missed out on being included in the BBC’s Top Ten of the Nation’s Favourite Poets in 2009 and he’s in the news again as education specialists and the Department of Education debate the value of studying his poetry, with GCSE examiners urging caution.

Whatever you think about the artistic merit of his poetry or the peculiarities of his temperament, Wordsworth caused a seismic shift in the way poetry was read and written through his assertion that poets should ‘choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men’ (Lyrical Ballads). Together with Coleridge he championed the lives and language of ordinary people for the first time in English literature, writing about a child with learning disabilities in ‘The Idiot Boy’ (‘idiot’ then being a medical term rather than a derogatory one) and a poor leech gatherer in ‘Resolution and Independence’. He also eschewed heavily formulaic Latinate language and his rhymes are peppered with a Northern inflection, rhyming ‘waters’ with ‘chatters’. (For a more in depth look at this, have a look at my blog post for OxfordWords.)
There isn’t time to look at more than one Wordsworth poem in this short blog post, or to go into his life story any further (however, the Poetry Foundation have produced a brilliant potted biography of Wordsworth, along with a list of his best-known poetry.) I have chosen my favourite of his poems, his Valedictory Sonnet to the River Duddon, because it is both beautiful and gives hope for humanity:

I THOUGHT of Thee, my partner and my guide,

As being pass’d away.—Vain sympathies!

For, backward, Duddon! as I cast my eyes,

I see what was, and is, and will abide;

Still glides the Stream, and shall for ever glide;

The Form remains, the Function never dies;

While we, the brave, the mighty, and the wise,

We Men, who in our morn of youth defied

The elements, must vanish;—be it so!

Enough, if something from our hands have power

To live, and act, and serve the future hour;

And if, as toward the silent tomb we go,

Through love, through hope, and faith’s transcendent dower,

We feel that we are greater than we know.

The subject of this sonnet is not, as is traditional, a lover – instead it is the River Duddon in Cumbria which draws along the full weight of Wordsworth’s sorrow and his hope. The octave deepens into the battle cry of the final sestet half-way through the ninth line – ‘be it so!’ – which is unusual as it breaks the internal rhythm of the line. However, this volta represents the real power of the sonnet, as Wordsworth moves from the past to the future, calling to the hands of every reader that they might have some power therein to change the world. I do not believe there is a more eloquent call to action in the whole of literature.