Writing a High Fantasy Ballad

the_fortress_unvanquishable3Many stories aspire to the condition of ballads, to the roots of folk storytelling. After reinventing myself as a writer of pirate ballads, I decided to go in search of one such story, preferably out of copright, in order to test my ballad-mongering craftsmanship.

I alit on ‘The Fortress Unvanquishable Save For Sacnoth’ by Lord Dunsay, freshly republished in a Penguin anthology of his shorter works. Dunsany, an Irish peer, belongs to the tradition of pre-Tolkien fantasy before it calved off into a whole genre. He had a prickly relationship with the Irish Literary Revival–a less than effusive introduction by W.B. Yeats makes it pretty clear that the future Nobel Prize winner hated his guts–but there was a strong public following for his plays, short stories and novels, the best of which are still in print.

Fortress is a simple tale, yet an eerie one. It tells how the villagers of Allathurion become plagued by nightmares, which the village mage determines to be the work of the evil wizard Gaznak. The only way for these nightmares to cease is for the Lord’s son, Leothric, to slay Tharagaverug, the metal crocodile, and forge from its spine the legendary sword Sacnoth. Only then will he be able to force an entrance to Gaznak’s fortress and face the wizard in single combat.

Appropriately for a story about the vanquishing of nightmares, ‘Fortress’ leans towards the nightmarish and dreamlike rather than Tolkien’s grounded worldbuilding or Lewis’s homely anthropomorphism. There maybe something silly about naming a dragon Wong Bongerok or a metal crocodile Tharagaverug, but Dunsany deploys the names carefully, using them to heighten the rich, melodious rhythm of his prose. Leothric and the sword Sacnoth have about the same depth of characterisation between them, but as in many fairy tales or stories from the Arabian Nights, the emphasis is not on the hero but on the strange and terrible marvels he encounters. Fantasy here is the last true refuge of the tall tale, and it ends with the frame story itself merging into the doubtful realm of dream, with the possibility that the defeat of the nightmare wizard was itself a long and terrible nightmare.

This is the tale of the vanquishing of The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth, and of its passing away, as it is told and believed by those who love the mystic days of old.

Others have said, and vainly claim to prove, that a fever came to Allathurion, and went away; and that this same fever drove Leothric into the marshes by night, and made him dream there and act violently with a sword. And others again say that there hath been no town of Allathurion, and that Leothric never lived.

Peace to them. The gardener hath gathered up this autumn’s leaves. Who shall see them again, or who wot of them? And who shall say what hath befallen in the days of long ago?

It’s also, I feel, an invitation to future adaptors, which is partly why the concluding verse were among the first parts of the ballad I wrote, not knowing I would spend months inching towards them, verse by verse.

Alas, it seems all splendid dreams
in morning light must fade.
The sweetest songs must have an end,
like this ballad I have made
of The Fortress Unvanquishable
Except Through Sacnoth’s Blade.

Yet fair things gone do linger on
as phantoms of delight
to charm away the dullest day;
sweet be your dreams this night.

I wanted, in my retelling, to capture the quality of a healthy bed-time story–something that thrills and scares but ultimately sends you to sleep reassured. I had in mind G.K. Chesterton’s words, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” And so I set to work.

Many of Dunsany’s grace notes and side-details are an absolute gift to the versifier. The village-mage’s spell, for example, ‘had in it the word wherewith the people of the plains are wont to curse their camels, and the shout wherewith the whalers of the north lure the whales shoreward to be killed, and a word that causes elephants to trumpet; and every one of the forty lines closed with a rhyme for “wasp.”‘ I followed this description closely, with a ‘rasp / grasp / wasp’ off-rhyme had often qets a chuckle in my recitations. On the other hand, I thought some of his structure could use a little polish and rearrangement. In the first part of the story, the mage tells Leothric exactly what he must do to kill Tharagaverug, and Leothric goes off and does it like someone ticking off a to-do list. I decided to split the exposition between the village mage and an old man at the gate of the marsh people’s village, which had the multiple advantages of giving the poem a different voice, and giving the marsh people a modicum of agency in their own deliverance. Likewise, once inside the castle, I decided to reorder events to follow a more allegorical scheme: before he can confront Gaznak, Leothric is threatened first by an ambush of naked power, then by his feudal overlords, by a giant spider who represents fatalism and depression and finally by a vast abyss. My castle descends more slowly into the surreal that Dunsay’s original, where elephants flee trumpeting the moment Leothric forces and entrance. I also cut, with a twinge, the ball-room full of beautiful women who turn out to be Gaznak’s fever dreams. There were some lovely details, such as the wolves gnawing at the wainscot and the flames flickering in the sockets of their eyes, but I was determined to keep the episodes from overwhelming the forward thrust of the poem as a whole, and the seducing temptress angle seemed a little overtired.

In the final duel with Gaznak, I faced the age-old problem of making a sword-fight interesting on the page, but as Dunsany had already done it in prose, it wasn’t too difficult to pull off in verse. The traditional motif of the wizard’s castle dissolving into air after his death was satisfying to perform.

Sacnoth laid all his magic waste
and sundered every spell
and with a sound to rival all
the screaming choirs of Hell
in ruin unimaginable
the vanquished fortress fell.

RUIN UNIMAGINABLE!!! would probably be a more accurate representation of the way I bellow it out.

When the last rhyme was honed and the last verse polished, I had the longest poem I’d ever written: 575 lines and 132 stanzas, across two separate parts. The poem had taught me how to merge versifying with storytelling, bringing the much slighted arts of narrative back into the rhythms and images of verse. For me, composing and revising a poem is synonymous with memorising it, so I also had a half-hour long performance piece, and I’ve taken my staff and sword to venues across Cardiff and the valleys to tell me tale of dreams and magic, giant spiders and metal crocodiles. It’s a story now lodged in my head until the day I die, which is the best tribute I can offer to Lord Dunsany, that grand pioneer of fantastic fiction.

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A Sestina for the Huntington

Something I wrote for the AHRC about my time in Los Angeles studying at the Huntington Library, and the poem that came out of it.

Research beyond borders

In this latest Guest Blog, Thomas Tyrrell talks about his experience of the AHRC International Placement Scheme, and ultimately, his “Sestina for the Huntington”.

On my first day at the Huntington Library,Los Angeles, I was allocated a shelf for my books beneath a bust of Lord Byron. Madly jet-lagged but wide-eyed and vibrating on American coffee, I was here on the AHRC international placement scheme, which gives British PhD students the chance to travel abroad and access collections they couldn’t reach on their own budgets.

A bust of George Gordon, Lord Byron, from the Ahrmanson Reading Room in the Munger Research Centre - Photo Credit Thomas Tyrrell A bust of George Gordon, Lord Byron, from the Ahrmanson Reading Room in the Munger Research Centre – Photo Credit Thomas Tyrrell

After a previous fellowship at the Chawton House Library, Hampshire, I had thanked my hosts with a country house poem. Suitably inspired by Byron, I set myself the challenge of writing a poem for the Huntington

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Upon Chawton House: A Poem

What would you have done if you had invented one of the key components of the internet and promptly become very rich indeed? It would be hard to think of a better solution than that of Sandy Lerner, co-inventor of the router, who bought up a rundown manor house in Chawton, Hampshire, which had once belonged to Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen-Knight. After a decade of extensive restoration, Chawton House reopened as one of Britain’s newest research libraries, specialising in women’s literature.

Last year, I fulfilled a dream of mine from my MA days, and got to spend a month there as a visiting fellow, researching my PhD. From the Steinway grand in the living room to the shiny copper pans hanging over the kitchen table to the four-poster bed, I’d never lived like it before and never will since.

This must be what it was like to have an aristocratic patron, I thought to myself. The idea sprang into my head of a modern take on the country house poem, in the tradition of Ben Jonson and Andrew Marvell, that would thank the staff for my unforgettable month here. I daydreamed of being appointed Chawton House’s poet laureate and being given my own tiny office in the eaves of the house, where I would write poems to Sandy Lerner’s cats and subsist solely on sherry. Alas, it was not to be—but I did manage to see my poem printed in the library’s newsletter, The Female Spectator.

Now that Hampshire’s poet laureate has paid a visit and written a sequence of poems about her time there, I thought it high time I gave my poem a new airing.

Fruitful October’s been and gone
And drear November’s drawing on
At Chawton House, so much renowned
For wholesome air and fertile ground
As every fruit tree here evinces,
Weighed down with apples, pears and quinces.
Though roses droop and leaves may fall
Before the threat of frost and squall,
From every pamphlet, every tome
A harvest has been gathered home,
From every essay, poem and story:
And still the grounds are in their glory
Of gold and brown and yellow green
And mixtures hardly sung or seen.
To stroll amid the wilderness
And see the woods in autumn dress
Adds a fresh pleasure to the store:
Then back into the house once more!
For there are concerts to applaud
Upon the polished harpsichord,
And morning light that gilds and graces
The panelled rooms and fireplaces,
And portraits splendid in their frames
Of gay coquettes and haughty dames,
And Knights of centuries gone by
Who gaze with an approving eye.
Plush window seats, where I am certain
To hide behind th’embroidered curtain
And read for hours like Jane Eyre
Or even – dare I? – take the chair
Where Austen used to sit and write.
There is no end to my delight,
For there are shelves and stacks and hoards
Of Books en dishabille in boards,
Or paperbacks – pert springy nippers,
Or grave octavos in their slippers,
Or volumes – three or four together
All bound in fine Morocco leather,
Whilst slim selecteds – bold young turks –
Vie with august collected works
To entertain me with their art:
How sad that they and I must part!

Elegy of the Anglo-Saxon Cyclist

Every cycle tour has a nightmare day. On my first tour it was Day 2, the short leg between Bristol and Bath midway through my journey from my university at Cardiff to my parent’s house in Winchester. The rain poured down unrelentingly as I slogged along the old railway track between the two cities, the first bike path of a national network that now threads through most of the country.

I had spent the last couple of weeks on my sofa revising Old English adjectives for an exam, testing how well I could understand and translate the language of Beowulf and King Alfred. One of the key texts had been ‘The Seafarer’s Elegy’ a long and mournful poem where a sailor laments that the weather is awful, the ship comfortless, his feet are ‘forste gebunden’ or fettered by frost, and everyone on land is having a much nicer time.

As the rain dripped off my nose and my shorts reached saturation point, I wondered what ‘The Cyclist’s Elegy’ would sound like.

I decided it would sound pretty much like this.

https://soundcloud.com/user998852738/elegy-of-the-anglo-saxon-cyclist

I will tell my story, such as it is,
A short and a soggy one. At cease of exams,
I undertook a taxing journey,
A cycle trip from Cardiff home.
I disregarded railway lines,
Trams, taxis and all transport links,
And through the force of thighs and calves
I made my way through Wales and England
To Hampshire and home. Hardly he guesses,
For whom the miles pass unremarked,
Cocooned in cars, comfortable dwellings
Away from the wet, how the weary cyclist,
Remains by the roadside. Rain never ended;
A daylong drizzle, drenching and cold,
Soaks into my shorts; sagging tyres,
Flat and deflated, force me to spend
Aggravating hours, alone in the rain,
Patching the puncture. Appalling weather,
The bane of the British, brings no relief.
My ankles ache with every motion,
Chainwheel and sprocket clank and groan,
And hunger harries the heart of the engine.
And yet, in the morning, I yearn to continue,
To take to the saddle, sore as I am,
Put foot to the pedals and push myself onwards.

While his bike is whole and sturdy
The cyclist is unstoppable,
An entire engine in himself.
And come the crash, when his bicycle hurls him
Headlong over the handlebars
To a painful impact, plastered in mud,
Face down in the dirt, his dignity gone,
His body bruised and bloody-kneed,
Still he will stride on, stronger than ever,
Firm in his frame, a fearless traveller,
Dreadless, undaunted. Durable men
Will live to outlast the little systems
Constructed to keep them. The cyclist knows
When after all this he arrives at his doorstep
Bloody, mud-splattered and spent with exertion,
His is a hero’s homecoming.

Thanks to everyone at the Cycle Touring Festival at Clitheroe, whose enthusiasm and kind remarks at the open mic night inspired me to put this post up.

And full credit to Ezra Pound, whose unique performance of his 1911 translation has been the inspiration for my own strange growlings.

Reclaiming Valentine’s Day for Poetry

It’s Valentine’s Day. People’s reaction to this seems to vary sharply between the blissful and the bitter, depending on a variety of factors including whether or not they’re in a relationship, their tolerance for public displays of affection and how well they respond to a traditional holiday whose rituals have been totally erased and rewritten by the forces of capitalism.

See? I’m sounding bitter already, and I’m not even trying. In fact, I’m in clover; this is only the second Valentine’s Day of my life I’ve spent in a relationship. Unfortunately, the lovely lady concerned is five thousand miles away with the whole continent of North America and the Atlantic Ocean in between us, so we’re going to have to content ourselves with a Skype date.

I also sent a card, which I don’t usually do. I worked for nine months in a branch of WHSmith, and daily exposure to their rack of greetings cards, which varied from the nauseatingly crude to the nauseatingly saccharine, put me off sending any kind of birthday, valentines or mother’s or father’s day card for the next several years. I sent letters and phone calls instead.

So, for much of my life, this day has been marked by no cards and no girlfriends. But I’ve had fun anyway, because I’m a practicing poet, and I have a mission – to reclaim Valentine’s Day for poetry.

Looking at my files, I’m surprised to discover I’ve written at least two sonnets every year since 2009. I knew I had a habit, but still… In 2010 I wrote four for Valentine’s Day – one for a good friend, two on spec. for other friends where I thought things might go further (they didn’t) and a silly one for a woman where romance would have been wildly inappropriate, because I came up with an amusing rhyme and couldn’t resist. It’s actually, looking back on it, the least embarrassing of the set, as the one least inflected by the phase of Miltonic grandiosity my poetry was going through.

Beatrice – or should I say Beatrice?
No, I’ll use English, not Italian stress;
The former one offends the ear the less,
The latter makes this sonnet far from easy.
Beatrice – in your jacket warm and fleecy –
O God! This octet really is a mess!
I wish I’d never started, I confess…
Yet still, I’ll come out of it in one piece, eh?
Beatrice, since my mania for rhyming
Has put this poem in utter disarray
And left me desperately short of timing
To tell you what it was I want to say…
No, I’ll leave off. The midnight bells are chiming
And I shall write again some other day.

In 2012 and 2013, I flipped through my poets and anthologies a few days before and matched my friends to poems: Michael Donaghy’s ‘The Present’ for an astrophysicist, Richard Lovelace’s delightful ‘Song to Amarantha, that she would dishevel her hair’ to a particularly gorgeous Irish blonde who had much to forgive me, Christopher Marlowe’s splendidly over-the-top ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ for an old flame I’d moved away from – and maybe three or four others. On the day, I posted each poem publicly on their Facebook walls, without any comment other than a ‘Happy Valentine’s’ at the bottom. I never got a lasting relationship out of it, but I was surprised how much love and appreciation got channeled my way. I’d do it again, and recommend it to any single poet with a few good anthologies to hand.

I was going to dedicate Valentine’s Day 2015 exclusively to feeling miserable and sorry for myself, but at the last moment I copied out the first stanza of Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty’ onto good notepaper, folded it, sealed it with wax and posted it to a fellow PhD in Newcastle I’d been nursing a crush on. She guessed it was me.

This year things are going so rosily that I actually have the chance to write a full-on, bona fide love poem without bothering with the tiresome unrequited bit. This is an interesting challenge. Usually I try to write poetry that’s beautiful and complicated without being wildly obscure; now I had to switch gears and write something simple and beautiful without being saccharine.

Without further ado, this one’s for Valerie:

In the night sometimes I reckon
All that keeps us two apart,
All the dry and dreary distance
In between each sundered heart.
All the deserts and the mountains,
All the empty, silent plains
Stretching out into the twilight;
The wide, wide ocean that remains.

Every desert has a well
And every mountain has a spring;
Every trickle gets its chance
To growl and gurgle, roar and sing;
Every raindrop finds a river;
Every stream leads to the sea,
And brings my lover back to me,
And brings my lover back to me.

Cycling USA

FullSizeRenderOn my fourth day in Los Angeles, I bought myself a bicycle. Before that, I’d borrowed the one my AirBnB host, Albert, keeps for the guests, but it was the sort of deathtrap people who know nothing about bicycles buy for $30 off Craigslist and congratulate themselves for being such savvy consumers. The rear brakes didn’t work, along with most of the gears, and the front wheel wobbled worryingly between the two forks. It was heavy as a sledgehammer, and so old there wasn’t an allen key socket on the whole thing, never mind a quick release.

A little research and $145 later, I got my hands on a white fixie with red wheels and bullhorn handlebars, much like my ride back home. LA has turned out to be a hillier city than I reckoned on, but the two mile sprint from my house to the Huntington is pleasantly level.IMG_0548

LA, as everyone knows, is built for the automobile, but this far I’ve been pleased with the cycling provision in Pasadena. After years in Britain duking it out for priority with Chelsea tractors – or actual tractors – in lanes originally designed for medieval haywains, it’s surprisingly relaxing to be somewhere that actually gives you space. Some of the roads even have a bike lane that isn’t a little patch of red paint in the gutter with five cars parked in it, but a whole extra lane between the traffic and the kerb. You can take bikes on trains and buses, you can ride on the sidewalk and no-one gives a damn, you can work up a good head of speed on the long straight boulevards and, of course, you can turn right on a red light. For me, at least, it’s a great alternative to hiring a car and having to ease my way onto one of those scary scary freeways.

In other news it was raining this Sunday in Los Angeles. Rain! In California! Who knew? IMG_0553Apparently LA hasn’t seen this kind of cloudburst in years. Before the rain it was easily as warm as an English summer out here, and now in spite of the constant sunshine there’s a definite chill in the air. Mine host downstairs has switched on his heating, but I’m calling on my reservoirs of student grit and doing my reading and writing wrapped up in duvets.

While I’m spending three months away from my girlfriend, I have decided to fill the some of thetime by trying out wildly experimental facial hair. This Friday I lopped off the moustache and went down to a chin beard. I’m not sure whether I look like a Quaker or a 70’s Marvel villain – certainly nothing like Lincoln – but I kind of like it. I think I’ll try out mutton chops sometime in March.

Next week I’ll write you something about the Huntington Library, and the photos will be gorgeous.

Coming to America

In the last year and a half of my PhD, I’ve discovered the Visiting Fellowship – a means by which generous subsidies allow scholars to travel to new and exciting libraries, to research fascinating material neglected and long overlooked, and write like they’ve rarely written before. The only thing that excites me so much as a new library is a new place to explore, and my applications have largely been smiled upon. I spent October 2015 at Chawton House, a woman’s studies research library in a small, perfectly-formed country house that used to belong to Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen-Knight. Now, I’m spending the first months of 2016 studying at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles, on a palatial estate dating back to a point when Pasadena and the whole Los Angeles basin was mostly thought of as good grazing land. Of which, more in later entries.

IMG_1065I was asleep while my plane was going over Las Vegas, so the approach to landing in Los Angeles was the first time I enjoyed the lightshow of an American city at night. Most people who get any kind of perspective on LA are struck by how close it seems to the opening titles of Blade Runner. That’s science-fiction, but it ceases to seem very far-fetched after any time in a city where the constellated grids of neon and tungsten spread across the earth, casting a grey and purple glow into a great blank sky illuminated only by the passing comets of airplanes and the shiny silver dollar of the moon. It’s a feeling augmented by the dog-eat-dog techno-futurism of the freeways, where I was heartily glad to have a shuttle driver doing the navigating to my door. It’s a feeling that made it doubly disconcerting when I was dropped off beside a darkened house that looked like something from the cover of a Stephen King novel.

The owner let me in and showed me around the place, which was a Queen Anne house, built in the 1890s and beautifully bought up to date. I cadged myself a room with a balcony, a high wooden headboard to the bed and closet space which would be £500 a month in Central London on its own. This was good, since my jet-lag manifested in under rather than oversleeping, and I spent most of the small hours of the morning reading in bed.

I’ve always loved the morning after a night time arrival, when you finally get to see what the place looks like in daylight. 433 Martelo Avenue didn’t disappoint when I walked out into the new day at 8am. There were the palm trees lining the road whose shadows I’d glimpsed before, and there was the freeway to the south which I’d heard all through the night. There were also rugged, new, exciting mountains to the north of me, and streets and streets and boulevards and avenues of cinematic American suburbia which I wandered through, lost and marvelling. I scrumped an orange from a neighbour’s fruit tree, and it was perfectly ripe and fresh. Further down the road, I took the opportunity of hailing one of Pasadena’s occasional dog-walking pedestrians.

‘I’m sorry to bother you, but this is my first morning in your country, and I wonder if you might direct me to somewhere I can get some breakfast?’

Another ten minutes, and I was sitting down to a bran muffin and a mug of earl grey at Jameson Brown Coffee Roasters on Allen Avenue. It was a good start.

A Year in Shakespeare: As You Like It

as you likeAs winter nights enlarge the number of their hours, and autumn’s gold begins to displace summer green among the leaves of Bute Park, I look back on the promises of the spring and their fruits. It’s true that while several deadlines were met, chapters written and poems composed, my project, my project of reading all of Shakespeare’s plays this year fell by the wayside. Partly this was due to other writing commitments, and partly due to the testing conditions I set myself: viz, one play every nine days, different editions each time, with an accompanying blog post. However, I’m determined to get out of the Comedies by Christmas, and that seems like a goal I can achieve.
I read As You Like It early in the spring, forging out into the woods and perching on various stumps, fallen trunks and climbable crowns in order to enjoy this least claustrophobic of all Shakespeare’s plays; almost every scene, apart from a smattering in the first act, might be played out of doors. My slim and pocketsized Penguin paperback was a delightfully portable companion, and like the play’s exiled Duke I found ‘tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything.’

IMG_0114_1024I should have written this then, but by letting the year mellow I was able to catch two excellent performances that will linger in my mind long after my pleasant afternoon among the ancient oaks and alder coppices. The first was the annual family trip to Shakespeare’s Globe, the second Everyman theatre’s open air performance in Cardiff’s Bute Park, and it would be hard to say which performance I most enjoyed. While the Globe, as ever, wound up their performance with a lively Elizabethan jig, the Irish band at the Everyman combined Shakespeare’s ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ and ‘What shall he have that killed the deer’ with traditional numbers dear to my own heart like ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ and ‘Finnegan’s Wake’; while the Globe’s Jacques was excoriatingly satirical, gleefully mirthful and fulsomely melancholy, the sexual electricity between Orlando and Rosalind in the Everyman version crackled and leapt; while in the Globe irish bandwe had the up-close underling experience of watching the play from the level of the actor’s boots, in the Everyman we had a wonderful arboreal backdrop to the stage as the evening drew on and the full moon began to dally with the treetops before arising in splendour to shine upon the wedding scene.

The title As You Like It, like What You Will, the alternative name for Twelfth Night, strikes a challenging note from a writer skilled at pleasing all classes of society from the poor groundlings to rich aristocratic patrons. No-one would dismiss this as insubstantial fare, for the characters are vivid and the dialogue substantial, but the plotting is often delightfully insouciant. Not that it particularly matters, but the play begins with the Wrongful Duke having usurped and exiled the Rightful Duke to the Forest of Arden, where His Rightfulness is content not to raise an army and scheme how to reclaim his throne, but to live like Robin Hood of England, and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.

2076His Wrongfulness, meanwhile, steadily drives everyone to the forest with his tyrannical ways – first the talented young Orlando, then the Rightful Duke’s daughter, Rosalind. Here His Wrongfulness makes a big mistake, not realising his own daughter Celia is BFFs with Rosalind and more than willing to accompany her into exile, where Orlando and Rosalind enjoy a winning romance, complicated by the fact that, inevitably, Rosalind is cross-dressing as a man for no good reason. And then starts pretending to be a woman. It all gets a bit recursive at this point.

Part of the fun lies in what is brought onstage and what is left off. Most of the set-piece speeches, including Jacques’ party piece, the Seven Ages of Man, do little to advance the plot; a complex action sequence involving a snake, a lion, and a slumbering villainous brother is told entirely in narration; and the Wrongful Duke, who has been advancing threateningly upon the other characters’ location for at least three whole acts, is disposed of in a handful of lines at the plays end when a previously unheard of character enters to tell us he’s met with a religious hermit and had a change of heart about the whole thing. Yet what would be an utter disaster in anyone else’s hands remains utterly charming in Shakespeare’s own. It’s illuminating to compare the passage that seems most ridiculous in the print version with its performance on stage. In the scene Celia and Orlando’s brother Olivier meet, exchange a few civil words, and part. It seems fairly innocuous until the beginning of the next scene where are told they fell madly in love with one another at first sight and are to be married directly. Laughable on the page, but with the aid of lighting, sound cues, and a pair of good actors it works beautifully – indeed at the Everyman Olivier and Celia’s moment was not only obvious to everyone, but it got one of the best laughs of the evening. It’s a striking example of the confidence Shakespeare had not merely in his own language but in the skills of his acting company.

It’s that confidence and panache, not in the midnight faerie magic of a midsummer dream but the daylit quotidian magic of the Elizabethan stage that lends As You Like It its subtle, individual and unquantifiable charm, as fragile and as eternally renewable as the the English spring itself. To see two good productions in a year has been a fabulous treat.

BSECS vs BARS: Clash of the Conference Titans! Part II

bars_sidebar_logoIt was 2am by the time I got back to Cardiff from Belfast and the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies postgrad and early career conference, and by 9 I was up and clothed and in the university in time to catch the second day of the BARS Romantic Imprints conference.

BARS – that’s the British Association of Romantic Studies – is one of the largest conferences in the discipline of English Literature, and the change in scales was vertiginous. BSECS only had one or two panels per session; BARS never had less than seven or eight. The collected abstracts of the BSECS papers covered a dozen sides of A4; the BARS abstracts had been collected in book form, with a table of contents and an index at the back. BSECS only needed one or two rooms; BARS took over an entire building, and annexed the cafeteria of another.

minions
BARS Conference Reps
Wacky minions of an evil genius
Wacky minions of an evil genius

At this scale there was far too much happening for the conference organisers to keep track of, so Anthony Mandal and Jane Moore recruited a small cadre of conference reps, myself among them, to make sure all the speakers were adequately hydrated, the PowerPoint presentations hadn’t crashed, and to handle any emergencies. Anthony had contrived to make us instantly recognisable by providing us all with bright yellow t-shirts with the conference logo on the back, and we swiftly became known as the yellow minions, after the wacky goggled monsters from the Despicable Me movies. We were from every conceivable level of the academic hierarchy – postdoctorate, doctoral student, postgraduate, graduate and undergraduate – but we developed fast friendships and a striking esprit de corps over the course of the conference.

The first panel I supervised, ‘Locating the Imprint’ was enlivened by multiple dives for the light-switch since the building seemed only willing to give us twenty minutes illumination at a time. This didn’t too much disturb a fascinating panel – the material on obscure literary clubs and books rejected from the Bodleian for being too populist turned out, in typical academic fashion, to be a mine of interesting details and unexpected connections. Leonard Driscoll’s paper on John Clare’s antiquarianism also proved to be deeply engaged, not just with the countryside that John Clare knew and the material traces that remained, but with Clare’s poetry as well – something that can often get buried in papers that deluge you with background detail without a particularly close examination of the text. John Clare – a poet my secondary school teacher once dismissed as ‘a gardner who went mad’ – seemed to be having a good conference, with a plethora of interesting papers.

James Chandler’s plenary lecture on ‘The Romantic Impression: Locke, Hume and Wordsworth’ was a sober and in-depth examination of the history of the notion of impression that felt a little more like an essay than a presentation, but which cast a revealing light upon the conference’s central theme. The first of the afternoon panels, on ‘Disruptive Romantic History and Technologies of Mediation’ boasted an illuminating paper by Ian Newman on ‘Consuming Sedition in the 1790s’, examining the metaphors of consumption surrounding radical texts such as Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. Brian Rejack’s paper ‘Keats’s Joy in the Time of Photography’ revolved around the famous opening lines of Endymion:

A thing of beauty is a joy forever,
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness;

Rejack examined the reproduction of those lines in various contexts throughout the nineteenth century, after which I brought things into the twenty-first – and caused a small sensation – by admitting I had them tattooed on my right shoulder!

I rounded off the day with a panel on ‘The Romantic Writer and the Imprint of the Humanities’, where Brecht de Groote’s paper on Thomas De Quincy caught my imagination. There’s no sound quite like the murmur of an academic audience with its interest roused, and a striking susurrus arose as de Groote showed De Quincy grasping the onset of the information age, and going on to predict something strikingly similar to the internet.

I skipped the plenary lecture in order to go offer comfort and consolation to an unhappy friend of mine who had travelled all the way down from Newcastle to present a paper, only to be struck down by food poisoning on the very first day! That evening’s entertainment was the early career pub outing, and it was a pleasure to catch up with various people from earlier conferences, and to buy my MA dissertation supervisor, Mary Fairclough, a drink at last. Some serious drama erupted when Alex, one of my fellow yellow minions, who had a nut allergy, started going into anaphylactic shock and had to be whisked off to hospital by Mikey Goodman, the hero of the hour. Alex was stable, however, Mikey was back before last orders, and the rest of the evening passed without life-threatening incident.

The next day’s began with a panel on ‘Coleridge’s Afterlives’, populated by Philip Aherne, Anna Mercer and Jo Taylor, all of whom I knew from an earlier conference, and none of them worse for the previous evening’s adventures. Philip reprehended me for paying too much attention to Coleridge’s poetry, which is a mere 10% of his total output – and neglecting his prose; Anna Mercer analysed some of the poems of Sara Coleridge, his daughter, somewhat of a new discovery and still causing a stir in Romantic circles; while Jo Taylor did a paper on Coleridge’s grand-daughter Edith, the winner of the Coleridge-least-likely-to-acquire-a-major-critical-edition award, which was an intriguing consideration of how to analyse and make use of terribly bad versifying.

At the next plenary, I nipped down to the stage to check the organisers wanted for nothing. The speaker, Devoney Looser, was friendly, eye-catching in peacock leggings and one of the few academics to bring her kids along, but it wasn’t until Gillian Dow introduced her to the lecture theatre at large that I realised she was that Devoney Looser – famous for proving that academia and roller derby are not mutually exclusive, and known to her team-mates as Stone Cold Jane Austen. Her paper on the illustrated editions of Jane Austen’s novels was an interesting examination of a little regarded area, and I made a note of a few editions to investigate.

IMG_0896The afternoon featured a coach trip to South Wales’s Romantic Location of choice: Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire. I’d walked past it many times before, following the line of the riverbank or peering down from the Devil’s Pulpit on Offa’s Dyke above, but it was the first time I’d actually spent time among the ruins. A poetry reading had been laid on for us, but sadly the acoustics were far inferior to when the roof had been vaulted with grave arches rather than open to the sky above us – but there was something to be said, I mused, for listening to Wordsworth’s great ode as ‘a soft inland murmur’, sprawling upon the greensward while the swallows flit in and out of the empty chancel windows.

Getting all the academics back onto the bus turned out to be like herding cats, and we still would have ended up short a few if someone hadn’t had the bright idea of checking the pub. There was just time in Cardiff for us reps to dash home, throw off the yellow t-shirts and don the gladrags for the conference dinner. What a crowd of luminaries there were, packed into the dining hall, and how pleasant to troop up to the stage and receive our acknowledgements for helping the conference come to be such a success. I stayed up afterwards – with my friend Harriet as my glamorous assistant – to read out the raffle tickets. Nicola Watson, the president of BARS, was kind enough to come over and say that if I somehow didn’t get a teaching job after a PhD I clearly had a bright future ahead of me as a bingo caller!

After dinner and several glasses of wine, we trekked over to the Urban Taphouse, where over another couple of pints of high a.b.v. ale the subject of my Keats tattoo came up again. Some of the ladies were importunate to catch a glimpse of it.

Which is how I woke up the next morning and realised I’d just done a striptease in front of bunch of academics and a senior Jane Austen scholar.

Oh my.

A 9:30 panel on a Sunday morning is never easy under the best circumstances, but somehow, I hauled myself up from the shower floor and went into university for the final day of the conference. ‘Material Culture and Intermedial Relationships’ turned out to be worth the effort, covering such little-considered artefacts as literary annuals, relief maps and ceramic transferware: the description of how the ceramicists swooped down on new books of topographical views like a flock of vultures was arresting, as was the analysis of how they collaged their compositions from various sources.

In despite of the fact that the speaker, Peter Garside, was one of the nicest academics it was my pleasure to dogsbody for all conference, inquiring politely into my PhD and Miltonic interests, the plenary lecture ‘Another Golden Age for the Novel?’ proved beyond my (by now severely limited) comprehension. I dallied in the last panel session for two excellent papers on Robert Southey before heading downstairs to take part in the general clean-up. Then Anthony and Jane said their closing words – there was a round of applause – and all was suddenly over! I had survived the week of conference bedlam with nothing more than a mild case of the caffeine shakes and the loss of a few IQ points through sheer fatigue, and I had just enough left in me to cycle home before I lost consciousness. A success by any measure!