Friends,

This will be my final blog entry; I return to the United States at the end of the week! The delivery of my paper on Monday was a terrific success. The audience was very generous in their reception of my work. One of the most exciting parts of the lecture was the Q&A session. I was offered such wonderful feedback–I can’t wait to read some of the new criticism that has been recommended to me.

I want to take this time to thank my wonderful English professors, Professor Raji Mohan and Professor Stephen Finley. I am so deeply grateful to these brilliant people for introducing me to the Romantics in the first place, and for their guidance and support this past year. Haverford College is a truly remarkable place; I feel so lucky to have such incredible scholars working on my behalf.

Part of me mourns the end of such a blissful six weeks. As usual, in such moments of transition I like to turn to the poets for counsel and solace (which is why this final musing will be replete with quotations!). The poet Tony Hoagland writes: “What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle. What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.” In other words, this trip to England may be temporally over, but the work that I have started here has only begun. Over the past month and a half I have put out my hand and felt the curve of the future I want. What I desire more than anything else is a life filled with study, scholarship and meaningful conversation. I can pursue that life at Haverford just as I have in London and at Grasmere. “There is a moment in each day that Satan cannot find,” William Blake writes, “nor can his Watch Fiends find it, but the Industrious find this moment and it multiply, and when it once is found it renovates every moment of the day if rightly placed.” I have had many of these sublime, “Satan-free” moments here in England, and these “spots of time” (Wordsworth) have, indeed, illuminated whole portions of my trip with a kind of halo of happiness. I know, however, that if I live my life with the curiosity and passion that has marked my traveler’s mind this summer, I can find this same kind of “accessible bliss” (Stevens always gets the last word!) at home in Northampton and at Haverford.

Peace out, England!

I can’t wait to see you all.

 

 

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Friends,

Forgive me for the brevity of this posting. I am presenting my paper on Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens on Monday, so that preparation is my primary focus for the weekend. Nevertheless, I wanted to write a brief update on my recent adventures here at Grasmere.

After six days in the Lake District, I can see why Dorothy Wordsworth (supposedly) went a bit bonkers and fell in love with her brother, William. This place is beautiful but also mind numbingly boring. I have completed the village circuit several times now; there is a hiking store that sells a variety of nubby socks, a confectionery that boasts (hold your horses, everybody) three different kinds of toffee, and a pub that sells its last drink at 8:45. Yabba dabba doo! I guess the Wordsworth scholars won’t be staying out into the wee hours, dribbling into mixed drinks and giggling about Justin Bieber. No matter: the conference has kept everyone very busy the past few days. I’m fascinated by every one of the lectures; I have been attending seven or eight a day! One of my favorite scholars is Richard Brantley, an Emily Dickinson specialist from the University of Florida. Professor Brantley, like an Otis Redding ballad or an Arthur Dove painting, seems wholly and completely American to me–a Budweiser raised up to toast a bitter British Lager. “The brain is wider than the sky,” he said in a recent conversation, quoting Dickinson in his Georgian drawl. I’ll have to remember the wise words of the Belle of Amherst as I prepare for my presentation on Monday afternoon.

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At Levens Hall (a Jacobian manor house) with Nicholas Roe, Richard Brantley (University of Florida) and Mark Bruhn (Regis University)

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In the words of the man of the hour, Mr. Wordsworth, I find myself “blest in thoughts that are their own perfection and reward” here at Grasmere. I’m taking this morning to gather my thoughts as I reflect on these first three days of inspiring intellectual discourse. Though I don’t think I can align myself with Wordsworth as a “worshipper of nature” (Between my hatred of mosquitoes and deep affinity for air conditioning, I would more aptly dub myself a “dealer-with-nature”), I do have to admit that the Lake District is staggeringly beautiful. Yesterday I traveled to “Long Meg”—a Neolithic ruin to which Wordsworth composed one of his most well known sonnets. We read Wordsworth’s ode to the “Giant Mother” at the foot of the great stone—a tremendous, red rock that juts out of a grassy pasture. Long Meg, a monolith covered in cryptic, spiral designs, is the 69th stone in a Stonehenge-like ring of rocks that was likely the foundation of some sort of Druid temple. “The Ultimate Poem is Abstract,” Stevens entitled one of his most famous works. In their abstraction and simplicity, the Neolithic rocks did seem almost Stevensian to me.  The spooky, other-worldliness of the scene was enhanced by a pony camp that was taking place in the field. Slack-jawed tween girls stood with their ponies in the meadow, amidst the rocks, feeding their “mane-men” (sorry, all; the pun was too good to pass up!) carrots and dandelions. After our sojourn to Long Meg, we continued on to Great Salked, a medieval abbey in the Northern part of the Lake District. I ran my fingers over Saint Cuthbert’s tomb before heading to the pub with Nicholas Roe (Director of the Conference and Keats scholar) and Anna Zimmerman, an English professor from Fordham University. Over bitter ales we discussed Anne Wroe, an esteemed keynote lecturer (she writes for The Economist) who is speaking at the conference next week. Nicholas told us that Wroe has recently come out with a new book—a biography of Orpheus that got a terrific review in The Guardian. According to the review, Wroe’s study of the mythological character marks the beginning of a new kind of biography; one that explores the life of a fictitious character. I can’t wait to check it out.

Yesterday I attended a wonderful pairing of two lectures on Wordsworth’s Lucy Poems. Especially revelatory for me was Gregory Leadbetter’s exploration of the strange verbal architecture that marks Wordsworth’s ‘A Slumber Did my Spirit Seal.”  Leadbetter was primarily concerned with the “double-tonguedness” (as he called it) of the poem; in its ambiguity, the verse itself becomes a ritual—a transition between spaces of life and death, male and female, human and inhuman. Though the papers themselves are fascinating, some of my best revelations have come during moments of “creative conversation” (to mobilize critic Edward Clarke’s phrase) with various scholars here. Over meals and on hikes, we discuss poetry and criticism amongst ourselves. Nancy offered me an interpretation of Joyce’s “The Dead” (the architecture of the marital house mirrors the dysfunction of Gabriel’s marriage) that completely changed my understanding of the story. Subashree explained her love of King Lear over all the other Shakespearean tragedies in a way that gave me goose bumps. According to Subashree (a scholar from Calcutta), the other Shakespearean tragedies have morals, but not King Lear. Therein lies the tragedy of the play, and the tragedy of reality as well: life doesn’t make sense. These moments of discussion and connection are the ones that I find most sustaining.

Okay, everyone, I’m off to Levens Hall this afternoon (a 16th-century manor house), but stay tuned for more news from Wordsworth-ville! Thank you for reading!

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Stephen Gill just signed my copy of The Prelude!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Well, folks, I am certainly not in London anymore. Greetings from the Lake District–a place so beautiful I can see why Wordsworth, a self-proclaimed “worshipper of nature,” located an alternative sublime in these misty mountains and rolling green hills. As I compose this entry, my blistered feet burn from an afternoon hike through Loughrigg and the Rydal Caves. My notebook is filled with pages of notes from the four lectures that I attended this morning. But before I go into detail about these adventures from the day, let me start from the beginning.

The trip to Grasmere from London was a real pain in the neck. Rushing with my gargantuan suitcase (did I really have to buy those coffee table books at the Tate Britain?!), I felt like something off of a foreign language flashcard; the vocabulary word would be “stressed,” and the image would be a sweaty, coffee-stained woman lugging a valise. A Danish man with a mullet took pity on me and helped me lift my bag onto the railcar. The ride itself was fine, though the cabin was marked with a distinctly European grime. The space smelled like egg salad, and Cadbury wrappers were wedged in the various crevasses of my seat. Beside me, two boys in matching Arsenal jerseys played electronic football on handheld devices. A man who looked like a James Bond villain (bleach-blond hair and a strange scar) bought two water bottles and alternated taking sips from each. I watched a woman write in her journal on the other side of the aisle: “August 1st, 2011—A good day,” she had written.

At Oxenholme station I met up with the other Wordsworth Conference participants. We took a transfer bus from Oxenholme to Grasmere (the site of the convention). I met Mark, a Blake scholar who, in typical British fashion, struck me as ridiculously humble: “Ah yes, Stevens,” he said of my paper, “not too knowledgeable, a bloke like myself, but his work from 1939 to 1942 has always struck me as most pleasing, indeed!” Upon arrival at Grasmere, the conference participants were brought to a very amusing meet-and-greet session. At the event, I sipped sweet sherry and talked up various Wordsworth scholars (“Have you met the young American? An undergraduate!” I overheard and swelled with pride). By the end of the evening, I had spoken about a seemingly endless list of Wordsworth topics: Wordsworth and the Gothic, Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, Wordsworth and the new colonial epic, Wordsworth and the textile industry, Wordsworth and the city, Wordsworth and animal imagery…. it goes on.  I also spent a long time speaking with a French woman about Mont Saint Michel (“zee most exquisite abbey zat my country boasts,” she said).  Amidst all these prestigious academics, I felt intimidated and honored, but also thrilled to be welcomed to such a community of likeminded people. If nothing else, I like to think that I bring a certain youthful pep to the conference. I am definitely the one to drink my sherry a little too quickly, to not know what hollandaise sauce is, and to comment that Wordsworth looks like he really needs to use the loo in the portrait hanging above the dining hall’s mantle. Wordsworth portraits aside, the real talk of the evening was Stephen Gill—the Justin Timberlake of the Wordsworth Convention. A renowned Wordsworth scholar (he edited my edition of The Prelude!), Professor Gill is scheduled to lecture here at the conference. He is the superstar of his field and I can’t wait to hear his talk!

After dinner we were brought to a reception at Dove Cottage, the old Wordsworth homestead. I saw Dorothy’s old shoes (tiny, satin slippers) and the desk where Wordsworth likely composed much of his verse. In the living room of the cottage, I discussed Irish poetry with Nancy, a PhD student from San Francisco. “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you/and loved the sorrows of your changing face,” we recited together, marveling at the beauty of Yeats’s verse.  “Oh my God, there are others like me!” I thought to myself as Nancy and I clutched each other. The sublimity of the poem, coupled with the wine, made us both momentarily shaky.

This morning I went for a run through the old graveyard. I suddenly looked up and found myself in front of Dorothy and William Wordsworth’s graves. I kissed the two stones and thanked my friends for their counsel. They have already led me very far.

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Farewell, London!

Tomorrow morning I leave for the Lake District, where I will be attending the 2011 Annual Wordsworth Summer Conference. I expect this second portion of my trip to be quite different from the first. Over the next two weeks, museum and theater hopping will be replaced with rugged mountain walks and academic lectures. I’m sad to leave London, but I’m also thrilled to embark on this new installment of my British adventure. Last night my flat mates and I indulged in a farewell feast of fish and chips and mushy peas. Late as it was when we left the restaurant, the sky was the color of the flushed cheek of an English Miss. Koku, Francis and I walked home through the park, where we paused to watch a scrawny cat sniff an abandoned digestive biscuit. Girls teetered past us in their big, sparkly heels as they made their way to the pub, and sirens wailed in the distance over the red-bricked row houses. So long, city life; I expect Grasmere to be very different, indeed! Stay tuned for musings from the Wordsworth Conference. And as always, thank you for reading!

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Street art in London's East End

Outside of the reading rooms at the British Library, scholars study wherever they can find a space.

Bethnal Green

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Friends,

I am composing this entry from an Internet café near the Victoria and Albert Museum. I returned to the collection today to see some of the galleries that I had missed during my first visit. Today I was especially dazzled by (of all things) the collection’s 18th-century snuffboxes. The tiny receptacles looked like treasures that a mermaid princess would keep in her cove; each one was embellished with glittering gems and opalescent inlay. In the medieval gallery, I was delighted to discover there was some sort of interactive instillation taking place; visitors could try on replicas of ancient garb! I donned a long, linen tunic that (according to the provided information) was a version of what a farmer would have worn in the early 12th century. Unfortunately, no one else in the gallery seemed particularly excited about trying on the outfits.  I was regarded with tight-lipped smiles of bemusement as I admired my medieval self in the mirror.

After weeks of rain, (the worst summer weather in 18 years, according to The Guardian) we finally had a beautiful weekend here. On Sunday afternoon I went to Regent’s Park to worship the sun with all the other light-deprived Londoners. Just like the fragrant flowers stretching their green shoots to the sky (“More sun, please!” I imagine the blossoms chirping), the people in Regent’s Park on Sunday seemed similarly nourished by the clear, bright day. Friends sat with picnics and paint sets, lovers canoodled and families made noble efforts to engage in self-conscious fun (I watched a tween in a sparkly tube top lackadaisically swing a croquet mallet as her father and mother looked on). The flowers themselves were spectacular; the damp, fragrant petals of the roses seemed quietly obscene. I think Gertrude Stein was right when she wrote that “a rose, is a rose, is a rose.” The flower transcends metaphor and simile in its aesthetic sublime. Though the rose may surpass poetical device, I must admit that someone did a great job naming its different species. The “Galileo” rose was neon indigo. The “Conspicuous” rose was a dashing, imperial red. “Sun Gleam” and “Razzle Dazzle” were orange and dappled electric fuchsia. After admiring the rose gardens, I sat on a bench and watched a Bengali bride and groom have their wedding photographs taken. The couple sat in a flowerbed flanked by lilies. The woman was covered with some sort of body glitter so her whole body shimmered as she sat amidst the blossoms.

On Thursday evening I went to see a terrific production of “Doctor Faustus” at the Globe Theater. It was wonderful to see the play that I read with Professor Benston in such a famous venue. For those who haven’t read Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy of the Enlightenment, “Doctor Faustus” is the story of a scholar who gives his soul to the devil in exchange for all the knowledge of the universe. The play emerges, I think, as a cautionary tale: a critique of a certain kind of intellectual gluttony in which one hoards information without truly understanding any of it. The production’s marvelous set design and costume really served to highlight the play’s apocalyptic motifs. I felt like I was watching a William Blake etching of the fires of hell come to life. Actors wielded huge, demonic puppets, books caught on fire, and minstrels in ghoulish masks strummed frenzied chords on mandolins.  At intermission, I got myself a glass of wine and sat by the Thames watching the sun go down. “Remember this,” I told myself, marking my profound joy. I marveled at my astonishing luck and the sheer beauty of the universe: the light on Saint Paul’s, the fact that I was seeing a play at the Globe Theater that I had read during my intellectual awakening this past year, the anticipation of meeting my friends after the play that evening, the upcoming Wordsworth conference, my new, keen affinity for my own company—it was (and still is!) too good to be true. As I sat by the Thames I felt truly “blest in thoughts that [were] their own perfection and reward,” as Wordsworth writes. I will carry that “Moment-of-Intense-Happiness-During-The-Intermission-of-Doctor-Faustus” in my “deep heart’s core,” as Yeats writes. Okay, okay, I’m off to get a jacket potato before I quote myself into oblivion. Thank you for reading, everyone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hello from the British Library, everyone! The reading rooms are packed today so I’ve resorted to writing this entry on a bench in the foyer of the building. Other scholars are doing the same; students and professors sit side by side on the floor with their laptops and printouts. It’s funny how we all want to work in the British Library despite the fact that the reading rooms are filled. Studying in this space, it seems, isn’t just about utilizing the materials in the collection. Merely sitting in the British Library (even on a bench outside of the bathroom!) is energizing; being in here makes one want to work. Speaking of work, my paper on Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens is going very well. As the Wordsworth Conference approaches, I find myself fantasizing about the essay’s delivery in August. When I lie in bed at night, I like to imagine my paper’s reception. Blown away by my eloquence, the conference coordinators will bestow me with some sort of relic, like Wordsworth’s nose hairs, as a token of their admiration. A girl can dream, right?

Yesterday I went to Buckingham Palace. I visited the Queen’s Gallery—the Royal Family’s personal art collection which boasted a number of exquisite Rembrandt and Rubens paintings. In the museum, gigantic portraits of the various kings and queens were hanging  in ornate, gilt frames. Though the works were beautiful, I am starting to get a little irked by the pomp of the royal family. I think if I have to see one more portrait of Prince Richard VIII, son of the late King Henry IV, third husband of Dame Catherine of Cockfoster, the sixth heir to the greater Essex-upon-Jubilee, who was the second wife of Duke Phillip of Yorkshire, I’m going to be “quite miffed, indeed.” The rigid ceremony and pomp of the Royal Family registers first as quaint, then as amusing, and then as just annoying. While most Brits are relatively indifferent to the Royal Family, some people do seem to worship the King and Queen as real icons, as the following anecdote will reveal.  When I went to buy a postcard in the gift store, the two saleswomen were gossiping as they shelved chocolate bars in the shape of Prince Albert.

“I heard the Queen herself was in the gift shop last night!” one clerk whispered to her colleague. Her fellow worker let out a squeal of ecstasy.

I overheard this, and wondered what the Queen would be doing in the gift shop of Buckingham Palace at night. Stocking up on royal wedding memorabilia? Prince Harry dishtowels?

“I wonder if she bought a postcard of herself!” I joked to the two women.

My comment went over like a lead balloon. “Oh, no, how absurd! Why on earth would she need a postcard of herself? The queen is the queen!” the clerk retorted dismissively.

That’s all for now, everybody. I’m off to meet friends at the museum before heading to the Globe Theater to see Doctor Faustus, a wonderful play by Christopher Marlowe that I read this past year with Professor Benston! I’ll let you know my thoughts on the production; I’m so looking forward to seeing a play in such a famous space.

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