I’m sitting here in the Roebuck pub after partaking in a Sunday roast with my flat mates. Sated by our steak and cabbage, Francis (who is reading the latest on Gordon Brown in The Early Standard) and I are sitting at a table by the window, watching the rain fall on Great Dover Street. The London weather (marked by perpetual, ominous clouds) reminds me of an unstable person; the sky teeters on the brink of a nervous breakdown. I imagine the sky’s lower lip trembling before it erupts into a full-blown wail—a sporadic and violent downpour that leaves everyone soaked to the bone. Bankers, businessmen and Bengali tots, pretty posh girls and gap-toothed grandmas are all opening their umbrellas as they make their way to the Underground. As Walt Whitman writes, “I mind them and the resonance of them” as I people-watch from my perch inside the pub.

London continues to literally feed my soul; I am nourished to the core by the beauty that I see here. From the stiletto-clad sweetie sobbing to her best mate outside a glittery dive bar to the pungent pork pie at Borough market, everything entertains, amuses and inspires me. James Joyce, an ardent Irish Nationalist, once claimed that there was “more in an Irish safety pin than in a British epic.” I would have to contest (or at least augment) my favorite author’s claim. Perhaps, in revision: “there is as much in an Irish safety pin as in a take-away box of chips left on a bench in Hyde Park.” The smallest things, in both places, seem to have such profound metaphoric potential.  I have continued to explore tiny galleries and museums over the past few days. One of my recent favorites was the Wallace Collection–a museum replete with works by Fragonard, Greuze, and other 18th-Century French masters.  I spent hours in the Victorian house-turned-gallery, admiring paintings of pink cherubs and fleshy femmes draped in silk. I also returned to the Tate Modern, where I saw the Miro show—such a beautiful exhibition! The deep reds and azures of the canvases quieted me.

Yesterday I took a day trip to Stonehenge and Bath. I booked the excursion for myself through an agency advertised at the local hostel. It was nice to relax in an air-conditioned bus. So much of my day in London is spent rummaging through my backpack for a map, dropping coins out of my wallet (why do the Brits need so many coins, anyway?) or searching desperately for a bathroom. The guided tour was quite luxurious by comparison to all that: a mental manicure, if you will. That said, the tour guide himself was pretty  sub-par. This unfortunate fellow had a kind of slippery, grimy look about him; he wore big, aviator sunglasses for the entire expedition despite the fact that it was pouring rain. “My name is Tim,” Tim the tour guide announced to an already-wary audience (it’s hard to take your leader seriously when he has removed his shoes and is speaking to you through mouthfuls of biscuit). “We’re going to be going to Stonehenge, which is really old,” he continued. “I can’t remember exactly how old it is, but let’s just say on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the oldest, Stonehenge is a 10.”

As we approached Stonehenge, I saw the rocks appear in the distance—a little gray spot in my field of vision that I could eclipse with my thumb as I pressed it to the bus window. As we got closer, I didn’t find myself particularly impressed by what I saw. Stonehenge registered to me as, well, a pile of rocks.  I laughed to myself about the absurdity of the ritual—the tourist’s pilgrimage to these ancient stones in the middle of nowhere. Indeed, Tim warned us that we weren’t in for anything spectacular: “Don’t expect them to be big, because they’re not,” he cautioned us. “Trust me. You aren’t going to want more than 15 minutes here.” Despite Tim’s rousing introduction to Stonehenge, I decided to brave the rain and investigate the site more carefully. The weather was truly apocalyptic; thunder bellowed over the hills from the distance and blue-white lightening zigzagged in crazy patterns across the sky. The whole thing really seemed like something out of a Mel Gibson movie; I could have been King Arthur on horseback, wielding a ruby-encrusted sword. I elbowed my way through the crowds of parka-clad tourists; their umbrellas poked me uncomfortably as I tried to navigate my way towards Stonehenge. For some reason, every tourist in England seemed to have decided (on arguably the rainiest day of the summer) to go to Stonehenge yesterday. A cacophony of languages swirled through the site: guttural German sounds, melodic squeaks of Chinese, the American drawl as flat as the Kansas prairie. People pushed their way to the front of the fence with such ferocity one would think that the Stonehenge stones were going somewhere (which, after earning a “10” in Tim’s “oldness” scale, seemed unlikely).

It was only after experiencing Stonehenge amidst these crowds of tourists that I understood the power of the monument. In a recent posting I quoted Faulkner’s meditation on the porous relationship between past and present. At Stonehenge, however, I felt the opposite–the Stevensian “dumbfounding abyss between us and the object.” In other words, looking at Stonehenge, the past felt astonishingly distant and impenetrable. The deep silence of the stones—majestic in their age—made the frenzied present (the gaggles of tourists with their cameras and hot dogs) seem foolish by comparison.

After Stonehenge, we continued on to the town of Bath—a lovely, tourist-friendly village filled with shops and cafes. More to follow soon on Wordsworth–I received an email with the abstracts for all the papers being delivered at Grasmere! For now, however, the sun has finally emerged so I’m off to take a walk on Dover High Street to catch some rays.

 

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Friends,

A blustery evening here in London; the sky is the color of Buckingham Palace—a stony gray-blue. It’s been an eventful two days and I have lots to report since my last posting! There’s a seemingly endless amount of things to do here in London and I find myself constantly yearning to learn more and see more; I feel like a greedy five-year-old sucking up the last inches of a milkshake.

After my studies yesterday afternoon, I took myself to Sir John Soane’s Museum in the heart of Bloomsbury. Sir John (1753-1837) was the architect of the Bank of England, and he bequeathed his house (and his formidable collection of antiquities) to the nation on the condition that nothing be changed. Inside the house-turned-museum, one has the sensation of being inside a jewelry box. The Pompeian-red walls are dappled with ornate mirrors, marble death masks, ancient cameos and shards of broken Corinthian columns. In addition to these Greek and Roman artifacts, the museum also boasts some wonderful 19th-century paintings. I especially liked the portrait of Soane with his sinewy hound dogs, and a dreamy landscape of Athens in which crumbling ruins are illuminated to an opalescent shimmer by a tangerine sun. After the museum, I ate my sandwich in Lincoln Fields, a park across the street from the collection. Neon-clad workmen took their lunch break on the green; they relaxed with their kebabs and cigarettes at a corner of the park. Some sort of seminar was being held on the other side of the lawn; students sat in earnest conversation under a weeping willow tree.

After the Sir John Soane’s Museum, I made my way to the National Portrait Gallery where I met up with Kelvin. We spent the afternoon exploring the Museum’s current exhibition, which features the work of the winners of the annual BP Portrait Competition. The gallery displayed the portraits of the most up and coming painters, whose subjects ranged from the intimate (family members and lovers) to the iconic (celebrities and politicians). Kelvin and I agreed that much of the work was too avant-garde for our taste; many of the paintings were disturbing and hard to look at.  That said, these grotesque images did evoke a kind of apocalyptic lethargy that I think any young person can relate to in some form or another (right, guys?!).

Today I returned to the National Portrait Gallery to see the museum’s permanent collection. I saw the faces of the morning Underground commuters in the Tudor and Parliamentary portraits; the round, white visage of Catherine Parr bore an uncanny resemblance to the woman who works at the grocery store on the corner (albeit Parr wore ermine). I guess Londoners haven’t changed very much over the generations; as Faulkner notes: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Speaking of the past, I continued my afternoon at Westminster Abbey where I saw the graves of some of my favorite authors. Before entering the church, however, a man who looked like Kermit the frog prodded through my backpack with a long, wooden pole. At a second checkpoint, a stern-looking woman with a bowl haircut sent me out of the abbey to spit out my gum. Finally, I was deemed “Westminster-worthy” and I began my exploration of the space. In the Poet’s Corner, I saw the graves of Milton and Longfellow, as well as commemorative plaques that honored many of my other “main men”: Byron, Eliot, Hopkins, James and Dickens. I like to imagine the ghosts of these poets and writers in conversation with one another; their translucent moulds would sit in the rafters of the abbey, sipping white tea and talking about books.

The epithet “immortal diamond” is inscribed on Gerard Manly Hopkins’ stone. Indeed, the great poets are all “immortal diamonds” to me.  Even though they are buried beneath the stones of Westminster Abbey, these writers register as dear friends who are very much alive. “Hi, guys!” I found myself murmuring to the cool alabaster (and yes, I think I did get some peculiar looks, but such is the benefit of traveling alone: I get to be as weird as I want!).

For your viewing pleasure, I’m including a few images from the past 48-hours. It doesn’t get much more British than fish and chips and Westminster Abbey! I hope you enjoy.

 

Westminster Abbey

Outside of the Poet's Corner

Fish and chips: we made this classic British feast ourselves and it turned out really well!

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Hello from the Humanities Reading Room of the British Library, everyone! I am composing this blog post as I wait for my requested materials to arrive (it usually takes about an hour for the desired books to make their way to the circulation desk). I’m very eagerly anticipating the arrival of an early edition of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere journals (a manuscript that apparently contains old photographs and etchings of Dove Cottage, the Wordsworth homestead in the Lake District where I’ll be in a few weeks!). In addition to this text, I also requested several volumes of John Ashbery for my own “pleasure reading.” Many of the critics whom I have read cite Ashbery as the “Romantic” of our generation. These scholars posit that Ashbery’s work is a postmodern revision of the Wordsworthian and Stevensian thematic concerns. Like Wordsworth and Stevens, Ashbery seems to yearn for a kind of Romantic “wholeness”—an order through which the poet can understand a world in which God has left us. That yearning, however, is registered in such a muted and indirect way that it is often hard to understand, quite frankly, what the heck Ashbery is talking about. Indeed, the poetry seems to push the reader beyond abstraction to something even more dazzlingly oblique—a kind of pregnant nihilism, if that makes any sense: “pure affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything” (from Ashbery’s poem, “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”).

*             *                 *                 *

In the British Library today, I thought back to an old English teacher that I had when I was in middle school. After several harrowing years in Vietnam, this particular gentleman had laid down his AK-47 and picked up the seventh-grade reading list (“Understanding English Grammar” and “The Old Man and the Sea”). The teacher’s cryptic yet eerily enlightened side notes (“This test is going to be hard, but it’s hard to be an American”) completely befuddled us middle-schoolers; at that age, our attunement to the tragedy of existence was about as sharp as a marshmallow. Anyway, my teacher would often halt our slog through a grammar worksheet to utter the following as we sat slouched in our seats: “Scholars, we are learnin’!”

I thought of these words today when I was in the library’s reading room. The scholars were, indeed, learnin’! Academics of every age were bent over laptops and books. The reading room made Magill (Haverford College’s library) seem like a veritable discothèque by comparison. The room was so quiet I could hear the breathing of the woman in the carrel beside me. The collective strain of the scholars for new knowledge, however, seemed to have its own hum. My own research went quite well; it was fascinating to read Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals. Dorothy’s detailed catalogue of her daily chores and the images of her secluded cottage really made manifest the boredom and loneliness of a 19th-Century woman. I think I’d go crazy if the most exciting thing that happened to me all day was the preparation of a mutton pudding. Yikes.

After going to the library, I decided to brave Primark. Primark is a gigantic, inexpensive department store in the center of London. The experience was quite overwhelming; the three-level building was mobbed with frenzied shoppers, who seemed to grope quite indiscriminately at the merchandise in the store. One woman pushed me aside, selected an entire style of pants (all the pairs on the rack, in every size!) and made a b-line for the dressing room. The floors of Primark were strewn with the casualties of aggressive shopping: broken, single earrings, shirts kicked to the ground and stepped on, belts that had fallen and were never placed back where they belonged. I almost bought a t-shirt that had the words “Nerdy Chick” emblazoned on the front, but the line to pay was too daunting so I gave up and left.

I had a wonderful weekend filled with art, food and exploration. I’m tired from my Primark escapade so I think a quick gloss of my adventures will have to suffice for the time being. In brief: first off, I went to the beautiful Tate Modern on Saturday, a museum that boasts not only a spectacular collection, but a spectacular space as well. The high, industrial ceilings and big, minimalist windows make the building register as a kind of modernist chapel. At the museum I met Kelvin, an American student working on his dissertation here in London. On Sunday, Kelvin and I went to the weekly Bengali flea market in East London, before meeting up with his friends at a hip hop party and barbeque. London honeys bumped and grinded under a peach-pink evening sky—the perfect end to my first full week here in England. Tomorrow’s afternoon agenda includes the Sir John Soane’s Museum (a collection very close to the British Library), followed by a trip to the National Portrait Gallery. What a life!

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Inspired by the beautiful, bleak photographs that I saw yesterday at the Whitechapel gallery, I decided to take my camera to the South Bank this morning. I took photographs of the crummy high–rise buildings; the blue-gray grime of the cityscape suddenly struck me as astonishingly beautiful after seeing Zarina Bhimji’s work. I snapped pictures of peeling billboards and telephone wires, whose geometry seemed to cut up the skyline like the lines of a Barnett Newman painting. Here are some images from Elephant and Castle, a southern stop on the Northern Line:

When traveling abroad, the strangers that one encounters become a kind of proxy for one’s family. Because I know no one in London, anyone with whom I interact more than once feels like an intimate relation in comparison with the rest of the world. At the local Internet café, for example, the girl at the register has become a veritable bosom buddy in my imagination. And after a week of daily salutations and pleasant exchanges with the doorman at my flat, the man may as well be my father (just kidding, Daddy). With this in mind, you can imagine my excitement when I ran into Peter at the Victoria and Albert museum today. Peter, a recent graduate from the University of Massachusetts, sat next to me on the flight from Boston to Heathrow; he was traveling to England to visit a friend in London. After hours of friendly banter in that airplane-purgatory, we parted ways at customs and I was sure that I’d never see him again. But there was Peter in the main lobby today: my best friend, in the scheme of the week. The Victoria and Albert museum suddenly felt like the site of a high school reunion. Peter and I could have exchanged a secret handshake and reminisced about The Big Game.  After swapping stories from our respective adventures, we decided to investigate the collection together.

The Victoria and Albert museum is dazzling. Peter and I made our way through tremendous hallways flanked with sculptures, and gargantuan, gilt galleries filled with massive paintings. Inside the museum, I felt the way that I did as a little girl in FAO Schwartz: a mixture of delight and panic. The endless corridors of art overwhelmed me—it was almost too much beauty to handle at once. In the museum’s famous jewel collection, I saw tremendous, shimmering gems that made Kim Kardashian’s two million dollar engagement ring from Kris Humphries look paltry by comparison. “I bet you could spend all day in this room, you’re a girl,” Peter sighed. The milky opal stones, ruby-dripped diadems and glittering broaches that the collection boasted, however, transfixed even Peter. After the Victoria and Albert museum, we continued on to the Science Museum, which housed an impressive collection of antique gizmos from the 18th century onward: old beakers, engines and other various gadgets, as well as rocket ships and space gear from the 1960’s and beyond.

Thank you for reading, everyone! I am so lucky to be supported by such an inspiring collection of people from Haverford, Massachusetts, and everywhere in between. As William Butler Yeats writes, I carry you all in my “deep heart’s core” as I wander the streets of London. Stay tuned for meditations on Wordsworth, Ashbery, the Tate Modern and mushy peas!

Everyone was mesmerized by these gemstones. Future husband take note: see that big blue jewel in the middle? I’d like it for my engagement ring. Yeah, that one.

 

 

 

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Greetings, everyone!

Lots to report since my last posting. I spent yesterday afternoon in the Tate Britain. I began my visit with a stroll through the permanent collection, where I saw a number of wonderful works. Sir John Everett Millais’s rendition of Ophelia was especially haunting: Hamlet’s darling floating in a dark, murky pool, flanked by baby’s breath and water lilies. Other favorites for me included “The Cholmondeley Ladies” (a creepy 17th-century portrait of slack-jawed twin sisters clad in matching lace gowns) and “Steel, Aluminum and Cable,” a 1985 installation by Richard Wentworth that featured a twisted, ladder-like construction stretching from the floor to the ceiling of the gallery.

Now for a truly fortuitous coincidence: I was delighted to discover that the current exhibition at the Tate featured the work of Romantic artists. The title of the show, in fact, was “The Romantics”! What luck! I think I actually made a kind of ecstatic squeak when I entered the gallery, much to the bewilderment of everyone else in the room. According to the exhibition’s introduction, painting was the site of visionary transcendence for Romantic artists. Just like their literary counterparts, painters like JMW Turner believed in the paramount power of the imagination. In their minds, Romantic artists (like Romantic writers, such as Wordsworth!) were time travelers, prophets and moralists. The canvas became the site of a new reality for Romantic painters—an alternative sublime created in the mind and made visible through art. I found Turner’s paintings to be especially revelatory–huge landscapes featuring gauzy, swirled skylines of white-on-white. I really feel like I understand Wordsworth so much better after having seen so much of Turner’s work; what good fortune that this particular exhibition was on display this month!

In front of an etching by William Blake (the cryptic aphorism below read: “everything is an attempt to be human”), I met Max—a bookbinder and performance artist from Brighton who had come into London for the day. We ended up spending the afternoon together, drinking beers by the Thames and talking about art. Max told me about the one-man puppet show he is in the process of creating. The show is called “Wasted Youth”—an ecological drama that tells the story of a couple who finds a child in the garbage who is “quite literally made of rubbish.” That’s right, everybody: a garbage baby. Get your tickets while you can. Later on we met up briefly with Max’s friend, Violet, who had to leave prematurely to pick up some peas and pudding for her boyfriend. “He begged me to bring him peas and pudding,” she explained. Apple pie and hangar steak be darned, the way to a British man’s heart is through Gerber’s baby food.

This afternoon I traveled to East London, an area of the city that teeters between groovy and menacing. The area seemed to have a very large Indian population—Osborn Street was replete with grimy pastry shops and fragrant mini-marts selling incense, balms and embroidered textiles. All the Indian restaurants that I saw boasted having the “Best Curry, 2009,” which I found pretty amusing. I sampled some kind of mind-numbingly sweet pastry before continuing further into the neighborhood.

Further down the road, East London turns into a hipster Mecca. Indeed, it was a veritable skinny jean jamboree on Brick Lane today; the literal “wasted youths” (sorry, Max) of London traipsed from one vintage shop to the next. I went to the Whitechapel Art Gallery—a contemporary art space that was highlighted in my guidebook. The old, Victorian building was filled with avant-garde, conceptual works. I especially liked Fred Sandback’s (1943-2003) installation of huge, wire pyramids staggered across the room like a visual echo. Today the gallery also featured artwork selected from British government buildings from all over the world. Zarina Bhimiji’s “Howling Like Dogs, I Swallowed Solid Air” (1998-2003) made me think of Wallace Stevens’s apocalyptic poem “A Postcard from the Volcano.” Stevens’s bleak image of a “dirty house in a gutted world” came to mind when I saw Bhimiji’s gigantic, illuminated photograph of a bombed, colonial mansion. Very haunting. I ended the day with a  sandwich wrapped in greasy wax paper before heading home.

Tomorrow it’s back to the British Library to do some reading and writing (today I worked from my room), and then another museum later in the day if time allows. I’ve developed a very pleasant routine of working in the morning and exploring in the afternoon. As William Blake says: “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.” I doubt Blake’s “system” included Diet Coke, tabloids, and thrift store finds, but to each his own, right?

I really liked this installation in the Tate. Unfortunately, I didn't write down the name of the artist. The Phoenician chandelier blinks on and off, dappling the room florescent blue.

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Friends,

Francis and I are going to a prom next week. There won’t be any Jeremih or chicken tenders at this event, however. A “prom” in the United Kingdom is a classical music concert. “We use the word somewhat differently here,” Francis texted me. “Somewhat differently” seems like an understatement, but indeed, that’s what the British are often known for. That characteristically mild demeanor is now conveyed even in text message, as Francis demonstrated this evening (“Awesome!!!!” I responded to his invitation). Despite my enthusiastic, “American” reply, I do feel myself starting to adopt some understated turns of phrase here. Indeed, since arriving in England I feel as though someone has (politely!) smothered my hyperbolic vocabulary with some kind of thick gauze: “great” is quickly becoming “most pleasing,” “terrible” turns to “tiresome.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Jack the Ripper went down in the London records as a “wonky geezer with his knickers in a twist.”

Today I went to the British Library to pick up my Reader’s Pass. It was very exciting to make my way into the back of the tremendous building, past the flocks of tourists to the reader registration office. Because I had filled out the paper work months in advance online, the process was quite straightforward. A library official looked over my letter of entry from Haverford College, as well as my list of requested library materials. I had to show my passport, as well as a few other documents. I was issued a reader’s pass—a card with my photograph and my name on it (“Miss Elizabeth Cohen Scheer, Haverford College”). There were scholars from all over the world waiting to receive entry into the collection: a man in a turban unfolding an endless list of catalogue numbers from his briefcase, a Japanese woman taking notes in small, dark characters. I felt like I was being offered a seat at a table with people who I did not know but were very dear to me nonetheless. Everyone in the reader registration room was there to, well, read. Because of that, I felt a real bond between all of us.

Members only, baby!!

The agenda for tomorrow will likely include a morning of study and writing, followed by a trip to the Tate Britain in the afternoon. I just booked a trip for myself to Stonehenge and Bath for next weekend, so that should be interesting. In the meantime, however, I’m off to read the latest Pippa Middleton gossip and then go to bed. Thank you for reading everybody! Wishing everyone a “most pleasing” evening over there in the United States!

Cheers, ta, and a bag of prawn cocktail crisps!

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Happy Independence Day everyone! While you all munch on watermelon and cherry pie under a firework-spangled sky, it’s just a regular summer evening over here in London. I’m back at my desk after a wonderful day of study and exploration.

My work went very well this morning. I’ve been reading some great criticism on Wordsworth and Stevens that is helping me to understand the two poets in a whole new way. Jonathon Wordsworth (a descendent of the poet) does a really terrific treatment of Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West” in conjunction with Wordsworth’s  “The Solitary Reaper.” Jonathon Wordsworth is certainly earning a spot in my pantheon of scholars; his ideas are revelatory and tremendously nuanced, yet I find his prose to be extremely readable and clear. To make a British pop-culture analogy: Jonathon Wordsworth’s writing is as streamlined and sleek as Victoria Beckham’s figure. There is not a single extraneous word, and the article is completely free of complicated academic jargon. Thanks to this article and many others, my own paper is starting to take form. As I sit at my computer, I like to imagine William Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens here in London with me. We’d all go out for a jacket potato and stroll arm and arm over the London Bridge.

In the afternoon I decided to return to the British Museum to finish looking at the collection I had begun to explore earlier in the weekend (I’m trying to get to know the most central areas of London before venturing elsewhere). I saw the Elgin marbles and the Rosetta Stone, as well as countless other antiquities. I especially liked a tremendous kneecap that had once been part of some gigantic statue of a pharaoh. Somehow, the fragmented statues are more pleasing to me than the complete ones. The sculptures seem to jive with their own absences; they take on a cryptic anonymity that really moves me. I also like the material used in much of the Egyptian work: black stone and mica-flecked granite that shimmers red-green. In the Enlightenment Room, I saw an assortment of collectibles assembled by British explorers in the 18th century: huge, opalescent sea shells, fire-bellied toads and mollusks preserved in mason jars, rose-tipped star fish dried to a stone-like consistency. After the museum, I continued on to Covent Garden Square, where there was some sort of flea market going on. I almost bought a pair of 19th-century prosthetic eyeballs, but then decided otherwise…I wasn’t sure exactly what I would do with them. I had a bean and cheese jacket potato and sat in the square, watching a street performer free himself from a padlocked chain. On my way home, I was delighted to find that there was a live simulcast of Madame Butterfly in Trafalgar Square. Thousands of Londoners sat on picnic blankets, canoodling and sipping wine. The sweet, deep sound of the music seemed to coat the grimy downtown city like frothy foam on a bitter brew.

Now I’m back in my room, eating a flapjack and watching the sun go down.

“Finally, whate’er

I saw, or heard, or felt, was but a stream

That flowed into a kindred stream, a gale

That helped me forwards, did administer

To grandeur and to tenderness—to the one

Directly, but to tender thoughts by means

Less often instantaneous in effect—

Conducted me to these along a path

Which, in the main, was more circuitous.”

-William Wordsworth, The Prelude (Book VI)

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Friends,

I’m sitting at my computer with the windows open, listening to couples giggle over their Guinnesses at the Roebuck pub below me. What a lovely evening!

I started the day with a morning run. I jogged over the London Bridge, and then along a narrow stretch of pavement that wound past the Tower of London. It was great fun until I realized that I was lost (don’t worry parents: not too lost!) and ended up wandering around a southern suburb. No matter! A man carrying four bags of McDonalds french fries (two in each hand) directed me back towards Great Dover Street and I was on my way in no time. I spent the rest of the morning working on my Wordsworth paper, save a trip down to the local grocery store for a sandwich and a tabloid magazine (how could I resist the latest on “Jordan’s Wonky Bum Implants”?) The paper is coming along quite nicely, though I have lots of work to do. That said, I find myself energized and inspired by London; I love to think of all the great British writers who walked the very streets that I do now.

The next section of this entry shall open with what I hope will prove to be an apt analogy. In many teenage romance movies, there is often a rather clichéd “pre-Prom” scene that goes something like this. The tuxedo-clad boy waits in anticipation at the bottom of the staircase for his date, who unfurls herself to him like some kind of exquisite flower as she appears at the top of the stairs. The young man is shocked out of narrative by his sweetheart’s beauty; he always knew she was lovely, but not like this. I felt a similar sentiment today in the National Gallery as I stood in front of so many of the pieces that I studied this past year in my Art History class. I had read about and admired Van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait”, Bronzino’s creamy-pink Aphrodite, and da Vinci’s “The Virgin of the Rocks” for the past year. That said, seeing the paintings in person made me understand and value them in a whole new way. Wallace Stevens, a staunch atheist, calls for a rejection of Christian Angels (“I can do all that angels can”), but it is hard to heed the great poet’s advice when one stands in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Virgin of the Rocks.” The painting is so exquisite that it elicited feelings of Christian devotion even from me, and that’s coming from a Jew!

“Now this I like, this I understand,” one exasperated museumgoer sighed to her compatriot as she gestured toward the painting. “I just like pretty things, y’know?”

Though I do happen to like abstract art very much, I think there’s some truth to what the woman said. Like Brad Pitt or a starry evening in big sky country, da Vinci’s “The Virgin of the Rocks” registered to me as true beauty—undeniable, no-bones-about-it perfection. Other works resonated as well, however: countless Velasquez and Degas canvases, for example (each Degas ballerina bathed in peach-gold light). I also loved one spooky scene of Saint Augustine, drowning in a pool of serene, aquamarine water.

After going to the museum, I sat outside in Trafalgar Square. There was a tiny woman wearing floral leggings and waving a ribbon-like wand to produce gargantuan, iridescent bubbles. Two Portuguese toddlers squealed in delight. A man dressed in costume as Poseidon wore full-body turquoise paint and a rope-like wig strewn with chinsy seashells. In addition to these characters, there was also a very interesting “living masterpiece” (as it was called) outside of the National Gallery: an ecological instillation that features green shrubbery growing out of a gigantic wall. The verdure is honed into aesthetic abstraction: think Rothko in plant form.

I came back to my neighborhood for supper—I sat with some sort of flakey Cornish pastry in a medieval graveyard overgrown with thick, fragrant roses. I then returned to my room and revised some of the Wordsworth material I wrote earlier in the morning, before heading out again for a beer with my “flatmates.” Kokularajah is a black belt in tae Kwan do, and he showed us some youtube videos of himself breaking bricks with his bare hands. In one unfortunate film clip, Kokularajah fails to break a board and ends up breaking his hand instead. “Good God grief, I do say that’s ghastly,” muttered Francis, our resident Brit.

On that note, I’ll end this entry. Not a ghastly thing to report on this side of the pond! Stay tuned for more musings and, as always, thank you for reading!

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Greetings from London!

Hello Everybody!

I made it to London and am happily installed in my little flat. I arrived early yesterday morning after a night of fairly painless travel. The flight was fine. I started Moby-Dick on the airplane. The weathered, New England heartiness of the narrative suddenly made the book seem like a funny choice given my travel destination; it doesn’t get much more American than beaver hats, sheath knives and craggy, colonial cliffs. Alas!

First off: a bit about my research. The focus of my work this month has shifted since Haverford set up this blog for me in April. My original plan was to study the relationship between William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, and to examine William Wordsworth’s work through a feminist lens. Later this spring, however, I received some really exciting news! The Wordsworth Conference (which I will be attending for the first two weeks of August) has accepted my abstract for a paper on William Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens. I’ll be delivering the paper at the conference on August 5th, which means that I’ll be spending July writing, revising and honing the essay. Of course, however, I also plan on mining the British Library for information on William Wordsworth. The place has a staggering collection, and I have every intention of taking advantage of what the library has to offer!

London is beautiful. Parts of it feel as quaint and cute as a wind-up toy (all the Underground stops sound like the names of circus animals: Bakerloo, Waterloo, Jubilee, Paddington), but the city does seem to have its own kind of juiciness as well. Because I wasn’t able to get into my flat until the afternoon yesterday, I decided to take it upon myself to find the British Library, seeing as I will be spending quite a bit of time there this month. I took the Underground to Covent Garden and, from there, navigated my way to the British Museum (the British Library is adjacent to the British Museum). The museum itself was packed to the gills with hoards of tourists; I pushed my way through gaggles of European school kids clad in squishy, sparkly sneakers and matching backpacks. The collection in the museum is overwhelming, so yesterday I confined my visit to a brief jaunt in the Ancient Greek and Roman collection. I saw Greek amphorae as big as me—huge urns used to hold oils and scented water. There was some sort of interactive tour going on where museum staff members had brought out artifacts that visitors could hold and touch. I ran my fingers over some 4,000 year-old-cutlery. Groovy!

I am staying in an apartment owned by King’s College (Haverford friends: the set-up is very similar to the Haverford College Apartments). Each apartment complex consists of five single apartments (each with its own bathroom) and a shared kitchen for the suite.  The other tenants seem wonderful and brilliant (everyone is here doing research). It’s an honor to be in conversation with young scholars from all over the world. Kokularajah is in London from University of Cologne, Germany doing engineering research. Julie is a medical student from the University of Melbourne. Francis just graduated from the University of Warick and is also studying engineering. There is also a mysterious man with a baby who none of us have met yet. More on him later! We’re all going out for a beer tonight to watch Wimbledon, so more on all these guys—and their respective scholarly work–soon.

In Wallace Stevens’ “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction,” the speaker-poet yearns for two kinds of joy: first, “accessible bliss.” Second, “expressible bliss.” Sitting in my London flat with a Guinness and my copy of Wordsworth’s Prelude, I have already felt a shimmer of the former. To put it simply: I am so happy to be in London. It’s an incredible privilege to be here, and my heart dilates when I think of the new knowledge that I know I will acquire over the next six weeks. The second sentiment, “expressible bliss,” is where this blog comes in. This adventure wouldn’t be as fun—or nearly as special to me—if I had no one to share it with! I am so grateful to all of you for reading along with me as I grope for “expressible bliss” through the sharing of my stories via these little postings.

Thank you for reading, everyone! Cheers, Cheerio, and all that (British) jazz!

 

 

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Welcome

I am the first recipient of an award from the President of Haverford College and the John B. Hurford ’60 Humanities Center for student research in English literature. I’ll be spending the month of July in London, studying William Wordsworth at the British Library. The grant will also pay for me to attend the Annual Wordsworth Conference at Grasmere (the Lake District) from August 1st-August 12th.

- Elizabeth Cohen-Scheer ’12

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