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The Marlowe Papers (Barber) – book review

In amongst all of the PhD redrafting and the #NaNoWriMo project that now feels like it was months ago (although I need to get back to it soon…), I have tried to find time to read. In particular, I was really excited to read Ros Barber‘s The Marlowe Papers, a novel in verse that is, in part, about the Shakespeare authorship question.


Rossetti Week


Here we go. Week 2 of writing up, and I’ve been spending my time with Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Comparatively, this chapter has been through the most iterations beforehand, so the way forward seemed pretty clear when I began. Again, there was lots of building up my methodological framework and plenty of interweaving with other chapters to be done, and now I’m a little worried that it might be the chapter with the most work still to do when I come back to doing round two of this process.

Still, the week was a pleasure. Some of the highlights included:

  • Enjoying what might be the original Victorianist digital humanities project, the Rossetti Archive. What it lacks in an up-to-the-minute appearance, the site more than makes up for in comprehensive detail. It’s an invaluable resource for images of printed texts, manuscripts, and paintings, as well as summarising some of the key foundational critical works dealing with Rossetti’s work.
  • Taking advantage yet again of the wealth of texts and information available on Monoskop.org. This week it was a quick canter through Umberto Eco’s The Open Work as well as Gérard Genette’s Paratexts. Not only does it offer full texts in PDF form, but they’re searchable too. I promise, it’s one of the sexiest research tools on the web!
  • Coming back to a close reading and just thinking, “Nope. Plain wrong!” It’s wonderful quite how many interpretations a sonnet might hold, particularly if it has the convoluted and condensed syntax and imagery of a Rossettian one! In case you’re wondering, the misreading involved ‘A Superscription’, one of sonnets from “The House of Life” with some real pronoun problems! I think I have now satisfied myself as to what “that” in “the glass” is, but I may have changed my mind again by the time I come back to this chapter, so watch this space.


Image (c) Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University

Swinburne, 150 years on


To mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Swinburne’s first Poems and Ballads, Cambridge hosted a two-day conference that might best be described as ‘whither Swinburne?

It can be rare to find a conference, particularly a two-day one, so focused on a single volume, but the panels across the two days were rich and varied. What I particularly enjoyed was the strong focus on form, initiated by Herbert Tucker‘s opening keynote. Tucker asked us as readers to attend to ends: end-stopped lines, closing punctuation, the closing of poems, and the use of the word itself. This focused highlighted the intensity in Swinburne’s verse of what might appear to be poetic commonplaces, and I think also invites us to think about the poet’s experience: the relief of finding a good rhyme, the natural breaks where the mind can be allowed to wander, the feeling of having finished one poem but already having to write another. A keynote about ends was a wonderful beginning to the event.

The first panel focused on Poetry, the Body and the Senses, and featured some of Catherine Maxwell‘s interesting work on scentand a quick glimpse into some of the working that will form part of her monograph on perfume in Victorian literary culture (forthcoming from OUP). She distinguished the Baudelairean fascination with heavy, musky, Decadent scent with Swinburne’s interest in lighter, fresher scents, such as eau de cologne. Alongside Maxwell were two graduate students, Kate Snelson, on physical, somatic sympathy, and David Womble, on hyloidealism. Womble’s presentation was thought-provoking, asking how dead speakers display embodied modes of thought in Swinburne’s work. The approach, I think, bears application to some other poets of the era, such as the Rossettis.

The final two panels of day one focused on Affinity and Influence, with a fascinating array of different angles taken. Some papers, such as Jan Marsh‘s comparison between Swinburne and Christina Rossetti, and Oliver Goldstein‘s (@OliverGoldstein) focused attention to Hardy’s reading and annotations of Swinburne, offered a nuanced take on influence and influencing through attention to biographical detail. Others attended to Swinburne’s relationship with other literary traditions, including French (Andria Pancrazi), Italian (Robin Kirkpatrick), and US (Alison Rosenblitt). Particularly interesting was Michael John Craske’s focus on the musical legacy of Poems and Ballads, in the light of TS Eliot’s criticism of Swinburne’s musicality.

Day two took us back to questions of form, with a panel on modes of address. Two papers, from Jason Boulet and Andrea Selleri, addressed Swinburne and the dramatic monologue genre, while Justin Sider attended to the notability of Swinburne’s style, as attested to by contemporary critics. The final panel of the day attended to morality in Swinburne’s volume, with a fascinating examination of the emergence of dystheism, antitheism, monotheism and polytheism by Stéphane Sitayeb, followed by Nathan Hensley‘s exploration of some of Swinburne’s manuscripts, including his unpublished ‘The Birch’, and invites us to consider that work in juxtaposition with contemporary political events, such as the Morant Bay rebellion. Sitayeb’s insights into the use of the words “God”, “God(s)”, etc., were further illuminated by a digital humanities approach from John Walsh, creater of The Swinburne Project. Walsh looks at Swinburne’s indexicality, his paratextual references and bibliographic tendencies, as well as identifying statistically some dominant lexical choices in the volume, like the use of “sweet”, “god”, etc.

Following a second keynote by Peter Nicholls on the relevance of Swinburne for modern-day poetics, the day rounded up with a reflection on the conference as a whole, led by Michael Hurley and Marion Thain (@MarionThain). Some key themes that arose were Swinburne’s multiplicity, as evidenced by the range of conference papers, and whether the field of study has changed significantly in the past decade. Chip Tucker asked the most provocative question: how can we teach and read Swinburne so that he remains relevant to pressing issues facing the academe over the next fifty years? The conference didn’t answer this question, but invited us to wonder why we had chosen to attend the conference, and what we might take away with us to develop the interest of our students and colleagues in Swinburne.

At the level of conference organisation, one thing that did surprise me was the ratio of men to women, which was almost 2:1. It made me wonder whether there is something about Swinburne that might account for what feels like an odd ratio at an English conference.

ModPo – H.D.’s poems

So, in my last post about the Coursera Modern Poetry course, taught by the amazing Professor Al Filreis, I said that I hoped the next close reading exercise would be on a poem by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). Sadly, it is not (it’s a comparison of two versions of William Carlos Williams’ poem Young Woman at Window and how it ‘measures up’ with the Imagist poets’ manifesto).

As I’ve said, I’m not quite managing to keep up with ModPo’s timetable as I would like due to RL pressures, but I would like to say something about H.D.’s poems and the readings done by Professor Filreis and his students in the course.

In reading Sea Rose, Professor Filreis made a very interesting point that the image is not, strictly speaking, static, but is instead slightly rotating before the reader’s imagination. The poem follows the rose from ‘the drift’ to ‘the sand’ to ‘the crisp sand’ and into ‘the wind’ via a set of prepositional phrases spread over the middle two stanzas. The reading also suggested that the poem might be a little too self-conscious about being an imagist poem, making it a programme of the movement. This is persuasive, I think, given the real similarities between Sea Rose and Sea Poppies, as though both are experiments of how such a programme can be put forward.

It was nice that the poem’s status as an imagist classic didn’t stop the readers from interpreting freely and introducing questions of symbolism, and the question of whether H.D. is addressing herself (symbolised by the rose) is a fascinating one. We can draw parallels between the author and the rose, and as the subject was somewhat shut down in the video discussion, I’d just like to draw it out a little here.

The professor and his students discussed, straight off the bat, the aggressively precise and stark language choices made my H.D. In calling the rose ‘harsh’ and using words such as ‘stint’ and ‘sparse’, which have harsh consonant sounds, there is a parallel between the poem H.D. presents and the image she presents through that poem.

In the next stanza, H.D. elevates the sea rose, which is ‘more precious’ than the ‘wet rose / single on a stem—’, the American Beauty rose. Of course, for the imagists, the sea rose and poems about it, which tackle and present the reality of a ‘natural’ rose, are ‘more precious’ than those laboured and cliched poems about the cultivated rose that has been dethorned and made plush and silken for the purposes of marketing!

The third stanza returns to the image of the rose, rather than a value judgment. It is ‘stunted’, ‘with small leaf’, and ‘flung’ and ‘lifted’ across the beach. Sea Rose was published in a collection in 1916, but the style of writing being used by the imagists and H.D.’s work herself had its critics, despite Pound’s enthusiasm for her work. In 1915, Harold Monro called H.D.’s work ‘petty poetry’ that showed ‘poverty of imagination’ or ‘needlessly excessive restraint’.* Like all authors who publish, H.D. would have been familiar with the ebbs and flows of success and acclaim, always tempered with a vein of critique. We could consider the rise and fall of the sea rose into the obscuring ‘drift’ and the unreceptive and harsh ‘sand’ as symbolic of this authorial experience, then.

The final stanza asks a rhetorical question about the value of another rose, the ‘spice-rose’, as compared to the sea rose: whether its leaves offer the same pungent and overflowing (‘drip[ping]’) ‘fragrance’. The spice-rose seems to offer an intermediate position between the American Beauty rose and the sea rose, more petalled and ‘rose-like’ to modern eyes. Taking an intermediate path, the poem almost modestly seems to invite an elevated position for the sea rose that is not excessive; it does not claim to exceed the American Beauty rose, but makes a claim for its own value to be recognised. Such modesty can also be interpreted as reflective of an author seeking to find their own place in the market and the ‘canon’ or hierarchy of poets.

This is a fairly sparse reading, I know, and in a close reading I would have done a lot more (and hopefully found some more sources!). I do not claim that this was H.D.’s intention in writing the poem, or that this is definitively what the poem ‘means’. I do think it is an interesting interpretation, and I thought it was a shame that it did not gain much traction in the actual discussion.

* See ‘A Genealogy of Modernism’

ModPo Week 3 – Lectures & Forums

I have just (with a day to spare) made it through the lecture transcripts for Week 3 of Modern Poetry.

I did an American Poetry course as an undergraduate that I loved (and in which I learnt to love William Carlos Williams, as previously mentioned), but I don’t really recall much discussion of imagism. This is probably my own failing, but this time around, it has definitely stuck. I found the analysis of H.D.s Sea Rose and Sea Poppies really interesting, and I hope that the next close reading exercise will be on a H.D. poem.

I have been working with the transcripts because of a troubled internet connection, but I have found them quite frustrating. The transcription is quite poor and failures to edit out the usual human self-repetitions (“it’s like, like, something…” for example) or even to get the TAs’ names correct all of the time. I will probably continue to use the transcripts, though, as it’s fairly easy to format them all into one Word document, and I prefer to work with written rather than visual media anyway. I just wish they were better!

I haven’t ventured much into the forums yet, beyond taking a look at the responses to my submission for Essay 1. I would like to, but I think it would be quite time-intensive. Although the ModPo staff are trying a lot harder to ensure some workable structure for the forums, there is still a lot to wade through, as the system of posting the essays to the forums indicated only too well. Even though the glitches in Coursera’s system were fixed, there is still not a great deal of engagement beyond the front page (thanks to the ‘up-vote’ system, which I still loathe). For Essay 2, I think I will commit to engaging as promptly as possible with the forum-review system and see if I get more out of it. The one thing about all courses, not just MOOCs, is that you don’t get anything from them unless you try!

EDIT: An example of the transcription problem.

But in poetry, I attend to argue, and so to many of my colleagues in the field that the trend, that the continuity is between modernism and post-modernism are significant.

Perhaps this should be: But in poetry, I tend to argue, and so do many of my colleagues in the field, that the trend, the continuities between modernism and post-modernism are significant? Just a thought!

MA progress

I have finally managed to sit down to do the writing-up of last weekend’s work. It feels good to be making progress, although I had to force myself to go to a coffee shop in order to get started. I’m afraid that I often struggle to write at home when there is no urgent deadline looming.

Although my tutor said that there was very little that needed doing on my first chapter, I have done some pretty major revisions anyway. Just because it was satisfactory when read in isolation doesn’t mean that it will work properly as part of the full thesis. I’m therefore not very worried about having rewritten or reframed significant portions of it.

Chapter 2 is also coming on quite nicely. I had already done a (fairly shallow) 2,000 word first draft based on my notes from the two poems I am looking at, but I have managed to beef up the section dealing with the first poem (‘King Arthur’s Tomb’), so I am now at 3,350 words! The whole chapter is supposed to be 3,000-3,500, so at the end I will have to cut it down again, but that is how I prefer to work. Besides, it always feels good to get Le Morte Darthur out!

Chapter 3… well, hopefully I will get to that at least a little this evening. If I don’t, I’ve certainly made progress, and that will do for now.

ModPo Week 3 – William Carlos Williams

I have come to the ModPo course on Coursera two weeks late, so I’m still catching up on Dickinson and Whitman (I enjoy the former, not the latter). I’m happy to be plunging in with Week 3, though, which focuses heavily on someone I really do like: William Carlos Williams. As a rule, I stick to the C19, but I love him. At university, I loved writing on The rose is obsolete, and I’m looking forward to listening to the lectures for this week. Must do some reading first, though!