Space travel in the eighteenth century meant making creative use of whirlwinds, or hitching rides on comets and sunbeams – modes of transportation familiar to Romantic audiences from McDermot's A Trip to the Moon (1728) and Voltaire's Micromégas (1752), respectively. Last saturday (26 November 2011), NASA launched its six-wheeled, nuclear-powered rover vehicle, Curiosity, on a mission it hopes will finally settle the question of whether life ever existed on Mars (or might, indeed, still be there). If successful, the $2.5bn experiment will represent one of modern science's crowning achievements. In one sense, though, any triumph will also be a Romantic triumph, since the question itself about life on Mars derives a not insignificant part of its fund-raising charge from its importance in the Romantic age. What's more, while the transuraniam element plutonium driving Curiosity's engines was unknown to the Romantics (it wouldn't be discovered until the 1940s), the science that will help Curiosity on its way to Mars's rocky surface owes much to painstaking observations and calculations made by Romantic astronomers, chief among them William Herschel.
The Romantic public would certainly have recognized our obsession with the red planet; Mars had long been a source of deep fascination. In 1659, Huygens had sketched his pioneering map of Mars, recording a dark "spot" – the first recorded Martian geological feature – that became known as the "Hourglass Sea". His map was refined in 1666 by Cassini's observations of ice caps at the Martian poles. Meticulous work conducted by Herschel in 1781-84 refined previous calculations of Mars's sidereal rotation, as well as determining the tilt of the planet's axis. However, it was the Astronomer Royal's conclusion that Mars possessed a "considerable, but moderate atmosphere" that may have done most to fire the public's imagination. (This atmosphere, he suggested, accounted for the "ruddy troubled light" in which Mars appeared in the night sky.) "The analogy between Mars and Earth", Herschel argued in a passage from The Philosophical Transactions (1783), often reprinted in the Romantic period, "is, perhaps, by far, the greatest in the whole solar system".
As Richard Holmes points out in The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (2009), Herschel, FRS, was a firm believer (along with Huygens) in extraterrestrial life. The Royal Society's imprimatur no doubt contributed to inspiring wider public receptiveness to the idea of life on other planets. When Encyclopaedia Perthensis asserted in 1816 that, with an atmosphere, as well as earth-like days and seasons, it was "highly probable" that Mars had its "animal inhabitants as well as our earth" (p. 614), it was stating a view that had long become commonplace.
The Romantics, then, were at home, as it were, with the idea that other planets in the solar system were populated. Indeed, it's instructive to consider that the notion of alien lifeforms is more likely to trouble religious sensibilities in our own age than it was in the early nineteenth century. As an 1827 contributor to the New Jerusalem Magazine enthused: "That [the moon] is inhabited by sensitive and intelligent beings, there is every reason to conclude, from a consideration of the sublime scenery with which its surface is adorned, and of the general beneficence of the Creator, who appears to have left no large portion of his material creation without animated existences" (p. 175). By the end of the Romantic period, astronomers routinely performed grand imaginative voltes on traditional planetary perspectives in which life on Mars could be taken for granted. As the American John Lee Comstock wrote in A System of Natural Philosophy (1830-31), intended for use in schools and academies: "To the inhabitants of Mars, our planet appears alternately as the morning and evening star, as Venus does to us" (p. 215).
It was left to "Sylvanus Urban" of The Gentleman's Magazine, reviewing William Colquitt's Essays on Geology and Astronomy in 1826, to present a more cautious view with respect to the probability of life on Mars, a view that chimes more closely, perhaps, with the current modern consensus – which, of course, Curiosity may be about to overturn: "The surface of this planet is divided into plains and mountains of strange figures, issuing volcanic fire. Apparently it is not yet formed into an inhabited world, but is what our Earth once was".
My own institution, Aberystwyth University, is currently involved in designing a Mars planetary rover as part of an European initiative planned for 2018 (ESA Aurora exploratory programme). You can see Dave Barnes of the Computer Science department testing the machine's locomotion at a local beach here. For the moment, though, the focus is on NASA's effort. As Curiosity prepares to take the Romantic project out to vexing Mars – into its dusty canyons, where the 4x4-sized vehicle will move with slow, deliberate speed beneath the high, wispy Martian clouds – let's remember those Romantic pioneers and popularizers of science.
Samuel Colman, "Tintern Abbey with Elegant Figures"
Makeshift abodes erected around an echoing shell of a religious edifice in disarray … donations made by passing sightseers … members of the ramshackle community angrily protesting hardships, conscious that financial speculators are making fortunes …
Despite some suggestive parallels, the scene is not that of the St Paul’s Occupy London camp, whose two hundred or so tents are presently pitched on the cobbled piazza outside the Cathedral, just across from the Stock Exchange. Rather, this is the sight that greeted William Wordsworth in 1798, when he returned to Tintern Abbey with his sister Dorothy after a space of five years.
The chaotic setting around the abbey was largely unchanged when Thomas Green (another traveller in that antique land of the Forest of Dean), turned up almost a year later in June 1799, expecting an unintercepted view of the “delicious retreat”. Drawn like Wordsworth to the Abbey’s deep seclusion, Green – as he recorded in his diary with infinite distaste – was actually obliged to pick his way through the “vile hovels which in every direction vexatiously obstruct[ed] the approach to the Abbey-Church”, and threatened to ruin his view of the abbey’s “magical and sublime effect”, its “beautifully stained” walls, and “long and deep perspective”. Charles Rzepka’s recent Selected Studies in Romantic and American Literature, History, and Culture (2010), which collects many of his superb essays on Romantic topics, gathers similar accounts from appalled seekers of sublime and picturesque thrills, forced to negotiate the shanty town that had expanded at the turn of the century due to “late distresses” that beset Tintern’s once-thriving iron-based economy, and indeed war-weary Britain as a whole.
In terms of cultural capital, Wordsworth’s immediate “return” from his visit was “Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”, one of the poet’s most popular works, and for generations of readers a comfortingly quiet work of introspection and calm contemplation. For generations of Romantic critics, also, the poem was widely felt to represent a retreat from the turbulent politics of the age that had seen the young Wordsworth a focus of interest for government spies (and a candidate for political assassination).
The title of Wordsworth’s poem, often shortened to “Tintern Abbey”, is finicky in its precision: “lines written a few miles above …”. The abbey is not actually referred to explicitly anywhere in those lines. Indeed, the abbey is a troubling absence in Wordsworth’s loco-descriptive poem, though not from the poem – the distinction is important. Over the last two decades, “Tintern Abbey” has become a test case for materialist (new historicist) readings of Romantic texts. The debate has become increasingly self-complicating, but can perhaps be boiled down to the following positions. Either (1): Wordsworth revisited Tintern while retreating from radical 1790s politics, fully intended to write a calm pastoral poem, but – despite himself – ended up writing a political one; or (2): Wordsworth, supremely attuned to the radical energies around Tintern – rebel country, after all, situated along a line of castles that extends from Goodrich in the north down to Chepstow in the south – deliberately hid a political poem inside a pastoral one.
Lecturing today to undergraduates on Marxism, I kept thinking of that resonant phrase from Wordsworth’s poem, “a presence that disturbs” (l. 95). Whatever the Occupy St Paul’s camp is, it is emphatically a disturbing presence.
I’m not the only one bringing Romanticism and the current financial crisis into charged apposition at the moment. Writing in The New York Times (21.11.11), Paul Krugman, Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University, suggested that the “technocrats” who have just taken over the running of Greece and Italy, who were responsible for “bullying” much of Europe into a single currency and more recently into austerity measures, are not in fact “technocrats” but “deeply impractical romantics”. Krugman qualifies this by adding that they are “a peculiarly boring breed of romantic, speaking in turgid prose rather than poetry,” before suggesting that their “romantic visions” are “often cruel”, involve “huge sacrifices from ordinary workers and families”, and are “driven by dreams about the way things should be rather than by a cool assessment of the way things really are”.
The majority of responses to Krugman’s spiky New York Times piece engage the author on details of European economic policy. I was more troubled, though, by Krugman’s definition of “Romantic”, and wondered which authors he had in mind. Surely not Wordsworth, whose ears were infinitely attuned – whichever way we read “Tintern Abbey” – to the “still, sad music of humanity” (l. 92), and whose assessment of the sight of economic hardships around the entrance of the abbey could hardly have been cooler, less dogmatic, or more finally judged.
Traipsing back to my office from the lecture theatre, I found myself thinking about Tintern in another context. Over the summer, I attended The Wye Valley: Romantic Representations, 1640-1830 conference, organized by Tim Fulford and Damian Walford Davies. It was held in Tintern’s village hall, which overlooks the abbey. On the last evening, Cadw switched off the enormous floodlights that usually illuminate the ruins by night, and allowed the conference delegates to wander under the huge gothic windows through the aisled naves and transepts, holding huge garden candles. Delegates who took part in this torch-lit procession found the abbey, much as Thomas Green did, “carpeted with velvet turf”, “roofed by the … sky”. Several were moved to tears. Evidently, the abbey still beguiles with its promises of sublimity.
Creative Writing as a subject that's taught in universities is more popular than ever. In fact, at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, it's something of a growth industry, bucking trends, and giving the lie to the current government's view that the humanities are not worth funding. That isn't, however, to say that the idea of teaching Creative Writing doesn't meet certain prejudices – even within Higher Education Institutions. Not so long ago, I received a salutary insight into – that is to say, was on the receiving end of – public misconceptions about the relationship between creative writers in the academy. The Guardian newspaper recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of Cambridge-based literary press Salt, run by Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery. The occasion prompted a flurry of blogs on the Guardian's ‘Community’ pages. Salt, as it happens, are the publishers of my 2009 poetry volume, Wan-Hu’s Flying Chair – a fact noted with suspicion by the blogger ‘Asgill’ in the context of his or her larger complaint that many of Salt's authors were in the pay of colleges and universities, or else belonged to Salt’s ‘plethora of ex-CW course poets’. This unholy demographic, according to Asgill, proved that Salt’s commissioning process was a stitch-up, since academics were clearly looking after their own while excluding genuine – that is, non-academy – writers. After ‘exposing’ a number of Salt poets who, like me, had the temerity to work for Higher Education Institutions, or to have studied at them, Asgill concluded:
‘I think it would be good for presses like Salt to also outreach into other communities other than relying so heavily on top academic circles. Meritocracy anyone?’
It was, of course, flattering to be included in ‘top academic circles’; but I think there’s a larger, and unsettling, issue at stake here. Asgill speaks for many by suggesting that any writer who exists ‘safely’ (if that’s quite the word in the current climate of cuts) within the academy cannot be a 'real' poet, one who has succeeded on his or her own merits. The truth is that such qualms - and you hear them expressed in a variety of guises – can be traced to a fraught epistemology that took shape in the Romantic period. Asgill’s argument is tangled up in what in the academic trade is known as 'Romantic ideology'. It's worth thinking a little about how the category of ‘author’, as well as the relation of writers to the market-place, and also public perceptions of the role of the professional writer within the academy, have been passed down to us. It turns out Romantic poets have a lot to answer for.
Romanticism was obsessed with the conditions of its own mediation – that is to say, it was obsessed with its relation to a rapidly expanding print market, the forerunner of our own Amazon.com culture. Romantic authors (almost all the good ones) who found themselves, for one reason or another, excluded from the financial rewards of commercial publication, that is who failed to generate significant sales (this includes William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley and John Keats) were instrumental in shaping a myth of the author as a solitary, transcendent, unaffiliated figure – an individual who was vitally uninstitutionalized, and who wrote because they had to, because they were responding to some irresistible inner call to creativity. These writers couldn't shift copies of their books (as inexplicable as that may seem to us today, with the benefit of hindsight), but they were phenomenally successful in polarizing notions of ‘genuine’ writing and ‘inauthentic’ trash. In their terms, genuine poets were born, not made; they existed as isolated geniuses, or 'unacknowledged legislators', in Shelley's terms; they were accountable to no one; and no amount of practice - or teaching - could made a, say, ‘Barry Cornwall’ (pseudonym of Keats's far more successful rival, solicitor Bryan Waller Procter) into a 'real' poet. Put in Guardian columnist Matthew Wright's terms, no amount of poetry modules taken could ever have made Barry Cornwall into anything more than a ‘Coca-Cola League’ author; like - as Wright argues – most lecturers who teach such modules in universities today.
In fact, before the emergence of the recognizably modern literary markets that Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats struggled to exploit, no meaningful distinction had been made, or could be made, between literary celebrity (dismissed by Wordsworth, et al, as contemporary, transient, worthless) and fame (enduring, attuned to true genius). The previous transposability of these terms can be gauged from Percival Stockdale’s Poetical Thoughts, and Views; on the Banks of the Wear (1792):
But chiefly souls, fraught with ethereal flame,
Born for celebrity, for deathless fame,
Whom intellectual force, whom genius fills;
Should speed their course, regardless of their ills;
(ll. 67-78; my italics)
Indeed, in the fourth edition of his great Dictionary (1773), Dr Johnson had fielded a definition of ‘celebriousness’ as ‘renown’, ‘fame’. ‘Fame’, in turn – a turn back on itself – was described as ‘celebrity; renown’. This closed circle of self-referentiality only began to disappear once writers like Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats realized they were coming off a poor second to their more popular literary counterparts, including then-laurelled figures such as Laetitia Elizabeth Landon and Barry Cornwall himself. The fact is, once those ideal audiences of posterity that Keats and Shelley dreamed about recognized the now-canonical Romantics' genius, they also accepted those writers' self-explanations for why they were unpopular in their own day.
The case of Barry Cornwall - a writer I've been interested in for a few years, and have written about in my recent book, Bright Stars: John Keats, Barry Cornwall and Romantic Literary Culture, is particularly revealing. His career shadows Keats – or, to put it equally accurately, Keats’s shadows his. Both men reworked classical Greek myths in accessible, slangy idiom; both produced Italianate romances designed to cash in on the popular craze for medieval Italian tales (Keats’s Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil and Cornwall’s A Sicilian Story reworked the same source in Boccaccio's Decameron, though Cornwall’s poem appeared first and to greater contemporary acclaim; they published in the same journals (Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' first appeared in Annals of Fine Arts on a kissing page to Cornwall's sonnet 'To Michael Agnolo'); both tried their hands at writing pot-boiling, Gothicky long poems; and both shared the same publishers, the entrepreneurial Ollier brothers. However, whereas Keats sold no more than 500 copies of all his collections put together in his own lifetime, Cornwall shifted 700 copies of his third volume, Marcian Colonna (1820), in a single morning. For parts of his career, John Keats was trying to be Barry Cornwall. Let's be clear: I’m not suggesting that Cornwall was anywhere near as good a writer as Keats. (Actually, it's at those points of strategic retreat from Cornwall's pedestrian style that 'Keats' as we know him emerges.) But the point I'm making is that the idea that genuine poets have to be unsullied by the market place, that they should be unaffiliated, that they should be in no one's pay (whether a university's or anyone else's) can be traced back to a myth of 'genuine' inspiration and authorship that emerged as a response to a specific set of market conditions in the early nineteenth century. In a famous passage of Shelley's A Defence of Poetry – written in part as a response to the poet's disgust at the success of his Ollier-brothers stablemate, Barry Cornwall - we read that:
'Even in modern times, no living poet ever arrived at the fullness of his fame; the jury which sits in judgement upon a poet, belonging as he does to all time, must be composed of his peers: it must be impanelled by Time from the selectest of the wise of many generations.'
However, if my institution, Aberystwyth University, had offered Shelley a Chair in Creative Writing, it isn't inconceivable that he would have accepted it. Byron, too; which is a rather more unsettling thought ... Equally, Shelley, like Keats, would have embraced the advent of the iPad and e-book technology, if he thought he might have gained readers through it. Keats and Shelley, you see, when it came down to it, had nothing against popular success. Just like Keats, Shelley never abandoned his dream of contemporary accolade: a letter of 27 August 1820 shows him attempting to convince his publisher Charles Ollier that a second edition of his tragedy The Cenci (1819) would sell; he also tried to sound an optimistic note for his Rosalind and Helen (1819), before conceding petulently that he didn’t really expect ‘that prig the public’ to ‘desert its wines and drink a drop of dew so evanescent’. In the event, the Olliers declined to reprint Shelley, preferring instead to devote their limited resources to promoting their star writer, Barry Cornwall, whose own play, Mirandola, was then staged to tremendous applause at Covent Garden (which very sensibly turned down Shelley's The Cenci).
In the wider culture – which contains Asgill and blogs – Romanticism's self-representations, its self-justifications, survive in ways that continue to complicate the relationship between Creative Writing as a subject and the academy.
I talk more about some of these issues in the Editor's Essay to my recently published collection, The Writer in the Academy: Creative Interfrictions (Brewer and Boydell, 2011).
Contributors: Richard Marggraf Turley, Damian Walford Davies, Philip Gross, Peter Barry, Kevin Mills, Tiffany Atkinson, Robert Sheppard, Deryn Rees-Jones, Zoë Skoulding, Jasmine Donahaye.