Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Conference report: Coleridge Summer Conference

Coleridge Summer Conference, Cannington, Somerset, 23-27 July 2012

After weeks of poor weather, the forecast promising sunshine and high temperatures for the week of the 2012 Coleridge Conference seemed too good to be true, and more than one rookie delegate made the mistake of packing for a damp English summer. Overhearing some complaints of this nature, conference director Tim Fulford was heard to observe that the sun can always be relied on to shine on this conference, which has a particular reputation for conviviality and a supportive atmosphere.

And so it proved. We were both nervous first-time attendees with rain-jackets and jumpers in our rucksacks; by the end of the five days neither items had come even close to being used, and we had been made to feel extraordinarily welcome at a conference characterised by lively academic discussion, great food and conversation, some memorably intrepid outdoor adventures and excellent papers ranging from Coleridge, Lamb and roast pig via Coleridge and Newtonian physics, Catherine the Great, and Wordsworth’s educational donkey to John Beer’s wonderful free-ranging speculations on the size of the Ancient Mariner’s albatross. Enormous thanks are due to the conference committee and the staff at the Cannington Campus of Bridgwater College for organising such a brilliant week.

One of the most interesting elements of the conference was seeing the range of ways in which Coleridge is taught, as well as the uses to which his broad thinking is put by scholars. In this latter respect, a panel of particular interest on the second day was Dometa Wiegand Brothers’ paper on Coleridge’s attempt to wrestle with Newtonian physics, and Allison Dushane’s on his anti-dualist understanding of the origins of life. Brothers argued that although Coleridge failed to understand the calculus, his belief that space and time are indivisible but that individual subjectivity creates the illusion of division foreshadowed Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Similarly, Dushane showed how Coleridge followed Priestly and Darwin in collapsing the difference between living and non-living material, attributing life to a spontaneous vitality that could animate any matter.

This panel unexpectedly linked to a later one on Wednesday, in which both Olivia Reilly and Joseph Donovan discussed Coleridge’s use of and influence by music in his poetry. Reilly’s suggestion that for Coleridge music is associated with the ‘inner’ ear, and its pre-linguistic, inchoate status must be transformed into the exterior and intelligible forms of language was wonderfully suggestive of other Coleridgean binaries, while Donovan convincingly argued that Coleridge used metaphors of dissonance and resolution in his poetry, displaying an instinctive understanding of harmonics theory. Both panels hinged on Coleridge’s polymath intellect and his uncanny ability to intuit and metaphorically articulate the central philosophical concern of fields the mechanics or rules of which he did not understand, a theme returned to throughout the week.

The conference provided an opportunity to compare different global approaches to Coleridge, and a second theme was Coleridge the theologian, a reputation much more established in North America than here, as Philip Aherne noted. Nicholas Halmi’s Tuesday plenary on ‘Coleridge’s Ecumenical Spinoza’, which traced the complex ways in which Coleridge sought to recruit the atheist Spinoza into Christian thought, was exemplary of this approach. Similarly, Michael Raiger’s Wednesday paper on Coleridge’s influence on Newman, and Joshua King’s discussion about how Coleridge imagined the clerisy’s role in an ideal education system might mirror the relation of the press and print media as mediators between the branches of public life, provided rich opportunities to think about his theological legacies.

There was also a distinct focus on Coleridge’s wider circle, including Joseph Cottle and Tom Wedgwood, but his daughter (and editor) Sara Coleridge received particular attention. David Ruderman’s compelling paper on Wednesday on the ‘becoming animal’ in S.T. and Sara Coleridge argued that both Sara and her father celebrate the infant’s in-between state, finding in its liminal animal-human existence a powerful mode of relating physically and ethically to their children.. On Thursday Jeffrey Barbeau’s paper situated Sara Coleridge’s religious educational beliefs and children’s verse within Evangelical and radical educational thought, prompting an interesting discussion about the contradictions between her own, excellent and unusually classical education, and her apparent belief that such an education should be restricted to boys. This paper complemented Tom Dugget’s paper, which explored Southey’s responses to educational reform in the 1810s. Robin Schofield, meanwhile, explored her brother Hartley Coleridge’s attitude to religion through his sonnets. His poetry reconfigured illness or inadequacy as a creative well of devotional acts and celebrated the domestic and the local, providing an interesting link to feminine Romantic poetics.

The other two plenaries, from Alan Bewell on Wednesday and Karen Swann on Friday, helped to unite these broad themes. Both explored Coleridge as communicator, and captured the expansive nature of that term. Bewell explored Coleridge’s failed communications, his torrents of words that become liabilities, in examining how Coleridge engaged with Berkeley’s concept of nature as not a book but the visual sign system of God. Swann, on the other hand, interrogated contemporary accounts of Coleridge’s conversation, noting that these accounts shared a diction of magic and sorcery in their descriptions of Coleridge’s ability to spellbind an audience. Noting that accounts of his talk all emphasised the impossibility of recording specific examples of what he actually said, she posited that hearing Coleridge speak was something akin to hearing the process of human thinking, rather than discrete thoughts.

Swann reminded us too that Coleridge is a poet to be read aloud, and this was illustrated in appropriately spellbinding fashion by two midnight readings by torchlight. On Tuesday night, precariously atop the ruins of Stowey Castle, David Fairer read the final verse of ‘Fears in Solitude’ as we looked out over the ‘burst of prospect’ of the surrounding sea and land that the poem celebrates. On the final night an impromptu crowd gathered in the dark after the conference dinner with purloined wine and flaming torches to take turns reading ‘Christabel’. It was a fitting way to end a week which testified to Coleridge’s enduring ability to captivate an audience.

                          --report by Jo Taylor (Keele University) and Beatrice Turner (Newcastle University)


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