Today I am presenting ‘Marvell in Manuscript and Print, 1649-1665’ at the English Postgraduate Forum in Leicester. Having braved the weather for the second time this week, I am inconveniently left with just enough time for procrastination before the event begins at 5pm. This will be a curious one.
Today marks my fourth ‘trial’ presentation (following two seminars in Geneva and the summer’s PhD upgrade procedure), and the eighth overall, following conference presentations in Fribourg (2008), Cambridge (2009), Geneva (2010) and Hull (2010). A nice balance is reached.
My experience to date is that presentation material can rarely be the same twice. Occasionally, at the highest level, there will be merit in repeating or recycling a paper across expert audiences with different personnel. Otherwise, there is a process to develop and tailor work for the specific requirements of the event.
This was not really my opportunity. I had not wanted to hinder anybody who would have liked to gain some experience. Additionally, the prospective audience is not an ideal fit for my research. I seem to make a mark for rarities, and so few are early modernists at Leicester. It is rather galling to learn of the void between 1400 and 1800 that exists within the Postgraduate body. But a space remained empty, I was flattered to be asked to contribute, and it would have been folly to ignore it.
Naturally, the audience mismatch presents a challenge. It is one thing presenting a detailed paper to a broad spectrum of early-modern experts; another to present my research overview to an upgrade colloquium of Shakespearians; and another yet to present a semi-specific paper to an audience that is unlikely to have any interest in Marvell at all.
The trick is in telling a good story. The specifics have to be diluted, and the common multiples found. This is a story about a private man whose attitude and approach to print are particularly unusual. After 1650, a self-imposed exodus from print lasted for 15 years (with one anonymous exception). The way in which he chose to disseminate material is cagey, deliberate and suspicious. Some of the most thrilling and controversial poetry in history under this man’s pen appears to be completely private. What is going on here?
There is sustained scholarship at the moment on the “social function” of seventeenth-century verse. Poetry was written, we are led to believe, if not for publication, then for circulation in manuscript in coterie circles such as those in which John Donne participated. The problem with this is the assumption that verse was always shown to others. Even if there is no evidence that a poem was shown to anyone, we are supposed to inwardly assume that it circulated, because that is what poetry was written for. Marvell offers more than enough problems to cause us to doubt this.
So yes: I have to locate this in the seventeenth-century to identify the critical problem I am defying in this section of my thesis. But the decision to publish or withhold, to select one’s audience meticulously, and to act publicly or privately, is fairly timeless. Privacy, boundaries and decision-making always offers something interesting (I would hope). Privacy normally tickles fancies, and I hope it will today.
This is a tricky one. This paper on manuscript and print is less straightforward than the PhD upgrade overview, but more stripped bare in other ways. The original, presented at Hull this summer, anticipated up to the very highest of the world’s Marvellians in attendance. Now it has to be the most open academic delivery I have ever given.
I have travelled a long way, and at some expense, to present this today. I must have hope that this can be beneficial, if not only in the practice of writing for different circumstances.
Certainly, presentations of mine to non-Marvellians have gone better to date. I feel much more secure in my knowledge. Today, I am interested in questions and suggestions about what goes through someone’s mind when, in difficult times, they decide whether or not to disseminate their works. If and when they do decide to, how it is done? That is the kind of interrogative agility that can come from non-Marvellians, and that is what will hopefully make this a positive experience rather than a regurgitation of the depressing presentation given in an empty room at Hull.
This year has promised that there can be light out of the darkness, even in obscure ways. An abstract has been submitted for a completed version of this essay (if slightly tailored itself) to appear in a collection of conference procedings. Generously supported by my supervisor, who may himself contribute, I could (miracles providing) see my work alongside the likes of idols: Nigel Smith, Martin Dzelzainis, Blair Worden, Paul Seaward, and others. For someone whose academic motivation has crashed spectacularly at times this year, this is a tremendously exciting opportunity. All practice is good practice, then. 180 miles should be a ‘worthy sacrifice’.
EDIT: 2:00am. I have not long since arrived home. The Forum was terrific, featuring papers on John Updike and Philip Larkin, and it warrants a more informed review than I could provide. The wry smiles at those final words, ‘worthy sacrifice’, after nearly 8 1/2 hours of travel today, bloom into deep appreciation of a terrific colloquium. Gracious thanks to Sonia, Hannah and crew who organised the event.