A Long Winter’s Tale

A summary of research activity from January-March 2011. This features a lecture by Nigel Smith at the Andrew Marvell Centre in Hull; a teaching event at the University of York; and the biannual British Milton Seminar at Birmingham Central Library.

Nigel Smith, “Andrew Marvell’s Sense of Humour: Wit, Evil, and Why We Should Read Him”, University of Hull, 24 January 2011.

University of Hull
University of Hull

“What are you doing here?” greeted the fine professor from Princeton to one who had travelled merely from London. “Being a disciple?” was the not-so-witty repartee. A day-trip to Hull for the spiritual homecoming of Nigel Smith’s promotional tour for his new Andrew Marvell biography had proved irresistible.

Presenting to the non-specialist is all about telling a really good story. What better way to present such an enigmatic character than to concentrate on his strange sense of humour? Occasionally, humour can be picked off the surface with Marvell: naked ladies scattering to Richard Lovelace’s defence; the savage satire on Richard Flecknoe, peeling verse from his own body; or in ‘The Garden’, where men are mocked for loving women rather than trees.

Nigel’s paper brought the more obscure side of Marvell’s humour to the fore: exaggeration in ‘To His Coy Mistress’ that makes laughter ‘orgasmic’; laughter of ’embarrassment’ in Upon Appleton House; and laughter marked by the figurative towards the end of the Rehearsal Transpros’d with the spitting out of Samuel Parker’s shoes. Marvell sought to release laughter with the visceral. A point I raised afterwards was one missing note of obscure humour from the biography – the 1650 Latin poem to Robert Witty.

Pleasingly, there was also attention paid to Marvell’s solitariness – the man who locked himself away in his garret in Covent Garden. Nigel labelled him a poet of ‘solitary sexuality’, and found credence in Samuel Butler’s reference to Marvell as a Tristram Shandy, unable to come to terms with heterosexuality. Marvell sought consolation in solitude, and (perhaps as a consequence) found writing much easier than speaking, shown by one or two demonstrations of extraordinary tactlessness.

It was fabulous, above all, to catch up with Nigel, Janet Clare, Richard Meek and crew at Hull, and to keep acquainted with the Andrew Marvell Centre.

Andrew Marvell, The Chameleon, Signed
“With great admiration, and in friendship, and thinking of the next Marvellians”

Teaching the English Civil War, University of York, 3 March 2011.

University of York
University of York

The English Subject Centre, based at Royal Holloway, hosted this useful teaching event at the University of York. Panellists for the day included Kevin Killeen and Piers Brown (York), Jerome de Groot (Manchester) and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann (Oxford), a recent presenter at Leicester’s Early-Modern Seminar.

Having taught such a course of my own composition in Geneva, I have yet to encounter many of the various (and problematic) pedagogical issues. Although the English Civil War could easily comprise a course in its own right, it is often relegated to a minor percentage of a broader period course. How does one cover the English Revolution in a fortnight?

Having taught the course abroad, the concern I brought was rather different: how does one teach the English Civil War to students for whom English is a second or third language? There is no saying that I had the right formula, although I took faith from the feedback and the work submitted for it.

The English Civil War, it was reiterated, is enormously busy, both in the writing and in the teaching. A session on ‘Book History’ promoted the media revolution and the creation of publics as subjects that are topical and relevant today (pleasing for one who likes to map early modernity with the present). Approaching the English Civil War as a book history or material text event will forge further opportunities for it in the coming years across humanity-based disciplines.

Two panels were dedicated to anthologising. How do we choose what to teach? How does one explicate the breadth of material available and make it available in user-friendly ways?

Jerome de Groot pointed out that we lack anthologies of non-poetic material. Could English and History experts agree on a set of texts that garner a successful understanding of the period? How do we include Latin material? What about form on the page, and paratexual materials? Should authenticity be abandoned if other benefits can be gained? If everyone uses different texts, how do we know the experience of the taught course is the same?

There is a great deal to contemplate in this area, but measures are being considered to allow unity in materials and methods.

Berrick Saul Building, University of York
Berrick Saul Building, University of York

British Milton Seminar, Birmingham Central Library, 19 March 2011.

Birmingham Central Library
Birmingham Central Library

An early Saturday start led me to Birmingham for the British Milton Seminar, where my attendance fulfilled a promise made in Hull last year to seminar convenor, Thomas Corns.

Sarah Knight (Leicester) opened proceedings with Milton on education and studentship. Milton’s reflections on Cambridge were not altogether positive, and he repositioned himself from member to detached observer of the university. He notes in the antiprelatical tract An Apology for a Pamphlet (1642) that he was vomited out of Cambridge. Milton clearly had pedagogical concerns, and was strongly critical of proposed ideas for fast-track learning.

Tom Corns (Bangor), presenting on Milton’s Churches, spoke of Milton ‘acting out’ the practices of his national Church, while showing a profound disappointment at the Reformation. Compared to France, Italy and Switzerland, the English Reformation appeared incomplete. Milton was never required to negotiate congregational or ministerial independency, although we might find interest in propriety and the use of churches in relation to their ownership.

Sharon Achinstein and Ben Burton (Oxford) spoke on the material text and print history of Tetrachordon. Much 1640s material leaves no details about its printers and print circumstances, but Milton’s text, which shows clear evidence of two different printers, leaves a trail of collaborative options between Thomas Paine, Matthew Simmons and Francis Neile. The elaborate imprint, plus examination of possible premises, suggests patterns of collaboration, but the exact combination is difficult to ascertain.

Warren Chernaik (KCL) spoke about tragic freedom and representations of suffering. For Milton, pity and fear are judged according to what is, or is not, deserved. Life as an intolerable burden was considered in Samson Agonistes. (As is noted in Paradise Regained too, ‘Who best / Can suffer, best can do’). Whether or not we are prepared to consider traits such as depression, little consolation is found through suffering.

The first trip to Birmingham in 18 months was a welcome one. It is good to feel part of a strong Leicester research contingent, and a particular pleasure to meet Warren Chernaik for the first time, whose work on Marvell I find very engaging. I hope to be able to accept an invite to the launch of his new book in May at KCL, adding to new research and networking experiences this year.

British Milton Seminar
British Milton Seminar

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