#FLRobert Burns: the Robert Burns MOOC

Quick look at Robert Burns: poems, songs and legacy (#FLRobertBurns) from the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow kicked off on 25 Jan, obv, for three weeks.

Who was Robert Burns? What made Robert Burns a poetic genius? And what made Robert Burns a global icon?

You’ll examine archive material, original publications and manuscripts by Burns himself, recordings of Burns songs and examples of objects used to commemorate the poet. You’ll also look at and learn to interpret a selection of Robert Burns’ works in the context of Scottish history and culture.

Setting things in a wider context, you’ll also develop your understanding of Robert Burns’s reputation – from the rise of Burns Clubs and Burns Suppers following his death, to the continuing celebration of the poet today through Burns Night, Hogmanay (New Year) and beyond.

A counterpoint to #FLfairytales and #FLwordsworth, then.

Who was – and is – Robert Burns?

Rabbie wordcloudKicking off by debunking Rabbie related mythology, the first week proper had 21 steps, the sort of thing which makes me groan. Anyway, step 1 invited a one word response on something called AnswerGarden to the question: who was Robert Burns? I went with ‘Scot’. There’s quite a nice wordcloud emerging (see right).

How are we to understand the man and his reputation? What transformed him from the ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ first discovered in the 18th century into the instantly recognised celebrity he is today? Burns occupies different roles throughout his life – poet, farmer, exciseman – and has indeed meant different things to different people at different times.

For some he is a ‘national bard’ and Scottish patriot; for others he is a major British poet; while others still might argue that Burns is a citizen of the world. Burns has also been regarded a somewhat contentious figure. His many romantic liasons, for example, have raised controversy, yet they have also provided inspiration for some of the most memorable love poetry ever written. For some Burns is more a radical figure, one who speaks on behalf of the common man (and woman).

Three things from the intro I didn’t know:

  • he brought Scots poetry back into vogue
  • he was an avid collector and editor of Scots songs, as well as writing many new ones himself
  • by the time of his death at the age of 37 he had made at least five women pregnant on at least 13 occasions and sired at least 12 children

Edwin Muir (1887–1959): Burns is ‘to the respectable, a decent man; to the Rabelaisian, bawdy; to the sentimentalist, sentimental; to the socialist, a revolutionary; to the nationalist, a patriot; to the religious, pious’.

Hugh MacDiarmid (1892–1978) ‘Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name / Than in ony’s barrin’ liberty and Christ’!

Born in 1759, in April 1783 Burns began a first Commonplace Book (a type of scrapbook or notebook), marking the beginning of his sustained endeavours as a writer. In 1786 that he published his first volume of poetry: Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, printed by John Wilson in Kilmarnock. The success of the Kilmarnock edition put an end to his supposed plans to emigrate to the West Indies. Instead he travelled to Edinburgh to promote his poetry and prepare for the publication of a 2nd edition, the ‘Edinburgh Edition’, in April 1787.

In the years that followed Burns produced several of his most famous works, however in the latter part of his life he moved away from poetry, investing much of his time and creative energy collecting and composing songs.

Burns was a freemason and wrote numerous poems inspired by and for his Masonic brethren. The Freemasons played an important part in the posthumous commemoration of the national bard, securing the tradition of the Burns supper and commissioning and/or contributing to numerous statues and memorials.

Lots of poetry reading and textual analysis!

Poet or songwriter?

We take a closer look at Burns as poet and songwriter…We also take a trip to visit our friends at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway to look at some of the publications and manuscripts held in their extensive collection, and you’ll even try your hand at transcribing a manuscript in Burns’s own handwriting. Together, we’ll examine some of the influences on Burns and his career collecting and reworking traditional songs.

Robert Burns wrote or collected two songs for every poem he produced, and was clearly both a success as a poet and as a songwriter. It is probably true to say, however, that his song-writing is thought of as a subset of his work as ‘a poet’.

  1. It is probably Burns’s love of ‘rhyme’ that led him into an increasing interest in song from poetry.
  2. However it might also be noted that his first creative production was the song, ‘O Once I Lov’d A Bonnie Lass’ (1774), and that among his earliest work is a number of other songs.
  3. Burns selected and adapted tunes for his songs, but he did not write original tunes.
  4. Many of his works such as ‘Auld Lang Syne’ or ‘A Red Rose’ were often published without music in editions of his work as though these were poems.
  5. Burns refers to himself as ‘poet Burns’ and as a ‘rhymester’ rather than as a songwriter.

Among Burns’s most celebrated songs are his Jacobite pieces, such as ‘Charlie He’s My Darling’ (from the mid-1790s), his love songs, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ (1791) and ‘A Red Rose’ (1794), and also ‘Auld Lang Syne’ (1788). As with ‘Charlie He’s My Darling’, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ existed in a number of versions going back to the 16th century, but it is Burns who really popularises the title-phrase, ‘Auld Lang Syne’, reworking its emphasis and the material within the song. Burns made the song into something appropriate to a new age of emigration, a more universal sentiment where friends and families are rendered asunder.

What made Burns an international icon?

Hundreds of biographies, edited collections and critical studies of Burns’s life and works have been published since the bard’s death in 1796, and there are over 3000 translations of Burns’s works into foreign languages, but Burns’s literary works are just one aspect of his legacy.

Since the 19th century Burns has been celebrated at Burns Suppers, in Burns related statuary and memorabilia and at grand centenary celebrations such as those held across the globe in 1859 and 1896. Innumerable composers, artists and performers have been inspired by Burns.

Statues and public memorials to Robert Burns were being erected across the globe as early as the mid-19th century. By 1909 over 40 had been commissioned in the UK, and a minimum of five in Australia, three in Canada, one in New Zealand, and nine in the USA.

Some trivia related to Burns’s reputation:

  • Burns coined the popular phrase ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’ in his poem ‘Man Was Made to Mourn’
  • like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the title of JD Salinger’s famous novel Catcher in the Rye comes from one of Burns’s poems – ‘Comin’ Thro’ the Rye’
  • US President Abraham Lincoln was a real fan of Burns and could recite pieces of Burns’s poetry by heart

For dedicated fans only! It may be my heritage but I had no idea yer man was quite that huge, and it’s definitely not my period. Having said that, listening to the songs easily brings a tear to the eye.

Rabbie linkage:

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#FLwordsworth and place

Updates: Romantic landscapes: geography and travel (event report)…the Wordsworth Trust’s Wordsworth Countryside app (article)…the Lake District as world heritage site

New projects and finds: Geospatial innovation: a deep map of the Lake District (@LakesDeepMap)…Re-Imagining Wordsworth in Ulster (storymap; @NBWordsworth)…Reading and mapping Swallows and Amazons in the digital ageMapping Wordsworth’s residence in London…Alex Cochrane on walking with ColeridgeMapping literary visions (The Age of Innocence)…@RomanticismEHUWilliam and Dorothy Wordsworth: ‘All in each other’ reviewStanding up for the curmudgeon in tweedsRomantic LondonBy Duddon’s SideLiterary mapping in digital space (HuffPo | Chester), aka Chronotopic cartography (@Chrono_Carto)…

William Wordsworth: poetry, people and place (courseTwitter), from Lancaster, on FutureLearn, started on 7 September for four weeks.

Explore the influence of the Lake District on Wordsworth with this free online course, filmed at his home…Through readings and discussions focusing on Grasmere and the landscape of the Lake District, the course will explore why this location was so important for Wordsworth.

Wordsworth lived at Dove Cottage in Grasmere from 1799 to 1808, producing much of his greatest work, including ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (aka Daffodils) and The Prelude. As an intro we are invited to pen a poem about a favourite place in the Romantic style and share it on #some tagged #NaturesPoets. So it looks like it’s more about the poetry, which I hated at school, than (the) place, which as a Scot I find rather tame, but we shall persevere, in particular as one of the team, Sally Bushell, was behind Mapping the Lakes (and v2) and is writing a book on reading and mapping.

Introducing Wordsworth and Lyrical Ballads

Week 1 is made up of 16 steps, yikes. Most useful is Sally on key principles of the ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads (1800), identifying Wordsworth’s four key ideas:

  • the poet – “a man speaking to men”, ie a communicator speaking on behalf of others representing ‘the common man’, speaking directly to all rather than a writer, no different from you or I
  • subject matter:
    • the everyman, equally capable of feeling deeply and responding to the world; “it is not just gentlemen who have strong feelings…those living a rustic life have a truer, more authentic relationship to the land”
    • common things and situations
    • place, ie the world around you – celebrating the power of the mind to internalise the natural world and be strengthened by it, asserting the power of a subjective, individual response; Wordsworth liked a private space, where he could pace up and down as he wrote his poetry; he often wrote poems on the spot, in a direct response to the natural world
  • language – as close to everyday speech as possible, but with a certain colouring of the imagination to freshen the experience
  • “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”; it should communicate directly and to the heart

Also a useful PDF on close reading poetry and a vid on how to read and interpret manuscripts, stressing context and their uniqueness.

Sadly the two poems for the week have simply served to remind me of my issues with the Romantics, but it’s all very well done, even with a ‘make your own manuscript’ task. Best takeaway so far has been the brief account of Will and Dorothy’s trip to Germany in 1798 – I have a feeling he visited Copenhagen too. (Hmm…at the very least he wrote a poem called The Danish Boy and owned a copy of Molesworth. Maybe have a closer look at Romantikstudier.dk.)

‘Spots of time’: childhood, education and memory in The Prelude

The week 1 round-up states that “Wordsworth has evoked powerful responses, not all of them favourable” and Sally admits in the summing up vid that he is uniquely polarising, so I feel partly vindicated in skipping the pomes. Maybe I will re-visit epi 3 of The Trip, which I haven’t watched yet this year. There’s more than one form of engagement in these changing times…

OK, week 2, with The Prelude and its 24 manuscripts spanning over 40 years.

Central to The Prelude are the two themes of childhood and memory. While much of the poem describes Wordsworth’s childhood adventures in the Lake District, the poet is equally concerned with how he remembers these episodes and what ongoing influence they have in his adult life. Wordsworth describes his most influential childhood episodes as ‘spots of time’…key moments in our life that continue to have an important influence on us, especially if we reflect back on them.

‘Spots’ are powerful memories where you can’t quite get to the root of that power, often involving an element of transgression, making you see the world differently – plus a process of defamiliarisation or even distortion when remembered. The spots themselves are often visual, and not a continuous memory.

From the week 3 email and summing up vid it’s clear that the team just love the Padlet exercise for the week, seemingly FutureLearn’s new thing: “Wordsworth’s concept of ‘spots of time’ has been inspirational for many of you and we’ve been particularly struck (and sometimes moved) by participants’ descriptions of their own ‘spots of time’.”

There’s also a make your own Goslar Letter task, which asks:

  • How does the letter-form affect your response to the poetry?
  • What difference does it make to read the poem in this context?
  • How important is Coleridge (the recipient of the letter) to Wordsworth, as the first reader of this poetry?

The letter was a joint production from William and Dorothy to Coleridge, and is named after the German town in which it was written. It contains passages of poetry that would eventually be included in The Prelude. Very nice! In particular that the MOOC isn’t all about discussing.

‘Michael’ and Greenhead Gill: Wordsworth and the importance of place

Week 3 visited Greenhead Gill near Grasmere, the setting and inspiration for ‘Michael’, Wordsworth’s tale of a shepherd, first published in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800):

About half a mile from Wordsworth’s house, it was also the place in which the poem was written. At the opening of the poem Wordsworth invites us to come to this place and think about the poem being set and written there – it’s very space specific. He describes the fields and hills as a living being even more than his own blood. It’s almost as if Michael is a human embodiment of the landscape…

Wordsworth wrote the poem in a sheepfold. He takes this sheepfold, an ordinary, everyday object we might take for granted or overlook, and turns it into the key symbol for the poem, loading it with human meaning and emotion and significance. The poem makes you notice the sheepfold – it makes you think about it, an ordinary thing. So loading that ordinary object with meaning is making it stand for something greater than itself – it becomes a symbol. The role and meaning of the sheepfold as symbol changes throughout the course of the poem…

Is Michael’s relationship to the place unique and special or universal? Think about the ways in which we connect to the place in which we live, or the place in which we were brought up, and how this shapes our identities.

It’s a tragic tale, and by the end of the poem there is no trace of Michael’s cottage – nothing remains except the poem telling the story. (They weren’t called the Romantics for nothing…)

Next up, a personalising place exercise (NFM) to be posted on this week’s Padlet wall, while in manuscripts corner we looked at Wordsworth’s difficulty in writing the poem as well as writing outside. By linking the writing of the poem in the sheepfold to the representation of place in the poem he creates multiple layers of meaning:

He doesn’t just wander about aimlessly or roam the hills. He does have very specific sites and also he likes to walk up and down, sort of pace up and down, and various critics have make the point that the rhythm of the poetry that he’s writing is then sort of matched to the rhythm of his walking.

How important is setting and context for writing or working well? Can you think of examples in your own life of working better in one place than another, or of needing certain things around you or having particular rituals before settling to write?

Being Dorothy

Week 4 (24 steps!) explores the process of homemaking and engages more fully with Dorothy’s life and work.

The siblings arrived in Grasmere in December 1799 and established a household at Dove Cottage – see from Goslar to Grasmere. They made it into a ‘true home’ through their domestic arrangements, through cultivating the garden and through their writing. They also established a sense of community, frequently visited by friends.

Their writing included letters, such as one written by William to Coleridge on Christmas Eve in 1799, which is compared and contrasted with his unpublished poem, Home at Grasmere:

What differences in response to the Wordsworths do you experience between reading the account of coming home in prose and in poetry? What does the writer choose to emphasise, and why, in each case? How does the form (a private letter a poem written for publication) and sense of audience (to a close friend; to all readers) affect the writing?

See Letters of Note and Davy Letters for more letters, plus:

Think about how important letters have been in your own lives. Are there particular letters that you remember vividly? What role did letter writing have in your life and has this role been taken over now by email and social media? Is there something different about the experience of writing and receiving a letter to these forms of communication?

William and his friends are generally referred to as The Wordsworth Circle. In the summer of 1802 William, Dorothy and their close friends, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Mary and Sara Hutchinson, carved their initials into a rock face, aka ‘The Rock of Names’ – the importance of inscription and the naming of places as a process of settling in to somewhere.

Marking local objects is important for the Wordsworths in developing their sense of home. The rock, now in the garden of Dove Cottage, was halfway between the cottage and Coleridge’s lodgings at Greta Hall in Keswick, hence a literal meeting place and personal landmark, symbolic of their friendship and illustrating their relationship to landscape…Have you created any names or nicknames for special places? Think about the type of places you named, how you named them and who uses these names.

Other Wordsworth places that took on special meanings:

  • Sara’s Gate – named after Sara Hutchinson and described in a joint letter
  • John’s Grove’  named after William and Dorothy’s younger brother
  • Wordsworth’s Poems on the naming of places – marking local objects, naming them at a particular site where they can see a very nice view of the landscape, maybe along a favourite walking route or where a particular memorable incident happened (see also William Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes (1810/35), reviewed by Virginia Woolf, and Longfellow’s Poems of places anthology; 31 vols)

What do you notice about the process of naming? What different elements are involved? How do you think the different stages involved in the naming process contribute towards place-making? Naming as a kind of ‘possession of the local’ – what do you think this means? What are the positive and negative elements of taking possession of the local landscape and of local meanings?…

[Inscription] marks our being in a particular place at a particular time, celebrating a code of the private known to a few… a kind of possession of the local…relying on the fact that people won’t know them…it’s about personalising place…ordinary objects that could be easily overlooked…

So their relationship between landscape and writing is operating at a number of levels here. They’re marking the landscape, carving their names into it. They’re naming the landscape, giving these particular places special names, and they’re also writing about the landscape…for the Wordsworths, a sense of place and particularly home is something that has to be made, and it has to be practised. And it also has to be shared by a very close group of friends, and it requires a very active relationship between the landscape and those that use it…a shared use of landscape can enhance friendship and friendly experiences in places can bring forth feelings of togetherness, community, and a sense of home…for Dorothy, these names are particularly important because she uses them in a very specific way to recollect feelings of friendship – the names are as important as the places.

Dorothy wrote a journal in Grasmere (new illustrated edition) between 1800 and 1803, recording her and William’s life in Dove Cottage, writing about the natural world, the people she met and those who lived in the village, and about William’s poetry. The MOOC concluded with that old favourite, a comparison between her account of seeing daffodils in 1802 and William’s account of the same incident in his most famous poem, ‘I wandered lonely’, written in 1804 and published in two versions (1807 and 1815).

How would you describe the way that Dorothy’s journal entry is written? What does she tell us in this passage about her daily life, her social circle, and the mundane physical experience of walking? Consider the encounter with the daffodils particularly. How does Dorothy come upon them? What is her relationship to them? How does she describe them? Do you think that there are aspects of this journal entry that are poetic? Do bits of it seem more like poetry than prose?

The wrap-up vid explored the importance of walking to the Wordsworths, for example as offering a sense of arrival after an epic and memorable event (on arrival in Grasmere), but also as an activity they chose for its own sake. Walking in (and into) the Lakes was part of their process of ‘claiming’ and (place)making a home. Also, in 1790 while at Cambridge William walked 1000 miles across Europe over the course of three months, taking in not least Revolutionary France, but also Switzerland and Italy. Some of his poetry (and Coleridge’s) has the meter of a walking pace within the lines.

Thorougly enjoyable and thought provoking throughout, even without going near the dreaded poetry!

For the record, there was a fair amount of Wordsworth (and Coleridge) at Placing the author. See also Mapping ‘Wordsworthshire’: a GIS study of literary tourism in Victorian Lakeland. And while we’re touching on poetry, here’s CAMPUS Poetry School, the social network for poets.

Sagas and space (6-8) and wrap-up

Week 6 looked at spatiality in visual media, specifically stone, wood and vellum (light edit):

This week again deals with visual media. On the one hand, we focus on picture stones and rune stones and how they develop a concept of space. Kate Heslop gives us an insight in her research on framing strategies and narration on such monumental sources. Oh the other hand, Lena Rohrbach speaks about the specific spatiality of medieval manuscripts, shedding some light on many questions which had to be answered at the beginning of the book culture of the North. Although rune stones and parchments do not have much in common at first glimpse, they are intertwined in their self-referential discussion of space and their function as media.

What are runes, exactly? From the glossary: the individual letters of the runic alphabet, the oldest and only native system of writing used by Germanic peoples. This alphabet, called the futhark after its first six letters (th = þ), is attested in an older version from about AD 150-750 and in later variants. The older runes encompassed 24 letters, whereas the younger runes, emerging sometime before 800, only contain 16. Latin letters, which came in the wake of Christianity, competed with and gradually replaced runes. Only in Scandinavia, because of the late christianization (10th an 11th centuries), did runic writing continue into the Middle Ages.

Runes

In normal parlance, a couple of vids looking at a few picture stones and the layout of manuscripts, potentially thought provoking in the digital age. Judging by the wrap-up this one didn’t really catch fire.

Week 7, sticking a load of words together, is entitled Space – place – landscape: diaspora, folklore, archaeology (edited):

We now return to the Icelandic and North Atlantic landscape, widening the perspective of space with the help of more general concepts. First, Judith Jesch introduces the concept of ‘diaspora’ as a new field of research in Scandinavian studies, then Terry Gunnell examines notions of space, place and landscape in connection with folklore studies, addressing questions of ritual and performance. We also point to a project from another discipline, archaeology. The Mosfell Archaeological Project (vids) is an interdisciplinary research project aimed at constructing a comprehensive picture of human adaptation and environmental change in southwestern Iceland.

So, random corner once more. Looks like week 3 is going to be the standout, with a nod to week 1 for scaring people off.

Judith on The Viking diaspora:
definitions

  • diaspora – originally a term applied to the expulsion of the Jews from Israel and their dispersal around the world; nowadays commonly used to explain a variety of modern phenomena arising from the migration of peoples around the globe – the idea of migration is key to diaspora, but diaspora is much more than just migration
  • the sagas arise precisely out of that ‘consciousness of being connected to the people and traditions of a homeland and to migrants of the same origin in their countries’ that is the primary characteristic of diaspora
  • there was a continuing connection between Iceland, the homelands of the settlers, and other parts of the world, such as Orkney or Greenland, also settled at the same time by ‘migrants of the same origin’, which both enabled and stimulated the writing of the sagas

The difference between colonisation and diaspora becomes clear when one thinks about Viking culture. There was not merely a succession of exodus, immigration, establishment of a new society in new surroundings – Norse culture in the Atlantic was characterised by continuous relations with its origins. ‘Parent culture’ and genealogical affiliation is one of the key issues in Old Norse-Icelandic saga literature and culture. At times the conservatism that lies in the term led to an unwillingness to adapt to new physical and environmental surroundings, as was the case in the Norse settlements in Greenland.

There are many possible networks of spatial meaning in Viking Age and medieval Iceland. By telling and performing stories about what happened in specific places, the Icelanders of the settlement period turned the seemingly ‘meaningless’ nature of the country they found at their first arrival into a landscape which was full of meaning, ‘filling’ the empty land with stories and memories of places.

Week 8 has the title of Language and space: spatial thinking in language; landscape and place names (light edit):

The topic of our final week proceeds seamlessly into last week’s discussions about the naming of concrete places in the landscape. Stefan Brink introduces the field of place name studies and delivers some concrete Scandinavian examples. Paul Widmer brings a more abstract spatial perspective into focus, sheding light upon different conceptualizations of spacial thinking in a language by the example of Old Norse Icelandic.

Place name studies aka toponomy are/is interesting, but the 10 minute lecture didn’t yield up much beyond dividing names into nature names and culture names (with subdivisions for settlements: hamlets, farms…nations | fields), offering up the concepts of typologies and chronologies and affirming the need for insights into cultural geography to be able to contextualise place names properly. See Linguistic patterns in the place-names of Norway and the Northern Isles as an introduction, plus the British Museum’s Discover Nordic place names map and the Viking Network on placenames. Update from serendipity corner: tying place names in with memory and mapping we have Mapping, Beirut-style: how to navigate a city without using any street names.

Danish sources: Navn.ku.dk (Names in Denmark) and Stednavne, plus Forstadmuseet’s List of local placenames and piece on the etymology of Hvidovre. Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks strays into this area – see his word-hoard, plus The landreader project, and my pending Faroese glossary. Lieven Ameel has looked at toponyms as triggers for a sense of place. Latest finds: Key to English place names and female placenames analysis.

It’s a thing

See THING Sites and the THING project, a transnational World Heritage nomination, based on an expansion of Iceland’s existing World Heritage site Thingvellir. The Shetland Amenity Trust has a place names officer, wow. Assembly sites throughout areas of Scandinavian influence can be identified by their common ting, thing, ding and fing place names, eg Gulating (Norway), Tinganes (Faroe Islands), Tingwall in both Shetland and Orkney, Dingwall (Highland) and Tynwald (Isle of Man), plus Thynghowe in the Sherwood Forest, and obv, Folketinget.

Wrap-up

The peer assessment took the form of a 450-500 word essay, incorporating primary source and secondary course material, based on one of the discussion questions from the course. Quite neat, but judging from the discussion forums the hard core is pretty small.

So, what was it all about? There was a lack of a narrative thread, it felt like a random collection of pet projects hung round the broad theme of Sagas and space dressed up in academic language. Kudos for the non-natives for running the thing in English, but this can obfuscate even for a native speaker, so who knows what confusions may have arisen among non-native speakers.

Have to confess to being even more confused about who the Vikings were than before (eg did the Vikings conquer Denmark in the same way as they did Yorkshire? this article isn’t really helping) – it’s still not my period. (On which note, the local burial mounds and the sword at Avedøre are fun, but way too early for this context, obv.) Generally, Vikingery is a Scandi angle I have avoided up to now, but there are connections of interest to follow up, perhaps by revisiting our trip to the Faroes, a year ago this week.

Update: for the record, there’s an annual Norse in the north conference (@NorseintheNorth)…Neil Gaiman is big on the NorseA Kalfskinni: sagas and the space of literature by Torfi Tulinius…

Sagas and space (3): discovering new spaces

Week 3 was entitled Discovering new spaces: geographical and social aspects; memory and space:

This week’s topic will be the social space and the historic landscape in which the Icelandic saga literature is set. Another very interesting facet of space we will hear of is its connection with memory.

Pretty heavy going, with two theoretical dollops, starting with a lecture on the space of literature by Torfi H Tulinius:

  • title borrowed  from French literary theorist and essayist, Maurice Blanchot, who wrote The literary space (1955) – literature is a locus where you encounter and transcend the limits of meaning and understanding; is this a space in the usual sense of the word?
  • Old Norse-Icelandic literature is very much concerned with space (ie how the country was settled; horizontal) and time (ie history; vertical) – these axes intersected in Iceland in the 12th and 13th centuries
  • all space is mental – we do not have immediate access to it, so we have to represent it, in our consciousness and in our cultural artifacts, such as literature
  • there is also space which we neither represent nor experience, but which is nevertheless part of our existence; for example the space of literature which exists in the sagas
  • some of the texts display evidence of fluidity (fluid space, liminal space, spaces of uncertainty) – the nature of the world changes as the character goes from one place to another; also from one time to another; transcending traditional categories, literature as a special place where the limits of language are tested
  • the sagas were a public space, testing the meanings and representations of society, particularly in the liminal times around the settlement of Iceland and conversion to Christianity
  • the space of literature as an alternate space, where things that didn’t happen can happen and where meanings and ideas can be tested

Next, space and memory by Pernilla Hermann (Aarhus):

Memory and space are connected in a variety of ways. Memory is best constructed on the basis of place – space can preserve memory, it can structure memory, and it can trigger memories. Two traditions bring together space and memory:

  • collective and cultural memory – memory places, places that construct and preserve memories; here the focus is on collective identity; places are something external – social groups, cultural symbols, collectively shared, external
  • the art of memory – a rhetorical tradition, where places are mnemonic devices or mnemonic tools; places are constructed in the mind of individuals and are internal. – rhetorical tradition, mnemo-technical device, individually constructed, internal
  • ancient authors distinguished between  natural memory and artificial memory, with artificial memory based on a cultivation of natural memory and two dominant principles:
    • mnemonic places – constructed in the mind of the one who trains his memory; very often architectonic structures such as a theatre or palace
    • mnemonic images – constructions of things that is supposed to be remembered, images of these things to be remembered are placed in various locations in the architectonic structure
  • when you have to recollect your memories you enter the space and go to the various images that you have to remember
  • artificial memory influenced art and literature – the sagas came into being in a transitional culture between orality and writing, and we can expect the people in this culture to have explored and used a rich variety of mnemonic aids
  • how did memory function among the Nordic writers of the 12th and 13th centuries? does Old Norse literature represent artificial memory? is Old Norse literature to some extent structured from mental spaces?

So bring on Emily Lethbridge’s Icelandic Saga Map and accompanying blog, The saga-steads of Iceland: a 21st century pilgrimage. From Emily’s  vid:

  • maps and narratives are age old explanatory systems or frameworks which help us to understand the world and our place in it
  • all stories are maps of a kind, and maps in turn can tell stories; Robert Tally (Spatiality, 2013; Literary cartographies, 2014) : to draw a map is to tell a story
  • from a literary critical perspective mapping as an approach is a means of textural reduction and abstraction, prompting or helping us to ask different questions
  • we organise information on maps in order to see our knowledge in a new way; maps suggest explanations; and while explanations reassure us, they also inspire us to ask more questions and consider more possibilities (Peter Turchi, Maps of the imagination: the writer as cartographer)
  • digital maps can be used to present literary worlds as spaces through which characters move and the places and events in a narrative are set, and also to present the historical worlds in which bodies of literature were produced and transmitted; the medieval Icelandic sagas are fundamentally rooted in the Icelandic landscapes, and many places in them can be identified around the country today
  • mapping the sagas works on two levels; at the narrative level and at the level of presenting and visualising their transmission in space and time
  • at the narrative level, a map displaying places named in any single saga gives all kinds of insights into the literary functions or significance of different kinds of places and spaces inside the landscapes and enhances our understanding of the ‘narrative logistics’, such as the relative distances between places or the progress of journeys made by characters
  • the map highlights the role of the landscape in the transmission of the sagas over time and underlines some of the methodological issues in this kind of literary cartography; hyperlinking places named in the in the sagas to points on the map suggests that the relationship of saga text to modern day landscape is simple, but the correlation between the identification of specific places in the Icelandic landscapes today with those named in the sagas is often far from straightforward
  • landscapes have changed as a result of natural processes, not least volcanic eruptions and the various ensuing consequences of this, and also on account of human intervention of different types; farms have been abandoned, resettled, and place names have been lost or moved around; sometimes the political, ideological, or economic stakes are high with regard to identifying a certain place in the modern day Icelandic landscape as a place in a saga
  • the map is therefore also a resource that tries to highlight these mismatches, ambiguities, or disputes over the identification of saga sites
  • the process of developing the saga map brought into focus the extents to which places in the sagas exemplify what Edward Soja
    calls real and imagined places (Thirdspace, 1996), because of the way that the sagas are at once both history and fiction, ie fictionalized or literary renderings of historical events that are said to have taken place in identifiable local locations
  • one key preoccupation of past scholars investigating the topography of the sagas has been the extent to which local landscapes have been accurately or inaccurately represented by saga authors, but if one accepts that the saga sites around Iceland are both real and imagined places, real and imagined simultaneously, one can begin to better understand the role of the landscape in the transmission of the sagas, and to examine how the sagas have been transmitted via or through the landscapes, as well as being copied in manuscripts
  • this gives us insights into the broader sociocultural functions that the sagas have filled over time; many place names around the country reference the sagas or saga characters but aren’t mentioned specifically in the  texts; these places play a crucial part in the reception of the sagas, and are a part of what might be described as the sagas’ outdoor mode of transmission rather than their indoor mode of transmission, acting as mnemonic triggers for episodes in the sagas; while one was, say, moving through the landscapes, details from the sagas would be brought to mind
  • until recent times this spatial way of reading the sagas was just as important as the reading of the sagas from manuscripts in an indoor domestic setting; the landscape itself is, in fact, just another kind of saga manuscript, and is, in fact, a palimpsest with layers of saga memory and narrative detail built up over and across it over time
  • the possibilities that the Icelandic landscapes have offered over time for reading and rewriting the sagas is one of the reasons for their enduring popularity over time in Iceland, and arguably also one of the most remarkable characteristics as a body of internationally acclaimed literature

New in the glossary: in Icelandic the term ‘saga’ generally means a story told in prose. As a linguistic term it also refers to a large collection of stories from the Icelandic and partially Norwegian Middle Ages, ie ‘saga literature’. The sagas are the most extensive of the three main categories of Old Icelandic literature. The handwritten tradition starts in the 12th century, but most manuscripts date from the late 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.

From the wrap-up:

Saga sites in the concrete Icelandic landscape help to support and create memory. This space related memory can be individual, collective and/or cultural, so space and time are part of different levels. Landscape as described and memorized in the sagas sometimes belongs to different layers of time which becomes clear when the narrator of a saga comments that a certain spot is called this and this today, but it was called differently in those times, or that this place is not inhabited any longer today; older layers of the history of a region may thus become visible and one might call such phenomena palimpsests.

Place writing now

On 18 November 2014 the London Review Bookshop held an event on Place writing now:

It’s not about travelling across the world to exotic places: it’s about digging where you stand.

Writing about place – a sub-genre of travel writing that subverts it by being about staying put, rather than moving – has been enjoying an extraordinary vogue of late. Three of the genre’s finest practitioners joined us at the shop to discuss its significance and future. Philip Marsden’s Rising ground explores the small part of Cornwall to which he has recently transplanted himself; Julian Hoffman, in The small heart of things finds home around the shores of Greece’s Prespa lakes, and Ken Worpole in The new English landscape, a collaboration with the photographer Jason Orton, proposes a new paradigm for topographical beauty based on the post-industrial landscape of the Thames estuary.

My notes from the recording:

  • place vs space: place is distinctive, space is characterised by sameness
  • one person’s space is another person’s place, cf self geographies – we all make our own maps
  • landscape vs place: place has an element of (cumulative) experience, tradition, and hence time
  • to live is to live locally, ie to know the place you live; to belong?
  • home has a concordance with place
  • Julian Hoffman (@JulianHoffman) – had no connection with the place, wrote to engage more deeply with it; stories came out of the place, helping him discover who the land is  – and who he is; when he comes back to the UK he feels closer to it; you make a new topography, unravel it and open it out; see also interview for Elsewhere | interview in Ecozona
  • Ken Worpole – the aesthetics of the post-industrial landscape; you can’t erase the past, how should you represent it and articulate it in the present; can’t level the past; time is crucial, but the present dictates all, with place as a framing device
  • what you can walk to in a day/year; our reference is small scale, but moved from vertical to horizontal when we became area of the shape of the world (see below); regions and nations are constructs, the place is our frame of reference – this is a universal response (so why travel?); mobility is an issue…we are hunter-gatherers, not farmers controlling the land
  • urban environments are characterised by diversity and displacement
  • we are moving but staying still – kestrel image, need an awareness even when on the move
  • maths of existence – we can only know a limited number of places
  • what awakens your perception, what is your trigger? time, place…
  • see also What is place?, an event report from @waymarksblog

Similar ground was covered by R4’s Start the Week on sense of place (29 December), looking at why we react so strongly to some places, look for meaning in them and build up stories about them over time. What makes a landscape (eg a particular site), essentially a blank canvas (space?), significant? Three cases: Tintagel, Glasto, Cornwall (the shape?). A sense of place, rootedness, magical places, wandering…communities create maps to create a sense of belonging.

Landscapes are not just somewhere you pass through – they have a human history which means something to us, which is experienced, not learnt (a sense of belonging again). We find way to a sense of being through landscape, a search for meaning which acknowledges myth and the unconscious. Rural landscapes are bare, the past is not suggested, but hidden, while urban landscapes have visible layers. (The built environment takes on new social, cultural and economic importance as a repository of collective memory – in tension with the increasing threat of erasure through new development.)

Guests:

  • Philip Marsden on place as a concept, we are defined by the place we live in, it’s like falling in love, intensity etc
  • Scottish artist Victoria Crowe has been painting the Pentlands for 30 years; people have over time responded to the same forms and shapes; that response can be powerful, creating eg Stonehenge
  • Ian Bostridge on performing and analysing Schubert’s Winterreise, where s/p(l)ace is endless, empty, featureless – see his Schubert’s Winter Journey: anatomy of an obsession
  • Joanne Parker on the maps we make in our mind; we map our private, hidden places in our heads; our personal map of eg Britain is a bit  like a self-geography; for more see Britannia Obscura and the Past in its Place project (more, now finished, with three books to come, one on each strand); update: at Living Maps on 10 May 2017, exploring five alternative maps: the caver’s map, the canal map, the aeronautical map, the ley-hunter’s map and the megalithic map of Britain

Philip Marsden also popped up yet again on Ramblings on 26 Feb, and is still doing the rounds as his Rising ground: a search for the spirit of place (Granta interview | AmazonGdn & again) has been nominated for the Wainwright Prize. Essentially it’s about how travellers come home – here are my notes from an extract (the first two chapters):

  • Heidegger in Building Dwelling Thinking (1954) and its example of a 200 year old farmhouse in the Black Forest, combining religious belief, domestic life and local topography
  • Dwelling means much more than just living in a house – it described a way of being in the world (in Old English and High German the word buan, meaning both ‘building’ and ‘to dwell’ is linked to the verb ‘to be’, so “To be is ‘to be in a place‘. Only by knowing our surroundings, being aware of topography and the past, can we live what Heidegger deems an ‘authentic’ existence. His ‘dwelling’ does highlight something we’ve lost in our hyper-connected world – the ability to immerse ourselves in one place.”
  • the effect that physical surroundings have on individuals and communities can be direct or symbolic and mythologised, as in the persistence of a lost homeland
  • the difference between ‘place’ and ‘space’ (p29-30): place is somewhere distinctive, where people react to and live with the particular topography around them, while space is an idealised location, absolute, unlimited and universal; a stress on the latter has led to the “abiding sameness which characterises contemporary life” and “an insensitivity to the significance of place”
  • space as the absolute, unlimited and universal, place the particular, the limited, the local and the bound (Escobar, 2001)
  • the long-term emphasis on space has led to monoculture in farming, homogeneous housing, duplicated shopping malls and the destruction of habitats – the abiding sameness that characterises contemporary life (vs Somewhere vs Anywhere), the result of insensitivity to the significance of place (Relph, 1976)
  • see also Tim Cresswell (2004) and Edward Casey (1996) quotes
  • Yi-fu Tuan‘s Topophilia (1990, but coined by WH Auden in 1947, for John Betjeman’s Slick but not streamlined): two different ways of seeing the world (p31): vertical and horizontal; the ‘vertical’ conception of a world based around how far one could walk in a day and a polytheistic belief system meant that places were coloured by the gods which inhabited them or even took the shape of places; around 1500 this gave way to a more ‘horizontal’ perception populated by more distant places

More! Interview in The Clearing, June 2015, and me on travel vs place, May 2017.

Courses on place writing and related: