Monday, May 26, 2008

Bristol and Romanticism

A year ago when I taught a workshop at Wroxton College in Oxfordshire, one of the beginning poets was a charming and well-read man named Donald Gibson, originally from Belfast. I spent a memorable day with him and met his wife Christine, who is working on an advanced degree in English. They have a beautifully sited house high on a hill just outside Bath Spa. That’s a town I hadn’t visited since 1978—hard to explain, given its Georgian handsomeness and literary associations. Anyway, Donald and drove around town to refresh my memory; maybe it’s time to reread Persuasion, my favorite Austen novel. Also, starting out from his place, we made a wonderful two-hour hike up hill and down dale through some of the most ravishing countryside to be found anywhere. Pastures, sheep, horses, cattle, hamlets, Norman churches, and all of it in the leafy, flowery, cool month of May. Hard to say goodbye, but I’ve got this itinerary.

Each time I come to England, I try to see a city I haven’t visited before. This trip it’s Bristol (a half hour from Bath), a city not high on the tourist list, granted. But several facts about Bristol fascinate me, as they might any American who likes history and cultural history. First, when John Cabot made his voyage of discovery to Newfoundland, he left from the port of Bristol (in 1497, only five years after Columbus set out for the Indies). On the historical downside, Bristol was the main port for the British slave trade, which inevitably formed an infernal link with America. (Justice was slow, but eventually found its champion in Wilberforce, the great abolitionist. Lest we forget, Britain outlawed slavery in 1830, which puts the more laggard land of the free in unflattering light.) Another link, at the opposite coordinate of the moral compass, is Admiral Sir William Penn, whose son, noting that Charles II owed Penn Senior a lot of money for services rendered, agreed to accept payment in the form of a hefty land grant in the colonies; it was to become the state of Pennsylvania, named at Charles’s insistence for the father. Penn Junior wanted to call it Sylvania, period. Anyway, it became a safe haven for Quakers hindered from putting their convictions into practice by state intolerance. The Admiral’s tomb is found in Bristol, in the church of St. Mary Redcliffe.

I visited the church, a scaled-down jewel-box of perpendicular Gothic architecture, not so large as Bristol Cathedral, but more intact, and for me, more resonant historically. A small model of Cabot’s ship the Matthew is perched inside the door of the North Portal. Why? Because the ship was built nearby in the water below the red sandstone cliff that gives this quarter of Bristol its name. Also, St. Mary’s was the church of Thomas Chatterton, whose uncle was its sexton. Chatterton and his mother lived in a small house not a hundred yards away. One day Tom’s uncle took him up into the tower room, where the youth found some medieval mss. Also, some ancient parchment that had never been written on. Eventually TC wrote the imaginary poems of an invented Thomas Rowley, in Chatterton’s myth, the secretary for one William Cannynges, an actual Bristol plutocrat, whose polychrome tomb is found in the church. Proto-Romantic England swallowed the myth and showered praise on “Rowley”’s poems. This is plausible if we think back to Horace Walpole’s launching of the vogue for neo-Gothic architectural style, James McPherson’s Ossian forgeries, and the growing fatigue of readers who had grown weary of Augustan literary conventions. The Gothic has been with us ever since this late Georgian revival—often in subliterate, absurd, or camp incarnations. Never mind: it was one of the sources for Romanticism, a keystone of the new wave of feeling, mystery, moonlight, dreaminess, longing for the infinite, and inwardness that was about to sweep through Europe. We’ve never left Romanticism entirely behind, that’s clear at least. I see no sign that our culture wants to leave it behind, not even its “Gothic” component.

But here is a new theory about Chatterton’s death: it was no suicide. A scholar at Bristol University named Nick Groom has argued that TC had no reason to want to die. He wasn’t on the point of starvation at the time of his death, he was being paid for his writing, and he had a trip to the Continent planned. On the other hand, he was an opium aficionado, and he had like most fine upstanding writers of the time contracted an STD. In that period such diseases were treated with small doses of poison like mercury and arsenic. If the poet had also dosed himself with laudanum and then taken an arsenic pill, the interaction of the two toxins could certainly have caused his death. Of course the story of Chatterton’s suicide itself became a myth used by Romantic artists (for example, Keats’s poem about the “Chatterton, that marvelous boy”) and the painting by Henry Wallis at the Tate. This blog has already reflected on the magnetism that poet-suicides seem to contain for artists since the Romantic period. Why it does, exactly, I don’t know. Something to do with the irrational, Freud’s theoretical “death wish,” or some misplaced sense of the glamour of high risk.

Opium addiction takes us to Coleridge, many of whose poems are “Gothic” in the Romantic sense. Add De Quincey, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud to the picture, and we see that hallucinogens are part of the Romantic nexus as well. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”— T.S. Eliot, who also claimed to be anti-Romantic, even though his poems don’t offer a lot of support for the assertion.

If you bring up Coleridge, you’ll soon speak of Wordsworth. Another gripping fact about Bristol is that almost exactly two hundred and ten years ago, a pivotal Romantic poem was written here. In July 1798, William and Dorothy Wordsworth made a special trip to Tintern Abbey in the Wye valley, participating in the vogue for things “Gothic,” as launched by Walpole and the first writers who drew on its hallucinatory appeal. The recommended way to visit the Abbey had for many years to approach the medieval ruin on a moonlit night, bearing a torch, so that mysterious shadows might be cast on pillars and tracery. The Wordsworths saw it by daylight, but the impression was still strong, for personal reasons as well as the charm of medieval architecture. During the return from their excursion, William began composing a poem in his mind, which he only put to paper once he and his sister were again in Bristol, Chatterton’s home town. Such is the origin of “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” The irrational, the dream world, the Romantic version of Gothic art: All these threads seem to hang together in a strange, quasi-hallucinatory concatenation, one that seems inexhaustible…. (How did I come by the above facts? From the research I did while composing an essay titled “The Wordsworth Retrospective” some years ago. The essay is included in the upcoming collection to be published by Michigan Press in October.)

Speaking of concatenation, let me change gears by turning to one more of Bristol’s famous attractions: the suspension bridge built over the Avon Gorge by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, founder of the Great Western Railway. It runs from the old moneyed neighborhood of Clifton across to a part of the metro area that needed to be connected to the rest. Work begun in 1836 had to be suspended six years later for lack of funds; but the structure was finally completed in 1864—the world’s first suspension bridge. Brunel used chains and linked metal bars to attach the roadway to two tall stone piers lodged in the sides of the gorge. His design was unmistakably the prototype for the suspension bridges that John Roebling built in the United States decades later, with the added technological advantage of twined steel cable. Most of us already know about the Brooklyn Bridge. But preceding that by a decade or so was the Roebling suspension bridge in Cincinnati, which I go to know and admire when I did the Elliston poetry residency at the University of Cincinnati back in 1989. (I was living in a neighborhood of the city known as Clifton, which can’t be a coincidence.) There is a still earlier and smaller Roebling suspension bridge that connects Wheeling, WV, to Martin’s Ferry, OH, very familiar, no doubt, to the young James Wright. Has someone written a Ph.D. thesis on bridges in American literature? They should. Experience with these apprentice bridges obviously helped Roebling with his grandest project—which, however, he failed to complete before his death. But his son did finish it, and the rest is history and literature and visual art. (By the way, the New York poet Daniela Gioseffi has recently assembled a garland of poems about Brooklyn Bridge on her excellent website. Do look for it.)

One thing that struck me about the granddaddy of them all is that each of Brunel’s stone supports are pierced by a opening near the top perhaps thirty feet tall, an opening shaped like a parabola. Compare that to the twin ogival Gothic arches in each of the Brooklyn Bridge’s piers, and you’re forced to recognize that Brunel’s design is more scientific-mathematical than the later structure’s. Roebling wanted the artistic associations of the Gothic arch, as part of his transcendent conception of the work’s meaning. His bridge is, finally, a work as much Romantic as it is modern and practical. As the poets and artists moved by it quickly comprehended—including your blogger. But I suppose the most eminent poet bridger is Hart Crane, who bridges English Metaphysical poetry and the vision of the Brooklynite Walt Whitman.

"O, America, my new found land!”

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