08 July 2021
a guest-blog by Clara Dawson, Lecturer in Victorian Literature at the University of Manchester. She is currently working on a project about birds and poetry from 1790 to the present. Twitter @DawsonClara. The blog is illustrated throughout by images taken from Rossetti's 'Sing Song': a volume of 121 nursery rhymes which she illustrated throughout with nature images, particularly of birds.
‘Honey of wild bees in their ordered cells
Stored, not for human mouths to taste: –
I said, smiling superior down: What waste
Of good, where no man dwells’
Christina Rossetti, ‘To What Purpose is this Waste?’
The recent overturn of the ban on neo-nicotinoids, a bee-killing pesticide, brings a bitter resonance to the words of Christina Rossetti, written in 1853. Though she could hardly have anticipated the detail, her vision of an earth which stands ‘ashamed and dumb’ because it is ‘exposed and valued at [man’s] worth’ seems to predict human destruction of the natural world that followed in the wake of industrial development. In the last year, the value of the natural world has come to the fore, together with a clearer appreciation of how human activities continue to undermine it as a functioning home for ourselves and other species. Lockdown dismantled networks of anthropogenic noise to reveal the soundscapes of the natural world and the dawn chorus filled our streets and gardens once more.
Birds visiting our gardens do not serve an economic purpose, but bring pleasure, curiosity, respite, and beauty. How might we learn as a society to put these gifts before profit? In silencing human noise, the Covid-19 pandemic created an opportunity to rediscover the emotional and psychological benefits of seeing and hearing other creatures. But how might poetry written in the nineteenth century, under the same dominant system of industrial capitalism, help us with these ethical challenges? In ‘To What Purpose is This Waste’, Rossetti dramatizes the arrogance and folly of supposed human superiority to plants and animals. The honey produced by the bees for themselves can only be imagined as waste if we think that human consumption is the natural goal of all production. Rossetti outlines how we often look down on small and seemingly insignificant creatures, like birds and insects. But in a vision offered by religious experience, the poet learns to silence her ‘proud tongue’ and instead listen to the sounds and murmurs of hedges and rivers, which ‘swell’ to ‘one loud hymn’. In order to change, she moves deeper into the countryside and re-orients her senses to ‘behold/ All hidden things’ and to hear ‘all secret whisperings’. Perhaps for the first time in a long time, those ‘secret whisperings’ have been heard in towns and cities across the UK, when noises from transport and construction were reduced and birdsong filled the air. We were able to experience what had been drowned out by cars, planes, trains, our busy trafficking to and fro. Rossetti’s vision of the ‘utter Love’ found in a natural world without human interference is ultimately founded on Christianity, where God is both presence and cause. Though her firm Christian belief is less persuasive today, her poetry offers a response to the urgent challenges facing plants and animals – including ourselves – under threat from the climate crisis.
A key ethical problem for conservation scientists is to solidify the reasons that we defend and promote conservation. It is clear that in saving other species, we save ourselves, but there is also an ethical claim that requires us to recognise the rights of plants and animals to thrive. It is possible to find ways that humans and other species can flourish together but what might be necessary to persuade us to give up on putting ourselves first? Nature currently has to live with us, adapting to our needs and demands, but it will only thrive if we recognise and respect interconnection and integration rather than human dominance.
Christina Rossetti’s poem invites us to reflect on the utilitarian way in which we see nature, protesting against the belief that ‘as if a nightingale should cease to sing/ Lest we should hear.’ Poetry has a unique capacity to act on us emotionally through its sounds and images and Rossetti uses poetic language to heighten the beauty of the ordinary. Her poem opens with two compelling images:
A windy shell singing upon the shore:
A lily budding in a desert place;
With no companion
To praise its perfect perfume and its grace:
The alliteration of ‘s’ in the first line performs the singing sounds of the windy shell, the short second and third lines single out the lone beauty of the lily, and the rhyme of ‘place’ and ‘grace’ magnify the beauty that exists without human presence. She describes ‘Wondrous weeds and blossoms rare’ as ‘good and fair’: again the alliteration of ‘w’ and the rhyme of ‘rare’ and ‘fair’ create beautiful and appealing sounds, enabling Rossetti to draw our attention to the small and insignificant. ‘The tiniest living thing/ That soars on feathered wing’ has ‘just as good a right…as any King’, disrupting human hierarchies. The word ‘soars’ gives power and beauty to this tiny bird, and the rhyme of ‘thing’ and ‘wing’ creates a harmonious sound which solidifies its right to delight. Having invited us to appreciate the beauty on offer, the poem’s ethical questions land with greater force: ‘Why should we grudge a hidden water stream/ To birds and squirrels while we have enough?’
09 December 2020
by Ian Cooke, Head of Contemporary British Published Collections. The Michael Marks Awards were founded by the British Library and the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, and partners today include the Wordsworth Trust, the TLS, Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies, the National Library of Wales and the National Library of Scotland. Join us online to hear the winners announced on 14th December 2020.
The shortlisted pamphlets for the Michael Marks Award for Poetry 2020
The Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets will be announced on Monday 14th December, at a free online event. Join us to hear from the publishers and shortlisted and winning poets.
The Awards are now in their 12th year and celebrate poetry pamphlets as a site for innovation, making new poetry accessible in a variety of inventive styles and formats.
Four Awards will be announced on the evening of 14th December: the Poetry Award, best Publisher, Illustrator and Poetry in a Celtic Language. The shortlists for the Poetry Award and best Publisher have been announced on the Michael Marks Awards website.
At the start of 2020, we were uncertain about how the Awards would run this year. Over its history, the Awards has relied on people being able to travel and meet in person, whether for judging meetings or for the awards ceremony itself. The latter is a highlight, bringing together poets and publishers and hearing each other read and speak.
However, we quickly gathered very strong support for the Awards from the people that we spoke to, who emphasised the importance of celebrating new poetry and the role of independent publishers in this year particularly. The response to our call for entries was greater than ever before, with almost twice as many pamphlets submitted, and many new publishers. Although we wouldn’t be able to hold our celebration at the British Library as usual, we were excited that holding an event online would allow us to include far more people than we would usually be able to accommodate in our physical spaces. Poetry pamphlets are a fantastic way to bring exciting new poetry to a wide audience, and we wanted our online Awards to follow in that spirit.
Our shortlisted poetry pamphlets and publishers show that excitement, and demonstrate how poetry pamphlets reflect a very wide range of expression and experience. These include the first pamphlet from Sarah Wimbush, Bloodlines, and Alycia Pirmohamed’s second pamphlet, Hinge. But also pamphlets from poets with longer publishing histories, such as Jamie McKendrick’s The Years and Paul Muldoon’s Binge.
The poetry in the pamphlets reflect movement and changing perspectives, with Alycia Pirmohamed’s Hinge using themes of landscape, space and migration. Paul Muldoon’s Binge moves from detailed descriptions of place and experience in Northern Ireland to locations around the world and across history.
Fothermather, by Gail McConnell, describes change and formation in a different sense, from the development of a baby before birth, through to the change in identity of a new parent and — much more broadly — to the way that things are given form and names. Bloodlines incorporates a highly personal use of language and presentation of different characters, to explore and express Sarah Wimbush’s Gypsy/Traveller heritage. In Jamie McKendrick’s The Years, the relationship between the poems and pictures throughout the pamphlet allow a conversation between text and image, allowing one to influence how the other is read or viewed.
The shortlisted publishers for the Michael Marks Awards 2020
As with the poetry pamphlets, the shortlist for publishers show a commitment to representing a range of voices, coupled with a very careful attention to the form in which each poet and pamphlet is presented.
Guillemot Press, a former winner, gave each pamphlet its own clear identity, through choice of format, sustainable paper stock, and type face.
Face Press similarly use materials that reflect the character of each pamphlet, with the judges noting that ‘every pamphlet submitted by Face Press was an individual event’.
Broken Sleep Books show a strong commitment to inclusivity and community engagement in their publishing, with several initiatives designed especially for writers on low incomes.
Another former winner, the Emma Press, equally take an active interest in representing poets from different backgrounds and experiences, and in cultivating a love for poetry amongst new audiences.
At our Awards event on 14th December, all our shortlisted publishers and poets will speak and read. We will also hear from our winners for the Illustration and Poetry in a Celtic Language awards, as well as from our judges and partners. We are very excited that this year’s awards ceremony can be opened up to a wider audience online, and hope you can join us to hear the winners announced.
24 August 2020
A guest-blog by Daniel Brass, Kings College, London. The British Library houses many items of significance with regard to Chatterton’s life and works. These include autograph manuscripts of his poetry, written correspondence between Chatterton and Walpole, and letters and articles from the 1770s documenting the Rowley manuscripts controversy, all of which are available to view, for free, in our Reading Rooms.
Thomas Chatterton was just seventeen years old when he took his own life on 24 August 1770. This year, 2020, marks the 250th anniversary of his death. Whilst some of his poetry was published during his lifetime, Chatterton received little remuneration for his efforts and he was impoverished at the time of his suicide. His writing gained a newfound recognition in the years directly following his death, however, and exerted a considerable influence upon the Romantic Movement as well as sparking academic controversy.
The Death of Chatterton, 1856,
by Henry Wallis (Tate Britain, London)
Born on 20 November 1752, Chatterton was an incredibly well-read child who began composing original works at the age of ten. Inspired by his reading, Chatterton soon invented the persona of Thomas Rowley – a fictional 15th-century monk. Chatterton claimed that his poetry, which adhered to a faux-medieval style, was actually the work of his imagined Rowley. So convincing was Chatterton’s deceit that, following his death, his poetry was included in an anthology of medieval writings, with Thomas Rowley’s name gracing the work’s title. An academic debate regarding the origin and authenticity of these poems raged throughout the 1770s, with the deceit eventually being discovered and Chatterton’s ‘Rowley’ works eventually seeing publication under Chatterton’s own name.
Add MS 24891 “A Discorse on Brystowe” – one of Chatterton’s forged Rowley documents, chronicling the history of Bristol
Chatterton also supplied the antiquarian William Barrett with forged documents. Barrett, believing the manuscripts to be genuine, relied heavily upon them when compiling his work The History and Antiquities of Bristol. Published in 1789, long after Chatterton’s death, Barrett’s work was poorly received due to the embarrassing inclusion of the poet’s fabrications.
During his lifetime Chatterton sought patronage on several occasions and used his literary fabrications to gain access. Horace Walpole expressed an interest in Chatterton’s writings, which the poet stated were transcriptions of Rowley’s work. Walpole was not convinced and ultimately rejected the young poet as he suspected that the manuscripts were of a more modern origin than Chatterton claimed.
Add MS 24891 “A Discorse on Brystowe” – one of Chatterton’s forged Rowley documents. Chatterton’s fictional account of Bristol’s history includes several architectural sketches.
At the age of seventeen, Chatterton moved from Bristol to London with the aim of supporting himself financially through his writing. His time in London was short – he lived there for just four months prior to his death – but he wrote voraciously during that period. He composed journalistic pieces, political satires and poetry. Writing under his own name and a series of pseudonyms, Chatterton successfully achieved publication for many of his works in literary journals and magazines. Yet, despite his increasing success as a writer he continued to struggle financially. Chatterton died from an overdose of arsenic and opium on 24 August 1770. It is generally accepted that suicide was Chatterton’s intent though some have argued that the overdose which resulted in his death may have been accidental.
Although branded a literary fraud, appreciation for Chatterton’s works grew significantly in the years following his death. The talent he showed in the composition of the Rowley manuscripts was later properly appraised and appreciated and he began to be taken seriously as a gifted artist in his own right. In particular the Romantic poets venerated him as a misunderstood, tragic genius. He was praised by the likes of Coleridge, Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, and Scott who all cited him as a poet of exceptional talent.
Sources and Further Reading:
The British Library holds a number of manuscripts created by Thomas Chatterton, some of them he passed off as by the fictitious Thomas Rowley. These include:
Add MS 12050, The Revenge, 6 Jul. 1770
Add MS 24890, Eclogues and other poems, eighteenth century
Add MS 5766 A, B and C, Poems drawings and papers including Rowley originals, c. 1762-1770
Add MS 24891 A Discourse on Brystowe, by Thomas Rowleie, eighteenth century
Add MS 39168 A-V, ff. 79-84, contains the letters of George Catcott in defence of the Rowley poems, 1774-1776
The year 2020 saw the 250th anniversary of the birth of the poet William Wordsworth who was born in Cockermouth, on the edge of the Lake District, on 7 April 1770. To mark this anniversary the British Library hosted a small exhibition on the poet and the role that the natural landscape and concept of ‘place’ played in his poetry. On display were Wordsworth’s original manuscript drafts, books connected with the poet and related artworks of places he visited. I wrote a blog to complement the opening on Untold Lives, which you can read here.
Sadly, due to the COVID-19 pandemic the British Library was forced to close the display and cancel the anniversary celebrations. Yet, as the exhibition closed, and the pandemic spread, the themes explored were gaining a renewed importance. Throughout his life Wordsworth found comfort and inspiration in the natural world. The grandeur and beauty of nature – especially the landscape of his native Lake District – exerted a strong influence on his writing, which he imbued with a powerful sense of place. As the world slowed into lockdown and households began to self isolate many began to rediscover that same solace offered by the countryside and the peace of the wilder spaces near their homes.
Inspired by this, we have developed six podcasts that explore the importance of the natural world using the Wordsworth exhibition as a point of departure. The series takes us on a journey across continents, along rivers, through forests, and into the heart of London to explore what nature meant to William Wordsworth and what it means to us now. On this audio voyage into all things Wordsworth, we’ll explore the role that family, friendship and collaboration played in the poet’s life and how they led to some of the most enduring lines in English poetry. We’ll delve into the power and potency that the simple act of walking had for the Lake poet, as well as considering the idea of childhood and imagination that Wordsworth and other Romantics held in such high esteem. In the final two episodes we’ll look at the legacy of Wordsworth, starting with a personal exploration of his native Cumbria and moving outwards, to consider international and post-colonial legacies of his poetry and personal myth.
This page contains the six-part podcast series and pairs each episode with related items from our archives, which we hope you’ll explore as you listen. For an alphabetical list of all the speakers involved in the series, please see the bottom of the blog.
Episode 1 - Nature
This episode explores the revolution Wordsworth prompted in social attitudes to nature and the appreciation of the natural world. We’ll look at how this shifted in the poet’s lifetime with the growing popularity and industrialisation of his native Lake District and then consider how this shift in attitude still feeds our relationship with wilderness and the local park. We hear from environmental journalist and broadcaster Lucy Seigle who invites us along to her local green space by way of the River Thames, where she finds a strong affinity with Wordsworth’s wife Mary. Alongside Lucy is a report from naturalist and writer Pradip Krishen who speaks to us from the Central Ridge nature reserve in New Delhi, India. We also hear music from poet and plant whisperer Jade Cuttle.
'Kendal and Windermere Railway: Sonnet' by William Wordsworth from the Carlisle Journal, 26 Oct. 1844. © Sourced from the British Newspaper Archive. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.
Episode 2 - Family
This episode focuses on the close family bonds in the Wordsworth household and shines a light on the vital literary and practical contributions of Wordsworth’s wife Mary and his sister Dorothy. It features artist and researcher Louise Ann Wilson who created an installation and series of walking performances inspired by Dorothy Wordsworth’s Rydale Journals and we hear from poet Hannah Hodgson who reads from a new collection that addresses the strains lockdown has placed on family life. Also featured is acclaimed poet and writer Ruth Padel, who untangles the web of relationships that fed into Wordsworth’s life and lyrics, drawing from her award-winning poetry on science, nature and music.
'I wandered lonely as a cloud' the original manuscript sent by Wordsworth to the printer for his Poems, in Two Volumes, 1807. The British Library, Add MS 47864. © Dove Cottage - Wordsworth Trust. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.
Episode 3 - Walking
This episode looks at an activity that humans have engaged with for millennia – walking. As in Wordsworth’s day this simple act still prompts creative thought and can often provide tranquillity in times of stress. Explaining the science behind the creative power of walking is neuroscientist and psychologist Shane O’Mara. The episode also features the poet and musician Jade Cuttle and award-winning author Guy Stagg, whose first book The Crossway traces his hike from Canterbury to Jerusalem along the old pilgrim paths of Europe.
Tintern Abbey from Frederick Calbert, Four Views of Tintern Abbey, 1815. British Library, Maps.K.top.31.16.k.2. © Public Domain. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.
Episode 4 - Childhood
In this episode we are looking at the Romantic notion of childhood, a loose philosophy of youth that stirred a revolution in the history of ideas and is still being felt in our attitudes today. Tracing this revolution back to the texts and thinkers that initiated it, Jonathan Bate explores the ideas of William Blake, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and William Wordsworth. The episode also features emerging poets who have been directly influenced by Wordsworth’s thinking on youth and innocence as members of the Young Poets Network. Reflecting on their own relationships with Wordsworth through poetry will be Matt Sowerby and Hannah Hodgson, who are both embarking on their literary careers.
Autograph fair copy, with one correction, of 'A Poem of Childhood,' by William Wordsworth, 1842. British Library, Ashley MS 2264. © Public Domain.
Episode 5 - Local Legacy
This episode includes a conversation with Melvyn Bragg about his life-long connection with the poetry of Wordsworth and the landscape that inspired them both. We also have the reflections of the writer Helen Mort, who spent a year as Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust, Cumbria. Both contributors explore the legacy of the famous Lake poet and what his influence means for the landscape of the Lake District and countryside more broadly.
Manuscript of The Prelude, by William Wordsworth. Dove Cottage. © Dove Cottage - Wordsworth Trust
Episode 6 - International Legacy
This episode tries to get a sense of the influence of Wordsworth outside of the Lake District and beyond the shores of Britain. An academic and a poet are invited to contribute their thoughts and research on the reception of Wordsworth outside of the Anglosphere. Featuring Ankhi Mukerjee, Professor of English and World Literatures at Oxford, who takes us back to hear how Wordsworth’s contemporaries in Bengal reacted to his revolutionary work. Jamaica’s Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison explains her long and shifting relationship with Wordsworth and reads a number of specially selected poems. Also featured is music by award-winning poet and singer Jade Cuttle.
Lorna Goodison’s collected poems are available on the publisher’s website, her collection entitled Redemption Ground Essays and adventures includes her essay on Wordsworth called ‘Daffodil Bashing.’
Autograph copy of 'The Solitary Reaper,' by William Wordsworth. British Library, Add MS 60580. © Dove Cottage - Wordsworth Trust. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.
Alexander Lock is Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts at the British Library. He curated the Library's display 'William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Place' and worked on the major British Library exhibitions 'Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy' and 'Harry Potter: A History of Magic'. His most recent book Catholicism, Identity and Politics in the Age of Enlightenment was published by Boydell and Brewer in 2016.
Ankhi Mukherjee is Professor of English and World Literatures at the University of Oxford. She is a Fellow of Wadham College. Her research and teaching specialises in Victorian literature and culture, postcolonial studies, and intellectual history. Mukherjee is the author of What Is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon (2014), which won the British Academy Rose Mary Crawshay Prize in English Literature in 2015.
Brett Walsh coordinates the cultural events programme at the British Library. He is a writer and artist who previously studied at the Royal College of Art, London. His writing was published in an anthology of essays on collective action, entitled Meet Me In The Present: Documents and their Afterlives.  He also edits the literature and arts magazine Ossian, which publishes essays, fiction and journalism.
Guy Stagg grew up in Paris, Heidelberg, Yorkshire and London. In 2013 he walked from Canterbury to Jerusalem. The Crossway, an account of this journey, was published by Picador in 2018. The book won an Edward Stanford Travel Award and was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize, the RSL Ondaatje Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Deborah Rogers Foundation Award.
Hannah Hodgson is a 22 year old poet living with life limiting illness. She writes about her hospice use, disability and family life, amongst other things. Hannah is a recipient of the 2020 Northern Writers Award for Poetry. She has had work published widely, in outlets such as Acumen, Poetry Salzburg, The Poetry Society and Teen Vogue. She is soon to begin a Masters in Creative Writing at Lancaster University in Creative Writing. Her debut pamphlet ‘Dear Body’ was published by Wayleave Press in 2018. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @HodgsonWrites and her website is www.hannahhodgson.com
Helen Mort is a poet and novelist. She is five-times winner of the Foyle Young Poets Award, received an Eric Gregory Award from The Society of Authors in 2007, and won the Manchester Poetry Young Writer Prize in 2008. Her collection Division Street is published by Chatto & Windus and was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards and the T.S. Eliot Prize. Helen’s first novel Black Car Burning was published by Random House in April 2019. She lectures in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Jade Cuttle is a Commissioning Editor (Arts) at The Times, a BBC Music Introducing singer-songwriter and award-winning poet. Jade released her debut album ‘Algal Bloom’ with funding and support from the PRS foundation and Make Noise in January 2020. Jade has been an editor at Ambit and was a judge for the Costa Book Awards in 2019. She has previously worked at The Poetry Society and tutored at The Poetry School.
Jonathan Bate is a biographer, critic, broadcaster and scholar. He is Foundation Professor of Environmental Humanities in Global Futures, the School of Sustainability and the College of Liberal Arts at Arizona State University. Jonathan’s latest book Radical Wordsworth: The Poet who changed the World, was published in 2020 to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Wordsworth.
Lorna Goodison is the poet laureate of Jamaica and winner of the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. Her collected works were published by Carcanet Press in 2017.
Louise Ann Wilson is an artist, scenographer and researcher who creates site-specific walking-performances in rural landscapes. Louise has made a number of works informed by Dorothy Wordsworth, including: Dorothy’s Room (2018) inspired by her Rydal Journals, and Warnscale: A Land Mark Walk Reflecting on in/Fertility and Childlessness (2015 and publication), a self-guided walking performance in the Warnscale Fells near Buttermere, inspired by Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals.
Lucy Siegle is a climate and environmental journalist and broadcaster. For many years she wrote the only sustainability column in a national newspaper (The Observer) but also contributes to The Times, Vanity Fair, Grazia and many other publications. She is also known as the ‘green’ reporter for ‘The One Show’ on BBC 1 and for ‘The True Cost’ on Netflix.
Matt Sowerby is a 19-year-old spoken word poet and activist. In 2018 he was named a National Youth Slam Champion and performed at the Poetry Society and the Houses of Parliament. In his role as a climate activist, Matt co-founded KASTLE (Kendal Activists Saving The Little Earth). He has led protests and has attended the EU Parliament in Brussels. Beyond this he runs poetry workshops and is a member of Dove Cottage Young Poets, a youth poetry training project managed by the Wordsworth Trust. He is studying at the University of Birmingham.
Melvyn Bragg is a broadcaster, writer and novelist. He is well known for his work on ‘The South Bank Show’ for London Weekend Television (LWT) since 1978, and has been Controller of Arts at LWT since 1990 (Head of Arts 1982-90). He presented BBC Radio 4's ‘Start the Week’ for ten years until he was made a Life Peer (Lord Bragg of Wigton) in 1998. He has presented ‘In Our Time’ on BBC Radio 4 since 1998 and was the president of the charity Mind from 1996-2011. He has been a lifelong fan of the poetry of William Wordsworth, sharing his Cumbrian heritage and often visiting the places mentioned in Wordsworth’s poetry. Melvyn’s discovery, at age 12, of ‘The Maid of Buttermere’ from The Prelude, was a great comfort to him while suffering from depression.
Pradip Krishen is an Indian film-maker and environmentalist. He writes about trees and plants and works as an ecological gardener (mostly) in Western Indian and the desert where he has re-wilded spoiled landscapes with native vegetation. He is the author of Trees of Delhi (2006) and Jungle Trees of Central India (2015).
Ruth Padel is an award-winning British poet whose work is inspired by her close links to Greece and interests in science, classical music and wildlife conservation. She has published eleven collections of poetry that have been shortlisted for all major UK prizes. She has published a novel featuring wildlife conservation and eight books of non-fiction. Her latest poetry collection is entitled Emerald.
Shane O’Mara is Professor of Experimental Brain Research at Trinity College Dublin and a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator. His work explores brain systems affected by stress and depression. Shane’s latest book In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How we Walk and Why it’s Good for Us takes a ‘brain’s eye’ view of this amazing human activity – walking.
17 August 2020
by Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives who catalogued the Hughes Archive (held at Add MS 88198) For more information about the Library's holdings of material relating to the life and work of Ted Hughes, see our collection guide and the relevant pages on Discovering Literature.
Photograph of Ted Hughes © Copyright Caroline Forbes.
Today would have been the poet and writer, Ted Hughes’ 90th birthday. Born in Mytholmroyd in West Yorkshire in 1930 Ted Hughes created a hugely diverse body of work from poetry and prose to theatre adaptations and non-fiction. The natural world and our relationship with it is one of the most abiding themes in his work from early poems such as ‘The Thought Fox’ and ‘The Hawk in the Rain’ through to his children’s story, The Iron Man. Hughes was also lauded for one of his last poetry collections, Birthday Letters, a series of 88 poems about his relationship with his first wife, the poet, Sylvia Plath.
We had hoped to mark 2020 with a small display of items from the Library’s rich collections on Ted Hughes in our Treasures Gallery, and an evening event. Sadly the Coronavirus pandemic meant that these plans have had to be put on hold at present although we hope to be able to celebrate Hughes’ life and work in a similar way in 2021 instead. In the meantime I would like to use this post to highlight the richness of the Library’s collections relating to Hughes and point to some of the online resources relating to him which can be accessed at the moment while the Library continues to reopen after the recent restrictions.
My own work at the Library began when I started cataloguing the Hughes archive which was acquired from the Hughes Estate in 2008. The archive contains literary drafts, diaries and notebooks, correspondence, professional papers and project files dating from throughout Hughes’ life and career from early notes made in the 1940s through to 1990s drafts of Birthday Letters and Howls and Whispers. The depth and breadth of the archive provide a rich insight into Hughes including both his creative process and the subjects that interested him which were as varied as astrology, fishing and poetry in translation. As my first proper job after becoming an archivist the archive was both a challenge and a joy as I looked through the boxes and marvelled at their contents. I think that all too often curators at the Library can forget how privileged we are to have access to such treasures. Having worked at home since March I have obviously missed meeting up with colleagues in person but I have also missed the collections. Being able to touch the paper on which an iconic work is written remains a privilege and a thrill which I am looking forward to getting back at some point in the hopefully not too distant future.
In addition to the archive which I catalogued we hold a number of smaller collections relating to Hughes often based around a series of correspondence between him and his friends, family and collaborators, including his sister, Olwyn, the artist, Leonard Baskin and the academic, Keith Sagar. Comments made in correspondence can often provide important context to works as well as useful information about an individual’s life.
Anyone looking for a Hughes fix would do well to look at Discovering Literature: 20th century which includes digitised highlights from across our Hughes collections including early astrological charts, notes on river pollution, drafts of Birthday Letters poems and sketches by Hughes. These can be found alongside articles on him by academics and others aiming to provide an introduction to his work.
I thought of Ted recently when out on my daily walk I saw a small pike in a river near my house. Getting out for walks has been important to me since I’ve been working from home and a good way of tiring out my small sons. You can’t spend as much time as I did reading about fishing when cataloguing the Hughes archive and not be enthusiastic about seeing one of Ted’s most iconic fish! Here is a photograph of the spot where we saw the pike.
Needless to say I didn’t have a chance to photograph the pike when we saw it and we probably won’t see it again though we have seen chub and roach in the river too. Here are some roach in the same spot which seems to be a popular haunt for them!
Meanwhile you can listen to Hughes reading ‘Pike’ on the Poetry Archive and describing his pike which sound rather larger and more impressive than mine. Happy Birthday Ted!
08 July 2020
by Callum Bartolomeu McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives and editor of the English & Drama Blog.
Our new season, Anti-Racism and Excellence in Our Collections and Beyond runs from July-September 2020. If you'd like to get in touch with comments or suggestions, please do so using Twitter with the handle @BLEnglish_Drama.
Owing to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, some blog posts may be delayed. We hope to stick to a Monday, Wednesday and Friday schedule as outlined below as far as possible, but please bear with us if we're a little bit late.
In response to the murder of George Floyd and recent worldwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice, the Library issued a statement yesterday committing itself to becoming an anti-racist organisation, urging colleagues to push beyond what Chief Librarian Liz Jolly described as a passive ‘non-belief’ in racism towards an active struggle against it in our corporate structure, our collecting policies or our own interpersonal relationships. This is, and must be, a long-term commitment. From the perspective of a blog-editor — attempting to plan out a season of content which reflects on, sustains and even pushes beyond this statement — its commitment to change is encouraging.
The Library has vast collections and deep expertise, but I’d be lying if I said that the task of writing and programming content around these issues wasn’t intimidating. The pressure to get it right is huge — not only, as you might suspect, because of highly-charged social media discourse — but more-so because there is a genuine desire amongst colleagues to do good work. The trepidation around mis-stepping stems mostly from a fear of letting our audiences down. But we can’t be silent either. In the current climate especially, discussions about the value of cultural heritage run a real risk of being hijacked by politically motivated sophistry and bad faith arguments in favour of ‘preservation’. Cultural Heritage professionals, as experts in this area, have a role to play. As statues around the country fall, questions about what constitutes real history — about which monuments and narratives are worthy of prominence, promotion and preservation in our culture — become more urgent. We should be wary of those who would use calls to ‘preserve our history’ in order to smooth over their own conscience or ignorance; of arguments in which the definitions of ‘our’ and ‘history’ are made narrow enough that nothing except the status-quo might pass through them into posterity.
As custodians of a national collection it is our job to go beyond these calls to preserve totems to existing power structures. We need to engage with our own institutional and national histories in ways that deepen, enrich and complicate our understanding of history. The British Library, like many cultural heritage institutions in the UK and abroad, suffers from a kind of institutional double-sidedness: we are both fundamentally open yet perceived as elitist; progressive yet founded on complex histories of exploitation and exclusion; a nominally gentrifying force in our traditionally working-class district of London yet still one of the few places in the city where you’re permitted to sit without purchasing something. We must face these contradictions head-on and resist the urge to smooth them over.
So what about this blog? It is my conviction as its editor that an anti-racist appraisal of the Library’s literary collections would consider not only the representations within them — how, for instance, people of colour are used as literary devices and symbols across time — but also the material histories of these collections and their standard interpretation: how they were built, by whom, through what means, and to what end. In academic and activist circles this process has been referred to as ‘de-colonising’ the archive, and although much work remains to be done, colleagues are already making these links more visible to our users through clear signposting on the home-pages of some of our most prominent foundational collections. Yet more than this, anti-racism, despite its name, requires positive intervention. We should work to highlight excellence; to emphasise that history is not something that is ‘done to’ people of colour — or to any marginalised group for that matter — but is rather made manifest by their struggles, rebellion, and creativity, which are very often reflected in and enacted through literary and other artistic works.
MS 10310: Typescript of CLR James's play 'The Black Jacobins' in which he re-tells the history of the Haitian Revolution in order to foreground the role played by enslaved people, popular alternative leaders and lower-ranking soldiers.
Copyright © Estate of CLR James, reproduced courtesy of the Curtis Brown Group. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.
This emphasis is brought to the fore by the celebrated novelist Andrea Levy, whose brilliant essay on Discovering Literature, ‘Back to My Own Country’, reminds us, speaking of Caribbean immigrant communities (and immigrant communities in general) that, ‘their ideas, their creativity and their ways of life have helped turn this country into a sophisticated multi-culture. This windfall of talent and variety is one of the great unforeseen benefits to Britain’. Levy's final call in the piece, that ‘my heritage is Britain’s story too. It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs – in the main narrative of British history’ should remind us that, far from being an effort to erase history, contemporary anti-racist struggle emerges from a long and proud tradition of protest and agitation by communities of colour working to broaden history against efforts by the powerful to control the ‘main narrative’. It’s vital that we call upon our collections to draw out these and other continuities, as a recent post from the Library’s America’s Blog has illustrated. I hope we can continue this crucial work over the next few months on this blog with a new long-form post each Wednesday.
Manuscript draft of Andrea Leavy's Small Island (2004), a novel which interweaves the stories of Jamaican migrants Gilbert and Hortense, their white English landlady, Queenie, and her husband Bernard. The book was partly inspired by Levy’s parents: her father Winston who came to Britain from Jamaica on the Empire Windrush and his wife Amy who followed in November 1948.
Copyright:© Small Island 2004 by Andrea Levy. Usage terms: You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.
As a curator and archivist it was interesting to see how the reaction to the extreme violence of George Floyd’s murder was initially one of reflection and and self-education, through the black-square social media campaign (we will have to forego criticism of its disingenuous co-option by corporate interests for lack of space, though). The Library, as a repository for ‘The World’s Knowledge’ has a responsibility to contribute to these discussions, through the sharing of its vast resources for wider community interpretation, inspiration and enjoyment. Each Friday, this blog will share resources, links and digitised materials with its readers so that we all might better understand the work that each of us needs to do.
But more than this, as a national Library operating under the legal deposit act, we are a repository for the UK’s small-presses, independent publishers and other community groups. Now more than ever, it is important that we act as an amplifier for these voices. Each Monday we hope to highlight a small publisher whose imprint focuses on black writers and other writers of colour in order to aid wider awareness of the quality and quantity of this work.
A selection of some of the Library's collection of printed material.
There’s much more to do so if you have suggestions or comments, please get in touch either through the blog or on Twitter. If you have a small-publisher you’d like to nominate for a highlight, please get in touch, or if there’s a particular British Library collection item which you’ve found useful, inspiring or interesting, let us know.
19 June 2020
by Tabitha Driver, Cataloguer Modern Archives & Manuscripts. Find out more about the Library's collections of material relating to Alexander Pope on Discovering Literature.
Though we have been unable to explore physical collections directly during the last few months, their materiality exercises a continuing fascination. Printing, handwriting, paper, and writing tools all provide evidence of the processes of creation and transmission that’s sometimes not at all easy to reproduce in digital form. A writer’s own manuscripts can reveal much, from the quality of paper to revisions, insertions and rewritings. Not all writers start work with a fresh sheet of paper, either. Used scraps, old envelopes or discarded documents can all serve just as well, whether snatched up as a matter of urgency or simply for economy’s sake.
One such case is the 18th century poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744). Early in his career Pope produced translations of Homer’s two great epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Pope’s Iliad took him over six years to complete – at times he despaired of ever finishing – but when it was finally published, by subscription and issued in parts from 1715 to 1720, it paid off handsomely. Thanks to his earnings from both Homeric epics, Pope acquired invaluable financial independence; as he strikingly declared in a poem from 1737: “But (thanks to Homer) since I live and thrive,/Indebted to no Prince or Peer alive” (Epistle 2, ii.68–9, Poems, 4.169).
Pope drafted his Homeric translations on the backs of old letters sent to him by friends, family, writers, and other public figures, and on other written fragments. Some years after his death, the drafts were presented to the British Museum in three volumes (Add MS 4807-4809): volumes one and two are the draft translations of The Iliad and the third is The Odyssey. They were early on a source of interest. Samuel Johnson, who described Pope’s Iliad as “the noblest version of poetry which the world has ever seen” examined the manuscripts at the Museum closely for his life of Pope (Johnson, Lives of the poets, ed. G H Norman (1905) vol. 3, p. 119), and printed comparisons between selected verses from the draft and published versions of The Iliad. He put down Pope’s use of old letters for writing paper to “petty artifices of parsimony”, a sign of the poet’s tendency to excessive frugality. You can find out more about the manuscripts, and read a selection of folios from Add MS 4807, on the British Library’s Discovering Literature website, along with Pope’s sketch of Achilles’ shield from Add MS 4808.
Opening verses of Homer’s Iliad, translated by Alexander Pope. Manuscript draft (Add MS 4807, f. 17)
Besides what we can see of Pope’s translating and writing process from the manuscripts themselves – the crossings out and insertions, and the variances from the published text that Johnson observed – the mixed bag of unrelated letters and notes on which they were written confer a rich additional layer of significance. They provide a fascinating insight into the development of Alexander Pope as a young writer in literary London of the early 18th century, and the coffee house milieu in which he moved, with its literary and political alliances, rivalries, business and friendship.
End of book 6 of The Iliad, translated by Alexander Pope. Manuscript draft written on a letter addressed to Mr Pope, Button’s Coffee-house (Add MS 4807, f. 87v)
The writers of the letters and notes include Pope’s friends John Caryll, the Jacobite Baron Caryll of Durford, Edward Bedingfield of Grays Inn, Barnaby Bernard Lintot, Pope’s publisher, Charles Jervas, portrait artist and painting instructor of Pope, and Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, poet, among others.
Letter from Bernard Lintot about reception of “Mr Tickles book” at Buttons Coffee House, 10 June 1715 (Add MS 4807, f. 96v)
Topics touched on in the letters are miscellaneous too. They range from literary matters, such as publication of The Rape of the Lock (Pope’s mock-epic poem about the theft of a lock of hair) in 1712, instructions for the printer Jacob Tonson regarding Pope’s translation of the Sarpedon episode in Poetical miscellanies (1709), and the critical reception of a rival translation of the first book of The Iliad by Thomas Tickle, published in the same month as Pope’s (June 1715), to family affairs, such as medical advice and investments in the South Sea Bubble.
Thanks to the poet’s economical habit of re-using old paper for his writing, the manuscripts of “Pope’s Homer” have acquired a double significance. On the one hand they are important as the original drafts of his hugely successful translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. On the other, they offer us a vivid record of Pope’s life and times during all the years he worked on them.
Alexander Pope’s sketch of the shield of Achilles (Add MS 4808)
08 April 2020
by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. For more information about the challenges and opportunities posed by born-digital material elsewhere in the Library, see the Digital Scholarship Blog and the extensive work of the Library's Digital Preservation Department.
I. Capturing a Moving Target
If you’re adjusting to working from home, look around your working area: maybe you have a home office or you’ve repurposed the dining table, or you're out in the garden. Did anyone in your team — when making the move — scramble to transport the filing cabinets or stacks of unsorted paper that had accumulated on their desks to their new workspace? If not, this is sufficient evidence that the way a lot of us work has radically changed; a platitude that doesn’t get less true with repetition. Your computer (and, more often than not, the network) has at least partially relegated or replaced the paper in your professional life with ‘Digital Objects’ — a useful but deceptively complex archival term — defined by the Society of American Archivists as, “a unit of information that includes properties (attributes or characteristics of the object) and may also include methods (means of performing operations on the object)”. If the word ‘object’ seems ontologically insufficient to carry such a definition, with its emphasis on process, relationship, and contingency, then this is part of the problem we’re facing. (Archivists — and traditional archival methodologies — have a clear (and often justified) tendency to fetishise permanence and fixity).
This shift towards the ‘digital’ is no less dramatic in the personal archives of the novelists, poets and playwrights collected by the Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts department at the Library, whose historical remit (c.1950-) traces the rapidly evolving landscape of personal computing in the latter half of the twentieth century and the explosion of the internet and social media, which is by no means complete, in the twenty-first. This shifting landscape means that, more often than not, we collect ‘hybrid’ archives comprised of traditional paper material and — depending on the donor’s enthusiasm for new forms of technology — a variety of digital formats, including floppy-disks, CD-ROMs, spinning hard-drives, USB sticks, and even laptop computers. Creative writers are, much more-so than institutions, academics and scientists, given to superstition and mysticism regarding the tools of their trade. Most are methodologically conservative and eager to link their ability to produce work to their idiosyncratic habits and tools. (On this blog, Chris Beckett’s discussion of Will Self’s use of post-it notes and typewriters in one of our most significant hybrid archives is an excellent case-study of how complex these interrelationships can become).
A double-sided Amsoft branded Compact floppy disk from the Archive of poet Wendy Cope, dated 1989.
What becomes apparent when attempting to capture, preserve, arrange and fix these ‘Digital Objects’ is that an undeniable materiality — often partially erased by the term ‘digital’ — is fundamental to their structure. The history of computing is a history of design miracles, both technical and aesthetic. Recovering a long-forgotten Word Perfect file from an Amstrad Floppy Disk is an archeological task, demanding attention to the structure and format of the data, its physical housing, and the software-codex able to make sense of it. Like a dig, it requires sensitive excavation equipment capable of moving the object without altering or destroying it. Similarly, capturing a hard-drive demands knowledge of how it reads, writes and stores data mechanically in order that when we act upon it we capture everything (including, interestingly, apparently empty space) and disturb as little as possible. (In a strange turn, archivists have learned to use software and hardware first developed by law-enforcement for these and other tasks).
A Kryoflux machine reads a 3.5” floppy disk using magnetic resonance technology to achieve a complete capture where possible, often helping us to recover partially-corrupted legacy data.
II. Representing exchange
Next to draft material, correspondence is another major component of the traditional literary archive. The movement from paper to digital has been just as pronounced in this area too, with e-mail becoming the dominant mode of communication for the vast majority of our donors. Unsurprisingly, the collection of e-mail archives presents its own challenges, both technical and curatorial. In much the same way that a letter might come to us within an envelope, an e-mail message is held within a machine-readable envelope — from which it is possible to glean similar kinds of data about sender, receiver, the path which the messaged travelled through on its journey from one to the other. All of this data must be preserved in order to retain the integrity of the archival collection, but much of it must also be withheld from public access for a significant period of time in order to comply with legal restrictions relating to the use of personal data.
A side by side metadata comparison of a letter and an e-mail. The envelope sent by Samuel Beckett to B.S. Johnson contains critical metadata about dates and receiver, as well as about the French post-offices through which the letter travelled before reaching Johnson. The e-mail metadata contains much of the same information (highlighted) in a machine-readable format.
As well as these technical challenges, the preservation and access provision for e-mail archives must take into account its threaded nature — its a conversation and so is not particularly amenable to the archival logic of ‘deliverable units' which guides our approach to paper manuscripts. Additionally, any robust archival process must consider e-mail's increased tendency to include rich media; including attachments such as word-processing files, images and sometimes even audiovisual material. The scale of the challenge for collecting institutions is huge. The largest e-mail archive held at the Library, (of the poet Wendy Cope, comprised of around 25,000 individual messages) contains everything from family correspondence, professional booking requests, draft revisions and shopping lists. Making sure that this material complies with data protection regulation in the UK before it is released is obviously a considerable task. Fortunately, software tools like ePadd, an e-mail archiving tool developed at Stanford University, exist to alleviate some of the issues; allowing us to filter and process messages more efficiently through the implementation of a tool-assisted approach.
ePadd’s user friendly interface allows curators to filter messages by correspondent, attachment and assign user-generated labels.
III. Managing Scale
Scale is a double-edged for born-digital literary archives. The growing size of these collections undoubtedly renders some established archival cataloguing techniques inadequate. Equally, as the the kinds of media stored on consumer-level storage devices become more complex, traditional techniques for information organisation and control become either too labour intensive or impossible to adapt to this new context. Nevertheless, the scale of structured metadata available for these new kinds of collection items allows us to explore new techniques for data visualisation and ‘enhanced curation’ in ways that would be impossible for more traditional archival collections.
Examples of how structured metadata can allow us to visualise and compile data in interesting ways using computing languages such as Python. The bar graph shows a time distribution for files in the Virago archive, with the 24 hour clock on the x axis and number of files on the y axis. The text describes some statistics and metrics for the same archive.
The processing, preservation and access provision for born digital literary archives is very much still an open field. The future is uncertain, but consequently still very exciting. Although there are many challenges ahead, if we are willing and able to leverage the technology, there are innumerable new discoveries to be made about the collections we hold, some of which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago. In this way, our driving motivation for born-digital is no different than it is for paper -- to preserve, interpret and provide access to our collections for the inspiration and enjoyment of everyone.
English and Drama blog recent posts
- Birds, Bees and Waste in Christina Rossetti’s Nature Poetry
- Celebrating New Poetry Pamphlets: The Michael Marks Awards 2020
- The Manuscripts of Thomas Chatterton
- William Wordsworth: From This Green Earth
- Ted Hughes: A 90th Birthday Celebration
- New Blog Season: Anti-Racism and Excellence in Our Collections and Beyond, editor's comments
- “To Mr Pope att Button’s Coffee House”: translating Homer on scraps
- Born-digital Literary Archives — How We’re Capturing the Future
- Call for Papers -- Creative Activism Now!: Andrew Salkey and Today’s Diasporic Cultural Networks
- Andrew Salkey: A Man of Many Hats