I submitted final grades on Friday, and after granting myself a long weekend to relax (i.e. clean my house and sleep a full 8 hours each night), I am settling into my summer. I am on fellowship for the next year, and without teaching responsibilities, I am writing full time. But, I do have travel plans to punctuate the summer slog and give me much needed inspiration and respite. Like many of you, I have NASSR in Winnipeg this August, where I get to see friends, colleagues, and scholar-idols. But what’s foremost on my radar is the History of Distributed Cognition Workshop in Edinburgh next month.
As I have mentioned before, I have the pleasure of participating in this workshop at the University of Edinburgh to discuss and refine my chapter on Keats’s and Wordsworth’s contrasting visions of embodied reading. The workshop is only three days, but I’ve decided to stay abroad for a week. Initially, I toyed with the idea of traveling south after the workshop. My heart is and always will be in London, and I’m very comfortable traveling around England. I’ve been there often enough to feel a pseudo-mastery of navigating the country, and by now, I feel it’s my second home.
But, to play safe and travel south would be cheating. I’ve never spent more than a weekend in Scotland, and I’ve never been outside of Edinburgh, except to get off the tour bus for a photo op beside a “Welcome to Scotland” highway sign.
So, I opted to stay and give the Celtic fringe a proper chance. Aside from climbing Arthur’s Seat, going on a literary pub crawl, and having tea here, I have also scheduled day trips to the Highlands, Loch Ness, and Glasgow. I’m determined to do Scotland justice!
What I’m most excited for, however, is not a day trip out of Edinburgh, but a lecture on Robert Burns. Coincidentally, the University of Kansas’s British Summer Institute, a study abroad program for 25 or so undergraduate scholars of British culture, will be in Scotland at the same time as I am. The director of this program, Dr. Mary Klayder, and I sat down to talk all things British and all things teaching Brit Lit over a couple glasses of wine. Without much effort, she hooked me into attending a special presentation on Burns arranged every year for the students. What I have come to expect as a life-changing experience of poetry performance is generously provided by a woman named Betty Kirkpatrick. Writer and lexicographer, Kirkpatrick is a verified expert on language. Her biographical blurb on the Caledonian Mercury reads:
Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine. She is a former columnist of the Herald.
Here is a fantastic series she publishes through the Caledonian Mercury titled, “Useful Scots Words,” for a little taste of her work.
Now I know very little of Burns, except what I’ve learned through Keats. Keats somewhat famously goes on a walking tour of Scotland with his friend Charles Armitage Brown in the summer of 1818. Often this anecdote is told through the lens of Keats’s death: he develops a cough from their rough fare and the inhospitable traveling conditions and has to leave the tour early, returning home to Hampstead and never fully recovering. Generally, scholars accept this as the beginning of the end for the consumptive Keats. Yet, I am most interested in Keats’s reading at the time of the tour.
Keats always traveled with a lot of books, and aside from Shakespeare, who he took almost everywhere, his traveling companions often included Milton and Chaucer. And companions are indeed how he envisions his relationship with the authors, a point my dissertation seeks to make –how immersive reading practices simulate the affect circulation of social situations. In Scotland, Keats identifies keenly with Robert Burns, a poet with whom he had little intimacy before the walking tour.
Doing a little research into connections between Keats and Burns, I came across a short article in the Keats-Shelley Review about language. A.D. Harvey chooses to discuss Burns’s language through Wordsworth whose declarations for native language seem most in line with the Scottish poet’s linguistic practices. And yet, like many Romantic scholars, Harvey notes the lack of dialect in Wordsworth’s own poems despite his apparent commitment to dialect poets such as Robert Anderson of Cumberland (for whose book, Wordsworth donates subscription). Harvey writes, “Wordsworth did, however, possess a copy of the 1793 edition of Burns’s poems, with English equivalents written in the margins ‘In the hand-writing of my dear Sister’, and he claimed that ‘Familiarity with the dialect of the border counties of Cumberland and Westmorland made it easy for me not only to understand [Burns’s poems] but to feel them’” (118). This distinction between comprehension and affect is of course very interesting to me. The poet’s use of “familiarity” here underscores the social context of affective reading experiences. Comprehension of language is a lower-order experience than the emotional connection implied by “feeling” a poem.
But what of Keats’s own response to Burns? I will zero-in on a single, serendipitous excerpt from a letter written to John Hamilton Reynolds, dated 3 May 1818: “for axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses: we read fine things but never feel them to the full until we have gone the same steps as the Author.” This quotation precedes the “Chamber of Maiden Thought” passage so often cited, and it responds to Wordsworth’s achievements in human passions when compared with Milton. Interestingly, he makes the same distinction between reading and feeling seen from Wordsworth. Focusing on language comprehension (axioms), Keats states with a confident flourish that characterizes his letters to friends and family, feeling is Truth because it has been proven upon the pulses. Feeling, then, is a form of embodied reading, enabled by a sympathetic imagination, or walking, sometimes literally, in the same steps as Burns, as Wordsworth, Milton, Shakespeare, and Chaucer.
I think this is the experience of poetry my friend sets in motion for her students every year on the British Summer Institute–a tour abroad that enables connection in human experience across time and space, through the medium of language. The students feel the poetry (or novels, or drama, or visual art) as they walk around London, Oxford, Bath, Edinburgh, the Highlands. And what an opportunity to hear dialect poetry revived from a Scots language expert!
Paired together, reading and traveling (for our Romantics, reading and walking) are still perhaps the most effective formula for life-changing experience. I wish you all a summer filled with much of both.
Harvey, A. D. “Keats, Wordsworth, Burns and the Real Language of Men.” Keats-Shelley Review 21 (2007): 115-21.