All posts by Carmen Faye Mathes

Carmen Faye Mathes is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. Carmen studies Romantic aesthetics and the poetry of expressive let-down in William Wordsworth, Keats, Hölderlin and Goethe. Her dissertation asks how disappointing poetry reflects or responds to principles of aesthetic apprehension in Romantic-era Britain and Germany. Carmen's blog, the academic romantic, is a rich resource and features interviews with contemporary Canadian poets.

On the Secondary Source That Changed My Approach to Teaching Keats

In 2002, Charles Rzepka published a paper that brings critical attention to the footnote usually attached to John Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”:

Keats’s mentor Charles Cowden Clarke introduced him to Homer in the robust translation of the Elizabethan poet George Chapman. They read through the night, and Keats walked home at dawn. This sonnet reached Clarke by the ten o’clock mail that same morning. It was Balboa, not Cortez, who caught first sight of the Pacific from the heights of Darien, in Panama, but none of Keats’s contemporaries noticed the error.

Rzepka quotes the Norton Anthology’s 7th edition. I’ve got the 9th handy: it says essentially the same thing. Interestingly, when I taught the poem two weeks ago with reference to Rzepka’s paper, one of my students noted that her 8th edition of Norton mentions that the error is contested. It mentions this in the very footnote that makes the error known. Why did Norton drop this equivocation in the 9th?

In his paper[1] Rzepka hones in on the supposed mistake, Cortez for Balboa, and proceeds to argue thoroughly and convincingly that it matters not whether Keats was mistaken. What matters is whether or not the poet meant to be mistaken, and if so why.

I admire many things about this paper, not least of which is the extreme practicality of its form and subject. It is pragmatic, accessible and applicable not just to the poem, or to Keats’s biography, or for readers, critics, and editors, but for our pedagogies. Rzepka has written a paper for teachers. That is, for us.

Why does it feel so singular to read a rigorous article that takes into account scholarly tradition, literary and cultural history, as well as critical debates, and still speaks for the right now? It’s not that the paper employs some presentism or anachronistic import about proto-neuro-psycho-something-or-other. It doesn’t claim to discuss Truth or Beauty or Nature or Man. No such thing. Rzepka’s paper asks that we entertain the idea that:

“Once we [stop reading “Cortez” as a mistake], we will see that the Darien tableau in which Keats has placed his belated conquistador brilliantly underscores the poignant theme, announced in the very title of his sonnet, of the belatedness of the poet’s own sublime ambitions” (39).

It’s a paper about the idea of interpretation, which offers an interpretation of Keats’s interpretive moves. Rzepka says that grappling with this issue “deserves to be taken seriously by every editor of Keats and every student of the ‘Chapman’s Homer’ sonnet” (38). It’s a paper you can take to class with you. And I will, and did.

As the final class in a week of lectures on Romantic Aesthetics, I taught the sonnet with these questions in mind:

Once your perception of an event or text is reoriented, can you ever see the text without some part of that perceptual shift remaining? Even if you refuse the new information, or even refuse to believe the shift occurred? Is Cortez always a mistake, even if you choose not to think so?

I had the intention of having the class interpret their interpretations, or to re-interpret the usual, received interpretations, of Keats’s sonnet and some of the well-known, often taught Odes. I am sure most of them read “Ode to a Grecian Urn” in high school or first year.

Over the course of the class I gave away biographical hints about Keats and historical clues about the Romantic period, something like this:

How would your perception of “Chapman’s Homer” change if you knew the following:

  • Keats’s habits of study at Enfield were “most orderly,” according to Clarke, “[Keats] must have…exhausted the school library, which consisted principally of abridgements of all the voyages and travels of any note” (Rzepka 140).
  • Keats owned the book in which Bonnycastle describes Herschel’s original discovery of Uranus (Andrew Motion, Keats, 1997).
  • Keats once fought a butcher’s boy for bullying a kitten (Andrew Motion, Keats, 1997).

And this culminated in putting them into groups and passing out excerpts from Keats’s letters. Each group had to read their poem through the excerpt; they had to bring the biographical to bear on the poem in a way that would change the class’ perception of the poem.

It was totally illuminating—such a storm of brains! And the students’ realization that their interpretive power could be used to read the poems charitably or not, seemed to give their efforts that critical self-consciousness that Keats, himself, so utterly possessed.

[1] Charles Rzepka, “Cortez: Or Balboa, or Somebody like That”: Form, Fact, and Forgetting in Keats’s ‘Chapman’s Homer’ Sonnet, in Keats-Shelley Journal. 51. (2002): 35-75.

On Work-Life Balance

I forgot about September like good food forgets about butter. Oh, it was there. Wouldn’t have been good otherwise. I just didn’t notice how delightful it was until it’s gone. Now I’m craving late summer warmth and autumnal beginning-of-the-school-year hopefulness and its over, carried away by Rocky Mountain snowcaps and rapidly diminishing morning sunlight.

Suddenly all my friends and students have the sniffles. I’m baking pumpkin muffins, drinking echinacea tea, and writing wrapped in a huge cable-knit sweater. I’m writing a chapter-like thing! And I’m beginning to realize that this is what you do when you are ABD: you bemoan the loss of time even as you court it, love it, snuggle up to it. What was once about work-life balance becomes about carving out time to write, every day, all the time. To knit a dissertation in great loops and tiny pearls before the season for your topic runs out. Golden, delicious, ephemeral season.

I received an email from a PhD friend the other day, the gorgeous and talented Myra. “What I would really like to be doing,” she says, “is holing up in my ivory tower spinning my little web. But alas, the web is sadly lacking in filaments these days.” This is followed by a truth, which is universally recognized: “I feel walloped by scheduling newness.” The adjustment into responsibility-laden school-year zone, with TAships and grant applications and office hours and organizing conference plans for next summer already. My dayplanner is like Whack-a-mole, just filled with lists and charts and little empty boxes waiting to be checked off. Walloping responsibilities.

I don’t have any advice, or plans for future improvement, or life-altering conclusions to make from all of this. Do you, gentle blog-reader, have some advice for me? I can only to say that these feelings—my feelings, our feelings, if you feel similarly—are corroborated, understood, empathized with. At least by my Myra. And that’s enough for me.

Reflections on NASSR 2012

I’m on the train, heading in the direction of Germany, with Lake Neuchâtel slipping by in gray-blue early morning light. The experience of “Romantic Prospects” has been saturated by landscape. From the window of our student housing accommodation each morning the Swiss Alps marched sharply around the lake, appearing to advance and retreat with the shimmering heat. Last night at the closing dinner, held at the picturesque house in which once Rousseau lived, rows of verdant grapevines crawl up steep slopes and crumbling stone-walls demarcate historical pathways. I watched swallows like scraps of silver wheel in flight.

I won’t pretend that this is a comprehensive overview of the conference because in actual fact it’s quite personal and particular. I attended many sessions, and I even chaired one for the first time. Of the sessions I attended, the conversations, debates and experiences I had, and the people I met, the very best part was prospective: thinking about a future filled with more conversation, debate, learning, language and poetry. A romantic prospect, to be sure.

Best represented at NASSR 2012 were the fields Digital Humanities, Book History, and German Romanticism, though it seemed the most popular sessions were DH and Book History. Beginning with the DH Workshop on the first day, the idea of books containing “data” (words) to be text-mined and topic-modeled took hold of many of our imaginations. The general mood about DH seemed both skeptical and intrigued, with many scholars having already implemented these fairly new (to the study of the humanities, anyway) technologies in their research.

DH also has major pedagogical implications. Using DH as a teaching tool, according to Neil Fraistat, “won’t be optional in the next 10-15 years.” Probably sooner, I’d say, as class blogs become more commonplace and Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps and Trees (required reading) has launched a generation of graduate students interested in “distant reading.”

The words “Book History” appeared in the title of three different sessions and the topic was a major theme in many more. From a special session organized by Alex Dick and Nicholas Halmi about “Textual Prospects: Poetry, Bibliography, and Book History,” to the “Prospects for Book History” panels 1 and 2, and evident in panels on Media Studies, “Varieties of the Novel,” and Genre Theory, the study of books as historical objects has truly permeated Romantic scholarship. Taken over, perhaps. I was interested to see how the broadening of the definition of “books” has lead to the inclusion of scrapbooks, collections of letters, keepsakes and “Books in Pieces” as Michael Macovski puts it, under the auspices of Book History. Thus the physical manipulation of books (with scissors, as Deirdre Lynch illustrated) played an important role in this conference, by providing insight into the Romantic-era readers, writers, and literary participants.

Books as nooks took center stage after Robert Darnton’s plenary lecture, “Blogging: Now and Then,” in which he illustrated the ways in which scraps of information embed themselves in the cracks and crannies opened up by communications technologies. Darnton described how printed information in the early modern and Romantic periods created places to organize their fragmentary materials—such as in the tell-all books about public figures’ private lives, in early newspapers, and in the scandalous dailies. You can read my live-blogging during the reactions and responses seminar to Darnton’s lecture HERE.

German Romanticism was also represented in multiple specific sessions. My own special research interest, the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, got more attention than is usual in North American conferences and in fact, the special session on Hölderlins Ströme (Hölderlin’s Rivers), organized by the Bernhard Böschenstein was completely German-language. I don’t know if non-English panels have been done before at NASSR, but it was a fitting addition to the conference’s Swiss iteration. In addition, on the panel I chaired, I very much enjoyed Elena Pnevmonidou’s paper on Hölderlin’s Hyperion and questions of language, landscape and the body.

Overall, the two academic experiences that stood out for me at NASSR 2012 were the “Romantic Media Studies” session and Thomas Pfau’s seminar “After Sentimentalism: Liberalism and the Discontents of Modern Autonomy.”

For “Romantic Media Studies,” Lauren Neefe from SUNY Stony Brook read her paper “General Indistressible: Towards a Theory of Romantic Epistolarity,” with charm, panache and sharp insight. Her paper was fascinating and her dissertation sounds even more so. Yohei Igarashi from Colgate University discussed DH pedagogies alongside ideas of Romantic perception in his timely presentation, and Celeste Langan brought an inspired reading of the efficacy of news reports in her paper “The Future of Propaganda.” This session stood out for me because it both recognized the materiality of books (in the broad sense described above) and treated texts as particular sites for close reading and critique. I found Lauren’s characterization of Coleridge’s letter to himself in the Biographica Literaria to be unique as well as creative of openings in which more questions, more avenues for investigation, and more texts to read and re-read arose. I have so many excitedly scribbled notes from that session.

Thomas Pfau’s special session was so necessary and deserves the highest praise. It was totally en point, the kind of session that is a call for change, a meta-analysis of the state not only of Romantic scholarship but of our most pressing current philosophical and political issues, and that makes a strong argument for more wide-ranging, philosophically-sophisticated and responsible. To complain of Romantic scholarship’s irrelevance to practical contemporary concerns is not to have read Pfau.

The sun is now past noon. We’ve already sped through the Black Forest and the landscape is flattening out, dotted with farms and polka-dot Austrian flower boxes. I’m left with a feeling of satisfaction and fatigue, as well as a deep gratitude for the conference organizers, Angela Esterhammer of the University of Zürich (soon to be of the University of Toronto) and Patrick Vincent of the University of Neuchâtel. Merci beaucoup, Vielen Dank, and thanks.

Practical and Not-So-Practical Tips for Getting into Switzerland

In the last five months I’ve been to Switzerland at least ten times, maybe more. The Swiss border lies so close to Konstanz that it’s possible to buy an ice cream in Germany and enjoy eating it on a Swiss part of the lakeshore. This proximity leads to an interesting relationship between the Germans of Konstanz and the Swiss of Kreuzlingen and the other surrounding villages, one in which the buying power of the Swiss Franc against the Euro plays a major part. Everywhere around the Bodensee there are Swiss people spending and German people—here I am thinking of one example in particular, my first German instructor—bicycling across the border to make a little extra money.

I sense no resentment from either side, and in fact each side seems self-possessed and untroubled. Perhaps both the result and cause of this tranquility is the fact that the border goes largely (in my experience totally) unattended, unguarded, unobserved. I have walked into Switzerland, bicycled into Switzerland, driven a car into Switzerland, ridden a train into Switzerland, but I have never, not even once, had my passport checked going into Switzerland.

That was the not-so-practical part of this post. Now, for some ideas you might actually employ if you are attending NASSR 2012 in Neuchâtel…

SwissBahn, or the Swiss train and transit system, is expensive. Too expensive, I firmly believe. Nevertheless, a few things to know:

1. Buy a half-fare card. The half-fare card lets you pay half of the normal price for all travel using train, bus, boat, (some) gondolas, funiculars and mountain trains (this is Switzerland, after all). The card is good for a month, so plan your travel accordingly.

2. Never buy food on the train. The trains are lovely—so lovely—for having a snack of cheese and bread and watching the countryside flow by. And this loveliness increases when you’ve purchased your snacks at a grocery store, because €3,50 for a bottle of water does not a happy traveller make.

3. Use the toilet on the train. The toilets on the trains look space age and are fairly clean, so there’s no need to wait until you get to the station where you will inevitably be paying to use a public toilet.

4. Print your ticket. This does not apply if you purchase tickets at the station, because they will of course give those to you then and there. If you have purchased your ticket online, however, you will need a hardcopy on hand, as well as the credit card with which you booked the ticket.

5. Be there early: because your train will leave on time.

On Being Yourself in Another Language

The first day of language class our instructor asked us to say, in German, one positive and one negative thing about ourselves. There were about ten people in the class, and we went around in a circle answering the question. I was nervous. When it got to be my turn, I said, as a positive thing, that I am “kreativ” (which is basically English, let’s be honest) and, because the only negative adjective in German that I could think of in that moment was “faul,” which means lazy, I said that.

At that point onward, I felt my classmates had misconstrued some basic part of myself. From the three beautiful Swedes in the corner to our teacher, the ex-feminist ex-hippy from Berlin, they all looked at me like I was suddenly an artistic layabout: as anti-German as one could get, given the state of the EU’s economy at the moment.

So let’s be clear: I am not lazy. I am so far from being lazy, that I de-skin tomatoes before making pasta sauce. That I whip whipped-cream by hand. So not lazy, in fact, that I have been known to bicycle to Switzerland to buy cheese. But there it was. Faced with a dearth of vocabulary for the first time in my life, I’d created this negative space, which I felt destined to inhabit for the rest of the language class.

I’ve since worked it out. Now I have a much larger German vocabulary to draw upon and, more importantly, now I am much calmer in German-speaking scenarios. This means the words come to mind without the heart-pounding effort I experienced in that first classroom. I can try and think around the problem of self-expression and find a way to say what I mean, even if it sounds awkward and more complex than it needs to be. It’s a struggle and also kind of freeing. Ich traue mich zu probieren. (I dare myself to try). The result of this kind of work is that I am beginning to know just how hard it is and must be, really, to get at the heart of something in translation.

For one chapter of my dissertation, I am reading Friedrich Hölderlin’s poems and fragments; I think Hölderlin’s complicated, brittle elegies are fascinating. At the University of Konstanz, where I am currently on exchange, I have been meeting about every second Monday morning with Ulrich Gaier, Professor Emeritus and President of the Hölderlin Society.

Here is a synopsis of our relationship: I send him my ideas (which are largely based on translations and heavily influenced by English-language scholarship which may or may not also be in translation) and then we talk about the extent to which my resulting conclusions are mediated by the word choices of translators, are misconstrued derivations of certain words that I take to mean one thing but that, in German, have totally different connotations, or are unmoored from Hölderlin’s poetic tempo because I’ve missed the implied caesura between accented syllables in the German original (that was yesterday).

Professor Gaier’s immense generosity and insight are unmatched. I am so thankful that he is willing to spend time with me thinking about these issues; his big-heartedness has made this time in Germany so valuable and generative. And incredibly, I have found that from this discourse about what is lost in translation there has arisen one the most incredible things: an experience of being more completely myself. When you are truly out of your element, the impulse to take risks is not undermined by expectations of what you “should” be doing. The question you want to ask is the question you do ask, silly or no. Being yourself in another language: ich traue mich zu probieren.

Some Light Relief, or: Richardson’s Pamela is an Au Pair in 2012

It’s May! And that means that a lot of us academics are taking a deep, post-end-of-term-marking breath, and treating ourselves to the smallest of little vacations… a mini-vaycay, a staycation, an excursion, or what I have recently learned Germans call an Ausflug. In keeping with the theme of respite, here is a little light relief in the form of a pleasant comic fiction. Enjoy!

Richardson’s Pamela is an Au Pair in 2012;

or, Virtue Confounded.

In a Series of Letters
from a Hip Young Beauty, To her Parents.
Now first Published
In order to cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Moral Uncertainty
In the Youth of Both Sexes


Dear Mom and Dad,

Seriously bad news: the old lady who owns this joint just bit the dust. I’m getting transferred, and I don’t know if there’ll be a wifi connection at the new house, so hang tight. I can Facebook you from my Blackberry at Starbucks.

Your Dutiful Daughter,

Pamela Andrews


"A Moment" by Vancouver artist Drew Young

Dear Mom and Dad,

As I was closing my laptop, the son of the old lady walks into my room unannounced and scares the %^&* out of me. He’s a total creeper. Must be pushing 40. He just stood there looking at me and smiling. What a weirdo.

Peace Out,



Dear Mom (just between us),

The creepy son, Mr. B, offered to keep me on for DOUBLE the wages. AND he gave me a gift card for Victoria’s Secret. What should I do?



P.S. Can you top up my Vi$a? I miss spending quality time with you, and like, shopping. You are the greatest Mom ever : )


Dear Mom and Dad,

Mom, your letter made me feel way better about staying. You are right, money doesn’t grow on trees.

Mr. B treats me really well. He gave me some of the old lady’s clothes. VINTAGE cha-CHING! I got 3 pairs of high-waisted dress pants, 4 silk tops with totally retro gold buttons, 1 excellent Valentino dress that I might sell on eBay, 2 cashmere scarves, and Chanel sunglasses. The old lady was RICH. Now I guess it all belongs to Mr. B. …LUCKY!

Your Dutiful Daughter,

Pam xoxox


Dear Mom (don’t tell Dad, okay??)

Mr. B was totally hitting on me just like, two seconds ago, when I was walking down the hallway to find a dustpan. He told me I was the most beauteous creature to ever walk the earth, and my eyes were the pillars against which men might build their lives, which I don’t really get but whatevs. Creeper!

Oh em gee.



More from Drew Young

Dear Mom,

He kissed me! It just happened!

[This message has been sent via Facebook Mobile]

Your truly shocked daughter,



Dear Mom,

So I was like, OVER the whole thing, because I screamed, and then he kinda yelled, and then I cried, and he gave me permission to never speak to him again, plus he gave me $500 cash, and some new earrings, but THEN. OMG. Then, I was in my room getting ready for bed and I can hear some weird-ass noises coming from the closet. So I open the door and it’s HIM. He’s in MY CLOSET. So I scream some more, and he’s like, “don’t worry, it’s no problem, it’s no problem.” So I was like %^&* you and told him I QUIT.

So there.


Me, Pamela.


Dear Mom,

I can never forgive him for being SO WEIRD, but he has increased my salary and promised I can give notice after the holidays are over. So…

Virtue safe!




Dear Mom,

OMFG I think Mr. B wants to sleep with me. WTF.




Dear Mom,

If you don’t know what those abbreviations stand for, I can’t tell you.




Dear Mom,

Today Mr. B came into my room while I was listening to Grizzly Bear and reading Nylon, pinned me to the bed and started kissing me all over my face and neck and I was like, “Back off you Pedophile!” And he was like, “You cannot hold on to your virtue forever! One day, you MUST give yourself up, and because I find you extremely attractive and I have more money than you, it should be to me!” And then he started to unbutton my shirt, and it was kind of hot, but I knew better, because of what happened to the blonde chick on Gossip Girl, so I screamed, “My virtue is all that I have!” And with superhuman strength I threw him off me, ran downstairs, and phoned child protective services.

I’m gonna sue the bastard for all he’s got!

Marriage is for L-O-S-E-R-S,



On Creature Comforts

my fav ex-gymnast's kitty kat

James Harriet calls cats the “connoisseurs of comfort,” which is perhaps why so many academics are cat-lovers. Like having Of Grammatology on your nightstand, having a cat close at hand reminds you what it would be like to move through the world expressing yourself utterly as you see fit.

There is an inverse relationship between the size and comfort of one’s desk and the size of one’s research topic. When learning about, say, the entire political spectrum of Western Europe, you sit in a lecture hall in a tiny, left-handed desk at the end of the row, with schoolbag and jacket mashed underfoot, drinking scalding Starbucks from a paper cup clutched between your knees, which is surely leaving red marks on the insides of your thighs. The desk space is more suitable as an elbow rest. The chair seems to have been designed for torture. Even the professor looks uncomfortable, hiding up there behind the lectern. So, as the history of radical political change sweeps by you on power point slides, and the impossibility of note-taking becomes more and more apparent, you are likely to sigh and hope the information will be made available online. This is the plight of the undergrad. To be cramped, to be physically uncomfortable, to be held in check by what Althusser would recognize as the regulatory organization of classroom chairs which all face forward so that we must rub up against our peers but never look at them.

On the other hand, grad students—individuals whose educational spectrum has narrowed over the course of many years to a pinpoint (pinnacle?) of specific research interests—do not fit in tiny desks. We think tiny desks are bullshit. Grad students tackle the necessity of study-surfaces in one of two ways: either we dispense with desks altogether, bringing our MacBooks to coffee shops, where, for the price of a caramel macchiato we spend the afternoon balancing our research on our thighs; or, we take over large surfaces like kitchen tables and those long study-benches in the library, of which we require at least two-people’s-worth of length. In order to craft our tiny, complex arguments about the relationship of enthusiasm to the impotence of language in Hölderlin’s Hyperion (oh, wait, that’s just me), we require at least six books of literary criticism to be spread about us. We need our binders of photocopied articles close at hand. It is absolutely necessary that the fridge/our book bags be filled with snacks, and that the coffee maker be either warming up, actively brewing coffee, or keeping fresh coffee warm and at the ready. We require, in other words, all our creature comforts to be on hand.

Yet comfort is a fickle, tricksy feline. As soon as you think you’ve got her figured out, that little, Puritanical voice inside your head (the one that is terrified that you will never finish your dissertation, never get a job, never really be a success as an academic) notices how cozy you are and admonishes you, reminds you not to get too comfortable.

“Don’t get too comfortable!” With a self-indulgent little chortle, those exact words slid through my consciousness this morning. But what does that even mean, I asked myself. Is that some kind of a threat? Is my comfort impinging on anyone else’s comfort? Is there a limited amount of comfort in the world? Is there not enough to go around? DOES COMFORT NEED A BAIL OUT? Probably. Unlike money, however, I don’t believe comfort can be created out of thin air. Mein Gott! A small tangent, forgive me. What I was meaning to say is that even though I do everything in my power to create a life of ease and aesthetically pleasing coziness, I have this deep-rooted suspicion of comfort. Perhaps it’s too petite bourgeois, a bit too middle class. An aristocrat takes comfort for granted and seeks instead passion, adventure, intensity; he goes hunting for lions and some such, while the rest of us seek apartments with good central heating and a bowl of gourmet mac and cheese (gouda). Mostly, however, my suspicion of comfort arises from the fact that I make a direct correlation between comfort and productivity, which is to say that I fear that if I get too comfortable I will cease to produce scholarly work. This is why I need TAships and a (couple of) part-time job(s): just to keep me running around enough to make true comfort impossible.

Cats are comfortable because they refuse to be otherwise. But then again, they are also cats, and as Christopher Hitchens so aptly notes,

“Owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are gods.”

Finally, from this I take comfort. Comfort in the fact that I am neither a hopelessly naïve pup nor a sociopathic kitten, and will undeniably and reliably always return to the research at hand.

On Being Exchanged

“Is it okay?” asks the German waitress who’s just served me sparkling water (1.70 €) instead of tap water. Of course it’s okay! By all means, take my change in Euros while I negotiate my personal existential crisis with regards to the gold standard of higher education.

What am I doing here? Cloistered in an undergraduate student dorm room I’m subletting from a French teenager, drinking instant coffee from a chipped mug advertising Nescafe, picking through a bag of museli for nutrients; I’m grumpy, jet-lagged, and have gotten none of my own work done since I arrived. Skype has replaced Facebook as my most-clicked icon, and I check my email obsessively. After three years of extreme joy living in Vancouver as a vibrant social being, I’m taking to my hermitage with a paradoxical kind of self-indulgent gusto. Everything, and I mean everything, is grounds for the most Harley-esque sentimental tears. I recognize that this is ridiculous.

Why did it happen? Months ago, more than a year ago in fact, when my supervisor offered up the experience of doing research in Germany as something that would aid my studies, it sounded like the ideal adventure. First, Romantic Aesthetics is the backbone of my dissertation. Investigations into formal lowering (or what I’m framing as the poetry of expressive letdown) in Hölderlin and Goethe comprise one half of my chapters. (The other half looks at Keats and Wordsworth). Second, I love Germany and Germanic culture. I even love German, which gets lambasted for not being such a romantic-sounding language as French or Italian. Finally, moving to Germany for six months kick-started a couple of personal goals I’d been thinking about passively for years: obtaining my Austrian citizenship and EU passport.

What does it all mean? To be “on exchange” begs the question, for what? For what have I exchanged one living situation for another? For an education, for an experience, for some privileged form of self-improvement, perhaps. To be exchanged brings to mind transactions, negotiations, and currencies; trades, loans, and valuations of all sorts; currents of people circling the globe like so many over-caffeinated commodities. In which case, perhaps it is not my living situation that has been exchanged but me. Baby Scholar AbroadTM, complete with laptop and moleskin. To act completely self-indulgent, as I’m currently doing, is to evacuate myself of any agency in this situation and blame the trade winds of academia for my having landed here.

Yet, this melancholy state is also a creative one, and it’s reminding me of something important that I’d been forgetting—something that I think remains at the forefront of the European mindset—which is that being uncomfortable keeps you alert. Living in cramped quarters, brushing up against people from all over the Continent and, at least in the University dorms, from all over the world, and trying to communicate across languages and cultures… all these day-to-day challenges disallow complacency. In Vancouver I’m very busy but I’m also very comfortable. Here, I’m getting lost, accidentally buying expensive sparkling water, communicating very poorly, problem-solving, learning, and busy as usual, which seems paradoxically to reinforce my belief that there is always enough time, that patience is more important than expedience, and that fidelity to the work will lead to its completion, so there’s no need to rush.

I’ve been here in Konstanz a week, and I’ll be here for many more.


About: Carmen Faye Mathes is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. Carmen studies Romantic aesthetics and the poetry of expressive let-down in William Wordsworth, Keats, Hölderlin and Goethe. Her dissertation asks how disappointing poetry reflects or responds to principles of aesthetic apprehension in Romantic-era Britain and Germany.

Carmen’s blog, the academic romantic, is a rich resource and features interviews with contemporary Canadian poets.