I recently took a class in post-colonialism which was subtitled “Place and Space in Contemporary Anglo-American Literatures.” The professor wanted us to think like real estate agents: that is, to always be repeating the mantra “location, location, location” as we read various contemporary texts. One of the novels we read for class was V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, the autobiographical story of a Trinidadian writer who retires to the English countryside in Wiltshire, living in a guest cottage on the edge of a manor that has fallen into disrepair.
Naipaul spends much of the novel reflecting on what it means to arrive in a new place and learn to live there. He finds that his experience of rural England diverges from his expectations of country life, which had been gleaned through a literary education strongly influenced by works of British Romanticism.
Since reading this book, and in truth, probably even before that, I have been thinking about what it means – or, as the professor of that class liked to say, where it means – to read British Romanticism as a literature invested in particular places. What is the connection between a poem like “Adventures on Salisbury Plain,” for example, and the real Salisbury Plain? Do we need to have an intimate knowledge of rural England to appreciate the lyrical Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Clare? Does knowing the history of political thought and literary trends and a few things about the artistic and cultural climate of the period give us the necessary equipage to read the Romantics? More generally, does a poem reach into the Earth in some way?
As an American student of British Romanticism; or, probably more accurately, as an American reader of British Romantic poetry, with an enthusiasm for these writings that is admittedly nonrational, I had never felt as if there was anything in particular that was being denied to me in experiencing them as texts, just because I had never been to England. But when I started to take a greater interest in “the Romantics” as a vaguely defined group of creative humans, when I read Holmes’ Coleridge or John Worthen’s The Gang, it was hard, less to see my experiences retroactively as filled with gaps, but not to feel as if the physical components of the lives that produced these texts were just as fascinating as the texts themselves.
And sure enough, this past summer I found myself in England with a BritRail SouthWest pass and a rented room above a pub in Templecombe, two hours from London, two hours from Bristol, and about twenty minutes away from all the Coleridge country you could shake a walking stick at. It was June and then it was July, and, in between unexpected rainstorms, the weather conspired to create beautiful prospects. The “green world” of my dim half-imagining which was one of my first great loves in life was really there! Though, sometimes leaving the path to chart a field along side of a rock wall, or tramping over one of the old public bridleways (which was a word I learned at the moment I encountered the thing itself), I would find that I had stumbled into someone’s private enclosure.
I am still reflecting on the month I spent in Somerset county. I traveled around somewhat randomly, yet tried to keep a mental map of where I had been, like coloring in a picture of something hopefully solid; you keep the lines close together to hide the blank slate beneath, as if it had never been there. But I was sure to visit Ottery St. Mary, the birthplace of Coleridge; and I went to St. Mary, the parish church where his father John was the rector, and stood in the graveyard, where the Friends of Ottery St. Mary plan to erect a statue of the (very) young Coleridge. I stayed at the Tumbling Weir, a seventeenth-century style hotel, named for the weir behind the old wool factory said to have launched the town into the industrial revolution. When I arrived in England, there was history which had to be cleared from history to see the environs of Romantic literature. But even to recollect for a moment that it was the “same” place was, again, too magnificent to be understood all at once.
The question remains open, where do we go when we read a poem? But in the interest of closure, I can say that I do not think, after having been to England, been a tourist, yes, but still been there, and walked in some of those places, that I could read at least a few of the poems again and not feel subtly different toward them, even if this difference would have come about regardless of my perambulations. There is something to it.