‘STC 2018’: The Friends of Coleridge Biennial Summer Conference – report by Justin Shepherd

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Even without the astonishing, almost North African, heat and light of the first three days, there were some obvious strengths of Jesus as a venue. The accommodation was all of a high standard, the support staff were numerous and very professional, the food good and, in the evenings, excellent. More importantly, the auditoriums were all one would expect from a major institution of learning, and the bar and terrace encouraged the collegiate atmosphere for which this conference is renowned. The only major downside was the need to have parallel panels as a result of the numbers attending in combination with the shortening of the conference to keep costs down.

Some eighty delegates attended, more than a third of whom were from overseas. Europe was well represented, including delegates from Germany, Switzerland, Hungary and Spain. Numerous old friends and new faces came over from North America, with Asia and Australasia also making significant contributions. I would like to thank them all for the, sometimes, very considerable effort they made to be there. In a conference of this size every single delegate makes an important contribution to the atmosphere and has the opportunity to talk to anyone and everyone.
More than sixty academic papers were delivered, along with two substantial keynote papers. There was a poetry reading, given by two distinguished and long standing Friends, Peter Larkin and Greg Leadbetter; a formal awarding at a wine reception of the first John Beer Bursary to Kurtis Hessell, a young American scholar from Colerado; a presentation on behalf of the Coleridge Memorial Trust given by members of the Coleridge family, and several outings, including a punt trip and one to the Fitzwilliam Museum for a private viewing of some of the Blake books in the Geoffrey Keynes collection.

The parallel panels meant that no one person, however conscientious, could have attended more than about a third of the papers, so it would be invidious to try summarise or characterise the entire academic programme. However, the programming was very skilfully managed, so that preoccupations and subjects were generally grouped together to enhance coherence. Even when the titles of papers in the same panel seemed remote from each other, it was fascinating to note how often there was a productive juxtaposition of topics and ideas; serendipity can sometimes be more stimulating and suggestive than planning.

What is the state of Coleridge studies at the present time? A glance at the programme will enable some sense of the wide range of approaches. There were, as always, a good number of very well researched papers exploring the scientific, theological or intellectual contexts. The opening paper by Anya Taylor, which introduced ecological poetry into the mix, seemed to set up vibrations which reverberated off and on throughout the rest of the conference. There were a few studies of individual poems, some with a focus on prosody and form. Perhaps for the first time, there were papers which explored Coleridge’s letters as literary artifacts in themselves rather than merely as evidence. This led to a consideration of the performative nature of the letters, of the epistolary verse, and, later, of the literary and philosophical lectures. Charles Mahoney’s keynote on the ‘Lectures on Shakespeare’ focused on this aspect, while once more reminding us of how very difficult it remains, in spite of the Bollingen edition, to lay one’s hands on all of Coleridge’s Shakespeare criticism, which can be found in the most surprising places. His forthcoming edition will be welcomed by scholars as well as students.

The Lamb Society generously supported this year’s conference and there was an excellent Lamb panel devoted to Coleridge’s old friend, which looked well beyond the familiar Elian essays. Other contemporary writers and figures also featured, with Alan Vardy’s keynote John Beer memorial Lecture devoted to Thomas De Quincey’s preoccupation with memory and time. As always, there were some fascinating ‘left field’ contributions, just to make the rest of us feel a bit pedestrian and parochial. These included, to take but two, a translation of Christabel into Hebrew by Lilach Bornstein and a Marxist reading of Wordsworth’s and Southey’s poems featuring Native American and Peruvian Indians by Valentina Aparicio, who comes from Chile.

For me, the opportunity to examine at very close quarters and at leisure Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell in a beautiful copy, along with other illuminated books in the seclusion of a private room at the Fitzwilliam was a highlight. Perhaps this visit to a building just over the wall from the William Stone building at Peterhouse, where John Beer did so much of his work on Blake as well as on Coleridge, can in retrospect be seen as a further tribute to the great scholar and critic who was being commemorated at this conference.

On arrival at Jesus, one was struck by how the courts were all scorched brown by drought, with the exception of a single one, lovingly watered to maintain an emerald green, and mown in concentric circles to set off a contemporary sculpture of a prancing horse in the middle. The sun shone unfailingly each of the following three days with temperatures reaching above thirty degrees. But, as we left on Thursday, it was pouring with rain and the pavements were covered with puddles. One needed to come down to earth after the intensity and exhilaration of this highly successful and well organised conference.

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