MONTHLY BLOG 141, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 9: Annual Commemorations of the Battle of Trafalgar & the Death of Nelson

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2022)

Image from Broadside Ballad
‘The Battle of Trafalgar’
(c.1850)

Trafalgar! Most Britons know the name. They don’t all know the date of the famous naval battle on 21 October 1805. Or its location, offshore from Cape Trafalgar, on the Atlantic coast of southern Spain – close to the nautical approach into the Straits of Gibraltar.

Above all, however, most Britons do know that the British fleet won a famous victory.1 Admiral Nelson made an audacious naval charge that broke up a huge combined flotilla of French and Spanish galleons. By dividing his enemies, he circumvented their numerical supremacy, in terms of both ships and guns. The French Admiral was forced to sail onwards before he could cumbrously turn his galleons around to rejoin the battle.

But by the time he returned, the damage was done. Britain’s navy had triumphed, taking or sinking 22 enemy ships, for the loss of none of its own. It had also killed or wounded almost 7,000 men, and taken captive a further 7-8,000. In sum, it was a decisive confirmation of Britain’s increasingly apparent but now confirmed naval predominance.

Britain’s casualties, meanwhile, were comparatively light. 458 sailors were killed; and 1,200 wounded. However, the headline news that accompanied the story of a great victory was the death of Admiral Nelson in the heat of battle. His fame, already growing, became legendary.2

This heroic figure, who had already lost an eye and an arm in earlier battles, again put his life on the line, fighting alongside his sailors, on the aptly named British flagship HMS Victory.

In the short term, the battle of Trafalgar had little immediate impact upon the warfare between Britain and its various continental allies against Napoleonic France. The main theatres of engagement were on land. Indeed, on 2 December 1805, Napoleon won the battle of Austerlitz decisively, routing the combined armies of the Austrian, Prussian and Russian Emperors. And he went on to further successes.

Nonetheless, within Britain, the engagement at Trafalgar gave a major boost to morale. Moreover, the British Navy had henceforth established its command of the high seas. That had long-term consequences.

Meanwhile, Nelson himself became a revered symbol of indomitable resistance. His heroism was immediately commemorated in songs and ballads.3 These were widely circulated, as the informal equivalent to later popular radio. Tellingly, one later ballad about The Battle of Trafalgar (c.1850) invented the following final words from the dying Admiral:

“Fight on, fight on like Britons”, bold Nelson he did say;
“Fight on my gallant heroes, you are sure to gain the day.”

Dogged confidence in eventual victory is a great psychological asset amongst a people engaged in prolonged warfare. Countless monuments were erected to Nelson as a fallen hero. But the most conspicuous were ten towering columns in his honour. They stand like vigilant guardians. The best known of these monuments is Nelson’s Column in London’s central Trafalgar Square. Yet that striking edifice (built 1840-3) was the last to be constructed.

Eight Nelson columns were in fact constructed during the Napoleonic Wars themselves. Symbolically, they indicated resolute defiance. They were erected in diverse venues, following initiatives from loyal citizens, or by country landowners, and, in one case, by Nelson’s fellow naval officers. The cost was borne by the navy itself, including contributions docked from the pay of ordinary seamen who had served at Trafalgar.

These towering monuments include. in order of construction: the Nelson Monument on Glasgow Green (1806); the Nelson Obelisk in Swarland Hall Park, Northumbria (1807); Nelson’s Column on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill (begun 1807); the Nelson Monument on Portsdown Hill, near Portsmouth (1808), built on the initiative of naval officers; Nelson’s Column in the heart of Canada’s Montreal (1808-9); Nelson’s Pillar in central Dublin (1809; demolished after bombing in 1966);4 Nelson’s Column on Castle Green in Hereford (1809); and Nelson’s Monument on Birchen Edge in Derbyshire (1810).

Added to those, not long after the end of the Napoleonic wars, a dramatic memorial was constructed by the seaside at Great Yarmouth. It is dedicated to Nelson as the Norfolk-born saviour of the nation. But it is known as the Britannia Monument, being topped by a figure of that majestic lady. She holds in one hand a trident and in the other, an olive branch. Nelson and the British nation triumph together, making peace but not forgetting the nautical underpinning of British power.

Needless to say, it was entirely possible for individuals to pass such monuments without knowing to whom they were dedicated. But, collectively, they became talking-points. The number of heroic figures in Britain who are honoured with columns and obelisks is only small – and none have anything like Nelson’s tally.

Given this heritage, it is no surprise, then, that the anniversary of Trafalgar has never been forgotten. It is treated by the Royal Navy as both a celebration and a day of remembrance. Aboard HMS Victory, now lovingly tended in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard, flags are flown to signal Nelson’s famous message on the day of battle: ‘England Expects Every Man to do his Duty’. Sea cadets parade in London’s Trafalgar Square. Naval dinners are held at which a toast is given to ‘The Immortal Memory’. And festivities are held at other places with a Nelson-link, such as the settlements of Nelson in New Zealand, and Trafalgar, in the Australian state of Victoria.

What would the hero himself have said about all this fuss? He was a man of few (recorded) words. He would no doubt thank everyone crisply but then urge them to get on with the tasks in hand. Nelson doggedly went his own way.

During his lifetime, he managed to face down the scandal attached to his love affair with the married Lady Emma Hamilton,6 And, recently, his admirers are firmly defending him against accusations of racism and an unwillingness to condemn the increasingly controversial slave trade that he encountered when on active service in the West Indies.7

Nelson was, however, an obsessively single-minded man. He did not seek money or social advancement or political power. He wanted to deploy his unorthodox nautical skills to serve his country. His dream was of naval glory. And, yes: he and his sailors, drawn from many different ethnic backgrounds,8 became legends.

ENDNOTES:

1 Among a huge literature, see N. Best, Trafalgar: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sea Battle in History (2006); P. Warwick, Voices from the Battle of Trafalgar (Newton Abbot, 2005); S. Willis, The Battle of Trafalgar (2019). See also the ‘Panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar’, painted by W.L. Wyllie in 1930, on display at Portsmouth Dockyard Museum. And, for wider context, consult N.A.M. Rodger, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (1986; 2009).

2 C. Hibbert, Nelson: A Personal History (1994; 2002); R.J.B. Knight, The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson (2006); J. Sugden, Nelson: The Sword of Albion (2012); Q. Colville and J. Davey, Nelson, Navy and Nation: The Royal Navy and the British People, 1688-1815 (2013).

3 See collections such as J. Fairburn, Naval Songster: Or Jack Tar’s Chest of Conviviality for 1806 – Being an Excellent Cargo of Celebrated, Popular and Choice Sea-Songs Intended to Commemorate the Last Glorious Victory, Death and Memory … of Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson [1806]; and Anon., Nelson’s Garland of New Songs, containing (1) The Battle of Trafalgar … (2) Nelson’s Victories … [Newcastle, 1810?].

4 The granite Pillar was severely damaged by republican bombing in 1966, and then demolished – although the individual bombers were never identified by police. Its presence in Dublin had long been controversial, with growing nationalist resentment at such a prominent honouring of an Englishman with no Irish connections.

5 ‘England Expects …’ (NB. Not ‘Britain Expects’) became a widely quoted phrase, which has been used in equivalent (or similar) phrasing by other navies, including the French, the American and the Japanese: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/England_expects.

6 B.M. Gough, That Hamilton Woman: Emma and Nelson (Barnsley, 2016).

7 See e.g. the Nelson Society’s ‘Position Statement on Nelson and the Slave Trade’ (2021), posted in https://nelson-society.com/nelson-and-the-slave-trade-a-position-statement-by-the-nelson-society (accessed 19 August 2022).

8 R. Costello, Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships (Liverpool, 2012); J.D. Ellis, ‘Black Sailors in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, 1793-1815’ (Oct. 2020), posted in https://www.historycalroots.com/black-sailors-in-the-royal-navy-during-the-napoleonic-wars (accessed 19 August 2022). In a Victorian acknowledgement of that history, the bronze relief of sailors at Trafalgar, installed at the foot of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square (1849), depicts a sailor of African heritage.

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MONTHLY BLOG 140, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 8: Annual Memorial Service at Bristol’s Arnos Vale Cemetery, to celebrate the life of India’s remarkable religious, social & educational reformer, Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833)

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Republic of India postage stamp (1964),
where his name has alternative spelling as Mohun Roy.

Eighteenth-century Britain witnessed a veritable ferment of ideas. Religious reformers and traditionalists within Christianity battled with one another, whilst religious sceptics, known as ‘freethinkers’, argued against all forms of revealed religion. It was a time for rethinking and renewal; and not just in Britain.

India’s age-old Hindu tradition was also witnessing its own upheavals. One of its most remarkable reformers was a Bengali thinker named Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833).1 He came from a well-established Brahmin family; and was well educated in an array of languages, although the precise details of his schooling remain disputed. He became familiar with Persian and Arabic studies, as well as with classical Sanskrit. Later he learned other languages, including Latin and Greek. Very evidently, he was a gifted linguist.

But Raja Ram Mohan Roy went further. During his formative years, he interacted with spiritual teachers from diverse religious traditions. One was a famous Baptist missionary in India, William Carey (1761-1834). A growing characteristic of Ram Mohan Roy’s own thought was his desire to see into the heart of religion, to find the one true source of godliness. And his companion wish was to purify religious observances, so that external conventions and rituals did not distract worshippers from the chance of a genuine religious experience.

Such an approach was very characteristic of fundamentalist religious reformers. However, Mohan Roy did not break from the Hindu faith to achieve his aims. He remained within its broad-based tradition, and tried to update its customs. Prominent among the targets which he sought to reform were polygamy; child marriage; and the caste system, whereby people were ‘allocated’ to one social position at birth and kept there by rigid custom. Roy was also vehement against the traditional practice of ‘sati’ or ‘suttee’, which required widows to sacrifice their lives on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands.

These campaigns turned Ram Mohan Roy into not only a powerful religious moderniser but also a significant social and educational reformer. He was a liberal pioneer of women’s rights.2 He wrote prolifically. He founded educational institutions. He co-founded the Kolkata/Calcutta Unitarian Society and also founded the Brahma Samaj (a social reform group within Hinduism). He supported the use of English in Indian education. In some ways, then, he can be regarded as vector for the spread of Western ideas into India, in that he wanted India to shed its outmoded customs and to become ‘modernised’, like its then rulers – the officials in the East India Company, for whom Roy had worked.3

At the same time, however, Ram Mohan Roy was also a great example of the rich eclecticism of the Hindu tradition. He believed in the inner ‘oneness’ of all religion. (This aspect of his thought appealed to many British and American Unitarians, who abjured Trinitarian Christianity to worship the one divine power). And Ram Mohan Roy clearly did not seek a personal redeemer. So for him there was little point in changing churches, when the divine can be worshipped everywhere: God is one. He has no end. He exists in all the living things on the Earth’.

There were well known later debates within India, as to how far Roy was simply a ‘child of the West’. Yet that viewpoint misses the strength of his Hindu spiritualism. Moreover, he was sufficient of an Indian gentleman to accept the honorific title of ‘Raja’ (prince) from the Mughal Emperor Akbar II in 1830. A determined reformer; yes; but not a social revolutionary.

In September 1833, Raja Ram Mohan Roy was visiting Britain, as an imperial envoy from India. Staying at the small village of Stapleton, near Bristol, he fell ill suddenly and died of meningitis. He was initially buried quietly in the grounds of the house where he had died. But a decade later, his remains were re-interred at the new Arnos Vale Cemetery, at Brislington in East Bristol. This venue was not monopolised by any specific faith. It contains both an Anglican and a Nonconformist Mortuary Chapel; and the authorities made no objection to the inclusion of a devout Hindu.

Ram Mohan Roy’s grave, topped by an Indian Mausoleum, was a fitting component of this ecumenical resting place. At this spot, an annual commemoration of his life and teachings is held every September, at or near the date of his death. Dignitaries like the Mayor of Bristol and the Indian High Commissioner are joined by all other Indians and Britons who wish to share in the remembrance service. There is also a fine statue of Mohan Roy on Bristol’s College Green. And at Stapleton, too, there is today a memorial plaque and a pedestrian walk, named in his honour.       

He did not, of course, plan to die in Bristol. But for Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the apostle of spiritual oneness, there is a certain aptness in finding a peaceful resting-place among the dead of many faiths and none. For the history of Georgian Britain, too, Mohan Roy’s quest for spiritual enlightenment and social reform was part of the ferment of debates between believers and freethinkers.

Many globe-trotting Britons ventured to India in these years. Some were seeking colonial power and trading profits, while others, like William Carey, were intent on saving souls. Yet the exchange of ideas and peoples was not just one way. Where then are respects rightly paid to the remarkable Indian reformer, who was the ‘parent of the Bengal Renaissance’ and also a citizen of the world? Why, in Bristol’s Arnos Vale Cemetery, every September.

ENDNOTES:

1 See variously H.D. Sharma, Raja Ram Mohan Roy: The Renaissance Man (2002); D.C. Vyas, Biography of Raja Ram Mohan Roy (New Delhi, 2010); P. Kumari, Women, Social Customs and Raja Ram Mohan Roy (Patna, 2013).

2 Mohan Roy himself married three times. His first two wives predeceased him, and his third wife outlived him, without, of course, committing sati after his death.

3 Among a huge literature, see variously: J. Keay, The Honourable Company: A History of the East India Company (1991; 2017); S. Sen, Empire of Free Trade: The East India Company and Making of the Colonial Marketplace (Philadelphia, 1998); M. Chowdhury, Empire and Gunpowder: Military Industrialization and Ascendancy of the East India Company in India, 1757-1856 (New Delhi, 2022).

 

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MONTHLY BLOG 139, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 7: ANNUAL DINNER IN HONOUR OF DR SAMUEL JOHNSON, GREAT LEXICOGRAPHER, MAN OF LETTERS, LITERARY CRITIC, AND WITTY/ PUGNACIOUS CONVERSATIONALIST

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2022)

Silhouette of Samuel Johnson,
after Joshua Reynolds

It takes more than compiling a famous Dictionary to achieve the celebrity of Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-84).1 A huge, strapping, ungainly and constantly twitching figure of a man, he startled newcomers on first acquaintance. Yet he had a mesmerising personality, allied to great erudition and unforced eloquence.

Moreover, his contemporary fame was quickly turned into a long-lasting mythology, on the strength of not only his own writings but also a collection of admiring biographies. These included Thomas Tyers’ Biographical Sketch (1785); Hester Thrale’s Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson (1786); John Hawkins’ Life of Samuel Johnson (1787); and Arthur Murphy’s Essay on the Life and Genius of Samuel Johnson (1792). They preserved vivid memories of the man himself and his conversational powers.

And, of course, the culmination of this sequence was the compendious Life of Johnson (1791) by James Boswell (1740-95).2 This account became a famous work in its own right. It was part literary biography, part Boswell’s account of the friendship between the pundit and his eager young friend-and-questioner. And when Boswell followed the Life with a shorter volume entitled Dr Johnson’s Table Talk (1798), Johnson’s reputation as a great conversationalist was sealed – complete with the consolidation of his moniker as ‘Dr Johnson’. That was not the preference of the man himself – but it successfully encapsulated his learned reputation for posterity.

Simultaneously, too, the joint names of ‘Johnson & Boswell’ became a classic formula for a great talker with his every word, caught by an eager young friend in tow. In reality, the two men were far from always together. Boswell was a young man of 22, just setting out on his legal career, when he first met Johnson, then aged 53 and already an established pundit. Thereafter, they socialised together and famously travelled together in 1773, when they visited the Scottish Highlands and the Hebrides. But they were not inseparable. And after his marriage in 1769 Boswell often spent parts of the year in Scotland.

What sort of conversationalist was the great man? He was both pugnacious and witty. Johnson enjoyed the company of lively debaters, whether men or women. Their smart questions and bold assertions were great triggers for his own conversational flights. He did not seek to deliver monologues. Thus, while he was notably combative, he did not drown out others or bore them by relentless talking. Boswell once referred to Johnson as ‘tossing’ and ‘goring’ his conversational opponents, like an angry bull disdaining the impertinence of pursuing matadors. Such bouts were somewhat theatrical, attracting crowds to enjoy the jousting. And indeed conversational gatherings, whether discussing politics, literature, science, farming, sex, or all of those, were very much a staple of eighteenth-century social life.3

Above all, Johnson was good at epigrammatic summaries: or eighteenth-century sound-bites. ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’. So the observant Doctor dismissed politicians who yelp about their love of country to conceal their nefarious dealings. (Yes indeed). ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life …’ (Yes again). ‘When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully’. (No doubt). Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all’. (No! Boo! Shame!)

Well, there is the fun and stimulus of the renowned Dr Johnson. Enough to set one thinking and more than enough for grand arguments as well.

Today, fittingly, the Dr Johnson Society celebrates the life of this great ad hoc controversialist with an annual convivial Supper. It is held in the Guildhall in Lichfield, his birthplace, in September, on or near the anniversary of his birth. And it forms part of a weekend of imaginative celebrations in that city.4

Finally, too, other relevant talks, guided walks and festive events are organised at Dr Johnson’s House in Gough Square, in the City of London.5 This fine townhouse has survived wars and turmoil for over three hundred years. It’s well worth a visit from all interested in eminent Georgians – and in Samuel Johnson specifically. The man who wrote favourably on ‘The Art of Biography’ (The Rambler, 1750) would no doubt be tickled that later generations still enjoy his conversational ‘punch-power’ … But he would certainly find something about which to disagree: ‘Sir! when a man is tired of argument, …’.

ENDNOTES:

1 Among many works, see W.J. Bate, Samuel Johnson: A Biography (Berkeley, Ca., 1998); D. Nokes, Samuel Johnson: A Life (2009); and H. Kingsmill (ed.), Johnson without Boswell: A Contemporary Portrait of Samuel Johnson (2022).

2 P. Martin, The Life of James Boswell (1999); A.R. Brooks, James Boswell (2019); and D.J. Newman (ed.), Boswell and the Press: Essays on the Ephemeral Writing of James Boswell (Lewisburg, Pa., 2021).

3 See P. Clark, British Clubs and Societies, c.1580-1800: The Origins of an Associational World (Oxford, 2000); L. Damrosch, The Club: Johnson, Boswell and the Friends who Shaped An Age (New Haven, 2019).

4 For the Johnson Society (Lichfield), see https://johnsonnew.wordpress.com

5 See https://www.drjohnsonshouse.org

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MONTHLY BLOG 138, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 6: ANNUAL COMMEMORATIVE SWIM ACROSS THE DARDANELLES STRAIT BETWEEN EUROPE AND ASIA, IN THE TRADITION OF LORD BYRON

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Good-looking, debonair, raffish, sexy, attractive to both men and women, a breezy poet, a dog-lover, a radical in his politics, supporting working-class interests at home and Greek independence overseas, and a man with a title – George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), seemed almost too amazing to be true.1 But add into the mix the further pertinent facts that he was chronically impoverished; that he had a deformed foot, which gave him pain and forced him to walk with a limp; that he took to travelling restlessly overseas; that his marriage to Anne Isabella Milbanke was unhappy; that many of his affairs were also tormented and short-lived; that there were accusations of incest with his half-sister and marital violence; that, as a result, Byron was considered deeply controversial by respectable society; … and his story was not straightforward.

Today, the adjective ‘Byronic’ continues to reference the concept of a darkly brooding, attractive, flawed genius, whose life, interests, and achievements continue to attract public attention – whilst remaining hard to decipher. His spirit echoes in many a subsequent darkly brooding, ‘mad, bad’, hero in literature and, later, in film.

Immediately after Byron’s death, there was considerable hesitation in England as to how such a life should best be commemorated. Westminster Abbey refused to allow his body to be buried there; and, later in 1834, a statue of Byron, commissioned by his friends, was rejected by numerous august locations (including Westminster Abbey) and was  left in storage for some time. His raffish reputation, with its mix of radical politics as well as unconventional sex, cast a long shadow.

Later, there were campaigns to get a monument to Byron in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, which was becoming an established focus for national literary remembrance. Yet the campaign succeeded only in 1969.

By contrast, Byron became revered in Greece. He died at Messolonghi, at the north-western end of the Gulf of Patras. And he was there preparing to fight, with a rebel band of supporters, to aid the campaigns to liberate Greece from the Ottoman Turks. Such dedication to a ‘foreign’ cause was heroic. To it, Byron devoted his energies and all the family financial resources that he could muster. Today in central Athens, a substantial statue shows Greece as a robed woman, crowning an upright, manly Lord Byron with a palm branch (a Near Eastern symbol of victory and immortality). He has found a home. And the anniversary of his death has been (since 2008) honoured in Greece as ‘Byron Day’.

But the most engaging of all tributes to this distinctive man is an annual group swim. Byron in his lifetime dieted frequently, to keep his weight down; and exercised regularly, being good at horse-riding and amateur boxing. Indeed, for a while, he took sparring lessons with a former prize-fighting champion.

It was open-air swimming, however, for which Byron became especially famed. In May 1810, he swam from Europe to Asia, across the Dardanelles, known in classical times as the Hellespont. It was not the first time that the deed was done – and Byron did not literally invent the pastime of open-air swimming. But his feat in 1810 became infinitely the most famous case, since the classical Greek legend of Leander who swam across nightly to join his lady love, Hero. Byron knew this story of legendary passion – and tried the swim to see if it could really be done. He failed on his first attempt but succeeded on his second.

The Dardanelles Strait/ Turkish: Çanakkale Boğazı is a turbulent stretch of water, with a strong flow and treacherous cross-currents. It now makes a suitable site for the world’s most famous open-air long-distance swimming challenge, held each summer at the end of August.2 Indeed it is the iconic event for the sport. Participants are advised to pre-check their medical fitness; and to have considerable prior experience.

Faint-hearts are thus wise to stay away. But there are plenty who relish the risks. The race distance covers some 4.5km (just under 3 miles), swimming with the currents. While the event is in progress, all shipping lanes are closed. And Turkish coast-guards are on standby, ready to help swimmers who have become too tired or who are being swept off track by tricky cross-currents.

What would Byron think? Hard not to be gratified at being remembered by a challenging and exciting event in which both men and women participate. Very Byronic. And it’s also a swim that crosses historic geographical boundaries – an ecumenical theme with apt resonance for this cultural migrant.

Byron himself wrote poetically about the lure of the sea: ‘There is a rapture on the lonely shore/ There is society where none intrudes/ By the deep Sea; and music in its roar’.3 It was romantic. It was deeply personal. It offered escape for a lonely man with a conflicted life. And he followed the above lines with a personal credo: ‘I love not Man the less, but Nature more’. So this tumultuous stretch of sea at the Dardanelles is Lord Byron’s true monument. ‘Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean – roll!’ And it does.

ENDNOTES:

1 A fine introduction to the huge literature on Byron is available in D. Bone (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Byron (Cambridge, 2004). See also N.B. Oueijan, Byron and Mythology (New York, 2020).

2 Becky Horsbrugh, ‘The Hellespont Swim: Following in Byron’s Wake’, The Guardian (6 May 2010): https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/may/06/hellespont-swim-byron.

3 Quotations from G. Gordon, Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), lines 2-5, 10.

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MONTHLY BLOG 137, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 5: COMMEMORATIVE WALK IN HONOUR OF RADICAL (AND CONTROVERSIAL) IRISH HERO

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Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-98),
pan-Irish nationalist,
republican and
revolutionary leader

Continuing the story of through-time links from the Georgian era,1 this BLOG focuses upon a highly significant commemorative walk at Bodenstown (co. Kildare). It celebrates each summer the short life and visionary hopes of the revolutionary Irishman, Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-98).

He was known as a man of principle and valour. Yet his political views were highly utopian and equally controversial. He hoped to unite his fellow Irishmen, whether Anglican, Presbyterian or Catholic, through a shared commitment to Irish nationalism and republicanism.2 He did not, however, have any practical plans to overcome centuries of religious mistrust and the power imbalance between the contending faiths. (Not an easy task in any era).

In the event, Wolfe Tone chose alliance with revolutionary France. Nothing could be more likely to enrage the Irish Protestant establishment and the British government. When therefore in summer 1798 a radical alliance of United Irishmen launched a rebellion,3 the official response was quick and decisive repression. Wolfe Tone meanwhile sailed from self-exile in France, with a French raiding party, to support the uprising. But he was caught, identified, and convicted by court-martial as a traitor. Soon after, he died in a Dublin prison, the night before he was due to be hung. It may well have been suicide. It certainly was immediate political failure.

However, over time, Wolfe Tone became a paradoxical legend.4 There are today sundry public monuments to him as an Irish patriot. Catholics especially saw him as pioneer of separatist nationalism. That cause was certainly highly important to him. Yet Wolfe Tone’s desire for an associated process of reconciliation between Ireland’s contending faiths was publicly ignored.

It was Catholics who began, a generation after his death, to visit his grave at Bodenstown in tribute. From 1873 onwards (with gaps in some years) the commemorative format evolved into a communal walk. The route starts at Sallins station, thus allowing many Dubliners to attend by train. And the procession makes its way to the Bodenstown graveyard – a distance of about 2.5 km or just over 1.5 miles – where wreaths are laid and a prominent speaker gives an oration.5

Broadly, the atmosphere is both respectful and celebratory. However, there are sometimes tensions between rival political groups. And sometimes even rival processions. Moreover, when in 1934, a radical group of Belfast Presbyterians walked the walk, carrying banners saluting Wolfe Tone, they were met by punches and kicks from the Catholic crowd. This cold welcome was allegedly ordered by the IRA.6 It was not in the spirit of Wolfe Tone.

Co-walking in support of a common cause can promote harmony and rally support. Music adds a festive touch, and helps the walkers to maintain the pace. Flying flags and banners can meanwhile enlighten onlookers. Walks and marches are a flexible and democratic form of public affirmation. They do not require huge funds. Numbers participating may be tiny or huge, depending on the cause, the legal status of public gatherings, and, sometimes too, the weather.

Little wonder then that there are many varieties of communal walks. They range from protest marches, to commemorative walks, to sponsored fund-raising hikes, to organised parades, and on to military and high-school marching bands. Together, these peregrinations constitute a secularised update of traditional religious pilgrimages – which, of course, also continue.7 Within that global phenomenon, Ireland, where Protestants and Catholics have long sponsored rival marches, is a walking hotspot. And the Irish overseas also remain notable community walkers.

The full message of Wolfe Tone’s personal career and his legendary afterlife is, however, a sombre one. It takes more than goodwill and walking together to achieve real reconciliation between contending groups. Violence and counter-violence generate bitterness and resentments, which can often last for centuries. Reconciliation entails inculcating genuine toleration, confronting frankly past misdeeds, righting wrongs (on all sides), achieving a degree of power redistribution or readjustment, opening economic opportunities for all, and generating pan-community trust and love. Not an easy programme, at any time. Hard to achieve in one divided country (let alone globally). But as urgent today as under the Georgians, as no doubt Wolfe Tone would staunchly insist.

ENDNOTES

1 P.J. Corfield, The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of Eighteenth-Century Britain (2022), p. 390.

2 T. Bartlett (ed.), Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, comp. W.T. Wolfe Tone (Dublin, 1998); S. McMahon, Wolfe Tone (Cork, 2001); M. Elliott, Wolfe Tone (Liverpool, 2012).

3 M. Elliott, Partners in Revolution: The United Irishmen and France (1982); T. Packenham, The Year of Liberty (1969; repr. 1998); J. de Cazottes, L’Irelande entre independance et révolution: Wolfe Tone, 1763-98 … (Paris, 2005).

4 S. Ollivier, Presence and Absence of Wolfe Tone during the Centenary Commemoration of the 1798 Irish Rebellion (Dublin, 2001); P. Metscher, Republicanism and Socialism in Ireland: From Wolfe Tone to James Connolly (Dublin, 2016).

5 C.J. Woods: Bodenstown Revisited: The Grave of Theobald Wolfe Tone, its Monuments and its Pilgrimages (Dublin, 2018).

6 ‘Our Feral Tribalism Unleashed’, The Irish Times (2 May 2022).

7 L.K. Davidson and D.M. Gitlitz, Pilgrimage – from the Ganges to Graceland: An Encyclopedia (2002).

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MONTHLY BLOG 136, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 4: ENJOYING THE ANNUAL DUCK FEAST

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This BLOG resumes the theme of links between the Georgian era and the present.1 To do that, it takes one remarkable case-history, that of the Wiltshire poet, Stephen Duck (c.1705-56). [Yes, that was his real name] He was the son of an impoverished agricultural labourer. It’s likely that both his parents were illiterate. Yet Stephen Duck not only grew to gain poetic fame during his relatively short life but has been honoured ever since by an annual Duck Feast, held in his home village of Charlton, near Pewsey in Wiltshire.2

Undoubtedly, this convivial event must be the longest-running literary commemoration to be found anywhere in Britain. It is a manifestation of local community pride, as well as a tribute to creative poetic output from an obscure individual, whose merits helped him to rise in the world.

There were many such ‘shooting stars’ from modest backgrounds in eighteenth-century Britain. The expansion of towns and trade (and literacy) provided ample new opportunities for talent. Duck’s career was a classic case study in both opportunities and obstacles.

These Feasts (scheduled in early June) actually began during Duck’s lifetime. They were funded by a gift from a local bigwig, who gave a piece of land to the village in perpetuity. That provided a practical basis for the celebrations, initially confined to small numbers of men from Charlton village. A presiding host, known as the Chief Duck, welcomes guests and gives the toasts, while, over time, the format of the Feast has been adapted.

During the evening, verses from Stephen Duck’s first and most famous poem, The Thresher’s Labour (1730), are read aloud. His poetry has some elements of ornate diction. As a promising youth, he had been given access to the classics of English literature by his charity-schoolteacher and other local worthies. However, the striking feature of Duck’s most famous work was its gritty realism. The Georgian agricultural year relied upon intensive and monotonous manual labour. And, at the height of the harvest, threshing the grain was tough work, continuing unabated throughout a long summer’s day. Stephen Duck recalled the experience:

In briny Streams, our Sweat descends apace,

Drops from our Locks, or trickles down our Face.

No Intermission in our Work we know;

The noisy Threshal [two-handed flail] must for ever go.

Neighbours who toasted the man and his muse were happy to admire, if not necessarily to share, this hard toil. During the eighteenth century, a quiet re-evaluation of the importance of manual work was taking place. John Locke and, especially, Adam Smith explored the contribution of labour to the creation of economic value. And readers in their parlours appreciated verses by poets from varied walks of life, including the newly literate workers.

Duck was thus a portent of change. Another poet from ‘low-life’ was Ann Yearsley (1753-1806), the Bristol ‘milk-woman’.3 She flourished a generation after Duck, with the support of a literary patron. Another example was the little-known James Woodhouse (1735-1820), ‘the shoemaker poet’, who eventually made a living as a bookseller.4 And in the early nineteenth century, John Clare (1793-1864), a farm labourer’s son from Northamptonshire, wrote poems of anguished beauty.5

All found it hard to progress from early success to something more permanent. The one exception was Scotland’s brilliant balladeer, Robert Burns (1759-96), the son of an Ayrshire tenant farmer.6 Financially, he always lived from hand to mouth, never attaining great riches. He did, however, have some ballast from his post as an exciseman [tax collector]. That enabled Burns to pour out his evocative poems and songs – thus mightily extending his audience. Today, he is honoured by the now world-wide tradition of annual Burns Night festivals,7 on a scale far, far exceeding the Duck Feast in Wiltshire.

By contrast, Stephen Duck lacked a steady profession. For a while, he enjoyed royal patronage and a pension from Queen Caroline, wife of George II. Yet, after her death in 1737, his career stalled. Duck later took orders as an Anglican clergyman. After all, there were major literary figures within the eighteenth-century Church of England – Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne being two outstanding exemplars.

Nonetheless, the clerical life did not suit Duck. Quite possibly he found that the social transition from the fields into literary and professional society, without a secure income, was too psychologically unsettling. Stephen Duck was also, in this great age of satire, the butt of robust teasing for his plebeian origins. And his best-known poem was quickly parodied, as The Thresher’s Miscellany (1730) – penned by an anonymous author who called himself Arthur Duck.8

It’s not easy, however, to read another’s heart. Stephen Duck’s life continued. He married twice; had children. It was some time before his career ran definitively into the sands. But, in 1756, he committed suicide.

Ultimately, Stephen Duck became and remained a quiet symbol of social advancement and literary change. He was not the only impoverished Georgian labourer’s son to gain fame. Captain James Cook (1728-79), the global explorer, came from a similar background. Yet, in his case, the navy provided a career structure (and a route to controversy via the mutual meetings/misunderstandings of global cultures).9 Cook’s name is now commemorated in many locations around the world. There is even a crater on the moon, named after him.

Stephen Duck, by contrast, is celebrated in Charlton in Wiltshire, not with a name-plate but, aptly enough, with a Feast. Just what was needed after a long day’s labour in the fields, as Duck had specified:

A Table plentifully spread we find,

And Jugs of humming Ale, to cheer the Mind …

ENDNOTES:

1 For context, see P.J. Corfield, The Georgians: The Deeds & Misdeeds of Eighteenth-Century Britain (2022); and website: https://www.thegeorgiansdeedsandmisdeeds.com.

2 R. Davis, Stephen Duck, the Thresher Poet (Orono, Maine, 1926).

3 A. Yearsley, Poems on Several Occasions (1785; reissued, 1994); R. Southey, Lives of Uneducated Poets (1836), pp. 125-34; K. Andrews, Ann Yearsley and Hannah More, Patronage and Poetry: The Story of a Literary Relationship (2015).

4 [J. Woodhouse], Poems on Sundry Occasions, by James Woodhouse a Journeyman Shoemaker (1764).

5 E. Blunden (ed.), Sketches in the Life of John Clare, Written by Himself (1974); J. Bate, John Clare’s New Life (Cheltenham, 2004); S. Kövesi, John Clare: Nature, Criticism and History (2017).

6 I. McIntyre, Robert Burns: A Life (1995; 2001); R. Crawford, The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography (2011); G.S. Wilkie, Robert Burns: A Life in Letters (Glasgow, 2011).

7 PJC, BLOG/ 133 (Jan. 2022), in https://www.penelopejcorfield.com/monthly-blogs.

8 A. Duck [pseud.], The Thresher’s Miscellany (1730).

9 J. Robson (ed.), The Captain Cook Encyclopaedia (2004).

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MONTHLY BLOG 135, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 3: THE SCOTTISH MUSIC OF NIEL GOW

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2022)

Close-up of sculptor David Annand’s statue of legendary
Scottish fiddler Niel Gow (1727-1807),
erected in 2020 near his childhood home in
Strathbaan, Perthshire.

At a time of international crisis over Ukraine, it seems heartless to continue normal life. And, in particular, it could seem inappropriate to be writing about something as jolly and convivial as the music of eighteenth-century Scotland’s legendary fiddler, Niel Gow (1727-1807). But it helps to stick to routines, which in this case means posting my monthly BLOG.

Music, moreover, is a mighty medium for expressing the full range of human emotions. Niel Gow, born in Strathbaan, Perthshire, came from a modest background to become feted as a composer and fiddler.1 And, among his output, are some famous laments. Indeed, in the long eras before the advent of the radio, musicians had to be ready to switch quickly in style from sad to jolly, from slow to brisk, from simple to intricate, as occasion required. They provided their listeners with a soundtrack for both daily life and special events.

Gow initially began his working life as a weaver. Yet his manual dexterity and his musicality were, between them, sufficiently notable that he soon began to make a name as a fiddler. (A fiddle is the demotic name for a violin, when the instrument is used for ‘folk’ music). He then won some local competitions – which were taken seriously in Perthshire, a ‘big county’ that cherishes its musical traditions. And, once he found a well-connected patron, Gow was able to work as a professional musician.

James Murray, 2nd Duke of Atholl (1690-1764), was a successful Scottish politician, who lived down the Jacobite affiliations of his older brother (who lost his title and lands after 1715), and thereafter prospered as a solid pro-Unionist. He called upon the services of Gow to play music at balls and dances, held by the Scottish nobility. Such gatherings were, for Atholl, handy ways of shoring up pro-Hanoverian social networks.

For Gow, such employment was a break-through. It gave him access to a world of Scottish lairds who were ready to pay for his services at their social gatherings. The role of a professional musician was a new and potentially risky one. But he was able to flourish, and continued to do so, long after the Duke’s death in 1764. Gow meanwhile lived simply and brought up his large family in a traditional single-story stone cottage in Inver, near Dunkeld. Outside the village, on the banks of the Tay, is the massive oak tree, where he was reported to sit composing music.2 Yet Inver was also well placed for working trips into urban centres like Perth and Dundee. They gave him access to music publishers – and, via the press, to the wider world.

Scotland’s fast-expanding Lowland economy from the mid-eighteenth century onwards was becoming sufficiently wealthy to support not only the growth of towns, trade and industry but the parallel expansion of a new service economy.3 Musicians were among the emergent new professions. They provided a ‘whole Tribe of Singers and Scrapers’, fitted for ‘this Musical Age’, as one occupational handbook observed, somewhat wryly, in 1747.4 It was in that context, that Gow’s son Nathaniel was able to follow in his father’s footsteps. So he too played and composed for the fiddle.

Especially prominent among the output of Niel Gow were his Scottish country dances. Many are still played at ceilidhs and festive events today. Some were new compositions. Others were rearrangements or ‘borrowings’ (often unacknowledged) from older dance music.5 There was then, however, no stigma attached to such reworkings. Robert Burns similarly adapted older verses and tunes in his own prolific output, which also combined both old and new.6

Their audiences positively relished the consolidation of a proud ‘Scottish’ poetic and musical tradition.7 It brought old legacies into the mainstream.  Any separatist tinge of association with the outlawed Jacobites – supporters of the exiled Stuart kings – was shed, whilst a living cultural heritage was enhanced.

So rich is this updated repertoire that English-speaking audiences to this day continue to enjoy Scottish dances and Highland laments. In part, global enthusiasm was boosted by the widespread Scottish diaspora. Yet music has always had the power to transcend ethnic and cultural boundaries.

To honour one notable creator of Scotland’s musical tradition, an annual Niel Gow Festival has been hosted each March since 2004, in the village of Dunkeld & Birnam (Perth & Kinross). The next will be held on 18-20 March 2022.8 This place is often described as a ‘Gateway to the Highlands’. Conversely, changing the motto, it might also be said that the music of Niel Ross constituted a cultural bridge from the Highlands to the wider world … Let that be a happy portent that out of old conflicts can come sustained peace and fertile creativity.

ENDNOTES:

1 For Niel Gow (1727-1807), see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niel_Gow [accessed 28 Feb. 2022]; and H. Jackson,  Niel Gow’s Inver (Perth, 2000). Gow’s first name was sometimes rendered as Neil or Neal.

2 Now a tourist attraction: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niel_Gow’s_Oak [accessed 28 Feb. 2022].

3 D. Allen, Scotland in the Eighteenth Century; Union and Enlightenment (Harlow, 2002).

4 R. Campbell, The London Tradesman … (1757), p. 93. For context, see also C. Ehrlich, The Music Profession in Britain since the Eighteenth Century: A Social History (Oxford, 1985), pp. 1-53.

5 See tunes by Niel Gow, played on his own fiddle, in CD Album recorded by Pete Clark, Even Now: The Music of Niel Gow (Smiddymade Recordings SMD615, Perthshire, Scotland, 1999). And context in D. Johnson, Scottish Fiddle Music in the Eighteenth Century: A Music Collection and Historical Study (Edinburgh, 1984).

6 See e.g. C. Campbell and others, Burns and Scottish Fiddle Tradition (Edinburgh 2000); C.E. Andrews, The Genius of Scotland: The Cultural Production of Robert Burns, 1785-1834 (Leiden, 2015).

7 S. McKerrell and G. West (eds), Understanding Scotland Musically: Folk, Tradition and Policy (2018); F.M. Collinson, The Traditional and National Music of Scotland (2021).

8 For details, see https://www.niel-gow.co.uk.

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Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) in full clown costume, brandishing a bottle of port, his pockets bulging with comic props.

MONTHLY BLOG 134, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 2

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2022)

Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) in full clown costume,
brandishing a bottle of port,
his pockets bulging with comic props.

Well, here is an unusual Georgian celebration but a congenial one. As part of the professionalization of many industrial and service occupations,1 the ancient trade of clowning in the eighteenth century came into its own. With population and urban growth, the number of theatres and circuses across Britain also multiplied. They provided evening and holiday entertainments for populations without TVs and radios, let alone without mobile phones and social media.

One who made his name as dancer, actor, comedian and all-round entertainer was Joseph Grimaldi.2 In 1778, he was born in London into an acting family, of Italian ancestry. He began performing as a child. And he threw himself into his roles with great physical energy, getting a number of injuries which took their toll in his later years.

The part that he made especially his own was the clown in the English Harlequinade, which was a theatrical burlesque upon the story of Harlequin and Columbine. Grimaldi was so successful and popular that other clowns were named after him as ‘Joey’. His trademark ‘whiteface’ also became much copied by his fellow artistes.

Grimaldi had the confidence, above all, to develop the art of comic interaction with his audiences. One of his famous catch-phrases was: ‘Well, here we are again’. Remarks of that sort indicated to his audiences that it was ok to sit back and be amused. Backchat augmented the collective sense of community and familiarity. It did not free the clown from the obligation to be funny. But it helped by getting audiences into a good mood – and into a state of expectation. Grimaldi’s clown mask and costume thus gave him a head start.

Nonetheless, there was a certain pressure in performing regularly and being always expected to provoke laughter. Grimaldi, who constantly played the London theatres and also toured extensively, was caught in an all-consuming professional role, calling upon both intense physical agility and a keen sense of social satire. He fused traditional slapstick with an urban knowingness and irreverence. It was a demanding combination; and it was not surprising that, from time to time, Grimaldi fell out with theatre producers – and eventually with his own family. He retired from the stage, reluctantly, in 1823 (in his mid-forties), although he returned for occasional benefit performances. In his last years, he was often depressed, physically ailing, and short of money.

Yet Grimaldi on stage epitomised the joy of unbridled laughter. He became the ‘quintessential’ clown. A sort of secular patron-saint of the role. By the mid-nineteenth century, his comic qualities had become almost proverbial. Oldsters would shake their heads and say: Ah! You should have seen Grimaldi!’

Professional clowns who followed in his footsteps were glad to have such a sparkling role model. In Islington, a small park bearing his name is located just off the Pentonville Road. It lies in the former burial grounds of an Anglican Chapel, where Grimaldi is buried. A new public artwork there is dedicated to him and to Charles Dibdin (1768-1833), the dramatist and theatrical proprietor.

Moreover – and here is the February link – on the first Sunday in February each year an Annual Clowns Service is held in Holy Trinity Church, Hackney, East London. The event has been held annually since the mid-1940s. And it is attended by hundreds of clowns, all in full costume.

What a tribute to the power of memory, to the joy of shared laughter, and to the impact of a pioneering life. Today, there are many brilliant comedians – on stages, in circuses, in print, and on all forms of social media. All praiseworthy, some truly hilarious! Ah! [but] you should have seen Grimaldi!’

ENDNOTES:

1 For context, see P.J. Corfield, Power and the Professions in Britain, 1700-1850 (1995).

2 H.D. Miles, The Life of Joseph Grimaldi, With Anecdotes of his Contemporaries (1838; and later reprints); A.M. Stott, The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian (Edinburgh, 2010).

 

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MONTHLY BLOG 133, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 1

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2022)

To celebrate the imminent publication of my book on The Georgians 1, my next set of BLOGs commemorates significant Georgian milestone dates: one for every month of the year.2 No problem for January. It must be Burns Night: Tuesday January 25th.

The hero is Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns, the evocative Scottish poet and song-writer (1759-96).3 He fully deserves celebration. Not least for writing the world’s most sung song, Auld Lang Syne, which hymns the poignancy of partings and of affectionate remembrance.4
Rituals at Burns Night suppers include the ceremonious arrival of a special dish of haggis. It contains meat offal (heart, liver, lungs), minced and cooked in a special bag with fillings of oatmeal, onions, suet, and seasoning.5 The degree of ceremony adopted remains a matter of choice. But the grandest ritual sees a Scottish piper in full regalia, playing in a procession, in which the dish of haggis is proudly paraded. It’s then eaten, washed down with Scottish whisky. (These days, too, vegetarian and non-alcoholic alternatives are available).

Annual meetings in Burns’ honour began among his friends, from 1801 onwards – only five years after his death. Other convivial groups began to do the same. Within ten years, a critic denounced the spread of the custom. In 1811, he detected a positive ‘Burnomania’.6 What term would he have to invent in 2022, when there are at least 200+ Burns Clubs globally? In 1885, these were organised into the Robert Burns World Federation (RBWF): its motto ‘Educate – Celebrate – Promote’.7

Clearly, the ‘mania’ has become settled and institutionalised. And it shows no sign of flagging. All the organised Societies host their own Burns Night suppers. But there are, in addition, many gatherings, which are spontaneous and ad hoc local initiatives. Thus the estimated figure of some 2,500 Burns suppers world-wide in January 2021 was probably too low. Meanwhile, an amiable venture from Glasgow University’s Centre for Burns Studies encourages revellers everywhere to share their memories, via an interactive Map.8

What is Burns’ special gift that generates such enthusiasm and loyalty? One component is undoubtedly Scottish national pride in his achievements. The strength of that cultural link should not be underestimated.9 And the Scottish diaspora over the centuries has taken Burns admirers world-wide. Yet it is completely wrong to assume that people from other nations don’t appreciate his work, even if they may need coaching in some of his less easily understood dialect usages. Indeed, the fact that many of his poems are known firstly as songs makes them easily memorable – the heartfelt musical meaning overriding any obscure terms.

Burns is thus a poet and song-writer for all times and peoples. His special gift consists in conveying richly complex thoughts in language of piercing clarity. He is simple but not trite. Loving but not soppy. When he is wryly melancholic, he is not bitter.

Who can resist raising a glass each year to the author of sentiments like ‘My love is like a red, red rose’; ‘A man’s a man, for a’ that!’ ‘O would some power the giftie gie us,/ To see ourselves as others see us’; ‘Man’s inhumanity to man/ Makes countless thousands mourn!’; and yet ‘We’ll drink a cup of kindness yet/ For the sake of Auld Lang Syne’.

All that, and the tribute taps into a tradition that now dates over 200 years. Burns was a Georgian radical who thought that people should be judged on their merits, not by their birth or titles. And his own merit is as radiant today as ever.

ENDNOTES:

1 P.J. Corfield. The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of Eighteenth-Century Britain (Yale UP., London, 2022), pp. 470: publication date 22 January 2022.

2 Ibid., pp. 389-91.

3 The first biography was published soon after his death by R.H. Heron, A Memoir of the Life of the Late Robert Burns (Edinburgh, 1797); a relatively recent one is by R. Crawford, The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography (2011).

4 [M.J. Grant], Auld Lang Syne: A Song and its Culture (Cambridge, Open Book publication, 2021).

5 Affectionate references to this quintessentially Scottish dish go back to Burns’ poetic address To a Haggis (1786), in T. Burke (ed.), The Collected Poems of Robert Burns (Ware, Herts, 2008), pp. 133-4, setting a trend for familiar commemorations, with successors like W. Foolie, The Scots Haggis [in verse] (Edinburgh, 1821); and D. Webster, The Scotch Haggis: Consisting of Anecdotes and Jests, Curious and Rare Articles of Literature …  (Edinburgh, 1822).

6 W. Peebles, Burnomania: The Celebrity of Robert Burns Considered … (Edinburgh, 1811).

7 Consult website http://www.rbwf.org.uk (accessed 10 Jan. 2022).

8 Report in https://www.gla.ac.uk/news/archiveofnews/2021/january/headline_769448_en.html (accessed 1o January 2022). The map will eventually be featured on https://www.scotland.org/burns.

9 C.A. Whatley, Immortal Memory: Burns and the Scottish People (Edinburgh, 2016); C.E. Andrews, The Genius of Scotland: The Cultural Production of Robert Burns, 1785-1734 (Leiden, 2015).

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MONTHLY BLOG 132, IS TEACHING SEXY?

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Fig.1 Symbol for Infinity,
referencing the infinite unknown …
Image from Wikimedia Commons (2021)

It’s the author and playwright Alan Bennett who says that teaching is sexy. And, before the massed ranks of educationalists protest instead that their work is exhausting and under-paid, let’s clarify Bennett’s precise formulation. In The History Boys (2004), one of his fictional school-teachers states firmly that: ‘The transmission of knowledge is in itself an erotic act’.1

Of course, there are immediate qualifications to be made. Not all words voiced on stage can be taken as representing the playwright’s deep beliefs. Just as well, for otherwise it would be impossible to write a play about conflicting ideas and contested ideologies.

Nonetheless, The History Boys is infused with tenderness for adolescent boys on the verge of manhood. And the play is conspicuously sympathetic to close teacher engagement with the charms of youth.

So Bennett’s proposition stands, if not as his ultimate personal credo, then as a viewpoint worthy of serious consideration. And, by way of context, it may be noted that, in the early 1960s, the young Alan Bennett was himself briefly an apprentice History don at Magdalen College, Oxford.

First-hand testimony from friends, who had the benefit of his tuition,2 confirms that Bennett was an excellent tutor. He was not only knowledgeable and sagacious, but also very good at inducting baffled student beginners into the required skills for self-directed study. Some came from schools where they relied for information upon ‘teachers’ notes’. Such students were astounded to be given a booklist of 20+ massive tomes and told cheerfully to return in a week with an original essay. Bennett was good at demystification, without being patronising. And, if he was gaining erotic satisfaction from these pedagogic exchanges, he gave no outward intimation of any such state of affairs.

Yet it is still worth asking: is the transmission of knowledge an erotic act? Here this discussion rejects entirely all sexual exploitation of students by teachers. At any and every stage in the educational system, such behaviour is illegal and immoral – and almost invariably damaging to the exploited young. It may be noted, too, that, in The History Boys, the school-master Hector’s explanation of his fondling of young boys’ genitalia as part of the eros of transmitting knowledge, as in the Renaissance, is robustly rebuked by the head-master: ‘Fuck the Renaissance’.

But is there a deeper point to explore about the pleasures of educational exchanges? Something that is not directly sexual. Nor even particularly sensual.

Yes, there is. Indeed, there are genuine intellectual pleasures to be gained from the life of the mind, as well as of the body. The best moments of transmitting and debating ideas with others are exhilarating. It’s exciting to push collectively at the boundaries of knowledge, which reach to infinity. It engenders a genuine electric buzz of the mind. Such excitements are particularly associated with advanced level teaching; but they can occur in any context of intellectual breakthrough. Out of uncertainty into the light: wow!

No special terms comes to mind to acknowledge this joyous and far from everyday experience. Something that is not directly ‘sexy’ or ‘erotic’. But, as they say, something else.

Greek terms offer some range. It is understood that Eros, the god of love, comes in many forms. His/her manifestations are protean. So the lofty Greek agapé means a god-like, universal, and unconditional love. And there is another term, which falls between agapé and eros. It refers to deep, nurturing, supportive and non-sexualised friendship, known as philia. That’s a very pleasant thing to give and to receive.

However, good friendship is not really the same as the intense stimulus of shared intellectual endeavour. Dictionaries of synonyms offer variants such as ‘mental stimulation’ or ‘food for thought’.

All of those are nice. Yet those terms are a bit tame. So let’s simply say that there is a positive intellectual buzz to be derived from the shared transmission of knowledge.

Is the experience erotic? No. Does it happen in every teaching context? No. Does it happen often enough to add zest to the educational process? Yes. Is the intellectual buzz intensely joyous? Yes. It’s generating real intellectual electricity, with its own power and light.

ENDNOTES:

1 A. Bennett, The History Boys (2004), p. 53.

2 Those friends include my life partner, Tony Belton, who studied History at Magdalen College between 1961-64.

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