helpful and lazy scribbles

I came across the latest additions to my archive of library book annotations a couple of weeks ago in V. Tinkler-Villani’s, Visions of Dante in English Poetry: translations of the Commedia from Jonathan Richardson to William Blake (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1989).


Among various scribblings, two jumped out at me. The first is actually potentially helpful to other readers of the book, informing where a source a mentioned can be accessed: DSC_0380


The other, in a different hand, is frankly lazy – marking the conclusion of the book as a handy quotation to conclude the reader in question’s own essay: DSC_0383


Robes of Promise

In my final year of school, one of the texts I studied in English Literature was Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (another was Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience – my fledgling foray into Blake studies). The play, set in the early eighties, focuses on a group of eight boys at the fictional Cutlers’ Grammar School in Sheffield who are preparing for an entrance exam and interviews to gain places to study history at Oxford and Cambridge.


Studying the play whilst myself going through the process of applying for a place at Cambridge was somewhat surreal. Whilst the admissions process has changed in a number of respects (the seventh-term entrance exam is no more and efforts to widen access have improved), I could identify with the experience of the History Boys in some respects, particularly because my school, like Cutlers’ Grammar, had little experience of students applying for Oxford and Cambridge, and as such was feeling its way in its efforts to guide me through the alien application process.


At the end of one of my interviews at Cambridge, after the interviewer had already made closing remarks and I was gathering up my belongings, I was asked how I found studying the play whilst going through the admissions process. I don’t know if that was part of the interview; I suppose everything in an interview context contributes to the impression of the candidate. I can’t remember what I said, but whether or not it made a whisker of difference, I was lucky enough to get a place to study Theology at Magdalene and very much enjoyed my time there.


I’ve been prompted to cast my mind back to this experience recently for various reasons. Yesterday (9 May 2014) was Alan Bennett’s 80th birthday, so his name has been doing the rounds on Radio 4 and twitter (among other places no doubt), and last week I spotted Frances de la Tour, who played Mrs Lintott in the original stage cast and the 2006 film, in the British Library. But the chief reason is that I’m going back to Cambridge next week to collect my MA (by a peculiar tradition, a Cambridge BA matures into an MA; see details on the University’s website).


I’ve been back a number of times since finishing my degree, but this will be special in that it’s not merely a visit but, in a sense, the final rite of passage associated with my degree (as well as being probably the biggest reunion for members of my year at College). Among other rites and rules associated with the MA, the ceremony requires a different gown to the BA graduation, and, where once I felt like one of the History Boys, the prospect of robing up for my MA makes me feel like a figure from Blake-land.


As I’ve written before, Blake was quite disparaging about Cambridge; when he called Oxford and Cambridge “places of thought” in his poem Milton (13[14]:42; see another previous post), he was ironically referring to these universities as institutionalising “thought.” Milton is Blake’s imagined account of the poet John Milton’s undergoing a spiritual journey to correct his former errors. As part of this process, Milton “took off the robe of the promise, & ungirded himself from the oath of God” (14[15]:13).


The “oath of God” is the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, to which one then had to swear in order to be admitted to the University. Milton’s taking off “the robe of promise” is depicted in one of the illuminated book’s full-page plates. I didn’t and don’t have to sign up to the Thirty-Nine Articles and these days you can also opt of the Trinitarian formula by which degrees are traditionally conferred (see the University website’s outline of the ceremony). Nevertheless, when I come to robe up next week, I know I will feel like an anti-icon of the plate from Milton.

among the starry wheels

…Cambridge & Oxford & London,

Are driven among the starry Wheels, rent away and dissipated,

In Chasms & Abysses of sorrow, enlarg’d without dimension…

Jerusalem 5:3-5


Blake didn’t think much of Cambridge (not that, as far as I know, he ever visited). As a bastion of Anglicanism and the institutionalisation of learning it stood for much that was anathema to his vision of Imagination; but Imagination, or at least, imagination, was alive and well in the English Faculty this weekend at the postgraduate conference “Adam’s Dream: Imaginative Incarnations in the Long Eighteenth Century.”

As an alumna of the University, it is always delightful to visit the city, and as well as attending the conference, it was a good chance to catch up with some old friends. In our undergraduate days, a favourite postprandial jaunt was a walk up Castle Mound to survey the city and the stars, a tradition upheld on the evening of my arrival, although unfortunately there were no starry wheels (dissipated or otherwise) to be seen amid clouds that burst the following day.

I gave a paper on Blake’s illustrations to Paradise Regained, which I think are among Blake’s finest creations but have been undeservedly neglected by Blake scholarship. I was particularly pleased to be able to give my ideas on these designs an airing in Cambridge as they are in the collection of the Fitzwilliam, the University’s art and antiquities museum. Regrettably, I wasn’t able to actually see the designs during my visit because they are not normally on display and the study room was closed during my visit, but it will be a good excuse for another visit at some point!

Other papers covered a wide range of material in terms of genre, content and chronology, and addressed their sources from a variety of approaches which made for very rich discussions which threw up fertile, and sometimes unexpected points of connection between different pieces of research (which is what makes for a good conference, but doesn’t always work out so fruitfully). I’ve come away with a long mental list of things I would now love to find the time to read (which I should probably write down to increase the chance of my actually getting round to it) and yet more stimulating thoughts to bring to bear on my research.

So I have to disagree with Blake. I’m not quite sure how to unpack his image of being “driven among the starry Wheels, rent away and dissipated, In Chasms & Abysses of sorrow” — are the starry wheels negative, or simply the darkness between the stars? I’m going to run with the latter here: even if the starry wheels of the sky were hidden on Friday, we were among them at the conference, with not a chasm in sight!