Digital Romantics: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and "Radiant Textuality" in the classroom

Caspar David Friedrich's painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog with Internet logos in the distance


Jake Ptacek

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I’m teaching E 314L: “Reading Poetry” this semester, with a fantastic set of students of all levels of proficiency who really like to dig into the big issues motivating our poems.  Early in the semester when we read Donne and other metaphysical poets, our classroom discussions often coalesced around two or three centers of gravity for each poem.  Though opinions and readings about what the poems are up to might be divergent, we could normally, as a class, agree on a few choice passages as the cruxes for making meaning.

For the past few weeks, however, coinciding with our reading of Coleridge and Wordsworth, our discussions have been full of wildly divergent readings, where even coming to a consensus about where the poem’s center of gravity is up for (often exhilarating) debate.  Part of this, of course, is my students’ increased confidence in utilizing their close-reading skills and navigating emergent classroom relationships, as well as our focus on some longer texts.  But sometimes it seems that they’re not even reading the same texts.  And with good reason—they’re not.

I’ve tried assigning “works” (that is, novels, plays or poems) without assigning “texts” (specific editions) before, to mixed success, but this semester’s adventure into something close to Jerome McGann’s radiant textuality was the result of a few happy accidents.  The first is that I ordered for the course, sight unseen, a version of Lyrical Ballads that combined a reputable academic publisher with the siren-song of affordability.  But when the text arrived it rapidly became apparent to me that this particular version of the text didn’t work for my classroom needs, reprinting only the 1798 poems in their unrevised state, providing little introductory material, no bibliography, and no annotation to help curious students.  A fine book for a graduate course, but for an introductory class it simply didn’t suit our needs.

The second happy accident was our good fortune to be using a DWRL classroom equipped with state-of-the-art technology, which meant that I could encourage students to ditch this text while easily disseminating pdfs through our class website.  But a funny thing happened to those pdfs—while some students diligently printed out their packets and came to class with the traditional underlined and marked-up text, other students showed up with just laptops, iPads, even Kindles.  It quickly became apparent, too, that not everyone was reading from the pdfs I’d posted: some students were simply grabbing the text online from a variety of resources.  While this at first made my somewhat-compulsive inner bibliographer cringe at first, in the spirit of adventure I decided to play along, and even to encourage students to look at digital versions or editions of the poems.  Overall I think the experience has been salutary, though not without a few pixelated pitfalls.  What follows, then, is an initial report on the pleasures and pains of digital reading in the Romantic classroom.

Though McGann confidently argues in Radiant Textuality that physical archives are quickly being replaced by digital ones, in reality the process has been slower and less unilateral than theorists of the 1990s imagined.  While there are great hypertext editions of poems here and here (largely overseen by McGann himself), most authors still haven’t received any kind of extended bibliographic treatment as digital texts, despite the obvious power of the internet to assist Anglo-American, and especially genetic and social-text editing.  This means of course that caution has to be exercised about the accidentals—misspellings or misprints that creep in through transcription or by utilizing “faulty” editions.  The Victorian Web’s “Tinteren Abbey,” for example, is a place unmarked on any map.  But more than that, the web—or at least this iteration of browsers—levels out the distinctions between the various iterations of a text, as our class discovered when we read Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  Coleridge’s poem, of course, exists in at least two quite different forms: the archaic ballad of 1798 and the much-revised poem published in 1834’s Sibylline Leaves.  Over the course of 36 years Coleridge modernized the diction, added and removed a subtitle and argument, pruned the poem of some overt gothic material (the hand-of-glory sequence), and added those famous, inscrutable glosses.  Online texts aren’t always particularly good at identifying which version one is reading—and the glosses pose a particular problem in a digital layout.  For our class a serious downside to reading Ancient Mariner digitally was just this lack of identification, as students would read out line or point to passages that were missing, altered, or renumbered in other versions of the text.   At the same time this pandemonium of texts allowed us to talk about revision and problems of “authorial intent” in concrete and specific ways.

But what about relatively stable texts, like “Tintern Abbey”?  Our classroom discussion of the poem helped bring home to me the importance of context in constructing meaning.  A student confronted with the version presented in the very fine The Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry, replete with headnotes, author biography, and sound annotation confronts the poem in a very different context than a reader who finds it on, say, the Victorian Web.  Even apart from the lamentable (if pardonable) misprint in the poem’s title, by encountering the poem on a website devoted to Victorian literature one gets a very different perspective on the poem’s content and influence.  One sequences the poem next to its temporal contemporaries in the useful but arbitrary back-construction of “romanticism,” while the other puts the poem into a constellation that includes Sterne, Tennyson and Hardy—a no less arbitrary placement, but one that reveals different facets of the poem’s meaning and influence.  Similarly, a reader who comes across Rime of the Ancient Mariner here can see the poem in dialogue not only with other poems by Coleridge (as in our in-class reading) but with contemporary poets across a wide range of categories.

In all, I’ve been pleased with our attempts to pursue poetry on both a physical and digital front.  Though using unspecified digital texts of canonical poetry can cause a bit of confusion that takes precious class time to straighten out, at the same time it can help to break down the monolithic appearance of the canonical text by providing multiple avenues of access and context.  Perusing the text online, or in a variety of formats, can help bring back the strangeness and the newness of great works of literature, helping students see them not as dusty urns on a shelf but a vital and living part of our culture, and making students new readers.  


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