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ICR 2019 Keynote: Seasonable Months, Warming Skies. Reviewed by Ross Wilson

Wednesday, December 11, 2019 - 16:12

Romanticism Now and Then

International Conference on Romanticism

July 31-August 2, 2019


International Conference on Romanticism
Manchester 2019
Keynote Lecture: ‘“Middle Summer’s Spring”: Seasonable Months, Warming Skies’

Anne-Lise François (University of California, Berkeley)

Reviewed by Ross Wilson (University of Cambridge)

I grew up in Manchester, the venue for this year’s International Conference on Romanticism. Manchester is famous for its weather – not like California or the South of France are famous for their weather: no, Mancunian weather is grey and wet. And there is a distinctive quality to Mancunian wetness. I remember childhood days on which, even when it wasn’t raining, it was still, somehow, moist, Atlantic rain clouds trapped up against the buffer of the Pennines to the east dispersing a kind of inverse miasma from above. When it did rain, it wasn’t often dramatic, thunderous rain, but instead seemingly (only seemingly) gentle, insidiously penetrating drizzle – mizzling, my dad (a native of the much drier East Riding of Yorkshire, well to the east of the Pennines) called it. 

The rain that hammered down outside the windows of the Whitworth Gallery – the venue for Anne-Lise François’s keynote lecture and one of the jewels in Manchester’s richly studded civic crown – was not typical Mancunian rain. It was one dramatic downpour in a sequence of such downpours that had caused the weakening of a reservoir dam in neighbouring Derbyshire, leading to the evacuation of the town of Whaley Bridge and presenting Boris Johnson, the UK’s then new Prime Minister, with a photo opportunity in a military helicopter over the affected area. There was something bitterly appropriate in the fact that global heating had delivered some life-threatening extreme weather to the cradle of the industrial revolution. And that meteorological backdrop was also troublingly appropriate to a lecture that began with recent alarming developments in the unfolding disaster of global heating, before going on to encompass industrial and agricultural history, the politics of climate change, plant phenology, advanced interpretation of Heidegger, Keats, Shakespeare, and the deep history of human and primate reproduction.

At the heart of François’s wide-ranging talk was the disturbance that, to borrow Andreas Malm’s term, fossil capital has wrought on the relation of the earth to the sun. Drawing on Malm, but also on Heidegger and the unjustly neglected Marxist historian of agriculture Colin Duncan, François set out how human beings have sought to slip the moors of seasonality in order to foster and indulge a fantasy of the permanent availability of goods – which is a fantasy, not least because one major consequence of the release of the power of the sun stored in fossil fuels is to trap it all over again, only this time with devastating consequences in the atmosphere. But François was careful to note that the attempt to break free from the rhythm of the seasons is not solely a feature of industrial society. For one thing, as Duncan argues, the major innovation of the Neolithic farming innovation was to impose monocultures of selected crops, to harvest and thus destroy them prior to maturity, and to store them for after-consumption. For quite another thing, François drew on the work of both evolutionary biologists and the philosopher Donna Haraway, to suggest that the acquisition of the menstrual cycle in primates, and the disappearance of discernible monthly markers of female fertility in humans, already entailed a weakening of the seasonality, so to speak, of primate, and especially human, reproduction.

The concerns of François’s lecture with the most fundamental consequences of global heating and the emergence of a new, post-seasonal world order were, then, thoroughly grounded in scrupulous but imaginative engagement with an impressive range of philosophical, historical, and scientific work. The lecture was, that is to say, a first-order contribution to something like ecocritical theory – though I’m not altogether sure that François would welcome the application of that term to her work. But in any case, it was much more than that. As readers of her widely influential book, Open Secrets: The Literature of Uncounted Experience, will know, François is an extraordinarily adept and subtle reader of literature. The lecture’s twin literary focal points were Shakespeare, especially Titania in her most beguilingly imaginative moments, and Keats, including not only his own verse, but also his marginal commentary on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which, as François rightly noted, constitutes some of the best literary criticism on the play. Drawing on Willard Spiegelman’s signal reading, François discussed in detail Titania’s wistful imagination-cum-recollection of the mother of Titania’s changeling child, in which Titania envisages sitting on the sand with her mortal acquaintance where they would

[laugh] to see the sails conceive,
And grow big-bellied, with the wanton wind: 
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait,
Following her womb, then rich with my young squire,)
Would imitate […].

The latent mockery of male reproductive impotence – the nearest men can come to growing big-bellied is in the image of the sails of their ships, dispatched around the world to plunder its riches – is a key element of Titania’s imagining. Elsewhere, Titania was advanced by François as an important corrective to the temptation – natural, perhaps, at the moment of planetary seasonal collapse – to indulge in nostalgia for clearly definable, temporally locatable seasons. 

So far, so Shakespearean. But ‘Shakespeare’ is always also an inheritance of many great Shakespeareans – Keats, though he left no literary criticism in any conventional form, but rather in familiar letters and marginal glosses, far from the least among them. Keats’s delightful, delighted commentary on Titania’s riposte to Oberon during their first encounter in Act 2 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – ‘And never, since the middle summer’s spring, / Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead’ – is worth quoting here, both because the passage in Shakespeare Keats is commenting on has perplexed many an editor of Shakespeare, their breezy clarifications notwithstanding, and because it is the passage from which François’s title (‘Middle Summer’s Spring: Seasonable Months, Warming Skies’) comes. Keats remarks:

[T]here is something exquisitely rich and luxurious in Titania's saying ‘since the middle summer’s spring’ as if Bowers were not exuberant and covert enough for fairy sports until their second sprouting – which is surely the most bounteous overwhelming of all Nature’s goodnesses. She steps forth benignly in the spring and her conduct is so gracious that by degrees all things are becoming happy under her wings and nestle against her bosom: she feels this love and gratitude too much to remain selfsame and unable to contain herself buds forth the overflowings of her heart about the middle summer. O Shakespeare thy ways are but just searchable! The thing is a piece of profound verdure.

François takes the uncontainable fecundity – the ‘profound verdure’ – that Keats reads in this curious, in some important respects ‘unseasonal’ usage of ‘spring’ as a crucial characteristic of his verse. François’s characterisation of ‘spring’ – after Shakespeare after Keats – as ‘a time of reproductive possibility’ and hence when entities usually closed in upon themselves momentarily come into contact would do well as a characterisation of Keats’s verse-practice quite generally: think, for instance, of Keat’s daring rhymes, castigated as the Cockney impertinence bringing together what should stay apart.  It was a virtuoso aspect of this lecture that it concluded by bringing its concerns with the future effects of the turning of the world to bear on the effects of the turning of Keats’s verses. With recourse to an interesting essay by her Berkeley colleague, the verse metrist Kristin Hanson, François drew out what she memorably called the ‘slight décalage’ affecting the couplet ‘Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine, / With sweet muskroses and with eglantine’: the subtle noncoincidence of rhyme and metre in the slight mismatch of the fore-stressed ‘woodbine’ and the terminally stressed ‘eglantine’ serves as an allegory for the seasonal distinctiveness of the plants they name.

Needless to say, the prosodically inclined in the audience for this excellent lecture were sufficiently nerdish to want to know more about those concluding claims (I can say that: I was one of them). Perhaps one marker of a lecture’s quality is the range of questions is provokes – and in addition to questions about the minutiae of Shakespeare’s verse practice and Keats’s reading of it, this lecture provoked a question about the potentially troubling consequences of Anna Tsing’s and Catriona Sandilands’s concept of ecological refugia which François deployed in sketching some slender hopes for our globally heated world; a question about the gilets jaunes, diesel taxes, and work-time; and others besides. ‘Middle Summer’s Spring: Seasonable Months, Warming Skies’ represented an exciting further development in François’s vital work at the site where Romantic poetry and literary criticism confronts in advance the world that we have created and destroyed. Romanticists and literary critics will await its further development with eager anticipation.