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Commonplace bedrock for the sublime

Thursday, July 23, 2009

IT’S CURIOUS HOW SOMETIMES the most quotidian of objects can lead us to elevated considerations and reflections. (It happens a lot on vacation, as I have been lately.)

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, especially since I’m such an admirer of William Wordsworth, whose entire poetical cannon is based upon that notion – it’s most famously exemplified (too famously, really) in his Daffodils poem. That’s the taut, and oft-quoted four-stanza work in which he rapidly expands from the microcosm of those cheery yellow flowers to some evocative macro-philosophy about the wealth we possess in human memory, and in the “inward eye” of solitude.


My own reverie is prompted by a new book with the plain subtitle of The Art of the Table (and how much more quotidian can you get?) which comes from the indefatigable Tricia Foley, creator of many house-decorating books. But obviously it’s her main title, AT HOME WITH WEDGWOOD (published by the Clarkson imprint of Random House) that provides our cue for a widening journey.


Like many a British émigré, I cherish the pieces of chinaware in my home that originate in the smoky kilns founded by Josiah Wedgwood, in the rightly-named “Potteries” region of Middle England exactly 250 years ago this year. Quite apart from starting a business that turned Wedgwood into probably the world’s most renowned name in ceramics, this Staffordshire family of originally modest means has played an vital, if generally unacknowledged, role in English literature.


Money of course was the key. Paterfamilias Josiah’s two sons, Josiah Wedgwood II and Tom Wedgwood were admirers, then friends and then patrons of both Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the co-leaders (even, many would say, the personifications) of the English Romantic Movement.


The Wedgwood brothers took an enormous interest in their era’s intellectual movements, from feminist Mary Wollstonecraft to philosopher William Godwin, political sage Edmund Burke, and scientist-inventor Humphry Davy. Tom was the more adventurous of the siblings and dabbled in drugs, sometimes taking advantage of Davy’s chemistry knowledge and experimenting with hash, opium and laughing-gas (nitrous oxide).


Coleridge, it’s known, was an opium addict, and he ended up getting a lion’s share of the Wedgwoods’ philanthropy. The family provided him with an annuity of 150 pounds a year for life with “no condition whatever being annexed” according to Coleridge’s letters of the time. (That would be about $30,000 in today’s money.)


This not-insubstantial financial bedrock was to prove essential for the poet to do his innovative work, since both he and Wordsworth endured life-long struggles for income - with Coleridge’s struggle made much worse by his addiction. And it’s incalculable how many great literary milestones … say, Kubla Khan, The Ancient Mariner, Dejection: an Ode (a draft of which he mailed to Tom Wedgwood) and Lyrical Ballads (the revolutionary Wordsworth-Coleridge collaboration) … we owe to the generosity of some once-humble pottery-makers.




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I DERIVE MY KNOWLEDGE of such inter-connections in the 18th and early 19th Centuries from the diligence of biographer Richard Holmes, whose two-volume life of Coleridge is an eye-opening masterwork on the Romantics.


He has also told the life-stories of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, as well as publishing FOOTSTEPS, a profound meditation on exactly what biography is. (The title reflects, in part, Holmes’ insistent habit of physically walking the same roads and pathways that his subjects walked.)


And now the biographer proves to be the perfect author to present us with THE AGE OF WONDER (brand-new from Pantheon Books) - an astonishing survey of the multi-disciplinary explosion that was the Romantics’ era.


The book includes, inevitably, scenes of both Coleridge and Humphry Davy (whom he invited to set up a laboratory in his and Wordsworth’s beloved Lake District)  experimentally inhaling laughing-gas. It also explores the combined scientific-philosophical-literary enthusiasm for aeronautics that was embodied in Europe’s gas-aided ballooning craze from the 1780s onward.


Fully justifying his subtitle How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, Holmes records how another polymath of that period, Benjamin Franklin, responded to someone’s flatfooted question “What’s the point of a balloon?” by asking in return “What’s the point of a newborn baby”.


It's with a somber nod forward to today’s times of indiscriminate carnage through airstrikes, that Holmes also cites novelist Horace Walpole’s more anxious - and prescient - concern that balloons would sooner or later be “converted into new engines of destruction”.


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  • 07/24/09 03:07 PM Charles DeFanti:

    You didn't mention that Susannah Wedgwood, eldest of Josiah's daughters, was Darwin's mother. Her fortune gave Charles the freedom to dabble in science. Another wrinkle. - Chas
  • 07/27/09 06:07 PM Ken Browne:

    Nice page. I really like it!

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