Welcome to Issue 1 of Stet, the new online journal of the postgraduate community in the English Department at King’s College London. The aim of Stet is simple: to provide a platform for postgraduate students to showcase their work. The journal is run exclusively by and for postgraduates, and was born from the desire to provide a depository for the important – yet often surplus – thoughts and compositions that form part of the process of producing a doctoral thesis or Masters dissertation: an online reliquary (if you’ll excuse the tenuous ‘link-in’ to our current issue) of the excellent work that the MA and research students at King’s produce each year. Stet provides a space for the publication of that piece of research that didn’t find its way into your final draft, as well as an opportunity to write in response to a themed call for articles, and, through the peer review process, to offer your work up for feedback from experienced research students with expertise in your field. Stet attempts to facilitate communication: across periods, across the divide between Masters and PhD, and – through its online location – across the academic and ‘public’ spheres.
In a 1968 essay entitled ‘A Sedimentation of the Mind’ the artist Robert Smithson addresses ‘the dying language’ of poetry as he writes:
Words and rocks contain a language that follows a syntax of splits and ruptures. Look at any word long enough and you will see it open up a series of faults, into a terrain of particles each containing its own void.8
The discipline of literary studies presents a continuous reliquary of fissures and fault lines that allow us to navigate our way through the lineage of the art of representation in literature. In choosing the theme of ‘Relics’, both for the 2010 King’s English Department Postgraduate Conference and for this first issue of Stet, we looked to initiate a conversation regarding the concept of ‘the trace’ within the literature that we study.
Works of art and literature struggle with the knowledge of their ultimate transformation into historical artefacts, a transformation of which our generation has become freshly conscious in the wake of the New Historicism. But this is nothing new: nearly seventy-five years ago J.R.R. Tolkien bemoaned the fact that the first great work of literature in that critical relic, the English canon, was no longer viewed as poetry, but as ‘an historical document’.9 Tolkien’s allegory of the tower of Beowulf, demolished by critics wishing to examine its individual stones, might be countered with a more modern construction metaphor: that of the Jenga game.10 The challenge for our generation is to draw out the historical traces from the works of literature we study while keeping hold of the formal elements that made them worth our attention in the first place, to extract the relics that add to the importance of the reliquary: to examine Smithson’s linguistic ‘series of faults’ and voids without losing sight of their place within his ‘terrain of particles’.11
In his poem ‘The Swan’, Charles Baudelaire discusses the new Paris as a city in perpetual flux, the cityscape continuously warped by the hands of developers. He writes: ‘[t]he old Paris is gone (the form a city takes / More quickly shifts, alas, than does the mortal heart)’.12 While the poet is unable to move with the changing landscape of the city, he recognises the shifts that are taking place. We might see the job of the literary critic in similar terms: to act as observer, and record the traces that are left by constantly evolving schools of literary practice. The recording, too, can become a relic: Baudelaire’s swan, ‘this hapless creature, sad and fatal myth’, bathing in the dust where once the lakes and rivers flowed, lingers as an allegory of the poet’s own faltering attitude toward the fluctuating city.13 Baudelaire admits:
Paris may change, but in my melancholy mood
Nothing has budged!
I think of my great swan, his gestures pained and mad,
Like other exiles, both ridiculous and sublime,
Gnawed by his endless longing!14
‘Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things’, writes Walter Benjamin.15 For Benjamin, allegories represent a problematic and troubling relationship between content and mode of expression.16 Baudelaire encodes his vision of the ruin of ‘old Paris’ in the allegorical swan. It is for the literary critic to navigate a way through the ruins of allegorical representation, and to trace the relics of the poet’s thought.
The authors whose articles appear in this issue respond to this challenge in a variety of ways, and part of what contributes to the breadth of the issue is their subtly different interpretations of the theme. Mary L. Shannon, Susie Christensen, and Kate Crowcroft are all broadly concerned to trace influence, to discern the relics of one writer in another’s work. For Crowcroft, these intertextual relics are historical: those of Shakespeare in Wallace Stevens’ late poems. For Shannon, what have become historical relics were once contemporaneous: her article examines analogues and exchanges in the work of Charles Dickens and G.W.M. Reynolds. Christensen profitably employs the Freudian concept of backformation when discussing the influence of the psychoanalyst Walter Bion on the works of Samuel Beckett. Rachele Dini, too, uses a Freudian lens to examine traces and fragments of the self in the work of Elizabeth Bowen.
The concept of the relic has a more concrete connotation for those working within the medieval period and Zachary Hines effectively intertwines historical analysis and literary criticism when discussing that medieval relic of communication, the rune, as exhibited on the giant’s sword in Beowulf. Jumping forward to the twentieth century, Simon Vickery considers whether digital artworks retain the potential to become relics, informing his argument with a close analysis of Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.
Producing this inaugural issue has, at every point, been a collaborative process. We are extremely grateful to all those who have offered help along the way: to the staff at the KCL Centre for Computing in the Humanities who encouraged and helped with development of the project, to those in the English department who answered questions, to all those whose names appear on the ‘Team’ page and in the list of contributors, but also to the anonymous peer reviewers. A grant from the Roberts fund enabled the creation of the website. We are both proud and excited to present to you this first issue of Stet, and trust that the reading of it may be as enjoyable as its compilation has been.
- Robert Smithson, The Collected Writings, ed. by Jack Flam, 2nd edn (California: University of California Press, 1996), 107. [↩]
- ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ in Interpretations of Beowulf: A Critical Anthology, ed. by Robert Dennis Fulk (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1991), 14-44 (15). [↩]
- Ibid., 16. [↩]
- Smithson, 107. [↩]
- Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Swan’, in Flowers of Evil (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1993), 175. [↩]
- ‘The Swan’, 175 [↩]
- Ibid., 175; 177. [↩]
- Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragedy, trans. John Osborne, (London: Verso, 1977), 178. [↩]
- See Jan Mieszkowski, ‘Art Forms’, in The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin, ed. by David S. Ferris, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 35-53. [↩]