Seminar 4: Landscape as Literature

This month’s seminar focused on Landscape as Literature and was led by Dr Miranda Griffin, the seminar’s co-convenor and Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics. She was joined by her Murray Edwards colleague, Dr Leo Mellor, Roma Gill Fellow in English. Ranging chronologically from the world of medieval French romance to the Arthurian landscape of twentieth-century Anglo-Welsh poet, David Jones, they explored multi-layered literary wastelands, taking as stating point the stratified landscape of a manuscript, printed and hand-written page. What emerged was a palimpsestic history of various fragmented, intertwined wastelands through time.

Our first stop on the journey was the late twelfth-century Le Conte du Graal, whose terre gaste is a  shifting landscape, both in topographical and textual terms. Focussing on one specific version, the thirteenth-century Picard manuscript, Mons, Bibliothèque de l’université de Mons-Hainaut, 331/206, Griffin explored how Perceval’s wasteland acquires contours in the light of the two preceding texts in the manuscript, L’Elucidation, a deliberately disorientating origin-legend for a desolate landscape, and Bliocadran offering glimpses of hope. Discussion of the role of humans in the landscape continued a theme of earlier seminars; in relation to Perceval, those cultivating the landscape also cultivate the story, since they can most accurately reveal events.

Storytellers are also pivotal in the work of David Jones, his poems layered maps made from stories with storytellers therein telling stories about the stories being told. Mellor’s primary focus was Jones’ lengthy, late poem, The Sleeping Lord, its Arthurian core being in dialogue with medieval sources and themes. Jones’ awareness of a deep history below the landscape was manifested in his interest in an underground Arthur. In his Arthur is also embodied his idea of the multiple temporal and spatial layers of landscape coming together in one creative space. The tangible dimension to that significant spot was Jones’ own mise-en-page. It codified the imaginative possibilities of an agoraphobic poet who had himself retreated from the landscape, as was noted in the ensuing lively discussion.

That discussion also explored the seasonality of landscape and how that is expressed through language in medieval authors, and in Jones. Our exploration of the human influence on the landscape will continue, but also of the landscape on people, as evident in the traumatic dimension to the wasteland expressed across 800 years by medieval French authors and by David Jones.

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