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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


Of “Poetry” and poetry: Wordsworth’s skates and other objects

By uclznsr, on 1 June 2017

In my previous blog post, I wrote about the encounter with death that visitors to any museum must face. Paintings, sculpture, artefacts from the past, even biological specimens: something living in these things is irretrievably lost as soon as they become museal; that is, framed or mounted, put on display for the consumption or consideration of an audience. In a museum, neither the fullness of an object’s historical life nor the vital potential of an artwork shorn from its context can be communicated, as long as the logics of museum display tend towards, as Adorno puts it, historical ‘reification’ or ‘the neutralisation of culture’.

The Nobel prize winning Irish poet Séamus Heaney seeks to offer a different account of the encounter between a museum visitor and an artefact on display in his poem “Wordsworth’s Skates”. Here, mirroring Adorno, Heaney ruminates briefly on the incapacity of museal objects from the artist’s life – the Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s ice skates, in this instance – to call up and materialise the authentic vitality of his life and work.

What could achieve this? Certainly ‘Not his bootless runners’ lying ‘In dust in a display case / Their bindings perished’. For Heaney, these heavy, steel-shod shoes are mere secondary instruments of a poetic life in both its aesthetic and biographical senses; objects that in mediating our relation to Wordsworth’s writing and history obscure the ‘reel of them on frozen Windermere / As he flashed from the clutch of earth along its curve / And left it scored’.

Wordsworth's Skates - via "Trails of the Unexpected"

Wordsworth’s Skates – via “Trails of the Unexpected”


However, reading this poem in this way has its limits. Even if Heaney is indulging in a critique of dusty museums, their capacity to drain life from the objects they seek to elevate, it is a critique that fails. The poem itself emphasises this artefact’s capacity as a symbolic entity to point to other literary, historical, cultural contexts – sometimes called “indexicality”. In that ‘Not’ which precedes ‘the bootless runners’, Heaney sets up a relation to the object, albeit a negative one, which implies that while this object does not provide us with an authentic experience of Wordsworth’s life or poetry, it does nevertheless relate to or index certain contexts, histories, and texts drawn from the viewer’s own experience or to which one can be guided. Those lines in Heaney’s poem, composed upon the occasion of contemplating a pair of weathered looking skates, guide us back to the stanza in Wordsworth’s monumental Prelude, where the poet describes himself ‘Proud and exulting like an untired horse […] hissed along the polished ice’. So not only does the poem emphasise the museum object’s indexical capacity to point to texts, contexts, histories, or even feelings outside its immediate physical boundaries. This poem is itself a response to that, to the failure of this object in one sense and, in another, an actual example of the productive power of objects on display.

Here then, is a museum object – pathetic in its obsolescence and in comparison with sublimity of the life and poetry it seeks to evoke – that nevertheless points Heaney and us to the material of that very life and instigates the creation of yet more poetic art. This echoes Ben Lerner’s formulation in The Hatred of Poetry, that there are in fact two types of poetry: “Poetry”, the sublime, transcendent aesthetic object, inaccessible (if ever) except in moments of brief and irretrievable illumination; and actually existing poetry, the text or material of the artwork, which always fails us in its attempt to communicate the timeless sublime. For Lerner, this is the source of his (loving) hatred of poetry, as well as poetry’s animating force. We might glimpse the heavenly through poetry, through text, much like a skater uses steel to slide with seemingly impossible ease over ice, but that frictionless grace, that flash of illumination, is either imagined or simply too fleeting to grasp. However, it is the desire for a lasting sublimity which animates this movement and it persists precisely because its object – the finality of the sublime – is unachievable.

Similarly, instead of lamenting the incapacity of the object as a mediator of “the thing in itself”, Heaney’s poem seems unconcerned with inaccessible transcendence and celebrates the existence of object in-between. He has form for this, of course: consider the metaphor of shovel as pen in another of his poems, “Digging”: a quotidian and unwieldy object that nevertheless achieves something significant, breaking the surface of the earth, excavating, making a mark.

That’s poetry, then. But what of museums and museum objects? And what of the objects in UCL’s Museums?

Consider the specimens in the Grant Museum – say, the preserved thylacine, once dissected by a man called “Darwin’s Bulldog”, T.H. Huxley, whose own scientific work and theorising was and still is greatly influential, and whose fame extends to his grandsons, Aldous and Julian Huxley, each of whom respectively made hugely significant contributions to literature and evolutionary science.

Preserved thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), Z1653

Preserved thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), Z1653

That the thylacine itself is not merely dead, but its species entirely extinct, emphasises the folly of indicting museum objects on display for being unable to recuperate authentic historical (or any other form of) life. What the thylacine specimen does achieve – the only thing it can achieve – is to point its viewers towards something else, some other context or text or idea. In my experience, this was that Huxleyean lineage of major scientists and authors, whose works on human evolution, the synthesis of Darwinian evolution and genetic science, and Utopian/Dystopian futures, have become central to my research on the relationship between literature and science. For all of its viewers, however, the thylacine points to its own death, brings the question of its own extinction to the foreground. This is encouraged by the Grant Museum, who display beside the thylacine a picture of the last one ever to exist.

Museum objects can never be what Lerner calls “Poetry”, and they will never communicate to us a timeless sublime or authentic historical life. But they can be poetry, in the materialist sense that Heaney’s poem brings to light: for it is precisely in their failure to be fully alive, as opposed to only being dead, that they function as relational objects which point us towards other places, ideas, texts, histories, or feelings and, perhaps, even towards poetic inspiration.