Poetry and mud studies at Ashford Hangers Nature Reserve

By Lucy McIlwraith, Teacher of English
Photos by Matilda McMorrow, Librarian

In the English department at Bedales, we like to give students the opportunity to venture outside the classroom to gain a deeper understanding of literature. Over the last couple of years, we’ve visited Thomas Hardy’s cottage in Dorset while studying Tess of the D’Urbervilles; hosted a tea party as part of our work on The Importance of Being Earnest; enjoyed a midnight feast of exotic sensory delights to go with John Keats’ poem, The Eve of St Agnes; and held a fireside evening of poetry-by-heart for Block 3’s study of the oldest forms of English literature.

Our latest venture earlier this week gave a 6.1 English Literature class a first-hand experience of writing poetry in finest Hampshire mud. The set are studying Seamus Heaney’s first poetry collection, Death of a Naturalist, which includes lots of descriptions of water, slime and bogs. In order to get under the skin of poems that feature phrases such as ‘bubbles gargled delicately’ and ‘the squelch and slap of soggy peat’, it seemed like a good idea to don wellies (with thanks to Outdoor Work for lending some to white-trainered students) and wallow in the plentiful mud at Ashford Hangers Nature Reserve.

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Lectures on Othello, Ibsen and women in 19th century literature

By Thomasina Rowntree, 6.2 and English Don

Last week, the Sixth Form English Literature began their week with a trip to London to attend a series of lectures given on Shakespeare’s Othello. It was a brilliant opportunity which really enhanced our understanding of the play.

The first lecture was given by Richard Marriott on Dramatic Structure and the tragic pattern of Othello. He also spoke about the idea of ‘anthropological dualism’ which is transparent throughout the play, as characters are challenged by certain aspects of their personalities.

The second lecture focused on the importance of storytelling. This provided helpful context, as Dr Mason talked about Cinthio’s play, The Story of Disdemona of Venice and the Moorish Captain, which was Shakespeare’s only source material for Othello. She highlighted the changes that Shakespeare made and the significance these had, especially presentation of female characters.

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Julia Copus gives inspiring poetry reading at Bedales

Julia-Copus-with-students

By Thomasina Rowntree, 6.2 and English Don

On Tuesday evening the renowned poet Julia Copus came to Bedales to give a reading of her poems in the Theatre. The evening began with a drinks reception for sixth form students, which gave them the opportunity to ask Julia for creative advice. Julia engaged with all the students, taking note of their individual interests – such as songwriting – to make the experience a very rewarding one.

The reading started with an incredibly moving and poignant performance of her collection of poems, Ghost Lines. Using sound and recorded text to enhance the poems, Julia told the story of her experiences of IVF treatment. It was an emotive experience to hear poetry performed in a way that many of us had never experienced.

Julia’s poem, An Easy Passage, is a text that we study for English Literature A Level. Hearing Julia read the poem gave a very personal insight into the piece, transforming the way I perceived it. We were privileged enough to be given a copy of some of the drafts of the poem, stressing the creative process, rather than the poem as a finished piece.

Hearing Julia read and having the chance to speak to her was a fantastic opportunity for all those who attended. The evening ended with a delicious supper for a few students and teachers. Many thanks to the catering team for such amazing food!

Visiting Thomas Hardy’s Wessex

Last Saturday, a group of 6.2 English students visited Dorset to visit some of the key sites in Thomas Hardy’s life, to complement their study of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and some of his poetry. Here are two perspectives from the trip.

By Magnus Bashaarat, Head of Bedales

Thomas Hardy didn’t move far in his life; the distance from his birthplace in Lower Bockhampton to Max Gate, the house he built for himself on the outskirts of Dorchester once he had found success, is less than two miles.

First up was Hardy’s birthplace, a small cottage that has remained largely unchanged from when Hardy lived there with his parents and siblings. We were led there by National Trust volunteer Wendy, who led us through the woodland above the cottage and read to us some of the poems Hardy wrote inspired by the landscape.

The most ambitious part of the trip followed with our group walking through steady Dorset drizzle, following the River Frome across which Angel Clare had carried Tess in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, to Stinsford Church, where Hardy’s heart is buried in the family tomb.

Further walking across boggy flood meadow took us to Max Gate, and a meeting with Andrew Leah, Vice President of the Thomas Hardy Society, who lived at Max Gate for 17 years before the National Trust opened it as a visitor attraction.

Andrew gave us a tour of each room and described movingly the creeping melancholy that coloured most of Hardy’s married life at Max Gate, followed by the guilt that consumed him after his wife’s death. We sat in the study room in which Hardy wrote Tess, and then moved next door to the room he took over when he turned his back on writing prose and wrote only poetry until his death.

By Thea Sesti, 6.2

By walking from one of Hardy’s homes to the other, we explored the landscape and the place Hardy was so tied to and served as a backdrop for so many of his works.

We were at times accompanied by a National Trust guide who read out some of Hardy’s poetry in the Dorset woodland, which clearly evidenced the sensibility and attachment to nature he had from a young age and emerged so prominently in some of his later novels, like Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

Having studied the text as part of A Level English, we were able to draw comparisons between the then appropriately damp and evocative scenery we came across walking and that in the book, making us understand all the more the area’s impact on Hardy’s life as an author.

We were thus able to retrace his life’s journey as he moved from his family cottage to Max Gate, the house he built for himself and moved into with the first of two wives, following the rise of his wealth and fame.