Study Abroad: Bitter About Blake
By: Justin Jones (justin) 2013.10.04
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The program was short and sweet. We were going to spend one month studying the radical literature of 1790s London while actually living within a few blocks of where it all happened. The program's focus was on William Blake, an enigmatic poet and engraver whose complex system of metaphors and images made his work nearly indecipherable, even to well-trained scholars.
This mysterious madman was largely responsible for my decision to study abroad in London. Back in my early years at UCLA, I was introduced to some of his work in a lower division British literature class. We were discussing his mock-biblical prophesy, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell", and everyone had their own opinions as to what he really meant. The poetry was amazing, but the discussion was all hypothetical babble, opinions, and other English major nonsense. When it came time for me to give my interpretation, I said I didn't have one. I told the TA that there was absolutely no way to know what Blake was actually thinking, or what he intended us to think when reading his work. I wasn't even sure there was any meaning in it at all.
That was what brought me to London. I needed to get away from all the opinions and possibilities and all the maybes. The simple fact of the matter was that as college students in 21st century America, we were just too far removed from the material to fully understand it. I couldn't go back in time, but at least I could go back to the motherland, back to the city that spawned William Blake and all of his poetry.
A 40 MINUTE TUBE RIDE
We were staying in central London at a hotel on High Holborn. We were a group of about 15 students accompanied by Professor Saree Makdisi from UCLA, who was an expert on Blake. With Makdisi as our guide, we studied London's history by touring the city, comparing present-day London to faded maps of 18th century streets.
In lecture we learned about the London Corresponding Society, a group of radicals vying for parliamentary reform at the end of the 18th century. Blake was known to have attended LCS meetings so we were eager to find out more. We decided to take a field trip to The National Archives, where we would be able to sort through actual handbills and faded scraps of paper from LCS meetings. This was exactly the type of immersion that I was looking for when I signed up to come to London.
We took the 40 minute Tube ride all the way to Kew Gardens, almost to the end of the line. Hidden among the picturesque suburban town was the massive network of buildings and warehouses that made up The National Archives. They had everything here and it was all at our fingertips. once inside, we were ushered into a strange glass room-within-a-room where we ordered up some material related to the LCS. A short while later, the workers brought us boxes and boxes of crumbling bits of paper and let us go to work. There were hundreds of pamphlets and obscure documents with the LCS insignia stamped on them in faded ink.
I had half expected to find notes written by Blake himself, or transcriptions from the meetings that would reveal Blake's political philosophies and artistic principles. All I really had were too many pieces of paper to know what to do. In the adjacent warehouses there were hundreds more boxes where these came from, and I began to realize that this wasn't going to be as easy as I had thought. While it was certainly interesting to dig through the piles of old historic documents, I left The National Archives slightly discouraged. It would have taken years to sift through those archives and make any sense of it all. Blake's meaning remained illusive and I was beginning to feel more lost in London than I had felt back home.
A PINT OF SOMETHING BITTER
I needed a break. My studies seemed to be leading nowhere and I was feeling a little burned out. Really, I needed a beer. My American compatriots and I decided to explore the local pub scene. Our explorations eventually brought us to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Pub. The name alone was enough to lure us inside. The place was a maze of dark wooden hallways leading to multiple bars and smoky sitting rooms. I ordered a pint of something bitter from the downstairs bar and sat down at a roughly cut wooden table with grooves that were probably older than I was. In true British fashion, I commenced drinking my midday pint and rolling my own cigarettes to add to the smoky ambiance of the room.
The Cheshire Cheese not only epitomized the old London pub scene, but it was also a former haunt of literary greats like Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens. A portrait of Johnson hung on the wall, and there was a stuffed parrot in a glass case nearby. This was where I needed to be, drinking pints of bitter draught and communing with the spirits of literary greats in their old hangouts. But Blake was still nowhere to be found.
I was beginning to feel a bit more at home in London, and as my explorations took me further I began to see just how culturally diverse the city was. I perused the local markets with stalls selling fresh vegetables and antique trinkets, and I ventured to the slums to visit dirty underground punk music venues. The Brick Lane street markets offered an escape from the loud traffic and frenzied pace of central London. I wandered from one stall to the next, skimming through old books and picking at pins and doodads, supposedly antiques. I talked with a kooky bookseller for a half an hour about the American author, Raymond Carver, but he refused to sell me a volume of his short stories, saying I should pick something more British. I was beginning to really enjoy the steadfast resolve of my new British acquaintances, and I saw that there was much more to the city than just its legendary writers of yesteryear. There was history, yes, but there was also a unique character and culture that pervaded the city and its inhabitants.
JUST ACROSS THE THAMES
During one of our last walking tours of London with Professor Makdisi, we crossed the River Thames via Blackfriars Bridge and headed towards Fleet Street. I had walked this way before and everything here was familiar. We walked past old buildings whose bottom floors had been invaded by Starbucks and fancy new restaurants. Makdisi informed us that we were walking in the centuries-old footsteps of William Blake who used to live just across the Thames. These buildings used to be seedy orphanages and brothels. We spotted the former location of the notorious Newgate Prison and various churches of historical significance. Blake lived in this world of prisons and orphanages, not of coffeehouses and fast food. I just hadn't been able to see it before.
In his poem entitled "London" Blake wrote of blood running down walls and of infants crying out in fear. This dark poem was beginning to make sense to me not only as a lyrical masterpiece and a radical political statement, but as a realistic depiction of Blake's life. I could imagine the orphans being used as slaves to clean chimneys and the political prisoners hanging in the gallows. I could see Newga's imposing walls standing as a warning to would-be radicals like Blake. I realized that the poem wasn't imagined, but sprung from the real life experiences of Blake. Experiences that Blake had right here on these streets that were now so much changed.
This realization was what made the trip meaningful to me. This was why I came to London to study. Makdisi was great, but in many ways, the city was my real professor. It made the words come alive and showed me the centuries of history, laid in cobblestone alleyways and old brick buildings. It made the words stand up from the page and lead me through streets and into museums and churches and ancient pubs. The literature I was studying finally had a home. Unfortunately, it was time for me to leave.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
My program was over, but I still had two months of summer left to travel and a research paper to write while on the road. When I finally got around to writing the paper, I was in Istanbul, Turkey. I spent three full days cooped up inside a sweaty Internet cafe, listening to the loudspeakers of the local mosque sing out eerie calls to prayer while trying to organize too many pages of research. As tram cars squealed by below, running on new steel tracks bolted to old cobblestone streets, I couldn't help but think of what I had learned in London. I needed to go out and have a beer, or drink Turkish Tea and haggle for saffron at the Spice Bazaar. I knew that Turkey had just as much to offer as London did, and now I knew how to appreciate it. I needed to let Istanbul be my teacher just as London had been.
When I finally finished that paper, I walked down the three flights of stairs and stepped out into the evening. I was eager for new experiences, and just like London, Istanbul was eager to provide them.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT PROGRAM
When Choosing a study abroad program, it's important to know what you want to get out of your experience. Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help get you started.
IS THERE A SPECIFIC COUNTRY YOU ARE INTERESTED IN?
Maybe you know a little French, or you're family is from Brazil and you want to get back to your roots. Whether it's the music, the architecture, the language or the history, it's always good to have some kind of connection with the place you are headed to.
IS THERE A PROGRAM IN A COUNTRY THAT IS RELATED TO YOUR MAJOR?
If you study biology, take a program in a Costa Rican rainforest. If you love Shakespeare, go to Stratford-upon-Avon. There is no better way to connect with the material you are studying than to live where it's all around you.
DO YOU WANT TO STUDY OR PARTY?
Sure, you'll probably do a bit of both, but some programs are less intensive than others. Talk to other students about their experiences or even ask your study abroad advisor; they'll probably know where to send you.
ARE YOU GOING TO MISS YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS BACK HOME?
Probably not, but if you get easily homesick, you might consider enrolling in a short program.
SHORT TERM VS. LONG TERM
Many colleges offer short summer programs as well as programs for a full semester or even a year. To choose, it's important to know the advantages and disadvantages of both.
-Short term programs are usually offered in the summer, and can fit into your academic schedule better than longer programs.
-Some of the shorter programs only last a month, giving you extra time for summer travel adventures.
-With long term programs, you have more time to experience the culture you are living in. If you are learning a new language, a longer program can give you the immersion you need to help you towards fluency.
-Sergio Oliva, an International Programs Counselor at UCLA, says that their short summer programs can be easier to get into. "We accept Sophomores and we have lower grade requirements," says Oliva. Because of their lax requirements these programs can fill up quickly, so plan ahead.
-If a program is shorter, it may not be worth as many credits as a long term program. If it does count for a full semester, you should expect an intensive curriculum.
-Consider the cost of living in the country you are headed to. If you will be staying somewhere expensive, you might want to make it a short stay. If it's cheap, stay for a year!
Justin Jones is a travel writer and the founder of World Travel Buzz. You can follow his adventures at JustinWasHere.com