‘Romantic Nightjars’ by Dr David Higgins

Caprimulgus europæus. Nightjar, or Goatsucker, by John Gould (1862-1872) (via New York Public Library, Public Domain)

For the second night of our Nightjar Nights series running from the 8th–13th June, Nature Revealed: Tracks, Traces and Trails are pleased to be able to share a presentation from Associate Professor of English at the University of Leeds, Dr David Higgins. In this presentation, Dr Higgins takes us through the representation of nightjars in Romantic literature! You can access the video presentation below, or if you’d prefer, you can download the PDF and read at your leisure. Don’t forget – if you have your own stories, photos, or memories of the nightjar, you can share them with us at landlines@leeds.ac.uk (or tweet us here)!

In the interest of accessibility, we are making video transcripts available for our video content. You can download the PDF here:

Note from the Author

This talk draws on work that I’ve done for a history of modern British nature writing from Gilbert White at the end of the eighteenth century to the present day. The book (forthcoming with Cambridge University Press) is a key part of the Landlines project, and co-authored with Graham Huggan (the project leader), Christina Alt, and Will Abberley. We explore the complexity of nature writing as a form and how, rather than being escapist, it engages with the crises of the modern world: political, ecological, aesthetic. I’m leading on the chapter on Romantic literature (c.1780-1830). It is common to associate the poetry of Romantic authors like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge with nature.

William Wordsworth (left) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

And yet the period’s prose is equally fascinating and complex. Even in the present day, nature writing is hard to define because it brings together different kinds of discourse: ecology, geography, cultural history, autobiography, and more. Romantic prose nature writing is even more multifarious. However, it can be usefully distinguished from the technical natural histories that were widely available in the period. While all the writers I discuss were knowledgeable about the natural world, this knowledge was expressed in innovative writing that – in contrast with more encyclopedic studies – was personal, occasional, local, and understood nonhuman nature as an active force rather than as a passive object of study. The writers that I discuss found the nightjar a particularly curious and mysterious example of ‘nature in motion’.

The European Nightjar (1919) from the Biodiversity Library at Harvard University (Public Domain)

At its best, nature writing can change how we experience the world around us and strengthen our bonds with the nonhuman. Therefore, it is of wide interest; from its inception, the Landlines project has been focused on public engagement well as academic research. Nightjar Nights is the latest in a series of public-facing activities, in this case in collaboration with Natural England and the Leeds Library. These activities have been made possible by funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and by the hard work and creativity of many colleagues, especially Lucy Rowland, Pippa Marland, and Suzie Cross, to whom I am all grateful!

About the Author

Dr David Higgins is Associate Professor in English Literature at the University of Leeds and a member of the Land Lines team. His research moves across Romantic literature and the environmental humanities. His most recent book is British Romanticism, Climate Change, and the Anthropocene. He has yet to see a nightjar this year but will keep trying!

Join us again on the Land Lines website tomorrow evening, when we will release Sara Hudston’s ‘If It Be In The Dusk’   at 8pm!

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