Henry Stead: Amateur Astronomy


Not many people know this, but I’ve recently become pretty obsessed with the night sky. It all began when I came across a man called Roger Langdon, who lived in the Devonshire valley where I grew up. Born in 1825, he began his working life as a farmhand. He ended it as the much-loved and highly eccentric stationmaster of the small village where my dad worked and the train no longer stops. But he was also an astronomer.


When Langdon worked nights on the railways as a switchman, he used to gaze up at the fiery heavens and track the movements of the cosmos. Later, he built telescopes to see further and observe the celestial bodies in greater detail. He even pioneered a photographical technique of capturing the transit of Venus across the sun. I came across his autobiography one day, and discovered that he studied ancient Greek in evening classes for a halfpenny a week.

So, now I’m learning about the night sky, and I’m doing it through Roman poetry, obviously… I’m homing in on the stars in the poems of Ovid, Catullus and the rest, and using their poetry to learn about the sky. This, in turn, informs my understanding of the poems that I translate and teach. It’s a trialogue. The kind of trialogue a classical receptionist knows well.

Langdon02-213x300Langdon was considered a humble scholar of the sky. He would also have been a humble student of Greek. In fact, beginning any new area of study demands high levels of humility. That, I think, (since you ask) is one of the toughest challenges for those embarking on a classical reception study. Not necessarily the act of ‘being humble’, but the requirement of humility. As a trained classicist, when you begin focussing on your chosen reception context – i.e. your slice of the modern world – you have, in some senses, to begin again, to start out afresh in a field not yours. Alternatively, or (better) additionally, you need to work closely with specialists in other fields. This can be both exhilarating and on occasion daunting. But to establish a fruitful trialogue – there is no other way (or none that I know about). I heard somewhere recently that humility is the gateway to knowledge. Makes sense. All professionals begin as amateurs, and an amateur is someone who loves something.


My first Classical Reception project was a study of Catullus in the Romantic era. This arose from a humble hunch as an undergraduate student at Edinburgh that Keats had read Catullus. Eight years later my book A Cockney Catullus (2015) came out. What happened in between was a sharp and energising learning curve. More tangibly, there was also an MA in Professional Writing at London Metropolitan University, a PhD at Open and Oxford Universities, and a 3-year post-doc at King’s College London.

What I thought I knew about the Romantic era was quickly sloughed off, and I soon became a bit like Keats’s “watcher of the skies”, but a whole caravan of new planets was continuously and noisily free-swimming (with floats and wave machine) in my ken. It was through endless conversations and consistent collaboration with Romanticists (not to mention excellent supervision) that helped me bring that rowdy ken to some order. My unusual vantage point, or way in (i.e. my search for the Romantic-era Catullus), meant that I was turning up and mulling over material other Romanticists were not. So, the flow of information was not always in just one direction.


Now that Prof. Edith Hall and I have finished the bulk of the research on ‘Classics and Class’ — our book (The People’s History of Classics) will come out in 2017. In the meantime, I’m embarking on a new enterprise. In May 2016, I move to The Open University where I’ll conduct a Leverhulme-funded research project investigating the influence of the Russian Revolution and communism on British culture in the 20th century — through the lens of classics, of course.

In 2014-15, I co-developed with Edith Hall and taught on the new undergraduate Classical Reception Studies module at King’s College London, which is still running, and have always in my teaching of Latin texts tended to incorporate looking at the best (and sometimes the worst) translations and versions of the ancient poets. I find a critical focus on translations helps build an intimacy with the original. The fact that I translate, write and (variously) make my own work – poems, plays and the like – also influences my practice as a researcher and teacher. But that is another story…


For this post, I’ve been asked to mention my influences. I suppose I could write a catalogue of those many generous people who have worked with me across the years. But this is not the Oscars… I admire countless colleagues for different reasons, but my main inspiration comes from the people I study and the words they write. So, Roger LangdonDic of Aberdaron, Enid Stacy, Joe Guy, George Martin, Phyllis Wheatley and Ernest Rhys… to name just a handful.

My advice for graduates with similar interests to me?




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