Friday, October 30, 2009

P. B. Shelley's Alastor, (lines 192-205)

Roused by the shock he started from his trance—
The cold white light of morning, the blue moon
Low in the west, the clear and garish hills,
The distinct valley and the vacant woods,
Spread round him where he stood. Whither have fled
The hues of heaven that canopied his bower
Of yesternight? The sounds that soothed his sleep,
The mystery and the majesty of Earth,
The joy, the exultation? His wan eyes
Gaze on the empty scene as vacantly
As ocean's moon looks on the moon in heaven.
The spirit of sweet human love has sent
A vision to the sleep of him who spurned
Her choicest gifts.

This passage describes a psycho-spiritual condition that frequently recurs in Shelley's poetry and, indeed, that captures a familiar theme of romantic literature as a whole.

At this point in the poem, the Alastor Poet has been wandering through sites of ancient ruins while an "Arab maiden"—despite the Poet's neglect of her affections and even of her very presence—tends to his physical needs. Shortly thereafter, the Poet has an erotic, visionary dream in which he sees a "veiled maid" who seems to be his very soul-mate. In his dream, the maid—apparently a poet herself—sings about "Knowledge," "truth," "virtue," "lofty hopes," and "divine liberty," themes that mirror the most ardent thoughts and dreams of the Poet himself. Both the Poet and the dream maiden are enraptured, and eventually she gives in to the "irresistible joy" and "With frantic gesture and short breathless cry / Fold[s] his frame in her dissolving arms" (184-86). In a distinctly Shelleyan figure, visionary fulfillment is figured in baldly sexual terms. Such ecstasy does not last, and once the vision fades, the Poet is left with his solitary "vacant brain." The quotation above follows immediately on the heels of this visionary consummation. The Poet awakens with a start back in a cold physical reality which now seems inadequate—with "garish hills" and "vacant woods"—and he is left with nothing but questions: "Whither have fled / The hues of heaven that canopied his bower / Of yesternight?" Now he can only "Gaze on the empty scene."

This sense of extraordinary fulfillment followed by longing and emptiness suggests that Shelley has been reading his Wordsworth and his Coleridge. Wordsworth's Intimations Ode presents a similar pattern as his speaker is struck with a sense of loss and then wonders "Whither has fled the visionary gleam" (Ode, line 56), and Coleridge, in his "Dejection: An Ode" (written in direct response to the initial stanzas of Wordsworth's Ode), writes about a remarkably beautiful sunset: "And still I gaze--and with how blank an eye!" (Dejection, line 30). Alastor would seem to be Shelley's contribution to this poetic conversation, and the differences in how each poet copes with his particular post-vision depression are instructive. Wordsworth, famously, posits a notion of pre-existence which, if it doesn't necessarily rekindle the same sort of joy he once knew, at least provides an assurance that soul itself is immortal and thus destined for a realm beyond the mutability of Nature. Coleridge is not so optimistic. His own "Joy" has been extinguished by "abstruse research" (89) among other things, and it will not return for him, though his poem concludes with a prayer that Joy and solace might visit his beloved friend.

Shelley takes a somewhat different approach. Certainly his Poet-protagonist feels acutely the pain of a lost visionary fulfillment, but his response to that loss is to ignore the actual world (as he was oblivious to the Arab maiden who loved him and tended to his needs), and to orient his quest toward another encounter with his dream-ideal. Unlike Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley—at least in my reading—does not come to a decisive answer about the fleetingness of his encounter with this visionary moment of fulfillment. Instead, Shelley sees this interesting psychological/spiritual condition in the context of social ethics, and readers are left with a question: Are we supposed to admire the Alastor Poet's dedicated the pursuit of his ideal? Or are we supposed to question the value of such an other-worldly pursuit if it causes a real, mortal, natural world to seem inadequate by comparison?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Malthus, from the Essay on the Principle of Population

Thomas Robert Malthus was a "romantic" only by an accident of history; by temperament and thought he was anything but. Nonetheless, Malthus's ideas about population and economic distress were very much in play as writers from Charlotte Smith to William Godwin to Percy Bysshe Shelley considered the causes of the economic inequities that were themselves the causes of the political upheaval that was pervasive during the romantic period. Malthus was a fine writer and subtle thinker, but the idea for which he was most famous can be gleaned from these sentences from the opening chapter of his Essay on the Principle of Population... (1798, followed by several expansions and reprints).

1. The root cause of social and economic inequities "is the constant tendency in all animated life to increase beyond the nourishment prepared for it."

2. "[P]opulation, when unchecked, goes on doubling itself every twenty-five years, or increases in a geometrical ratio."

3. "[C]onsidering the present average state of the earth, the means of subsistence, under circumstances the most favourable to human industry, could not possibly be made to increase faster than in an arithmetical ratio."

The basic idea here is relatively simple from a 21st-century perspective already familiar with interpretations of culture and economics based on demographic and statistical data. This was news in the late 18th century:

If one thinks of economics in the broadest terms as the access to and distribution of the material means of survival (e.g. a species' access to food), then one of the driving forces of economic activity is captured in Malthus's tragic logic. The population of a species "increases in a geometrical ratio" (that is, populations increase exponentially) while the food supply increases in only "an arithmetical ratio." For example, suppose one husband and wife have four children, and, in twenty five years or so, each of these children has four children of their own who, in another twenty five years or so, have their own four children, &c. &c. Clearly this population will expand very rapidly. At the same time, however, the production of food can only increase comparatively slowly as new fields are opened, better agricultural methods are developed, and so forth. Even under "circumstances the most favourable to human industry," says Malthus, the food supply can only grow by an "arithmetical ratio"—that is, by adding a bit here and there, but not nearly so rapidly as the exponential growth in population. One might quibble about the exact numbers, but the simple fact, from Malthus's point of view, is that populations increase faster than food supplies, and, if unchecked, this leads inevitably to periodically repeated catastrophic starvation events which wipe out whole swaths of the population and thus restart the clock on the way to the next Malthusian catastrophe.

It's a simple, if tragic model for understanding the evolution and history of human societies.

But what does Malthusian theory have to do with romanticism? Well, a number of romantic writers were deeply concerned with revolutionary politics. The early Wordsworth was a great supporter of the French Revolution, William Godwin (and his son-in-law Percy Bysshe Shelley) were both advocates of the "perfectibility" of human societies, and the overwhelming political and economic question of the day had to do with the increasingly strained relationship between a small number of people with resources, power, and money and a larger number—the "lower orders"—who lived in desperate poverty and were sometimes on the brink of starvation. The reformers of the period were motivated by an idealism that dared to imagine a more perfect society of freedom and, if not universal wealth, at least more equitably distributed resources. Such idealistic thinking is everywhere in the period—from Godwin's "perfectibilitarianism" to Shelley's social idealism. One might even cite the Preamble to the new American Constitution with its emphasis on forming "a more perfect Union" which will "promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

Malthusian theory is a warning to such heady idealism. If Malthus is right, then the kind of "perfect Union" the reformers are imagining is simply not possible—and not because of some corrupt, greedy, and self-serving political or ecclesiastical establishment. Instead, the very expression of human passion, which Malthus identifies (for reasons obvious enough) as the root cause of the "geometrical" growth of the population, will need to be regulated or "checked." The only alternative is to spin ever closer to the destruction and despair of the next Malthusian catastrophe.

Malthusian thinking was, to say the least, controversial during the period. Conservatives tended to embrace Malthus's population logic, seeing it as a tragic explanation for the poverty of the "lower orders." In the most cynical of such appropriations, extreme poverty was portrayed as an inevitable and necessary condition since it held the overall population growth in check and thus prevented an even greater Malthusian catastrophe. (The fact that such logic also allowed persons of authority to sidestep responsibility for the misery of the "lower orders" was also useful.) Other writers saw some genuine potential in Malthus's thesis—by refraining from having children, the poor could materially improve their lot without necessarily resorting to some political revolution. Still others, saw the implications of Malthus but also saw a kind of heartlessness in treating people as so many demographic statistics and then justifying systemic cruelty based on such findings. Among these latter writers was P. B. Shelley who, in his Preface to Prometheus Unbound, says: "I had rather be damned with Plato and Lord Bacon, than go to Heaven with Paley and Malthus."

Friday, June 12, 2009

Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," lines 36-50

         Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

This is one of the most often quoted, most often remembered passages from Wordsworth's poetry. "Tintern Abbey"—for such the poem is almost always called, though the actual title is the ungainly "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey..."—offers an early formulation of Wordsworth's pantheistic philosophy. It may be the first full-blown expression of a Wordsworthian High-Romantic ideology (perhaps theology); much of the rest of Wordsworth's poetry is essentially an expansion on, clarification of, or reaction to the lyrically measured claims of "Tintern Abbey."

Prior to the quoted lines, Wordsworth describes the immediate "here and now" of the poem—a visit to the Wye Valley, ostensibly on 14 July 1798—and he then details the benign influences of his recollections of nature when, during the five years since his last visit, he was living "in lonely rooms, and mid the din / Of towns and cities" (26-27). Thus, the chronology represented in the poem thus far has a visit to the Wye Valley (in 1793, presumably) followed by a five-year span in which the poet was in a lonely urban space, and now in 1798 he has returned to the natural scene. This recent history allows the poet both to admire the beauty of the natural scene before him and also to reflect on the value of his recollections of that scene even when he is removed from its immediate presence. This last reflection is the focus of the lines quoted above.

Initially, when the poet is lonely and stuck in the city, his recollections of natural beauty offer a kind of psychological solace and comfort: they provide "tranquil restoration" in "hours of weariness." But this is something more significant than a mere psychological palliative against urban alienation. The recollections have a moral element since they are involved with "acts / Of kindness and of love," and they lead ultimately to the moment of spiritual vision recorded above.

The central idea of the passage is that contemporary life is confused and often oppressive—it is a "heavy and ... weary weight" that makes up an "unintelligible world." But these recollections of natural beauty serve as a sort of catalyst producing a "serene and blessed mood" which Wordsworth describes in terms that seem almost mystical. The ordinary motions of the "corporeal frame" (respiration, circulation of the blood, etc.) are "almost suspended" while the mind (or "living soul") can suddenly "see into the life of things." Clearly this is a visionary moment, a momentary revelation of some "life" beyond the ephemeral appearances of "things" and beyond the confusion and alienation of ordinary urban life.

One aspect of such a passage that I find particularly intriguing is the context it provides for Wordsworthian nature ideology. It is clear everywhere in Wordsworth's writing that nature, or, more accurately, a feeling response to natural beauty, is the source of psychological comfort, moral judgment, and now even spiritual vision. What is sometimes overlooked, though, is the necessity of some non-natural space as well, some space like the "lonely rooms" described in "Tintern Abbey." One cannot fully appreciate nature unless one can recollect images of nature from a vantage point outside of nature. That non-natural vantage point is thus an essential element of the psycho-spiritual development expressed here in "Tintern Abbey" and elaborated throughout Wordsworth's life in The Prelude.

Following through on this observation, I would suggest that calling Wordsworth a "nature poet" is much too simple if one sees the term in a sort of binary system where nature is positive and non-nature (i.e. the city) is negative. It would be much more accurate to identify Wordsworth as a poet concerned with the movement back and forth between natural and non-natural environments, for in that movement Wordsworth can trace the development of his own poetic sensibilities. The fact that Wordsworth was writing at a time when England itself was being transformed from an agrarian/agricultural to an urban/industrial culture likely has some significant relationship to this central thematic concern of his poetry.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Austen's Pride and Prejudice, iii.14 (or chapter 56)

Here is a late-novel conversation between Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Elizabeth Bennet. Lady Catherine has the first lines:

   "I will not be interrupted. Hear me in silence. My daughter and my nephew are formed for each other. They are descended on the maternal side from the same noble line; and, on the father's, from respectable, honourable, and ancient, though untitled families. Their fortune on both sides is splendid. They are destined for each other by the voice of every member of their respective houses; and what is to divide them? The upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune. Is this to be endured! But it must not, shall not be. If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere, in which you have been brought up."
   "In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal."
   "True. You are a gentleman's daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition."
   "Whatever my connections may be," said Elizabeth, "if your nephew does not object to them, they can be nothing to you."

It was once unusual to see Jane Austen in a political context, but passages like this certainly support such a reading. "The Spirit of the Age"—as William Hazlitt and others described the late 18th and early 19th centuries—was in large measure a spirit of revolutionary change. An older aristocratic/monarchic system preserved money, power, and cultural authority in the hands of a few dominant, titled families, and those titles were handed down through the arcane rules of primogeniture from one generation to the next. This was not a system to inspire and reward individual merit—one's place in the social order was determined chiefly by the circumstances of one's birth. The emergent social order, however, tended to emphasize and reward individual merit and individual judgment. It was a more democratic (and capitalistic) social order that allowed for much greater mobility among social classes and that granted some power and cultural authority to persons who did not necessarily belong to established, "respectable" families. In one sense, the political debates of the 1790s that set conservative writers like Edmund Burke against radical/reformist writers like Thomas Paine or Mary Wollstonecraft offer a microcosm of this social, political, and economic sea change.

The passage above is imbued with this debate. For her part, Lady Catherine offers an almost cartoonishly extreme image of the aristocratic concern with family wealth and noble status. She begins with a bald assertion of her sense of cultural authority by issuing a direct command to Elizabeth: "Hear me in silence." She follows with a detailed account of the Darcy/de Bourgh lineage and the further assertion that the "fortune on both sides is splendid." These are powerful aristocratic credentials that are supposed to awe Elizabeth into submission, and, by extension, to assert her own "ancient" rights to power and to keep such bounders as she imagines Elizabeth to be in the "sphere, in which [they] were brought up." Note that there is no place in this system even to recognize any individual merit in a person like Elizabeth. From Lady Catherine's point of view, Elizabeth is of a class that is to be kept in its place. The fact that the marriage that Lady Catherine hopes to encourage between her daughter and her nephew is vaguely incestuous (at least from a twenty-first century vantage perspective) simply underscores the jealously guarded intra-familial relations of the aristocratic system.

Elizabeth, of course, will have none of Lady Catherine's pretensions, though she does adopt a version of the "family heritage" argument. Her first response is to assert the status of her own connections: "I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal," and even Lady Catherine must acknowledge the validity of Elizabeth's claim (though she continues to question the "connections" on Elizabeth's mother's side). Of greater importance, however, is Elizabeth's argument that it is the nephew's—Mr. Darcy's—views that count here, not Lady Catherine's: "Whatever my connections may be, if your nephew does not object to them, they can be nothing to you."

Granted, one would not go so far as to claim Austen as a radical reformer, but there is a crucial difference here between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine that mirrors the logic of the political radicals. Lady Catherine's conception of the social order allows no place for individual judgment—everything depends on the historical and financial circumstances into which a person is born. But Elizabeth contends that such general claims of authority based on nothing more than social rank (e.g. Lady Catherine's initial command to Elizabeth) need to be subordinated to the concerns of the individuals involved. If what is at issue is a potential match between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, it is the prerogative of these individuals to decide their own best interests. The "ancient" aristocratic order is subverted by a new emphasis on individual judgment and individual merit.

The echoes of the socio-political debates of the period are obvious enough in a passage like this that pits the old-guard Lady Catherine against the plucky and self-reliant Elizabeth, and it is clear that the novel favors Elizabeth. This raises a broader question about Austen. Several posts here on Romanticism @ UAB have focused on the revolutionary moment of romanticism. Where exactly would Austen's novel fit into this debate? Does Elizabeth's individualism put her on the side of the radicals? Or do the portrayals of such well-tuned and tasteful estates as Pemberley put her on the side of the conservatives?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Byron's "Don Juan," Canto I, st. 93

In thoughts like these true wisdom may discern
  Longings sublime and aspirations high,
Which some are born with, but the most part learn
  To plague themselves withal, they know not why;
'Twas strange that one so young should thus concern
  His brain about the action of the sky:
If you think 'twas philosophy that this did,
I can't help thinking puberty assisted.

At this point in Byron's hilarious Don Juan, the young eponymous hero has just begun to emerge from his quirky moral education. Juan and the beautiful Donna Julia are falling in love, but Juan recognizes that, because Julia is married, any potential relationship is illicit. Recognizing his danger, Juan tries to distract himself. He wanders in the "leafy nooks" and seeks "self-communion with his own high soul"—Byron's parody of the stereotypical stance of the Romantic Poet (he mentions Wordsworth and Coleridge by name). And Juan tries to distract himself with sublime thoughts about astronomy, philosophy, and "the many bars / To perfect knowledge of the boundless skies." These are examples of the "Longings sublime and aspirations high" in the second line of the stanza quoted above.

Ordinarily we think of such "aspirations high" as motivated by some purely intellectual or spiritual calling. One seeks "perfect knowledge" as an end in itself—that which is beautiful or good or true (to borrow the Platonic trinity) is its own self-justifying end, and such perfection is typically assumed to be an intellectual or spiritual pursuit far removed from and unsullied by the base appetites of an actual physical, sexually interested body. The comedy of Byron's poem depends in part on his linking of the base and physical with the intellectual and spiritual. In the process, the "lofty" or "sublime" becomes a kind of side-effect of thwarted sexual desire—"If you think 'twas philosophy that this did, / I can't help thinking puberty assisted." The supposedly transcendent is brought crashing down to earth with all the slapstick of a dreamy stargazer slipping on a banana peel.

One way to understand what makes Byron's later poetry so funny is to consider a rhetorical figure called a "zeugma." With its origins in the Greek word meaning "yoke" (as one might yoke oxen together to pull a heavy load), "zeugma" has come to mean a yoking together of dissimilar elements. A corny example:

The senator departed for the statehouse, his mind inflamed by lofty principles and cheap bourbon.

Here the "lofty principles" that one might expect from a senator are yoked together with "cheap bourbon"—both are, in fact, parallel objects of the preposition "by," both are elements that might affect (albeit in very dissimilar ways) the senator's mind. The "lofty principles" are thus brought into a distinctly worldly context and the result, if all goes well, is the reader's knowing laughter. Pretensions are exposed, hypocrisy skewered. Byron's poem often adopts a form of zeugmatic thinking in order to produce its own sort of comedy. In the passage above, for example, poor Juan is himself motivated by both "philosophy" and "puberty"—one lofty and transcendent impulse, the other very physical and worldly. (An instructive exercise, by the way, is to identify passages that seem most likely to inspire the reader's laughter, and then see whether there is some zeugmatic structure involved.)

The point is particularly significant in light of romanticism's preoccupation with the connections between the human/natural world and some supernatural realm beyond (as captured in the title of a classic of romantics criticism from the mid-2000s, M. H. Abrams's Natural Supernaturalism). Byron, in an earlier moment in his career, descibed the condition of humankind as suspended between "dust" and "deity" and thus belonging to neither realm and perpetually discontent. In Manfred, unless one reads the drama as parody, this condition led to a kind of anguished and self-destructive alienation. Here in Don Juan, the "dust" and the "deity" are also linked, but the result now is laughter.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Coleridge's "Eolian Harp" (lines 44-48)

And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversly framed,
That tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

This passage comes from Coleridge's early "Effusion XXXV" (1795) which was later revised and retitled as "The Eolian Harp." The lines present one of the clearest statements anywhere of the pantheistic thinking underlying many of Coleridge and Wordsworth's early poems.

The poem as a whole develops the Eolian harp as an extended metaphor for human/divine relations and the origins of poetic creation. Eolian harps themselves are devices that function something like stinged-instrument versions of wind chimes. They are made of wood fashioned into a shape resembling an elongated hollow box/sounding board with strings stretched lengthwise inside. On either side of the box are holes to let the breeze pass through. The harp is then clasped into a window frame ("and that simplest lute / Placed lengthwise in the clasping casement" [12-13]), and, as the wind blows, the strings vibrate and create the "floating witchery of sound" (20) that here inspires the poet's musings on this otherwise tranquil evening.

For Coleridge, the Eolian Harp becomes a metaphor for human consciousness, especially the consciousness of a perceptive poetic mind. The structure of the metaphor works something like this: The human mind is analogous to the harp itself—well made and finely strung perhaps, but inert and passive unless activated by some external force. Taken literally, this external force is, of course, the breeze that causes the strings of the harp to vibrate; metaphorically this breeze is the flow of visual, auditory, even olfactory perceptions that inspires the thoughts and musings of the perceptive human mind (hence all the descriptive "here and now" detail of the poem's opening verse paragraph.) Following through on the figure, the music produced by an Eolian harp would, metaphorically, refer to those thoughts and musings—including poems like this one—that are produced by human intellectual and creative effort.

It is this line of metaphorical thought (recurrent, as M. H. Abrams and others have shown, in canonical romantic poetry) that explains the romantic fascination with nature in general and natural beauty in particular. Nature presents a beautiful, sometimes awesome, and constantly changing array of perceptions which flow through the attentive and receptive mind of the poet. The resulting poetry—that is, the music produced from the poet's mental "harp"—is thus a joint product of Nature and Mind, the inspiring breeze and the well tuned harp.

There are a number of significant implications of this model of human consciousness and creativity. One involves the (potentially heretical) religious stance of pantheism. As the speaker of Coleridge's poem muses on his current scene and as he develops and contemplates the Eolian harp metaphor, he suddenly generates the speculative question expressed in the passage quoted above. In effect, the speaker expands on the harp metaphor, considering that, if such a structure is applicable to human beings, then why wouldn't the same structure apply to "all of animated nature"? After all, humans are not alone in being equipped with the ability to perceive the natural world around them, so wouldn't cows and fish and foxes and the rest of "animated nature" be similarly harp-like? And further, if all creatures of "animated nature" are essentially "organic Harps diversely framed," then all are animated by the same "intellectual breeze" (the word "intellectual" meaning something like "non-material" or "metaphysical" here—see the commentary on Shelley's "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty"). Human beings and "animated nature" are thus all the instruments of a single metaphysical entity which might here be equated with Nature and which is, in effect, our single collective soul and our God. Though it's important to recognize that Coleridge expresses this idea as a speculative question rather than a philosophical or theological claim, the passage nonetheless stands as a singularly decisive statement of romantic pantheism.

In thinking further about this Coleridgean theology, it would potentially be fruitful to consider the pantheism of the focus passage here in the context of the repudiation that follows immediately thereafter. Why does Coleridge's wife cast a look of "mild reproof" on these speculations, and why does the speaker of the poem acquiesce in this repudiation of "philosophy's aye-babbling spring" (57)?

Another useful comparison would be to see the pantheism of "Eolian Harp" in relation to Blake's condition of Innocence as expressed, for example, in "The Lamb." Both identify a sense of common divinity between human beings, animals, and some inspiring metaphysical force. Does that mean that Blake, too, is a pantheist?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Blake's "London" (lines 1-4)

It's been a few weeks since I've opened my Blake, but he's the first poet I turn to when the semester is over and I have time to collect my better thoughts. I've been struck this week by Blake's epigrammatic writing. It's such remarkably rich poetry that virtually any couplet would serve as the foundation for a fruitful close reading. That said, I've decided to focus this week on the opening quatrain of "London" from the Songs of Experience:

I wander thro' each charter'd street
Near where the charter'd Thames doth flow
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In pointed contrast to the speakers of the Innocence lyrics (see discussion of "The Lamb," for example), the speaker here is embittered, alienated, pessimistic. He "wanders" through an urban landscape rather than through the pastoral scenes of Innocence, and his view of this space reflects the kinds of selfish exclusion and psychological isolation that are characteristic of Experience in general and modern city life in particular. In the first two lines, the repeated adjective "charter'd" underscores this sense. The word refers literally to some preemption for private use—as one might "charter" an aircraft or a bus, taking it out of general public service and using it for some private purpose. In the present case, both urban space ("each charter'd street") and even nature itself ("the charter'd Thames") have been appropriated to some private purpose and are thus not available—at least not available in the same way—to the speaker of the poem.

One might see this as a familiar complaint about urban life—that private property is held and controlled through legal or financial means, and that this fosters a sense of envy or resentment among those, like the speaker of the present poem, who feel themselves excluded. The speaker's analysis becomes even more emphatic in the next lines. Consider the word "mark" that appears three times in the space of two lines. The first instance is a verb, "[I] mark in every face I meet...." The meaning here would be something like "see" or "notice" or "remark," as in the familiar expression "Mark my words!" In the fourth line, "marks" is a noun which means something like "signs." Following through on this reading, a paraphrase of these lines would be "In every person's face I notice signs of weakness and woe." Putting the whole quatrain together, we get the image of a disaffected and unhappy speaker who feels himself excluded from any real connection with both human and natural environments and who sees similar signs of alienation on the faces of everyone else he meets in London. It's a gloomy condition, a classic expression of Blakean Experience.

There may be some truth to this critique of modern urban life (certainly such expressions of alienation are common enough in literature and popular music), but the poem offers also a novel and distinctly Blakean reading of the possible causes of this condition. Suppose we return to that word "mark" in line three, and suppose now we read the word in a different light altogether, as synonymous with "making a mark" (as one might "mark on a paper" or "mark on a chalkboard"). This changes everything. One assumption underlying the paraphrase presented above is that the speaker of the poem functions like a camera, noting and describing what he sees as he "wanders" the streets of London. If we adopt this second way of understanding "mark" however, the speaker-as-camera idea becomes speaker-as-projector. That is, instead of simply recording signs of weakness and woe that we assume are already and unequivocally evident on other people's faces, the speaker actually projects those signs onto the faces of everyone he meets. This is by no means as far-fetched an understanding as it might first appear—after all, reading the expression on someone else's face is a matter of interpretation not simply a recording of fact, and interpretation is inevitably shaped by the state of mind and the purposes of the interpreter. The alienated speaker, in this view, actually creates his own alienating environment, or, more accurately, the environment he describes is as much a projection of his own alienated condition as it is some pre-existent "reality" that he comes upon in his wandering.

Blake says elsewhere (in "The Mental Traveller") that "The eye altering, alters all." The line could be a gloss on this passage from "London"—the environment the speaker perceives is not some stony "reality" that is external to himself; rather, that environment is itself a function of his mode of perception, of his condition of Experience. And this is perhaps the crucial point of Blake's Songs. The poems illustrate, as the subtitle says, the "contrary states of the human soul." Hence, in reading the Songs, our task is not so much to believe the speaker at face value as it is to see the speaker as exemplifying a particular psycho-spiritual condition of Innocence or Experience. That speaker might, as in "The Lamb" for example, feel himself to be at one with both Creation and the Creator, or he might, as in "London," feel himself isolated, bitter, and alienated. The point is not so much to arrive at some true representation of an external reality; rather it is to exemplify how reality itself is a product of the mental condition of the perceiver. In my view, this reading helps explain one of Blake's most famous phrases, the "mind forg'd manacles" that appear in the next stanza of "London"—but I'll leave it to my readers to explain this intriguing phrase.

As always with Blake, the verbal interpretation is only part of the story. To see several different versions of the illustrated page, consult the Blake Archive.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Keats's "Lamia"; Part II, lines 231-38

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture — she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine,
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-personed Lamia melt into a shade.

This passage in particular—and Keats's Lamia more generally—expresses a troubling philosophical and aesthetic problem involving a kind of side-effect of rational, scientific understanding.

As the narrative goes, the gullible adolescent Lycius is seduced by Lamia, a serpentine immortal who, to accomplish her purpose, adopts the outward form of a beautiful young woman. Lamia does not apparently have evil designs in mind. Her deception of Lycius seems intended solely to make it possible for the two to live in the easeful joy of one another's company. And it is undeniable that Lycius is delighted in his "prize."

But it is also undeniable that Lamia has deceived Lycius. She is pretending to be something she is not, and for that reason the love between the two is founded on utterly false pretenses. Lycius's tutor Apollonius, of course, instantly sees through Lamia's beautiful deception, and, staring through her, causes her to vanish "with a frightful scream" (ii,306). Lycius himself then collapses and dies, apparently suffering mightily for the loss of his beloved.

The narrative as a whole, then, poses a difficult dilemma. Is it better to live happily and in love even if that life is founded on a lie? Or is it better to acknowledge the "truth," even if that truth destroys one's happiness?

The specific passage quoted above expands on this dilemma, presenting it not in the ethical context of characters in a narrative but rather as a question of scientific understanding. The central idea is something like this: Try to imagine what a rainbow must have looked like—what it "meant"—in a world before we understood the physics and optics that we now know causes this beautiful natural phenomenon. In such a pre-scientific world, it is easy to see how a rainbow might be understood as a divine gift perhaps, or the "awful" sign of some other divine intention, or at the very least some inexplicable marvel that is all the more beautiful for its mystery. There are numerous other similarly inexplicable phenomena (comets and earthquakes come to mind), and a person in such a world might well imagine these phenomena to be the workings of spirits in the air or gnomes working in mines underground. Some such logic may well be the inspiration of whole pantheons of spirits—the gods that people Olympus, for example.

But now imagine the same rainbow, seen with a full understanding of the optical principles that produce it. Now, instead of some semi-sacred mystery, the rainbow is simply another item in the "dull catalogue of common things." "Philosophy"—by which Keats here refers to what we would call Science—has solved the mystery, seen through the appearance to its cause, but in so doing it also "clip[s] an angel's wings" and dispels as irrational any notion of spirits hovering in the air or gnomes working their subterranean mines. All mysteries have been conquered by "rule and line," and the rainbow has been unwoven.

The question, of course, is whether seeing this scientific truth is ultimately beneficial. Is it better to live in a world of mystery and romance and immediate human connection to the phenomena of the world? Or is it better to approach such phenomena with the instruments of science and replace mystery with knowledge, even if that knowledge causes us to see the world as a spiritless, empty, and mechanistic Other?

These are challenging questions, and they were very much at the forefront of romantic-era thinking. Consider, for example, Wordsworth's "The World is Too Much With Us...." sonnet where the speaker longs for a less "forlorn" and empty relationship with the natural world. Or consider Thomas Love Peacock's essay called "The Four Ages of Poetry" (which argued that imaginative writing had served its cultural purpose and that now we should turn to science and technology) and Shelley's "Defence of Poetry" (which rebuts Peacock's claim with a sustained argument about the supreme value of poetry).

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Wordsworth's "We Are Seven," (lines 65-69)

"We Are Seven" is one of the most evocative, yet disarmingly simple of Wordsworth's contributions to the famous Lyrical Ballads of 1798. The poem describes an encounter between the first-person speaker and an eight-year-old "cottage girl." This encounter represents the contrast between a relatively experienced, urbane, and rather patronizing speaker and the simple, innocent, rural life represented by the girl, and one might expect the weight of the "argument" to favor the more sophisticated speaker. As the final stanza (below) illustrates, however, the speaker is unable to persuade the girl that his view is "correct." Thus, the contrast between these characters is not resolved within the poem—they never agree with one another—but the poem as a whole is suffused with a gentle, sometimes comical irony that undercuts the speaker's supposed "superiority."

Initially, the speaker meets the girl, asks how many brothers and sisters she has, and finds out that, of the seven original siblings, four have moved to distant locations and two have died. By the speaker's reckoning, the dead siblings no longer "count," so the girl should have said that there are now a total of five siblings. The girl, however, insists on "counting" the dead siblings. After all, they are perhaps even more present to her than her absent living siblings—she still goes to their graves to knit her stockings or eat her porridge. The speaker, of course, tries repeatedly to get the girl to see the "error" in her thinking, but, to the speaker's growing exasperation, she sticks to her claim. Finally, in the last stanza the speaker exclaims

"But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!"
'Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, "Nay, we are seven!"

It's an amusing conclusion to the poem, and perhaps more subtle than it might first appear. The speaker, of course, expresses a kind of half-genuine, half-mock exasperation at the girl's stubborn refusal to acknowledge his accounting. This is followed by the common expression, "'Twas throwing words away"—the line seems to me to have a familiar tone, as one might adopt in telling the story to a confidant who (you were certain) agreed with your way of thinking. Ironically, however, it is the speaker who has been "throwing words away"—it is the speaker's arguments that have failed to convince the girl, and she is the one with the poem's final words.

Potentially even more significant here are the religious overtones to the "argument." From the speaker's point of view, death is a matter of transcendence and complete separation. The spirits of the departed are...well...departed—they no longer "count" in the world of nature. Or, to put this another way, the speaker sees human identity in metaphysical terms. Once the "spirit" is in "heaven," the body no longer counts for anything. From the girl's perspective, however, this absolute identification with the spirit and consequent dismissal of the body is simply wrong. While she fully acknowledges that, at some level, her sister Jane "went away" and that her brother John "was forced to go," she also recognizes that they still—in the actual practice of her daily life—are very much physically present. She insists, in effect, that one cannot make such a clean distinction between the spirit and the flesh, between body and soul, as the speaker assumes. The tangible, physical world of porridge and knitting and singing and Nature itself offers a comforting and companionable presence even when the spirit has departed.

The poem is a short easy read, and easily accessible on the web. One tidy reading copy is on; or, check the edition from the University of Oregon. For a full-blown and beautifully edited electronic edition, complete with the many different versions of Lyrical Ballads and "We Are Seven," see the Electronic Scholarly Edition at Romantic Circles.

Read well.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

"The Cenci" - II.ii.27-40

Though your peculiar case is hard, I know
The Pope will not divert the course of law.
After that impious feast the other night
I spoke with him, and urged him then to check
Your father's cruel hand; he frowned and said,
'Children are disobedient, and they sting
Their fathers' hearts to madness and despair,
Requiting years of care with contumely.
I pity the Count Cenci from my heart;
His outraged love perhaps awakened hate,
And thus he is exasperated to ill.
In the great war between the old and young,
I, who have white hairs and a tottering body,
Will keep at least blameless neutrality.'

At this point in Shelley's tragedy we have already seen the horrific and sadistic cruelty of Cenci—his ghastly dinner party in honor of his sons' deaths, for instance, which is the "impious feast" in Camillo's speech above—and we have seen (in the play's opening lines) that Cenci's viciousness is tacitly condoned by the Church since it allows the Church to claim Cenci's property as a sort of "hush money" for his crimes. In the present speech, Camillo is explaining to Giacomo, one of Cenci's ill-treated sons, the Pope's view of his predicament. In Shelley's hands, this is a stark indictment of the corruption at the heart of the Church and the State.

The facts of the case are already quite clear, even to Camillo. Cenci, by his own admission, delights in torturing others. He loves the "sight of agony" (I.i.82) and, much as he enjoys killing his foes and hearing the groans and seeing the anguish of others, he most enjoys keeping his victims alive so that he can "feed [them] with the breath of fear / For hourly pain" (I.i.116-17). Such cruelties are certainly not reserved for others—it is common knowledge, thanks to Beatrice's speech at the "impious feast," that Cenci similarly tortures the members of his own family, from his wife Lucretia, to his daughter Beatrice and his (remaining) sons Giacomo and Bernardo. None of this is in any doubt: Cenci, by his own proud boast, is a cruel, tyrannical, vicious man.

Of course one would expect the Church to condemn such behavior, and, in a society where ecclesiastical and civil law are indistinguishable, to try to stop Cenci's wanton cruelty. Such at least is Giacomo's hope in appealling, through Camillo, to the Pope. But instead of sympathy, Camillo reports only the Pope's sympathy for Cenci. The Pope "will not divert the course of law"—even when that "law" sanctions such appalling cruelty. And, adding insult to injury, the Pope reads the situation according to a cultural stereotype that has over-reaching, greedy children who repay their father's "years of care" with scorn and insults ("contumely"). In short, the Pope reads the problems of the Cenci household as an instance of the "great war between the old and young" wherein the young are at least as much at fault as the old. The Pope claims a "blameless neutrality," but we know that the Pope in particular and the Church in general profit greatly from Cenci's acts.

There could scarcely be a clearer instance of Shelley's characteristic critique of the hypocrisy he saw in the collusion of Church and State. The play as a whole is ideologically lopsided—Cenci and the ecclesiastical politics that tolerate him are clearly evil; Cenci's wife and children are (at least until Cenci's murder) clearly virtuous. And yet all the instruments of church and state are brought in to support Cenci. Why? Part of the answer lies in simple materialistic hypocrisy. As noted above, it is profitable for the church to let Cenci commit his crimes and then to extort his property as punishment. But the answer also lies in the patriarchal social order. In the Pope's view, the domestic politics of the Cenci household offer an image of his own power as "father" of church. Camillo says as much a few lines later when he reports that the Pope "holds it of most dangerous example / In aught to weaken the paternal power, / Being, as 't were, the shadow of his own" (II.ii.54-56). In other words, the Pope sees an analogy between the organization of the individual household and family and the organization of the church and state.

The conception is illuminating, particularly with respect to "private sphere"/"public sphere" distinctions from the 18th century or the gendered "separate sphere ideology" that emerged strongly in the 19th. It also adds a new dimension to the political strife that rocked Britain in the years following the French Revolution. In Shelley's view, this was not just an abstract political question; instead, it also plays itself out in the domestic politics at the level of the individual family.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Burke's Reflections -- "The age of chivalry is gone."

I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her [Marie Antoinette, the French Queen] with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more shall we behold the generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.

The months and years following the French Revolution in 1789 saw an intense political debate in England. Much of the controversy fell along predictably self-interested party lines—those who supported the traditional hierarchies of the English aristocracy claimed their traditional "right" to power and authority; those from the disenfranchised "lower orders" pointed to the structural inequities in the traditional hierarchy that undermined their "right" to better their own lot (let alone influence the government of their own country). Within the din of self-interested political rhetoric, however, several voices stand out as examples of thoughtful cultural and political analysis. Among these are Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Thomas Paine, and later Wordsworth, Shelley, and a whole host of romantic-era writers and thinkers. In a way, though, it is possible to see much of the political analysis as a reaction to the claims of Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

Perhaps the most famous line in the Reflections is Burke's claim that the French Revolution is evidence of an irreversible sea-change in modern cultural history: "The age of chivalry is gone." What exactly is this "age of chivalry"? Well, for Burke the phrase stands as a sort of short-hand for a social order founded on mutual respect and obedience to one's duty as defined by gender and social rank. The example he elaborates here is one of the noble courtier who, setting his own safety at naught, would stake all in the courageous defense of his queen. For Burke, this is not a self-interested figure who defends the queen (and, by extension, the state) because he expects some personal reward or because he is a salaried member of the court or the military. Instead, "chivalry" refers to a figure whose very identity is defined by this sense of fulfilling a proper place in the social order. That sense of "dignified obedience," to borrow Burke's words, leads rather paradoxically to "the spirit of an exalted freedom" which emerges "even in servitude itself." The crucial point here is that the courtier who exhibits some act of genuine chivalry is not motivated by some individual profit motive (whatever the rewards might be), but rather by a "generous loyalty" that finds meaning and satisfaction in fulfilling his role in the larger social order.

Burke is remarkable for his insight into the roots of the revolution in Europe. Most writers saw the conflict as one between older aristocratic norms and the "levellers" or republicans who sought (sometimes using violence) to expand the franchise of those persons who were, on the present system, excluded from any genuine political significance. But Burke identifies these renegades not as "levellers" or "republicans" or even as the discontented and disenfranchised "lower orders"; instead, he calls them "sophisters, economists, and calculators"—in other words people who consider their actions in the world in fundamentally selfish economic terms. Such a person, in Burke's view, would not jump to the queen's (or the state's) defense simply out of "generous loyalty"—no, these "economists" and "calculators" would spring to the queen's defense only if there was reason to believe such a daring act would be personally profitable.

In this assessment, Burke was prescient. In the American revolution, the French revolution, and eventually the British unrest that led eventually to the Reform Bill in 1832, what was really at stake was not so much a battle between the "haves" and the "have nots." Instead, it was a realignment of individuals' psychological and cultural relationship to the monarch in particular and the state in general. In Burke's view an older chivalric code of selfless devotion to the monarchy was giving way to a modern economic consciousness in which actions are motivated by self interest. The very fact that my students today tend to see paradox (or even self-contradiction) in Burke's claim that "freedom" is to be found in "dignified obedience" demonstrates just how thoroughly the ideology of the "economists and calculators" has won the ideological conflict. Burke is right—"The age of chivalry is gone." Whether that death ought to be mourned or celebrated is still an open question.

For useful comparison texts, readers may want to look at the excerpts from Charlotte Smith's Emigrants (which notices the causes of civil unrest in the 1790s) and from Wordsworth's Michael (wherein the title character represents an irretrievably lost agrarian life that is in some ways analogous to Burke's chivalry).

Friday, April 3, 2009

"Ode to a Nightingale" (lines 21-30)

I'll admit that I've never been a big fan of Keats, but some lines strike me as eerily unforgettable. Among these, the third stanza of "Ode to a Nightingale" has to rank near the top. In the first two stanzas, the speaker of the poem describes his world-weary heartache and then contemplates drinking too much wine so that he "might...leave the world unseen" and, with the nightingale, "fade away into the forest dim" (19-20). The third stanza explains just what it is that the speaker seeks to escape—he wishes to...

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
  What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
  Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
  Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
    Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
      And leaden-eyed despairs;
  Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
    Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

I don't know of a more poignant expression of human sorrow anywhere in English literature. The speaker wants to escape from "The weariness, the fever, and the fret" of humankind, "where men sit and hear each other groan." It's a bleak picture, and one might wonder just what in the human experience could evoke such despair. Well, initially it appears to be a familiar comment on mortality and the sheer indignity of age, "Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs." But such infirmities are not limited to the aged, for youth too "grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies." This line often gets an editorial footnote drawing the reader's attention to the fact that Keats had recently lost his brother to "consumption" (tuberculosis), and no doubt this fresh tragedy was weighing heavily on Keats in early 1819. But to read the line in this way also, in my view, limits the significance—while Keats may have his brother's death in mind, that death is the example of a larger point about mortality and the fragility of even youthful life and vigor. Death, pain, and frailty are not restricted only to the aged and the palsy-stricken. Youth, beauty's "lustrous eyes," and even Love itself are short-lived experiences. Though we may wish to merge into some realm of transcendant and immortal beauty as that represented here by the nightingale's song, we are only too soon pulled back into a gnawing sense of pain, sorrow, and loss. It's little wonder that "to think is to be full of sorrow / And leaden-eyed despairs."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Preface to Lyrical Ballads; "gross and violent stimulants"

For the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants; and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and dignity who does not know this, and who does not further know, that one being is elevated above another, in proportion as he possesses this capability. It has therefore appeared to me, that to endeavour to produce or enlarge this capability is one of the best services in which, at any period, a Writer can be engaged; but this service, excellent at all times, is especially so at the present day. For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. to this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves.

This remarkable passage comes from Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads (2nd. ed., 1800). Here, Wordsworth explains his purposes in writing poems that are so seemingly artless and rustic--poems that eschew the high-minded diction typical of the 18th-century poetic tradition that Wordsworth is writing against just as they eschew the spectacular extremes of an emerging popular press. At this point in the argument, Wordsworth turns his attention to a brief but pointed analysis of his contemporary culture. It sounds surprisingly like our own.

In Wordsworth's view, people are increasingly attracted to what he famously calls "gross and violent stimulants," and consequently they lose touch with the human mind's native "beauty and dignity." His poems are intended to counteract this cultural trend and to restore readers' sensitivity to their inherent "beauty and dignity." If Wordsworth left the argument here, it would certainly define his aesthetic and cultural aims, but it would be otherwise unremarkable. But Wordsworth pushes forward, offering his analysis of the current (that is, current at the turn of the 19th century) cultural moment.

As Wordsworth has it, his historical moment is distinguished by several unprecedented social and cultural forces which combine to "blunt the discriminating power of the mind" and "reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor." He identifies three such forces:

The "great national events which are daily taking place" — It's difficult to know exactly what Wordsworth means by this (and probably there is not a single referent) but given the historical moment it seems likely that he is referring obliquely to the French Revolution and the violence which followed on its heels, including the war between England and France. England, too, was struck with considerable domestic unrest which threatened to become a national insurrection of "the People" against the established aristocratic and ecclesiastical orders. (See the commentary on Charlotte Smith's Emigrants for further discussion.)

The "accumulation of men in cities" — This demographic marker indicates that Wordsworth wrote during an era when England was being transformed from an agrarian to an industrial society. One consequence of this shift of the economic base, in Wordsworth's eyes, was catastrophic because it uprooted people from any sustaining relationship with the natural world, leaving them stuck in mindless industrial jobs and, to relieve their boredom, "craving ... extraordinary incident." In other words, these are the people who have come so unmoored from the native dignity of the human mind that they can only be momentarily thrilled by "gross and violent stimulants" which they seek with an ever-increasing fervency.

The "rapid communication of intelligence" — In other words, the historical moment was also distinguished by an exponential advance in the circulation of print media. Suddenly at the end of the eighteenth century, newspapers and broadsheets could be produced with sufficient speed and at sufficiently low prices to be attractive to a large swath of the English population, and people responded with an increasing demand for news, particularly "news" of the most outrageous and spectacular kind.

All of these cultural, economic, and social forces were having their influence on the literary output of the British press (the "literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country"). It is precisely the "gross and violent [literary] stimulants" that Wordsworth's poems in Lyrical Ballads are implicitly arguing against.

In this sense, Wordsworth's critique of his contemporary culture sounds very much like the critiques one hears about our own historical moment, as pundits from both the Left and Right strike out against violent video games, outrageous TV and radio talk shows, and the psycho-social toll of an increasingly pervasive media--from cell phones to the internet. Much as these cultural critics today bemoan the fact that some older social order, some earlier form of small-townish community, is being demolished by our own seeking after "gross and violent stimulants" that our information technology hourly gratifies, so too did Wordsworth level similar charges against the media-fed culture of spectacle in his own day. The analysis certainly lends a significant cultural and historical backdrop for the better understanding of such poems as Wordsworth's Michael.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 582-90

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns,
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land,
I have strange power of speech;
The moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me —
To him my tale I teach.

These lines come from near the end of Coleridge's famous "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The Mariner has just told his spellbound listener the whole narrative of his mysterious voyage—from its joyful beginning, through the shooting of the albatross and the working through of the curse that is placed on the ship, and finally, after the Mariner blesses the water snakes, to the return to England under some supernatural agency. The lines quoted above explain why the Mariner has stopped the Wedding Guest and singled him out to hear the tale: apparently, having first arrived back in his native England, the Mariner sought out the hermit to hear his confession. At that moment he was stricken with a "woeful agony" which "forced" him to tell his story. This has been a recurrent penance in the Mariner's post-voyage life. He doesn't know when it will happen (it's an "uncertain hour"), but when this "agony" strikes him, he must tell his tale in order to relieve temporarily his burning "heart." The Mariner wanders the world "from land to land," occasionally being moved by his "strange power of speech." When this happens, he somehow just "know[s]" the man that must hear the tale, and, as he says, "To him my tale I teach."

The passage points to what is, for me, the most disturbing aspect of Coleridge's poem. As we are reading the tale, it seems like the purpose for its being narrated at all is to convey some important moral or ethical lesson to the listener. This seems to be a monitory tale designed to help a less experienced audience avoid the perils and the penance of the teller. And indeed, Coleridge plays up this altruistic purpose by supplying a "moral" of sorts at the end of the poem ("He prayeth best who loveth best / All things both great and small..."). This might seem to be an uplifting sort of truism—we should avoid wanton cruelty to the creatures of the Creator or, the implication runs, we will suffer as the Mariner has suffered. So why would this tidy and rather banal moral be disturbing?

Well, if the listeners to such a monitory tale—the Wedding Guest and, more broadly, readers of the poem—are going to profit by such "wisdom" as is summed up in the poem's moral, then they need to be able consciously and deliberately to enact the moral principles the poem sets forth. In other words, like the Wedding Guest, we should come away from the tale as we might come away from a sermon: resolved to do our best to enact the principles espoused in the "moral." These are "words to live by." On further reflection, however, this "moral" simply cannot work as we might have anticipated. It seems clear that the Mariner is not acting according to some conscious and deliberate altruism—he is not even acting according to his own will. Instead, he is subject to a compulsive behavior over which he has no control and from which he seeks only to find temporary relief. The compulsion strikes him at some unpredictable "uncertain hour" and then he seeks a listener not so much to inculcate some moral lesson as to enable him to relieve his own psycho-spiritual agony.

Thinking back through the narrative with the Mariner's compulsive behavior in mind, we see a different tale altogether—nothing the Mariner does seems to be an act of his own volition. In an ordinary tale, one might reasonably ask, for instance, Where the ship was originally going and for what purpose? or Why did the Mariner shoot the albatross? or Why did the Mariner bless the water snakes? But here there are no answers. Things just seem to happen without apparent cause or purpose. Now the Mariner continues to tell his tale more to fulfill some inexplicable compulsion than to actually communicate some useful understanding. Likewise, the Wedding Guest "cannot choose but hear" (18)—this compulsive behavior is apparently contagious. Taken to its extreme, this line of thinking sees the poem projecting a world in which human volition is non-existent, where we are all wandering about fulfilling compulsive desires which we do not understand and over which we have no control. That's a disturbing vision—it's little wonder that the Wedding Guest wakes up the next morning "A sadder and a wiser man" (624).

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Manfred, I.ii.37-42

How beautiful is all this visible world!
How glorious in its action and itself;
But we, who name ourselves its sovereigns, we,
Half dust, half deity, alike unfit
To sink or soar, with our mix'd essence make
A conflict of its elements . . .

These lines present one of the cruxes of Byron's famous drama from 1816—"Manfred." We know from Act I.i that the title character is stricken with a gnawing guilt over some past event involving his beloved Astarte. Now, when Manfred conjurs up supernatural spirits, he does so not to acquire greater power or fame or riches; instead, he asks for forgetfulness and oblivion. So tortured is he by self-recriminations that he imagines his only hope for solace lies in the annihilation of his memory and with it any sense of guilt and inadequacy. Such is the preamble of the scene of the present excerpt. Here in Scene ii, Manfred has ascended a craggy overlook in the Alps with the explicit purpose of hurling himself to his doom. Just before he is about to leap, an eagle flies by and he utters a soliloquy containing the lines above.

Manfred's speech is founded on one of the recurrent themes of romantic-era writing: the relationship between a natural and a supernatural world. Students of romanticism sometimes find the romantics' pervasive concern with this idea peculiar—one of my students once called it "all New-Agey"—but it's really not all that unusual. It has long been conventional, after all, to talk about "heaven and earth" or "body and soul," terms that suggest just how deeply set is this idea of a physical world and a spiritual existence beyond the physical. The implicit question for Manfred, then, is "Where do people belong? Are they natural creatures? Or are they spiritual creatures?" He certainly admires the beauty of the natural world surrounding him ("How beautiful is all this visible world!"), and yet he recognizes that human beings don't really belong exclusively to nature. At the same time, human beings are not purely supernatural beings like the various spirits Manfred conjurs up in his midnight study. Instead, people are "Half dust, half deity, alike unfit / To sink or soar." We have, in other words, a "mix'd essence."

The point lends a new and universal cast to Manfred's sense of guilt. While the immediate occasion for his guilt may be his assumed responsibility for some event involving Astarte, his guilt and his self-inflicted psychological tortures are in this passage the defining condition of being human. Human beings—unlike, say, coyotes or lemurs—have the capacity to perceive and be moved by the beauty of the natural world, and this sets human beings apart from "mere" nature. (One doesn't imagine that coyotes or lemurs or any other natural creatures spend much time in awestruck wonder about the beauty of the natural world they live in.) But, while human beings may have this supernatural aesthetic capacity, this ability to be moved by such sublime scenes as Manfred's alpine vista, we cannot fully transcend nature either. We cannot fully escape the body and the limitations of the physical world we share with the coyotes and lemurs. We are a "mix'd essence" of body and soul and thus find ourselves inadequate both to the harmonious beauty of nature and to the presumed perfection of some unbodied spiritual universe. Manfred's guilt, in other words, is the guilt of fallen humanity's sense of inadequacy.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Emigrants, Book I, pp. 29-30

Ye venal, worthless hirelings of a Court!
Ye pamper'd Parasites! whom Britons pay
For forging fetters for them; rather here
Study a lesson that concerns ye much;
And, trembling, learn, that if oppress'd too long,
The raging multitude, to madness stung,
Will turn on their oppressors; and, no more
By sounding titles and parading forms
Bound like tame victims, will redress themselves!

This passage, from the first book of Charlotte Smith's The Emigrants, sets forth one of the key explanations of the political turmoil and uncertainty that permeated Britain throughout the romantic period. In 1789, of course, the French Revolution had initiated a series of events across the English Channel that led eventually to the exile of large numbers of French churchmen and nobles. Accustomed to lives of privilege and luxury, these persons—the "emigrants" of Smith's title—now wandered along the English seacoast, disoriented, impoverished, and pricked by the inescapable recollection of the recent tragic loss of friends and family to the violence of the revolution. Though Smith is hardly an aristocratic sympathizer, and though she is critical of the French Catholic church, the image of human suffering nonetheless elicits expressions of sorrow and empathy. Whatever their background and whatever their ideology, these are suffering people.

What is more, as the excerpt above suggests, the suffering of these exiles is potentially instructive to the current powers of England. In the view of many political critics (including Smith), the British government was bloated by pensioners (persons who received government salaries), monarchist sycophants, and an unreformed parliament that gave little voice and virtually no power to ordinary Englishmen. These are the "worthless hirelings" and "pamper'd Parasites" of the opening lines. And what follows is, in essence, an ominous warning to those who uphold this aristocratic status quo. The experience of the French aristocratic emigrants offers a "lesson" to their English counterparts: if they continue to oppress the common citizens of England, then these citizens will become a "raging multitude" which will no longer be quieted by the usual forms of aristocratic power (e.g. "sounding titles and parading forms"). Instead, they will rise up against their oppressors and pull them down, just as the French aristocratic emigrants have been reduced to a pinched and hungry homelessness, wandering on this alien English shoreline.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Intimations Ode, st. 5

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home[.]

Wordsworth's awkwardly titled "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" is one of a handful of absolute canonical standards from the romantics. The lines quoted above come from the beginning of the fifth stanza, immediately after the speaker's troubled question about the loss of "glory": "Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream?" In essence, we have a speaker who recalls a time when he was charged with a spiritual energy by gazing on and interacting with a beautiful natural world, but now, as he says at the end of the first stanza, "The things which I have seen I now can see no more." Indeed, the opening four stanzas repeatedly express the speaker's distress at his lost vision culminating in the questions about the fate of the "visionary gleam," the "glory," and the "dream."

The lines at the top of this post present Wordsworth's answer to these questions in the notion of a pre-existent soul. An explication of the passage might go something like this: While we typically think of birth as a kind of awakening, Wordsworth here calls it a "sleep and a forgetting." Why? Well, waking up (e.g. being born) into this natural, physical world is a matter of temporarily leaving behind some realm where we existed before being embodied here in nature. Using the metaphor of a sunrise (that is, the rise of our "life's Star"), Wordsworth suggests that our emergence into this physical natural world means that we had our "sunset" in some previous existence. For the most part--and certainly as adults--we forget this pre-existent condition. But when we are still young, we still can recall a few things about our original home. In other words, birth may be a "forgetting," but we haven't forgotten everything just yet; on the contrary, we come into this world "trailing clouds of glory" from our still recent contact with "God, who is our home." As the stanza continues Wordsworth describes how these youthful recollections of the Divine are eventually forgotten as the youth grows into full maturity and becomes ever more thoroughly incorporated into a natural life.

Especially relevant here in relation to the speaker's initial distress is the word "glory." In the previous stanza, the speaker wondered where the "glory" went. Now he knows. He had initially thought that nature itself was "glorious" but that he could no longer perceive that glory. Hence, the distress of the opening stanzas. Now he recognizes that "glory" was not an aspect of nature, but rather a way of perceiving nature when looking through those "clouds of glory" whose origins are in God rather than in nature. This may seem to be small comfort--after all, forgetting one's divine origins may be even worse than feeling unable to interact in meaningful ways with nature. But for Wordsworth, this is sincerely comforting--if he can recall a time when he did perceive this divine glory, that means that the glory still exists! It is not an aspect of nature and thus subject to time, mutability, mortality; instead, glory comes "From God, who is our home," and God, presumably, is beyond nature, beyond the vicissitudes of time, change, and loss.

A moment's reflection on an analogy will clarify the point: Consider the statement "Ahh! I remember the days when I had an immortal Soul. That was great while it lasted, but now I'm sad." Such an argument is, of course, absurd--one does not, by definition, "get over" being immortal. This is something like the speaker's condition in the Ode. He recalls a day when the objects of nature seemed glorious, as though "Apparelled in celestial light," but now he's gloomy, thinking that the glorious celestial light is for him extinguished. In fact, if he can recall a time when he was confident in the existence of such glory, then such glory must still exist. And this observation serves to explain Wordsworth's clumsy title--his recollections of the "clouds of glory" of early childhood are intimations of the immortality of the now rational, mature, adult speaker's soul.

Friday, February 20, 2009

"The Lamb" (11-20)

Little Lamb I'll tell thee.
Little Lamb I'll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

These lines from William Blake's "The Lamb" (Songs of Innocence, 1789) are among the most famous in all of English literature. They are uttered by the speaker of the lyric, a child-shepherd who is apparently talking directly to his lamb and answering the rhetorical question he had posed at the end of the preceding stanza: "Dost thou know who made thee?" The lines express as clearly as anywhere in Blake the condition of Innocence.

It's important first to recognize the implications of the speaker's initial question, "Who made thee?" This is a poem about Creation, or, more specifically, about the relationship between the Creator and his Creatures. From the Innocence perspective, Creation is very much an act of incarnation wherein the essence of the Creator is preserved in the creatures, thus insuring a form of identity between the Creator and a created world.

Note, for example, the progress of pronouns through the middle lines. The speaker establishes an identity, in name at least, between "He" (the Creator) and the lamb to whom the poem is addressed: "He is called by thy name, / For he calls himself a Lamb." The reference is, of course, to the recurrent Biblical trope of Jesus as the "lamb of God." In case we missed the Jesus reference, Blake follows with a nativity image: "He is meek & he is mild, / He became a little child." Since now Jesus is both lamb and child, the speaker can also sketch an identity with himself since he too is a child. The claim, in essence, is that Jesus the Creator is both lamb and child; the speaker is a child talking to a lamb; and the Creator is thus identified with us and we are identified with the Creator: "I a child & thou a lamb, / We are called by his name." And note the collective identity wrapped up in the suddenly plural "We" who are "called by his name." Expressed as a series of equivalences, we might get something like this: If He = lamb and He = child, and further if I = child and thou = lamb, then We = He and He = we.

It may be putting too fine a point on Blake's language, but it is also possible to read the repeated line in the closing couplet as underscoring the speaker-lamb-Creator identity. Blake doesn't engrave any commas into these lines, and this leads to a significant ambiguity. On the one hand, we might read the lines as though there were a comma after Lamb: "Little Lamb, God bless thee." Such would be the most common idiomatic reading. But it is also possible to read the line as though the speaker is blessing a "little lamb-god." After all, the poem has emphasized this unity of creature and Creator, so it makes sense that one aspect of divinity (the speaker) might himself bless another aspect of divinity the (Little Lamb God): "Little Lamb God, bless thee."

It's a beautiful, confident, tender sort of poem--the very essence of Blakean Innocence. It is also a potentially heretical poem. In drawing an identity between Creator and creatures, the poem suggests that the created world has not fallen away from the Divine. I won't draw out the argument here, but in this respect the poem bears close comparison with its Experience companion, "The Tyger," where the act of creation seems to generate a sense of doubt, fear, and alienation in the speaker rather than this more comforting sense of benign unity. The poem might also bear comparison with the pantheistic speculations of another potentially heretical poem on the same lines: Coleridge's "The Eolian Harp."

[As always with Blake, a merely textual, verbal discussion misses the beauty and richness of the engravings. For the full picture--in several incarnations--see the Blake Archive.]

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Childe Harold III, stanza 6, lines 46-54

'Tis to create, and in creating live
A being more intense, that we endow
With form our fancy, gaining as we give
The life we image--even as I do now.
What am I? Nothing. But not so art thou,
Soul of my thought, with whom I traverse earth,
Invisible but gazing, as I glow
Mixed with thy spirit, blended with thy birth,
And feeling still with thee in my crushed feelings' dearth.

This fascinating stanza comes from the introductory section of Byron's Childe Harold, Canto III, composed in 1816. Byron had become famous--one of the first bona fide media celebrities in the modern world--as a result of the publication of Childe Harold I and II in 1812. Since that time, the poet's wayward sexual morality and disastrous marriage had caused many to recoil from his society, though many also remained fascinated, even entranced, by his larger-than-life personality. Eventually, in early 1816, Byron went into self-exile, leaving England and taking up residence on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland (where he would be visited by Percy and Mary Shelley). At this point he took up the earlier poem once again, and at Shelley's urging he produced the very Wordsworthian Childe Harold Canto III.

One extraordinary element of this passage is the deliberate self-fashioning that, as Byron explains it, underlies his current poetic effort. The creation of art--in this case writing the present poem--is a way to "live / A being more intense." The act of artistic creation--endowing our "fancy" with some tangible "form"--enables the artist to gain something akin to the life he creates. Artistic creation, in other words, is not simply the production of some verbal artifact such as a poem; it is also a remaking of the life of the artist. As the stanza continues, Byron identifies himself, perhaps disingenuously, as "Nothing." Put another way, the artist is a kind of cipher or blank slate until endowed with life and character in the act of creation. And for Byron such creation has a double reference: the "Soul of my thought" is both his own earlier Childe Harold character (the figure who took the English readership by storm in 1812) and his months-old daughter Ada whom he left behind in England as he fled to the Continent.

The passage might be fruitfully compared with other romantic descriptions of the practice and purposes of artistic creation. One thinks, for instance, of Wordsworth's "recollection in tranquility" which occurs when the poet is in a "vacant or a pensive mood." (See Wordsworth's Preface and his "I wander'd lonely....") Or one might think of Keats's letter to Woodhouse (27 October 1818) claiming that true poets have "no identity" themselves and are continually filling the vacuum with "some other body." Such texts, and there are no doubt others, point to one strand of romantic theories of aesthetic creation.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Frankenstein, ii.4

"I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers--their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions: but how was I terrified, when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification. Alas! I did not yet entirely know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity." (vol. ii; chap. 4)

This remarkable passage comes from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; it describes the moment when the Monster suddenly perceives his image in the mirror-like surface of the "transparent pool" and recognizes that his hideous appearance sets him apart from his more graceful "cottagers." The passage can be read in any number of ways, but what I find most interesting is Shelley's representation here of a sudden split in the Monster's developing sense of identity. Up to this moment, the Monster's understanding of self--such as it is--has been almost wholly experiential. His only "identity" has been that of a self-aware body subject to such sensory impressions as hunger, thirst, heat, and so forth. He is attracted to images of comforting beauty (the moon in the trees, for example), and he is repelled by sensations of pain (when he puts his hand in a fire). As such, he has in essence the "self-consciousness" we might ascribe to a dog or a lab rat.

In this scene, however, the Monster suddenly sees how he appears to others--for the first time, he sees himself as others might see him, and he instantly compares his own appearance to the "cottagers" he has been observing from his improbable hovel. The recognition results in a kind of psycho-social rift between the self as experienced from some inner perspective of bodily sensation and thought vs. the self as perceived externally--the self one presents to others. The closing line of the passage alludes to the fallout from this split sense of self (i.e. the Monster is doomed to the life of a wandering outcast--and eventually to the life of a being bent on a violent revenge--since apparently no human society can bear to associate with him). Suddenly, the Monster has two incompatible selves. Though his inner life is presumably unchanged, his "identity" is now one of self-doubt and self abasement because he cannot physically match the "grace, beauty, and delicate complexions" of those whose society he covets. And, sadly, this new identity takes precedence in the Monster's consciousness--"I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am."

Sunday, February 8, 2009

"Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" (73-84)

The day becomes more solemn and serene
When noon is past; there is a harmony
In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,
Which through the summer is not heard or seen
As if it could not be, as if it had not been!
Thus let thy power, which like the truth
Of nature on my passive youth
Descended, to my onward life supply
Its calm, to one who worships thee,
And every form containing thee,
Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind
To fear himself, and love all human kind.

These are the beautiful closing lines from Shelley's "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty." It's a striking precursor to the famous line from Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning"--"Death is the mother of beauty." The central idea here is introduced with the afternoon and autumn images in the opening lines of the passage. Both are iconic images of decline, decline from the brilliant sunshine of mid-day or from the height of summer. The claim is that the sense of an impending end--that is, nightfall or winter--brings with it a depth of feeling and understanding that one cannot perceive while the day or year is in its ascendancy or at its height. There is something "solemn and serene," a "harmony" and a "lustre," that "is not heard or seen" during the full glare of noon/summer.

Much of the poem has been given to questions about Intellectual Beauty, Shelley's term for the ultimate but elusive source of this serene harmony. As the poem proceeds, Shelley identifies and describes Intellectual Beauty in a series of oblique similes, he wonders about and laments its fleeting nature, he describes a visionary moment in his youth when, however fleetingly, he felt its presence and power. But now there seems to be a recognition that fleetingness (or mortality) is the very condition that reveals, however temporarily, the presence of Intellectual Beauty. The poem then ends with a quiet prayer for the continuing "calm" supplied by this informing spirit: "Thus let thy power ... to my onward life supply / Its calm."

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"Chimney Sweeper" (Innocence), 21-24

Here is the final stanza from Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper" from the Songs of Innocence. The young sweeper Tom Dacre (note that it's NOT the speaker of the poem) has had a visionary dream in which an Angel releases the boys from their "coffins of black"--perhaps a reference to the chimneys they work in, perhaps a reference to death, perhaps a more general image of the bleakness of their prospects in the world, perhaps all of the above. The dream provides some comfort to the chimney sweeper on the following morning:

And so Tom awoke and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Tho' the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

As is often the case in Blake's Innocence poems, the passage lends itself to multiple, equally precise meanings. On the one hand, it can be taken at face value. These orphaned sweepers are living in horrific, even life-threatening squalor with virtually no prospect for a warmer, happier life. And yet, Tom's dream provides some genuine comfort: the speaker says as plainly as possible that "Tom was happy & warm" despite the cold morning. Expanding from this reading, one might say that, at least for Tom, religion (his dream of salvation) is a wholly positive force that enables him to find comfort, warmth, and happiness even in his lowly and impoverished condition. On the other hand, the final lines could be deeply and viciously ironic, saying, in effect, that if the sweepers "do their duty"--that is, if they continue to labor away as starving and exploited children--they will find some reward in a better world than this. This cynical reading would suggest that religion is a fool's game (Marx would later call it the "opiate of the masses") by which the self-serving economic and political power structures of the day can justify and perhaps even condone the ill-treatment of these unfortunate orphan sweepers.

My students always want to know: Which is it? Is this poem an expression of the comforting and sustaining power of religion? Or is this poem a stinging critique of the cynical and hypocritical use of religion to support a self-serving complacency in the face of human suffering? I don't know that there is an answer to these questions....unless it's "Both." Blake's poems show the contrary conditions of Innocence and Experience, and this poem seems to include both as alternative but equally plausible interpretations of the same lines. It is also possible to see Tom Dacre as still wrapped in the comfort Innocence, while the speaker--as is perhaps suggested by the strangely dogmatic proclamation of the final line--is beginning to doubt the wisdom of Tom's Innocence and is clinging to a kind of motto that begins to sound hollow in the face of hard experience.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

"The Eve of St. Agnes" (1-9)

This passage has been on my mind for the last couple of days, probably because it's been so chilly outdoors. It's the opening stanza, lines 1-9, from Keats's "The Eve of St. Agnes."

St. Agnes Eve - ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold.
Numb were the beadsman's fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seemed taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin's picture, while his prayer he saith.

What I find most striking about the passage is not some "deep and profound meaning" but rather the sheer artistry of Keats's language. Of course the aim here is to create a sense of icy stillness and death-like quiet. The Spenserian stanza has a sculptural quality to it that, in my view, contributes to the effect (contrast with the more headlong, plot-driven, "what comes next?" feel of a poem in ballad stanzas). And Keats uses other metrical effects to slow the reading--like the hare that "limped trembling," with its impossible combination of consonants (li-MPDTR-embling), leading up to the metrically regular "And silent was the flock in woolly fold" (an image of stasis and quiet) followed by a full stop in the punctuation. One wonders about the adjective "woolly"--shouldn't it be a "woolly flock" rather than a "woolly fold"? Or are the sheep so closely packed into the fold that the whole thing as a unit looks "woolly"? In any event, everything here is still, silent, the expired breath of the beadsman floating ghost-like in its "flight for heaven."

Saturday, January 24, 2009

New Series intro; "Michael " 74-79

With the new year, it's time to start a new series here on UAB-Romantics. The idea is to provide something like a "quote of the week" that will remind readers of the central joys of reading romantic literature. I'll follow each brief passage from the literature with a short commentary describing the context of the passage and offering some brief note about its significance. I'm hoping it will encourage people to seek out the whole work and read to their hearts' content. As always, I welcome all comments, questions and suggestions, and would particularly welcome suggestions for favorite passages to feature in future posts.

This week's passage comes from Wordsworth's "Michael" (74-79). Having described Michael's attachment to and labors on his ancestral lands, the narrator says,

these fields, these hills,
Which were his living being even more
Than his own blood (what could they less?), had laid
Strong hold on his affections, were to him
A pleasurable feeling of blind love,
The pleasure there is in life itself.

The passage points to one of the central "messages" of the poem, one that is particularly relevant to a modern and postmodern age. Wordsworth's celebration of Michael is a celebration of a mode of life anchored to and sustained by a close and informing attachment to place--to "these fields, these hills." As such, Michael's mode of existence conflicts irresolvably with a modern world that sees land--and, by extension, Nature--as a commodity to be bought and sold according to the purely quantitative valuations of the market. Such a modern world has no place for and eventually destroys the place-bound, physically and psychologically anchored existence represented by Michael. Modernity, in other words, is incompatible with "The pleasure there is in life itself."