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."