Jane Austen’s epistolary novella Lady Susan has always occupied a somewhat uncomfortable and often overlooked place in the thoroughly – sometimes exhaustively – scrutinized Austen canon. Written in the mid-1790s, around the same time as the first, now lost but likely also epistolary, drafts of Sense and Sensibility (née Elinor and Marianne) and Pride and Prejudice (née First Impressions), Lady Susan is an odd artifact. Neither a work of Austen’s youth nor of her adulthood, Lady Susan is a liminal text, lacking the romping spirit of Austen’s juvenilia and the stylistic maturity of her later omnisciently-narrated novels. And yet…not unlike its eponymous widow, Lady Susan is a story that ought to retreat quietly into the background, but which instead insists upon getting her/its way.
I want to say it was Stephen Fry who argued that John Keats might have gone on to become the next William Shakespeare had he lived a bit longer, though it may have in fact have been Christopher Hitchens. It’s odd not knowing the origin of that quote, because I get those two mixed up rarely—then again, the accent and a general contempt for belief in any sort of divine being are traits common to both these men, so I’ll cut myself some slack. It is an interesting statement when taken from afar, because at first I’m willing to agree with it. Upon reflection, however, I feel that this is in fact a real disservice to John Keats as a poet, for while Shakespeare is a standard that I think many writers should aspire to (or at least would appreciate as a lovely comparison), I think Keats as a writer managed in his own way to attain his own identity.
Speaking of which, as of late, that idea has begun to become more and more complicated. It may be just part of the student complex, but I’ve blossomed in the academic setting because the world has provided me with a sense of structure, organization, and purpose. School has given my life direction which in turn provided me with the confidence to begin writing again, or at least push the writing I was doing in a more productive route. I’ve now spent the last six years working and writing, and with a recent acceptance for a publication I’ve gotten to the point I don’t flinch at admitting I’m a writer. School and regularly writing for this website as well as my own has given me an identity…and it’s about to be over, as I transition from graduating to starting something new.
Since this is my last essay for this organization, I struggled to figure out what I was going to actually write next. Since it’s the last essay, I felt I should end with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner since that was what my first essay for this site was about, but honestly that felt a bit kitsch and I hate sentimentality. The worst part about transitions is the way ritual so alters our reality, and rather than just pushing forward we have to stop and let the end totally consume us so that we can achieve some kind of closure and process that we’ve done something with all this time.
Don’t get me wrong, we should enjoy and relish in our achievements, but I’d rather have this last post honestly say something than be a long drawn-out goodbye.
W.H. Auden is a poet that I learned about through Christopher Hitchens, for he is cited regularly throughout Hitchens’ memoir Hitch-22 (the index lists him on 16 pages, I counted), his epigrams appear in numerous essays, and he was the focus of Hitchens’ entire article The Long Littleness of Life* which was published in the New York Review of Books and my copy of Unacknowledged Legislation: writers in the public sphere which I’ll be reading as soon as I finish this essay. I trust Hitchens to never disappoint (unless we’re talking about whether women are funny or not, but that’s another essay), and so when I began reading Auden here and there I was always floored. The man’s ability with language is everything one should want in a poet, and given the fact he was a postmodernist he was right up my alley. The Vintage Paperback Press W.H. Auden: Collected Poems remains on permanent reserve in my personal library.
My reader may ask what a postmodernist has to do with the Romantics; slow down, I’m getting to it. I like to talk and hear my own voice as I write and I’m also a big fan of lead-ins, don’t forget. Thinking of Stephen Fry, which might actually have been Christopher Hitchens, speaking about John Keats made me think of Auden because both Keats and Auden both have written poems involving Greek reliquary.
Now the reader of this site is most likely a seasoned Romanticist and so there isn’t too much introduction needed for Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. The speaker is describing two scenes depicted on a Grecian urn, a.k.a. a pot or vase if you’re that guy, one of which is a ritual sacrifice and the other is of a young man pursuing his lover. Before you ask, it’s a girl. I know they’re Greeks and the Greeks were…anyway, the point is the viewer of the pot, vase, whatever, is observing the scenes and musing on the nature of art.
The second stanza offers the speaker’s thoughts of the scene as he begins to develop the idea of harmony, beauty, and truth:
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
The “unheard” pipes in this line reminds me personally of the Platonic ideals, those figures and shapes that are meant to exist outside of time and space (as we know it, Dr. Hawking) and Keats’ speaker crafts this almost sublime moment in which art and beauty and truth attains the only form of recognizable immortality I have ever read and believed in my life. Art is supposed to be (when it’s done right) the space in which mankind attains some form of timelessness. Whether it’s for beauty or grotesqueness is something I’ll explore a bit later, but for now I’m working with the idea that Keats’ speaker in this poem is attempting to reach the sentiment Alvy Singer expresses in the film Annie Hall:
“You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life”
Speaking as the shlub that I am, I can attest to this statement, but I’m not the focus here. Keats, as I’ve written before, died at age 25 and so the concept of immortality was a topic the young man could speak with more potency than I can at the precious age of 27. The idea of life and mortality in general was a topic Keats often discussed, and while part of that may have been the fact that he was a physician, the far more likely inspiration was his own precious time.
The urn, like all art, becomes a sight in which his speaker is able to explore this immortality. The lovers on the urn never age, and while it is tragic that the young man will never catch his girl and at the very least give her a kiss, their love achieves a kind of ideal state, for it is endless. Their love exists, in a pure and precious moment, for eternity.
Unless of course you read the last stanza and begin the discourse:
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
The question that always emerges is whether or not this poem ends on a happy note, for yes the love and beauty and festival is never-ending, but still the speaker speaks of “waste,” “woe,” and “Cold Pastoral,” all of which suggests some kind of bitterness on his part. Does the urn really give people the idea that can understood in the equation “beauty = truth” and vice versa, or does it in fact mock the state of man, leaving him feeling hollow?
On this I have no answer to the reader because ultimately it is up to them to decide whether they believe this poem to be a bleak assessment about the cold nature of art. I would caution them that there are other works that leave the reader with a far more bleak assessment of reality.
The Shield of Achilles was originally published in 1952, and like many postmodern poems, it speaks of an endless darkness of the condition of mankind and ultimately rejects previous generations’ understanding of beauty. The poem is inspired by a passage in Book 18 in Homer’s The Iliad in which Hephaestus, the blacksmith of Olympus and the ugliest god who somehow managed to get Aphrodite to marry him (I’m told he was a really funny dude) made for the mother of Achilles the Greek warrior and “hero” of the epic war poem a shield of intricate detail. I’ve included some images of it here that many artists have read and produced, and as you can see the reproduction of it in the movie Troy was simplified to say the least. Then again, they had seasoned British and Scottish actors playing Greeks so I suppose the shield is probably one the smaller offenses of that film.
The shield is described in painful detail, as anyone who’s suffered through Homer and lived to tell about it will testify, but that detail ultimately paid off for artists have been able to recreate the shield in drawings and sculpture and study of the shield’s levels attest to the fact that the shield through a careful ekphrastic approach (describing something in such detail that a rendering can be made) Homer is able to show a microcosm of human civilization starting with the sun and planets in the middle, to the various scenes of human life.
This would seem to be similar to Keats’ poem; however, Auden’s poem subverts the beauty of the original description by Homer into something more concerning:
She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
And a sky like lead.
A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.
Out of the air a voice without a face
In tones as dry and level as the place:
No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.
Auden describes Achilles’s mother Thetis, a sea nymph and one of many of Zeus’s sexual liaisons, in the original scene observing Hephaestus crafting the shield, but Auden subverts the original beauty described in the classical work, and instead creates a scene of Post-World War horror and morbidity. Rather than portraying the beauty of the natural world, or party-goers enjoying festivities, or even herds of livestock, the reader is greeted with an “artificial wilderness.” Auden is careful to use this last phrase for ultimately it is the phrase that detaches the reader and makes them uncomfortable before he continues. Thetis will continually look over the smith’s shoulder and with each new scene becomes steadily more and more disturbed.
She looked over his shoulder
For ritual pieties,
White flower-garlanded heifers,
Libation and sacrifice,
But there on the shining metal
Where the altar should have been,
She saw by his flickering forge-light
Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.
The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.
She looked over his shoulder
For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance
Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music,
But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor
But a weed-choked field.
A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Or one could weep because another wept.
The thin-lipped armorer,
Hephaestos, hobbled away,
Thetis of the shining breasts
Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
Who would not live long.
I’ve more or less quoted the entire poem here, but simply so the reader can get an idea of why this poem remains so powerful when set against both Homer’s original poem, but also when set against Keats’. Both poets employ the imagery of Classical antiquity, but ultimately their approach serves entirely different ends. Auden is a postmodernist and that becomes painfully clear as the reader observes the scenes of horror, war, rape, and senseless moral depravity, but more importantly as they observe the “artificial landscape” in which the figures of this shield exist. The conflict is not only because there is horror and death, but because these human beings have become detached from the natural order of existence.
Looking at these two poems side by side, it isn’t just an effort to understand how Postmodernism is significantly different from Romanticism. It’s an effort to understand how the images engraved or painted have the capacity to inspire artists, and what was it about the Greeks that had this lasting influence? Keats did not study at a university where knowledge of Greek and Latin wasn’t simply useful, it was a necessity. Still, he was able, in his own unique (and non-Shakespearean) way, to capture his personal impression and that impression has lived past the man. Auden, in his own miserable way, managed to recreate one of the most powerful images in Western Civilization, revealing both the new reality of man’s condition while looking forward to the future.
Both of these poets looked back to the Greeks in order to understand their own moment, but also the future. This made me remember The Greeks by H.D.F. Kitto, specifically the first line of the introduction to his small book. He says:
The reader is asked, for the moment, to accept this as a reasonable statement of fact, that in a part of the world that had for centuries been civilized, and quite highly civilized, there gradually emerged a people, not very numerous, not very powerful, not very well organized, who had a totally new conception of what human life was for, and showed for the first time what the human mind was for. (7).
My high school English teacher instilled a similar lesson in me. One of her lessons which remains on permanent file in my Mind Palace is the idea that ultimately every story in Western Civilization can be boiled down into The Odyssey or any of the other Greek Myths. Study has led me to believe that there are other tales that have influenced narrative structures over time, but this lesson still seems important as I read more and more and observe Western writers use the Greeks, whether it be their imagery, their myth, their language, their characters, etc., to capture some moment that surpasses contemporary times and summons the idea of eternity.
Hitchens and Fry might have missed Shakespeare for the Greeks…or the trees…or however that metaphor works.
I recognize in the Ode on a Grecian Urn the real Romantic impulse, for while there is a kind of sublime power found within the immortality of art, there is also a recognition of natural wonder. Life is about action, and while ideas and ideals can be powerful, if they exist only in a stasis then they are ultimately meaningless. Art is a means, not of conquering death, but overcoming the finality of it. Human beings will create and die, but it is the first action that shall live on, for even if the creator is destroyed the art lingers on and so new men and women may come to know the human impulse, the human desire, and the capacity for love and mirth by observing art. By living in the world, and recognizing the world in art, the capacity for empathy is established.
After reading the article I realized that The Long Littleness of Life was not in fact about W.H. Auden only, but also about his long time partner Christopher Isherwood. I admit to great shame that I know nothing about this author.
What an odd and unfortunate statement to end a lovely period writing for this site.
I’ve cited Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn from poetryfoundation.org, and Auden’s The Sheild of Achilles from poets.org below in case you’re interested in reading the entire work.
Ode on a Grecian Urn:
The Shield of Achilles
I’ve long been fascinated by two Romantic objects that figure prominently in poetry and prose: the Aeolian harp and the Claude glass. The Aeolian harp is a stringed instrument that is placed in an open window so that the strings vibrate with the wind, sort of like a sideways guitar.
Image source: http://chestofbooks.com/reference/American-Cyclopaedia-V1/Aeolian-Harp.html
At the climax of the thunderstorm in the alps in Childe Harold III, Byron/Harold flashes some virtuosic self-aggrandizement:
Could I embody and unbosom now
That which is most within me,—could I wreak
My thoughts upon expression, and thus throw
Soul, heart, mind, passions, feelings, strong or weak,
All that I would have sought, and all I seek,
Bear, know, feel, and yet breathe—into one word,
And that one word were Lightning, I would speak;
But as it is, I live and die unheard,
With a most voiceless thought, sheathing it as a sword. (st. 97)
Byronism was always poised on the brink of self-parody, even if it waited until Don Juan to tumble gleefully over the edge. Here the verse inflates a Wordsworthian sense of psychic geography to alpine magnitude. Yet at its climax, the stanza dismisses the expressive power of its own vehicle—language. Wordsworth, predictably, was not amused by Childe Harold. He held the younger poet’s newfound reverence for nature an affectation, “assumed rather than natural,” and accused Byron of “poaching on my Manor” (3:394). The remark performs a fascinating inversion since, as Tilar Mazzeo notes, “the professional Wordsworth casts himself as the lord of the literary estate and charges the aristocratic Byron with crass appropriations that are figuratively beyond the pale” (144). Beyond the pale is right: poaching had been codified a hanging offense since the Black Act of 1723, which became both model and synecdoche for a “golden and sanguine” legal code that deemed nearly every offense against property a capital crime.
Byron tried to exculpate himself by claiming that Percy Shelley had “dosed him with Wordsworth physic even to nausea” (Medwin 237). In this spirit, let us consider Canto III’s thunderstorm episode a Wordsworth-induced fever that ends in purgation. Byron/Harold begins this “classic piece of rodomontade” (Hodgson 379) by wishing he could “embody” and “unbosom” what lies within him. Even in the prefixes, these verbs do the work of synthesizing and then negating—the former a making and reifying, the latter an unloading, a jettisoning. These nearly contradictory transformations operate on “That which is most within me,” which is then detailed in a parenthetical inventory that ends up spilling out over five lines. This messy catalogue of the interior—thoughts, feelings, desires plus their objects—might seem random and spontaneous, but it lands squarely and deftly within the meter, such that it can be gathered “into one word.”
Like many readers of this blog, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Wordsworth lately. As all who’ve read the “The Prelude” know, “nature” is really important to the developmental trajectory that Wordsworth traces in recursive manner throughout the various versions of the poem. It’s hard to say, however, what exactly Wordsworth’s concept of nature is. The relation between the speaker’s mind and “nature” is configured in different ways, and “nature” is continually being lost, subordinated to the poet’s creative impulse, and recovered.
This semester, I’m finishing up course work with a class called ‘Romantic Concepts of Nature.’ The goal of the course is to get everyone thinking about how poetic representations of nature—particularly those of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Clare—overlap with or diverge from philosophic views of nature in circulation (mostly by way of Coleridge) during the Romantic period. So far, we’ve read Spinoza’s Ethics and Kant’s Critique of Judgment. While the extent to which Wordsworth actually read Kant and Spinoza remains unclear, Wordsworth would have been exposed to their ideas in his early conversations with Coleridge, to be sure.
My sense is that Wordsworth’s “nature” is meant to be protean and difficult, if not impossible, to pin down. I tend to agree with Paul Fry where he writes that, “for all who feel that the most characteristically brilliant verse of Wordsworth is always in some way an evocation of being as such, the subversion of meaning itself becomes a technique for making nature appear” (63).  The elusiveness of Wordsworth’s nature explains how it can have accommodated such a wide range of critical formulations. Hazlitt insisted that Wordsworth’s nature was a leveling muse, Matthew Arnold saw “joy” in it, Geoffrey Hartman taught us to see that nature sometimes leads the poet beyond nature and Jonathan Bate argued that Wordsworth was a poet of ecology. Ultimately, the speaker of “The Prelude” cannot himself say just how nature’s “dark, invisible workmanship” functions, and this an important point.
While it would be foolish to try to fit Wordsworth’s view of nature into a single philosophic schematic, this class I’m taking has helped me to see where and how Wordsworth’s nature aligns with Spinoza’s. I want to use this post to think about one of the most obvious of these inexact alignments, in “Tintern Abbey.” Anyone interested in a more comprehensive meditation on Spinoza’s relevance to Wordsworthian poetics should see Marjorie Levinson’s A Motion and a Spirit: Romancing Spinoza. Well-trodden as is the critical ground that I cover here, I’m hoping that it may be interesting to do a little review.
In the first book of the Ethics, Spinoza identifies “substance” with both God and nature. Needless to say, this was a thoroughly unorthodox way of talking about God in the early modern period. In the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Spinoza went so far as to attack monarchical government and the religious laws that underwrote it. He claimed that scholars should be able to historicize the bible—that it was not, in other words, a book of revealed religion. Identifying God with nature in the Ethics, Spinoza insists that anyone can come to grasp the divine intellect. Out goes the need for mediation by the authorities.
It will make sense to define a few terms here. Spinioza’s monistic philosophy holds that everything in the universe has its being in “substance,” which is the free and eternal cause of all finite “modes.” One implication of this claim is that there can be no ‘afterlife’ or ‘noumenal’ realm outside of the world of “substance” that we humans are a part of. This inescapable “substance” gets expressed under two distinct attributes—that of “thought” and of “extension.” There can be no causal relationship between thought and extension, which means that there can be no causal relationship between mind and matter. The human mind is simply the idea of the body: ideas of the intellect move in parallel fashion to the way that bodies move in their relations of motion and rest.
An important insight of the first book of the Ethics is that God and nature do not operate to achieve ends—there is no place for an anthropocentric, teleological view of nature in Spinoza’s philosophy. All finite ideas and things are determined to action by a chain of causes that precede them: “In nature there is nothing contingent, but all things are determined from the necessity of the divine nature to exist and act in a certain manner” (EIP29). It follows that there can be no free will—under the influence of the passions, humans only imagine that they have wills undetermined by necessity.
Though we humans are always-already thoroughly embedded inside of larger causal networks, we are capable of forming “adequate ideas.” We develop this kind of rational knowledge by self-reflexively comparing ideas in our mind. As a result, our intellect forms active conceptions of its own causes and of the “properties of things” that we come into contact with. The Romantic poets were, however, drawn to Spinoza’s claim for an altogether different sort of knowledge. We find in Spinoza the surpassingly optimistic belief that the finite human mind can grasp substance, or “the essence of the body under the form of eternity” (EVP29). The claim that our mind “necessarily has a knowledge of God” (EVP29S) is a rather mysterious one, and there have been many interpretations of what Spinoza means when he asserts that, “we feel and know by experience that we are eternal” (EVP23).
Beth Lord suggests that the mind’s intuitive comprehension of God is, for Spinoza, the imaginative fiction necessary to complete his rational system. She reflects on the implications of this for the Romantic poets: “The inability to achieve completion characterizes [Spinoza’s] universal philosophy. Yet it is also the primary criterion of Romantic poetry itself. Furthermore, since Romantic poetry strives to reveal the infinite in the finite, Spinoza’s philosophy—which claims that infinite substance is expressed through its finite modes—is its basis” (45).  Indeed, we need only turn to some of the most famous lines in British verse to find in them a version of the Spinozan fiction of the finite mind’s capacity to discover its identity with an infinite cause in nature.
I’m thinking, of course, of the lines from ‘Tintern Abbey’ where Wordsworth’s speaker reflects:
And I have felt / A presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused, / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, / And the round ocean, and the living air, / And the blue sky, and in the mind of man, / A motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things. (94-103)
The enumeration of vast, inhuman bodies here (the “setting suns,” the “round ocean”) indicates that the “presence” that the speaker is claiming to have “felt” includes everything that moves. But it is the peculiar formulation of things as “thinking” entities and thoughts as “objects” that is, I think, uniquely Spinozan. I wouldn’t classify this as a moment of animism akin to the boat stealing spot of time in ‘The Prelude.’ The chiastic structure of “all thinking things, all objects of all thought” simply introduces the idea that matter is an expression of thought and vise-versa. And all is necessarily “impelled” by “a motion and a spirit.” Wordsworth here seems to agree with Spinoza that all bodies in the attribute of extension are simultaneously ideas in the attribute of thought, and that everything there is part of the divine intellect. Thoughts do not take priority over things, nor does any grand design direct the course of nature to a particular end.
Wordsworth’s vision of the “life of things” and Spinoza’s conception of “substance” seem to suggest that we ought learn how to “go with the flow.” The course of things may be within the reach of our “sense” and understanding but that course is not ours to control. Of course, this picture is quickly complicated, or undermined, by Wordsworth’s idealist claim that we “half-create” what we perceive. In doing so, we come to recognize nature as “the nurse, the guide” of our “moral being.” Nature, then, does serve a purpose. It is good because it helps us become moral agents—a view that Spinoza would reject. This returns us to the insight that Wordsworth’s concept of “nature” is always in flux.
I want to make one final suggestion, which is that we might read the melancholic turn taken in the final verse paragraph of “Tintern Abbey” as a very non-Spinozan response to the mind-body’s experience of substance. For Spinoza, the affective pulse of this experience is invariably positive. The “highest joy” (EVP32) and the greatest achievement of “blessedness” (EVP33) arise when the human intellect grasps the “immutable and eternal object of which we are really partakers” (EVP20S).In this instance, one comes to know oneself outside of durational time; one recognizes that a part of the self exists eternally, out of all relation to fixed times and places. One in possession of such a knowledge “scarcely fear[s] death” (EVP39). But readers of Spinoza might puzzle over how this recognition involve the highest joy. Might it not be terrifying?
In the final verse paragraph of “Tintern Abbey,” the speaker turns to his sister and anticipates a time when, “I should be, where I no more can hear / Thy voice.” If Wordsworth’s “sense sublime” can be seen to precipitate his fear of dissolution, then the affective pulse of Wordsworth’s discovery of “substance” is distinct from the joy that Spinoza describes. Wordsworth’s speaker wants to believe that the “plots of cottage-ground,” and “orchard tufts” present to him at the beginning of the poem serve a moral purpose to which poetry can give enduring form. But, as many a commentator has noted, the configuration of Dorothy as insurance for the continuity of the speaker’s past and future exposes the frailty of his authorial ego and moral vision to boot. Wordsworth’s Spinozan discovery that bodies and ideas are determined by an intellect directed to no particular end sits uneasily with his more conventionally bourgeoisie faith that a pattern of moral progress may be discerned with nature’s help.
 Gray, Richard T. Inventions of the Imagination Romanticism and beyond. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011.
Recently the English department at UW-Madison hosted Professor Deidre Lynch of Harvard to present new work that appears to evolve from her last publication Loving Literature: A Cultural History (2015, Chicago UP). You should recognize the guest lecturer as one of the most influence contributors to 19th c. and Romantic studies. Earlier works remain frequently cited in contemporary scholarship, most notably her work on Austen and The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Cultural and the Business of Inner Meaning (1998). In consideration of blog readers interests in book history, archival methods, material culture, and all things 19th c. I’ve provide a brief summary of the talk title “Paper Slips: The Nineteenth-Century Album and Other Misadventures in Book-keeping” and offer comments on how the work Prof. Lynch presented could inspire scholarship to come, or at least re-think what we write in our diaries.
The boys of the newly formed Dead Poets’ Society are holding one of their weekly meetings (except Knox Overstreet, who’s at a party trying to talk to the girl of his dreams) when there’s a sound—the likes of which strikes terror into the hearts of teenage boys: a girl’s laughter. Charlie leads them in, offers them cigarettes, while the rest of the group stares on in silence, not sure what to say, what to think, or even whether or not they’re allowed to speak. The boys eventually try to talk, though it’s Charlie who eventually succeeds in properly “wooing” the girls by of course reciting poetry: first a poem by Elizabeth Barret Browning, and then a second one by George Gordon, Lord Byron.
She Walks in Beauty is the standard by which “romantic” poetry is often measured, and this is an issue of some annoyance to me, because I had a wonderful teacher who taught me the proper context of the work. Byron’s poem has often been employed as Charlie so confidently used it, and it made me hate Byron as a young man myself who couldn’t talk to girls—it was a poem of “romance” designed to woo one’s beloved into a state of emotional ecstasy. As I would mature, and my ability to talk to women developed from inane mumbling to a more mature inane combination of smoke signals and interpretive dance, I began to see more and more how that poem was mis-employed, and finally Dr. Catherine Ross helped me figure out why.
I’ll provide the poem here before I continue:
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!
Now right away, I recognize that many might protest and argue that surely Byron is describing a beautiful woman, but I would remind them that they clearly have forgotten that the poet is never the speaker, unless otherwise specified. This approach is easy to forget once one has become a seasoned reader of poetry, yet time and time again I have experienced and read writing by undergraduates—and this part kills me—as well as graduate students of English proclaiming that the writer is the same as the speaker. This can be quite frustrating as a teacher, though nowhere near the headache of trying to teach Lolita in East Texas. I haven’t suffered that headache personally, but a friend of mine has and usually relates it to me as he sits quietly by himself in the corner of the bar with his bottle of Wild Turkey. Even graduate level students in my Emily Dickinson course need to be reminded almost weekly that the poet is never the speaker unless specified and this lesson seems to be the Sisyphean task of the professor of poetry.
For the record, “The Professor of Poetry” sounds like either the name of the bad guy in the next Avengers movie, or else one the creepiest—or clichéd—serial killer names since Bubbles the Tap Dancing Unicorn.
The first line of the first stanza seems to be the extent of cultural knowledge of the poem, for many people summon that line in order to get that girl in Chemistry class to go out on a date. The disservice this does to the poem is that few people recognize that the speaker is describing a woman of noble character, while demonstrating how her physical beauty reveals her inner character. When the speaker notes “And all that’s best of dark and bright / Meet in her aspect and her eyes; / Thus mellowed to that tender light / Which heaven to gaudy day denies” the first impression many students seem to argue is that he’s saying this woman is of ultimate physical beauty, but a careful reading reveals that this just isn’t the case. The speaker is certainly complimenting this woman, but rather than just saying that she’s physically perfect, the speaker pushes it to note that she possesses an otherworldly balance. The “gaudy day” is bemoaned for the natural brilliance this woman exudes makes the light of day seem a minimal glow.
This is continued in the second stanza where, as before, the physical description has a tendency to be observed over the deeper sentiment the speaker is attempting to establish. When Byron writes that “One shade the more, one ray the less, / Had half impaired the nameless grace” / Which waves in every raven tress, / Or softly lightens o’er her face;” his speaker notes that her beauty is a careful symmetry that balances light and dark, but rather than just noticing this beauty, the speaker pushes it further, by remarking on an inward beauty. He says, “Where thoughts serenely sweet express, / How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.”
The final stanza sells it all, however, for the last four lines reveal what has often been lost or purposefully cut from such a brief and wonderful work: “The smiles that win, the tints that glow, / But tell of days in goodness spent, / A mind at peace with all below, / A heart whose love is innocent!” Once again the inward beauty of this nameless woman is adamantly declared to the reader and it’s this last impression that often leaves me sad for this work.
Byron as a man seems often to be missed for his sexuality, a quasi-insatiable pansexual demon worshipper who eats small children and converts people into homosexual slaves—but enough about the movie Gothic. Seriously, did anybody else watch that film and ask themselves if the director even read anything by Byron, just, Jesus.
I remember my professor taking the time to specify to the class that Byron’s particular sexuality was most likely bi-sexual and I distinctly remember this an impressive feat for a teacher to admit, for often my grade-school teachers wouldn’t touch an author’s sexuality with a ten foot pole. The reason for this is often that students are looking for a distraction and so discovering that a male author was “gay” meant that he was somehow inferior and therefore not worth our time. In the case of Byron I still remember the odd murmurings and stupid jokes shared between classmates before class would begin, and that sadness would envelop me until I began reading the poem again.
She Walks in Beauty remains one of my favorite poems however, for there are few written works that surpass the typical romantic lists of beauty (Sorry Mrs. Browning but in your defense you actually lived in a beautiful romance story so you’re still cool) and address the loneliness of another human beings soul. Byron’s poem is more than just a pretty song to a pretty woman, it’s a genuine effort to observe a kind heart in another human being.
Which takes me back to Gothic and the cartoon character of Byron that has lingered unfortunately after him. The film was made in 1986 and is loosely (a cute word for this atrocity) based on the night Mary Shelley supposedly suffered the nightmare of the opening eye that would be the inspiration for Frankenstein. Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Claire Clairmont meet Byron and his personal physician/attendant/creepy toady Dr. Polidori at Byron’s estate and once there they begin to take drugs, read The Monk, have sex with each other, and eventually suffer from frightening Acid trips.
If this seems like I’m being unduly harsh perhaps the reader should observe just the theatrical trailer and determine for themselves whether or not I’m just being a butt.:
Oh hey you’re back. Why are you so pale? Oh no wait, I remember why.
The film for the most part seems to be an excuse to remind the viewers that Byron was physically deformed (he had a clubfoot) and that he had sex with men. Once again it’s the salacious Byron that everyone is familiar with and what gets buried beneath this mountain of crap that not even Chanticleer would want to crow from is the man and the writer.
Byron as a man was rich with passion, and as a writer he achieved wonders both in terms of commercial success as well as artistic brilliance. Looking at this then the reader may question why She Walks in Beauty is the first example I would hop onto. The reason for this, goes back to Charlie Dalton and to some extent to Gothic. It is the perceptions of the outward form that at first marvel or repulse us and looking to the poem the young woman described is beautiful. It is upon reading the poem and understanding how her tresses reveal her character that she is seen as more than beautiful, she is human being of noble stature.
In my experience with the Romantics there is either attention paid to the domestic or else the sublime natural wonders of the world. She Walks in Beauty is one of these small quotidian wonders akin to We are Seven or The Lamb; poems that address the reality of our day to day lives and find a hidden beauty that speaks to the larger fabric of the human condition. In poetry describing a woman, and here I have to fall back upon my position as a man, beauty has often been a tool for wooing and romance, and Byron’s poem seems a wonderful opportunity away from that tradition as well as for teachers hoping to begin conversations with students that aren’t the same lecture on love every semester. The poem is a chance to observe how we recognize goodness in other people, and how that goodness affects us in our lives.
I’ve tried numerous times to write about Byron for the website and each time I have been carefully and kindly rejected for my efforts. I knew going forward however that I had to get at least one essay about the man in because, while I can’t stand Childe Harold and Don Juan is too long to review, Byron as a writer has always impressed me. There is the nasty snark and sarcasm that is the stuff of Gothic, and had I the time and security I would love to discuss how his sexuality comes about in his work, but if I have to have any kind of last word about the man in terms of my intellectual impression it’s that he achieved his passion.
Write of the writer not the cartoon character…and also if you’re going to make a movie about someone, please do your research because when you make bad movies all it does is annoy nerds like me for weeks afterwards. I’m still reeling from that film 47 Ronin, seriously it could have been great but I mean either make a supernatural epic and load it with Samurai killing dragons or just make a historical piece which could still be interesting. Just…gah…Gothic.
We scholars of Romantic Gothic usually focus our attention on the Gothic novel, and indeed, the novel is what most people think of as Gothic literature. Gothic poetry has received surprisingly little critical attention. A search of the MLA International Bibliography for “gothic novel” yields 1052 results, for example; a search for “gothic poetry” yields 25.
This week, I was inspired by Arden’s posts of “brief cuts” from her dissertation to go back through ideas I’ve had in courses but have set aside for the time being. I stumbled onto one nugget of research that I found for a class on “Romanticism and Thing Theory,” taught by Prof. Jill Heydt-Stevenson in 2014, in which we were asked every week to identify a “thing” in the texts assigned and dig up historical research on it. Personally, I found the assignment fascinating as a way to learn more about some of the obscure cultural shorthand on the Romantic period (seriously, who knew there were so many different kinds of carriages?). For Mary Hays’s The Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), I looked into classifications of lightning to better understand one pivotal scene between Emma and Augustus.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been reading through the letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and discovered something odd: Barrett Browning was seemingly obsessed with portraits of William Wordsworth.
Writing to her friend Mrs. Martin in a letter dated December 7, 1836, Barrett Browning articulates the joy she felt upon first seeing an engraving of Wordsworth: “Papa has given me the first two volumes of Wordsworth’s new edition. The engraving in the first is his own face. You might think me affected if I told you all I felt in seeing the living face.” Several years later, in a similar letter to Mrs. Martin dated October 22, 1842, Barrett Browning dramatically claimed, “I write under the eyes of Wordsworth. Not Wordsworth’s living eyes…but this Wordsworth who looks on me now is Wordsworth in a picture.” The “picture” Barrett Browning alludes to is Haydon’s famous portrait of Wordsworth musing upon Helvellyn.