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.
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.
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;
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.
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.
My dissertation began as an attempt to distill a current of Romantic writing that has no use for the elegiac or the morbid—a Romanticism indifferent to death. I wanted to dilate moments that seemed to stray from the program of what Frances Ferguson called Wordsworth’s epitaphic mode—a mode of remembrance that Paul de Man recast as the figural anticipation of death. My suspicion was that the coherence of Romanticism as the object of literary history relied, at least in part, on the fetishization of death. (I place this argument in a broader historical context here).
There is of course plenty of morbidity in Romantic-period writing (and eighteenth-century writing, and Restoration writing, to say nothing of Victorian writing…), but I hoped to show that death was by no means as essential or decisive for the period as literary history sometimes suggests. At core, I was imagining a Romanticism without Wordsworth—at least without the Wordsworth who was christened by Matthew Arnold the “English Orpheus.” Though the reception of Wordsworth’s engagement with death would shift from the Excursive Wordsworth of the Victorians to the Preludial Wordsworth of the twentieth century, the centrality of elegy and epitaph persisted. (Remarks on Wordsworth and elegy, and also James Bond, here.) So I was going to try to read Wordsworth out of Romantic-period writing. In the space I would clear by evicting Wordsworth, I wanted to sketch an alternative history in miniature that, I hoped, would be truer to the multifariousness of the period in its thinking—and not thinking—about death.
Midway through my dissertation’s journey, it occurs to me that it is a strange thing to build a project around an anti-topic. Such a project may find itself with no topic at all, or, even more ominously, it may find itself defined by the very topos it set out to undo. The result is so predictable that I am certain I must have desired it from the outset: Wordsworth and his epitaphic mode, in its most canonical instances, have steadily colonized my dissertation.
Brief Cuts: material that’s been cut from a dissertation chapter!
During the 18th century, the epitaph was a malleable genre that performed several functions: it appeared on actual gravestones, but was also used in satirical verses by writers such as Alexander Pope. The epitaph was so popular, and so free-form, that writers began to compose guidebooks on how to compose the perfect epitaph (these guides resemble the epistolary guidebooks that inspired Samuel Richardson’s Pamela). One such guide is Samuel Johnson’s essay on “Pope’s Epitaphs,” reprinted in his Life of Pope. A more compendious volume, capturing the free-form nature of the epitaph, is John Bowden’s guidebook on the form, The Epitaph-Writer (1791). In this text, Bowden uses didactic epitaphs as models: Continue reading Brief Cuts: Epitaph Guidebooks→