All posts by Andrew Welch

The Poetic Word in Byron, Zaum, and Nabokov—and a Happy Birthday to the Latter

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.”

Continue reading The Poetic Word in Byron, Zaum, and Nabokov—and a Happy Birthday to the Latter

The Inescapable Wordsworth

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.

Continue reading The Inescapable Wordsworth

David Hume in the Slough of Despond: Design from Theology to Aesthetics in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

After the children have gone to sleep, Mrs. Ramsay is relieved to find herself alone: “This self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.” Our outward appearances and expressions, “the things you know us by,” she intuits, cover over a “limitless,” “unfathomably deep” darkness (69). As she looks out the window, she feels herself extend out to meet the turning “stroke of the Lighthouse” as it shoots its beam of light across the water. She finds herself “losing personality” in that bright beam, “sitting and looking, sitting and looking… until she became the thing she looked at” (70). In this epiphanic state she suddenly mutters: “We are in the hands of the Lord.” This bit of maudlin theodicy intrudes upon her secular revelation, annoying her. She does not know where these words came from—this “insincerity slipping in among the truths.” Turning upon the problem, she asks, “How could any Lord have made this world?”

With her mind she had always seized the fact that there is no reason, order justice: but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that. No happiness lasted; she knew that. (71)

At this moment Mr. Ramsay passes by, “chuckling at the thought that Hume, the philosopher, grown enormously fat,” had once, while walking through Nor Loch, found himself stuck in a bog. Juxtaposed on either side of a period, their thoughts seem incongruous. And yet it was Mr. Ramsay’s Hume who had carried Mrs. Ramsay’s intuition to its logical conclusion, dismantling attempts to derive a benevolent God from the observation of nature. The Ramsays are thinking two ends of the same thought.

Continue reading David Hume in the Slough of Despond: Design from Theology to Aesthetics in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

Unintelligent Design: Keats, Natural Religion, and Reproduction

William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) was a profoundly influential distillation of what was then known as the argument from design, and is now called intelligent design. Observing a profoundly functional world around him, Paley claimed that “in the properties of relation to a purpose, subserviency to an use, [the works of nature] resemble what intelligence and design are constantly producing, and what nothing except intelligence and design ever produce” (216). Paley’s God is a master tinkerer, less omnipotent immensity than systematic, clever craftsman. Everywhere he turns his argumentative lens (the eye, after all, being Paley’s chief example), he finds a natural world that works. Functionality proves design, design indexes a designer, and a designer must design consciously, with specific ends in mind. The divine idea is realized in the created world through the careful accretion of contrivance. This is Paley’s word: God as the great contriver, with an exquisite design sensibility. Final cause predominates, as everything is shaped by divine purpose toward its end.

Continue reading Unintelligent Design: Keats, Natural Religion, and Reproduction

The Story of Death

In its “List of Deaths for the Year 1750,” the Gentleman’s Magazine included one

Mrs Reed of Kentish Town, aged 81. She had kept a mahogany coffin and shroud by her 6 years, when thinking she should not soon have occasion for them she sold them, and dy’d suddenly the same evening. (188)

There’s an elaborate art of dying premised here. We can start with the articles of burial, at the ready, signaling Mrs. Reed’s vigilant preparation. Coffin and shroud are inmates, given the privilege of domestic intimacy, and death too will arrive like an intimate relation returning home. By disposing of the accoutrements of burial, Mrs. Reed presumed she would live. The unstated conclusion: her lapse in preparation invited the very thing she had ceased to fear. And it caught her, cruelly, without the benefit of last rites. (As Philippe Ariés explains, it is only recently that we have come to desire a quick death.) Death may be unknowable, but it seems to have an eye for formal irony and narrative resolution. Where we nod, it comes winking.

Continue reading The Story of Death

Elegy in Wordsworth, Turner, and James Bond

As the scene opens, a brief shot catches a spy momentarily transfixed by a painting. That spy is James Bond, and that painting is Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838. Soon the as-yet-unidentified Q sits down to offer his barbed reading, and it hits close to home. Stung, Bond refuses to interpret the work of high Romantic elegy that had held his attention moments before—it’s just “a bloody big ship.” This denial is a concession: Bond tacitly admits the painting depicts what Q calls “the inevitability of time.”

Continue reading Elegy in Wordsworth, Turner, and James Bond

Wordsworth, Cavarero, and the Voice

As fall returns, so does my teaching voice. I don’t talk much during the summer. In its disuse, my voice grows soft and listless. Speaking becomes slightly—just slightly, just at moments—unintuitive. The first words out of my mouth each morning make my body feel like a chance habitation, an improbable accident that naturalizes itself over the course of the day. The intuition at the core of this dissociation is probably accurate, except that it implies I’m somehow distinct from my body, somehow less of an accident than my body.

Continue reading Wordsworth, Cavarero, and the Voice