Category Archives: Reading

Editing Lyrical Ballads: Wordsworth’s Decision to Remove “The Convict”

Only one poem from the original 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads does not appear in the two volume 1800 edition: Wordsworth’s “The Convict.” The specific political goals of the poem do indeed make it difficult to situate among the other works in the collection (with the exception of Coleridge’s “The Dungeon”). For most critics, “The Convict” is out of keeping with the rest of the poems in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads. When scholars such as Celeste Langan and Quentin Bailey do engage the poem, they usually do so under the larger category of vagrants or vagrancy. In other words, the convict, like Martha Ray of “The Thorn,” the mad mother, and the idiot boy, is one of the marginal figures that Wordsworth’s poetry pulls to forefront. Yet the convict receives his title not from a loquacious speaker or a gossipy group of townspeople but from a formal political institution. Furthermore, while crime, even violent crime, is implied in several poems in Lyrical Ballads, in “The Convict” clear action is taken. For example, while the speaker of “The Thorn” claims that “some had sworn an oath that she [Martha Ray] / Should be to public justice brought,” no punishment ever occurs (323-3). “The Convict,” in contrast, depends upon the presence of “public justice”  for its very title.

Yet, for all of its differences, I want to suggest that the “The Convict” does share one crucial feature with the other poems in Lyrical Ballads: the centrality of the speaker. By examining the physical and imaginative movement of Wordsworth’s sympathetic speaker, I will show how “The Convict,” to a certain extent, “fits” with the larger project of the collection. When we turn to the poem, we see encounter the speaker standing on a mountain slope in the “glory of evening” (1). Reluctantly, he leaves his idyllic surroundings to visit the convict within the “thick ribbed walls” and “the glimmering gate” of his prison (9,11). As Kenneth Johnston notes, the poem “turns very abruptly from its opening scene of natural beauty to a highly articulated scene of human suffering” (419). The subject of the poem, an individual convicted of committing a crime, has already faced public judgment. There is also, as Quentin Bailey and others have noted, no suggestion that the convict is innocent. As judgment has been made and the guilty convict imprisoned, the public’s engagement with him, it would seem, is at a close.

In the fictional scenes of “The Convict,” Wordsworth’s speaker is able not only to represent the convict’s sad state but also use his “fancy” to see what lies in the man’s heart. Gazing at the convict as he sits staring dejectedly at his fetters, the speaker claims “’Tis sorrow enough on that visage to gaze, / That body dismiss’d from his care; / Yet my fancy has pierced to his heart, and pourtrays / More terrible images there” (17-20). Although the mere sight of the convict’s “visage” is “sorrow enough,” the speaker is able to push further, to offer more insight. Through his “fancy,” Wordsworth’s speaker can look not only on the convict’s “matted head,” neglected body, and the crippling effects imprisonment has on his body, but also gaze into the convict’s “heart” and find “the more terrible images there.” It is telling that rather than revealing details of the convict’s crime, these “terrible images” show the degree to which the convict “wishes the past to undo” (22). According to the speaker, the convict’s “crime, through the pains that o’erwhelm him, descried, / Still blackens and grows on his view” (23-4). The speaker suggests that it is remorse for his crime that “blackens” the convict’s appearance. Such insight, or perhaps more accurately, imaginative speculation, is possible in the fictional scenes of Wordsworth’s poem.

According to the speaker, the monarch has the potential to alleviate the convict’s sufferings. He imagines how different the convict’s situation might be if the king were standing in his place: “When from the dark synod, or blood-reeking field, / To his chamber the monarch is led, / All soothers of sense their soft virtue shall yield, / And quietness pillow his head” (25-8). Like his own movement from the mountain slope to the prison, the speaker imagines the king leaving a dark church or a bloody battlefield to come to the convict’s chamber. The speaker locates the monarch in three value-laden spaces: the church, the battlefield, and the prison are all places in which the public is constituted and acts (thinking here of Locke, Kames’s “publick” from Historical Law-Tracts, and Bentham). In others words,  Wordsworth’s speaker refers to places that became metonymic for the common interest, places where the public is constituted. The monarch entering the convict’s cell is endowed with the necessary agency to assist him.

At the close of the poem, the speaker rewrites this earlier episode by imagining what he would do if he commanded the power of the monarch. The convict, so weighed down by his condition, lets out a tear which the speaker proceeds to read: “The motion unsettles a tear; / The silence of sorrow it seems to supply, / And asks me why I am here” (42-4). In the speech act that follows, the speaker offers his answer:

“Poor victim! no idle intruder has stood
With o’erweening complacence our state to compare,
But one, whose first wish is the wish to be good,
Is come as a brother thy sorrows to share.

“At thy name though compassion her nature resign,
Though in virtue’s proud mouth thy report be a stain,
My care, if the arm of the mighty were mine,
Would plant thee where yet thou might’st blossom again.” (45-52)

In these lines, the speaker identifies himself as a special type of observer. Unlike the “idle
intruder” who visit the convict’s cell to compare his state to that of the imprisoned criminal, Wordsworth’s speaker expresses a desire “to share” the convict’s “sorrows.” As Bailey points out, the speaker distinguishes himself from more sentimental visitors and the moralizing of writers like Robert Southey because in late eighteenth century Britain “visits to a prison could too easily be assimilated by the literature of sentimentality and suffering” (7). “The Convict,” then, strives to avoid falling into these generic pitfalls and puts forward a suggestion for penal reform. It is also important to note that in the closing stanza, the speaker states that the personified abstractions of “compassion” and “virtue” have named and judged the convict. The phrase “thy name” could refer to the title of the poem itself. The title of “convict” is a name that has been assigned to this man by “public justice,” which in turn has led to him being abandoned and condemned by “quietness,” “compassion,” and “virtue.”

Many critics have recognized the influence of Godwin in the poem’s crucial
final two lines and their call for reform. Emile Legouis points out that, like Godwin’s Political Justice, Wordsworth’s poem calls for “transportation as a substitute for capital punishment” and “kindness and compassion” for the convicted (309). The speaker’s desire to relocate the convict is indeed clear, but many critical studies do not consider the manner in which the speaker expresses this desire. The final eight lines of the poem can be read as the speaker’s attempt at a performative speech act. If “the arm of the mighty” were the speaker’s to command, his words would perform an action: they would transport the convict, “plant” him somewhere where he “might’st blossom again.” Such a closing further connects Wordsworth to Godwin. As Angela Esterhammer points out, Jeremy Bentham “interpreted laws as verbal utterances exchanged between sovereigns and subjects” (554). While Bentham describes laws as speech acts, Godwin believes, as is clear in Political Justice, that language’s “only legitimate purpose is the communication of truth” and that words should never do anything (Esterhammer 555). According to Esterhammer, for Godwin, “all speech acts that attempt to exert control over future behavior ultimately work against the improvement of society because they institutionalize error, protect existing abuses, and prevent reform” (557). In other words, temporality troubles
contracts, oaths, pledges, promises, and all other performative speech acts.
Bentham’s classification of laws and Godwin’s, to borrow the title of Esterhammer’s
essay, “suspicion of speech acts” provide an useful context for examining the close of “The
Convict.” The speaker imagines himself in a position to make a verbal utterance that would carry with it the weight of the law. “If” he commanded the power of the monarch,  the speaker’s words would enact the very political reform that critics have identified in Godwin and Wordsworth.

While Godwin’s main anxiety about performative speech acts centers around time, the anxiety of Wordsworth’s speaker appears to have more to do with who has the capacity to make a performative utterance. “The Convict,” then, documents two types of representative failure. First, the “fancy” of the speaker shows the reader what lies in the convict’s heart after his judgment and imprisonment. Secondly, as is evident throughout the poem and forcefully so at its close, the monarch and “public justice” do not represent the will of the sympathetic speaker.

Perhaps the poem’s attempt to represent more “accurately” a marginalized figure and its meditation on the failure of political representation more generally connects it to the larger democratic purpose of Lyrical Ballads that will be announced in 1800.


Some Light Relief, or: Richardson’s Pamela is an Au Pair in 2012

It’s May! And that means that a lot of us academics are taking a deep, post-end-of-term-marking breath, and treating ourselves to the smallest of little vacations… a mini-vaycay, a staycation, an excursion, or what I have recently learned Germans call an Ausflug. In keeping with the theme of respite, here is a little light relief in the form of a pleasant comic fiction. Enjoy!

Richardson’s Pamela is an Au Pair in 2012;

or, Virtue Confounded.

In a Series of Letters
from a Hip Young Beauty, To her Parents.
Now first Published
In order to cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Moral Uncertainty
In the Youth of Both Sexes


Dear Mom and Dad,

Seriously bad news: the old lady who owns this joint just bit the dust. I’m getting transferred, and I don’t know if there’ll be a wifi connection at the new house, so hang tight. I can Facebook you from my Blackberry at Starbucks.

Your Dutiful Daughter,

Pamela Andrews


"A Moment" by Vancouver artist Drew Young

Dear Mom and Dad,

As I was closing my laptop, the son of the old lady walks into my room unannounced and scares the %^&* out of me. He’s a total creeper. Must be pushing 40. He just stood there looking at me and smiling. What a weirdo.

Peace Out,



Dear Mom (just between us),

The creepy son, Mr. B, offered to keep me on for DOUBLE the wages. AND he gave me a gift card for Victoria’s Secret. What should I do?



P.S. Can you top up my Vi$a? I miss spending quality time with you, and like, shopping. You are the greatest Mom ever : )


Dear Mom and Dad,

Mom, your letter made me feel way better about staying. You are right, money doesn’t grow on trees.

Mr. B treats me really well. He gave me some of the old lady’s clothes. VINTAGE cha-CHING! I got 3 pairs of high-waisted dress pants, 4 silk tops with totally retro gold buttons, 1 excellent Valentino dress that I might sell on eBay, 2 cashmere scarves, and Chanel sunglasses. The old lady was RICH. Now I guess it all belongs to Mr. B. …LUCKY!

Your Dutiful Daughter,

Pam xoxox


Dear Mom (don’t tell Dad, okay??)

Mr. B was totally hitting on me just like, two seconds ago, when I was walking down the hallway to find a dustpan. He told me I was the most beauteous creature to ever walk the earth, and my eyes were the pillars against which men might build their lives, which I don’t really get but whatevs. Creeper!

Oh em gee.



More from Drew Young

Dear Mom,

He kissed me! It just happened!

[This message has been sent via Facebook Mobile]

Your truly shocked daughter,



Dear Mom,

So I was like, OVER the whole thing, because I screamed, and then he kinda yelled, and then I cried, and he gave me permission to never speak to him again, plus he gave me $500 cash, and some new earrings, but THEN. OMG. Then, I was in my room getting ready for bed and I can hear some weird-ass noises coming from the closet. So I open the door and it’s HIM. He’s in MY CLOSET. So I scream some more, and he’s like, “don’t worry, it’s no problem, it’s no problem.” So I was like %^&* you and told him I QUIT.

So there.


Me, Pamela.


Dear Mom,

I can never forgive him for being SO WEIRD, but he has increased my salary and promised I can give notice after the holidays are over. So…

Virtue safe!




Dear Mom,

OMFG I think Mr. B wants to sleep with me. WTF.




Dear Mom,

If you don’t know what those abbreviations stand for, I can’t tell you.




Dear Mom,

Today Mr. B came into my room while I was listening to Grizzly Bear and reading Nylon, pinned me to the bed and started kissing me all over my face and neck and I was like, “Back off you Pedophile!” And he was like, “You cannot hold on to your virtue forever! One day, you MUST give yourself up, and because I find you extremely attractive and I have more money than you, it should be to me!” And then he started to unbutton my shirt, and it was kind of hot, but I knew better, because of what happened to the blonde chick on Gossip Girl, so I screamed, “My virtue is all that I have!” And with superhuman strength I threw him off me, ran downstairs, and phoned child protective services.

I’m gonna sue the bastard for all he’s got!

Marriage is for L-O-S-E-R-S,



Reading List Adventures

This is the semester I am struggling to put together my reading list for the comprehensive exams. I have to admit it’s a rather exhausting process, much more exhausting than I initially planned for. I entered into the PhD thinking I had a firm grasp on what I wanted to do – pursue eco-criticism and animal studies in Romanticism. I’ve found out that’s a rather hard thing to do. Going into a relatively interdisciplinary field requires a lot of thinking about different kinds of texts, themes, and theories. Anyone who has read texts dealing with race or gender will tell you that animal metaphors work to separate different kinds of people. So, are these metaphors in some way worth talking about, given their obviousness in the texts? In what ways do they change as the Industrial Revolution takes hold and separates, in a somewhat larger way, mankind from nature? The most important question (for me at this point, anyway) is how can I begin to get a hold on this issue in time to create a cogent and defined 120-odd booklist?

As I began working on it, I knew that environmental metaphors animated critical gender discussions in the Romantic era. In Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft argues that women are poisoned by their own culture, “for, like the flower which are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty.” Yet, “the perfection of our nature and capability of happiness” is partially based upon “man’s pre-eminence over the brute creation.” Those are obvious metaphors, but the way in which they position a woman in relation to the environment intrigues me. I thought about several canonical works from the period, and then I consulted several anthologies as well as these lengthy lists:

There’s a lot of texts on there, some that I was only peripherally familiar with and some that I had never encountered before. I looked for texts written by women or texts that dealt with the question of women that also involved the environment or animals. As you can imagine, that led to a rather long list filled with novels, poetry, plays, travel essays, literary essays, and theory tracts.

Then, I had a sort of revelation that I was not expecting and it came from an odd place. I began looking at pretty pictures of dresses.

Yes, you read that right. Pretty dresses. When it is winter and I feel bogged down by reading, and grading, and writing, I like to look at art, clothes, and houses from the period I study. It’s mentally invigorating, but that might just be an excuse I tell myself to look at beautiful dresses.

I noticed through my cursory searching a rather huge difference between women’s fashion pre- and post-Romantic Era fashion, especially in terms of how much of the body is shown and what is on the linen.  Dresses changed from being highly structured and covered in flowers to being more flowing with less natural decorations. I am in no way claiming to be an expert on women’s fashion. How correct or incorrect these observations are is less important than the effect it had on my list-making. I began to wonder how animals and the environment were utilized to produce certain kinds of bodies. That began to narrow down my list, and it also gave me a clearer picture of what else to put into the list.

My advice for this whole process is pretty simple:

1.)   Look around a lot. Consult examples of lists, anthologies, your Amazon wish-list. You’ll need to balance the canonical, but also find the exciting, bizarre, and strange you believe you might want to read.

2.)   Be available for inspiration in whatever form it happens to take. Go to a museum. Go outside. Talk to your pet. Eat a good meal. Give your mind a moment to relax and you’ll find the Ah-ha!



Using Zotero

Intro: Zotero’s my new favorite research tool. Why? Because it’s a Rhizome. But what isn’t (nowadays)? No, seriously. It is a rhizome and it happens to be a rhizome of the most useful sort. Zotero helps to visualize the relations between ideas, images, and texts in a way that few other research tools allow. For those unfamiliar, Zotero’s a powerful citation management program, frequently used as an extension of Firefox (but also can be used as a standalone application) that makes possible multiple points of entry and useful exits from information you’ve assembled in your research. Moreover, and maybe most importantly, Zotero offers a degree of scholarly peace of mind by backing up all your citations and notes on their server automatically, courtesy of the Mellon, Alfred P. Sloan Foundations and others. You receive 100 MB of space free, but can move into the 1 GB tier for only $20/year. I’ve been using Zotero pretty extensively for about six months and have used only about 9% of my storage space.

While perhaps the best introduction to Zotero can be found on their website (, I’ve set out as my task (complete with screenshots) to show how I use this incredible tool in my own early graduate research (#bravery) in hopes it may spark some ideas that might be helpful you all in your own respective scholarly practices.

How I Found Out About Zotero & How I Found Zotero Useful: I discovered Zotero last spring on the recommendation of my adviser–who’s a wonderful advocate for the absorption of digital technologies into Art History methods. I found downloading the program easy  ( After beginning to use Zotero, I quickly became impressed with how great it is to save even basic citations for later use–why I even refused to use EndNote as an undergrad, I don’t even know.

Zotero Main Screen Grab

I quickly became captivated by the usefulness of the “tag-function” as a means of exploring the interrelations between information. Indeed, in my case, this function allowed me to organize the flow of information between primary images, texts, and secondary source material in a really effective way. For instance, working on Blake and self-annihilation has generated certain challenges for me in navigating between where the idea comes up in Blake’s poetry, in the visual fields of the illuminated books, in other Blakean artistic media (his watercolors, his lithograph, etc.), its relation to period specific primary text materials, and more contemporary critical theory. Zotero allows me to see these phenomenon in relation to the ideas of scholars who have previously explored them, easily.

Quick & Dirty examples: For instance, hitting the tag “Self-Annihilation” allows me to visualize connections between the following range of texts, images, and tags I’ve created:

To the left, the blue tag indicates the primary idea I’m pursuing, while the remaining black tags indicate what other tags are related to the primary idea. To the right, Zotero displays what texts and images are tagged with the primary idea. As a second step, let’s say I’m interested in self-annihilation as it relates to Blake’s Enoch lithograph, specifically. To find new connections, I’d highlight both the tags “Self-Annihilation” and “Blake’s Enoch.”

The tag-function has allowed me to connect the lithograph to a diverse array of materials: two images I had tagged (but forgotten) as similar immediate objects of interest (“Christ Offers to Redeem Man” from Blake’s Butts Paradise Lost watercolor series and Jerusalem, pl. 41), a Hazlitt essay that I saw as exhibiting similarly self-annihilative concerns, and one of my favorite selections from Anti-Oedipus. Indeed, and also helpful, in this regard, is the ability to store copies of files–and namely images–within your personal Zotero database. With the way I use the interface, a simple click will load a stored image

(In the screen grab:) William Blake. “Christ Offers to Redeem Man” in Illustrations to Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (Butts Set), 1808. The William Blake Archive. Ed. Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi. 7 November 2011 <>.

Conclusion: In the end, after using Zotero for the last six months, I can’t even imagine going back to paper-based research note taking. It will be interesting to see how these new technologies drive humanities research forward in the future, and what new and more complex connections might be forged in all our studies. I also recognize that I’m not the only NGSC member who uses Zotero, and would appreciate comments on what tips and tricks you all have for using the program in your own work.

My First Acquaintance with Visual Artists & Ballerinas in Eugene

Fig. 1. Faye Mullen, still from: "to never forever-à jamais," 2011. Salt, Three story building, Artist's body. Three-channel video installation, 6min24secs. © Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Looking back, each term of my first year of grad school has offered its own distinct set of lessons. This quarter, after some really good experiences, I’ve realized just how crucial it can be to connect not only with like-minded passionate scholars in the field, but with contemporary practicing artists as well. As a result, I’ve arrived at a greater appreciation of the importance of getting outside my own work, concerned as it is with art and literature of the historical past, to interact and network with creative minds working today, particularly those with similar interests in critical theory. Early on in the term I had the opportunity to to see the Eugene Ballet Company’s final performance of the season that featured a visually stunning experimental performance called Tyranny of the Senses. Later, for this year’s University of Oregon Art History Symposium, we hosted an artist’s talk given by a really fabulous performative video installation artist and sculptress Faye Mullen (MFA Student, University of Toronto) who spoke on one of her latest video pieces, to never forever-à jamais. I’ve included examples of both here in hopes that some of you might take a moment to look at the works and respond as well, being that it is after all (and at last) summer break.

Also, on your end, I’m interested in seeing you all comment on a couple of other things:

(1) The type of interchange that occurs in your respective departments between creative writers and literary historians. If there isn’t any, would this be something you’d find desirable?

(2) Whether or not you feel that you’ve benefited from exchanges across the divide between creative writers/artists and scholars.

In Lawrence Hall–at the UofO–us cultural historians are definitely very much the minority. We’re surrounded by architects and artists working in a variety of media, running the gamut from printmaking, metalwork/jewelery, new media, to painting. Oftentimes, even in Art History seminars, we’re outnumbered by architects and artists. I feel as though I’ve really benefited from a dialogue between those who study art and those who create it. So, I’d definitely love to hear whether or not there are similar dynamics that go on in English graduate programs.

That said, to share a couple specific works with you all, I have to say that I’m totally captivated by choreographer Gillmer Duran and composer Brian McWhorter’s Tyranny of the Senses. The ballet left an indelible impression on me for the way it collides contemporary dance, projected images, and a soundtrack that pans intensely across the stereo-field (think U2-Joshua Tree).

One of the things I’ve found most exciting, in chatting with a couple ballerinas from the company that have subsequently become a part of my core group of grad school friends, is the recognition that shared concerns on both sides of the scholarly/artistic divide can really line up. Since my interests in critical theory are primarily geared towards understanding the process by which works generate their meanings through continuing processes of (reader/viewer)ly interaction, I was most struck by a conversation I recently had with one of the ballerinas who talked about the way Duran’s work created a space in which she and the other dancers are actively encouraged to re-interpret each individual performance through their own acts of improvisation against the ballet’s multimedia elements. For me, it was really cool to see that the post-structural concepts we’re exposed to as scholars actually do resonate with the ways in which contemporary practicing artists working in a variety of media think about their own work.

Lastly, and along these same lines, I thought it a good idea to share with you all Faye Mullen’s work (given that it engendered such a good discussion at this year’s grad symposium up here) (fig. 1; For a 9 minute excerpt of the 52 minute piece, please click here.) In my view, Mullen’s art really engages some crucially important issues related to the contemporary domestic-sphere that, because of its embodied exploration of identity, for me recalls Mary Wolstonecraft’s ideas concerning the detrimental way dependence of mind and body are integrally related. I found it interesting in talking with her after the talk that theory still drives work on both sides of the artist/scholar divide. At least in Canada, artists are strongly encouraged to deploy theory in explaining their art when applying for public grant funding. What really impressed me was that, while some artists react negatively to such a demand playing being placed on their work, others view it as a challenge that can spark the absorption of additional layers of creativity into their artistic practice, something that I imagine resonates with the way many of us might view the role and continued relevancy of critical theory within the humanities.

Increasingly, I’m realizing that the divide between scholarly and creative work runs even thinner that I’ve initially believed. Hope you enjoy taking a look at these works, as I have, and I strongly encourage comments, since I’d love nothing more than to continue the conversation.

The Myth of Summer Vacation

This time of year I am regularly regarded by my friends and family outside of academia as someone who is “off for the summer.” In my imagination, someone who is off for the summer gets a tan from working or playing in the yard during the day, kicks back on her front porch to enjoy a refreshing iced tea with her favorite lazy reading, takes her dog for hikes, and has the time to organize her closets and rid her house of the things that she hasn’t used since who knows when (and promptly takes them to the local Goodwill or Salvation Army to prevent further consideration). I often find myself frustrated when others imply that my job as a graduate teaching assistant affords me this sort of luxury. On the other hand, I recognize how fortunate I am to be away from the office for three months or so (that is, if I am not teaching a summer course or finding some other office to call home for a brief stint). If doing so is financially feasible, I do not have to teach a single class or report to the office for meetings until August; unquestionably, this is a privilege—a privilege that few fields offer.

Recent discussions here at the NGSC blog regarding the potential for academics to constantly be “on the clock” have me thinking about the relationship between work and summer (thanks Brittany Pladek!). Despite the seemingly popular notion that we all spend our summers “off,” as Kelli Towers Jasper pointed out, summer often means finding a way to pay the bills. We graduate students work odd jobs, pick up a summer class, tutor at Barnes and Noble and the local library, offer our skills at summer camps and so on. In fact, summer often means forcing ourselves to stick to a schedule even more stringent and demanding than that of the fall or spring semesters. We must find time to earn a(nother) living, continue our research, write a blog/article/chapter, plan for our fall courses, and the list goes on. This doesn’t seem to be exclusive to contingent faculty and graduate students, though; for full-time faculty the summer offers the chance to work on their own research and spend time away from the seemingly constant pile of undergraduate and graduate marking.

I recently crafted my summer reading schedule and found myself looking at a list of things I “must read by September,” rather than a list of things I’ve been hoping to read since…well, I can’t even remember. Here again emerges (at least the potential for) the always-working, always-on-the-clock academic. So, NGSC readers, I wonder, can we “clock out” just a bit this summer? Do the summer months afford you time away from the office, so to speak? If so, how do you spend your time?

Making Means Meet: The Prelude and Risk in Retrospect

This blog represents a “jump-for-joy” moment in my studies where my reading relates directly to an activity that I dearly love: rock climbing. In the process, the news to me was how the act of close reading this small passage in The Prelude that taps into my adrenaline-performance-junky self became more about language and representations of identity. More specifically, it became about how Wordsworth lays bare the way in which the process of *writing* about memories changes them and merges selves in ways that logically conflict, and that teach.

* * *

Yesterday I reread a bunch of books in The Prelude as well as book 1 of The Excursion, and right now I’m rereading (for the first time since a sophomore year poetry class with Robert Pack at Middlebury College) “Michael”. In the process of diving back into all this Wordsworthian juice and joy, I’ve been thinking about individual connections to language, activity (mostly bodily), and histories.

It seemed to me while working through the Prelude, that one important pivot for WW is the body: its a place where outside (nature, society, history, words on a page) meets inside (nature [again], imagination, identity, desire, memory). It is a locomotive human frame that interacts with the motions of nature and that contains the whirrings of ideas and blood. In a very Lockean sense, the body is the gateway to thought and perception of the world at large.

I’m an avid rock climber, and this passage made my palms sweat (Book I (1850) ll. 326-356). Finally, my two worlds — academic and athletic — were colliding in my work. Like free gelato, it’s just too good to be true. (Why didn’t this passage catch me in previous Prelude readings?)

Nor less when spring had warmed the cultured Vale,
Moved we as plunderers where the mother-bird
Had in high places built her lodge; though mean
Our object and inglorious, yet the end
Was not ignoble. Oh! when I have hung
Above the raven’s nest, by knots of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
But ill sustained, and almost (so it seemed)
Suspended by the blast that blew amain,
Shouldering the naked crag, oh, at that time
While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ear! the sky seemed not a sky
Of earth — and with what motion moved the clouds!

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. How strange that all
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have been borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!
Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ;
Whether her fearless visitings, or those
That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light
Opening the peaceful clouds; or she may use
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable, as best might suit her aim.

The emphases on the “means” are mine, of course. My first thought when reading this passage was: I know exactly what he means when he describes the sensation of being quite high off the deck, “ill-sustained” on “slippery rock,” barely hanging on by half-inch fissures and protected by a bunch of knots (hopefully cams and/or nuts would be involved as well, but not in the author’s time!). Your senses pick up on the most interesting things when you are relaxed mid-route and can observe the vertical environment without being concerned about gear or falling. You find birds nested in cracks (who might poop on you); you notice the “exposure” or the “airy” feel of being up high and having a panoramic view, as if from the side of a tower; and you might notice how your shadow moves with you on the adjacent rock wall.

But in this passage, WW is not relaxed: he’s nervous, hanging by “grass” knots, on a “perilous” ridge. When that’s me (and I use a really good rope, not grass!), I am so NOT listening to the utterances of the wind, I’m not noticing the sublimity of the sky, and I’m definitely not tracking the motion of the clouds unless a storm is rolling in. I would be focused on executing the moves and placing/clipping gear to make sure I reach the top without taking a bad fall, (though I also happen to find this fun).

So WW here is taking a moment of real, physical danger, and mentioning how he notices the natural world in which he is suspended. The rock and the climbing are just a means to an end: that of gaining a different perspective on the elements, one that makes the climber feel incapable of falling, like the birds, and supported by the wind. The question becomes for me: how can the knowledge of bodily peril and discomfort and serene appreciation and enchantment by the motions of the wind and sky exist together? I argue that they can’t (unless you’re comfortably hanging out on a nice, big ledge, or belaying, or celebrating on the summit!). The body’s survival mechanisms don’t readily allow for those separate feelings and emotions to coexist simultaneously. And yet somehow they do in that stanza … Here’s some real-life evidence:

Focusing on climbing so that I can ...
... look around and appreciate the view from the summit!

In this moment, as a poet, and due to his engagement with his changing self, his history and his memories, WW can’t help but write or record tenuousness and fear-factor into this passage. As a kid playing around on steep, slippery, probably potentially fatal vertical rocky terrain, he was fearless (and stupid) and therefore could look around while dangling from a cliff. As an adult, both W and I would find it hard not to think about the painful ends – possible consequences – of falling.

In the next stanza, WW goes fairly “meta” and comments on the fusion of his child and adult perspective and language in the preceding stanza’s moment:  “there is a dark / Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles / Discordant elements, makes them cling together / In one society.” Suddenly, we’re not rock climbing anymore: were thinking about *writing about* rock climbing long ago. The “discordant elements” of fearless child’s play and adult awareness “cling together” as if hanging onto the rock for dear life. Crag meets poem, nature meets society, past meets present, reader meets poet. They don’t get the job done on their own.

The “means which Nature deigned employ”: he gives thanks to them, but precisely for what? For not killing him? Nature seems to encompass the narrator’s reckless desire to climb this rock, the rock itself, as well as an idea or a construct that exists in the author’s memory that urged him to do things that would make an impression on him (or break his leg). Even if the impression is only understood later (like the way in which his books from Cambridge mean more to him in later years than they did while in school). And what means? Why “deigned”? Nature is billed as a teacher here – but one whose lessons you have to learn while potentially soloing a crag and then live on to tell the tale. And nature is stooping to teach you. But doesn’t that sortof mean that we are stooping to teach ourselves, since we are not only affected by, but also create the natural world that we exist in? Is WW learning nature’s lesson not through climbing, or remembering climbing, but through writing about remembering this climb?

Does his attention to the work of writing poetry about memories then, which brings back all the risk that he never encountered in the moment, go hand in hand with an inherent realization of risk? Perhaps the risk in writing about memory is somewhere in the lacunae between now and then, the inability to ever fully return on our own, and the reliance upon readers or audience to make an imaginative “leap” (or climb) in order to attempt to preserve these things which do not endure. The risk infused in the climb was also, perhaps, the risk in recording it.

The Technology of Sticky Flags

My name is Kirstyn, I’m the NGSC webmaster and a digital humanities (newbie) scholar and a sticky-flag addict. This post and confession was inspired by a ProfHacker article I read this morning.

Every scholar has his or her own particular way of marking the parts of a text that interest them most and responding to those passages with ideas, connections, hypotheses, comments, and the occasional cranky quip in the margin. For me, the e-reader development craze is not just about saving paper and being “green,”  e-ink reading comfort, battery life, page “turning” time, and feel of the device, but perhaps more important:

(1) the ability to access the 18th- and 19th-century texts I’m working with, and

(2) how to mark that text with “flags” (digital equivalent of the Post-it flag) and comments.

I want to spend my introductory blog thinking about the way in which we scholars typically mark physical books (not e-books … that’s my next post!). The book has a technology of its own, and casual readers and scholars manipulate and mine that technology in different ways. For example, I’m studying for my comprehensive exams right now and am note-taking in too many ways, if you ask me: in/on the actual texts, in notebooks, and on my computer. It’s a distillation of the transformative (and sometimes confusing) technological moment we’re reading, writing, and teaching in. Continue reading The Technology of Sticky Flags