These opening lines of William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ are perhaps the best-known example of the microcosm in Romantic literature. The poem comes from one of Blake’s notebooks, The Pickering Manuscript, where it appears without line breaks (however, these lines are often published as a separate quatrain). It expresses the idea that the beauty, mystery, and totality of the miniature is characteristic of the whole.
The Romantic poets had a special interest in the ordinary for its microcosmic and representational roles in poetry. In his Biographia Literaria, S.T. Coleridge describes poetry as a special kind of composition set apart from works of science by its metric and phonetic structures and designed for the purpose of pleasure. On the whole, poetry produces delight compatible with the gratification produced by each component part, which harmonizes with the other essentials.
Coleridge’s famous definition of the imagination in his Biographia Literaria rejects John Locke’s understanding of the mind as a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which experience impresses, though we find the empiricist view extending back to classical thought (see Plato’s Theaetetus and Aristotle’s De Anima). Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) supposes that the mind is a “white paper void of all characters, without any ideas,” a passive slate void of agency or a priori knowledge until acted upon by the external world. Coleridge, who was an increasingly Christian Neoplatonist, abhorred Locke’s static conception of the mind and attributed the decline in English philosophy and theology to the popularity of empiricist modes of thinking.
I was lucky enough, during one of the few trips I made into London from the West Country via rail, to catch a musical performance of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner by the Trad Academy Sea Shanty Choir at historic Wilton’s Music Hall. The show was at 7:30 pm on 15 July, a Saturday; and because the last train back to Templecombe would leave Waterloo Station at precisely 9:20, I had to find lodgings in London for that night or risk getting “locked out” and, possibly, forced to pay through the nose for a few restless hours in a room that didn’t fit into my budget (this had happened once before, but is a story for a different day). I booked a room for that night in a nearby Chamberlain’s (the pub chain) hotel about a ten minute walk from the music hall. I showed up there several hours early, ate fish and chips, requested “iced tea” as my complimentary beverage (to the utter dismay of the bartender), climbed the five flights of stairs to my room (for the lift was broken), and took a nap. After the 140-minute train ride in, and another two hour walk from the station (I refused to pay for a cab), I knew that I needed to sleep or I would be unable to savor the coming performance.
I recently took a class in post-colonialism which was subtitled “Place and Space in Contemporary Anglo-American Literatures.” The professor wanted us to think like real estate agents: that is, to always be repeating the mantra “location, location, location” as we read various contemporary texts. One of the novels we read for class was V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, the autobiographical story of a Trinidadian writer who retires to the English countryside in Wiltshire, living in a guest cottage on the edge of a manor that has fallen into disrepair.
The debate about the role of social media in academia that took over my Twitter feed a few weeks ago (read about it in The Guardian and in Forbes) has prompted me to think about the role of blogging as well, particularly for graduate students, who are perhaps especially concerned about being seen as “serious academics.”
Professor Ramesh Mallipeddi’s course, ‘slavery and eighteenth-century literature,’ which I took a year ago, was an opportunity to consider questions central to slavery studies: What is the role of the critic in relation to the archive of slavery, where there are very few accounts of slave experience written by slaves themselves? Did the affective politics of sympathy actually ameliorate the suffering of slaves or did sentimental rhetoric simply validate the metropolitan observer? What was obscured and what was accomplished in abolitionist efforts to intervene in the slave trade and to reform plantation discipline? What role did slaves themselves play in articulating their losses and mobilizing against the institutions of racial slavery? Professor Mallipeddi tackles these questions among others in his book Spectacular Suffering: Witnessing Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic, which has just come out. Continue reading ‘Spectacular Suffering’: A Reading Recommendation→
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.
I’ll seize any chance I can get to talk about Lord Byron’s fan letters – and with the somewhat flimsy excuse of the 224th anniversary of the publication of Cantos I &II of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage just around the corner (March 20, to be exact), now seems like a perfect time. Lord Byron received fan letters? Of course he did!