Reading Romanticism Today (A Pedagogical Experiment)

The title of this week’s post echoes the title of my newest course, which I’m currently three weeks into teaching. “Reading Romanticism Today” is one of the English department’s introductory courses advertised as “Freshmen Seminars in Literature.” These classes satisfy our College of Arts and Sciences’ first-year composition requirement.

Having taught several of these intro-level seminars in both the English and Writing Program departments, I’ve designed courses on poetry, fiction, and contemporary media. I typically organize the syllabus around a particular theme, like “the modern American family” or “poetry of the self.” I have not yet focused one on any particular historical period. But since this was likely to be one of the last courses I’ll teach while still a doctoral student, I wanted to develop a syllabus that not only falls within my field of research, but that also pushes beyond a straightforward poetry survey.

In designing the course, I aimed to strike a balance between several objectives:

  1. Teach students how to analyze poetry to depths that both surprise and challenge them
  2. Encourage students to write persuasive arguments, supported by textual evidence, based upon their own analyses
  3. Introduce students to major canonical Romantic texts (“Tintern Abbey,” “Mont Blanc,” Frankenstein)
  4. Ask us all, both students and teacher, to question how Romantic works still make any sense in today’s world

My intention was to mash together an overview of Romanticism with contemporary cultural studies—all while teaching students how to read and write at the college level.

The first unit, focused on Nature, began by exploring those key concepts that organized eighteenth-century thinking on aesthetics: the “beautiful,” the “picturesque,” the “sublime.” On our first day, we examined artwork that resonates with those aesthetic theories.

John Constable's Hay Wain (1821) and the picturesque
John Constable’s Hay Wain (1821) and the picturesque

Alongside study of the visual arts, our poetry selections for this unit will include many of the usual suspects: “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” “Tintern Abbey,” “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.” We’ll spend about two to three weeks in total talking about Wordsworth and Coleridge, but without too much emphasis on biography. Instead, we’ll work through these writers’ poetic theories as they become expressed through specific works.

The sublime of Thomas Cole's Savage State (1834)
The sublime of Thomas Cole’s Savage State (1834)

For the most part, this portion of the course is unremarkable. It’s towards the end of this unit, however, that they (and I) will attempt to get more creative and uncover something slightly more unexpected.

As we read selections from Wordsworth’s Prelude, for instance, we’re also going to watch the first episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a recent science documentary hosted by astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson. The series aired last year on both Fox and National Geographic, and was marketed and styled for mass public consumption.

In the opening of Episode 1, Tyson narrates what will unfold—over the course of the next thirteen episodes—as a grandiose drama depicting all dimensions of the universe, from infinitesimal beings to infinite universes. Extending the work of its predecessor, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, developed and narrated by Carl Sagan in 1980, Tyson’s Cosmos series traces the history of scientific exploration over the past centuries and conveys the state of current scientific knowledge on everything from electrons to black holes.

“To make this journey,” Tyson remarks, “we’ll need Imagination. But imagination alone is not enough, because the reality of nature is far more wondrous than anything we can imagine…”

I wonder: How much would Coleridge and Wordsworth—or, for that matter, Immanuel Kant—agree or disagree with such a statement? Do their ideas of imagination and reason coincide with this new (scientific and empirical yet often unobservable) vision of the universe? Were they asking similar questions, or different ones? Do our current impulses to quantify and document the physical world parallel the interests that Wordsworth had in exploring his own mind or the world around him—or, are these drives mutually exclusive? Do our limitations in grasping the physical universe in its immensity and infinity mimic Wordsworth’s discovery of his own limitations when confronting the Alps, Mount Snowdon, or a ride across a lake in a stolen boat…?

Friedrich's Wordsworthian Wanderer
Friedrich’s Wordsworthian Wanderer

Posing these kinds of questions to my students will allow me—perhaps for the first genuine time—to take a backseat. Even though I try to emphasize that there’s never any “right” answer when reading poetry, only now will there clearly be no “correct” interpretation that I’m fishing for. No leading questions, just pure inquiries. I can only add my own impressions and speculations to theirs. I am no more of an expert than they.

Approaching this pedagogical experiment with a beginner’s mind, so to speak, will also begin to make these materials that I so long-ago dissected to pieces become new again. I’m hoping that my students will connect to these Romantic texts in real ways that reflect their own real experiences, rather than feel they’re being forced to read dead poems that have no relevance for them whatsoever.

I had a preview of what’s to come during the first of these experimental pairings. We performed one early in the semester, when I asked students to read a recent article from Harper’s Magazine by Alan Lightman, called “Our Place in the Universe” (2012). This initial connection is meant to set up our study of the Cosmos later this month.

On a lovely day in Boston—the kind of late-summer morning that almost literally smells like apple picking—we sat outside on the grass reading Book One of Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude. (I’d always wanted to have class outside as an undergrad; I finally made it happen!) On a lush green lawn shaded by two massive trees, we pondered the universe at large, far far beyond our own sensory and imaginative comprehension.

Tyson's Cosmos
Neil deGrasse Tyson staring up into the Cosmos

My students connected the terrifying sublimity of Wordsworth’s boyhood encounters to our contemporary exploration of the stars. As Lightman explains, life in the universe—wherever it may exist—would make up only a meager part of all there is: life, in essence, constitutes only 0.000000000000001 percent of all the mass and material of the visible universe—that’s “one millionth of one billionth of 1 percent,” he says. Our collective reaction boiled down to:

“Whoa.”

A similar “whoa,” perhaps, to what Wordsworth recounts in his famous boat-stealing episode, when he recalls treading water as massive cliffs appear out of nowhere and suddenly overwhelm both his physical and mental capacities—and that literally come to haunt his dreams for days afterwards:

When, from behind that craggy steep till the
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark,—
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

When I asked whether Lightman’s descriptions of the size and scale of the universe (all those zeros!!) could compare in some way to Wordsworth’s reactions to the cliffs, the students immediately linked the two experiences.

Lightman’s figures on the page—elsewhere, he notes that the most distant galaxy one scientist observed using Hubble images is “about 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away from Earth, give or take”—made the students feel immensely small, just as Wordsworth did as those cliffs strode after him. The students contemplated their own insignificance, but also their own importance. We’re all rather meaningless, they pondered (putting some perspective on their worries about what they’d be doing that Friday night). But it also made them feel rather special in their smallness, as each of our lives is unique enough to be commemorated—special enough, even, to be recorded as Wordsworth does, in an autobiographical poem that immortalizes the story of his own life. They also sensed why he might have felt so anxious to write the Recluse, that impossible philosophical project: for who can ever know what impact one will really have on the future?

This long, boring poem that they didn’t know what to do with now suddenly started to make a bit more sense. They could resonate with Wordsworth’s own impulses to record such experiences in the Prelude, a project that would occupy him for more than 50 years until his death. And they also could understand what Burke and Kant might have meant when they described a sublime that is all at once terrifying, incomprehensible, and astonishing. . .

galaxy
After we complete this unit on Nature about halfway through the semester, we’ll switch to studying Romantic Revolutions. We’ll begin with Blake’s radical responses to the French Revolution and progress to Wollstonecraft’s early political tracts, including both Vindications and the fictional Maria; or the Wrongs of Woman. In continuing this pedagogical experiment, we’ll spend several days reading contemporary works in relation to Romantic texts as well, from essays that respond to America’s current waves of warfare to contentious debates about that most dreaded of “F-words”: feminism.

Finally, we’ll end the semester with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—the only text on our reading list that a majority of the students have already encountered in high school as an assigned “classic.” This time, they’ll have an entirely new lens with which to read it.

As with our Nature unit, I am hoping that these unusual reading combinations will achieve two things: first, they’ll make two-hundred-year-old Romantic texts more comprehensible to my millennial students; and second, they’ll make these familiar texts a bit less familiar for me, so that I can think about them in a fresh way along with my freshman students.

Together, we’ll venture into some new intellectual territory—one that’s a little bit sublime, a little bit picturesque, and altogether beautiful.