There’s a scene in an episode of the animated series Samurai Jack where the Scotsman encounters an old man in the port who wishes him to tell him a tale. When the Scotsman asks what it is there’s a long pause before the old man cackles out, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner!”
The Scotsman then bellows, “Heard it!” and shoves him out of the way.
As a kid you recognize the dismissal as the base of the comedy and don’t dig too far into it. It’s only when you watch the show ten years later, because of course the cartoons you watched when you were a kid were better than the cartoons that exist today everybody knows that, you pause on that joke and, hopefully, still laugh. You get the context of the joke because your sophomore level English instructor had you read the poem and you get that it’s a play on the set up and…I’m ruining the joke aren’t I? Sorry about that.
I was going originally to write about John Keats’s To Autumn or Ode to a Nightingale, but I’ve decided to leave that for December for rhetorical reasons (assuming NASSR doesn’t fire me or Grad school doesn’t kill me, check back in in a month I promise it will be worth it). Since I saw I only had two weeks until my next post was due I thought it would be interesting to discuss popular culture and it’s response to the Romantics. Now the possibility for such an essay might at first be an in depth analysis to the cultural habit or re-imagining previous texts in order to build upon the shoulders of giants, not to mention establish an interest for young viewers so that there’s hope to become young readers. That’s the possibility, but not necessarily what I’m going to do here. I thought it’d be fun to just look through several examples of where we can find allusions to Romantic poetry.
Now because there’s so many great examples of references to the Romantic Period in Popular culture I don’t even know where to begin.
Now immediately that may not seem like an appropriate beginning since Family Guy is an American television program that lists depravity on its resume the way Marilyn Butler lists her own name (hope you guys enjoyed that reference), but in the midst of bawdy humor about alcoholism a small gem struck me and I’ve posted it here. I apologize for the poor quality:
The concept of William Wordsworth writing a song about gold-diggers may seem outlandish or immature, but I would ask the reader to remind themselves that the only reason they have that intellectual reaction is because they have a working understanding of poetry or Wordsworth. To the common viewer of the program who is most likely a teenage boy, like I was when I first discovered it, this joke will be funny simply for the oddity of the history joke, but if they’re curious about references, also like I was, they’ll then dig into it and find out who Wordsworth was and why he was important. They may also ask if Stewie’s criticism is really such a fair dismissal.
Speaking of Wordsworth it might be great time to address The Eyre Affair. The first literature class I took at the college level was a sophomore level English-lit survey course that covered the Romantics through the Postmodern period. We read the Romantics at the start of the year, and when it came to the Modern/Post-Modern period we read a novel entitled The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. The novel is a science fiction/steam-punk/literary satire/slapstick/Monty Python…you know, it’s an odd book we’ll leave it at that. Well in the novel the protagonist’s uncle Mycroft Next invents a machine that allows people to enter the works of literature. When he and his wife Polly are kidnapped she is trapped in Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. There’s a passage from the novel that remains my favorite joke in the whole book:
“Have you been well my love?”
She pointed surreptiously in the direction of the caped figure.
“I’ve been fine, although Mr. W over there seems to think that he’s God’s gift to women. He invited me to join him in a few unpublished works. A few flowery phrases and he thinks I’m his.”
Polly pulled his sleeve and made him sit down. She was flushed and excited at the idea of her septuagenarian husband and Wordsworth getting into a fight over her—it would have been quite a boast at the Women’s Federation meeting. (Fforde 233).
There’s something about Wordsworth being a dirty old man that I find hysterical. It might be the fact that Wordsworth the man was actually a bit of an old fogey. It wasn’t just that he tended to use the women in his life as personal assistants rather than equals, or that
he essentially worked for the English equivalent of the IRS later in his life, or that he developed a psychological comfort in mathematics near the end. To be honest it’s his re-writing of Lyrical Ballads because he was embarrassed by Coleridge’s portions that really nail it for me. Wordsworth in life seems to have been a bit of an egomaniac in my estimation, making the passage all the more poignant. The passage above is important however because, as we noted in class, with the development of “mass culture” writers became more comfortable with subverting the image of past greatness therefore the idea of treating Wordsworth with any reverence of literary purity goes out the window. Still I note had it not been education in the romantics this joke would have just been a strange oddity, rather than comedic gem.
Looking back to television I’m reminded of one of the best examples of incorporation of Romantic poetry and that’s the “Tyger, Tyger” episode of Batman the Animated Series. The show came out in 1992, and while it only lasted four years it established a new standard for superhero cartoons that you can see in just about every new attempt at it. I’ll admit the “Tyger, Tyger” episode didn’t originally thrill me very much, I was usually more interested in the Joker, but looking back this episode is actually very well written since it combines Blake’s notion of “Experience” with H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. A mad scientist kidnaps Catwoman and turns her into an actual catwoman to be the bride of his greatest creation Tygrus a “Man-Cat.” Of course Batman finds the island she’s isolated on, beats the bad-guy, and saves Catwoman because, well…BATMAN!
Looking past the obvious superhero tropes however it’s important to look at the structure of the episode for the beginning of the episode starts with Batman reading the first stanza of Blake’s The Tyger where of course the question is “What immortal hand or eye,/Could frame they fearful symmetry?” At the very end as Tygrus enters the burning ruins of the laboratory Batman reads the poem again, but of course the line has changed:
When you’re a kid you don’t get the significance that a single word choice can create in the listener/reader because at that age all you can really think is, BATMAN! As I’ve grown, and read Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience at least seven times now, this scene has assumed a more pressing significance because I understand Blake’s intent. My professor would always pair this poem with The Lamb and ask us the same question Blake does, “Did he who make the Lamb make thee?” Looking at this episode in relation to the technological developments we have today, and will most likely possess in the coming decades both the poem and the cartoon provide excellent opportunities for teachers and students to reflect on scientific ethics.
The Romantics would infect more than just cartoons, music, and novels however and Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, still regarded as one of, if not the, greatest films in American cinema. If you haven’t seen the film, and no offense here few actually have, here’s the opening. See if you can’t spot a familiar reference:
Welles isn’t particularly subtle. He quotes the first line of the infamous “Fragment” in order to establish the grandiosity that is the mansion of Charles Foster Kane. But Welles wasn’t alone, for if the reader simply google searches “Xanadu” they’ll find an entire Wikipedia entry dedicated to books, movies, songs, and stories that use the poem in some form or fashion . Whether it be the song by the epic rock band RUSH, or the disco epic by Olivia Newton John, and there is, and I’d completely forgotten about it while I was writing this, a DC comic book character named Madam Xanadu based off a sorceress in Le Morte d’Arthur. The name Xanadu has been used time and time again by writers, artists, and musicians because the name summons an idea of power that hints at the notion of the sublime.
A small aside, perhaps the greatest use of romantic allusions however is the episode of the Simpsons in which Homer utters this line: “What do you think we’re floatin’ on? Don’t you know the poem? Water, water everywhere, so let’s all have a drink.” I mean…how can you not love that?
I wanted to use one last example to demonstrate how the Romantic period has entered the cultural consciousness and that is in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. I’m debating right now whether to write a full article on the character Ozymandias since he stands as everything the poem was meant to be, but I’m sure that essay exists somewhere else on the internet. For the time being I’ll provide a basic outline. Anyone dimly familiar with the concept of the Watchmen the plot is complicated. The United States and the U.S.S.R. are heating up the Cold War and everyday poised towards M.A.D., Mutually Assured Destruction. Meanwhile Superheroes have been banned by society and the plot centers on the few living in New York who believe someone is killing them one by one. At the end of the graphic novel the former superhero Ozymandias, now a billionaire who’s built an elaborate palace in Antarctica, reveals that he’s lead the conspiracy all along that results in the prevention of nuclear war, as well as the deaths of every living being in New York.
There’s a frame in the book in which the man opens the great glass dome of his garden burying the flowers, butterflies, exotic plants, and servants in snow. Ozymandias doesn’t truly win in the end for the reader is assured that eventually his plan will be revealed, everyone will know it was him, and the political realities will return to their usual mutual distrust, but for the time being I want to look back to that snow. Anyone who’s read the original poem Ozymandias by Percy Shelley knows that all that remains of the great king’s empire is the shattered statue surround by the emptiness of the desert. The power of Moore’s Romantic allusion however is not simply the destruction of the garden it’s the actions that follow as Ozymandias destroys New York city killing millions. There’s a sublime moment in the last issue of the graphic novel in which the first six pages are nothing but the massacred bodies of the citizens of New York. No captions. No thoughts. No monologues. Simply the recognition of millions of lives gone in an instant. Men make kingdoms, and surely time wins in the end as all is left to dust.
The Romantics have infected our cultural consciousness and this is reflected in the small references that pepper many of the great works that have followed it. I’ve focused more on cartoons and comics rather than other works of literature because I have a great backing in these areas, but also because of the point I made at the start of the paper. When we’re young there are references that we don’t get either because they’re veiled sex jokes to keep our parents interested because we make them watch this stuff over and over again, but then there are other jokes and allusions that we skip because we lack the training and education to really understand the humor or drama. Looking back at Batman is the best example I can find. When I was a kid I thought the “Tyger, Tyger” episode was boring but it was cool listening to Batman muse on his experience. Now that I’ve grown up, I can appreciate the narrative structure that’s deepened because of the allusions.
I’ve provided only a small droplet of the countless re-imaginings in order to prove a point. The Romantics in their brief period created an aesthetic as well as iconic images and passages that linger in people’s consciousness long after they’ve read it. These images and ideas summon feelings of power and awe, and always leave the audience with a sense that they’ve touched something outside of the time and space of their mundane realm. Moving forward then our job as writers, teachers, and scholars is not to merely laugh off these allusions, or shake our head and look upon these works as charming reproductions. They’re tools we can use to begin the conversations in classrooms. Looking back to the Wordsworth clip there will be students who may not understand the relevance of Romantic poetry to their contemporary society but who might be more open once they see a connection to television programs they watch now, or watched as a kid.
I’m not suggesting teachers sacrifice entire lectures over these re-imaginings of Romantic poetry, but these sources, whether it’s Bugs Bunny, Batman, or Peter Griffin provide insight into how people are still looking to this period for inspiration. If that doesn’t reveal the greatness of these writers I’m not sure what does, though now I really want to listen to Olivia Newton John.
During my initial research for this I stumbled on a page entirely devoted to Romantic poetry references. Hope you enjoy.