Comments on "Tintern Abbey" and its context (Autumn 2007)
Bargen Doll Fieldberg Gockeln Street Szabo Wood 1. "At Nature's Shrine"
2. Did Wordsworth Suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
3. Terror, Trauma, and the Sublime
4. Beauty and the Literary
5. Peasants and the Picturesque
6. The Sublime of Terror
7. Response to Lisa Szabo's "Gilpin Revisited, Once Again"
1. Initial Reflections on "Tintern Abbey"
2. Wordsworth and the French Revolution
3. On the Picturesque
4. Surrender and Resistance
5. River Margins and Mirrors in "Tintern Abbey"
6. Labyrinthine in Radcliffe and Coleridge
7. Eloignment and Alien Nature in P.B. Shelley's "Mont Blanc"
1. First paper
2. In-Class Response Paper 2
3. Response to Richey article
4. Response to "On Picturesque Beauty" by William Gilpin
5. Loco-Descriptive Poetry
6. The Gothic Sublime
7. Texts, 1798
8. Response Paper -- The Wye Valley Visit
9. Romantic Literary Theory
1. Comment on "Tintern Abbey"
2. Second commentary
3. Possible effects of French Revolution
4. The Picturesque in "I wandered lonely as a Cloud"
5. Loco-descriptive elements in Dyer's "Grongar Hill"
6. Gothic elements in Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho
7. Elements of the "Advertisement" in "The last of the flock"
8. Warner's description of landscape
9. The "language of men" in "We are seven"
1. Response to "Tintern Abbey"
2. Second comment
3. Response to "Tintern Abbey"
4. Fourth comment
5. A Woman of Words: a Short Biography of Dorothy Wordsworth
6. The Harp and the Listening Ear
7. The Sublimated Eye: Comparisons Between Wordsworth and the Gothic Sublime
8. On the Same Banks: Contrasting Wordsworth and Thelwall
9. Reading Response: "Romantic literary theory"
1. In-Class Reflection on the Reading of "Tintern Abbey"
2. The roe in "Tintern Abbey"
3. Ways in which history impacts on "Tintern Abbey"
4. The Picturesque. Sycamore: A Resistance
5. Revisiting Wordsworth's Resistance
6. The loco-descriptive poem
7. Gilpin Revisited, Once Again
8. Real language
1. "At Nature's Shrine"
He collects himself on the brink of the Wye as on the brink of the sublime--this line that marks the entry to transcendence. Here, at this opening into mystery where "we see into the life of things," life is gathered up, its bits and pieces embraced into a whole. Boyish bits. Half-remembered bits. Broken bits. And yet he does not gather: there is that which "rolls through all things." A presence prods his searing loss, his grief. The dead trembles, lives. With her he's free, to roam their haunts, once more to grow, to soar, to heal.
2. Did Wordsworth Suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
While it is too early in the course to attempt to demonstrate an answer to the question I have used as a title, some sections in the poems assigned for reading for this class as well as some aspects of the essay by David Bromwich suggested to me that this might be a question worth raising. The following is intended to do no more than that at this point.
Bromwich says that Tintern Abbey "is a poem about peace and rest that one can know only by a sublimation of remembered terror" (3 of 11). He cites an essay by De Quincey on the murder in MacBeth, in which De Quincey speaks of "the world of ordinary life" being "suddenly arrested, laid asleep, tranced, racked into a dead armistice." This, says Bromwich, is an allusion to "Tintern Abbey," at lines 47-48, where Wordsworth speaks of a mood in which our physical life is "Almost suspended, we are laid asleep / In body, and become a living soul. . . ." Wordsworth has just referenced "the heavy and the weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world" (41-42) and goes on to speak of "darkness," "the many shapes of joyless daylight," and "the fever of the world" (54-56). De Quincey, in his essay according to Bromwich, employs this allusion to describe a "retreat from violence and terror" (2 of 11), rather than as the prelude to "harmony" and "the deep power of joy" which is the concomitant of an almost mystic vision "into the life of things" that it represents for Wordsworth.
Bromwich then cites a play, The Borderers (c. 1797-99) in which Wordsworth himself describes a murder with certain similarities to "the murder in MacBeth" (3 of 11). He quotes a passage from the play that I think merits attention from the perspective of the question regarding whether personal trauma or a detailed knowledge of trauma otherwise acquired could possibly inform its words: "In terror, / Remembered terror, there is peace and rest" (qtd. in Bromwich 3 of 11). These words echo lines in "Guilt and Sorrow," the original version of which Wordsworth says in a note prefixed to the 1842 edition, was composed sometime in 1793-94 with the "Female Vagrant's" story being written some two years earlier.
After describing the gruesome sight of a murderer swinging from a gibbet in a desolate spot, in Stanza X Wordsworth goes on to speak of this sight rousing "a train / Of the mind's phantoms, horrible as vain" in the disturbed brain of the male vagrant, under the weight of his own feelings of guilt for murder. He swoons and lies in a "trance," "without sense or motion." In Stanza XI, Wordsworth then goes on to describe "one whose brain habitual phrensy fires" who "Owes to the fit in which his soul hath tossed / Profounder quiet, when the fit retires." Thus, the "dire phantasma which had crossed / His sense, in sudden vacancy quite lost, / Left his mind still as a deep evening stream." Again, terror leads to "peace and rest."
Later in the poem, in Stanza XIV, Stonehenge and its hinted Druidic human sacrifice is evoked: "Even if thou [Stonehenge] saw'st the giant wicker rear / For sacrifice its throngs of living men" yet never a "wretch" had approached its "face" who "had groaned in deadlier pain" than this guilt-ridden vagrant. This is a grizzly comparison, raising the psychic pain of the present wanderer to the superlative. The poem evokes other scenes of psychic pain and hyper-vigilance, notably the female vagrant's terrified arousal from sleep in the abandoned shrine with visions of a "murdered corse" ill-buried in the "Dead House" (XVII, XX).
Such scenes suggest to me that these are descriptions of individuals, returned from the foreign wars, who are suffering from what we today would call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Wordsworth himself, in the immediate prelude to these scenes on Salisbury Plain, had, on the Isle of Wight, been subject to the roar of cannon every evening, according to David Erdman. The result was "nightmares on Salisbury Plain inspired by bloody warfare" and a flight from the apparently Stonehenge-inspired "horror of stone age combat and murder by 'his' nation" (qtd. in Bromwich 4 of 11). In an "Advertisement Prefixed to the First Edition" of "Guilt and Sorrow," "published in 1842," Wordsworth describes the inspiration for the poem while he wandered "two days . . . on foot over Salisbury Plain" after his stay on the Isle of Wight. His mind was fresh with the memory of the "American war" and "The monuments and traces of antiquity, scattered in abundance over that region, led [him] unavoidably to compare what we know or guess of those remote times with certain aspects of modern society, and with calamities, particularly those consequent upon war, to which, more than other classes of men, the poor are subject."
One may doubt whether the evening cannon volleys on Wight of themselves account for the grim nightmares and the compulsive fear and terror described in the poem. They may, however, quite realistically constitute what is therapeutically termed trigger events that are then further exacerbated by the desolation, loneliness, and eerie horror-ridden "monuments . . . of antiquity" he encountered on Salisbury Plain. The traumatic event itself is currently mysterious to me. I do not know whether he experienced the horrors of war first-hand in France, but there are hints that this may have been the source of his trauma-like symptoms. I have in mind two passages from Book X of "The Prelude" which Bromwich cites with quite a different purpose and interpretation (7-8 of 11). Wordsworth arrived in Paris a month after the September massacres and surveyed the scene of the atrocities, "where so late had lain / The dead, upon the dying heaped." He describes with what inexpressible horror the scene impressed itself upon him, which was "memorable, but from him locked up, / Being written in a tongue he cannot read." Yet he "felt" the scene "most deeply." He goes to his private room where he finds sleep has fled and he keeps vigil with a solitary candle. In this morbid vigil, he finds that "the fear gone by / Pressed on me almost like a fear to come." He meditates morosely on the massacres, conscience that they are "Divided from [him] by one little month"; he "saw them and touched," and I cannot help but feel he means that the touch, such intimate proximity to horror, left a dark stain on his soul. Trauma is characterized by such things as its inexpressibility, its inducement of insomniac vigil, and its inspiration of a foreboding fear.
The second passage Bromwich cites speaks of miserable nights Wordsworth experienced "through months, through years, long after the last beat / Of those atrocities." He complains that then "the hour of sleep / To me came rarely charged with natural gifts, / Such ghastly visions had I of despair / And tyranny, and implements of death." Then "the scene" changes, and Wordsworth finds himself, in his dream, "entangled" in "long orations, which [he] strove to plead / Before unjust tribunals," with a "brain confounded" and a "sense / Death-like, of treacherous desertion." Again, the sleep riven with horrid nightmares reminiscent of ghastly atrocities; the powerful emotions, here those accompanying injustice endured; the confusion; and the foreboding of a lonely death are characteristic results of trauma.
The article on Post -Traumatic Stress Disorder in the DSM IV, a standard diagnostic tool for psychological disorders, is instructive in regard to the question of how much familiarity with trauma these writings of Wordsworth betray. While there is no time to thoroughly review the article here, diagnostic criteria include "recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the event"; "recurrent distressing dreams of the event"; "acting or feeling as if the traumatic event were recurring," including "illusions . . . and dissociative flashback episodes"; what I have earlier called trigger events; "difficulty falling or staying asleep"; "hypervigilance"; and "exaggerated startle response." I submit that all of these are in evidence in the passages to which I have referred.
Consequently, it may be useful to analyze Wordsworth's work more thoroughly for signs that an intimate acquaintance with trauma has informed it. It may, further, be useful to read the dark passages in "Tintern Abbey" against a possible traumatic background. Perhaps Bromwich's comment, to which I initially referred, that the poem is "about peace and rest that one can know only by a sublimation of remembered terror" would be an instructive way to read the descriptions in the poem of reaching a state of equilibrium over against a possible traumatic "darkness . . . and the fever of the world" (54, 56). The same might be said for the lines I have cited in The Borderers as well as in "Guilt and Sorrow," where terror leads to peace, although this seems to have a slightly different sense, perhaps more precisely associated with catharsis. The healing of trauma does, indeed, involve a process which might be described as sublimation, which has affinities with the kinds of meditative states monastics seek to induce, and which involves the integrating of terrifying memories lodged in the primal and instinctual base of the brain, and therefore incapable of expression, into its cognitive regions.*
*I have this information from a psychologist, Dr. Steven Knish of the University of Alberta. I need to ask him again about the part the imaginative faculties may play in this process.
3. Terror, Trauma, and the Sublime
In a tentative and preliminary way, I wish to suggest that there may be a close connection between the Burkian terror of the sublime, described by Uvedale Price, and the terror of trauma, which I have earlier discerned in Wordsworth. If this idea of terror in the sublime can be transported into David Miall's description, in "Wordsworth at the Simplon Pass," of the unexpected sublime of the Gondo Ravine and related to his later reference to Alan Bewell's phrase, the "language of trauma," in reference to Wordsworth's description of the same ravine, there may also be a suggestion here of a psychological explanation of Wordsworth's rejection of the picturesque. The picturesque and indeed the beautiful, as described by Price and William Gilpin, cannot assuage terror, cannot address or deal with it in any adequate manner. The sublime, akin as its language seems to be to the unutterable and unassimilable terror of trauma, can.
Two issues have my attention here. First, perhaps Wordsworth is reflecting in these passages, evident also, I believe, in "Tintern Abbey," a somewhat unconscious intuition that, as Job discovered millennia ago, the positive sublime may provide a measure of relief and even of healing for trauma, though it can provide to definitive answers on a subject upon which there can hardly be answers. Secondly, Wordsworth's evolution of a theory marrying Mind and Nature, which Miall discusses, may have it origins in this recognition of the redemptive, transformative, and creative properties of an experience of the sublime. In other words, as some of the mystics before him had discovered, an encounter of what I will here call transcendence, such as those to which Wordsworth often attempts to give expression, has creative powers to change and transform the mindCor the heart, in the mystic term. These, perhaps, are the powers of the terrors that "roll through all things," in Wordsworth's conception.
4. Beauty and the Literary
The poems we have been reading in this course imply a code determining the beautiful, in spite of the Romantic repudiation of the stereotypical Augustan paradigms of literature. The implicit code is also evident in the writings of William Gilpin and Uvedale Price when they discuss the picturesque, the beautiful, and the sublime. Jago perhaps comes closest to making explicit both this repudiation as well as the continuing influence of forms of the beautiful upon poetry in the excerpt we considered from "Edgehill" entitled "Solihull." There we find reference both to the need for spontaneity as well as the value of rigour in training. We further find emphasis on the need for beauty, and what I will call "the literary," for lack of a better term, as opposed to the writing of hacks which should justly receive the wrath of the critics.
My question in response is whether, in the array of loco-descriptive poems presented for us in this section, we may find, in our response as readers, an unevenness in quality. That is, can we discern which poems are more literary, even without broaching the obviously vexed question of what such a term might mean to the Romantics? I am further curious to know what light the research of Professor Miall into empirical reader-response might shed upon such a question.
5. Peasants and the Picturesque
I find Rob Wood's second comment in the student responses eloquent in its last phrases, and, in part for that reason, convincing. I think this may well be a legitimate comment regarding the relations between upper and lower classes in the Romantic period; nevertheless, I wish to problematize his comments in two ways. First, I wish to review his observation that "the average peasant would likely be more intimate, less spectatorial, and not at all given to the schematization of natural form according to principles. . . ." Second, I will raise the issue of why a peasant would pay the salary of an arrogant and pampered clergyman.
To my first point, then, I would suggest that it may be necessary to the appreciation of beauty for there to be at least a measure of schematization involving comparisons of various kinds. There may thus be an implicit but unintended suggestion in Wood's argument that peasants are incapable of such schematization and appreciation. Furthermore, I suspect Wood's comment about schematization continues a perception of William Gilpin as imposing his rules upon nature, which I have resisted in class and would currently like to continue to resist. Gilpin seems to me, at least in this article on the picturesque, to insist on deriving his "archetypes" from nature itself and on modifying any rules accordingly. He appears to be resisting the Augustan insistence on prescribed or authorized form, in a way that becomes highly influential upon Wordsworth, for instance. Moreover, this process does not seem to me to be unlike that of the appreciation of natural beauty that might have been fostered by a sensitive peasant.
As a corollary of this and to my second point, I would say that, in parts of his essay, Gilpin appreciates humanly engineered beauty as well as natural. He can appreciate, for instance, "the garden" as well as the "the woods," or animals in "the field" as well as "the forest." His appreciation of the picturesque in human art or artifice, in human modification of nature, does indeed resist non-picturesque human invasions of the landscape, a point that is evident in the last paragraph of Gilpin's essay, which Wood seems to have in mind. This does not, however, mean he has no appreciation of any human modification. Such an approach might well find its most avid supporters among the peasantry, so close to the land and its beauty: it may be the greedy aristocratic and mercantile classes that are most guilty of creating ugly landscapes in pursuit of possessions. And one might wonder if Gilpin's more lowly parishioners might have had an appreciation of the sensitivity to the picturesque of their minister. Perhaps they, too, were its connoisseurs.
6. The sublime of terror
Charles J. Rzepka observes that the "critical writing on the Romantic Sublime . . . most often" cites "'terror' or one of its variants" as the "pivotal" passion involved in producing the effect. ("Re-collecting"). The readings in our section on the Gothic sublime do bear this out in the repeated references to "horror" and other adjectives descriptive of terror in close association with the mention of the sublime. There is a description in Ann Radcliffe's chapter five of The Italian which does more than juxtapose the two concepts by describing the emotional experience of the protagonist in some detail as she crosses a seemingly skeleton bridge across a terrifying chasm between two precipices. She enters a place of emotional tranquillity and calm that seems counter-intuitive; the scene then changes from terror to a placid plain in harmony with her exalted emotional state.
This description is reminiscent of other scenes in Wordsworth's "Salisbury Plain" where horror and stillness are also put in a causal relationship to one another. This invites further investigation, which I hope to do soon. At an intuitive level, I suspect there are also connections between this and "Tintern Abbey," but the connections are not nearly so direct and more difficult to make, as we have noted more than once in class.
7. Response to Lisa Szabo's "Gilpin Revisited, Once Again"
Lisa Szabo argues that "Art is a human creation, whereas nature has no designer." This may be her assumption, but it is arguably not William Gilpin's. Gilpin clearly would have seen art as a human creation, but, as a clergyman in a pre-Darwinian era, he would not have seen nature as having no designer, albeit he would agree that the designer is not human. In critiquing Gilpin, we must first grant him his assumptions. We may then critique his assumptions, but we may not accuse him of being misleading in his model, unless we can demonstrate such sleight of hand from within the model he proposes. If he uses terms, such as "nature's works," he does so consistently within a model based on assumptions where the works of nature have a designer, here designated as nature itself. (I will not here entertain the question of how nature and the divine might be related in Gilpin, a project of dimensions too grand to be confined within the parameters of this response and not precisely germane to the point I wish to make.) If it can be demonstrated that Gilpin elsewhere implies that nature does not have a designer, then it can be said that he misleads us here by implying that nature itself is the designer; Szabo does not do this. Without that demonstration, we cannot impose our own assumptions upon Gilpin and then accuse him of being misleading because he does not accept them.
Szabo is arguing that Gilpin "derives his views from art and not from nature" and that "his archetypes (or prototypes?) for the picturesque come from an art aesthetic." She elaborates this latter statement by saying, "In other words, nature is analogous to art and not the other way around -- art is not analogous to nature." I am not sure what to make of the idea, which this sentence appears to involve, that there are no similarities or parallels between art and nature, nothing analogous from which comparisons can be drawn: she attempts to say that analogies can be drawn between nature and art but that there are no analogies between art and nature. She later claims, however, that "an aesthetic" can be drawn "from nature," suggesting that Wordsworth moves in this direction, which implies there are analogies between art and nature. In the sentence I am considering here, Szabo would appear to mean essentially that art is not derived from nature and cannot be, presumably because "nature has no designer," which is the assertion to which her next sentence leads.
Gilpin, on the other hand, assumes both that nature has a designer and, consistent with this, that there are analogies between art and nature for this very reason. Consequently, he can insist, consistently and without misleading, that art can be derived from nature. Whether or not he succeeds in doing this, as he would claim, is another matter. If one grants his assumptions, then the possibility exists that he did; a statement that he did not would require support. If one does not grant his assumptions, making the further claim that his argument is misleading is redundant: if the assumptions are false, the argument is necessarily misleading. In other words, the fault then lies not with Gilpin's misleading logic in the argument but with his faulty assumptions. Szabo may disagree with Gilpin's assumptions, but she must then dismantle those and not impugn the logic of the model which he builds on them. She cannot, to put the point otherwise, say "he derives his views from art and not from nature" because she does not agree with his assumption that art can be derived from nature unless she demonstrates that he cannot do so because the assumption is false. Then she may proceed to show that his logic is in fact circuitous and evince evidence that in actuality his principles of art come simply from art and nowhere else and that he has wrongly assumed the conclusion that his art derives from nature because that is an impossibility.
Alternatively, Szabo may set to one side the issue of Gilpin's assuming design in nature and, instead, give other kinds of evidence for a narrower contention that his principles come from art, for instance, by showing unmistakable parallels between his categories and the categories of a particular school of art. Of course, Gilpin would probably counter that this school had also derived its categories from nature, the great archetype of art, but, by this method doubt would be cast upon the unmediated derivation of his archetypes from nature. From his article, we do not know whether or not he would contend that the derivation was unmediated, but such a discussion would help us, at least, to sort out possible influences upon him and to weigh how such influences might have affected his approach or lack thereof to ecology. To argue, however, as she appears to do, that Gilpin is circuitous because art is designed and intentional and Gilpin's picturesque is designed and so derived from art would require evidence that design can originate nowhere but in art.
Of course, the question of whether or not there is design in nature is rather a vast philosophical debate which may be beyond the limits and time constraints imposed by this class. It also involves a daunting discussion of how meaning or intention in nature might arise in "an aesthetic" drawn "from nature" if we should posit that there is no design in nature. Can there be meaning and comparison, good, better, best, where there is no intention? Szabo implies in her discussion that there cannot, since "art aesthetics is predicated on artistic intention"; such art necessitates paying "attention to correct and 'incorrect' composition" which implies an intention she claims does not exist in nature: for something to be correct or incorrect, right or wrong, good or bad requires intention and choice.
Indeed, Szabo struggles to keep the idea of design and intention out of the idea of nature, as I have already hinted. If, as she suggests, Wordsworth can derive an aesthetic from nature, and if an aesthetic implies intention, as she argues, then perhaps she has inadvertently posited that nature has an intentional design, or else how would Wordsworth or anyone derive an aesthetic from it? Szabo does claim an aesthetic derived from nature is possible: it is conceivable "to see the why and how of leaf and rock," something she says Wordsworth approaches in "Tintern Abbey." I note that there Wordsworth does explicitly posit "A presence" that dwells in "the light of setting suns / And the round ocean, and the living air, / And the blue sky, and the mind of man" -- in nature in other words -- "a spirit that impels / All thinking things, all objects of thought, / And rolls through all things." He declares that "nature" is "the nurse, / The guide, the guardian of [his] heart, and soul / Of all [his] moral being." One cannot speak of such things as "dwelling" and "thinking" and guidance and guarding and morality without countenancing the idea of design and intention. If an aesthetic involves design, as Szabo suggests, the possibility of deriving an aesthetic from nature that has no design is non-existent. The design must then always be imposed from without, and, if the imposition comes from one who is part of nature, as ecology would seem to insist, then how the design arises becomes problematic.
The very term "ecology," which Szabo employs, implies organization: it is the science that "deals with the relations of living organisms to their surroundings, their habits and modes of life." Etymologically, it derives from the idea of the science or discipline of the household and is also related to economy, the law, rule, management, or organization of the household (OED). The term, perhaps inadvertently, imports ideas of organization, order, purpose, and design, and the possibility of a science of these things, into the discussion. Szabo also appears to struggle with the difficulty of keeping design out of the idea of nature when she states that a judgement based on the comparison of "a mountain . . . to the principles of mural design . . . removes agency from the natural environment." I may be misunderstanding her point, but this appears to argue for the agency of nature, which may imply design-she has just said that the mountains are not designed, and I have difficulty seeing how introducing an agency here which has no intention and that should not be but is removed advances the argument-but elsewhere she is arguing against design in nature.
I am not necessarily arguing that Gilpin did not derive his aesthetic of the picturesque from the conventions of art. Szabo may intuitively be right about this, as I suspect she has been other times. My contention is simply that to argue this particular point convincingly would require a different kind of argument than she presents and would necessitate, first of all, that she would engage him on his own ground. That has been a significant part of my concern in our debate as a class on Gilpin. As I have pointed out, to quote my response to Rob Wood, Gilpin insists that he is "deriving his 'archetypes' from nature itself" and that he is "modifying any rules accordingly." If we say he is not doing so, we must first acknowledge his assumption that his project is tenable. We may then show that his assumption is wrong using a method akin to what I have delineated, or we may show that he indeed has done something else by evincing the necessary evidence to demonstrate that his archetypes derive from another source. The arguments on this question presented to this point have not convinced me that we have taken Gilpin on his own terms and thus granted him his own voice in the debate. Giving him and all of the dead -- I write as one interested in the mystics! -- their rightful voice in the debate in our literary work is the main point for which I contend. Szabo's further and concluding point that Wordsworth comes closer than Gilpin to being ecologically sensitive is well-taken however, and I think she has presented some evidence of this elsewhere, as she says.
1. Initial Reflections on "Tintern Abbey"
Returning to this quiet, ecstatic poem, I find myself fascinated by the poet's desire to commune with Nature, to read the enigmatic streams, mounts, and forests, as if they are part of a sacred text. Wordsworth certainly approaches his surroundings like an avid reader. Though he is initially engaging in an admittedly pleasurable "ramble," Wordsworth's journey deftly moves centripetally from outer scenery to the inner landscape of his imagination, emotional convictions, and observations. Subsequently, as in the process of critical reading- a simultaneously physical and mental endeavor- Wordsworth moves into the realm of interpretation and analysis. The secretive Wye and the archetypal settings around him then, act as portals into increasingly climatic revelations.
Furthermore, it is interesting to consider the balmic role of Nature in "Tintern Abbey." Indeed, the sublime act of re-reading the discourse of nature, "these forms of beauty" (24), is likened by Wordsworth to a soothing intellectual rejuvenation: "In which the heavy and the weary weight/ Of all this unintelligible world/ Is lightened" (40-1). By attempting to "see into the life of things" (49), Wordsworth seems to be engaging in a comforting and "phenomenal experience of meaning making" (to quote a phrase from Allison's response to my response). Yet, though the bard recognizes that he is a more sophisticated interpreter of Nature than he used to be, as a "thoughtless youth," Wordsworth is careful to acknowledge the mysteries of Nature (and life). Nature can never be fully comprehended, any more than the soul. More than once in the poem, Wordsworth tentatively shies off of revelations on the pantheistic nature of things (lines 50 and 113 for example); thus, he imbues the text with a compelling ambiguity. However, Wordsworth clearly sets up the "language" of Nature as a stark contrast to the profane, false, and "dreary intercourse of daily life" (132). Ultimately, Wordsworth seems to suggest that the act of thoughtfully engaging with Nature's "lovely forms" (141), can engender a profound perspective, and a deeper sense of purpose and joy.
2. Wordsworth and the French Revolution
What fascinates me when I reconsider "Tintern Abbey" through the lens of the French Revolution, and Bromwich's article in particular (especially his suggestion that the poem is "about the peace and rest that one can know only by the sublimation of remembered terror" ), is the tension between Wordsworth's apparent flight/withdrawal from the "unintelligibility" of the world, and seeming relish in the disturbing "terrors" of sublime Nature. Like the unintelligible world, Nature is essentially unknowable, a "presence that disturbs," a "motion and a spirit." As well, it is interesting that in this poetic "retreat" into a Nature that is emphasized as anarchical in itself ("wild secluded scene" [line 6], "wild green landscape" [line 15], the hedgerows "hardly hedgerows, little lines/ Of sportive wood run wild…" [16-17]), Wordsworth is restoring a painful remembrance -- ritualistically marking and recalling the time he fled to this same place "more like a man/ Flying from something that he dreads…" (71-72). The role of Nature in this poem then becomes increasingly problematic, and I realize that I have indeed forced my contemporary assumptions of the Romantic ideology onto this poem. Thinking of Nature solely in terms of the purely restorative becomes increasingly difficult, especially in light of Burke's definition of the sublime as ""Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger…or operates in a manner analogous to terror" (On the Sublime and Beautiful).
3. On the Picturesque
The term picturesque was first introduced by Reverend William Gilpin in An Essay on Prints (1768), in which he vaguely defined it as "a term expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture" (qtd. in Ross 271). Gilpin expanded on the aesthetic ideal in his 1782 travel guide: Observations of the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, etc. relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, made in the summer of the year 1770. This instructional book was meant to inform the artistic tastes of privileged leisurely travelers, and provide them with a new set of principles through which to experience and depict landscape. A principle of beauty never far from a comparative discussion of its close relatives, the beautiful and the sublime, the picturesque aesthetic standard was further fleshed out by Richard Payne Knight (An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste), and Uvedale Price, in "An Essay on the Picturesque, as Compared with the Sublime and Beautiful; and on the Use of Studying Pictures, for the Purpose of Improving Real Landscape" (published in1796). This fashionable, anti-Classical perspective on beauty- which exalted in the stylized irregularity of shapes, composition, and lighting- reigned over the tastes of the English artistic community in the 18th and 19th centuries: art historian David Watkin asserts that between 1730 and 1830, "English poets, painters, travelers, gardeners, architects, connoisseurs, dilettanti, were united in their emphasis on the primacy of pictorial values. The Picturesque became the universal mode of vision…" (qtd. in Ross 271).
In his seminal essay on the picturesque mode of vision, Gilpin associates the picturesque with desire: the desire of the hunt, the pursuit of novelty. In viewing and finally stylizing a landscape in this new "mode," the hunter artist obtains the object of his desire; he is "gratified with the attainment of the object." This "particular species of beauty," is characterized by its rolicsome variety, its labyrinthine variances, and its rough textures. Ultimately, for Gilpin, the picturesque is married to the pleasures of the eye. The bliss of the picturesque eye supersedes the reflection of the observer's intellectual faculties: "We are most delighted, when some grand scene, though perhaps of incorrect composition, rising before the eye, strikes us beyond the power of thought--- when the vox faucibus haeret; and every mental operation is suspended…" Gilpin asserts that it is in this delicious suspension, this "pause of intellect," that the picturesque viewer derives its pleasure.
Gilpin further associates the mediation of the picturesque with the eye, when he relates the artist's imagination with the visual: "The imagination becomes a camera obscura, only with this difference…the imagination…is chastened by rules of art, forms it's pictures, not only from the most admirable parts of nature; but in the best taste." Thus, the initial pleasure experienced by the eye, translates into a discerningly selective process that standardizes and conforms natures to the picturesque fashion. Furthermore, Gilpin encourages his readers to make sketches using a "Claude Glass," named for the 17th century landscape painter Claude Lorraine. This glass, also commonly known as a "black mirror," was a slightly convex mirror with a tinted surface. Used by picturesque-hunters traveling through the Lake District, artists, and connoisseurs of landscape and landscape painting, the glass functioned on the principle of abstraction, obscuring its subject: "reducing and simplifying the color and tonal range of scenes and scenery to give a painterly quality" (Wikipedia Encyclopedia). As well, the observer had to turn his or her back to the scene and observe the framed view through the obscured mirror. Consequently, the use of these distancing mirrors was much satirized. The writer Hugh Sykes Davies made a particularly cutting observation: "It is very typical of their attitude to Nature that such a position should be desirable."
Developing Gilpin's ideas into a more expansive treatise, Uvedale Price, in his essay "On the Picturesque," declares that the picturesque "appears to hold station between beauty and sublimity" (Chapter Four), and that both benefit when combined with its particular properties. Uvedale quickly establishes a distinction between the fresh polish, and smooth veneer of beauty, as opposed to the roughly coquettish picturesque. He is also clear that the picturesque is not synonymous with deformity; it must perpetuate a picture of stylized intricacy and variety. When held in light of the sublime, defined in Edmund Burke's terms, Uvedale states that the picturesque has no relation to dimension; it can be found in the miniature and vast. Uvedale emphasizes that the picturesque enhances the beautiful and sublime in fusion: "when mixed with either of the other characters, corrects the languor of beauty, or the tension of sublimity." For Uvedale, the marriage of the beautiful and the picturesque might be glimpsed in a Grecian sculpture with a cracked nose. Furthermore, Uvedale also defines the principles of the picturesque as linked mostly to visual stimulation; even when he refers to the tactile, for instance, the softness of a picturesque view, it is still conflated with the visual sense.
Though this aesthetics of distance, this treatise of carefully arranged asymmetry was exceedingly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, it nonetheless fell out of favour with parts of the artistic community, including Wordsworth, who began to articulate the experience of man in nature as one that must move beyond the realm of pictorial pleasures and representation. This development is evident in the poet's Prelude (1805), where he suggests his discomfort in being reigned solely by the "most despotic of our senses" (XI, 173). The picturesque also fell into the satirizing hands of such artists as Jane Austen, who notably lampooned the fashionable "rules of mimic art" (Prelude 1805, XI, 154), in her Pride and Prejudice, with Elizabeth Bennet's teasing refusal to join Mr. Darcy and the Bingley sisters on a walk: "You are charmingly group'd, and . . . The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth."
Gilpin, William, from Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty, 2nd edition (1794). Essay II. On Picturesque Travel.
Price, Uvedale. On the Picturesque: Chapter 4.
Ross, Stephanie. "The Picturesque: An Eighteenth Century Debate." Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism. 46 (2): 1987, 271-279.
Wikipedia Encyclopedia. 2007. Wikipedia Foundation. 29 Sept 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page.
4. Surrender and Resistance: Poetic Tension in Gray and Jago as an Analytical Lens for Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey"
The topographical poems "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" and "Solihull," composed respectively by Thomas Gray and Richard Jago, both conjure conventionalized mythologisations of youth that are strikingly tense. Slipping from the loco-descriptive (in terms of solely exalting locale), into the moody realm of the elegiac, these poems are marked by a similar array of tropes, including masculine discontinuity, loss, and picturesque nature as mentor, muse, and backdrop for childhood paradise. Most compellingly, as they work from within the trope of return, both texts constantly negotiate between surrender and resistance. After a comparative examination of Gray's 1747 ode, and Jago's 1767 "Solihull," I will re-examine Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" through the lens of their intersection. Surely, many of the same tropes can be found in Wordsworth's "lines;" I would suggest however, that while all three poems share an insistence on retrospection, Gray and Jago's poems dwell on the melancholy notes of resignation, while Wordsworth's all-encompassing view of experience and nature is manifest with the implicit desire to assemble a tentative continuity. His vision allows him to imagine perhaps, a new "type" of innocence, an aged innocence.
As the speaker of Gray's "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" fixes his view on the picturesque, variegated landscape surrounding Eton, "Of grove, of lawn, of mead survey, / Whose turf, whose shade, whose flowr's among…" (7-8), his physical distance from the scene emphasizes a divide between him and the locale. In fact, the speaker's attention quickly retreats from the "distant spires, ye antique tow'rs" (1) and the grave of Henry V1, moving instead onto "Father Thames" (21). However, as he sighs, "Ah happy hills, ah, pleasing shade" (11), he swiftly disturbs this observation with "Ah, fields belov'd in vain" (12). Thus, the adjectives "happy" and "pleasing" ring false, and are imbued with a tone of irony and skepticism. Indeed, as he remembers his "careless childhood" (13) along these banks, he is simultaneously mesmerized and resistant to the gales of wind which bestow "A momentary bliss" (16), as they wave "fresh their gladsome wing, /My weary soul they seem to soothe, And, redolent of joy and youth, /To breath a second spring" (18-20). Experiencing a transient pleasure at this contact, the speaker betrays a hint of desire for a sort of baptismal, water-rebirth (associated with the romance of his past and childhood), yet keeps this desire in check with "seem to soothe" (18; my emphasis).
There are further hints of tension within Gray's poem, even as the speaker meditates upon images of children playing along the "margent green" (23): within that potently liminal space between earth and water so commonly deployed in loco-descriptive poems (see for instance: Bowles' "crumbling margin" ("To The River Itchen" ), and Coleridge's "margin's willowy maze" ("To the River Otter" )). The "margent green" itself is sign of ambiguity, simultaneously signaling the child's intimacy with nature, and proximity to the fact of imminent change. As well, the children's games are informed by a masculine ancestry; for instance, the sportive children are child-hunters, capturing linnets (27), an image that foreshadows the "ambush" of predatory misfortune and despair. They also engage in fanciful compositions ("murmuring labors" ) which are inspired by "Wild wit, invention ever-new" (46), but are "earnest business" (31), ever aware of "constraint" (33). Thus, even as Gray recalls the romance of childhood, often employing classically influenced diction and allusion ("What idle progeny succeed / To chase the rolling circle's speed, / Or urge the flying ball?" [28-30] describes a game with a ball and hoop), and notes the children's affinity with sublime nature ("They hear a voice in ev'ry wind, / And snatch a fearful joy" [39-40]), this recollection is filtered through a melancholic cynicism.
In the second part of the poem, Gray articulates why he feels this detachment, this tragic sense of discontinuity. With a reference to the interpolative call, "Ah, tell them they are men!" (which forms a deft contrast to the initial gales of wind that are only felt, not wholly interpreted), Gray's tenuous revision dissolves fully into a fatalistic melancholy. He asserts that man's discontinuity results from a tearing apart; this is illustrated by a profusion of violent personifications: "These shall the fury Passions tear, / The vultures of the mind…etc"(61-2). Thus, Gray suggests that man's enemy is innate, and not only arises from within, but flourishes within the contexts of conventionalization and institutionalization.
Much like Gray's poem focuses a great deal of its narrative weight on the River Thames as opposed to Eton College, Jago's "Solihull" quickly becomes more about Jago's close friend, artist and landscaper William Shenstone, than the college he initially hails. Indeed, the elegiac mood of the poem recalls Milton's "Lycidas." Meditating upon the birch rod encountered at school, and the walls "still stain'd with infant blood" (23), Jago acknowledges that his childish fears have simply been moved to the censure of the critic. Identifying his education with severe constraint and convention ("with painful toil/ Through Priscian's crabbed rules, laborious task!" [29-30]), Jago shifts his focus to another, more significant artistic "education," one led and inspired by Shenstone in nature.
As he returns to view his "life's early morn" (4), like Gray, but with even more specific details, Jago describes a friendship that feeds off of a kindred passion for artistry and nature. The childhood pleasures these boys experience are derived mainly from the acts of engaging with primitive nature and creation: Shenstone helps polish Jago's "incondite verse" (37) and "call'd me to taste/ The charms of British song" (40). This certainly recalls not only Gray's "murm'ring labours ply" (32), but also Milton's sensual description of composing poetry with Edward King at Cambridge:
Meanwhile the rural ditties were not mute,
Tempered to the oaten flute,
Rough satyrs danced, and fauns with cloven heel,
From the glad sound would not be absent long,
And old Damaetas loved to hear our song. (40; lines 32-6)
Furthermore, not only do they delight in shaping from poetic raw materials, but also with nature's elements on the banks of the Cherwell river: "Or with him range in solitary shades, /And scoop rude grottoes in the shelving bank" (43). Unlike Jago's adult persona, who cringes at the anticipated lash of the "sterner tyrant" critic (8), the youthful figures of "Solihull," range over "hill and dale invoking every Muse" (53) with an energetic confidence derived from their fraternity, their "social circle gaily join'd" (51). Jago's description of young manhood is thus, much more optimistic than Gray's. Mediating on the famed Leasowes' abbey, Jago describes Shenstone's artistic genius in terms of mesmerism and power. Shenstone effortlessly manipulates nature to conform to his landscaping arts: "…so liberally their crystal urns / The Naiad's poured, enchanted with his spells; / And pleas'd to see their ever flowing streams / Led by his hand…" (57-9). His assertion of form on the stream near Leasowes not surprisingly results in an image of the audial picturesque as the remembrance climaxes: "Soothing the ear! And now, in concert join'd, / Fall, oblique and intricate / Amongst the twisted roots…" (64-66).
At this moment however, the bright reverie dissolves and the "soft enchantments" (69) of Jago's imagination break down. We realize that the poet/persona is in fact physically sitting beside this "saddening stream" (67) while he writes (he is nowhere near Solihull as he composes), and that the groves of Shenstone (who has since died), are decaying. The disillusionment of "Solihull" is characterized not only by the loss of youth, but is most potently contained in this bitter moment of broken creation and the image of failing art. Jago's vision is ripped away from him at the epiphany that Shenstone is gone, at the realization that Shenstone is as irretrievable as his youth, and the artistic processes and energetic heat of this youth. He must cope with the fact that his poetic work now toils solely for the critic (and the solitary muse), not for a beloved fellow artist.
How can these two poems speak to Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey?" Wordsworth's poem clearly bears many similar tropes, including the Wye as muse, and the insistence on return. Returning to the abbey with an awareness of the ills of man, the "still sad music of humanity" (93), Wordsworth retreats to a vantage point beyond the poem's namesake. Like Gray and Jago, Wordsworth is arrested by a vision of youth; he is momentarily mesmerized by this vision that he sees encompassed by his sister Dorothy, written upon her body: "in thy voice I catch / The language of my former heart, and read / My former pleasures in the shooting lights / Of thy wild eyes…" (117-120). However, Wordsworth is critical of the "coarser pleasures" of his own "thoughtless youth" (91). Though Wordsworth observes Dorothy's "primitive" innocence as an echo of his own former experiences, Wordsworth transcends the impulse to memorialize the pleasures of youth in this poem. The key to this movement is embodied in his seeking out what lies behind nature. This "movement" exposes an insistence on "rebirth," as well as the implicit desire to assemble self and experience, to imagine a mysterious continuity.
Similar to Gray, who feels the gales near Eton College as seeming to "sooth" and "To breathe a second spring" into his soul, Wordsworth envisions a rebirth made possible by sublime nature: "that serene and blessed mood…Until the breath of this corporeal frame / And even the motion of our human blood / Almost suspended, we are laid asleep / In body, and become a living soul" (42-47). This passage is allusively baptismal, recalling the birth of Adam: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7). It is also interesting to consider this passage in light of Burke's meditation on sublime affect. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Burke asserts: "To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of our danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes" (Romanticism 5). Thus, in contact with that indescribable "aspect more sublime" (38), Wordsworth seems to enter into a new territory of unknowableness, a space where ignorance is welcomed, where ignorance begets bliss, and life becomes fresh once more, overlaid with mystery. This offers yet another compelling contrast to Gray's defeatist summation: "Though would destroy their paradise. /…ignorance is bliss, / 'Tis folly to be wise" (98-100).
In seeking what lies beyond the visual aspects of nature, Wordsworth reaches for a sense of continuity; he does this most blatantly in the passage: "A motion and a spirit that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things" (101-103). This passage, held in relief against the darker ambiguities of the poem- hints of despair, repressed trauma, inevitability- becomes another moment in which the poem exposes a desire to translate wisdom into a "new" innocence. This state however, is informed by the poetic process of assembling, by the archaeological accounting of past, present, and future. While Gray and Jago derive much of their artistic energy from fraternity, Wordsworth finds his muse in the subliminal in nature. It is this language that he is straining to hear. While Gray and Jago's poems dwell upon the melancholy, Wordsworth attempts to transcend a solely retrospective gaze on the pleasures of youth. Attempting to integrate fragmentary self and experience into a tentative whole, Wordsworth proposes a force that can reproduce a state of cosmic innocence, a reawakening to the primitive and elemental in nature, "Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, / And the round ocean, and the living air…" (97-9).
Works Cited (Beyond Class Texts)
Milton, John. "Lycidas." John Milton: The Major Works. Eds. Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg. Oxford: OUP, 2003. 39-44.
Wu, Duncan, ed. Romanticism. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.
5. River Margins and Mirrors in "Tintern Abbey"
I am wondering about the different cameos of the river-bank as physical and metaphorical setting that appear in Gray (as the children thrive and play at the "margent green" ["Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College," 25]), Bowles ("crumbling margin" ["To the River Itchen," 2]), Coleridge (in imitation of Bowles: "margin's willowy maze" ["To the River Otter," 9]), and Wordsworth: "For thou art with me, here, upon the banks / Of this fair river…" ("Tintern Abbey," 115-6). This conventional symbol releases so many connotations for me which are admittedly very arbitrary, but perhaps can speak to the importance of Wordsworth and Dorothy's situatedness on the river-bank in "Tintern."
Rivers in literature; I cannot help thinking of the river Styx, that potent threshold between the realms of the living and the dead. It also reminds me of a passage in Dante's Inferno, Canto XIV, where Virgil leads Dante by the rivers of hell, urging the younger poet to mind his footing: "Look thou my steps pursue: the margins give / Safe passage, unimpeded by the flames: For over them all vapour is distinct."
In Gray for instance, the children roaming by the "margent green" and swimming "...now delight to cleave / With pliant arm thy glassy wave?" (25-6) becomes a potent embryonic image. This liminal space is lush, "green," and yet always signifies the inevitability of expulsion. At all times in "Tintern Abbey," Wordsworth seems to be moving within a similar liminal space, simultaneously riveted to and dispelled from this signifier of reproduction, difference, motion, slippage, loss and renewal. In the poem, the wandering Wye itself appears and re-appears as a mysterious fragment, twining in and out of the text, referencing the fragmentary process of assembling memory as it sparks the poet's "gleams of half-extinguished thought" (59).
The river-setting in "Tintern Abbey" also becomes a mirror-site of self-reference and narcissism. The first specific mention of Dorothy and Wordsworth standing at the river's edge - "For though art with me, here, upon the banks / Of this fair river..." (115-6) - is linked to Wordsworth's translation of Dorothy into a sort of mirror upon which he determines and reads himself: "...and read / My former pleasures in the shooting lights / Of thy wild eyes..." (118-120). Dorothy becomes yet another embodiment in the text of Wordsworth's assemblage of fragmentary self; a tool which he utilizes to imagine coherence. Is this act violent? He certainly seems to fragment Dorothy into a set of "parts"; she is all "wild eyes" (149), floating in the text. This parallelism between Dorothy and the river is certainly worth pursuing (if it hasn't already been beaten to death by the critics).
As a final, quick note, the river-bank scene in "Tintern" also recalls to my mind, another more blatant example of Wordsworthian narcissism, which occurs in "Descriptive Sketches," when the young traveler envisions himself as the center of a wheel of feminine gazes: "Around him plays at will the virgin heart / While unsuspended wheels the village dance, / The maidens eye him with inquiring glance" (40-2). I know that much has been made of Wordsworth's egotism, but is certainly interesting how he projects and reads himself by his surroundings.
6. Labyrinthine in Radcliffe and Coleridge
It is interesting to consider the strange triad formed when one considers Radcliffe, Wordsworth, and Coleridge all together. As one moves up this "triad," it is fascinating to observe that the human body (of heroine, persona, poet) and the body's sensations, become more apparent and integrated into the conveyance of perception. As well, as we move from Radcliffe's gothic through to Coleridge's charged "Frost at Midnight," we see a resistance to the conventional, and a move toward the innovative and spontaneously idiosyncratic. In 1802, Radcliffe and Coleridge would presumably be placed at different ends on the spectrum of Wordsworth's view of "good" literature. Declaring in his 1802 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, that "all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" (Romanticism 358), Wordsworth also takes a swipe at Radcliffe's genre, lamenting that the "invaluable works of our elder writers (I had almost said the works of Shakespeare and Milton) are driven to neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German tragedies…" (Romanticism 359).
What struck me when reading Radcliffe was not only how the author wraps herself in a cocoon of conventional imagery and diction, in a lexicon that seems only to repeat itself, but how these choices work with her portrayal of feminine passivity. In Udolpho and The Italian, the cloistered heroine echoes her authorial creator; she is solely a voyeur. She views the outer world through a Gilpinesque filter, letting the picturesque eye rove over "shifting vapours" (Udolpho 2), alternating bits of the pastoral and "surrounding horror" (2; where is the horror?). Like the picturesque aficionado with a Claude Glass, Ellena is described as viewing a prospect "as through a telescope reversed, distant plains, and mountains opening beyond" (7). Radcliffe's landscape is at all times then, informed by a conventional taste that colors her more compelling descriptions with artificiality.
Like Radcliffe herself, who has not gained an intimate, bodily knowing of the landscapes she renders (in these particular readings) through imagination and artifice, her heroines are similarly insulated from nature even as they move through it. Even as Emily and Ellena come in contact with Radcliffe's protractor-measured precipices, they remain at a distance, always swept behind veils and into dark carriages. This is a fascinating parallel in Radcliffe; in the wild and within the gothic structure, the female can only be passive observer. Any sort of agency is bound up in the imagination intimating the sublime, unknown, and unclaimed. Furthermore, I also found it interesting that in the move from the wild into the man-made, Radcliffe assaults the reader with images that conjure the labyrinth. That Radcliffe's landscape is incessantly labyrinthine is enforced by her deployment of static adjectives and conventional phrases. In Udolpho, Emily is hedged in; for instance, she views an "amphitheatre of mountains, that stretched below" (2), and the roads are constantly spiralling: "the road wound into a deep valley" (2). Eventually Emily contracts to the centre of the maze, through gate upon gate into her "prison" (3), entering finally a gothic hall in which shadows stretch "along the pavement and the walls" (3).
Similarly, Ellena moves through a mazy landscape of mountains described as a "chain" (8), and observes trees which "gave dark touches to many-colored cliffs, and sometimes stretched into shadowy masses to the deep vallies, then winding into obscurity…" (7). Ellena ends her journey in the hands of a hyperbolically sinister nun (perhaps her minotaur?). Yet, in all seriousness, the labyrinth is a fitting metaphor for Radcliffe's text/language itself, which is a prisoner within its own artifice and convention. The physical labyrinth also echoes Radcliffe's rather cut and paste, mechanistic vision of nature in which there seems to be "no vestige of humanity" (Udolpho 2). But this is too harsh perhaps. If Radcliffe is consciously making a feminist comment on the 19th century female predicament etc (which I am not sure of, as I have not read more than these two fragments), then it is interesting how the static, picturesque, and wild is correlated with the conventions of the static, domestic realm. Is her landscape deliberately manifest with the sinister maze?
While Radcliffe's landscape is painted by the hand of a picturesque voyeur, Coleridge attempts to work away from the inevitability of functioning within a poetics. One way Coleridge enhances the idiosyncratic character of different poems, seems to lie in his sensual, bodily connection with nature. In the "Eolian Harp," for instance, Coleridge criticizes the artist who is passive in nature. He also evokes his sensual intimacy with nature, combining visual, olfactory, and audial pleasures: he watches twilight clouds "that late were rich with light" (6) and delights: "How exquisite the scents / Snatched from yon bean-field! And the world so hushed! / The stilly murmur of the distant sea" (9-11). Somehow, the archaic adjective "stilly" seems to move, it is rhythmic and song-like; it rejects its semantic identity: calm, quietly. It shivers on the page.
Furthermore, while Radcliffe's text is obsessed with interiors (the bookish imagination, the cloistered eye, the enclosures of nature), and always contracting in upon itself, Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight" is an opening, an unfolding. Like the "hardly hedgerows" moment in Wordsworth, in which the poet lets his language play, and betray its first image, Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight" showcases a similar moment of defamilarization. Like Wordsworth, who gets slowly (physically and poetically) warmed up (perhaps as the adrenaline starts pumping in the act of walking and climbing), Coleridge's apparently spontaneous composition seems to have trouble getting started. The owlet's cry disrupts his process, and then he incants the very conventional " Sea, hill, and wood, / This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood…" (10-11). Meditating on these nouns, which he reaches out to as if they are touchstones, launch him further, deeper (to use one of Radcliffe's favorite word choices) into the poem. It is interesting to consider that in the act of dwelling on the familiar, it can become strange. For instance, if you repeat a word over and over, say 10 times, the word becomes hollow and seems to lose its meaning. Rhythmically dwelling on these conventional landmarks, seems to work for Coleridge as a passage into an image of the domestic made strange, a passage that becomes one of the poem's unique birthmarks. Coleridge fixes his attention on "The thin blue flame / Lies low on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not" (13-14). The blue flame, a domestic take perhaps on the Promethean spark, seems still, uninspired, but as Coleridge contemplates the grate, he is riveted by the motion of a "film" fluttering on the grate (15). This film signifies the absent stranger, and also Coleridge's imagination beginning to pulsate and flux. Thus, in this moment Coleridge moves from outer landscape, and instead attends to something familiar, domestic. Communing with the sooty film, Coleridge admits that it is an "Idle thought!" (20), and yet this moment propels him into the poem.
If Radcliffe's texts seem haunted by the sinister labyrinth, Coleridge's process is labyrinthine in its move away from convention, and its re-envisioning of the familiar. Furthermore, "Frost at Midnight" is mythic, it speaks of a new language (the language of nature), the language which Coleridge hopes his son will inherit. This desire on behalf of Hartley, surely reflects Coleridge's own attempts to invigorate his poetry with the grammars and conventions of nature. Thus, Coleridge seems to always be moving outwards, and I would put Wordsworth in this category as well; yet Coleridge seems to have a more bodily connection with nature, he senses its pulse.
Works Cited (Beyond Class Texts)
Wu, Duncan, ed. Romanticism. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.
7. Eloignment and Alien Nature in P. B. Shelley's "Mont Blanc"
I am curious about liminal spaces and the process of eloignment (in Coleridge's sense) in Shelley's ambiguous poem "Mont Blanc." Coleridge's take on the Chamouny mountain valley "Chamouny; The Hour Before Sunrise. A Hymn," composed in 1802, is clearly an influence on "Mont Blanc." Though Duncan Wu notes that "Coleridge had certainly not seen Chamoni when this poem was written" (505), Coleridge imaginatively anticipates the frictions of the living and dead, thriving and static, that make "Mont Blanc" so rife with tension. In a preface to the poem, Coleridge describes the blue-blossomed "gentiana major" growing "in large companies a few steps from the never-melted ice of the glaciers. I thought it an affecting emblem of the boldness of human hope, venturing near, and, as it were, leaning over, the brink of the grave" (qtd. in Wu 506). Shelley describes a similar moment of vertigo in an 1816 letter to Thomas Love Peacock, perhaps recounting a bridge-crossing in which he was affronted with his own mortality: "the ravine, clothed with gigantic pines and black with its depth below (so deep that the very roaring of the untamable Arve which rolled through it could not be heard above), was close to our very footsteps" (844).
Coleridge's 'hymn' is also illustrative of that "contemplation in withdrawal, or what, following Coleridge, we might term eloignment" in which " 'the Artist must first eloign himself from nature in order to return to her with full effect'" (Miall 11). Gazing upon the Chamouny chain, Coleridge folds in upon himself, meditating:
Oh dread and silent form! I gazed upon thee
Till thou, still present to my bodily eye,
Didst vanish from my thought. Entranc'd in pray'r
I worshipped the Invisible alone.
Yet thou, meantime, wast working on my soul (Wu 506; 13-17).
From this reverie, Coleridge refreshes his contact with nature, redefining this relationship as interactive and reciprocal: "But I awake, and with a busier mind / And active will self-conscious, offer now, / Not, as before, involuntary pray'r / And passive adoration" (506; 20-4). After retreating into himself then, Coleridge attempts to indiscriminately invigorate all things with song (or psalm): "…And thou, my heart, awake! / Awake, ye rocks! Ye forest pines, awake!" (506; 24-5). This pantheistic chant is formulated to worship the Chamouny mountains which Coleridge envisions as celestial contacts: "visited all night by troops of stars" (506; 29) and likened in simile to the "gates of heav'n" (507; 52).
Similarly, in "Mont Blanc," Shelley loosely links the remote ice-scape of the Mer de Glace to the celestial: "Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps / Blue as the overhanging heaven…" (847; 64-5). However, Shelley only flirts with the idea of a hopeful nature (and certainly shuns a religiose nature) like Coleridge portrays, much in the same way he dalliances with the idea of a solely humanized nature. This troubles his configurations of nature -- especially the anthropomorphized versions -- throughout the poem. Shelley's landscape is amoral and corrupt as it is restorative and serene, and I am not sure that I detect the divine anywhere in the poem. While critic Robert Brinkley suggests that "Mont Blanc" is "a staging of a Wordsworthian scene" (45), the poem also stages Shelley's fluctuation between his intertextual influences and his "own separate fantasy" (846;36), between the known and unknown, faith and skepticism, intimacy with nature and alienation from nature. "Mont Blanc" also stages a power struggle between the often cruel powers of nature and Shelley's investment in the powers of the imagination ("And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea, / If to the human mind's imaginings / Silence and solitude were vacancy?" [141-3]).
Can we apply Coleridge's definition of artistic eloignment to "Mont Blanc?" Admittedly, the process is hard to pinpoint at one exact moment in the poem. In his meditation on the wasteland-like glaciers that seem to haunt the white mountain's subconscious, Shelley revises an initially intimate (pantheistic) relationship of man and nature to a hierarchal relationship in which both parties are insulated and estranged. The primitive Mont Blanc remains "apart in its tranquility / Remote, serene, and inaccessible" (96-7), and man is left to decipher the "mysterious tongue / Which teaches awful doubt" (76-7) or go on a Wordsworthian "faith so mild, / So solemn, so serene, that man may be / But for such faith with nature reconciled" (77-9). Perhaps "Mont Blanc" enacts the process of eloignment in the inverse; by drawing close to nature while resisting the urge to humanize nature, Shelley is alienated by it, or taught of his alienation by the glacial "city," a characterization he quickly retracts: "Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin" (107). I do not necessarily believe that Shelley does not commune with nature; however, the poem exposes Shelley's self-conscious recognition that as a poet he is constantly imposing forms to make nature more understandable. Simultaneously, Shelley grants that nature is also always working on all life forms, like the glacier that creeps like a snake, or death: "The race / Of man flies far in dread; his work and dwelling / Vanish like smoke before the tempest's stream…" (117-9).
The first two sections of the poem reference Wordsworth and Coleridge. They move with pantheistic energy and potential ("Of the ethereal waterfall, whose veil / Robes some unsculptured image…" [845; 26-7]), and establish an assertion that man's relationship to other artists and nature is organic and interactive. Shelley references his own metaphorical spring's intertextual birth; not only does it originate from the mysterious glacier that he will discuss later, it is a chameleon-river (perhaps echoing the Wye) "with a sound but half its own" (6). As well, Shelley asserts that the mind of man is not passive like the Aeolian harp, though it "receives fast influencings" (37), it also holds an "unremitting interchange / With the clear universe of things around" (37-8). The third and fourth sections of the poem -- arguably the most evocative -- move into the otherworldly, liminal space of the glaciers. Shelley moves as if within a dream or trance: "Has some unknown omnipotence unfurled / The veil of life and death?" Here the poet's imagination roams, a foreigner -- "a homeless cloud from steep to steep (63) -- in an alien world populated by "unearthly forms" (61). This ice desert is also described as grotesque, the playground of old earth-quake demons. Upon dwelling on this purgatorial wasteland, Shelley seems to break the reverie. Shifting in section four into a catalogue of lakes, forests, streams (echoes of Wordsworth and pantheistic Coleridge) it is as if Shelley attempts to break the trance of the glacial scene, but the spectacle keeps impressing Shelley with a fearful lesson: "these primeval mountains / Teach the adverting mind. The glaciers creep / Like snakes that watch their prey" (99-101).
Shelley makes yet another baffling reference to the liminal as he fixates on the glaciers, in a strikingly visual and abstract image: "…the rocks, drawn down / From yon remotest waste, have overthrown / The limits of the dead and living world, / Never to be reclaimed" (111-114). I am not sure yet what to make of this 'space'. It is completely vacated of all "insects, beasts, and birds" (115); it is removed from the cycles of life and death, and thus removed from the processes of production, reproduction, and the renewing processes of death and decay. Thus, it is a completely alien, otherworldly space. Though Shelley first instinctively dresses it in a metaphor that links it to the man-made ("city of death" , as if it were derived from architects), he quickly edits this distinction. The city morphs into a "flood of ruin," something he cannot fully know or understand. This is a threatening, strange, neutral nature. In his encounter with this static landscape that hedges in the movement of the mutable Arve, Shelley refreshes and edits his initial 'vision' of nature. This in itself is an example of Coleridgian eloignment. I would also liken Shelley's process to an archaic definition of the verb eloign: "to remove to a distant or unknown place" (MWO).
Shelley alchemizes a restorative, pantheistic nature that fuses all things into a rhythm of restoration and destruction. Yet paradoxically, this 'vision' of nature comes with the recognition of a disconnect of man and (an atheist?) nature. Perhaps what I am reaching for is that Shelley's nature seems amoral, whereas Coleridge and Wordsworth's nature is infused with the divine. Admittedly, I am still not sure what to make of this baffling poem, yet I look forward to further investigation. I am not surprised, with the initial image of artistic potential, "the ethereal waterfall, whose veil / Robes some unsculptured image…" (26-7), that Shelley fixates on the grotesquely blank space of the glacier, so strange it is as if it were hidden behind "the veil of life and death" (54).
Brinkley, Robert A. "On the Composition of 'Mont Blanc': Staging a Wordsworthian Scene." English Language Notes, 24:2 (1986 Dec.): 45-57.
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2007. Merriam-Webster, Inc. 14 Nov 2007. < http://www.m-w.com/>.
Miall, David S. "Locating Wordsworth: 'Tintern Abbey' and the Community with Nature." Romanticism On the Net, 20 (November 2000). http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/2000/v/n20/005949ar.html
Wu, Duncan, ed. Romanticism. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.
1. First paper
Within Wordsworth's poetry I find a kind of conclusiveness or wholeness, particularly in his reflections about Nature. Perhaps it is the aphoristic tone that he adopts or more accurately, perhaps this tone is mistakenly mapped onto his work as critics and readers alike pull out from his text to place on posters and bumper stickers such phrases as "… nature never did betray the heart that loved her" ("Tintern Abbey" lines 123-124). However, I do believe that this sense of harmony between poet and subject, this sense that Wordsworth knows his subject (Nature) and is telling all he knows, can be disrupted in certain ways. What interests me is where this sense of wholeness or completeness breaks down in the text and more importantly, to what ends interpretive ends can we use this sense of disruption. I am intrigued by the moments of instability that arise in "Tintern Abbey" where the seeming certainty of the text falls into question. Perhaps it is in the moments where Wordsworth speaks of "wild ecstasies" (lines 139), an almost sexualized image juxtaposed with the "sober pleasure" of the following line. What effect does such contrast create? I would ask if the poem reveals any moments of irreconciliation and what composes those moments. Where do we as readers and listeners encounter moments of disjoint, either between Wordsworth and his objects of inquiry (Nature, Dorothy, the imagination) or between Wordsworth as writer and ourselves as reader? Where is Wordsworth unable to speak in fullness, plenitude, or "aphorism" and in asking this question, can we articulate where even within the sense of contentment of contemplation existing in Wordsworth's writing there remains a deep questioning about the nature of the relationship between humanity and the external world and the action of the human mind in its imaginative experience. From a psychoanalytic standpoint, I would ask if there are moments of hysteria in the poem, not to suggest that Wordsworth in these moments is unable to articulate his emotional and intellectual landscape but rather to suggest that there remains in the poem "things" that are left unsaid and yet very present in their absence. Is there a place where language breaks down, where Wordsworth is unable to articulate that which is gnawing at his soul? This is not, in the vein of our conversation in class, to advance a New Historicist reading but rather to suggest that I find "Tintern Abbey" a deeply personal poem and as such, I am always left to question what of Wordsworth's emotional and intellectual landscape remains somewhat obscured. Where is language unable to speak that which composes our very soul? I would ask how Wordsworth, or perhaps does Wordsworth, endeavor to speak the unspeakable and what composes the unspeakable for a Romantic poet? Perhaps an interrogation of this question might advance broader issues of the construction of voice and narrative and the place of the imagination in writing in the Romantic period in general.
2. In-Class Response Paper 2
I am wondering what effect can be traced as a poet recollects an event in a space and time different from the one in which the event took place. Whether the event is traumatic, dramatic or momentous at the level of nation or community, such as the French Revolution, or central to one's personal history, such as Wordsworth's travels through the continent, there seems a certain effect produced when such an event is recollected after it is experienced. Perhaps I am querying what effect is created in the poem as Wordsworth recounts events in France and the continent while he is ensconced in England five years later, separated from the emotional center of his narrative by both space and time. As Lindsay noted, "Tintern Abbey" raises questions as well about the simultaneous representation of public and private "history".
With that said, this raises issues of how one represents memory, and in terms of public history, "collective memory", in poetry. Moreover, I am left to consider how poets reconstitute or reconstruct a narrative (both personal and public) and recollect and recount a history (both personal and public) from memory. I wonder what is lost or found when one is divorced or alienated or existing "away" from the site of one's literary subject? How is this gap, in time or space, productive? I suppose one can't always expect to be able to recount events in the immediacy of their occurrence, in so far as poetry has typically been an art of draft and re-draft. And yet, certainly in Wordsworth's use of the phrase "five long years" I am left to consider what is lost and found in the recollection and representation of memory and history over this period of time.
With the emphasis in "Tintern Abbey" on feeling, does the acuteness of feeling persist over time, perhaps clouding the poet's interpretation of the historical events he considers or perhaps aggrandizing the visceral quality of the memory? Conversely, does there exist a waning of affect that detracts from the immediacy of the account but in so doing, produces an objective and therefore "good" work of Romantic art, a "good" account of personal and public history? For Wordsworth, it seems the events of his history (and of Europe as a whole) retain their immediacy, lending to "Tintern Abbey" a rush of feeling that implies memory retains its vivid quality over space and time.
3. Response to Richey article
In his article "The Politicized Landscape of 'Tintern Abbey'", William Richey states as his purpose to foreground the degree to which Wordsworth deliberately engages with social and political issues in "Tintern Abbey" (Richey 190). He further states that what Levinson and McGann take to be "unconscious displacements" (Richey 190), lapses perhaps in Wordsworth's representation of the human pathos of his scene, Richey sees as "purposeful signals to his [Wordsworth's] readers" (Richey 190). Richey identifies Levinson's major critique of Wordsworth's writing to be a "repression of the social" but articulates that, in fact, Wordworth's poem is not a repression, a denial, or a suppression of history but rather, "Wordsworth constructs what appears to be a private meditation . . . which is, in fact, a very public poem replete with political implications" (Richey 190). Richey attributes what appears to be certain elisions in Wordsworth's text to the looming and strict government censorship at the time of the poem's writing (Richey 190). Ultimately, Richey argues against a critical perspective that identifies "gaps" in the poem, finding not elision but rather re-envision.
What each of these critics desire to engage with, in the context of "Tintern Abbey", are the omissions from the text. Although Levinson and McGann draw different conclusions about the motivation for these elisions, each writer is equally concerned with understanding what is left unsaid in "Tintern Abbey". Richey however remains faithful to interpreting what Wordsworth does express, and for him, the interpretive kernel at the heart of "Tintern Abbey" is Wordsworth's motivation to draw the "intellectual vagrant" Richey 219) out of his hermitage so that he might reinvest himself in political pursuit. Richey's approach characterizes Wordsworth's writing as a type of "strategy" (Richey 190), namely, writing a seemingly private poem that ultimately reveals itself as containing very public and political implications. Whereas Levinson might focus on Wordsworth's "unconscious" at best or "ignorant" at worst blindness to the social fabric of his scene, Richey sees Wordsworth as a very deliberate and conscious writer. In fact, Richey characterizes Wordsworth as a poet walking a "rhetorical tightrope" (Richey 191).
Richey characterizes Wordsworth approach, initially, as a "rhetoric of retreat", at least in the first two verse paragraphs, where it appears that Wordsworth has turned his back on the disturbing events of France to retreat into himself (Richey 201). However, Richey brings forth his critical assessment that this remains a deliberate poetic construction on Wordsworth's part, articulating that in the third paragraph there is a "shift in strategy" (Richey 201) such that Wordsworth becomes newly critical of his previous endorsement of the suitability of reflection and solitude. Ultimately, Richey concludes that Wordsworth uses "his own experience to address that of his generation" (Richey 203), and in doing so, Wordsworth encapsulates in this address his changing perspective on the justness of the French Revolution and its consequences, presumably a sentiment shared by many intellectuals who considered the events of the French Revolution and became disillusioned at its violence, its corruption, and its seeming failure on many levels.
Richey also identifies Wordsworth's break with Godwinism as a kind of stripping away of Wordsworth's foundation for political action and reform (Richey 208). Previously a source of stability for Wordsworth, Godwin's rational philosophy became for him and Coleridge a kind of fetter. What had previously served to anchor them now served to bristle, the strictures of Godwin's pronouncements on Truth and Doctrine seeming discordant with Wordsworth perception of how one pursues truth. In Richey's view, this break with Godwinism becomes a new foundation for Wordsworth's political engagement, not with rational philosophy, but with community and particularly with Dorothy as his philosophical muse.
On this point, while Richey presents an engaging argument about how Wordsworth's philosophical turn is explicated in "Tintern Abbey", I found this section of his article less persuasive of his general thesis that Wordsworth's text is in fact a larger, public expression of one man's private experience. Perhaps it is in the lack of secondary support for his argument and so, this is may be where the New Historicist argument may emerge, for if Wordsworth's break with Godwinism expresses a larger cultural and philosophical turn (as it very well might be) there appears little evidence in Richey's article to support the assumption that those reading "Tintern Abbey" would identify in Wordsworth's prose an expression of philosophical crises specific to Godwinism per se. Perhaps Richey's point is to suggest that "Tintern Abbey" expresses philosophical and political unmooring in general and therefore Wordsworth's private experience can be extrapolated as a general cultural and social experience, particularly for intellectuals disillusioned by the French Revolution. I remain, however, skeptical of Richey's argument on this point, but I recognize how situating "Tintern Abbey" within a larger political and philosophical conversation (including the writings of Godwin and Rousseau) destabilizes accusations that the poem remains idiosyncratic or bereft of contemporary cultural and social infusion.
Richey identifies, at the conclusion of "Tintern Abbey", Wordsworth's engagement with "intellectual vagrancy" (Richey 214), describing it as a common experience for all of those alienated from "the mood and policies of their own country" (Richey 214) and, presumably, for all of those alienated from their own personal convictions as they witnessed the degradation and seeming failure of the French Revolution. Richey emphasizes Wordsworth's recognition that happiness is transient, fleeting even, but more importantly, Wordsworth identifies happiness (or its pursuit) as a communal experience which he shares with Dorothy. Ultimately, Wordsworth goes even further, to purge images of Tintern Abbey itself of their associations with isolation and hermitage (Richey 218) and instead, to re-envision the Abbey as the embodiment of communalism and brotherhood (Richey 218), in part, in defiance of Godwin's ideals. Richey concludes his article by encapsulating Wordsworth's purpose as that of urging "intellectual vagrants" to re-engage with political and social reform, rejecting the monastic life in favor of community.
Richey's reading seeks to reinvest Wordsworth's poem with a type of urgency and engagement with political and social currents. It seeks to challenge the suggestion that "Tintern Abbey" is a text of inward spiral or mere pastoral. By demonstrating Wordsworth political and philosophical engagements, Richey suggests one interpretive possibility: that Wordsworth reinvested his political angst in the genre of the loco-descriptive poem. If Wordsworth leaves us at the end of "Tintern Abbey" with an impression of the tenuousness of the present moment, perhaps one might also conclude there is tenuousness in Wordsworth's strategy as well, in his ability to turn inward to account for intellectual crises; but that he tries remains a fruitful engagement with the text.
4. Response to "On Picturesque Beauty" by William Gilpin
In "On Picturesque Beauty" Gilpin suggests that "the first source of amusement to the picturesque traveler" is "the pursuit of his object." He then describes the "pleasures of the chace" and the gratification in "the attainment of the object." Certainly, this passage can be read as an exposition of how an individual fervently explores his natural surroundings in pursuit of great scenes and then revels in that experience. On the other hand, if one considers that there exists a long literary tradition of figuring nature as a female or feminized spirit and if one is struck by the characterization of the picturesque traveler as masculine, there emerges a slightly more troubling interpretation of Gilpin's description of this "pursuit". Particularly, Gilpin's description of the pursuit and the gratification in the attainment of nature as object evokes a certain sense of how the masculine might overpower the feminine in this "chace" and the "pleasures" derived therein. In its most insidious reading, Gilpin's language evokes an image of rape. If one resists this charged reading, one might conclude that the passage is a strange sequence of metaphors and analogies that suggest how the masculine spirit, in its pursuit of the picturesque, dominates rather than communes with a feminized nature. I wonder if this charged language would have been as obvious to the late eighteenth-century reader as it is to me and I ponder the effect Gilpin desires in his use of this evocative language.
With that said, one hesitates to read the passage with too much of an emphasis on its illicit excesses, for it is necessary to keep in the foreground of one's analysis the context of the writing and Gilpin is clearly discussing aesthetics. He is not writing a treatise about the sexual politics of his day nor do I believe that he is suggesting that the pursuit of nature is a metaphor for male aggression. Moreover, Gilpin does not overtly or explicitly figure the picturesque traveler in some kind of relationship of violation with nature. If one places a lighter emphasis on gender and the dynamics of power that exist between the masculine and feminine, Gilpin's description depicts how an individual enacts the mastering of his domain and conquers the exteriority of his experience. However, Gilpin's use of language foregrounds an overtone of aggression, with the picturesque traveler seeming to stalk nature as his prey. As such, a heavier emphasis on the figuring of nature as a woman leads one to interpret Gilpin's description as an extended metaphor of sexual domination.
For example, Gilpin describes "the expectation of new scenes continually opening" before the picturesque traveler and states emphatically that this kind of "exploration of new scenes" is the foundation of the traveler's "pleasure." There is a keen sense that in the anticipation of exploring what otherwise might be termed a virginal vista the traveler's mind is kept in "agreeable suspense." The "novelty" and value of virginal space is emphasized as the traveler contemplates the possibility of placing his perceptive mark on untouched landscapes. Nature is embodied in a certain way, as a space that "open[s]" to the picturesque traveler as part of his pursuit.
Very quickly this mindful contemplation becomes an active engagement for the picturesque traveler, for in Gilpin's description, the traveler begins to follow nature "through all her walks", to "pursue her from hill to dale" and finally to "hunt after those various beauties, with which she [my emphasis] ever where abounds". Now of course Gilpin is referring explicitly to the traveler's pursuit of Nature in the literal sense, as composed of various floras and faunas. But read as a scene of mastery, as a scene of stalking even, Gilpin's description emphasizes the individual male's desire and moreover his expectation that he can relentlessly pursue Nature, always embodied as "she", until he attains his object. With his use of the word "hunt", Gilpin suggests that nature is a source of prey to the male traveler as a predator. As such, there exists a certain pitting in the text of masculine against feminine, with the masculine having as its object of pleasure the domination of the feminine. Certainly women could be picturesque travelers, I surmise, but in Gilpin's description, the characterization is a firmly masculine essence.
Gilpin then writes "[t]he pleasures of the chace are universal" and here, he invokes the notion of hunting or preying a second time. Implicit in his notion of the "chace" is the suggestion that the satisfaction of the chase, the attainment, is in fact the ultimate pleasure, one so delightful that it sets "the whole country in an uproar." He then analogizes the traveler's pursuit of nature to the sportsman's pursuit of a "trivial animal", stating "shall we suppose it a greater pleasure to the sportsman . . . than it is to the man of taste to pursue the beauties of nature." After this sentence, flights of interpretive fancy can lead one to make much intellectual hay of Gilpin's suggestion that there is no greater pleasure than for the traveler "to follow her through all her recesses." To read with a specific intent on characterizing the language as eroticized suggests that nature's recesses mirror those of the female body and to follow those recesses suggests the act of sexual intercourse. Gilpin's next image, however, is less suggestive and perhaps less salacious for he suggests that the traveler follow nature or "her" as "she flits past him in some airy shape." In this, Gilpin compounds his characterization of nature as multiply female (a collection of "beauties") to emphasize now that she is a figure who "flits", a word that suggests a sense of inconstancy or a sense of transience. Read in the most negative light, this flitting airy shape is a figure that needs to be subdued for a certain kind of duplicity that exists within her. She retains somewhat of a spectral quality in her "airy shape" which, arguably, only domination or mastery through the second pursuit, that of "attainment", can solidify. Ultimately, Gilpin suggests the traveler "trace her through the mazes of the cover", a phrase that connects both eroticized language ("her mazes") and the sense of her transience and fleetingness, qualities that necessitate she be mastered (in that she needs to be "trace[d]"). Of course one recognizes that Gilpin does not literally mean that the picturesque traveler should stalk young women, virgins, or maids, but there is a sense that nature is personified as a flitting, transient, mysterious, female form and the male subject is equipped and capable, not unlike the sportsman, to dominate this "trivial animal".
This all culminates in Gilpin's suggestion that after the pursuit, "we are gratified [my emphasis] with the attainment of the object" and certainly, if one has followed a line of argument that suggests Gilpin's language is eroticized, it is not difficult to see this "gratification" as an image of sexual conquest. This is, however, only to the extent that one wishes to read the language in this way, as a figurative playing out of the masculine/feminine binary, as a metaphorical representation of masculine sexual domination over the feminine. I am left to wonder if Gilpin's use of this kind of charged language was deliberate, and to what end.
5. Loco-Descriptive Poetry
Arguably, John Denham's 1642 poem "Cooper's Hill" established the loco-descriptive genre of which Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" is an example. As the genre-establishing poem, "Cooper's Hill" serves a model for how poetry can reflect and praise a landscape, a model that Wordsworth must certainly have considered as he composed "Tintern Abbey." However, Wordsworth's text differs markedly from Denham's, both in the form through which the poet engages with his object of inquiry but also in the way Wordsworth infuses the work with a personal presence quite missing in Denham's text.
"Cooper's Hill" considers the physical landscape around London but more importantly, it presents a kind of landscape of poetic tropes. Particularly, Denham's poem invokes the classical appeal to the Greek Muses as well as the glorification or edification of Gods and Kings and concludes with what appears to be a meditation on the life of King Charles I. The poem is replete with references to British history (its past glories and past trials) and a rousing personification of the "God-like" (line 177) Thames River. This loco-description moves the reader not only through physical landscape but also through a historical and cultural landscape as the poem honors the tropes of poetic construction.
A sense of what may be deemed the overuse of trope in Denham's text is expressed sarcastically in Swift's "Apollo's Edict" where he advises the modern poet to avoid the clichés of the poetic tradition in this way:
If ANNA's happy Reign you praise,
Pray not a word of Halcyon Days.
Nor let my Votaries show their Skill
In apeing lines from Cooper's Hill;
For know I cannot bear to hear,
The Mimickry of deep yet clear [cf. line 189-191 of "Cooper's Hill"].
Although I think this criticism is quite harsh, it suggests that even much earlier than "Tintern Abbey" there exists a certain reticence with the formalism of the tropes expressed in "Cooper's Hill", perhaps a criticism Wordsworth shared and sought to rectify in his own work.
As such, Wordsworth's poem is loco-descriptive and reveals the poet's engagement with his environment or landscape. However, rather than invoking a historical tableaux of poetic construction, "Tintern Abbey" considers a much more personal internal landscape as the poet struggles to understand and articulate his private history. One does not want to suggest that "Tintern Abbey" parodies "Cooper's Hill" for this would suggest that the poem takes a certain mocking stance towards Denham's model, but it does seem that there exists a kind of palimpsestic relationship between the poems, as Wordsworth adopts and then refigures the tropes found in Denham's text.
For example, both poems begin with the image of a mountain, Wordsworth referring to the "steep and lofty cliffs" (line 5) above Tintern Abbey and Denham referencing Parnassus and Helicon, sacred mountains of the Greek muses. In fact, Wordsworth recalls Denham's imagery almost directly, as he states "… I hear/These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs" (line 1-2), a line that recalls Denham's "Sure there are Poets which did never dream/Upon Parnassus, nor did tast the stream/Of Helicon" (lines 1-3).
However, at this point, one immediately perceives Wordsworth's text diverging from Denham's model as the poet infuses into the poem a sense of his personal engagement with the landscape. In fact, Wordsworth's reflections in "Tintern Abbey" express a profound relationship between the poet and his subject, an engagement signaled in the second line of "Tintern" where Wordsworth states "… and again I [my emphasis] hear/ These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs" (line 2-3). Wordsworth's presence, this "egotistical sublime", can be located again at line 4, where Wordsworth states "Once again/Do I [my emphasis] behold these steep and lofty cliffs" (line 4-5). In short, his landscape contains a persona or, put another way, there exists a profound, mediating, meditative presence in the landscape such that one might suggest the landscape comes to swirl around that presence. It is as if Wordsworth's text excises the invocation of the classical Greek tropes and the overt recounting of British civil history in order to emphasize the poet's personal history. Wordsworth creates a place for himself in the landscape adopting almost a chronotopic perspective on the landscape, one that contrasts markedly with the transcendence through history and time that seems to pervade Denham's text.
With that said, in "Cooper's Hill" there is not this same sense of mediation or idiosyncratic time and space, for in the poet's consideration of landscape there is no correlation (or so it seems) between the poet's perception of space and the personal significance it holds for him. Although the poet does use the personal pronoun "I" in lines such as "if I can be to thee/A Poet, thou Parnassus art to me" (line 7-8) it is a presence that exists at the margins of the poem's construction, not one that infuses the text with its significance. In other words, Denham's landscape and therefore his poem is a-personal, in that there is a textual lacuna where there might have been a presence. With that said, however, the poet's presence is only felt as missing when "Cooper's Hill" is set into relief against the very explicit and overt personal presence in "Tintern Abbey." Therefore, a critique of Denham's text as a-personal must necessarily occur in retrospect once one has considered "Tintern Abbey." This is to say that this vacancy in personal presence only appears once one has felt the enormity of the presence in Wordsworth's text.
Another idea that intrigues me is the direction of observation, and in particular, the "motion" within the poems. In "Cooper's Hill", the observation occurs from on high; it is a vertical engagement both in terms of the poet's physical situation (he is at the apex of the Hill looking down) but also, in the way the poem stratifies vertically the physical, historical and social elements of landscape that appear in the poem. Specifically, the first part of the text absorbs itself in reflections on royalty, both English (line 24) and mythological (line 60), on palaces (line 66), and on celestial bodies such as Mars and Venus (line 39). There is an emphasis on grandeur, mightiness, and elevation. As the poem proceeds, its direction moves from heights to lower elevations, such that it begins at the top of the Hill considering Greek Gods and British Kings but then "descending from the Hill" (line 159) concludes in "some dark covert" (line 249) attuned to the "sound/Of dogs, and men" (line 251-252).
By contrast, Wordsworth's "loco" motion is more horizontal, in terms of its movement not through physical space (although the text does trace a line from the top of the hill to "the little lines of sportive wood" (line 16-17)) but rather through a chronology of the poet's life, moving backwards and forwards between present time to "Five years … passed" (line 1) and then further back to Wordsworth's years bounding through the hills like a sporting "roe" (line 68). The poem's chronology then moves forward to a prescience of a future where Wordsworth will commune anew with his sister. I chose to call this a horizontal movement, as along a time line, reflecting narrative theory that suggests that the passage of time is a diachronic rather than synchronic progression. Ultimately, my point is that Wordsworth considers the progression of a personal history, whereas Denham is concerned with the landscape as it responds to a broader historical and cultural progression and one that is keenly attuned to the stratifications that exist within that cultural progression.
6. The Gothic Sublime
My interest in the Gothic Sublime springs from questions I have about how women writers of the late eighteenth-century grappled with the aesthetic theories of the Sublime, the Beautiful and the Picturesque. In characterizing the Sublime as "masculine" and the Beautiful as "feminine," I think that eighteenth-century aesthetic theorists infuse or invoke into these aesthetic categories not innate qualities of sex, as might be assumed, but rather, assumptions about sex and gender derived from social and cultural experience. As such, although the gendering of aesthetics may appear at first glance to reflect objective and innate characterizations, in that the power and aggression of the Sublime does appear to reflect masculine behavior, more properly, such gendering reflects the observer's perception of and assumptions about how gender and sex operate within social and cultural institutions. In this way, aesthetics becomes a projection of the inquirer's assumptions and perspectives, reflecting not only an individual's understanding of sex and gender but broader cultural and social understandings as well.
If Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" is a poem intimately concerned with the imaginative mind as the subject of its inquiry and exploration, Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho is similarly concerned with subjectivity. This is important when considering Radcliffe's writing, for her use of the Gothic sublime both acknowledges the culturally-determined aspects of gender implicit in its aesthetic and foregrounds the deleterious and oppressive nature of the gender assumptions themselves. In our selection from The Mysteries of Udolpho, Emily's sense of oppression and domination is catalyzed by her perception of the terrifying and oppressive character of her external surroundings but in fact, the external surroundings are a projection of her psychological anxiety. As such, perception and projection exist in a dialectical relationship: Emily projects her anxiety onto the landscape, thereby infusing it with this angst, only then to have her sense of angst reflected back to her in such a way as to reinforce anew that anxiety. Radcliffe presents the masculine Sublime, therefore, not as a trope infused with innate characteristics but one that is formed by the Subject's dialectical engagement with her environs, an engagement that creates in her a certain psychological state.
William Snyder suggests that in Radcliffe's work we see an analogous relationship between the "heights and depths of pathos" and "the heights and depths of landscape" (Snyder 156). Important here is the emphasis on the alignment between emotion and landscape, but it is the emotion of the Subject present in the scene which drives the characterization of the landscape. In Radcliffe's use of the Gothic sublime in our selection, therefore, she suggests that the masculine Sublime and the feminine Beautiful are determined by the psychology of the Subject and not by any sort of overarching innate qualities present in these aesthetic categories. By infusing them with this kind of subjectivity, Radcliffe weakens any assertions that aesthetic categories can be essentialised. This is to say that if aesthetics is subject to the protagonist's psychological state and subjectivity, then arguably, aesthetics must also be subject to the cultural and social forces that generate one's subjectivity.
In particular, Snyder argues that Radcliffe employs the Gothic sublime in order to aestheticize a woman's lack of power and control with respect to her sexuality (156). If one agrees that Radcliffe uses the Sublime to express a woman's experience of sexuality, the text then infuses a profound sense of fear, oppression, and dislocation into this experience because the Sublime in Radcliffe's text is an aesthetic of tremendous fear and apprehension. If the Sublime is an aesthetic formed by projection, and an aesthetic that is responsive to the social and cultural factors that form subjectivity, the Sublime in Radcliffe's text is a projection that reflects the incredibly fraught, perilous, and powerless existence of many eighteenth-century women. Gilbert and Gubar suggest that in Radcliffe's texts "imagery of enclosure reflects the woman writer's own discomfort, her sense of powerlessness, her fear that she inhabits alien and incomprehensible places" (82-83) and arguably, it is Radcliffe's use of the Sublime that brings to the foreground this sense of powerlessness and incomprehensibility. If the Sublime appears oppressive and aggressive in Radcliffe's text, it is not because masculinity is inherently so, but rather, because her protagonist's experience as a Subject, subject to masculine control, is one of oppression and powerlessness.
Gilberg, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.
Snyder, William. "Mother Nature's Other Natures: Landscape in Women's Writing, 1770-1830". Women's Studies 21 (1992): 143-162.
7. Texts, 1798
There are many points of excess in these poems and a fair amount of oddness, if I can put it that way. In these texts I encounter moments of emotional excess, metrical excess, odd juxtaposition, and even odd subject matter (if a subject can be odd and perhaps this is debatable). In terms of emotional excess, I note in "The Last of the Flock" the sense of pathos and desperation present in lines 62-65 where the shepherd man describes the death of his flock, one by one:
Another still, and still another!
A little lamb and then its mother!
It was a vein that never stopped,
Like blood-drops from my heart they dropped! (62-65)
The use of a sort of chiasmatic anaphora (another still and still another), the rhyming couplets (another/mother; stopped/dropped), the use of exclamation points at the end of three of the four sentences, and the image of a bleeding vein contribute to a kind of hysterical, climactic sense to the Shepherd's description of his loss. Also from that work, I note the repetition of the word "woeful", one that signals an overflow of sadness and grief both lyrically and thematically. Because "woeful" appears in the final lines of three stanzas in particular, each pause is pregnant with the Shepherd's despondence: it is almost inescapable.
There also exist moments of metrical excess in these works, and I note this excess in Coleridge's "The Eolian Harp" where certain lines exceed the structure of iambic pentameter and overflow, so to speak. For example, in line 4, "With white-flowered jasmine and the broad-leaved myrtle", in line 15 "Like some coy maid half-yielding to her lover", and in line 31 "Full many a thought uncalled and undetained", the meter exceeds the structure of iambic pentameter, in all instances containing an extra syllable within the foot that defies a sense of neatness or closure in these lines. At other points, Coleridge's poem contains moments of metrical awkwardness, such as in line 18 where he begins the line with a dactylic foot: "Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes." Although it does not denature the scansion of the line, in that it is still a line of iambic pentameter, there is a bit of a stumble at the start, as one wonders what kind of stress to place on that first word.
Finally, there exist some odd moments just in general. In line 10 of "Frost at Midnight", Coleridge articulates that his child slumbering beside him vexes meditation with its strange "And extreme silentness." This phrase is followed by a caesura, which emphasizes the previous word "silentness" and its sort of awkward quality. I immediately wondered why Coleridge did not choose the word "silence" in place of "silentness." The poem, as a whole, concludes very effectively but again strangely as Coleridge considers how his child's appreciation of silent icicles will catch the child's eye and make him "shout/And stretch and flutter from [his] mother's arms" (line 83-84). This line of excessive action, movement and sound is juxtaposed against all the previous references to silence, meditation, and quietude: a poem that began in quietude at midnight ends in boisterousness.
As Lindsay discussed last week, these poems are replete with the same kind of melancholy she found in the loco-descriptive poems. In "Lines Written Near Richmond", there exists a profound sense of melancholy, particularly in stanza two where, adopting Lisa's strategy of analyzing verbs in terms of their negative or positive qualities, I noted an excess of sadness and despair:
Such views the youthful bard allure,
But heedless of the following gloom
He deems their colours shall endure
Till peace go with him to the tomb
And let him nurse his fond deceit
And what if he must die in sorrow?
Who would not cherish dreams so sweet,
Though grief and pain may come tomorrow?
I note all of these examples of excess and oddness, both in metrics and in emotion and wonder if they are examples of me as a reader struggling with the "feelings of strangeness and awkwardness" Wordsworth notes in the Advertisement to Lyrical Ballads. At the same time, I also find that this presence of excess and oddity creates a sense of "the natural delineation of human passions, human characters, and human incidents" in these texts, such that excess and awkwardness both implies and reveals a certain humanity in these texts. There exists a specter in these works of what is not being said, of what cannot be explained, as each poet (and in "The Last of the Flock", the Shepherd) struggles to articulate the strangeness and often awkwardness of life itself. In "Lines in Early Spring", the poet meditates, with pain, over "what man has made of man." In "The Last of the Flock", we encounter the senseless (or seemingly senseless) slaughter of man's flock as a result of poverty and desperation, and witness not only the death of animals but also the demise of a man's youthful pride and arrogance. In "Lines Written Near Richmond", we read of the metaphoric relationship between the flow of a stream and the poet's mind and soul, but grieve along with the narrator as he realizes that even the revelation of this relationship is no guard against artistic melancholy. In "The Eolian Harp", we encounter the awesome revelation of how the Divine breathes life and inspiration into "animated Nature" and fleetingly glimpse our own immortality in the poetic process. And finally, in "Frost at Midnight", Coleridge relates the joy but also the melancholy of realizing how a son will eclipse the Father.
What I find most striking in these poems is the profound sense of personal revelation and experience they contain, but also the constant return back to these kernels of personal experience, as if the poet cannot escape from this kind of repetition. Perhaps it is this encounter with the Real of human experience that imbues the poems with a certain sense of both familiarity and uncanniness, a sense that nothing is ever really worked through to resolution. The Real is that to which we return, endlessly, ceaselessly and unconsciously and it perhaps this endless cycling through subjective experience that ultimately composes the sense of excess that exists in these poems.
8. Response Paper -- The Wye Valley Visit
I continue to wrestle with Wordsworth's reflections on the picturesque in "Tintern Abbey." In considering Miall's "Locating Wordsworth: 'Tintern Abbey' and the Community of Nature" I am struck by his assertion that Wordsworth's 1793 engagement with Nature was hindered by Wordsworth's reliance on the picturesque mode. Miall then asserts that Wordsworth moved beyond "the conventional picturesque" that shaped his first responses to Nature and rendered his "visual passion for nature deficient" to incorporate a more meta-cognitive, self-reflexive understanding of Nature in the writing of "Tintern Abbey."
What remains relatively obscure for me is what catalyzes in Wordsworth this transition from a mere picturesque viewer to a self-reflexive, meta-cognitive considerer of Nature. I am left wondering, both in response to Miall's article and in response to my own close reading of "Tintern Abbey", what informs Wordsworth's evolution. How does he come to understand the importance and creative power of Coleridge's process of eloignment and employ in his own praxis? While it seems perhaps futile to ascertain when or how a poet comes to understand the transformative power of the imagination, given the emphasis placed on a biographical understanding of the sources and contexts for Wordsworth's writing of "Tintern Abbey", I am left to question what biographical moment foregrounded or illuminated Wordsworth's realization of the inadequacy of the picturesque tradition. In psychoanalytic terms, I wonder what exists as the primal scene for Wordsworth's disavowal of the picturesque and his adoption of a model that emphasizes the collaborative process between the imagination and Nature, between the mind and Nature.
I am wondering if part of the answer might lie in Wordsworth's understanding of the failure of the French Revolution, as detailed in the articles by Bromwich and Richey. Could we read Wordsworth's contemplation of nature via the picturesque tradition and his expression of political idealism via the French Revolution as one unified statement of ideology and aesthetic? Rather than considering them separately, one as a political aspiration and one as an aesthetic principle, can we see in them unification? This is to say that Wordsworth's initial perception of nature, one that did not truly allow him to "see into the life of things" but afforded only a superficial understanding of their essence, is one and the same thing as Wordsworth's immature understanding first of Godwin's philosophy, which he comes to reject, and then of the ideals of the French Revolution which he comes to realize (through an experience of personal trauma) are the source of enormous suffering. I wonder, then, if the ultimate failure of the French Revolution set into relief for Wordsworth the inherent naiveté or limitations of the picturesque model, as Wordsworth comes to realize first the ideological limitations and then the aesthetic limitations of not "seeing into the life of things."
In this way, could this, the failure of the French Revolution and the abandonment of his partner and child in Paris, be the primal scene of trauma for Wordsworth that sets into motion not in this instance a psychological or psychoanalytic crises but an aesthetic one, this being the rejection of the picturesque in favor of a renewed desire to infuse into the contemplation of nature a recognition of the importance of viewing life with depth and complexity? In rejecting the picturesque and adopting this more self-reflexive aesthetic, Wordsworth begins to acknowledge not merely "the life of things" but also the presence of "the still, sad music of humanity" inherent in this life. It is as if Wordsworth's notice of the sweet and the sad gives to his encounter with aesthetics and ideology a greater sense of authenticity such that both his contemplation of Nature and his meditation on his personal engagement with politics resists superficiality and mere rhetoric.
I do not suggest that this understanding of the twinning of political ideology and poetic aesthetic in "Tintern Abbey" is original, but rather that it is a revelation in my own personal thinking about the poem and a point of inquiry that I have been trying to unpack over the course of this semester.
9. Romantic Literary Theory
This response explores our drive to locate "Tintern Abbey" in a historical place and time and our desire to render Wordsworth a poet responsive to and contemplative of both public and private history. I wish to further explore questions of historicity and its application to "Tintern Abbey" but focus more directly on the question of why we remain compelled to view "Tintern Abbey" as the expression of both a specific public and personal historical moment. This response grows out of my continuing interest in the narrativization of subjectivity and particularly, Wordsworth's articulation of his subjectivity. I remain convinced that Wordsworth, as a subject constituted by history, expresses a dialectic of engagement with a society similarly constituted and this response will attempt to flesh out this theoretical position.
I am compelled by Olivia Street's characterization of how the French Revolution's failure comes to signal a broader, chaotic social disintegration in Wordsworth's political and philosophical trajectory. Street writes:
…the French revolution, too, was a project born of sound, 'rational' principles, based on the desire for a fair and popularly decided government. Instead of achieving its Utopian vision, it disintegrated before Wordsworth's eyes, a complete abomination of the rational principles it claimed to purport. To quote Yeats, 'the centre [could] not hold.'" (Street "Second Comment").
As Street notes, it seems an unavoidable conclusion that Wordsworth's poem, written in 1798 on the eve of Bastille Day, reflects in many ways the ethos of political crisis into which both England and France had been plunged as a result of the eruption and then failure of the French Revolution. With that said, the attribution of this specific historical and cultural moment as a source for "Tintern Abbey" is compelling but ultimately, as Street notes, does not seem to suffice:
In 'Tintern Abbey' Wordsworth does not explicitly say what happened in the five years [between his first visit to the Wye and his second] that has so changed his outlook to the scene. The unexplained blank space between his first visit and his second is haunting in its absence (Street "Response to 'Tintern Abbey' Sept. 17).
It is this "unexplained blank space" at the heart of the text, one of many, that seems to both compel critical comment and defy satisfactory explanation. As a result, we remain transfixed by Wordsworth's elisions, both emotional and historical, and often characterize the "haunting" in Wordsworth's text as the result of his lingering trauma over the failure of the French Revolution and break with Godwin.
I suggest, however, that the emphasis needs to shift slightly. Rather than seeing the French Revolution or Wordsworth's break with Godwinism as the a priori moment determining the trajectory of the poet's evolution, one needs to consider that "an event alone does not always rupture history; rather the constellation which that event forms with later events creates the conditions in which epochal discontinuity can be thought" (Rothberg 60). In this I suggest that a more productive form of inquiry into "Tintern Abbey" is not that one argues that either the failure of the French Revolution or the break with Godwin is the "event alone" that ruptures Wordsworth's break from his 1793 self, but rather, that there exists "a constellation" between these historical "spots of time" and Wordsworth's later experiences and memories that in fact provides the emotional and cognitive field from which Wordsworth draws inspiration for "Tintern Abbey." It is a slight distinction in emphasis, but one that suggests we can come to understand and then possibly represent "the event" through its expression after its occurrence as a result of its relationship with subsequent events. This theoretical position stands somewhat in opposition to that which suggests we can "know" the traumatic event in its own, discrete, temporal or spatial context and represent it as such.
I suggest that Wordsworth is, as Walter Benjamin articulates in another context, a "historical materialist" (Benjamin 263). This implies Wordsworth "grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one . . . Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the 'time of the now' which is shot through with chips of Messianic time" (Benjamin 263). Benjamin's notion of historical materialism allows us to see in "Tintern Abbey" a dialectical conversation between the past and the present, a conversation that expands the boundaries of the text to reveal the ways in which "Tintern Abbey" confirms that there exists a poignant and symptomatic inter-relationship between the past and the present, particularly with respect to traumatic experience.
Specifically, Wordsworth insists at the start of "Tintern Abbey" on the "five years passed" between his initial experience in the Wye Valley and the present time of his writing. The almost-anaphoric reiteration of temporal context suggests Wordsworth's awareness that his current moment, July 13 1798, is "shot through" (Benjamin 263) with the past, with events "five years passed." Significantly, because trauma theory suggests we can never articulate the traumatic unutterable moment of crises, Benjamin's notion of historical materialism frees us, I think, to consider Wordsworth's expression of trauma in "Tintern Abbey" (perhaps trauma that occurred in "the five years passed") not as the figuration of a specific traumatic event in Wordsworth's past specifically expressed and delimited in the present of the poem, but rather, as a depiction of how Wordsworth and his text become "shot through" with a multitude of past moments such that there is an intimate and indelible imprint or trace of the past on the present, one that Wordsworth continues to work through into the future. As such, to view Wordsworth's poem as one that depicts a personal and public history "shot through" with the past allows us to consider the "after shock" of trauma and consider how its reverberations expand beyond temporal and spatial boundaries.
Rothberg, Michael. "After Adorno: Culture in the Wake of Catastrophe." New German Critique 42 (Fall 1997): 45-81.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969.
1. Comment on "Tintern Abbey" by William Worsdworth
Having listened to the poem for the first time, it reminded me on a couple of poems written by Wordsworth I dealt with before.
The author has the gift to connect a very detailed description of his mood with the nature and landscape he seems to join while writing. Therefore, his personality seems to be total dependant on the nature, as it seems to be nature that makes him start thinking about himself. The poem reminded me on "I wandered lonely as a cloud", a poem in which Wordsworth allows us to witness his feelings as he is walking "lonely as a cloud" through nature. In my opinion it is nearly the same with this poem.
Furthermore, one can listen to it for a couple of time without getting bored of descriptions of nature and landscape. On the one hand, Wordsworth always catches the reader directly by talking of moods all of us are familiar with and so he makes us feel involved into the poem. But on the other hand, he also engages the reader to nature by boring him with trite and clichéd observations. After all, it depends on the reader whether he wants to get in touch with the poet and his world, or not. Wordsworth gives us just the opportunity to become familiar with his descriptions of mood and nature, he does not force us to do so.
2. Second commentary
Although I wrote a comment on William Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" before, I want to pick up my line of argumentation again. On the one hand, it is the aim of this essay to revise several statements concerning the poem I made before (in-class writing on Sept. 10th, on the other hand, I will point out a couple of new points that came to my mind after having a closer look at further literature.
Like with other of Wordsworth's poems, "Tintern Abbey" seemed to me as an amazing poem. The author makes use of the "language of men" (Preface to Lyrical Ballads), as he describes the language a poet should make use of. As I pointed out in my last essay, Wordsworth effectively immerses us in his way of thinking by conveying feelings nearly all of us are familiar with. After all, I am still of the opinion that his literature easily accessible in comparison to other works.
Reading Richey`s "The Politicized Landscape of "Tintern Abbey"", several doubts come to my mind. Was Wordsworth really interested in politics when he traveled to France during the French Revolution, or was he more interested in landscape and nature? After all, his first trip was supposed to be a hiking trip with Dorothy rather than a journey fueled by politics. Although Richey recognizes that Wordsworth never addresses politics directly (Richey 1998: 200), it is my opinion that Richey dives too deeply into the meaning of Wordsworth's poem. Richey seems to be trying to find too much meaning between the lines. Furthermore, Richey mentions the general pattern of "man and nature, cliffs and sky, woods and fields" (Richey 1998: 199/200) that can be found in a couple of Wordsworth's poems. Although this is just a minor point in his essay, I share Richey's way of thinking in this point.
However, my point of view has changed after reading the poem a couple of times. Several parts of the text seemed rather interesting to me and so I had a closer look at them. From line 63 to 66, Wordsworth speaks of "pleasing thoughts" that give him hope for "future years"; maybe a hidden link to the events in France. However, most of his other statements seem to be derived from nature. In the following stanza he speaks of a cataract that "haunted him like a passion" (line 78). Mountains and wood give him a feeling of love. From line 123 to 124 he even personifies nature by claiming that nature "never did betray the heart that loved her".
All in all, comparisons and descriptions like these are typical of William Wordsworth and the Romantic Period. The only point I still question is whether the author really believes in what he is writing. Was he simply a single cog in the machine of Romantic Literature? Or is Wordsworth the veritable representative of this period? Was he bound to write about nature? I just cannot believe that all these feelings came to his mind every time he saw a tree or a river.
Finally, it is my impression that Wordsworth might also have achieved exactly the opposite of what he actually set out to do. By over-explaining and describing nature he takes most of the beauty and peacefulness away before the reader is able to explore it on his own. There is nearly no room left for the reader's imagination as Wordsworth gives us a set scenery and a very specific way of feeling it. Therefore, we are on the one hand directly involved but on the other hand, left with no space to think and to experience it on our own.
3. Possible effects of French Revolution and journey to Germany/Belgium (…) on "Tintern Abbey"
To evaluate the extent of the influence the French Revolution or Wordsworth's journey to Germany, Switzerland and Belgium might have had on Tintern Abbey, one clearly has to create a subdivision between nature and politics.
Although Tintern Abbey is mainly based on a description of landscape and feelings it invokes, one has to pose the question whether these feelings came to his mind when he was travelling with Dorothy, or if they were already present in his mind before. Maybe the experience of walking fed his nature-soul connection and he, thus, felt the need to express it in his writing.
However, politics, in this case the French Revolution, only seems to have a hidden effect. In lines 65 and 66, Wordsworth speaks of "life and food/ For future years". This might be referring to the revolution as he might be convinced it would create a better future. After all, there is no direct mention of politics and its effects. At this point we have to ask ourselves again how much he really cared about politics.
However, I am of the opinion that Wordsworth must have been affected by the situation in France, although he does not show it directly in Tintern Abbey. It is definitely possible to interpret many of his lines as hints on the political situation in France around the time he wrote Tintern Abbey. Among these are statements like "in hours of weariness" (29), "this unintelligible world" (41), "joyless daylight" (53) and "a presence that disturbs him with the joy" (95). All of the lines create a sense of darkness and suffering. As in many other examples, Wordsworth uses his own sorrow to describe the situation of his generation.
4. The Picturesque in "I wandered lonely as a Cloud"
I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o'er Vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of dancing Daffodils;
Along the Lake, beneath the trees,
Ten thousand dancing in the breeze.
The waves beside them danced, but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee:
A Poet could not but be gay,
In such a laughing company:
I gaz'd and gaz'd but little thought
What wealth the shew to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the Daffodils.
In this essay I try to show possible influences of the picturesque that can be found in William Wordsworth's poem, "I wandered lonely as a cloud".
The poem was published in Poems in two Volumes in 1807 and underlined the power Wordsworth had at that time. It consists of three sestets. The rhyme scheme of each stanza is very regular: a cross-rhyme from line 1 to 4, is followed by a pair-rhyme at the end of each stanza (a b a b c c). To go into further detail it is worth to mention that each line is formed of eight syllables. The feet of the poem, which is defined by the stresses falling upon the syllables, are iambic, every other syllable is stressed.
The high vividness in his language is indicated by expressions like "all at once", "dancing Daffodils", "dancing in the breeze", "laughing company" and "my heart with pleasure fills". Those expressions create lively images and fulfil the lines of the poem with powerful life. In addition, one has to say that all the lines are tetrametric. By adding the feet, which are iambic, the poem is said to be a iambic tetrameter. Wordsworth always stresses the last syllable and gives further weight to those words. This kind of stress is called masculine.
After this rather short analysis of the structure of the poem I will briefly introduce Gilpin's idea of the picturesque. In the second essay of altogether Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty (1794), William Gilpin offers his understanding of this motive that was linked very closely to Romantic poetry to the reader. It is his point of view that the object we consider to be picturesque is "beauty of every kind" (Gilpin 1794) that can derive from art or from nature. Furthermore, he claims that this beauty can be found among all parts of the landscape as long as they are big enough to be considered. The most important thing about this is that it is not only a single object that we might talk of. Picturesque motives are a combination, underlined by various aerial effects like light or shade (Gilpin 1794).
Another part of his essay aims to show the sub-classification of the picturesque into the sublime and the beautiful. Gilpin claims that none of these two parts can stand on its own to be considered as picturesque. Beauty is always an important additional element to sublimity.
After this introduction to Wordsworth's poem and the idea of the picturesque we will now go into further detail by analysing "I wandered lonely as a cloud" with respect to Gilpin.
In the first place the poem can be seen as a poem of much simplicity. The author uses a kind of language everyone can understand and he creates pictures which help the reader to imagine what Wordsworth thought while walking through the "host of dancing Daffodils." In the second place, however, this is more than just a poem about daffodils. William Wordsworth tried to create a poem in which he could address and touch the reader with his feelings. He wants us to understand him and to give us power in hard times by showing us the immense power of nature to heal mental problems. One has to know that the young poet wrote this poem after he had been walking in the Lake District. He describes his true impressions. By using the strong image in the first line of wandering "lonely as a Cloud" the picturesque is directly used and presented to the reader.
I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o'er Vales and Hills,
In this line of the poem, Gilpin's thought that beauty is seen "in her most usual form" (Gilpin 1794) is already shown very directly by talking about a "cloud". In the next line Wordsworth gives further weight to this picturesque image of a cloud floating high over "Vales and Hills". In this way, nature is presented in its most effective way which is the picturesque due to Gilpin.
In contrast to the rather pessimistic opening, the full stress falls upon the next lines where he says that he "saw a crowd […] of dancing Daffodils." The mood of loneliness and detachment is blown away. At first he compares the Daffodils to a crowd, as there can be a crowd of trees along the way. However, by paying more attention to them he realizes their beauty and describes them as a "host" and as "dancing". Thus, he puts the flowers on a higher level, by giving them the human ability of dancing, most often an expression of joy and detachment. At this part of the poem Wordsworth makes use of a highly interesting feature. He spends no word on a detailed description of the daffodils, moreover he describes them as "dancing in the breeze".
A host of dancing Daffodils;
Along the Lake, beneath the trees,
Ten thousand dancing in the breeze.
Once again we can find elements of the picturesque. In this particular case it can be seen as well in the sublimity that is given to the daffodils as in the beauty Wordsworth gives to them. Referring to Gilpin, who said that "sublimity alone cannot make an object picturesque" (Gilpin 1794) we can find a perfect example in these lines. The Daffodils alone, meaning their sublimity, cannot be picturesque, they also have to be beautiful.
Wordsworth adds this lacking of beauty in the next stanza where he describes them in further detail by saying that they "outdid the sparkling waves in glee". It is exactly this point that completes the idea of the picturesque. In line 9 and 10 he claims being "gay" as an indisputable fact after having seen the daffodils at the Lake District. The next lines sum up his feelings and impressions which he still does not seem to realize. The "shew" has given wealth to him, which he is unable to handle.
Another point that is worth being mentioned is Gilpin's theory that the landscape we write about is supposed to be "unexplored". Additionally, he claims that "the first source of amusement […] is the pursuit" of an object. Referring to Wordsworth's poem we can only state that this is true for his description of the landscape and especially of the daffodils.
The last stanza of the short but very powerful poem can be seen as a kind of proof for the power the picturesque has. Coming back to the "lonely" mood at the beginning of the poem, Wordsworth now refers to a "vacant or pensive mood" while lying on his couch. After having seen the daffodils just once, the author seems to be able to handle feelings of loneliness by thinking of them as it is said in line 15. To me it is also of paramount importance that the author is now able to speak of the "bliss of solitude". Who would have thought that this kind of change was going to take place; immense loneliness, described by "I wandered lonely as a Cloud", changes into "the bliss of solitude." This happens as Wordsworth makes use of the picturesque imagination of daffodils that "flash upon that inward eye". In my point of view the power of picturesque description, as Wordsworth did it, peak in this point.
The last two lines of the poem are the most powerful as they describe his addiction to nature. His mood has changed from immense loneliness to a mood in which his heart fills with pleasure to dance "with the Daffodils".
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the Daffodils.
Finally, I hope that the appearance of picturesque elements in this poem became clear to the reader. Being aware of the fact that this is just a very general observation one can definitely go into further detail and discuss on the question whether Wordsworth was conscious about using Gilpin's idea of the picturesque.
5. Loco-descriptive elements in Dyer's "Grongar Hill"
Next to Denham's "Cooper's Hill", "Grongar Hill" can be seen as one of the most important examples for loco-descriptive poetry. The text was published in 1855 in Poetical Works and shows a good number of highly interesting features, expressing the main ideas of this era of poetry.
Among them are the description and the praise of a landscape as well as the reasons for choosing this particular area. In the following lines I try to have a closer look at John Dyer's poem by working out major features of loco-descriptive poetry that can be found in his poem.
The first rather long stanza extents over 26 lines and gives a kind of major introduction to the reader. Dyer opens up by describing his surroundings. It seems as if he seeks to escape from city life as his favored place is "beyond the noise of busy man" (4). Throughout the whole poem Dyer uses personifications to further describe the natural environment. This is first seen in lines 7/8 where he speaks of "the tuneful nightingale" (7) that is charming the forest. Furthermore, the author points out how much he enjoys sitting "upon a flow'ry bed" (21) that he finds at the top of the hill. The first stanza underlines already that we are dealing with a loco-descriptive poem as the whole power of it seems to derive from the hill and its magnificence.
The next part of the powerful poem deals with the fact that all things come to an end as the mountains that are observed have to face their "unhappy fate" (33) - which means that they shrink and erode as time passes.
Throughout the next stanzas, Dyer always refers to one particular element that he can see from the top of the hill. He describes its outlook and its effects on him as well as on nature. To explain this in further detail, one might have a look at the third stanza in which Dyer looks from the top of the hill and sees "the gay, the open scene" (44). Once again the author uses personification to provide a deeper explanation of the appearance of nature by talking of the "face of nature" (45). The next stanzas give us an even deeper insight of what loco-descriptive poetry is. Starting off with the metaphor of castles "Proudly towering in the skies" (50), Dyer goes on by talking about trees that are listed one by one. It is interesting to see how carefully and thoughtfully the author refers to all of these elements and describes them in very much detail. To prove this, lines 59 to 66 can be taken as a very good example as Dyer talks about all kinds of trees and their appearance from his standpoint.
Once again, Dyer opens up with a very strong and meaningful personification to describe nature's interaction with human beings. It is from line 67 on where he speaks of Grongar Hill, holding and charming "the wandering eye" (68). Additionally, one can observe that the next stanza refers to animals that Dyer seems to be able to see. Talking about them, he brings nature, himself and animals into correlation so that all of them appear as a whole unit rather than individual phenomena.
Another interesting feature is manner in which the author addresses the reader. This can be seen in line 93 where Dyer seems to want to involve us by saying "And see the rivers". This stanza, however, contains another element that is even more stressing. Human life and the Towy river are directly correlated, as the river is on its "journey to the deep / Like human life to endless sleep!" (97/98). It is obvious to see, that the observation of nature evokes thoughts like this in the poet's mind. However, the next lines become even more powerful as Dyer offers his point of view that nature wants to interact with human beings by dressing in wonderful colors "To disperse our cares away" (102). Elements of loco-descriptive poetry can be found exactly in these lines, in which nature around the favored spot is praised and brought into correlation to human life.
In the next part of the poem, further observations are listed. The following lines show once more the poets addiction to nature as he enumerates all the things he is able to see - like the fountain, the river, the summit and even the rock. Dyer talks of hedges and meadows that can be seen on "the mountain's southern side" (114). This particular point also stresses my attention because of the direct way the reader is addressed ("See" (114)) and because of the addition of directions ("mountain's southern side" (114)). One can easily interpret this as a kind of invitation to the reader to walk up to Grongar Hill to witness the beauty described by the author.
As a last point of my observation I want to have a closer look at lines 137 to 145. John Dyer seems to use these lines to sum up his present situation and the effects on him again. The stanza is introduced and finished by the statement that his "joy runs high" (137, 145). It is important to recognize that the author describes an actively ongoing process that affects his present mood. By beginning nearly every line with "While" (e.g. 141), Dyer refers to birds, waters and other surrounding elements again to underline their active involvement to his situation. Only due to their addition, indicated by "While", he seems to be gay.
The last stanza of the poem underlines once more its loco-descriptive affiliation. Dyer sums up that we are only able to find peace and pleasure as he does; by walking on the top of Grongar Hill where they are "Ever by each other's side" (155). The author points out that all other places are not able to give him the same feelings since he states that one searches "in vain" (150) to find peace. Furthermore, peace is personified to underline its importance to him.
The praise and addiction to a particular landscape peak at the end of the poem where Dyer works out all positive and convincing points for Grongar Hill. In retrospect, I hope that the interpretation of the poem worked out well to highlight several elements of loco-descriptive poetry that are visible in the poem.
6. Gothic elements in Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho
This essay aims to show elements of Gothic literature that are visible in Mysteries of Udolpho, written by Ann Radcliffe in 1794. Undoubtedly, the novel can be called the masterpiece of this literary movement as it will be shown in the following lines.
In order to focus on several key elements in more detail, I will only analyse the passage to which George P. Landow refers in "Description and Narration in Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho."* The second abstract of this passage can therefore be taken as a perfect example to show Gothic elements. While describing the walk through the Apennines and Emily's state of mood, Radcliffe includes expressions of darkness and sorrow. To prove this in further detail, I will have a closer look at the following lines:
The gloom of the shades, their solitary silence, except when the breeze swept over their summits, the tremendous precipices of the mountains, that came partially to the eye, each assisted to raise the solemnity of Emily's feelings into awe;
In these lines, Radcliffe is talking about the observation of the landscape as the heroine and her fellows are ascending the Apennines. It is highly interesting to observe the overall depressing and sorrowful way in which the natural scenery is outlined to the reader. Thinking of a hike in the mountains, naturally picturesque imaginations might come to the inner-eye of the reader, whereas Radcliffe speaks of "the gloom of the shades" the pine-forests cause. By using personifications, the author links Emily's feelings to the natural setting surrounding her. This can be traced in the description of the pine trees that are standing in "solitary silence", just like Emily who has to face her fate. Furthermore, only nature itself seems to have the ability to overcome this highly gloomy setting through a "breeze" that allows sunlight to enter the ground. Gothic expressions can additionally be traced in the next lines, following Radcliffe's descriptions like a red rag to a bull. One might wonder whether Emily's mood is affecting the account of nature or vice versa. This question might be answered by having a closer look at the next line in which "tremendous precipices" are said to assist the heroine in her mournful manner. At this particular point we can juxtapose the direct correlation of Gothic scenery descriptions to the human mood. Especially mountains and valleys are often found examples in picturesque scenery and therefore it is highly interesting to observe how nature can be described in such a negative way.
As a final example I will shortly refer to the often used feature of castles in Gothic Literature:
Emily gazed with melancholy awe upon the castle, which she understood to be Montoni's; for, though it was now lighted up by the setting sun, the gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object. As she gazed, the light died away on its walls, leaving a melancholy purple tint […]
It goes without saying that the castle is described in the most deterrent way. Having a closer look, one can find once more the correlation of nature and scenery. Although the castle is supposed to be in bright sunlight, the effect of it is weakened by the "gothic greatness" of the castle. Gothic defeats nature in this point. The castle stays what it is; a "gloomy and sublime" object. By the use of a personification, Radcliffe underlines Gothic's victory as the light "died away" on the walls of the castle. Emily cannot be interpreted without analysing the description of her surrounding as major clues can be found there.
All in all, two further points came to my mind when dealing with Mysteries of Udolpho for a longer time. On one hand, romantic literature can sometimes be seen as a kind of first layer that enables poets, in this particular case Ann Radcliffe, to add Gothic elements. Romanticism offers the landscape - it is presented and interpreted as Gothic. On the other hand, it is my point of view that Gothic elements in the text at hand are occasionally over-used. Although it was the main feature of this era to combine horror and romance, Radcliff sets up such a negative and dark environment that the gap to romanticism and the picturesque becomes immense.
In a final conclusion, one can sum up that although referring only to this small excerpt of Radcliffe's work, she created the standard gothic novel that set major rules to this era.
* The passage is taken from http://www.victorianweb.org/previctorian/radcliffe/radcliffe3.html
7. Elements of the "Advertisement" in "The last of the flock"
The main purpose of this essay is to show that traces of Wordsworth's thoughts in the "Advertisement" can be found in his poem "The last of the flock".
Firstly, the poem caught my interest because of the high simplicity that is visible in its content and use of language. However, after having a closer look, the poem offers more layers of meaning and an intention of the poet which is worth being explored. The main content is the meeting of the Lyrical I and a sorrowful man whose life is shortly introduced in the outline of the poem. After a short introduction to the scenery and the characters that lasts for two stanzas, the rest of the poem deals exclusively with the man who had lost nearly all of his lambs after he had to sell them to feed his big family. As he meets the Lyrical I, he is left alone with only one lamb.
To enter into the discussion, we have to recall the main points of the "Advertisement"; Wordsworth makes clear that poetry can be "found in every subject which can interest the human mind". Furthermore, he highlights the point that poetry needs to be seen as "experiments". He wants the reader to get into an active process of interpreting the poem, although he seems to be well aware that "many lines and phrases will not exactly suit their taste". In addition to that, Wordsworth admits the simplicity of some of his chosen paragraphs in order to be closer to the reader. In a next step, I will try to illustrate in which ways these elements exist in "The last of the flock".
As was mentioned before, the language of the poem is of high simplicity which can be seen in the following lines which are found at the beginning of the poem.
In distant countries I have been,
And yet I have not often seen
A healthy man, a man full grown,
Weep in the public roads alone.
In comparison to other introductory lines of Wordsworth, these ones definitely create interest about the "healthy man" and his fate. Furthermore, these lines show clearly who Wordsworth wanted to address by opening the poem in such an unspectacular way -- people of every social rank. In the outline of the plot the reader might be more attracted as it could be the story of anyone: A successful lamb-owner, caring for his family and being proud of his business.
At the turning point of the poem, where the man has to start selling his lambs to earn more money for his family, the feelings of the reader are once more addressed.
A woeful time it was for me
To see the end of all my gains.
Wordsworth expects his readers to be familiar with situation like this. By repeating the line "For me it was a woeful day" at the end of the following three stanzas he makes the reader witness the downfall of the man. This is just one of the elements Wordsworth uses that point out the experimental touch of this poem. Annotating the plot and the way it is told, one has to sum up that there is simply nothing special about it. "The last of the flock", published in the first volume of Lyrical Ballads, might bore the intellectual reader as he expects more from a poem written by Wordsworth. All in all, the experimental character is due to a highly unspectacular plot, few stylistic devices and by focusing on human misery.
In closing I want to refer to the image of possession, in this case the lambs, in comparison to the image of family, where the character has to care for his ten sons. Throughout the first part of the poem it seems as if the family was the man's main purpose for raising the lambs ("Ten children, sir, had I to feed"). In the last part of the poem, however, one gets the impression that his last lamb means even more to him than his sons do. We might pose the question where his sons are at this point whilst the man is facing his fate, all alone with the lamb on his arm. The lamb does not only seem to be the last of all his flock, moreover it seems to be the remaining part of his life, as he holds it in his arms like a mother carrying her baby.
In a final conclusion we are able to sum up the experimental layer of the poem just as Wordsworth called for in the "Advertisement". Furthermore, the content is taken from an everyday situation, presented in a rather common and not very poetical language.
8. Warner's description of landscape
Reading the texts for this week, a couple of statements made by Richard Warner created my interest. In the excerpt of his text "Along the Wye from Goodrich Castle to Tintern", he offers a kind of traveler-guide to the reader by giving a highly detailed description of the route they took and of the natural scenery.
Having a closer look at the excerpt, a couple of questions came to my mind: What is it that makes Tintern Abbey that special that so many poets dedicate paragraphs or even whole poems to it? Can an abbey be picturesque just on its own? In how far is picturesque poetry dependent on nature and what is it we call nature? In the outline of this text I try to answer these questions by referring to several lines of Warner's text.
It is my point of view that Richard Warner over-explains and describes the natural setting on his walk. This is due to the repeatedly mentioning of rocks and woods which are in this case seemingly the main elements of the scenery.
Here the scene becomes truly majestic. The Coldwell rocks, rising to a towering height on the right hand, alternately start through the thick woods . . .
To answer the question of what we call nature in poetry we can use this quotation as an example. As it was visible in other Romantic texts we read so far, poets describe the scenery as it is and do not add any kind of imaginative, non-existing elements. Nature in this case can be defined as all those essentials that are not of human origin, affecting the elements the poet is referring to.
The whole scene was gloriously tinted by the rich illumination of a setting sun.
This example shows once more the interplay of nature and the scenery the poet is thinking of. Furthermore, only positive features of nature, like sunlight, majestic rocks and woods are mentioned in picturesque poetry.
Referring back to the question if Tintern Abbey can be picturesque on its own, I want to list at least two examples that show the dependence on nature. Most poets see the abbey not only as a building standing on its own somewhere close to the river Wye:
the village of Tintern, with the diversified scenery of the dale in which it stands, its glittering stream and dark woods, and the lofty ruins of its abbey…, spotted with mosses, and crowned with ivy.
-- Warner, Tintern
the means of ruins … may be intimately blended with trees and with thickets, and the interruption is an advantage; for imperfection and obscurity are their properties; and to carry the imagination to something greater than is seen, their effect.
-- Whately "Tintern Abbey"
These quotations from Whately and Warner underline the statement made above. Nature and the abbey have to be considered as one single element. This implies that the natural setting of the Wye valley has only become that famous for poets because of the addition of Tintern Abbey at the banks of the river.
In a final conclusion to this essay I want to highlight the interplay of the river Wye, Tintern Abbey and the natural setting. Only due to this prerequisites are we able to speak of picturesque poetry. At this particular point we collide with Gilpin's idea of the beautiful and the sublime.
When we talk therefore of a sublime object (Tintern Abbey), we always understand, that it is also beautiful (Nature).
-- Gilpin "On Picturesque Beauty"
As a last point I want to add that I am well aware that my discussion highlights different points we discussed before. Warner's text however, made me think of it again and so I dedicated this essay to another discussion on picturesque elements that can be found in his text.
9. The "language of men" in "We are seven"
In the preface to the second volume of Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth presents his theory of "the language of men" to the reader. The main stress can be seen in his explanations of what poetry should be like. Wordsworth takes a unique step in defining the "language of men" as the central language that poets have to use to be understood and to come closer to the feelings of their readers.
It seems to be his purpose to attract readers that are not that interested in poetry by choosing "incidents and situations from common life" that those rustic people are familiar with. Furthermore, Wordsworth was of the opinion that his poetry finds "a better soil" in the mind of his readers. This important thesis of the Preface can be understood in so far that Wordsworth writes about events that are more common to rustic people in a language that is really used by them.
Coleridge seems to agree with this point. In Chapter 14 of Biographia Literaria he refers to two sorts of poems, of which one copes exactly with Wordsworth's thoughts. Coleridge, who worked very close with Wordsworth on Lyrical Ballads, is of the opinion that "subjects were to be chosen from ordinary life". Additionally, he agrees with his colleague in saying that the characters of the poems have to be of the same social rank as of those who actually read the poems. Only in this way feelings and motives can be understood. At this point we might critically ask ourselves if a poet loses his imaginary and poetical power by lowering the standard to a level that all social classes can understand. By having a closer look at the poem "We are seven", I try to answer this question and to show in which way Wordsworth realized his call for a more rustic language.
The poem deals with a little girl and her simple view of death. As Wordsworth meets her and asks for her brothers and sisters she denies the death of two of them by saying that they are still seven. The little girl seems to be well aware of the fact that they really died, but for her they still belong to the family. Firstly, I will have a closer look at the overall situation that is mentioned in the poem and where it takes place.
Words like "cottage Girl" and "rustic, woodland air" clearly imply that the scenery is set in a rural area just like Wordsworth mentions in his Preface when he speaks of "common life". Furthermore, at a first glance, the whole plot is of high simplicity. The Lyrical I, in this case Wordsworth, meets a little girl and they talk indirectly about death, whereby their different viewpoints collide. Once more we can find similarities to the author's call in the Preface. "Low and rustic life", just like that of the little cottage girl, is preferred.
Secondly, traces of the "language of men", as Wordsworth called it, will be listed in the following lines. Having in mind personifications and metaphors of which Wordsworth highly made use in other poems, we find a total different style and level of language in "We are seven". To keep it short, one can sum up that he describes the scenery just like it is; simple and rustic.
She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad,
Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
Her beauty made me glad. (9-12)
This verse can be taken as a good example to highlight the "language of men", as it gives a short and to the point description of the girl. Wordsworth uses rural terms like "rustic" and "woodland" to refer to her appearance.
Finally, I want to come back to the question of whether the decrease in poetic skill implies a decline in poetical power. Having in mind further poems like "The mad mother" or "Lucy Gray", I must clearly point out that Wordsworth was a revolutionary poet. Also, these works of his show a highly simple use of language and situations of "common life". His step enabled him to attract new readers and to bring poetry to even more people. Despite this, Wordsworth's poems are still very powerful and bring over a message to the reader, as "each of these poems has a purpose".
Working on this essay, a couple of questions came to my mind: Did Wordsworth really want to attract new readers or was his move just a way to earn more money? Where can we see the main power of those poems - in their story or in between the lines?
We are able to answer the first question because we know that one of the reasons for publishing Lyrical Ballads was to earn money for a trip to Germany. However, I do not think that he just wrote down some poems quickly to earn money. Wordsworth still puts a lot of energy in his poems and uses the Preface to explain his main motives. Referring to the second point that came to my mind, I have to point out that the main purpose of many poems can be seen in between the lines. "The mad mother" is used to refer to maternal passion and "We are seven" refers to the childish simple view of death. William Wordsworth is responsible for a poetic revolution as he set the boundaries for the use of "the language of men".
1. Response to "Tintern Abbey," Sept. 10
What struck me about the poem was the sense of contrast between the peacefulness and "loftiness" of nature and the small, mean world of the city. The sense of possibility evoked by the beauty of the natural world gives birth to a higher level of human thought than is possible in the din of all the quotidian transactions happening without "kindness." Wordsworth's love of nature allows him a portal into a space of tranquility in the midst of a sometimes-cold world, accessible through memory or "unremembering" (an unusual, evocative term that stuck out in my mind). He describes his youth by likening himself to a roe, racing through the landscape as though "flying from something" that he fears, rather than towards something that he loves. For me, this suggested the brevity of human life, and I felt it to be a reminder to cherish the present, as Wordsworth urges his "wild," young sister to do.
The isolation of the hermit, who lives an imagined pastoral life, seems attractive compared to the "sad, still music of humanity" that accompanies a city existence. Yet, I think the speaker is not suggesting that becoming a hermit is a viable solution to the world's weight; rather, we should attempt to preserve these sentiments of stillness and peace, drawing upon them when we need to calm our souls.
2. Second comment
I'm interested in two seemingly unrelated things. The first is the image of Wordsworth walking all over the place, and the second is Godwinian philosophy. The idea of walking as a revolutionary activity is perhaps not so far removed from the theories of Godwin, which were also thought of as revolutionary in his day. I briefly looked into some of the theories he espoused, and among those that were thought "revolutionary" were: the immorality of colonialism, the avoidance of censorship, which obstructs truth, and the belief that war should be avoided unless one's country or another country's liberties are in jeopardy. He also regarded democracy as the best possible system of government, while recognizing that sometimes a majority group could pose a dangerous threat to the liberties of a minority group. All his principles were, it seems, quite rational. Yet, the French revolution, too, was a project born of sound, "rational" principles, based on the desire for a fair and popularly decided government. Instead of achieving its Utopian vision, it disintegrated before Wordsworth's eyes, a complete abomination of the rational principles it claimed to purport. To quote Yeats, "the centre [could] not hold."
That's all I have to say about this right now. It's more an image I have in mind, of Wordsworth thinking about all these things, on a long walk. How the act of walking might help to untangle a mental and emotional knot of grief.
3. Response to "Tintern Abbey," Sept. 17
After having read the Bromwich and Richey articles, I reread "Tintern Abbey" and reacted to it in a completely different way. My initial readings of the poem had been devoid of the context which these two secondary texts provided. The poem is rendered more complex by an awareness of Wordsworth's political sentiments and crushing disillusionments. I agree with Bromwich that it is, indeed, no coincidence that Wordsworth includes the connotation-heavy date of July 13th in his title. This could account for the mood of the poem, which seems strikingly morose at times. The overhanging sense of sadness feels out of place in a poem that has the seemingly simple aim of expressing Wordsworth's wholehearted appreciation of nature. Wordsworth's "joy" in nature is mitigated by an obvious heaviness of heart. His assertion that the memory of the picturesque will provide "life and food" (65-66) for future years, suggests that those years might otherwise be lean and meagre in their supply of joy.
It makes me wonder all the more, however, why he seems to begrudge Dorothy her unbridled happiness. Witnessing (and having been personally affected by) the events of the French Revolution seems to have changed Wordsworth's outlook on the world in a way that one might not wish upon a friend or sister. He rejects her experience of nature as inferior to his own, even though her joy has not been tainted by worldly knowledge, as his has. Would he not wish for her to cherish this unburdened time of life, rather than to be made aware of its fleetingness? Dorothy occupies an ambiguous position: she is both excluded from the text and simultaneously required for its existence, as the listening ear.
In "Tintern Abbey," Wordsworth does not explicitly say what happened in the five years that has so changed his outlook to the scene. The unexplained blank space between his first visit and his second is haunting in its absence. I agree with Richey that Wordsworth's pain at the loss of his political idealism is perhaps the root of the poem's oft-critiqued "narrow" focus. Marjorie Levinson's criticism of his "fiercely private vision" (Levinson qtd. in Richey 197) ignores what may be some very good reasons for his "oversights." With a knowledge of the context of the poem, which Wordsworth's contemporaries certainly would have understood, Wordsworth can speak his political sentiments while avoiding censorship. Instead of being a poem that lacks social discourse, we discover that Wordsworth's landscape is actually a forum for it.
4. Fourth comment
It would of course be unfair, on several accounts, to criticize Wordsworth for failing to write a "feminist" poem, especially when considering that he was writing "Tintern Abbey" several hundred years before the modern feminist movement began. Nonetheless, it is an important exercise to examine the poem from many different angles and through many different lenses. I wish to look more closely at the idea of the "picturesque" and the sexual politics that ensue from its assumptions. In what ways might the privileging of the visual sense, within the discourse of the "picturesque," be a privileging of the male gaze in domination over Nature, the subordinated feminine object?
Pursuers of the picturesque experience, according to William Gilpin's essay "On Picturesque Travel," seek images of nature that comprise both sublimity and beauty. The joy of this "pursuit" is followed by "attainment," the pleasure of which results in a "pause of intellect." Nature is, therefore, outside of intellect, outside the rational mind, which can survey and determine its beauty. Nature is, as Gilpin poetically illustrates, "but a name for an effect, / Whose cause is God." Thus, even the form of sublime power and inspiration attributed to Nature can be reduced to a consequence of another, greater force. Nature, is a powerless abstraction caught between the hand of God, its creator, and Man, the adjudicator of God's work. Nature, seemingly, exists for Man's amusement.
Just as a picturesque painter might remove a tree or two from his interpretation of a given landscape, so might Wordsworth in his literary incarnation of the picturesque. Critics have often pointed out the things that are "missing" from Wordsworth's portrayal of the scene - the abbey itself, for instance, or the polluting effects of factories from upstream, or even the conditions of abject poverty under which the hermits of the hills may have lived. Yet, we must also consider the "objects" that have been left in the poem, such as the figure of Dorothy, who is an essential element of the "painting" Wordsworth creates. She is depicted in terms that reinforce her connection to Nature, and is referred to several times as being "wild." She is a silent figure, like Nature itself, an object for Wordsworth's pen to render, as one might render the outline of a tree or a cliff within the borders of a canvas. He refers to her "voice" in which he "catch[es] /The language of [his] former heart," (117-118) but this voice is as abstract as the sound of the mountain springs, a "sweet inland murmur" (5).
There is a strange contrast, it seems, between Wordsworth's love of walking, which provides a direct and physical connection with the land, and the objective distance that a picturesque "gaze" provides. While Wordsworth's feet were in direct contact with Nature, his eyes were only able to behold parts of the mystic whole.
5. A Woman of Words: a Short Biography of Dorothy Wordsworth
Dorothy Wordsworth certainly was an important part of her brother William's life. Although the pair spent most of their childhoods apart, shuttled off to different residences after the successive deaths of their parents, they reconnected in adulthood, and maintained close ties until William's death in 1850. Many of the places William walked, Dorothy walked as well, often in the company of their companion, Coleridge. She accompanied them on their walking tour through Germany in 1798, although, she writes in a letter, she and her brother found it difficult to travel "as a man and woman" (her emphasis). Coleridge comments on this difficulty in a letter to his wife (who was left at home, and perhaps thought by her husband to be too "dull" to be a good travelling companion), saying that Wordsworth's decision to bring Dorothy along to Germany was a bad one. He writes: "It is next to impossible for any but married women or in the suit of married women to be introduced to any company in Germany. Sister [here] is considered as only a name for Mistress" (qtd. in Alexander 198).
Indeed, William and Dorothy's relationship remains haunted by insinuations of incest. In 1802, William married Dorothy's close friend Mary Hutchinson, and although Dorothy writes in a letter to a friend that "[she has] long loved Mary Hutchinson as a Sister," Dorothy was nonetheless too hysterical to attend the wedding. The night before her brother's wedding, she wore her future sister-in-law's ring all night. When she gave it to William in the morning, he blessed her, slipping the ring on her finger again, before she took it off and gave it back to him.
While the three Wordsworths went on to lead a seemingly peaceful domestic existence, with Dorothy aiding in the care of the couple's two children, Dorothy's physical and mental health began to decline. Although she did not fall deeply ill until 1829, there were early signs that her health was troubled. When Thomas De Quincey, a friend of Coleridge, visited the Wordsworths in 1807, he noted that Dorothy's eyes were "not soft, as Mrs. Wordsworth's, nor were they fierce or bold; but they were wild and startling, and hurried in their motion" (qtd. in Liukkonen). He also found her dark skin to be remarkable; she was deeply tanned from her love of walking outdoors, which she shared with William. De Quincey later speculated in his Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets on the reasons for her decline, attributing it to "nervous depression," perhaps from years of "suppressing her own right to the 'profession of authorship.'" Even William notes in an 1838 letter that "the change… probably was preparing before" (qtd. in Alexander 208).
Dorothy fell deeper and deeper into the self-described "wilderness" of her mind. Senility led her to a childlike state, in which she often played with bubbles, hid from visitors, voiced shrill cries, and made strange blowing noises. However, even with her memory completely shattered, she could "still recite all William's poetry off pat" (Cavendish).
It is a sad irony that in "Tintern Abbey" the young Wordsworth urges his companion to allow nature to "feed [her mind]/ With lofty thoughts" (128-129), to store for the "after-years" (138). One can feel the disparity between the cloudy senility of Dorothy's faded mind and the mind her brother imagined for her:
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies - oh then
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations! (140-147)
Even after William's death, Mary happily continued to care for Dorothy, who was bed-ridden, no longer able to walk outdoors and experience the many pleasures of the natural world she had once so adored. Eventually, Mary, "the solitary lingerer," as she called herself, passed away as well, and the three are buried in the churchyard of St Oswald's Church in Grasmere. Dorothy and William, in their more active years, had often played the morbid game of lying down next to one another, pretending to be in their graves. Time, it seems, rendered their curious form of play into a reality.
While Dorothy occupies a quiet position in the poem "Tintern Abbey," in life, she was a woman of words. In her poem, "Thoughts on my Sickbed," composed in 1831, Dorothy expressively replies to "Tintern," across the space of thirty-three years, and makes clear her deeply-felt attachment to her brother and the impact of his words:
No prisoner in this lonely room,
I saw the green banks of the Wye
Recalling thy prophetic words--
Bard, brother, friend from infancy!
No need of motion or of strength
Or even breathing air,
I thought of nature's loveliest scenes,
And with memory I was there. (45-52)
Alexander, Meena. "Dorothy Wordsworth: the Grounds of Writing." Women's Studies. 14 (1988): 195-210. Academic Search Premier. Online. 12 Oct. 2007.
Cavendish, Richard. "Death of Dorothy Wordsworth." History Today. 55.1 (2005): 55. Academic Search Premier. Online. 13 Oct. 2007.
Liukkonen, Petri. "Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855)." Books and Writers. 2004. Pegasos. Online. Internet. 12 Oct. 2007. < http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/dwordsw.htm>
6. The Harp and the Listening Ear: The Role of the Listener in "Tintern Abbey" and "The Eolian Harp"
Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem, "The Eolian Harp," written in 1795, has many connections with William Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," which was composed three years later. Both poems are "spoken" to a feminine ear: in the case of "Tintern," Wordsworth's younger sister Dorothy, and in "The Eolian Harp," Coleridge's new love, Sara Fricker. Both poems are also suggestive of the poet's mystical relation to nature, and to the energy that "rolls through all things" ('Tintern," 103) invoking a spiritual connection between nature and art. However, the poems are framed differently, with the figures of the women occupying different roles in relation to the poets. Dorothy is represented as the pupil of her elder brother, learning from him his philosophy of nature. His poetic outburst stems from his desire to imbue her with the same ardent love of nature that has given him "life and food" (65) throughout his years. In Coleridge's poem, Sara appears to have a more active role in the shaping of the work.
If we are to read "The Eolian Harp" as a pure "effusion" of poetic impulse, then we must interpret Sara as affecting the poem's outcome. It is Sara who offers the "serious eye a mild reproof" (41) which alters the direction of Coleridge's thoughts. Thus, it appears that she has some degree of "control" over the poem and its shape. However, like Wordsworth's poem, "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, 13 July 1798," "The Eolian Harp" was most likely not written in a single moment of divine inspiration, despite what its original title, "Effusion XXXV," would suggest. Sara, the "meek daughter in the family of Christ" (45), has the power to rein her poet/lover back in, "bidding [him] walk humbly with…God" (44). She is the occasion for the poem, inspiring Coleridge to translate his feelings of love for her into poetry. Even as he further translates the initial poetic "effusion" into a final, written version, she remains the poem's centre of gravity. She is not "edited out" of the final work; Coleridge changes (or at the least, mitigates) his opinions for Sara's sake.
In the first part of the poem, Coleridge likens the poet's mind to the wind harp, by asking:
… what if all of animated nature
Be but organic harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the soul of each, and God of all? (36-40)
He suggests that divine inspiration turns living beings into "harps"; the poet, too, is an instrument through which God's music is played. He seems, in this passage, to "see into the life of things" ("Tintern," 49). It is Sara who pulls him back to "reality," and he apologizes for his thoughts, categorizing them as only the "shapings of [an] unregenerate mind,/ Bubbles that glitter as they rise and break/ On vain philosophy's aye-babbling spring" (47-49). His initial position, however, suggests that he, like Wordsworth, is cognizant of a "oneness" in all things, through which inner peace, "tranquility" (30), is achieved. Wordsworth has no need of dissension in his work, unlike Coleridge, perhaps suggesting that Wordsworth is more sure of his interpretation of nature's spiritual force. Dorothy (if we can read her silence as agreement), accepts her brother's words as truth, whereas Sara adds an element of uncertainty to her lover's expression.
7. The Sublimated Eye: Comparisons Between Wordsworth and the Gothic Sublime
What interested me most while reading Raymond's account of his travels through the Pyrenees were the intersections Raymond finds between nature and morality -- something akin to Wordsworth's concerns in "Tintern Abbey." Raymond, in his account, makes mention several times of the perceived peacefulness of the shepherds, and other local people of the mountains. He writes of the "elevated train of ideas [which] are here discernible in the language of the shepherd, whose appearance would bespeak him the most gross of men" (Raymond 64, emphasis added), perhaps sharing in the romantic view of country-dwellers Wordsworth expresses in "Tintern," through his description of the "pastoral farms/ Green to the very door" (17-18) and his whimsical attention to the "vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods" (21). Both writers seem to recognize that those who live an existence close to Nature share in the "secret and indefinable intelligence" (Raymond 113) that it teaches. Even though Raymond recognizes the "romantic" (64) nature of the happiness he describes in the shepherds, it is something that he senses that flows from the land itself, nourishing the soul.
Both Raymond and Wordsworth seem to suggest that an attachment to nature can help to guide a man through life by building a man's "sacred defense -- his character" (Raymond 117). Wordsworth demonstrates how one's moral being, or character, is fed by the memories of nature:
These forms of beauty have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye;
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration (24-31)
The phrases "felt along the heart" and "my purer mind," demonstrate that there is more at work between nature and the eye than ephemeral, visual pleasure. In fact, it is a rejection of the picturesque, for it hints at the importance of a more substantial pleasure -- the pleasure of a tranquil soul -- which is "unborrowed from the eye" (84). The visual sense is merely a gateway to the calm Raymond describes feeling atop the mountain: "that vague content, that lightness of body, that agility of limb, and that serenity of mind, which are all so sweet to experience, but so difficult to paint" (Raymond 54). Perhaps this difficulty arises from the disjunct between the mind and the eye -- how to explain the bridge between what the eye sees and the mind experiences?
The power of the visual to calm the soul is revisited in images of the Gothic sublime. In chapter five of Anne Radcliffe's The Italian, for instance, Ellena describes how, in the face of her troubles, she "found temporary, though feeble, relief in once more looking upon the face of nature." Her character, too, is strengthened by what the eye sees in nature. However, Radcliffe also employs nature as a narrative tool to reflect her heroine's internal state. Ellena thinks:
"If I am condemned to misery, surely I could endure it with more fortitude in scenes like these, than amidst the tamer landscapes of nature! Here, the objects seem to impart somewhat of their own force, their own sublimity, to the soul. It is scarcely possible to yield to the pressure of misfortune while we walk, as with the Deity, amidst his most stupendous works!"
For Ellena, the natural is a scene of divinely ordered chaos, which has the power to inspire "fortitude" in the troubled soul. This is indeed a similar sentiment to that described by Raymond and Wordsworth, who sense something akin to a spiritual experience through the force that "rolls through all things" (103). The "sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused" (96-97) is a feeling whose pursuers find in the natural world, an energy which literally inspires, breathing the spirit of the world into one's thoughts, which by this force are "elevated" (96).
8. On the Same Banks: Contrasting Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" with Thelwall's "On the Banks of the Wye"
John Thelwall's poem "Effusion III: On the Banks of the Wye," composed in 1800, appears very much to be in dialogue with Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," written two years earlier and set in approximately the same geographic location. The two poems, while very different in tone, are both intimately connected to the natural world, and both poets draw from the sound of the river's rushing waters to propel their words. The two poets had met in 1797, a year before Wordsworth wrote "Tintern," and a year before the death of Thelwall's daughter, which was the sad inspiration of his poem. They would certainly have had much in common, as both were supporters of the Jacobin political movement that sparked the French revolution, and both were disapproving of England's subsequent declaration of war on France. Of course, Thelwall's political activism had previously seen him imprisoned for seven months, and even during his visit to the Wordsworths in Alfoxden, he was under scrutiny from government spies. Having associated with this controversial man unfortunately resulted in the Wordsworths losing the lease on their property (Zanzucchi).
Nonetheless, it appears that Wordsworth left an impression on Thelwall, and while there is no immediate evidence that Thelwall read Wordsworth's work, there are striking similarities in the two poems that strongly suggest he may have. Firstly, Thelwall's title itself calls attention to the locale Wordsworth's extended title identifies, with the addition of the word "revisiting" in Wordsworth's case. Thelwall begins his poem with a mournful catalogue of the natural elements he sees, noting the wildness of the landscape and referring to it as a "tangled maze" (3). This is reminiscent of Wordsworth's description of the hedgerows, or "lines/ Of sportive wood run wild" (16-17). However, Thelwall warns us that his project is a different one; he is not responding with "the Poet's glance,/ Noting [nature's] wild varieties" (Effusion, 6-7). Wordsworth's romantic description of the countryside is in stark contrast to the sights we see through Thelwall's eyes, "Dim with their griefs" (9). If "Tintern Abbey" indeed draws from the picturesque in its interpretation of nature, then Thelwall makes it clear that in his vision, he will receive no joy "from tint or varied line" (9).
Thelwall, too, calls attention to the "Rocks, and falls" (10) which Wordsworth makes reference to in his "steep and lofty cliffs" (5), "the sounding cataract" and "the tall rock/ The mountain" (77-79). The two poets are certainly sharing a similar view, perhaps looking upon the very same scene. Thelwall's "hills/ Of fearful height" (12-13) however, are overshadowed by his own pain. He writes:
…what to me
Are all your varied forms? --Ah! what the charm
Of beauteous and sublime? --the scenes that nurse
Romantic vision, or invite the skill
Of imitative effort? (14-18)
His use of the phrase "imitative effort" suggests that his poem is indeed in dialogue with other poetry. He is aware, perhaps, that this locale is experienced by other poets as a place which imbues
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration. (Tintern, 29-31)
Perhaps he even sought out this particular site in the hopes that it could relieve "the grief-swoln bosom" (20) and give peace to his "troubled soul" (21). Perhaps he hoped that his troubled soul might be transformed, lifted of "the heavy and the weary weight/ Of all this unintelligible world" (Tintern 40-41). His sadness, however, is not relieved. His mind is continuously drawn back to "the trusted grave" (25) -- a stern reminder of human mortality which contrasts with Wordsworth's vision of the body which is "laid asleep" and becomes "a living soul" (Tintern 46-47). The "white-thorn" (25) Thelwall pictures covering his daughter's grave is a symbol of the natural world, but it is a plant that stings the flesh with its sharp edges, drawing "human blood" (Tintern 45) from living veins. The "burden of the mystery" (Tintern 39) is a heavy one, which saps Thelwall of hope, and stills any possible enjoyment of Nature's beauty.
Finally, there seems to be an echo of Wordsworth's address to Dorothy in Thelwall's pitiful apostrophe to his absent daughter. He repeats Maria's name -- "Maria! -- Oh! Maria!" (28) -- in a similar fashion to Wordsworth's call to Dorothy -- "my dearest friend, /My dear, dear friend" (116-117). Wordsworth, however, hopes that Dorothy will preserve her memories, to later recall the "quietness and beauty" (128) she has witnessed. Thelwall has only his memories of his lost daughter. He cannot urge Maria to hold onto "fond memorial[s]" (35) of nature, as Wordsworth can so urge his sister. In the end, Maria's memory has more power than any sounding cataract can compete with. Nature's voice, through "Woods, waves and rocks repeat[s] Maria's name" (48).
Zanzucchi, Anne. "John Thelwall." The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester. Online.
9. Reading Response: "Romantic literary theory"
Poor Wordsworth! I feel a bit mean for wanting to pounce on him for his romantically-conceived vision of the "low and rustic life" of the peasant. I understand that his project is not ill-intentioned, and I know he truly believes that rural life is "a better soil" for the "essential passions of the heart" that he so longs to capture, but really! How can one say that the language of the peasant has "lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust"? (Wordsworth, if you were planning on having your poems distributed to the lower classes by travelling merchants as Dr. Miall described, then you had better not include this introduction in the volume that you circulate! It makes my twenty-first-century self uncomfortable. However, I will attempt to forgive you your lack of political correctness, as you were unfortunately unaware of the concept.)
I do nonetheless appreciate what Wordsworth is attempting to undertake by rejecting the school of poets who "furnish food for fickle tastes and fickle appetites of their own creation." It signals his desire to shift away from an elevated style of poetry which separates the reader from the object being contemplated, and instead engage in poetry that brings the reader towards a more organic understanding of the poet's perception. He recognizes that poetry, when it captures "the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement," can pass on the energy and excitement of discovery to the minds of its readers. Poetry, in Wordsworth's definition, is no longer a style elevated for its own sake, but exists because it can capture the leaps of the mind, when thought races like a roe through the woods.
"Tintern Abbey" is a fitting example of such poetry; I imagine Wordsworth sitting beneath the sycamore, thinking the "thought" that the poem expresses. It is a single thought (the impact of the natural scene on his mind and soul), but richly layered with other thoughts -- Dorothy, Annette, his child, the Revolution, war, and everything in between. Had Wordsworth attempted to communicate this web of thought through prose, the result might feel too measured, too composed. "Tintern Abbey," however, feels like the flash of insight that the romantic poet promises. His expression of it is neither "trivial" nor "mean" -- the poem traces the pattern of its author's thoughts, translating an "ordinary" thing (the peacefulness of nature) into a shared sensation of transcendence. It is, as Coleridge describes in Biographia Literaria, a "magical power" that resists definition.
1. In-Class Reflection on the Reading of "Tintern Abbey"
After reflecting on my in-class response to the reading of "Tintern Abbey," I realize the implicit question I was asking is "what is nature?" or more precisely, how does Wordsworth define nature in this particular poem. As the poem attends more to the speaker's sensory experience and less to specific (bio)regional details (where, for instance, especially as he emphasizes the sound of nature, are the birds (magpies and house sparrows) in this poem?), this seems a poem more about the emotionally transformative moments that nature evokes. For example, the speaker observes, that through a "language of sense" nature "informs the mind" with "purer thoughts." Nature restores tranquility; nature is variously "the nurse, / The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul / Of all my moral being" (110-112). Even though the poem's title directs the reader to a specific geographic location, combine the speaker's meditation on nature's role with the poem's descriptive imagery, which maintains an "everywhere" generic scene -- the "hedgerows, little lines of sportive wood run wild," (16-17), though common to the Wye region, could easily be imagined as other river valleys throughout northern England -- and a sense of the poem as a guide to improving the human condition emerges.
In other words, the speaker's emphasis on human emotion and interaction with a readily recognizable natural environment cultivates an empathetic and sympathetic model of being in the world. With his back turned and his ears closed to the sights and the sounds of poor peasants working in the fields, the industry, and logged riverbanks of the valley, he seems to be offering a way to achieve momentary respite or solace: dwell on the region's beauty, as well. This idea of momentary respite or transformative power, indeed, is apparent in his repeated allusions to the memory of nature's beauty in moments of weariness (26-49; 50-66; 90-112; 117-121). But, what problematizes this picture of nature is the nostalgic and romanticized idealization of the natural world. There are no discordant scrawks from magpies pecking at sheep and cow dung, which probably littered the side of the river Wye -- but then who wants to read a poem about sheep and cow dung when life, at times, seemed a bit too immersed in the stinky stuff.
2. Assignment 1: The roe in "Tintern Abbey"
My choice of subject for this assignment is specification -- specifically one of the only two named species in the poem: roe.
My particular focus stems largely from my reader response revision last class, which essentially asks how Wordsworth defines 'nature.' I note that he creates an "everywhere" landscape, one that is barren of specificity (again, by specificity I mean direct naming of particular flora or fauna -- how I could have overlooked the Sycamore is probably from the blindness of seeking one tangent of thought at the exclusion of other details). Despite this being a poem that is so much of sound and sight and situated where the cataract is a "murmur," what struck me was the lack of bird song. In Britain, where much of the megafauna (bears, elk, and wolves) at this time were rare or had been hunted to extinction, you would tend to notice the most immediate existing wildlife, particularly ones that engage with more than one of our senses: birds. This noticeable absence in a poem that stresses sound and sight, made me look for birds at the expense of other species. Subsequent readings, I noticed sycamore and roe.
I observed in my revision that Wordsworth sketches an "everywhere" natural environment, I suggest that his suppression of specific detail for generalized description creates a prescriptive poem; his "everywhere" landscape offers the reader a way in which to envision or take notice of similar natural environments, and by extension his vision of human community, within their own backyards. Particularly, as he bookends both generalized descriptions of the landscape and his transformative self-reflections within the context of an unstable political climate (alluded by July 13, 1798) between a title that situates the poem in a specific geographical locale on the River Wye and a familial relationship between brother and sister. Such a formal strategy encapsulates global issues within local environments (specific locale and immediate family).
Thus, I want to suggest that "Tintern Abbey" may be read as employing the aestheticization of local natural environments as a possible remedy or solution to a global problem of "The still sad music of humanity" (92). The poem is both an "everywhere" poem and a poem located in a specific location-identified by the title, by specific geographical markers, as David Miall's trek along the Wye Valley and his discussion of hedgerows demonstrates. So, while proffering a "universal" aesthetic and sensory model of interaction in the world that also could be applied equally to the Peak District or the Lake District, he presents a politicized poem that comments on a specific area within Britain. I consider whether the natural history of sycamore and roe, might further root Wordsworth poem in a specific location: one through the possibility of an alien (introduced) tree and the other through the absence of an extinct/rare animal -- an animal that is associated with a nostalgic reminiscence of past youthful pleasures and "animal movements."
I focus on lines 59 to 76:
And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought, With many recognitions dim and faint 60 And somewhat of a sad perplexity, The picture of the mind revives again; While here I stand, not only with the sense Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts That in this moment there is life and food 65 For future years. And so I dare to hope, Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first I came among these hills, when like a roe I bounded o'er the mountains by the sides Of the deep rivers and the lonely streams 70 Wherever nature led, more like a man Flying from something that he dreads than one Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then (The coarser pleasures of my boyish days And their glad animal movements all gone by) 75 To me was all in all.
Roe (Capreolus capraea) is a small deer with white rumps, black muzzle and "moustache," and white chin. Their coat varies from sandy to reddish-brown, and sometimes black. The males sport vertical, spiral, and single -- to three-pointed antlers of about 25cm in length. Their preferred habitat is woodland, particularly woodlands that abut grass or farmland. Both sexes are solitary animals and highly territorial. The species ranges across parts of Europe and Britain. During the 18th century roe deer became extinct in most of England, and were later reintroduced into England in the 19th C. Their range is, according to the Mammal Society, spreading to Wales. In the Wye Valley, in particular, Symonds Yat, The England Forestry Commission's website mentions the presence of fallow deer but not roe, which could suggest the possibility that two species avoid sharing habitats or that the roe may have once had a foothold in the area but was hunted to extinction and the fallow deer took its place. So, how does this information bear on the poem "Tintern Abbey"?
With what we know of the roe's natural history and its rarity during Wordsworth's time, would his specific allusion resonate with contemporary readers? Would the animal's rarity/extinction add to how the reader understands the poem? Wordsworth compares his youthful emotional engagement with the natural world by likening himself to a species that all but with the exception of a couple of places in Britain during the 18th century had disappeared. What are the implications of comparing oneself to a species not of this particular region? Or is this comparison merely coincidental, poetic fancy? For instance, as there is no end-rhyme scheme to this poem, the use of roe does not necessitate a formal use (for example, he needed a wild animal that rhymed with "first" or "hope" -- though it does echo internal rhymes of "hope"(66) "o'er" (69) and "lonely"(70). And, if we correlate the internal rhyme roe with the preposition o'er Wordsworth presents a youth that passes over a landscape rather than interacts with the landscape. The latter preposition positions the subject as part of the landscape rather than as a subject that interacts with his surrounding environment, a person who moves mindlessly over terrain like an animal. Note, too, that in this instance he uses a simile not a metaphor. He sees his younger self as represented by the movement of a roe, but does not identify himself as 'roe.' This identification is further supported a few lines later when he describes his youthful feelings as expressed by "their glad animal movements" (75). Furthermore, the roe, as solitary animal further emphasizes (or possibly foreshadows) the speaker's shift from solitary figure in a mountainous environment isolated from humanity to accompanied figure in a landscape marked by human habitation (smoke, cottage, and hedgerows).
If we agree with William Richey, because of Dorothy's presence, this is a poem that through the seeming stability of nature ( to quote Richey), "Rather than acquiring wisdom through the exertions of his individual mind, Wordsworth had regained his mental bearing through his relationship with his "dear, dear Sister" and the reciprocal sympathy they share" (210). Communal, not solitary, experience of nature -- though self-reflection is a part of the experience, self-reflection is contingent upon recognizing similar sensibilities in others that will redirect the individual to sympathize with human concerns. As Adam Smith claims in Of Propriety:
The mind, therefore, is rarely so disturbed, but that the company of a friend will restore it to some degree of tranquility and sedateness. The breast is, in some measure, calmed and composed the moment we come into his presence. We are immediately put in mind of the light in which he will view our situation, and we begin to view it ourselves in the same light; for the effect of sympathy is instantaneous […] Society and conversation, therefore, are the most powerful remedies for restoring the mind to its tranquility, if, at any time, it has unfortunately lost it; as well as the best preservatives of that equal and happy temper, which is so necessary to self-satisfaction and enjoyment. (22-23)
And, nature serves as a stable framework (rather than the unpredictable political models) through which to channel and restore tranquility, and Wordsworth's inclusion of Dorothy in the poem demonstrates, perhaps, a wider longing, as Janet Todd claims, "for a community firmly linked by sentiment and familial structures"(16). Yet, as Richey points out, though Dorothy provides company she does not converse in this poem; instead, Wordsworth transfers his own dialogue onto Dorothy. He sees in Dorothy's youth and reaction to the beauty of nature a reflection of his youth and "dizzy raptures"(86), and so depicts Dorothy as animal-like with her "wild eyes" (120).
I want to end, with a questionable comment. I'm curious as to the fact that he does not associate Dorothy with a particular species -- but only something "wild" -- and want to suggest perhaps, that this leaves room for another reading of Dorothy in the poem, one of generational "hope." Her "wild eyes" are not those of a rare or extinct species, but present the potential of being any wild creature that a reader wishes to associate her with, be it based on familiarity (fallow deer, hedgehog, or red-tail hawk); thus, the speaker leaves it open to be an expression of "wildness" specific to an "everywhere" location, yet distinctly local as the imagination may perceive it. By associating his past self with a rare/extinct species he evokes the nostalgia of something lost, perhaps irrevocably, and by not associating Dorothy with a roe, he proposes a way of existing that yet might be preserved.
Todd, Janet. Sensibility: An Introduction. NY: Methuen, 1986.
Smith, Adam. "Of the Propriety of Action Consisting in Three Sections." I.i.iv. The Theory of the Moral Sentiments. Adam Smith Institute 2001. Accessed 13 Sept. 2007 http://www.adamsmith.org/smith/tms/tms-p1-s1-c4.htm
Ryedale Natural History Society 2001. http://www.ryenats.org.uk/mammal01.htm
"Science and Nature: Animals" BBC Online. Roe deer Capreolus capreolus http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/wildfacts/factfiles/200.shtml
The Mammal Society. Fact Sheet: The Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus http://www.abdn.ac.uk/mammal/roe_deer.shtml
England Forestry Commission. Wildlife at Symonds Yat Rock. http://www.forestry.gov.uk/website/wildwoods.nsf/LUWebDocsByKey/EnglandGloucestershireWyeValleyWyeValleyWoodsSymondsYatRock
3. Ways in which history impacts on "Tintern Abbey"
The emphases on nature's transformative capacities and the picturesque in "Tintern Abbey" suggest a historical shift in philosophical thinking from reason to feeling as a means of acquiring knowledge. The historical implication of the picturesque in "Tintern Abbey" provides a purview of the concurrent growing influence of natural history during the 18th century.
Wordsworth sketches a landscape as "hardly hedgerows," "sportive wood run wild," where "orchard-tufts," "lose themselves" among the "woods, and copses (11-13)." Wordsworth's depiction of nature rejects the orderly, contained nature praised in the neo-classical tradition, a tradition where gardens were organized on formal architectural lines and where, according to Eugene Hargrove, "plants had been regarded as indifferent blobs of matter to be shaped into whatever forms the gardeners chose, and attention was directed towards these artificial and indeed superficial shapes and not toward the actual properties of the plants themselves" (author's emphasis 31).* Despite the mention of sycamore and roe, Wordsworth offers no detailed natural history of the Wye River Valley.
Yet, the "looseness" of nature in "Tintern Abbey," however, parallels Hargrove's observation that as botanical knowledge grew and gained public interest -- especially as exploration brought exotic flora back to Europe -- the aesthetic of nature shifted. As these new plants were introduced, gardeners "accepted new and wilder standards of beauty […and] the visitor to the garden no longer admired the formal geometrical patterns that plants formed as a group" (Hargrove 30). Gardens shifted from designs that inspired rationale contemplation to ones that evoked sensory and imaginative responses. Moreover, this move away from the formal design of gardens to a more relaxed design and an emphasis on particular species invited a growing interest in natural environments outside of garden walls-to unstable environments where the senses became susceptible to discomfitting or exhilarating unpredictable encounters. These new experiences and encounters invested the natural world with new value and spilled back over the garden walls into home libraries and paintings. Sensory experience complemented by scientific knowledge and a new aesthetic sensibility, particularly one more relaxed than the terror and awe inspiring sublime aesthetic, gave the individual more latitude for a wider range of emotional play and contemplation. Perhaps, what pronounces this loosening of philosophical frameworks is the poem's form itself: free verse, irregular line lengths, and plain diction, as opposed to the restrained rhyme and metre created by poets like Dryden or Pope.
*Note. For examples of neo-classical gardens go to Dr. Lisa Moore's site The Sister Arts: British Gardening, Painting, and Poetry http://www.en.utexas.edu/Classes/Moore/neoclassical/neoGardIndex.htm. Unfortunately, the link to Romantic gardens is not working.
Hargrove, Eugene C. "The Historical Foundations of American Environmental Attitudes." 29-48. Beauty to Duty: From Aesthetics of Nature to Environmentalism. Eds., Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott. NY: Columbia UP, forthcoming 2007).
4. Assignment #2: The Picturesque. Sycamore: A Resistance
"Tintern Abbey" seems to promise sublime experience, as readers walk into a scene of "steep and lofty cliffs" (5). Yet, Wordsworth subverts this expectation by settling in "repose / […] under this dark sycamore" (10) and looking out again upon a pastoral landscape of "plots of cottage-ground, […and] orchard-tufts" (11), which expands to take in hedgerows, smoke wisps and woodlands of "green and simple hue" (14): a muted scene compared to the Sublime. These images, too, on some level, defy the picturesque as defined by William Gilpin and Uvedale Price. As Wordsworth returns to this country (a scene also held and cherished in memory) the novelty lies not in the encounter with a new place, as Gilpin suggests is one of the "amusements" of the picturesque, but the novelty emerges in a new reaction to a familiar scene. Perhaps, a key moment that signals this shift in "Tintern Abbey" begins with a sycamore tree.
By situating his meditative repose under the dark sycamore, I propose, Wordsworth alludes to Gilpin's emphasis of the sycamore's impenetrable shade in order to further subvert the notion of both the aesthetics of the sublime and the picturesque. He deliberately sets the reader in those opening lines to expect a sublime "wild secluded scene," and then thwarts such expectation by seeing through that "impenetrable shade" to a landscape bright with colour and light and occupied by its marks of human habitation (pastures, cottages, and hedgerows). The vacillating shift between dark thought and cityscape and uplifting emotion and edifying landscape, Wordsworth's choice of an inelegant tree, as the site of revelation and catharsis challenges the premise of static features of natural beauty as being the only means of achieving divine inspiration or inner-revelation.
Examining the sycamore Gilpin declares
The great maple, commonly called the sycamore, is a grander, and nobler tree than the smaller maple; but it wants its elegance: it is coarse in proportion to its bulk. It forms however an impenetrable shade; and often receives well-contrasted masses of light. Its bark has not the furrowed roughness of the oak; but it has a species of roughness very picturesque. In itself, it is smooth: but it peels off in large flakes, like the planes, (to which in other respects, it bears a near alliance) leaving patches of different hues, seams, and cracks, which are often picturesque. (465)
Note that he concentrates on the detail of the tree-its texture, colour, and the contrast of shading and light. This tree specimen is "coarse in proportion to its bulk," and so lacks the refinement of a species such as the oak. Yet, with its "impenetrable shade" and bulky form, the tree would make an ideal "accompaniment" "in the corner of a landscape" (Gilpin 453).
In "Tintern Abbey," Wordsworth chooses the sycamore, a tree slow to mature, as his shady retreat, not the oak or elm, which John Thelwall and William Coxe observe in their writings about the Wye. Wordsworth avoids describing the tree in specific detail; he does not elaborate on its form, texture or hue. Furthermore, if readers think in Gilpin's terms of impenetrability in relation to the sycamore, what does this do to Wordsworth's sketch of the Wye Valley? Is there any significance to leaving the sycamore to the imagination, rather than paint the texture, hue, and balance of the tree-requirements, according to Gilpin, that qualify a tree as picturesque (452)?
Wordsworth's observation in "Tintern Abbey," "I again repose / Here, under this dark sycamore, and view" (9-10) the scene in front of him intimates the ruckenfigur commonly found in paintings of the sublime or picturesque. The figure stands on a precipice or edge of an unfolding scene, his back presented to the viewer, usually centre-frame or noticeably in the foreground (for instance, in Caspar David Friedrich's oil painting "The wanderer above the mist" (1817-18)*). The position and line of the rueckenfiguren directs the viewer's gaze to the object of contemplation, and in so directing the viewer, indicates how to appropriately view the scene. Wordsworth positions the speaker in a similar meditative pose overlooking the countryside, his back to the reader. However, in repose "under a dark sycamore," he becomes somewhat invisible to the viewer as he sits in darkness or shadow. The only thing that reminds readers of his presence is his self-reflection, which in a way diverts readers from a descriptive "everywhere" landscape to a specific mindscape.
When he returns readers to the countryside, he does not direct readers' attention to one particular object. His line of vision does not remain static, like a painting, but roams the landscape, moves from pasture to hedgerow to cottage, to sky, and to orchards, never settling long on one location. Though, arguably his moving gaze alights on images made static or picturesque through language, I believe that Wordsworth intimates something more than mere representation. And, as his gaze rambles over the terrain his subsequent roving reflection, which meanders, as the mind will through various mental terrains of memory, immediacy, and future prospects, defies the notion of fixity of thought or ideas. By emphasizing attention on multiple scenes and emotional experience rather than a fixed point in nature or thought, he questions the assumptions of an overarching and static scene as sole means to attain self-transformation through nature.
*Note. Though, Friedrich's painting appears many years after "Tintern Abbey," the ruckenfigur provides a useful model for the lone figure standing in the face of nature. And, the fact that Dorothy is actually there beside him further supports the notion of communal experience in nature, rather than a solo experience.
Gilpin, William. "Forest Scenery and Scenes of New-Forest in Hampshire." The Picturesque: Literary Sources and Documents, Volume 1: The Idea of the Picturesque and the Vogue for Scenic Tourism. Ed., Malcolm Andrews. Mountfield: Helm Information, 1994. Excerpts taken from Remarks on Forest Scenery, and Other Woodland Views (Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty) Illustrated by the Scenes of New-Forest in Hampshire (1791) by William Gilpin.
5. Revisiting Wordsworth's Resistance
I want to both reiterate and revise some of my thoughts from last week's writing response. Primarily motivated by objection to my perception of the Gilpin's depiction of the picturesque as a static and misappropriate representation of the natural environment, I want to revisit my earlier arguments and see whether my thoughts have since changed. Since reading David Miall's "Locating Wordsworth: "Tintern Abbey" and the Community of Nature," I am more rooted in my initial reading that Wordsworth moves beyond the perimeters of the picturesque set up by Gilpin. The loco-descriptive or topographical narrative might be the method for expanding Wordsworth's alternating between landscape and mindscape as a method for destabilizing Gilpin's formation of the picturesque. However, that will be a subject for next week's writing assignment. First, I want to clarify why I believe Gilpin's picturesque model remains static, but not Wordsworth's depiction of nature in "Tintern Abbey," as some colleagues might have been led to believe.
My problem with Gilpin's picturesque model is that he maps an art aesthetic onto a natural environment. Landscape thus becomes analogous to a painting. As Karl Kroeber claims, and many aestheticians of art and nature concur, ""[i]n discussing the picturesque […] one must speak of both art and nature, because the term refers to a relation between them. The emergence of the concept of the picturesque indicates something new in aesthetic consciousness [as opposed to the sublime or beauty], a disposition to conceive of both the natural and the artificial less as absolute than as terms of an interactive relation" (5). Gilpin's articulation of the picturesque demonstrates this softening of boundaries between nature and art. He emphasizes that the principles of the picturesque may be applied to art: "the picturesque eye is not merely restricted to nature. It ranges through the limits of art" (2). Applying an aesthetic appreciation of nature onto art does blur the distinction between landscape and art appreciation, however there are inherent problems with these approaches.
On the one hand, according to Gilpin, when one examines landscape paintings, sculpture or gardens, one may assess the accuracy of the artist's creation against what one perceives in a natural scene-correct formal attributes, truthful representation. However, the problem lies insofar as Gilpin allows for imaginative alterations of scenes. So if the painting accords with Gilpin's principles of scenic beauty, regardless of whether the artifact fails to render a true likeness of the natural object or depict true natural properties of a scene (nature as itself), then the artwork remains acceptable. On the other hand, Gilpin's guidelines attribute limits to nature. To apply an art aesthetic onto a natural environment, the picturesque view is restricted by the limits of art aesthetic. The problems with his conception is that first, paintings are two dimensional, whereas nature is three dimensional; second, if one argues that an art aesthetic may encompass three dimensional sculptural forms then one does not consider that statuary-human-made objects-unlike nature, are not subject to biological and environmental flux. A sculpture and garden may erode through natural processes, but these pieces can always be replicated or rebuilt-nature, in contrast, may not be so fortunate. A tree's form may resemble sculptural properties, but bark splits, limbs snap off, roots rot, and parasites, wind, and ice storms deform. Further, the imaginative re-sculpting and re-sketching of nature that Gilpin endorses does not allow nature to be appreciated for itself. To look upon nature with design-with a license to improving to "amend the composition," (Gilpin 3)-evinces an aesthetic experience not of nature, but an aesthetic experience of art. The picturesque, as Yuriko Saito observes, leads humans "to regard nature as a series of scenes" (238), and to seek out what is "scenically interesting and beautiful" in nature (238). Or, in Kroeber's words, induces what the appreciator perceives as largely predetermined by art (8). Indeed, Gilpin's mapping of an art aesthetic onto nature and urging the viewer to imaginatively alter the environment schools the viewer in such a manner. For example, he urges the viewer to use the imagination to "[represent] scenes of fancy" rather than as a camera obscura that "represents objects as they really are" (3).
Gilpin claims that the study of nature cultivates a more critical eye of representations of art, insofar as the "[i]dea of the great original is so strong, that the copy must be pure" (4) to hold artistic merit. However, Gilpin remains vague about what he means by the study of nature. If readers go by his essay on the picturesque then nature study encompasses formal appreciation. A continued study of formal properties would consist of viewing and sketching as many scenes as possible (as Lady Catherine De Bourgh insists, "no excellence […] is to be acquired without constant practice" (154)) with an aim for quantitative appreciation rather than qualitative appreciation-trophy collecting, to paraphrase Aldo Leopold. "The lusus naturae is the naturalist's province, not the painter's" (1), Gilpin proclaims. From this quote, one senses that natural history provides the viewer only with knowledge about a "curious" or "fantastic form," but adds nothing to the aesthetic experience of nature, as "we cannot admire it merely for the sake of its curiosity" (1). In other words, the naturalist's knowledge counts for very little in aesthetic appreciation of nature.
Gilpin's Remarks on Forestry Scenery, and other Woodland Views appears to provide a more enriched study of nature: Gilpin expresses concessions whereby formal observation also entails some acknowledgement of naturalist knowledge. For example, he observes that though unnatural trees (lopped or manipulated) "displease" (451), so too do natural trees "when they bear a resemblance to art […] unless the tree's "forms are characteristic of the species" (452). In this regard, nature study would seem to encompass being aware of a natural objects biological characteristics. Gilpin illustrates his point by comparing the conic form of the cypress tree to the absurdity of shaping an oak or elm in a similar form. Furthermore, Gilpin stresses variety found in nature, how "every landscape indeed hath something peculiar to itself, which disposes it more or less to receive the incidents of light, and weather in some peculiar manner" (497). He has observed how a scene "in less than an hour, […] the whole picture [took] under a dozen different forms" (497). However, these illustrations still situate nature within a static model of aesthetic appreciation. Variety for Gilpin means formal variety, thus diversity in nature is analogous to diversity of art forms. As well, the naturalist's concerns, such as how a tree is formed or deformed, do not necessarily play into Gilpin's sense of aesthetics because the environmental degradation the "naturalist bemoans with so much feeling, are often capital sources of picturesque beauty, both in the wild scenes of nature, and in artificial landscapes" (452-453). An anthropocentric aesthetic that focuses primarily on face value rather than on an appreciation of the object located in its own chaotic or orderly natural processes and environment (in situ), and one that allows for altering that natural object or scene just because it does not please the eye, is a static model of appreciation, for ultimately it denies nature the agency to be appreciated solely for itself.
Unlike Gilpin's picturesque, Wordsworth's landscape moves-shifts temporally and visually. Verbs and adjectives (he uses few adverbs) create a sense of a dynamic nature. In other words, Wordsworth moves beyond Gilpin's limitations of the picturesque by "languaging" and thinking through the natural world. By "languaging," I mean he uses language to evoke the prescriptive "-ness" of nature that a painting cannot attain, particularly one painted in the school of the picturesque. He galvanizes nature by his constant shifts between meditation on nature and place-based description of the Wye Valley. Even though Wordsworth's moves away from traditional picturesque conceptions of nature, which compartmentalizes the natural environment into framed scenes, the "idea of a whole" is still composed as a singular "comprehensive view" (3). Because of a human's limited field of perception, framing landscape is, to a degree, unavoidable. Further, humans naturally seek out form, contour, and beauty, and are drawn to vivid hues and effective lighting and shading in nature. Thus, commonly, people are more moved by a snowcapped mountain than they are by a grassy knoll, more by an ocean than by a bog.
But, to illustrate an example of "languaging" the landscape, of giving nature more agency than Gilpin is willing to offer, I look from the beginning of the third stanza to the beginning of the fourth stanza. Wordsworth sandwiches past experience, which he records in the past tense, between an active/present tense: the memory of nature "revives again"(64) as "here I stand"(65); his past is something Wordsworth claims, "I cannot paint / What then I was" (76-77). His use of a prepositional phrase in the present and active voice: "here I stand" sets up immediacy, a sense that is further underscored by the next verb, also a prepositional phrase: "That in this moment there is life and food" (66). The declarative coupled with the immediacy of an active, present tense imparts a dynamic nature; moreover, a living nature that reaches beyond its own material existence to root and thrive in memory, an entity that gives back much more than just pretty scenery. Further, as a demonstration of moving away from the effect of Gilpin's picturesque, Wordsworth sketches who he was (a memory that cannot take full form), the lively imagery of a bounding roe, as a passive existence within this dynamism (note too that the waterways are not moving; they are" deep" and "lonely"). His former way of appreciating nature is no longer tenable in his new recognition of nature as a field of reciprocity, knowledge that nature has agency. Thus, his past self (the extinct and picturesque roe) has no footing on this new ground.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Toronto: Thomas and Nelson, n.d.
Gilpin, William. "Forestry Scenery and Scenes of New-Forest in Hampshire." From Remarks on Forest Scenery, and other Woodland Views (1791) rptd in The Picturesque: Literary Sources and Documents, Volume I, The Idea of the Picturesque and the Vogue for Scenic Tourism, edited by Malcolm Andrews. Mountfield: Helm, 1994. 449-497.
---. "On Picturesque Beauty." From Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty. 2nd ed. 1794.
David Miall's Online Wordsworth and "Tintern Abbey." 3 January 1999. 15 Sept. 2007. http://www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/Tintern07/gilpine2.htm
Kroeber, Karl. Romantic Landscape Vision: Constable and Wordsworth. Madison: University of Wisconsin P, 1975.
Saito, Yuriko. "The Aesthetics of Unscenic Nature." Beauty to Duty: From Aesthetics To Nature to Environmentalism. Eds., Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott. NY: Columbia UP, forthcoming 2007.
Wordsworth, William. "Tintern Abbey." David Miall's Online Wordsworth and "Tintern Abbey. 3 January 1999. 7 September 2007. http://www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/ Tintern07/tintern.htm
6. The loco-descriptive poem
I want to expand on and apply to "Tintern Abbey" Rob Wood's observation that Coleridge's and Bowles's works "both refer, in the second person, to unremarkable natural formations. This form of address, which simultaneously speaks to and of its subject […] offer[s] a mode of representation which frees the poet from a list of acceptable topics and begins to consider both the deeply personal (without need for the poet to tie his or her work into any established pattern of response or inspiration) and the unapologetically quotidian."
Nature writings, particularly writings informed by naturalist knowledge, often tend to emphasize "unremarkable natural" objects. Such attention to the quotidian has the potential to defamiliarize the local, to make us re-examine our environment with "fresh eyes". Regular encounter of the quotidian encourages oversight; natural objects or places are passed by on a regular basis and do not invite notice or excite wonder. How many people can differentiate between native grasses or tell a house sparrow from a song sparrow? Natural history's attention to the particular, especially over a prolonged period of time, unearths, so to speak, the natural processes of not only the object of appreciation, but also its interactions/interrelations with other natural objects within its environment. In other words, focus on the particular provides insight into the comprehensive whole while not losing sight of the particular. Through a particular species we can learn about wider affiliations and relationships. A sycamore, for instance, becomes much more than a tree of "impenetrable darkness." Ecological function, life cycle, and even ethnobotanical uses endow the sycamore with a depth that moves beyond the formal to contemplate meaningful (and ethical) interrelations between human and non-human. Naturalists' observations and study may further provide analogues and connections to human beings' natural and cultural processes. Wordsworth's emphasis of Wye as symbolic of life, for instance, is such an illustration. When these processes are wed to a specific location suddenly the natural object takes on local prominence, a uniqueness of its own within a larger natural framework, so to speak. In other words, sycamore becomes more defined than just a tree.
"Tintern Abbey" exhibits certain attributes of the loco-descriptive poem; however, the poem also diverges from the tradition by avoiding mythic allusion and ornate language. Wordsworth's use of vernacular and simple diction shifts focus away from artifice to a richer contemplation of the connections between humans, language, and the natural world. His choice of plain language (as opposed to traditional loco-descriptive poetry) parallels the poem's emphasis on common subjects as an extension/heightening of readers' awareness for the potential poetics found in everyday language. He achieves such a turn by seeking out the mundane in nature and common speech and endows both with special significance: landscape transforms into a living and vivid nature. In addition, pastures abut cottage doors and hedgerows run rampant. In other words, with such imagery Wordsworth creates a sense of an animate nature, one that collapses the human/nature divide. This seemingly seamless merging of human and nature further underscores an ecological-like approach -- all things are connected. That these natural objects -- hedges, riverbanks, pastures, orchards, and cliffs -- are scenes from the everyday illustrate an awareness of, or attention to, the importance of local compositioning. And by local compositioning, I argue, that in a Wordsworthian sense humans are composed of their interactions with their immediate (or local) environments. I do not agree with Karl Kroeber's claim that Wordsworth "teaches us not to see things in a new way but to enjoy our customary way of seeing familiar sights" (32). Wordsworth's revisioning and recompositioning of the familiar (one could go so far as to say, perhaps "composting" memory of a known scene) does the opposite -- it makes readers see anew the familiar in new perceptual frameworks, and in the case of "Tintern Abbey," what twenty-first century readers would intimate as an ecological viewpoint. Seeing the everyday in new conceptual light, shape, or hue forces us to reassess our relationships with the natural world, to reendow them with more appreciative value.
7. Gilpin Revisited, Once Again
For this assignment I am responding two comments: Darrel Bargen's response to Rob Wood's comments about Gilpin (yes, I am still stuck on Gilpin). I am intrigued by Darrel's observation that Gilpin "derives his "archetypes" from nature itself and modif[ies] any rules accordingly." To a certain degree, I disagree. Gilpin may couch his conceptions of his archetypes in his observation of nature, however, his archetypes (or prototypes?) for the picturesque come from an art aesthetic. In other words, nature is analogous to art and not the other way around -- art is not analogous to nature. The problem with Gilpin's model is that it misleads with terms such as "nature's works." Art is a human creation, whereas nature has no designer. "Works" is a terminology applied to artistic endeavours, and his repeated use of the term serves to impart his art analogy. Furthermore, art aesthetics is predicated on artistic intention and categories and schools of art. Thus, if we were to appreciate an impressionist painting as if it were a cubist painting we could safely say that this is an inappropriate appraisal and appreciation of the object. Similarly, if we attempt to appreciate a mountain scene as if it were a mural we could say that this is an inappropriate appraisal and appreciation of the mountains. The mountains are not a two dimensional scene, no artist designed these mountains. To judge a mountain analogous to the principles of mural design -- as I have mentioned before -- removes agency from the natural environment. If one strips down Gilpin's criteria we see how he derives his views from art and not from nature. When pursuing the picturesque, he emphasizes that people, like painters (his "lusus naturae" comment implicitly allies the viewer with painters) must pay attention to correct and "incorrect" composition ("combination"), lights, shades, forms, the effects of weather ("aerial effects"/"atmosphere"), ornamental attributes, and lines. The picturesque entails "ingredients," generic variants of the landscape ("trees, rocks, broken-ground, woods, rivers, lakes, plains," etc.), much like the generic variants we use to distinguish between categories of art. We move from a broad concept to narrow focus down, which encompasses more technical aspects and appropriate forms of appraisal suited to those categories.
Particularly insofar as if one were to create an aesthetic of nature from nature, anatomical study and curiosities of nature (natural science) would be the main components of aesthetic appreciation. Consequently, such an appreciation (here I disagree with Rob Wood's sense that Gilpin proposes an ecological model) that acknowledges the natural processes, habits, and interactions with other species within its environment would, unlike Gilpin's picturesque, impart an ecological awareness. Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," as I have argued, moves beyond the picturesque by evincing such qualities. I agree with Jonathan Bate's observation that "[w]here the picturesque was under the tyranny of the eye, leading to the reductive enumeration into parts […] Wordsworth went in quest of the spirit of the whole" (149). Though Gilpin emphasizes we seek out "the exhibition of a whole" in the picturesque, "exhibition" suggests surface value -- that we look for comprehensive unity in the composition of the scene. And, when one examines Gilpin's criteria of what the parts of the whole comprise, a scene made up of diseased trees or degraded environment can still be picturesque if it fits his compositional requirements. In this regard, the whole is a superficial whole, not as Bate notes with Wordsworth's composition, "the spirit of the whole." The latter requires, as I mention in my last two responses, a naturalist's eye that goes beyond the form of leaf and rock to see the why and how of leaf and rock.
see response by Darrel Bargen
Bate, Jonathan. The Song of the Earth. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000.
Gilpin, William. "On Picturesque Beauty." From Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty (1794).
8. Real language
I follow up on my earlier response about loco-descriptive poetry, and how Wordsworth's use of vernacular language diverges from the traditional diction of loco-descriptive form. That Wordsworth's conversational tone and language endow "Tintern Abbey" with "a richer contemplation of the connections between humans, language, and the natural world." In his Advertisement of the 1798 edition, a view he expands upon in the Preface to the 1802 version, Wordsworth claims the poems were composed with "a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure." (Online handout). Wordsworth's 1802 Appendix to the Preface confirms his departure from loco-descriptive stylistic conventions (mythic allusions, artifice, and ornate language), poets who displays those "mechanical […] figures of speech [… and] applied them to feelings and ideas with which they had no natural connection whatsoever. A language was thus insensibly produced, differing materially from the real language of men in any situation" (344-45 author's emphasis). Conversation poems avoid the "motley masquerade of tricks, quaintness, hieroglyphics, and enigmas" (347); Wordsworth sought to convey "the real language of men" (Preface 5), which he models from commoners. He chooses the language of "low and rustic life"
because in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended; and are more durable; and lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature. (8)
Contemporary poets who employ "mechanical" tropes and subscribe to artifice comply with Wordsworth's claim that language "through the progress of refinement […] became daily more and more corrupt, thrusting out of sight the plain humanities of nature" (347). Poetic diction, for Wordsworth, segued from an emphatic and lucid expression of "genuine" feeling to a highly contrived and ornate figurative and bathetic expression. Language, Wordsworth suggests, had moved from purity to corruption, from simplicity to complexity, from concrete to abstraction. The conversation poems aspire to purity, simplicity, and concrete expression.
Wordsworth thus looks to a "simpler" humanity, one connected to nature through the senses. Peasants' day-to-day, hands-on interaction with the land appealed to Wordsworth's search for a purer language of expression. He believed that because of their proximity to the "permanent" aspects of nature, their rustic characteristics originate and grow in the rudimentary "soil" (emotion) "typical" of rural living. Wordsworth continues in his explanation that because the peasant is in constant communion with nature his/her emotional expression remains constant and unvarying. Their class status and "sameness," as well as their seeming limited scope of discourse remains untainted from the "wider" negative influences of society (i.e. city life). As a result, their language possesses clarity because their thoughts and emotions are apparently unadorned and uncomplicated. This direct and uncomplicated relationship with the natural world is grounded in permanency, whereas the language of abstraction furnishes the vanity of philosophical "appetites" and appears arbitrary (Preface 9-10).
Wordsworth's stance on figurative language manifests from a reaction, as I mentioned, to contemporary 18th century poetics. His adoption of the "simple" language of the peasantry initiates from a rejection of the elaborateness and theatricality of poets such as the Della Cruscans, Mary Robinson, and the loco-descriptive poems of Cowper and Denham. Yet, the problem with Wordsworth's search for a "pure" language of expression, though, is that he does not write for the commoners; he competes for the same middle class readers as the Della Cruscans, Robinson, and other contemporary writers. His rejection of contrived poetry elides the fact that his own adaptation of a lower class language is also a contrivance, an appropriation of a life experience removed from his own. This said, however, his contrivance, particularly in relation to "Tintern Abbey," proffers a more honest linguistic relationship that does not obfuscate nature behind mythical allusion or ornament. Unadorned of rhetorical flourish and mythical allusion, Wordsworth's poetic diction allows nature to be itself as we see it, which in turn encourages humanity to re-vision their relationship with nature in more organic, rather than mechanistic terms.
Wordsworth, William and Samuel Coleridge. The Lyrical Ballads, 1789-1805. London: Methuen, 1961.
1. First comment
David Bromwich argues for the contrast between a Coleridgean idea of nature as "inclusive and integrating" and a Wordsworthean idea which presents instead "a seclusion that belongs to the poet alone." However, there are ways in which "Tintern Abbey"might suggest Wordsworth's idea of nature-which, for his purposes, does not cast "wreaths of smoke" and other indications of human activity as "unnatural"-is actually more akin to an inversion of the Coleredigean formula Bromwich offers: instead of "integration," "Tintern Abbey" is engaged in a meditation on the apparent disintegration of social and intellectual life evidenced by the splintering of France into convoluted factionalism as well as the disappointments of equally factional philosophical "trends" (in which we might include Godwinism).
While "Tintern Abbey" does present some nature images which might suggest wholeness and fulfillment-particularly the "steep and lofty cliffs" which "connect / The landscape with the quiet of the sky" (58)-the descriptions are so lengthy and detailed that they approach an inventory (or perhaps an autopsy) composed of tiny fragments or distinct organs. Nature as an "integrating" force, as William Richey suggests, "provides a rather loose mooring" in this poem (207). The "truth" of nature (which, one presumes, could be found in its "wholeness") is, as Richey points out, presented in "Tintern Abbey" as something which is always already "'half' created by [Wordsworth's] own mind" (207). In other words, it disintegrates rather than integrates, and ultimately recoils from a "single and uniform" Godwinian truth. If there is any wholeness and integration to be found in the poem it comes at the end, and only through the presence of Dorothy.
2. Second comment
My enjoyment of Gilpin's treatise on the picturesque is ultimately qualified by the author's elliptical phraseology and potentially contradictory claims about art and society. When taken as a set of activities or a mode of travel -- which is when the essay seems to be at its best and most timeless -- Gilpin's picturesque offers a respectful experience of nature which would certainly stand as ecologically sound in any era. (All he wants to do, after all, is look. What's the harm in looking?) When taken as a treatise on beauty, art, or society, however, I feel the essay indicates a lack of awareness of the conditions of its own production. Gilpin appears to find agriculture and the material indications of human activity distasteful, but fails to realize that the relationship with nature enjoyed by the average peasant would likely be more intimate, less spectatorial, and not at all given to the schematization of natural forms according to principles which, I feel, completely elude me as a reader. Further, Gilpin seems perilously close to wanting to sweep aside these unsavoury lower classes like hordes of plebians blocking his view at an art gallery. It's his enjoyment -- solitary, cultured, "respectable" -- at stake, after all, and how dare those others interfere. Who is it, I wonder, growing the food on his table? Which bums sit in the pews of his church, paying his salary and allowing him to enjoy tailored clothing (complete with metal fasteners), proper lamp oil, and the luxury of time to think?
3. Third comment
This week's sampling of loco-descriptive poetry has invited me to reflect on two principal themes: firstly, the "newness" of the loco-descriptive impulse when situated in relation to accepted poetic practice of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries; secondly, the tension within loco-descriptive poetry between the mythic and the quotidian.
The two short sonnets we looked at, Coleridge's "Sonnet V. to the River Otter" and Bowles' "Sonnet VIII. to the River Itchin, Near Winton" both refer, in the second person, to unremarkable natural formations. This form of address, which simultaneously speaks to and of its subject, strikes me as bold in an era that often seems deeply ensnared in an examination of the emergence of grand themes like science, art, and society. Coleridge and Bowles, therefore, appear to offer a mode of representation which frees the poet from a list of acceptable topics and begins to consider both the deeply personal (without need for the poet to tie his or her work into any established pattern of response or inspiration) and the unapologetically quotidian. In both poems there is also the insinuation of mortality: Coleridge remarks on "How many various-fated years have passed" (2) and Bowles frames his reflections by wondering "Is it that many a summer's day has passed / Since in life's morn I carolled on thy side?" (56). That these poems speak about daily experience, while also speaking intimately to the inescapable frailty of human individual, strikes me as a sharp contrast to poetry which invokes myth or the ancients as a means of establishing continuity between epochs, between languages, or even between life and afterlife.
In Denham's "Cooper's Hill," I find just such an establishment of myth and the ancients: "So where the Muses & their train resort, / Parnassus stands; if I can be to thee / A Poet, thou Parnassus art to me" (68). The poem does show the quotidian to be in evidence, but it remains couched within a language that appears to seek legitimation from the unresponsive chorus of history. Similarly, Dyer's "Grongar Hill" invokes Phoebus, while Crowe's "Lewesdon Hill" charts the history of the place: "so thee they call'd / Of Orgar, Saxon Earl, the wealthy sire / Of fair Elfrida" (372-374). As Grongar and Crowe are contemporaneous with Coleridge and Bowles, this causes me to pause and consider this apparent split between the loco-descriptive as purely subjective and the loco-descriptive as something situated in relation to myth.
4. Fourth commentary
This week's handout -- "Tintern Abbey" and the Gothic -- introduces two themes which I am interested in examining in more depth: "half-creation" and "the revenant." In "Tintern Abbey" these two conditions appear linked, in that to be a revenant is to always be subject to an uncanny doubleness, a half-creation of a past self from out of the present, just as Wordsworth is when the Wye floods him with memory. But does the half-past-self really return to haunt the present self -- this is the initially appealing answer -- or is it that the present instance of self ultimately figures as the less substantial, the less coherent one? There is, in Wordsworth's admission that he has turned his thoughts to the Wye many times in the intervening months and years, a sense that each passing "present" is insufficient or less-than-tangible in the face of unnumbered moments of recourse to the Wye (further "halves," one suspects, cascade outward from these moments too):
In darkness and amid the many shapes
Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart --
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro' the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee! (51-54)
Teleologies of self-actualization inculcated by the social (or economic and political) apparatus often suggest a progression from a less coherent -- "innocent" in Blakean terms -- self to a more coherent -- "experienced" in Blakean terms -- self. We know that lived experience can be difficult to affix to any trajectory whatsoever and yet observation suggests that we tend to persist in imagining our lives in the context of linear movement towards a kind of fully actuated self.
In "Tintern Abbey," the indication is that there is neither a whole self, nor an either/or buyout option for the bifurcated revenant, in much the same way the "unripe fruits" Wordsworth describes are both unripe (half-created) and still intelligibly fruit, or "These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows," which can be both diminished copies (half-created) and still, somehow, wholly hedge-rows (12-15). There is, instead, the looming -- and very Gothic -- sense that existence (whether it is as a hedge-row, a stunted apple, or a poet) is composed only of half-lives, elements which should -- we are told -- add up to a whole, but instead produce only more halves. I should be cautious to point out that I don't feel this is any kind of concrete ontological claim, but rather the unveiling of an ideological mask (the aforementioned apparatus which unceasingly enjoins one to "be whole! be whole or don't be human at all!") . In effect, the revenant in "Tintern Abbey" is both a figure of pure imaginative work as well as concrete political comment.
5. Response to "Wordsworth in 1798"
This is, an admittedly very cursory, genealogy of an idea I've been working with. The other day I found myself in a conversation about Google. The homily usually affixed to children of the "Google generation" is not particularly flattering: "they don't know anything, but they know where to find it." Someone laughed and nodded. "So true," we all agreed.
This homily has become my point of entry into a way of thinking about the difference between knowing and understanding. It occurs to me that the implications of "Google ontology" for the knowledge formation of the individual are such that one has no experiential or intuitional grounding in events, processes, and behaviours, and yet at the same time one acts as a worker node (or a reprocessing facility) for all the information there is on Earth. From here, the discussion turned to accounting principles and obscure baseball rules, but I was already busy sketching out a kind of diagram. It occurred to me, amid a headful of half-remembered lines from "Frost at Midnight," "The Two-Part Prelude," and "Tintern Abbey," that this anxiety over knowing something (which seems to have the character of a child's school day, full of rote memorization) versus understanding something (reception of "data" that is, perhaps, beyond teaching and beyond language) is already front-and-centre in the poetry of Wordsworth. In "The Two-Part Prelude," there are scenes of knowing (games played among other children, lessons learned at school) which would, on their own, contribute to a kind of flaccid bildungsroman if it were not for the scenes of understanding (the looming mountain and its ineffability to the young William). These two types of knowledge seem to jostle against each other. Similarly, Coleridge's formulation of the frost as "ministry" (advice, teaching, etc.) and his positioning of this -- crucially -- outside his domestic space suggest a similar distinction between modes of knowledge formation. In Wordsworth, however, we can see that even though the adult William writes convincingly of inherently unassimilable events, there is still a way in which he is aware that his understanding of the world is contaminated by a kind of Google/education/general knowledge learning. The poetry seems to delve further and further into memory, trying -- and perhaps failing -- to find a space unaffected by standardized knowledge and codified practices of a world that is perhaps not so much different than ours. I shall think more about this and report back.
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Document created September 16th 2007 / Last revised November 23rd 2007