Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Victorian Era

The Victorian era remains in many ways the most curious of our precursors, seeming almost a phantasmic preview of so many ideas, issues, and institutions. This vision has its darker sides -- the problem of poverty, and the question of social welfare; the need for a government role in providing or certifying sanitation, education, and hospitals; the difficulty of understanding or treating mental illness -- as well as its brighter ones: the expansion of railways and the enabling of travel over long distances to those of modest means; the rise of literacy and popular literature; and the birth of numerous technologies without which our world would seem hard to imagine: photography, the fax machine, the telephone, and the cinema.

For our purposes, the rise in literacy is perhaps the most significant social change of the era. In part due to the establishment of a system of schools for the poor, in part to the increasing size of the middle classes, and in both cases driven by economic need more than a desire to enlighten the masses; between 1840 and 1900 a largely illiterate Britain was transformed into a land of nearly universal literacy. The new and growing mass audience drove a revolution in print, with newspapers vastly increasing their circulation, and made a world in which a serialized popular author such as Dickens gained wealth and fame far beyond anything available to writers of earlier generations. For those who could not afford to purchase books to feed their appetites, there was Mudie's Library, the Netflix of its day; if Mudie's felt that a book would do well, they would purchase 2,000 to 3,000 copies at a stroke, greatly affecting the shape of popular literacy.

We ourselves, in fact, stand in an institution -- the former Rhode Island Normal School -- which was in many regards the equivalent of the Victorian teacher training schools. And, ironically enough, the great project of establishing and funding a public education for all, the offspring of this era (and of advocates such as Henry Barnard and Horace Mann) is now, once again, a problem child, with great debates raging on school reform and how to fix the system.

Exploitative labor, the other great social problem of the Victorian era, continues as well, though mostly out of sight of the middle-class consumers of today. We've outsourced our exploitation to China, the Philippines, and American Samoa, and hidden our piece-workers deep in the recesses of half-abandoned buildings. Those who harvest our crops are equally invisible, though there if we care to see them. So until such work can be completely automated -- or until, as Stephen Colbert has said, we can develop "vegetables that pick themselves," we too must address this still-neglected problem of human society.

All this calls into question another idea we inherited from the Victorians: progress. If, a hundred a nine years after the death of Queen Victoria, we're still struggling with the same old social issues, what can "progress" mean?

Sunday, May 15, 2016


All of us know the story of Frankenstein -- or do we? Some of our collective memories come from the James Whale film of 1931, which introduced Boris Karloff as the Monster, or its descendants and parodies, such as Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein of 1974. Every year at Halloween, there are any number of young monsters at our door, and the image is deeply ingrained into our popular culture. From Frankenberry cereal to Herman Munster; from Edward Scissorhands to the Terminator, the image of a terrifying man-made man seems to haunt our technological era.

But how many know the story of the original novel? Written by Mary Shelley when she was only eighteen years old, and published anonymously in 1818, it gives us a very different "monster," one who can talk eloquently, argue philosophy, and revel in the poetry of Milton. It also gives us a rather different Victor Frankenstein, a haunted, romantic soul whose quest was inspired by Albertus Magnus and Cornelius Agrippa. It's a story which has never fully been brought to film or television, and thus a surprise to many of its readers.

One of the most fascinating episodes in the book is where the Creature stumbles upon a lost valise with several old books:
One night, during my accustomed visit to the neighbouring wood, where I collected my own food, and brought home firing for my protectors, I found on the ground a leathern portmanteau, containing several articles of dress and some books. I eagerly seized the prize, and returned with it to my hovel. Fortunately the books were written in the language the elements of which I had acquired at the cottage; they consisted of Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch's Lives, and the Sorrows of Werter. The possession of these treasures gave me extreme delight; I now continually studied and exercised my mind upon these histories, whilst my friends were employed in their ordinary occupations.
And so, we too can peer over the Creature's shoulder, since John Milton's Paradise Lost, the Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans by Plutarch, and the Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe are all readily available to our eyes.  In addition, we can also now read Volney's Ruins of Empire -- the book used in the schoolroom where the Creature got his learning -- online.

Yet given the sad fate of the Creature, it is hard not to wonder what his life might have been like if there had been different books in that fabled valise. So: if you had the power, what three books would you put within the creature's grasp, and why?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner

It's one of the foundational tales of the Romantic movement, an exemplar of horror ('the nightmare life-in-death was she') and grim irony ('water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink'). Its also one of the few of the Lyrical Ballads to actually be a ballad (there are a few others in ballad stanza, but only one or two -- perhaps "We are Seven" -- that really embody the ballad's mixture of lyricism and repetition). And it's proven very durable, still an engaging read in which the combination of the words 'narrative' and 'poetry' elicits a sense of dread -- not of the horror of the tale but the tedium of the form.

Coleridge originally wrote the poem in mock-antique orthography, with "ancient" spelled old-style as "antient" and "mariner" with a completely unnecessary final e as "marinere." Happily, he abandoned this in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, and added helpful side-notes, an early instance of a poet annotating his own work. He chose for its setting the extremes of the ocean, evoking both the Sargasso Sea (a mid-ocean area with much floating vegetation where ships were often becalmed) and the Antarctic (the mariner's headlong careening south is a journey revisited by Edgar Allan Poe (both in "MS. Found in a Bottle" and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym). The natural sublime, in the form both of the sea's teeming with unknown life, and the sterile and hostile cold of the realm of ice, is perfectly framed here, and the supernatural elements are perfectly integrated into the natural ones. And of course the mariner shoots the albatross, which is later hung about his neck by the superstitious sailors -- giving us a metaphor that's still in political use today.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

William Blake

To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.

What can one say about William Blake? That one of the greatest poets in English lived nearly unknown in his own age? True, but ultimately this matters not. That he was a man of contradictions, at once the creator of vast mythological schemes and names that boggle the mind of the common reader, as well as of poems so deceptively simple that they would be at home both in a child's nursery and a scientist's laboratory? It seems impossible to know where to start.

But Songs of Innocence and Experience is as good a place as any, and a perfect primer for Blakean method. Many of the poems (but not all) have their correspondent versions in both, one framed by "innocence" and one by "experience" (see especially The Chimney Sweeper and Nurse's Song). Some poems exist only in one or another, and each collection has its heraldic animal (the Lamb of Innocence and the Tyger of Experience). But whose innocence is this? And is innocence innocent? Blake of course revelled in the notion that the child's eye view disclosed the truths of a corrupted adult world; this was a common Romantic notion and is embodied in Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes," among other works. And yet he knew, all too well, that in the world of early industrial Britain, where many children were born not into "sweet delight" but rather into "endless night," there was little or no time for innocence to take root.

Christianity, too, for Blake had these two aspects. In its righteous indignation, its distrust of authority, and its embrace of the humble and downtrodden, the early essence of Christianity was a fountain from which Blake often and gladly drank. And yet the institutional Christianity of his day repelled him, the one which declared that the suffering of the poor was no problem, since the good among them would have a heavenly reward, the one which offered only a dry husk of restraint and repression, "binding with briars my joys and desires."

So read -- and look! -- at this remarkable book. Far more than Wordsworth and Coleridge's too-self-conscious production of Lyrical Ballads, this marks the dawn of the Romantic age.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Welcome to English 206

Welcome to our course blog for English 206, English Literature from 1800 to the Present, for the Fall 2014 semester. This will be our online home for class discussions, links to readings, viewings, and listenings, an ever-available syllabus, advice on your papers, and many other resources. Every week, I'll be posting a brief account of some issue, theme, or question about that week's readings, and everyone will post their responses here. Be sure to bookmark this page for ready reference! If you have any difficulty with posting, be sure you are logged on using a Google, Yahoo, or other online identity; there is online help available via the Blogger menu at any time. To be on the safe side, I recommend you compose your posts offline and cut and paste them to the blog; that way you can't lose any text. I look forward to lively discussions here on our blog, and hope you will find this site inviting and engaging!