Friday, September 12, 2014

Lyrical Ballads

Lyrical Ballads, although far more conservative in form and scope than the (then almost unknown) work of Blake, nevertheless was in its own way a revolutionary book. These self-declared "experiments" borrowed from vernacular traditions such as the ballad, gaining a new kind of authenticity while rejecting the "gaudiness and inane phraseology" of other poets of the day. It is hard for us to feel this same quality today, as so much of what the Romantics accomplished and made new has since become a cliché; for me, this is embodied by Bullwinkle J. Moose's cartoon rendition of "I wandered lonely as a cloud" -- here the sublime meets the ridiculous, and the ridiculous wins.

Nevertheless, there remain shards of untapped sublimity here and there in the poetic ruins of this endeavor -- the "Lucy" poems, "We are Seven," and "The Mad Mother" retain a sort of odd, folksy, haunting quality, and "Tintern Abbey" still summons forth the beauty and strangeness of its scene. And, above all, Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancyent Marinere" still stands aloof, untouched for the most part by the ravages of time, unless to seem and feel more authentically "ancient" than it was originally framed as being. "We were the first to ever burst / into that silent sea" -- rarely has the essence of the Romantic version of the natural sublime been more magnificiently cast.

The future of the two poets also revealed telling differences. Wordsworth, though his best years were behind him, whittled away at his lengthy and laborious Prelude, unpublished in his lifetime, while basking in the light of his role as an aging literary lion. As described by Thomas Carlyle in the 1840's, he sat aside, hidden behind the green glass filter he brought with him to the table, absently nibbling on raisins as the conversation raged on. Coleridge, alas, burned brighter and burned out sooner; after the last flickering flame of Kubla Khan, he retired to the home of his friend James Gilman and his wife, who took care to moderate his opiate addiction as best they could. They were remarkable hosts, even building an extension on the house to accommodate their poetical guest. No more brilliant poetry spilled from his pen, but a substantial and influential body of semi-autobiogaphical criticism, published as Biographia Literaria, was completed there before his death in 1834. Carlyle visited there as well, and his description is worth quoting:

Coleridge sat on the brow of Highgate Hill, in those years, looking down on London and its smoke-tumult, like a sage escaped from the inanity of life's battle ... The practical intellects of the world did not much heed him, or carelessly reckoned him a metaphysical dreamer: but to the rising spirits of the young generation he had this dusky sublime character; and sat there as a kind of Magus, girt in mystery and enigma; his Dodona oak-grove (Mr. Gilman's house at Highgate) whispering strange things, uncertain whether oracles or jargon ...

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

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.

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!

In the meantime, does the scene depicted here seem familiar? The first person to name the poem and the poet, as well as the graphic novel it comes from -- no Googling! -- will win a prize of symbolic (but no monetary) value!