spotify playlist! farewell friends it’s been a good ride

Here’s the playlist we made, on spotify. It is collaborative so you can add more songs if you feel the inspiration to do so. Thanks for a great semester everyone. This was quite a memorable class.

p.s. Only 2 songs were unavailable on Spotify (capital steez, “freeze the robots” and antonio machado’s “a jose mario palacio”).

Here’s the youtube link too:


Trying to Answer Some Big Questions

What defines the Romantic movement in poetry? What makes some Romantic writers canonical? We’ve discussed both questions in class, though of course we haven’t reached concise answers (probably because there aren’t any).

The movement can be defined by as the period between its beginning and end (say, around 1780 to 1850?), but the parenthetical years are arbitrary and don’t give us any sense of what occurred during that time. Examining historical context from this time, though, can provide insight into Romanticism’s key drivers. Specifically, the movement came shortly after the Enlightenment in Europe, which promoted individualism and inspired people to think about the world in a rational, critical manner. All of a sudden, people felt they had valid opinions to offer, and expressed their understandings of truth through prose, artwork, poetry, and various other media. Much of this rethinking of values and truths centered around political theory, leading to revolutions like the one in France. The idea was that people, through reason, could be intelligent enough to create a utopia essentially from scratch, lacking any sort of clear precedent. Needless to say this often didn’t work, and it seems people became disillusioned with the idea that we could just blow through our problems by thinking them through like robots.

So take that individualism and the excitement that a single person (who wasn’t royalty) could make a real, positive difference in the world, and combine it with a disillusionment with reason’s failure to solve problems, and you’ve got Romanticism. People are filled with this desire to express themselves, to show what’s amazing about the world, but they want to do this through passionate emotions and sensory experience rather than logical analysis. Thus you’ve got a wistfulness for youth’s blissful ignorance, when troubling thoughts didn’t undermine happiness. You’ve got fantastical tales, idealistic imaginings of love, and a fascination with art’s expression of reality (and the accompanying subjective commentary, both one’s own and one’s interpretation of that of the artist) rather than a consistent, singular definition of reality. Essentially, artists (including poets) were rejecting what came before and breaking the rules.

But as we discussed, you can’t break the rules TOO much. The mark of a new movement is a break from tradition, true, but if one tries to break too intensely or too quickly he becomes an outcast rather than a canonical poet. The canonical Romantic poets were masters of breaking the rules in such a way that they displayed they understood them and respected them, but wanted to challenge people. Readers love the idea that they’re reading something new and fresh, but can only identify that newness if it’s presented in a similar fashion to the old stuff. If it’s too different, there’s no basis for comparison. It would be hard for John Clare, an uneducated man and peasant poet, to become famous just after the Enlightenment, because his style differed so dramatically from the wealthy nobles who were allowed to write previously. Byron, on the other hand, offered fun new humor, but still wrote like a Lord in many ways and lived the life typical of previous celebrity. Accordingly, he was extremely popular. Basically, he figured out how to break the rules JUST enough to get people’s attention without turning them off. It’s a delicate balance, and that balance is a crucial feature of any movement, whether Romanticism or Rock and Roll (which, by the way, is an interesting comparison, I think).

Poor, Pretending, Or Somewhere In Between?

I love how Elias described Clare’s approach to poetry: “For Clare, language, like poetry, was meant to be universally accessed by all and not reserved for those with formal education.” As someone who reads less than they should, I have a less than ideal vocabulary. When I came to Hamilton, I was extremely bothered by all those who intellectualize every discussion. Those more concerned with arguing over the semantics of the words we used than actually communicating opinions. In my mind, large words only serve to exclude the opinions of those who would otherwise have worthwhile commentary to give.

Having read the introduction about John Clare, I know this is not the case, but Elias’ post made me wonder about the authenticity of those who claim to be poets of the people. Compared to Robert Burns, Clare is more intelligible. I know this can be attributed to the fact that Burns was using a Scottish dialect but I wonder if the use of that dialect was a creative choice or just his reality. Burns is described as “widely read” while Clare is said to have had to spend a week’s wages to simply buy a blank notebook (165, 869). I would think then that Burns, regardless of his roots, would be better equipped to write in accessible verse.

In any case, if these two are genuine in their poverty, I wonder if there were others out there who were not. I am reminded, as usual, of similar situations within the modern context of hip hop. Authenticity is at the core of many artists’ identities. For example, Vince Staples in this interview is adamant that he is in fact from the streets, urging the public to go to his neighborhood and ask about him.

On the other side of the coin, the side I wonder if Clare or Burns might be on, are people like Slim Jesus who is famous for his track Drill Time. The track features lines like “You ain’t really ’bout shit, stay out my spot, don’t speak my name / Or I pull up on your block at night, wearing all black and let that 40 bang.” In an interview, however, he admits is entirely fictitious.

So while I am not well read enough to say Clare and Burns are certainly faking it, I imagine it’s a spectrum. And I wonder where they fall on that spectrum, and if people like Slim Jesus existed back in the Romantic Era.

The Simple and Universal Joys of Poetry

John Clare’s “Pastoral Poetry” characterizes “True Poessy” as a universal language that captures the simple joys that exist in rural life. The first stanza of the poem immediately highlights the unpretentious inclusivity that has come to define much of Clare’s poetry:

“True poesy is not in words,/ But images that thoughts express,/ By which the simplest hearts are stirred/ To elevated happiness.” (1-4).

These lines suggest that Clare was not imbued with same sense of ambition that drove poets like Keats; he did not write for critical acclaim but instead created poetry that would bring happiness to those with the same humble origins as himself: the “simplest hearts.” His focus on the expression of images over words reflects his unorthodox and often incorrect spelling and punctuation. Poetry, for him, was a language of images that transcended the barriers of traditional grammar; Clare made this position clear in a letter to John Taylor in 1822 where he stated: “Grammer in learning is like Tyranny in government… Confound the bitch, I’ll never be her slave” (Preface, 870). For Clare, language, like poetry, was meant to be universally accessed by all and not reserved for those with formal education. The real power of poetry, as Clare describes, is its ability to recall images of happiness for all readers: as he describes, “Yet to all minds it gives the dower/ of self-creating joy.” (35-36).

The scenes that Clare cites as examples of the happiness captured in poetry are similarly simple and unapologetically rural: a cowboy digging lines in the dirt (21-24), a storm blowing through the woods (49-56), an old man spending his hours carving sticks (81-88). It is also important to note that Clare did not imagine that a poet needed any sort of training or education to capture these moments in verse. Clare’s poet character idly takes in the whistling of the wind in the woods and transcribes the image using, “An easy thoughtlessness of thought” (27).

Clare’s conception of Poetry reimagined poetry as readily accessible to uneducated rural farmers in ways that defied poetry by Keats and even Wordsworth. By conjuring images of rural happiness and relying only on simple language, Clare searched for beauty and happiness among the simplest and most accessible scenes from his own humble upbringing.

“Mont Blanc”& “The Nightingale’s Nest”

Seeing as I wrote my third paper on “Mont Blanc”, I found it difficult not to compare Shelley’s poem with “ The Nightingale’s Nest”. In “Mont Blanc”, the mountain is viewed upon from afar while its grandeur is supposed to be worshiped. In “The Nightingale’s Nest”, the speaker is “creeping on hands and knees through matted thorns,” in order to situate himself as close to the nest as possible (13). In this poem, Clare talks about touching nature and “marvel[ing]” its beauty up close(20). One could conclude that Clare desires to create a personal connection with nature, as opposed to Shelley, who appreciates it from a distance.

While these two poets differ in opinions, comparing these two poems illustrates that there is a no correct method when worshipping and viewing nature. In my opinion, the important thing to take away from these two poems is that nature’s role within someone’s life is unique and varies from person to person. Perhaps individuals, like Shelley, view nature as a replacement to conventional religion because of this very reason. There is no book or pamphlet explaining how to worship nature and its role/power in one’s life is completely up to the individual.

Another throwback and another pun! This time about Hemans

Much like how I liked to see the pun in Mary Robinson’s “London’s Summer Morning” I would also believe that Felicia Hemans’ “England’s Dead” has a similarly hidden meaning. On the surface this poem would suggest that it is in mourning of those lost in foreign conflicts that have all occurred during Heman’s lifetime, but a reinterpretation of the title would suggest that it has had more dire consequences. The title can be read to refer to either the physical bodies of those who lost their lives fighting or the concept of the country itself facing an untimely demise. This poem asks the reader, who is searching for the dead, to look for them on all of these distant shores. This poem obviously has a lot of emotions regarding this apparent warmongering and the effect that it has on the people of the country as well as the soul of the country itself. I think that the play on words refers to latter of these two ideas in the sense that England, the idea, is dead. Having fought so many conflicts and sacrificed the lives of so many, the poet would suggest by this title that there has been a significant change in what she feels the soul of England to be. While without this interpretation the poem still has some powerful commentary on the horror of war, with this added idea the poem then can comment on how these wars have affected the country at home as well as abroad. The lives that have been affected by these deaths then become a focal point of the story’s message. Those at home are looking for these “Dead” and must find them in a number of locations all far from home.

John Clare’s Guide to Respecting Nightingales

John Clare’s “The Nightingale’s Nest” offers a different portrayal of nightingales than Keats’s ode does. Right away, Clare’s poem clearly comes from a different place; the speaker says “let’s softly rove” in the first line, indicating that he is sharing this experience with someone else, whereas in Keats’s poem the experience was firmly individual. The middle chunk of Clare’s poem read to me like a lab report’s ‘methods’ section; it as if he uses commanding language like “Part aside,” “stoop right cautious,” “hunt this,” etc. (44, 46, 48) so both his companion and his reader can replicate his experience.

That experience itself is also quite different than what we saw with Keats. I think Clare conveys a sense of respect for nature that we don’t necessarily see in other poets, even though many certainly asserted their appreciation for it. Clare does not merely admire the view, nor he does he harness the natural world to show his own ideas. Instead he displays his intimate knowledge of this space, telling how he has nestled down right where “these crimping fern leaves ramp among / The hazel’s under-boughs” (17-8). The speaker maps the world around him, remembering a specific “black-thorn clump” (43). But even as he does so, he remains a cautious explorer. He tells his companion, “Hush! let the wood gate softly clap, for fear / The noise may drive her from her home of love” (3-4) and later emphasizes “We’ll leave it as we found it” (62). He clearly wants to protect this nightingale, and will creep about in the brush in order not to disturb her. Of course, part of the motivation behind his hesitation is because if they do alarm her she will stop singing – as happens in the poem – but the detailed depiction of her environment and the apparent knowledge of her habits all imply a desire to preserve nature’s splendor by admiring it only from a distance.

This idea makes sense given the general argument of the poem, which suggests that the beauty of the nightingale’s self-expression comes from how she and other aspects of nature are “still unknown to wrong” (92). The speaker describes her joys as “evergreen,” and notes that winter – and the death it brings – is foreign to her (41). As the speaker foreshadows for us, when she notices people listening, “our presence doth retard / Her joys, and doubt turns all her rapture chill” (65-6). It seems that nature is better off without human interference, or at least desires to be removed from the dangers humanity poses, a desire he respects.

This distance is interesting given how the last line – “the old woodland’s legacy of song” (93) – reminds us that her song plays a similar role as his poetry. As we talked about last class, singing is also an important source of self-expression. I wonder how that understanding changes when the singing comes from a bird and not a human, if it even does change.

Throwback to when you guys talked about Robinson! Me morning at missing it!

I wanted to look at the intro lines of  Robinson’s “London Summer Morning” and how it could be a more of a negative commentary on the Industrial Revolution than it already is. Specifically I wanted to look at how in lines one to two there can be a double interpretation that adds the season itself to the list of characters in the story. What I mean by this is that she refers to the “busy sounds/Of summer’s morning” as being the focus of the rest of the poem which can be read to both reflect the title and comment on the stage of grief that this summer is experiencing. The content of the poem, especially the first several lines, observes the “din of hackney-coaches,” “noisy trunk-makers,” and “squeaking cork-cutters” which are all negative sounds produced by jobs that are all through this industrial town (10,11,12). The poet is able to comment on these things which are then emphasized by the play on words used in those first two lines.

What the poet does by having this “mourning” of summer be the crux of the story is two key things. First off, it adds this very natural element to the narrative of the poem that establishes the poet’s position on the Industrial Revolution itself. By casting summer, an intrinsic part of nature, as the victim of all this “progress” it is then easy to see how strongly the poet feels about the comments she makes on the sounds that she hears. The other important thing that personifying the summer does is allow for the reader to understand the sensations of summer, such as being “sultry” and “burning,” as representing emotional responses to the all encompassing nature of this Revolution. Summer, being so hot and therefore angry, allows for the poet to express her own emotions while still being able to maintain it as an idea of fiction.

Robert Burns –

I’m writing about Robert Burns because I think he’s one of the most interesting writers we’ve studied, and one of the most distinct from the pack. His poetry in particular brings up some interesting questions about the purpose and nature of poetry, especially themes of sound vs. meaning and humor within more serious messages.

It was hard for me to take any of Burns’ work seriously from the beginning, since I mostly found myself laughing instead. Reading the poetry became somewhat of a game of figuring out the words themselves, compared to my typical experience reading English poetry, in which I immediately understand the words and devote greater effort to deciphering their broader meaning or significance. Reading the Scottish dialect adds the first step of simply trying to understand what’s being said – a process which can be tiring and might undermine the following task of studying the poem’s significance. Basically, I’m saying that I spent just as much time on these poems as the others, but I spent that time figuring out the basic words rather than Burns’ contribution to the Romantic movement or to poetry in general. I think we did in class as well by focusing so heavily on the dialect. Still, Burns, like other poets we’ve looked at, takes mundane or under appreciated moments or subjects like a louse (ew…) and wonders at the “Pow’r the giftie gie us / To see ourself as others see us!” (43-44). As Ian pointed out, “To a Mouse” also reaches serious revelation in its final stanza. These revelations are overshadowed by the Scottish dialect. While I’m sure this is less true for Scots (who understand this poetry more easily I’d guess), as an American studying Romantic poetry this is what I feel.

Can Burns’ messages themselves be considered important compared to, say, Wordsworth or Shelley? I’m wondering how Burns contributes to my growing understanding of this movement. He reminds me a bit of Byron, in that I feel momentarily emotionally moved, only to be stirred by some other fit of humor that distracts me and prevents me from being pulled in too far. His subject matter includes small animals and girls’ underwear, but it doesn’t stop there. He inspires Scottish nationalism and kindness to our peers.  Essentially I’m wondering, if Burns weren’t Scottish, and his poetry were simply in plain English, would it be worth reading in this class? Would it do anything particularly new?

My immediate answer was no, that Burns’ contribution is essentially sound, and the way the sound shapes our interpretation of the words and our experience of reading. Upon further reflection, though, I think (and Ian alluded to this as well) that Burns conveys similar ideas to other Romantics but in far more common language, which doesn’t just allow me to access the words but changes their  importance. If nothing else, we finally have a writer who talks like a common guy, drinking at pubs and sharing tales rather than smoking a pipe by a fire. So: is his work especially intellectually stimulating? Maybe not. But it belongs in our curriculum because it takes on these ideas from such an interesting angle, and perhaps more than any other poet thus far made me question what exactly is IMPORTANT in a poem or makes it valuable.

Hemans: The anti-Shelley

In her poem “England’s Dead,” Felicia Hemans establishes a relationship between humanity and nature that is antithetical to that envisioned by Percy Shelley in Mont Blanc. Shelley recognizes a Power within Mont Blanc and within nature that exists beyond human dominion or control. Hemans, in contrast, describes nature in this poem as a force that humanity can conquer and subdue.

Using neatly organized pairs of quatrains, Hemans expresses humanity’s control over nature by juxtaposing the harsh landscapes of different regions with the ability of fallen soldiers to resist its effects. In quatrains three and four, for example, she begins by describing the “fearful power” of Egypt’s sun (11), but then nullifies this power in quatrain 4 by describing mankind’s resilience in the face of it: “But let the angry sun/ From heaven look fiercely red/ Unfelt by those whose task is done!” (13-15). She repeats this pattern of contrasting nature’s hostility with humanity’s ability to overcome it using dual quatrains to commemorate fallen English soldiers in India, America and Spain. The use of exclamation marks and the repeating structure of the first line of every other quatrain, “But let the storm rage on!”; “but let the ice drift on! etc, gives the poem a triumphant tone (37; 45). It is as if Hemans envisioned nature, like the battlefields, is something to be conquered and subdued by English soldiers. In this poem she describes the fallen soldiers as having done just that: heroically resisted the pernicious effects of nature in death as they had done to enemy soldiers in life.

This conquering of nature seems to be in line with the ideology of British imperialism, which was prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries when Hemans wrote this poem. Supporters of this ideology believed that conquest of foreign lands was a righteous cause and that landscapes and cultures could be shaped to meet British needs. This poem’s implicit celebration of humanity’s control over nature would have likely offended Shelley, who’s work highlighted mankind’s insignificance in the face of nature’s Power. Whereas Hemans’s fallen soldiers seem to act as a victory flag over nature in foreign regions, Shelley’s Mont Blanc tells the reader that nature’s Power exists separate from and supersedes human influence.