John Clare’s “I Am”

When I read the title of John Clare’s “I Am”, the first thing that I thought of was Neil Diamond’s song with a similar title, “I Am…I Said”. I gave the song a relisten and thought that it had a few pretty interesting similarities to Clare’s poem.

First, as it says in the Norton Anthology, Clare spent much of his later life in an asylum. I read more about this on Wikipedia and, apparently, Clare struggled with mental health issues throughout his life, eventually willingly going to this asylum when he could no longer support his family.

I also read a bit about the composition of “I Am…I Said”, and apparently Neil Diamond wrote this about many of the thoughts/feelings he had while undergoing therapy. Though I have no doubt that an asylum in the 1840s must have been a very different experience than modern therapy, it’s interesting that both of these works that begin with the phrase “I Am” were written during periods of, most likely, intense introspection.

In “I Am…I Said”, Diamond sings, “I’m lost between two shores. L.A.’s fine, but it ain’t home. New York’s home, but it ain’t mine no more.” I thought this line was very similar to the stanza below. Both writers touch on the theme of wanting to return home not in the sense of a physical location but in the sense of the feelings and experiences they had as children. I can imagine that Clare in particular felt strongly about his lines, given his living in an asylum.

I long for scenes where man hath never trod 

A place where woman never smiled or wept 

There to abide with my Creator, God, 

And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept, 

Untroubling and untroubled where I lie,

The grass below—above, the vaulted sky. (13-18)

Diamond also sings, “‘I am’… I said, to no one there. And no one heard at all, not even the chair.” Clare also touches on this theme of feeling completely alone when he writes, “I am—yet what I am, none cares or knows; / My friends forsake me like a memory lost:— / I am the self-consumer of my woes;—” (1-3). It’s interesting to see two artists from such different times talk about what it means to try to figure out who you are and what your purpose is, especially in the face of mental health issues and fame.

In Defense of Casabianca

I’m sorry to be posting retrospectively about a poem we’ve already discussed, but I absolutely loved “Casabianca,” and while I understand some of the issues raised with it, I still do. I will concede that my overly specific love for Napoleonic-era naval combat may have something to do with it, but I also wanted to look over the poem itself with a focus on its ambiguities.

The main one that we discussed in class was the issue of the “fragments” at the end of the penultimate stanza. When I first read it, I admit that I interpreted it morbidly, as fragments of the child; but the following line changed my mind, and I don’t think it fundamentally matters. The boy and the ship are placed in direct dialogue with one another throughout the poem, even from the first two lines, where Hemans draws a direct connection between them: “Whence all but he had fled” refers most obviously to the French sailors who have abandoned ship, but also to the ships all around that, foretelling the explosion, ceased combat, closed their gunports, evacuated the immediate area, and had their sailors and soldiers put down their weapons and man the pumps instead. The fighting paused for about fifteen minutes around the explosion, and in the context of that brief interlude of stillness and isolation, the boy and the fire are the only two animate things in the poem. Even the “booming shots” in line 19 likely refer to L’Orient’s own great guns and small-arms going off as the heat reached them. The stanza beginning on line 29, too, draws a direct parallel between them; the child has spoken his last and is only one stanza from death, and that final defeat is symbolized by the flames reaching “the flag on high,” the ship’s pennant, the loss of which universally signals surrender. I think we are meant to read “fragments” as referring to the “mast, and helm, and pennon fair,” but I also think we are meant to read those as roughly analogous to Casabianca’s own courage (the backbone holding up the flag), intelligence (that which guides the ship, and, if we read the poem the way some modern scholars do, that which was abandoned), and “young faithful heart” (which never yielded until the flames obliterated it), respectively.

The other question that occurred to me was that of rank. I assumed that young Giocante Casabianca, as the captain’s son* and a gentleman by birth, would have been a midshipman, an officer-in-training in charge of a small division of foremast sailors. However, I cannot find any references to either support or refute that; pretty much every source that mentions him by name is primarily focused upon the poem, which, of course, never specifies. I am personally inclined to continue to believe it, both because it makes sense culturally and because it would explain the disparity in ages (his father may have kept false muster and lied about his age, an incredibly common crime that allowed midshipmen to advance to lieutenant earlier than was technically permitted). The poem, though, never makes mention of any responsibilities that Giocante may have held. Hemans’s goal is clearly to elicit sympathy for the child, and in my opinion, having him feel guilty for being unable to prevent his division of sailors from deserting, feeling that he failed his father, would be a fairly direct route to that goal, and I don’t see why Hemans would have neglected to use his rank as a device. I intend to do some more research and see if I can find a digitized version of L’Orient’s muster-book (an earlier iteration that wasn’t blown to smithereens) and find out whether he was a midshipman or just an unusually wealthy and well-connected powder-monkey.

Sorry this turned out so long, I just really loved this poem and this class and wanted to go all-out on my last post!

* I know the footnote identifies the father as an admiral, but I think that’s just an error. Luce Julien Joseph Casabianca was the commander of L’Orient, the fleet’s flagship, and the actual admiral, François-Paul de Brueys, was aboard. Of course, de Brueys died some minutes earlier, so Casabianca may have briefly served as acting-Admiral, but he certainly never attained the rank by promotion.

Hemans and Wordsworth

Realized I wrote and then forgot to put up my post from last week. Hope it’s alright that I’m posting it now!

It was interesting to think about how Hemans depicts and thinks about immortality and longevity in her poetry, especially in “Properzia Rossi”, since these are topics that many of the poets we’ve covered have talked about. These were some of my favorite lines from her poem in relation to immortality:

Therefore my brief aspirations from the chain,

Are ever but some wild fitful song,

Rising triumphantly, to die ere long

In dirge like-echoes. (75-8)

Hemans discusses longevity and an artist’s fame in the context of her womanhood. She questions the cost of fame, wondering what she has had to give up in order to succeed as a poet, especially since most of society at her time believed it impossible for a woman to create meaningful art, much less lead a family or raise children at the same time.

Seemingly, Wordsworth and Hemans discuss similar topics in their poetry. They lament over the fact that they are seemingly never completely happy, they question whether they will live on after they die through their writing, etc. However, male poets such as Wordsworth write about how they can never guarantee that they will be remembered; they know that their poetry is good, but they question whether anything is immortal. On the other hand, Hemans, while also knowing that her poetry is well-crafted, questions whether the cost of being a female poet in a man’s world will be worth it since she cannot even guarantee that her work will last. Wordsworth is sometimes saddened by immortality because there is no guarantee of it; Hemans is sad about immortality because even if she achieves it, she questions whether it will have been worth it.

“Indian Woman’s Death Song”

I found this poem particularly interesting because of its autobiographical nature. “Indian Woman’s Death Song” conveys the narrative of a mother abandoned by her husband, who had left her for another wife. Interestingly enough, Hemans herself was a mother of six that was deserted by her husband for another woman. In a way, Hemans uses the Native woman to avenge the happiness stolen from her–by her own husband–as she cannot do so herself. Furthermore, Hemans uses the outcast and abandoned Native woman to underline the issue of female segregation within culture and society due to man-made manacles. In this way, Hemans draws attention to her own plight as an outcast and as an abandoned wife and mother. Hemans garners empathy from readers early on in the work through the implementation of the introductory note, in which she describes the Native woman as “[a]n Indian woman, driven to despair by her husband’s desertion…” Through conveying the despair of a woman over her trivial and seemingly unimportant position as one of her husbands many wives, Hemans opposes and criticizes the objectification of women as inhuman, emotionless objects meant to endure the whims of men. Like Hemans herself, who began writing to support her children after the desertion of her husband, the Native mother takes her fate into her own hands as an active and living woman, rather than remaining passive, desperate, and helpless.  

Conflicting Themes in Felicia Hemans’ Work

     In the anthology’s initial description of Hemans and her work on pages 902-903, a primary disconnect within certain themes in her writing is highlighted. On one hand, Hemans’ work contains many themes of British military conquest and imperialism, yet at the same time, her works are filled with themes of domestic bliss and female empathy. In poems such as “Casabianca”, “England’s Dead”, and “The Homes of England,” militaristic motivation/obedience is key to protecting the beauty of English domesticity. These poems stick out to me because they discuss the necessity of military violence in conversation with domestic comfort, which allows her to focus on the relationship between two very different spheres of life. I am still not entirely sure what Hemans’ intention was in discussing the relationship between these two themes, but the anthology suggests that Hemans’ writing was potentially critical of the very systems her work was initially thought to support.

     The anthology further tries to make sense of this dissonance by stating, “But some of her most famous patriotic and military poems are now being viewed as critiques of the virtues and ideologies they had been thought by earlier readers to inculcate.” I had a lot of trouble deciphering the potentially critical nature of Hemans’ work, as poems such as “England’s Dead” seem so sincere and solemn, but I definitely see how a poem like “Casabianca” can be interpreted in conflicting ways.

     “Casabianca” is a beautiful poem about a brave young boy who dies while standing his ground against an enemy ship. As his ship burns down, the boy asks his father if he can leave his post, yet the boy is not aware that his father is dead. With no response, the boy stays at his post and is killed in the fire. Though I initially read “Casabianca” as a poem about the courage and dedication of young soldiers in battle, because of the anthologies notes on the potentially critical nature of her writing, I can now see the poem as a piece about the danger of blind obedience within young and innocent soldiers. I am still unsure about the level of critique within much of Hemans’ work and how she intended for audiences to read her poetry. She is a poet whose intentions appear more subtly than many of the other poets we have read, and because of this, her work is uniquely engaging and also very open to interpretation.

Felicia Hemans and Unrequited Love

I noticed that two of Hemans’ poems that center around unrequited love, “Properzia Rossi” and “An Indian Woman’s Death Song,” and the way that the women react (without the objects of their desire). “Properzia Rossi” is about a female sculpture of the same name who is said to have died of a broken heart from unrequited love–though she actually died from the plague. The pain from unrequited love is vivid: the speaker says “Wher’er I move,/ The shadow of this broken-hearted love/ Is on me and around” and describes her devotion as “sad,” “deep,” and “unrepaid.” The sculptor in the poem is pouring all of her emotions into this marble work, an act that is productive and does not involve her love interest. She also implies that this work, tinged by her being scorned, will be her legacy.

In “An Indian Woman’s Death Song,” the woman’s death and her being scorned are tied together much more explicitly. After her “warrior’s eye hath look’d upon another’s face,/ And mine had faded from his soul,” the woman takes her children onto a canoe and paddles them toward a waterfall, with the intention that the rushing water will claim all of their lives. The woman “cannot live without that light” and she is horrified by the thought that her children might ever be made to feel that way, too. I find it interesting that first of all, there are two poems where the female main character faces the problem of a man who does not love her back, and second of all, that both protagonists are devastated and do not involve the man further. Additionally, they both deal with death, which can be seen as a form of power, in that it is a reaction that the women are taking within a society that oppresses them, or can be seen as a complete and hopeless lack of power.



“Casabianca” and “Darkness”

I’m getting ahead on my blog post for next week due to the stress of upcoming finals!

Felicia Dorothea Hemans’ “Casabianca” was reminiscent of Byron’s apocalyptic “Darkness” because they both portray people’s last moments in the face of fiery tragedies. The main difference between the two is that “Casabianca” portrays an act of nobility when Casabianca stands at his post while his ship is on fire during the Battle of the Nile, while “Darkness” portrays how many different people and animals face their final moments in the end of the world encased by darkness. Both poems involve a fiery end for the characters, but “Casabianca” is lit up by the “booming shots” and the fire on the ship and “Darkness” has a looming sense of darkness even with the houses set ablaze: “all was black.” In “Darkness” all of the love and trust between neighbors and friends is lost due to selfishness and survival instincts, while Casabianca stays at his post because he “would not go,/ Without his father’s word,” insinuating a sense of unity and virtue. Both poets are trying to convey a similar message about human nature and how we might act at our last moments; another similarity I found was how the dogs in “Darkness” stayed by their dead owners to fight off people eating them, while Casabianca also stayed put out of an act of respect for his father’s words. 

Mary Robinson’s Arguments (or lack thereof)

I have reread “January, 1795” three times in the past half hour, and “London’s Summer Morning” twice, and I still think I’m missing something. Mary Robinson is very clearly making a forceful point about social stratification, and an interesting one, given her upper-class background; but for the life of me, I can’t find the skeleton of an argument in either of those poems. The former in particular is just a list of images; striking, emotionally evocative images, but just images. There were a couple of lines that seemed to contain some ambiguity — are the “Courtiers cringing and voracious” more victims or victimizers? I was briefly interested in them and their position, but Robinson never followed up on them, and I’ll admit that my eyes glazed over a couple of times. The repetitive structure struggled to stick in my brain, and the lack of participles only highlighted the utter lack of a statement.

I was convinced that I was missing something there, but after reading “London’s Summer Morning,” I rather gave up on “January, 1795.” Again, it’s social commentary rooted almost exclusively in imagery, and although some amount of perspective is introduced in the last two lines, I found it difficult to connect with the piece because the majority of it is presented so impersonally. I gave that one a couple of tries too, but “The Poor Singing Dame” made me cut my losses and move on — it’s still social commentary, and while there’s at least personality and characters worth paying attention to in this one, I thought Robinson fumbled at the end when the Lord died of remorse. Frankly, if I hadn’t read those two other poems first, I probably would have been more willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but as is, it seems like she’s sacrificing the moral of the poem for the character, the exact opposite of the first two. A more interesting read, but I get the impression that Robinson can’t fit both into the same work. The Lord’s monument overshadowing the Dame’s grave claws back some of the symbolic meaning, but not all of it.

In short, I don’t think I like Mary Robinson, but if I am missing some nugget of poetic genius, I’d be happy to hear it and change my mind.

Robbie Burns Day

This article discusses the history and modern take on Robbie Burns Day, which celebrates Scotland’s Highland poet, Robert Burns. Robbie/Rabbie Burns, as Scotland calls him, wrote in his native dialect which became symbolic of upholding his heritage. The article discusses Burns’ impact on the writing world and themes he often discussed in his writing:

“The 18th-century poet’s radical messages of political equalitypenned in a time of populist agitation against the state have attracted both long-standing popular interest and scholarly debate. Scholars have also explored an ecological consciousness that pervades his work.”

For Robbie Burns Day, there is traditionally a dinner of haggis, turnips, and potatoes. People wear and adorn Scottish regalia and give speeches at supper. Selkirk Grace happens right before the dinner. 

The article discusses how Robbie Burns Day has made its way into countries besides Scotland. Locations and organizations such as the Mediterranean island of Malta; Dunedin, New Zealand; Canada; and Glasgow Afghan United have brought forth their own spins on Robbie Burns Day. During the pandemic, Ottawa and Dunedin were able to have virtual celebrations including pre-taped addresses. 

It’s very admirable that one man has had so much influence on many different countries for the content and dialect of his work! 

https://theconversation.com/how-new-and-auld-acquaintances-are-celebrating-scotlands-national-bard-on-robbie-burns-day-153380

Barbauld’s children’s books

Prior to our last class, I do not recall having heard about Barauld or having read any of her work, but I found it particularly interesting that she was also a children’s author. One of the children’s books that I found was Lessons for Children, written in 1778 after Barbauld and her husband founded their own academy, the Pelgrave School. Lessons for Children urges children to explore the world around them and is modeled after a mother teaching her son; it was based off of Barbauld’s methods of teaching her nephew and adopted son, to read. Lessons for Children was groundbreaking at the time, having bee the first educational work aimed at younger readers to move away from abstract and moral concepts. Learning was made effective by the introduction of ideas and actions relating to every day objects and activities that would have been familiar to an 18th century child. Lessons for Children was also ground breaking in the way that it was printed. Barbauld insisted that the book be printed in large type with large margins, so children could easily read them; this made Barbauld the possible originator of this practice. Lastly, these production changes made the books expensive, too expensive for poor children. Thus, Barbauld’s books widened the education disparity between poor and middle-class children, helping to create a distinct aesthetic for middle-class children’s books. 

https://archive.org/details/lessonsforchild00barbgoog/page/n6/mode/2up  

 

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