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.
Barbauld’s last poem, Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, struck me as very different from the other works of hers that we had read. We identified a pattern in the other works: she starts out a little jokey and a little whimsical, and then carefully says or just hints at a stronger meaning/moral. She has a motivation, but it can be difficult to parse what exactly it is.
Eighteen Hundred and Eleven is not like that. It is a forceful condemnation of England’s war with France and its consequences (such as poorer quality of life back home). She uses strong and smart allusions (Greek and Egyptian history, Norse mythology, English history, contemporary scientific breakthroughs) to hammer home her point. And then, after all that, she is shunned; it is not a “lady’s” place to speak on politics, particularly against the motherland. Years of hinting at her beliefs in order to maintain a career, credibility, and respect–gone. As someone who thinks I understood what she was doing with at least “Rights of Woman” and didn’t like the message, I am disappointed to find that she was right to write and act the way she did, because it cost her her writing career when she stopped.
While Don Juan is the titular character, I feel that the main character is not him, but the narrator. Not only does his strong personality (reminiscent of Byron’s) color the events of Don Juan’s life in the eyes of readers, as his word choice indicates his feelings towards Don Juan and his family, but he regularly inserts his own opinions. Early on, it is short interjections, like in stanza 60 when he says he appreciates “handsome eyes.” Moreso, though, the end of Canto 1 just includes the narrator’s opinions on epics, on contemporary authors like Coleridge and Wordsworth, love, education, and generally life–and these opinions line up in a way that is more than coincidental with Byron’s own. Don Juan isn’t even an afterthought; he is simply not mentioned. The narrator is the driver of Don Juan’s story (deciding the order in which to tell it as well as the manner of conveying it), but the poem can continue without Don Juan. The narrator seems like Byron’s explicit way of presenting his own opinions, which might be why the epic can continue without any (other) characters.
We talked in class about his alleged sexual relationship with his half-sister that ended his marriage (his denial of this was not convincing). He kept a bear as a pet while at Cambridge and he would walk it on a leash like a dog. He ultimately died while he was waiting to fight for the Greeks in their independence war against the Ottomans. He was born with a club foot. At one point during his youth he weighed around 200 pounds, which was very heavy at the time particularly at his height of 5’9, and this triggered what we could call today a binge-eating disorder. Lots of evidence has been found of relationships with men and women. Apparently, by the age of 21, he had both gonorrhea and syphilis. Byron joined the House of Lords and was seen as radical politically, with one letter published against him using his club-foot as evidence that Byron was influenced by the devil. According to some letters that are now in the British Museum’s collection written to his publisher, Byron called John Keats “Jack Keats or Ketch,” a clear dismissal, and called his writing “mental masturbation.” The boat that Shelley died aboard was called the Don Juan in tribute to Lord Byron; they were very good friends and respected each other’s works a lot.
In “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats contemplates ideas of mortality, immortality, death, and nature through a nightingale. Like Shelley’s poem dedicated to a skylark, the bird itself is not described visually, and both poems have parts where they focus on the birds’ songs. Keats’ Ode is very musical. The stanzas are all structured through an ABABCDECDE rhyme scheme, and the lines alternate between long and short. The effect is a lyrical poem that gives the reader an impression of a call and response, even as about halfway through the poem, the topic shifts to the nightingale’s blissful ignorance of the effects of death. The nightingale has never known the space “where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies.” The bird can fly away, unburdened by a knowledge or fear of death and its imminence. The narrator is very aware of death, saying he himself has been “half in love with easeful Death,” but he appears jealous of the bird, calling it “immortal” and desiring to fly away and meet the nightingale.
On a lighter note, the musicality of the poem gave me the wrong idea of a nightingale’s song. I thought this was perhaps how a nightingale sounded, that it might sound like a call and response or at least lilting and beautiful, so I looked up some videos. In this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHclIUjWUiI) the nightingale has that back and forth, call and response type of song that I expected. However, the first video I watched (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XdlIbNrki5o) gave me a very different listening experience. I could not see at all how Keats thought his poem was mimicking this sound, nor why he would want to, and Wikipedia describes nightingales as having a “frog-like alarm call,” which I found accurate to some of the sounds the bird made here.
“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” is a kind of ekphrastic poem written about the way that Keats felt during and after reading Homer’s epic poems. Before reading them, he was sure that he was not going to be blown away, as he had visited the places mentioned, or heard about Homer’s stories already. However, reading them gave him, briefly, the spirit of the conqueror Cortez, surveying lands he is about to take on what feels to Keats like a “new planet.”
I really liked that Keats wrote this poem after being so inspired by a work of art, so after reading it I looked up “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” to see that it too has affected literary works. Apparently a children’s author named Arthur Ransome referenced it twice in his books. P.G. Wodehouse, the novelist, quoted the line “when a new planet swims into his ken” to describe the way someone else’s novel made him feel. I found the impact of this poem very poignant; it’s about how art made Keats feel, and then people have continued to write about how art makes them feel about and using this poem.
Coleridge’s Lectures on Shakespeare reveal a great deal about his thinking; he is consumed by the idea of form and origin. His Lecture expands on previous literary criticisms of Shakespeare as going against mechanic (which is following previously established rules) form. In Coleridge’s view, Shakespeare’s work is genius and grows “organically.” Having Shakespeare operate mechanically would only constrain his genius. Coleridge has not created these categories of organic and mechanic, and is just using them as tools to find flaws in Shakespeare’s critics’ arguments. It is clear, however, that he has respect for the forms by how he expands upon them to make his point. Shakespeare’s work is organic, a “living power,” that grows like a plant (506). He invokes the imagery of “African nature,” and parts of plants to say that Shakepeare’s work follows the laws of nature. This is interesting because his argument is not that Shakespeare does not follow laws or form, just that he does not follow mechanic form.
This is in line with Coleridge’s fundamental perceptions of the world according to his treatises. In The Stateman’s Manual, he uses the Bible to illustrate a form that politicians and lawmakers should follow in their work. In Chapter 13 of his Biographia Literaria, he creates the ideas of primary and secondary imagination, the idea of “fancy” as a “mode of memory,” and the word “esemplastic” to analyze imagination and the human mind (496). This fits in with the importance that he places on platonic forms and the origins of practices.
The introductory stanza ends with a question that Wordsworth appears to answer in the final stanza of Book First. He asks “Whither shall I turn,/ By road or pathway, or through open field” to find his future and follow his destiny of “long months of ease” and “undisturbed delight” (29-30, 28). He has escaped the confines of the city, which be describes as a “house/ of bondage” and a “prison” that he has been held in for years (6-7, 8). This follows a common Wordsworth theme of absolutely hating cities. He is a new man entering a free, unburdened era.
Interestingly, and perhaps coincidentally, the final stanza of Book First mentions a road:
I will forthwith bring down
Through later years the story of my life.
The road lies plain before me.
He has been replenished, and has all plans to continue happily and burden-less. His age has been alluded to varyingly; at some points he is an infant, at some points “in manhood now mature,” and in some his childhood (652). There are some constants from the first stanza, namely that he remains unconfined by a city, and the life of ease that he predicted appears to have come to fruition. I wonder if there is any significance to the parallel of mapping the future from the first stanza.
In both, he plans his destiny, but in the final, he knows that the path to his future is a road, whereas in the first stanza, he only presented that as an option. His future is not necessarily all ease, but a labor that seems fulfilling, which offers a different kind of ease. What is the significance of the road, if at all?
In “Lines” (also known as Tintern Abbey), Wordsworth shies away from making any kind of political statements, hiding behind the physical beauty he describes. He is careful to avoid saying what one might need respite from that would cause them to seek it in nature, and he is careful to not say that people are doing harm to nature (even aesthetically). He does not mention societal inequity, preserving nature, or political/international conflicts (like the French Revolution).
In “Nutting,” however, he alludes to accountability. He begins by describing a scene much like how he did Tintern Abbey. Part of the beauty of the woods is its lack of human disruption: the ground is “pathless,” the thickets and fern are “matted” and “tangled,” the nook is both “dear” and “unvisited.” The area his younger self stands in he describes as virgin. It is supernaturally, beautifully, untouched by human hands. While in Tintern Abbey he attributed part of the scene’s beauty to Nature’s godliness, in the hazelnut grove he mentions “fairy water-breaks.” He is made joyful just like in Tintern Abbey–and then, overcome, he seeks to destroy it.
When he comes to his senses again, and sees what he has done, the young narrator “[feels] a sense of pain” and describes his violence as mutilation. This is already more than any recorded reaction of his to the iron-works polluting Tintern Abbey. He appears to have learned a lesson, one that he tries to pass on to the silent interlocutor. He tells the maiden to exist in and move through the natural world “in gentleness of heart; with gentle hand” due to the “spirit in the woods.” Nature, he comes to decide, is owed respect. He condemns his own actions explicitly enough and gives advice, ostensibly to the maiden but likely also to his readers, about how to treat nature. I saw this as Wordsworth taking much more responsibility in his poetry and with his platform; this was far less cowardly than Lines/Tintern Abbey.
The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numer- ous senses could perceive.
And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity.
Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects; thus began Priesthood,
Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.
And at length they pronounced that the Gods had ordered such things. Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.
This excerpt, from Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” is where I saw a turning point in the work. Up until this point, Blake has been subverting in essence the history of Christianity’s influence on society. He has created a world with a rewritten Old Testament, Paradise Lost, and likely the New Testament as well. He created an unbelievable world where all things (that we would see as) evil were portrayed as good; the truth is not to be told nor believed, an imperfect road is a work of genius, all still waters are poisonous. The idea of this other world is so fantastical–and then this stanza, Plate 11, begins. This stanza shares a negative view on the world, yes, but not an untrue perception. The Ancient Greeks did create Gods to rule all the “properties” of nature and life in cities/nations. The concept of Priesthood as taking advantage of ordinary people (“the vulgar”) reads like the Protestant critiques of Catholic practices like indulgences. Broadly, this is a critique of organized Christianity, though Blake makes it clear that he sees faith as stemming from fairy tales and decidedly a human invention. It has gone too far; too many decisions have been made by those in power after cherry-picking from religious texts (“choosing forms of worship from poetic tales”).
The poem until this point is an inversion of society, and when Blake at this point changes tune and starts retelling Christianity’s origins, it makes the rest of the work, specifically his critiques, sharper.