Wordsworth Today

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
 

In doing some Googling about Wordsworth’s other works, I stumbled across “The World is Too Much With Us,” a sonnet about the loss of our communion with nature. The sonnet’s narrator angrily accuses the modern age–specifically the industrial revolution–of having lost its connection with nature and all that is meaningful. The narrator states that we, as a modern society, have become lost in an economic, spiritual, and cultural sense. I find this sonnet particularly interesting because of how relevant it is in the 21st century; in an era ruled by technology and green paper. As a society–particularly, in the United States, as the paragon of capitalism–we dedicate our lives and our livliehoods to furthering the materiality of our society. We are out of touch with nature and the world around us, valuing its destruction to further our material gains. Evidently, Wordsworth values the health of our environment as well as the health of society’s and the individual’s connection with the environment. I’d like to think that if Wordsworth were born about 200 years, he most certainly would’ve been an ecologist or an environmentalist. 

 

Whitman and Blake

We have already alluded to the obvious influence of the Romantics on the poetry that came after them. When reading William Blake, I felt the connection was especially clear between him and Whitman. Blake clearly had a large influence on Whitman, as not only are the themes between both authors’ poems the same, but their respective views on the world seem to also be similar. 

Much of Whitman’s poetry centers on the “oneness” of the world—the connection between all men, women, and living things (all of nature): “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (Whitman, “Song of Myself”). The theme of oneness, as we talked about in class on Thursday, continued popping up in Blake. We see it in the poem “On Anothers Sorrow,” in which Blake outlines human empathy does not allow us to experience joy while others experience grief. 

We also see Whitman’s insistence on the connection between humans and nature in Blake’s “The Fly.” As Blake states in the poem, “Am not I / A fly like thee? / Or art not thou / A man like me?” The connection and oneness between a human being and something as insignificant as a fly, merely because both are living creatures, is very similar to Whitman.

Perhaps entirely a tangent, but just intriguing to note, the similarities between “The Fly” by Blake and “I heard a fly buzz” by Emily Dickinson are very interesting. Both obviously allude to flies, but both also directly deal with flies as harbingers/metaphors/symbols for death, which I thought was worth noting. 

Blake and Milton

I thought that one of the most interesting sections of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” was when William Blake discussed Paradise Lost. I took Paradise Lost last semester, so a lot of what we learned is still pretty fresh in my mind!

First, I thought that the quote, “Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling” was very interesting. Last semester, we discussed a great deal about what it was Milton wrote about free will. In Paradise Lost, Milton writes that God has given people free will because there would be no point in their obeying God if there was no other way they could behave. This is why Satan’s fall from Heaven is so significant: he has the ability to stay loyal to God, even though God knew that he would not. The implication that those who restrain their own desires are actually not strong, but simply have weak desires, seems to go against everything that Milton writes. Milton, I think, would state that those who are able to remain loyal to God, despite their desires, are perhaps the strongest people. However, I do understand that perhaps this is intentional on the part of Blake. It seems that he wishes to argue that there are certain human desires that it is unreasonable to expect all people to control completely. 

Next, I found the quote, “…the Devil’s account is, that the Messiah fell, & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss” to also be quite interesting. A big theme in Paradise Lost is Satan realizing that his mindset matters more than his physical location. In particular, Satan, after he betrays God, visits Eden and realizes that Hell is not a place. Rather, it is a mindset that he brings with him everywhere, since he has fallen and feels that there is no way for him to repent. It was interesting to think of Satan and the other fallen angels as making the best of their own situation and making a Heaven out of Hell.

I thought that the note at the end of this was pretty significant since it seems to give us a pretty good idea of what Blake thought of Milton! Blake writes, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” I did a little research on this phrase, since I remembered reading about it last year but didn’t remember all the specifics on it, and it seems to me that Blake thought this about Milton since Milton portrays Satan as the protagonist and a character worthy of pity in Paradise Lost.



Letterpress Printing and Devilry

As a printer’s devil myself, I was delighted to find in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” yet another link between letterpress printing and Satan. Twice, Blake refers to the acid used to etch metal plates as corrosive Hellfire, and note eight on page 165 discusses briefly the likely origin of the term “printer’s devil.”

The link between the two is stronger than acid-bath etching or ink stains on fingers, though: when Johannes Gutenberg first made public his system of moveable type, the near-immediate backlash was that the product was devilishly perfect. Scribes made mistakes, thereby demonstrating humility before God: a printing press creates clean, functionally identical products with comparative ease, and was considered reminiscent of the pride and arrogance of Satan.

The type itself, an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony, is born of fire, melted and cast into individual sorts, again with prideful precision; then, when it has outlived its usefulness, due to wear, damage from being dropped, or simply having been separated from its font, it is placed in the “hellbox,” where it waits to be melted down and reborn.

Letterpress printing even has its own patron demon, Titivillus, responsible for everything from a “q” being tossed in with the “p”s or a line of type going missing somewhere along the way to, in a seventeenth century edition of the Bible, the word “not” being omitted from “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

I think it would amuse Blake that Titivillus originally haunted scribes and was blamed for their mistakes, the same mistakes that would later be viewed as holy once an alternative came into play. Just as the “just man” must be governed by both reason and passion, prudence and energy, soul and body, so was Blake’s own trade beset by contradiction: its mistakes were demon’s work, while its successes were unholy hubris.

Plate 11 of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”

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.

A Closer Look at William Blake

While reading The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Visions of the Daughters of Albion, I became very intrigued in Blake’s personal life. He often references angels and devils, as well as addresses injustices towards women in his pieces; this left me curious as to Blake’s family and romantic interests. Why was Blake so drawn to the protection of women in Visions of the Daughters of Albion, which covers the rape and imprisonment of Oothoon? Where did his fascination with death come from? I researched Blake personal life to find answers as to why he wrote these pieces, and stumbled across a biography: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/william-blake

From what I could find, Blake’s brother died at a young age, possibly causing him to become fascinated with death. This could also explain his fascination with angels in his writings; Blake had visions as a child, including one instance where he “[saw] a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.” His parents were not fond of his visions, and they gave him a beating after he relayed the story to them. The time period he was living in also brought him inspiration for his writings, such as when he watched the mob that burned Newgate prison. Blake married Catherine Boucher, who he taught to read and write, and had a successful marriage with (but no children). His father died in 1784, probably contributing to his focus on death; with his inheritance, he invested in a business that soon failed. Blake writes a lot about innocence and experience, which he bases a lot on his own life experiences, as well as the world surrounding him (ex: the French Revolution). His focus on innocent children and angels and death comes from his brother; his focus on women and the injustices they face may come from his love for his wife. With the French Revolution at stake, he writes about the notions of what good and evil mean, in which people were reading his texts during a period of war. What is the true meaning of a “just man” if he is on the battlefield fighting for his people, but he is killing others? 

What I am most interested about is why Visions of the Daughters of Albion discusses women’s rights in comparison to slavery. In Blake’s mind, he has visions of a utopia which is why he calls out all of these injustices and includes women in this perfect world he wishes to create. On page 150 of our Norton Anthology, the introduction to this text states, “the work as a whole embodies his view that contemporary men, and even more women, in a spiritual parallel to shackled African slaves, are in bondage to oppressive concepts and codes in all aspects of perception, thought, social institutions, and actions.” Visions of the Daughters of Albion portrays social injustice towards women in a male-dominated society; if Blake writes about how men are slaves to the concepts and codes of a patriarchal society, how is he aware enough to have a differing opinion and stand up for women? Where does this come from, other than my assumption that he found love for his wife? In this article I found: https://bq.blakearchive.org/16.3.mellor Blake apparently believes in androgyny and sexual equality. However, his portrayals of women are sexist and often evil or treacherous, and his female characters rely strongly on men. So why is he tackling such a strong concept as rape and injustices towards women, when he still embodies these sexist and patriarchal values he writes about?

Class and the Pastoral in The Chimney Sweeper

“The Chimney Sweeper” (In Songs of Innocence, not Songs of Experience) is set during the period in England where the working poor could legally sell their sons to labor as chimney sweeps. The narrator was sold when, according to him, he was so little that he was barely capable of crying. However, the rest of the stanzas focus mainly on the very young Tom Dacre and what we as readers can learn from his dream. 

In the dream, an angel sets Tom and all his chimney-sweep friends free, and they frolic in meadows and live an idyllic, pastoral life. They are finally white, the black from the soot washed off. However, the dream is not meant to be an escape from reality, but the guidance of a shining star for Tom: he will not live in a chimney sweep’s hell forever, because one day he will die. If he is a “good boy,” then upon his death, “[h]e’d have God for his father & never want joy,” and all the pleasures of a Romantic, pastoral life will be his (19-20). When the next day begins, Tom is filled with peace, and sets to work, warmed by the knowledge that he will finally find comfort and glee in his afterlife.

When I read this, I couldn’t stop thinking about how escaping to nature was a privilege at this time (and how it still is now). The Romantic pastoral ideal was conceived of differently by the vastly different socio-economic classes. The idea of the pastoral is not class-based–but little Tom’s fantasies of it are wrapped up in his conceptions of heaven. The chimney sweep boys are living in such terrible conditions that they are incapable of fantasizing of how life could be different for them in that very moment: only in how much better off they will be once they’re dead. This is a stark contrast to other poems from the time that describe the very same elements (the green plain, the freedom of running over grass, the warmth of the sun, the presence of a river) but in the context of the lived experiences of the poets and narrators. Not all people conceiving of nature had to reframe it as heaven.



“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
 

This poem, written by Walt Whitman is one of my favorite poems. Although “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” was not published during the Romantic period (having missed it by a few decades) and has a subject matter of little importance, it reminded me of our class. Despite the poem’s conciseness, it feels as if the narrator has captured a moment in time. There is a spontaneity in the capturing of this hazy, dream-like moment that has always intrigued me. The line “Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars” has always struck me the most, filling me with a sense of peace and wonder that I had never known until stargazing one August night during my first semester here. I am from NYC and growing up I had always wondered and wished I could see a clear night sky. So in a way, this poem is near and dear to me, as I find myself relating it’s dream-like narration. 

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