William Gilpin Three Essays Collective
Comments on "Tintern Abbey" and its context (Autumn 2007)
1. "At Nature's Shrine"
He collects himself on the brink of the Wye as on the brink of the sublime--this line that marks the entry to transcendence. Here, at this opening into mystery where "we see into the life of things," life is gathered up, its bits and pieces embraced into a whole. Boyish bits. Half-remembered bits. Broken bits. And yet he does not gather: there is that which "rolls through all things." A presence prods his searing loss, his grief. The dead trembles, lives. With her he's free, to roam their haunts, once more to grow, to soar, to heal.
2. Did Wordsworth Suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
While it is too early in the course to attempt to demonstrate an answer to the question I have used as a title, some sections in the poems assigned for reading for this class as well as some aspects of the essay by David Bromwich suggested to me that this might be a question worth raising. The following is intended to do no more than that at this point.
Bromwich says that Tintern Abbey "is a poem about peace and rest that one can know only by a sublimation of remembered terror" (3 of 11). He cites an essay by De Quincey on the murder in MacBeth, in which De Quincey speaks of "the world of ordinary life" being "suddenly arrested, laid asleep, tranced, racked into a dead armistice." This, says Bromwich, is an allusion to "Tintern Abbey," at lines 47-48, where Wordsworth speaks of a mood in which our physical life is "Almost suspended, we are laid asleep / In body, and become a living soul. . . ." Wordsworth has just referenced "the heavy and the weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world" (41-42) and goes on to speak of "darkness," "the many shapes of joyless daylight," and "the fever of the world" (54-56). De Quincey, in his essay according to Bromwich, employs this allusion to describe a "retreat from violence and terror" (2 of 11), rather than as the prelude to "harmony" and "the deep power of joy" which is the concomitant of an almost mystic vision "into the life of things" that it represents for Wordsworth.
Bromwich then cites a play, The Borderers (c. 1797-99) in which Wordsworth himself describes a murder with certain similarities to "the murder in MacBeth" (3 of 11). He quotes a passage from the play that I think merits attention from the perspective of the question regarding whether personal trauma or a detailed knowledge of trauma otherwise acquired could possibly inform its words: "In terror, / Remembered terror, there is peace and rest" (qtd. in Bromwich 3 of 11). These words echo lines in "Guilt and Sorrow," the original version of which Wordsworth says in a note prefixed to the 1842 edition, was composed sometime in 1793-94 with the "Female Vagrant's" story being written some two years earlier.
After describing the gruesome sight of a murderer swinging from a gibbet in a desolate spot, in Stanza X Wordsworth goes on to speak of this sight rousing "a train / Of the mind's phantoms, horrible as vain" in the disturbed brain of the male vagrant, under the weight of his own feelings of guilt for murder. He swoons and lies in a "trance," "without sense or motion." In Stanza XI, Wordsworth then goes on to describe "one whose brain habitual phrensy fires" who "Owes to the fit in which his soul hath tossed / Profounder quiet, when the fit retires." Thus, the "dire phantasma which had crossed / His sense, in sudden vacancy quite lost, / Left his mind still as a deep evening stream." Again, terror leads to "peace and rest."
Later in the poem, in Stanza XIV, Stonehenge and its hinted Druidic human sacrifice is evoked: "Even if thou [Stonehenge] saw'st the giant wicker rear / For sacrifice its throngs of living men" yet never a "wretch" had approached its "face" who "had groaned in deadlier pain" than this guilt-ridden vagrant. This is a grizzly comparison, raising the psychic pain of the present wanderer to the superlative. The poem evokes other scenes of psychic pain and hyper-vigilance, notably the female vagrant's terrified arousal from sleep in the abandoned shrine with visions of a "murdered corse" ill-buried in the "Dead House" (XVII, XX).
Such scenes suggest to me that these are descriptions of individuals, returned from the foreign wars, who are suffering from what we today would call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Wordsworth himself, in the immediate prelude to these scenes on Salisbury Plain, had, on the Isle of Wight, been subject to the roar of cannon every evening, according to David Erdman. The result was "nightmares on Salisbury Plain inspired by bloody warfare" and a flight from the apparently Stonehenge-inspired "horror of stone age combat and murder by 'his' nation" (qtd. in Bromwich 4 of 11). In an "Advertisement Prefixed to the First Edition" of "Guilt and Sorrow," "published in 1842," Wordsworth describes the inspiration for the poem while he wandered "two days . . . on foot over Salisbury Plain" after his stay on the Isle of Wight. His mind was fresh with the memory of the "American war" and "The monuments and traces of antiquity, scattered in abundance over that region, led [him] unavoidably to compare what we know or guess of those remote times with certain aspects of modern society, and with calamities, particularly those consequent upon war, to which, more than other classes of men, the poor are subject."
One may doubt whether the evening cannon volleys on Wight of themselves account for the grim nightmares and the compulsive fear and terror described in the poem. They may, however, quite realistically constitute what is therapeutically termed trigger events that are then further exacerbated by the desolation, loneliness, and eerie horror-ridden "monuments . . . of antiquity" he encountered on Salisbury Plain. The traumatic event itself is currently mysterious to me. I do not know whether he experienced the horrors of war first-hand in France, but there are hints that this may have been the source of his trauma-like symptoms. I have in mind two passages from Book X of "The Prelude" which Bromwich cites with quite a different purpose and interpretation (7-8 of 11). Wordsworth arrived in Paris a month after the September massacres and surveyed the scene of the atrocities, "where so late had lain / The dead, upon the dying heaped." He describes with what inexpressible horror the scene impressed itself upon him, which was "memorable, but from him locked up, / Being written in a tongue he cannot read." Yet he "felt" the scene "most deeply." He goes to his private room where he finds sleep has fled and he keeps vigil with a solitary candle. In this morbid vigil, he finds that "the fear gone by / Pressed on me almost like a fear to come." He meditates morosely on the massacres, conscience that they are "Divided from [him] by one little month"; he "saw them and touched," and I cannot help but feel he means that the touch, such intimate proximity to horror, left a dark stain on his soul. Trauma is characterized by such things as its inexpressibility, its inducement of insomniac vigil, and its inspiration of a foreboding fear.
The second passage Bromwich cites speaks of miserable nights Wordsworth experienced "through months, through years, long after the last beat / Of those atrocities." He complains that then "the hour of sleep / To me came rarely charged with natural gifts, / Such ghastly visions had I of despair / And tyranny, and implements of death." Then "the scene" changes, and Wordsworth finds himself, in his dream, "entangled" in "long orations, which [he] strove to plead / Before unjust tribunals," with a "brain confounded" and a "sense / Death-like, of treacherous desertion." Again, the sleep riven with horrid nightmares reminiscent of ghastly atrocities; the powerful emotions, here those accompanying injustice endured; the confusion; and the foreboding of a lonely death are characteristic results of trauma.
The article on Post -Traumatic Stress Disorder in the DSM IV, a standard diagnostic tool for psychological disorders, is instructive in regard to the question of how much familiarity with trauma these writings of Wordsworth betray. While there is no time to thoroughly review the article here, diagnostic criteria include "recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the event"; "recurrent distressing dreams of the event"; "acting or feeling as if the traumatic event were recurring," including "illusions . . . and dissociative flashback episodes"; what I have earlier called trigger events; "difficulty falling or staying asleep"; "hypervigilance"; and "exaggerated startle response." I submit that all of these are in evidence in the passages to which I have referred.
Consequently, it may be useful to analyze Wordsworth's work more thoroughly for signs that an intimate acquaintance with trauma has informed it. It may, further, be useful to read the dark passages in "Tintern Abbey" against a possible traumatic background. Perhaps Bromwich's comment, to which I initially referred, that the poem is "about peace and rest that one can know only by a sublimation of remembered terror" would be an instructive way to read the descriptions in the poem of reaching a state of equilibrium over against a possible traumatic "darkness . . . and the fever of the world" (54, 56). The same might be said for the lines I have cited in The Borderers as well as in "Guilt and Sorrow," where terror leads to peace, although this seems to have a slightly different sense, perhaps more precisely associated with catharsis. The healing of trauma does, indeed, involve a process which might be described as sublimation, which has affinities with the kinds of meditative states monastics seek to induce, and which involves the integrating of terrifying memories lodged in the primal and instinctual base of the brain, and therefore incapable of expression, into its cognitive regions.*
*I have this information from a psychologist, Dr. Steven Knish of the University of Alberta. I need to ask him again about the part the imaginative faculties may play in this process.
3. Terror, Trauma, and the Sublime
In a tentative and preliminary way, I wish to suggest that there may be a close connection between the Burkian terror of the sublime, described by Uvedale Price, and the terror of trauma, which I have earlier discerned in Wordsworth. If this idea of terror in the sublime can be transported into David Miall's description, in "Wordsworth at the Simplon Pass," of the unexpected sublime of the Gondo Ravine and related to his later reference to Alan Bewell's phrase, the "language of trauma," in reference to Wordsworth's description of the same ravine, there may also be a suggestion here of a psychological explanation of Wordsworth's rejection of the picturesque. The picturesque and indeed the beautiful, as described by Price and William Gilpin, cannot assuage terror, cannot address or deal with it in any adequate manner. The sublime, akin as its language seems to be to the unutterable and unassimilable terror of trauma, can.
Two issues have my attention here. First, perhaps Wordsworth is reflecting in these passages, evident also, I believe, in "Tintern Abbey," a somewhat unconscious intuition that, as Job discovered millennia ago, the positive sublime may provide a measure of relief and even of healing for trauma, though it can provide to definitive answers on a subject upon which there can hardly be answers. Secondly, Wordsworth's evolution of a theory marrying Mind and Nature, which Miall discusses, may have it origins in this recognition of the redemptive, transformative, and creative properties of an experience of the sublime. In other words, as some of the mystics before him had discovered, an encounter of what I will here call transcendence, such as those to which Wordsworth often attempts to give expression, has creative powers to change and transform the mindCor the heart, in the mystic term. These, perhaps, are the powers of the terrors that "roll through all things," in Wordsworth's conception.
4. Beauty and the Literary
The poems we have been reading in this course imply a code determining the beautiful, in spite of the Romantic repudiation of the stereotypical Augustan paradigms of literature. The implicit code is also evident in the writings of William Gilpin and Uvedale Price when they discuss the picturesque, the beautiful, and the sublime. Jago perhaps comes closest to making explicit both this repudiation as well as the continuing influence of forms of the beautiful upon poetry in the excerpt we considered from "Edgehill" entitled "Solihull." There we find reference both to the need for spontaneity as well as the value of rigour in training. We further find emphasis on the need for beauty, and what I will call "the literary," for lack of a better term, as opposed to the writing of hacks which should justly receive the wrath of the critics.
My question in response is whether, in the array of loco-descriptive poems presented for us in this section, we may find, in our response as readers, an unevenness in quality. That is, can we discern which poems are more literary, even without broaching the obviously vexed question of what such a term might mean to the Romantics? I am further curious to know what light the research of Professor Miall into empirical reader-response might shed upon such a question.
5. Peasants and the Picturesque
I find Rob Wood's second comment in the student responses eloquent in its last phrases, and, in part for that reason, convincing. I think this may well be a legitimate comment regarding the relations between upper and lower classes in the Romantic period; nevertheless, I wish to problematize his comments in two ways. First, I wish to review his observation that "the average peasant would likely be more intimate, less spectatorial, and not at all given to the schematization of natural form according to principles. . . ." Second, I will raise the issue of why a peasant would pay the salary of an arrogant and pampered clergyman.
To my first point, then, I would suggest that it may be necessary to the appreciation of beauty for there to be at least a measure of schematization involving comparisons of various kinds. There may thus be an implicit but unintended suggestion in Wood's argument that peasants are incapable of such schematization and appreciation. Furthermore, I suspect Wood's comment about schematization continues a perception of William Gilpin as imposing his rules upon nature, which I have resisted in class and would currently like to continue to resist. Gilpin seems to me, at least in this article on the picturesque, to insist on deriving his "archetypes" from nature itself and on modifying any rules accordingly. He appears to be resisting the Augustan insistence on prescribed or authorized form, in a way that becomes highly influential upon Wordsworth, for instance. Moreover, this process does not seem to me to be unlike that of the appreciation of natural beauty that might have been fostered by a sensitive peasant.
As a corollary of this and to my second point, I would say that, in parts of his essay, Gilpin appreciates humanly engineered beauty as well as natural. He can appreciate, for instance, "the garden" as well as the "the woods," or animals in "the field" as well as "the forest." His appreciation of the picturesque in human art or artifice, in human modification of nature, does indeed resist non-picturesque human invasions of the landscape, a point that is evident in the last paragraph of Gilpin's essay, which Wood seems to have in mind. This does not, however, mean he has no appreciation of any human modification. Such an approach might well find its most avid supporters among the peasantry, so close to the land and its beauty: it may be the greedy aristocratic and mercantile classes that are most guilty of creating ugly landscapes in pursuit of possessions. And one might wonder if Gilpin's more lowly parishioners might have had an appreciation of the sensitivity to the picturesque of their minister. Perhaps they, too, were its connoisseurs.
6. The sublime of terror
Charles J. Rzepka observes that the "critical writing on the Romantic Sublime . . . most often" cites "'terror' or one of its variants" as the "pivotal" passion involved in producing the effect. ("Re-collecting"). The readings in our section on the Gothic sublime do bear this out in the repeated references to "horror" and other adjectives descriptive of terror in close association with the mention of the sublime. There is a description in Ann Radcliffe's chapter five of The Italian which does more than juxtapose the two concepts by describing the emotional experience of the protagonist in some detail as she crosses a seemingly skeleton bridge across a terrifying chasm between two precipices. She enters a place of emotional tranquillity and calm that seems counter-intuitive; the scene then changes from terror to a placid plain in harmony with her exalted emotional state.
This description is reminiscent of other scenes in Wordsworth's "Salisbury Plain" where horror and stillness are also put in a causal relationship to one another. This invites further investigation, which I hope to do soon. At an intuitive level, I suspect there are also connections between this and "Tintern Abbey," but the connections are not nearly so direct and more difficult to make, as we have noted more than once in class.
7. Response to Lisa Szabo's "Gilpin Revisited, Once Again"
Lisa Szabo argues that "Art is a human creation, whereas nature has no designer." This may be her assumption, but it is arguably not William Gilpin's. Gilpin clearly would have seen art as a human creation, but, as a clergyman in a pre-Darwinian era, he would not have seen nature as having no designer, albeit he would agree that the designer is not human. In critiquing Gilpin, we must first grant him his assumptions. We may then critique his assumptions, but we may not accuse him of being misleading in his model, unless we can demonstrate such sleight of hand from within the model he proposes. If he uses terms, such as "nature's works," he does so consistently within a model based on assumptions where the works of nature have a designer, here designated as nature itself. (I will not here entertain the question of how nature and the divine might be related in Gilpin, a project of dimensions too grand to be confined within the parameters of this response and not precisely germane to the point I wish to make.) If it can be demonstrated that Gilpin elsewhere implies that nature does not have a designer, then it can be said that he misleads us here by implying that nature itself is the designer; Szabo does not do this. Without that demonstration, we cannot impose our own assumptions upon Gilpin and then accuse him of being misleading because he does not accept them.
Szabo is arguing that Gilpin "derives his views from art and not from nature" and that "his archetypes (or prototypes?) for the picturesque come from an art aesthetic." She elaborates this latter statement by saying, "In other words, nature is analogous to art and not the other way around -- art is not analogous to nature." I am not sure what to make of the idea, which this sentence appears to involve, that there are no similarities or parallels between art and nature, nothing analogous from which comparisons can be drawn: she attempts to say that analogies can be drawn between nature and art but that there are no analogies between art and nature. She later claims, however, that "an aesthetic" can be drawn "from nature," suggesting that Wordsworth moves in this direction, which implies there are analogies between art and nature. In the sentence I am considering here, Szabo would appear to mean essentially that art is not derived from nature and cannot be, presumably because "nature has no designer," which is the assertion to which her next sentence leads.
Gilpin, on the other hand, assumes both that nature has a designer and, consistent with this, that there are analogies between art and nature for this very reason. Consequently, he can insist, consistently and without misleading, that art can be derived from nature. Whether or not he succeeds in doing this, as he would claim, is another matter. If one grants his assumptions, then the possibility exists that he did; a statement that he did not would require support. If one does not grant his assumptions, making the further claim that his argument is misleading is redundant: if the assumptions are false, the argument is necessarily misleading. In other words, the fault then lies not with Gilpin's misleading logic in the argument but with his faulty assumptions. Szabo may disagree with Gilpin's assumptions, but she must then dismantle those and not impugn the logic of the model which he builds on them. She cannot, to put the point otherwise, say "he derives his views from art and not from nature" because she does not agree with his assumption that art can be derived from nature unless she demonstrates that he cannot do so because the assumption is false. Then she may proceed to show that his logic is in fact circuitous and evince evidence that in actuality his principles of art come simply from art and nowhere else and that he has wrongly assumed the conclusion that his art derives from nature because that is an impossibility.
Alternatively, Szabo may set to one side the issue of Gilpin's assuming design in nature and, instead, give other kinds of evidence for a narrower contention that his principles come from art, for instance, by showing unmistakable parallels between his categories and the categories of a particular school of art. Of course, Gilpin would probably counter that this school had also derived its categories from nature, the great archetype of art, but, by this method doubt would be cast upon the unmediated derivation of his archetypes from nature. From his article, we do not know whether or not he would contend that the derivation was unmediated, but such a discussion would help us, at least, to sort out possible influences upon him and to weigh how such influences might have affected his approach or lack thereof to ecology. To argue, however, as she appears to do, that Gilpin is circuitous because art is designed and intentional and Gilpin's picturesque is designed and so derived from art would require evidence that design can originate nowhere but in art.
Of course, the question of whether or not there is design in nature is rather a vast philosophical debate which may be beyond the limits and time constraints imposed by this class. It also involves a daunting discussion of how meaning or intention in nature might arise in "an aesthetic" drawn "from nature" if we should posit that there is no design in nature. Can there be meaning and comparison, good, better, best, where there is no intention? Szabo implies in her discussion that there cannot, since "art aesthetics is predicated on artistic intention"; such art necessitates paying "attention to correct and 'incorrect' composition" which implies an intention she claims does not exist in nature: for something to be correct or incorrect, right or wrong, good or bad requires intention and choice.
Indeed, Szabo struggles to keep the idea of design and intention out of the idea of nature, as I have already hinted. If, as she suggests, Wordsworth can derive an aesthetic from nature, and if an aesthetic implies intention, as she argues, then perhaps she has inadvertently posited that nature has an intentional design, or else how would Wordsworth or anyone derive an aesthetic from it? Szabo does claim an aesthetic derived from nature is possible: it is conceivable "to see the why and how of leaf and rock," something she says Wordsworth approaches in "Tintern Abbey." I note that there Wordsworth does explicitly posit "A presence" that dwells in "the light of setting suns / And the round ocean, and the living air, / And the blue sky, and the mind of man" -- in nature in other words -- "a spirit that impels / All thinking things, all objects of thought, / And rolls through all things." He declares that "nature" is "the nurse, / The guide, the guardian of [his] heart, and soul / Of all [his] moral being." One cannot speak of such things as "dwelling" and "thinking" and guidance and guarding and morality without countenancing the idea of design and intention. If an aesthetic involves design, as Szabo suggests, the possibility of deriving an aesthetic from nature that has no design is non-existent. The design must then always be imposed from without, and, if the imposition comes from one who is part of nature, as ecology would seem to insist, then how the design arises becomes problematic.
The very term "ecology," which Szabo employs, implies organization: it is the science that "deals with the relations of living organisms to their surroundings, their habits and modes of life." Etymologically, it derives from the idea of the science or discipline of the household and is also related to economy, the law, rule, management, or organization of the household (OED). The term, perhaps inadvertently, imports ideas of organization, order, purpose, and design, and the possibility of a science of these things, into the discussion. Szabo also appears to struggle with the difficulty of keeping design out of the idea of nature when she states that a judgement based on the comparison of "a mountain . . . to the principles of mural design . . . removes agency from the natural environment." I may be misunderstanding her point, but this appears to argue for the agency of nature, which may imply design-she has just said that the mountains are not designed, and I have difficulty seeing how introducing an agency here which has no intention and that should not be but is removed advances the argument-but elsewhere she is arguing against design in nature.
I am not necessarily arguing that Gilpin did not derive his aesthetic of the picturesque from the conventions of art. Szabo may intuitively be right about this, as I suspect she has been other times. My contention is simply that to argue this particular point convincingly would require a different kind of argument than she presents and would necessitate, first of all, that she would engage him on his own ground. That has been a significant part of my concern in our debate as a class on Gilpin. As I have pointed out, to quote my response to Rob Wood, Gilpin insists that he is "deriving his 'archetypes' from nature itself" and that he is "modifying any rules accordingly." If we say he is not doing so, we must first acknowledge his assumption that his project is tenable. We may then show that his assumption is wrong using a method akin to what I have delineated, or we may show that he indeed has done something else by evincing the necessary evidence to demonstrate that his archetypes derive from another source. The arguments on this question presented to this point have not convinced me that we have taken Gilpin on his own terms and thus granted him his own voice in the debate. Giving him and all of the dead -- I write as one interested in the mystics! -- their rightful voice in the debate in our literary work is the main point for which I contend. Szabo's further and concluding point that Wordsworth comes closer than Gilpin to being ecologically sensitive is well-taken however, and I think she has presented some evidence of this elsewhere, as she says.
1. Initial Reflections on "Tintern Abbey"
Returning to this quiet, ecstatic poem, I find myself fascinated by the poet's desire to commune with Nature, to read the enigmatic streams, mounts, and forests, as if they are part of a sacred text. Wordsworth certainly approaches his surroundings like an avid reader. Though he is initially engaging in an admittedly pleasurable "ramble," Wordsworth's journey deftly moves centripetally from outer scenery to the inner landscape of his imagination, emotional convictions, and observations. Subsequently, as in the process of critical reading- a simultaneously physical and mental endeavor- Wordsworth moves into the realm of interpretation and analysis. The secretive Wye and the archetypal settings around him then, act as portals into increasingly climatic revelations.
Furthermore, it is interesting to consider the balmic role of Nature in "Tintern Abbey." Indeed, the sublime act of re-reading the discourse of nature, "these forms of beauty" (24), is likened by Wordsworth to a soothing intellectual rejuvenation: "In which the heavy and the weary weight/ Of all this unintelligible world/ Is lightened" (40-1). By attempting to "see into the life of things" (49), Wordsworth seems to be engaging in a comforting and "phenomenal experience of meaning making" (to quote a phrase from Allison's response to my response). Yet, though the bard recognizes that he is a more sophisticated interpreter of Nature than he used to be, as a "thoughtless youth," Wordsworth is careful to acknowledge the mysteries of Nature (and life). Nature can never be fully comprehended, any more than the soul. More than once in the poem, Wordsworth tentatively shies off of revelations on the pantheistic nature of things (lines 50 and 113 for example); thus, he imbues the text with a compelling ambiguity. However, Wordsworth clearly sets up the "language" of Nature as a stark contrast to the profane, false, and "dreary intercourse of daily life" (132). Ultimately, Wordsworth seems to suggest that the act of thoughtfully engaging with Nature's "lovely forms" (141), can engender a profound perspective, and a deeper sense of purpose and joy.
2. Wordsworth and the French Revolution
What fascinates me when I reconsider "Tintern Abbey" through the lens of the French Revolution, and Bromwich's article in particular (especially his suggestion that the poem is "about the peace and rest that one can know only by the sublimation of remembered terror" ), is the tension between Wordsworth's apparent flight/withdrawal from the "unintelligibility" of the world, and seeming relish in the disturbing "terrors" of sublime Nature. Like the unintelligible world, Nature is essentially unknowable, a "presence that disturbs," a "motion and a spirit." As well, it is interesting that in this poetic "retreat" into a Nature that is emphasized as anarchical in itself ("wild secluded scene" [line 6], "wild green landscape" [line 15], the hedgerows "hardly hedgerows, little lines/ Of sportive wood run wild " [16-17]), Wordsworth is restoring a painful remembrance -- ritualistically marking and recalling the time he fled to this same place "more like a man/ Flying from something that he dreads " (71-72). The role of Nature in this poem then becomes increasingly problematic, and I realize that I have indeed forced my contemporary assumptions of the Romantic ideology onto this poem. Thinking of Nature solely in terms of the purely restorative becomes increasingly difficult, especially in light of Burke's definition of the sublime as ""Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger or operates in a manner analogous to terror" (On the Sublime and Beautiful).
3. On the Picturesque
The term picturesque was first introduced by Reverend William Gilpin in An Essay on Prints (1768), in which he vaguely defined it as "a term expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture" (qtd. in Ross 271). Gilpin expanded on the aesthetic ideal in his 1782 travel guide: Observations of the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, etc. relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, made in the summer of the year 1770. This instructional book was meant to inform the artistic tastes of privileged leisurely travelers, and provide them with a new set of principles through which to experience and depict landscape. A principle of beauty never far from a comparative discussion of its close relatives, the beautiful and the sublime, the picturesque aesthetic standard was further fleshed out by Richard Payne Knight (An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste), and Uvedale Price, in "An Essay on the Picturesque, as Compared with the Sublime and Beautiful; and on the Use of Studying Pictures, for the Purpose of Improving Real Landscape" (published in1796). This fashionable, anti-Classical perspective on beauty- which exalted in the stylized irregularity of shapes, composition, and lighting- reigned over the tastes of the English artistic community in the 18th and 19th centuries: art historian David Watkin asserts that between 1730 and 1830, "English poets, painters, travelers, gardeners, architects, connoisseurs, dilettanti, were united in their emphasis on the primacy of pictorial values. The Picturesque became the universal mode of vision " (qtd. in Ross 271).
In his seminal essay on the picturesque mode of vision, Gilpin associates the picturesque with desire: the desire of the hunt, the pursuit of novelty. In viewing and finally stylizing a landscape in this new "mode," the hunter artist obtains the object of his desire; he is "gratified with the attainment of the object." This "particular species of beauty," is characterized by its rolicsome variety, its labyrinthine variances, and its rough textures. Ultimately, for Gilpin, the picturesque is married to the pleasures of the eye. The bliss of the picturesque eye supersedes the reflection of the observer's intellectual faculties: "We are most delighted, when some grand scene, though perhaps of incorrect composition, rising before the eye, strikes us beyond the power of thought--- when the vox faucibus haeret; and every mental operation is suspended " Gilpin asserts that it is in this delicious suspension, this "pause of intellect," that the picturesque viewer derives its pleasure.
Gilpin further associates the mediation of the picturesque with the eye, when he relates the artist's imagination with the visual: "The imagination becomes a camera obscura, only with this difference the imagination is chastened by rules of art, forms it's pictures, not only from the most admirable parts of nature; but in the best taste." Thus, the initial pleasure experienced by the eye, translates into a discerningly selective process that standardizes and conforms natures to the picturesque fashion. Furthermore, Gilpin encourages his readers to make sketches using a "Claude Glass," named for the 17th century landscape painter Claude Lorraine. This glass, also commonly known as a "black mirror," was a slightly convex mirror with a tinted surface. Used by picturesque-hunters traveling through the Lake District, artists, and connoisseurs of landscape and landscape painting, the glass functioned on the principle of abstraction, obscuring its subject: "reducing and simplifying the color and tonal range of scenes and scenery to give a painterly quality" (Wikipedia Encyclopedia). As well, the observer had to turn his or her back to the scene and observe the framed view through the obscured mirror. Consequently, the use of these distancing mirrors was much satirized. The writer Hugh Sykes Davies made a particularly cutting observation: "It is very typical of their attitude to Nature that such a position should be desirable."
Developing Gilpin's ideas into a more expansive treatise, Uvedale Price, in his essay "On the Picturesque," declares that the picturesque "appears to hold station between beauty and sublimity" (Chapter Four), and that both benefit when combined with its particular properties. Uvedale quickly establishes a distinction between the fresh polish, and smooth veneer of beauty, as opposed to the roughly coquettish picturesque. He is also clear that the picturesque is not synonymous with deformity; it must perpetuate a picture of stylized intricacy and variety. When held in light of the sublime, defined in Edmund Burke's terms, Uvedale states that the picturesque has no relation to dimension; it can be found in the miniature and vast. Uvedale emphasizes that the picturesque enhances the beautiful and sublime in fusion: "when mixed with either of the other characters, corrects the languor of beauty, or the tension of sublimity." For Uvedale, the marriage of the beautiful and the picturesque might be glimpsed in a Grecian sculpture with a cracked nose. Furthermore, Uvedale also defines the principles of the picturesque as linked mostly to visual stimulation; even when he refers to the tactile, for instance, the softness of a picturesque view, it is still conflated with the visual sense.
Though this aesthetics of distance, this treatise of carefully arranged asymmetry was exceedingly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, it nonetheless fell out of favour with parts of the artistic community, including Wordsworth, who began to articulate the experience of man in nature as one that must move beyond the realm of pictorial pleasures and representation. This development is evident in the poet's Prelude (1805), where he suggests his discomfort in being reigned solely by the "most despotic of our senses" (XI, 173). The picturesque also fell into the satirizing hands of such artists as Jane Austen, who notably lampooned the fashionable "rules of mimic art" (Prelude 1805, XI, 154), in her Pride and Prejudice, with Elizabeth Bennet's teasing refusal to join Mr. Darcy and the Bingley sisters on a walk: "You are charmingly group'd, and . . . The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth."
Gilpin, William, from Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty, 2nd edition (1794). Essay II. On Picturesque Travel.
Price, Uvedale. On the Picturesque: Chapter 4.
Ross, Stephanie. "The Picturesque: An Eighteenth Century Debate." Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism. 46 (2): 1987, 271-279.
Wikipedia Encyclopedia. 2007. Wikipedia Foundation. 29 Sept 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page.
4. Surrender and Resistance: Poetic Tension in Gray and Jago as an Analytical Lens for Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey"
The topographical poems "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" and "Solihull," composed respectively by Thomas Gray and Richard Jago, both conjure conventionalized mythologisations of youth that are strikingly tense. Slipping from the loco-descriptive (in terms of solely exalting locale), into the moody realm of the elegiac, these poems are marked by a similar array of tropes, including masculine discontinuity, loss, and picturesque nature as mentor, muse, and backdrop for childhood paradise. Most compellingly, as they work from within the trope of return, both texts constantly negotiate between surrender and resistance. After a comparative examination of Gray's 1747 ode, and Jago's 1767 "Solihull," I will re-examine Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" through the lens of their intersection. Surely, many of the same tropes can be found in Wordsworth's "lines;" I would suggest however, that while all three poems share an insistence on retrospection, Gray and Jago's poems dwell on the melancholy notes of resignation, while Wordsworth's all-encompassing view of experience and nature is manifest with the implicit desire to assemble a tentative continuity. His vision allows him to imagine perhaps, a new "type" of innocence, an aged innocence.
As the speaker of Gray's "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" fixes his view on the picturesque, variegated landscape surrounding Eton, "Of grove, of lawn, of mead survey, / Whose turf, whose shade, whose flowr's among " (7-8), his physical distance from the scene emphasizes a divide between him and the locale. In fact, the speaker's attention quickly retreats from the "distant spires, ye antique tow'rs" (1) and the grave of Henry V1, moving instead onto "Father Thames" (21). However, as he sighs, "Ah happy hills, ah, pleasing shade" (11), he swiftly disturbs this observation with "Ah, fields belov'd in vain" (12). Thus, the adjectives "happy" and "pleasing" ring false, and are imbued with a tone of irony and skepticism. Indeed, as he remembers his "careless childhood" (13) along these banks, he is simultaneously mesmerized and resistant to the gales of wind which bestow "A momentary bliss" (16), as they wave "fresh their gladsome wing, /My weary soul they seem to soothe, And, redolent of joy and youth, /To breath a second spring" (18-20). Experiencing a transient pleasure at this contact, the speaker betrays a hint of desire for a sort of baptismal, water-rebirth (associated with the romance of his past and childhood), yet keeps this desire in check with "seem to soothe" (18; my emphasis).
There are further hints of tension within Gray's poem, even as the speaker meditates upon images of children playing along the "margent green" (23): within that potently liminal space between earth and water so commonly deployed in loco-descriptive poems (see for instance: Bowles' "crumbling margin" ("To The River Itchen" ), and Coleridge's "margin's willowy maze" ("To the River Otter" )). The "margent green" itself is sign of ambiguity, simultaneously signaling the child's intimacy with nature, and proximity to the fact of imminent change. As well, the children's games are informed by a masculine ancestry; for instance, the sportive children are child-hunters, capturing linnets (27), an image that foreshadows the "ambush" of predatory misfortune and despair. They also engage in fanciful compositions ("murmuring labors" ) which are inspired by "Wild wit, invention ever-new" (46), but are "earnest business" (31), ever aware of "constraint" (33). Thus, even as Gray recalls the romance of childhood, often employing classically influenced diction and allusion ("What idle progeny succeed / To chase the rolling circle's speed, / Or urge the flying ball?" [28-30] describes a game with a ball and hoop), and notes the children's affinity with sublime nature ("They hear a voice in ev'ry wind, / And snatch a fearful joy" [39-40]), this recollection is filtered through a melancholic cynicism.
In the second part of the poem, Gray articulates why he feels this detachment, this tragic sense of discontinuity. With a reference to the interpolative call, "Ah, tell them they are men!" (which forms a deft contrast to the initial gales of wind that are only felt, not wholly interpreted), Gray's tenuous revision dissolves fully into a fatalistic melancholy. He asserts that man's discontinuity results from a tearing apart; this is illustrated by a profusion of violent personifications: "These shall the fury Passions tear, / The vultures of the mind etc"(61-2). Thus, Gray suggests that man's enemy is innate, and not only arises from within, but flourishes within the contexts of conventionalization and institutionalization.
Much like Gray's poem focuses a great deal of its narrative weight on the River Thames as opposed to Eton College, Jago's "Solihull" quickly becomes more about Jago's close friend, artist and landscaper William Shenstone, than the college he initially hails. Indeed, the elegiac mood of the poem recalls Milton's "Lycidas." Meditating upon the birch rod encountered at school, and the walls "still stain'd with infant blood" (23), Jago acknowledges that his childish fears have simply been moved to the censure of the critic. Identifying his education with severe constraint and convention ("with painful toil/ Through Priscian's crabbed rules, laborious task!" [29-30]), Jago shifts his focus to another, more significant artistic "education," one led and inspired by Shenstone in nature.
As he returns to view his "life's early morn" (4), like Gray, but with even more specific details, Jago describes a friendship that feeds off of a kindred passion for artistry and nature. The childhood pleasures these boys experience are derived mainly from the acts of engaging with primitive nature and creation: Shenstone helps polish Jago's "incondite verse" (37) and "call'd me to taste/ The charms of British song" (40). This certainly recalls not only Gray's "murm'ring labours ply" (32), but also Milton's sensual description of composing poetry with Edward King at Cambridge:
Meanwhile the rural ditties were not mute,
Tempered to the oaten flute,
Rough satyrs danced, and fauns with cloven heel,
From the glad sound would not be absent long,
And old Damaetas loved to hear our song. (40; lines 32-6)
Furthermore, not only do they delight in shaping from poetic raw materials, but also with nature's elements on the banks of the Cherwell river: "Or with him range in solitary shades, /And scoop rude grottoes in the shelving bank" (43). Unlike Jago's adult persona, who cringes at the anticipated lash of the "sterner tyrant" critic (8), the youthful figures of "Solihull," range over "hill and dale invoking every Muse" (53) with an energetic confidence derived from their fraternity, their "social circle gaily join'd" (51). Jago's description of young manhood is thus, much more optimistic than Gray's. Mediating on the famed Leasowes' abbey, Jago describes Shenstone's artistic genius in terms of mesmerism and power. Shenstone effortlessly manipulates nature to conform to his landscaping arts: " so liberally their crystal urns / The Naiad's poured, enchanted with his spells; / And pleas'd to see their ever flowing streams / Led by his hand " (57-9). His assertion of form on the stream near Leasowes not surprisingly results in an image of the audial picturesque as the remembrance climaxes: "Soothing the ear! And now, in concert join'd, / Fall, oblique and intricate / Amongst the twisted roots " (64-66).
At this moment however, the bright reverie dissolves and the "soft enchantments" (69) of Jago's imagination break down. We realize that the poet/persona is in fact physically sitting beside this "saddening stream" (67) while he writes (he is nowhere near Solihull as he composes), and that the groves of Shenstone (who has since died), are decaying. The disillusionment of "Solihull" is characterized not only by the loss of youth, but is most potently contained in this bitter moment of broken creation and the image of failing art. Jago's vision is ripped away from him at the epiphany that Shenstone is gone, at the realization that Shenstone is as irretrievable as his youth, and the artistic processes and energetic heat of this youth. He must cope with the fact that his poetic work now toils solely for the critic (and the solitary muse), not for a beloved fellow artist.
How can these two poems speak to Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey?" Wordsworth's poem clearly bears many similar tropes, including the Wye as muse, and the insistence on return. Returning to the abbey with an awareness of the ills of man, the "still sad music of humanity" (93), Wordsworth retreats to a vantage point beyond the poem's namesake. Like Gray and Jago, Wordsworth is arrested by a vision of youth; he is momentarily mesmerized by this vision that he sees encompassed by his sister Dorothy, written upon her body: "in thy voice I catch / The language of my former heart, and read / My former pleasures in the shooting lights / Of thy wild eyes " (117-120). However, Wordsworth is critical of the "coarser pleasures" of his own "thoughtless youth" (91). Though Wordsworth observes Dorothy's "primitive" innocence as an echo of his own former experiences, Wordsworth transcends the impulse to memorialize the pleasures of youth in this poem. The key to this movement is embodied in his seeking out what lies behind nature. This "movement" exposes an insistence on "rebirth," as well as the implicit desire to assemble self and experience, to imagine a mysterious continuity.
Similar to Gray, who feels the gales near Eton College as seeming to "sooth" and "To breathe a second spring" into his soul, Wordsworth envisions a rebirth made possible by sublime nature: "that serene and blessed mood Until the breath of this corporeal frame / And even the motion of our human blood / Almost suspended, we are laid asleep / In body, and become a living soul" (42-47). This passage is allusively baptismal, recalling the birth of Adam: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7). It is also interesting to consider this passage in light of Burke's meditation on sublime affect. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Burke asserts: "To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of our danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes" (Romanticism 5). Thus, in contact with that indescribable "aspect more sublime" (38), Wordsworth seems to enter into a new territory of unknowableness, a space where ignorance is welcomed, where ignorance begets bliss, and life becomes fresh once more, overlaid with mystery. This offers yet another compelling contrast to Gray's defeatist summation: "Though would destroy their paradise. / ignorance is bliss, / 'Tis folly to be wise" (98-100).
In seeking what lies beyond the visual aspects of nature, Wordsworth reaches for a sense of continuity; he does this most blatantly in the passage: "A motion and a spirit that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things" (101-103). This passage, held in relief against the darker ambiguities of the poem- hints of despair, repressed trauma, inevitability- becomes another moment in which the poem exposes a desire to translate wisdom into a "new" innocence. This state however, is informed by the poetic process of assembling, by the archaeological accounting of past, present, and future. While Gray and Jago derive much of their artistic energy from fraternity, Wordsworth finds his muse in the subliminal in nature. It is this language that he is straining to hear. While Gray and Jago's poems dwell upon the melancholy, Wordsworth attempts to transcend a solely retrospective gaze on the pleasures of youth. Attempting to integrate fragmentary self and experience into a tentative whole, Wordsworth proposes a force that can reproduce a state of cosmic innocence, a reawakening to the primitive and elemental in nature, "Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, / And the round ocean, and the living air " (97-9).
Works Cited (Beyond Class Texts)
Milton, John. "Lycidas." John Milton: The Major Works. Eds. Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg. Oxford: OUP, 2003. 39-44.
Wu, Duncan, ed. Romanticism. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.
5. River Margins and Mirrors in "Tintern Abbey"
I am wondering about the different cameos of the river-bank as physical and metaphorical setting that appear in Gray (as the children thrive and play at the "margent green" ["Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College," 25]), Bowles ("crumbling margin" ["To the River Itchen," 2]), Coleridge (in imitation of Bowles: "margin's willowy maze" ["To the River Otter," 9]), and Wordsworth: "For thou art with me, here, upon the banks / Of this fair river " ("Tintern Abbey," 115-6). This conventional symbol releases so many connotations for me which are admittedly very arbitrary, but perhaps can speak to the importance of Wordsworth and Dorothy's situatedness on the river-bank in "Tintern."
Rivers in literature; I cannot help thinking of the river Styx, that potent threshold between the realms of the living and the dead. It also reminds me of a passage in Dante's Inferno, Canto XIV, where Virgil leads Dante by the rivers of hell, urging the younger poet to mind his footing: "Look thou my steps pursue: the margins give / Safe passage, unimpeded by the flames: For over them all vapour is distinct."
In Gray for instance, the children roaming by the "margent green" and swimming "...now delight to cleave / With pliant arm thy glassy wave?" (25-6) becomes a potent embryonic image. This liminal space is lush, "green," and yet always signifies the inevitability of expulsion. At all times in "Tintern Abbey," Wordsworth seems to be moving within a similar liminal space, simultaneously riveted to and dispelled from this signifier of reproduction, difference, motion, slippage, loss and renewal. In the poem, the wandering Wye itself appears and re-appears as a mysterious fragment, twining in and out of the text, referencing the fragmentary process of assembling memory as it sparks the poet's "gleams of half-extinguished thought" (59).
The river-setting in "Tintern Abbey" also becomes a mirror-site of self-reference and narcissism. The first specific mention of Dorothy and Wordsworth standing at the river's edge - "For though art with me, here, upon the banks / Of this fair river..." (115-6) - is linked to Wordsworth's translation of Dorothy into a sort of mirror upon which he determines and reads himself: "...and read / My former pleasures in the shooting lights / Of thy wild eyes..." (118-120). Dorothy becomes yet another embodiment in the text of Wordsworth's assemblage of fragmentary self; a tool which he utilizes to imagine coherence. Is this act violent? He certainly seems to fragment Dorothy into a set of "parts"; she is all "wild eyes" (149), floating in the text. This parallelism between Dorothy and the river is certainly worth pursuing (if it hasn't already been beaten to death by the critics).
As a final, quick note, the river-bank scene in "Tintern" also recalls to my mind, another more blatant example of Wordsworthian narcissism, which occurs in "Descriptive Sketches," when the young traveler envisions himself as the center of a wheel of feminine gazes: "Around him plays at will the virgin heart / While unsuspended wheels the village dance, / The maidens eye him with inquiring glance" (40-2). I know that much has been made of Wordsworth's egotism, but is certainly interesting how he projects and reads himself by his surroundings.
6. Labyrinthine in Radcliffe and Coleridge
It is interesting to consider the strange triad formed when one considers Radcliffe, Wordsworth, and Coleridge all together. As one moves up this "triad," it is fascinating to observe that the human body (of heroine, persona, poet) and the body's sensations, become more apparent and integrated into the conveyance of perception. As well, as we move from Radcliffe's gothic through to Coleridge's charged "Frost at Midnight," we see a resistance to the conventional, and a move toward the innovative and spontaneously idiosyncratic. In 1802, Radcliffe and Coleridge would presumably be placed at different ends on the spectrum of Wordsworth's view of "good" literature. Declaring in his 1802 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, that "all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" (Romanticism 358), Wordsworth also takes a swipe at Radcliffe's genre, lamenting that the "invaluable works of our elder writers (I had almost said the works of Shakespeare and Milton) are driven to neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German tragedies " (Romanticism 359).
What struck me when reading Radcliffe was not only how the author wraps herself in a cocoon of conventional imagery and diction, in a lexicon that seems only to repeat itself, but how these choices work with her portrayal of feminine passivity. In Udolpho and The Italian, the cloistered heroine echoes her authorial creator; she is solely a voyeur. She views the outer world through a Gilpinesque filter, letting the picturesque eye rove over "shifting vapours" (Udolpho 2), alternating bits of the pastoral and "surrounding horror" (2; where is the horror?). Like the picturesque aficionado with a Claude Glass, Ellena is described as viewing a prospect "as through a telescope reversed, distant plains, and mountains opening beyond" (7). Radcliffe's landscape is at all times then, informed by a conventional taste that colors her more compelling descriptions with artificiality.
Like Radcliffe herself, who has not gained an intimate, bodily knowing of the landscapes she renders (in these particular readings) through imagination and artifice, her heroines are similarly insulated from nature even as they move through it. Even as Emily and Ellena come in contact with Radcliffe's protractor-measured precipices, they remain at a distance, always swept behind veils and into dark carriages. This is a fascinating parallel in Radcliffe; in the wild and within the gothic structure, the female can only be passive observer. Any sort of agency is bound up in the imagination intimating the sublime, unknown, and unclaimed. Furthermore, I also found it interesting that in the move from the wild into the man-made, Radcliffe assaults the reader with images that conjure the labyrinth. That Radcliffe's landscape is incessantly labyrinthine is enforced by her deployment of static adjectives and conventional phrases. In Udolpho, Emily is hedged in; for instance, she views an "amphitheatre of mountains, that stretched below" (2), and the roads are constantly spiralling: "the road wound into a deep valley" (2). Eventually Emily contracts to the centre of the maze, through gate upon gate into her "prison" (3), entering finally a gothic hall in which shadows stretch "along the pavement and the walls" (3).
Similarly, Ellena moves through a mazy landscape of mountains described as a "chain" (8), and observes trees which "gave dark touches to many-colored cliffs, and sometimes stretched into shadowy masses to the deep vallies, then winding into obscurity " (7). Ellena ends her journey in the hands of a hyperbolically sinister nun (perhaps her minotaur?). Yet, in all seriousness, the labyrinth is a fitting metaphor for Radcliffe's text/language itself, which is a prisoner within its own artifice and convention. The physical labyrinth also echoes Radcliffe's rather cut and paste, mechanistic vision of nature in which there seems to be "no vestige of humanity" (Udolpho 2). But this is too harsh perhaps. If Radcliffe is consciously making a feminist comment on the 19th century female predicament etc (which I am not sure of, as I have not read more than these two fragments), then it is interesting how the static, picturesque, and wild is correlated with the conventions of the static, domestic realm. Is her landscape deliberately manifest with the sinister maze?
While Radcliffe's landscape is painted by the hand of a picturesque voyeur, Coleridge attempts to work away from the inevitability of functioning within a poetics. One way Coleridge enhances the idiosyncratic character of different poems, seems to lie in his sensual, bodily connection with nature. In the "Eolian Harp," for instance, Coleridge criticizes the artist who is passive in nature. He also evokes his sensual intimacy with nature, combining visual, olfactory, and audial pleasures: he watches twilight clouds "that late were rich with light" (6) and delights: "How exquisite the scents / Snatched from yon bean-field! And the world so hushed! / The stilly murmur of the distant sea" (9-11). Somehow, the archaic adjective "stilly" seems to move, it is rhythmic and song-like; it rejects its semantic identity: calm, quietly. It shivers on the page.
Furthermore, while Radcliffe's text is obsessed with interiors (the bookish imagination, the cloistered eye, the enclosures of nature), and always contracting in upon itself, Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight" is an opening, an unfolding. Like the "hardly hedgerows" moment in Wordsworth, in which the poet lets his language play, and betray its first image, Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight" showcases a similar moment of defamilarization. Like Wordsworth, who gets slowly (physically and poetically) warmed up (perhaps as the adrenaline starts pumping in the act of walking and climbing), Coleridge's apparently spontaneous composition seems to have trouble getting started. The owlet's cry disrupts his process, and then he incants the very conventional " Sea, hill, and wood, / This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood " (10-11). Meditating on these nouns, which he reaches out to as if they are touchstones, launch him further, deeper (to use one of Radcliffe's favorite word choices) into the poem. It is interesting to consider that in the act of dwelling on the familiar, it can become strange. For instance, if you repeat a word over and over, say 10 times, the word becomes hollow and seems to lose its meaning. Rhythmically dwelling on these conventional landmarks, seems to work for Coleridge as a passage into an image of the domestic made strange, a passage that becomes one of the poem's unique birthmarks. Coleridge fixes his attention on "The thin blue flame / Lies low on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not" (13-14). The blue flame, a domestic take perhaps on the Promethean spark, seems still, uninspired, but as Coleridge contemplates the grate, he is riveted by the motion of a "film" fluttering on the grate (15). This film signifies the absent stranger, and also Coleridge's imagination beginning to pulsate and flux. Thus, in this moment Coleridge moves from outer landscape, and instead attends to something familiar, domestic. Communing with the sooty film, Coleridge admits that it is an "Idle thought!" (20), and yet this moment propels him into the poem.
If Radcliffe's texts seem haunted by the sinister labyrinth, Coleridge's process is labyrinthine in its move away from convention, and its re-envisioning of the familiar. Furthermore, "Frost at Midnight" is mythic, it speaks of a new language (the language of nature), the language which Coleridge hopes his son will inherit. This desire on behalf of Hartley, surely reflects Coleridge's own attempts to invigorate his poetry with the grammars and conventions of nature. Thus, Coleridge seems to always be moving outwards, and I would put Wordsworth in this category as well; yet Coleridge seems to have a more bodily connection with nature, he senses its pulse.
Works Cited (Beyond Class Texts)
Wu, Duncan, ed. Romanticism. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.
7. Eloignment and Alien Nature in P. B. Shelley's "Mont Blanc"
I am curious about liminal spaces and the process of eloignment (in Coleridge's sense) in Shelley's ambiguous poem "Mont Blanc." Coleridge's take on the Chamouny mountain valley "Chamouny; The Hour Before Sunrise. A Hymn," composed in 1802, is clearly an influence on "Mont Blanc." Though Duncan Wu notes that "Coleridge had certainly not seen Chamoni when this poem was written" (505), Coleridge imaginatively anticipates the frictions of the living and dead, thriving and static, that make "Mont Blanc" so rife with tension. In a preface to the poem, Coleridge describes the blue-blossomed "gentiana major" growing "in large companies a few steps from the never-melted ice of the glaciers. I thought it an affecting emblem of the boldness of human hope, venturing near, and, as it were, leaning over, the brink of the grave" (qtd. in Wu 506). Shelley describes a similar moment of vertigo in an 1816 letter to Thomas Love Peacock, perhaps recounting a bridge-crossing in which he was affronted with his own mortality: "the ravine, clothed with gigantic pines and black with its depth below (so deep that the very roaring of the untamable Arve which rolled through it could not be heard above), was close to our very footsteps" (844).
Coleridge's 'hymn' is also illustrative of that "contemplation in withdrawal, or what, following Coleridge, we might term eloignment" in which " 'the Artist must first eloign himself from nature in order to return to her with full effect'" (Miall 11). Gazing upon the Chamouny chain, Coleridge folds in upon himself, meditating:
Oh dread and silent form! I gazed upon thee
Till thou, still present to my bodily eye,
Didst vanish from my thought. Entranc'd in pray'r
I worshipped the Invisible alone.
Yet thou, meantime, wast working on my soul (Wu 506; 13-17).
From this reverie, Coleridge refreshes his contact with nature, redefining this relationship as interactive and reciprocal: "But I awake, and with a busier mind / And active will self-conscious, offer now, / Not, as before, involuntary pray'r / And passive adoration" (506; 20-4). After retreating into himself then, Coleridge attempts to indiscriminately invigorate all things with song (or psalm): " And thou, my heart, awake! / Awake, ye rocks! Ye forest pines, awake!" (506; 24-5). This pantheistic chant is formulated to worship the Chamouny mountains which Coleridge envisions as celestial contacts: "visited all night by troops of stars" (506; 29) and likened in simile to the "gates of heav'n" (507; 52).
Similarly, in "Mont Blanc," Shelley loosely links the remote ice-scape of the Mer de Glace to the celestial: "Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps / Blue as the overhanging heaven " (847; 64-5). However, Shelley only flirts with the idea of a hopeful nature (and certainly shuns a religiose nature) like Coleridge portrays, much in the same way he dalliances with the idea of a solely humanized nature. This troubles his configurations of nature -- especially the anthropomorphized versions -- throughout the poem. Shelley's landscape is amoral and corrupt as it is restorative and serene, and I am not sure that I detect the divine anywhere in the poem. While critic Robert Brinkley suggests that "Mont Blanc" is "a staging of a Wordsworthian scene" (45), the poem also stages Shelley's fluctuation between his intertextual influences and his "own separate fantasy" (846;36), between the known and unknown, faith and skepticism, intimacy with nature and alienation from nature. "Mont Blanc" also stages a power struggle between the often cruel powers of nature and Shelley's investment in the powers of the imagination ("And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea, / If to the human mind's imaginings / Silence and solitude were vacancy?" [141-3]).
Can we apply Coleridge's definition of artistic eloignment to "Mont Blanc?" Admittedly, the process is hard to pinpoint at one exact moment in the poem. In his meditation on the wasteland-like glaciers that seem to haunt the white mountain's subconscious, Shelley revises an initially intimate (pantheistic) relationship of man and nature to a hierarchal relationship in which both parties are insulated and estranged. The primitive Mont Blanc remains "apart in its tranquility / Remote, serene, and inaccessible" (96-7), and man is left to decipher the "mysterious tongue / Which teaches awful doubt" (76-7) or go on a Wordsworthian "faith so mild, / So solemn, so serene, that man may be / But for such faith with nature reconciled" (77-9). Perhaps "Mont Blanc" enacts the process of eloignment in the inverse; by drawing close to nature while resisting the urge to humanize nature, Shelley is alienated by it, or taught of his alienation by the glacial "city," a characterization he quickly retracts: "Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin" (107). I do not necessarily believe that Shelley does not commune with nature; however, the poem exposes Shelley's self-conscious recognition that as a poet he is constantly imposing forms to make nature more understandable. Simultaneously, Shelley grants that nature is also always working on all life forms, like the glacier that creeps like a snake, or death: "The race / Of man flies far in dread; his work and dwelling / Vanish like smoke before the tempest's stream " (117-9).
The first two sections of the poem reference Wordsworth and Coleridge. They move with pantheistic energy and potential ("Of the ethereal waterfall, whose veil / Robes some unsculptured image " [845; 26-7]), and establish an assertion that man's relationship to other artists and nature is organic and interactive. Shelley references his own metaphorical spring's intertextual birth; not only does it originate from the mysterious glacier that he will discuss later, it is a chameleon-river (perhaps echoing the Wye) "with a sound but half its own" (6). As well, Shelley asserts that the mind of man is not passive like the Aeolian harp, though it "receives fast influencings" (37), it also holds an "unremitting interchange / With the clear universe of things around" (37-8). The third and fourth sections of the poem -- arguably the most evocative -- move into the otherworldly, liminal space of the glaciers. Shelley moves as if within a dream or trance: "Has some unknown omnipotence unfurled / The veil of life and death?" Here the poet's imagination roams, a foreigner -- "a homeless cloud from steep to steep (63) -- in an alien world populated by "unearthly forms" (61). This ice desert is also described as grotesque, the playground of old earth-quake demons. Upon dwelling on this purgatorial wasteland, Shelley seems to break the reverie. Shifting in section four into a catalogue of lakes, forests, streams (echoes of Wordsworth and pantheistic Coleridge) it is as if Shelley attempts to break the trance of the glacial scene, but the spectacle keeps impressing Shelley with a fearful lesson: "these primeval mountains / Teach the adverting mind. The glaciers creep / Like snakes that watch their prey" (99-101).
Shelley makes yet another baffling reference to the liminal as he fixates on the glaciers, in a strikingly visual and abstract image: " the rocks, drawn down / From yon remotest waste, have overthrown / The limits of the dead and living world, / Never to be reclaimed" (111-114). I am not sure yet what to make of this 'space'. It is completely vacated of all "insects, beasts, and birds" (115); it is removed from the cycles of life and death, and thus removed from the processes of production, reproduction, and the renewing processes of death and decay. Thus, it is a completely alien, otherworldly space. Though Shelley first instinctively dresses it in a metaphor that links it to the man-made ("city of death" , as if it were derived from architects), he quickly edits this distinction. The city morphs into a "flood of ruin," something he cannot fully know or understand. This is a threatening, strange, neutral nature. In his encounter with this static landscape that hedges in the movement of the mutable Arve, Shelley refreshes and edits his initial 'vision' of nature. This in itself is an example of Coleridgian eloignment. I would also liken Shelley's process to an archaic definition of the verb eloign: "to remove to a distant or unknown place" (MWO).
Shelley alchemizes a restorative, pantheistic nature that fuses all things into a rhythm of restoration and destruction. Yet paradoxically, this 'vision' of nature comes with the recognition of a disconnect of man and (an atheist?) nature. Perhaps what I am reaching for is that Shelley's nature seems amoral, whereas Coleridge and Wordsworth's nature is infused with the divine. Admittedly, I am still not sure what to make of this baffling poem, yet I look forward to further investigation. I am not surprised, with the initial image of artistic potential, "the ethereal waterfall, whose veil / Robes some unsculptured image " (26-7), that Shelley fixates on the grotesquely blank space of the glacier, so strange it is as if it were hidden behind "the veil of life and death" (54).
Brinkley, Robert A. "On the Composition of 'Mont Blanc': Staging a Wordsworthian Scene." English Language Notes, 24:2 (1986 Dec.): 45-57.
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2007. Merriam-Webster, Inc. 14 Nov 2007. < http://www.m-w.com/>.
Miall, David S. "Locating Wordsworth: 'Tintern Abbey' and the Community with Nature." Romanticism On the Net, 20 (November 2000). http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/2000/v/n20/005949ar.html
Wu, Duncan, ed. Romanticism. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.
1. First paper
Within Wordsworth's poetry I find a kind of conclusiveness or wholeness, particularly in his reflections about Nature. Perhaps it is the aphoristic tone that he adopts or more accurately, perhaps this tone is mistakenly mapped onto his work as critics and readers alike pull out from his text to place on posters and bumper stickers such phrases as " nature never did betray the heart that loved her" ("Tintern Abbey" lines 123-124). However, I do believe that this sense of harmony between poet and subject, this sense that Wordsworth knows his subject (Nature) and is telling all he knows, can be disrupted in certain ways. What interests me is where this sense of wholeness or completeness breaks down in the text and more importantly, to what ends interpretive ends can we use this sense of disruption. I am intrigued by the moments of instability that arise in "Tintern Abbey" where the seeming certainty of the text falls into question. Perhaps it is in the moments where Wordsworth speaks of "wild ecstasies" (lines 139), an almost sexualized image juxtaposed with the "sober pleasure" of the following line. What effect does such contrast create? I would ask if the poem reveals any moments of irreconciliation and what composes those moments. Where do we as readers and listeners encounter moments of disjoint, either between Wordsworth and his objects of inquiry (Nature, Dorothy, the imagination) or between Wordsworth as writer and ourselves as reader? Where is Wordsworth unable to speak in fullness, plenitude, or "aphorism" and in asking this question, can we articulate where even within the sense of contentment of contemplation existing in Wordsworth's writing there remains a deep questioning about the nature of the relationship between humanity and the external world and the action of the human mind in its imaginative experience. From a psychoanalytic standpoint, I would ask if there are moments of hysteria in the poem, not to suggest that Wordsworth in these moments is unable to articulate his emotional and intellectual landscape but rather to suggest that there remains in the poem "things" that are left unsaid and yet very present in their absence. Is there a place where language breaks down, where Wordsworth is unable to articulate that which is gnawing at his soul? This is not, in the vein of our conversation in class, to advance a New Historicist reading but rather to suggest that I find "Tintern Abbey" a deeply personal poem and as such, I am always left to question what of Wordsworth's emotional and intellectual landscape remains somewhat obscured. Where is language unable to speak that which composes our very soul? I would ask how Wordsworth, or perhaps does Wordsworth, endeavor to speak the unspeakable and what composes the unspeakable for a Romantic poet? Perhaps an interrogation of this question might advance broader issues of the construction of voice and narrative and the place of the imagination in writing in the Romantic period in general.
2. In-Class Response Paper 2
I am wondering what effect can be traced as a poet recollects an event in a space and time different from the one in which the event took place. Whether the event is traumatic, dramatic or momentous at the level of nation or community, such as the French Revolution, or central to one's personal history, such as Wordsworth's travels through the continent, there seems a certain effect produced when such an event is recollected after it is experienced. Perhaps I am querying what effect is created in the poem as Wordsworth recounts events in France and the continent while he is ensconced in England five years later, separated from the emotional center of his narrative by both space and time. As Lindsay noted, "Tintern Abbey" raises questions as well about the simultaneous representation of public and private "history".
With that said, this raises issues of how one represents memory, and in terms of public history, "collective memory", in poetry. Moreover, I am left to consider how poets reconstitute or reconstruct a narrative (both personal and public) and recollect and recount a history (both personal and public) from memory. I wonder what is lost or found when one is divorced or alienated or existing "away" from the site of one's literary subject? How is this gap, in time or space, productive? I suppose one can't always expect to be able to recount events in the immediacy of their occurrence, in so far as poetry has typically been an art of draft and re-draft. And yet, certainly in Wordsworth's use of the phrase "five long years" I am left to consider what is lost and found in the recollection and representation of memory and history over this period of time.
With the emphasis in "Tintern Abbey" on feeling, does the acuteness of feeling persist over time, perhaps clouding the poet's interpretation of the historical events he considers or perhaps aggrandizing the visceral quality of the memory? Conversely, does there exist a waning of affect that detracts from the immediacy of the account but in so doing, produces an objective and therefore "good" work of Romantic art, a "good" account of personal and public history? For Wordsworth, it seems the events of his history (and of Europe as a whole) retain their immediacy, lending to "Tintern Abbey" a rush of feeling that implies memory retains its vivid quality over space and time.
3. Response to Richey article
In his article "The Politicized Landscape of 'Tintern Abbey'", William Richey states as his purpose to foreground the degree to which Wordsworth deliberately engages with social and political issues in "Tintern Abbey" (Richey 190). He further states that what Levinson and McGann take to be "unconscious displacements" (Richey 190), lapses perhaps in Wordsworth's representation of the human pathos of his scene, Richey sees as "purposeful signals to his [Wordsworth's] readers" (Richey 190). Richey identifies Levinson's major critique of Wordsworth's writing to be a "repression of the social" but articulates that, in fact, Wordworth's poem is not a repression, a denial, or a suppression of history but rather, "Wordsworth constructs what appears to be a private meditation . . . which is, in fact, a very public poem replete with political implications" (Richey 190). Richey attributes what appears to be certain elisions in Wordsworth's text to the looming and strict government censorship at the time of the poem's writing (Richey 190). Ultimately, Richey argues against a critical perspective that identifies "gaps" in the poem, finding not elision but rather re-envision.
What each of these critics desire to engage with, in the context of "Tintern Abbey", are the omissions from the text. Although Levinson and McGann draw different conclusions about the motivation for these elisions, each writer is equally concerned with understanding what is left unsaid in "Tintern Abbey". Richey however remains faithful to interpreting what Wordsworth does express, and for him, the interpretive kernel at the heart of "Tintern Abbey" is Wordsworth's motivation to draw the "intellectual vagrant" Richey 219) out of his hermitage so that he might reinvest himself in political pursuit. Richey's approach characterizes Wordsworth's writing as a type of "strategy" (Richey 190), namely, writing a seemingly private poem that ultimately reveals itself as containing very public and political implications. Whereas Levinson might focus on Wordsworth's "unconscious" at best or "ignorant" at worst blindness to the social fabric of his scene, Richey sees Wordsworth as a very deliberate and conscious writer. In fact, Richey characterizes Wordsworth as a poet walking a "rhetorical tightrope" (Richey 191).
Richey characterizes Wordsworth approach, initially, as a "rhetoric of retreat", at least in the first two verse paragraphs, where it appears that Wordsworth has turned his back on the disturbing events of France to retreat into himself (Richey 201). However, Richey brings forth his critical assessment that this remains a deliberate poetic construction on Wordsworth's part, articulating that in the third paragraph there is a "shift in strategy" (Richey 201) such that Wordsworth becomes newly critical of his previous endorsement of the suitability of reflection and solitude. Ultimately, Richey concludes that Wordsworth uses "his own experience to address that of his generation" (Richey 203), and in doing so, Wordsworth encapsulates in this address his changing perspective on the justness of the French Revolution and its consequences, presumably a sentiment shared by many intellectuals who considered the events of the French Revolution and became disillusioned at its violence, its corruption, and its seeming failure on many levels.
Richey also identifies Wordsworth's break with Godwinism as a kind of stripping away of Wordsworth's foundation for political action and reform (Richey 208). Previously a source of stability for Wordsworth, Godwin's rational philosophy became for him and Coleridge a kind of fetter. What had previously served to anchor them now served to bristle, the strictures of Godwin's pronouncements on Truth and Doctrine seeming discordant with Wordsworth perception of how one pursues truth. In Richey's view, this break with Godwinism becomes a new foundation for Wordsworth's political engagement, not with rational philosophy, but with community and particularly with Dorothy as his philosophical muse.
On this point, while Richey presents an engaging argument about how Wordsworth's philosophical turn is explicated in "Tintern Abbey", I found this section of his article less persuasive of his general thesis that Wordsworth's text is in fact a larger, public expression of one man's private experience. Perhaps it is in the lack of secondary support for his argument and so, this is may be where the New Historicist argument may emerge, for if Wordsworth's break with Godwinism expresses a larger cultural and philosophical turn (as it very well might be) there appears little evidence in Richey's article to support the assumption that those reading "Tintern Abbey" would identify in Wordsworth's prose an expression of philosophical crises specific to Godwinism per se. Perhaps Richey's point is to suggest that "Tintern Abbey" expresses philosophical and political unmooring in general and therefore Wordsworth's private experience can be extrapolated as a general cultural and social experience, particularly for intellectuals disillusioned by the French Revolution. I remain, however, skeptical of Richey's argument on this point, but I recognize how situating "Tintern Abbey" within a larger political and philosophical conversation (including the writings of Godwin and Rousseau) destabilizes accusations that the poem remains idiosyncratic or bereft of contemporary cultural and social infusion.
Richey identifies, at the conclusion of "Tintern Abbey", Wordsworth's engagement with "intellectual vagrancy" (Richey 214), describing it as a common experience for all of those alienated from "the mood and policies of their own country" (Richey 214) and, presumably, for all of those alienated from their own personal convictions as they witnessed the degradation and seeming failure of the French Revolution. Richey emphasizes Wordsworth's recognition that happiness is transient, fleeting even, but more importantly, Wordsworth identifies happiness (or its pursuit) as a communal experience which he shares with Dorothy. Ultimately, Wordsworth goes even further, to purge images of Tintern Abbey itself of their associations with isolation and hermitage (Richey 218) and instead, to re-envision the Abbey as the embodiment of communalism and brotherhood (Richey 218), in part, in defiance of Godwin's ideals. Richey concludes his article by encapsulating Wordsworth's purpose as that of urging "intellectual vagrants" to re-engage with political and social reform, rejecting the monastic life in favor of community.
Richey's reading seeks to reinvest Wordsworth's poem with a type of urgency and engagement with political and social currents. It seeks to challenge the suggestion that "Tintern Abbey" is a text of inward spiral or mere pastoral. By demonstrating Wordsworth political and philosophical engagements, Richey suggests one interpretive possibility: that Wordsworth reinvested his political angst in the genre of the loco-descriptive poem. If Wordsworth leaves us at the end of "Tintern Abbey" with an impression of the tenuousness of the present moment, perhaps one might also conclude there is tenuousness in Wordsworth's strategy as well, in his ability to turn inward to account for intellectual crises; but that he tries remains a fruitful engagement with the text.
4. Response to "On Picturesque Beauty" by William Gilpin
In "On Picturesque Beauty" Gilpin suggests that "the first source of amusement to the picturesque traveler" is "the pursuit of his object." He then describes the "pleasures of the chace" and the gratification in "the attainment of the object." Certainly, this passage can be read as an exposition of how an individual fervently explores his natural surroundings in pursuit of great scenes and then revels in that experience. On the other hand, if one considers that there exists a long literary tradition of figuring nature as a female or feminized spirit and if one is struck by the characterization of the picturesque traveler as masculine, there emerges a slightly more troubling interpretation of Gilpin's description of this "pursuit". Particularly, Gilpin's description of the pursuit and the gratification in the attainment of nature as object evokes a certain sense of how the masculine might overpower the feminine in this "chace" and the "pleasures" derived therein. In its most insidious reading, Gilpin's language evokes an image of rape. If one resists this charged reading, one might conclude that the passage is a strange sequence of metaphors and analogies that suggest how the masculine spirit, in its pursuit of the picturesque, dominates rather than communes with a feminized nature. I wonder if this charged language would have been as obvious to the late eighteenth-century reader as it is to me and I ponder the effect Gilpin desires in his use of this evocative language.
With that said, one hesitates to read the passage with too much of an emphasis on its illicit excesses, for it is necessary to keep in the foreground of one's analysis the context of the writing and Gilpin is clearly discussing aesthetics. He is not writing a treatise about the sexual politics of his day nor do I believe that he is suggesting that the pursuit of nature is a metaphor for male aggression. Moreover, Gilpin does not overtly or explicitly figure the picturesque traveler in some kind of relationship of violation with nature. If one places a lighter emphasis on gender and the dynamics of power that exist between the masculine and feminine, Gilpin's description depicts how an individual enacts the mastering of his domain and conquers the exteriority of his experience. However, Gilpin's use of language foregrounds an overtone of aggression, with the picturesque traveler seeming to stalk nature as his prey. As such, a heavier emphasis on the figuring of nature as a woman leads one to interpret Gilpin's description as an extended metaphor of sexual domination.
For example, Gilpin describes "the expectation of new scenes continually opening" before the picturesque traveler and states emphatically that this kind of "exploration of new scenes" is the foundation of the traveler's "pleasure." There is a keen sense that in the anticipation of exploring what otherwise might be termed a virginal vista the traveler's mind is kept in "agreeable suspense." The "novelty" and value of virginal space is emphasized as the traveler contemplates the possibility of placing his perceptive mark on untouched landscapes. Nature is embodied in a certain way, as a space that "open[s]" to the picturesque traveler as part of his pursuit.
Very quickly this mindful contemplation becomes an active engagement for the picturesque traveler, for in Gilpin's description, the traveler begins to follow nature "through all her walks", to "pursue her from hill to dale" and finally to "hunt after those various beauties, with which she [my emphasis] ever where abounds". Now of course Gilpin is referring explicitly to the traveler's pursuit of Nature in the literal sense, as composed of various floras and faunas. But read as a scene of mastery, as a scene of stalking even, Gilpin's description emphasizes the individual male's desire and moreover his expectation that he can relentlessly pursue Nature, always embodied as "she", until he attains his object. With his use of the word "hunt", Gilpin suggests that nature is a source of prey to the male traveler as a predator. As such, there exists a certain pitting in the text of masculine against feminine, with the masculine having as its object of pleasure the domination of the feminine. Certainly women could be picturesque travelers, I surmise, but in Gilpin's description, the characterization is a firmly masculine essence.
Gilpin then writes "[t]he pleasures of the chace are universal" and here, he invokes the notion of hunting or preying a second time. Implicit in his notion of the "chace" is the suggestion that the satisfaction of the chase, the attainment, is in fact the ultimate
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