autonomous nature.

“The western sun withdraws the shortened day;/And humid evening, gliding o’er the sky,/In her chill progress, to the ground condensed/The vapors throws. Where creeping waters ooze,/Where marshes stagnate, and where rivers wind,/Cluster the rolling fogs, and swim along/The dusky-mantled lawn” (Greenblatt 3045).

Who wouldn’t love James Thomson’s beautiful descriptions in The Seasons? His personification-rife poetry makes nature come alive for the reader. As I read, I felt like I was watching the heavenly “armies in meet array,” meteors clashing in the sky above Thomson’s scene. But when looking further than just the initial awe-inspiring descriptions, the reader might notice that Thomson is making some very explicit statements about nature.

As already mentioned, Thomson gives nature living characteristics. His moon “shows her broad visage in the crimson east,” and “even nature’s self is deemed to totter on the brink of time” (Greenblatt 3045, 46). Thomson, then, sees nature as its own force, something with its own characteristics and removed from human actions.

But not only is nature separate from humanity in Thomson’s poetry. It is also more powerful, holding a place above humanity. Thomson privileges nature in his poem, almost completely leaving out a human subject, until, near the poem’s closing, Thomson remarks on “the benighted wretch/Who then bewildered wanders through the dark” (Greenblatt 3046). This benighted wretch, the only mention of humanity in the poem, is lost in nature, falling prey to the “black and deep . . . night.” This visitor “stumbles on” while nature deceives with decoys. In Thomson’s poem, nature is harsh and uncaring, and the “rider and horse . . . sink absorbed . . . amid the miry gulf.” But, Thomson still portrays nature as indifferent, oblivious to the man’s wife and children, and this indifference of nature is shown when “at other times . . . [nature] shows the narrow path/That winding leads through the pits of death, or else/Instructs him how to take the dangerous ford.” Nature is not necessarily vindictive, but just indifferent and unfeeling.

The fact that Thomson ends his poem with a stanza again describing the beauty of nature reemphasizes nature’s power and human insignificance. Humanity is only briefly mentioned, and Thomson shows that humanity is of little consequence in the natural order of things. For, regardless of human fate, “the lengthened night elapsed, the morning shines/Serene, in all her dewy beauty bright,/Unfolding fair the last autumnal day.” Seasons go on, indifferent of humanity, and Thomson is the observer, the speaker, the eye watching it all unfold.

Noticing the speaker as the observer, we can recall Wordsworth’s poetry and see Thomson as a probable influence. But Thomson differs from Wordsworth in that the emphasis is completely on nature, not a first-person speaker’s in-poem reaction to nature, but simply watching nature act as nature.

The Lady and the Doctor.

As much as I am entertained by Gulliver’s Travels and “A Modest Proposal,” after reading “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” it’s difficult for me not to abhor Jonathan Swift. Fortunately, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu has already written a scathing reply in which she turns the tables on Swift, proposing humiliating motivation for his writing the poem in the first place.

Swift’s supporters are inclined to see his poem as simply realism, and at first I found that approach appealing, appreciating that Swift wasn’t simply another male poet portraying women as angels. Swift obviously is not putting women up on some pedestal to be admired and objectified. However, in writing Celia as he does, Swift communicates that his  disgusting creature is the norm, exemplified when “wretched Strephon[‘s] . . . foul imagination links/Each dame he sees with all her stinks,/And, if unsavory odors fly,/Conceives a lady standing by./All women his description fits” (Greenblatt 2769). Not only is Celia’s character disgusting, it’s simply unrealistic. It’s difficult to think that Swift would care what women thought of his writing, meaning his intended readers were most likely men, which begs the question of what Swift’s point when writing this poem was. Was he trying to expose women by revealing something abhorrent underneath the prettied facades? By creating an extreme, was he wanting to expose society’s shallow or incorrect perceptions of women? Perhaps in that light Swift’s portrayal is freeing, allowing women some room to be less than angelic. 

Still, though, women are the butt of the satire in this poem, right? Yes, Strephon is the victim, but he’s the victim of a revolting woman. Even if Swift’s use of the extreme in his satire is intended to communicate that women truly aren’t this revolting, a juxtaposition of his portrayal of Celia and Strephon still reveals very unequal perceptions of women and men. Strephon, a curious and unsuspecting man, falls victim to Celia, a gross woman. Furthermore, though, Celia is only disgusting because of her humanity, her very human bodily functions, which Swift writes to the extreme. Maybe I’m not making sense, but I have problems with this.

While Montagu’s retort is entertaining and probably what Swift deserves, I also have problems with her portrayal of men. Just as it is inaccurate to portray women to the extreme that Swift wrote Celia, so it is inaccurate to portray men like Montagu’s Doctor. A wealthy man with high social standing, he still pays for sex with Betty, and then when he is…er…unsuccessful…in his sexual attempts, he blames Betty and asks for a refund. Call me naive, but I think it’s unfair to write men as misogynistic swine.

It is interesting that in both pieces, a whole gender is defined by an extreme, and perhaps I am the fool for critiquing these satirical pieces on the basis of those extremes. But, satire imbeds truth into extremes, and I think that these extremes point to both Swift and Montagu’s unfair perceptions of the opposite sex.

Am I entirely incorrect?

writing ripples upon a lake.

It’s funny how history seems to move in circles, at least to an extent. Or maybe history is just history, and we create the circles by how we remember.  W.B. Yeats is known for his view that life occurs concentrically, expressed in “The Second Coming” when he writes:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
. . .
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand!
. . .
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I was reminded of Yeats’ circles as I read through Samuel Johnson’s critique of Shakespeare, and then James Boswell’s biography of Johnson. Though emphasizing many negative points of Shakespeare’s work, Johnson’s critique is still largely positive, and his view of Shakespeare is all the more enticing because he treats Shakespeare endearingly yet not with infatuation. Johnson sees Shakespeare as “above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature, the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life” (Greenblatt 2938). According to Johnson, Shakespeare is able to make his stories relatable to all, simply creating images of a life to which everyone can at some point relate. Obviously, modern literary theory raises issues with this argument, as essentialism is too easily deconstructed to any longer hold much weight in academia.

Boswell’s writing on Johnson is much different than Johnson’s writing on Shakespeare, understandably since Boswell is composing a biography and Johnson a critique. But, the two can be compared because of their love for their subjects. While Johnson very logically assessed Shakespeare, Boswell’s first encounter with Johnson is comical to say the least, and not entirely level headed. First, Boswell begs a mutual friend not to disclose where he’s from. The friend, of course, reveals that Boswell is from Scotland, to which Boswell replies, “Mr. Johnson . . . I do indeed come from Scotland but I cannot help it” (Greenblatt 2973). Boswell clearly tries to justify his origins to Mr. Johnson, and reading Boswell’s relaying of this scene enables the reader to reproduce it in his or her mind in a very entertaining way. The interactions continue in hilarity, though, as Boswell attempts to jump into a conversation and is reprimanded by Johnson. All in all, Boswell portrays himself as the overly eager and awe struck fan boy of Johnson, and Johnson as unenthused. Later, when Boswell visits Johnson at his house, Boswell criticizes Johnson’s quarters, “his apartment, and furniture, and morning dress [being] sufficiently uncouth” (Greenblatt 2974). I can’t help but wonder if Boswell is simply bitter about Johnson’s initial reaction to him. Either way, Boswell’s interpretation of the scene is entertaining.

So, what are these circles I was talking about? Well, as I sit on my couch and write about Boswell writing about Johnson who wrote about Shakespeare, I see rings emerging from a  common center. Even if circles of history do not exist, it seems undeniable that circles of writing do exist, because writing and thinking have such profound impacts on later generations. Is it possible to completely remove oneself from context when writing? And, even if one writes against tradition, that writing is still a reaction to–a result of–previous writing.

Right? It’s like watching as writing ripples upon a lake.

parts of one stupendous whole.

I must admit, when I started my Saturday morning by reading pieces of Locke and Pope’s writings, I felt that I was only barely staying above the surface, even with coffee. And, a few hours in, I discovered new motivation for exercising on a Saturday, for the reading made running six miles sound like heaven. Run, I did, and now I’m returning to my philosopher friends, even attempting to post about them. Here goes nothing…

To clarify, the two excerpts with which I filled my morning were passages from Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding and from Pope’s An Essay on Man. The reading wasn’t entirely inaccessible, just . . . boring. What should I expect from philosophy, right? So, personal feelings aside, these guys were putting forth equally significant ideas.

Most people associate Locke’s Essay with the tubula rasa idea, or that the mind is a blank slate when born and is then shaped by later experience. Simply emphasizing this point, though, glosses over the various nuances of Locke’s philosophy, and just my brief interactions with him left me impressed. In the face of medieval theology, a Christian mysticism of sorts, Locke is arguing against essentialism. Instead of seeing each person as having an essential make-up, Locke postulates that people become who they are because of experience. Furthermore, Locke discusses language in a very sophisticated way, speaking in his “Epistle to the Reader” prefacing his Essay about “determined ideas” and “determinate ideas,” seeing language sounds as signifiers for idea signs. When I was reading Locke’s discussing language this way, I felt like I was back in my Lit Theory book, reading Derrida’s Différance. While Locke’s philosophy shouldn’t be categorized with post-structuralist theory (for many reasons, but especially the 250 year gap between them), it doesn’t seem too far of a stretch to say that Locke’s thinking had far-reaching implications, affecting even modern philosophy, though perhaps in a round about way.

In that way, then, Locke is simply one part of a stupendous whole, as are we all, according to Alexander Pope at least. The famous tagline from his An Essay on Man reads “All are but parts of one stupendous whole,/Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;” (Greenblatt 2720). As I read Pope, I was immediately reminded of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which was most certainly Pope’s intention, since his purpose as stated in line 16 to “vindicate the ways of God to men” echoes Milton’s project in PL (Greenblatt 2715). Pope, though, seems more concerned with comparing the limitations of humanity with the power of a god. Pope does not strictly mention a Christian god, but just builds his argument off of a common understanding of the characteristics of a god in general. His thinking, it seems, is that we know that as humans we cannot know everything; therefore, there must exist a creator  who can know everything, and his actions we humans “so weak, so little, and so blind” should not question (Greenblatt 2715). Pope’s essay, though beautifully constructed, was very optimistic, maybe too optimistic, and I found myself wondering if: a) he was writing from a place of privilege, meaning that he had truly never experienced enough tragedy to shake his faith foundation; or b) if he genuinely had enough faith to hold onto his optimistic understanding of the universe that things were occurring in a right way. Or, perhaps he was simply writing, trying to inspire hope in an audience.

Locke and Pope are very different, and perhaps it’s odd that I chose to respond to them together in this one post. I thought, though, that their differences show the array of thoughts being put forth during this time. Whereas Locke celebrates human experiences as a way of constructing identity, Pope seems to propose that the human experience is inadequate and sometimes dangerous in creating a false sense of knowing. Whereas Locke seems anti-essentialism, Pope attempts to create a universal vindication. But, despite differences, both were well received, Locke as a thinker and Pope as an artist of words. And both are parts of one stupendous whole!

bridges of past and future.

When I dove into the introduction of The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century 1660-1785 volume of my Norton anthology, I was simultaneously amused by the sheer amount of political drama and the similarities between Whig/Tory conflicts and modern political party conflicts. Though “conservatism and liberalism did not exist as ideological labels in the period,” still, the basis of prevailing political debates of that era exist today, like finding the proper limits of government control (2180).

Even more interesting, though, was seeing the connections between this period and later ones, specifically the Romantic Era and the Victorian Era. Understand that period distinctions are largely arbitrary, as certain authors have birth/death dates in multiple periods and trends have been classified in hindsight, but typically the Romantic Era begins with the French Revolution in 1789 and Wordsworth and Coleridge launch Romantic writing in 1798 with Lyrical Ballads. Most historians begin the Victorian Era with the First Reform bill of 1832, and it continues until Queen Victoria’s death in 1901.

It might be easier to see the effects of this period on the Victorian Era, as opposed to the Romantics, for the major transitions that occurred after the restoration of the English crown to Charles II set the stage for a certain amount of political flexibility when dealing with Victorian issues. Progressive reforms passed under Victoria’s reign might not have been possible without Britain’s experiencing previous political turmoil. And, it should also be noted that the 1789 storming of the Bastille happened across only a narrow channel, and while Britain’s political leaders reacted with a certain amount of suspicion and paranoia, the country managed to keep the masses content enough to avoid a revolution like France’s.

An invaluable contribution to the Victorian Era was Watt’s steam engine, invented in 1775, which resulted in a global presence for Britain and the beginning of colonization. The steam engine is just one example, though, of the influx of new ideas and discoveries, both in science and religion (and their intersection). Pope, Swift, Hume, Berkeley, and Locke are just a few of the religious thinkers that the Restoration period produced, and they played with ideas of the extent of human knowledge, proposing that we should be more concerned with our actions in what we can know. Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1640) best evidences this attitude, when he writes “. . . to sit down in a quiet ignorance of those things which, upon examination, are found to be beyond the reach of our capacities . . . Our business here is not to know all things, but those which concern our conduct” (qtd. in Greenblatt 2184). This period also produced nearly opposite theology, like that promoted by the evangelicals John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield. All of these religious and philosophical musings seem to reappear in the Victorian Era, when Victoria’s empire results in questions about role, power, destiny, and class.

The volume of literature produced also grew exponentially in this period, and this created new literacy rates and a wider audience in England, which contributed to increased readership in both the Romantic and Victorian Eras. Furthermore, the novel emerged as a new and more popular way of writing, something that also resurfaced in the Victorian Era. The Restoration Era certainly affected the Romantic Era, but seemingly in a converse way, with Romantics attempting to throw off tradition. The Restoration Era brought about distinctions between high and low literature, but Romantic writers blurred that distinction, attempting to write for the “common man.” But, as the anthology points out, “even when they rebel against the work of Pope and Johnson and Gray, Romantic writers incorporate much of their language and values” (2204). The Romantic passion for liberty and equality and distrust of powerful institutions was a result of seeds planted in this era. Moreover, the Augustan focus on nature provided a foundation for the Romantic sublime. Wordsworth’s equation for good poetry–an experience with nature, which produces a powerful emotion, which then must be mulled over for an extended period–is very similar to the earlier 18th century acknowledgment of “nature as the universal and permanent elements in human experience” (2195). So, even though trends of writing and thought begun in the Restoration and 18th century reoccur more obviously in the Victorian Era, they undoubtedly left an indelible mark on the Romantic Era as well.

Most striking about the introduction to this era was just how hugely significant a role history plays in the formation of literature, even literature produce years later. I’ve already learned how literature produced in the 20th Century was a result of combinations of history and literature, as the Romantic and Victorian Eras mingled with the devastation of WWI and WWII. And, now I’m seeing the effects of political turmoil not only on early 18th century literature, but also on later 18th, 19th, and 20th century literature.

making something happen.

“Poetry makes nothing happen,” says W.H. Auden in his “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.” Perhaps living in the 21st century renders me more inclined to agree with modern poets like Auden (and yes, when it comes to British Literature, 1939 counts as modern), but, regardless, I find myself mentally assenting each time I read that poem. Auden is on to something; it makes sense in my mind that poetry as mere poetry makes nothing happen. However, in the act of studying poetry, blogging about it, investigating minute details and nuances, something happens. Poetry plucks at heart strings, stirs something in souls, conjures up images of dancing and laughter, mourning and sadness. What is it Wordsworth says? Poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility”.  It sounds to me as if Auden is simply expounding upon Wordsworth, for Auden presents us with the thought that if poetry is not rooted in powerful feelings, it makes nothing happen. Further, Auden’s explanation emphasizes the importance of an audience, for even powerful poetry makes nothing happen if there is no audience.

Even Auden’s 20th century pessimism acknowledges the importance of poets gone before him. When he turns the elegy on its head in 1939, he still respectfully and beautifully gives a nod in Yeats’ direction. Auden recognizes the unrealistic approach of, say, Percy Bysshe Shelley when he likens Keats to a demi-god in “Adonais.” Instead, Auden immortalizes Yeats by acknowledging his influence on later poets.

“Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.”

Poetry tells a story to its audience, and through its audience the story stays alive. So, what’s the point of this blog? Theoretically, the point is to provide British literature from the Middle Ages through the 18th century with a lifeline. Realistically, it’s an assignment for one of my upper level literature classes.

And, what’s the header quote about? How do coffee spoons relate? Well, in all honesty, this passage of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” exactly captures how I sometimes feel when chasing an English degree. When I repeatedly fall in love with dead authors and fantastical stories, I wonder if I’m pursuing something completely pointless and impractical. And then I realize how much I’ve learned about life, how I can now think about issues critically and not feel threatened, how I’ve let things like the complete skepticism of postmodernism shape my faith into something personal and real, how I’ve been challenged over and over again to empathize with unlikeable characters, and how, impractical though it may seem, I’ve then been able to apply those lessons to real-world scenarios. My degree may sometimes feel pointless, but it’s not.

So, class credit aside, this is my attempt at making British literature personal. I hope to somehow communicate the pieces of truth that can be found in literature. And, if that doesn’t work, I at least wish to communicate some of my passion for words, as I read them and continue their life in words of my own.

And, because we English majors sometimes like to turn things on their heads, I will begin with the 18th century and work backwards to the Middle Ages. This could result in several things: First, it could very well mean that my posts get increasingly less interesting as the subject matter gets older and more obscure; Second, it could mean that I make parallels to modern literature, as I have done in this post, to help me make connections to things I’ve already read; and Third, ideally as I go along, it will be obvious why literary styles came about as they did in response to certain previous trends or issues.

Enjoy!