Questions for Reading: Early Romanticism
Here are some questions that can guide you in reading William Blake, William Wordsworth and Robert Burns. You can respond to one or more in your journal, if you want. And you can use them to keep running ideas for possible paper topics.
1. How does Blake create contrasting experiences in the two poems, “The Lamb” and “The Tyger”? What type of experience does each poem explore? How does Christian inquiry in “The Tyger” differ greatly from the Christian inquiries of “The Lamb”? What might the lamb symbolize; accordingly, what might the “tyger” represent? Why do you think that “The Tyger” consists entirely of a series of questions?
2. How do the two “The Chimney Sweeper” poems contrast each other? Keep in mind that child labor was an atrocity in eighteenth century London, particularly chimney sweeping. Children as young as three or four years old were literally “sold” by their parents into indentured servitude for the chimney sweeping industry because they were small and nimble enough to fit down the chimney. It was literally a life in hell for these children: and Blake, in both poems, uses the bowels of the chimney into which children had to descend as images of hell. The poem in The Songs of Innocence is particularly complex, even though Blake writes it like a children’s story. Look closely at both the voice in the poem and the narrative movement. Consider the dramatic situation. Although Blake depicts deeper religious issues via a wide-eyed childlike wonderment, what doctrines of Christian hope does Blake portray?
3. I put several of Blake’s illustrations that he did for the Songs of Innocence and Experience in the posting on Blake. How would you describe these illustrations? Why might they be both fitting to and influential on romanticism? How do the illustrations work with the poetry?
1. What do you make of Burns’ style? the way in which he uses language? the words themselves? What do you think he is up to? If one wanted to imitate a “dialect” in a poem today, what type of words and language do you think one could use? Think of various different dialects, colloquialisms and slang in our country, like southern accents, Yankee slang, urban lingo, etc.
2. Describe the dramatic situation in “To a Mouse.” What “tragic” event occurs? How does the farmer who caused the tragic event respond to it? The poet offers a fairly long subtitle to the poem. Why is it really important that the action in the poem takes place in November? Why would the subject matter of the poem be less urgent if it were, say, June.
3. Although “To a Mouse” comes across as a folksy poem depicting a pretty trivial scenario, Burns cleverly allows deep and poignant issues to manifest that have been treated to even epic extents in poetry since the ancient Greeks. Look at the following passage from the poem, and think about enduring life-themes it expresses.
But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ paiin
For promis’d joy!
4. “A Red, Red Rose” is really the lyrics to a song. Do you think it works on its own as a poem without the music? Do you feel that the poem holds up as a poem? Or do you think it is a bit mawkish, Hallmarky, hokey? If the poem is sappy, do you think that Burns is being intentionally so? Does the sap–the cheesy-factor–veil something deeper? Like the poem, “To a Mouse,” consider the dramatic situation of the poem. What is happening or what may be about to happen?
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