Posts filed under ‘WEEK FOUR’

The Victorian Era

The Victorian Era, which dominates most of the nineteenth century (1830 – 1901) is named after Queen Victoria, who (until now) was England’s longest reigning monarch. Although it is fallacious to characterize this nearly century long period in British history monolithic-ally, for our purposes I will focus on some Victorian issues that impact the development of literature. There were, actually, three distinct stages in Victorianism:

Stage One.

The first from 1830 -50, which was marked by radical social uphevals in both Europe and England in which a working class began to revolt, and  socialism began to accelerate as either a danger or a salvation (depending upon your politics, I suppose). The result in England were a series of Reform Bills in the 1830s – 40s that revolutionized the principles behind a working nation. For instance, it gave more political power to workers, unions, voting, etc. It established the first child labor laws and health and safety mandates. Also, England began to change tax codes to help the middle and working class. It was far from modern and the “welfare” state England would develop even further in the early 20th century, but it showed England becoming much more socially conscious.

Stage Two:

The Second Period, 1850 – 1870 marked the period of incredible growth of “Empire” and economic prosperity, the things we tend to characterize Britain with of this time. The explosion of industry, the expansion of trade and colonization around the world, and the beginnings of modern science and technology made England into THE superpower on the globe. England was by this time, consummately, Great Britain, and the sun never set on the Yukon Jack.

Stage Three:

Third Period: 1870 – 1901. During this time there came a growing suspicion and criticism within England of its role as superpower, or Empire. There was also a growing skepticism and even loathing of Victorianism and its sense of pride, moralisms and enervating sense of culture (as you see in Matthew Arnold’s prose, and Oscar Wilde’s wit and satire aimed at Victorian prudery and moralistic attitude). During this period, some of the greatest and, for many, most shocking discoveries and advances in natural science were being made, particularly Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and the confirmation by geologists that the earth was far far far far far far far more older than 5,000 years.

The Earthquake of Natural Science.

The effects of advances in natural science on culture, religion and society cannot be overstated. Darwin’s books on evolution and natural selection proved uncomfortable aspects of our world at the same time that they were an assault on Christian religious truths (and often not so subtle in its attack). By theorizing (and proving some of it pretty well for a nineteenth century scientist) that we evolved from lower species, Darwin outright rejected the notion that humans are singularly created. In rejecting Creationism, Darwin also proceeds to reject all notions that humans function by the guidance of transcendent moral codes. Instead, Darwin argues that our sense of morality has been socially constructed, engendered over centuries of the human as a social and instinctual animal.

If Darwin had been an isolated phenomenon, an individual speaking alone, he may have been simply considered a crackpot. However, Darwin was researching and writing during this time in which natural scientists in England were canvasing the globe in an attempt to empirically understand the world with the same energy and ambition as explorers and colonizers took over the world. At the same time that Darwin posited Evolution and Natural Selection, geologists were successfully proving that the earth was no 5,000 years old, but millions, perhaps billions of years old, another assault upon Biblical truth and mythology that had established religious ideology in England for nearly 1,800 years.

Explosion of Existential Thought.

Contiguous to the advances in natural science, philosophers began to radically question established truths, assumptions and ideologies by which the British lived by and in which they had believed for centuries. Philosophers such as Nietzsche posed often frightening challenges to comfortable metaphysical philosophy by engaging in what you might call a “demythologizing” philosophy, an inquiry suspicious of anything by which we hang on to as truth, questioning everything. For the first time, God’s existence came into question in an organized and systematic way. And, for one of the first times, atheists, spiritualists, occultists, anarchists, etc., gathered and publicallyspoke and wrote, whereas many with such beliefs only a century earlier would have been persecuted.

A De-mythologizing Era.

Paul Ricoeur(one of the greatest late twentieth century philosophers) famously labelled the discourse of the late 1800s, “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” It is a period in which many sacred, assumed, and sometmies naive truths become “demythologized.” For one of the first time, there is a dominantly growing philosophical and theological discourse rejecting Creation, and a more minority voice that begins rejecting God.

In short, the late 1800s undergoes seachangesin British thought. Although such thinking does not radically change the British and Victorian social fabric and Europe’s belief in their dominant and God-given role to lead the world, it establishes the darker, more suspicious and existential tone that would be instrumental in the radical breaks with tradition in the fervent period of Modernism during and after World War I.

Literary Movements in Victorianism.

The literature of the period we are looking at for April 20th is from roughly 1850 until 1900, falling during the greatest expansions of British Empire and the consequent skepticism and disillusion with Empire as the 1900s approach.

The Novel.

The dominant genre during the Victorian era was prose, particularly the novel. The novel came into its own in the mid 1800s with such greats as Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, George Eliot, and many others. We would not have time in the intensity of a mod combined witha survey course to do justice to the novel of the 1800s (which is why I run a course on this every other year). The Victorian novel was very much a product of an explosion of middle class literacy and a growing publishing industry. Novels were, for the most part, a form of high entertainment. Most novels were published in serial format in newspapers in England, where people could follow on a weekly basis a novel by, say, Dickens. They were, in a sense, the “soap operas” of the 1800s. In fact, most novels serialized in newspapers were extravagantly illustrated withincredible prints and drawings, an element that is lost from our experience with the reprinted book format.


Poetry underwent changes (many would argue, including me, not for the better). A dominant group of poets, like Robert Browning, reacted against what they felt was the soppy, rose-colored, sweet and flighty poetry of late Romanticism (think Shelley), and developed a more prosey poetry that focuses more on narrative, concrete issues in a “real” world. But, as the 1800s moved on, there was also a growing group of poets who react against the increasingly prosaic “realism” of the 1800s, and write a very romantic poetry that grows at times as ridiculously sweet and vacuous at the same time that it can be beautiful. In the early 1900s, T.S. Eliot would famously argue that since the 1700s, poetry has undergone a radical and unfortunate shift: poetry is either intellectual / cerebral, or it is emotional / romantic. Never again, he argued, since the Metaphysical poets of the late 1600s has poetry fused both intellect and emotion. It would be the really soppy, moody poetry of the late 1800s that Eliot reacts against with his groundbreaking modernist poems in the 1910s and 1920s.

Prose–The Essay.

Prose, particularly the essay, becomes just as central as the novel during this period. I’ve already talked about the earth-shaking effects of people like Darwin’s published books. The dominance of the essay mirrors the growing concern with the world around us, the real social issues of people, during Victorianism. The terms “Realism” has often been used to describe this period. Most Victorian novelists and essayists were interested in realism, in depicting the world as accurately as possible. A result of looking at the world head on is a growing criticism and suspicion of what authors see. Hence, Dickens many novels that expose social ills.

Matthew Arnold: Critic and, Possibly, Cultural Prophet.

Matthew Arnold is one of the great social voices of the Victorian era. He is the era’s greatest critic, while at the same time he is also the epitome of Victorianism in his belief that we all can change and reform everything (the idea of Utopianism has its explosion during this era).

Particularly in Culture and Anrachy, Arnold criticizes the narrow-minded, mechanical, industrial and material mindset of Victorian England, particularly amonst its middle class. He believed that industry and the machine had developed a “Puritanical” British middle class, one more intereted in moralisms and rules designed to benefit social/financial advancement. Arnold hankers for a return to “Hellenistic” thought. By this, he means a mind (like the ancient Greeks) that breaks from its narrow, material concerns, and roams over all possibilities, all interests, particularly cultural interests.

Arnold (rightfully, I believe) feared that the material culture of England was developing minds growing narrower, more concerned with self-interest, expediancy, and industry. He feared this would lead to ignorance and bigotry. He famously called the puritanical middle class in England, “Philistines,” which has come to mean shallow, narrow minded and uncultured. What Arnold envisioned was an England that would shift more emphasis to the study of literature, art and music (now that England was Empire and had excelled in industry) in order to cultivate minds for a more literate future. His notion of studying the “touchstones of history” had a huge effect on our present day notion of a literary “canon,” the implicitly accepted list of works that appear on a syllabus and that a student reads and studies in secondary school and college.


April 11, 2010 at 11:37 am Leave a comment

Percy Shelley and Ode to the West Wind

Shelley, like John Keats, was a “high romantic,” meaning one of the romantic poets in the generation following Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Like Keats, Shelley crafts himself into the artist who burns with his creative spirit, allowing his poetry to consume him. Shelley, more than any of the British romantics, desires art to consume him as much as he wishes to consume art. In many ways, Shelley represents everything you either love or hate about romanticism.

The Poet as a Prophet.

He is a master of lyricism, his poetry moving like passionate music that can become at times — for me, at least — overbearingly operatic. A consummate believer in the Self, he takes the poetry as a worship of selfhood to dizzying heights. The poet, for Shelley, is a visionary, one who does not just speak for the gods, but as a god. Accordingly, Shelley harbored a religious sense of the great artist as martyred for his vision. The great poet is destined to suffer and to die upon the pyre of his own creation. For Shelley, the great figure of mythology is Prometheus, chained to the side of a mountain by the gods as punishment for usurping godly power in his invention of fire. Shelley’s great poem is his epic Promethues Unbound, which you thankfully do not need to read for my class (although it is required reading for anyone who wishes to specialize in British romanticism).

“Ode to the West Wind.”

Whether you find Shelley’s poetry wonderful of sickening, “Ode to the West Wind” is a lyrical masterpiece, and encapsulates Shelley’s vision of himself as a poet and the creative process. Like so many romantics, Shelley suffers from the tragic attempt to reconcile being with nature. Part of the “romantic agony” involves the desire of the poet to not only represent nature in a poem, but to become nature itself. Like the epic struggle with time, the struggle to unite with nature becomes doomed to failure for the human. One hundred years later, Yeats would famously write of his desire to become one with the eternity of nature by freezing himself into a mosaic in “Sailing to Byzantium.” Yeats is one of the few famous heirs to the romantic tradition in the twentieth century, along with Wallace Stevens, who builds upon Walt Whitman and John Keats, and William Carlos Williams, who Paterson continues almost too facilely Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

In “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley imagines himself one of the infinite leaves blowing in the west wind of autumn that precedes the winter. The leaves of autumn that fall to the ground, mixing with the frozen dormancy of winter, grow to new life in the spring. Shelley yearns for his poetry to take part of the same natural cycle of death and life, life and resurrection. The image that runs through the poem is that his poetry is like the leaves blowing and falling upon the entire world, and growing into new creation that will summon mankind–like Christ’s resurrection–to see his vision. Hence, there are rampant religious analogies in the poem, yet Shelley uses them to reject a classic Christian vision for one that almost returns the poet to a pagan visionary. At the climax of the poem, line 54, Shelley cries out, “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” The poet at the end may be spent after the act of poetry, as Shelley says to the wind, “Drive my dead thoughts ever the universe” (line 63), but his vision is “Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!” Like the spring, his poetry will rise again, “And by the incantation of this verse” in order to become revelation for the world.

Sactter, as from an unextinguished hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy!

The Image of “Leaves” and “Wind.”

Shelley structures the poem around crafty and various meanings of the words / images LEAVES and WIND. In renaissance sonnets, “leaves” refer to the pages of a book. Metonymically, “leaves” for Shakespeare, or Sidney, or Spencer, can come to mean books, or poetry, or writing itself. So the image of leaves blowing across the landscape in the autumn turns into a metaphor of the poet disseminating his work and his vision. WIND has an extremely interesting etymological history that Shelley uses to a great extent. The word “spirit” comes from the word “wind.” When the Hebrew Bible portrays God breathing into the dust to give life to humankind in Genesis, the Judaic tradition bestows upon wind an image of God’s eternal life. Therefore, “spirit” transforms into the mysterious force of the divine–we have come now to equate that which is spiritual as being holy, or filled with a religious sense, or sacred. Yet we also derive from spirit the notion of lively, or full of life, resembling the enlivening aspect of wind / God’s breath–such as filled with spirit, or describing a person as having a lively spirit.

So Shelley utilizes the ambiguity of WIND / SPIRIT to create both a religious and a secular connotation in his poem. Like the breath of God the breathes life into dust–like the west wind the blows the leaves of autumn which will eventually become spring–Shelley desire his “leaves” (his words, his poems, his vision) to circulate amongst the world and to bring revelation to mankind.

Not really my cup of tea, but I admire his lyrical density.

April 11, 2010 at 11:35 am Leave a comment

John Keats: High Romantic and Ode on a Grecian Urn

We do not know at which Grecian urn Keats was looking. Nonetheless, the Grecian urns are some of the most beautiful works of art / craft in the world.
We do not know at which Grecian urn Keats was looking. Nonetheless, the Grecian urns are some of the most beautiful works of art / craft in the world.

John Keats: the Consummate Romantic.

John Keats was, in many ways, the epitome of the romantic poet. He was of a generation of poets known as “high romantics,” which included Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. They were writing most of their poems in the early 1800s, and are considered high-romantics because they follow the initial romantic breakthrough of Wordsworth, Coleridge and the German and French romantic philosophers.

For the most part, romantic poetry had become more accepted when Keats was writing, although there still remains a feeling amongst high-brow intellectuals that romanticism is a sort of dirty, low-brow literature. It is interesting to see moments when Jane Austen clearly satirizes romantic poetry in her novels. Often when one of her characters enjoys romantic poets, they are the individuals Austen holds up in scorn. Austen’s novel Northinger Abbey is a very funny satire of the Gothic tradition growing in popularity in the early 1800s.

John Keats is a tragic figure. He contracted a particular form of tuberculosis when he was a child. As he grew up, he knew that he would die young. By the time he was twenty four years old, he knew he had only months to live. Despite a very short adult life, Keats wrote prolifically, and much of his poetry constitutes the best and most loved poetry in England. In particular, his “odes,” which he wrote in the last months of his life, are some of the most powerful romantic poetry. They are all the more powerful when you consider that he was aware that at any moment he was going to die. Look at the combination of agony and ecstasy, beauty and terror in “Ode: to a Nightengale.”

The Agony and Ecstasy of Romanticism.

Keats absorbed by a book. Romanticism gives birth to scenes such as this, people absorbed in reading or writing. It is known as the scene of reading (or) writing. Such images were not very prevalent before the late 1700s because 1) you do not have too many people reading books, since there were not many around, or writing 2) Such an image of solitary engagement in an imaginative realm would only convey suspicion. Artistic solitude as a value is a romantic invention, one that we still value today.
Keats absorbed in a book. Romanticism gives birth to scenes such as this, people absorbed in reading or writing. It is known as “the scene of reading (or) writing.” Such images were not very prevalent before the late 1700s because 1) you do not have too many people reading books, since there were not many around, or writing 2) Such an image of solitary engagement in an imaginative realm would only convey suspicion. Artistic solitude as a value is a romantic invention, one that we still value today.

The combination of happiness and despair, ecastasy and agony, best characterizes his odes. Although the combination of these moods mirrors the emotional tensions in his life at the time, he also uses his inner strife to explore the nature of joy and despair inherent in romanticism itself. Many of his poems, particularly his odes, indicate a tension in romantic poetry and philosophy. Many dichotomies highlight these tensions: the desire to emotionally express oneself and the consequences of doing so; the desire to form a union with nature and the reality of the human’s division from nature; the desire for permanence in a world that refuses to keep still; a desire for “immortality” and the reality and fear of “mortality.”

As you can see, I predicated these dichotomies with the word, “desire.” The notion of desire–what desire means, how desire inspires and drives literature–becomes a heated issue in romanticism and continues until today. Keats reveals the joys of deisre, and the disappointment and sense of incompletion that follows.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

One of the most famous romantic poems, particularly because of its puzzling final lines. (Think of all the philosophy of aesthetics courses that have dwelt upon these lines.)

First, you need to establish a sense of “place,” “perspective” and “object” in this poem. What is Keats looking at? How close is he to the object? How does the object move him, and why does he choose this particular object over anything else he might study?

What scene does the urn depict? What pictures does Keats see and record in his poem?  Why do these particular images move him to write a poem?  How do you think that these pictures / images speak to Keats? How do they convey “theme” (that word I despise)?

The scene on the urn that Keats depicts in his poem is full of movement, a flurry of activity that races around the urn–around and around, you might say. How is such a scene, however, paradoxical in the context of its depiction?  What is, in short, ironic about the constant activity that Keats observes on an urn.

Paradox is the central trope of “Ode on a Grecian.” Can you try to come up with the varioius paradoxes that structure this poem?  It is helpful to think of the many bipolar-oppositions in the poem: life / death; movement / stasis; youth / age; visual / verbal; inner / outer, etc.

What effect does the poem have that Keats is not writing about “nature” in its natural context — he is not looking at the world around him and holding a mirror up to represent it — but he is looking at “nature” as it is depicted on a work of art. In other words, Keats is creating a work of art — the poem — by looking at another work of art — the urn. If Plato were alive at the time, he would have claimed that Keats looks at an inferior object because it is one step removed from reality, and creates an even more inferior object, because his poem–an imitation of an inferior reality–is therefore two steps removed from reality. The genre in which an artist creates a work of art (or a poet writes a poem about a work of art) is known as ekphrasis. In what ways do you think that Keats plays with reality by using ekphrasis? Consider the poem as resembling (although not the same as) how Shakespeare would create a play-within-a-play.

Near the end of the poem, Keats calls the urn a “Cold Pastoral!”  Why? Is this not a rather sudden and unexpected judgment?  Why cold? How can a “pastoral” be “cold” in the first place?

OK, the mysterious final two lines.

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ 50

What do they mean?  Why does Keats end the poem with what sounds like an adage, or a little golden-nugget of philosophical wisdom? What does he mean by beauty, and what does he mean by truth?  And why are they equivalent? Why does he claims that this “adage” is “all” we “need to know?”

April 11, 2010 at 11:34 am Leave a comment