The Prelude, Books 3 and 4

February 22, 2010

The third and fourth books of The Prelude concern themselves with Wordsworth’s first year at Cambridge and the summer vacation that ensues. Book Three opens with Wordsworth’s arrival to Cambridge as he is greeted by the sight of its magnificent architecture and the scene of someone hustling while in his academic robes to make his destination—Wordsworth has definitely made it to the university. Many of the tales he recounts smack of college as it is experienced in the present day—he says that “Questions, directions, warnings and advice, / Flowed in upon me, from all sides,” and we can all feel the flurry of the new life that attending a university inherently induces.

Early on in this book and throughout it, Wordsworth is conscious of the fact that he does not aspire to academic or worldly ambition in the same way that his compeers do. He never pretends to desire the same glory that most of his classmates seem to desire. The disparity he feels between his personal longings and those culled by the university ultimately create a breach that leads him to a vital solitude, as it is during his solitary walking around the Cambridge grounds that he reconnects with universal truths and creates about him a world of his own by the power of his own imagination. Nevertheless, after this initial profundity of pensive activity, Wordsworth quickly gets caught up in the frivolous pastimes of social life and forgets his previous deeper lucubration.

In a few wonderful spots of time we see Wordsworth in action. He discovers the famous bards while at Cambridge, namely Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton, and he expresses beautiful praise and gratitude for their lives and work. To honor the name of Milton, Wordsworth gets drunk in the dormitory room where Milton once resided and shows up late and disheveled to the compulsory church service. Wordsworth being the proper man that he is, of course, he asks pardon both from Coleridge, the man to whom he writes the entire poem, and Milton himself for his bacchanalian misstep.

Wordsworth is ever conscious of living in the shadows of his great predecessors that previously attended Cambridge University. He compares the quality of the different lives that previous Cambridge students were forced to live—those of spartan discipline and marked abstemiousness—with his own, which never quite takes the firm and sober root that is should. Thus, although he ultimately enjoyed his time there, he does not find the university the perfect place to nurture his budding spirit.

Book Four concerns itself with Wordsworth’s return to his hometown. Upon returning, he recognizes many of the previous natural delights that he experienced in the Grasmere Vale. He sees old people, sleeps in the same bed as before, and goes walking and composing out in nature with his ever-faithful dog, a companion whom he loves.

Being away from the university gives Wordsworth the space he needs to rejuvenate his love for life and to contemplate the differences between book-based, academic education and that which derives from nature. In one of the most stunning passages, Wordsworth is ultimately consecrated to Nature and the path of solitude. The book then concludes with Wordsworth meeting the man who will form the basis of the poem called “The Discharged Soldier.”

These books are remarkable to me for the ways in which they speak to my experience directly. College offered for Wordsworth, as for me, a dichotomous package—on the one hand, there are people in abundance who are content to be social and drink the weekend away in an inebriated, hedonistic frivolity. On the other hand, there are the classes, professors, and books that inspire and challenge the mind in ways heretofore unknown. The process of choosing who to become is a difficult although central one in the undergraduate days. Things were complicated for Wordsworth, too, as he never felt as though he properly belonged to the university, a sentiment which fortunately I do not share with him. Nevertheless, seeing Wordsworth as young and prone to human pleasure and difficulty make these books powerful and humanizing additions to the overall epic.

Lewis Carroll

February 20, 2010

Although no longer a child, I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass (1897 editions prepared by Dodgson himself) for the first time this past week. In fact, although I do understand why the humor, frivolity, and illustrations would appeal to children, I found the book to be quite complex in other ways and thus believe them to be as much  books for adults as for children.

Carroll, a nom de plume for Charles Dodgson, led an interesting life. He was a conservative man who devoted his life to teaching mathematics at Oxford University and being a pious deacon for the Anglican Church. His obsession with Alice Liddell, the girl for and about whom his Alice books were written, reached levels of discomfort for Alice’s mom, who eventually refused him to spend more time with her. It is not impossible to see in Dodgson a pedophile, as his obsession with children frequently seems to press beyond  merely entertaining them. Although I did not do substantial reading to back my hypothesis, I hope one day to pursue this interesting thought further.

Both of Carroll’s Alice novellas are written in a simple, enjoyable, and nonsensical style. Both of them occur within framing tales; Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland occurs as a dream (though we don’t know it till she wakes up at the end), whereas Through the Looking-Glass occurs in a dream-like state when Alice looks deeply into a mirror and considers its reflection another world. Both novellas are also marked by a complete paucity of logic between events, and for this reason is it so difficult to give a “plot” synopsis of either work. The non sequitur events flow arbitrarily, making the narrative absurd and the recollection of the narrative nearly impossible. Suffice it to say that in both, the plots are driven forward by Alice’s encounters with animate creatures in Wonderland that teach, challenge, mock, or frustrate her. Through the Looking-Glass is also loosely held together by the chess motif, as the entire book is Alice’s pursuit as a pawn of becoming a queen.

 Both books are also obsessed with meaning and language and the frequent disparity between the two. The books are replete with instances where homophones or homonyms disrupt communication in a comical way. Carroll also plays with idiomatic phrases and challenges our employment of words. When other characters take Alice seriously in every word that she utters, meaning is lost or a false meaning is understood. Carroll’s scrutiny of the imprecision and sullying of language is fascinating and linguistically semi-prophetic. For this reason alone do I understand why literary scholars continue to enjoy and study this book.

Carroll also plays incessantly with commonly known nursery rhymes or ballad-like poems well-known among the general populace. Instead of merely repeating them, though, he has Alice, in her inability to successfully relay meanings in Wonderland, twist the original words to create comical tales that typically subvert the meaning of the original poem. Didactic poems imploring children to be industrious and wise become poems telling how a crocodile snaps its prey, for example. It is when reading passages like this, where poems by Samuel Johnson and William Wordsworth are so openly derided and  parodied, that I wonder how Dodgson could have been conservative. He seems far to rambunctious to conform to a spartan code of existence.

Carroll explores the continuity of self and the maturation of the organism in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Because Alice is interminably changing size, she loses her sense of identity, as her changes have been too drastic and too precipitous to feel like contiguous parts of her being.

A few other things remain to be mentioned about these witty works. Of paramount importance to both of these books are the small illustrations done by Tenniel. These have always been an integral part of the book, and Carroll’s contemporary readers and those of the present era alike find both joy, visual representation, and greater explication of the peculiar tale in the equally bizarre drawings.

The poem “Jabberwocky,” which appears early in Through the Looking-Glass, is a particular favorite among critics to highlight the arbitrariness of words and their meanings. The poem is rife with portmanteau words, words that combine two words into one, such as “slithy” meaning “lithe” and “slimy.” Each word is given an ephemeral definition by Humpty Dumpty, and the entire poem makes little sense.

I highly enjoyed these very quick reads. I think Carroll was brilliant in his ways of reaching discrete audiences of highly different ages. I would love to do research, one day, to see if Carroll’s personified animals are somehow representative of the post-Darwinian comprehension of nature, evolution, and the disinterestedness and cruelty that they suggest. For now, however, that can wait, and I can simply enjoy the humor and wit of this player with words and children, Lewis Carroll.

John Henry Cardinal Newman

February 20, 2010

As a reprieve from my assigned readings, I decided to read the excerpts from Newman’s The Idea of a University, a collection of lectures he delivered to the Catholic University of Ireland. The selections were brief, and if for no other reason than the fact that they were enormously self-validating, I enjoyed the content, as well.

Newman is essentially arguing for a liberal education over a mechanical one that leads only to a specific skill set in a trade or profession. Interestingly enough, this debate was not extinguished in the Victorian times but continues today, and I personally witness it every time I have to justify to someone why I am studying English and Spanish instead of pursuing a “practical” major. Newman’s answer is that Knowledge, which he distinguishes with a capital letter, ceases to be true Knowledge as it becomes more particular. For him, Knowledge is an end unto itself, a treasure to be valued enormously by societies and individuals. Universities, to Newman, should not be principally about instruction but rather about education, a word of a higher class that implies forging values, forming character, and having utility beyond something mechanical or technical.

Newman openly derides the word “utility,” calling it the watchword of those who oppose a liberal education. In this sense, one can read an anti-utilitarian theme into his work and see how it permeates quite pervasively.

Newman makes an analogy between the importance of bodily health, which is something that is intrinsically valuable and worthy of pursuit, and the cultivation of the mind in a university via a liberal education. He explains how a liberal education will enhance individuals in all fields, as the greater questions about humanity and the natural world are addressed by liberal education and intricately interconnected with all professions. For Newman, a liberal education cultivates a prowess of mind that enables its possessor to pursue effectively all choices of profession.

While I did enjoy this treatise, I find a couple of flaws in its argument. 1) Although I do think all people should strive to cultivate their minds and receive a humanistic education, I am not convinced, as Newman says, that she who has such an education can pick up any number of professions “with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success.” Although I think Newman strikes at a truth of a general education, he steps beyond his bounds in this argument. 2) The dearth of particulars made this read like an inspiring, if not saccharine, “feel-good” pamphlet. I wish Newman would have addressed the specifics more–specific individuals, specific components of a liberal education, and a specific demonstration of how this education should operate and why it should remain the cornerstone of the university. Perhaps these details are delineated in the complete version and I simply missed them in Norton’s cut.

As one who intends to profess in a university, I take up the gauntlet to express to the world the beauty of a liberal education and follow in the tradition of Newman’s wise words!

The Prelude, Books 1 and 2

February 17, 2010

Wordsworth’s autobiographical epic outlining the development of his poetic mind is an absolutely stunning piece of literature. I find myself enraptured in his verse, and I can almost feel with him the ecstasies and doubts that grip his mind as it develops. The first book, which is entitled “Introduction—Childhood and School Time,” actually spends a significant portion of the narrative in the preamble, a monologue by the grown Wordsworth about his rising to the occasion of writing an epic poem about his personal maturation. The first book includes frequent allusions to Paradise Lost, and the entire Prelude echoes Milton’s incredible work, notably due to its blank verse, its division into multiple books, and its diction. Wordsworth’s subject matter, of course, initially seems less grandiose than Milton’s fall of mankind, but Wordsworth’s work is so well wrought that we are forced to ask ourselves if this is really so. There are also Spenserian allusions in the first book of The Prelude, and we thus know that Wordsworth has set out to match the truly epic, inspirational, and ever-canonical authors.

Calling the opening stanzas a preamble maintains the fidelity to the root of that word, as the poem is frequently about the act of ambling. Wordsworth begins the preamble noting his newfound freedom after having left urbanity, and he now seeks a home for the composition of his philosophical poem. He arrives at Grasmere Vale and is overcome by an internal harbinger of a great work to come forth from him. He notes that he is equipped with both the internal and the external qualities necessary to become a successful poet, and he then considers his subject matter. Multiple lofty and historical themes come to mind, but Wordsworth ultimately realizes the value of writing about the development of his own persona. A brief personal crisis ensues when Wordsworth contemplates the ease of the complacent life bereft of ambition, but he nevertheless continues his poetic composition. It is here that Wordsworth begins to recount events from his childhood, remembering episodes of stealing the birds in others’ traps, playing along the banks of the stream, ice skating, enjoying revelry around the fire, flying a kite, and being frightened by the formidable mountain cliffs while in a canoe. After relating the jubilance of his youth, Wordsworth addresses Coleridge, the overhearing object of the entire poem, and wishes that The Prelude will be pleasing to his friend.

A highly recurrent and central theme in the first book is the way that nature fostered Wordsworth’s mind. He frequently mentions how the gentle breeze or the chattering brook cultivated in him a sensibility and aesthetic that ultimately softened and sensitized his mind into its poetic form. Nature is consistently referred to with human pronouns (“he” and “she”), and its redeeming or cohering power is of paramount importance.

The second book is a continuation of Wordsworth’s pre-Cambridge days. The opening of this book discusses the two separate consciousnesses that Wordsworth feels—that of his childhood and that of his adulthood. In fact, this book contains a stronger conception of a bifurcation between the two existences than was exhibited in the first book. Wordsworth goes on to relate more incidents in nature that he underwent as a child, including playing on the verdant isles in the Lake District and riding horses through a church. The rest of the poem follows a less chronological plot and instead relates some of Wordsworth’s overarching sentiments. He mentions that he then began, at age seventeen, to love nature for nature’s sake, appreciating the sun and the moon intrinsically. With beautiful metaphors Wordsworth creates an almost philosophical passage explicating the impossibility of ascertaining the etiology of thoughts. From whence do they arise, he consistently asks? The book ends with Wordsworth’s recollection of how difficult a time this epoch was and how many people were lost to the noble cause of human liberty due to selfishness. The book closes, as did the first, with an apostrophe to Coleridge that acknowledges the deep, fraternal love between the two men.

Although he published a short work of literary “criticism” in the advertisement for the first edition of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth reached the apogee of his theories on poetry and the poet in the various prefaces that he published in subsequent editions of that form-shattering collection.

The preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads contains the majority of Wordsworth’s criticism and theory, although he tells us that he wrote it only at Coleridge’s bidding. At this point, he also acknowledges that the poems did not originate from a sole author, and Coleridge’s poems are pointed out. This preface is rife with fascinating ideas and myriad contradictions. Wordsworth speaks about an almost implicit contract between the poet and his audience, and he wonders if he has violated it by publishing in the vernacular of the common man, a very important component of the entire work, Wordsworth tells us. Nevertheless, Wordsworth believes that we can all be culled into a poetic taste for his diction and subject matter, novel though it may be. He goes on to express an extreme cultural primitivism, stating that the “low and rustic life” is one in which the emotions are less hindered and the imagination clearer. It is for this reason, Wordsworth tells us, that he chose both a common tongue (bereft of poetic diction) and the lowly subjects of the pedestrian.

In perhaps the most famous and quoted lines from the document, Wordsworth calls poetry “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” a statement that he qualifies in the proceeding sentence by stating that these powerful feelings must emit from a highly sensible man who has contemplated deeply about life.

Wordsworth decries, momentarily, the degradation of art as he sees it in his day. Gothic novels and German tragedies, he believes, are distracting people from the genius of Milton and Shakespeare. In their pursuit for the intensity of feeling that good art can produce, people have turned to cheap entertainment to incite the same fervor.

Lastly of note in this particular preface, Wordsworth expounds on the relationship of poetry and prose, although his conclusions are not what I would have expected. Essentially, Wordsworth sees the two as very similar, sharing the same substance and blood. He states that poetry has much “prose” in it, just as good prose is highly poetic. Because of his elimination of poetic diction and the general novelty of his endeavor, Wordsworth implores critics to not give in to a conformist, majority opinion but instead judge the work as autonomous individuals open to its revolutionary conception.

In the notes that Wordsworth wrote about a couple of his poems, he explains their function in the larger work and expounds on his poetic theories further. In a note on “The Thorn,” Wordsworth says that “poetry is passion: it is the history or science of feelings.” In a note on “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Wordsworth apologizes for the poem and lists its defects, a brazen and cold move that ended up (possibly) being the reason for the separation that began to occur between Coleridge and Wordsworth.

In the preface to the 1802 edition of the poems, Wordsworth expands his ideas of poetic diction, how it arose, and why he chose to eliminate it in his work. Wordsworth believes that artificial poetic language arose when people attempted to imitate the power of the sincere words spoken by poets who wrote about real life. Because these words had influence and effect, they were replicated unnecessarily in all poetry. In this same preface, Wordsworth attempts to define the role of the poet. For Wordsworth, the poet is a man of comprehensive capacity and deep sensibility who provides pleasure and explores the possibilities of mankind. Wordsworth echoes Aristotle in his regard of poetry as the most philosophical of all writing.

Lastly, in two extracts entitled the Fenwick Notes, we see glimpses of the reality of Wordsworth’s life behind the poetry. For one, he notes that he was terrified as a child of the extinguishing of his soul, and thus do we see much of his poetry concerned with death and immortality. Additionally, Wordsworth takes credit for inciting Coleridge to include the shooting of the albatross as the condemning, opprobrious act in the narrative of the “Ancient Mariner.”

Although I love much of what Wordsworth has to say, I cannot help but to see much hypocrisy in it all. His poetry, although not replete with inverted syntax and biddings to Greek muses, is nonetheless not written in the common dialect of mankind. Additionally, his educational training in the classics was vital to his ability to spring forth as a poet, and for him to pretend otherwise seems deceptive to me. However, I do acknowledge with him the power of everyday experience and the potential for the mundane to be possessed of the deepest truths. My verdict on Wordsworth is still out, but if for nothing other than “Tintern Abbey,” I find him a poet of the grandest sort and well worth my literary attention.

Robert Burns

February 14, 2010

Because this is my second time through with most of Burns’ works, I understand them to a much greater extent (being less intimidated by the Scots dialect) and finally see why someone would classify themselves as a Burnsian, a fate I may acquire given time and greater study.

Burns’ dates of life (1759-1796) place him slightly before what most people consider the incipience of the Romantic period, if we date its beginning as the publication of Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads in 1798. However, in many ways that are overtly visible to the searching eye, Burns paved the pathway for the Romantic notions to come and thus earns the apposite title of “godfather” or “progenitor” of Romanticism.

A primary reason for attributing the work of Burns to the Romantic (or slightly pre-Romantic) era is the ways that he both 1) utilized the common vernacular instead of employing archaisms and other poetic language to create the lofty diction that was so common in Neoclassicism and 2) used mundane subjects, such as drinking whiskey and working the land, as poetic inspiration, rather than abstract ideals. These two traits are quite evident in the works that follow.

In “Epistle to J. L*****k, an Old Scotch bard, 1 April 1785,” Burns celebrates the local Scottish poet over the towering Neoclassical ones to which we are accustomed to drown in panegyrics. The poem expresses a disdain for (or at least a mockery of) formal, collegiate education, saying that instead “Gie me ae spark o’ nature’s fire, / That’s a’ the learning I desire.” In the same stanza follow two lines of verse that I find comical and exemplary of his poetry: “My muse, though hamely in attire, / May touch the heart.” Another line from his poetry personifies perfectly his belief in the importance of sexual attraction despite religion inveighing against them: “I like the lasses (Gude forgie me!).” In another poem, “Green Grow the Rashes,” Burns expresses a similar sentiment, noting that the best days of his life were those spent among the lasses.

In his poem “Man was Made to Mourn, A Dirge,” Burns composes in standard English diction and writes about themes that are not elsewhere present in his corpus. If I were given this poem without an attached name, I would never have ascribed it to Burns. If nothing else, however, this versatility of his is impressive and goes to highlight not only the prowess of his poetic pen but also the extent to which he was formally educated (mock such a system though he does). In “Man was Made to Mourn, A Dirge,” Burns laments, in octets of common measure, how tragic the human condition is. The final verse of each octet reemploys either the phrase “man was made to mourn” or something close to it. Although the first stanzas are dedicated to highlighting the miseries of man, the last two paragraphs emphasize the power of human commiseration and the blessed arms of death that relieve us from our mortal tribulations.

Wuthering Heights

February 2, 2010

I cannot say that I am in love with this classic English novel, although I do feel as though I understand some of its merit.

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (ah, the italics! I could not figure out how to employ them in the title–my apologies) is, according to public opinion, the love story between Catherine and Heathcliff, although I think such a view limits the scope of the novel. The stories of multiple generations are recounted in this novel, and Catherine herself dies by the middle of the book. Thus, I ask myself how we can consider this a tale of these two “protagonists” when such a large portion of the narrative involves other characters (even though the exertion of Catherine and Heathcliff’s lives over their own is emphasized). Additionally, I find myself stumbling as I utter the word “love” to describe the violent, manipulative, and repugnant relationship that existed between the impious man and the lunatic woman (forgive the harshness).

Perhaps I should summarize the novel for my readers’ sakes and for my own recollective purposes. The story opens when Mr. Lockwood, the original narrator (before the narration begins assuming layers) begins renting Thrushcross Grange, a house close to Wuthering Heights (“wuthering” being a local adjective used to describe the inclement weather). Upon his visit to Heathcliff, his landlord and the chief inhabitant of Wuthering Heights, Lockwood quickly sees the tragic and sullen lives that the Heights’ inhabitants live. Stormy weather and darkness force Lockwood  to spend the night at the Heights, and after reading some accounts written by the hand of one Catherine in the room where he rests, he has a disturbingly bloody dream about the same woman who is revealed to be Heathcliff’s lost object of love. Lockwood returns to Thrushcross Grange and falls ill, ultimately forced to stay in bed. To keep him occupied in his quiescence, he asks his maid, Ellen (Nelly) Dean to tell him the tale of Heathcliff. Nelly having been a child reared in the same home as Heathcliff, she is the perfect woman to recount all of the juicy particulars of the tale.

In essential brevity, Heathcliff was a vagrant gypsy child brought home by the father of Hindley and Catherine Earnshaw. Hindley and Catherine initially detested Heathcliff, but Catherine ultimately grew to love him and to uniquely understand him. Hindley despises Heathcliff (who is never given a first name) presumably because Heathcliff is loved affectionately by Mr. Earnshaw (Hindley’s biological father), and the disparity of attention given to the two drives Hindley to jealousy. When Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley is already married and has inherited the estate. He uses his position of power to torture Heathcliff under manual labor as vengeance for his years of being treated as the second-best son.

Meanwhile, Catherine begins to entertain feelings for Edgar Linton, Heathcliff’s opposite in his refinement and slightness of personality. A misheard conversation eventually precipitates Heathcliff’s storming departure (as he believes Catherine no longer loves him), and Catherine falls very ill after it. She is nursed to health by the Lintons, and she eventually agrees to marry Edgar. Hindley has a child named Hareton, but his wife dies shortly after giving birth to Hareton. Edgar and Catherine conceive a child, also named Catherine. After her birth, Catherine the elder dies and leaves Edgar a widower. In the meantime, Heathcliff has married Isabella, Edgar Linton’s sister, and with her conceived a child named Linton.

Can you tell how frustrating and desultory this story felt to me? Pardon the rapidity of the plot summary.

To sum it up, Heathcliff reigned over Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange for a long time, subjecting Hareton and Linton to a terrible life. Catherine the younger, who lives with her father at Thrushcross Grange, meets up with her relatives at Wuthering Heights over an extended period of time. Heathcliff eventually dies (while the initial narrator, Mr. Lockwood, has taken a hiatus in London), Catherine helps humanize Hareton (who has been raised in abusive, austere circumstances by Heathcliff), and the graves of all the tortured individuals actually look peaceful at the end of the story.

My issues with the book are thus:

1) Although the prose is absolutely beautiful (this point can hardly be contested), I don’t feel as if this piece says anything about either the human condition as it spans the centuries or the human condition as it would have been encountered in 1847, when this novel was first published. The characters do not seem overly real or even idiosyncratic in a lovable way, yet I cannot find in them archetypes or stock characters (although many consider Heathcliff a Victorian incarnation of the Byronic hero). The content of this novel strikes me as vapid–does it hold any significant, enduring opinion of humanity?

2) The style of narration is more frustrating than anything. Most of the novel is told through the eyes of Nelly Dean, an apparently very-present narrator who is eerily recollective of many obscure happenings that did not directly involve her. However, her story is entirely embedded in Mr. Lockwood’s experience and narrative. To add more layers, there are times when Nelly recounts either a letter she read between other characters or a conversation she overheard, shifting yet again the narrative voice. The entire novel seems to always seeks its narration, and in my lowly opinion, it never finds it.

Despite my frustrations with it, I am glad to have read this Victorian classic. I am eager to try Jane Eyre, as I have heard that Charlotte Brontë is the most talented of the sisters. I suppose we shall see.