I feel as though I approached (and continue to approach) The Prelude assuming that it runs a primarily chronological course. By the very end of the epic, I am finally disabused of this romantic notion, wonderful though it would be. The Twelfth Book, for example, is much more philosophical than it is a relation of events in Wordsworth’s life. Wordsworth deals with some very difficult issues, one of which is the fact that poets are not always rational, even though reasonability is considered a noble possession for humankind to have. Wordsworth then goes on to decry the notion of pure reason, as much mystery remains in the bosom of mankind and the vast universe that cannot simply be explained away by algorithms or syllogisms.

Wordsworth also deals with the concept of the physical senses in the Twelfth Book, calling the eye the most despotic of the senses for this way in which it monopolizes perception and possesses a ravenous appetite for something ever better. This leads Wordsworth to a discussion of, more or less, the notion of wanting what you have and not letting cupidity forever goad you on to less sensible and more drastic endeavors.

The most notable portion of the Twelfth Book is Wordsworth’s invention of the “spots of time”—the important memories and hours of our lives that teach us that the mind has control over the external world and that imbue us with renewed vitality when the intercourse of daily life and quotidian cares causes our hearts to flag. To illustrate his concept, Wordsworth relates two such spots of time. The first happened in his youth when he and his horse lost their companion and guide and ended up in a valley filled with melancholic and portentous omens, including the carved initials of a man murdered there and a girl walking with a pitcher on her head. A second spot of time is the death of Wordsworth’s father and the natural conditions of the environment at that time, the same conditions that can evoke the same emotions even in the present hour.

The Thirteenth Book, a continuation of the Twelfth, treats similarly philosophical topics. Early in the book, Wordsworth shares his feelings that there is more wealth than simply material wealth, and he does this with a direct mention of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the 1776 book by the now-famous Scottish economist who argued for the laissez-faire market and the “invisible hand” that guides all its participants to greatest wealth. For Wordsworth, of course, the greatest wealth lies within the interaction of the individual and Nature. Humankind, for Wordsworth, is greater than simply an animal possessed of “appetites and daily wants.”

Wordsworth also briefly treats the topic of love, noting that it is a sentiment common to all mankind, not restricted to an educated and cultured coterie of the elite. Lastly, of note to me was Wordsworth’s treatment of poetry and the poets. In a beautiful piece of literary theory (if we can call it such), Wordsworth states that each poet has a specific faculty and special truths to bring to light for the human race. Although I have unconsciously believed this, as well, I have never heard it placed into words so eloquently. So frequently does literary theory attempt to unify poetry and prose in order to find its trends and its modus operandi. To have Wordsworth break this down and say that each poet is notable for the ways in which they are peculiar, rather than the ways in which they conform, was a thrilling passage containing a precious truth.

The Prelude’s last book, “Conclusion,” begins with Wordsworth’s hike up Mount Snowdon. He goes with a friend and with a mountain guide, and all three of them are struck by the beauty of the moon among the dark sky when the fog finally lifts. The image is a gorgeous one, and it is the last spot of time in the entire epic. After this, Wordsworth begins wrapping up his poem. He notes that no life is perfect, and that although there is an ideal, we all fall from it as we wander and misstep in life. Wordsworth dedicates two portions of the last book to his closest mortal companions, the first to his sister Dorothy, without whom William would have lost his way or become too haughty, and the other to Coleridge, a man that Wordsworth admired tremendously and with whom he shared, for a portion of time, an intimate association. The poem includes a few meta-poetic passages in which Wordsworth talks about The Prelude itself, saying that although it catalogues the development of his imagination in nature, it had to leave out much, including many of the books that Wordsworth read that transformed him and other instances in nature in which he was changed. The epic closes with Wordsworth’s affirmation that the mind of man, more than anything, is the most beautiful and divine entity in existence.

The Ninth Book, “Residence in France,” is narrated in perhaps the simplest to follow and the most chronological verse of any of the books thus far. Wordsworth leaves London (regretting leaving all of its books more than anything other form of culture it possesses) for a journey to France. He first visits Paris, a city replete with beautiful architecture and famous sites. Nevertheless, more than anything Wordsworth finds the painting of Magdalene of Le Brun to be the fairest of the things seen in the great capital of France.

After leaving Paris, Wordsworth takes up residence with some soldiers in the French Revolution. Wordsworth is converted quite strongly to the cause of the patriots fighting for the Revolution—he spends the rest of the book recounting the evils of the aristocracy and the glory of the common man. He relates that his “heart was all given to the people, and my love was theirs.” The best people are not the ones ruling, he states, and to him that is a tragedy for the human soul. Wordsworth makes a friend, one Michel Beaupuis, with whom he connects deeply and discusses the intricacies of governmental theories while putting them in practice on the line of battle. Beaupuis is the object of much of Wordsworth’s praise, as Beaupuis was born into the aristocracy but is a sensible and audacious champion of the Revolution and the common man. The conversation between these two men at times reached a level of a highly intelligent treatise on the role of government and the nature of humankind, the essentially tenet of which is that rule by the capriciousness of one leads the many into disastrous straits.

In a highly vivid spot of time, Beaupuis and Wordsworth both see a starving little girl walking with a heifer and realize that they are truly fighting the unjust forces that maintain the indigence and wretchedness of that little girl’s condition. After this sight, the two elaborate on the goals of the French Revolution, citing the following as foremost among them: blotting out exclusive institutions, stamping out poverty, and placing the power of framing laws within the hands of the entire populace.

The 1850 edition of the book ends abruptly hereafter, as Wordsworth expurgated the events in which he created an illegitimate child with une très belle fille française. The chapter thus ends curtly, opening nicely into the Tenth Book, “Residence in France—Continued.”

The Tenth Book contains the horror and the bloodshed of the French Revolution that we do not see in the Ninth. Robespierre’s Reign of Terror has set in, and people are being beheaded mercilessly and in exorbitant numbers. Instead of the democratic government for which all had hoped, Robespierre is yet another monarch, if not more lethal than the kings that preceded him. Wordsworth leaves for England at this point, noting how his opportune timing may have saved his life. Unfortunately, however, his return to England does not symbolize a departure from violence, as France declares war on England soon after Wordsworth arrives. This war is carnage ridden and unjust, prematurely truncating the lives of many of the nations’ youth.

A touching spot of time in the Tenth Book occurs when Wordsworth visits the grave of a former teacher of his. Noting how the teacher had loved poetry, Wordsworth states that the teacher would have loved him and the poetic promise that resided in his breast.

The Eleventh Book is, in some ways, the climax of the entire epic. Wordsworth undergoes a mental crisis when he realizes that the ambitions and ideals of the French Revolution cannot be so simply and sweepingly accomplished. The Book begins, however, with Wordsworth’s unaffected confidence in France and in human nature. He sees the best of both, stating that he approaches “the shield of human nature from the golden side.” He is simply enraptured to be alive during this most exciting of times when liberty and democratic rule are true possibilities. However, when France itself starts declaring wars on other nations under the monarchy of Napoleon Bonaparte, Wordsworth is completely disillusioned not only with the French but with all of humankind. In a most sardonic and tragic of soliloquies, Wordsworth asks why humans have will and choice, as we so frequently use them for ill anyway. We are unconcerned with ethics and the questions of good and evil, preferring instead to act selfishly, no matter the morality of such a decision. This is certainly the darkest passage of the entire epic thus far, as Wordsworth so frequently finds the good and the redemptive in even the difficult. To see him so futilely converted to cynicism and pessimism is shocking.

 He is redeemed, of course, by his best friend. Dorothy is a woman that I want to know, for she plays such a significant role in Wordsworth’s most beautiful poems. His sister helps him maintain his course during the heartbreak of that time, and during the darkness “she whispered still that brightness would return.”

The Seventh Book of Wordsworth’s Prelude, “Residence in London,” treats an entirely different subject than the rest of the epic. In fact, it can almost be seen as the antithesis chapter, providing Wordsworth’s recollections on a city as a contrast to his feelings about Nature. The Seventh Book begins with Wordsworth forever finishing his time at the university. After graduation, like many students today, Wordsworth had less direction in his life and thus moved to the big city, London, to try his hand there.

London, of course, is not Wordsworth’s “natural habitat.” (The pun on “nature” was fully intended).  Wordsworth guides us through the descriptions of the scenes that he has witnessed, and they range anywhere from circus-like figures to deformed and begging individuals. He notes that, although people live so geographically close, they are emotionally extremely distant, a problem that will later be explored by Thomas Carlyle when he remarks that the only things people in London share are infectious diseases. In general, the city to Wordsworth is too face-paced and unimaginably filled with individuals from all walks of life. It is a “blank confusion” filled with a “perpetual whirl of trivial objects.”

It is within the Seventh Book that Wordsworth is first disillusioned regarding the French Revolution. He realizes that the goals of the revolution are not being attained but rather that anarchy, terror, and bloodshed have set in. Wordsworth praises Burke, whose Reflections on the French Revolution was the major book decrying the outcomes of the bloody revolution and who is considered the father of English conservatism. We thus see the changing of Wordsworth’s mind from his quixotic and radical idealism to a more sobered realism.

The Eighth Book, entitled “Retrospect:–Love of Nature leading to Love of Man,” explores through Wordsworth’s memories the various circumstances that led him from trivial, selfish pursuits to encounters with Nature’s sublimity that ultimately led him to a love of humankind. The book begins by Wordsworth recounting the festival and market-day of the people of Helvellyn. He uses the unfettered joy of these simply and content country folk to thank Nature for having been present during his adolescence, as his education was much different from someone raised in the metropolis of London.

Wordsworth uses the shepherd as the liaison between his love of Nature and his love of mankind. In a passage that is heavily primitivist, Wordsworth shows how the shepherds live closer to nature and are thus almost a nobler, more virtuous breed of people. He uses the eulogized position of the shepherds to warn that a life lived strictly in the “dead letter” can cause the individual to lose the beneficial effects of Nature. Wordsworth recognizes that mankind, like the worm, is made of dust, but he nevertheless states that humans are the crown achievement of Nature.

The book ends with Wordsworth’s remembrances of his time in London. As Wordsworth is wont to do, he recollects his experiences there with a more positive light than the one in which he experienced them. London is almost praised at this point, being noted for its ability to impart knowledge to the hungry soul and its examples of the unity of humans. The previous book, therefore, is made a part of the whole through Wordsworth’s positive memories.

I am fascinated by the way that this chapter both does and does not presage Darwinian evolution. On the one hand, humankind is said to be a product of “Nature.” However, this Nature is not Tennyson’s amoral, “red in tooth and claw” cycle of death and evolution but is rather the experiences of transcendence and sublimity that the natural order inspires. I am also deeply interested in Wordsworth’s psychology—it seems to me that, no matter the severity or gravity of the situation, he tends to look back and accept all the portions of his life, seeing how they combine to make him the man that he is. It is for this reason, I believe, that people find his poems saccharine. Although the negative is mentioned, it is never the final word in the same way that it is in Shakespeare’s tragedies or Melville’s Moby-Dick. For Wordsworth, things always seem to end up all right.

Wordsworth’s autobiography is not written completely chronologically, a fact that can be disorienting as I approach this work for the first time. The Fifth Book, entitled “Books,” concerns itself with some of the reading the Wordsworth did beyond the requirements of Cambridge and how that literary exposure affected his development. The central spot of time in the book is, perhaps, the dream of the Arab, a man who has a Don Quijote feel to him and who holds a shell and a rock in his hand. To Wordsworth’s dream-drowning imagination, however, these items are, in fact, books. The passage raises to me more questions than it answers, and I am particularly interested in what Wordsworth thought of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and the ways that Don Quijote’s imagination makes him gallant only in insanity (fighting windmills, anyone?).

In Book Five Wordsworth also excoriates educational models that attempt to restrict children’s minds into certain pre-established ways of thinking. This condemnation is in no way shocking, as Wordsworth prizes the imagination beyond any other human power.

For a reason not particularly understood to me (although I could make a tenuous conjecture), three deaths occur in this book: that of his mother, a young boy, and the drowned man in the lake. I do not claim to understand the reason for their placement in a book about books, although Wordsworth does continually refer to the mortality of the pages of the book but the immortality of the words and meaning within those pages. Perhaps he is merely contrasting the life of a book and the life of a human, musing about the ephemeral nature of all material things.

 Wordsworth begins to deeply understand the power and joy of words at this point in his epic narrative. Many passages illustrate this, such as Wordsworth’s reciting poetry with his friend as they stroll around the lake, the power of words to move us with “conscious pleasure,” and Wordsworth’s nascent fun with rhyme. To conclude, Wordsworth draws upon perhaps his two most important themes—education from poetry and education from Nature—and states that the two are actually intimately entwined, as the best poets encapsulate in their Nature in its purest form.

The Sixth Book, entitled “Cambridge and the Alps,” documents Wordsworth’s return to Cambridge and subsequent travels in Europe. His second time around in Cambridge, Wordsworth is more solitary and less social than his was during his first year. He becomes a voracious reader, but he nevertheless looks back upon his collegiate years and says that he worked much less hard than he intended to and that the words “good-natured lounging” apply better than anything else to describe his time there.

Wordsworth gives brief mention to the woman who would later become his wife, and he then continues to adorn his relationships with Coleridge in encomia, mentioning how similar in mind the two are. Wordsworth then returns to the past and tells of his adventure hiking in the Alps with a friend of his from Cambridge. It is while abroad that the Nature once again becomes sovereign in Wordsworth’s mind, and human nature itself seems to be “born again” while he is on his hiking excursion. France is, of course, in the midst of celebrating the fall of the Bastille and enjoying what they perceive will be a new era of human society based in “liberté, égalité et fraternité.” The jovial air is contagious, and Wordsworth undergoes a strikingly beautiful experience when he ascends Mont Blanc and realizes that he has effectively crossed the Alps. 

The Mont Blanc episode is particularly enticing, and I was so jealous of Wordsworth’s trip there that I found a couple images of it online and imagined (a fitting process, I believe) how magnificent it would be to see it in person. I must say, however, that being a Wyomingite I have seen some mountains of comparable sublimity. I’m a fortunate fellow.

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.

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.

The Death of John Keats

January 25, 2010


The death of John Keats attracts our attention because of its unjust prematurity. Keats had only emerged into his poetic brilliance a few years before his end, and he waxed more prolific as his death neared, with his last two years being the zenith of his literary creation. His life’s untimely truncation has been a thing of much projective wondering, as the poet had achieved by the age of 25 more than England’s greatest poets—Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare—had commensurately accomplished by that age. We are thus tempted to extrapolate—what would have become of the prodigious Keats had he lived? Unfortunately, these questions will forever remain in the realm of the speculative. We can, nevertheless, look at Keats’ death itself and consider how he spent his last days and words.

Keats’ descent into infirmity began during his walking trip around England’s Lake District, Scotland, and Ireland in 1818. Upon his return, the first signs of tuberculosis (then “consumption”) were ailing him, and the affliction having previously claimed some of his family members, Keats understood the symptoms as foreboding portents. By 1820, Keats was coughing up blood from lung hemorrhages, and he thus sought the more temperate and salubrious air of Rome with his friend Joseph Severn.  They took up residence near the Spanish Steps and focused on Keats’ repose and recovery. Keats’ physician, Dr. John Clark, bled Keats and recommended a very abstemious diet. Keats was miserable during this time and referred to his life as a “posthumous existence.” He constantly asked for opium or laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) to ease the pain or to take in large doses for suicidal purposes. Keats eventually died on the 23rd of February, 1821, in the arms of his friend Severn, who noted that Keats died slowly and peacefully, as if he had fallen asleep.  Keats is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome with the epitaph that he requested during life: “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water” and some other brief words, added by friends despite his request against them. In the same cemetery are the ashes of Percy B. Shelley, Keats’ friend and the composer of the best known elegy for Keats, “Adonais.”


Keats was a prolific and beautiful writer of letters. During his last days, his letters to Fanny Brawne, the woman for whom he felt enormous passion and composed his poem “Bright star, would I were as stedfast as thou art,” express his undying love for her and his distress at being “recommended not even to read poetry much less write it.” The majority of the letters he sent from Rome are directed towards Fanny (I counted 12 out of 21 total), extolling her beauty and informing her about his life and reviews (many negative) of his poems. One letter to P.B. Shelley declines an invitation from him to travel in England, with Keats remarking that “an english [sic]winter would put an end to me, and do so in a lingering hateful manner.” In Keats’ last known letter, he ends his beautiful epistolary prose by saying to his friend Charles Brown, “I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.”

William Blake, Part Two

January 22, 2010

The depth of Blake’s thought and his frequently desultory, diabolic vision is made more fully manifest in a reading of some of his works beyond Songs of Innocence and Experience. In fact, Songs can be illuminated and cast in different lights (or perhaps different hues of darkness) after grasping a larger portion of Blake’s vision.

In Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which draws its title from and satirizes a Swedenborgian composition, Blake expostulates on his philosophy, insisting that the Christian notions of the Devil and Hell are in fact beneficial components of human existence. To Blake, these demonic forces are merely Energy, and this Energy is bodily passion, desire incarnate, and even the forces of carnal temptation. To follow these Energies is good, Blake argues, and to deny them is only possible for those in whom they are already tragically debilitated from having heeded Reason, or Jesus Christ. The density and magnitude of Marriage is impossible to encapsulate here, but a few other Blakean philosophies are worthy of note: Blake was not a dualist, and he excoriated the belief that the soul and body could be separated. Blake composed what he termed the “Proverbs of Hell,” memorable of which are the following (quoted):

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence.

All wholesome food is caught without a net or a trap.

The nakedness of woman is the work of God.

You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.

Improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of Genius.

Where man is not nature is barren.

All deities reside in the human breast.

Visions of the Daughters of Albion and The Book of Urizen were difficult to comprehend because of the incessantly created neo-appellations, favorites of Blake, and the near complete disintegration of his prose. Although I am certain more erudite scholars than I have extracted meaning from the disjointed words, the scope of my Romantic survey does not presently warrant such a thorough investigation for that knowledge.

In a letter written to the Reverend Dr. Trusler, Blake begins to expound on the importance of the imagination, a clear harbinger of the later Romantics to come. In the last few poems I read, including “The Mental Traveller,” I was once again frequently outwitted by an elusive meaning, although some of the dark imagery (including that of rape and aging) remains fresh in my mind.

Blake is a fascinating poet. His absolute defiance of convention is frequently refreshing but at times too baffling or convoluted to be meaningfully interpreted or lived. His position at the beginning of the period we call Romanticism seems well placed to me, as the importance he places upon the imagination, in conjunction with his radical politics imbued with spirituality, have all the seeds that ultimately will characterize the period and the works of the authors within it.