Hamlet, Act 1

January 13, 2011

Hamlet is, both by popular opinion and my own personal one, Shakespeare’s best play. For a reason largely inexplicable to me, Hamlet is fascinating, haunting, and magical in a way that other plays are not. It is with a sense of awe and appreciation, therefore, that I indulge in reading The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark yet again.

The first act of Hamlet begins as two sentinels guarding the Danish palace hear, yet again, a noise that startles them. The fright turns out to be the specter of the previous king of Denmark, Hamlet, who is believed to have been bitten by a snake and killed as a result of the poisoning. Though the poltergeist has appeared for three nights in a row, it refuses to speak and disappears as quickly as it arrives, bewildering its witnesses. The sentinels decide to inform Prince Hamlet, the late king’s son, about the apparition.

Meanwhile, Prince Hamlet is brooding over his father’s death, as the Prince believed his father to be a just and admirable king. Prince Hamlet is particularly perturbed by the rapidity with which his mother, Queen Gertrude, remarried. In a mere month after the king’s death, Gertrude married Claudius, King Hamlet’s brother, and already shares a bed with him, much to the dismay of Hamlet, who finds his mother’s actions lascivious and disrespectful. Hamlet gives beautiful speeches from his very first appearance in the play, and his suicidal tendencies are made known early when he vocalizes his wish that his flesh would simply melt away or that suicide were not an unholy act.

In a new scene, Laertes, brother to Ophelia and son of Polonius, informs Ophelia not to indulge in Hamlet’s romantic requests, saying that Hamlet is but youthful and brimming with desire, all of which can expire at any moment. Polonius, Ophelia’s father, extends a similar warning to her against Hamlet. Ophelia obliges them both by acquiescing with their commands.

The scene ends when Hamlet meets the ghost of his father, is beckoned away by that ghost, and is then told that the “snake bite” that killed his father was actually a malicious poisoning by Claudius. Prince Hamlet returns to his friends, informs them of the awful truth, and the three of them swear never to reveal what they learned that night.

In this act, Shakespeare sets up some fascinating plots. As a reader, we already identify with Hamlet because of the raw depth of the inner psychology to which we are granted dramatic access and view. We begin to imagine to what extent Hamlet was courting and flirting with Ophelia before the action of the play, just as we imagine what Gertrude’s relationship with the late king was like. The play begins brilliantly.


The Libation Bearers

July 25, 2010

The Libation Bearers, the second tragedy in Aeschylus’s trilogy The Oresteia, focuses on a matricide performed by Orestes, the recently returned son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Orestes has returned to Argos on the order of Apollo, who enjoined that Orestes kill his mother and her husband, the new king Aegisthus. Orestes visits his father’s grave and leaves a lock of his hair as a momento. Electra, Orestes’s sister, also visits her father’s grave on that day on request of her mother, Clytemnestra, who is plagued by disturbing dreams of a snake that she cradles as a child and lets suck both milk and blood from her breast (a portentous dream presaging the return of Orestes). While at the grave, Electra sees a strand of hair and a pair of footprints that look shockingly similar to her own. She then encounters Orestes, her long since departed brother, and with him denigrates their mother, lauds their deceased father, and plots the murder of both Clytemnestra and her tyrannous husband, Aegisthus.

Orestes and his traveling companion Pylades disguise themselves as foreigners and approach the castle where the rest of the house of Atreus dwells. When Clytemnestra answers Orestes at the entrance, and Orestes pretends to be a message bearer sent to inform the household that Orestes has died. Clytemnestra is saddened by the news, and Cilissa, Orestes’s childhood nurse, is equally distraught. Orestes asks for Aegisthus, who is told by Cilissa to come alone. Orestes murders Aegisthus. Committing matricide, however, proves more difficult for Orestes, as his filial bonds to his mother are strong. After being reminded by Pylades that a failure to complete the act will result in a plagued existence, Orestes completes the action and then wraps the bodies in the same robe used by them to kill Agamemnon. Orestes begins to experience insanity and flees the stage, terminating the play.

My most persistent observation throughout the course of the play regards the hypocrisy that I perceive among the thoughts and actions of Electra, Orestes, and the chorus. All of them fervidly detest Clytemnestra and yet lionize Agamemnon. Clytemnestra is despised for having killed her husband, yet the fact that Agamemnon killed his innocent daughter, the sister of Electra and Orestes, is completely overlooked. I can find no rationale for this, other than a gendered understanding that would make a woman culpable for something from which a man may be expiated.


July 25, 2010

Agamemnon is the first Greek tragedy in a trilogy known as The Oresteia written by Aeschylus. Aeschylus, often considered the father of Greek tragedy, composed more than seventy plays, only seven of which are extant. Aeschylus drew much of his content for the trilogy from Homer’s epic poems, as the title of the play Agamemnon attests.

The house of Atreus is under a curse before the play even begins. Years earlier Atreus, the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus, had defeated his brother Thyestes in the competition for the throne and had banished him after his ascension. Later returning in hopes of reclaiming the throne, Thyestes is (supposedly) warmly received by Atreus and given a meal which he eats, not knowing that it is all of his own children (save Aegisthus) that he is consuming. Upon learning of the atrocity, Thyestes curses Atreus for the heinous act and flees with his only surviving child, Aegisthus.

The other background story that is vital to comprehend regards Agamemnon himself. Stuck with his troops on an island due to lack of wind, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to Artemis in order to appease her and gain a favorable sailing wind so that he and his troops may successfully begin the Trojan War. Itself a pernicious act, the murder of Iphigenia both depressed and enraged Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife who stars in Agamemnon.

Agamemnon begins upon the return of Agamemnon after his success in the Trojan War. Though quite a bit of conversation occurs between the watchman, the chorus, Clytemnestra, and the herald before the action of the play gets underway, the primary events of the play commence when Agamemnon finally arrives home. Clytemnestra, in an act of feigned deference and respect, lays crimson robes on the ground upon which she invites Agamemnon to walk. Although he remarks that such an act would exhibit hubris, he executes it nonetheless, leaving Cassandra, his oracular concubine, behind. Cassandra will not speak with Clytemnestra, so Clytemnestra returns to the house where Aegisthus, her lover, awaits her. Cassandra, who is clearly in distress and who can see with mantic vision both the impending murder of Agamemnon and of herself, converses with the chorus for a while before entering the house. The chorus then hears Agamemnon cry out in pain. The chorus enters the house, sees the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra, and speaks to Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, both of whom justify their actions by relating the horrors that they underwent in the past, which I documented above.

The concept of the chorus is one with which I was mostly unfamiliar, and my literary encyclopedias inform me that the Greek tragedies’ chorus served as commentators on the actions of the dramas and as vocal expressions of traditional moral and social attitudes.

There are a few rather striking parallels that I would like to note here between this tragedy and those of William Shakespeare. Firstly, the perverse idea of feeding someone their own child, as Atreus did to Thyestes, returns in Titus Andronicus. Secondly, the bloody apparitions that Cassandra sees seemed oddly similar to those that King Macbeth sees after they are summoned by the weird sisters in Macbeth. These parallels may be tenuous or coincidental, but they nevertheless struck me. Classical literature did indeed exert an enormous influence over subsequent Western letters, and Shakespeare’s corpus is no exception.


July 17, 2010

The story of Judith is a medieval reworking of a biblical text, considered apocryphal to Protestants but an official part of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). One third of the surviving Anglo-Saxon poetic texts are biblical in nature, and Judith is a paragon of the genre.

Though the poet is unknown and the first (likely 100) lines of the text is lost, Judith recounts the story of a prudent and god-fearing woman, whose name is the title of the work, who uses her beauty to enter the enemy’s camp. Her people, the Jews of Bethulia, had fallen under the attack of one of King Nebuchadnezzar’s generals, the nefarious Holofernes. Her people in distress, Judith entices Holofernes by her pulchritude and becomes a mistress unto him. One night, after bacchanalian excess, Holofernes requests to sleep with Judith. She waits in his bed not anticipating sex but with a sword in hand which she uses to decapitate him in two strokes. Taking his head with her in a sack, she leaves Holofernes’s camp and returns to her own people, informing them of the timeliness of a prompt attack. The Jews attack their captors with much success, as the leaders of the enemy’s army fruitlessly wait around the perimeter of Holofernes’ shrouded bed for him to wake, the net of which allows only Holofernes to look out and none to look in. By the time one man finally musters the bravery to open the bed shroud, he sees his decapitated captain and laments the inevitable doom that will befall them all. The Jews do win the battle, appropriating the enemy’s riches and weapons. Judith receives both Holofernes’s armor and the assurance that she will dwell in the eternities with God.

Book 3 begins with the Achaean troops lined in opposition to the Trojan battalions. Menelaus, the brother of Agamemnon and the former husband of Helen, steps forward from the Achaean line to confront Paris, the brother of the noble Hector and the man who clandestinely stole Helen. Upon descrying Menelaus, however, the pusillanimous Paris cowers in fear, only to be rebuked by Hector, who notes that the entirety of the war and all its tragic losses are due to Paris’s surreptitious stealing of Helen. To apologize to Hector for his cravenness, Paris proposes that he and Menelaus fight alone, man to man, and that the victor of the battle claim Helen, her wealth, and the general victory for his people. The truce is made, the fight commences, but Menelaus, whose strength and prowess clearly overpower that of Paris, is thwarted from his victory by the intercession of Aphrodite, the goddess who so cherishes Paris because he announced her the most beautiful of the gods. Aphrodite thus releases Paris from his strangling helmet and whisks him away to a bed where he lies waiting to have sex with Helen. Book 3 thus marks the introduction of Helen  into the narrative, the abject woman who somehow blames herself for her abduction, doubting her probity and referring to herself as a whore. She is miserably devoted to Paris, her captor, and yearns to return to her husband Menelaus, her child who has now grown, and her original people, the Achaeans.

Book 4 begins as the gods deliberate on Mount Olympus about the outcome of the war. Menelaus is the clear victor in the mortals’ battle, but tensions between Zeus and Hera have led to competing desires regarding the war’s outcome. Hera ultimately defers to Zeus, the most puissant of all gods and her husband, and agrees to send Athena to the Trojans to convince one of the more vacuous of their rank to break the previous truce and fire an arrow at Menelaus, the success of which would forever lionize the archer. The arrow is shot but, courtesy of divine intervention, does not kill Menelaus and instead merely wounds him. Enraged that someone has so hastily shattered the peace pact, Agamemnon resumes the war, resulting in many casualties on both sides of the battle.

Having read The Iliad once in high school, I now happily return to it to solidify in my mind its themes and characters as I prepare for the subject test in literature. I vividly remember resonating with the work while in high school for what I perceived to be the passionate relationship between Achilles and his friend Patroclus, the only person for whom Achilles bears sufficient love to convince him to reenter the Trojan War after being gravely offended. Feeling a similarity with Achilles and his love for a man, I loved The Iliad once and now return to its pages with curiosity and wide eyes.

The Iliad and The Odyssey were both ostensibly written by a poet named Homer, a Greek who lived sometime in the late eighth or early seventh century BCE. Like Shakespeare, hardly any biographical details remain about the life of Homer, and scholars have conjectured both that he was literate and did not merely perform his lengthy epic poems orally but also composed written versions of them, and that he was blind, as Milton alludes to when he places himself in the genealogy of blind, albeit brilliant, epic poets in his Paradise Lost. Many cities are claimed as Homer’s birthplace, and Homer is even considered by some to be a conglomerate of various Greek bards, although the unity of style and theme among The Iliad and The Odyssey argues for composition by a single hand.

Both of Homer’s epics are composed in dactylic hexameter, a rhyme scheme that exacted various maneuvers from the language of which it was comprised. One such trope that Homer employs frequently is his use of an epithet, now termed a Homeric epithet, to describe a character or noun generally. Thus, we have the “wine-red sea” and “wide-ruling Agamemnon,” epithets that in the original Greek would have lent themselves to forming  lines of dactylic hexameter. Other memorable things about the form of the Homeric epics include the epic invocation or epic question, in which the bard appeals to the Muses to aid him in his duties as a raconteur. Epic catalogs occur when Homer describes at length the names and background stories of certain members of both armies, for example, a quintessential instance occurring at the end of Book 2. Epic similes are extensive, voluble comparisons using the words “like” or “as.” And lastly, both of Homer’s poems begin in the middle of the action, in medias res, and portray the prior events of the plot to the reader through flashback narrative scenes.

Book 1 of The Iliad sets the scene for the remainder of the epic. The plot is essentially one of petty revenge wrought by the proud warrior Achilles against the equally haughty Agamemnon. After the Achaeans defeat a city and loot its wealth, Agamemnon receives Chryseis, a beautiful woman, as a prize. Chryseis’s father, Chryses, however, is not content to see his daughter a slave to a foreign army. He begs for her return, is spurned by Agamemnon, and being an oracular priest thus appeals to Apollo to plague the Argives as chastisement for their withholding, an act that Apollo executes. Agamemnon eventually returns Chryseis under the condition that he can possess Briseis, the female war prize of Achilles, Agamemnon’s warrior of most prowess. Agamemnon takes Briseis from Achilles, precipitating Achilles’s anger and withdrawal from the war. Deeply wounded in his pride by Agamemnon, Achilles enjoins his mother, a goddess named Thetis, to convince Zeus to massacre the Argives as a humiliation tactic and a didactic means of chastening Agamemnon specifically. Zeus agrees to the machination, and Book 1 ends.

Book 2 begins with the unfolding of Zeus’s plot. Exercising his guile, Zeus sends a dream to Agamemnon in which he falsely informs the Achaean leader that an abrupt attack, undertaken at that very instant, would enormously debilitate the Trojan army. Trusting the content of the dream, Agamemnon awakes and puts his warriors to an audacity test, telling them falsely that they may return home after the nine years of fighting that they have already endured. Much to Agamemnon’s shame, the warriors happily comply, content to have lost the war and to return home empty-handed. Hera, ever a defender of the Argives, sends Athena to rally the morale of the troops, lest they abandon the war at Agamemnon’s false behest. Newly encouraged by her divine words, the troops prepare for battle and organize themselves by tribe, all of which are described in great nominal detail. The Trojans, also receiving divine warning of the impending battle, line themselves up for fighting as well and are described, and thus ends Book 2.

As I prepare to discuss the first three chapters of Literary Theory: The Basics with my beloved friend, I thought to include a new idea that I gleaned from my third reading of the first chapter of this brilliantly terse and distilled text:

Both T.S. Eliot and Matthew Arnold felt as though society’s loss of values–due to their undermining by Darwinian theory, industrialization, the rise of a self-concerned, philistine middle class, and other such cultural horrors–could be palliated by the intense study and appreciation of literature. They assumed that spiritual values and the proper and healthy ways of being were somehow inherent in good writing, and that literature held a universal appeal for all humanity.

The undergirding assumption for all of this is that the human condition is relatively stable and fixed across all times and spaces. Thus, the anonymous author of Beowulf, though writing in Old English and living in a culture bereft of microwaves, television, and Lady Gaga, still shares with me and my contemporaries a human condition, making him (or, perhaps, her) just as likely to produce quality literature of sound morals as someone who understands my postmodern existence in a more intimate way. 

The idea is a compelling one that fascinates me but which, at least at this point of my intellectual and philosophical life, I reject. Even two human beings living in the same year and functioning as denizens of the same country seem to me as though they could share nothing in common, making the idea of the “human condition” completely bunk. Does an ascetic Buddhist monk, even if he lives in the USA in 2010, share any of the same experiences or values as a hedonistic rock star? Does a child with Down’s Syndrome share a common condition with, say, a psychopath awaiting death in a prison? I am inclined to say that each individual is so bound to her own situation–her own unique combination of genetics and environment–that we collectively, as a human species, have no one value or condition in common. Even biological processes seem mutable. Sex drives can be eliminated by castration. Hunger can be curtailed by ideological hypnosis or a destroyed hypothalamus. We all live lives too discrete one from another for me to claim, at this point, any unifying human experience.

The Middle Ages

April 6, 2010

The beauty in studying the literature of the Middle Ages is that because so few people were literate and because literacy was primarily a trait associated with the clergy, much of the writing that survives from that time period is religious in nature and thus does not always warrant an intense literary study. Thus, as I approach this time period, I face a much less daunting quantity of writing. However, I also must accept the converse of that pleasantry—that the culture and language is far removed from my own, making the hermeneutic circle even more difficult to penetrate.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature’s introduction to the Middle Ages begins by defining the years of the epoch, which they indicate as beginning around the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century CE to the Renaissance for Europe generally (which began at sundry times for differing countries and according to different scholars), and 1485 for England specifically, an arbitrary but useful date in that it marks the rise of Henry VII, the first Tudor, to the English throne. Though these years provide a useful distinction between this era and those before and after it, the changes that English culture and language underwent during the medieval years hardly make them appear as a cohesive time period.

A brief history of England seems an appropriate place to begin. In the first century CE, the Romans conquered the original inhabitants of England, the people known today as the Celts, and ruled them as an imperial province that they named Britannia after the “Britons” who lived there. After the Romans pulled their people from the island to protect their continental empire from collapse, three tribes—the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes—began to invade the coasts of England. The original Britons were largely eradicated, but some escaped to the western part of the island and speak the language that today is called Welsh. Although the Romans had imposed Christianity on the Britons after the conversion of Emperor Constantine, the invading tribes were pagan and brought with them their respective cultures and spiritualities. However, due to missionary efforts and the conversion of various kings, much of England became Christian again.

The language that we know as English today began as a Germanic language called Old English or Anglo-Saxon, derived from the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes that inhabited the geographic space. This heavily-inflected language changed drastically after 1066 when the Normans invaded and conquered England, adding enormous numbers of French words into English vocabulary and softening the inflection of Old English. The Normans were themselves originally Germanic peoples who had adapted to Christianity and the French language on the continent. During the Anglo-Norman period, the originally Germanic language of Old English received influence from the Latin of the clergy, the French of the aristocracy and political sphere, and the Celtic from the remnant Britons. After a period of wild change and growth of the language, various dialects now known as Middle English arose, the most notable of which was Chaucer’s East Midland dialect, a form still recognizable to speakers of English today though largely variant in spelling and pronunciation from modern English.

Beginning in the late fourteenth century, the English language began to acquire its own clout as a language worthy of poetry and emulation by continental Europeans. Writers like Chaucer, Langland, Gower, the Pearl/Gawain poet and Julian of Norwich began to use English as their primary language of expressing emotion and experimenting with literary form. By the fifteenth century, English was used to write mystery plays, which were cyclical plays based on the Bible, and morality plays, which personify the trials and condition of the everyday Christian in an allegory. Writers such as Lydgate, Hoccleve, Margery Kempe, Henryson, and Thomas Malory continued to further the belief in English as a reputable language worthy of serious students and practitioners. When Caxton introduced the printing press into England in 1476, a new era of reading and writing had arrived, and the Middle Ages had effectively ended.

Old English poetry differs from other poetry in a few marked ways. Lines of Old English poetry typically consist of four accented syllables with as many non-accented syllables as desired by the poet. The four are split into hemistiches of two accented syllables separated by a caesura. Instead of rhyming, Old English poets used alliteration, with typically both of the first two accented words beginning with the same sound as the first accented word after the caesura. Old English poetry is also notable for its dramatic understatement called litotes, its kennings, such as ring-giver for king, and its synecdoche and metonymy. Middle English poetry, such as that of Chaucer, has rhyme in the way that we conceive of it today and treats accents more similarly to our style. Chaucer is arguably the father of iambic pentameter, the most English of all poetic forms.

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.”