Thursday, March 26, 2009

Preface to Lyrical Ballads; "gross and violent stimulants"

For the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants; and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and dignity who does not know this, and who does not further know, that one being is elevated above another, in proportion as he possesses this capability. It has therefore appeared to me, that to endeavour to produce or enlarge this capability is one of the best services in which, at any period, a Writer can be engaged; but this service, excellent at all times, is especially so at the present day. For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. to this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves.

This remarkable passage comes from Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads (2nd. ed., 1800). Here, Wordsworth explains his purposes in writing poems that are so seemingly artless and rustic--poems that eschew the high-minded diction typical of the 18th-century poetic tradition that Wordsworth is writing against just as they eschew the spectacular extremes of an emerging popular press. At this point in the argument, Wordsworth turns his attention to a brief but pointed analysis of his contemporary culture. It sounds surprisingly like our own.

In Wordsworth's view, people are increasingly attracted to what he famously calls "gross and violent stimulants," and consequently they lose touch with the human mind's native "beauty and dignity." His poems are intended to counteract this cultural trend and to restore readers' sensitivity to their inherent "beauty and dignity." If Wordsworth left the argument here, it would certainly define his aesthetic and cultural aims, but it would be otherwise unremarkable. But Wordsworth pushes forward, offering his analysis of the current (that is, current at the turn of the 19th century) cultural moment.

As Wordsworth has it, his historical moment is distinguished by several unprecedented social and cultural forces which combine to "blunt the discriminating power of the mind" and "reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor." He identifies three such forces:

The "great national events which are daily taking place" — It's difficult to know exactly what Wordsworth means by this (and probably there is not a single referent) but given the historical moment it seems likely that he is referring obliquely to the French Revolution and the violence which followed on its heels, including the war between England and France. England, too, was struck with considerable domestic unrest which threatened to become a national insurrection of "the People" against the established aristocratic and ecclesiastical orders. (See the commentary on Charlotte Smith's Emigrants for further discussion.)

The "accumulation of men in cities" — This demographic marker indicates that Wordsworth wrote during an era when England was being transformed from an agrarian to an industrial society. One consequence of this shift of the economic base, in Wordsworth's eyes, was catastrophic because it uprooted people from any sustaining relationship with the natural world, leaving them stuck in mindless industrial jobs and, to relieve their boredom, "craving ... extraordinary incident." In other words, these are the people who have come so unmoored from the native dignity of the human mind that they can only be momentarily thrilled by "gross and violent stimulants" which they seek with an ever-increasing fervency.

The "rapid communication of intelligence" — In other words, the historical moment was also distinguished by an exponential advance in the circulation of print media. Suddenly at the end of the eighteenth century, newspapers and broadsheets could be produced with sufficient speed and at sufficiently low prices to be attractive to a large swath of the English population, and people responded with an increasing demand for news, particularly "news" of the most outrageous and spectacular kind.

All of these cultural, economic, and social forces were having their influence on the literary output of the British press (the "literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country"). It is precisely the "gross and violent [literary] stimulants" that Wordsworth's poems in Lyrical Ballads are implicitly arguing against.

In this sense, Wordsworth's critique of his contemporary culture sounds very much like the critiques one hears about our own historical moment, as pundits from both the Left and Right strike out against violent video games, outrageous TV and radio talk shows, and the psycho-social toll of an increasingly pervasive media--from cell phones to the internet. Much as these cultural critics today bemoan the fact that some older social order, some earlier form of small-townish community, is being demolished by our own seeking after "gross and violent stimulants" that our information technology hourly gratifies, so too did Wordsworth level similar charges against the media-fed culture of spectacle in his own day. The analysis certainly lends a significant cultural and historical backdrop for the better understanding of such poems as Wordsworth's Michael.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 582-90

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns,
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land,
I have strange power of speech;
The moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me —
To him my tale I teach.

These lines come from near the end of Coleridge's famous "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The Mariner has just told his spellbound listener the whole narrative of his mysterious voyage—from its joyful beginning, through the shooting of the albatross and the working through of the curse that is placed on the ship, and finally, after the Mariner blesses the water snakes, to the return to England under some supernatural agency. The lines quoted above explain why the Mariner has stopped the Wedding Guest and singled him out to hear the tale: apparently, having first arrived back in his native England, the Mariner sought out the hermit to hear his confession. At that moment he was stricken with a "woeful agony" which "forced" him to tell his story. This has been a recurrent penance in the Mariner's post-voyage life. He doesn't know when it will happen (it's an "uncertain hour"), but when this "agony" strikes him, he must tell his tale in order to relieve temporarily his burning "heart." The Mariner wanders the world "from land to land," occasionally being moved by his "strange power of speech." When this happens, he somehow just "know[s]" the man that must hear the tale, and, as he says, "To him my tale I teach."

The passage points to what is, for me, the most disturbing aspect of Coleridge's poem. As we are reading the tale, it seems like the purpose for its being narrated at all is to convey some important moral or ethical lesson to the listener. This seems to be a monitory tale designed to help a less experienced audience avoid the perils and the penance of the teller. And indeed, Coleridge plays up this altruistic purpose by supplying a "moral" of sorts at the end of the poem ("He prayeth best who loveth best / All things both great and small..."). This might seem to be an uplifting sort of truism—we should avoid wanton cruelty to the creatures of the Creator or, the implication runs, we will suffer as the Mariner has suffered. So why would this tidy and rather banal moral be disturbing?

Well, if the listeners to such a monitory tale—the Wedding Guest and, more broadly, readers of the poem—are going to profit by such "wisdom" as is summed up in the poem's moral, then they need to be able consciously and deliberately to enact the moral principles the poem sets forth. In other words, like the Wedding Guest, we should come away from the tale as we might come away from a sermon: resolved to do our best to enact the principles espoused in the "moral." These are "words to live by." On further reflection, however, this "moral" simply cannot work as we might have anticipated. It seems clear that the Mariner is not acting according to some conscious and deliberate altruism—he is not even acting according to his own will. Instead, he is subject to a compulsive behavior over which he has no control and from which he seeks only to find temporary relief. The compulsion strikes him at some unpredictable "uncertain hour" and then he seeks a listener not so much to inculcate some moral lesson as to enable him to relieve his own psycho-spiritual agony.

Thinking back through the narrative with the Mariner's compulsive behavior in mind, we see a different tale altogether—nothing the Mariner does seems to be an act of his own volition. In an ordinary tale, one might reasonably ask, for instance, Where the ship was originally going and for what purpose? or Why did the Mariner shoot the albatross? or Why did the Mariner bless the water snakes? But here there are no answers. Things just seem to happen without apparent cause or purpose. Now the Mariner continues to tell his tale more to fulfill some inexplicable compulsion than to actually communicate some useful understanding. Likewise, the Wedding Guest "cannot choose but hear" (18)—this compulsive behavior is apparently contagious. Taken to its extreme, this line of thinking sees the poem projecting a world in which human volition is non-existent, where we are all wandering about fulfilling compulsive desires which we do not understand and over which we have no control. That's a disturbing vision—it's little wonder that the Wedding Guest wakes up the next morning "A sadder and a wiser man" (624).

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Manfred, I.ii.37-42

How beautiful is all this visible world!
How glorious in its action and itself;
But we, who name ourselves its sovereigns, we,
Half dust, half deity, alike unfit
To sink or soar, with our mix'd essence make
A conflict of its elements . . .

These lines present one of the cruxes of Byron's famous drama from 1816—"Manfred." We know from Act I.i that the title character is stricken with a gnawing guilt over some past event involving his beloved Astarte. Now, when Manfred conjurs up supernatural spirits, he does so not to acquire greater power or fame or riches; instead, he asks for forgetfulness and oblivion. So tortured is he by self-recriminations that he imagines his only hope for solace lies in the annihilation of his memory and with it any sense of guilt and inadequacy. Such is the preamble of the scene of the present excerpt. Here in Scene ii, Manfred has ascended a craggy overlook in the Alps with the explicit purpose of hurling himself to his doom. Just before he is about to leap, an eagle flies by and he utters a soliloquy containing the lines above.

Manfred's speech is founded on one of the recurrent themes of romantic-era writing: the relationship between a natural and a supernatural world. Students of romanticism sometimes find the romantics' pervasive concern with this idea peculiar—one of my students once called it "all New-Agey"—but it's really not all that unusual. It has long been conventional, after all, to talk about "heaven and earth" or "body and soul," terms that suggest just how deeply set is this idea of a physical world and a spiritual existence beyond the physical. The implicit question for Manfred, then, is "Where do people belong? Are they natural creatures? Or are they spiritual creatures?" He certainly admires the beauty of the natural world surrounding him ("How beautiful is all this visible world!"), and yet he recognizes that human beings don't really belong exclusively to nature. At the same time, human beings are not purely supernatural beings like the various spirits Manfred conjurs up in his midnight study. Instead, people are "Half dust, half deity, alike unfit / To sink or soar." We have, in other words, a "mix'd essence."

The point lends a new and universal cast to Manfred's sense of guilt. While the immediate occasion for his guilt may be his assumed responsibility for some event involving Astarte, his guilt and his self-inflicted psychological tortures are in this passage the defining condition of being human. Human beings—unlike, say, coyotes or lemurs—have the capacity to perceive and be moved by the beauty of the natural world, and this sets human beings apart from "mere" nature. (One doesn't imagine that coyotes or lemurs or any other natural creatures spend much time in awestruck wonder about the beauty of the natural world they live in.) But, while human beings may have this supernatural aesthetic capacity, this ability to be moved by such sublime scenes as Manfred's alpine vista, we cannot fully transcend nature either. We cannot fully escape the body and the limitations of the physical world we share with the coyotes and lemurs. We are a "mix'd essence" of body and soul and thus find ourselves inadequate both to the harmonious beauty of nature and to the presumed perfection of some unbodied spiritual universe. Manfred's guilt, in other words, is the guilt of fallen humanity's sense of inadequacy.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Emigrants, Book I, pp. 29-30

Ye venal, worthless hirelings of a Court!
Ye pamper'd Parasites! whom Britons pay
For forging fetters for them; rather here
Study a lesson that concerns ye much;
And, trembling, learn, that if oppress'd too long,
The raging multitude, to madness stung,
Will turn on their oppressors; and, no more
By sounding titles and parading forms
Bound like tame victims, will redress themselves!

This passage, from the first book of Charlotte Smith's The Emigrants, sets forth one of the key explanations of the political turmoil and uncertainty that permeated Britain throughout the romantic period. In 1789, of course, the French Revolution had initiated a series of events across the English Channel that led eventually to the exile of large numbers of French churchmen and nobles. Accustomed to lives of privilege and luxury, these persons—the "emigrants" of Smith's title—now wandered along the English seacoast, disoriented, impoverished, and pricked by the inescapable recollection of the recent tragic loss of friends and family to the violence of the revolution. Though Smith is hardly an aristocratic sympathizer, and though she is critical of the French Catholic church, the image of human suffering nonetheless elicits expressions of sorrow and empathy. Whatever their background and whatever their ideology, these are suffering people.

What is more, as the excerpt above suggests, the suffering of these exiles is potentially instructive to the current powers of England. In the view of many political critics (including Smith), the British government was bloated by pensioners (persons who received government salaries), monarchist sycophants, and an unreformed parliament that gave little voice and virtually no power to ordinary Englishmen. These are the "worthless hirelings" and "pamper'd Parasites" of the opening lines. And what follows is, in essence, an ominous warning to those who uphold this aristocratic status quo. The experience of the French aristocratic emigrants offers a "lesson" to their English counterparts: if they continue to oppress the common citizens of England, then these citizens will become a "raging multitude" which will no longer be quieted by the usual forms of aristocratic power (e.g. "sounding titles and parading forms"). Instead, they will rise up against their oppressors and pull them down, just as the French aristocratic emigrants have been reduced to a pinched and hungry homelessness, wandering on this alien English shoreline.