Semester in Review, II: Something Romantic
(Note: This post is part of a series about what I was up to this fall. I was taking four regular classes and Ma'ayan's photography ExCo, pictures from which will be sprinkled throughout the more academic posts.)
Last spring, I was in a flurry of indecision as I went about registering for classes. There were three English courses I was interested in, all of which I would be more than happy to take, but, as Fate would have it, they all met at the same time. (Sometimes I think Fate likes messing with me.) After much dithering and polling of English majors, I settled on The Electric Age, a course on Romantic literature. I have never had occasion to regret my choice. By the end of the semester, I'd learned a fair amount about the general political and social climate of the time, become acquainted with the rather quirky personalities of prominent intellectuals, read the works of the man my brother is named after, developed sympathy for Felicia Hemans, rolled my eyes at Byron and Shelley, and fallen a little bit in love with Keats.
The course began with Frankenstein, which I'd read in high school but was happy to revisit. Frankenstein, of course, is full of darkness and danger, and it's really all Victor's fault. He keeps whining and raging about the evil creature he made that is now bent on destroying his life. All the creature wants, though, is to have someone by whom he is not rejected. His early life was entirely moral and good. It's only when he's attacked by the kindest people he knows, and then repelled by his own creator, that he decides to make Frankenstein's misery equal to his own. Of course Frankenstein doesn't see it that way--sees himself as the victim of everything--and they both get more and more savage, less and less human, repeatedly descending to each other's level.
After that, we were done with prose for the semester--on to poetry! We went from Mary Shelley to her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. His poems range from the pastoral to raging political polemics. ("Rise like lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number! / Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you-- / Ye are many--they are few.") He was unofficially exiled from England for his radical views. This seems to have happened to poets quite a lot, actually. There was revolution in the air. These were the people who strongly supported the French Revolution when it began--the pre-mass-execution stage, with peasants demanding rights, citizens storming the Bastille, etc.--seeing it as a new dawn of liberty. When France dropped the ball with killing sprees and an Emperor, they moved on to other nationalist movements. Byron died of illness while in Greece, trying to fight for Greek independence. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Shelley's poetry is great. I enjoyed "Ozymandius," some excerpts from "Helas," and the general import of "The Masque of Anarchy," although I'm sure I didn't understand all the symbolism in it. So I have great respect for him as a poet and a demagogue. But as a person--frankly, I don't know if I could have put up with him.
Leaving aside Shelley's tendency to try to seduce every intelligent young woman he met, the man was not half full of himself. We read part of "A Defense of Poetry," an essay he wrote defending poetry as much more than idle ramblings, as an art essential to cultivating higher feeling, inspiring strength and morality, and expressing political ideals. This is fine. Shelley claims that poets are prophets who see the future in the patterns of the past, who are in touch with the Eternal; that they are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world"; all well and good. But listen to how he goes about it! "But the diversity [of quality in art] is not sufficiently marked as that its gradations should be sensible, except in those instances where the predominance of this faculty of approximation to the beautiful (for so we may be permitted to name the relation between this highest pleasure and its cause) is very great. Those in whom it exists to excess are poets, in the most universal sense of the word . . . ." And in case you had any doubt he was special: "The jury which sits in judgement upon a poet, belonging as he does to all time, must be composed of his peers: it must be impaneled by Time from the selectest of the wise of many generations." I cannot shake the feeling that by "poet," he means "me," and suspects himself of being judged very highly.
Next we read some of Felicia Hemans' work. She was immensely popular in her time and for a while after, then fell out of favor, and now is being looked at again. I found her interesting as a woman poet. She wrote about the hardships of life as a woman, but never with anything approaching a feminist angle. She glorified the idea of home--domestic, patriotic poetry. She's most famous for "Casabianca" ("The boy stood on the burning deck") and "The Homes of England," but I would recommend "Evening Prayer, at a Girls' School" and "Properzia Rossi." I wrote a paper about "Properzia Rossi," which is about a sculptor, rejected by the man she loves, creating her last work--a sculpture of Ariadne, who was similarly abandoned--as she dies from sorrow. Simultaneously fiery, passionate, and despairing, it was the first thing we'd read that actually made me stop and say, "Wow."
It comes, the power
Within me born, flows back; my fruitless dower
That could not win me love. Yet once again
I greet it proudly, with its rushing train
Of glorious images: they throng they press
A sudden joy lights up my loneliness,
I shall not perish all!
"Evening Prayer" is much calmer but equally sad:
Yet in those flute-like voices, mingling low,
Is woman's tenderness--how soon her woe!
. . . .
Her lot is on you--to be found untired,
Watching the stars out by the bed of pain,
With a pale cheek, and yet a brow inspired,
And a true heart of hope, though hope be vain;
Meekly to bear with wrong, to cheer decay,
And oh! to love through all things--therefore pray!
After Hemans, we got to Byron. (There was no chronological order to what we read, by the way.) Byron impressed me a lot like Shelley, although I may have liked his poetry more--he doesn't hide his sense of humor in, say, Don Juan. He picks on Spain: "What men call gallantry, and gods adultery, / Is much more common where the climate's sultry." (Didn't he spend a good deal of time in sultry climes himself?). Among the poetic tropes he pokes fun at are over-the-top speeches he popularized in earlier poetry, which I also like. Manfred, a deliberately unstageable play, ends with Manfred dying and thundering at demons that they cannot carry him away to Hell, because they did not corrupt him, he doomed himself far more thoroughly than they could ever manage, and he's going to die depraved by and on his own terms. Like Ahab's speeches in Moby Dick, it's really fun to read out loud.
Anyway, Byron can write this crazy melodrama and get away with it, and then make fun of it and get away with that, too, because he's Lord Byron and he's just classy and showy enough to do it. Edgy, interested in the exotic, always associated with scandal . . . he strikes me as having been a proto-hipster. His actual name is George Gordon--tell me that doesn't sound like a hipster's name.
And then we came to Keats.
I'd read a few of Keats' poems before, sometime in high school--"On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and "To Autumn." These are obviously very good poems, and I enjoyed them, but the latter two were deep meditations and I didn't know the context for the first one. (Chapman's translation was actually an older, less sentimental, more classically-Greek one than what Keats had originally read.) By a happy chance, I found a copy of Keats' complete works at a library sale over fall break and started browsing through it. These poems--many of them off-the-cuff thoughts or reactions to events--show such liveliness, gentleness, and humor that I was won over in a second.
Keats started writing poetry when he was nineteen. He died at twenty-five. That means any of his poems come from the mind of someone basically my age. Byron and Shelley were young too, but I never got that sense from them. They are full of emotional thunders and high melodrama and timeless love or seduction. Keats, by contrast, is deeply human. He doesn't try to rise above the commonplace; he finds something thought-provoking in daily life. He writes on deep themes, but he doesn't forget about the little things--leaving friends at a party, his landlady's cat, seeing someone across the room and falling in love--the things that make life life and not a tapestry. He's vibrant. This isn't to say he's always happy. Actually, he had a pretty hard life, and he often doubted his talents. His poetry reflects his loneliness, shyness, and feelings of delight and honor when his writing was well-received by someone he respected. But in nearly everything there's some touch of humor, some hint of sensuality, some turn of phrase, that conveys hope, anxiety, eagerness, passion, love of life.
I've read some of his letters, too. He had quite an intellectual sense of humor, self-deprecating and witty. "If by dull rhymes" is a sonnet proposing and demonstrating a new and more natural form for a sonnet, a clever little meta-poem written as an experiment or joke, put in a letter to his brother--someone playing with language for the fun of it. I agree with his thoughts on poetry, that it "should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself--but with its subject" and "a wording of [the reader's] own highest thoughts." There's a lovely passage about how he's never sure he means what he says, being affected by his environment at all times: "even now I am perhaps not speaking from myself; but from some character in whose soul I now live." And a very endearing line to his sister, whom he hasn't seen in years, when he's twenty-one and she's about fourteen. He tells her she must tell him what she's reading, and what she thinks of it, so he can "adapt my scribblings to your Pleasure. This I feel as a necessity for we ought to become intimately acquainted, in order that I may not only, as you grow up love you as my only Sister, but confide in you as my dearest friend."
I realize that this is meant to be a blog post about an English class at Oberlin and not a love letter to John Keats. But he's great! He's utterly unashamed of being human, finding meaning on a small scale as well as a sweeping expanse, accepting uncertainty and turning it into something beautiful. And there are certain poems so universal in their sentiments and so entirely timeless ("On Leaving some Friends at an Early Hour," "Oh Sigh Not So," and "Give Me Women, Wine, and Snuff" are particularly accessible ones) that they could have been written yesterday. While the mind phrase it might be unique, the spirit to feel it might be sitting behind me in history class.
This is probably long enough already, so I think I'll postpone Wordsworth, Coleridge, and William Blake (my brother's namesake!) until next week (Semester in Review, Part II, Part ii?).