Thursday, April 29, 2010

Weird Wordsworth

Timothy Morton has his fascinating Romanticism class at Davis available for podcast download here (link will open iTunes). Particularly good are the sessions on Wordsworth. Morton's sense of the poet is pitch perfect, and while he stresses all the essential characteristics, he also makes them interesting--not just by infusing them (or rather, as is the case in his amazing book on Shelley's vegetarianism, revealing them to be infused) with the profound (but really wonderfully levelheaded) ecological concerns for which he is perhaps more widely known (that is, outside literature). No--he also makes these features interesting by doing that great thing you simply have to do with Wordsworth, which is show how unbelievably weird his poems really are. His reading of "Old Man Travelling" (later called merely by its subtitle "Animal Tranquility and Decay," but with some of its most crucial lines cut out) is particularly excellent, since it labors over so many of the pauses and negatives, which are so prevalent that they appear (if they can appear) even in the first (shockingly abrupt) sentence (line 2):

The little hedge-row birds,
That peck along the road, regard him not.
He travels on, and in his face, his step,
His gait, is one expression; every limb,
His look and bending figure, all bespeak
A man who does not move with pain, but moves
With thought--He is insensibly subdued
To settled quiet: he is one by whom
All effort seems forgotten, one to whom
Long patience has such mild composure given,
That patience now doth seem a thing, of which
He hath no need. He is by nature led
To peace so perfect, that the young behold
With envy, what the old man hardly feels.
--I asked him whither he was bound, and what
The object of his journey; he replied
"Sir! I am going many miles to take
"A last leave of my son, a mariner,
"Who, from a sea-fight has been brought to Falmouth,
"And there is dying in an hospital."

It is a wonderfully ironic, even bitter piece--but it is also just extremely weird (in ways the "Old Cumberland Beggar," say, from which Wordsworth said "Old Man" is merely an "overflowing," isn't). The irony is easy to detect: "insensibly subdued/ To settled quiet," when he is indeed making the "effort" of--precisely--traveling. Then there is--and this is more bitter--the fact that he is "by nature led/ To peace so perfect" (again on the second syllable, preceded by [almost building up a mental inversion even as the stress is regular] a directional indicator [in a poem teeming with prepositions and indeed prepositional oppositions: look at "by whom" and "to whom" in l. 8-9] horribly misapplied or mistaken: the speaker does not really know the way the man is subdued or traveling, what he is is subdued or where he is traveling to), when he is precisely going to meet the result of a "sea-fight": his dying son. All this is there, but then there is just the sheer weirdness that comes from the almost overbalance (to use a Wordsworthian term) of this irony, and which Morton's focus on the speaker's use of negative perception (the birds "regard him not," and he is presented as "a man who does not move with pain") really excellently underscores. In other words, more striking even than the irony is the way the ironic misperception of the speaker is built up so excessively: in the second instance that I noted especially ("To peace," and I should stress that there are many more instances), the irony shades into a bitterness so intense that it is hard not to attribute even a sort of cruelty to Wordsworth--perhaps the single quality that that is most thoroughly un-Wordsworthian (even though Wordsworth could be cold, his poetic voice is constructed so as to make cruelty almost impossible: a sympathy so profound that it is too deep for tears--or perhaps so profound that it seems a thing "of which/ he hath no need," a sympathy that is not even sympathy--pervades his work). So we are left with not just the irony but its weirdness, something precisely like--because this is perhaps most ironic--its "poetic justice." Why? Penetrating to this level of unanswerable questioning (if I can say that) is what reading Wordsworth is all about.

The history of lyric hurts

Among the many, many gems in Stewart's book, looking at it again I'm blown away most perhaps by her initial presentation of the function/innovation of lyric, which is just overflowing with amazing formulations. Commenting on Wordsworth's famous (but still always shocking) statement about the intrinsic connection between meter and the alleviation of pain ("There can be little doubt but that more pathetic situations and sentiments, that is, those which have a greater proportion of pain connected with them, may be endured in metrical composition, especially in rhyme, than in prose"), Stewart says the following:

In theories of lyric from Vico forward, the enunciation of pain at the origin of lyric must appear before the emergence of a self-conscious sense of one's own subjectivity [...]. To equate pain with subjectivity is to equate the body with subjectivity and so to confuse the most collective with the most individual. Pain has no memory; its expression depends on the intersubjective invention of association and metaphor. The situation of the person resides in the genesis of the memory of action and experience in intersubjective terms--that is, in the articulation and mastery of the originating pain. Coleridge [in Biographia Literaria] explains that in the "frequency of forms and figures of speech," we find "offsprings of passion" who are as well "adopted children of power." Yet the mastery of pain through measures and figures is not merely repressive; it is as well a matter of coming to knowledge and expression. Coleridge's explanation shows a subject coming into activity out of a passive relation to sense experience, memory, and expectation. Here the figures and forms created are those of a subjectivity enunciating itself.

Divergence in lyric is thus not between language and music but between a subject transforming him-or herself from the somatic both toward and against the social. The history of lyric is thereby the history of a relation between pronouns, the genesis of ego-tu and ego-vos in the reciprocity of an imagination posing and composing itself and its audience via the work of time. Lyric conventions of addresser and addressee are the working through on the level of literary genre of the function of linguistic shifters.

[...] First person expression in lyric is related existentially to the context of the poem as a whole; it is the poem that makes first-person expression emerge in its individuality as it engages the reader in the eidetic task of the appearance of the "you." The doubled "I" (authorial intention the expression of first person voice in the text) encounters a doubled "you" (the reader's intention towards reception, the implied addressee in the text).
-Susan Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, 46-7.

For what it's worth, I can only agree with everything here, and not just the importance of "intersubjective inventions," over the fashionably oversimple equation of pain with the body, as she nicely puts it, but the unbelievable displacement of the conflict within lyric from a tired opposition (which Wordsworth himself often uses, lacking--unlike Coleridge--a sophisticated critical language to express the deeper things his poetry is indeed up to) to one that is not only more problematic and fresh but, as you can see from where the discussion goes, much more (again, to echo my last post) intuitive. The line on the lyric genre that summarizes this is just unbelievable.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The body of poetic forms

The following is an excellent bit at the end of an unbelievably rich book, a book that does nothing less than overthrow some of the most tired assumptions that we have when approaching poetry, making the latter seem fresh (a sort of addictive feeling, the feeling one always gets when returning and really significantly reinterpreting a poem, seeing something wholly new about it, or experiencing it from a completely different angle). Or, rather, it is a book that, despite its density and depth, gives us back something entirely simple: something of a sense of poetry (and especially poetic form's) fundamental intuitiveness (or, perhaps more fundamentally, sensuousness). This prompts us to cut through the nostalgia and even the irony and simply take it up again:

Marx had hoped that over time new human senses would develop; he never seemed to have imagined that entire spheres of sense experience might be lost for many first-world people: a tacit knowledge of tools and forms of dancing or of carrying infants, the disappearance of ways of living with animals or cultivating plant life, along with the smell and feel and sounds and even tastes that accompanied such practices; the sound of wind in uninhabited spaces; the weight of ripe things not yet harvested. These experiences are gone, and even their names will soon be gone. The historical body of poetic forms is more and more an archive of lost sensual experiences; by now an aura of nostalgia accrues around the notion of the poetic itself. It was a mistake of humanism to assume that nature exists for us. But it has been just as serious a mistake to have forgotten that the made world, the world of culture, is made by and for us. [...] The entire enduring accomplishment of the history of poetic forms awaits as a vast repertoire for anyone who hopes to enter again into an engagement with the senses.
-Susan Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, 332-3

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Austen's Juvenilia simply masterful, if that isn't too paradoxical. And I indeed think it isn't. My hesitation comes only from the fact that while we often speak of prodigies in music or painting, we don't really do so when it comes to literature. And maybe we should start. Regardless, this stuff is amazing, and while I've known this for a while (having even written on The Beautiful Cassandra before), I am feeling so fortunate to have finally got the time read it all through recently. Just think of the level of skill required not only to compose such unbelievably precise, balanced sentences at that age (14ish), to dare to make out of them a whole novel, and to include and parody every one of the essential devices--but also to do so in three pages! And hilariously! It is just unbelievable:

an interesting and well written Tale
is dedicated by Permission
Mrs Austen
Her humble Servant

Letter the first
My dear Amelia, You will rejoice to hear of the return of my amiable Brother from abroad. He arrived on thursday, & never did I see a finer form, save that of your sincere freind

Letter the 2d.
Dear Beverly, I arrived here last thursday & met with a hearty reception from my Father, Mother, & Sisters. The latter are both fine Girls -- particularly Maud, who I think would suit you as a Wife well enough. What say you to this? She will have two thousand Pounds & as much more as you can get. If you don't marry her you will mortally offend

Letter the 3d.
Dear Maud, Beleive me, I'm happy to hear of your Brother's arrival. I have a thousand things to tell you, but my paper will only permit me to add that I am yr. affect. Freind

Letter the 4th.
Dear Sally, I have found a very convenient old hollow oak to put our Letters in; for you know we have long maintained a private Correspondence. It is about a mile from my House & seven from yours. You may perhaps imagine that I might have made choice of a tree which would have divided the Distance more equally -- I was sensible of this at the time, but as I considered that the walk would be of benefit to you in your weak & uncertain state of Health, I preferred it to one nearer your House, & am yr. faithfull

Letter the 5th.
Dear Maud, I write now to inform you that I did not stop at your house in my way to Bath last Monday. -- I have many things to inform you of besides; but my Paper reminds me of concluding; & beleive me yrs. ever &c.

Letter the 6th.
Madam, An humble Admirer now addresses you -- I saw you, lovely Fair one, as you passed on Monday last, before our House in your way to Bath. I saw you thro' a telescope, & was so struck by your Charms that from that time to this I have not tasted human food.

Letter the 7th.
As I was this morning at Breakfast the Newspaper was brought me, & in the list of Marriages I read the following.
"George Hervey Esqre. to Miss Amelia Webster"
"Henry Beverley Esqre. to Miss Hervey"
"Benjamin Bar Esqre. to Miss Sarah Hervey".
yours, TOM


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Metaphor and how it works

Here was a quick "parts of metaphor and how it works" handout that I gave my class this week:

If figurative language is (speaking broadly) language that says what it says only by meaning more than what it says, then metaphor is language that means more by comparison or the assertion of identity between one thing and another (not just likeness, which is a simile). Put more exactly, a metaphor is language that gives you two elements. These are the tenor and vehicle (for a more in depth discussion of this, see my post on tenor and vehicle as discussed by I.A. Richards):

The tenor is what is to be compared or is said to be identical, which will be the underlying “drift” or idea or attitude that is conveyed.

The vehicle is the thing to which something has been compared or has been said to be identical, which will be the thing through which the idea is conveyed.

Let's look at these elements and how they make up the metaphor in a passage from Locke:

When their Children are grown up, and these ill Habits with them; when they are now too big to be dandled, and their Parents can no longer make Use of them as Play-things, then they complain that the Brats are perverse; then they are offended to see them willful, and are troubled with those ill Humors which they themselves infused and fomented in them; and then, perhaps too late, would be glad to get out those Weeds which their own Hands have planted, and which now have taken too deep Root to be easily extirpated.
-John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (§35, 21-22).

In the “Weed” metaphor in the last part of the sentence, the tenor is ill habits and the vehicle is weeds. The vehicle conveys or carries the tenor; or, to speak less metaphorically (and more awkwardly), the weeds, to which the idea of ill habits has been compared, are what convey the idea. The vehicle, if extended, conveys the tenor by continually qualifying it. So as Locke’s weed-metaphor keeps developing with the addition of “planted” “taken […] Root” and “extirpated,” we have to make the tenor more specific: the ill habits aren't just any ill habits, but ones that spread in the child and seem to resist any attempt to pull them out of him. At the same time, this reacts back upon the vehicle: the weeds we are talking about were at some point actually weed-seeds that had to be planted, etc.

Remember though that the metaphor is our name for what gives you both tenor and vehicle: not the latter only and certainly not the former only. That is, metaphor is the comparison as a whole, and thus if the vehicle cannot be distinguished from the tenor, the part of the statement under consideration is literal, because there is no comparison going on. Even with this limit, though, most sentences in fluid discourse turn out to be metaphoric, or surprisingly few turn out to be purely literal (in the passage from Locke, even excepting the last part of the sentence, we have “Play-things,” “infused,” and “fomented,” as well as “grown up,” “big,” and perhaps even “make” and “troubled” if they are not too dead).

We can also speak of the ground of the metaphor, which is the actual commonality between the tenor and vehicle: thus the vehicle conveys the tenor over the ground (to extend our metaphor). The ground can only sometimes be found—unlike with a simile, where it can always be found. In extended metaphors, the ground will become broader as more vehicles carry the tenor; or, to put it another way, the vehicle will begin to qualify the tenor. For the whole extended metaphor, the ground is the commonality between a child a plant (“growing up,” with which the passage starts, is key here, and probably led Locke to use this metaphor). A catachresis or mis-applied metaphor, however, is one where the ground becomes obvious because it would have to be inappropriate or absurd (the classic example is the “leg” of a table, though this is not as absurd as some), and usually occurs when a vehicle conflicts with another vehicle (in what we colloquially and metaphorically call “mixed” metaphor, e.g. Hamlet’s “Take arms against a sea of troubles”).

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Miltonic simile

Just listened to John Rogers' absolutely excellent lecture on the famously wonky similes in Book One of Paradise Lost. He moves through two of the most acclaimed recent readings of them, but then adds his own take (tying together the renowned spear simile with the "Autumnal Leaves" simile below, via--and I doubt you were expecting this!--Galileo), which really makes me want to finally get around to reading his book on science, poetry and politics in the age of Milton (I've heard great things about it and have wanted to pick it up for some time). Mostly, though, it's just wonderful to have such a lengthy walk-through of the unbelievable complications in the language of passages like the description of the number of Satan's fallen brethren:

Nathless he so endur'd, till on the Beach
Of that inflamed Sea, he stood and call'd
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans't
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th' Etrurian shades
High overarch't imbowr; or scatterd sedge
Afloat, when with fierce Winds Orion arm'd
Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, whose waves orethrew
Busiris and his Memphian Chivalry,
While with perfidious hatred they pursu'd
The Sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
From the safe shore thir floating Carkases
And broken Chariot Wheels, so thick bestrown
Abject and lost lay these, covering the Flood,
Under amazement of thir hideous change (299-313).

I've been teaching figurative language lately, so I appreciate Rogers' dwelling with it--something not uncommon in other lectures throughout this very focused and thorough one-author course (which I first mentioned in the last post). This lecture especially, though, is a real treat. Go check it out.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

What I've been listening to

John Rogers has his really great lectures on Milton up for viewing or listening.

John Joseph Campbell has a nice nature of mind course.

I have also been listening to the end of Cathryn Carson's superb course on the history of science, which I have recommended before.

Also really good is Stephen Stearns' course on evolution, ecology, and behavior.