Crusoe vs. Barbauld; The Enlightenment vs. Romanticism

I noticed an over whelming percentage of posts about Crusoe and Shelley; this makes a lot of sense, and was my original plan. I find it far easier to compare fiction with fiction than fiction with poetry, but in an effort to add a sense of differentiation to the first few posts in this blog, I will discuss Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven.”

The first thing I noticed inthe excerpt of Crusoe was the amount of observation. He “observed” this and he “observed” that, and he made decisions on what to do based on these observations. He had no place to eat or write, and so he made a table and a chair. He had no place to put his things, so he expanded his cave. A problem was found, it was analyzed, and a solution was formed and implemented. This is the normal progression of any narrative, though very little is explained in terms of how our main character, Robinson Crusoe, feels about the problems and the solutions. Yes, he wants the table to eat and write, and he says these things bring “so much pleasure,” but not that they bring him pleasure.

This is certainly in contrast to Barbauld’s poem. Romantic poetry is often characterized by the individual, the way they react to the world around them, and particularly how they feel. The narrator is speaking to the country of Britain, and discussing the problems it faces, has faced, and will face in the year eighteen hundred and eleven. There is a strong sense of nationalism in the poem, especially in the fifth stanza, lines 61-112. The narrator assures the country of Britain that, even though “Commerce leaves they shore… / Leaves thee, perhaps, to visit distant lands, / And deal the gifts of Heaven with equal hands” [lines 62-66], its legacy will live on in the land of America, where “Thy stores of knowledge the new states shall know” [line 87]. Perhaps the most important part of mentioning this is that the narrator seems to be remorseful about what is happening. Unlike in Crusoe, the narrator expresses some emotion for what is happening in the poem.

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Women Romantic Writers

Since we didn’t get to discuss Charlotte Smith and Dorothy Wordsworth in class today (or last week), I thought I’d post some comments on them here. Please feel free to respond or post on your own if you’d like to discuss.

Charlotte Smith’s “To Melancholy” (1785) embodies all of the features of Romantic landscape poetry that Wordsworth and Coleridge popularized in Lyrical Ballads thirteen years later. It is set in a specific time and place, as indicated by the subtitle “the banks of the Arun [River] October, 1785,” in order to convey the concrete uniqueness of an experience of Nature in mid-Autumn. That subtitle utilizes a convention that Wordsworth and Coleridge would later follow in their poems, the idea being to allow readers to return to the same location and have the same experience, connecting to each other through time and space.

Smith also exemplifies the Romantic notion of Imagination as an active and synthetic faculty of the mind, not a passive mirror held up to the world. Her description of the seasonal landscape, with its “grey mists” that arise from “dim waves,” bears an element of obscurity and fleetingness that suggest supernatural phenomena (line 2). In addition, the “native stream” of the Arun (line 9) seems to contain a national spirit deserving of pity, whose “deep sighs swell the sadden’d wind!” (line 11). She then addresses that spirit directly–“O Melancholy!”–praising its “magic power” to “soothe the pensive visionary mind!” (lines 12, 14). In that way, the natural landscape serves not only as a projection of her inwardly gloomy emotional state, but also binds her with some element of the national spirit of Englishness. It’s that connection with her readers individually and with the nation in general through its native landscape that she expresses a vision of national unity, however distinct from politics.

Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” (1812) makes a similar appeal for connection based on a notion of Englishness as a natural, inborn essence. Though her poem is overtly political, there are several passages that invoke the names of rivers to suggest the flowing of time as well as geographic connection and “spiritual” (in the sense of national Genius) connection. I am thinking in particular of the stanza on lines 127-156, where various rivers and other landscape features of England and the United States form a network among some of the great British thinkers and leaders throughout its history: King John and the signing of the Magna Carta, sir Isaac Newton and his definitive model of physics (now deposed by Einstein’s relativity), and so on. What’s interesting here, though, is that Barbauld extends the landscape-inhabited-by-national-Genius to Britain’s colonies, where she seems to agree with the Imperial claim that “If westward streams the light that leaves thy [our] shores, / Still from thy [our] lamp the streaming radiance pours” (lines 79-80). The poem is generally anti-Imperial in condemning the injustices of appropriated wealth and the corrupt political and financial practices that they have led to, yet seems positive about the cultural inheritance it bestows on foreign peoples and their lands.

Dorothy Wordsworth’s “Grasmere” (1805) seems the odd member of this trio of women writers. It follows the tradition of picturesque poetry set in the English Lake District, up north near the border with Scotland, prized for its rugged beauty. The landscape is peopled by cottages in a valley, but one in particular catches her fancy. She goes for a walk that takes her off the beaten path, where she finds an unexpected scene. As we’ve discussed all semester, the Romantic quest for rural landscapes has to do with a searching for British identity, specifically away from the cities. It is a response to modernity, the industrial revolution, and unsavory foreign involvements, even though it might not always refer to them directly.

Dorothy’s landscape describes a pastoral setting in a valley that provides protection from harsher elements.

And when the storm comes from the North
It lingers near that pastoral spot,
And, piping through the mossy walls,
It seems delighted with its lot.

And let it take its own delight;
And let it range the pastures bare;
Until it reach that group of trees,
–It may not enter there!

The mild pleasure afforded by her journey and the scenes she describes represent the aesthetic of the beautiful, which is the least represented among the poems we’ve looked at. There is a faith in the ability of “England’s green and pleasant land” not only to provide unexpected wonder, but to protect and endure. I’m not sure we find the same optimism in Smith and Barbauld.

Can we find anything in Dorothy’s poem that seems to mark her as consistent with the other two women writers here? She expresses a connection to Englishness through a connection to the land, but apparently without the skepticism and concern for the damaging effects of Time we find in the other two. Perhaps you have an answer to this, or see some connections I haven’t teased out?