Suppressed Passion

Equiano and Browning both share in a slavery, Equiano in literal slavery, Browning in a veiled slavery.  These two people had a burning desire for freedom.  Equiano’s “heart burned (Page 234, 5th edition)” to be a freeman, to make a living for himself.  He held a secret heartfelt desire for freedom.  At one point he nearly obtained his freedom, yet he was sold back into slavery. His heart was “ready to burst with sorrow and anguish (Page 235, 5th edition)” upon this betrayal.  However, Browning wrote a fictional poem using a character named Aurora Leigh to depict Browning’s own life.  Browning uses the phrase “restless as a nest-deserted bird (Line 43, Page 1156)” to describe how she felt at a young age.  She desired to write poetry, which in that day was typically reserved for men.  Her passion for writing poetry was suppressed when she was taught by her aunt.  She notes that it was similar to “A wild bird scarcely fledged, was brought to her cage.(Line 310, Page 1159)”  This same bird, which depicts her desire to be free, was suppressed in her education.  Both these authors felt a deep passion for freedom of revolution.

These two writers assisted in changing public opinion, Equiano in freeing slaves, Browning in equality for women.  These writers depict that revolution does not just spring from a need, but it springs from a passion.  Revolution springs from the deep desire of the heart.  It has an emotional drive to it.  It brings a heated passion; when suppressed the passion grows.  “I kept the life thrust on me, on the outside (Line 477, Page 1162)” explains Browning.  Even though she despised her aunt’s teaching, she kept her compressed passion on the inside.  When this passion is released, it is similar to a fireball of emotion violently being released.  “All within my breast was tumult, wildness, and delirium (Page 238, 5th edition)” exclaimed Equiano when he finally bought his own freedom.

Works Cited:

Olaudah Equano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, The Longman Anthology of British Literature, 5th Edition,  Volume 2A, Pearson, 2012.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Auora Leigh, The Longman Anthology of British Literature, 4th Edition,  Volume 2B, Pearson, 2012.

“A Vindication of the Rights of Women” Blog Post James Hale

Written during a period of revolution and uncertainty in Europe, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft argues for drastic change in British society to end the suppression of women. The most revolutionary component of Wollstonecraft’s writing was her objection to the sentiment that people should follow the orders of others without thought. She argues that “every profession, in which great subordination of rank constitutes its power, is highly injurious to morality” (Wollstonecraft 294). Correlating to the previous argument, she creates the example, along with others, that “a standing army … is incompatible with freedom; because subordination and rigour are the very sinews of military discipline” (Wollstonecraft 294). In the conclusion of her argument, she states “that the character of every man is … formed by his profession” (Wollstonecraft 295). Additionally, because of this “society … should be very careful not to establish bodies of men who must necessarily be made foolish or vicious by the very constitution of their profession” (Wollstonecraft 295). Through being molded by their profession to take orders without thought, men of those types of professions would never question why their society was oriented in its state; in a state that suppresses women and many others. A non-violent revolution for women’s rights could not succeed with the majority of the populous accepting society for how it was and viewing change as a danger to their way of life; with them never wondering if or how: society could change to become more inclusive for women, and what benefits may come of such a shift. If people refuse to change their worldview, no significant changes can be made in any society.

The sentiment of following orders was more detrimental to women during Wollstonecraft’s time than it was to men. Referencing her previously mentioned example regarding the military: “Like the fair sex. The business of [officers’] lives is gallantry.—They were taught to please, and only live to please. Yet … they are still reckoned superior to women” (Wollstonecraft 298). Wollstonecraft views the actions of military personal and women in English society as similar in that both are meant to satisfy their superiors; however, she opines men are not seen as lesser for following orders while women are. Wollstonecraft’s piece is revolutionary in that it urges people to consider why their society is in its current state, and to understand there is no fundamental difference between men and women that would prevent women from making a significant contribution to English society.

“A Vindication Of the Rights of woman” (1792), Mary Wollstoncraft

What is a significant way that Wollstonecraft’s vindication of the Rights of Woman is revolutionary?

I think one of the ways that Wollstonecraft’s vindication of the Rights of woman is significant is how she advocates for a reform of women’s education. Wollstonecraft claims that women’s education has prepared women to be dutiful, docile wives and mothers, and that while men’s education prepares men for life in the real world, women’s education only prepares them for what men think women should aspire to be. Wollstonecraft states, “I attribute these problems to a false system of education….who considering females rather as women than human creatures have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers.” What I interpreted this quote to mean is that men’s skills determine their value, and in turn earn them respect. Whereas qualities such as beauty and love determine a women’s value, and those qualities is what earns her respect, because a woman is not viewed as an equal ”human creature”, but as an object of man’s affection. Wollstonecraft is saying that women’s virtue should also be determined by their skills and nobility instead of trivial qualities like beauty and love.

Wollstonecraft also states that “for the sake of woman’s dignity she should be allowed to earn a living and support herself.” This is a refute of society’s view of women during this time, which was that the sole purpose of the creation of women was to fall in love with a man, and that the man’s assumed job is to take of the woman. While this may seem like a golden system, in reality this isn’t as great a system as it seems, because it puts unnecessary pressure and expectations on men by creating a toxic masculinity of men, and women should be able to have their own identities and be able to support themselves, that should be a women’s right. This view of women is also revolutionary because during this time men were the only gender that were seen as worthy to have a job, by asserting that women had the right as well to make their own living and support themselves is placing women on the same accord as men which was revolutionary during the 19th century.

A Vindication for the Rights of Woman

I think that Wollstonecraft is revolutionary in this piece not only by creating a convincing argument but doing so in a way that is less than formal and even a little funny at times. To explain, the way Wollstonecraft presents some of her points in a casual or sarcastic tone is revolutionary because it just wasn’t how an author and especially a woman author trying to prove a point should have written. For example, she says “I presume rational men will excuse me for endeavouring to persuade them to become more masculine and respectable.” This way of writing is more likely to get people’s attention and it is certainly effective. The author herself explains “I shall disdain to cull my phrases or polish my style; I aim at being useful.” Her style of writing is in itself a small rebellion against the conventions of writing at the time and embodies her whole argument.

Wollstonecraft is also very fair in her sarcasm, meaning everyone got some words from her. She says to women in general “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces.” Once again she is being revolutionary not only through her words but by how she refuses to censor herself even for her own sex. Even abstract concepts like love aren’t free from her reign of terror. She says “To speak disrespectfully of love is, I know, high treason against sentiment and fine feelings.” She evens attacks the ancient concept of love and that is very revolutionary. Her tone in this piece is useful for telling the reader how much she cares about this topic and how little she cares if she hurts someone’s feelings along the way.

An Outraged Mary

In 1792, a state-supported system of public education, for men only, was proposed by the French minister for education. Leaving behind a sense of betrayal for everything the revolution stood for, it seems the French revolution’s promise to redress the wrongs of the past has been broken.

An Outraged woman, Mary Wollstonecraft (a force to be reckoned with), responded with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft’s proceeded to argue upon the foundation of one, simple principle:

“… if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue; for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice.”

Wollstonecraft basically suggests that education should be accessible through national establishments as private education is confined to only elite class. She voices her diehard idea of educating girls with boys. She also suggests that girls should be taught things such as anatomy and medicine in order to raise them up as rational nurses of their infants, parents and husbands. Living in men’s society, Wollstonecraft clearly realized that her suggestions can cause a fuss; whereas later, she assures that she has no desire whatsoever to raise a generation of independent and unattached women like herself, but that she does seek to develop wiser and more virtuous mothers.

It is very crucial to understand that even two hundred years after Wollstonecraft’s contribution, this debate is still alive in modern arguments about feminism. Considering Wollstonecraft’s work was never fully appreciated by the women of the 18th century, despite how vital her pieces were for Feminists, it’s clear that her thoughts were revolutionary for her period and more suited to the society of the late 19th to early 20th century.

Should the classification of men and women as different be denied?

Considering this is a question still debated and widely discussed tells us that the question is not yet off the table. These arguments show themselves, along with other things, in modern concerns about the rising frequent rates of divorce and of men who leave their families, of super-moms, of teenage pregnancies, of the need for men to be in control of the family, and so on.

 

 

“A Vindication of the Rights of Women”

In “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” Mary Wollstonecraft addresses the physical and emotional immaturity and inferiority of women that originates from the male desire and power that is embedded into society. As a result, a change in society is needed in order for there to be equality of power between the sexes, as well as proper recognition of women and their role in society. Elaborating on the immaturity of women, women are raised as docile creatures and continue to be treated as such their whole life. This is a result from the instruction “written by men of genius,” which promotes the idea that women’s purpose is to fall in love and be taken care of by their husband (291). Instruction given to women was “to acquire personal accomplishments” such as embroidery, singing, and dancing, and nothing that allows a person to flourish in society by understanding their sense of individuality and humanity. This education as, Wollstonecraft states, gives “appearance of weakness to females” and makes women shallow, which is similar with soldiers who are given orders that must be complied with no thought to their virtue (297). Therefore, women–like soldiers–are made into superficial beings who are denied the ability to see more of life because the principles that have been stored into there minds with no ability to grow away from them.

The education that Wollstonecraft demands for women is having a “well stored mind” that would “enable a woman to support a single life with dignity” (301). However, Wollstonecraft asserts that women not only need the instruction of individuality, but society as a whole since everyone should be able to mature and learn how to think in reason (297). So, teaching people to be individual thinkers and not just observe the surface of the principles as embedded by the public, but to take charge of their own thoughts will change society. This need for change is revolutionary, making it a public trouble that society needs to address for the sake of society moving forward.  The demand for change of society’s superficial principles that are forcefully taught allows both sexes to be equal in reasoning and greatly improve fundamental human development in society.

To the Lighthouse

Time is a recurring theme throughout Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In Part I (The Window), Woolf stretches time, devoting the first 124 pages to a single day. This reflects the desire of some of the characters for time, that day, to stand still.  Mrs. Ramsay in particular wishes for them to always be together as they are in the dinner scene and for her youngest children, Andrew and Cam, to never grow old and suffer as she has.

In contrast, in Part II (Time Passes) ten years are compressed into approximately 20 pages. The passage of time is reflected by the deterioration of the house on the beach. While only a few words are devoted to the lives of its former inhabitants, the house’s increasingly poor state reflects their own experience over this period. The series of tragedies in the background of WWI are sudden and confusing. Their presentation in a short, objective, bracketed form disrupts the narrative and generates this effect. These years and events are then condensed into a few pages as they are slowly processed over many years. This reflects the way in which the world attempted to process the events and implications of WWI. In its aftermath a strong sense of confusion, shock, and disillusionment was felt. Nature seemed disrupted, as it is around the abandoned house: “…(for night and day, month and year, ran shapelessly together) in idiot games, until it seemed as if the universe were battling and tumbling, in brute confusion and wanton lust aimlessly by itself” (134-5). This processing was extremely gradual. Likewise, Woolf’s compression of ten years into 20 pages suggests that little changed over the course of these ten years as the characters, most likely, grappled with these sudden tragedies and, to some extent, the disruption of nature itself (the loss of the constant, binding force of Mrs. Ramsay in many ways represents this disruption of nature in their lives). Time moved on, but many people did not and so the narrative focuses on the state of nature and the beach house as opposed to the characters.

Youth in The Letter by Helen Williams

In this narrative piece by Helen Maria Williams, she describes her experience of the Festival of the Federation in Paris. This event was one of the results of the French revolution which culminated in the end of the monarch system in the country and the drafting of a new constitution (The Longman Anthology of British Literature). From the narrative provided by Williams, the ceremony was more memorable to her for the spectacle she observed, more than the significance of the day itself. Williams paints a picture here of an incredible sight in that day in Paris; one of an immense gathering of people which even she, with all her literary grace finds difficult to describe. She writes that “One must have been present, to form any judgement of a scene, the sublimity of which depended much less on its external magnificence than on the effect it produced on the mind of the spectators” (Longman Vol. 2A, pp 109).Containing in the account of the festivities of the day are some allusions to youth and youthfulness which this write-up will aim to highlight.

In her description of the procession of the parade in Paris, Williams describes an ebullient crowd, writing “How am I to paint the impetuous feelings of that immense, exulting multitude?” (pp 109). While this characteristic could be attributed to people of elderly age, as it is implied here that this joy is as a result of the events that preceded it, it could also be looked at as an indication of youthfulness in the minds of the population of France. The parade was a celebration of a new dawn in the country, heralded by the drafting of a new constitution that was expected to mitigate inequality and improve the lives of the people of the country. Even for the older generation, the hope and promise this was going to bring enacted youthful joy and buoyancy. This is further amplified, in her description of the construction of the Champ de Mars, in which Williams claims was built in “Twenty days[‘] labour” (pp 109), given that it was supposed to “require the toil of years” (pp 110). According to Williams, this was only accomplished by “the enthusiasm of the people…inspired by the same spirit…old soldiers …voluntarily bestowing on their country the last remains of their strength.” (pp 110). This excitement was not an indication of just physical strength, which could be an allusion to a dominantly youthful population, but also of a mental and psychological vibrancy; a youthfulness of the mind.

Williams also points to the emergence of a new era in the soon-to-be-deposed monarchy in which the young successors to the throne embrace the revolution and new constitution even though they stood to lose some opulence from the changes. She also presents youth in her praise of the young prince who she describes in contrast to the youths of his generation. Williams notes his “attentiveness politeness …a striking contrast…to the manners of those fashionable gentlemen…who consider apathy and negligence as the test of good-breeding.” (pp 110). She also describes the eighteen-year old as having “the enthusiasm of a young and ardent mind” (pp 110), which brings her to the talk of the monarchy’s embracing of he new constitution.

In conclusion, Williams, in this narrative of the events in Paris alludes to a mental youthfulness in the population brought about by the emergence of a new era and an admiration of the particularly youthful nature of the monarchy.

To the Lighthouse and the Desolation of the War

In “Time Passes,” Woolf uses the abandonment and decay of the house to foreshadow the desolation and loss of identity that England experiences following World War I. From the very opening the darkness that the war has brought to England is suggested. In the first chapter, all of the lights are put out. Following that, it begins to rain, and it seems as if “Nothing… could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness” (125-26) that comes creeping in and blurs all distinctions. The blurring of distinctions represents the loss of a clear sense of identity that has befallen the English. The house, abandoned by the fractured family that once maintained it, falls further and further into disorder as the family breaks up more and more. This represents England’s steady fracturing of identity which will make the country unable to forget what happened and return to the way things were.

There is a hint that the decay is contested in the person of Mrs. McNab who is first introduced as coming “to open all windows, and dust the bedrooms” (130). Being an older person, Mrs. NcNab probably represents the attempts of the older generation, and older traditions, to hold this new, desolate England together. However, as the war progresses, she eventually gives up. The task is “too much for one woman” (137), especially a woman who creaks and moans as much as the house itself. She  is forced to leave “the house alone, shut up, locked” (137), mirroring England’s own frozen, gloomy state.

At the same time, “Time Passes” demonstrates how the War renders human life meaningless, and yet nature does not care. The major events that will forever define and divide the family occur in brackets, almost as afterthoughts. It is a jolt when the reader suddenly learns that Mrs. Ramsay has “died rather suddenly”, leaving Mr. Ramsay to stumble in the dark (128), that “Prue Ramsay died that summer of some illness connected with childbirth” (132), that “Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsey” (133). The change of the seasons and the slow reclaiming of the house by nature become the main focus of the story. As the title tersely states: “Time Passes.” Humans’ petty lives are of secondary importance.

Darwinism in Fiction : “Our Society at Cranford”

Darwin is an interesting character. His views on natural and sexual selection and evolution, especially as expressed in the The Descent of Man excerpt we read, seem blunt, verging on offensive during the time period, and “in-your-face,” to use a modern colloquialism. None of that, however, is seen in Gaskell’s “Our Society at Cranford.” Darwinist theories, if truly displayed with any intention and not simply because the ideas of the time accidentally influenced the majority of writers from that period onward, are hidden beneath a veil of humanity and queer society, and, to be perfectly frank, I was not even sure for what to search.

What I thought was interesting, and possibly telling to the idea of natural selection, is that “Cranford is in possession of the Amazons” (1432). Ladies are the prime population of the little town, and the only man mentioned for any lengthy period is Captain Brown, whom settles within the town and lives out his life rather happily. Perhaps, Gaskell is using Darwin’s theory of natural selection to describe the quaint, dated society in which they live; that it is not reproducing, and will eventually die out.

I discovered something similar in the death of Captain Brown, which, after the lively and brilliant descriptions of his kindness and character, upset me deeply. On page 1438, Miss Jenkyns and Captain Brown have quite the dispute over which author is better: Samuel Johnson (“Dr. Johnson”) or Charles Dickens (“Mr. Boz”). No concrete conclusion is reached on whom is better, though the debate, in which Brown asserts that Johnson’s style is “pompous writing” (1438), sparks some animosity between the two for some time. With Brown’s tragic death, however, Miss Jenkyns seems to drop her previous objections to the man, and is exceptionally kind to both of his daughters.

It is not within Miss Jenkyns’ actions that I found a point of interest, however, but rather, within their argument. The Pickwick Papers, the work by Dickens of which Brown is in favor, is humorous, witty, and an entertaining read, while Johnson’s work Rasselas is serious, moral, and philosophical. I found it interesting that Brown died while reading the Pickwick Papers, though Miss Jenkyns, who reads Rasselas, lives on into her old(er) age. There seems to be a comment here on the idea of “survival of the fittest,” for, while Captain Brown was certainly more physically fit for survival than Miss Jenkyns, she may have been more mentally fit, a quality that is becoming steadily more important amongst civilized society. This says something about the adaptability of the human race; while Darwin assumes that natural selection and survival of the fittest are applied in a physical sense (he is most capable of tilling a field or hefting bales of hay is more qualified for survival than he who tills metaphorical fields within the mind and hefts books), this idea that man’s continued survival depends on his moral, ethical, and philosophical prowess is certainly interesting.

 

 

When reading Gaskell’s text, I did see a lot of tension between the modern era and the older way of thinking and doing in Cranford. However, I do not think that I would have noticed similarities between Gaskell’s text and Darwin’s theories if I was not looking for them. The first thing that I noticed when examining the text with Darwin in mind was the similarity between Gaskell’s descriptions of the town and its inhabitants Darwin’s descriptions of the Fuegians. There is an observing, objective element to the descriptions given of Cranford, as if the narrator were a kind of naturalist. There are several phrases that really drive the sense of a naturalist describing what she sees home, such as: “there were certain rules and regulations for visiting and calling (1433).” Furthermore, we later learn that the narrator is a visitor to the town, not one of its proper inhabitants, just as Darwin was a visitor to the natives whose cultures he described.

The main point in the text in which Gaskell seems to directly address one of Darwin’s theories is her description of the relationship between Captain Brown, Miss Jessie, and the sickly Miss Brown. Darwin wrote about the “Struggle for Existence” which included “…not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny (1273).” The end result of this struggle is that “…the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply (1277).” However, Miss Brown, one of the weaker individuals in the evolutionary struggle serves as an impediment and a drain on Captain Brown and Miss Jessie, who are more fit individuals. In particular, she wrecks her fitter sister’s chances to have children and a life of her own.

In her life, “Miss Brown used to accuse herself, not merely of hast and irritable temper, but also of being the cause why her father and sister were obliged to pinch, in order to allow her the small luxuries which were necessaries in her condition (1439).” This shows a sense of uneasiness that her own weakness and wasting illness is the cause of distress to the stronger, healthier members of her family. Furthermore, it is revealed that Miss Brown is the reason that Miss Jessie, who is, by all accounts, an exceedingly healthy and able individual, has not married and had children. Miss Brown shows remorse for holding her sister back on her deathbed, saying: “How selfish I have been! God forgive me for letting you sacrifice yourself for me as you did! (1445).” After her sister’s death, Miss Jessie is able to marry, and has a child, demonstrating her fitness to live, be happy, and leave offspring. I am unsure whether Gaskell is agreeing with Darwin’s theories of evolution or not, but she has certainly painted a subtle picture of the strong being held back by a sense of duty to their weaker kindred.

World War One in To The Lighthouse

The only explicit references to the war while it is happening in the novel are in parenthetical references which give the impression that they have been added as an afterthought, simply for the necessity of accounting for the absence of a few major characters. When the third part of To The Lighthouse is so consumed with explaining and recovering from the absence of Mrs. Ramsay, for example, why is it here that only a single sentence is devoted to her?

And regarding Andrew, the only sentence he gets is this one, “[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous]“, and this seems to be getting at the idea that his death was insignificant in the grand scheme of things, which it is, if the novel is considered the grand scheme; we are led to believe that the action that takes place on the island after the war would have been hardly different whether Andrew had lived or died. This is why he is mentioned in an offhand way, in the middle of the parenthetical aside, merely as a concession to the reader who might have been wondering about him.

The whole section “Time Passes” borders on rudeness in the way that it focuses on an abandoned house, and a fairly insignificant housekeeper, instead of the Great War. Just as the world comes to terms with its horrible modernness during the war, the house comes to terms with its climate and the environment; the books grow moist and moldy with the salty sea air, and the shawl which had covered the skull on the wall of the children’s bedroom slowly begins to come untied. However, this all happens beyond the knowledge of those who live there, as if the home which had treated them well in the first section of the novel has suddenly become rotted to its core in the third, with only the deaths of the Ramsay characters to account for the change.

Virginia Woolf: Perspective and reflections of WWI

The section “Time Passes” speaks most clearly to me about WWI and its aftermath. Much of the imagery denotes the sense of a transitional period, being at a point of change, such as the changing leaves on “autumn trees” and the passing glimpses of a beautiful moonlit night (p. 127). The following page comes Mr. Ramsey’s perspective, as he is musing in his typical philosophical way, but has strong undertones of the sentiments of those reacting to the chaos and death of the war: “Almost it would appear that it is useless in such confusion to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the sleeper from his bed to seek an answer” (128). In the aftermath of this event, there simply were no answers to such questions asked by those reeling from the loss. Likewise, the suddenness of death and temporality of life, made more evident by the war, comes out in a bracketed statement. While Mr. Ramsey is“stumbling along a passage one dark morning” with his arms stretched out hoping for his wife, he is left alone, his arms still empty, because his wife had suddenly died. In the passing of just one night, she was gone and he is left alone.

The clean-up and later unsettled, tense house following all the deaths — Mrs. Ramsey, Andrew, and Prue — likewise reflects the painful aftermath of dealing with the losses from the war, both loss of life and of innocence/faith in society. Taking a look of the house in ruins (“too much work for one woman”) and reflecting on the deaths and sinking state of the country, Mrs. McNab muses, “But, dear, many things had changed…many families had lost their dearest. So she was dead; and Mr. Andrew killed; and Miss Prue dead too…but everyone had lost some one these years. Prices had gone up shamefully, and didn’t come down again neither” (136). Life is moving on, different. Many are dead, things have changed, but only for the worse and with no improvement in sight. Society felt exhausted after the war, and this old woman mirrors that exhaustion: “She creaked, she moaned,” and everything before her “was too much for one woman, too much, too much” (137).

Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Darwin

In Elizabeth Gaskell’s short story “Our Society At Cranford”, I noticed some interesting instances of some topics that Darwin discusses in his papers on the evolution and origin of species. For example, the women in this community have established themselves as the “fittest”, as “all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women”. Scientifically speaking, women in this community have eliminated male competition for resources like property and wealth, and have therefore become the power-holders. They have done this by essentially becoming independent of the need for males. As one of them says ” ‘A man…is so in the way in the house!’ “.

I was also interested to notice that the train, the symbol of industry and modernity in this story, is what ended up killing Captain Brown. For as many ways as he is the outlier in the town that was formally reigned by women, and for as much as he may also symbolize modernity in the way he changes the behavior of Cranford, it is telling that he is run over by a train. This is related to Darwin by the fact that, though human beings can create societies as complex as Cranford, they are not invincible to the natural world or the things they create. In this way, the train is as much a symbol of modernity as it is a symbol of the force of nature.

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?