“Mont Blanc” by Percy Shelley

     Edmund Burke defines the sublime as something that is provoked by a feeling of great astonishment, which is linked, in a way, to horror : “The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, […] is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror” (Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful). In his poem, entitled “Mont Blanc”, Percey Shelley puts this definition into practise. Indeed, the narrator of the poem is facing the natural element that is the Mont Blanc, that is to say the highest mountain in Europe. This simple contemplation turns itself into a huge flow of emotions and reflexion. Shelley defines his contemplation as a “trance sublime and strange” (L35). He uses here the word “sublime” itself, and associates it to the word “strange”. The latter is related, in a way, to fear, because it is unexplainable and unknown. Yet, it appears that, according to Burke, fear is one of the feelings that one needs to feel in order to reach the sublime. We can thus affirm that the poet is having the experience of the sublime.

     In this way, the one way in which Shelley’s poem exemplifies Burke’s ideas on the sublime that stroke me the most is the one of infinity. Indeed, Burke writes that infinity “has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delighful horror, which is the most genuine effect, and truest test of the sublime”. In this poem, infinity is indeed omnipresent: infinity of space and of time. We can read from the first line : “The everlasting universe of things”. Firstly, the word “universe” itself connotes the idea of infinity, both infinity of time and space. Secondly, the adjective “everlasting” insists on the idea of infinity of time. Moreover, this theme of infinity comes again and again all along the poem : “for ever” (L9); “eternity” (L29); “unremifting interchange” (L39); “the infinite sky” (L60); “perpetual stream” (L109) …  So, when the poet faces the Mont Blanc and the ravine of Arve (which is the spokesperson of the poem’s narrator), he becomes aware of the infinity of nature, and then experiences the sublime, as it is defined by Edmund Burke. And this engenders terror in the poet’s mind – as it is supposed to be, according to Burke’s theory. We can indeed read line 15 that the landscape is characterized as an “awful scene”. Plus, this terror is linled to a kind of malevolant spirit (an entity related to infinity, as immortal) who came to spread it on earth. So we can say that here, sublime is characterized by the paradoxal feelings engendered by the infinity of nature : at the same time marvel and terror.

      Other elements of the sublime as defined by Burke can be found in this extract. Some of them are directly related to the idea of infinity, such as power – a word we can find written with a capital letter line 16, as if it was a deity, which insists on his strength. We can also find the theme of vastness, thanks to the Mont Blanc; or even the theme of obscurity. So as a conclusion, I will say that Shelley’s poem is a good example of Burke’s ideas of sublime, because it uses many of his definitions and allows the reader himself to reach the sublime.




“Lines left upon a seat in a Yew-tree”, by William Wordsworth

This poem entitled “Left upon a seat in a Yew-tree” by William Wordsworth, is one of the first British romantic poems, a movement which was built in reaction against the Enlightenment. The first striking element which contrasts with the Enlightenment’s values is the emphasis on nature. Indeed, nature is in the center of the poem. First of all, the main character of this poem seems to be not a human being but a “yew-tree” on which the man is sitting. Moreover, the semantic field of nature is omnipresent in this text. We can actually notice that everytime a natural subject is mentioned, it is along with a meliorative adjective. We can quote, for instance : “No sparkling rivulet spread the verdant herb” (L3). The melioratives adjectives used here are “sparkling” and “verdant”. They are both used in order to underline the beauty of nature. But above all, nature appears as a supreme element with which humans are supposed to be unified to. Indeed, the final morality implies that humans are not supposed to be alone but to be in harmony with nature. In this poem, William Wordsworth condemns the man who saw nothing but himself, and who decided to live in his own lonely world, ignoring every other form of life : “Stranger ! Henceforth be warned ; and know, that pride […] is littleness” (L 46 and 48). The use of the noun “littleness” emphasises the greatness of nature, compared to humans. Thus, this general emphasis on nature contrasts with the Enlightenment’s values, which advocates the mastery of nature by human beings.

The second striking element which contrasts with the Enlightenment’s values is the emphasis on feelings. Indeed, many feelings are itemized, good ones or bad ones : “jealousy” (L16) ; “pride” (L20) ; “pleasure” (L28) ; “joy” (L39). But the supreme feeling, advocated by the author, is actually love. Indeed, it is the first feeling quoted, but also the last one. It is considered as the best feeling a man can have : “instructed that true knowledge leads to love” (L56). It is not only related to the good but also to the truth, as if William Wordsworth knew the truth about life. This is also a typical romantic point of view, which is that the writer is supposed to deliver a message to mankind and has to be a guide for the people. Plus, the feeling of love is seen here as a global feeling, that not only humans but also animals can have : “what if these barren boughs the bee not loves” (L4). Here, love as a universal feeling reinforcing the idea of a vital harmony between human beings, animals and nature. The flood of feelings created by the author clearly contrasts with the cold writing style of the Enlightenment writers, who advocates reason (brain, head, body), instead of feelings (heart, soul).

Youth in Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

T.S Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” appears to be a poem centered around a love story of the subject. In this piece, Prufrock, as written by Eliot, explores the nuances of his love life with  a peek into the future he anticipates to experience with his lover.

From the presentation of Eliot of Prufrock, there is a hint of this being a young love story characterized by a bit of spontaneity (Lines 1-12). Deciding to do what could be referred to as eloping, Prufrock says quite remarkably “Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” (Line 11). This spontaneity, for one, is in my opinion, one of the three major derivations of youth from this written piece.

A sense of adventure is briefly noted in the second stanza of this poem by the young lovers in his expression of the places they could visit and the experiences they would have.  Prufock, seemingly in an attempt to convince his lover to follow him, declares on more than one occasion that “there will be time” for them to explore memorable things (Lines 15-34). This adventurous enthusiasm is one prominent infusion of youth Eliot employs in this piece.

In addition to the spontaneity, and a theme very much developed in the poem, is the concept of deliberation about the future. This theme beginning in Line 30 and continuing throughout the poem sees Prufrock constantly wondering what would become of himself and his lover in the future. This wonder about the future, experienced by Prufrock, could be seen as the other feature of youth in this poem by Eliot.

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.

Effect of Youthful Age of Shelley on Mont Blanc Compositon

Mont Blanc by Percy Bysshe Shelley is full of expressions of effervescence which reflect the influence the author’s youthful age had on the composition of the poem. Throughout the poem, Shelley employs expressions of dynamism and vibrancy in the interpretation of the things he sees and experiences in the mountain area of Mont Blanc. An attempt to pick out hints of the effect of his youthful age on the tone of the poem as it relates to each of the five sections of the poem is the aim of this write-up.

Leading up to his narration of the mountain, the author uses animated expressions in his description of nature to illustrate the universe. This is best evidenced in the latter part of the first section of the poem in which he says:

”In the wild woods, among the mountains lone, where waterfalls around it leap for ever, where woods and winds contend, and a vast river over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.” (Lines 8-12)

The use of such vivacious expressions, which are commonly associated with youthful exuberance, could be a subtle indication of his youthful age while composing the poem.  In the subsequent sections of the poem, contrary to the vibrant theme of his description of the elements of nature he observes, Shelley describes the “primeval” (Line 99) Mont Blanc as “still” and “serene” (Line 61), which is in tune with the general opinion of the youth who usually tend towards motion and upheaval.

In all, the most compelling argument for the effect Shelley’s youthful age had on the tone of his poem is the use of vivacious expressions in his description of the mountain and its surroundings.

Endgame: David Glover

When I started reading Endgame, I was immediately turned off by its oddness (your parents live in ashcans?) and seeming irrelevance to anything.  By the end, I was sure that I had just wasted an hour or so on an endless cycle of repetitive conversation between two uninteresting men.  While High Modernism was intended to be difficult, it seems Post-Modernism has jumped off a cliff, leaving nothing but a play smashed into meaningless pieces   – no plot, no character development, no climax, and non-sensical dialogue.  Not even a good, fragmented stream of consciousness!  But thank goodness it kept the notion that it should be as brief as possible!

I went back to the textbook and read some more about the age and Beckett and did get some insight.  After WWII, the British novel took second seat to British drama whereby “the dramatic form seemed to lend itself to the staging of new social and aesthetic experiments” with Beckett leading the way.  Beckett “sculpted his plays out of silence” and “his characters…occupy an abstract space of human existence, where the human predicaments of longing and desire for redemption, the failures of understanding, and the bafflement of death are experienced in their purest form” (text 1942).  The quote explains why Beckett wrote such a play that has no significant beginning or end in the plot or characters, who lack meaningfulness.

To answer the question about how Beckett uses a setting outside history to critique the history of Western Civilization, he sets the play in a room with a “bare interior” save some windows to observe the outside world which the audience never sees  (text 2579).  All of the action takes place in the room between four characters with little reference to place or time (except to reference the use of a telescope and hygrometer).  They talk in circles and end up where they started.  For instance, a glimmer of hope is revealed:

HAMM:  We’re not beginning to…to…mean something?

CLOV:  Mean something!  You and I, mean something!  [Brief laugh.]  Ah that’s a good one!

HAMM:  I wonder. [Pause.] Imagine if a rational being came back to earth, wouldn’t he be liable to get ideas into his head if he observed us long enough. [Voice of rational being.]  Ah, good, now I see what it is, yes, now I understand what they’re at!

[Clov starts, drops the telescope and begins to scratch his belly with both hands. Normal voice.]

And without going so far as that, we ourselves…[with emotion]…we ourselves…at certain moments…[Vehemently.] To think perhaps it won’t all have been for nothing! (text 2593)

But, alas, this thread is lost and all is for nothing when Clov is distracted by a flea.  What does this mean?  I believe that Beckett sees England downsized, wounded from the war and is no longer the hub of Western Civilization.  As such, these characters and “action” leave no impact on the world just as England no longer impacts civilization as it once did.  Nothingness and irrelevance is all that exists now.

In contrast, Eliot’s The Wasteland engages with history.  Like Beckett, Eliot expresses little hope for the future.  However, Eliot uses allusions to demonstrate the richness of past civilizations that have come before.  A solid foundation of religion, literature and tradition are woven into his poem that captures the history of Western civilization and more.  Even if Western Civilization wanes, this huge body of works of art and culture will prevent it from reducing to oblivion.

To the Lighthouse: Perspective & Narration

The issue of narrative perspective is an important aspect of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.  She appears to primarily use the literary technique in her quest toward high modernism.  She takes a step beyond Joyce’s stream of consciousness narration that we saw in the Dubliners to craft multiple and simultaneous streams of consciousness.  She describes it by saying, “Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day” (text 2333).  The result is nothing ordinary – it becomes an exhaustive account of the main characters’ inner thoughts to tell the outward action.  Woolf masterfully captures the random, wandering thoughts, musings, reactions, emotions, and memories of a group of people in minute detail as they interact with each other.  Rather than providing a traditional dialogue to move the action along, Woolf makes it difficult to read (a prerequisite for modernism) by writing in a fragmented style that mimics a bumpy road of associative leaps that constantly occur in our mind to tell the story in addition to winding back and forth among the character’s thoughts.  The novel that emerges portrays the love and resiliency of humankind in the aftermath of one of the worst periods in British history – World War I.

So how does this type of narration engage with WWI and its aftermath?  The new technology introduced in WWI caused mass destruction unlike any war previous.  Flamethrowers, bombs, and gas attacks were especially sadistic and cruel.  Almost fifteen hundred British soldiers died each day in the four year war.  The British War Poets and the emerging mass media gave those at home a close look at the horrors of war.  Those who survived were scarred by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  After four long years of war, people responded with “bitterly rebuffed idealism” and “a sense of physical and moral exhaustion” (text 2112, 1928).  It seems the joie de vivre left most Brits, and Woolf ingeniously captures the undercurrent of this malaise with her unique style of narration.

The story centers around the Ramsay family – the mother, father, and children – and an array of friends gathered at a summer home at the coast near a lighthouse.  The novel describes the activities that take place over a day before the war, a synopsis of action during the war time, and then another day’s activities after the war.  To answer the question at hand, the first person narrative that is used in the first and last sections is a perfect vehicle to capture the malaise that many felt as a result of the war.  Mr. Ramsay, for example, is one who fails to adapt and move on after the war.  Before the war, he admonishes his family who are eager to make a trip to the lighthouse.  The narration from his mind’s eye shows a man who is master of his household:

He had “a splendid mind.  For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q.  He reached Q.  Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q…After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance.  Z is only reached once by one man in a generation…On to R.”  (Lighthouse 33-34)

He has the final say on the family going to the lighthouse, which is no.

During the war described in the middle section, like most Brits, Mr. Ramsay suffers loss – his wife and two of his children – one to war, and one to childbirth.  The narration takes on an impersonal third person narrative to briefly describe the deaths.  The “courage, truth and power to endure” that he lived by challenges him to his core (Lighthouse 4).

Ten years after the first section and after the war, Mr. Ramsay and two of his children return to the summer house.  He tries to recreate the past by now insisting on a trip to the Lighthouse:

“Then he reminded them that they were going to the Lighthouse tomorrow.  They must be ready, in the hall on the stroke of half-past seven.  Then, with his hand on the door, he stopped; he turned upon them.  Did they not want to go?  He demanded.  Had they dared say No…he would have flung himself tragically backwards into the bitter waters of despair.” (Lighthouse 148)

By using the third person subjective narrative in this section, Woolf can show the feelings of malaise especially through Mr. Ramsay’s thoughts and what others think of him.  Their thoughts are more revealing than their actions, so Woolf is able to sharply define his misery.