More romantics: Wordsworth

December 28th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Wordsworth, however, is a poet I’ve never been able to make mean something. The main reason, probably, is that I have no time for the pastoral. I’d rather see allusive intensity in the cities I love than in a natural world with which I find no connection.

But the above-linked article by Adam Kirsch turns up other reasons. Apparently “many of what we now see as the Victorian virtues—earnestness, mature optimism, easy authority—are first incarnated in his poetry“. And, perceptively:

If his first readers turned against him because he was undignified, today we are more likely to turn away from him because he is too dignified. He knows what he knows so surely, so completely, that he cannot think against himself; no poet besides Milton is as devoid of humor.

His emergence as the great, challenging poet of natural sympathy and his subsequent decline into dull institutional benevolence form one of the key instructive dramas of modern poetry.

And then, there’s the politics. Shelley embodied it with Queen Mab and the Masque of Anarchy. Byron died for it in Greece, and even Coleridge kept up some level of political involvement through his life. Wordsworth did absorb the afterglow of the French Revolution, but as a spectator rather than an actor. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” is no attempt to change the world, just a thrilling to the work others were doing around him. And even here, argues Kirsch:

“The Prelude” was written as an act of convalescence from and penance for politics, which he finally comes to see as “a degradation” fortunately “transient”

[Kirsch, admittedly, then goes on to praise Wordsworth’s “struggle to transcend the radicalism of his youth, to rescue its benevolent impulses while escaping its shallowness and intolerance“.]

Celebrity duel: Kleist vs. Rilke

December 28th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Have just emerged from reading Rilke’s Letters to a young poet. Surprised by how much I like it, given that I’ve come to think of myself as basically unsympathetic to Romanticism. I’ll chalk this one up to my general sensation of reverting to adolescence. But…

I tend to forget how late Rilke is. When he’s writing, well over a century has passed since the revolution in France and Young Werther in Germany. The years since had been filled by the aftershocks and farcical imitations of one, and the gradual swelling and dissipation of the Romantic movement kick-started by the other. Kleist, for example, feels like he should be writing later than Rilke. just as Marx had seen and analyzed capitalism at the moment of its birth, perceiving and criticising the mechanisms of the next decades, so did Kleist perceive the opposition between Romanticism and the Enlightenment, and find their synthesis. I’m thinking of his essay on hte Marionette Theatre, which punctures the Romantic idealisation of youth and innocence, while describing how the essential Romantic intensity can be reborn through experience:

…grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god…..we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence

Rilke, in 1903, is still a believer in innocence. His advice to the young poet remains at the level of “to thine own self be true”, never touching on the possibilities of schizophrenic self-invention which now endure as the only conceivable engine of intensity in a time of post-modernism.

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