Contemporary Connections (Blake in the Guardian, Cowper in Singapore)

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I very much enjoyed the conversation about William Blake’s contemporaneity that Roger and Crystal commenced in the “comments” section that follows her posting “Wordsworth in a Math Bubble.” Further evidence supporting Crystal’s remarks on Blake’s power to inspire the present is offered in this rather charming series of interviews with contemporary musicians that the Guardian newspaper has put together to celebrate National Poetry Day in the U.K (today). (Yes, “Bard Reputation” is a terrible title. And I admit that “contemporary” is not quite the right word, given that the interviews include one with Neil Peart from Rush, who is even older than I am!) Anyhow, Blake, Coleridge, and Percy Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy all get a shout-out.

I think of myself (still) as a historicist critic, and I consistently bring that historicism into the classroom: in part as a context for reading Blake (he’s on all our minds right now!) and reading the Songs, my students have learned in the last week about late eighteenth-century chimney-sweeping, about the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, about the Sunday School movement, etc. But I agree strongly with what Crystal and Roger say about how contemporary writing can provide students with openings onto Romantic poetry, and it has seemed increasingly important to me to make time amidst the contextualization for that writing. I have been seeking to make room in particular for poetry from later eras, our own included. (I’m prompted by my sense that traditional English department curricula like my Department’s own sometimes seem to present poetry as though it were something that faded from the scene along with horse-drawn carriages.) In the past Marianne Moore (“Poetry”) has helped me introduce some of the Lyrical Ballads; Wallace Stevens (“Anecdote of the Jar”) has given them, or at least me, a way into “Mont Blanc,” and I am looking forward to seeing what happens a couple weeks from now when I bring in Robert Pinsky’s amazing, troubling “Last Robot Song” as a contemporary analogue to “The Eolian Harp.”

The contemporaneity of Romantic poetry has been on my mind, as well, thanks to a student in my survey class who last week educated me on how the issues that had been raised in our discussion of William Cowper’s abolitionist ballad “The Negro’s Complaint” are also at stake in (astonishingly) the poetry that poets in Singapore have written to protest the lot of the workers on Malay oil palm plantations. (She is just back from an exchange semester at the National University of Singapore--and she has promised me a reading list.) There’s something depressing about hearing this--hearing that the global idiom of feeling-at-a-distance developed in the age of Britain’s Second Empire retains its relevance. But also something exhilarating about the moments when our students make those connections.

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1 Comment

Deidre, I love Jah


I love Jah Wobble's Inspiration of William Blake! I agree that Romantic poetry must be understood through the historical context of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But I also applaud reading Wordsworth through the lens of Marianne Moore, or Percy Shelley through Wallace Stevens. What inspired combinations. I think sometimes historicists are too insistent upon reinforcing historical distance that they don't really look at historical resonance - Stevens and Moore are perfect examples (as is Yeats) of a Romantic historicity that resonates in more recent, and perhaps more accessible (?), poetic moments. Those moments can then be read back to the Romantic period opening up (or perhaps polishing?) the faded carriages you speak of.

Apologies for using so many parentheses.

I wonder where the line is, however. At what point does it become important to reinforce historical difference and distance, so that we don't (as McGann famously argues) simply reinforce Romantic Ideology?