In this little hypertext essay I formulate a reading of Anna Barbauld’s poem A Summer Evening’s Mediation. It’s what I would call a “personal response” because the poem dramatizes something in my own experience about the notion of time. But it’s from the poem that an elongated reading develops on certain issues that can be asserted as Romantic, a label I’m uncomfortable with but have to use because of the tradition of literary study. So we go with Romanticism in Britlit 2.
We started class last evening with introductory discussion and some comment on Barbauld and a few ideas that we will be concentrating on for the remainder of the semester. But it’s always a good idea to return to the discussion and draw more out of it via “contemplation” or “reflection.” The ideas are huge and complex and draining.
Romanticism as a Concentration on Values
Generalizing a set of writers across a substantial amount of time is dangerous, but if we take Barbauld and Blake we can outline values with which these authors engage. What does Barbauld value in Mediation. Who carries the action of the poem? Contemplation. What does Contemplation do? Contemplation flies into space and goes as far as the imagination allows in “her” journey. But contemplation isn’t necessarily considered “logical,” “rational,” or “methodological.” Contemplation is free to fly, to roam. Freedom to think can therefore be called a value in the poem, which, of course, can be linked as a notion to the Big Ideas of the day (and to ours), as in the freedoms souht through revolution. But is Barbauld’s a special kind of freedom? The freedom to think beyond the known, perhaps, to think beyond restriction, especially those permitted by the cultire for women? We’ll see the same thing in Blake, a sense of liberation brought on by the freedom to let the mind go, to move beyond conventional restrictions, such as those permitted by standard written or artistic forms.
Romanticism as a Cultural Tendency
What do writers prioritize in their works? Do they prioritize a fascination with inventiveness, freedom, intuition, emotional reaction, imagination, with the profits of mysticism, with working and playing beyond the boundaries, with people as cultured, as savages, as team players? Do they ask questions in their work about what is humanly possible, what can be done vs what should be done? The slogan “Be all you can Be” is a particular Romantic expression or shares an exuberance about human potential and capacity with certain ideas expressed by certain writers in the period, a sort of “spirit of the time.” It appeals to us; it could be an advertising trick; but as an expression of something having to do with the human self it is “true.” That is, Huygens, a successful demonstration of inventiveness, mathematics, and imagination is “about “expanding the human horizon.” We see farther through Huygens. We’re seeing the surface of Titan. We’re, therefore, through Huygens following the same path that Barbauld imagined in her poem. Wow. She used pure contemplation whereas we can build the craft to go there.
Romanticism as Politics
Some people when told what to do do the opposite. The teenager aches for age, while the old man laments his brittle bones. Youth, age, ignorance, innocence, experience, what we lose as a consequence of life–all play out in the work of the Romantics. Thus Romanticism plays with certain aspects of the human condition. We get old. Is this something to envy or fight? We don’t know. Should we use our brains to learn as much as we can and shed the restrictions of not knowing? We live in collectives. Should we shape those collectives on Utopian or on more pragmatic or “naturalistic” models? The revolutionaries of France and America all brought the enlightenment view of Modeler, Dreamer, and Maker to their work of shaping their collectives. It is for this reason that the struggle continues because, in the political view of People, we are yet Romantics and all the decisions we make about war in other countries, the spread of democracy, and the economy are all influenced by decisions and documents pulsed into our lives by the fathers and mothers.
Lord, I’m going to miss this class…
This class will miss you.