Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Romantics: So What? (Part 2)

Yesterday we looked deeper into the ideas of literary aesthetics, and I hope it was beneficial–I wore my brain out on it, so I hope it was! Just in case you missed it (or it’s too dense) let’s recap:

  • Problem: The study of literature is being bombarded by those who feel pressured to produce some sort of new idea all the time; Delbanco calls this the “professionalization” of literature. Professionalization sucks the life out of literature, according to Delbanco.
  • Solution 1: Aesthetic reading brings back joy to literature. Kendall Walton suggests that when reading literature, readers should build their ideas out of the literature instead of bringing ideas and planting them in the literature
  • Counterpoint: Louise Rosenblatt argues that a new poem is created whenever a reader approaches as text; a reader cannot help but bring in his or her previous ideas
  • Solution 2: Aesthetic reading must be an active idea, one done open-mindedly; if this is accomplished, the poem that is created will be one that is fair to the text, reader, and author and will more fitly accomplish the goals of the author

9 Posts, 21 Comments, and 394 Views later, here we are at the end of the first process of this blog. What you may or may not have known is that this blog was an experiment in the Digital Humanities. I wanted to examine the effectiveness of the blog, to see if its attractiveness as a digital resource would garner interest and participation. Of course, the factors that played into this are probably infinitely manifold. So, instead of trying to guess a few and leave a lot out, I will go over the successes and failures of this blog in hopes that it can continue to grow and change.

Successes and Failures

I was going to separate the two, but success and failure are a strange couple, and with this blog, they have decided to mingle.

As far as interest goes in Romantic poets of 18th century England goes, 394 reads in a couple month period isn’t so bad. I believe that the use of advertising on Facebook helped increase this–and my pestering of some of you to read. I believe that an involvement in Twitter and other social media would have increased hits, and that will probably be something I look into in the future.

Getting the blog to be a “living one” was tough since I couldn’t force any of you to read AND comment. Eventually, I dropped the prompt because it wasn’t actually prompting anyone to write after a while. I tried my best to be interesting, relevant, and cultured, but I understand that some of you were still bored with the Romantics. Don’t worry; it’s okay! So, while I had a few casual and a few committed commenting people, the whole symbiosis didn’t really work. In a school setting where participation would be required, I believe this format has the potential to be very successful in terms of interesting and effective learning. Not only would it develop critical thinking skills in students, but participation in a blog would increase computer and internet literacy, which will be more and more important as our culture moves more quickly toward being more internet-based.

Oh, yeah! I learned a lot and had a good excuse to read the Romantics and learn about aesthetic criticism. If this blog was just directly attached to my brain as I read and thought, I’m sure the posts would be much more interesting and substantial. Getting this blog up and took quite a bit of effort and getting used to the WordPress platform, but the effort–and frustration–paid off.

Thanks for reading, participating, and letting me know what you thought. I will return after a while to start up a less scholarly but possibly–hopefully–more interesting look into the Romantics, their poetry, and their thoughts.


The Romantics: So What? (Part 1)

“The end of the eighteenth century, swept by vast disturbing currents, experienced an excitement of spirit of which one note was a reaction against an outworn classicism severed not more from nature than from the genuine motives of ancient art … Complex and subtle interests, which the mind spins for itself may occupy art and poetry or our own spirits for a time; but sooner or later they come back with a sharp rebound to the simple elementary passions—anger, desire, regret, pity, and fear: and what corresponds to them in the sensuous world—bare, abstract
fire, water, air, tears, sleep, silence, and what De Quincey has called the “glory of motion.” (Walter Pater, “Aesthetic Poetry” 1, 4)

And here we are, at the last “official” topic: What’s the big deal about the Romantics? If you haven’t been able to tell, I’ve been saying this whole time, “HEY! You should read the Romantics… and much more deeply than we’ve gone into with this blog.” On the surface, that ‘s not a stance that has anything to do with Literary Theory.  So you say, “So what, James? That’s just your artistic preference. Convince me of something useful.”

This whole time, it hasn’t been just about reading the Romantics. Studying Romantic Poetry has been a medium for two things:

  1. (For both of us) To learn to appreciate Literature and Art aesthetically, for its own beauty and sublimity and thus be able to see the world, its culture, and art through Romantic glasses, and
  2. (For me, mainly) To see the responses to the presenting of a digital classroom in this format.

Yes, I do believe the Romantic worldview carries meaningful weight, from what Wordsworth says about the poet and his work, what Coleridge puts forward as the functioning of the imagination, to how Keats strives for beauty, truth, and respecting the heart’s passions. In this Postmodern world, sometimes it’s not okay for an intelligent person to say, “I like this; just because. I respect this work of art for its inherent beauty.” Andrew Delbanco explains the effects of Deconstruction criticism  in his essay, “The Decline and Fall of Literature,”

“[The Deconstructionist view led to the dogmatic understanding that] literature, like any constructed system of meaning, must be assessed in relation to this or that “identity” (race, class, gender, etc.) to the exclusion of every other point of view. Here began in earnest the fragmentation of literary studies that is so evident today—and that has left a legacy of acrimony, and of intellectual and professional fatigue.”

“Fatigue.” Growing tired of studying art?! How can that be? Delbanco explains that many criticism theories have destroyed the enjoyment in literature. Today the literary scholar cannot write solely of the aesthetic value of the work, for that holds no importance. Instead, he or she must abdicate all enjoyment to the ceaseless pursuit of a new point-of-view that may shed light on something never-before-seen. In relation to this, Delbanco summarizes John Ellis, author of Literature Lost:

In Literature Lost, the shrillest of recent books on the crisis, John Ellis blames the whole mess on the dynamics of professionalization—on, that is, the pressure to publish something, anything, that is novel or startling or upon which a reputation can be built. The publish-or-perish desperation has only increased as the readership for what is published declines.

You see, the problem here isn’t just that people aren’t accepting art for itself, the problem is that art must now be dissected, picked apart, examined, and left on the floor to rot. Can I make a case that art is important and should be appreciated for its own sake? I believe so. To do this, though, one must set aside questions that are outside the reader, questions such as, “What is art, really?” and “Who is allowed to be an artist?” These questions are irrelevant when one enjoys any book, poem, painting, photograph, or anything else and lets the experience be come naturally, unhampered except by forces which exist in the subconscious (Kendall Walton, “Aesthetics: What, Why, and Wherefore?” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65.2 (2007): 147-161) . And such is the “recollection in tranquility” of which Wordsworth speaks.

In “Aesthetics” Walton argues that our concept of art–whether it be anything from literature to a baseball game (I know, right?)–and the theories and criticisms that we bring to it should be those that form up from the art instead of plastering ideas right onto the art (159). This idea is what I was going for throughout this blog and will continue to pursue–that which we experience now illuminates the poetry of the Romantics and vice versa.

There is at least one problem with this theory: sometimes we cannot help what we bring to the table. This gets back to our ideas of experience and secondary imagination; our collected experiences passively influence us as we engage in any work of art, thus creating a new work of art in the process. Loiuse Rosenblatt, in her 1938 book Literature as Exploration puts it this way: “The reader [creates] a poem out of texts by an active, self-ordering, and self-correcting process (11). This process is the one of which we’ve been speaking, that a reader–and this goes further than the aesthetic–brings his or her own experiences and interprets the text by those experiences. If we are to accept Rosenblatt’s view, experiencing any text within itself is impossible.

Of course, this may not be such a big problem, for to be open-minded while approaching and taking in a text must be possible, else our beliefs would forever be in a solid state. Luckily, our beliefs are fluid, and while we may always be creating a poem as we read a text–or any other piece of art, for that matter–the poem which we create can and should be controlled by our will to take in the text unbiasedly and in a way which the author would have us to.

So, as we read, let us continue to create our own poems, to let them spring forth in times of tranquility as Wordsworth would have us, all the while keeping our heads clear and respecting the heart of the author with the pure view that Keats had, experiencing that which the author meant for us as readers to experience.


I will wrap up this post by sharing my thoughts on the project as it relates to the digital humanities, looking at its successes and its failures–and what I have learned along the way.

The Beautiful and Sublime: Accepting Art As It Is

As we move toward looking at art and creation as the Romantics did, it would be helpful to look at Edmund Burke’s treatise A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Beautiful and Sublime. A Philosophical Inquiry put Burke on the radar with other contemporary philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and David Hume. Anyway, he wrote this treatise examining the beautiful and sublime–pretty much the how and why we enjoy both beautiful things and unpleasant things. We’re used to this idea, right? I mean we enjoy grabbing some delicious ice cream at Trowbridge’s, but we–not I!–also enjoy jumping off buildings while only attached by a cord. Here’s what Burke has to say in regard to the Beautiful and Sublime:

[The Sublime and Beautiful] are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure; and however they may vary afterwards from the direct nature of their causes, yet these causes keep up an eternal distinction between them, a distinction never to be forgotten by any whose business it is to affect the passions. In the infinite variety of natural combinations, we must expect to find the qualities of things the most remote imaginable from each other united in the same object. We must expect also to find combinations of the same kind in the works of art. (III.27)

Burke, like his contemporaries, writes a little verbose for our 21st century comprehension. In 21st century language, Burke would be saying, “The Sublime and Beautiful are pretty much opposites–one is caused by pain, the other by pleasure. Even though they’re almost complete opposites, sometimes a single object can evoke the reactions of both the Sublime and the Beautiful. And you won’t just find this in nature, obviously; art produces these effects, as well.”

For the purposes of this blog, we’ll be focusing on the Beautiful and Sublime of art, specifically of Literature.

If we’re going to accept the Aesthetic viewpoint of Literature, acquiring a sense of the Beautiful and Sublime is necessary to be able to accept all Literature as that which can and will evoke in the reader the emotions of the creator.

We easily accept that Literature that we readily call Beautiful. Reading Wordsworth’s pastoral poetry or Shakespeare’s sensual  sonnets engenders a feeling of pleasantness and calmness, that warm, passionate feeling in the heart. When we read something ugly, dirty, or challenging, our first reaction may be to put it down, but accepting the truth of the usefulness of the Beautiful as well as the Sublime requires readers to find the pleasure–if not just the pragmatic purpose–in Literature that exemplifies Sublime characteristics How else could we enjoy Literature like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment? Readers would have to put the novel down before the ending of the second chapter if they refused to accept the pleasure that the intense monomania and deep self-examination of Raskolnikov’s mind gives. In the end, though, there’s a payoff. Through experiencing the broken nature of Raskolnikov’s dying and depraved mind, the reader, along with Raskolnikov, joins Lazarus in his resurrection, a cleansing well worth enduring the intimate involvement in the mind of a killer.

It seems some are refusing this outlook and even taking one more step to censor Literature that makes them uncomfortable. NewSouth Books, based in Montgomery Alabama, published a combined volume of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer in which the “N-word” is replaced with “slave.” Now, there’s no use in playing blame games, and certainly the implications of this publication are manifold; the debate extends into many areas of criticism. I think, though, that our view of literature through the Aesthetic, using the idea of the accepting the Sublime weighs in on this debate.

With our current worldview, words that make another person of society an “other” are attacked–and, many times, rightfully so. The editor of this new edition, Alan Gribben (Twain scholar and professor at Auburn University in Montgomery), proposed this new edition so that the novels would be more readily accepted and taught in school literature classes. Unfortunately, as Twain Biographer Ron Powers agrees, the avoidance of this uncomfortable word destroys the kind of moment that educators should be looking for, a moment of teachability: “[Twain’s language] cries out for conversation between teachers and students. It cries out for context.”

Twain intended to evoke emotion with his use of language that marginalizes a group of people. To edit Twain’s language is to suppress his ability to convey emotion. Censoring Twain is a rejection of accepting art as it is. Society wouldn’t accept the drawing of a mustache on the Mona Lisa just because an expert of Michelangelo was uncomfortable with the ambiguity of the painting and wanted the gender decided once and for all. We accept the art as it is.

Should students no longer study Crime and Punishment because Dostoevsky uses a prostitute to bring a murderer to repentance?

This debate reaches deep into all sorts of novels and poetry, and of course, this isn’t the place for that argument to start, but I did find the debate to be applicable to the subject of the Beautiful and the Sublime. I would encourage you to research more on your own about the Twain debate and other problems of not accepting the Sublime.

Until next time, check out these Romantic poems that carry themes of the Beautiful and Sublime:

L’art Pour L’art

It’s always important to recapitulate, relearn, and refocus. So let’s take a moment to do that.

–Remember the Storm-Born Saints? The Romantics exist as prime examples of the  effects of revolution; that is, the collateral effects of it as well as the direct.

–Think about Wordsworth. He believed in the innocence of the child’s imagination, the innocence of the rustic civilization, the importance of the common individual.

–Primary and Secondary Imagination according to Coleridge, the sensory perceptions of everyday life (Primary) and the recollected perceptions from “the well” (Secondary).

–Go get bored! Inspiration comes while in a tranquil setting, taking from our well of perceptions.

–Turn off your cell! Remember Coleridge’s problem: he didn’t find a truly tranquil place to recall his dream and was interrupted in the middle of creation.

–” ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ ”

–Last, but most importantly, tie it all together with the paradigm of P.A.I.N., that, as it has been said, all  art is caused by some sort of Pain; the Romantics’ art is no different. The tropes, even the fuel, of their poetry is primitivism, the relationship of art and the artist, the individual, and nature.

So, I was just kidding about the whole Beautiful and Sublime thing. Let’s get practical.

It’s a platitude to say something such as, “We should learn that we’re not so different from these guys.” Rather, in considering the Romantics, we should take from their respect of the Beautiful–and not that the poetic object is always beautiful. The Beauty is seen in that poetry is art. Aesthetics such as Harold Bloom see similarly to the Romantics in this way. Seeing poetry–and consequently, all art–as beautiful because of itself leads us to what Tolstoy says of Art in “What is Art?” that Art is based upon an individual’s ability to receive and experience the emotions of another individual–almost as if going through the exact same experience that first caused the emotions.

Isn’t this exactly what Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the others were saying? That each of us creates art when we sit back and think about our experiences and decide to express them to another, no matter what medium it is. As Tolstoy says, Art is “infectious.”

And if I’m trying to prove or persuade you to believe anything in this blog, it is that our view of the world should be as simple as the Romantics’–that Beauty exists in all things as a truth found in the experiences of humanity’s relentless pursuit of making survival more than staying alive, an imparting of the beautiful, those recollected emotions meant to sway and affect the rest of humanity. Allow me to convince you to release yourself from the fetters of literary theory that tries to persuade you to do anything other than feel the emotions that fueled the birth of the art that you are reading. Render useless those theories that persuade you pick art apart, that persuade you to concentrate on the author’s bigotry, misogyny, misandry, and any other slapped on label that would keep you from enjoying the work as a piece of art meant to make you feel. Yes, these theories have their places, but they do not belong in your reading chair, your quiet meadow, or any other place of tranquility where you enjoy art. Go there. Turn off your cell phone. Take a book of Keats’s Poetry and Letters, Wordworth’s The Prelude, or any other book, no matter whether the medium is traditional paper or E ink.

Just get out there and enjoy l’art pour l’art!

Before I log out today, I want to say a few things about where this blog is going to go in the next… few days.

I wasn’t intending to continue this blog past the due date, but I’m going to, actually. I’m learning quite a bit–and hope I’m helping you to do so as well. Though as the due date seems to be upon me, I’m going to hit some things I see as most important before the first death and resurrection of this blog:

  • The Beautiful and Sublime
  • Byron and Blake
  • A Final Observation

Until next time, I leave you with a reading of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” from the Bright Star soundtrack.