Synopsis of Class: October 25, 2000

Today, we looked carefully at the various books of Wordsworth's Prelude. On Lilly Ewing's prompting, we began by discussing why Wordsworth chose not to publish his Prelude until after his death. Could this be a manifestation of a guilt culture, in which what concerns Wordsworth is his own experiences regardless of what others think, or might his desire to edit aspects of his autobiographical poem (for example, his affair with Annette Vallon in France) point to a persistence of the concerns prevalent in a shame culture?

We then discussed the absence of an invocation to the Muse in Book I and how nature takes over that function (specifically the "gentle breeze," which gets intimately connected to "spirit," a word that etymologically means "breath"—hence "inspiration"). As in the "Prospectus," the invocation to the Muse is also replaced by a play on words: "Thus long I mused,/ Nor e'er lost sight of what I mused upon" (1.80-81). We also discussed the sublime in relation to the boat-stealing episode in Book I and the Snowdon Pass episode in Book VI. Other Romantic issues that came to the fore include:

1) Wordsworth's fascination with the unconscious (exemplified in the Dream of the Arab sequence of Book V).

2) Wordsworth's rejection of convention in favor of transcendental meaning. He for example finds that "reason did lie couched" in the apparent "madness" of the Arab in his dream (5.152). The fascination with the sublime is another instantiation of this desire for truths that lie beyond those values praised by the eighteenth-century (convention, etiquette, decorum). As Wordsworth states, "Enow there are on earth to take in charge/ Their wives, their children, and their virgin loves" (5.153-54). Wordsworth, by contrast, imagines himself able to "share/ That maniac's fond anxiety, and go/ Upon like errand" (5.159-61). Wordsworth is interested in the transformation of society through an apocayptic refashioning of one's own mind.

3) The Romantic fascination with the unruly passions of the soul. As Wordsworth writes in Book I,

The Poet, gentle creature as he is,
Hath, like the Lover, his unruly times;
His fits when he is neither sick nor well,
Though no distress be near him but his own
Unmanageable thoughts: his mind, best pleased
While she as duteous as the mother dove
Sits brooding, lives not always to that end,
But like the innocent bird, hath goadings on
That drive her as in trouble through the groves. (135-43)

Not only is Wordsworth here valuing his "unruly times" over reason, but he recasts Milton's metaphor of the brooding dove. Whereas in Milton's Paradise Lost the dove represented the Holy Spirit (Milton's new muse), in the Prelude the dove (and, by implication, the muse) has become completely internalized.

4) The interest in the self over epic action. The new epic struggle is that of the poet himself in his effort to write his poem and to come to terms with his inner demons and desires.

5) The rejection of the urban, which is best exemplified in the hidden nekuia and hellish catalogue of Book VII. (Thanks to Aisha Peay for pointing out this epic convention.)

Best of luck with your mid-terms next class (and don't forget your blue books)!

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