“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”
These opening lines of William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ are perhaps the best-known example of the microcosm in Romantic literature. The poem comes from one of Blake’s notebooks, The Pickering Manuscript, where it appears without line breaks (however, these lines are often published as a separate quatrain). It expresses the idea that the beauty, mystery, and totality of the miniature is characteristic of the whole.
The Romantic poets had a special interest in the ordinary for its microcosmic and representational roles in poetry. In his Biographia Literaria, S.T. Coleridge describes poetry as a special kind of composition set apart from works of science by its metric and phonetic structures and designed for the purpose of pleasure. On the whole, poetry produces delight compatible with the gratification produced by each component part, which harmonizes with the other essentials.
Continue reading “Romanticism's Microcosms”
First, let me say that I’d love some constructive feedback on this post. This is a sort of companion piece to my last post, in which I examined Coleridge’s influence on J. R. R. Tolkien’s conception of the imagination and its pivotal role in the creation of fantastic literature. But my long-term plan for my dissertation entails developing a critical theory of fantastic fiction (a loaded term in and of itself, I realize) from Longinus’s conception of the sublime as it relates to language and rhetoric, Romantic ideas about the imagination, and higher-order “big picture” ideas about the role of fantasy from Tolkien and, to a lesser extent, C. S. Lewis. Continue reading “Eucatastrophe in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
As a writer of fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien hardly needs an introduction. Even before the success of the film adaptations of his work turned Tolkien into a household name, he had won first the hearts of children with The Hobbit in 1937 and, some twenty years later, the hearts and minds of adult readers with The Lord of the Rings. But, like Coleridge and MacDonald before him, Tolkien thought deeply about his craft as a writer and creator, and it is by largely virtue of this thought that his art has achieved such timeless success. His 1939 lecture “On Fairy-Stories,” subsequently published as an essay in the 1964 book Tree and Leaf, is, as the editors of the recent authoritative edition of the essay put it, “Tolkien’s defining study of and the centre-point in his thinking about the genre (of fantasy), as well as being the theoretical basis for his fiction” (Flinger and Anderson 9). In this seminal work, he addresses all the points about the imagination raised by Coleridge and, following the Victorian writer George MacDonald, defends their application in the literary arts. Continue reading “Coleridge's Imagination through the lens of J. R. R. Tolkien”
There’s a recurring question that springs to mind whenever I sit in the Starbucks in the Barnes & Noble in my little East Texas town and stare up at the mural of authors who all seem to have transcended time and space to have coffee alongside the hipsters: who put Oscar Wilde next to George Eliot, Rudyard Kipling, and Trollope? Seriously, is it any wonder that the man looks so bored? Wilde shouldn’t be surrounded by those Victorian fogies, he should be sipping gin with Truman Capote, Christopher Hitchens, Walt Whitman, and the one man who would almost certainly guarantee a good time, and who also happens to be the focus of this essay, George Gordon, Lord Byron. The reason for such inclusion is simple: Byron could be an absolutely trenchant satirist when he wanted to be. Byron, like Wilde, Capote or Hitchens, could bring out his own breed of sharp wit whenever someone at a dinner party decided to be cleverer than him, only to be left decimated in a single sentence by his superior rhetorical ability. I know this is a platitude, but sometimes I really wish I could have been a fly on the wall whenever Byron let loose one of those glorious aphorisms that sealed his entrance into the hall of “Truly Spectacular One Liners,” if only to see and understand how it was that Rodney Dangerfield sealed his membership before the poet. (Then again, when you’ve starred in Caddyshack, your “Immortality card” is pretty much secure, unless you’re that blond kid who was the protagonist, and does anybody have any clue what happened to that guy?) Continue reading “Dear Mr. Southey, Jump in a Lake: Byron and Epic Humor”
It’s probably not a good first impression upon my new reader to admit that I did not actually re-read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner before I began this first post. I promise it was not out of apathy or laziness. You see, I’ve read the Mariner’s Tale at least ten times in my life, at least four times for school, the other times because my
teachers had instilled in me the beauty and power found within this strange and wonderful poem. This confidence in the material, really my own working knowledge of the poem, allows me to focus instead upon a work of art that has played a significant role in my appreciation of the work. Continue reading “Of Images, Sublime, and the Necessity of Keeping Crossbows Off Ships”