Sunday, August 16, 2009

Week 01, Course Introduction

Welcome to E212, British Literature since 1760

Fall 2009 at California State University, Fullerton

This blog will offer posts on all of the authors on our syllabus. I will post two kinds of notes: general and page-by-page. Both kinds are optional reading, but I encourage you to read the entries as your time permits. While they are not exactly the same as what I may choose to say during class sessions (i.e. these are not usually exact copies of my lecture notes), they should prove helpful in your engagement with the authors and in arriving at paper topics and studying for the exam.

A dedicated menu at my Wiki site contains the necessary information for students enrolled in this course; when the semester has ended, this blog will remain online, and a copy of the syllabus will remain in the Archive menu.

Required Texts

Abrams, M. H. et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vols. DEF. 8th. ed. New York: Norton, 2006. Package 2 ISBN 0-393-92834-9.

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Eds. Deidre Shauna Lynch and James Kinsley. 2nd. Edition. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. ISBN 0-192-80263-1.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Penguin, 2003. ISBN 0-142-43734-4.

Week 15, James Joyce

A Brief Introduction to Modernism.

Modernist authors are responding to the shock of the new—some embrace it or at least see it as inevitable and therefore a situation with which we must come to terms, while others are rather Carlylean in trying to fashion a “useable past” in spite of the odds against doing that. What we mean by modernism depends on geography—Continental movements like surrealism and Dadaism and, in a different way, futurism, have a different flavor, and a different attitude towards past history, politics, and culture than do “Anglo-American” modernists like Joyce, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, William Carlos Williams, D. H. Lawrence, or Virginia Woolf. It’s as if the Dadaists want to throw away the past and really make a fresh start, as the modernist catchphrase has it: “make it new.” And Marinetti’s futurists embrace the machine age and take it for a new model of humanity, no regrets. Others would perhaps like to do that, but aren’t at all sure it’s possible, if that phrase is taken to mean, “forget everything and start over.” Eliot, Pound, and Joyce in particular are constantly taking the ruins of past history and culture and making new things—new forms for art, new ways to think about history, politics, and the individual’s relation to these realms.

But what I called “the crisis of authority” in referring to romanticism still applies—maybe what people mean by modernism is just that the sense of living in unprecedented times when everyone is tied to the railroad tracks while Carlyle’s vast, conductorless Steam Engine Universe barrels onward. It would be fair to say that the romantics and Victorians often speak apocalyptically enough about this sense of “newness” and “speed,” but Modernism has the memory of World War I, at least after the ‘10’s, standing at the gates like Michael guarding the lost paradise of utopian ideals. You can’t go back to Kansas anymore, if you ever could. Worse yet, now you can’t even think you can go back to paradise, at least if you want anybody to take you seriously.

The art of the period from 1910 or so to at least the 1930’s shows a sense of the human subject’s and the world’s bewildering complexity, with part of that history consisting in previous attempts to make sense of it all, whether in art, philosophy, or religion.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The earlier, fragmentary version of this novel was entitled Stephen Hero, so if Stephen is a Modernist hero, what can we say about that kind of animal? If anything describes Stephen’s progress towards artisthood, it is the feeling of being different and yet trapped by old cultural scripts or stories, old personal memories, conventional images, words, human ties, the cynicism and stupidity of others. Stephen keeps trying to forge sense and order from chaos, keeps trying to separate himself from his relatives—especially his mother and father—and his surroundings so he can strike out on his own as a true original “author” with his own ideas and an unfettered future. But that turns out to be rather difficult—his youth is a pretty good figure for a lot of modernistic art: magisterial in its pretensions to aloof autonomy, yet constantly forced to generate that same autonomy through recognition of the things that get in the way—little things like history, social demands and conventions, past art, religion, your family and nation and race, and even your personal experiences and characteristics. For Stephen, the way forwards seems to lie through all these things. If you want to see him as a hero, part of the heroism would consist in the willingness to confront the obstacles in his way, realizing that he will probably not be able to do away with them or get entirely free of them, that they have largely determined his path in the first place.

Look at the way Stephen’s own words inflect the imperative to “make it new”: he says that he will go forth and, having experienced the same things others have experienced many times, forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race. None of this goes towards the assertion of some “romantic” integral identity: Stephen’s responses and experiences are not original, any more than utterance of words making up your particular language system makes you original and unique. The Blakean rhetoric about imaginative creation suggests the “forging” of an identity (and note the connotations of “forge” here) and a new kind of art, but the end-product is something more porous and harder to pin down than iron or steel. Stephen’s language has a romantic, youthful exuberance about it, and it’s hard to see how Joyce could have sustained that fiery enthusiasm—he is after all writing about a fictionalized, immature “past self.” Stephen’s attempt involves deforming and rendering fluid all his past experiences and understandings so that he as an “artificer” can create something new. That isn’t the same thing as simply leaving everything behind and making a fresh start.

So to leave things at Stephen’s “I’m going to be my own father and maker” level would be too easy. Critics often say that Modernism shows a profoundly “subjective” turn in response to the mechanization and rationalization inherent in modernity itself. That’s probably true, but the kind of subjectivity posited is by no means in opposition to the forces against which it is posited. Modernism isn’t a “rage against the machine,” either in terms of ideas or in terms of literary form. Pater gave the cue as early as 1867—he says the aim of life and of our interaction with art is “the fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness.” Intensity, speed, complexity—we need to be able to embrace these factors in life and derive our satisfaction or sense of meaning from them, gathering, as Baudelaire puts it around the same time, “the sense of permanence from the evanescent”—the beautiful face or object glimpsed momentarily in the faceless crowd, in the ephemeral productions of fashion, etc. (See The Painter of Modern Life.)

The point is, becoming an artificer or artist is a complex process, and in fact only someone who experiences deeply the play of the conventional and anachronistic within himself has any chance of getting there, whatever scars or limitations result from the process.

Stephen’s consciousness is formed by, subjected to, powerful conventions in all areas of life. What the Ikea people treat light-heartedly (the ability to manipulate emotions—being sad about “ze old lamp” because cleverly combined film-noire images and stock narrative force us to anthropomorphize the lamp and treat it as if it had feelings), poor childish and then adolescent Stephen Dedalus suffers with all the agony of a martyr being gnawed at by hungry lions.
His early sexuality, for instance, is informed by Jesuit teachings about the body’s fallen condition—so when he begins to think about women, spectral Superego Jesuit Fathers take him by the collar and force him to interpret it all as a surefire ticket to hell, where, as we know, the very walls are four thousand mils thick and the fire is expressly designed by God, the great artificer, to punish sinners. The Director’s sermon on the physical and spiritual pains of hell is an Ikean tear-jerker, it’s an Ignatian “fear-jerker.” Read the Spiritual Exercises, and you’ll see that Ignatius counsels meditation on these very things. Joyce is superb as a stylist—in Ulysses, he makes fun of just about every C19 literary style. There’s even a parody of Carlyle in the book. Here we can see him not so much paring his nails, but snickering (nervously?) at Stephen’s jejune and entirely predictable response to an entirely predictable sermon by an utterly predictable Jesuit Father.

To what extent does this color our understanding of the amount of originality that can come from experiencing the same things others have experienced, as the novel’s final words claim? Joyce is a good example of the meta-contextuality of much modernist art: we should remember that the modernist Joyce is out there somewhere “paring his nails” while all this happens to his young modernist hero. So to what extent does Joyce snicker at Stephen, to what extent does he see himself in the at times callow, brittle intellectual lad whose soul is riven by powerful, guilt-inducing erotic impulses? Joyce is somewhat like Stephen, but he is not Stephen—he’s implicated in Stephen’s limitations, and knows it….

Well, this fear leaves its mark even though Stephen abruptly rejects the narrative of sin along with the call to the priesthood, with all its suspiciously temporal powers. Stephen seems to be unwilling just to find himself a nice girl like Emma and get married—he rejects the pull of conventional love and ordinary fatherhood in order to go off and become an artist. There are babies, and there is art: the two stand for different and perhaps permanently separated orders of reality. Art and the world—are they in fact commensurate? How can we know? A good modernist question since they’re always insisting that they can create new worlds with their words and other artistic media.

His relations with his father are ambivalent in an almost Freudian way—Simon Dedalus has never really grown up. He’s a gentleman, but not far beneath the polite veneer is a squirming bag of appetites. Simon isn’t as grown up as he makes himself out to be with his old stories and social pretensions. He’s something of a failure, really, and yet he only hopes Stephen is “half as good a man as he is.” Well, isn’t that how most young men see their fathers—as a potential threat to their own sense of independence and masculinity? There’s some competition here—the father resents the son’s intellect, and the son resents the father’s prior achievement of manhood and his unspoken setting forth of a model Stephen must follow. Part of that model is Simon’s Irish nationalism, pro-Fenianism, and so forth. This is something Stephen desperately wants to avoid: he doesn’t want to become yet another ordinary Irishman whose sense of honor binds him to the struggle for national independence from the English. Stephen sees that as a loser’s game, a millstone around his neck—yet he also feels guilty about his need to leave Ireland behind, as you can tell from the bitterness of his pronouncements on Ireland.

In the end, one can’t simple reject one’s personal past or the broader cultural past, it seems. Modernists like Joyce create something like montage—the Daedalus legend would be a good example because Joyce has gone back to a classical legend, ripped it from its original temporal setting (if there are such) and its context, in order to make it function in new ways, to fashion something new and defiant, forwards-looking.

Being different entails alienation, separation from one’s fellows. This is largely true of Anglo-American modernist literature: it seems mandarin, unapproachable, brittle, yet says in so many words that it is of our eternal salvation to understand it. You must come to these works and humble yourself before them—get out your dictionary, look up that reference about Parnell and Kitty O’Shea or Bishop so-and-so. They don’t accommodate you; you accommodate them. That’s probably healthy, but it’s a difficult claim to make about the relationship between art and life.

Week 13, WWI Authors, W. B. Yeats

Notes on Voices of WWI

On World War I poetry generally, see Paul Fussel’s book ‘‘The Great War and Modern Memory.’’ Introduction—why WWI poets as modernists? Well, they write of ghastly contexts that outside audiences can’t or won’t understand. So the WWI poets adopt a defiant stance, trying both to remain true to their experience and insight while at the same time realizing that experience is already subject to discursive construction and ideology. Simply conveying “experience” is not simple. Unpleasant reality doesn’t necessarily sell, especially if it runs counter to people’s strong need to see anything but “the way it really is.”

The WWI poets found themselves stripped of the old illusions about war and about civilization as a necessary and inevitable movement from the low to the high, the barbaric to the sophisticated.

It isn’t easy to see how we can “let the ape and tiger die” when we—people from the same European background—are stabbing and gassing one another by the millions. So the WWI authors sometimes alienate their audiences, defy them. A great burden is on the reader, as in much modern art. Then, too, WWI authors find that they themselves must deploy the metaphor and myth of older times to describe present horrors, knowing the risk of complicity they run. One cannot simply leave the linguistic and cultural past behind, and yet one cannot simply accept it, either. They want to validate their intense individual experience, claim poetic authority on that basis, but the experiences themselves don’t necessarily allow them to offer up a usable past or present, an intelligible pattern to live by.

Siegfried Sassoon


Eerie changes in perspective—disorientation, deprivation, vague shapes and cracked mirrors: a world Sassoon struggles to represent. The speaker strives to keep moving forwards, up, out, anywhere. All is ghostly, like the dead solider, humanity can’t “keep up,” can’t adapt. Evolution doesn’t make us passionless moles in a few years. Sassoon deals with the increasing, and already deep, disjunction between military technology and strategy (mass movement, mechanized war, with consequent death of the heroic ideals of war) and the human psyche and body. The Allies won, but at great cost and without assurance that anything would change in future. A peaceful order did not emerge from this first world conflagration, and in fact perhaps even that title is misleading, since the Napoleonic Wars were similarly grand in scope.

Another problem comes with trench stalemate: this introduces a need to ideologize and aestheticize violence. The military must lie to people, heroize a struggle that actual participants see as nothing but inane butchery. Glorifying wartime violence makes us forget that it amounts to a collective human failure. After all, was war ever purely heroic? Many vets point out that jingoism is a mistake—see, for example, Studs Terkel’s ‘‘The Good War’’ or Paul Fussell’s ‘‘The Great War and Modern Memory.” The latter (himself a veteran of WWII) says the problem isn’t that we can’t describe wartime violence at all; it’s that people don’t want to hear it as it is. Voltaire’s quotation comes to mind: it goes something like, “Murder is always severely punished—unless it is committed in vast numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

“The General”

The brass and the enlisted men don’t operate at the same level; bureaucracy seeps in. Patton is good example from WWII: he supposedly wanted to relive Hannibal ’s strategy in crossing the Alps , at considerable cost to the grunts on the ground. Alexander and Caesar were in the fight with the soldiers (even if their doubles rode about attracting attention away from them); war was not so technologized then.

“Glory of Women”

Gendered perceptions are at play here. Sassoon’s speaker is bitter at Victorian “Angels of the Hearth.” Gender construction correlates with war ideology, and there’s a feminine jingoism to go along with machismo on the homefront. Sassoon brings up the threat of emasculation—something ignored by both feminine and masculine rhetoric about war.

“Everyone Sang”

This poem is about the Armistice, but almost has the flavor of a fictional event, after all that’s happened, and given Sassoon’s attitude about war generally. The poem seems to describe a moment of spiritual epiphany collectively accomplished. But does the speaker imagine that he shouldn’t overplay the optimistic narrative here?

“Menin Gate”

Words here function as “forgetting” devices. As Nietzsche says, much of civilization thrives on cruel forgetting. Sassoon’s speaker condemns memorialization. At Menin Gate the problem seems to be civilian willingness to reduce everything to a simple lesson. The names have been lifted from one institutional moment (birth) to another (death in war), effacing the humanity of the dead. We have gone from baptism, the giving of identity, to a simultaneous transformation and stripping of that rooted human identity, a turning of it into martial shadow for propaganda.


Who are “they”? Ideologues treat soldiers en masse, but people experience war as individuals. They are dutiful and follow conventions, but are also scared, angry, confused, horrified, bored, intensely alive. See Tim O’Brien’s ‘‘The Things They Carried,” which explores this issue about individual perception and experience. Isn’t “experience” already a reflection and subject to reconstruction, falsification, etc? Experience is not a real-time or given event. We can’t know its significance real-time; it is discursive, ‘‘ex post facto.’’

War poems question definitions as well as the relation between individual and conventions or types. Aristotle defined courage as a mean between recklessness and cowardice. Many WWI vets thought their losses pointless. But bravery is no less worthy when based on adherence to conventional notions of the “war hero.” One can inhabit roles genuinely. (A modern journalist says that military bravado is a mask—yes, but there’s truth in masks, as Wilde says.) That’s why Sassoon and Owen can expose the absurdity of militarism while not putting down the common soldier, who has little choice but to bear up.


Sassoon points out here the mind-over-body assumptions made during war, the ideological “aestheticization” and spiritualization of violence.

Notes on Wilfred Owen

“Apologia Pro Poemate Meo”

War forges another language, another kind of experience—at least in part. The poet’s words can’t, or won’t, fully translate that experience. The risk Owen explores here is that war poetry is solipsistic, bound to mislead, but also that those who hear his insights are not worthy of them: the poet wants to be a prophet and sage, a diviner of sublimity and ultimate meanings. Owen’s poem may remind us that the WWI poet feels kindred anxiety to what the romantics felt for the burden they placed upon language as a conveyer of divine inspiration, an asserter of human community. Here we are dealing with an awful kind of experience that may not be intelligible to anyone but the person who experiences it. Owen separates his speaker from the civilian audience, and claims that he at least has drawn beauty from battlefield experiences and relationships. But the final stanza’s question has to do with whether or not his transcendental rhetoric—“I saw God through mud”—is as satisfying to him as others might think. With what insight has he emerged from hell, Dante-like? The poet’s lived experience must be conveyed in an almost private language—the aesthetic terms have been transformed and revalued by the experience itself, and this transformation can’t be passed on to us.


Similar to Sassoon’s “Rear-Guard.” Brute labor, by a process of forgetting, seems magically to generate a finely lit, civilized world. And that fine world has long been our dream: to rise from our materiality, letting “the ape and tiger in us die.” But somebody has to do the dirty work—coal-mining, war, etc.

“Dulce et Decorum Est”

This poem seems straightforward enough; but let’s ask here how directly this poem conveys experience. It’s a nightmare vision even at the most direct level—he sees the “drowning” man through a glass darkly—his gas mask’s glass, that is. And then he relives this dim vision in his dreams again and again. This is a decidedly anti-heroic poem. It is one of Owen’s modes to convey grim battle realities in the direct language of disease and disfigurement. Here he resents most of all the civilians’ tidy and rhetorical way of describing such experiences, as we may gather from the Horatian line “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori….” (“Sweet and right it is to die for one’s country.”)

“Strange Meeting”

It’s been said that Owen sometimes clings to the beautification of war. I hardly think so—he’s struggling with a problem I’ve already described: namely, we cannot simply dismiss all previous notions. War may “strip away the film of familiarity” in a shocking manner, but we must cover the abyss with language we know to be inadequate. That’s part of being human. That we know we engage in illusion-making doesn’t mean we can stop doing so altogether. So Owen is wrestling with the difficult relationship between his poetic language—eloquent stuff, not the sometimes strident tones of Siegfried Sassoon—and his raw experience.

What is he doing to that experience in trying to convey it, as of course he must? So here he invents a dream like the reality of war, lending the former equal status for the time being. And he forces himself to confront the man he has killed, not accepting the obvious excuse that he has been commanded to kill. After all, it is wartime. And the dead German speaks to him—what is Owen accomplishing here? Is his language expiatory? Cathartic? Can we guess the speaker’s attitude towards these questions? All language falsifies what it describes, but how, if at all, may we falsify in good faith? Myth, aesthetic dreams, even cast as confrontations, may deepen the speaker’s complicity in the act he has already committed. Owen won’t excuse his own poetry, won’t take flight in gritty realism or shrill declamation, a refusal I find decent in him.

Notes on William Butler Yeats


Yeats was a poet of many phases, not as clearly marked as critics imply: romanticism and symbolism, Irish politics and folklore, aristocratic values, Modernist stylistic compression and an interest in poetic texts as containing entire symbolic systems. But he never left behind his early phases even after moving on from them. Yeats was always concerned with the power of art in relation to other areas of life, with poetry’s status as expression, with its approximation to religion and the stability and ultimate insight religions offer. His poetry becomes more and more complex in its investigation of all these matters. A Vision is his prose attempt to create, in the manner of Blake and Swedenborg, an integral system, a mystic yet accurate way of dealing with change in individual identity, the collective unconscious, and world history. Whether all his talk of “gyres,” “will/body of fate,” “creative mind / mask,” and so forth makes a theosophic system is beside the point: the whole affair is a vehicle for his poetry. His complex mature period blends with the Anglo-American Modernism of Eliot and Pound, among others. Take the Symbolist insistence that art constitutes a higher reality all its own, add the allusiveness and integrative power of myth, the spiritual imperatives of mysticism, a paradoxical yet genuine engagement with politics, and a willingness to question his broadest claims for poetry’s truth-status and relevance—and you get Yeats the High Modernist. There is a certain aloofness in Yeats’ manner, an aristocratic contempt for those who want nothing but pleasure from art, as if, to borrow from Bentham, pushpin were as good as poetry. Like most Modernists, Yeats despises middle-class materialism, preferring the genuineness of the poor and the nobility alike. This carries forth a long romantic and Victorian tradition—recall Carlyle’s thundering at “Bobuses” who think of nothing but upward mobility and their stomachs.

But then, the argument over whether art should simply please us or improve us into the bargain is an ancient one; most critics and artists, even the most defiantly aloof among them, have implied that it should be a force both for social cohesion and for spiritual realization and transcendence. The Russian Formalists’ watchword “make it new” isn’t so new, and Modernists believe that art is a powerful shaping force over the spirit and intellect, even if they don’t trust themselves entirely when they say such things. The notion that Modernism doesn’t trust itself calls for an explanation: Yeats, with his occult and elitist tendencies, knows the risk he runs of his art collapsing into aestheticism or romantic solipsism. He’s fashioning a holy book out of his own semi-private symbolic language, a Book that promises special insight to the initiated. Even his use of the past’s myths and history throws down the interpretive gauntlet to us as readers—Yeats is a difficult poet who demands that we turn away from ordinary notions, step out of our individual selves, and understand him on his own terms. The self and the ordinary are cast as barriers to understanding and connection with others.

Yeats’ hero Blake wrote about religion’s tendency to become the province of an evil priesthood, a cynical hieratic class that feeds on the mysteries it propagates and guards. Mystery at its best—even the kind of manufactured mystery we see in the Victorian sages—can flow from genuine wonder at the complexity of humanity and the cosmos; but it can also take its origin from fear, ignorance, and misinterpretation, with consequent need for priestly elites. Modernist myth-making could easily amount to ideology in the service of somebody’s politics.

Anglo-American Modernists seem to know this, and yet they find it necessary to offer us a religion of art. Yeats is a man of dilemmas—he’s all for universal myths, yet remains an Irish nationalist; he’s deeply personal and subjective, yet breaks down the barriers of selfhood. And above all, the phrase applied to Tennyson in the nineteenth century—“Lord of Language”—is just as appropriate to Yeats among his twentieth-century peers.

Lake Isle of Innisfree”

An early poem, symbolist. The speaker will remove himself from the everyday world and hear what the “deep heart’s core” has to say; this alternative reality will have an order and a peace all its own. The poem has the force of a decision: “I will go to the place that’s calling to me.” He hasn’t done it yet, and the chant itself is part of the process whereby he will convince himself to go. There’s some genuine pastoral imagery, a touch of romanticism’s descriptions of beautiful things in nature. Innisfree is symbolic—it is at least as much a state of mind as a real place, perhaps more so. The poem speaks the reality that calls the poet forth, so language participates in the making of something real, whether a state of mind or an actual place.

“Easter 1916”

Yeats here treats an act of Irish nationalism and martyrdom as a work of art, something that transfigures even those participants he didn’t get along with. But in the final stanza, doesn’t Yeats also bring up the dangers of nationalism? See his line, “Too long a sacrifice…” Nationalism is a temporary tactic; Yeats never supported violent revolution, and shows a preference for art and myth as shaping and continuity-providing influences in collective life.

“The Second Coming”

The Russian Revolution occurred in 1917; a new world is being born, and it seems neither rational nor predictable. The Sphinx Riddle, at its core, concerns human nature, and the Oedipus myth turns on a series of outrages against a civic order taken as natural or in alliance with nature. Oedipus commits the scandal of incest (incest is both a universal taboo and yet a local violation, so it is scandalously natural and cultural—see Claude Lévi-Strauss). Will this new world be like the one ruled by Shelley’s cruel Pharaoh Ozymandias, whose image remains to glare at us as a recurring possibility even though the artist mocked him? An Egyptian tyranny? Yeats is drawing upon his own and on the collective European symbolic system to describe the birth throes of a new age. In uttering his prophecy, he rejects optimistic C19 narratives about progress and the upward march of the spirit. Change is inevitable, but not necessarily change for the better. The “rough beast” stalks obscenely into the world, its crude sexuality reminding us that we haven’t left behind the worst in ourselves or in history. History has been called “the pain of our ancestors,” and here is some new monstrosity shaping up. Yeats’ imagery comes from ancient myth and religion; history is disjunctive. It proceeds by terrible leaps and thunderclaps. So we need the artist as a wielder of myths new and old to make the world intelligible again, to whatever degree possible. This is a claim that High Modernists have adapted from romantic poet-prophets like Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake.

What is intelligible may not comfort us, but we are responsible for confronting it in any case. Yeats had read Nietzsche on eternal recurrence—can one face all but unbearable realizations, yet remain willing to do it all again? Here we are confronted with our own recurrent power to tyrannize, setting up fear and dread abstraction as our gods (recall Blake’s “hapless soldier’s sigh” that “runs in blood down palace walls” in the poem “ London ”). And his ideas resemble Jung’s notion that there’s a collective unconscious—Jung was going beyond Freud’s psychology, which was centered on the bourgeois individual. Yeats’ accomplishment is to wield Jung-like collective myths with the fiery individualism of Blake: “I must create my own system or be enslaved by another’s!” Not that his is a narrowly self-based poetics; Yeats isn’t a romantic creator pure and simple—notice that he often writes as if he were being dictated to by a medium, an automatic writing that wells up from the collective unconscious, an archetypal image bank that comes from the Spiritus Mundi. Neither does he try to play the stage father with the meaning of his poems—he respects their status as words to be interpreted. His emphasis on the subjective side of existence is characteristically Modernist: they privilege impressions, subjective responses.

“Sailing to

How to cross over into what lasts? Yeats’ speaker explains why he has come to Byzantium , abandoning the boundaries of his ego and traveling to a region where he hopes to metamorphose into an eternal life in artistic form. This is truly a religion of art. Yeats refashions ancient symbols, grants us a vision of the Holy City , which is not Jerusalem in this poem but rather a decadent-phase Byzantium , the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire . The poem alludes to the poetic process itself, the magical hammering out of a world of eternal aesthetic artifacts. Like a Byzantine goldsmith’s handiwork, the poet’s sacred chant and symbolic system spanning many texts would fashion this world by what Shelley calls “the incantation of this verse.” But I’m not sure such claims for an eternal unchanging state of things suits Yeats’ theosophy in A Vision, as it emerges later. It seems to me that everything is dynamic in that explanation—Yeats, after all, borrows from the Pre-Socratics who are always talking about change as the only constant.
Stanza One: A personal poem about growing old and facing up to what one’s art has meant to oneself. The claim is that art transcends the “mire” of the material realm and human desire without simply rejecting them. Well, the first stanza rules out remaining in the world of natural generation, void of subjectivity. This kind of harmony and music don’t satisfy the self-conscious speaker about to pass on. Nature is “careful of the type, careless of the individual life,” as Tennyson writes in In Memoriam A.H.H.

Stanza Two: Notice the incantatory power here, the ordering power of rhythm: song of a different sort overcomes the mortal decay implied by first stanza. Byzantium is in its decadent phase, a self-referential city wrapped up in artistic processiveness, in aestheticism. But Yeats is drawn to this beautiful solipsism, a place for intense concentration on what is eternal. This is not irresponsibility, I believe, but honesty—the speaker is old. Therefore, not having found his answer in physical nature, he has crossed waters, symbolizing creative power and life, and has come to this holy city. An old man must escape his dying self and enter into a different creative process—art.

Stanza Three: This stanza shows a turning away from the body and towards the forms of the sages on the Ravenna frieze mentioned in the Norton Anthology note. He prays to the sages, who have themselves been transformed into a work of art. He wants to be in the phase of existence they have reached, not remain where he is. His prayer is itself an outflowing of the phase in which he now finds himself.

Stanza Four: Once he has made the transition to a new world free of dying nature and the body, the artist will be wrought into his own artifice and become eternal. This poem confronts mortality, but not by reaffirming selfhood—instead, he confronts it on the grounds of his symbols and artifice, measuring his own endurance by their lasting power. A wish to merge with them. But will that be granted?

“Leda and the Swan”

Here the speaker handles poetic insight into history as a violent and dangerous gift. The rape of Leda engendered Helen, the Trojan War, and European history. What price insight? Many of the ancient prophets—Tiresias, Cassandra, Orpheus, gained their powers as compensation for terrible loss, or suffered for what they had been granted. Poetry is not merely pretty words. It is allied with prophecy and divination, and has been at the heart of civilization as a human task and process. The Modernists often describe poetry as an inseminative, male power. But is Zeus the only poet here, or is Leda also inspired? Does myth or poetic insight allow us to control such a process, or only describe it and face up to it spiritually? Coming to terms with the violent but necessary transitions from one epoch to the next seems to be the current poem’s task. This demands that we not dismiss the violent past, but try to make our knowledge of it worth something in the present—if that’s possible. Nietzsche says in “Homer’s Contest” that if we understood the Greeks “in Greek,” we would shudder—certainly Yeats’ choice of myths here doesn’t place him among the calm C19 Hellenizers. He says that the politics went out of the poem when he began to write it, but it still asks about the relationship between art and a given political order, indeed any political order. To what extent is poetic insight and language complicit in the violent events and transitions it presents? Leda and other myths, after all, were how the Greeks understood their own history and culture—at least early in their history, until C6-5 BCE, they lived within the framework of their myths. It is only with the pre-Socratic that they begin trying to explain natural phenomena in scientific terms. Different cultures will read the same myth differently; the myths recur but are subject to reinterpretation.

“Among School Children”

Here “the child is father of the man,” as Wordsworth wrote. But Yeats may not draw as much consolation as Wordsworth did in his “Immortality Ode.” The romantic poem cheered up the speaker, but Yeats’ speaker tries to reassure children that he’s not such a frightening schoolmaster or old scarecrow. His smile is a mask, like a Gno-mask, a conventional role. Hollow, he wants to fulfill his public office, which entails one generation’s responsibility towards another.

Stanza 5: Refers to the ancient myth of metempsychosis, as in Wordsworth’s line “our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.” See also Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus. Is the pain worth it?

Stanza 6: What is real? Philosophers sought abstract wisdom, and can’t tell. They propagate Bacon’s “Idols of the Theater”—the strange errors that come with the territory of philosophers bent upon explaining the world with the help of huge thought-systems. Yeats’ autobiography A Vision shows his dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy. Much philosophy is an attempt to capture the relationship between self and world, to build up a vast framework for arriving at what is ultimately intelligible and enduring. It comes to seem a vain and self-isolating endeavor. I think Yeats is making the traditional complaint that philosophical explanations don’t move us, don’t make us able to act in the world and bear up under its stresses as they occur.

Stanza 7: Here a different relationship between thought and object emerges: images that move us.

Stanza 8: The reference to the chestnut tree is pure romantic organic metaphor—you can’t dissect a living thing without killing it. The whole is more than the sum of the parts, and you can’t divide up a person easily into the Seven Ages of Man. Neither can we “know the dancer from the dance.” This is a complex metaphor—the point in reference to Yeats’ theories in A Vision that states of mind, acts of will, etc., are not separable from the particular phase in which a person currently is. So the Yeats-like speaker is an older man, still somewhat wrapped up in his own subjectivity. He does not see the huge and luminous world of the more objective-phase child. So his poem is a product of where he is in terms of spiritual phase. His final words may seem like romantic poetry in the optative mode, as in “if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” But the trouble is that he isn’t dancing, that he cannot reenter the thoughts and dreams of childhood. He can only reflect upon his past, but the activity is not necessarily a comfort or a useful thing to him—he’s trying to come full circle, reflect back on his childhood and draw sustenance for his old age, wrap his mind around his life as a whole. But that kind of reflection is in itself Hamlet-like, and leads to further alienation, not to recuperation of the past. And so he remains distant from the children even in the midst of them.


What’s happening in Byzantium once the pilgrim arrives? We find spiritual transcendence being wrought from matter, from Roman “mire” and centuries of more vital history. Art and death have come together productively. Byzantium , in Yeats’ description, has become a place of transcendence, not the practical, political world of the Roman Empire .

Stanza 1: What has been made by human hands withdraws, disdains its makers and their mixture of mud and spirit. The domes and cathedrals are pure, illumined with celestial, not human, light.

Stanza 2: Mummy-cloth… is the winding path death? Is that the way out of mire?

Final Stanzas: Yeats was never satisfied with nature as an answer to the problems of self-conscious humans. You can see from “The Wilde Swans of Coole” that he aspires to a higher vision than nature could ever afford us. So here we find images begetting images, generating an alternative world, or a state that differs greatly from the unhappy one in which the speaker apparently finds himself.

Week 12, Oscar Wilde

Notes on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest

Introduction to the Main Types of Comedy

Old Comedy:
This is satirical comedy that “ridicules political policies or philosophical doctrines, or else attacks deviations from the social order by making ridiculous the violators of its standards of morals or manners” (Abrams 29). The Greek playwright Aristophanes (circa 456-386 BCE) is the first great satiric comedian. If you’ve ever read or seen a comedy by Aristophanes (The Clouds, Lysistrata, The Birds, etc.), you know that it’s rough stuff—mainly topical satire about famous politicians and philosophers. The Clouds, for example, is about Socrates as proprietor of the Thinkery or Think-Shop, where all sorts of ridiculously improbable notions are propagated for the benefit of fools. Outrageous, bawdy, bubbly humor is the essence of such plays, and they can pack a genuine political wallop as well: Lysistrata sets forth a plot in which Greek women withhold sexual favors from men until they agree to put an end to the ruinous Peloponnesian War. On the whole, characters are ridiculous in Old Comedy—a main subject is the perennial nature of human folly, selfishness, and vice. Among the Elizabethans Ben Jonson is perhaps the greatest comic satirist. In his Volpone, things end badly for the play’s main character Volpone (i.e. “the fox”), but the play as a whole is still comic because Jonson (after some initial identification) makes us despise Volpone, not sympathize with him. So the aim in satiric comedy is mockery of a given society or of those who break its rules.

New Comedy:
The Greek playwright Menander (circa 342-291 BCE), and his much later Roman followers Plautus (circa 254-184 BCE) and Terence (circa 190-158 BCE), offer a different brand of comic play that will later serve as the basis of Shakespeare’s comic plays and Restoration comedy of manners (Congreve’s The Way of the World, for example; Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Love’s Labour’s Lost also make fine comedy of manners). The emphasis in New Comedy is on domestic matters rather than broad political issues. Love, or at least sexual desire treated sympathetically, is central to the action, and there’s also some concern for the relationship between the older generation and the younger, particularly between a father and his son, as well as some interest in relations between people of different status, such as masters and their clever slaves. Still, there’s plenty of fun at the expense of fools, dupes, lovers too old for the person they desire, etc. As M. H. Abrams explains in his A Glossary of Literary Terms, 6 th edition, the Roman comedies “dealt with the vicissitudes of young lovers and included what became the stock types of much later comedy, such as the clever servant, old and stodgy parents, and the wealthy rival.” English comedies, by contrast, tend towards “the relations and intrigues of men and women living in a sophisticated upper-class society, relying for comic effect in large part on the wit and sparkle of the dialogue—often in the form of repartee, a witty conversational give-and-take which constitutes a kind of verbal fencing match—and to a lesser degree, on the ridiculous violations of social conventions and decorum by stupid characters such as would-be-wits, jealous husbands, and foppish dandies” (Abrams 29).

Some major authors of English comedy of manners are Congreve, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Arthur Pinero. New Comedy and its developments are seldom rigorous in their morals: the characters who win out tend—surprise!—to be the ones the playwright reckons the audience will like. Sympathy trumps propriety. The popularity of comic mix-ups and disguises suggests that identities can be swapped at will, and because considerations such as wealth and social status are so important in structuring others’ perceptions of a given character, the new identity will be accepted long enough to get the job done.

The modern situation comedy—Seinfeld would be a sophisticated example—is remarkably like New Comedy: a number of silly but mostly sympathetic characters get themselves into and out of preposterous scrapes from one episode to the next in a competitive world, and through it all they don’t change much. They get insulted, taken advantage of, take advantage of others (though not mean-spiritedly), fall in and out of love, misunderstand one another at every turn, get jobs and get fired from jobs, obtain pleasure and ease and then throw it all away on a whim or through error, and they’re ready for the next absurdity life brings. Comedy reminds us that we seldom learn as much as we should from our mistakes, but it also gives us credit for being optimists and opportunists in spite of the misfortunes life throws our way. There’s a bit of Bugs Bunny and the Roadrunner in many a comic character: that fur-bearing evildoer Wiley Coyote isn’t going to keep the “poor little Roadrunner” from its appointed rounds (BeepBeep!), nor is Elmer Fudd going to stop Bugs from doing whatever the wascally wabbit wants to do. In comedy, desire is subject to deferral and detour, but not to permanent frustration. The comic orientation towards time is a favorable one: time and chance (accident) are on our side, at least if we are amongst the likeable or generous. In comedy, life is rich and full of opportunities—la vita è bella, as the Italians say. This attitude contrasts markedly with that of tragedy, where the world is stark and unforgiving, and our attention is riveted upon the thoughts and actions of a superior character in confrontation with that stark world.

Structure. The general (Terentian) structure of New Comedy is as follows: A. First comes the protasis, in which the basic characters and situation are established. This stage corresponds roughly to the first act of a modern five-act play. B. Then comes the epitasis in which events and characters are interwoven and complicated. This stage corresponds roughly to the second and third acts of a five-act play. C. Next comes the catastasis, in which the plot reaches a false climax. For example, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio marries Kate towards the end of Act 3, but that important event hardly concludes the story: Kate must still be “tamed.” D. Last comes the real climax, the catastrophe, which in comedy turns out to be a happy ending, often a marriage or even a set of marriages.

A Note on Shakespearian Comedy.
According to Northrop Frye, the structure of Shakespearean comedy often involves the main characters leaving their corrupt city or realm and entering a magical “green world,” from whence they emerge renewed and ready to return to civilized life. As You Like It is a fine example since Rosalind, Orlando, and other characters betake themselves to the Forest of Arden. The Tempest offers a variation, with Prospero exiled from Milan and subsequently resident on a strange but wonderful island. In The Winter’s Tale, much of the action takes place in a pastoral setting where Leontes’ and Hermione’s daughter Perdita resides, while A Midsummer Night’s Dream, of course, offers a remarkable nature-kingdom ruled by Oberon and Titania. In tragedy, the protagonist’s aim is to gain perspective on the disaster that has occurred and what brought it on; as Northrop Frye would say, a tragedy is oriented towards death and draws its meaning from that event. But in comedy, whose initial aim is to amuse the audience with tribulations giving way to a happy ending, the deeper aim is broadly social and oriented toward the renewal of life over generations. The kingdom or other city space may at first be badly ruled or in turmoil for some reason—perhaps the values and institutions of the citizens and/or rulers are in need of some re-examination. What is the basis of those values and institutions—can people live comfortably or at all within them?

Next, the main characters most often leave the city setting (willingly or otherwise) and end up in the countryside. This pastoral setting is often an enchanted space that allows for the necessary reexamination of values and social roles. Magical transformations of characters occur; they are put in situations that could not occur in the city or the kingdom, and the forest or countryside’s magic opens up new possibilities to them. As Meyer Abrams writes in A Glossary of Literary Terms, 6 th edition (1993), in a romantic comedy, “the problems and injustices of the ordinary world are dissolved, enemies reconciled, and true lovers united” (29). After the necessary reappraisal and readjustment period has been completed, the main characters come together—the young by marriage, the foundational institution of the civil order and its only hope for regeneration. Finally, the characters return to the kingdom proper or are about to return when the play ends. The key to Shakespearean comic structure is political and social regeneration, continuity for the ruling order. The question to be explored is, “How does a given society preserve order and its values from one generation to the next?”

Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest

This play is a fine comedy of manners that borrows something from Shakespeare’s emphasis on the relationship between the town and country in that the play begins with the characters in the city, moves them toward the countryside to straighten out the mess they’ve got themselves into, and points them toward city life again by the play’s end. As usual in comedy, events turn upon the attempts of the play’s lovers (there are two main couples in this one) to get together and on the many obstacles they must first overcome. So the structure of Wilde’s play is traditional. As for the play’s subject matter and dialogue, they certainly meet Abrams’ criteria for comedies of manners: IBE takes for its most basic subject “the relations and intrigues of men and women living in a sophisticated upper-class society”—indeed, Lady Bracknell calls the late Victorian Era “an age of surfaces.” The dialogue also largely fits the bill: the play is full of “wit and sparkle,” and it has its fair share of what Abrams would call repartee: “a witty conversational give-and-take which constitutes a kind of verbal fencing match.” Many of the characters box their way through the play with quick linguistic jabs, some of them much like the kind of sharp, opportunistically intelligent remarks that made Wilde himself London’s social lion until his downfall in 1895.

Structurally, the play is traditional in yet another sense: it follows the basic Terentian drama: a) first comes the protasis, in which the basic characters and situation are established: in IBE, we meet Jack and Algernon, Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell. b) then comes the epitasis in which events and characters are interwoven and complicated: in IBE, the characters’ competing erotic and class interests involve them in a tangle of deceptions and schemes. c) next comes the catastasis, in which the plot reaches a false climax. In IBE, all seems to have been resolved amongst Jack and Gwendolen, Algernon and Cecily, but then Lady Bracknell arrives in the countryside and new difficulties arise. d) last comes the real climax, the catastrophe: in IBE, Jack discovers that he was always “Ernest/Earnest” after all, and the marriages may proceed.

Act One Synopsis:
Jack Worthing, a young Justice of the Peace in rural Woolton, is an upper-class character of no background. When he wants to go out on the town, he uses his alternate self, brother Ernest, as a dodge. Algernon and all the big-city folk, therefore, know him as Ernest Worthing. This Jack/Ernest is in love with the Honorable Gwendolen Fairfax, daughter of Lady Bracknell. Gwendolen, a perfect product of the best fashion magazines, is just as much in love with the name “Ernest” as Jack is with her. If Jack wants to embody the Victorian “age of ideals” for Gwendolen, however, he must overcome a few obstacles. Firstly, his name is not Ernest, at least so far as he knows—which isn’t much. His second problem in Act One is Lady Bracknell and her strict requirements for any man who will marry her daughter: Does he smoke? Is he sufficiently ignorant? Is he sufficiently rich? Does he have a townhouse in the fashionable quarter of London? These are formidable demands, but Jack meets them all; he smokes and is indeed ignorant and rich. As for the townhouse in the fashionable quarter, either the townhouse or the quarter, or both, can be altered to suit Lady Bracknell’s liking. In spite of all these qualifications, however, Jack suffers from one flaw that keeps him off Lady Bracknell’s list of eligible bachelors: he was discovered, and for all intents born, in an ordinary handbag, stashed in the cloakroom, Brighton railroad line. This is inexcusable. If Jack has no better origin than this, he had better go out and find one, says Lady Bracknell. Compared to this hostility, the mild razzing Jack undergoes from Algernon is pleasant chatter. Algernon has apparently found his friend’s cigarette case, inscribed with a message from Cecily Cardew to “Uncle Jack.” Jack tries to lie his way out of the embarrassing situation by evoking the picture of a nice plump aunt, but Algernon easily infers that Aunt Cecily is some attractive young woman in the countryside. In a sense, that is true—since Jack was discovered by Mr. Thomas Cardew, it was only proper that the old man should make him the guardian over his granddaughter’s morals. The need to escape from this heavy responsibility was instrumental in Jack’s invention of the great escape hatch, Ernest. The first act ends with Algernon scheming to visit the country address he has copied from the cigarette case.

Act Two Synopsis: The second act opens with Miss Prism instructing Cecily on sentimental novels (one of which, ominously, she mislaid a long time ago), German, Geography, and political economy. She also engages in flirtatious metaphor-slinging with Canon Chasuble. Cecily soon grows tired of her lessons, but the servant Merriman enters with notice of “Ernest’s” arrival. One might call Algernon the impostor responsible for this intrusion on Jack’s country retreat, but then, “Ernest” never existed in the first place. Whatever Algernon’s status, Cecily decides that in spite of his alleged wickedness, the man looks like any other of his class. Soon, Jack makes his entrance in deep mourning clothes, if not spirit, only to be confronted by the all-too-living Algernon/Ernest. Jack wants him to leave at once, but Algernon, who has taken a fancy to Cecily, has no intention of leaving soon. This intransigence is only confirmed when he finds out that unbeknownst to him, he and Cecily have been courting each other for some time: all the action has taken place in her diary. Cecily’s one stipulation for a husband is the same as Gwendolen’s—she will marry no one but an Ernest. As luck would have it, this talk of marriage is followed by the unexpected arrival of Gwendolen, and the fireworks begin. When Cecily declares that she plans to wed “Ernest” (Algernon), Gwendolen is infuriated—she mistakes this Ernest for her own, the man we know as Jack Worthing in the country, Ernest in town. When Jack returns and is cornered into admitting his real name, the mix-up is cleared, but now the two men have a problem: neither of them is named Ernest. Gwendolen and Cecily march off together in a huff. The only thing the men can do for the remainder of the act is struggle over muffins and rechristening rights. Algernon wins the muffin contest and refuses to leave.

Act Three Synopsis: Cecily and Gwendolen take Jack and Algernon’s muffin binge as a sign of repentance, and are willing to be reconciled to their prospective mates so long as they are suitably rechristened. Just when it looks as if everything will go swimmingly, Lady Bracknell bursts onto the scene with all the force of Queen Victoria and Mother Grundy combined. Upon hearing that her nephew Algernon wants to marry the unknown Cecily, Lady Bracknell puts her qualifications to the test. Even though satisfied that the girl’s social status is not so “mobile” as Jack’s Brighton line, she balks at Cecily’s “incident”-crowded life and is about to depart when the phrase “hundred and thirty thousand pounds in the funds” strikes her ears. That is a presentable sum in this “age of surfaces,” so Lady Bracknell bestows her blessing on the newly charming Cecily. Unfortunately for Lady Bracknell, however, Jack won’t allow his ward to marry Algernon unless he gets permission to marry Gwendolen. Jack explains that according to the terms of her grandfather’s will, Cecily will not come of legal age until she is thirty-five, but Lady Bracknell will make no concessions and seems prepared to wait seventeen years for such a profitable match. The Lady’s wrath is even visited upon Algernon, who is forbidden to get himself rechristened “Ernest.” Just when things have reached a standstill, in rushes Miss Prism, who is promptly recognized as the very nurse who lost an infant attached to Lord Bracknell’s house some twenty-eight years ago. “Prism! Where is that baby?” demands Lady Bracknell. Miss Prism’s answer is that she accidentally placed her three-volume novel in the perambulator meant to accommodate the baby, and the baby itself, logically enough, wound up in the handbag that should have been used to hold the manuscript. This gives Jack an idea; he hurries out and comes back in with the handbag, which Miss Prism identifies as the same one she lost at the railroad station all those years ago. She has missed it bitterly. Even more importantly, though, Miss Prism’s recognition of the handbag leads Jack to his true origin as the son of Lady Bracknell’s own sister, Mrs. Moncrieff. It turns out, then, that old Jack has had a younger brother all along: Algernon Moncrieff. Only the name Jack now stands in Jack’s way, but that is cleared up when the Army Lists reveal that General Moncrieff’s first name was Ernest. Jack was always Ernest after all, and now realizes “the vital Importance of Being Earnest.” Algernon will doubtless overcome Lady Bracknell’s thin scruples about rechristening and cash in on beautiful Cecily’s fortune.

Week 11, Browning, Hopkins, the Rossettis

General Notes on Gerard Manley Hopkins

In the anthology I used as a beginning student of Victorian literature (Victorian Poetry and Prose), Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling suggest that Hopkins is a late-romantic poet, a practitioner of the poetics of grand failure. They suggest that he regrets the loss of a strong Christian world view and that he is an isolated aesthete trying to reappropriate the ancient religion’s framework. But even in the so-called terrible sonnets, which, if I recall correctly, Bloom and Trilling describe as stormy Byronism, Hopkins is not necessarily a self-divided romantic. Instead, it might be better to see him as working through his isolation within the much larger theological framework available to him—he is dramatizing a spiritual problem, not complaining about it to himself. Ultimately, the differences between Hopkins and Keats or Byron or Wordsworth seem more important than the similarities.

As a nature poet with great regard for the particularity of things, Hopkins follows Keats to some extent, but the medieval author Duns Scotus provides Hopkins with the theological support for his interaction with nature. Humility in the presence of nature is important to Hopkins, but this humility is of a Christian sort and does not amount to Carlylean self-annihilation. Rather, this Christian poet aims to experience and to convey an experience of being as grounded in God. We can experience our existence in this manner when we observe the natural world, although that is only one way it can be experienced.

Hopkins may follow Keats and Tennyson, but he rejects sensuous simplicity and smooth rhetoric. His poetry is memorable but can be difficult going. It reflects a complexity of language and mental process chosen to honor the particularity of each natural thing and made appropriate to the difficulty of salvation. The act of seeing is redemptive, and redemption is not easy.

Hopkins’s journals show his concern to clarify and refine his impression-taking powers. “Cleansing the doors of perception” is a romantic formula that applies well to Hopkins—the world of objects is dynamic without being unstable, but Hopkins often dramatizes the way the human mind fails to appreciate nature’s energy. We simply do not see what is really there.

Hopkins tasks words with marking, catching, and celebrating the particularity of things, most especially the particularity of classes of things. He often speaks of nature in the plural—dappled things, brinded cows, dragonflies, and so forth. The goal is not to dominate natural things or annihilate them, not to assert our raw power over the creation. Doing that would be impious—the Bible explains that humanity long since tried to do it in the most disrespectful manner, with disastrous consequences, and we might infer the lesson that our failure to cherish the natural world is part of the pattern of our sinfulness. Hopkins apparently considers precise impressions of things respectful towards God; imprecision of speech testifies to the roughness of the eye that perceives. To see something correctly is at least partly redemptive—Hopkins does not aim to describe abstractions, and does not give us a vague sense of mystery—“a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused.” Rather, each thing, to borrow a phrase from Martin Heidegger, “stands into the lighting of Being.” It catches God’s energy as it goes about its business, a phenomenon Hopkins calls “selving.” The beauty of God exceeds change, but he has suited the human mind to the minute apprehension of particularities.

The Norton editors provide an excellent gloss on Hopkins’s terms inscape and instress:
Drawing on the theology of Duns Scotus, a medieval philosopher, he felt that everything in the universe was characterized by what he called inscape, the distinctive design that constitutes individual identity. This identity is not static but dynamic. Each being in the universe ‘selves,’ that is, enacts its identity. And the human being, the most highly selved, the most individually distinctive being in the universe, recognizes the inscape of other beings in an act that Hopkins calls instress, the apprehension of an object in an intense thrust of energy toward it that enables one to realize its specific distinctiveness. Ultimately, the instress of inscape leads one to Christ, for the individual identity of any object is the stamp of divine creation on it. In the act of instress, therefore, the human being becomes a celebrant of the divine, at once recognizing God’s creation and enacting his or her own God-given identity within it.
Hopkins’s terminology allows him to move beyond a romantic emphasis on the isolated individual. He is a Christian nature poet who turns Romantic particularity back towards God’s language, the “syllables” of God, to borrow a phrase from Coleridge. Since Hopkins is writing from a theological perspective, it helps to include the Catholic Catechism’s statement on humanity’s relationship with nature:
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part One Chapter 1/IV.40-43


40. Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so. We can name God only by taking creatures as our starting point, and in accordance with our limited human ways of knowing and thinking.

41. All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. The manifold perfections of creatures—their truth, their goodness, their beauty—all reflect the infinite perfection of God. Consequently we can name God by taking his creatures’ perfections as our starting point, “for from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.”

42. God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God—“the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable”—with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.

43. Admittedly, in speaking about God like this, our language is using human modes of expression; nevertheless it really does attain to God himself, though unable to express him in his infinite simplicity. Likewise, we must recall that “between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude”; and that “concerning God, we cannot grasp what he is, but only what he is not, and how other beings stand in relation to him.”
Hopkins’ favorable view of Duns Scotus is often mentioned, so I will include here a summation of that theologian’s differences with the even more influential Saint Thomas Aquinas. I draw from David Walhout’s fine essay “Scotism in the Poetry of Hopkins” (113-132 in Saving Beauty: Further Studies in Hopkins, edited by Michael E. Allsopp and David Anthony Downes. New York and London: Garland, 1994.) Walhout identifies nine areas in which Scotus differs substantially from Aquinian thought, but here are the ones that seem the most significant, along with my paraphrases of his explanations:

1. The priority of singulars as objects of knowledge (Thomism = universals, not singulars)

Scotus says that sensory experience gives us not simply raw data but “genuine objects of cognition.” Thomism says we do indeed begin with particulars, but we need to make abstractions or general concepts to think. We cannot grasp particulars directly as objects of understanding and knowing.

2. The priority of intuition in cognition (Thomism = abstraction, not intuition)

The second doctrine is that Scotus says we know singulars by intuition not abstraction. Knowing is not necessarily mediated through universals or concepts. First we know things by intuition and then we make abstractions and concepts, judge and reason about things.

3. The reality of the individual essence (haecceitas) (Thomism = general essence)

The third doctrine involves haecceitas, which refers to the idea that the individual essence is just as real as the generic essence in things. The individual essence is not one property among many in the object but rather the overall uniqueness or individuality of the thing.

6. The primacy of the will (Thomism = intellect as primary)

The primacy of the will is the sixth doctrine and it means that divine will is the supreme executive attribute in God, with reason knowing its prescriptions and being its repository of truth. The notion is that the will guides and reason assists—the same would be true for humans. Moreover, without the assistance of the will, the intellect cannot conceive the infinite. But we are made for the infinite, so the will expresses the whole man: first because it is free and secondly because its proper object is the infinite.

7. The unconditional freedom of the will (Thomism = qualified freedom)

The seventh doctrine concerns freedom of the will: St. Thomas says that when the highest good is presented clearly the will chooses and loves it necessarily. Scotus would deny this. See Hopkins’s letter to Robert Bridges of 4 January, 1883. He says that while the intellect may see necessity, the will remains free to acknowledge or apply a truth.

9. Incarnation as cosmological directing power (Thomism = … as a response to sin)

The ninth doctrine involves the incarnation of Christ. Scotus treats this cosmological doctrine as implying that Christ wasn’t just incarnated into a body but into the whole of the creation. Evidently God had meant to redeem the world even before the contingent historical event known as the Fall. For Hopkins this means there’s a “cosmic energy center” that activates other “centers of energy” impelling creatures to realize the individuality of their being.

To sum up this introduction to Hopkins as a nature poet, I should add that Hopkins’ nature poetry, in which his subjectivity is so finely attuned to the world’s particularities and so sensitive to beauty, is not so much idealist as realist—nature is there, and what the mind does is use its god-given powers to actively catch or instress the inscapes, the dynamic “thisness” of the natural world. There’s no need, in his view, to replace God or to say that the mind spins reality from itself. Hopkins’ patron saint Ignatius, the 16th-century Spanish founder of the Jesuit order or “Society of Jesus” (see his biography at, writes at the outset of his Spiritual Exercises,
Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.

And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.

From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.

For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.
By implication, nature is worthwhile so long as it is useful to the soul’s salvation and the greater glory of God, but otherwise it is to be dismissed. It is a means to an end, and one must dismiss it brusquely if some other means would serve the end better. This imperative is softened somewhat by Hopkins’ favorable reading of Duns Scotus, as discussed above, but the poet’s late work shows that it was not forgotten. And it is to that later work that we turn to conclude this introduction. Hopkins is among those Victorians (like John Henry Newman) who responded to Victorian doubt by affirming their belief in traditional Catholicism. Hopkins was subject to periods of deep depression and was most likely afflicted with the cyclical illness now called “manic depressive disorder” (see Kay Redfield Jamison’s book Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Free Press, 1996). As his depressive episodes worsened, Hopkins seems to have found that his first priority was no longer the bond with external nature but rather his own spiritual state, his inner being in its relation to God. There is no need to suppose that he felt any disappointment in the beauty of the natural world or even that he lost the ability to respond to it—though severe depression can surely have that “anhedonic” effect on a person. Neither need it be thought that Hopkins is in a state of despair that causes him to defy the universe in Byronic fashion.

Instead, in the dark depressive sonnets, what sounds to many modern readers like suicidal despair follows the well-scripted lines of St. John of the Cross’ “dark night of the soul” and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Christian meditative practice is quite familiar with depressive episodes, and knows how to embrace them and work through them. Christ’s life ends on the Cross, after all, with the scriptural echo from a Psalm of David, “why hast thou forsaken me?” One would have to presume that the expression was both genuinely human and at the same time an acting-out of human anguish for the edification of sinners who need a pattern to follow. Hopkins’ darkest poetry imitates this final utterance, at least to some extent. So it isn’t prideful isolation, mere hopelessness, or even doubt that we find in his poetry. Hopkins never seems to have doubted God’s existence or benevolence, as so many of his contemporaries did, and his career as a poet might be construed in strictly theological terms as his particular “way of the cross,” his imitatio Christi.

Notes on Hopkins’ Poems

“God’s Grandeur”

The poem’s first verse is perhaps the key to much of Hopkins’ nature poetry: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” This poem shows nature energized, crackling with directionality from God’s primal love, or what Dante calls “il primo amore.” Nature does not need the human mind to animate it. It is already charged like a battery, and Hopkins’ sonnet sets forth images of gathering force pulsing through the world, the Holy Spirit as creative power rising with the dawn. The problem is that individual human beings in their repetitive, self-isolating actions do not perceive nature’s variety and therefore fail to celebrate God. Human beings set up a dull, self-regarding rival order that contrasts with divine particularity, with the diversity and fullness of creation. In Hopkins, spiritual error and perceptual error are closely intertwined, as are their healthy opposite states.

“The Starlight Night”

Usually, astronomy is an attempt to derive intelligibility from the stars. But there is perhaps a different motive in this poem, with its concentration on the far recesses of sky, distant points of light. The poem celebrates the power of God’s energy to excite wonder. The point doesn’t seem to be logical consistency or the reduction of things to order. Instead, it represents a person’s excited mind patterning the stars and appreciating the grandeur of God.

“As Kingfishers Catch Fire”

When the sun glints upon the wings of a dragonfly or a bird, the animal catches divine energy simply by acting out its “thisness.” Each animate thing as an individual follows the pattern of its species and is validated as an individual thereby. The purpose of each living thing is to be what God intended it to be, whether it knows that or not. Human beings are at the top of the hierarchy because they have been given the gift of choosing to celebrate and worship God. They do so in many ways, and the expressive act we call poetry is one of those ways. Hopkins put away his poetry writing for about seven years after he went into the priesthood, but the relative approval of the church made him go back to it, and I suppose the relation of humanity to nature alluded to in the present poem must have been sustaining as well.


The regenerative power of nature strikes the soul; the poem tries to capture the energy, the movement, the “juice” or overflow from Paradise to earth. In the second stanza, the implication is that nature offers us a glimpse of Paradise; children experience a brief time of innocence, and should grasp the significance of such times and scenes. Victorians generally treated children as if they were little adults. This poem cuts both ways: children are invoked and asked to understand something we might think most appropriate to adults, yet at the same time the freshness of perception evoked belongs to children in the fine tradition of Blake and Wordsworth.

“The Windhover”

The material world provides an analogy for spiritual splendor. Compare this poem to Tennyson’s “Eagle” or George Herbert’s “Affliction.” In the context of the poem, “to catch” means to instress the bird’s inscape. The bird is not turned into a direct emblem of Christ (Hopkins does not write allegorical or emblematic poetry; he is inclined to respect nature enough not to subsume it too easily into his symbolic system), but Christ is obviously in the background as the chevalier, the hero-king and sacrificial sufferer whose splendor flashes after his redemptive deed. The speaker “catches” the bird, and then it catches him up in its amazing plunge. The plunge may allude to Christ’s incarnation and consequent heroic suffering; as the next-to-last stanza suggests, Christ himself is “a billion / Times told lovelier,” like the fire that breaks from the bird during its lightning-fast approach to earth.

Christ is often depicted in terms of light, as when he sets out in his flaming chariot in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book 5. There is also in this poem something of John Donne’s way of describing God’s effect upon the human spirit in violent terms, as something that brings hearts “out of hiding.” How does the final sestet complete the poem’s meaning? I would suggest that the references to the well-worn plough and the ashes falling upon the ground point to the idea that a thing is most worthy of apprehension, is most itself, just when it is about to pass away or just when its fundamental task is achieved.

“Pied Beauty”

This is another poem that underscores the ability to appreciate nature’s “thisness,” and it seems important to the speaker that we not superimpose a domineering or romantic self-consciousness upon nature, saturating it with ourselves and tamping it down with our problems. Refraining from such impositions is in part an atonement for causing the fall that alienated us from nature.

Nature is not simply our expressive vehicle; instead, we should appreciate it as God’s free expression. We should appreciate nature’s sheer diversity as a kind of joyful excess. God creates because he wants to create, not because he must—the central concept here is Christian charity, generosity. Understanding nature this way turns it into a door that opens to Christ, not a mirror that reflects back to us our own self-division, alienation from others, and alienation from God. The grammar in the final line—whether it be set down as a “:” or a “;”—implies that all of the dappled things lead up to the simple statement “Praise him.” This is all the explanation that is necessary for nature’s diversity. And the term “dappled,” of course, has Impressionist overtones.

“Hurrahing in Harvest”

The line, “These things, these things were here and but the beholder / Wanting” emphasizes Hopkins’ tact: again, nature is already alive and does not need us to make it come alive. Our task is to appreciate; Hopkins would probably say that is our way of helping to complete God’s continual acts of creation, as he allows us to do.

“Binsey Poplars”

The failure of those who have cut the trees down to “instress” the stand of trees denies God’s creative power, his stamping of a thing with its own living individuality. The final stanza sets forth contrasting repetitions—the strokes of the saw and the speaker’s own laments over what has been done. The felling of trees in this manner is yet another effect of the Fall, and something has been permanently taken away even from the speaker who actually appreciates nature as he should.

“Duns Scotus’ Oxford”

The ugly buildings put up around Oxford seem to have instilled in Hopkins much the same agony as the Italians’ treatment of their cultural heritage created in John Ruskin. Once upon a time, the natural environment and the college town made up a unit of mutually reinforcing or complementary inscapes. But modernity confounds our ability to instress this land-and-cityscape, and, by implication, it keeps us from understanding Duns Scotus’ insight into the individual vitality of natural things as a kind of energy that praises and returns to God. Hopkins casts Duns Scotus as a bygone hero. To a limited extent, this gesture links Hopkins to Thomas Carlyle, the greatest Victorian proponent of hero-worship. As for architecture, Hopkins’ notion is similar to that of John Ruskin—buildings express the spiritual state and aspirations of an entire people.

“Felix Randal”

This poem is a meditation on the brevity of life and the need to “look to end things”—not something that would have been easy to do for an active man like Felix Randal the blacksmith. The priest-speaker reflects on his relation to this former parishioner, now that he is gone and there is time to do so. One seldom thinks in this way when in the thick of life.

“Spring and Fall”

Hopkins wrote this poem when he was in Liverpool; the observations probably express his own feeling that the place was “museless.” The speaker addresses Margaret’s eventual fall into adulthood, when she will experience the dark side of symbolic meaning. As Margaret will see herself in the decay of nature, the speaker expresses grief at his own mortality. We will come to correlate death in the natural cycle with our own demise.

“Carrion Comfort”

This is a sonnet of desolation because of its near assent to spiritual death. The poem flows from Hopkins’ propensity to blame himself for his depressive states—we have far less control over our “affective will” than our “sheer will,” but still bear some responsibility in both cases. Here, the speaker seems to have just emerged from a severe depression, and begins to will his assent to God’s plan for him, however feebly. He has at least taken on the burden of ceasing to struggle against Christ—the blame gives way to bleak affirmation in hopes of regaining his energy, that “primal love” sent by God.

“No Worst, There Is None”

The speaker is in a hell of his own making, and his grief brings on still intenser grief, with no catharsis in sight. What serves as comfort “in a whirlwind”? Only the statement that “all / Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.” This “comfort” is as grim as the comfort King Lear derives while exposed to the storm, or Swinburne’s pagan speaker derives from the sentiment that “There is no god found stronger than death, / And death is a sleep.” But this isn’t a view to which Hopkins could subscribe. The point seems to be that there really is no ordinary comfort in the face of death—nothing in nature, anyway; only Christ will serve that end, and at present the speaker isn’t able to feel the connection to him that he should.

“I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day”

This poem works from the traditional exploration of “The Dark Night of the Soul,” as in Saint John of the Cross. Hopkins certainly understood the psychology of profound depression. The speaker addresses his own emotions, which have a life all their own and which therefore generate inner discord. He is in a hellish state of his own making, or at least that’s the way he interprets the problem. The third stanza implies a threat that the speaker’s body has become worse than nothing—it has become a “sign” leading nowhere, and the same might be said of his words, which only turn back in upon his anguish and do not help him reconnect with Christ. In the final stanza, the speaker compares his state to a Dantean Inferno, wherein God’s primal love is experienced in ever-more perfect degree as pain and anguish appropriate to the sinner. The speaker experiences this energy as profound alienation, and suffers the intensification of his “self-taste,” the taste of his own unhappy inner self. This is not mere apathy he’s describing; it is suicidal near-despair. To experience despair is perhaps not to lose the desire for salvation, but rather to lose all hope of it and to believe that relief will never come. In this situation, the spirit turns back upon itself, isolating itself from God in destructive fury. The speaker apparently feels trapped in himself, and since suicide is against God’s will, he may be angry with God, too. It isn’t possible for him to say, as I recall Cesare Pavese wrote just before he died, “No more words—an act.” What is the point of writing a poem like this? Does it bring relief? Clarity?

“That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection”

Light and shadow, earth, air, fire, and water, are all in play here. The Resurrection of the Dead will put an end to natural history and human history, swallowing up everything that is suffering and mortal in one grand “wildfire” that will “leave but ash” of materiality’s dead clay. The energy flowing through nature in the poem’s first half is thereafter described as flowing through the soul, and the speaker’s aim seems to be to align his desires with this “being-towards-destruction” of fallen nature. He can do so because he trusts that God’s will is being done. The pressure of suffering, the constant “imitation of Christ,” will at last turn the soul to “immortal diamond,” just as carbon turns to this gem under great pressure over vast stretches of time. This is a very Augustinian poem—there’s no point here in trying to salvage nature or anything earthly; it must all be burned in the end time to make way for the grand spiritual consummation. That this should be the case with “manshape” seems contradictory to the speaker, but he knows he must embrace contradictions in order to transcend them.

“Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord”

This poem was written in Ireland, where Hopkins felt out of sorts. This isn’t so much pure lyric expression as performance, a dramatized expression that lends the speaker some perspective on his state of mind. The quotation from the Latin or Vulgate bible suggests as much, as I’ve found in the criticism on Hopkins’ poetry—the speaker in Jeremiah’s prophetic book is foolish to question God, and by implication so is the speaker in Hopkins’ poem. But the final triplet seems intimate and in its way legitimate—I don’t read it as merely the acting-out of a wrong-headed speaker.

“The Wreck of the Deutschland”

What lesson is the speaker trying to learn from the tragedy he recounts? The first part of the poem concerns the manner in which he was called to the Catholic faith, while the second part deals with the shipwreck itself. Five Franciscan nuns were among the passengers aboard the Deutschland; they were leaving the persecution of Catholics in Germany and heading to America, but the ship sank in the Thames River during an awful storm.

In the midst of his reflection on such a disaster, the speaker turns to an imaginative projection of one who suffered and died in it to answer his own question, “How do we know God—or do we know him at all?” See Stanza 24, where the Nun invites Christ to “come quickly.” She heroically sees the shipwreck as hastening her union with God. Imitatio Christi is the traditional pattern: life as preparatory suffering. The speaker, too, is trying to come to grips with the event and unite in sentiment with the nuns against the storm’s terrible destructive power. Hopkins hadn’t written any poetry for seven years, thinking it not right considering his vocation as a Jesuit priest. But a superior told him he should write it after he heard about the wreck from a newspaper account. Traditional Christian theology describes nature as a hostile, alien element, though Hopkins usually doesn’t treat it that way. In this poem, nature is full of fury and confusion that might make it seem pre-eminent, but at the center of the storm is the wonderful clarity of the Nun who sees it for what it is.

Notes on Christina Rossetti

“Song—When I am dead, my dearest”

This is a wistful poem coming from a devout Anglican, but it’s appropriate in theological terms, I think. The speaker is perhaps just saying that there’s no point in becoming obsessive about states after death, especially is that obsession attaches to the departed person’s “final resting place.” The speaker will be elsewhere anyhow. Doctrinally, the point is that to mourn excessively is to show that one was attached to the most perishable component of a person (whether we mean the body or the personality), not the one that a Christian considers immortal.

“In an Artist’s Studio”

The speaker finds Elizabeth Siddal and meditate on the difference between her and the one ideal (in many guises) of an aesthetic, sensuous medieval lady. Christina distances herself from the Brotherhood. She refers to the relationship between Siddal and Dante Gabriel. It may be that all erotic relations involve a degree of objectification of the other, but the Brotherhood carries this tendency much farther than necessary.

“Winter: My Secret”

As Isobel Armstrong writes in her book Victorian Poetry, the poem “turns on the refusal of expression. It is about and is itself a barrier” (357). The speaker refers to wraps and masks, coverings that are also representational. Rossetti plays with the image of a spinster with a secret of some sort, possibly one about love. Armstrong says that the poem is concerned with the way “the sexuality of the speaking subject is created and bound” (359), but I don’t think that need be the case—it seems more carefree than that kind of heavy framework suggests. It’s been said that a person with no secrets has no self, that a secret is the core around which personality is built.

“No, Thank You, John”

This witty poem makes fun of the stereotypical male “puppy dog” sensibility about relationships: obsessive, jealous, possession-oriented. I don’t suppose Christina Rossetti would have agreed with Stendhal’s dictum that “In love, possession is nothing; it’s enjoyment that makes all the difference” (En amour, posséder n’est rien; c’est jouir qui fait tout). Here, the offer is friendship of a rather businesslike sort—which of course the immature male addressee seems unlikely to consider worthwhile. Friendship requires reciprocity, whereas the kind of “love” this particular male wants is reductive, based on simple object relations.

Below are some introductory remarks on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. There are a few references to material we haven’t studied because this was originally written for a Victorianist seminar at Chapman.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: Introduction

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which formally lasted only a few years around the beginning of the mid-Victorian Period and included painters such as D.G. Rossetti, Holman Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones and John Everett Millais, is an early form of aestheticism or “art for art’s sake,” so it makes sense to connect the PRB to the 1880’s-90’s movement including Pater, Wilde, Beardsley, and others.

Both the precursor movement and the later flowering of aestheticism amount to a rejection of bourgeois sensibilities in art—a rejection of the facile demand that everything should “make sense” and be “realistic” in the contemporizing and vulgar sense of that term. The aesthete’s disgust at artists who copy mid-to-late Victorian “reality” and reflect back to the middle class what is already familiar to it may be seen in Wilde’s delightfully elitist comment that “in art we do not wish to be concerned with the doings of the lower orders” or his infamous quip about the public’s anger at certain caustically realistic works of art being no more than “the rage of Caliban seeing his face in a glass.”

This context should remind us that like its offshoot or revival later on, the PRB movement may be placed in the tradition of semi-romantic or “conservative” reactions against modernity. Consider the writings we have studied so far: Newman, Carlyle, Ruskin. Despite their differences, all are lovers of mystery and the realm of spirit, and all strongly oppose what they see as misguided modern demands for facile clarity and pointless precision, for vulgar materialism and soulless instrumentalism, for a world increasingly designed to fit a radical and artificial conception of human nature and not an organic one. They see all this as the breakdown of any true principle of authority by which ordinary people and their governors may be guided, and in reaction these “conservatives” attempt to reconstruct what they believe are more workable and truer principles by which to live. While the PRB does not voice such grand claims as the mid-Victorian sages, certainly their rejection of modernity stems from the same kind of discontent with the status quo.

The PRB rejected the Royal Academy’s conventionalism, which was allied with the rules (privileging “rationality, selective verisimilitude, simplicity, and balance”) proffered by High Renaissance painter Raphael (1483-1520). Ruskin-like, they see Raphael’s theory of painting as an indicator of spiritual and cultural decline, and want to turn back the literary and artistic clock. They adopt as their models the medieval painters who lived around the time of Dante Alighieri, and also draw sustenance from religion and literature—Dante, Shakespeare, Keats, Tennyson, and Arthurian romance. DGR in particular liked the richness of color, the vividness of imagination, and the intensely spiritual rendering of the human body one can find in these painters. It is as if Giotto and others of that time would agree with Wilde: “those who find any difference between spirit and body have neither.” (You can see some fine examples at the Getty Museum and online at Olga’s Gallery.) Here’s a good online definition of Pre-Raphaelite painting:

The Pre-Raphaelite painters insisted that a painter should paint whatever he sees, regardless of the formal or academic rules of painting. The effort at fidelity to nature and experience was manifested in clarity, brightness, and sharply realized details in their paintings. However, despite its use of naturalistic detail, Pre-Raphaelitism in both painting and poetry turned away from realism, the ugliness of modern life in the 19th-century industrial society in England . The Pre-Raphaelites took no account of the life of contemporary England ; instead, they turned to a heroic and decorative world of the Middle Ages, the art of which was destroyed by Raphael and the Renaissance. (

I think that Herbert Tucker and Dorothy Mermin are right in pointing out the tenuousness of the “transcendence” and mystery they want to see in nature, but let’s supplement this with something that shows the PRB exhibiting a bit more of the “courage of other people’s convictions.” I’ll refer to the aesthetic critic Walter Pater’s analysis of the poetry of DGR:
Walter Pater characterizes “The Blessed Damozel” as follows:
[I]n The Blessed Damozel, written at the age of eighteen, a prefigurement of the chief characteristics of that school, as he will recognise in it also, in proportion as he really knows Rossetti, many of the characteristics which are most markedly personal and his own. Common 205 APPRECIATIONS to that school and to him, and in both alike of primary significance, was the quality of sincerity, already felt as one of the charms of that earliest poem—a perfect sincerity, taking effect in the deliberate use of the most direct and unconventional expression, for the conveyance of a poetic sense which recognised no conventional standard of what poetry was called upon to be.[…]—an accent which might rather count as the very seal of reality on one man’s own proper speech; as that speech itself was the wholly natural expression of certain wonderful things he really felt and saw. Here was one, who had a matter to present to his readers, to himself at least, in the first instance, so valuable, so real and definite, that his primary aim, as regards form or expression in his verse, would be but its exact equivalence to those data within. That he had this gift of transparency in language—the control of a style which did but obediently shift and shape itself to the mental motion, as a well-trained hand can follow on the tracing-paper the outline of an original drawing below it, was proved afterwards by a volume of typically perfect translations from the delightful but difficult 206 DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI “early Italian poets”: such transparency being indeed the secret of all genuine style, of all such style as can truly belong to one man and not to another. His own meaning was always personal and even recondite, in a certain sense learned and casuistical, sometimes complex or obscure; but the term was always, one could see, deliberately chosen from many competitors, as the just transcript of that peculiar phase of soul which he alone knew, precisely as he knew it.

One of the peculiarities of The Blessed Damozel was a definiteness of sensible imagery, which seemed almost grotesque to some, and was strange, above all, in a theme so profoundly visionary. The gold bar of heaven from which she leaned, her hair yellow like ripe corn, are but examples of a general treatment, as naively detailed as the pictures of those early painters contemporary with Dante, who has shown a similar care for minute and definite imagery in his verse; there, too, in the very midst of profoundly mystic vision. Such definition of outline is indeed one among many points in which Rossetti resembles the great Italian poet, of whom, led to him at first by family circumstances, he was ever a lover—a “servant and singer,” faithful as Dante, “of Florence and of Beatrice”—with some close inward conformities of genius also, independent of any mere circumstances of education. It was said by a critic of the last century, not wisely though agreeably to the practice of his time, 207 APPRECIATIONS that poetry rejoices in abstractions. For Rossetti, as for Dante, without question on his part, the first condition of the poetic way of seeing and presenting things is particularisation.
As you can see from what I’ve quoted, Pater casts Rossetti as an impressionist, a painter and poet true to his own internal impressions.