It is the first day of exams week, so what has possessed me to spend my study time blogging? That is a very good question, for which I wish I had a real answer. I think the best explanation is that, since William and Mary ends all classes before the start of exam week, I have nothing to do for the next week but study, which gives me much more study time than I could ever fill with studying. Thus, I blog.
However, this post isn’t completely unrelated to my studies because it is the epic review (cue “Ride of the Valkyries”) of everything I read this semester in my British Literature course. Partly for my personal review and partially for your personal amusement and information, I have compiled a grand, chronological review of those texts from the 17th-19th centuries we pored over, analyzed, and, perhaps, loved this semester. For each time period, I included a brief description of the historic context and a list of a few major works we read.
The Enlightenment and Restoration
In the wake of its Civil War, Britain found itself questioning authority in ways never before imagined. Since Parliament and Oliver Cromwell had successfully overthrown Charles I, taking his crown and his head along with it, it became clear that power was not as absolute or divinely instituted as it had been thought to be. Throughout the Enlightenment and the Restoration of Charles II to the throne, after the British people had grown anxious to return to the comfortable tradition of monarchy, the worth and nature of the individual and the individual’s rights became a major concern of authors and thinkers.
-Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
Commonly considered the allegory to end all allegories, it depicts the journey of Christian, a representative of all members of the Christian faith, to the Celestial City. Along the way, he encounters many symbolic figures representing temptations or holy inspirations who either help or hinder his progress. We read the beginning and scenes from the “The Slough of Despond” and “Vanity Fair.”
Johnson was one of the most famous wits and social commentators of all time and a true celebrity in his own time. In addition to “A Brief to Free a Slave,” which was a very short but powerful argument against the injustices of slavery, he wrote many essays and, most famously, his dictionary. He kept popping up in my class on Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries with his quintessentially English views of his wild neighbors to the north.
-“The Great Fire” Samuel Pepys
I was so happy to read this excerpt from Pepys’ diary because I have been hoping to read some work for a while. Pepys was the son of a tailor, but he managed to rise through the social ranks to become the Secretary of the Admiralty and eventually the president of the Royal Society. His personal diary has become a key account of life in London in the latter half of the 17th century. The destruction and horror which permeate his entries on the Great Fire of London present the fears many held of the dangers of urbanization and the consequences of dense population.
-“The Rape of the Lock” Alexander Pope
This was my favorite piece from this time period. The title is meant to be misleadingly dramatic as the whole of the poem depicts the events leading to the “rape,” or cutting without permission from the owner, of a lock of beautiful hair. A brilliant work of satire, it aggrandizes its characters and setting by addressing them like the subjects of classical epics like The Iliad. The anti-heroine, Belinda, is absurdly vain, and descriptions of her and her fairy-like attendants are wonderfully ironic. It is truly hilarious and quite worth the read.
-“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” Thomas Gray
As far as subject matter goes, I found this poem the most beautiful. The upper class speaker of the poem, while walking among the graves of peasants, wonders if one of them had the potential to be a poet or leader, if in that churchyard there lies “some heart once pregnant with celestial fire” whose rise to greatness of hindered by social status. In addition to being captivating in its own right, the poem is also the source of the title of the equally beautiful novel Far From the Madding Crowd (See Victorian Era below).
The Romantic Period
The date to remember for the Romantics is July 14, 1789, the Storming of the Bastille and start of the French Revolution. The Romantics championed the liberty, equality, and fraternity of the French revolutionaries, until they starting killing literally everybody, and no one could champion that. Romanticism is all about rejecting the corrupting forces of established society and urbanization to commune with Nature (that is Nature with a capital “N,” Romantics liked to call their dear old mum by her proper name). Instead of poetry glorifying courtly things and high drama, it focused on the small, rural beauties of life, and by doing so the poet could enter a higher state of existence. Oddly, I took more notes on the Romantics than on anything else; we read a lot of them.
-Songs of Innocence and Experience William Blake
My professor summed up Blake well by saying that he didn’t write for the reader’s “entertainment” but for their “salvation.” However, Blake created his own brand of very eccentric Christianity. In his religious philosophy, all live in a childish state of Innocence until they reach a certain period in life when they enter into the corrupt state of Experience. Basically, life is lovely and pure, until it’s not; then, once it gets as dark and horrible as it possibly can, you die and return to an eternal state of loveliness and purity. All in all, fascinating, if a bit bizarre.
Oh Wordsworth, the Romantic of Romantics. He and his best buddy Coleridge (see below) pioneered Romanticism in its most famous ideal of a transcendent connection with Nature. We spent a lot of time discussing “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” which was structured around the arc of the sun throughout the day as a metaphor for the arc of life, which I liked; and “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” one of the most famous examples of Romantic transcendence.
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In addition to being the second most famous Early Romantic poet, Coleridge is best known for his unfortunate addiction to opium, which he was initially prescribed for various ailments (they just didn’t understand what they were doing). As the 1960’s taught us, such substances can result in some very unusual compositions. In addition to his tamer Romantic Nature poems, he gave us the fantastical “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” I particularly like “The Eolian Harp” in which he proposed that all consciousness could just function as harps in different forms being played by God like harps being played by the wind; or, as our guest lecturer put it in more hippy-ish terms, “Man, what if the whole universe is just like a guitar being plucked by God.”
Poor Keats never gets enough love. He died very young, something which he had feared and written about extensively before the fact. He poems often consider the relationships between artists and their works or romantic love and are heavily influenced by Shakespeare. His use of synesthesia, or appealing to one sense through the employment of another, is very striking, as when he wishes to taste the warmth of Southern France in “Ode to a Nightingale.” Reading “To Autumn” in early October should be a prerequisite for life.
-Persuasion Jane Austen
What, am I mad? Jane Austen wasn’t a Romantic poet, but this novel specifically showcases a lot of Romantic ideals not seen in Austen’s previous works. It also happens to be my favorite among her novels. Anne Elliot is just so lovable and sweet, yet terribly clever, and her family is absolutely absurd. If you make it past the description of Sir Walter in the first chapter without a snicker, you need to sort out your priorities.
The Victorian Era
The Victorian Era is my literary home, where I could just snuggle up and stay for a very long time enjoying the cozy familiarity of novels and long, winding sentences. Queen Victoria, the most Victorian of Victorians shaped the age. Victorians realized that with the establishment of their industrial superpower had come many social issues, such as the abject poverty and filthy living conditions of the poor workers who made everything on which the nation thrived. Later, Victorians faced some of the greatest philosophical upheaval mankind has known since the coming of Christ when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, and the origins of life came under debate for the first time since the spread of Christianity to the Western World. The Victorian period was also marked by the beginning of the Women’s Movement and Imperialism.
–Wuthering Heights Emily Brontë
Drama, violence, love beyond the power of death, and more violence, just for good measure—that’s Wuthering Heights. I quite like the writing, those Brontës really had style, but it’s not my favorite story. Though you can certainly can be swept away by the supernatural winds on the moors around the house from which the title is taken, the ferocity of the main characters, particularly Catherine and Heathcliff, may leave you shell-shocked. However, there is much more to the novel than just the impossible, tragic, and twisted love of its two most famous characters.
–A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens
Eeee! Excuse my fangirl squealing, yes I fangirl over this book. After reading it this year for the second time, I decided that Sydney Carton is officially my favorite literary hero. He finally broke his long-standing tie with Sherlock Holmes. You have to read the whole book, to the last line, to understand my appreciation for him. The book itself is full of everything lovable about Dickens: humor, complicated and overlapping plots, symbolic prose, and superb characterization. And, as if that wasn’t enough, you also get to enjoy all of the ridiculous drama of the French Revolution!
–Far From the Madding Crowd Thomas Hardy
Throughout the novel, Bathsheba Everdeen is pursued by three different love interests, which leads to some tragic things and some comedic things (in the Shakespearean sense). Another one of my favorites, this novel is perfectly overflowing with Hardy’s signature blend of rich images of even the simplest aspects of rural life and complex characterization. This is truly a page turner, from start to finish: expect the unexpected. I enjoyed tracing the development of each character and the changes in their relationships with each other. I also highly recommend the latest film adaptation starring Carey Mulligan!
-“Goblin Market” Christina Rossetti
This poem, structured as a children’s story, is full of sumptuous description and intriguing religious symbolism. Victorian poetry is full of damsels in distress, and, in this case, it is nice to see one damsel step up to save another rather than waiting for a brave knight to come around.
-“My Last Duchess” Robert Browning
Poor Elizabeth Barrett Browning must have been a bit worried by her husband’s dramatic monologues about men plotting to kill their wives or remembering their wives who met ill ends. In the style of Shakespearean soliloquy, this poem is the speech of a vile, slippery Italian Duke to a messenger who is helping him arrange his next marriage. It is very unsettling in the most fascinating, psychological way.
If you made it all the way to the bottom of this very long post, I salute you admiringly. Happy reading and, if the fates have dealt so poorly with you as to place exams in your future too, happy studying!