The Rest is History : British Poetic Tradition, Restoration Poetry to Now

May 6, 1996
Engl 332

During the Restoration/ Eighteenth Century most poets, being concerned with the development of the novel and what it had done to the poetic form chose to write melancholic poems that were concerned with the “morbid fascination with death, suicide, and the grave” (Norton 1782). however as discussed in this class we’ve been more concerned with those poets who wrote on the Nature of man as opposed to the natural world itself; but in doing so they use natural world imagery to compare the suffering and trials of man. Within their expressions are dark overtones of what the Norton describes as the melancholy sadness associated during this era.

From what I remember in class, there was no real figurehead representative of this era, but a great proliferation of writers. The best representative of this era is Thomas grey for his poem “Elegy Written in a Country Courthouse”. This poem illustrates many of the melancholy themes of death and mortality, by using imagery associated to Nature.
On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Even from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
Even in our ashes live their wonted fires. (Gray 2460-2461)
Stanza 23, best represents the view of the restoration period. It illustrates the common theme of using graveyard imagery to express some aspect of humanity. Here, the poem shows man’s desire to be remembered on “some fond breast” when the “parting soul” departs from this world. But, in many cases this goes unfulfilled for the next image shows ghosts in the graveyard are the “voice of Nature”. These voices never attained what they desired to do when alive and therefore their physical remains of “ashes” still carry out the desire to create and dreams for these “ashes live their wonted fires”.

As with life, many of the poems written during this period are uncharacteristic of Restoration/ 18th Century themes. Among some of these included Alexander Pope’s “Rape of the Lock.” It is a satirical poem that defies all definitions of this period’s poetry. Based off a real life experience, “The Rape of the Lock” uses other literary texts that force “the reader to compare small things with [the] great” (Norton 2233). Lines 139 to 148 of Canto one best represent this technique where
Now awful Beauty puts on all its arms;
The fair each moment rises in her charms,
Repairs her smiles, awakens every grace,
And calls forth all the wonder of her face;
Sees by degrees a purer blush arise,
And keener lightnings quicken in her eyes.
The busy Sylphs surround their darling care,
These set the head, and those divide the hair,
Some fold the sleeve, whilst others plait the gown;
And Betty’s praised for labors not her own. (Pope 2238)

This is a simple, detailed description of a women being dressed . Behind this description lies a satirical remark that compares this daily task to a great epic where each line of dress could be compared to the preparations being made for battle. Pope’s use of mundane imagery and commonplace events are what makes him unique during this time; for out of these small things universal ideals on the human condition come. This simple elaboration of our daily lives just wasn’t something the others poets seemed to do.

In the Romantic period of British literature poetry was regarded as an “imitation of human life” where the “poet artfully renders [the poem] and puts [it] into an order designed to instruct and give artistic pleasure to the reader (Norton 5). This is true for all the poets of this age. However, most of the images, in the poems depicted the world in a highly romanticized way that left out the horror and darkness that Nature contains as well. Several great poets came out of this period and it was hard to select just one to best represent the entire period of poetic tradition. However, it is my opinion that Wordsworth’s poems best represent this era.

Wordsworth’s poem “Lines” best represents the light, pureness of humanity poets saw during this era. Much of what makes this poem representative is found in the imagery of the poem. These images reflect the Natural world and how it affirms some aspect of human existence; the affirmation usually takes the form of a balanced world between good and bad perceptions. Three lines from “Lines” best illustrates the way that Wordsworth sees the world
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things. (Wordsworth 137)
This passage shows the narrator’s (presumably Wordsworth) relationship to the world about him. Through his “eye” he is able to see the world and the following enjambment “power/ Of harmony” defines what he sees in the world. Perception and sight work within these lines as the means of showing us the true Nature of things. It is this “power” of sight that, then, allows us to free our souls to see the relationships behind the objects of our reality. This image of the natural world, according to the narrator, is then a direct reflection of what humans see within the soul; and it is this view which makes this poem a great representative of the Romantic period.

Thankfully, not all poets during the Romantic period choose to describe the world in dizzying heights of beauty. One poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, wrote many poems that don’t fit int other stereotypical Romantic writing. “Dejection : An Ode” is the best example of this non-conformist work. Instead of using images that represent the beauty of Nature and the human condition, Coleridge accepts that violence and depression/dejection are part of what makes us human. Therefore using the metaphor of the storm he constructs a wonderful poem that shows the reader how the horror of Nature and the human spirit is not to be ignored but anther harness and used as a way to create. I would consider the representative passage as follows
Might now perhaps their wonted impulse give,
Might startle this dull pain, and make it move and live!
And still I gaze- and with how blank eye!
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.
Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind,
Reality’s dark dream!
I turn from you and listen to the wind. (Coleridge 367-369)

These lines mock The speaker’s inability to write lines that “feel” the beauty of Nature. He cannot see the beauty as everyone else feels for he sees with an “blank eye.” Instead the “viper thoughts, that coil around my mind” are the only things that he can feel. The speaker turns to the wind because there is a storm brewing and it is within the storm where the speaker’s ability to write “the passion and the life” come from. The pace at which the poem is written also mimics the dark frustrated motions of creativity. This combined with these dark images of Nature’s worst are what make this a misfit poem of the Romantic Era.

The Victorian Era saw the beginning of the “Art for Art’s sake” Revolution. No longer where many poets viewing their work as a way of representing a moral code of conduct, imbedded within words. Although many poets disagreed with this view the fact remains that the “Art for Art’s sake” movement opened the doors for many poets as well as the interpreting of the poems wide off their hinges. Poetry written during this era was more open to interpretation and many of the poems were left open without a close, this open form of poetry moved away from the Romantic period’s ideals and suggests a more open discussion and interpretation of the world.

An advocate and main figurehead for the “Art for Art’s Sake” movement dante Rossetti is my pick for the best representative of the Victorian era. His poem “Silent Noon” describes what is beneath the still surface of all objects.
Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass–
The finger-points look like rosy blooms;
Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms
Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass.
All round our nest, far as the eye can pass,
Are golden kingcup-fields with silver edge
Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorne hedge.
Tis visible silence, still as the hourglass.

Deep in the sun searched growths the dragonfly
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky–
So this winged hour is dropped to us from above.
Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,
This close-companioned intricate hour
When twofold silence was the song of love. (Rossetti 1468)
Instead of drawing conclusions on what the meaning of life is, the poem shows us what it is to be alive. Two views are shown within this poem. The first stanza depicts a “visible silence, still as the hourglass” where nothing seems to be moving although there are living objects within it’s scene. The second view rushes into the poem describing the life beneath the still surface of the image. These two views, and the poem itself, suggest that this image is like art for although art depicts a stilled moment in time, it is never truly still for captured within the moment are distilled feelings that evoke the human spirit and feed the soul.

An atypical poem of this time to me is Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” because it bridges the gap between the old Victorian poets and the turn of the century and the Modern era of poetry. “Dover Beach” draws images from the “real” world to suggest that nothing lasts forever.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night. (Arnold 1367)
This moment captured on the dawn of a new era suggests that despite all the love, beauty and dreams nothing will last forever. Lines 31-33 suggest how the world seems to be kind and caring filled with “dreams” and hope for the better. However this not the case for the speaker then states that the world has none of these except for the promise of “confused alarms” and “ignorant armies clash[ing] by night.” Within this poem Arnold examines culture and what it teaches us to come to the conclusion that the visionary and imaginative are not ultimate truths and that these things cannot last forever, as attested by history.

The Modern era opens with the close of Arnold’s “Dover Beach” where the world has been thrown into turmoil by war and the industrial revolution. However, the poetic tradition remained throughout these times of distress as a voice of hope and happiness. Poets were urged to Experiment “in language and rhythms” (Norton 1687). And this is exactly what the poets during this period did– experiment, in everything.

W.H. Auden’s poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” breathed new ways of seeing life within poetry. This poem questions the value of poetry and how it can push for change within the world.
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections;
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living. (Auden 2268)
Two things are taking place within this passage. What makes this a typical representative is the way that the poem makes a statement on the relationship between writing and culture and how they change one another. The last two lines of this passage show that once a writer is finished with his art, it is then given to the masses where through their interpretation a new art is made.

Experimentation, as mentioned above, was done on a large scale during this period. T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” represents the extreme boundary that the experimentation developed. The poem is a very postmodern one in which a series of images are carefully strung together to suggest a particular feeling or theme. But within “The Waste Land” these images, that are drawn from various sources, cultural motifs of the time, and personal biography are these are all thrown together into one giant pot where reality is on the brink and the true meaning becomes obscured behind the images and the million suggestions they make.
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself :
One must be so careful these days. (Eliot 2149)
This passage draws on tarot card mythology which creates an illusion into one of the ways that the poem might be interpreted. “Crowds of people, [are] walking round in a ring,” might suggest the sameness and monotony that the people in this world surround themselves with; whereas the “one-eyed merchant” might be a symbol for the earth and the blank card he carries, people. However, it’s not so much as important as to decoding the symbolic meaning behind these images and symbols as it is decoding the meaning behind the overall poem, and this task is what makes this poem the boundary of the experimental poetry during the modern era.

There is a limit to how much one can learn from literature when surveying it by means of historical contexts. Like all interpretative studies this view has it’s merits and flaws. Some of the ways in which a historical study of literature includes better understanding the beliefs and moral of the culture behind the writing, understanding the socio-economical structure of the society being written about, as well as what the general attitudes toward society and the natural world were during the times the poem was written. However, the flaws of grouping such poems in this fashion include limiting what poems can or don’t define the mainstream culture (this leaves out a lot of the experimental literature),and as far as history is concerned it is a relative and interpretative study where there are many different perceptions of how it can be written and what really did occur and to place literature within a certain view it might obscure and create a selective picture of the world rather than leading humanity to objective, one and only true truths.