Saturday, March 19, 2011

Week 9, John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold


03/22. Tu. John Ruskin. Modern Painters (1320-24) and The Stones of Venice (1324-34).

03/24. Th. Matthew Arnold. "The Buried Life" (1356-58); "Dover Beach" (1368-69); "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" (1369-74); "Preface to Poems" (1374-84).

Notes on John Ruskin

From Modern Painters

1320. “Painting . . . is nothing but a noble and expressive language….” And “It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what is represented and said, that the respective greatness either of the painter or the writer is to be finally determined.” Ruskin demands accuracy in a painter, but merely technical ability is not enough. Painting is an expressive art, and it’s the quality and intensity of the expression that matters above all else. Ruskin is a belated Romantic in this regard.

1321. The best art, according to Ruskin, is that which “conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the greatest number of the greatest ideas.” He continues, “I call an idea great in proportion as it is received by a higher faculty of the mind, and as it more fully occupies, and in occupying, exercises and exalts, the faculty by which it is received.” The “ideas” referenced here are not logical constructions; they are more like a species of the sublime, another Romantic affinity of Ruskin’s. With regard to Turner’s 1840 painting “The Slave Ship,” Ruskin’s description aims to give us his own impression of the painting, which involves a sense of the sublimity evoked by the scene’s eerie use of color and light and its apocalyptic overtones. This isn’t to say that Ruskin advocates mere “impressionism”—I think he believes that Turner’s painting has special qualities that positively demand the attention of a trained eye and a refined spirit. Critics must be “accurate” in this sense, just as the painter must in some fashion paint the subject truly. Turner’s painting itself isn’t merely mimetic or didactic but is instead profoundly imaginative. Turner’s painting is an instance of sublimity, and Ruskin does his best to honor it on its own terms. So what does the painting convey? Well, Ruskin doesn’t talk about the painting’s “thesis” or “argument” insofar as a painting constitutes an argument (i.e. slavery is a moral evil, etc); he describes light, color, and the relations between one part of the painting and another, and tries to catch the emotive effects generated by these things. I would suggest that “the power, majesty, and deathfulness of the open, deep, illimitable Sea” is the main “idea” to be conveyed: a power linked to the infinite horror of what the slavers have done since their actions reveal the depths of human depravity.

From The Stones of Venice

Ruskin, a mid-Victorian sage-writer, says that England’s current course in economics and empire parallels the fall of Venice when that city entered its decadent Renaissance phase during the Quattrocento: soulless perfection in architecture and art, lewdness in morals, shamelessness in pursuit of monetary wealth. At base, pride goes before a fall: we are fallen enough already, and there’s no need to keep repeating our arrogant rebelliousness and claim autonomy from God, argues Ruskin. He is a disciple of Carlyle, another conservative prophet raging in the wilderness, offering at one time threats, at another salvation. He is a moralist who interprets architectural history and technique as an embodiment of a given culture’s moral status. He treats paintings and social forms in much the same way, reading them as expressions of a society’s spiritual health or morbidity.

In Stones, Ruskin demonstrates that Gothic feudalism encouraged workers to express their individual spirit in a way that did honor to the Church. Labor is central to fallen human beings. The way back to a right appreciation of God is mediation, accommodation, humility, and striving that doesn’t try to rival God as our creator and source. So the critic and consumer must interpret the products of labor with their expressive quality in mind. Critics and consumers must grasp the need for striving worthy of redemption, labor directed heavenward. Why does Ruskin favor architecture in particular? Buildings are works of art that we experience, live in, gather in. And Gothic workers were building cathedrals, which are communal expressions of humility before God, so they resist the urge to rebuild the Tower of Babel of Genesis, for which God confounded the builders’ speech.

The “moral elements” of Gothic are as follows: savageness, changefulness, naturalism, grotesqueness, rigidity, and redundance. With regard to the builders, these categories translate to savageness, love of change, love of nature, disturbed imagination, obstinacy, and generosity. Gothic architecture expresses the workers’ mental tendencies, and the result of their work—often cathedrals—was intended to be a dwelling-place for and offering to God. A church (the visible or assembled body of the faithful) is, after all, an expression of human aspirations to connect with the divine, and a locus of spiritual community.

1324. “And when that fallen roman, in the utmost importance of his luxury, and insolence of his guilt, became the model for the imitation of civilized europe, at the close of the so-called Dark ages, the word Gothic became a term of unmitigated contempt. . . .” A consumer is an interpreter, a critic (on this point, see also Unto This Last), but the insolent, prideful, complacent Renaissance patron, insists Ruskin, wanted and saw only soulless perfection, and what had been a serious kind of grotesqueness became merely obscene because that’s what the corrupt patrons wanted. Genuine grotesque art flows from the labor of a spirit in tension, confronting the shocks and extreme contradictions in life—death and terror, the fantastic, the ludicrous. Mere obscenity is cynical and materialistic, by contrast.

1326-27. Ruskin elaborates on servile, constitutional, and revolutionary forms of art. Of the first, the principal types are “the Greek, Ninevite, and Egyptian.” Greek architectural style achieves a balance, calm, rest, and self-sufficiency, but with respect to the workers who made the buildings, says Ruskin, “The Greek gave to the lower workman no subject which he could not perfectly execute.” But with constitutional ornament, he writes, things are otherwise: in the “Christian system of ornament, this slavery is done away with altogether; christianity having recognized, in small things as well as great, the individual value of every soul” (1327). The essence of it is striving. As for revolutionary ornament, its makers and consumers are selfish, fixated on trivial things done to material perfection. An eye fixed on this kind of ornament is debased—as Blake would say, “a fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.” Priorities here are turned upside down, and buildings are not offerings to God but monuments to the artist’s or patron’s ego. In this sense, Ruskin construes the Renaissance as a second fall in which people deployed mere technical skill and science to try to overcome the effects of the original fall in Eden, and of course he sees England going down the same path, in search of a false capitalist utopia.

1327. “[I]t is, perhaps, the principal admirableness of the Gothic schools of architecture, that they thus receive the results of the labor of inferior minds, and out of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole.” But neither Renaissance patrons nor modern English consumers can accept this scheme, says Ruskin, and they can’t appreciate the fact that “the best things shall be seldomest seen in their best form” or that “the finer the nature, the more flaws it will show through the clearness of it.”

1328. As always in Ruskin, there’s a stark moral decision to make regarding the status of labor, that activity so central to human life and value: “you are put to stern choice in this matter. You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both.” There is no happy medium, no easy accommodation to make, when it comes to honoring the spiritual well-being of laborers or getting the most materially “perfect” work from them. What is imperfect, flawed, incomplete, is exactly what links the thing made to infinity. In both Romantic poetics and Christian theology, the fragment is greater than the limited whole because it indicates striving, progress, aspiration to a higher and even infinite state of spirituality. But Ruskin’s Christian framework is hardly Byronic—it emphasizes not an autonomous attempt at self-transcendence but instead promotes a kind of aspiration that begins with the frank acknowledgement of the individual’s own limitations and imperfections. The body and its material works are finite; art and architecture are of value only insofar as they express the soul’s attempt to break free of materiality while still accepting that it cannot entirely do so. When Ruskin mentions clouds in connection with labor, as he does when he writes of the worker’s efforts, “we know the height of it only, when we see the clouds settling upon him” (1328), we should remember that in his analysis of Turner’s atmospheric paintings, clouds at once veil and bear the sun’s radiance. Clouds need to be read as semi-translucent markers of the boundary between the finite and infinity.

1329. “[E]xamine once more those ugly goblins, and formless monsters . . . but do not mock at them, for they are signs of the life and liberty of every workman, who struck the stone . . . .” With respect to the present day, he says, “It is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread.” The dignity of labor is as central to Ruskin as labor in general was to his predecessor Carlyle. And like Carlyle, Ruskin is no great promoter of democratic change: in characterizing liberty, he makes much the same point that Carlyle did, only in a gentler fashion: one day, he says, “men will see that to obey another man, to labour for him, yield reverence to him or to his place, is not slavery. It is often the best kind of liberty.” Ruskin advocates a rank-based yet egalitarian society, one that (like the Christian Church) values the strivings and aspirations of each imperfect believer, one that acknowledges the gap between the human and the divine but treats it in a hopeful way.

1330. “We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labor, only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided, but the men.” The division of labor, of course, is a central tenet of capitalist production, one enunciated by Adam Smith in his 1776 book, The Wealth of Nations. Smith explains this principle in a positive manner that suggests how it has the potential to end millennia of human misery: humanity has never found it easy to keep body and soul together; the ancient problem was that of production: many people simply didn’t get enough to eat, or have enough possessions to make life more or less tolerable, never mind pleasant and full of opportunities for upward mobility. But the vast increases in production made possible by trade and increased volume of production made it possible to conceive of a time when poverty and want would be no more—this is a vital point to understand about Adam Smith’s argument in favor of capitalism; he was not a soulless proponent of material accumulation but a moral philosopher who wanted the new mode and means of production to help people harness selfish individual desires for the good of the wider community. And when the market works, I suppose that’s exactly what it does: the capitalist earns a good profit, and gives us the things we need and want.

But Ruskin is dealing with the phenomenon that Marx calls “alienated labor”: the undeniable fact that under nineteenth-century production methods, many workers found little meaning in their work but instead experienced it as essentially dehumanizing and isolating. They were producing a world of riches in which they themselves had miserably little share, and which cost them any chance to become something more than they already were or to make meaningful connections with their fellow laborers. Marx’s term “the fetishism of the commodity” (whereby it is things that matter and have vital relations, not the people who make them with their own minds and hands—the worker is reduced to a thing, while the thing is treated as if it were a living being), applies to virtually everything done in a consumer society. Smith himself points out that we might one day pay people to do specialized kinds of thinking for us, just as we would pay someone to repair our shoes or furniture. So in this way alienation and fragmentation is the law of life under capitalism. Ruskin opposes the entire system for that reason, though of course his solution is radically different from Marx’s, which puts its faith in the revolutionary potential of the industrial proletariat or working class.

1331-32. “The old Venice glass was muddy, inaccurate in all its forms, and clumsily cut, if at all. And the old Venetian was justly proud of it” (1332). What is Ruskin’s answer to the inherent problem of capitalist production? Well, he offers a moral prescription, a consumer’s list of things to consider before buying anything: imitation and exact finish are not to be sought for their own sake, while “invention” is to be rewarded at every turn, wherever possible. His main example is that of Venetian glass, which is of course both strikingly beautiful, all the more so because of its imperfections. Mass-manufactured glass can’t compete with it for quality or beauty. One must accept the simultaneous existence of both poorly executed and well executed Venetian glass; if we want the best of it, we have to accept that quality will vary from one piece to the next. We could name a variety of similar products—indeed, the whole “Crafts” movement in England and America is premised on this model of the moral consumer who has the welfare of the worker in view: things made by hand and produced with care are favored, while merely utilitarian items are generally discouraged because they not only dishonor laborers but also lead to a world that is ugly and unpleasant to live in. And today’s advocates of buying organic produce make a similar argument: fair trade organic coffees, locally grown organic produce, and other such goods are becoming more popular, at least for those who can afford them.

There’s reason to be sympathetic towards Ruskin’s insistence that buying something can be a moral or an immoral act. Proponents of the market philosophy are always insisting that capitalist economics is the appropriate system for lovers of liberty and individual autonomy, yet at times one hears them insisting also that the model of the rational consumer is absolute: people will always follow the law of competition, buying what they need and want on the basis of a certain cost/quality ratio: i.e. they will do what nets them the most good stuff at the lowest possible price. But that is a kind of determinism: what if I want to buy a zero-emissions car even though it costs more, because I think it’s simply the right thing to do and I have sufficient funds to do so? Am I an automaton who can’t make such choices, or am I a free agent who might just make a financial sacrifice to derive both tangible and intangible benefits from my ethical purchase? Or what if I choose not to buy products tested on animals even if they cost more or it takes a bit of effort to find out which products are “cruelty free”? And so forth. It is possible to make such choices, at least some of the time. So Ruskin’s idea is not so far out of the practical orbit that we should discount it as absurd. But at the same time, it’s possible to level a serious criticism: it’s hard to see how to get an entire society to make such choices so frequently as to make more than a token difference in what gets produced. Most people probably don’t have enough money to buy organic avocados or a car that costs an extra 5,000 dollars but runs clean. Perhaps the best solution here is some measure of governmental incentive, mixed with market initiative: on their own, huge companies that benefit from the status quo aren’t likely to make changes in production that threaten to undercut their profits.

1333-34. Ruskin says that there are two reasons why the demand for perfection in art is wrong. The first is “that no great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure,” and the second is that “imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change.” His emblem for the latter point is the foxglove blossom (digitalis purpurea, a beautiful flowering plant used today in the making of an important drug for heart attack victims). This blossom, writes Ruskin, is “a third part bud, a third part past, a third part in full bloom” and is, therefore, “a type of the life of this world.” We are always passing from one state to another. The law of fallen life is change, imperfection, striving. Christian teleology implies a purposeful movement from decay (the fallen past) to a redemptive future (the foxglove’s “bud”). To sum up in Ruskin’s words, “All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.”

Notes on Matthew Arnold

“The Buried Life”

This poem brilliantly analyzes what Arnold posits as a universal need to look within, to trace the operations of our inner being and to express them in a language commensurate with this inner life. In other words, Arnold is writing about the very stuff of romantic expressivism. The first few stanzas make it clear that the poet is unable in the present instance to make the connection with another he later posits as being necessary to the insight he seeks. In spite of that, the poem is one of Arnold ’s more optimistic efforts. A power he simply describes as “Fate” (30), has kept “The unregarded river of our life” from plain view to protect us from our own destructive frivolity, but this river of authentic being flows on nonetheless. The poet explains that no individual, looking within only himself or herself, can truly gained access to the inner springs of life and thought. Acting on our own, we cannot know from whence we have come or where we are going; we cannot grasp the purpose of our lives. And we cannot, it almost goes without saying, express a purpose we cannot even apprehend. From lines 55-66, the speaker suggests that most of what we do is a kind of self-deception—what we do and say, that is, conceals far more than it reveals about what we really are inside. Society demands no less of a charade. Even so, the speaker is by no means downcast: there are those rare moments when the voice, the gaze, or the touch of a beloved person gives us access to our being in all its authenticity. Arnold casts the result of this rarity in Wordsworthian terms: “The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain, / And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know” (86-87). So it is possible on rare occasion, and with the help of another, really to look within and to express what we see there. This is, especially for a gloomy poet like Arnold, a cheerful thought, and it bears comparison to Wordsworth’s beautiful lines from “Tintern Abbey,” “with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things” (47-49). It is possible to achieve an epiphany of the self and to express the insight flowing from it. What is captured is not something static but rather dynamic and flowing, as the poem’s persistent river metaphor indicates. Some may find a note of hesitancy in the poem’s final lines, “And then he thinks he knows / The hills where his life rose, / And the sea where it goes” (96-98). But I don’t think the word “knows” connotes doubt in this case; the conjectural seeker may or may not know the last word about his origins or destination, but that seems less important than the knowledge of his present self the poem says can, in fact, be attained. We should not expect from Matthew Arnold a brash statement such as John Donne’s “She is all States, and all Princes, I; / Nothing else is.” What we get, instead, is a sort of quiet, wistful optimism in the midst of so many melancholy and contemplative utterances by this earnest mid-Victorian.

Dover Beach

The poem opens with the description of a beautiful natural scene, a seascape. Apparently it is a clear night in patches because the speaker can see the nightlights of France across the English Channel . And he catches something eternal about humanity in the effects of natural process—Sophocles, the poet says, heard the same sound attentively long ago, the sound of pebbles tossing back and forth in the surf with the tide and the waves. (In the play referenced, the Chorus speaks of something much harsher—the low moan that accompanies gale force winds as they beat against the seashore, a sound compared to the ruin and devastation of Thebes ’s royal house thanks to the anger of the gods.) what our speaker hears is the melancholy retreat of simple religious faith, a retreat that leaves Western civilization all but naked. It is evident that Matthew Arnold does not draw the same sustenance from nature that Wordsworth, a poet he much admires, was able to draw. Both the natural and human world before him in prospect are described as beautiful illusions—sights that seem to promise certitude and intelligibility, a sense that there is meaning out there, that there is “a place for us.” But the speaker is unable to put his faith in anything he sees or hears. He remains disillusioned, I think, even though he tries to cheer himself and his lover with the injunction, “let us be true / To one another!” The world remains hostile, dreary, and violent. It makes no sense in itself, and the knowledge that we can at least temporarily make a genuine human connection with someone else, and thereby create the meaning we seek, does not satisfy the speaker. This poem might be described as what Meyer Abrams would call a Greater Romantic Lyric—it begins in meditation, proceeds to analyze a spiritual problem, and attempts to offer an emotional resolution. The tenuousness of that resolution gives the poem its distinctive Arnoldian quality. The couple remain isolated from the world, withdrawn from the violence and confusion surrounding them. Religion no longer offers solace in such a situation, at least not for this particular Victorian couple.

“Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse”

As always, Matthew Arnold turns out to be a very poetical Eeyore figure. The young enthusiasts of science and progress that give the mid-Victorian period its characteristic feel are welcome to go about their cheerful way, and enter the bright world of striving and competition. They do not feel the death of Christianity, suggests the speaker, because they were not brought up deeply believing in the religion. Arnold ’s melancholy is characteristic of many Victorian intellectuals with respect to the ancient religion that had shaped so many generations before them. I don’t suppose Arnold is addressing the scientific studies that proved so devastating to the faith of many Victorians, although he writes at what we might call the “ground zero” of religious doubt—a time still before Charles Darwin’s fully developed evolutionary theory, but a time in which other scientists such as Sir Charles Lyell were confidently estimating the vast amounts of time necessary to the formation of the geological structures they examined and puzzling over the strangeness of the fossils they unearthed. I would put this point around the 1830s in the English context. No, Arnold ’s “rigorous teachers” are the Enlightenment’s finest rationalists—philosophers who, as the Norton note says, subjected the tenets and texts of faith to the rigors of reason and historical inquiry. Arnold ’s speaker can neither believe nor dismiss from his mind the desire to believe (or at least to find certitude and moral meaning). I think he feels special affinity with the monks who dwell in the monastery and cultivate their herb garden, faithfully and simply following the religion of beautiful sorrow, presumably oblivious to the unbelievers all around them in a changing world. All the same, he cannot enter the mindset that makes such a life possible. What on earth he is doing at such a gloomy place (66)? he wants to know.

The romantic predecessors Byron and Shelley, as the speaker says, struck a defiant attitude towards what they considered the diminution of spirit in an increasingly “modern” world: they rejected traditional religious belief, but kept alive the passionate conviction that lies at the heart of faith. They believed in inspired utterance, in creative imagination, and in defying the oppressors who threatened to stamp out freedom of thought and action. They sought to remind us of what was truly enduring about us as human beings. But in the end they, too, passed, and the speaker, a true son of the romantics, is left wondering what good all that storming and stressing has done: after all, the people of the 1850’s are no less subject to the world’s cares as anyone in the romantics’ time. What good does describing and acting out our anguish in verse, no matter how fine it may be, do us? A latter-day Shelley would be no more apt to change the world than the original Shelley was. (A modern author responds eloquently to this downcast notion when, in his elegy “In Memory of William Butler Yeats,” he writes, “ For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper, flows on south / From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, / Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.”

Well, Arnold ’s speaker describes his own position as that of a man “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born” (85-86). Where others may see a confident world re-forming itself in ever-new and exciting patterns, our speaker sees confusion and disarray—steeped in his desire for the moral and spiritual certitude of the past, and in the strivings of the romantic poets who preceded him, he feels himself a member of a tragic generation that can neither simply embrace the past nor smugly accept the present. But it is with the past that the speaker will dwell, however uncomfortably and equivocally: his place is with the contemplative and the reclusive, not with the proponents of modernity. Indeed, the concluding stanzas of the poem are clever and somewhat Tennysonian in their conjuring of colorful, bright medieval soldiering and hunting parties to describe a world of action and reality whose proponents would characterize as radically new. (See, in particular, “The Lady of Shalott.”) I suppose that in this poem, Arnold isn’t exactly writing the “poetry of action” he prescribes in his “Preface” to the Poems of 1853: his art is the kind that treats of problems it admits must remain insoluble because they are linked to the eternal, deep-down strivings and sorrows of humanity. In this sense, art (or, more broadly, culture), for Arnold , partly replaces religion, as so many critics have said.

Preface To Poems (1853)

Overview: Evidently, Matthew Arnold believes that the romantics, as some wag said about Thomas Carlyle, “led us into the wilderness and left us there.” Arnold seeks a balance between poetic form and expression; art should be oriented towards action, he believes, and it should not wallow in Hamlet-like, self-centered anguish or luxuriate in fine phrases and images. That kind of self-indulgence, he believes, has been the tendency since the early modern period. Shakespeare is wonderful, but Matthew Arnold doesn’t advocate taking him as your model if you want to be a writer. Modernity is a threat since it leads us away from what is permanent in us, and away from a unified sensibility and coherent outlook. The Greeks, according to Arnold, are the best artistic models because they can help us fight modernity’s worst aspects: its threat of incoherence and its predilection for the part over the whole, its penchant for selfishness over what benefits the individual most genuinely and serves the community as well. The Greeks offer clarity, rigor, simplicity, and a balanced perspective on life. Like so many Victorian sages and culture critics, Arnold reasserts humanity’s need for some principle of excellence by which to think and live.

1375. “The dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced,” says Arnold. This dialogue cannot be wished away, but he is concerned about its negative effects on consciousness. Complexity is part of modern life, and the question is how to deal with it. Arnold declares himself against any representation that is, as he says, “vaguely conceived and loosely drawn.” We demand accuracy and precision in art; we demand that it should “add to our knowledge.” Or at least, that is what Arnold says we should demand of it; only if this is done, he implies, will it do what it really ought: “inspirit and rejoice the reader.” As always, Arnold draws much from German enlightenment and romantic authors—his descriptions, as he makes clear, are derived from Friedrich von Schiller, a great disciple of Immanuel Kant. The passage he cites is followed by The claim that the best art facilitates the free play of all the mind’s powers: “Der höchste Genuß aber ist die Freiheit des Gemüthes in dem lebendigen Spiel aller seiner Kräfte.”

Unfortunately, in his view, this sort of spirit-expanding free play is exactly what much modern art does not encourage. Instead, modern poetry gives us representations “in which the suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done.” This sort of artistic representation is not tragic in the high classical sense; it is not uplifting but is, he says, merely “painful.” The bottom line is that art should not give in to or merely reflect a particular era’s worst tendencies; it should challenge them, and generate a counter-balancing effect.

1376-77. Arnold insists that “The date of an action… signifies nothing.” There is no reason why we cannot derive as much pleasure and enlightenment from ancient works of art as from modern ones. This is no different from what many critics have said in their own way. Samuel Johnson, after all, wrote that the best art consists in “just representations of general nature” that have been highly esteemed for long periods of time, and he insisted that a painter should not “streak the leaves of the tulip” but should rather provide us with a general, universally recognizable representation. And Percy Bysshe Shelley, of course, writes in his “Defense Of Poetry” that poets write from a perspective beyond particular places or historical epochs. So the claim that art should deliver to us something of universal and eternal significance is nothing new. Arnold is asserting his neoclassical bent here: he derives from Aristotle’s Poetics the notion that literary art should be about “action,” about the construction of plot and story. Emotional expression is secondary to this imperative. As usual, Arnold is in dialogue with William Wordsworth, whose poetry he much admires but whose poetics he does not always agree with. We recall that Wordsworth, in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, said that expression was the prime consideration and that action should simply be made to suit the expression. For Wordsworth, poetry is mainly an expressive vehicle; for Arnold, such a prescription is liable to result in morbid, unbalanced poetry. Somewhat like Thomas Carlyle, Arnold is telling us, “Close thy Byron, open thy Goethe.” As for the moderns in comparison with the ancients, Arnold writes that “with us, attention is fixed mainly on the value of the separate thoughts and images which occur in the treatment of an action. They regarded the whole; we regard the parts. With them, the action predominated over the expression of it; with us, the expression predominates over the action.” It is action, not expression, that delivers to us a sense of an intelligible cosmos. Arnold is therefore very interested in the formal qualities and integrity of a given poem; he emphasizes craftsmanship over intensity of expression.

1378-79. At this point in his argument, Arnold offers some rather harsh words about his fellow critics. He says that they not only allow unhealthy practices, they promote “false aims.” Such critics, he says, are mostly interested in “detached expressions,” and are quite an interested in demanding a sense of the whole in any particular poem. They treat poetry like what we would call “sound bites.” But to treat words and indeed entire works of art this way is to divorce language or whatever medium we are dealing with from the realm of action. While Matthew Arnold is a great believer in the integrity and autonomy of art, he does not promote the idea that the composition of a literary work should amount to navel-gazing on the part of the artist. We do not, he insists, or rather we should not, favor a kind of art that amounts to “A true allegory of the state of one’s own mind.”

Also on this page, Arnold returns to the idea that a young writer must find suitable models. This advice obviously rejects the romantic idea that we can more or less dismiss our predecessors if we find them uncongenial and create something almost from nothing. What Arnold describes is not so much “the anxiety of influence” that, as Harold Bloom would say, caused romantic poets to struggle mightily against the overwhelming influence of John Milton. Rather, Arnold is pointing out that the sheer “multitude of voices counseling different things” threatens modern authors with a profound sense of incoherence when they most need clarity and balance. This is a prominent strain in Arnold’s thinking on art and culture more generally, and even on politics. I think we can understand him without too much trouble because we live in a time with an even larger “marketplace of ideas” from which we may choose. So many ideas, many of them utterly incompatible—how is one to choose amongst them? To use a contemporary phrase, Arnold suggests that modern humanity is beset by “information overload.”

1380-81. But what about Shakespeare as a model? Why not make the greatest of English literary artists our model? Well, Shakespeare’s gift of “abundant… and ingenious expression” may be remarkable, but it is not what we need. In Arnold’s view, Shakespeare was a bit too much in love with beautiful language and fine expression, so much so that it sometimes leads him away from sound construction and concentration on the actions with which his plays are concerned. Criticism on Shakespeare is punctuated by such gentle barbs—Ben Jonson essentially said he wished Shakespeare had had a good editor, that the man had “blotted out” more lines than he did. And Samuel Johnson lamented that the Bard was too fond of silly quibbles, too willing to let semi-obscene puns and the like mar the dignity and moral tenor of his dramas. I think what Arnold is getting at is that Shakespeare was a man of unparalleled artistry and genius who could give us both a complete action and fineness and intensity of expression, but when the other artists attempt to imitate his methods, the results fall short of the original’s mark. (By way of example, he mentions John Keats’s “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil.” It is a poem full of beautiful lines, Arnold suggests, but what is it really about?) Even so, I wouldn’t deny that Arnold is offering a pointed criticism: he says explicitly that Shakespeare’s “gift of expression… rather even leads him astray, degenerating sometimes into a fondness for curiosity of expression….” If this fondness proceeds too far, by implication, we will end up with a work of art that is more eccentric than universal in its appeal. He caps this argument with Guizot’s delicious quip that “Shakespeare appears in his language to have tried all styles except that of simplicity.” If we admire and emulate what is least worthy of such attention in Shakespeare, his art may please us, but it may not improve us or give us a holistic view of life; it may not contribute to our development as whole human beings.

1382-83. Most of all, Arnold recommends the classics, for their “unity and profoundness of moral impression.” Furthermore, he writes of the “steadying and composing effect upon . . . [the] judgment, not of literary works only, but of men and events in general” (1382) that stems from reading classical literature. Perhaps that’s partly why Alexander Pope said Virgil found that “to study Homer was to study Nature.” Arnold’s argument isn’t a diatribe against the modern world; he admits that “The present age makes great claims upon us” and that his classicists “wish neither to applaud nor to revile their age; they wish to know what it is, what it can give them, and whether this is what they want.” He concludes with the thought that progress is a threat mainly if it ignores what is best and most permanent about humanity; the “touchstone” of human nature must be retained amidst the Heraclitean flux of the modern world. His exhortation to fellow poets and readers is that they ought to “transmit to [future generations] the practice of poetry, with its boundaries and wholesome regulative laws,” even if his own generation is comprised mainly of dilettanti who find themselves unable to equal the ancients in their artistic brilliance or their power of thought and feeling. The argument he makes is paradoxical in that what he describes as permanent and natural in us seems to be threatened with extinction by the forces of modernity. As so often, we find a cultural critic dealing with the dilemma posed by the disjunction between broad social imperatives and individual needs and aspirations, and not finding any easy answers. But in his view, ancient art at least gives us some sense of the tranquility, nobility, and excellence of which we are capable.

Week 8, Thomas Carlyle and J.S. Mill

03/15. Tu. Thomas Carlyle. Sartor Resartus (1005-1024).

03/17. Th. John Stuart Mill. On Liberty (1050-61); Autobiography (1070-77); The Subjection of Women (1061-70).

General Notes on Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus

Carlyle, who often serves as a survey course’s bridge between the romantic and Victorian periods, is a difficult writer, but his insights into literature, history, and politics make his eccentric books worth considerable patience. His style is designed to forge a relationship with an increasing, and increasingly skeptical, post-romantic-era public that is not easily satisfied by time-tested formulations about anything. But Carlyle himself was a complex man who wouldn’t fit comfortably in any era—for one thing, he was raised as a strict Calvinist and kept something of the Old Testament prophet about him even after rejecting the metaphysical tenets of this austere faith. Moreover, born in the same year as John Keats, he was by nature a moody and “romantic” individual, which means that he found it necessary in arriving at his mature prose style and authorial stance to work through his own “storm and stress” tendencies before he could find out what lay on the far side of them. It seems he had to pass through Byron to arrive at the calm classicist humanism of his hero Goethe. (But Goethe, author of The Sorrows of Young Werther, had to do something like that, too.) His German Idealist Professor Teufelsdröckh is not Carlyle, of course, but at the same time, Sartor Resartus is part of Carlyle’s 1830’s project of working out a new and viable way to set himself forth as a writer and social critic. Carlyle is characteristically, if explosively, “Victorian” in his admission that art must re-establish its value anew in modern society—and, most particularly, that it cannot do so by reverting to a programmatically “romantic” set of claims about art and social cohesion. In sum, Carlyle faces a task not unlike that of the Anglo-American modernists who will write nearly a century after his time: how to take past ideas (literary forms, social philosophies, political ideals, etc.) and “make them new” to suit the present time.

In Sartor Resartus, that is what Carlyle, in creating his fictional Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, is doing with regard to the “romantic” tradition to which Carlyle himself has strong intellectual and emotional ties. He cannot (and probably would not want to) play the romantic philosopher in his own person. “Dr. T” is Carlyle’s eccentric spokesman for the Idealism of the Continent and, to some extent, for the recent and increasingly defunct British Romantic movement. As you can see from reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Scott and Byron (along with the Lake Poets Wordsworth and Coleridge) had already come to be regarded as a “school.” And to belong to a school, of course, is to become subject to the inevitable sway of fashion and changed circumstances. Carlyle’s ironic but nonetheless respectful presentation of Dr. Teufelsdröckh’s romantic notions about self and society, then, amount to the author’s way of keeping the best in that tradition open for English consideration while admitting that he, as a modern writer, cannot return to the nineteenth century’s first few decades.

What does Carlyle think is worth preserving about the romantic tradition of thought? Well, he is not a precise philosopher like Kant or Hegel; I think it will do here to say that he finds a couple of things worth maintaining: first, the sense that what binds people together is not so much intellect as passion. But perhaps even more important to Carlyle is that romanticism, in its way religion-like, asserts the primacy of spirit over materiality and brute fact. I don’t suppose Carlyle ever truly reconciled the Weimar or “Goethean” humanist promoter of self-cultivation in himself with what has sometimes been called the “prophet of self-annihilation” and, later in life, the “worshiper of force.” But perhaps that is asking too much of him—he is most consistent in fighting by any and all means the advent of a fully materialist, and materialistic, culture in the British Isles. And Carlyle’s “romanticism,’ as he makes Teufelsdröckh illustrate dramatically in Sartor Resartus, was a necessary phase through which he had to pass if he was ever to establish an authentic new voice for his contemporaries. Romantic poses and premises were an essential part of his makeup as a writer and as a social critic.

With the phrase “social critic,” we move on to Carlyle’s mature social philosophy and stance as an historian as they appear in the 1843 text Past and Present. Writing during the Hungry 40’s, when economic instability and discontent were a powerful and threatening combination in Britain, Carlyle decries the alienation capitalism has created amongst workers and employers and, in fact, everyone in Great Britain . In an analysis of labor relations that Marx and Engels would later praise, Carlyle argues that while labor should knit humans together into a social whole, work in industrial Britain is wage-slavery, and the ideology that supports it has the people “enchanted” by its abstract and mechanical conception of human nature and society. The factory hands perform their daily labor for the capitalist, but at day’s end, they have little to show for it in either pecuniary or spiritual terms. The products of the worker’s labor (called “commodities”) enrich the capitalist at the expense of any fair distribution of what has been produced.

This state of affairs, says Carlyle, is even worse than the situation in Europe during medieval times. Back then, at least, the relationship between peasant farmers, their landowning Lords, and the Church, however oppressive and hierarchy-bound, was at least an authentic relationship. That accounts for Carlyle’s praise of feudal society—notice his references to Gurth the Swineherd and his master Cedric the Saxon (characters from Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe), who is himself an underling to the Norman Conquerors. Feudal labor relations, the idea goes, provided both lord and serf with a reciprocal sense of duty toward one another and with some sense of belonging to a stable world order. But in nineteenth-century Britain , no such responsible relationship between the classes prevails, and nothing makes a dent in the Iron Law of the Marketplace. Everywhere, Carlyle explains, one hears only the sentence, “impossible” in answer to the cries of impoverished workers, the unemployed, and those people’s dependents. The false god of riches Mammon, aided by idle aristocrats (“Game-Preserving Dukes”), greedy factory owners, machine-like workers with their demands for the cash that enslaves them, and political economy’s cant about “free trade” and “laissez-faire,” stops cold every attempt to end Britain ’s chaos.

In our chapters, “Democracy” and “Captains of Industry,” Carlyle tries to redefine what is meant by key concepts such as “freedom” and “aristocracy,” in effect recycling them so that they will turn into solutions and not perpetuate the agony of the masses as well as the rule of the ne’er-do-wells. I call Carlyle a recycler of outworn concepts and systems because it seems that his advice isn’t to do away with the flawed, yet dynamic, capitalist order and return to an earlier time. His agrarian “feudalism” is an ideal construction, not something he sets forth as a viable way of life for the present. Rather, Carlyle wants to retain the basic form of capitalist production and even to hold on to the hierarchical relationship between the working and capital-owning classes. If all goes according to plan, there will be no need for another French Revolution—the big industrialists, properly spiritualized by the remnants of Carlyle’s Calvinist belief in the saving power of order, work, and duty, will become “Captains of Industry” and take control of a threatening situation. They will become the new Norman Lords. What the workers need, thinks Carlyle, is not the vulgar, anarchic democracy for which they presently clamor; it is work under the supervision of the newly responsible employer-class. Freshly recycled and spiritualized capitalists will take on the duties of a true aristocracy. Like the original conquerors who came over with William of Normandy in 1066, they will set to work with the materials at hand and build a stable order. They will organize (not reject) production and distribution in the machine age for the benefit of workers and themselves. In sum, they will lead Britain as no other class presently in it can, and thereby provide an answer to the ‘sphinx riddle” of just relations between human beings. That is Carlyle’s answer to what we generally call the Condition of England Question.

Finally, it might be argued with justice (and was so argued by Marx and Engels) that this solution requires the great capitalists to do something that isn’t in their interest: why should they do anything but what fills their coffers with more capital to invest? In sum, it might be said that what Carlyle advocates goes against the operation of a market economy, wherein employers takes on workers for as little as they can pay them, and gets them to do as much “surplus labor” as possible to generate capital. The system itself is the most powerful disincentive to change—it benefits those who are already poised to benefit. What Carlyle is arguing against is, quite simply, the brutal fact that a “system” (economic, social, micro or macro) can function robustly for a long time even though the mass of people who make it work don’t benefit from its continuance. And there is nothing within the system itself that tells they winners they should care about this ugly fact—the will towards a moral “fix” has to come from beyond the system, at least initially.

Capitalism isn’t so much immoral as purely economic and amoral. It is entirely capable of solving the ancient problem of production, but when you assail it for not solving the equally ancient problem of distribution, it has nothing to say—that is no concern, properly speaking, of the economic system. Those who have money (congealed, abstract labor power, to borrow from Marx’s terminology) can buy all the things they want; those who have no money can starve unless someone (for religious or other extraneous moral reasons) decides to help them. That is what we call “private charity.” So long as capital keeps getting generated and commodities keep getting themselves produced and sold, the economy rolls along cheerfully—it doesn’t matter much whether one person buys 100 shirts or 100 people buy one shirt; in theory and to some extent in practice, the profits will be there for the taking. Those who are excluded from the magic circle of production, buying, and selling simply don’t count. But of course Carlyle understands that people usually do what is in their own selfish interests—especially when their utilitarian/market “philosophy” proclaims that they ought to do just that very thing. So how do you suppose he would respond to all this criticism of his suggestions? Do you find him anticipating such criticism in the chapters we may have read from Past and Present?

Page-by-Page Notes on Sartor Resartus

“The Everlasting No”

1006. “Have we not seen him disappointed…?” Such references point to the storm and stress movement in German literature, and in particular to Goethe’s book the sorrows of young Werther.immediately below, the author refers to Teufelsdröckh’s loss of faith, and then Deism comes in for criticism.

1007. “Foolish Word-monger….” Materialism and logic churn out false belief and offer false happiness. Carlyle and Teufelsdröckh oppose Jeremy Bentham’s radical utilitarian movement. Towards the bottom of the page, the narrator says that even doubt leads to God.

1008. “His heaven-written Law still stood legible and sacred there.” Quack muttering from a quack prophet—this will be a consistent theme. “Our Works are the mirror wherein the spirit first sees its natural lineaments.” Know what you can work at, says Teufelsdröckh. Work is of course a key concept in Continental philosophy, especially in Hegel and Marx. Perhaps Carlyle would agree with Oscar Wilde at least in saying that only shallow people know themselves, although Oscar Wilde would never posit work as the answer to this problem. “A feeble unit in the middle of the threatening Infinitude, I seemed to have nothing given me but eyes, whereby to discern my own wretchedness.” Teufelsdröckh is spinning his wheels on speculation not directed towards any object. He is an alienated intellectual. The steam engine universe threatens to run him down.

1009. “To me the Universe was all void of Life… it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb.” This is a key passage. Materialism and logic lead to atheism, and Teufelsdröckh wrestles with spirituality and the meaning of spiritual language. He dramatizes the problem of materialism for us, providing distance from the raw emotion of his encounter with it somewhat as Wordsworth distances us from raw emotion by means of metrical verse. As for Carlyle’s style generally, he puts us in absurd situations, confronting us with the ugliness and cynicism wrought by unbelief and by the need to survive and render intelligible new environments.

1010. Teufelsdröckh is said to confront freedom and the casting out of Byron-Devils. Notice the mockery of Parliament as well. “Despicable biped! What is the sum-total of the worst that lies before thee?” Where does defiance come from? Teufelsdröckh asserts free will to defy death; he takes up a stance against death. “The Everlasting No… pealed authoritatively through all the recesses of my Being….” At this point, Teufelsdröckh confronts the threat of unintelligibility and the possibility that he has no true source. He will arrive at his spiritual rebirth by casting out “legion,” to do which requires experience, the great spiritual doctor. And this is where we come to the center of indifference. “For the fire-baptized soul, long so scathed and thunder-riven, here feels its own Freedom….” The doctor needs an object, he needs direction. He must cast away his romantic vagueness and stop reveling in his own isolation and alienation. He must work through, in both senses, this romantic defiance of his. Carlyle acknowledges the need to adopt a romantic pose to go beyond romanticism. The impulse must be redirected. His spiritual labor’s object is the casting out of Byronic devils. They must be made to depart into everlasting fire, as the gospel would say. His feeling of freedom is what he calls a Baphometic fire-baptism. Romanticism will be construed as a movement and a moment in a much larger historical and philosophical context. But at this point standing puzzled between us and Teufelsdröckh and his romantics is the editor, who is just trying to make sense of it all.

“Centre of Indifference”

1011. So Teufelsdröckh will seek experience—he will go to see the visible products of the past. But already the reader is being led to the necessary Mystery that will make life supportable. At the bottom of the page, Teufelsdröckh questions government and laws. But his point here is allied to the doctrine of natural supernaturalism—even such mundane things as governmental practice and legal codification have their source in mystery. The goal is to recover a sense of the eternal in the temporal and ephemeral, to spiritualize ordinary things.

1012. “Books. In which third truly, the last invented, lies a worth far surpassing that of the two others.” Books last and can continue to generate values. They offer us organic ties to the past. They are things woven, and retain the power to produce new thoughts, new suits of idea-clothes. Refer to John Milton’s claim that “a book is a living thing.” Then Teufelsdröckh moves on to discuss the significance of the battlefield, war.

1013-14. War, “from the very carcass of the Killer, [can] bring Life for the Living!” Teufelsdröckh offers a meditation on war and on the folly of passions about it. This page shows the influence of Hamlet’s ideas about the same subject. “Thus can the Professor, at least in lucid intervals, look away from his own sorrows….” At least he can look beyond himself now, can turn his gaze outward.

1015. “All kindreds of peoples and nations dashed together….” Teufelsdröckh wanders through the landscape, and recovers a sense of mystery in historical process by meditating on the revolution. He moves on to discuss the significance of history’s great men, Napoleon in particular. This page also shows the author coming to terms with the great upheaval stylistically.

1015-16. “Of Napoleon himself….” Napoleon is here described as an enthusiast of the very sort he criticizes Teufelsdröckh for being. Next the professor is off to the North Cape where he confronts a Russian smuggler. This passage is important for its style—Carlyle combines the sublime and the ridiculous in his representation of the northern landscape. It is a romantic symbol for regression into self-consciousness, with the ice reflecting itself to itself. But Teufelsdröckh is not allowed to remain in this place for long. The Russian smuggler brings him back to earth again, and in doing so he typifies Carlyle’s method.

1017. “How prospered the inner man of Teufelsdröckh under so much outward shifting?” It is time to cast out legion, or the Satanic school of romanticism. This will bring the professor to the Centre of Indifference. He muses much like Hamlet about humanity’s pretensions. “[W]hat is this paltry little Dog-cage of an Earth….? The professor is still isolated and apathetic; he has merely passed through his objects of exploration. It is time to apply himself directly to an object—labor is central to Carlyle as it was to Hegel and will later be to Marx. We produce ourselves and find freedom and meaning in work.

“The Everlasting Yea”

1017-18. “Temptations in the Wilderness!” And “Our Life is compassed round with Necessity; yet is the meaning of Life no other than Freedom, than Voluntary Force….” These pages prepare the way to the everlasting yea with preliminary definitions and injunctions. Here the injunction is to work in well doing. Once asserted, free will must turn itself towards work. For Carlyle, that seems to be what replaces God. But the basic point is one made by moral conservatives in many ages. Here is what Pope John Paul II said in 1979—”Nowadays it is sometimes held, though wrongly, that freedom is an end in itself, that each human being is free when he makes use of freedom as he wishes, and that this must be our aim in the lives of individuals and societies,” he wrote in 1979. “In reality, freedom is a great gift only when we know how to use it consciously for everything that is our true good.” (Redemptor Hominis, March 4, 1979.)

1018-19. “So that, for Teufelsdröckh also, there has been a ‘glorious revolution’.” The narrator or editor breaks in to end the professor’s over-reaching. Self-annihilation is announced as the first necessary accomplishment. The Professor has now achieved it.

1019-20. The editor says that in Teufelsdröckh, “there is always the strangest Dualism….” That is a good description of Carlyle’s prose style. First the professor responds to nature, and then to his fellow human beings. “Nature!—or what is Nature? Ha! Why do I not name thee God? Art not thou for ‘Living Garment of God’?” Here the editor describes Teufelsdröckh applying the metaphor of clothing to nature. And then comes an important moment: “The Universe is not dead and demoniacal….” This universe is Teufelsdröckh’s source and connection to others. Everyone is a wanderer like him, so he serves as a model.

1021. “Man’s Unhappiness, as I construe, comes of his Greatness....” Carlyle uses the example of the common shoe black to illustrate the problem of desire: and the problem is that desire is infinite; it is based upon perpetual lack. I like the sentence “Always there is a black spot in our sunshine: it is even as I said, the Shadow of Ourselves.”

1021-22. “The Fraction of Life can be increased in value not so much by increasing your Numerator as by lessening your Denominator.” If you set the denominator to zero, anything will yield infinity. On the same page, the doctor says “Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe.” Do away with excess, and devote yourself to balance and calm. The key to life is not the pursuit of happiness—renunciation is the key. Carlyle dismisses the utilitarian happiness principle. Carlyle insists that there is something “godlike” in humanity—it is not something that the pursuit of happiness will bring out. The Everlasting Yea is “Love not Pleasure; love God.” The point is to walk and work in this kind of love.

1022. What does Dr. Teufelsdröckh need to do? The answer lies in his own statement, “Wilt thou help us to embody the divine Spirit of that Religion in a new Mythus, in a new vehicle and vesture, that our Souls, otherwise too like perishing, may live?” This will be his task as a philosopher and writer. The metaphor of clothing appears in this formulation—words spin new systems of thought and institutions.

1023-24. “ America is here or nowhere.” The ideal resides within yourself. The doctor must produce a world from his own inner chaos. Carlyle reshapes the romantic conception of self so that the point is not infinite removal into isolated, alienated self-consciousness but instead to realize one’s divinity through work of whatever kind. Spirit must inform, give shape to, what the doctor calls the “condition” (by which he means material matter and circumstance). “Been no longer a Chaos, but a World, or even Worldkin. Produce! Produce!” Extra: Carlyle is trying to align or balance the self-cultivating humanist side of himself with the one that is always thundering about the need for work. Carlyle’s gospel of work sounds like promotion of self-annihilation, but a lot of Sartor Resartus is about how his eccentric German Professor develops spiritually and intellectually. He comes to realize that “ America is here or nowhere,” meaning that the Ideal (freedom, self-perfection, progress) is inside our own spirit, and we first need to understand that before we can actualize the ideal. (Romantic premise: spirit must move through matter to realize itself fully; and as Hegel would say, you only realize your individuality fully in the context of society—you can’t do it “all by yourself.”) The Everlasting Yea is to love God rather than pleasure: first put an end to stormy posing (like Byron’s Manfred on the Jungfrau mountaintop, above everything and everyone else, sublimely alone, alienated, dissatisfied), realize that your ideal or “America” is right at home, and then direct your actions to the world so you can actualize your ideal, make it real. So the task is to get priorities straight and plan to make life worth something. Carlyle is a Scottish man of letters making his way into the world of English literature and hoping to make a living. He has to work, too—only as a writer. But write what? And what good will it do? What’s the point of foisting a strange autobiography/biography like Sartor Resartus on thousands of English “blockheads”? This page is capped by a call to order and production—work.

The Seinfeld Quotation in Full: “Whoso belongs only to his own age, and reverences only its gilt Popinjays or soot-smeared Mumbojumbos, must needs die with it: though he have been crowned seven times in the Capitol, or seventy-and-seven times, and Rumour have blown his praises to all the four winds, deafening every ear therewith,—it avails not; there was nothing universal, nothing eternal, in him; he must fade away, even as the Popinjay-gildings and Scarecrow-apparel, which he could not see through. The great man does, in good truth, belong to his own age; nay more so than any other man; being properly the synopsis and epitome of such an age with its interests and influences: but belongs likewise to all ages, otherwise he is not great.” Thomas Carlyle. “Biography” from Critical and Miscellaneous Essays. 91. (Google Books) {George Costanza’s pretentious new girlfriend Patrice quotes only the first line or so, whether accurately or in adapted form I don’t recall. Season 3 (1991), Episode 2, “The Truth.”}

Notes on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty

In On Liberty, Mill asks the fundamental questions of social and political science: 1) what is human nature? 2) how can we best educate and develop it? 3) what is the ideal society? 4) who can lead us towards this ideal state of affairs? He proposes a model of development, so he must specify the agent that will change things as they now stand. What forces are repressing liberty and impeding progress today? That’s the question of the hour.

1051-52. Mill quotes Wilhelm von Humboldt on human nature: “the end of man, or that which is prescribed by the eternal or immutable dictates of reason, and not suggested by vague and transient desires, is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole....” This is a reformulation or modification of Greek and Renaissance ideals about self-development. It is not a formulation that Dickens’ rigid utilitarian Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times would understand. Mill continues, “Nobody denies that people should be so taught and trained in youth, as to know and benefit by the ascertained results of human experience. But it is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way.” Mill of course favors education, but insists upon specificity with regard to the goal towards which the educator should strive. Ultimately, he wants balance in all things, and education is a central way to achieve that goal.

1052. Mill seems to agree with John Milton’s claim in “Areopagitica” that “reason is but choosing.” He says, “The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom makes no choice.” Custom is the enemy of genuine individualism. Again, “He who lets the world... choose his plan of life for him has no need of any other faculty than the apelike one of imitation.” To what extent, we might ask, would Mill countenance the consumer model of bourgeois liberalism? It seems clear that he challenges this model, whereby we link our sense of self to material objects, and mistake the accumulation of owned objects for true progress, and reduce originality to mere imitation and “fashion.” (On the paradox of all things and places fashionable, it’s hard to beat Yogi Berra’s comment about some gathering place, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”)

1053. Mill insists that “Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.” As he said just above, a perfect society built by automatons would not be a good thing. Humanity is constituted by potential that requires experience to realize and actual lies itself. This basic romantic principle cuts against liberal economics, and certainly opposes the atomistic and mechanical conception of human nature we find in Jeremy Bentham.

1053-54. As for our emotional side, Mill writes as follows: “Yet desires and impulses are as much a part of a perfect human being, as beliefs and restraints: and strong impulses are only perilous when not properly balanced... It is not because men’s desires are strong that they act ill; it is because their consciences are weak.” Mill demands the same freedom and exercise for impulses and desires that William Blake does. He is all in favor of “energy,” but with the addition of a need for balance. Mill defines the word character as belonging to a “person whose desires and impulses are his own.” He refers—probably consciously—to Thomas Carlyle’s phrase “steam engine universe.” Then he goes on to criticize Carlyle rather directly, if politely: “In some early states of society, these forces might be, and were, too much ahead of the power which society then possessed of disciplining and controlling them. There has been a time when the element of spontaneity and individuality was in excess... To overcome this difficulty, law and discipline... asserted a power over the whole man... But society has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences.” Therefore, Carlyle’s feudalism is anachronistic and cannot supply the needed pattern for contemporary life—it proposes to deal with inauthenticity by imposing an anachronism on everyone.

1054. “In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest, everyone lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship. Not only in what concerns others, but in what concerns only themselves, the individual or the family do not ask themselves—what do I prefer?... They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? What is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? Or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of the station and circumstances superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary.” Middle-class conformity is the enemy—the same bourgeois attitude against which Carlyle takes aim. But the idea is that this middle-class has come by a much more radical and effective means of control—not violent repression but the persistent and forced internalization of socially acceptable thoughts, until it is no longer necessary to think at all. So much for romantic interiority. Mill continues with his critique of Carlyle, saying that such conformism is only acceptable on the “Calvinistic theory.” In that theology, “the one great offense of man is self-will.” So Calvin stands in for Carlyle here—Mill’s criticism is largely against Carlyle’s social vision in Past and Present.

1055. According to Mill, “‘Pagan self-assertion’ is one of the elements of human worth, as well as ‘Christian self-denial.’ There is a Greek ideal of self-development.” This kind of statement seems to flow from Mill’s understanding of Goethe—a modern kinsman of the classical humanists. Pericles is the ideal—full development of all the person’s faculties, all human potential. Mill says that “In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others.” His social theory argues that richer “units” will lead to a richer mass of people. This brand of individualism takes account of larger social needs, so while Mill is not a collectivist like Carlyle, he by no means ignores “the many.” Furthermore, writes Mill, “To be held to rigid rules of justice for the sake of others develops the feelings and capacities which have the good of others for their object. But to be restrained in things not affecting their good, by their mere displeasure, develops nothing valuable, except such force of character as may unfold itself in resisting the restraint.” Mill opposes the excess of restraint for social conformity, though he recognizes that such restraint is a powerful force to be reckoned with. The need to resist unnecessary constraints, Mill would agree with Sigmund Freud, accounts for a lot of misdirected individual and social energy. Of course, it’s true that since Mill promotes self-culture in England’s capitalist economic and social milieu, his theory is more or less bound to be taken as one idea among others in the marketplace of ideas. That is a very difficult problem to resolve, and one that Oscar Wilde summed up brilliantly in his quip, “A truth ceases to be true when more than one person believes in it.” The quest for genuine originality and authenticity is rather easily commodified and broken into an endless series of poses.

1056-58. Custom, insists Mill, turns us into machines: “Persons of genius…are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom” (1056). Genius is something that Mill insists upon “emphatically”; it requires freedom and variety as its atmosphere, while the middle-class’ public sphere thrives on middling intellects, on comfortable mediocrity (1057). This is hardly an argument invoking the potential of “mass culture,” and it differentiates Mill strongly from Carlyle, who shows little interest in the concept of genius—his heroic ideal isn’t about genius but about the worship of force and personal charisma or energy. On 1058, Mill says that he will have none of Carlyle’s hero-worship; all the eminent thinker may claim is “freedom to point out the way.” Mill is more genuinely indebted to the romantic authors he has been reading. Well, fashion is one major challenge to this organic model of genius and development. Fashion links individual expression to an ever-recyclable system of objects—generating a sense of self that stems from endless repetition and consumption. We identify with an image of ourselves, and take all necessary (economic) steps to conform to that image, but the image keeps giving way to another one. This model of the self mechanizes and harnesses the old romantic “problem of desire,” stripping it of its link to organic theory, to three-dimensional humanistic conceptions of human nature. Mill is concerned about the broad social forces bearing down upon us all—public opinion is like fashion, only in ideas. There is much inventiveness in fashion, inventiveness in “retailoring” what is out to make it in again. Carlyle responds against flunkeyist “fashionism” on its own terms, and thinks that his Clothes Philosophy provides a “recycling” alternative to flunkeyism, but how accurate is that faith?

1059-60. “The spirit of improvement is not always a spirit of liberty, for it may aim at forcing improvements on an unwilling people; and the spirit of liberty, in so far as it resists such attempts, may ally itself locally and temporarily with the opponents of improvement…The progressive principle, however, in either shape…is antagonistic to the sway of Custom. . .” (1059). Mill doesn’t see liberty and improvement as necessarily opposed. The enlightened person should always be aiming to improve. The important thing is to oppose complacency. In his book, The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy, C. B. MacPherson points out that there is nothing inherently developmental about bourgeois liberal democracy. The accumulation of objects is not development, and so liberal democracy all too easily betrays its foundations in Whig gentility, whereby society is something like a gentlemen’s agreement to let progress take its slow course towards the spiritual and intellectual betterment of all. Materialist capitalism annuls this kind of “slow time” in favor of perpetual immediacy. Mill’s borrowings from the romantics may commit him to the infinite deferral of improvement, and to a tacit cultural elitism. I should end by mentioning once more the system of self-object identification inherent in fashion-based consumer culture, and suggest that perhaps we need not stress Mill’s concept of “genius” and “character” (admirable though they are) so much as insist that we must think our own thoughts even as we are subjected to others’. This is something like Greek strength as a model of resistance and progress, and I would have to admit that it largely cedes the possibility of rapid and massive changes in the social order. But that seems unlikely anytime soon. My point is that rejection of consumer culture may not be very convincing or effective. Probably the best you can achieve is inflection with a balanced sense of self as the goal. But it’s fair to say that Mill sees democracy as something people need to work at, not as an already perfect system. That is a point in his favor.

Notes on John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women

1158-59. In general, Mill’s position agrees with that of George Eliot and other notable feminist authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft before him and, say, Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan long after him. Mill decries the hypocrisy involved in a progressive age’s ignoring the “woman question.” Why have there been so many reforms, and yet women are still treated as second-class citizens? We see the same emphasis on the bad faith and selfishness men show when they educate women, or rather fail to educate them. As Mill writes, because men have long wanted more than mere obedience from women, the latter have been “brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self-will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of others” (1158). In a few words, they are expected to live not for themselves but for men. That’s the way men have schooled or conditioned women to regard themselves: the best way to get people to conform is not by physical brutality; it’s much easier for the masters if their servants internalize the most convenient definition of themselves and the rules they’re supposed to obey. But as Mill points out, modern times run against this kind of conformism: “human beings are no longer born to their place in life . . . but are free to employ their faculties, and such favourable chances as offer, to achieve the lot which may appear to them most desirable” (1159).

1160-62. With so much social and economic mobility in Victoria’s England, why are women still chained within an archaic notion of marriage? Marriage should imply mental equality, not servitude. Let competition decide what the future status of females will be. Mill rejects outright the notion that the alleged “nature of women” is anything but an artificial construction of men’s making: “I deny that any one knows, or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another” (1160). Furthermore, he writes, “Of all the difficulties which impede the progress of thought, and the formation of well-grounded opinions on life and social arrangements, the greatest is now the unspeakable ignorance and inattention of mankind in respect to the influences which form human character” (1161). The whole affair of defining the qualities of gender takes on the cast of a badly conducted scientific experiment, with the observers’ biases, desires, and expectations contaminating the results from the outset, and no hope at all for an objective assessment of any differences there may be between men and women. Mill deserves full credit for making such a bold assertion nearly 150 years ago, when it must have been an affront to the sensibilities of a great many men. He points out, by way of elaboration on 1162, that the only woman with whom most men have any real acquaintance is their own wives: hardly a large enough “statistical sample” from which to make generalizations about women in general.

1164. As a utilitarian philosopher, Mill is (in most of his writing, at least) partial to the ideology of the market, with its law of competition working to satisfy human needs and desires, and he puts this terminology to good use in favor of women’s freedom of opportunity: “What they can do, but not so well as the men who are their competitors, competition suffices to exclude them from; since nobody asks for protective duties and bounties in favour of women; it is only asked that the present bounties and protective duties in favour of men should be recalled. If women have a greater natural inclination for some things than for others, there is no need of laws or social inculcation to make the majority of them do the former in preference to the latter. Whatever women’s services are most wanted for, the free play of competition will hold out the strongest inducements to them to undertake.” So are women most suited to be wives and mothers? Well, says Mill, you’d certainly think so, to hear men talk. But how should they know? Like Wollstonecraft, Eliot, and Fuller, Mill believes that marriage should be a reciprocal undertaking governed by genuine conversation; he argues that submission and false gender-definitions deprive both partners any chance to achieve this. All in all, Mill believes he has history on his side, and he is willing to challenge a powerful mid-Victorian consensus about the nature, limitations, and value of women. His wife Harriet Taylor surely had much to do with the strength of his stance: by all accounts, he treated his wife with tremendous regard, not as a servant or a sheltered “angel of the house,” to borrow a phrase from the famous poem by Coventry Patmore.

Notes on John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography

1071. “From the winter of 1821, when I first read Bentham, and especially from the commencement of the Westminster Review, I had what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object.” In the beginning, Mill pursued a vague, general object—reform, the happiness of others. In the midst of his depression, the following question occurs to him: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And of course the answer is no. The negation here is similar to the effect of Carlyle’s steam-engine universe rolling through Dr. Teufelsdröckh’s inner being. Mill says that he had nothing left to live for when he heard his own version of the “Everlasting No,” and he must have felt that he had lived as an automaton. His foundation for personal happiness was only an abstraction; it was what Francis Bacon would call a philosophical cobweb, and what anyone not in the thrall of Benthamism might well consider a utopian vision based on a mechanical view of human nature.

1072. “My course of study had led me to believe that all mental and moral feelings and qualities, whether of a good or of a bad kind, were the results of association; that we love one thing, and hate another... through the clinging of pleasurable or painful ideas to those things, from the effect of education or of experience.” James Mill had taught his son that the goal of education was “to form the strongest possible associations of the salutary class; associations of pleasure with all things beneficial to the great whole, and of pain with all things hurtful to it.” James Mill followed a scientific model of the individual, and utilitarian education presupposes that character develops along the lines of mechanical association. If you identify your personal happiness with the general good, the idea goes, so long as you are working towards the general good you will be happy. But this plan leads to nothing better than middle-class conformity. It is not the way lasting human connections are made, and instead requires a shallow, flattened notion of human happiness and individuality.

1073. “Analytic habits may thus even strengthen the associations between causes and effects, means and ends, but tend altogether to weaken those which are, to speak familiarly, a mere matter of feeling.” It was not so much what Mill read but how he was taught to read it. The word “analysis” can mean “freeing up” the object of study, but that is not usually how we understand the term. The ordinary understanding is closer to the one Wordsworth condemns—”We murder to dissect.” The young John Stuart Mill seems to have been a victim of what T. S. Eliot (in an essay on the metaphysical poets) calls “dissociation of sensibility.” Helping others is not a bad object, but you must first determine the grounds of human connection—they are organic, not mechanical. You cannot superimpose upon the natural passions a scientific utopian scheme and expect anything but misery to result.

1074. “I was reading, accidentally, Marmontel’s Mémoires, and came to the passage which relates his father’s death, the distressed position of the family, and the sudden inspiration by which he, then a mere boy, felt and made them feel that he would be everything to them....” Spontaneous emotion proves to be the key to Mill’s recovery. He describes a Wordsworthian moment in the form of an accidental encounter with a literary text, an autobiographical text written by Marmontel. This accidental encounter escapes Bentham’s and James Mill’s scheme concerning the formation of salutary associations. So the example is a rebuke of straightforward Benthamite utilitarianism—the young Marmontel made a key emotional bond with others, forgetting himself for the moment. What we find described is not a mechanical “I ought” but a genuine outpouring of sympathy. Mill says that after reading this passage, he never again reached the depths of depression he formerly experienced.

1074-75. “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it...” happiness is still important here, but it is not to be directly pursued. The point is to stop analyzing happiness and start working on something you find meaningful for its own sake. It is best not to think of everything you say and do in light of ultimate purposes or end-states of consciousness. Mill has learned to ask Walter Pater’s question—”what is this activity or thing or person to me?” It is not good enough to pursue some abstract notion of the general good and to claim that you are achieving an equally abstract kind of happiness by doing so; the activity must be meaningful to you personally prior to the attachment of any such abstract notion. Mill has not rejected the idea that happiness flows from activity, but it makes all the difference in the world whether that activity is do-gooding or intrinsically and intimately valuable to the individual pursuing it. For example, if I have an inclination to tinker with computers, building them from scratch and solving whatever problems come up as I do so, I may by such means become happy, at least for a while.

The same goes for things like reading a Jane Austen novel—you don’t sit down to read thinking, “my goal in reading this book is to be happy.” If you did, you would become morbidly prone to checking your emotional state every other sentence to register your level of happiness or unhappiness. This kind of obsession resembles both heavy Puritan examination of the state of one’s soul and the associational theory of happiness promoted by Mill’s father and his tutor Jeremy Bentham. It is best to allow your consciousness to be directed towards an object other than your own interior states.
This is profoundly good advice, but if we want to criticize it, we might say that it is an evasion of romantic troubles concerning the problem of desire. It is this problem that caused Carlyle to reject happiness altogether in favor of self-annihilation leading to meaningfulness, awe, and collective belonging. Don’t we invariably reflect back upon our states of consciousness, whether we mean to or not? And if we cannot avoid doing so, the kind of happiness Mill describes will not satisfy us for long—human beings even get tired of being happy after a while. In any case, on the same page Mill emphasizes the need for balancing the sway of our faculties. Feelings and intellection are both important: “I had now learnt by experience that the passive susceptibilities needed to be cultivated as well as the active capacities... The maintenance of a due balance among the faculties now seemed to me of primary importance.” A many-sided personality needs many-sided experiences to develop and be free. Feeling is not mechanical, not associational. The self is not an isolated atom but rather an organic construct. Happiness comes from pursuing intrinsically meaningful activities and from allowing “passive susceptibilities” to operate freely. By this term, I believe Mill means self-culture, the patient development of our individual potential until we achieve a balanced, harmonious sense of who we are and what we are about.

Further reflection: Mill is right to say that if you have to ask whether you’re happy, you won’t be happy for long or perhaps even at all. But saying this doesn’t mean we won’t do it: isn’t it almost impossible not to assess your experiences even as you undergo them? Ideally, I suppose, we would be able to shut off the flow of annoying self-consciousness-tending thoughts. That’s what most meditative techniques seem to be designed to help us do. Imagine walking along a beautiful, deserted beach—the ideal would be just to let nature draw you outside of yourself, all your self-consciousness evaporating with the salt spray and disappearing into the wet sand, the sound of the ocean replacing your thoughts. But something always brings us back to ourselves: that’s the romantic dilemma, and I don’t see that there’s anything but the briefest respite from it. Even so, Mill is surely right that obsessing about your own happiness right here and now is destructive and counter-productive. Happiness isn’t a permanent condition, and it evaporates when you try to treat it as a solid. “Meaningfulness” is perhaps less fleeting, but even that isn’t exactly guaranteed. Buddhists seem wise in their praise of self-surrender: shut down the self to the extent of time and the degree possible, and the world opens up to you: they’re after clarity, sharp awareness without the constant burden of self-referentiality and personal concern. As the Hindu god Krishna would say, redefine the little-s self to embrace the big-s Self, and quit trying to own the consequences of your actions. I think Mill the reformer has come round to that very insight: he still thinks it’s good to help other people, but not simply to make himself a happier man while he’s doing it. That kind of philanthropy is essentially selfish: as Jesus says, “whosoever will save his life shall lose it” (Luke 9:24, King James Bible).

1076. Mill reiterates the point he made earlier about basic utilitarianism’s unbalanced, mechanical view of human nature—simply rendering people “free and in a state of physical comfort” and removing all hardships from life really would not make a community happy. Then he goes on to discuss Wordsworth’s significance for him: “This state of my thoughts and feelings made the fact of my reading Wordsworth for the first time (in the autumn of 1828), an important event in my life.”

1077. “What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought colored by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind.” Wordsworth teaches John Stuart Mill the true sources of happiness, and shows him the value of contemplation, of “wise passiveness” as a corrective for the analytic habit, which in modern times has reached the level of an obsession. And since Mill supposes there are a great many people out there like him, Wordsworth need not be considered the greatest of all England’s poets to be the poet modern English readers stand most in need of reading. Mill says that without having yet read Carlyle, he adopted the anti-self-consciousness philosophy. And of course he literally “closes his Byron” and opens his Wordsworth. So Wordsworth is his Goethe, the man who makes it possible to see that intellect and emotion can co-exist in a balanced individual, one capable of both self-cultivation and genuine desire to reform the world. Wordsworth’s view of human nature is holistic, not at all one-sided as later authors sometimes claim: he has nothing against action, but understands that unless it’s carried out by full human beings, it won’t achieve what it should. At least, that’s how the practical Mill reads him.

Week 7, Alfred Tennyson

Notes on Alfred Tennyson

 03/10. Th. Alfred Tennyson. "The Lady of Shalott" (1114-18); "The Lotos-Eaters " (1119-23); "Ulysses" (1123-25); from In Memoriam A.H.H.: Prologue (1138-39), 1-5 (1140-42), 54-56 (1157-59).

“The Lady of Shalott”

This poem shows Tennyson as self-consciously late-romantic. The first several stanzas play with temporal and spatial references, but it is clear that “down” is the way to Camelot, the world of medieval romance and violence, of immersion in time as symbolized by the flowing river. The Lady will experience this immersion as a rupture. Everyone else’s life is her death, once she tries to make the passage from the island to the mainland. The poem raises the question of art’s relation to other areas of life, an issue of much concern to Tennyson himself. If poetry is a vocation, to what social end does one honorably pursue it?

Parts 1-2. Poetic devices involve us in the aesthetic way of perceiving. Early on the plot is enveloped by form; we are entranced by the Lady’s image-weaving, even though we “see” her images spun. The Lady weaves a magic web—is the text another such web? In the fifth stanza of Part 2, the Lady shows little regard for anything but her weaving, and is not yet troubled by desire, it seems. The metaphors of mirror and loom may refer first to the barrier between life and art, and second to the imaginative process. What is woven may represent the real world, but remains distinct from it. But Tennyson seems to be referring also to Plato’s Parable of the Cave, when he writes “Shadows of the world appear.” The Lady does not see the world outside directly—she sees shadows, just like Plato’s cave-dwellers.

The final stanza of Part 2 says the Lady “still delights / To weave the mirror’s magic sights….” Refer to Freud’s essay “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” where he argues that art is mainly wish-fulfillment. Here the Lady weaves what appears in the mirror, so her web represents representations. What exactly are the “shadows” of which she is “half-sick”? Well, she is tired of seeing things at one remove, and wants direct access.

Part 3. Here the Lady gets her wish when Lancelot punctures the barrier, breaks the magic spell, with a riot of color and sound. The two young lovers in particular (of the final stanza in Part 2) have readied her for this intrusion. Towards the end of the third part, the magic stops, representation ends and experience begins.

Part 4. Publish and perish—the Lady writes her one poem on the prow of the boat that will carry her to her death; the poem is her name. The villagers hear her singing, and she dies “in her song” (this means that within the context of the poem, she “really” dies, but the phrase is slippery—what does it mean to “die in your song”? Doesn’t that mean you never existed outside of it since you lived in it too?) This leads to another reading of the poem as being about the wall between consciousness and the outside world—a more directly philosophical interpretation that might be taken as against romantic self-expression. Is it that self-expression can’t succeed because the self dies in the act of speaking, singing, writing, in the course of the poem? That isn’t a new idea, but the third part sets it forth strongly. On the whole, I’m inclined to read it in light of Pater’s comments about “that strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves.” The value of expression becomes central in that case—what good does it do? The Lady dwells in her own interiority and can neither remain satisfied with spinning her own world nor enter the world of time and experience.

The townspeople try to interpret the poem, but feel only dread. That’s one possible response to art; the other is Sir Lancelot’s more favorable one—he blesses her beauty and asks God to lend her grace for its sake. He does not, like the villagers, try to ward off the Lady’s effect on him as if she were a vampire—he welcomes her power even if he doesn’t fully understand where it comes from, the story behind the pretty but dead face.

“The Lotos-Eaters”

Refer to In Memoriam Lyric 5: “A use in measured language lies / …Like dull narcotics, numbing pain” (1234).

Odysseus joins his crew after only one line—they all “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” as Timothy Leary the 1960’s Professor of LSD Studies would say. He upsets rank and falls away from heroism into apathetic song. There will be no more heroism, no more need to remain obedient to the gods. The verse form brings home this worst possible peril for a Greek hero—who is, after all, responsible for standing up to his fate even though he can’t alter it.

Tennyson’s borrowings from Keats’ sensualism lend the poem its languidness: “A land where all things always seemed the same.” In Keats, we find autumn stillness, but here that stillness becomes trance-inducing stasis. Odysseus had sent scouts in Homer, but here it seems that the Lotos-Eaters themselves just show up with their magic plant.

Choric Song: What lesson do the Mariners learn from nature? Character isn’t set off from or challenged by nature, as it should be. Where are the gods? Words lose their proper orientation towards action, and the Mariners surrender to mellow nature. We find no striving, no wandering, no strength—only rhetoric that justifies inaction. The Mariners have become irresponsible poets, and Odysseus is one of them—in Homer, of course, the captain’s men served in part as foils for his heroic survival. By the sixth stanza, we can say, “so much for the homecoming.” Wandering has lost its purposive edge, and expression has become divorced from action.

The eighth stanza of the Choric Song shows a change in form—this part is deceptively translation-like since the lines are long enough to look like Homer’s dactylic hexameter. Homer kept Odysseus from spending much time on the Lotos-Eaters episode—he surely wanted to emphasize the danger that Odysseus might really have given in, and makes Odysseus conscious of that—he’s retelling the story as long past for his Phaeacian host Alcinous. When the Mariners refer to the “Gods together, careless of mankind (155), the line reflects Tennyson’s interest in the Epicurean notion of the gods set forth by Lucretius—they are said to be distant, not particularly active (they didn’t even create the Cosmos—random movement of the atoms did), and unconcerned with human affairs. The eighth stanza draws out into song the dangerous spiritual error that this dilatory poem has been exploring. Lucretian materialism is meant to bring comfort to humanity, taking away their fear of death and the gods. But Tennyson (who liked Lucretius) finds this un-Greek or unheroic. But perhaps the entire poem is psychological realism on Tennyson’s part—an admission that strong desires beget or are linked to strong counter-desires: authentic heroism is twinned with strong nihilism and the desire to forget.


Tiresias had told Odysseus that he must leave Ithaca one last time to propitiate the gods, so Tennyson’s idea comes from Homer. Here we find a modern mind confronting Greek striving. In Homer, all the wandering was for the sake of getting home and re-establishing order on Ithaca. But here the point seems to be wandering itself. Mixed in is a sad tone, almost Hamlet-like musing on the sum total of it all—I’ve done all these things, but what’s the point of it if they become only memories? Ulysses laments that he has “become a name”; his words are no longer oriented towards action, and he has to cheer himself and others up to find that sense of direction again. What he says about experience is almost Paterian—Ulysses, too, wants “to burn with that hard, gem-like flame,” to expand life into a continual moment of great intensity, blotting out the ordinary or transforming it. The second, more public, part of the poem—”This is my son, mine own Telemachus…” implies a rejection of the task Homer set for his hero. Tennyson isn’t interested, I suppose, in the historical element of Odyssean lore—the “task” of the Odyssey was to revitalize a more domesticated land with its former heroic values. But in Tennyson’s recasting, revitalization evidently means rejecting the domestic life and setting out again as a wanderer towards death. Ulysses stands apart from his son, to whom he would gladly cede the task of ruling over the human herd animals of Ithaca. When Ulysses addresses his old comrades, he sounds like Satan in Paradise Lost—his will is “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” This is a very general directive, not a call to strive towards some specific goal.

If you want to get beneath this poem’s Victorian call to heroism, focus on the subtler side of it—as with Walter Pater, desire for beauty and experience is the obverse of the gods’ absence and fear of death. Tennyson’s is an aesthetic sensibility inclined to escape from or transfigure the ordinary things in life, but not in a way that implies commitment to impending social change. He often comes up against the possibility that his poetry is bound to be received as a compartmentalized, special kind of labor. Does Ulysses’ heroic language differ from his internal dialogue? Is he a false counselor to others, as Dante labels him in one of the later cantos of Inferno? The relationship between art and other areas of life becomes a problem to be explored, not something to be resolved presently. Exploring psychological states is one of Tennyson’s main enterprises, and one might say the same of Browning and some other Victorian poets. Refer to Isobel Armstrong’s thesis about poetry as an alternative realm where more nuance could be developed regarding the issues that prose authors were writing about.

In Memoriam A.H.H.


I. Drawing upon Tennyson’s remark that he had organized the poem by means of the three celebrations of Christmas it records, A. C. Bradley (“The Structure of In Memoriam,” in Robert Ross, ed., In Memoriam, New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1973) and E. D. H. Johnson (“In Memoriam: The Way of the Poet,” in Robert Ross, ed., In Memoriam, New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1973) pointed out the presence of the following structures:

1. (1-27) Despair: ungoverned sense (subjective)
2. (28-77) Doubt: mind governing sense, i.e., despair (objective)
3. (78-102) Hope: spirit governing mind, i.e. doubt (subjective)
4. (103-31) Faith: spirit harmonizing with sense (objective)

The four-part division in relation to Tennyson’s theory of poetry:

1. Poetry as release from emotion
2. Poetry as release from thought
3. Poetry as self-realization
4. Poetry as mission (or prophecy)

II. The poet also explained to a friend (Knowles) that the poem had nine natural groups of sections: 1-8, 9-20, 21-27, 28-44, 45-58, 59-71, 72-93, 94-103, 104-131. Can you sum up or characterize the organizing principle of each group?

III. Structure of motifs created by paired sections, such as 2 and 39, 7 and 119, and so on, and by repetition of images, metaphors, and paradigms, including hand, door, ship, time, and dream.

IV. Patterns of conversion, turning points, and climaxes: 95, one of the longer sections of IM, contains its most famous climax and moment of conversion, but it is only one of several, for those sections concerning poetry and the role of poetry, the fate of his sister, and the conflict of science and religion all have their contributory climactic structures.

V. Patterns provided by types, biblical and biological (see sections 1, 12, 33, 53-56, 82, 85, 103, 118, 123, 131). Playing upon two competing means of the term type, Tennyson parallels and contrasts the biological and the religious. Although he admits that man as a type (species) may well disappear like the dinosaur, a fossil in the iron hills, he finds in Hallam a type (prefiguration) of both the reappearance of Christ and of the higher form (species, type) of humanity—a reassurance that time, evolution, and human life have meaning.

The Poet’s Three Main Areas of Concern:

1. The need to find an appropriate way to express sorrow and hope—a way that will not trap the speaker in those states, but that will not deny their necessity, either. In Memoriam deals with romantic themes—grief, isolation, the poet’s anxiety over the expressive capacity of language. But Tennyson’s elegiac poem is highly structured and formal, too—a working-out of his emotions. Formal elegy (poetic ritual) helps him establish distance from the recurrent rawness of his grief, and affords him an opportunity to express and explore painful interior states. Wordsworth, too, saw meter and poetic devices as ways of establishing meditative distance, ways of blanketing otherwise too-intense events and feelings with a layer of unreality. (This insight is as old as Aristotle—he says we can contemplate things with pleasure in art that would cause us unbearable grief or horror if they really happened.) In Tennyson’s cycle, Sorrow will be personified, negotiated with, listened to, and overcome. But grief is not an easy thing to leave behind; its persistence is signaled by Freud’s phrase “the work of mourning.”

2. The need to wrestle with religious doubt, whether this doubt comes from the pain occasioned by the loss of a dear friend, or from what John Ruskin would later call “the dreadful clink of the hammer” in one’s brain—i.e. the chipping away of faith caused by the advancing sciences of geology (Lyell), biology, chemistry, etc. These sciences were at work even before Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution intensified “Victorian doubt.” Many Victorian intellectuals also had problems with the more severe formulations of Christian theology—Calvinist pre-election or damnation, and so forth.

3. The need to reconsider the “romantic” regard for nature’s value as a source of moral intelligibility and comfort. But the concept of nature is itself undergoing change—even Lyell’s uniformitarianism (the forces that shape the earth today have been shaping it the same way for millions of years) leads to a sense of “deep time” or “geological time.” The death of Hallam shocks Tennyson, but this long sense of time threatens to overwhelm any sense of human significance—see the fine set of lyrics 54-56 on this issue.

The Prologue

George Herbert’s poetry is an influence on Tennyson. Herbert, like Milton and others, felt the need to justify his habit of writing poetry—is it a genuine calling, or self-indulgence? Refer to 1 John 4:21: “And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.” The remark implies that it if poetry is to be an authentic use of one’s time, it should perform some social function—not just amount to private expression, venting, or some other selfish thing. Herbert also wrestled with movements of spirit that may be less than accepting of God’s will. This is not a matter of doubt, however, as it is with Tennyson—with Herbert, the issue has to do with the mind’s attempt to order contrary passions and align self and will with the will of God. In this sense, poetic language might serve to mediate between one’s better self and unruly thoughts and desires.

Stanza 1. The first stanza introduces a big issue—what is the relationship between faith and knowledge? Another eminent Victorian, John Henry Newman, captured this issue well when he wrote that there is “certitude,” and there is logical proof. In matters of faith, he suggests, the idea isn’t to look for scientific or logical proof—the right attitude has more to do with a deep feeling of certainty in the truth of Christian doctrine.

Stanzas 2-4. The speaker asserts that Providence (God’s plan) encompasses everyone and everything. He says that man “thinks he was not made to die,” and claims that he draws certitude from that. If we have such a strong feeling that something of us survives, well then, something must—why else would we have such a feeling? God made us, and must have given us the capacity for that feeling, so he will have the thing so. The third and fourth stanzas insist that despair—something IM explores, must be cast away along with sorrow.

Stanza 5. The speaker says, Carlyle-like, that “Our little systems have their day.” They are only “broken lights” of God’s divine and radiant Truth, so human knowledge will never replace God.

Stanza 6. The poem will make a search for the true ground of being and faith. The “beam” of light in the darkness could refer to any number of biblical passages, but Christ’s “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” would be a good candidate. (John 8:12)

Stanzas 7-8. Knowledge will grow until mind and soul, knowledge and faith, unite again.

Stanzas 9-11. The speaker apologizes for the torturous and “romantic” path of self-exploration and doubt that makes up the lyric progression of IM. He accuses himself of an excessive grief that might imply lack of trust in God’s plan. As Claudius says to Hamlet concerning his father’s death, “why stands it so particular with thee?” The speaker’s “wild and wandering cries” are, however, rhetorical and dramatic utterances. They explore, vent, contain and direct “powerful feelings.” Tennyson’s craft as a poet helps him arrange his emotions and gain perspective on them.

Lyric 1 (Stage 1 = 1-27, Near-Despair, ungoverned sense, subjective)

Loss should lead to growth, but perspective is an acquisition of time—a slow, sorrowful process. The speaker begins his exploration of sorrow’s psychology—grief is necessary and human. He rejects stoic indifference to grief—he is not yet ready for “calm of mind, all passion spent.”

Lyric 2

Over time, the tree obliterates the names of the dead, effacing our attempt to memorialize them. Nature envelops the person’s dust, and shadow envelops our entire lives. The speaker betrays a strong desire to put an end to answer-seeking and self-consciousness. Carlyle’s sense of mystery hovers over this poem, but provides no comfort. The tree itself is rooted in eternity, ultimate perspective. In the final stanza, the speaker wants to lose consciousness and merge with the tree’s mysterious presence. We might also say that the tree is one of Wordsworth’s “beautiful and permanent forms of nature.”

Lyric 3

The poem objectifies sorrow to gain perspective on it, but this tactic does not always work. In the first sent stanza, the speaker tries to gain perspective on his grief—towards what path of thought will Sorrow lead the speaker? In the second stanza, Sorrow says we inhabit a blind, purposeless universe—Carlyle’s steam-engine universe—there is no Providence and no purpose to life. In the third stanza, she says that Nature is void of meaning or hope; there is no source or ground for being, no anchor for the expression of emotions. In the fourth stanza the speaker raises the possibility of rejecting the Wordsworthian religion of nature, but does not do so.

Lyric 4

This poem shows that the speaker has a divided consciousness.

Lyric 5

The speaker questions the expressive transparency of language, its ability to convey feeling. He questions romantic optimism about the vital role of language as mediator from one soul to another. But the lyric’s rhythmic language helps to still the speaker’s pain. It distances him from his own emotions—but is a narcotic effect the same as perspective or therapeutic value?

Lyric 7

This poem explores the psychological state of disbelief, mourning.

Lyric 11

The speaker is out of joint with natural calm; his perspective does not match that of nature personified. Are we to understand calm here as the peace that passes understanding? The speaker also confronts in his imagination the still body of his friend. He is preparing to reckon with the body’s silence and its transformation into a thing of dead nature.

Lyric 14

In the final stanza, the speaker is again preparing himself to let go of Arthur’s life-image. Viewing the body is necessary if we are to accept death.

Lyric 15

In the third stanza, the speaker refers to the ship’s motion—the apparition is the ship bearing his friend’s body. See Job 37:18. For the final stanza, see Revelations 15:2. Will the speaker’s interior state lead him to ultimate vision, to the meaning of Arthur’s passing?

Lyric 28

This poem, written early, marks the beginning of the second stage that runs through Lyric 77: doubt, mind governing sense, objective. The speaker is wrestling with doubt—that eminently Victorian problem. In the second stanza, he hears the bells, symbols of religious faith at its simplest and finest, implying harmony among mankind. In stanza five, the bells recall him to a former state of simple faith, a sense that the world is morally intelligible. As in Wordsworth’s poetry, past feelings rekindle new emotions of a similar kind. But bells are not words. The last two lines reverse Shelley’s formula in “We are as Clouds”—the bells bring “sorrow touched with joy.”

Lyric 30

In stanza seven, the speaker says that there is a spirit moving through the universe. The imagery here is similar to Dante’s, or to Shelley’s in Adonais. Is Arthur moved now by the divine or primal love? I should also check Lucretius’s references to the soul wandering into infinity.

Lyric 34

The speaker describes an alternate poetics—your expression without the need for progress or arrangement of the passions to serve moral ends. But he does not embrace this alternate poetics, as we can tell from the conditional mood of the final two stanzas.

Lyric 39

This poem should be compared with Lyric 2. In the first stanza, the speaker sees the tree as truly animate—it is part of nature’s regenerative cycle. But then Sorrow takes away the speaker’s believe in the regenerative power of nature, implying that the comfort we take is imported, a function of anthropomorphism.

Lyric 54

In the final stanza, the carefully ordered rhetoric of faith is described as a dream, and the poet’s language as a cry. But a cry does not give us the moral understanding we crave; we want to assert that purpose governs the universe.

Lyric 55

In the second stanza, the speaker asks if God and nature are at war with each other. He must be thinking of Sir Charles Lyell’s principle of uniformitarianism, which says that consistent forces operating over vast periods of time have shaped the earth. If the species or type is all that matters, what consolation is that fact for individuals? Can science offer us satisfying knowledge? Or even bearable knowledge? In the final two stanzas, the speaker sounds like Shelley in “O World, O Life, O Time.” Life is cast as an arduous path, with the speaker groping for purpose and meaning. Science has been destructive of faith, disintegrating the individual psyche and the sense of community.

Lyric 56

In the first stanza, Nature says she cares not even for the type—geological strata convey in cold Stone the passing even of the species. Evidently, Nature can betray the heart that loved her. In the fourth stanza, the speaker says we trusted that love was God’s primal impulse and ordering principle—Aristotle’s final cause (purpose) and first cause (God) conjoined. In the sixth stanza, the speaker raises the problem of self-consciousness. We “look before and after and pine for what is not,” as Shelley says. We try to establish a hierarchy of beings, but geological time does not respond to our efforts in a comforting manner. I recall Pascal’s remark that “the silence of these infinite spaces” terrifies him. Tennyson’s speaker says we cannot be satisfied thinking of ourselves in purely material terms—it crushes our sense of worth and even humanity. The final stanza brings in a Carlylean sense of history again—put on the veil and stop asking questions.

Lyric 75

In this poem, we find the Shakespearean theme of immortality through verse. This conventional sentiment leads us to the fuller transition of Lyric 78. The third stage through Lyric 102 is marked by Pope, with spirit governing intellect and doubt. It is a subjective stage, as was the darker stage one. With Lyric 103, the fourth stage arrives—that of faith, with spirit harmonizing sense and intellect and feeling. It is an objective part of the poem.

Lyric 108

The speaker will seek solace in social interaction—not in religious speculation. He has begun to pull back from Arthur, and there is a hint of a feeling of abandonment in the final stanza.

Lyric 118

In the second stanza, there is probably a reference to Jean LaPlace’s idea of the earth as a fiery discharge from the Sun. The rest of the lyric sets forth the idea of inner evolution—the animal in us is chaos that must be overcome and left behind. Human nature is satyr-like, and requires acts of will, self-overcoming.

Lyric 123

These are very rhetorical poems with conventional themes coming to the forefront, along with a reassertion of the Carlylean sense of mystery. The theme is something like “life is a dream,” but the ordering power of the language works against that notion. In the final stanza, the speaker implies that to affirm the inconstancy of all things human, the delusional state in which we dwell, does not satisfy or convince. It is only the initial move on the way towards faith. God lies at the end of the path of doubt and faith alike.

Lyric 124

The speaker, in stanza 2, says that he does not find God in arguments about “intelligent design.” This is the sort of thing that abstract reasoning cooks up. In the final stanza, a sense of mystery puts an end to the speaker’s searching—the light comes from darkness.

Lyric 126

This poem looks back to George Herbert, who sometimes portrays Christ as a great lord in a court. The “faithful guard” is the Church. The speaker begins to feel protected, encompassed by Anglican ceremony and faith.