27 January 2014

welcome. let me feed you.

I wrote this sketch last semester for a literature final. The class covered Romanticism and the outpouring of new ideas and publications during that period. They were such fascinating people, many of them unafraid of opening their inner lives to readers. Or had those inner lives waved about by the public whether they wanted it or not. Either way, they were quite an eccentric group of folks that I greatly enjoyed getting to know over the semester. And, as there are few things I enjoy more than listening and sitting people down to eat together, this piece was just waiting to happen.

As I lit the last pillar candle and straightened the last fork, I surveyed the table spread: simple, yet overflowing with vegetable dishes of all sorts. The Shelleys were still on their vegetarian kick, and Percy always gave the same impassioned ramble of a speech anytime he saw one of his friends consuming meat.
Just as I stepped back into the kitchen to check on the pies, a commanding rap jostled the CD player, starting Mozart’s Requiem over again. With that much concentrated energy, it could only be Blake. Hurrying across the wood floor in my stocking feet, I slid to the latch, composed myself, and threw open the door.
“I come to discover before Heaven and Hell the self-righteousness in all its hypocritical turpitude” (“Milton A Poem” 198). And with such an entrance as was typical for him, Blake stepped onto the carpet and made his way into my apartment. Somewhat desperate to not be alone with Blake what with the heavy weight of trying to understand the depth of nearly everything he says, I hesitated before losing the door, providing just enough time for Hannah More to bustle around the corner and up my front steps, quickly followed by the Shelleys. My small apartment was quickly filled with talk and chatter as cloaks, hats, and walking canes were set aside.
As I closed the door, I glanced around it hoping to glimpse the Wordsworth siblings, but no such luck. It wasn’t until appetizers were dwindling that Dorothy Wordsworth’s timid knock announced their arrival.
“I’m sorry we’re late,” she said as they stepped in. “We…went to John’s Grove [and] sat awhile at first (“The Grasmere Journals” 497). It’s ever such a beautiful day. We got lost in it.” The whole party welcomed them in as I set the latch behind them and gestured toward the table. I pointed out the neatly lettered place cards in the hope that they would follow my carefully planned seating arrangement. However, despite my best efforts, Percy sat directly next to Wordsworth, taking the head of the table.
As the evening progressed and the food slowly disappeared, a lull in the conversation prompted me to talk of the weather. “It’s been quite lovely today, hasn’t it?” I said eager to restart the conversation along with a new round of potatoes.
 “The morning sun shone bright and warm,” Wordsworth said, as he rolled asparagus onto his plate (“Anecdote for Fathers” 205).
“Indicative of a happy evening, I’m sure,” trilled Mary Shelley over the cranberries. She was always on about the weather foreshadowing the future emotions of whoever was about.
“Oh!” Hannah More perked up her head. We all waited for he to whip out her pet issue and wave the slave ship in our faces, but, much to our relief, she continued one of our previous conversations on the meaning of art and sensibility. “I’ve been thinking about how art can never seize, nor affection catch thy power to please’ and we tall about sensibility and its “keen delight,” but how do we begin to define it?” (26).
“Well…” Percy swallowed the roll in his mouth and began. “It’s all wrapped up in nature, really.” Gesturing towards the Cascade Mountains filling the window in front of him, he raised his voice and declared, “The naked countenance of earth on which I gaze, even these primeval mountains teach the adverting mind” (“Mont Blanc” 859). I leaned forward to look around Dorothy and Blake towards the window revealing the fresh snow laid out on the clustered peaks. They were certainly impressive.
Percy continued. “If we’re open to nature it will teach us truth. That’s what you used to think, eh Wordsworth?” The bite in his voice cut through my visions of a conflict-free evening. I should have known better than to expect an evening with strong-minded artists to be smooth.
Wordsworth shifted his shoulders and looked uncomfortable. “‘…I [am] still a lover of the meadows and the woods and mountains, and of all that we behold from this green earth, of all the mighty world of eye and ear…well-pleased to recognize in nature and the language of the sense, the anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, the guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul of all my moral being’ (“Prelude” 240). Truth is surely communicated through nature, but that Truth is God, not nature itself.” The whole party sat quiet for a moment as Percy softly shook his head.
Breaking the silence, he said, “‘Though leavest me to grief, thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be’ the ‘poet of nature’” (“To Wordsworth” 852). Several more beats of silence followed his words, punctuated by Blake’s knife cutting through the maple carrots.  Blake finally broke it.
“Well, If thought is life and strength and breath; and the want of thought is death; then am I a happy fly, if I live, or if I die” (“The Fly” 27). Once again he was making a comment that sounded to the point, but was so caught up in imagery that I struggled to catch his full meaning.
Trying to get him to explain himself, I said “We are all thinking about the world we live in and our role in the wider context of this life…are you saying that that means we all succeed?”
Blake continued the thought. “Yes. And it is the creativity that matters; the imagination must be allowed to operate freely. It is in man’s act of creativity that we find him whole.”
Shifting in her chair, Hannah More interjected, “I couldn’t agree with you more, except that you say ‘man.’ Couldn’t we say ‘people’ and include us women? Who, I might add, make up more than half our company.”
Mary joined in. “Oh, we’re ‘all polluted by crimes and torn by the bitterest remorse [I’m sure]; where can [we] find rest but in death?” (Frankenstein 156).
Percy, the curve of his upper lip indicative of his displeasure at his wife’s addition to the conversation, snapped out a retort. There was obviously still a great deal of tension between the two. We’d all been holding our breaths to see if it would blow over but it had been quite some time now without any change. Dorothy once confided in me that that’s what comes of marrying young, but she would never say so to Mary. Though quiet, Dorothy was the first to act to sooth the embarrassment that had shot through the room. Standing up, she offered Mary’s and her own services in setting out dessert. Jumping up with them, I began bussing dinner dishes and serving plates off of the table, leading the way to the kitchen.  As Mary left, she shot back at Percy: “Thus I take from thee a sight which you abhor” (63).
“She isn’t even a very good writer,” I heard Percy say as we left. “I have to practically rewrite everything she does before it’s acceptable for print.”
In the kitchen, Dorothy sectioned out the pies while Mary whipped a small bowl of cream a bit harder than she needed to while murmuring under her breath, “He ‘may render me the most miserable of [women], but [he] shall never make me base in my own eyes’” (96).
            As I went back into the living room I noted gratefully that Hannah had managed to distract the men by starting them on the topic of education. Wordsworth was talking about his beloved Wye again and reminiscing for his childhood.
            “Whate’er in the wide circuit we beheld or heard was fitted to our unripe state of intellect and heart. By simple strains of feeling, the pure breath of real life, we were not left untouched” (“Prelude” 361).
            “I quite agree,” Hannah remarked. “It is far better for us to follow such a natural education. Surely it is only then that we can teach children to be open to their senses for only then can they become true poets.”
Wordsworth continued. “It was for me no useless preparation to have been the pupil of a public school, and forced in hardy independence to stand up among conflicting passions and the shock of various tempers…among the mysteries of love and hate, honour and shame, looking to right and left, unchecked by innocence too delicate and moral notions too intolerant, Sympathies too contracted” (470-71).
            “You talk of love,” Percy interjected with a glare towards the kitchen door. “I find that love is how we wish ‘that another’s nerves should vibrate to our own’ (“On Love” 861). Unfortunately, my wife’s nerves are far too tightly wound to vibrate at all.”
Blake chastised him: “Love seeketh not Itself to please, nor for itself hath any care; but for another gives its ease, and builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair” (“The Clod & the Pebble” 31).
I left again to the tune of both Blake and Wordsworth reminding Percy of the importance of living in community. Blake’s tones echoed through the wall as I brought down the dessert dishes. On returning, I found that he had completely changed the subject and was now talking about his theory of innocence. He must have been working on yet another ordering for his book.
            Dessert proved to be calmer as Hannah More once again took the conversation in stride.
            “As words are but th’ external marks to tell the fair ideas in the mind that dwell…so exclamations, tender tones, fond fears…these lovely symbols may be counterfeit (26). How can we be sure that we are not manipulating our readers into an emotional frenzy disconnected with their actual thoughts?” Hannah looked in Wordsworth’s direction with a happily perplexed expression on her face. He became openly animated and, letting his pie go cold, set off on one of his pet subjects.
            “Recently I have been trying to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic poetry (“Lyrical Ballads” 166). For after all, all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings lending itself to the common language (253). You should see what Robert Burns has been concocting. It’s absolutely delightful.”
            The evening soon came to an end bringing with it the bustle of replacing scarves, gloves, and other buffers against the chill wind that rises after the sun sets. As I waved them down the front steps, I could see Hannah More’s silhouette swooshing around the corner, Blake’s thinking form right behind her, Mary and Percy walking one behind the other, and Dorothy taking Wordsworth’s proffered arm. As I shut the door for the last time that evening, the conversation played back through my head.  I had said very little, but heard a great deal. Their company always leaves me contemplating the glory of my God and Savior and the wonders that He has put in this world for us to discover.
Dorothy always has the most beautifully intimate observations of nature. She expresses so well the wonders that are around her and she takes the time to stop and gaze at them. Her Grasmere Journals are a treasure indeed, filled with the everyday elevated to worship.  I most certainly need to spend more time doing the same. Wordsworth also has the wonderful ambition of making his art form of poetry accessible to as many people as possible. Yes, it’s how he makes his living, but he goes above and beyond the bounds of what his fellows expect. To take his ideas and work to put them into common language and speech patterns is a wonderfully loving thing to do. He wants to share the beauty he sees with those who are around him and I can do nothing but admire that. 
Percy is a little harder for me to get on with because his appreciation of nature is an idolization of it. He looks to nature alone to give the most perfect truth rather than the God who created the beauty he sees. He isn’t afraid to be blunt about his frustration with Wordsworth. It’s amply clear in his title “To Wordsworth” and the following, scathing presentation of how he believed the man to have gone soft, so to speak.” He modeled his life after Wordsworth’s early philosophy and then felt betrayed when his work began to point back to God instead of keeping nature as the answer. However, his eye is keen and his observations still reveal the glory of God to me even if that is not his intent. He is also one of the rare writers who is comfortable with the tension of living in a fallen world. While things appear one way they are actually another. There is no pure yes or pure no. And so it will be until the Lord returns. Even though I like to deny that the tension exists, Percy makes me face it and for that I am grateful.
Mary Shelley is a continual fascination to me. She carries vast ideas about the world within her from the strength of the feminine soul to the darkness of isolation. Each time I re-read her work Frankenstein I wish I could question her more closely on how she sees herself portrayed in the monster and perhaps even in Frankenstein himself. Her interest in and familiarity with the current happenings of the world at large is admirable and a skill which I find myself lacking. She proves a very interesting foil to her husband as well in that she is fascinated by science. While Percy looks at nature and brings truth from it, Mary unveils truth found in human endeavors.
Hannah More is a wonderfully comfortable woman with her surety of self and deep desire to improve the world around her. I think that one of the most admirable things about her is that her life reflects her work and her work reflects her life. Her writings stretched from exploring the horrors of the slave trade to the meaning of poetry as an art form in “Sensiblity.” She is determined to not manipulate her readers into agreeing with her simply because of her ability to control their emotions, but rather wants them to come to their own rational conclusions. Her example is admirable in that she knows what’s right and she seeks after it with all of her energy. Just imagine if every Christian were to live out their convictions so intentionally.
Blake will always be a somewhat mysterious character with his continual references to his own personal mythology, but sometimes small snatches and phrases stick out of what he says and I suddenly understand a piece of what he’s talking about. He advocates for growing love and not fear, for looking at the world from many different angles, and the importance of acknowledging the wholeness of people. Even some of his shorter works such as “The Clod and the Pebble” or “Thel” delve into the deepest questions of what it means to be human and the juxtaposition between humility and value. Though he can be confusing, he exudes the idea that everyone should be treated as the image of God because indeed, that is what they are.
Now, as I stand with the dishes cleared, my hands in the soapy water, and a lovely evening behind me, I begin to think forward to the next opportunity that I can gather all of these artists, poets, writers, and thinkers around my table.

Works Cited
Blake, William. “Milton A Poem” Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Ed. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: Norton, 2008. 144-203. Print.
---. “The Clod and the Pebble” Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Ed. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: Norton, 2008. 31. Print.
---. “The Fly” Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Ed. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: Norton, 2008. 37. Print.
More, Hannah. “Sensibility: A Poetical Epistle to the Hon. Mrs. Boscawen.” Romanticism: An Anthology. Duncan Wu, ed. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996.  26-27. Print.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Dover, 2009. Print.
Shelley, Percy. “Mont Blanc.” Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996.  856-860. Print.
---. “On Love” Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996.  861. Print.
---. “To Wordsworth” Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996.  852. Print.
Wordsworth, Dorothy. “The Grasmere Journals Thursday 19 April 1802” Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996. 495-98. Print.
Wordsworth, William. “Anecdote for Fathers, Showing How the Art of Lying May be Taught” Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996. 204-206. Print.
---. “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour” Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996. 240-44. Print.
---. “Lyrical Ballads” Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996. 166. Print.
---. “The Thirteen Book Prelude” Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996. 284-474. Print.

1 comment :

Melanie said...

Katie, thank you for sharing this with us! Your writing makes me want to read them for myself, with a better understanding of how they all fit together.

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