Sometimes you get to see your heroes, maybe just in time. He played a great set and even dedicated “The Times They Are A’Changin’” to a fallen comrade. In place of the more familiar alternatioin between electric and acoustic guitars, Dylan also threw keyboards into the mix. Truly a great performance, particularly the raucous “Summer Days.”
When news of the official release of Dylan's Royal Albert Hall concert from '61 came down, I immediately said to myself, "Great! Maybe they'll also release something from The Rolling Thunder Review." Good news.
In the fall of 1993, I took a course in (English) Romanticism, that is the literature, primarily the poetry, of England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. To specify further – it was the poetry that dealt with the role of the mind in creating the world – a poetry that rose in reaction and critique of enlightenment. It focused on the major English poets from Wordsworth through Byron, with special emphasis on Blake and Shelley. We also looked for strains of romanticism in later incarnations – different guises – from Bob Dylan Lyrics to Bruce Chatwin essays.
At the time, I was aged 19 years. I feel comfortable in saying that I understood “ Critique of Enlightenment” better than I did real world experiences. To be fair and Romantic all at once, that may be the indictment that only and older self can hand down. At the time, I really anticipated enjoying my Renaissance Lit class much more. Initially, that proved true. However, after the dreary, gothic imaginings of Cowper and Walpole, we began our consideration of Wordsworth. This began my appreciation but ultimately, inadequate understanding with Romantic poetry.
I remember sitting in the Humanities Seminar Room of the Humanities building of American College X. I was sitting with a handful of, at that time, close friends. I guess we had been perceived to have formed a clique. Perhaps that locution hides not that the perception creates a reality, but maybe we did and that was perceived.
Our treatment of the Wordsdworth started by looking at, among others, Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour. July 13, 1798 (for the sake of brevity, we will opt for Tintern Abbey – rather than the less descriptive “Lines”). My friends, Johnny and Ryan (woman) and I sat there among the decades old couches having done the bare minimum of preparation for the class. I skimmed the poem and had a couple of scribbles in the margins. From my first reading, I remember nothing substantial – in fact I remember thinking that the whole thing felt rather boring.
In some ways, the reading that we did there, in class was my first reading of the poem. I think it may have been the others’ first reading of the poem as well. Maybe I am extrapolating from our reactions. Maybe I am creating those reactions now as I write this over nine-years later on a very similar autumn day. But In an unhurried and almost dusty room with fall raging on outside the windows, we read the poem line-by-line.
Looking back, I see how clearly how the poem begins in the speaker’s memory– recalling the experience of five years previous. How the poem deals with the mind making the world around it. How “steep and lofty cliffs,/ that on a wild scene impress / Thoughts of a more deep seclusion” work on the landscape around them through the mind of the speaker. The interaction with a strange and savage landscape – one of indifferent beauty and power, provides those memories and remembered feelings that “account for the “best portion of a good man’s life/, His little nameless unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love.”
The speaker recalls the effects of these landscapes, and what they have meant to him when, in the poet’s words from another poem, “the world is too much with us.” The poem builds to this crux – a turning point. The depiction of the movement of a mind is beautiful. The poem takes you with it. It was amazing – the three of us were laughing as we took this unexpected e-ticket ride along with the speaker of the poem. Suddenly not only for the speaker, but for us, these memories lighten the burden of this “unintelligible world” putting us in a mood in which “the affections gently lead us on.” Ultimately, it is this mood that allows us to become that transcendent living soul, and here’s where the poem takes out the stops – and “with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,/ We see into the life of things.”
Whether it was too stuffy and the lack of oxygen had the perverse effect of making us susceptible to romantic hallucinations, or whether we all took a small trip, we all reported the most amazing effects later. That line in particular, seemed very powerful at the time. Even today, this afternoon, reading the poem here at a kitchen counter, I feel that euphoria again. But now I understand the rest of the poem, and why that is perhaps even more important.
Contrary to what I saw on the page, and how I felt at that moment, the poem continues. The speaker realizes that not only is he enjoying a moment of five years gone by, but that this moment above the Wye, he will take this moment with him as “life and food / For Future years.” He also begins to articulate how he is different now, no longer the “man flying from something he dreads,” but a man “who sought the thing he loved.” He reflects that his love of nature was an animal passion, a “coarser pleasure” of his boyish days. This appreciation of the natural world was “An appetite… that had no need of remoter charm,/ By thought supplied nor any interest / unborrowed from the eye.” It was a voracious response of youth to the physical beauty of the natural world – compounded by the need to escape the dark precincts of London and the harrowing worry of profit.
The speaker now confesses that gone are the aching joys and dizzy raptures, replaced by the “still, sad music of humanity… of ample power to chasten and subdue.” The speaker now is able to perceive in beauty a sense of the sublime – a perception of beauty in a landscape or scene that is powerfully indifferent to his humanity. It is:
“… a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused
Whose dwelling is in the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.”
The speaker perceives a sense of something larger than himself, larger even than his imagination, in the world, made manifest by charismatic landforms. It is this sense that becomes his moral guide, the better angel of his nature.
In a motion that still surprises me, the speaker reminds the reader that he isn’t talking to her – he’s addressing a friend. It’s a starting shift, occurring in the middle of a line buried as the fifth in its stanza. In her (let’s call the friend “her” in observance of Romantic convention of men lecturing women on “how to feel;” this tradition includes Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach and the feminist re-working, Dover Bitch) he perceives his former self and his appetitive appreciation of nature. He then begins what can best be described as a prayer – a blessing. His mind moves from the self outward to concern for another. And for “his dear, dear Friend” he wished that “When these wild ecstasies shall be matured / Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind / Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms, / Thy memory shall be as a dwelling place / For all sweet sounds and harmonies.”
The poem concludes with this blessing, elaborated for the reader and, we suppose, the speaker’s audience within the poem. As a 19 year old, I really stopped reading when I could “see into the life of things.” I was encountering the poem just as speaker’s previous self had encountered nature, with a wild-eyed ecstasy. It was that moment that I carried with me into the sad and close rooms of the work world. Of days of “getting and spending and laying waste my powers.” But now, something is different.
You of course point out that I am 9 years older now. And you may even be so bold as to point out that it only took the speaker 5 years to put this together. Slow learning aside, I am different and the world around me is different. I no longer work in the rarefied silliness that is a university. I work in an office. I am more familiar with the “dreary intercourse of daily life.” I did not understand that then. I only understood the light headed feeling of finding beauty and wanting that all the time. I had not taken those memories into the world.
I also did not understand the sublime. And I confess that I do not know that I would have if I had not moved to Colorado in the fall of 1996. Here is where the earth meets the sky. This is the edge of the bubble at which we exist. These days, the light as it falls from the setting sun, over the mountains onto the edge of the plains – it breaks your heart with just the color. It always puts me in the mind of “worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.” It reminds me that, “It is the blight man was born for, / It is [myself] that [I] mourn for.” And more importantly, I have gone over Kenosha pass at various intervals, hoping for that feeling that overwhelms you the first time – the feeling that makes it difficult to drive because there are tears running down your face. I have driven across the San Luis Valley wordless and delighted to under such mountains and in such air that I want to dissolve into nothingness – to lay down in a stream in that essential act of self-oblivion - breathing a finer ether while breathing the water.
So I have come here and felt euphoric joy of altitude and a consuming love of beauty. But now that I have understood that, I also understand the second half of the poem. We are not meant to live in ecstasy. We cannot live by awe struck contemplation of beauty. We must return to the world. It is a gift that we make ourselves, to make our minds into mansions that will carry these lovely forms for the rest of our days. Even should I never return here, this is where I first heard the “still, sad music of humanity.”
Damnit, it has taken six years to understand this. And I think now this is the reason I came here - to learn this. I get it now. I see now.
So I owe a debt to Wordsworth . And I owe a debt most of all to herself – she who is sometimes my teacher and who is always on the verge. For them I have only blessings and for her I have no words.
I have to leave this place soon. I do so without regret. I take this with me – the air and the sound of the wind in Alma, thunderstorms above the sand dunes, and above all I take Kenosha pass and South Park, running south from the rounded peaks, running straight out of sight.
Remember the kids who never read the text? They just read the Cliffs notes, or, for the critically discriminating, the BloomsNotes. Yeah, those kids. Their attention span kept getting shorter and shorter until they had no choice but to become marketing executives. a 'blogger has finally come up with the perfect medium for their enjoyment of literaryclassics - thanks to the nefarious engine of cognitive reduction that is PowerPoint.
So, there developed a corporate culture of hiding information. Using information to mask certain facts and to highlight others. There developed rhetoric of information. A fact wasn’t an occurrence in reality as much as it was a point of interpretation – a location for endless positioning. You could measure performance with three items of data and present a number of different scenarios and do so convincingly. You could make your partners believe once set, your governing body of stakeholders believe another. Yet the leadership held the cards and renamed them as it needed. The seven of swords was the three of cups all along. The Moon, it was the Tower.
But it doesn’t always work like that. For the hierophants at the top to interpret the holy mysteries, they need the temple staff to gather the sacrifices. It is the men and women that have brought in the grain and the boiled the water that know the truth. And they listen when the oracle is pronounced. The attendants and aides hear the brilliant greaves shifting uncomfortably in the halls outside. The spears gleaming like spun tungsten – they catch the last light of day at their very tips – going and gone. Those who work this temple’s guts know what has been handed down and the first light will see these men on the sea, headed for a distant city in the east – somewhere that, when they were children, they heard was the end of the world.
Not entirely completed in one day, but for the most part, the transition is finished. I will start making regular back-ups of this template so I do not have to do this on a quarterly basis. Don't get me wrong. I like recursive tasks as much as the next American Worker. I just prefer to change the content rather than the template. Alas, Alack. Tomorrow - hopefully something substantive.
Ahh..better . Extraneous Archive tags and Post Number tags. Who uses those anyway? Tonight I will drop in the entnation tags for commenting (I enjoy giving you the illusion of feedback) as well as redoing the side links area. What is a hobby but an endless source of constructive frustration? Some prefer Absinthe.
Why yes - this is a new look. While trying to find that annoying open bracket by the date header, I ended up changing the entire template for my weblog (long story). This has resulted in a much less...hmmm...robust look and handling. Not to mention the fact that I still have the annoying open tag somewhere. Ahh well, it's late and I really could work on this all night. Best to start over tomorrow am. So, as they say "Good night Weblog. I'll most likely kill you in the morning."
With the demise of Arts & Letters Daily, a wonderful site passes into the ether of expired websites. I commend the proprietors for making an announcement on their page. It could have become one of the rusting hulks of the internet. Among other sites, they recommend the eerily familiar (and I'm guessing eerily familial) Philosophy and Literature for getting your essay fix.
Over the weekend, at party, some friends came up with a game in which you substitute all instances of the words "child," "Children," "kids," etc., in a colloquial phrase with the word "robot(s)." I won with the sage advice, "spare the rod, spoil the robot."