I have always loved Coleridge’s Poetry, so I was looking forward to reading his and Wordsworth’s collaboration. I was initially disappointed that there were only five poems that Coleridge contributed to Lyrical Ballads, but I’m glad that I wasn’t going over any familiar territory (that is, besides “Rime of the Ancyent Marinere”). There are a couple common elements in these poems that I couldn’t keep out of my mind as I was reading: first, the large number of narrative poems; second, the consistent metrics. Wordsworth’s reasons for employing these structures is pretty sound. The narrative elements, along with the colloquial lingo, supposedly make the poems more accessible to the audience of 1798. The metrics are supposed to make the poems easier to process, should emotion overpower the reader. I am struck by a rather difficult question: does accessible poetry for the contemporary audience make the writing less accessible for later readers? Is there perhaps something universal and transcendent about heightened poetics? I believe that there is and I think Wordsworth might agree; his quarrel is not with the poetics of Shakespeare, but with the cheap imitators who aim to excite–the tabloid poets. Nevertheless, might it not be said that Wordsworth sacrifices universality for something else; namely, a concern with contemporary issues? Reading his 1800 introduction to Lyrical Ballads, it is clear that his poetic eye is turned to the present. The implications of this are fascinating. What does the local (temporal and cultural) therapeutic aim of the Romantic period/movement (forgive me for using Wordsworth/Coleridge as the representatives of all Romanticism) say about the nature of art? Is art supposed to be transcendent and timeless? Is art meant to address what is immediately at hand? Is art ever an effective salve for modern grievances? Does the fact that we still read Lyrical Ballads mean that we have the same fever as people 200 years ago?
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A Discourse on Inequality
Some initial reactions:
I am torn between Rousseau’s and Hobbes’ accounts of the natural state of man. From an emotional and empirical standpoint, I am more for Rousseau than Hobbes. But from a logical standpoint, I tend to agree more with Hobbes. That may just be a virtue of the length of Hobbes’ text– he is more categorical and takes more time in establishing the fundamentals of his arguments, whereas Rousseau’s Discourse reads more like a train of thought that makes sense to the writer, but would not easily be pressed on someone who disagrees with any of Rousseau’s fundamentals. His notes read like defensive responses to inevitable objections to his unsubstantiated claims.
I find in the Discourse two Rousseaus. There is dramatic disparity between the tone and values apparent in the letter to Geneva and the Preface, and in the Discourse itself. He seems to exalt in the precursors to the discourse all those things that he condemns in the actual essay. In particular, the role of women in society, and the role of laws in shaping a man’s nature. He waxes poetical about the divine right of women to dominance over men in the letter to Geneva, but in the Discourse, he verges on misogyny. As well, I can see no evidence of a belief in positive liberty in the Discourse, but it is clear that he is no libertarian from the preamble.
Voltaire’s notes are hysterical. I can’t say, however, that they didn’t colour my interpretation of the text.
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In reading the Penelopiad, the most difficult thing for me was making sure that it did not colour my interpretation of the Odyssey; I was trying to write an essay on the Odyssey, not on the Penelopiad. The problem is that this is exactly what Atwood is trying to achieve by writing the Penelopiad: to challenge our interpretations of the Odyssey. Did anyone else find this difficult while they were writing their essays? Would it perhaps be more worthwhile to read the Odyssey and the Penelopiad together, as we did with Genesis and Fear and Trembling? Also, could the Penelopiad be considered a secondary opinion on the Odyssey? Should it then be read not as a separate text, but as supplementary material to the Odyssey?
The thing that struck me most about the text was Atwood’s voice. She writes with a very wry wit that I find quite distinctive. While I did love her humour and style, it led me to wonder whether or not we were hearing from Penelope or from Atwood. I think by dragging Penelope into the modern era she was able to get away with writing in her own voice, but I also wonder if that limits it as a reading of the Odyssey from a different perspective. It certainly sounds like Atwood’s interpretation of the text, but I wonder if Penelope is truly given a voice. Perhaps this is a particularly subversive way of simultaneously countering and supporting a feminist reading of the Odyssey, sort of like the Anthropology lecture.