This course will be a seminar examination of the Romantic theology, which often understood the natural world as a dwelling place of sacred presences, presences that became apparent to and efficacious for the human person through the energetic translation between nature and mind carried out by the (high Romantic term) imagination. Many Romantic poems are staged around just those moments of crisis, or dejection, when this system of exchange and communication appeared to fail, leaving the poet isolated in an imprisoned sense of disconnection and exhaustion. Wordsworth, writing in “Resolution and Independence,” provides the briefest summary statement of this endemic oscillation between imaginative participation and bewildering loss: “We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.”
This seminar will begin by posing a series of fundamental questions about Romantic poems, of the kind asked by Martin Heidegger’s essay of 1946, “What Are Poets For?” At the outset of that essay Heidegger turns to Holderlin’s question from “Brot and Wein”: “ . . . and what are poets for in a destitute time”? Somewhat later in the meditation Heidegger defines his sense of poetry’s response to destitution: “To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods. This is why the poet in the time of the world’s night utters the holy.” All these terms need investigation, to be sure, “destitute,” “trace,” “fugitive gods,” “world’s night,” “the holy.” Clearly the struggle between human destitution and the inconstant presence/absence of the “fugitive gods” is another way of describing Wordsworth’s fateful sense that, without some intervening term, joy (and its sanity) and “gladness” inevitably tend to “despondency and madness.” This seminar will operate by carrying these concerns to the detailed study of Wordsworth, Hopkins, and Stevens. Only Wordsworth, of course, of this keen triad, is properly so-called a Romantic poet. The Victorian Hopkins follows much later in the 19th-century, and many of his poems, in fact, were not published until the 20th century. With Stevens we cross over not only to modern poetry, per se, but also to American literature and to a poetic medium quite distinct from Hopkins. Indeed, Hopkins is the wild card in the deck, since his poetry was written as a remarkable examination of a Victorian immanental and sacramental theology (he became a Jesuit priest), a sometime ecstatic study of the way in which the world is “charged with the grandeur of God.” Against this sacred exuberance, we will test the powerful secularizing and skeptical impetus in both Wordsworth and Stevens. Stevens’s poetry, most especially some of his great longer poems, returns to Wordsworth and reanimates the central terms of English Romanticism. There are poems that do this quite explicitly, as in the rewriting (in part) of Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper” in Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West.”
Class requirements: Two or three shorter writing assignments, including brief responses to poems and to theoretical interventions, and one longer seminar essay of 12-15 pages toward the end of term, one which works with two of the poets. Class presentations, based on specific poems, will be required of all seminar participants.
Pre-requisites: Two 200 level English courses or consent of instructor
*Course enrollment is limited to 15