Who is the man of the crowd in Poe’s tale, what is his critical and narrative function and what wider resonances does Poe’s figure have in relation to other texts you have studied?
A new aesthetic experience for Victorian novel writers was the city. Literature began to respond to the challenges of life in the 19th Century as industry began to leave the countryside and develop in the city. People flocked to the city in their droves and Poe’s tale reflects the alienation of the individual in the city. The population grew and the city captured the whole spectrum of society, which fascinated Victorian writers. They were able to capture the heart and soul of the city and bring it alive in all its glory. Friedreich Engels essay ‘The Great Towns’ states that, ‘The hundreds and thousands of all classes and ranks crowding past each other…and still they crowd by one another as though they had nothing in common’. (Engels, 1987, p69) Engels is showing that the crowd phenomenon incorporates every social class yet is soulless and a mass of humanity; the city experience cold and unfriendly. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist shows that identity can be lost within the crowd and people can be swallowed up and lost within the labyrinth of the city. There was also a de-centering of the individual in an age of migration caused by industrialisation and Poe’s radical tale The Man of the Crowd is an allegorical story of constructed identity in a crowd that shows the true horror of an emerging modern world. In Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Signs of the Times’, he reported on the ‘Mechanical Age’ and stated that, ‘men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand’ (Carlysle, 1858, p102). This is a true reflection of Poe’s The Man of the Crowd.
The construct of Poe’s Man in The Man of the Crowd is a new and experimental literary figure showing the true horror of modernity and this enables Poe to portray this horror in an allegorical manner; the man is a mere metaphor for life in the city. Poe’s tale incorporates a narrator who watches the world from a window following an illness, ‘…two dense and continuous tides of population were rushing past the door’ (Poe, 1978, p507). The imagery used here shows a dense throng of people rushing around and the narrator wishes to become a part of it. Davidson suggests that,
…this Man is an individual who cannot bear to be alone or whether he is… the narrator and protagonist in a cringing, fearsome guise that the narrator will not even admit to himself.’ (Davidson, 1969, p191).
The narrator begins to speculate on the way the light flits over the window in the same way that the crowd flits past it, ‘The wild effects of the light enchained me to an examination of individual faces…’ (Poe,2017). Poe is showing that although the city is now entrenched with the masses and people migrate towards it following industrialisation, the search for the individual within it becomes an impossible task. The man though represents the full spectrum of the social classes and it is in this way that Poe’s allegorical tale shows the true representation of life in the city. Upon the narrator seeing the Man, he tells us of the effect this has on his mind, ‘there arose confusedly…the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of bloodthirstiness, …of supreme despair’ (Poe,2017). The narrator cannot understand the individual he has picked out because his identity changes with his surroundings thus making it impossible for the narrator to read him. Ian Munro argues that ‘…the crowd was a powerfully contradictory presence, symbolizing conflicting aspects of the city through metonymy and metaphor’ (Munro, 2005, p1). This shows us that the narrator is essentially following a ghost whose appearance is deceptive and changes so many times that it would be impossible and in vain to try and understand it. Baudelaire’s theory suggests that man cannot live without the city and would always be searching for modernity, ‘…By ‘modernity’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent…’ (Baudelaire, 2017). This would suggest the narrator in Poe’s tale is chasing a transparent entity. Baudelaire believed that being part of the crowd was to be exposed to the modern world and become recharged by it. Yet his theory of a man being more than a flaneur would suggest like Poe’s narrator who is searching out the individual, he will never find it. As the chase ends, the narrator realises that it would be futile to follow him any longer, ‘He refuses to be alone…it will be in vain to follow, for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds.’ (Poe,2017). This realisation is the horror that Poe wants the reader to see.
Dickens and Poe captured the vivid image of the city with their portrayal of crowds and the people within them in very different ways. Poe’s allegorical portrayal separates out the individual in the crowd whereas Dickens show the crowd as a conformative whole. These condensations of symbolic techniques show the disillusion that was felt of life in the city. Poe’s radical approach is in sharp comparison to Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Dickens flamboyant style shows the crowd as a mass who become one with no identity. In chapter 50 of Oliver Twist, Sykes is pursued through the city by a crowd that grows into a furious throng, ‘…a strong struggling current of angry faces…cluster upon cluster clinging to every house top.’ (Dickens, 1992, p336). Whilst Dickens is being melodramatic in his description of the crowd here, the scene portrays an image of society represented at all levels. He portrays the crowd as one whole, a collective identity instead of an individual one. As part of a whole, the crowd becomes powerful and individuals become hidden, which makes them very dangerous. His use of the word ‘current’ and Poe’s use of the word ‘tide’ to describe the masses, gives the effect of fluidity and movement and one that also cannot be stopped. It is a metaphor for the ever-growing mass of people crowding into the city. There is also a sense of belonging in the crowd, a new-found identity as people joined the cries of the crowd without knowing why, ‘Those who were at too great a distance to know its meaning, took up the sound…’ (Dickens, 1992, p336). This shows the desire for identity, whether individual or collective, was just as powerful as the narrator in The Man of the Crowd. Ian Munro suggests that, ‘The crowd is an inherently polymorphous concept, always evading definition’ (Munro, 2005, p2) and we can see this in both Dickens’ and Poe’s work. Dickens extinguishes the individual identity to be part of a larger group and Poe’s representation of the crowd portrays individual identity as being made of many parts of the crowd.
The description of the Man is composed of many things that don’t go together, ‘his clothes… filthy and ragged…his linen, although dirty, was of beautiful texture’ and underneath his cloak was ‘both of a diamond and of a dagger’ (Poe,2017). He is a mass of contradictions. The narrator tells us that he is feeble, yet he manages to run through the streets and the narrator struggles to keep up with him. He is a hybrid, a construct and represents the whole of the crowd, which in turn represents the whole spectrum of the social classes. ‘I saw jew pedlars with hawk eyes…sturdy professional street beggars…feeble and ghastly invalids…’ (Poe,2017). All manner of humanity is represented in Poe’s description and it is made in the style of descriptive lists of the people in the streets. The stylistic technique of using no full stops shows the text as self-referential. Dickens uses the same style of list making in Oliver Twist to describe the vigilante mob. The list technique gives the impression of a huge mass ever growing. But whereas Poe describes the individual, Dickens shows the mob to be as one. Dickens had quite a reserved view point of city life and whereas it fascinated him greatly, he also kept himself at arm’s length from it. Poe also uses the stream of consciousness technique in the narrative which is also symbolic of Victorian authors and the narrator tells us that, ‘I felt a calm but inquisitive interest in every thing’ (Poe,2017). The reader can hear the narrator’s thoughts and it is this that connects humanity with the text. The Man of the Crowd is also observational. The narrator is watching life from a window, seeing the world go by and all manner of people pass by. Kevin J Hayes suggests that Poe’s story is ‘one mans effort to read another man, who happens to be a denizen and therefore a representative of the modern urban environment’ (Hayes, 2002, p445). This observational theory is comparable with Baudelaire’s flaneur and was the modern way that art and literature was heading. The loss of self also showed how industrialisation needed to cater for the age of modern life. The Victorian times were about trying to keep identity assured in an already fractured world but Poe’s tale of loss of identity and that it cannot be read breaks away from this mould and explores the true horror of the realities of industrialisation and the modern world.
Poe’s The Man of the Crowd portrays the horrors of modern life and shows the narrator following a Man that doesn’t exist. The Man represents all of society and cannot be read as he embodies all aspects of the social classes. His appearance is deceptive and this represents the way society is heading now that industrialisation is taking over in the city. Poe attempts to separate the identity of the Man but the Man is made up of many things and is impossible to read. Poe’s representation of this is allegorical in that it is a sociological experience of city life and showed the disillusion that came with it. In Oliver Twist, Dickens’ portrayal of the crowd scene in chapter 50 shows a crowd moving as one, a conformative whole with a collective identity. They are part of something which gives them power and strength and Dickens does not show the individual. Baudelaire suggested that modern life was ghostly and fleeting and the crowd was something to lose yourself in and escape. Whilst Baudelaire had this modern take on life, Poe demonstrates the true horror of the modern life in the city.
Baudelaire, C. (2017) ‘The Painter of Modern Life’. Handout given in Literature & Modernity November 2017 by Martin Jesinghausen
Carlyle, T. (1858) ‘Signs of the Times’ (1829) in Collected Works Vol 3, pp. 101-102. London: Chapman & Hall
Davidson, E.H. (1969) Poe- A Critical Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
Dickens, C. (1992) Oliver Twist. Hertfordshire; Wordsworth Editions Ltd
Engels, F. (1987) ‘The Great Towns’ in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) London: Penguin
Hayes, K. J. (2002) ‘Visual Culture and the Word in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd”’ in Nineteenth Century Literature, Vol 56, No. 4, pp. 445-465. [Available from: http://ezproxy.staffs.ac.uk/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.staffs.ac.uk/docview/211933431?accountid=17254 [Accessed 18/12/2017]
Munro, I. (2005) The Figure of the Crowd in Early Modern London: The City and its Double [Online] New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Available from: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/staffordshire/detail.action?docID=308224. [Accessed 28/12/17]
Poe, E. A. (2017) The Man of the Crowd. Great Britain: Amazon
Amy L Blair’s essay entitled ‘Misreading The House of Mirth’ is an investigation into the reading practises at the turn of the 20th Century. She discusses the beginnings of the ‘how to’ guides and literature becoming a life manual. Wai-Chee Dimock’s essay ‘Debasing Exchange: Edith Wharton’s The House Of Mirth’ argues that Wharton places the characters in a marketplace and as such, the ‘deal’ is the ultimate goal and downfall of the protagonist Lily Bart. Both these texts are concerned with theme of class. Blair argues that the reader of The House of Mirth is a how to guide for the upwardly aspiring social climber whereas Dimock’s argues that the book revolves around the exchange system and Lily’s naïve attempt to play the market.
The main focus in Blair’s argument is that the theme of the book invites a practise she calls ‘reading up’, in which the novel is approached as a how-to manual for the reader to ascend to the dizzy heights of the characters. She states, ‘…class identity was decoupled from solely financial considerations so that a remaking of the self through cultural acquisition…became the imperative means of upward mobility’ (Blair, 2004, p150). Blair believes that as a result of the middle classes need to elevate their status, a ‘…new hybrid genre emerged and flourished…’ (Blair, 2004, p152) in the form of life guides and the promise of a better life for the reader. She also argues that the readership had little sympathy with Wharton’s critique of consumerism and high society and in fact were horrified with the fate that Wharton bestowed upon Lily. Blair contrasts her argument with Michel de Certeau’s theory of the ‘reader as poacher’ explaining that the reader can aspire to higher society if they become actively engaged with the text. Blair also believes that the negative reviews that Wharton’s The House of Mirth received were in part because of these practises of ‘reading up’.
Furthermore, Blair believes that Wharton uses the character of Gerty Farish as a guide in the tableau vivant scene and that it was written for a reader who was not of high society, ‘…she displayed the awed alertness of one unaccustomed to glamour and intent on taking everything in…’ (Blair, 2004, p158). Blair continues that this was also in contrast to Wharton’s criticism of the gossip pages, who, in reality, did the same job. Blair argues that ‘…the practice of reading up relies on a shift of identification as a means of wish fulfillment…’ and the ‘…identification of the self with a character who is a social better’ (Blair, 2004, p167). In this way, Blair is arguing that the text is a guide for the social climber and Wharton’s use of the character of Gerty Farish, who is of a lower status, enables the reader to do this.
The critical debate that Blair uses to evidence her findings is one that ran for a few months in the New York Times in 1905 between two letter writers, one who signed off as Newport and the other as Lenox. Both were embattled on either side of the argument regarding whether they were part of the inner circle in which Wharton wrote about or that it did not exist. Blair argues that the letter by Lenox ‘validated the superior discernment of the insider and the hopeless outsiderness of the outsider’ (Blair, 2004, p161).
Unlike Blair’s essay, no secondary criticism is used in Dimock’s piece. Dimock bases his argument on Wharton’s ideologies and criticism of the market place and his essay focusses entirely on the power within it and how Lily is the only character in The House of Mirth who plays it fairly. He states, ‘A self-acknowledged “human merchandise” she is busy marketing herself throughout most of the book…’ (Dimock, 1985, p124). Dimock argues that the question of currency runs as an undercurrent throughout the book and that debt and cost are the main themes in relation to class status.
Furthermore, the idea of ‘exchange’ is something that for Lily is not in her power. Dimock states that the rate of exchange is fixed by those more powerful than her and argues that when Lily “owes” Trenor money, ‘…he now demands only according to his rate of exchange…’ (Dimock, 1985, p125). He also states that the higher classes are those who are the ‘non-payers’, believing that the characters of Bertha and Gus Trenor are neither required to play fair nor penalised for doing so. Dimock also argues that it is Lily who pays for playing fair and is ‘…penalised then, not for breaking the rules but for observing them’ (Dimock, 1985, p131).
However, Dimock also states that Lily makes two errors of judgement, ‘…in refusing to do business, Lily is perhaps also refusing to live…’ (Dimock, 1985, p132). Lily’s refusal to act upon Bertha’s letters and Rosedale’s offer of a loan condemn Lily to her fate. Dimock argues that this moral triumph however is bittersweet as ‘Lily is simply reverting to her customary role within the exchange system: her role as the one who “pays”’ (Dimock, 1985, p134). Dimock states that morality within the book is useless against an ‘…exchange system that dissolves the language system into its own harsh brassy parlance’ (Dimock, 1985, p135), confirming that Lily paid the ultimate price with her life. Dimock’s argument in the case of morality is that within the world of capitalism, morality doesn’t exist and because of this Lily would never have survived anyway.
Dimock closes his argument with a look at how Wharton deals with the working class in the character of Nettie Struther. He states, ‘To be all that Wharton wants her to be, Nettie must be abstracted from the all-contaminating exchange system’ (Dimock, 1985, p137), confirming that Wharton’s idea of the working classes is distinctly for redeeming purposes only and that she bases this character on an ideal that there is an ‘…organic life beyond the marketplace’ (Dimock, 1985, p137). Dimock is suggesting that Wharton wanted a glimmer of hope and the character of Nettie offered this.
Both texts are concerned with class but as very different concepts. Blair finalises her essay with a nod to the reader who, if they can ‘read up’, will bypass Wharton’s criticism of the higher classes and ‘…continue[s] to cultivate an upwardly mobile lifestyle’ (Blair, 2004, p170) whereas Dimock’s argument presents itself as a stark contrast to the world of capitalism in which he argues that it becomes a survival of the fittest.
Blair, A. L. (2004) ‘Misreading The House of Mirth’. In American Literature, [Online] vol 76 (1) p149-170. Available from: https://staffs.summon.serialssolutions.com/#!/search?bookMark=ePnHCXMw42JgAfZbU5lAx5QamesCxfALhGkBWppYWzIAS8lgfUSJ4OsbyawJgCvFlcAhouCB7C7m6qQn6bgm1lUksHNoOrmGuLsoYs6IxyfCBqTjw8yMDYxN7C0AN1MQJw6ACClK6I [Accessed 30/10/2017]
Dimock, W. (1985) ‘Debasing Exchange: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth’. In: Bloom, H (ed) (1986) Edith Wharton: Modern Critical Views. p123-137. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.
Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey was a satirical and experimental novel. Prose was a new form for the Romantics and Peacock took great care to move away from traditional tropes of the early Romantics work by gently pushing the boundaries and taking a light-hearted swipe at his contempories. Robert Kiely believed that Peacock understood the Romantics view of history but ‘…that romantic literature too often failed to connect the past with the present’ (Kiely, 1973, p177). Peacock shows that even in prose format, he can move the Romantic project forward as he questions the basic principles of the Romantics and his positive critique of the same shows a desire to rescue and renew. Peacock wanted a more social environment to come together and not to be melancholy. He recreates his friends in a Roman a clef as the characters in the novel. This also links with his disappointment that Shelley and his circle had moved abroad, and Peacock shows the characters that represent them as coming back together. Peacock felt that he had been left behind and the satirical nature of the text shows his feelings towards them. Marilyn Butler believed that Peacock and Shelley, ‘…strongly deplored the idea of a merely elitist culture…’ (Butler, 1981, p181) and that Peacock urged Shelley to ‘…consider his audience…’ (Butler, 1981, p182). This desire for a wider audience showed Peacock wanted to move away from the hierarchy of intellectuals that the Romantics wrote for and offer up literature to what Coleridge coined the ‘reading public’. The later Romantics also introduced wider cultural and historical tropes into their writing and Peacock shows this concept throughout the text. With a nod to the old traditions, Peacock faces the crisis of later Romanticism head on and Nightmare Abbey becomes a renewed optimism.
Nightmare Abbey was a modern rather than Romantic text offering a satirical and light-hearted take on Peacock’s contemporaries and the Romantic Project. Peacock wanted to show that text didn’t have to be serious and complicated. This liberated view shows through the text and the first time we are introduced to Scythrop’s character, he is meditating and then decides to write a book. Upon hearing that it has only sold seven copies, Scythrop is not dismayed, ‘Let me find the seven purchasers of my seven copies, and they shall be the seven golden candle-sticks with which I will illuminate the world’ (Peacock, 2016, p9). Peacock’s humour here is in stark comparison to the works of the Romantics and this would suggest that Peacock believes that a more positive attitude is required moving forward. When Scyrthop is walking the halls of the abbey, it states he ‘…stalked about like the grand inquisitor’ (Peacock, 2016, p9). The humour is a chance for the poets to not take themselves too seriously. Kiely suggests that ‘In making fun of the Romantics…he demonstrates why there is no such thing as romantic comedy despite an abundance of romantic humor’ (Kiely, 1973, p178). However, the humour satisfies a need that Peacock has to show the Romantics that the satire in the text is required as a renewed optimism and that the Romantic project will benefit greatly from this. This humour is at its greatest near the end of chapter twelve. Upon believing that a ghost is near, the assembled guests reaction is similar to a comedy sketch. Mr Toobad is so alarmed at the presence that in his panic, he misses the door and jumps through a window (Peacock). ‘Mr Asterias and his son, who were on watch for their mermaid, were attracted by the splashing, threw a net over him and dragged him to land.’ (Peacock, 2016, p52). The humour in this scene is in juxtaposition to the mythical creature that is being searched for.
Peacock also wanted to advocate a conviviality between friends. A chance to get together and have conversations instead of living insular lives. In particular, Peacock was making a case for laughter and merriment. In the case of the Reverend Mr Larynx, Peacock shows the convivial atmosphere he enjoyed at Nightmare Abbey, ‘he would condole with Mr Glowry,- drink madeira with Scythrop, – crack jokes with Mr Hilary,…lament the good old times of feudal darkness with the transcendental Mr Flosky’ (Peacock, 2016, p7). Peacock wanted to move away from the melancholy of the Romantics and look forward to life. This positivity was to encourage talking and debate rather than solitude and is also linked to Peacock’s disappointment over Shelley and his circle moving abroad. He no longer had them near him and was unable to engage in discussions with them.
Peacock’s novel incorporates roman a clef in a way that makes the text very personal. His characters are encrypted caricatures of his peers and are overexaggerated versions of themselves. The character of Scythrop is a portrayal of Percy Bysse Shelley and is mysterious and prone to falling in love. Upon seeing Marionetta’s distress after he shows disinterest in her, he ‘…found his tender sympathies awakened, and did his utmost to comfort the afflicted damsel’ then telling her that he was working on ‘a very hopeful scheme for the regeneration of human society’ (Peacock, 2016, p35). Here we can see the link to Shelley’s claim that poets are the ‘…unacknowledged legislators of the world’ (Wu, 2012, p1247). Peacock is mocking Shelley’s position and elitist view not only as a critique of the Romantic project but also as a jibe to not take himself so seriously. It is also quite clear who the characters are based on and Peacock’s not so subtle disguises are an attempt to shake things up in the Romantic community. The character of Mr Flosky is based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. David M Baulch suggests that Nightmare Abbey, ‘in its characterisation of Mr Flosky offers the rudimentary critique of the ideological implications of Coleridge’s Kantianism’ (Baulch, 2004, p559). Peacock is essentially mocking Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria and his friendship with the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that the way in which thoughts are processed and human nature as an experience alone are the answers to the question, what is our position in the world? When asked about his belief in ghosts, Mr Flosky replies, ‘I live in a world of ghosts. I see a ghost at this moment’. (Peacock, 2016, p52). This is a making a mockery of Coleridge’s beliefs. The belief that he can see ghosts gives the demeanour of a mad man.
Lord Byron is represented by Mr Cypress, an old acquaintance of Mr Glowry. He arrives at the abbey to say farewell before he leaves for the continent. In a conversation regarding humanity, Mr Cypress states, ‘The mind is diseased of its own beauty, and fevers into false creation. The forms which the sculptor’s soul has seized exist only in himself’. (Peacock, 2016, p47). The dark, brooding figure of Byron can easily be seen in Cypress and the characters troubles mirror those of Byron when he himself finds it necessary to leave England because of accusations of incest. Kiely suggests that Peacock’s complaint with the Romantics was that they, ‘…occupied themselves too much with sorrow, but that they go about it an idle, self indulgent fashion and invent imaginary miseries rather than coping with real ones.’ (Kiely, 1972, p179). In fact, the character of Mr Hilary, who is thought to be Peacock himself, berates Cypress, saying ‘To rail against humanity for not being abstract perfection…is to rail at the summer for not being all sunshine…’ (Peacock, 2016, p46). Peacock is showing that as an insider of the Romantic movement, his critique of Byron’s melancholic, negative views is the way forward towards positivity and overcoming the crisis of late Romanticism.
Nightmare Abbey illustrates a critique of gothic fiction. With its towers and turrets, the abbey itself was, ‘…a venerable family mansion, in a highly picturesque state of semi-dilapidation, pleasantly situated on a strip of dry land…’(Peacock, 2016, p2). The use of the words ‘family’ and ‘pleasantly’ do not evoke the powerful feelings of horror that gothic was designed for. Marilyn Butler argues that, ‘its images project and evil or disturbing environment…’ and it was ‘felt to be a breakdown of control, both in the psyche and in the state’ (Butler, 1981, p157). Peacock however does not follow these conventions. Kiely states that, ‘…the setting for human experience is not a lonely chamber or prison cell, but a full table or a crowded drawing room which people are constantly entering or leaving’ (Kiely, 1973, p182). This was not stereotypical of gothic tropes. The supernatural elements in Nightmare Abbey were treated with humour and sarcasm. The style of Peacock’s narrative in the text includes prose, poetry, script and song. The text moves along well and Nightmare Abbey fits the bill perfectly for the novel as a mixed bag. However, there are numerous occasions where the text could pass as a play. There are stage directions, ‘(He rang the bell for his valet. Fatout entered)’ (Peacock, 2016, p16) and many people enter and exit, as though being directed on a stage. Notably, most of the action takes place when the characters are speaking to each other and whilst this is incredibly simple, it keeps in mind what Peacock’s aim was to bring back a conviviality of talking and friendship. The satirical nature also links with the idea of a topsy turvey world in which the Romantics were living and the way Peacock deals with his critique of the Romantic project makes the novel an excellent medium in which to get his critique across. However, with the newly arriving paradigm of realism fast approaching, Nightmare Abbey doesn’t fulfil the criteria of a realist novel. Peacock wanted to critique the effects of modernity and realism in literature was still in its infancy.
In a letter to Shelley, Peacock told him, ‘I think it necessary to “make a stand” against the encroachments of black bile’ (Cochrane, 2009, p315). Peacock was against the melancholic brooding of Byronic literature and thought it was poisoning the reader’s minds. ‘I cannot consent to be auditor tantum of this systematical ‘poisoning’ of the ‘mind’ of the ‘Reading Public’’ (Cochran,2009, p315). Mr Flosky even defines black bile as, ‘Hatred- revenge- misanthropy- and quotations from the bible’ (Peacock, 2016, p17). Peacock was intent on moving away from the Byronic vision to a more positive outlook on life. He knew that the world of literature needed to move away from such dark and gloomy worlds and the ‘reading public’ would only read what it was fed. Indeed, Mr Flosky announces,
That part of the reading public which shuns the solid food of reason for the light diet of fiction, requires a perpetual adhibition of sauce piquante to the palate of its depraved imagination (Peacock, 2016, p22)
Although Peacock’s observations of the reading public are negative in that they do not have a mind of their own, his objective is certainly clear. Marilyn Butler states, ‘Already in the eighteenth century the literary artist…came to address itself not to a patron but to a public’ (Butler, 1981, p179). Peacock felt a sense of duty to the reading public, not only to move away towards a more positive outlook but also to bring about literature into libraries and make it more accessible to all.
The advancement of the later Romantics is shown in the concretisation of historical perspective in their work. This full sense of developed history is also shown in Nightmare Abbey. Peacock wrote Nightmare Abbey in 1818 during a revival of the Neoclassical style and which Marilyn Butler explains that, ‘One way of typifying this movement would be to point to its content, that is to its primitivism or historicism’ (Butler, 1981, p180). Peacock references many famous works throughout Nightmare Abbey including Dante, the Bible and Shakespeare, many of which are quoted or alluded to. In his “Four Ages of Poetry”, Peacock states that poets are, ‘…as yet the only historians and chroniclers of their time, and the sole depositories of all the knowledge of their age…’Peacock, 2015, p2). To fill a text with so many historical works illustrates not only the later Romantic awareness of mediaeval history and classical antiquity but also Peacock’s aim to move the Romantic project along. The age of modernity was in crisis and a look back to traditional styles was a way forward.
Nightmare Abbey was written in a response to the crisis of later Romanticism and Peacock wanted to move away from the doom and gloom of melancholic vision. A satirical novel with humour throughout, Peacock’s light-hearted text showed a different world, which had a more positive outlook. Peacock was also making a statement for the Romantics to stop taking themselves too seriously. Satire was a modern style and Peacock believed that this would bring forward a new optimism. He also advocated conviviality between friends, encouraged them to get together and talk about books and literature in general. As the only action in the text is the conversations between the friends, Peacock’s demonstration of this shows his intent quite clearly. When the Shelley circle move abroad, Peacock is quite put out by this and uses his friends in the text in the roman a clef style. This enables Peacock to mock their positions and elitist ways and show the readership a caricature of them. The overexaggerated versions of his peers gave Peacock free reign to capture their nuances and styles. Nightmare Abbey is also a critique of gothic fiction and any mention of the supernatural is treated with humour. Finally, Peacock filled his text with references to many historical works. This connection with the old traditions shows that to move the Romantic project forward, a look back to the old ways was required.
Baulch, D. M. (2004) ‘The “Perpetual Exercise of an Interminable Quest”: The Biographia Literaria and the Kantian Revolution’ in Studies in Romanticism. [Online] Winter2004, Vol. 43 Issue 4, p557-581. [Available from http://rh5pp9fz2b.search.serialssolutions.com/?charset=utf-8&pages=557-581&atitle=The%20%EF%BF%BDPerpetual%20Exercise%20of%20an%20Interminable%20Quest%EF%BF%BD%3A%20%EF%BF%BDThe%20Biographia%20Literaria%EF%BF%BD%20and%20the%20Kantian%20Revolution&jtitle=Studies%20in%20Romanticism&title=Studies%20in%20Romanticism&issn=0039-3762&volume=43&issue=4&date=2004&aulast=Baulch&aufirst=David&au=Baulch%2CDavid%20M.] [Accessed 04/01/18]
Butler, M. (1981) Romantics Rebels & Reactionaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Cochrane, P. (2009) “Romanticism” and Byron. [Online] Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Available from: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/staffordshire/detail.action?docID=1133133 [Accessed 27/12/17]
Kiely, R. (1973) The Romantic Novel in England. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press
Peacock, T. L. (2015) “The Four Ages of Poetry” Handout given out in Later Romantic Writing November 2017 by Martin Jesinghausen
Peacock, T. L. (2016) Nightmare Abbey. Great Britain: Amazon
Wu, D. (2012) (Ed) Romanticism: An Anthology Fourth Edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd
In what features of the writing studied so far could you see a development emerging from Early to Later Romanticism? Is it possible to talk of ‘maturing’ here, or is there a new fire and passion in the later writing that resembles the early Romantic experiments?
The later romantic writers offered a deeper investigation into the modern world and the mind. Poets such as Keats, Byron and Shelley emerged as self-assured young writers, eager to change the world with their new modes of inspiration. Wordsworth and Coleridge had produced their work for the everyman. A pastoral simplicity and form, the early romantics had an appreciation of everything around them and made it beautiful. In William Hazlitt’s essay, ‘The Spirit of the Age’ he commends Wordsworth’s work as ‘… he can make the lifeblood flow from the wounded breast, this is the living colouring with which he paints his verse’ (Hazlitt, 2017). Although Hazlitt’s viewpoint is critical of Wordsworth styling, it is in fact how Wordsworth was appreciated by the common man. The development of style and nature can be seen in the later romantic writing through subject matter and poetic form. Poets such as Byron and Keats brought an altogether more sophisticated flavour. In Marilyn Butler’s book Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries she states that ‘…a new self-consciousness had entered literary discourse…’ (Butler, 1981, p143). The later romantic writers were making more inward reflections and exploring the inner psyche with a maturity that shows the development of their writing. Their styling was more philosophical with a true sense of history and as such contained classical references. Many writers moved onto the continent and this change of scenery showed a change of focus in their writing. The differences in style and form can be seen in Wordsworth’s We are Seven and Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale.
In Wordsworth’s poem We are Seven, the simplicity of form and accessibility brings an understanding and psychology of the innocence of a child as a new experimental form. Wordsworth showed the wonders of nature and his appreciation of them with a language for the common people. He states, ‘the child had a rustic woodland air’ (Wordsworth, 2012, p 380). The description of the child evokes an image of a simple country girl and her comparison with nature is in harmony with the pastoral setting. The gentle rhyme scheme gives the poem a simplistic nursery rhyme quality as Wordsworth constructs a conversation between an adult and a child about death. The child’s simple view is that her siblings, although dead in their graves, are still with her as death is not the end; ‘Their graves are green, they may be seen’ (Wordsworth, 2012, p381). The adult cannot accept this view and the reversal of roles is refreshing in the sense that Wordsworth gives a platform for the child to converse. Children were seen as mini adults but the reason and logic the child is showing, though childlike, shows a superiority over the adult. The realist approach that Wordsworth uses allows the reader to learn from the child and that the simple logic that the child insists upon, should be utilised by everyone. Although Wordsworth’s We are Seven breaks the boundaries of exploration into child psychology, the adult still does not accept the child’s viewpoint, ’Twas throwing words away, for still/ The little maid would have her will’ (Wordsworth, 2012, p382). Wordsworth demonstrates an irony in that the adult does not understand the child and although her logic is clear, a deeper exploration of it is not given.
The more sophisticated style of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, intensifies the romantic project by giving the reader a more inward perspective. ‘That I might drink, and leave the word unseen/ And with thee fade away into the forest dim-‘ (Keats, 2012, p 1464). Although the links with nature remain in both poems, the Ode’s more sophisticated styling offers a more inward reflection. At eight stanzas long, the ode, whilst still connected to nature, is more of a lament of the poet’s life, ‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk’ (Keats, 2012, p1464). Whilst listening to the nightingale sing, the poet suddenly becomes entranced. His heart aches as he listens to the bird’s melodious tune and is soothed by it. In a trancelike state, the poet experiences moods and feelings and becomes philosophical about life. In Leon Waldoff’s essay ‘Imagination and Growth in the Great Odes’, he argues that ‘His placement of the bird in the historical, the biblical and literary imagination…is an unexpected and beautifully effective act of internalisation…’ (Waldoff,1985, p 313). He argues that Keats is trying to preserve the inner feelings for which the bird now represents (Waldoff, 1985). This depth of inner realisation shows the maturity in Keats’s poetry. The bird becomes symbolic and his song immortal and this illustrates the superiority of his writing. The ode makes reference to Greek mythology, ‘Away! Away! For I will fly to thee,/ Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards/ But on the viewless wings of Poesy’ (Keats, 2012, p1465). The sophisticated nature in which he compares the classical world and poetry illustrates the more cultured styling and shows Keats belief that poetry transcends the classical world.
The early romantic poets created a gentle pastoral world and made their poetry accessible to all. With nature at the forefront, these writers illustrated that to understand nature was to understand life. They made the world beautiful and gave a platform for children to have a voice of their own. The later romantic writers showed a much more mature style in their writing. Their inward reflections and exploration of the mind showed a style developing and evolving in a way that eclipsed the writing of the early romantics. Keats styling showed moods and feelings that were not seen in Wordsworth’s early poetry. These moods reflected the inner poet and demonstrated how looking deeper inside the mind gave a more transcendental experience.
Butler, M. (1981) Romantics, Rebels & Reactionaries English Literature and its Background 1760-1830. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Hazlitt, W. (2017) ‘The Spirit of the Age- Mr Wordsworth’ (1826). Handout given in Later Romantic Writing 10/10/2017 by M. Jesinghausen
Waldoff, L. (1985) ‘Imagination and Growth in the Great Odes’ In: Wu, D. (1995) (Ed) Romanticism A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd
Wu, D. (2012) (Ed) Romanticism: An Anthology Fourth Edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd