As part of this ongoing series on Teaching Romanticism we will consider the ways in which we lecture on and discuss individual authors, whether during author-specific modules or broader period surveys. I thought it would be particularly useful to hear about which texts educators use and in what context, whether they place certain poems or prose works against those of other writers, or use contemporary or modern theoretical texts, or something else entirely. For this strand of blog posts I invite academics across the world to share their advice and tips on any aspect that interests them about teaching Romanticism. Many thanks to all of those who answered my call through NASSR-L, The BARS Review, and elsewhere (lightly edited samples are reproduced below with permission of the authors). Please do feel free to contact me with proposals for future subjects. We will be considering a range of writers, canonical and non-canonical alike, in the coming months. This issue was commissioned by Lucy Hodgetts, and is split into two parts. Part I is available here.
For an upper-division undergraduate course on Romanticism, I will sometimes plan a day for us to think about some canonical short poetry about London. The texts I tend to assign for our discussion are Mary Robinson’s “London’s Summer Morning,” William Blake’s “London,” and William Wordsworth’s “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” and “London, 1802.” Students arrive to my course already haven taken a full-year British literature survey, in which they usually learn that Romanticism is a form of nature writing. We use this day to combat that stereotype and also as a way to think about the workings of base and superstructure: let’s think about the economic and legislative forces driving urban growth, what it means to think about cities in terms of economic class, and how poetry might respond, or not respond, to these transformations.
My students and I live in a city of 1.2 million people, so roughly the same size as London was at the turn of the nineteenth century. I ask my students if any of them had moved to Calgary from a rural place and what that transition was like for them. I next explain that London was then the largest city in the history of the world, making it something of a marvel. We think together about why, suddenly, people from all over England and all over the world would have been moving the metropolis, which connects the discussion to issues of industrial capitalism, empire, and enclosure. I ask students to think about how large Calgary would seem to them, and how densely populated the city would have to be, if there were no cars, trains, bicycles, or buses.
We tend to spend most of our time on Robinson’s poem, which invariably lends itself to abundant discussion. I start by asking about the tone of the poem, which students have variously characterized as fascination, wonderment, and bewilderment. Some people have even said horror, which we think about awhile. We think the synesthesia of the poem and the speaker’s tendency to construct lists. What is the speaker looking at when she looks at the street? What is it that amazes the speaker so? Is it strange, or objectionable, to gaze upon strangers, especially working-class people, as if they were part of an amazing phantasmagoria. Is there a difference between people and “gay merchandise” here? What makes people and commodities seem so similar? Does the “smart damsel” seem like part of this scene or apart from it, and where to the speaker’s allegiances lie? We think about the effect of the blank verse here: does it help to create the tone, to move us through the scene? Once they see that the poem doesn’t rhyme, we can begin to think about ways that the poem actually does sometimes rhyme, even if only slightly, through its assonance. What is implied by these partial rhymes, as well as the poem’s alliterativeness? Finally, we consider what effect enjambment and caesura have here, which inevitably brings us to the line 17 and its arrival “at the private door”—we discuss why the line seems so prominent here and why a “private door” might be a significant moment in a poem so focused on public space.
“Westminster Bridge” is a perfect poem to think about next, as Wordsworth’s perspective is so different, even opposite, from Robinson’s. Through the contrast, students will immediately notice how the poem is depopulated, and we consider the implications of that. How does Wordsworth shift the perspective to make the city look beautiful? It’s such a different perspective on the city—we can try to think about where that sense of stillness comes from. This sets up the contrast to Blake really well, who is horrified by many of the same problems that fascinate Robinson and that Wordsworth might be training us to ignore, at least in that one sonnet. That takes us, finally, into “London, 1802,” through which we can continue discussing what exactly seems to be wrong with London and why poetry, specifically Milton, might be the remedy. Is it really a problem of “manners” afflicting London or does that moral frame efface—or maybe announce—a larger shift in class strata? Can poetry, or poets, living or dead, reasonably be called upon to change the world? What sort of improvement does the speaker want, and do students agree that it would be an improvement? Is there a difference in perspective inherent the gap between Milton and Robinson’s blank verse, so well suited to strolling, looking, and taking stock, and the problem-and-solution structure of a sonnet? Can a poem be a Bat-signal for other poems? How can these two sonnets be written by the same person in the same year about the same city, and still come to such different conclusions?
I have taught excerpts of William Wordsworth’s Prelude several times as part of Fordham University’s sophomore literature requirement. In one version of this course that I designed, “Epic Afterlives,” my students read Book 7 of The Prelude near the end of a semester that focuses on underworld scenes throughout epic poetry. Detailing Wordsworth’s residence in London, Book 7 functions as the “descent to the underworld” of this poem. In the class periods leading up to our discussion of this Book, we additionally read and analyze a handful of Romantic-era texts that represent London, including Mary Robinson’s “London’s Summer Morning,” William Blake’s “London,” Joanna Baillie’s “London,” and Wordsworth’s own “Composed upon Westminster Bridge.”
I begin the period in which we discuss The Prelude by first instructing students to list some literary devices commonly found in epic poetry (invocations, catalogues, similes, etc.) and to recall the different ways in which heroes traditionally encounter visions of their destiny in the underworld. I then instruct students to identify ways that other Romantic-era texts depict London. Here, I want them to remember specific critiques of the city, but also to reflect on techniques of description.
After a brief introduction to The Prelude, I split students up into groups of three and assign each a different section of Book 7 (along with the end of Book 8). Their task is to work together to paraphrase their section, to locate elements of epic tradition, and to decide the speaker’s attitude toward the city (and how it compares to attitudes expressed in other Romantic-era poems).
When the groups share their findings, they often detect epic devices in the text, but it usually requires further discussion for them to realize how Wordsworth innovates these elements. For instance, many students recognize Wordsworth’s famous description of a blind beggar as an echo of Odysseus’s underworld encounter with the blind Tiresias in The Odyssey (as well as a reference to the blind poets Homer and John Milton). In the conversation that follows this observation, my goal is to prompt students to explore how Wordsworth revises epic tradition: while other heroes descend to the underworld to discover their destiny in the realm of action, Wordsworth finds in this moment a symbol of his destiny as a poet. Wearing a paper that tells “The story of the man, and who he was,” the blind figure suggests the poet’s own auto-biographical epic aspirations as well as the limitations of his self-knowledge.
This scene shows how even as Wordsworth records the particulars of urban life, he invokes literary tradition to distance himself. Throughout Book 7, he keenly observes the details of London. By transforming his experience into poetry, he gains the critical space to condemn the city as a modern Inferno while still drawing inspiration from it. Students trace how epic techniques assist Wordsworth in these strategies, from lengthy catalogues of description and allusions to Milton’s Hell, to the epic simile at the end of Book 8 in which he finally locates in London and its history an inspiration comparable to that found in nature.
Students then compare Wordsworth’s depiction of London to those of his contemporaries, discovering how the revision of epic tradition allows Wordsworth to develop a complex response to the city.
Professor Stephen Behrendt, University of Nebraska
Many students assume that British Romanticism is all about Nature. Accustomed to thinking in general terms about flowers, trees, and mountaintops, they have difficulty envisioning urban environments and experiences. American students are challenged especially, since few have first-hand acquaintance with British urban life and are relatively clueless, too, about British history and culture. So I use poems like Mary Robinson’s ‘London’s Summer Morning’ (pub. 1800) as departure points. Robinson’s noise-filled poem invites visual contextualizing, which I accomplish through PowerPoint presentations featuring images drawn from online archives containing prints like those in Rudolph Ackermann’s 1808 Microcosm of London. Such prints often feature major sites (and sights), from civic to religious to recreational. Because these images tend to be “cleaned up” versions of the boisterous, often dirty and chaotic reality of Romantic-era London, it helps to show also some of the same sites as they appear in caricature prints of the period. Two views of Billingsgate Market (pictured above-left), for example, are instructive.
It is useful to contrast views of London from (or near) Westminster Bridge, to underscore Wordsworth’s point in his sonnet about the beauty of a London that is, unlike Robinson’s, still and soundless:
Or there is Old Covent Garden Market later, in 1825, showing also the clothing of the period:
Indeed, from a substantial visual archive of period clothing I assemble various purpose-built PowerPoint presentations. Like the pictures of urban places, pictures of people’s clothing are wonderfully instructive. Here’s an example. Looking at formal dresses of 18th-century women (heavy, close-fitting fabric on arms and corseted torsos, and often bizarre internally-framed “skirts”) and those that followed (looser, light, less constricting, often diaphanous fabrics) students readily grasp why so many 18th-century women swooned in hot, humid ballrooms, and how restrained dances like minuets accommodated such costumes while the waltzes that subsequently gained popularity relied upon looser and freer dresses that facilitated both freedom of movement and greater body contact.
Studying both clothing and places helps students “see” the times, helping them learn about how culture works ― how subtly interrelated cultural phenomena like clothing, music, dance, and heterosexual behaviors may be related in ways that become startlingly clearer when we consider what people actually wore, and where, and what their clothing made possible – or impossible. I point out, too, that while we have many images of male and female fashionable clothing (including items preserved in museum collections), comparatively few images or surviving objects exist for the clothing of lower and laboring-class citizens, a point that invites discussion about how cultures have historically privileged or prioritized even clothing – and representations of those who wear it – along social and economic class lines.
I do comparable visual presentations about the sounds of Romantic-era London, often grounding these presentations in images of street tradespeople: milkmaids, berry-sellers, vegetable vendors, old-clothes-dealers, and my students’ perennial favorite: the Rat-trap seller:
Such images introduce the “calls of London,” and the practice of identifying vendors by sound tags that continues unabated in modern media advertising (and in the treats carts and vans that prowl local neighborhoods). In stressing the sounds of urban England, I often ask my students, too, to discover the sounds represented in Hogarth’s wonderful 1741 print of The Enraged Musician:
Despite their daily saturation by all sorts of media stimuli, my students have remarkably little visual and sonic imagination, especially with respect to unfamiliar times and places. Exercises like these help them develop a more cultivated and interdisciplinary appreciation for cultural variation – and for British Romanticism, broadly considered.