Tag Archives: romanticism

“A Dream” by Edgar Allan Poe: The Contrast of Light and Dark

Rembrandt

In visions of the dark night
I have dreamed of joy departed—
But a waking dream of life and light
Hath left me broken-hearted.

Ah! what is not a dream by day
To him whose eyes are cast
On things around him with a ray
Turned back upon the past?

That holy dream—that holy dream,
While all the world were chiding,
Hath cheered me as a lovely beam
A lonely spirit guiding.

What though that light, thro’ storm and night,
So trembled from afar—
What could there be more purely bright
In Truth’s day-star?

This is a poem of contrasts and opposites, most prominently the contrast of light and dark. But there are also contrasts between sleep and awakening, past and future, and happiness and sorrow. And while there is contrast, there is also balance. Even the fact that the poem is divided into four stanzas of four lines each generates a sense of balance, harmony, and stability. So this balance of opposites is the key to this poem, in my opinion.

In the final line of the poem, Poe mentions Truth—the big Truth with a capital T. This is the proverbial Holy Grail that philosophers, poets, and artists have sought after for millennia. Poe is asserting that the Truth lies somewhere in that nebulous space between the two opposites, between the darkness and the light. And the only way that one can glimpse that space where Truth hides is to embrace both the light and the dark and bring them into balance. Think of the Yin/Yang symbol. It is a balance of light and dark, of positive and negative. Both are needed in equal parts to achieve wholeness.

As we move into the dark period of the yearly cycle, we must be sure we maintain a balance of light.

Thanks for stopping by, and have a blessed day.

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Thoughts on “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorn

My friend Sonia recommended this short story to me as something I might want to consider as part of my Halloween reading list. I love Hawthorn and it has been a while since I read any of his works, so I took her suggestion.

The story is a somewhat eerie tale about a young man who falls in love with a young woman who has a strange attachment to her father’s garden, and in particular one plant that is highly poisonous. It is discovered that the father, a scientist, had been giving her doses of the plant’s poison to make her immune and also instill her with a kind of built in defense against unwanted male advances.

Having read this right after finishing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I was very aware of Hawthorn’s criticism of the tendency of scientific men to want to usurp the power that was traditionally assigned to the divine. And it almost seems like Hawthorn predicted the age of genetically modified organisms that have become the norm in our world of factory farming.

The aspect of one and all of them dissatisfied him; their gorgeousness seemed fierce, passionate, and even unnatural. There was hardly an individual shrub which a wanderer, straying by himself through a forest, would not have been startled to find growing wild, as if an unearthly face had glared at him out of the thicket. Several, also, would have shocked a delicate instinct by an appearance of artificialness, indicating that there had been such commixture, and, as it were, adultery of various vegetable species, that the production was no longer of God’s making, but the monstrous offspring of man’s depraved fancy, glowing with only an evil mockery of beauty. They were probably the result of experiment, which, in one or two cases, had succeeded in mingling plants individually lovely into a compound possessing the questionable and ominous character that distinguished the whole growth of the garden.

What I respect about Hawthorn is that he is critical in all areas. Often, people who are critical of science embrace religion, but Hawthorn is just as critical in this tale about religion as he is science. When Baglioni points out that Rappaccini offered his daughter as a sacrifice to science, it also symbolically parallels Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac to God. Hawthorn is equally appalled at the sacrifice of humanity for any of our gods, whether they be religion or science.

“Her father,” continued Baglioni, “was not restrained by natural affection from offering up his child, in this horrible manner, as the victim of his insane zeal for science. For — let us do him justice — he is as true a man of science as ever distilled his own heart in an alembic. What, then, will be your fate? Beyond a doubt, you are selected as the material of some new experiment. Perhaps the result is to be death — perhaps a fate more awful still! Rappaccini, with what he calls the interest of science before his eyes, will hesitate at nothing.”

There is a lot of other cool symbolism woven into this tale, and I encourage you to read it if you have not yet done so. It’s a great tale with a nice twist at the end. Creepy enough for an evening Halloween season read, but also a thought-provoking parable that forces us to examine our human tendencies toward fanaticism and the desire to manipulate and control Nature.

Thanks for stopping by, and enjoy your reading!

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“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley: Creating Our Own Gods and Demons

This was my third reading of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece. What struck me on this reading was just how rich this text is and how many layers of symbolism and metaphor is woven in to the story. As pages of my journal filled with notes, I realized that I faced the daunting task of narrowing down all my thoughts to a short blog post. After some deliberation, I decided to focus on the concept of humanity creating gods and demons.

The first thing to point out is how Shelley uses the term “creature.” It is specifically the product of the creative process, particularly from the mind. A creature, therefore can be anything which we as creative beings consciously create.

It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally at the panes, and the candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

(p. 34)

Throughout the text, I noticed that the creature is depicted as both godlike and demonic. That is because the things that our minds create can be both positive and negative, and often a combination of both. The issue becomes whether we allow the creatures of our minds to elevate us spiritually or drag us down to our lesser natures.

I will first provide an example of the creature as godlike, as a being described as both omnipotent, invincible, and in control of the future.

But to me the remembrance of the threat returned: not can you wonder, that, omnipotent as the fiend had yet been in his deeds of blood, I should almost regard him as invincible; and that when he pronounced the words, “I shall be with you on your wedding-night,” I should regard the threatened fate as unavoidable.

((p. 132)

The other thing I would like to point out regarding this passage is the tone of the creature’s proclamation. It almost sounds like how God speaks in biblical text. God speaks, and what he says comes into being.

Next we will look at a passage where the creature is depicted as demonic, particularly associated with Satan. Here the creature embodies Lucifer’s characteristics of persuasion and eloquence.

He is eloquent and persuasive; and once his words had even power over my heart: but trust him not. His soul is as hellish as his form, full of treachery and fiend-like malice.

(p. 145)

Near the end of the tale, Victor Frankenstein warns Walton about the dangers of creation, about how when we use the power of our minds to create our gods, we inevitably also end up creating our own personal demons.

Sometimes I endeavoured to gain from Frankenstein the particulars of his creature’s formation; but on this point he was impenetrable.

“Are you mad, my friend?” said he, “or whither does your senseless curiosity lead you? Would you create for yourself and the world a demoniacal enemy? Or to what do your questions tend? Peace, peace! learn from my miseries, and seek not to increase your own.”

(p. 146)

This parable in Frankenstein is an important one and pertinent to our times. Many of us allow the news, social media, and the plethora of mental distractions to create imagined threats, monsters, and demons that plague our minds. What we imagine ultimately becomes our reality. We should learn from Frankenstein’s mistake and not let ourselves create our own demons which will inevitably destroy ourselves and our world.

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“Sonnet to Sleep” by John Keats

Portrait of John Keats by Joseph Severn

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
Shutting with careful fingers and benign
Our gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes,
Or wait the Amen ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities.
Save me from curious conscience, that still hoards
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like the mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed casket of my soul.

This poem is about the longing to escape physical and emotional suffering. Keats expresses deep anguish which appears to be a combination of bodily pain accompanied by thoughts and memories which torment him. As he lies awake in bed, he longs for the forgetfulness of sleep, but sleep eludes him.

Sleep is a common metaphor for death, and Keats uses certain words associated with death to convey the sense that he is weary of living and longs to pass from mortal existence. The words “embalmer” in the opening line and “casket” in the closing line actually serve as a way of entombing the entire poem. Also, the fact that the poem is set at midnight implies that he is at a symbolic threshold, ready to move on to the next plane of existence.

There is one last thing I feel is worth noting. In lines 7 and 8, there is a reference to the use of poppy, which in Keats’ time would be opium. It appears that Keats has turned to narcotics as a way to ease his physical and spiritual pain. But in spite of his self-anesthetizing, he is still unable to numb the darkness, “burrowing like the mole” into the deepest regions of his psyche.

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“Love’s Philosophy” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

"The Kiss" by Gustave Klimt

“The Kiss” by Gustave Klimt

The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?—

See the mountains kiss high heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?

Since it’s Valentine’s Day today, I figured a love poem would be appropriate for today’s post, and what better than one from the romantic Shelley.

As is typical with the English Romantic poets, Shelley looks to Nature for metaphors to express his love. In the first stanza, he cites the interconnectedness of things in Nature, as well as duality in the natural world, as the reason why his spirit longs for the connection with the woman of his desire. And the loving connection between two people is not just something natural; for Shelley, it is something divine and spiritual. The wholeness which is attained through the passionate connection with your significant other is something that transcends this world and elevates us spiritually.

In the second stanza, we get a sense that all the beauty that we perceive in Nature is only a reflection of human love. And this begs an interesting question: If a person never experienced the joy and beauty of love, would that person be able to recognize beauty in the world around? It reminds me of the lyrics from one of my favorite George Harrison songs:

Some things take so long
But how do I explain
When not too many people
Can see we’re all the same
And because of all their tears
Their eyes can’t hope to see
The beauty that surrounds them
Isn’t it a pity

(from “Isn’t It a Pity”)

Myself, I lean toward the romantic philosophy here. I think that love helps us to see beauty in the world around us, and likewise, the beauty in Nature reminds us of the joy of sharing a deep connection with another person.

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“Desire” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Romeo and Juliet by Frank Bernard Dicksee

Romeo and Juliet by Frank Bernard Dicksee

Where true Love burns Desire is Love’s pure flame;
It is the reflex of our earthly frame,
That takes the meaning from the nobler part,
And but translates the language of the heart.

This is a very short yet very moving poem. Coleridge is essentially comparing and contrasting Love and Desire. For Coleridge, Love comes from the soul. It is a spiritual connection with another human being that transcends this earthly plane. And since Love, like all things spiritual, is impossible to express through normal means, it must be expressed through symbols, and Desire is the symbol by which a person can express Love. Desire is the physical expression of spiritual Love.

There is really not much else I have to share about this poem. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Cheers!

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“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” by John Keats

Homer and Keats: Source - BBC

Homer and Keats: Source – BBC

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

This is considered to be Keats’ first great sonnet, which was composed after reading a translation of Homer by George Chapman, an Elizabethan poet (source: English Romantic Writers).

The poem is broken into two parts, and each section has a different rhyme scheme. The first eight lines comprise the first section which follows an ABBA pattern. This depicts Keats before reading Homer. He describes having visited “realms of gold” and “western islands.” These are metaphors for the poems that he had read up until that time. These were beautiful poems and worthy of Apollo, the god of poetry, but after reading Homer, his entire view on poetry changes, symbolized by the shift in rhyme pattern in the second half.

The last six lines follow an ABABAB scheme and describe how Keats became aware of realms he never knew existed. He first makes an allusion to William Herschel’s discovery of Uranus in 1781, an entire world which was previously unknown. He then compares himself to Cortez and uses the phrase “eagle eyes” to represent his new-found clarity of vision. He describes his feeling as standing upon a mountain in Darien (which is in Panama), and gazing out in awe at a new ocean, which symbolizes the vast depths of new and unexplored poetic inspiration.

I really relate to Keats’ emotions in this poem. I have felt this way in my life, as I am sure most of you have too. When you read that poem or book that changes your view of the world, or hear that song or see that film that opens up a whole new universe of possibilities. This is the true transformative power of art and it is why I read, and listen to new music, and watch films, and go to museums to see paintings.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you have an inspiring day.

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“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” by William Blake: Opening the Doors of Perception

MarriageHeavenHell

This is probably my favorite work by William Blake. It is fairly long (about 15 pages), so it is too long to include in this post, but I am sure you can find digital versions online should you need. The piece is a combination of prose and poetry, so the style and tone changes throughout the text. Essentially, you have a debate between angels and devils about heaven and hell, good and evil, reason and emotion, and so forth. The key concept is that you cannot have one without the other, that contradictions are necessary for existence. As such, Blake is challenging all the established ideas of his time. Coming out of the Age of Reason, he argues the importance of creativity and emotion (embodied by the Romantic movement). Additionally, he challenges the doctrines of the church, which are represented by the passive, and asserts the importance of energy, or the passionate desires and instincts that Christian ideology seeks to suppress.

One of the key things to keep in mind when reading this text is that Hell is not inherently evil, but it is a symbol for energy, passion, emotion, and creativity. The fourth section of the text is subtitled “Proverbs of Hell” and include several pages of short proverbs intended to teach the importance of tapping into creative energy. I will include a few of my favorites to give an idea of the concepts embodied in the proverbs.

  • The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

  • He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

  • A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.

  • He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.

  • No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.

  • What is now proved was once only imagin’d.

  • One thought fills immensity.

  • You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.

  • Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement are roads of Genius.

One of the most interesting aspects of this piece is the exploration of the subconscious through the use of altered perception. Blake asserts that in our normal state of consciousness, we are unable to perceive the divine. It is only through altered consciousness that we can catch a glimpse of the divine realm.

The Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spoke to them; and whether they did not think at the time that they would be misunderstood, and so be the cause of imposition.

Isaiah answer’d: “I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in everything, and as I was then persuaded, & remain confirm’d, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote.”

In his famous quote regarding the doors of perception, Blake acknowledges that the use of hallucinogenic substances, such as those used by indigenous shamanic cultures, can shift one’s consciousness to the point that an individual can perceive the divine. This quote and idea would later go on to inspire Aldous Huxley and later the rock group The Doors.

I then asked Ezekiel why he ate dung, and lay so long on his right and left side. He answer’d, “The desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite: this the North American tribes practise, and is he honest who resists his genius or conscience only for the sake of present ease or gratification?”

. . .

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

Blake then goes on to describe a mushroom-induced experience of what it’s like to shift perception and plunge into the subconscious realm of visions and inspiration.

So I remain’d with him, sitting in the twisted root of an oak. He was suspended in a fungus, which hung with the head downward into the deep.

By degrees we beheld the infinite Abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning city; beneath us, at an immense distance, was the sun, black but shining; round it were fiery tracks on which revolv’d vast spiders, crawling after their prey, which flew, or rather swum, in the infinite deep, in the most terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption; & the air was full of them, and seem’d composed of them—these are Devils, and are called Powers of the Air. I now asked my companion which was my eternal lot? He said: “Between the black & white spiders.”

Toward the end of the text, one of the devils makes an argument about Jesus, essentially asserting that Christ was rebellious and acted from impulse and passion, and did not restrain his desires as is taught by church doctrine. The result of the devil’s argument is that the angel who was listening embraced the flame (symbol of enlightenment and passion) and became one of the devils.

The Devil answer’d: “Bray a fool in a mortar with wheat, yet shall not his folly be beaten out of him. If Jesus Christ is the greatest man, you ought to love Him in the greatest degree. Now hear how He has given His sanction to the law of ten commandments. Did He not mock at the sabbath, and so mock the sabbath’s God; murder those who were murder’d because of Him; turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery; steal the labour of others to support Him; bear false witness when He omitted making a defence before Pilate; covet when He pray’d for His disciples, and when He bid them shake off the dust of their feet against such as refused to lodge them? I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”

The text concludes with a powerful line, asserting the divinity inherent within all things.

For every thing that lives is Holy.

I hear this line echoed in Allen Ginsberg’s great poem “Howl.” And I firmly believe this. Every living thing has a spark of the divine within it, but sometimes our perception is shrouded and we cannot see it. And this is the message of Blake’s text; We must clear away the debris that clouds our vision and seek to perceive the infinite and divine essence that is all around us.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you have an inspired day.

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With This Key Shakespeare Unlocked His Heart

Shakespeare

“Scorn Not the Sonnet; Critic, You Have Frowned” by William Wordsworth

Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;
With it Camöens soothed an exile’s grief;
The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf
Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned
His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains—alas, too few!

Today is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, so I wanted to post something in honor of the writer who has inspired so many throughout the years. Rather than post my thoughts on one of Shakespeare’s works, I decided to share this sonnet by Wordsworth.

In this sonnet, Wordsworth defends the poetic form of the sonnet against attacks from critics. It seems that even back then, artists hated critics. Anyway, Wordsworth provides examples of poets who used the sonnet as a vehicle to express themselves, and as such it is not surprising that Shakespeare is first among those mentioned.

Shakespeare wrote a total of 154 sonnets, and they express emotion in such a way that 400 years after his death, we still connect with his words. The cadence and rhythm resonate with our deeper selves, and each sonnet is nothing short of a perfect fourteen-line view into the heart of Shakespeare.

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Thoughts on “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace – Part 10: Art and Being Hip

InfiniteJest

I live in Asheville, which is considered a “hipster” city. As a result, I see people who work very hard and spend a lot of money perfecting their non-conformist images. I like to say that these people “conform to the established idea of non-conformity.” Not that I am passing judgment. Everyone has a right to express themselves in a way that feels right, but I suspect that some impressionable individuals buy into the idea of non-conformity that is promoted through the arts and social media, especially young people.

With this in mind, I’d like to point out an interesting passage in Infinite Jest.

It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip – and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so-called peer-pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger. No? We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, to be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion.

(p. 694)

This rang true for me on several levels. Certainly, the hipster “conforming to non-conformity” I mentioned at the beginning of this post, but also the need to belong, especially in one’s adolescent years. I was like that, and I’m sure we all were to an extent. I dressed the part of the crowd that I was hanging out with, listened to the same music, went to the same places, all to be a part of a group and to avoid having to be alone. Because what happened when you are alone? You have to face yourself, and that was hard for me as a teenager and I suspect it is difficult for others too.

Anyway, as I have gotten older, I am more comfortable with myself and no longer feel the need to be a part of a particular group. I do what makes me happy, and whether I do that in a group or alone, doesn’t make that much difference to me. But Wallace taps into something that is almost universal for people growing up. We all want friends and we want to be a part of a group, and we look to art to teach us what is cool and how we should be if we want to fit in with the hip crowd. It makes me wonder if we have some tribalism hidden away in our collective consciousness.

Thanks for stopping by, and have an amazing day!

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