Marx and the Chimney-sweeps


One of the core tenants of Marxist theory is that history is a never ending struggle between antagonistic economic classes, and that contemporary reality is the latest instance of that struggle. It is an anti-humanist philosophy that states, in the words of Marx:

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness”

Nowhere is this more apparent than the plight of Blake’s chimney sweeps.

From the very beginning it is obvious that the chimney sweep’s existence is entirely driven by his socio-economic circumstances since, as the footnotes of the poem indicate, the lack of a means of subsistence was his reason for becoming a chimney sweeper in the first place. But what is more interesting is the role of ideology, and the interplay of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic tendencies between the two versions of the poem.

Ideology in the Marxist sense is “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”. According to Marxist theory, ideology springs from the institutions through which individuals are socialized. In the case of the chimney sweeps, the main institution at work is the church. The ideology that is being sold to the boys here is that one should accept their earthly hardships as a trial, and an insignificant prelude to the rewards of an eternal afterlife. This in effect blinds the boys to the reality of their situation and makes them feel fulfilled by placing them in the social role of humble christian servant.

Hegemony is defined as “The domination of a set of beliefs and values through consent rather than through coercive power”. The differences between the two versions of this poem reflect an issue that received much debate between Marxist scholars: to what extent individuals can resist ideology, and how hegemonic and counter-hegemonic tendencies work within literature and within society. The “innocence” version of the poem casts chimney sweeps who have completely internalized christian ideology. On the other hand, the “experience” version of the poem casts a completely counter-hegemonic chimney sweep who bitterly criticizes his situation and brilliantly elucidates the hypocrisy of those who use their Christianity to speak of a situation that they cannot understand.

Given the vastness of Marxist criticism and the applicability of these two poems to its ideals, this subject would be a good topic for a paper but is difficult to completely explain in a blog post.


The poetess as a lyricist

In Tuesday’s class we listened to some moving ballads by several different bards, and it got me thinking about the relationship between poetry and song. But in Thursday’s class, the musical element was conspicuously absent, and this piqued my curiosity even further.

In our modern understanding of music, a song is essentially a lyric poem that is set to music, which is why in colloquial speech we refer to the words of songs as “lyrics”. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms gives this as the definition of “lyric”:

“In the modern sense, any fairly short poem expressing the personal mood, feeling, or meditation of a single speaker (who may sometimes be an invented character, not the poet). In ancient Greece, a lyric was a song for accompaniment on the lyre, and could be a choral lyric sung by a group, such as a dirge or hymn; the modern sense, current since the Renaissance, often suggests a song-like quality in the poems to which it refers. Lyric poetry is the most extensive category of verse, especially after the decline- since the 19th century in the west- of the other principal kinds: narrative and dramatic verse. Lyrics may be composed in almost any meter and on almost every subject, although the most usual emotions presented are those of love and grief. Among the common lyric forms are the sonnet, ode, elegy, haiku, and the more personal kinds of hymn. Lyricism is the emotional or song-like quality, the lyrical property, of lyric poetry. A writer of lyric poems may be called a lyric poet, a lyricist, or a lyrist. In another sense, the lyrics of a popular song or other musical composition are the words as opposed to the music; these may not always be lyrical in the poetic sense (e.g. in a narrative song like a ballad). 

Given this definition of lyric poetry, the poetess then seems to be the very essence of a lyric poet.

Even though the Oxford Dictionary of Literary terms doesn’t exclude the Bards from being musicians in this sense, it would seem that the idea of Poetess is much closer to our ideals of music today, given the myriad of love/heartbreak songs that make up the largest portion of the body modern music. 

Sappho and Phaon is a good example of lyric poetry; it has a high emotional content (and also happens to have love as its subject matter), and the rhyme scheme that each of its sonnets has could have a very rhythmic quality if set to the right music. I personally think that on this basis, Sappho and Phaon could make a very good song. 

Or perhaps Sappho and Phaon has already been set to music and I wasn’t aware of it?

If that is the case, or if you [the reader], have studied music before and have some sort of unique insight on this, please let me know by commenting.

Wollstonecraft and the Stoics

In our class discussion of Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, Wollstonecraft was compared to the Greek Stoics in the way she valued reason and chastity as a method of achieving gender equality. This led me to question what elements Wollstonecraft drew from the philosophy of the Stoics and how she transformed it to meet her goals.

The Stoics were concerned with the pursuit of the good life, and to them this meant being totally in accord with reason, and this was what the supremely wise man aimed for. They believed that reason was supremely good, and that passions were merely a way to unbalance the mind. They defined good as virtue and pleasure as vice, a concept which is rather familiar to us and Wollstonecraft. The Stoics also invented the concept of natural law and natural rights, which is where Wollstonecraft comes in.

Wollstonecraft’s goal differs from the Stoics in that she seeks to change political discourse rather than pursue the good life, but she uses the same tools. Reason, according to Wollstonecraft, was a virtue shared by both man and woman, and that for this reason men and women deserve equal social and equal footing of this. She sees a lack of chastity, the idolization (or in more contemporary terms, objectification) as the vice that impairs reason and thus creates disunity between the genders. She also uses the concept of natural laws to support her views on marriage, arguing that if the laws of society reflected the actual behaviors of men and women (in that people should be allowed to marry whoever they want) that husbands and wives would be less tempted to enter adulterous relationships.

Blake, on the other hand, seems to be aligned (albeit less directly) with the Epicureans in the sense that instead of viewing good as virtue, he viewed good as pleasure and living in accordance with natural desires, a view which is especially clear after reading “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”

Although the parallels between Blake with the Epicureans and Wollstonecraft with the Stoics and the implications of those ideologies on feminism is an interesting discussion that would definitely be worth exploring, I think that this blog post is long enough already.

Death, Romanticism and the Sublime

A recurring theme I have noticed in our readings so far that has not been addressed (or perhaps it was and I missed it in a lapse of attentiveness) is death as the ultimate form of freedom. This theme appears mostly in the poetry of Charlotte Smith, but it can be found in the others as well. 

For instance, in “To the Poor” by Anna Letitia Barbuald:

“But when thou feel’st the great deliverer nigh,
And thy freed spirit mounting seeks the sky,
Let no vain fears thy parting hour molest,
No whispered terrors shake thy quiet breast:
Think not their threats can work thy future woe” (lines 13-17)

However, Charlotte Smith expresses the sentiment the best (and the most often). Here are a few instances of it from her:

“That in thy orb, the wretched may have rest:
The sufferers of the earth perhaps may go,
Released by death–to thy benignant sphere,
And the sad children of despair and woe
Forget in thee, their cup of sorrow here.” (To the moon, lines 9-12)

“I sure shall find thee in that heavenly scene
Where care and anguish shall their power resign;
Where hope alike, and vain regret shall cease” (To Tranquility, lines 10-12)

Wordsworth’s “To Toussaint L’Overture almost smacks of the same thing when he tells Toussaint to accept death, albeit in a more political and literal sense in that he has powers working for him.

In attempting to follow the Romantic’s train of thought in this view of death, I don’t think it is entirely of Christian origin,  since a belief in Christianity was the norm in movements both before and after Romanticism, even if it did have a part to play. Rather, it seems to stem from the Romantic’s view of human existence as a bloody, painful, and ultimately fruitless affair; as evident in Burke’s depiction of the murder of the Queen, Charlotte Smith’s “Sonnet XXVII” and “The sea view”, the injustice done to Toussaint L’Ouverture, and so on. To the Romantic, death is a form of escapism from this world.

Death is also one of the strongest embodiments of the sublime, both in the Burkian sense because it is a part of nature that is terrifying, mysterious and infinite; and in the Kantian sense because the concept of death is something that exceeds human imagination.

Of course, all of this is dependent upon a correct interpretation of our readings, and a proper understanding of the thoughts of Burke and Kant.

Ah, subjectivity…

Hello All!

For those of you who are unaware, though I doubt there are few of you who are, this is going to be a blog about Romantic era literature for a fall course. I look forward to exploring the theme of the transformative power of imagination, as the title of this blog clearly indicates.