Controversies, #5 (Fall 1999)

"Metaphysicals, Romantics, Moderns: influence?"

    Past students of English 211 have had many productive discussions in the course's public folder.  This is one I have reproduced because of its enduring importance to the study of literature.  Please feel free to cite these opinions in papers (using proper MLA style!) and to bring up these issues for further discussion in the public folder.  You may make a place for yourself in this discussion for future students to read.  The entries are presented, unedited, in the order in which they were posted.

    Arnie's Note on #5: Literary influence can be discovered by careful study of stylistic or content similarities, informed by biographical and historical information about the poets' reading habits, comments in letters, journal or diary entries, etc.  The reach of a past poet's influence can be astonishingly long--consider the number of modern poets whose writing was changed by reading Homer, Catullus, or Shakespeare, for instance.   Influence also can be "negative," as when a poet seeks to challenge, to outdo, or to correct the work of a predecessor.  For a flawed but still influential argument about the English Romantics' relationship with Milton, see Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence (1977).  Particpants: Natasha Gorski, Kathleen McGill, and Arnie.

Haven't I seen this imagery somewhere before? Natasha Gorski, 11/9/99

        I thought that the Mower and Garden imagery was very interesting in Marvell. The garden poem reminded me of the images and ideas put forth in Wordsworth. Is it possible this was an influence for him?

Wordsworth and Marvell...sittin' in a tree, w-r-i-t-i-n-g? Arnie, 11/9/99

        Natasha's following an excellent stylistic intuition seeing similarities between Marvell's "Garden" and the works of Wordworth (and maybe some other Romantics). It would be unexpected because WW and Coleridge were famous for their manifestos claiming to present their works in the plain speech of common people, rejecting the ornate style of previous poets and, sort of by definition, anything as exotic as a metaphysical conceit. But there might be some very interesting influence in the way Marvell's poems used the nature vs. art conflict that could have contributed to the Romantic movement of the next century. We do know that WW was heavily influenced by his contact with John Milton's Paradise Lost. Not to get too far ahead here, but compare line 15 of the 1798 version of The Prelude (or l. 14 of the revised, 1850 version), with the last lines of the last book of Paradise Lost. In mounting a "personal epic" based on the growth of the poet's soul, WW was taking on the last great epic in English, and he knew it, so he sort of turned upside down all Milton's values and mutated many of his poetic techniques.

        The influence of Marvell on WW would be harder to estimate because Marvell wasn't as famous as Milton in 1790-1800 (when WW was learning his chops and beginning The Prelude), and he also wasn't as famous as Marvell is now, but a great poet is always seeking out under-rated and obscure previous poets to learn things from, so it's not impossible. My first move (were I on campus) would be to consult the reigning Wordsworth biographer and look in the index under "Marvell, Andrew" or "metaphysical" etc. The latest and most impressive WW biography we've got in our library is this one:

Gill, Stephen Charles William Wordsworth : a life   Oxford ; New York : Oxford UP, 1990, c1989  826.5 W92Sgi

        There also is a specialized form of biography that seeks to trace an author's literary career, from its earliest influences and training to the production of all the works, usually in chronological order. The same search there might be more likely to pluck out a reference to some lesser-known earlier poet's influence on WW. We have two, the first being one in a series of "Literary Lives" published by St. Martin's (no Oxford, but not too shabby, either):

Williams, John, William Wordsworth : a literary life.  New York : St. Martin's, 1996  826.5 W92Swi.1

        We also have a later one, from a lesser university press than Gill's, but more recent than Williams' (and I'll bet Mahoney was steamed when he saw the press release for Williams' book!!):

Mahoney, John L   William Wordsworth, a poetic life   New York : Fordham UP, 1997  826.5 W92Sma

So what if you go to Gill, Williams, and Mahoney and all three are stonily silent on the subject of A. Marvell's influence on WW. Remember this rule: "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." If one looks for other kinds of evidence in other places, maybe it'll pop up. Was Marvell in print during WW's youth? Were other poets referring to him, either with praise or scorn? Could Coleridge have read him (same strategy with C's biographers)? Since the two men shared such a great literary friendship, it's improbable that one would discover a new good poet and not share it with his bud'.

        Of course, it's also possible the association 'Tasha sees there is a "false hit," a coincidence produced by the fact that if you put enough poets in gardens, sooner or later two or more of them will do that nature vs. art thingee, or find "soaking up" the garden's time-space to be inspirational. But when I read WW in a seminar with David Ferry back in the Stone Age, he persuaded me that WW was a voracious reader and that, far from just sitting on a toadstool and writing down what he saw in "Nature's Book," he also drew heavily on his library and delightedly browsed upon older poets' work as he wandered "lonely as a cloud," as did his fellow Romantics like Coleridge when he wasn't toking on that opium pipe (ooowwweeeeoooo??--STC's "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison"???) Hmmm.... Arnie, 11/9/99

George Herbert and Dylan Thomas, too? Kathleen McGill, 11/16/99

        I saw a connection between George Herbert and Dylan Thomas. Both died of consumption(If I am remembering correctly) which surely affected their poetry. This topic was discussed in class regarding the comparison of Herbert and Keats. But more so, I found similarities is writing styles. They both experimented with form, even using the same wing shape. Here is an example, (Herbert, Easter Wings)

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,

    Though foolishly he lost the same,

        Decaying more and more

            Till he became

                Most poor

                with thee

(from here the poem, as you know, fills out again)

Now Thomas, "Vision and Prayer, part II"

    In the name of the lost who glory in

        The swinish plains of carrion

            Under the burial song

            Of the birds of burden

            Heavy with the drowned

            And the green dust

                And bearing

                The ghost


The Ground, etc.

Thomas' form is less perfect, as you can see, and he plays with the spacing of the words to complete the shape to his liking. But the likness is there. i just remembered that the Norton played with "Easter wings" so it would fit on the page, but still think that if some research was done, i might find some info on Thomas's influences and find Herbert. But then again, maybe not.

Dylan Thomas and the Metaphysicals Arnie, 7/31/00 (a late afterthought)

        Herbert did die of tuberculosis (called "consumption" because the body wastes away for lack of oxygen), but Dylan Thomas rather actively drank himself to death. The literary connection may well be conscious, though. Thomas has previously been compared to Traherne and Vaughan, Herbert's Catholic metaphysical contemporaries. The idea of the shaped poem might be an interesting issue to take up for its own sake. Remember that our readings of lyrics often led us to discuss the importance of vocal performance for the ear, but shaped poems obviously play with our eyes even while our ears are processing a different stream of information. Can you find a rule or two which might explain how shaped poems work best? Also, consider Thomas's unusual usage and syntax in the light of metaphysical poets' techniques for making the poem knot itself into surprising juxtapositions of sense. Could there be a line of technical mastery extending from teacher Herbert (or Vaughan or Traherne) to student Thomas