Poetics of Stone

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Poetics of Stone

Tristram Wolff
Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Northwestern University


This course was designed as the 2nd in a two-part sequence introducing undergraduates to central questions in the environmental humanities, radiating outward from Romantic poetics. Where “Part I” (“Natural Languages and Green Worlds,” taught Spring 2015) focused on greenness, liveliness, and the organic in poetry, “Part II” (“The Poetics of Stone,” taught Fall 2015) turned to poetic treatments of inorganic matter. In “Natural Languages,” we read with an eye for the Romantic inheritance of Classical, Renaissance, and Enlightenment genres and topoi such as the pastoral, the “green world” of comedy, primitivism, and the origins of language in (among others) Theocritus, Marvell, Rousseau, Herder, Blake, Wordsworth, and Clare (extending forward to H. D. Thoreau’s Journals, Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge, and Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man). The project of “The Poetics of Stone,” by contrast, was to answer Paul Fry’s call for a “stone-colored criticism,” in other words to look beyond the “green” version of Romantic nature to focus on a range of “greyer” genres and topoi: elegy, the petrifying power of the sublime, mythic, and “natural” inhuman agencies, the anxieties of a secularized chronology of the earth. A galvanizing aim of the course was to track and enumerate the expansions of conventional associations with “stone” in poetry, with the help of thinkers like Hutton and Lyell, busy establishing the geologic legibility of deep time. How and why did Romantic authors in this era bring stone to life? How did such experiments compromise the boundaries of human agency? In the final week of an all-too-short quarter, we turned to twentieth and twenty-first century uses of stone in poetry, to ask whether the same concerns that drove Blake, Smith, and Tennyson to geology were significant for poems like Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone,” Wyslawa Szymborska’s “Conversations with a Stone,” or Moore’s “To a Steamroller” (answers ranged from “definitely” to “not really,” averaging out around “it’s complicated”). At the end of the day, my hope in both classes was to foster awareness of a deeper history of theories and anxieties about “the environment.”

Short contemporary texts inspired by “new” materialism and debates about the anthropocene were both challenging and eye-opening for students. But placing a certain emphasis and faith in the poetry gave us a welcome critical distance on these recent texts, showing how environmental imaginaries emerging today find revealing precursors in the innovative experiments of earlier writers. In our discussions and in several written assignments, I asked students to push themselves toward the same innovative or experimental thinking through different adventures in Einfühlung or empathy being advocated by the works we were reading. One of these assignments, “Phenomenological Experiment: Feeling Stone,” is included below. Following the very explicit intermixing of science and poetry in Goethe and Novalis, students were asked to make an expedition in a familiar landscape and to commune with some geological form before recollecting the encounter in tranquility by way of a one-page free-write. The written results of this assignment were uneven (as free-writes are meant to be), but the experiment in tactile learning prompted a better feel for the way our Romantic writers were confronting the world and a freer vocabulary around the way metaphors can be reformed. When I teach the course again, I’ll schedule a field trip with a faculty member from earth sciences so we can get our hands dirty and try to see the land formations surrounding us through the eyes of geologists.

ENG 353 / CLS 304: “Romantic Environments: The Poetics of Stone”

[I]t is time that the geologist should in some degree overcome those first and natural impressions which induced poets of old to select the rock as the emblem of firmness . . . — Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, Vol II (1833)

Now we learn what patient periods must round themselves before the rock is formed . . . — Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (1844)

Course Description: What happens when we learn to see the world in deep time? This course situates the study of Romanticism within the contemporary environmental humanities by concentrating on a “poetics of stone.” Romanticism’s critique of industry has played an important role in historicizing nature's forms and making visible the world’s fragile, interdependent “greenness.” But behind these organic and lively forms, the inanimate figure of stone looms large. In the age between the publication of key texts by architects of the modern study of geology James Hutton and Charles Lyell (1780s–1830s), Romantic poets introduced a range of possible meanings for geological change, adapting it to various political and philosophical ends; in addition to new uses given to the cosmic notion of “revolution” itself, these poets gave new resonance to slow inhuman processes like petrification, erosion, weathering, fossilization, and sedimentation. Drawing on continental European reference points as well as major protagonists of British Romanticism, we will look at the meeting ground of philosophy, science, and poetry, and ask what new forms of worldly attention are demanded by a poetics of stone. The final weeks of class are devoted to reading 20th-century poets who have adapted this poetic tradition.

Week 1: Introduction(s)

Tu 9/22

  • Syllabus Review & Introductory Remarks
  • Alexander Pope, “On His Grotto at Twickenham” (1740) (in class)
  • Alice Oswald, “Autobiography of a Stone” (2005) (in class)

Th 9/24

  • Jeffrey J. Cohen, “Introduction” to Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman
  • John Playfair, from “Biographical Sketch of James Hutton”
  • William Blake, “Earth’s Answer” (1794) and “The Clod and the Pebble” (1794)

Week 2: Voices from the Ground

Tu 9/29

  • Playfair, from Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth (1802)
  • Paolo Rossi, “Hutton: A Succession of Worlds,” from The Dark Abyss of Time
  • William Blake, The Book of Thel (1789-91)

Th 10/1

  • Denis Diderot, from D’Alembert’s Dream (1769)
  • Blake, Thel continued

Week 3: Revolution and Creation

Tu 10/6

  • Stephen Toulmin & June Goodfield, “The Earth Acquires a History,” from The Discovery of Time
  • William Blake, The First Book of Urizen

Th 10/8

  • Erasmus Darwin, “Canto I” from The Temple of Nature (1802)
  • Blake, Urizen continued

Week 4: Sublime Mountains and Ordinary Rocks

Tu 10/13

  • Immanuel Kant, from Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790)
  • Charlotte Smith, “Beachy Head” (1806)

Th 10/15

  • Dana Luciano, “The Inhuman Anthropocene” at Avidly (LARB)
  • William Wordsworth, “Lucy” poems (ca. 1800), “Resolution and Independence” (1802)

Week 5: Stones and Romantic Science

Tu 10/20 [Midterm Paper DUE (5-8pp)]

  • Johann Wilhelm von Goethe, “On Granite” (1784)
  • Begin Novalis, The Novices of Sais (1798)

Th 10/22

  • Jussi Parikka, “And the Earth Screamed, Alive” and “An Ecology of Deep Time,” from The Anthrobscene
  • Finish The Novices of Sais

Week 6: Duration and Poetic Attention

Tu 10/27 [Phenomenological Experiment: “Feeling Stone”]

  • Stephen Jay Gould, “The Discovery of Deep Time,” from Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth & Metaphor in Geological Time
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Mont Blanc” (1816), “Ozymandias” (1817)

Th 10/29

  • Excerpts from P. B. Shelley, Prometheus Unbound (1819)

Week 7: Revolution and the Fall

Tu 11/3

  • John Keats, “To Ailsa Rock” (1818), “Elgin Marbles” (1817), “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819)
  • Begin Keats, The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream (1819)

Th 11/5

  • Finish The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream

Week 8: The Anxieties of Actualism

Tu 11/10

  • Charles Lyell, from Principles of Geology, Vol III (1833)
  • Charles Darwin, from Voyage of the Beagle (1839)
  • Begin Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam (1833-1850)

Th 11/12

  • Henry De la Beche, “Awful Changes” (1830) (in Rudwick, Scenes from Deep Time); (+ optional: G. G. Byron, “A Dream” [1816])
  • Finish In Memoriam

Week 9: Romantic Afterlives

Tu 11/17

  • Manuel De Landa, “Conclusions & Speculations,” from A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History
  • Poems by W. B. Yeats, Joao de Melo Neto, Osip Mandelstam, Marianne Moore, Wislawa Szymborska

Th 11/19 [Begin Presentations on Final Papers/Projects]

  • Poems by W. H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, Francis Ponge, Paul Celan, Jesper Svenbro, Alice Oswald

Week 10: Afterlives and Conclusions

Tu 11/24 Conclusions and Presentations (Class still in session!)

Th 11/26 THANKSGIVING

Reading Week, etc.

12/1-12/3 No Class (Reading Week) Contact me if you would like to set up meetings about final papers/projects.

Tu 12/8 [Final Papers/Projects DUE (8-10pp)]

Phenomenological Experiment: Feeling Stone

Assignment: Inspired by the “Romantic science” of Goethe and Novalis, as well as texts and authors from previous weeks, write a single-spaced page about an interaction with a stone. The genre is “freewrite,” which means a kind of stream-of-consciousness reenacting of the thoughts that came to you while you were observing the stone, as well as afterward when you sit down to recall the experience. I will collect this short piece of writing in class next Tuesday, 10/27.

Explanation: What do I mean by an “interaction with a stone”? What does it mean not only to touch, but to be touched a stone? To come up with an answer, you should draw on the readings from Week 5. What kinds of expansion of the sensory and mental capacities are envisioned by the poetically inclined science invoked and practiced by Goethe and Novalis (both of whom, in addition to being poets, were professionally trained and well-read in a range of fields of natural science and engineering)? Why does Goethe directly address the granite he is standing on, and why does Novalis say of the “teacher,” who “went down into caverns,” that in his encounters with familiar things, “strange things often ordered themselves within him” (7)? How do both allow themselves to be affected by an encounter with an observed object? Walking through or off campus, look at your environment with “new organs of perception”: every variety of stone you see came from somewhere else, whether it is now underfoot (pebble in a gravel path, flagstone, poured concrete), part of a building (brick, masonry or block of stone, slate siding), being used as an ornament or monument (chunks of various stones scattered across green spaces), and so on. Choose some piece of stone that (as we say) “speaks to you,” and contemplate it: what does it look and feel like? How does it hold up to weather? What processes formed it or shaped it? Where does it come from—what will it look like in 100 years, 1000 years, 1 million years? What kinds of particles is it made of? How did it get as large or small as it is? By what agency or process did it wind up where it is now? (You don’t have to know the geological or artificial process that brought it to its current state; you just have to become curious about this process, and speculate or create a story about it.) Perhaps these questions will reveal something about your own relation to your surroundings, and your assumptions about what is usually an invisible part of your environment. What does it remind you of? How can you turn the question “what does it physically feel like?” into the question, “how does it make you feel?”

Inspirational Quotes:

  • “As a huge stone is sometimes seen to lie / Couched on the bald top of an eminence; / Wonder to all who do the same espy, / By what means it could thither come, and whence; / So that it seems a thing endued with sense” (Wordsworth)
  • “Every new object, clearly seen, opens up a new organ of perception in us” (Goethe)
  • “It is as though an alkahest [dissolving agent] had been poured over the senses of man. Only at moments do their desires and thoughts seem to solidify. Thus arise their presentiments, but after a short time everything swims again before their eyes” (Novalis)