Starting the semester and naming names
How to begin? According to scary statistics that are always quoted by my university’s Centre for Teaching, students are frighteningly quick to make up their minds about a course –and make their first impressions of the first quarter-hour of the first class bear heavy evidentiary weight. That is not the only reason to steer clear of the defeatism that Arthur Lovejoy models in one passage in his “The Discriminations of Romanticism” essay (1924): “When a man [sic!] is asked, as I have had the honor of being asked, to discuss Romanticism, it is impossible to know what ideas or tendencies, he is to talk about, when they are supposed to have flourished, or in whom they are supposed to be chiefly exemplified.” Competing definitions of the “Romantic” are arcane material with which to begin the academic year, but doing a Lovejoy, so to speak, and throwing up our hands in despair isn’t an attractive option either. So we have to say *something* about why (as in my case this past week) the course we are embarking on is entitled, e.g. “Romantic Poetry and Prose.”
It is embarrassing to admit this–but it took me years of teaching before I began remembering in my inaugural comments to take into account what it is that ”romantic” (in the lowercase) connotes in everyday contexts. It turns out, I’ve learned, that it’s generally worth saying outright in the opening class that, whereas Romantic poetry and prose might include love poetry and love stories (though it doesn’t very often), it is not limited to love poetry and love stories. It’s also worth acknowledging how easy it is for this nomenclature for a literary period and/or movement to mislead (if not the students who’ve actually signed up for that class–no one in that group has ever actually admitted to me to ever having been misled– then the “friends” or the “parents” who have taken an interest in their course selections). Even the Wikipedia entry on Romanticism doesn’t engage the relation between what is upper-case Romantic and what is lower-case romantic! Still, I think that acknowledgment can provide a really great starting off point for a course.
One way to begin might be with this wonderfully suggestive comment by Elizabeth Fay, introducing an edition of Romantic Circles: “Romantic poets, at least those of the canon, do not make love to women in their passionate pleas, but instead make love to nature and natural objects.” (Fay was introducing here a collection of essays that, as subsequent events showed, managed to put passion back on the scholarly agenda of Romanticists.) I’ve been taking a different tack lately and have often begun my Romantics courses by having the students think with me about how the Victorians’ retroactive identification of an earlier period as “Romantic” built upon the meanings that had previously been attached to “romance” in that prior era of romance revival. Keats’s apostrophizing of romance as “Queen of far away” in the sonnet on reading King Lear speaks volumes as well as speaking for and to volumes–and I’ve often made this little phrase serve as a kind of notional epigraph for the semester. Or there’s this fabulous moment from Wordsworth’s Prelude that I’m gearing up to discuss on Wednesday–introduced onto the syllabus as a bit of necessary leavening of our discussion of Burke, Paine, Wollstonecraft, and the Revolution Controversy:
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute took at once
The attraction of a Country in Romance
This is a long way of directing the scary question with which I began at YOU. How do other teachers of the romantic-period survey BEGIN?