Romanticism & Contemporary Culture
How to Save "Tintern Abbey" from New-Critical Pedagogy (in Three Minutes Fifty-Six Seconds)
Ted Underwood, Colby College
In this collection of essays, the pressing question raised by my title may not be "Why teach popular music?" but "Why with Wordsworth?" Almost any other Romantic writer makes more sense in this connection. Mary Shelley and Lord Byron not only contribute through their works to contemporary culture, but themselves appear as icons of the Romantic in works like The Bride of Frankenstein and Arcadia. Coleridge and Keats keep a lower contemporary profile, but are enveloped by an aura of opium and precocious death that makes it not altogether absurd to connect them to popular culture. Wordsworth, on the other hand, makes a point of his discomfort with a culture of "outrageous stimulation" (747). "Wordsworth and Rock 'n Roll" is a pairing guaranteed to highlight the risk involved in any juxtaposition of high and low culture in the classroom—which is, that it will seem simultaneously to vulgarize what ought to be pure and to intellectualize what ought to be gritty and authentic.
I sometimes do introduce contemporary culture in less embarrassing ways: film versions of Frankenstein, film versions of Austen. But I've focused here on the connection between popular music and Wordsworth because it's the one I find indispensable in the Romantic-period survey I teach every year. Film versions of novels can raise many interesting questions, but the questions they raise most insistently—about the different emphases of novelistic and filmic narrative—are tangential to my purpose in a period survey. Works of historical imagination like Stoppard's Arcadia or the various Byron-Shelley vampire stories, on the other hand, take "Romanticism" too directly as their subject.1 In a senior seminar, it would be fascinating to discuss these authors' use of the R-word. But in the survey course, I want students' ideas about isms to coalesce only very slowly and tentatively from an acquaintance with specific works. I'm afraid that a consistent and vividly-colored caricature of "Romanticism" would prove more memorable than the inconsistency of the period itself.
Why, then, do I pair Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" with 80s and 90s rock? There are specific thematic and historical connections to be made, about which I'll say a word or two. But my real pedagogical agenda, I've come to realize, has less to do with those specific connections than it does with the fate of lyric—and perhaps especially of Wordsworthian lyric—in the classroom. I bring popular music into the period survey because I find that my students' definition of "the lyric" needs to be challenged and enlarged before they have much chance of perceiving anything lyrical about Wordsworth.
I teach students who have done well in high school, and know perfectly well what a lyric poem is. A lyric, as you may know, is a condensed literary form in which a single speaker explores a process of thought or feeling. It's less clear what you do with one once you recognize it. Because students read and discuss novels outside of class, they're comfortable asking questions based on their understanding of novelistic pleasure: Are the characters fully developed? Is the ending satisfying? Those questions can then lead to other, less obvious, questions. When they approach lyric poetry, students don't have the same base to start from, and so they're inclined to jump directly to the level of meaning, and beyond that, to the periodizing generalities they believe constitute "knowledge of literary history."
In my view, this hasty leap to periodization short-circuits the whole course. My own research is historical, and I certainly do want my students to think historically about poetry. But it's an enterprise without much content if they don't yet understand the category of experience about which they are forming generalizations.
My sympathies are with the students in this matter. Like most of my students, and for that matter like most of my colleagues, I didn't grow up hearing poems read out loud. I encountered written poetry mainly in the classroom, while my emotional life was braided into and constituted by a different lyric form, called "the single." Under those circumstances, it's possible to come to the conclusion that you "like poetry," without connecting that liking closely to the identificatory surprise and sense of suspended volition you feel when reciting your favorite song lyrics. One learns to look to written poetry only for kinds of lyric expression that are rare in popular culture—involving absolute negative capability, for instance, and an unconsoled engagement with human mortality. This definition of poetry (which makes it, in effect, the inverse image of popular sentimentality) works well as an introduction to some poets—say, Rilke, Rimbaud, and Keats. But it's not an especially good approach to Wordsworth. In my case, real appreciation of Wordsworth didn't come until graduate school.
There's a good case to be made that this delay is inevitable—that Wordsworth's apparent innocence and actual complexity make it difficult for him to reach twenty-year-old readers on the first pass. I'm thinking of Peter J. Manning's essay "On Failing to Teach Wordsworth," which makes this case with a candor and an eloquence I admire. Manning points out that a pattern of cognitive failure, followed by delayed understanding, has a certain aptness here. If our students find Wordsworth's "spots of time" opaque and unmanageable the first time they encounter them, it shouldn't surprise us: so did Wordsworth. But this needn't, of course, limit our pedagogical aspirations. J. S. Mill was 22 when "the fact of my reading Wordsworth for the first time" appeared to him "an important event in my life" (149), and—Mill's famous precocity notwithstanding—other students the same age can have the same reaction.
Many of the barriers to appreciation lie in learned expectations about poetry that serve Wordsworth poorly. It will surprise no one to learn that the New-Critical approach to poetry that still dominates our classroom practice enshrines certain modernist preferences as general laws. In particular, as I have already hinted, New-Critical pedagogy defines written lyric poetry as an inverse image of popular sentimentality. A poem is a free-associative subspecies of the riddle; it rigorously avoids the paraphrasable. To appreciate it is to be able to explain the relevance of each apparent non-sequitur. Doing this reveals that you are capable of fresh and authentic experience, as distinguished from the stock responses we relegate to greeting-card verse and popular music.
To students who have passed through this program of modernist training, the best Wordsworthian lines ("and oh, / The difference to me") often look more like greeting-card verse than they do like poetry.2 Wordsworth's lyrics lack the imagistic riddle-structure they have learned to expect in written poems; by contrast, they appear sentimental and didactic. One response to this obstacle would be to compromise, and to stress the sense in which Wordsworth's poems are, after all, riddles of a psychological kind. Another would be to launch a direct assault on modernism's expansion of negative capability into a law that there are "no ideas but in things" (Williams 6). Both these responses are cogent, but given the limited space of a twelve-week semester, it occurred to me that a pedagogical shortcut might be to remind students that they already in fact enjoy—and see a discussable complexity in—rhymed ballads that don't hesitate to comment on human experience directly. By bringing popular music into the classroom, I hoped to show students that the modernist standards they impose on written poetry are not universal, while reminding them that they already have a definition of the lyric that makes as much room for eloquence and identificatory pleasure as it does for riddle-solving.
This was a move that made particular sense to me because the music popular in my own college years was specifically Romantic. Kate Bush did the Brontës in several voices, Pink Floyd did the "Immortality Ode,"
When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown,
The dream is gone . . .
and Bono fell upon the thorns of life, bled, and became the trumpet of a prophecy so simultaneously political and personal that it must have made Shelley's scattered ashes blush.3
The trickiest part of actually teaching these connections, I find, is to avoid a rigidly comparative subordination of contemporary texts to the Romantics that would negate the whole point of the assignment. The first time I tried this sort of thing, it came at the end of the semester, as a kind of coda. I used Peter Gabriel, "Solsbury Hill" (1977) and U2, "Where the Streets Have no Name" (1985), and asked students to compare them to Wordsworth and Shelley, respectively. But in setting up discussion, I moved much too quickly, naively expecting that the song lyrics themselves would be reasonably transparent to the students, so that we would be able to skim over the usual groundwork of interpretation and move quickly into a comparison to Romantic texts they had already read. Of course, the lyrics weren't transparent; even when the themes are Romantic, rock lyrics often move according to an associative logic more difficult to decode than Wordsworth's double negatives. The students panicked and froze, and I felt even more desolate than I do when they fail to understand Romantic texts.
I was operating with the naïve assumption that popular culture is absorbed directly by the ears, and that only high culture has to be mediated through the analytic intelligence. In fact one can like a song for a long time without wondering what one likes, just as one can like "Kubla Khan" for a long time without wondering whether there are one or several speakers. This admittedly qualifies my original pedagogical rationale. I had reasoned that students already see the complexity in rock lyrics, and that it should only be necessary to connect popular culture to Romanticism in order to allow their existing proficiency in the lyric mode to spill over into the classroom. In fact, in both domains, it takes the same effort to move from uncritical to analytic appreciation. In spite of this, I think the connection remains worth making: after students are surprised by the difficulty of popular lyrics, they are much readier to believe that lyric poems can be apparently simple, actually difficult, and nevertheless enjoyable.
The practical lesson I took away from my mistake was essentially this: to get the effect I want out of teaching popular culture, I have to set things up so that students perceive the text as belonging to their domain of expertise. This doesn't necessarily mean that it has to be last year's hit; there is a canonicity in popular music that immunizes certain older songs against dismissive periodization. On the other hand, it does mean that I no longer present popular music at the end of the semester and ask students to look for Romantic themes. That has two bad effects: first, it reifies Romanticism, and second, it paralyzes students who don't yet have the historical confidence to articulate significant parallels. Instead I teach popular music before the Romantic text I plan to link it to, and I encourage students not to worry about the historical connection just yet. I warm up the discussion the same way I would warm up any other discussion—which is to say that I begin with the sorts of questions students are likely to ask themselves about the songs. Then I try to let those questions motivate a harder question about the meaning of some contemporary lyric convention. In the next class session, I read the Romantic text as a historical answer.
For instance, I recently taught Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill" (1977), Melissa Etheridge's "My Back Door" (1989), and Live's "Lightning Crashes" (1994) as a kind of introduction to "Tintern Abbey." One thing the three songs have in common with each other, and with Abrams's Natural Supernaturalism, is a three-part pattern of connection, loss, and return to a (now transformed) connection. This is clearest in the Etheridge song, which is a straightforward narrative, tracing a union with the world that the speaker experiences as a child, loses, and rediscovers in the form of political commitment.
A similar pattern is implicit, but very confusing, in "Lightning Crashes." On the narrative level, that song recounts the death of a woman and the birth of a child in the same hospital. Something passes from the dying woman to the child; it might be "a motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things," or it might just be "the burden of the mystery." As the song puts it, "The confusion that was here / Belongs now to the baby down the hall." The song's choruses stand at a 90-degree angle to this action; it's not clear who the speaker is, but the lack of specificity suggests that the choruses are giving a lyrical interpretation of the action rather than participating in it:
I can feel it coming back again
Like the rollin' thunder chasing the wind
Forces pulling from the centre of the Earth again
I can feel it.
It's important to know that the whole song is a crescendo, and that the crescendo takes place most markedly during the two choruses. This, combined with the repetition of "I can feel it," tends to suggest that what's "coming back" is not just "life," but a renewed power to feel. But the song doesn't specify when or how that feeling was lost, and it does little to explain the connection between its celebration of subjective renewal and the cycle of life and death it describes. There's only the implied link between "lightning crashes" and "rolling thunder," which vaguely suggests that one kind of renewal follows on the other.
Discussion ended on this perplexity. The next day, we went on to "Tintern Abbey," discussing it entirely in its own right. It's a sufficiently perplexing poem on its own. But after we had wondered why anyone would enjoy "Flying from something that he dreads," unknitted the chronology, and recognized a familiar pattern of connection, loss, and connection in a different form, I was able to say some things about the Romantic secularization of redemption narrative that received (I think) a much more attentive hearing than they would have if the students hadn't seen that Wordsworth was in the process of inventing a lyric pattern they know well. I was then almost (but not quite) able to convince them that "Lightning Crashes" is able to be vague about the connection between its cycle of life and its cycle of subjective renewal because we have "Tintern Abbey" in our blood, and half-automatically infer that the point of perceiving a spirit (or a burden of "confusion") that rolls through all things is to rediscover a (now articulate and conscious) connection to that spirit.
As I say, I'm not entirely sure that the students in this particular class were willing to buy the notion that Romantic lyric forms live on, unseen, in the interpretive assumptions they bring to rock and roll. But this hardly matters. My pedagogical aim was not to get them to believe that proposition, or even to believe that rock's cycles of secular redemption are inherited from what Abrams calls "the Greater Romantic Lyric." Those were the subjects we discussed, but these class sessions contributed to the semester more importantly through their unstated presupposition: that popular music and "Tintern Abbey" can offer experiences of the same order of intensity.
To lead students to this realization, I continue to believe an indirect approach is best. I don't preface my introduction of popular music with any apology, attack on elitism, or baptism in cultural theory; my students would rightly be suspicious of a formal argument in favor of pleasures they already know. On the other hand, prompted in part by our discussion in the Romantic Circles conference on this topic,4 I am beginning to see ways this unit could logically lead up to a discussion of cultural theory. As I suggested at the beginning of this essay, the conjunction of Wordsworth and popular music is a strange one in part because Wordsworth himself so explicitly resists the dominant culture of his own time. By linking that culture to "the encreasing accumulation of men in cities," distinguishing it from authentically popular lyric expression, and identifying its chief defect as artificiality, Wordsworth articulates one of the earliest critiques of modern popular culture as "mass culture" (746).
It would make a great deal of sense, then, to move from a discussion of Wordsworthian patterns in popular music, to a discussion of Wordsworth's own embryonic theory of "mass culture." The next time I teach this material, I plan to save the "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads for the class immediately after our discussion of "Tintern Abbey," and I may follow it with Adorno and Horkheimer on "The Culture Industry."
I would like students to become conscious of Romantic cultural theory so that they can resist its unexamined presence in their thinking. I don't myself make a distinction between authentic "popular culture" and "mass culture," and I'm unpersuaded by the firm distinctions that Wordsworth and Adorno erect. Though I agree that contemporary culture is shaped by market forces, and pervaded by ideology, I don't think this state of affairs is particularly new: culture was informed by power long before the invention of the record company or the gothic drama. We do need to distinguish more and less democratic means of cultural production. But the terms of a distinction between "popular" and "mass" culture often seem to me to encourage, not pragmatic reflection on specific institutions, but nostalgia for a lost Eden where individual consciousness and the culture of the group are supposed to have coincided without mediation by any institutions at all.5 I doubt that it is either possible or desirable for culture to work that way, and for that reason I approach the popular/mass distinction skeptically.
I'm coming to see that it is nevertheless necessary to talk about this distinction in a Romantic-period survey, because a critical examination of the idea of popular authenticity, as it appears in the "Preface," brings our discussion of the lyric full circle. I want students to challenge modernist myths about written poetry: especially the idea that all poems aspire to be "palpable and mute / As a globed fruit" (MacLeish 141). Rejecting that narrow definition permits them to bring to Wordsworth an intensely identificatory reading strategy that they associate mainly with electronic media. But in doing this, I now realize, it is equally necessary to challenge a complementary myth: the notion that truly authentic or "popular" culture is a natural secretion of the social organism, and as such is received directly by our limbic system without political or intellectual mediation. That account would describe Percy's Reliques as poorly as it describes a compact disc. By using popular music to dislodge modernist idealizations of high culture, and a critical reading of Wordsworth to dislodge romantic (and late-Marxist) idealizations of popular authenticity, I hope to encourage a reading of lyric that is passionate and yet clear-eyed about the social underpinnings of culture.
Abrams, M. H. "Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric." The Correspondent Breeze: Essays on English Romanticism. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984. 76-108.
Dickstein, Morris. "'The Very Culture of the Feelings': Wordsworth and Solitude." The Age of William Wordsworth: Critical Essays on the Romantic Tradition. Ed. Kenneth R. Johnston and Gene W. Ruoff. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1987. 315-43.
Holland, Tom. Lord of the Dead. New York: Pocket, 1997.
Horkheimer, Max and Adorno, Theodor W. "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception." Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum, 1991. 120-67.
Live. "Lightning Crashes." Throwing Copper. Uni/Radioactive: 1994.
MacLeish, Archibald. The Human Season: Selected Poems 1926-1972. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.
Mandell, Laura. "Romanticism and Contemporary Culture: MOO Log." Romantic Circles. 1 February 2002. University of Maryland.
Manning, Peter J. "On Failing to Teach Wordsworth." Approaches to Teaching Wordsworth's Poetry. Ed. Spencer Hall with Jonathan Ramsey. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1986. 39-53.
Melley, Timothy. Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2000.
Mill, John Stuart. Collected Works. Ed. John M. Robson and Jack Stillinger. Vol. 1. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1981. 30 vols.
Percy, Thomas. Reliques of Ancient English Poetry: Consisting of Old Heroic Ballads, Songs, and other Pieces of our Earlier Poets, Chiefly of the Lyric Kind. London: J. Dodsley, 1765.
Pink Floyd. "Comfortably Numb." The Wall. Sony: 1979.
Powers, Tim. The Stress of her Regard: A Novel. New York: Ace, 1989.
Stein, Atara. "Achtung Emily." E-mail to the author. 13 October 1998.
Stoppard, Tom. Arcadia. London: Faber and Faber, 1993.
Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. New York: New Directions, 1992.
Wordsworth, William. Lyrical Ballads and Other Poems 1797-1800. Ed. James Butler and Karen Green. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992.
4 Especially Laura Mandell's comments from the MOO discussion in the Villa Diodati.
5 My skepticism here is analogous to Timothy Melley's skepticism about the contemporary conspiracy-theory thriller. Conspiracy theory, in Melley's view, can usefully draw our attention to the monopolization of power and knowledge by elites. But when it stages a sharply-drawn distinction between "individual agency" and "controlling organizations," it also promulgates a misleading fantasy of absolute autonomy (7-16). I would propose that the concept of "mass culture" itself is useful, and misleading, in these same ways.