Feb 15, 2011
In the spirit of yesterday’s talk about poetry and art as more selfless, solitary activities than they seem to be in these days of bountiful M.F.A. programs and writers’ conferences, here is one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s major poems, “The Frost at Midnight.”
Frost at Midnight by Samuel Taylor Coleridge : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.
I’d intended to post Coleridge’s “The Eolian Harp,” in which the central metaphor is a stringed instrument that sits in a window, inviting the breeze to play upon its strings. So an Eolian harp poses a literal and a symbolic question central to Romanticism: who or what is making the music? The human who designed the harp and placed it there? The harp itself, unmanned? Or the wind?—which of course can be one of the gentlest or mightiest forces in the nature the Romantics so wholly revered.
In re-reading “The Eolian Harp,” however, I found it just too full of itself. Hamlet's line came to mind: "Words, words, words." I think “The Frost at Midnight” is a far more beautiful, elegant, and simply better poem. And like “The Eolian Harp,” it celebrates quiet observation, sitting back, noticing an infant, noticing the midnight hour and the world outside, letting the mind drift beyond rationality and consciousness into free association and the sleeping or waking dream states the Romantics valued so much. I've heard some of today's poets say that Witnessing means paying attention, really, really paying attention." The intent of the comment is to honor the act of witnessing. I like that, all of it.
A central concern of the English Romantics (1798 – 1830, give or take) was the extent to which the poet, or simply the human, could and should lie back in passiveness, give up the awareness of and attachment to Self, let Nature wash dreamily over him and fully experience the comingling of the human with the “one soul within us and abroad,” as Wordsworth called it.
That's somewhat similar to witnessing, and it raises a question from yesterday’s post: How important is the human? I remember one professor’s position: the first, older generation of Romantics—Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge—could not part with, surrender themselves and their self-awareness the way their younger followers, Keats, Shelley, and Byron did. Keats, for example, seems entirely ready to leave his earthly self to join the eternal life he sees on the Grecian Urn or hears in the song of the nightingale; however, he cannot sustain the required act of imagination.
More tomorrow or soon. In case I end up changing it for some reason, here is the concluding sentence I plan for that post:
When wine, cheese, clatter and flattery enter the room, good thinking, talking, and writing run the other way.
Talk about self-indulgence and self-importance! But aren't I just smelling the roses? And I am a rose. Aren't you?