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Model of the Greater Romantic Lyric, circa Industrial Revolution 1.0: Three British Poets’ Work Analyzed


(An essay discussing the paradigm of The Greater Romantic Lyric of MH Abrams, scholar of literature of the Romantic Tradition, Cornell Professor, prolific editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, and 1963 Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences)

Indeed it would be most appropriate, preliminarily to comment on M.H. Abrams’s paradigm of the greater Romantic lyric, as an ingenious attempt to draw the structure and style of Romantic poetry upon a general pattern and trend. Abrams’s thesis on the nature of the greater Romantic lyric discusses the prevailing characteristics of the poems written in that period; these characteristics manifested in the form, language used, narration, and theme, in and of the poems. What is Abrams’s model for these poems, and how accurately does it explain the general structure and style of these works? In this brief essay, I offer a proposition on Abrams’s concept and to see if it is applicable to the structure and style of the poems of this period.

The poems

The pieces I have selected for the analysis of this matter are Wordsworth’s “It is a Beauteous Evening”, Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”, and Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”. The technique of my study will be such that the poems will be discussed and analyzed individually, with comparisons be made against the model of the greater Romantic lyric proposed by Abrams. I believe it would be proper to begin the analysis by first discussing and presenting an interpretive restatement of the model itself.

The Greater Romantic Lyric: Framework

Abrams characterizes the Romantic poems as having the qualities of a definite rhyme scheme of one form or another; odes and lyrics for instance and the subjects dealt with are of non frivolous matters; contemplative. The poet, speaking in the first person, talks about his subject matter using a language that moves from vernacular to formal speech. The speaker of the lyric interweaves his feelings with the outside surroundings; using the dynamics or the statics of the aspects of nature, such as sunrise, the clouds, living and non-living things, etc., as a basis of describing his emotions. The aspects of change in the “outer scene,” as Abrams termed it, may be parallel or contrary to the poets’ feelings but essential to the wholeness of the meditative experience.

The audience is generally non-existent, or frequently, the speaker engages himself in a soliloquy. Throughout the meditative process, the poet comes to some form of realization or another; resolution, understanding, denial, intuition of matters erotic or thanatopic in nature. The end of the poem signifies these forms of realization and appropriate to their contemplative nature, these poems end at where it begins i.e. at the outer scene, the natural surroundings.

Willam Wordsworth’s poems

Wordsworth’s “It is a Beauteous Evening,” the poem is a sonnet, or, as Abrams defined in his model, having “lyric magnitude”. The speaker, in his first four lines, is talking about the natural surroundings, time, heaven, and the sea. It is a beauteous evening, calm and free The holy time is quiet as a Nun Breathless with adoration, the broad Sun Is sinking down in its tranquility, The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea (lines 1-5)

In the second half of this short sonnet, we see the speaker engaging in a “conversation” with a girl who is walking beside him. The poet then proceeds to remind his audience of a “Being” who is awake, and by his motion, an everlasting thunder is created. The sonnet deals with a subject of utmost reverie, religious in an undertone; the speaker consoling the girl that she need not worry about the unawareness of her “solemn thoughts”, as, by God’s mercy, she will be granted heaven. Wordsworth appears to be talking to the girl who might be listening to him, but as the sonnet proceeds, one may get the feeling that the sonnet is undeniably an interior monologue in nature.

The central theme of this sonnet is about the speaker’s acknowledgment of the superiority of God that he believed would bless the girl everlastingly. Wordsworth wrote: If thou appear untouched by solemn thought Thy nature is not, therefore, less divine:

Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year, And worship’st at the Temple’s inner shrine, God being with thee when we know it not. (lines 10-14)

The language does move from vernacular poetic form to conversation-like formality.

Perhaps Abrams’s model could be applied to the matters so far discussed; the type, theme, audience, and language of the lyric poem. However, it might be appropriate to say too that the way the sonnet starts with the description of the outer scene, fits the model. But, it is not accurate to say that the way the outer scene and the poet’s speech interweave with each other applies to the paradigm proposed. In the second half of the sonnet, a great deal of the discussion is that of the speaker’s hope that the girl is blessed by God. He does not, like the proposed model mentions, describe his feelings, or meditative following the aspects of change in the outer scene.

The poem ends not with the description of the outer scene; the beauteous evening, the broad sun, or other forms of nature imagery used; rather, emphasis is made on the lyric speaker’s “dialogue” with the child – the girl that walked with him. Thus, in this matter, Abrams’s model proved inadequate in describing the technique in Wordworth’s “It is a Beauteous Evening”. Perhaps, the inadequacy lies in the fact that this sonnet is one of the shortest of Wordsworth’s greater Romantic lyric. Though one might agree, the contrary, that the first five lines do mention the changes of the position of the sun, I still maintain that the poem did not end with the description of the natural surrounding.

Percy Bysshe Shelly’s poems

Percy Bysshe Shelly’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” is another lyric poem that, like Wordsworth’s “It is a Beauteous Evening” deals with the subject of a “mighty Being”. While Wordsworth, in that sonnet acknowledges and announces that the mighty being is God in the Christian sense of it, Shelley presents his mighty being or the spiritual power in a different way. Paradoxically the word “hymn”, used as the title for this seven stanzas lyric poem, though by the semantic nature of being applicable to describing religious poems, Shelley used it to record his meditations that are atheistic. Shelley is worshipping beauty, or as he mentioned in the first stanza, the unknown power, spiritual; its shadow visits with an inconstant glance, and this Intellectual beauty is the deity he pleats not to depart from the world:

Thou – that to human thought art nourishment, Like darkness to a dying flame! Depart not as thy shadow came, Depart not – lest the grave should be, Like life and fear, a dark reality. (lines 44-48)

The poem does start with the depiction of nature – “summer wind that creeps from flower to flower -/ like moonbeams … behind some piny mountain shower”, (lines 4-5) and gracefully ends with an alteration of the mood of the outer scene when the poet wrote: “the day becomes more solemn and serene/ when the moon is past there is a harmony”. Along the course of the meditation, Shelley recalled the time when he, as a boy, sought spiritual reality through reading Gothic literature. He then resolves his conflict, dissolving his search for this kind of power when finally discovers the being he calls “Intellectual Beauty ” and then vows that he would dedicate his life to it. If we analyze Shelley’s “Intellectual Beauty” in terms of its theme, we find that Shelley’s meditative-descriptive methods of presenting his emotions; joyous in his discovery, fits that model proposed by Abrams.

The poem does start with the imagery of nature and ends at the outer scene, with the poet’s moods altered due to the experience. The audience is non-existent; Shelley is talking to, pleading, and worshipping the “unseen power”. On the other hand, these “conversations” if at all present, should only be possible in the poet’s mind and imagination. Like the Abrams model suggests, the outer scene closely interweaves with the poet’s overall experience. The language used to typify the model proposed too, moving from a rather vernacular type to a more conversational language with a higher degree of formality. Thus, Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” does follow closely the Romantic lyric paradigm proposed by Abrams.

John Keat’s poems

While the poems of Wordsworth and Shelley in this essay deal with the respective poets’ contemplation upon the powers that govern life and the poets’ emotions – Wordsworth’s acknowledgment of God (in the Christian tradition), and Shelley’s idolizing of his “Intellectual Beauty” as his spiritual master – Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” presents us with the lyric speaker’s yearning, among other things, for a more powerful ability to use his imagination as an escape “agent” that could lead him out of the life that he is in. In the analysis of the poem against the model discussed, Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale ” does fit Abrams’s idea of the greater Romantic lyric. The poem has the qualities of a regular ode; uniform rhyme scheme with ten pentameter lines in all eight stanzas.

Like Wordswroth’s and Shelley’s lyrical pieces so far discussed, the speaker of the ode, Keats himself, engages in deep meditation, allowing his thoughts and expressions to wander free, Keats started his poem speaking in a rather casual manner about his woes. In the first two stanzas, he laments upon this state of mind:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pain My heart sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains (lines 1-3) He continued expressing his woes in his vernacular language longing for a depressant; a draught of vintage (!) that hath been cooled a long age in the deep – delved earth.

The poem ends with the language used in a rather formal manner, bringing Keats back to “consciousness” after his unsuccessful retreat into the imaginative realm. Though the techniques as discussed so far, of the poem, agree with the model we are basing our analysis upon, I could not agree that the location by which the poet is speaking is such that proposed by the model; “in a particularized, usually a localized, outdoor setting”.

It is unclear as to where Keats is talking from nor it seems sure that the setting is outdoor. It is not likewise with the poems previously analyzed in this paper, Wordsworth describes a calm and beauteous evening as he strolls outdoors in what might appear to be a garden, and Shelley admires the beauty of the mountains and the landscape around him. In “Ode to a Nightingale”, Keats, though talking about the darkness of the night, does not seem to indicate the locality he is in; aspects of the nature imagery seem to exist only in his imagination, not in the waking consciousness.

In addition to the inaccuracy above, Keats’ experience in the poem does not seem to relate to the outer scene (if at all present, ambiguous in its description). The poet mainly talks about his feelings not interwoven with the outside scene, if analyzing from Abrams’s paradigm. This experience, not entirely coherent anyhow, is a description of what is happening in the poet’s mind while he is listening to the Nightingale’s singing, if one may define that as the basis of Keats’s “outer scene”, capable of changing from one aspect to another, however, does not seem to alter Keats’s emotion significantly throughout the poem. In other words, Keats is not affected by the Nightingale’s happiness by being joyful himself, rather, envious of the joy in the singing when what he feels is sorrow and pain.

Thus, it would not be accurate to say that the lyric speaker’s feeling is closely interwoven with the outer scene. An analysis of the thematic aspect of Keats’s poem reveals a definite accuracy of Abrams’s model of the greater Romantic lyric to that of “Ode to the Nightingale”. The poem deals with a highly meditative subject matter: frustrations in life that lead to the longing for death. This theme is contrary to what Wordsworth’s and Shelley’s poems in this paper touch upon. Keats wants to be able to escape from a life which he considers painful and intolerable, full of sorrow and frustration. He yearns for death but one that is easy and painless. In stanza six he wrote:

I have been half in love with easeful Death Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme To take into the air my quiet breath; No more than ever seems rich to die, To cease upon the midnight with no pain (lines 52-55)

As to why the poet longs for death as such is not a matter that is intended to be further discussed in our analysis, though. The poet, in the seventh stanza, voices his envy, joyous in its ecstatic singing, for not having to face the human fate of having to die, Keats wrote:

The voice I heard this passing night was heard In ancient days by emperors and clowns: Perhaps the self same song that found a path Through the sad heart of Ruth … (lines 61-64)

Besides the two main thoughts that Keats dwell upon: his evaluation that life is full of pains and sorrows, and his longing for a painless death, the poet believes that the power of imagination or fancy could serve as a vehicle by which he could escape life.

Thus, these thoughts of Keats that makes up the theme of the poem, concerning Abrams’s paradigm does present that the speaker “achieves an insight”; his acknowledgment of the powers of imagination that could temporarily retreat him to happiness, “faces up to a tragic loss”; though the nature of Keats’s loss is not discussed in the poem, his lamentations indicate some form of tragedy or another that has befallen him. Through the analysis of the three poems, in the tradition of the greater Romantic lyric, there are several instances where Abrams’s model could not adequately represent. Primarily, the case is of the last poem discussed, Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” where there seems to be an ambiguity as to the presence of an “outer scene” that intertwines with the poet’s meditative experience. Keats does not, I feel, base his feelings upon the change in the aspect of the outer scene; what is more, is that it is arguable whether Keats’s feelings themselves change. The same instance holds valid in my argument of Wordsworth’s poem, where, in a lesser degree of the “nature-feeling” interweaving characteristic, the opening lines of the short poems, describing the bountiful day doesn’t seem to follow throughout the poem does not end with the outer scene, deeming Abrams’s model inaccurate.

Except for the instances above, generally, the three poems fall into the category of either regular ode, as in Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”, or having lyric magnitude as in Wordsworth’s and Shelley’s poems. The speakers of these poems do use a language that moves from vernacular to formal and they deal with the serious and emotionally contemplative matter: Wordsworth and his awareness of God, in the biblical sense; Shelley and his deity whom he calls “Intellectual Beauty” and in the last poem we hear Keats moans upon the sorrows and frustrations of life that leads him to long for death, as easy and painless as sleep. As Abrams has proposed, the speakers of these lyrical poems achieve either an understanding, acknowledge, or simply complain of the situations they meditate upon.

Conclusion

Hence, what then do we conclude about the adequacy of MH Abrams’s model of the greater Romantic lyric in explaining the three poems discussed? I would say that the model is generally applicable except for the instances in Wordsworth’s and Keats’s poems. Nevertheless, as I have stated in the first sentence of my essay, Abrams’s attempt is an ingenious one and undeniably, the paradigm he proposed served a valuable purpose in categorizing an understanding the Romantic poems as in a class as distinct, imaginative, exciting in itself and nonetheless vibrant; with its new forms and approach, apart from other genres in the English poetry.

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DR. AZLY RAHMAN
DR. AZLY RAHMAN
DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.
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