Sunday, May 2, 2010


Throughout the semester, we have been assigned poems and novels that all highlight the impossible, perverse and strange in literature from the 17th century all throughout the 19th century. As a class, we have traced a number of themes that overlap many of the texts as well a s the historical periods in which they were written. Amongst these themes, there has been a specific focus on the way the supernatural functions in the social schemas constructed by each respective writer along with a focus on the social commentary that each piece offers However, there have been other recurring minor themes such as agency that have transcended the Restoration and Augustan period, the Romantic period as well as the Victorian and Modernism period covered in class. Agency in lieu with other themes works intricately to highlight other major themes in the literature and also reflects the social atmosphere of the society the text is depicting. In the Restoration and Augustan period, authors like Andrew Marvell and Jonathan Swift encapsulate the theme of agency to further develop the bigger themes in their pieces. Marvell depicts the lack of agency in the struggle between the body and the soul; while Swift depicts the lack of agency women are granted as they are forced to give into the strict aesthetics of 17th century British society. In the later periods, poets such as Anna Barbauld, Robert Browning, and Dante Rosetti focalize on restricted agency to make a commentary on the social gender expectations; while others embrace the theme to emphasize how it is manifested through different mediums of art, and its relationship to other themes such as religion and desire.
In Andrew Marvell’s Dialogue between the Soul and Body, he depicts the tug of war between the body and the soul, which are both trying to co-exist and exercise their powers on one another. They each try to assert their powers and independence from each other in a conversation that illustrates the tyrannical relationship between the Soul and the Body: “Soul: O, Who shall from this dungeon raise/ A soul enslaved so many ways?/ With bolts of bones, that fettered stands/ In feet, and manacled in hands/…A soul hung up, as ‘twere, in chains/ Of nerves, and arteries, and veins Body: O, who shall me deliver whole,/ From bonds of this tyrannic soul?/ Which, stretched upright, impales me so” (Marvell). Via this constant struggle for power, the soul and the body explain how they are each slaves to each other and are each fighting to stay alive. As Robert mentions in his post, the soul begins its argument by complaining about the physical torture that the body, an empty vessel, puts the soul through as it cases it: “While the soul is destined for an afterlife in heaven, the body, which is made from the earth, tries desperately to stay alive, preventing the soul from achieving it’s inevitable freedom” (Robert Jeter). This points out a very important relationship between agency and metaphysics that is not really resolved by the end of the poem. Although the Body has the last say, it is clear that Marvell is trying to reconcile the tyrannic relationship between the body and the soul. Although they each have opposite designs, they need each other to co-exist because the body cant exist without the soul and vice versa. Marvell does a great job exhibiting the self-destruction of a body whose soul is not synchronized to the body. However, he places a lot of the responsibilities on the soul because it is the soul that is the source of knowledge. Although the soul cannot feel the pain that the body feels, the soul is the only source of wisdom and experience for the body. So therefore, although agency seems to be cancelled out by the two and nonexistent, I believe Marvell is placing more power in the soul because it is the source of guidance for the body.
In “Lady’s Dressing Room”, Swift approaches agency from a voyeuristic perspective, where he studies the garments of a lady and how they use it to enhance and transform themselves into the women that society wants them to become. I could not help but think of the boy/girl cootie craze of elementary school. Strephon, who is completely charmed by a woman named Celia, decides to raid her personal space. When he does this, he learns that she is not as "sweet and cleanly" as she looked outside the perimeters of her room (line 18). As he rummages through her things, he is disgusted to find her dirty belongings:

"The various Combs for various Uses, [20]
Fill'd up with Dirt so closely fixt,
No Brush could force a way betwixt.
A Paste of Composition rare,
Sweat, Dandriff, Powder, Lead and Hair;
A Forehead Cloth with Oyl upon't [25]
To smooth the Wrinkles on her Front;
Here Allum Flower to stop the Steams,
Exhal'd from sour unsavoury Streams."

Although his presence in Celia’s room grants him more power and the privilege to enter Celia’s private domain, this poem also demonstrates how women are slaves to the objects that transform their beauty. As he goes through her things, he understands the transformation Celia goes through to live up to the expectations that society imposed on women. Her transformation was so elaborate as described by Strephon, who is disgusted to understand what happens to women outside of the public realm. Because of her devotion to the objects that essentially change her physical appearance, she herself becomes an object that is supposed to be displayed and admired for her artificial beauty. Willingly or perhaps unwillingly due to the social expectations, Celia gives up her agency completely to the objects that effect her transformation into the lady society expects and assumes her role as a woman in the 17th century.
Anna Barbauld’s poem entitled The Mouse’s Petition also examines agency from a social, political, and cultural perspective. Although this poem strongly evokes a sense of sympathy for animals through the protagonist, a mouse, this poem also evokes the political and social atmosphere of Britain that the concept of slavery and abolition were brewing in society ( & Liz Furlow blog).

Moreover, it also can be read as a social commentary on the condition of women in British society being that they were seen as subordinates to men. She begins the poem by trying to provide the mouse with a voice against its tyrant: “If e'er thy breast with freedom glow'd,/ And spurn'd a tyrant's chain,/ Let not thy strong oppressive force/ A free-born mouse detain.” As she defines the natural rights of the mouse, Barbauld asks for compassion and tries to breakdown the set of hierarchies that exist in her very own society. She goes on to demand for a comradeship that preserves freedom, liberty, and happiness: “The chearful light, the vital air,/ Are blessings widely given ;/ Let nature's commoners enjoy/ The common gifts of heaven.” Like the African slaves being shipped into Britain and the women in society, the mouse’s agency is restrained and deprived of the public sphere. Here, we see how Barbauld echoes the reality of her own life as a woman and the realities of thousands of African slaves in Britain yearning for freedom. Women, at the time, were constrained to the domestic sphere and were not expected to explore the public sphere that was so dominated by the White male.

Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto also criticizes the power the Catholic Church exhibited throughout society during the 18th century and how all kind of agency was granted to divine providence. Through his parallel between Nature and the supernatural in the novel, Walpole attempts to cripple and completely eradicate the power the Catholic Church and all other major religious forces exercised on societies. As he tries to challenge the power structure on which the Catholic Church is founded, he uses the word “providence” as an instrument to deconstruct the institutions of the Church. It is only used in the text to explain the irrational, the mysterious, or the supernatural within the plot: “But what told thee it was a lock? Said Manfred. How didst thou discover the secret of opening it? Providence, that delivered me from the helmet, was able to direct me to the spring of a lock.” In this case, both Theodore and Manfred rely on divine providence to explain how Theodore manages to free himself from the huge helmet, in which he was trapped. Walpole could be using divine providence to grant himself authorial power to explore the supernatural and to complicate the overall plot of the novel. Nonetheless, both Theodore and Manfred give up any other kind of agency, but divine providence.
In this image, we see how the divine providence is highlighted to explore the supernatural and the natural in the scene. It is the force that outweighs impulse and reason. When Theodore meets up with Isabella and helps her; he attributes his desire to help her to divine providence. In this instant, he, too, gives up control of his actions to divine providence.
In our presentation on Wordsworth’s Animal Tranquility and Old Man Traveling, we also see how Wordsworth do what Walpole does as he denies the old man any kind of agency through the modifications he makes to the different versions of the poem. The first version foculizes on the old man a lot more and includes dialogue by him; while the other versions focus more on nature and the old man’s suffering than they do on the old man. In Old Man Traveling focused on observations to explain the Old Man’s mental and physical condition. The dialogue interjection illustrates the agency that Wordsworth grants him over his own condition and where abouts. In fact, even the title grants the old man more agency because it mentions him in it. In the later versions, however, the title changes to Animal Tranquility & Decay and the old an is desensitized to the world around him. As nature thrives, the old man continues to decay and he is stripped of any agency in this version.

References :

Rogers, Nicholas. Policing the Poor in 18 Century London: The Vagrancy Laws and their Administration. Policing the Poor in 18 Century London: The Vagrancy Laws and their Administration. York University. Web. 27 Feb. 2010. .

Averill, James H. "Suffering and Calm in Early Poetry 1788-1798." Wordsworth and the poetry of human suffering. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell UP, 1980. 55-83. Print.

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