Category Archives: fine arts

The Kural

The Tirukkural (or Kural, for short) by Thiruvalluvar is one of the acknowledged highlights of the Tamil literary tradition, which spans 25 centuries. The new English translation by Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma has been highly praised, and I recommend it.

I usually find “wisdom literature” (didactic, aphoristic poetry) hard going, regardless of its background or main teachings. But The Kural is widely reported to be subtle, paradoxical, allusive, and lovely in Tamil, and Pruiksma’s English has those virtues. For instance, here is a paradoxical verse about renunciation:

Hold to the hold of one who holds nothing—to hold nothing
Hold to that hold [350]

And here is an example of a memorable metaphor:

Riches attained by those without kindness—like milk
Soured by its jug [1000]

I don’t know another unified poem that encompasses ethical directives (part 1), advice for monarchs (part 2), and erotic verse (part 3). The whole poem concludes with a section on “Sulking and Bliss,” which recommends playing hard-to-get. The narrator is never identified, but part 3 seems to weave together the voices of two lovers, their friends, and other characters, almost like a drama:

Though he’s done no wrong pulling back 
Brings him closer [1321]
Even free of wrong there is something in keeping 
From my love’s soft arms [1325]

Sweeter than eating—having eaten—sweeter than loving—
Sulking in love [1326]
Sulk my bright jewel—and may our night
Of pleading be long [1330]

The text was probably complete by 600 CE. There’s a long tradition of identifying Thiruvalluvar as a Jain, although many other religious traditions (including, implausibly, Christianity) have claimed him. David Shulman reminds us that we know nothing about the author, even whether a single person wrote The Kural. (Almost certainly, the text incorporates numerous quotations.) Shulman writes, however, that the milieu is the “mobile world of the [South Indian] city, with its face turned toward international seaborne trade and also toward heterodox religions, like Buddhism and Jainism, carried throughout South Asia and beyond by wandering monks and holy men.” Furthermore, the text largely avoids the kinds of claims that typically divide religious traditions, such as the identities and roles of deities or the origins and end of the world. A Buddhist, a Shaivite, or a Stoic could embrace The Kural, and that may be intentional. After all:

Delivering the complex simply and discerning
What others say—that is knowledge [424]
Those who can’t speak a few faultless words
Love to speak many words [649]

In the sections on personal ethics and the good life for regular people, The Kural advocates what Owen Flanagan has called (writing about Buddhism) “equanimity-in-community.” We should cultivate inner peace by restraining desire and craving. But we should use everyday ethical interactions to fill the space that might otherwise be occupied by those vices. The Kural emphasizes hospitality, generosity, friendship, forgiveness, nonviolence (ahimsa), “husbandry” (in the sense of cultivating one’s land and animals), and family. I didn’t pick up anything about yoga, meditation, or ceremony and ritual. Instead, passages like this evoke sociable, generous members of communities who are not overly concerned about their individual desires:

A well of abundant water—the wealth of the wise
Who love the world 

A tree bearing fruit at the heart of town—wealth
In the hands of good people [215-6]

The implied reader is generally male, and the division of roles is patriarchal, but we can modify the advice to be more egalitarian. The text charts a middle way between pleasure and renunciation. An adherent to a Hellenistic philosophical school, such as Stoicism or Skepticism, could endorse much of The Kural, except that nonviolence is more explicit and prominent here than in late Greek philosophy.

The long middle portion of the book–on leaders, politics, and governments–belongs to the “mirror of kings” tradition: encouraging rulers to be responsible and moderate. Although The Kural strongly urges nonviolence and vegetarianism as components of personal ethics, it depicts good leaders as honorable and effective warriors. Some of the advice here is about how to win wars and retain power.

The third part comes as a surprise, because it is suddenly about ardent sexual desire, which had been criticized earlier. The style is more lyrical now, and the speaker is sometimes female.

Apparently, in classical Tamil love poetry, the lovers wake up under separate roofs, spend the day together (perhaps illicitly), and part unwillingly at twilight, which is a confusing time of shadows and dimness. In this verse, the “it” is passionate desire:

At dawn it buds—all day it swells—and at dusk
It blossoms—this disease [1227]

And here the (presumably female) lover resents the evening but tries to summon some empathy for it:

Is your husband hard-hearted like mine—bless you
You wretched bewildering evening [1222]

Although love is a “disease” that causes much sighing and suffering, surely the conclusion of The Kural celebrates it.

See also all that matters is equanimity, community, and truth; Buddhism as philosophy; on philosophy as a way of life; Odin on the tree.

setting a price on people in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline

In Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber observes that people usually want to distinguish sharply between their fellow human beings and other animals or objects. Therefore, most societies treat money in either of two ways.

Some societies use money for ordinary commodities and abhor using it to buy people. They prohibit not only slavery but also the use of dowries and ransoms and the purchasing of sex, offices and titles, children, and body parts.

Other societies use money only for people. Individuals pay ransoms and dowries, purchase slaves, and make monetary gifts, which often accompany a change of status, such as a promise to submit to someone’s authority. However, in these societies, people are careful never to use money for commodities, which drastically limits the significance of slavery. They also avoid exchanging people for money by making heavy use of asymmetrical gifts and carefully distinguishing gifts from barter.

Evil results when the two systems combine, because then it becomes profitable to sell human beings. This is generally a consequence of violent external power, such as European colonialism after 1450.

Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (ca. 1611) seems pervasively concerned with anxiety about money turning people into objects.

In Scene 1, we learn what is now called the “back story” by overhearing an expository dialogue between two gentlemen. Apparently, the king has been very generous to an orphan, Postumus. The king’s gifts should have put Postumus in his power, but the young man has instead taken Imogen, the royal daughter, as his lover. As a consequence, he will be banished–excluded from the society. The First Gentleman uses a market metaphor to assess Postumus’ high worth as an individual. Imogen has sacrificed her status to be Postumus’ lover, and

            her own price
Proclaims how she esteem'd him and his virtue;
By her election may be truly read
What kind of man he is. 

Before he leaves the court, Postumus and Imogen exchange a ring and a bracelet as a kind of informal marriage ceremony (albeit without a dowry or bride-price). First, Imogen simply gives Postumus an object that she suggests is incalculably valuable: not exchangeable for any other good.

          Look here, love;
This diamond was my mother's: take it, heart;
But keep it till you woo another wife,
When Imogen is dead.

Here she also grants Postumus the freedom to marry another woman in the event of her own death. Postumus responds by giving Imogen a bracelet, which he minimizes as a “trifle” but imagines as the price of making her his prisoner. This exchange turns the bracelet into the equivalent of her diamond, and of herself.

As I my poor self did exchange for you,
To your so infinite loss, so in our trifles
I still win of you: for my sake wear this;
It is a manacle of love; I'll place it
Upon this fairest prisoner.

Gallantly, he assess his own worth as infinitely less than Imogen’s, yet he implies that the exchange has made them equals.

The exiled Postumus then takes refuge in the house of Philario, whom Postumus’ father had more than once saved in battle. In Debt, Graeber explores the widespread idea that saving someone’s life obliges you to care for that person, since you’re responsible for the fact that he’s alive. Graeber suggests a different explanation: people who save or spare others are typically powerful and are expected to make the ones whom they spare into their dependents. The gift symbolizes their authority. For instance, late in this play, Cymbeline pardons his own daughter, believing her to be a boy named Fidele, and follows this life-saving act by promising another gift:

To say 'live, boy:' ne'er thank thy master; live:
And ask of Cymbeline what boon thou wilt,
Fitting my bounty and thy state, I'll give it.

Postumus’ own final action in the play is to spare a condemned enemy voluntarily. But his status in Philario’s household is ambiguous. He’s the son-in-law of a king and also an exile; he needs Philario as much as Philario needed his father. It’s not clear who is being generous to whom.

In Philario’s household, Postumus meets an Italian, Iachimo, who is obsessed with market logic. (Italy was then the center of banking and international commerce). Iachimo assesses Postumus’ worth by considering the “catalogue of his endowment” and “perus[ing] him by items”–like a customer in a store. He doubts the “words” said about Postumus (his reputation), because this man has voluntarily exchanged his privileges as a courtier for a woman: “This matter of marrying his king’s daughter, wherein he must be weighed rather by her value than his own, words him, I doubt not, a great deal from the matter.”

Postumus has bragged that his mistress (note the possessive; and he never uses her name in this scene) is “more fair, virtuous, wise, chaste, constant-qualified and less attemptable than any the rarest of [the] ladies in France.” Here Postumus suggests a rank-ordering of women, such that the value of each one can be mathematically assessed. Iachimo appreciates that “kind of hand-in-hand / comparison” but claims that all British women are less valuable than all Italians.

Postumus insists that he “rates” Imogen as he does his diamond, which is “more than the world enjoys.” Iachimo quips, “Either your unparagoned mistress is dead, or she’s outprized by a trifle.” Postumus replies by differentiating commodities from gifts: “You are mistaken: the one may be sold, or given, if there were wealth enough for the purchase, or merit for the gift: the other is not a thing for sale, and only the gift of the gods.” (Gods do not employ transactional exchanges, because they need nothing.) Iachimo retorts that a ring could be stolen, and then it would certainly be sold for a specific sum. Whether Postumus admits it or not, the diamond has finite value. Therefore, so does Imogen.

The two men begin to discuss a wager, which is the central plot element of the play. Iachimo wants to bet his estate against Postumus’ ring that he can seduce Imogen. He claims that this offer is generous because his estate is worth somewhat more than the diamond, and then he quantifies his offer by betting precisely ten thousand ducats against the ring. Postumus won’t agree, because he is reluctant to set a market price on his gift from Imogen, and hence on her. He offers to bet gold against Iachimo’s gold but will not stake his ring, which “I hold dear as my finger; ’tis part of it.” (The human body is not to be marketed). Iachimo scoffs: “You are afraid, and therein the wiser. If you buy ladies’ flesh at a million a dram, you cannot preserve it from tainting: but I see you have some religion in you, that you fear” losing.

Not wanting to appear reluctant to test Imogen’s virtue, Postumus suggests an alternative to a crude, monetary exchange. “I shall but lend my diamond till your return.” (Giving, receiving, and returning gifts are the foundations of a gift economy, according to Marcel Mauss.) Slipping back into a quantitative comparison–or perhaps mocking that logic–Postumus adds, “my mistress exceeds in goodness the hugeness of your unworthy thinking: I dare you to this match: here’s my ring.” Iachimo agrees:

If I bring you no sufficient testimony that I have enjoyed the dearest bodily part of your mistress, my ten thousand ducats are yours; so is your diamond too: if I come off, and leave her in such honour as you have trust in, she your jewel, this your jewel, and my gold are yours.

Iachimo has set a price of ten thousand ducats on Imogen, on her “dearest” organ, and on the diamond. This logic marks him as the play’s villain, yet Shakespeare grants him effective arguments. Postumus wants to avoid measuring Imogen’s worth (let alone her genitals) in ducats, but his openness to market logic makes him an easy mark for Iachimo. Later, he repents, in a speech that comes once he is manacled as a prisoner of war and believes that Imogen is dead:

          ....  Must I repent?
I cannot do it better than in gyves [fetters],
Desired more than constrain'd: to satisfy,
If of my freedom 'tis the main part, take
No stricter render of me than my all.
I know you [gods] are more clement than vile men,
Who of their broken debtors take a third,
A sixth, a tenth, letting them thrive again
On their abatement: that's not my desire:
For Imogen's dear life take mine; and though
'Tis not so dear, yet 'tis a life; you coin'd it:
'Tween man and man they weigh not every stamp;
Though light, take pieces for the figure's sake:
You rather mine, being yours: and so, great powers,
If you will take this audit, take this life,
And cancel these cold bonds. O Imogen!
I'll speak to thee in silence.

Here, Postumus combines tropes of debt, coinage and monetary assessment (“take this audit, take this life”), and the exchange of his life for Imogen’s. He counters his own earlier talk of bonds, bets, and market value and demonstrates that he has learned a moral lesson.

As with many happy endings in Shakespeare, the improbable finale of Cymbeline supplies the right answer, yet the problem that drove the plot lingers. Iachimo is defeated but not actually rebutted. Only a preposterous series of coincidences has made things turn out well. The playwright understands how the world really works in 1611, even if he doesn’t like it.

See also a darker As You Like It; why romantic relationships do not function like markets Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf (on the gift economy in that poem); when chivalry died; and defining capitalism. I found insightful Katherine Gillen’s “Chaste Treasure: Protestant Chastity and the Creation of a National Economic Sphere in The Rape of Lucrece and Cymbeline.”

Velazquez, The Spinners Museo Nacional del Prado

Velazquez, The Spinners

One story

Minerva, goddess of weavers,
Had heard too much of Arachne.
She had heard
That the weaving of Arachne
Equalled her own, or surpassed it.

Arachne was just a poor girl, but her artistry had brought her fame.

The nymphs came down from the vines on Tmolus
As butterflies to a garden, to flock stunned
Around what flowered out of the warp and the weft
Under her fingers.

They did not merely admire Arachne’s creations but also loved to watch her working. The process moved them as much as the outcome.

A grace like Minerva’s, unearthly,
Moved her hands whether she bundled the fleeces
Or teased out the wool, like cirrus,
Or spun the yarn, or finally
Conjured her images into their places ...

Surely Minerva (a.k.a. Athena) had taught or inspired her. Arachne scoffed at this idea, claiming that she deserved sole credit for her own art. She openly challenged Minerva to a weaving competition. Minerva duly arrived, disguised as an old mortal woman, and lectured Arachne about giving proper credit to the gods. This speech threw Arachne into a rage.

As she spat at her: “Your brain totters
Like your decrepit body.
You have lived too long.
If you possess daughters or granddaughters
Waste your babble on them.
I am not such a fool
To be frightened by an owl-face and a few screeches.
I make up my own mind,
And I think as I always did.
If the goddess dare practise what she preaches
Why doesn’t she take up my challenge?
Why doesn’t she come for a contest?”

Hearing these words, Minerva abandoned her costume and seemed to grow twice as tall. Everyone was terrified except Arachne, who set about weaving. The competitors worked intently, each hardly aware of the other. Minerva wove an illustration of her own authority, depicting herself as the founder of the city of Athens and the just punisher of various mortals. Arachne vividly and sympathetically depicted a series of women raped by male gods–examples of domination rather than authority.

Arachne’s tapestry was perfect. Minerva could find no fault in it, which enraged her. The goddess tore it to shreds and began beating Arachne with her spindle. Unable to stand the pain, Arachne tried to hang herself. “Pity touched Minerva” and she chose to spare Arachne from her rightful fate. Minerva transformed the girl into a spider, working this magic of transformation skillfully, one stage at a time. From then on, Arachne spun and wove perpetually and (I assume) compulsively, “her touches / Deft and swift and light as when they were human.”

Another story

In 1560-62, Titian painted The Rape of Europa, which now hangs in the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston. Like the first scene in the tapestry that Arachne wove to defeat Minerva,

It showed Europa crying from out at sea
stride the bull that had deceived her.
The high god Jupiter, in his bull form,
Carrying her off—
And glistening with effort.
You could see her feet recoiling
From the swipe of the waves through which he heaved.

Titian added plump winged babies and an Adriatic coast in the background. By the 17th century, this work was in the royal collection in Madrid, where Peter Paul Rubens copied it while Diego Velazquez watched him.

Perhaps Velazquez thought: I am better than Titian and I don’t have to copy his works like Rubens does. My genius is my own. Perhaps that thought struck him with irony or even self-mockery, because he knew what he owed to his predecessors.

Velazquez owned translations of Ovid’s text in which the stories of Arachne and Europa were told. Perhaps he sympathized with Arachne, the artist who had sympathetically portrayed Europa. Or perhaps he recognized her arrogance in himself.

The painting

Las Hilanderas (The Spinners) by Velazquez (1655-1660, Museo Nacional del Prado) shows five women in contemporary clothes, plus a cat. They are weaving, spinning, collecting textile fragments, or watching others at these activities. As A.S. Byatt (1999) notes, the painting depicts light playing on many kinds of fabric, including fine filaments that behave like spiderwebs.

Behind these women, and two steps above them, is what first appears to be a single scene populated by noblewomen or mythological figures, including two flying putti and one woman in a resplendent helmet. Closer inspection distinguishes the background, which is a portion of Titian’s Rape of Europa (mainly the sky, with Europa herself hardly visible to the right), from a stage-like area that supports five women in fancy clothes who are boldly illuminated by sunlight from the left.

Like Las Meninas (painted at about the same time and now shown in a neighboring room), this is an enigmatic picture that may have been contrived to support several literal interpretations. One possibility is that the scene on the stage is the story of Arachne, with Athena in the helmet and Arachne standing before her own tapestry, which looks just like Titian’s Rape of Europa. Paintings were sometimes reproduced as tapestries by artisans who had less prestige and were seen as less creative than the original painters. In this case, Velazquez would have pretended to copy an imaginary woven copy of a real painting that he had watched Rubens actually copy in oil. (Today, that copy is displayed in the same room as The Spinners.)

The women in the foreground could just be ordinary workers, shown for contrast. Or they, too, could be figures from the Arachne story. Minerva could be the older lady on the left, shown before she sheds her costume. The steps might separate two episodes from the same story.

The working spinners are arranged in a way that resembles the goddesses and nymphs in Titian’s Diana and Callisto, another painting that Velazquez had watched Rubens copy in Spain (Alpers 2005). One possibility is that Velazquez’ depiction of the spinners is sexually suggestive (Bird 2007), alluding to Titian’s naked nymphs. Or perhaps the main suggestion is that one character is a goddess in disguise.

Evidently, this is a painting about art, coming after the apex of straightforward narrative painting represented by Titian. It is about whether artists are original or derivative–an explicit question in Ovid’s presentation of the Arachne myth. It is about sympathy or empathy for women confronted by unlimited power: male gods who commit rape and a goddess who tortures her victims. It may also be a demonstration of Velazquez’ superiority–as a male court painter–over female artisans. It is about the ability to represent the current physical world, imaginary pasts, and previous representations. It is about the relationship between written stories that unfold in time and three-dimensional space as captured on a flat plane. It is about comparison, assessment, and competition. It is about Velazquez–in a way that would be hard to imagine happening a century earlier.

Selections from Ovid as loosely (but brilliantly) translated by Ted Hughes. Secondary sources: Svetlana Alpers, The Vexations of Art: Velázquez and Others *New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) Wendy Bird, “The Bobbin & The Distaff: Erotic Imagery and the Meaning of Velazquez’s ‘Las Hilanderas’,” Apollo, vol. 166, no. 548, Nov. 2007, pp. 58; A.S. Byatt, “Arachne,” The Threepenny Review, no. 78 (1999): 20–23. See also: Las Meninas and mirrors, was Velazquez left-handed?, Goya’s Familia del infante Don Luis; an accelerating cascade of pearls (on Galileo and Tintoretto); etc.

Odin on the tree

Until lately, I had not read the Poetic Edda, but it feels familiar. It was a major source for Tolkien, Wagner, and other inventors of our northern-European medieval fantasy world. Subtract the gods from the Edda, and you have most of Tolkien’s domain of elves, dwarves, goblins, magicians, thieves, and warriors.

It includes weird and compelling poetry. For instance, the document labeled “Sayings of the High One” presents miscellaneous-seeming advice, some of it rather amoral, like the suggestion to rise early if you want to “take another’s life or property.” (Sleeping late can hurt your chances.) It is not clear who is speaking on these pages.

Suddenly, we read:

I know that I hung on a windswept tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,  
myself to myself,  
on that tree of which no man knows  
from where its roots run.  

With no bread did they refresh me nor a drink from a horn,  
downwards I peered;  
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,  
then I fell back from there. 

Carolyne Larrington, The Poetic Edda (Oxford World's Classics) (p. 32, stanzas 138-9). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

I love that Odin does not introduce himself until we learn that the spear that has pierced the poem’s narrator is dedicated to Odin: “myself to myself.” And then there’s the mystifying magic by which runes flow up into him while he screams. Is he in extreme pain? Where does he land when he’s done?

The notes suggest that Odin is hanging on Yggdrasill, the vast ash tree that upholds our world. Self-sacrificially hanging from a tree sounds like Calvary, but Odin’s purposes are different. After this passage, most of the poem is devoted to listing the runes that he now knows, which have handy properties like removing fetters or putting out fires.

I certainly can’t read Old Norse, but one gets a rough sense of the alliterative language and wordplay by trying to pronounce the original text. (The letter that looks a little like a “d” is eth, and it sounds like “th.”) “Veit ek, at ek hekk” (“I know that I hung”) is a good example of wordplay.

Carolyne Larrington explains some of the poetic forms used in the Edda, but I am not sure which form is employed in these two stanzas. In general, Old Norse prosody involves regular pauses (caesuras) and stresses. The stressed syllables often alliterate. Here, I think that lines divided by a caesura alternate with shorter lines that do not.

I am reading English free verse on a glowing iPad screen. It is Larrington’s recent translation of Old Norse verses that were handwritten on vellum in 13th century Iceland–not by the original authors, but by people, presumably Christians, who recorded oral verse saved from their ancestors’ culture. It doesn’t feel as if any poet is intentionally communicating with me or us; it’s as if we’re eavesdropping on transcripts of some alien conversation. However, I am moved by the way that arresting and mystifying images suddenly emerge amid seemingly random sequences of verses.

See also: Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf; Laxdaela Saga: political freedom and psychological insight; and race, sex, and God in The Lord of the Rings

the sublime is social–with notes on Wordsworth’s Lines Above Tintern Abbey

In secular (and probably upscale) reaches of our society, two suggestions are common for restoring mental health and equanimity: we should experience nature and reconnect to our bodies through meditation or exercise.

Of course, prayer is also an option, and activities such as walking in the woods and yoga have roots and analogues in religious traditions. Here, however, I focus on practices that are open to non-believers.

Such experiences are supposed to be authentic, personal, and at least somewhat distinct from the everyday world of conscious thoughts, words, social roles, organizations, and transactions. Although you can have these experiences alongside other people, an important aspect is inward and often literally silent. Something like the pure or raw self is thought to emerge.

This post is a modest contribution to the argument–which others have also made–that it is a mistake to understand such experiences individualistically. Other people are always integrally involved, and it is wise to be maximally conscious of them.

Although practices like hiking and meditation can be routine or even trivial, they bear at least a distant relationship to notions of the sublime. That word has been defined in diverse and incompatible ways–producing an interesting debate–but a common feature seems to be an aesthetic experience that lastingly improves the self and that would be difficult, if not impossible, to convey in ordinary words. Either a sublime experience exceeds human language or else it requires particularly excellent words (such as verse by Homer or Wordsworth) to convey. The natural or religious sublime is sometimes presented as beyond speech, while the literary or rhetorical sublime defines superior speech.

The premise that a sublime experience cannot be shared using ordinary language contains the germ of the conclusion that we do not need other people to experience it. That conclusion is especially problematic in a consumerist culture with relatively loose social ties and high levels of inequality–a society that generates headlines like this one from Wired in 2013, “In Silicon Valley, Meditation Is No Fad. It Could Make Your Career: Meditation and mindfulness are the new rage in Silicon Valley. And it’s not just about inner peace—it’s about getting ahead.”

Most thoughtful analysts are aware that words, conscious thoughts, and other people do not go away when one experiences the sublime. For one thing, we are always morally indebted to other people. We can’t go for a walk in the woods unless someone has preserved that forest and built those trails. In the Americas, the land was previously conquered from indigenous people. The shoes on our feet and the food in our stomach were made by other human beings. In many cases, the aesthetic experience was skillfully shaped by people: landscapers and foresters, yoga instructors, or whoever else is relevant. It is wise to thank those who made the sublime possible, yet empty expressions of thanks can be worse than nothing.

In addition, we acquire our tastes, our aesthetic values, and our ability to process experience from other people. As I wrote in a previous post, “I do not simply see the snow; I see it with things already in my mind, like Christmas decorations, paper snowflakes on second-grade bulletin boards, Ezra Jack Keats’ A Snowy Day, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘Hunters in the Snow,’ Han-shan’s Cold Mountain lyrics, Robert Frost’s ‘lovely, dark and deep’ woods, Hiroshige’s woodblock prints of wintry Japan, Rosemary Clooney with Bing Crosby. In short, I have been taught to appreciate a winter wonderland, a marshmallow world, and a whipped cream day.” None of us understands all the ways that our experiences have been shaped by our predecessors, but we all absorb the development of our societies as we develop from infants into adults. There is no raw self.

In fact, many have sought to combine explicit records of past human experiences with direct experiences of nature and one’s body. Thoreau says of his time alone at Walden Pond, “My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; and though I was beyond the range of the ordinary circulating library, I had more than ever come within the influence of those books which circulate round the world.” And David Morris reminds us, “Whether meditating by the sea, contemplating the night sky, or crossing the Alps, eighteenth-century enthusiasts for nature rarely forgot their reading: the classics were Addison’s guidebook to Italy, while Joseph Warton’s vision of unspoiled nature comes straight from Lucretius and Shaftesbury” (Morris 1972, p. 7).

Whether to combine introspective experience with literature is a personal choice; it is surely not the only path. But I do believe that the current tendency to see the sublime as purely personal is self-centered, in a consumerist way, and we must bring other people in.

With that in mind, let’s consider one of the most famous depictions of a restorative experience in nature, Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”. The narrator says that his memories of this spot on the Wye River have given him a “gift / Of aspect more sublime,” a “blessed mood” …

In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

This seems like a perfect example of what people nowadays might call self-care through nature.

The story told in the poem is a little complicated. We learn, but not in chronological order, that Wordsworth first came to the Wye River Valley “in the hour / Of thoughtless youth,” when he could still enjoy nature spontaneously, almost as a part of it, “bound[ing] o’er the mountains … wherever nature led” with “animal movements.” In those days, he did not need concepts or words (“a remoter charm, / By thought supplied”) to filter his experience.

Memories of those “boyish days” sustained the narrator while he was busy in the human world of “joyless daylight; when the fretful stir / Unprofitable, and the fever of the world” hung over him. Now he has returned to the same spot and finds that he cannot again feel the “aching joys” and “dizzy raptures” of the place, but he is compensated by a new insight. Now in nature he hears “the still sad music of humanity” and realizes that “the mind of man, a motion and a spirit … rolls through all things.”

At the outset, he is eager to portray what he sees as nature, not as culture. For instance, he mentions “hedge-rows” (which are planted and maintained by human beings) and then corrects himself: “hardly hedge-rows, little lines / Of sportive wood run wild,” as if they were nature’s free creations. But by the midst of the poem, he acknowledges that mind and nature are “deeply interfused.”

And then a third person appears in the poem (counting the narrator as one and the reader as two). This is a “you” who is “with me here upon the banks.” This “dearest Friend” emerges as his sister, Dorothy. The poet’s objective becomes to record her experience of the natural scene so that she can better recall it as her life proceeds, and so that she can vividly remember sharing this experience of nature with her brother. His poem will be a mnemonic (see Rexroth 2021) to give her “healing thoughts” amid the “dreary intercourse of daily life.”

Thus Wordsworth’s sublime is not private or individualistic in a simple sense. But perhaps it is not admirably social, either. In an influential 1986 article, Marjorie Levinson noted that Wordsworth not only chose not to describe Tintern Abbey in this poem (even briefly), but he also omitted many obvious features of the Wye River at that time: “prominent signs of commercial activity” such as “coal mines, transport barges noisily plying the river [and] miners’ hovels.” Tintern was a mining village, and the woods were full of “vagrants” who “lived by charcoal-burning” or begging from tourists (Levinson, pp. 29-30). The abbey was a literal ruin–albeit picturesque to some–because it had been suppressed in the Reformation and sold to landlords who had dispossessed the agricultural population, creating whatever unpopulated vistas one could see in 1798.

Levinson argues that Wordsworth knew all this well, and that “the primary poetic action” of the whole poem “is the suppression of the social.” It “achieves its fiercely private vision by directing a continuous energy toward the nonrepresentation of objects and points of view expressive of a public–we would say, ideological–dimension” (pp. 37-8). The poem is a sign of Wordsworth’s retreat from political engagement in the late 1790s.

Levinson’s 1986 article has provoked some responses in defense of Wordsworth; I have not tried to assess the controversy. For me, these are the key points: Wordsworth exemplifies a currently popular way of addressing discontent or even anguish–enjoying nature–and he is conscious that “humanity,” human language, and human relationships are part of that experience. Yet he is notably apolitical. An analysis of why nature looks as it does–who has profited and suffered from it–is missing from the poem. And this seems to foreshadow many contemporary versions of the sublime.

Sources: Marjorie Levinson, “Insight and Oversight: Reading ‘Tintern Abbey,’” in Wordsworth’s Great Period Poems (1986), pp. 14-57; David B. Morris, The Religious Sublime Christian Poetry and Critical Tradition in 18th Century England (University Press of Kentucky 1972); and Grace Rexroth, “Wordsworth’s Poetic Memoria Technica: What ‘Tintern Abbey’ Remembers,” Studies in Romanticism 60.2 (2021): 153-174. See also the sublime and other people; unhappiness and injustice are different problems; the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology; Foucault’s spiritual exercises; and when you know, but cannot feel, beauty