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Seminar based on the poem
Here you will be able to compare the way in which you have engaged with the questions in this lesson to the responses of other students.
Right, this is what we’re doing today, OK? We’ve all got with us the poem that we’ve read before, yes? Everybody had a chance to read it? Yeah. OK, so we have a poem. We have an unspecified poem in the sense that we haven’t yet discussed or understood the nature of the poem, though we know who it’s by. First of all, what we’re going to do is read the poem as if we didn’t know anything about William Wordsworth or indeed anything about when he might have written. And instead we’re just going to be looking at the poem as a poem in itself and just looking at the form of it.
And then what I want us to do is to move into a re-exploration, as it were, of the poem in which we take into consideration not just the form of it but also when it was written– the context, as we might call it. What do you think this is a poem about? The liberty of the individual. About liberty of the individual. OK. About having the freedom of choice for me, which in a sense is a freedom. OK. And we’ll work out why we think it’s these things in a moment. Because obviously if you’re writing an essay about it, you would have to use the text to back it up. But I just want to get your initial reactions.
Is it about anything else? It’s sort of about the sonnet and why one would write in a sonnet. Yeah. So does that makes sense to you all? Does this jell with yours as well? So it’s actually about the concept of liberty. We’re suggesting it might be about individual liberty. And somehow it’s also about the sonnet form. So can we use the poem, then, by way of textual substantiation, as we’d need to either actually when writing about it or even when talking about it in a seminar? If we’re going to start with the first proposition, which is that this is a poem about individual liberty, can you give me an example from the poem that would substantiate such a reading?
When he talks about the nuns and the narrow room and then the hermits. Could you just read out that line then? “Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room.” And which therefore suggests there’s some limitation there, especially with “narrow” suggesting it’s a restriction that otherwise would potentially not normally be there. But it says “not fret,” so it’s suggesting that– It says “fret not.” Oh, “fret not.” It would make more sense. It would be more expected if it said “not fret.” Yeah. But it suggests, then, therefore they may be content with this and not necessarily angry or annoyed at their supposed loss of liberty or freedom, which can be suggested. Hmm.
So what might look like a restriction is actually not so. Is that– Yes, so it could be a comfort. It’s funny it says “fret not,” though, isn’t it? I mean, how often do you go, I fret not? I fret not at this feeling here. He’s swapped the language around, hasn’t he? And what’s the impact of that? Fret not– what might it do? It scans better. It puts the emphasis on “not” rather than the “fret.” And in that sense, what does it matter that it’s doing that? What does it matter that actually you’re immediately confronted with something which is saying no to something? If that makes sense. What’s it saying no to? I think liberty, having freedoms. Sorry, I missed that.
Having freedoms. Having freedoms? Yeah, it’s halfway down. Well, more than halfway down, significantly. We’re in line eight. “In truth the prison, unto which we doom ourselves, no prison is.” “Fret not.” “No prison is.” What’s happened again? He’s inverted the language. He’s inverted the language. And the effect of it, Lucy, is just what you said, isn’t it? What’s the effect of the inversion? Emphasis on the “no”? The emphasis on the “no.” Absolutely, Chelsea. So in fact it’s making sure you don’t slip over it and go, ah, it’s not a prison. You get “no prison is.” It’s totally emphatic. And it shocks you into a recognition. Why do we need this?
What is it the poem is, as it were, addressing that it’s got to redress, it’s got to change, by this emphatic negation of something? What is lurking in the background? The reader’s underlying kind of idea that confinement is a bad thing or that being given structure kind of constricts us rather than it allows us great freedom of expression. That sounds perfect, doesn’t it, all? That sounds great. Do you agree with that? Yes. I think the poem sort of suggests that actually we really do take comfort in the restrictions we have. We like some restriction, and that maybe we shouldn’t be so complacent.
Obviously we need to uphold important liberties, but we shouldn’t be so complacent and maybe negative about the comfortable restrictions we do have and the comfort we take in those confinements. Absolutely. Absolutely. I’m wondering, though, if the weaver might have the same reaction. Now, this is a weaver who is presumably weaving not because I just woke up one morning and thought, you know what I want to do? I really, really want to weave. Because they woke up one morning thinking, I need to weave in order to be self-sustaining. And to which we doom ourselves. Is there the same freedom of choice, I wonder, that runs throughout all these different examples?
Or is the poem making us think that they are all the same? I suppose that chances are, the maids and the weavers were born into working-class families, which means they then have to continue. It’s very difficult for them to kind of get out of that. Whereas if you’ve got a student in a pensive citadel, then they’ve kind of perhaps been given the opportunity to do so. Yeah, they’d have been born into an upper-class family, wouldn’t they? I mean, the person who is born into a laboring-class family, as it might have been called at this point, are they making a positive choice then? Or is it that they aren’t born into a certain position? Restricted by their opportunities, really.
So it’s not their choice that’s restricted, then. It’s something outside. So it’s quite tricksy, this, isn’t it? It’s beginning to make me feel a little bit uncomfortable. I was going to say the liberty he’s talking about here is obviously like liberties and the freedom of choice of the individual. And it seems he’s trying to kind of encompass everyone from each class. So there’s obviously a massive discrepancy between the liberty of a maid at the wheel, who’s forced to work, or I could be forced to work. But the poem isn’t asking us to remember that. That’s what we notice, isn’t it? Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
And obviously the student who chooses to study, and it’s up to his or her own discretion to study. And the student will, of course, at this point be a boy. Oh, yeah. Yeah. And we have to remember that bit too. So the women are the maids at the wheel. Predominantly. Yeah, absolutely. Familiar place. Earlier, Lucy, you suggested you thought– picking up from Angelo’s point. And he thought that this was a poem about individual liberty. You said it was also a poem about the nature of itself, about a poem. Can you point us to a part of the poem that would reinforce and substantiate that reading?
Well, he says “in sundry” makes the kind of sense when he perhaps was confused, and he just had to work out something in his head. “Twas passed on to be bound within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground.” So those restrictions are where he goes when he needs to kind of make sense of something. And he talks about how he finds brief solace there. So there is that sense that it’s a kind of safety ground. It’s perhaps the citadel or like the students or the cell or the narrow room. So the scanty plot of ground being what? The sonnet itself, or like the form of it. And why would we call it such a thing? How can we describe it?
It’s scanty, but it’s also a plot of ground. Scanty, a little thing. What of it? Because obviously the restricted structure of it compared to other poems which can– It’s quite short as well, or relatively short. Exactly. It’s this tiny little thing. And it’s rigid. It’s a plot. It’s like a field. It’s limited in that sense. But you can grow from it. Yeah, nice. That’s nice. So you can grow things in it. And also maybe it’s the definition of the poem. It’s only if you’re writing a sonnet in the form itself that you can write at all. Yeah. Then actually there’s something about the nature of the containment that is, for him, giving him the capacity to speak.
What we’ve been doing is we’ve been thinking about the form of the poem, the form of the sonnet. And now we’re going to make a move over. We’re going to move into, what if we think about the context of the poem as well and then put the context in dialogue with the form? It was written in 1802. Didn’t get published until 1807. And it came out in a collection, all by Wordsworth, called Sonnets Dedicated to Liberty. Which probably won’t come as a big surprise to you. We kind of worked out it’s about liberty, yeah? Sonnets Dedicated to Liberty. He said of it– I have it written down somewhere to remind me.
And this was in a letter to a friend of his in 1807 that the sonnets together collectively make a poem on the subject of civil liberty and national independence. And elsewhere he describes these poems as political essays. Which is kind of a bit odd. It’s not what you’d expect a sonnet, or indeed any poem, to describe. But Wordsworth himself had a very clear sense that these sonnets are not only just not about love. They’ve got some kind of public national function. They’re out there. They’re trying to do things. So the context in which Wordsworth was writing this poem was one in which the French Revolution had become something, to him, too much liberty.
And there was a fear that England– possibly the “scanty plot of ground”– might be invaded.
Can we do anything with that in terms of going back to our readings? Does it make a difference to us that we knew this context? Definitely, because you can see the liberty that he’s talking about. And the scanty plot of land, which he says within the sonnet, really being within England and liberty being not the liberty of choice but the liberty of having a government and having rules and– Lovely. Of a kind of self-government. Yes. Can you imagine what would happen if too much liberty were to come into this sonnet? What would happen? I can think of something really transgressive in terms of the form of the sonnet. It would have more than 14 lines. I know!
It would be outrageous. That’s exactly what I thought. But actually, if there’s too much of it, it would stop, ceasing to be itself. It wouldn’t be a sonnet. Yeah, it would be a sonnet. And then so what? Do we care? What does it mean? Because it is actually extraordinary. If somebody chose to write– they’re thinking of, I want to write on liberty. In some way the sonnet, which we’ve recognised as being the most restricting form, seems like exactly the wrong form. But we’re putting it context now and thinking, this is somebody who’s fearful of too much liberty. This is somebody who is actually writing poems which they are perceiving to be of national importance.
They want them to be read as such. Remember that at this point poems could be used in the way that the kind of Twitter or media is used now. They can affect people’s minds and sensibilities. Actually, the night before a major discussion, a vote in the House of Commons about the abolition of slavery, William Wilberforce, of whom you may have heard– he was one of the key political figures in the campaign– asked a poet called Hannah More to write a poem to support it. And she wrote a poem. It took ages to come up with a title. It’s called “Slavery, A Poem.” She wrote this poem.
It was circulated, the assumption being that a poem could effect change, that you could go to a poem. We have to think a different world here. He’s written a poem which is worrying about too much liberty. He’s chosen a form that constrains you. What is it saying to us? If we were reading this at the time, what would it be saying to us? Well, obviously the poem functions, and it’s quite clear, or relatively clear in its purpose. And the message is quite clear, even within this restrained form. And so through this, we can see that the restrained form actually helps the poem. And this does not make the message any less clear than it already is.
If anything, it emphasises the message with iambic pentameter in the poem highlighting the word “not.” And so we know that there’s no need to fret not. So by highlighting “not,” it shows we don’t need to worry about this and that it’s actually a good thing for us. And we’re still feeling free. We know that from those weavers who are having a wonderful time at the loom. Apparently we all still feel very free, even though we’re not too free.
Do you feel as though maybe it is kind of making some sort of political bid in terms of protecting us, the nation, the poem, as it were, from the invasion from without, just as the student has the citadel to protect them from without? I find it a slightly coercive poem. What do you feel? You may not agree with me in the slightest, and that’s the whole point of reading poems. They will stimulate completely different discussion. Yeah. Yes? You having said that, yeah. I mean, it’s almost manipulative. But then he does talk about brief solace in the sonnet. So it’s a kind of sense of it being a distraction from the issue, but not necessarily being a kind of complete solution.
But then he doesn’t give weight to anything that might be a complete solution, so there’s a sense of not really knowing. It’s also hard to see exactly what he’s implying. Because “too much liberty” is obviously quite vague. I mean, does he want to go down a more authoritarian route? Or is he just saying, we just need to sort of hold back here? I think what we’ve done is actually to kind of make the form and the content, as it were, speak to themselves, speak to each other very well. And do you think that in making the movement from the form of the poem to the context, that your initial reading of it has been altered in any way?
Do you think it gives you something to work with context? Definitely. Definitely? Mm-hmm. Even if it does– and I think that’s a really interesting proposition– not allow you to move to a state of resolution, perhaps where we are, quite rightly, is we are still in a position of wanting to ask more questions. Which is what we do as literary students.
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Here you will be able to compare the way in which you have engaged with the questions in this lesson to the responses of other students.
Do you agree with the readings offered by the students?
If you were in the room with them, what might you want to add to the discussion?
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