A bit of a literary essay from Albert Goldbarth, a poet I’ve long admired:
“Charles Dickens started work on Bleak House in 1851. If you’re like me and don’t spend all of your free time romping through the fields of etymology, you too may startle at suddenly stumbling on “ganglion” in those 900-plus pages. Like, what?—did he make a quick trip in his time chaise, and return with a shiny copy of this month’s Scientific American, set on appropriating its language? “Refrigerator” is here too: not in the sense of a kitchen appliance, but still…a frisson volts across my spine. (For a thousand more reasons than this, it’s a glorious book. Bill Matthews says, in “Le Quarte Saisons, Montreal, 1979,” “I read Bleak House / a third time, slowly, fondly.”)
Dickens, Meville, Mary Shelley…something in the nineteenth century seems to set a tiny crystal ball in the heads of certain writers. When Wordsworth stares out dolefully at London’s silhouette and frets at its burgeoning changes—the rise of the factory system and market economy; the end of cyclical time; the degradation of child labor; the first industrial pollution; and the rest—it’s almost as if his gaze is so intense, he can see it all unfold like gritted, sooty origami into the centuries ahead, until it is 2006 for him. No wonder he’s so despondent.
I like to teach his daffodils poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” For one thing, it’s a terrific simple example of connotation at work: we only understand the poem if we understand the difference between the negative “lonel[iness]” (line 1) and the positive “solitude” (line 22). The intervening daffodils, of course, are what alchemize one state into the other. Or rather, his recollection of the daffodils. And so it’s a terrific poem, too, for teaching the distinction between a subject (here, the joyous encounter with nature) and a theme (the healing use we can make of a memory)”