Very few works of literature can withstand the passing of time – out of millions of poems ever written by thousands of writers over hundreds of years, only a select group would ever be anointed as canons; interestingly, those works that do, seem to integrate the passing of time into its inception, not only in framing its narrative, but more eloquently, in encapsulating the essence of the work in between lines and stanzas.
‘Romantic poetry’ is among the literary concepts that remain steady despite centuries of criticisms and developments. According to Alexander, the term still means the same as it did during the 1960s; that is, the body of poetic works from six major Romantic writers, completed in between 1789 and 1832 (265) which veers away from the nostalgia of the classical past and turns its gaze into nature as the conduit for meaning. For the Romantic writers during that time, poetry is the vessel for human contemplation mostly mediated, if not inspired, by the natural world. Moreover, the preoccupation for the ‘natural’ seems to extend even to the choice of words inside the poem, which the people during that period in time would “naturally” speak.
These qualities, although widely known as the pillars of Romantic poetry, are not the only elements in the Romantic era that brought about its endurance of time. Quite remarkably, these fundamental characteristics are intricately framed in the very concept it successfully defies – time, which one may consider as also an element of nature; and in the process amass more profound meaning.
For instance, William Blake looks upon the majestic tiger in his interrogation of the ironies of creation. In his poem “The Tyger”, Blake captures the fearsome and dangerous image of a predator, along with the violence it entails, and places these beside the wonder of its creation. It provides a powerful contrast between the purportedly calm nature of creation, to which the creator is conjectured to “smile his work to see” and the supposed “deadly terrors” of the creation itself. Such facilitates the meditation of the human upon their creation – the act of being created, and their capacity to create – couched upon the image of the natural world. However, the detail initially presented in the first stanza:
“Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” (Blake n.p.)
not only intensifies the contrast between the image of the brightly burning tiger and the darkness of the night, but provides a time frame in which the contemplation primarily arrived at the persona. The reader, beginning in the first stanza, is brought into the nighttime, inviting the reader into the only specific moment where such image of opposite forces is possible. The brightly burning creation – the tiger – would not have figured as bright as it did had the setting of the poem not been in the night. In this case, the “night” is actually tantamount to the irony being delivered; it serves as a flawless backdrop against a burning tiger, and at the same time activates the fearfulness commonly attributed to the darkness of the night.
Moreover, the penultimate stanza featuring another element of the night further contributes to the completion of the poem’s imagery:
“When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” (Blake n.p.)
In contrast to the violence attached to the tiger and the nighttime in the opening stanza, these lines interestingly ease into a relative calmness as they transform the violence into the wonderment of creation. The last two lines question the effect the creation had on its creator, even contradicting the fearsome picture that was painted in the first place by asking if it made its creator smile. Again, these are staged during the night, allowing for the spectacles of stars to be visible, and, without which, dare I say, the act of creation as expressed in the poem would utterly fail. Alexander supposes that it is the reader’s duty to critically read the works so as to arrive to the closest possible realization as the author’s intent in writing the work (274); thus, in turning our attention to the use of time in the poem, and, in the appreciation of the nighttime as an integral part of the work, we can say that as a reader, the duty is another step closer to the author’s intention.
The same intention, however, manifests in a different fashion in Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty”. The duality of the night as expressed in the ironies surrounding “The Tyger” is interpreted rather distinctively, although equally as effective, in Lord Byron’s work.
The first stanza introduces the reader yet again into a nighttime setting, invoking the darkness as the background to the primary figure in the poem:
“She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.” (Byron n.p.)
But, as opposed to the forcefulness of the object of thought in Blake’s work, Lord Byron crafts a serene and tranquil image against the same backcloth of the darkness of the night. While the first poem illustrates how the dark is effective in bringing about the emphasis on the brightly burning ferocity, sustained by the terrifying connotations of the night, the nighttime figures in the second poem as contributory to the calmness of the beloved’s beauty. Lord Byron explicitly calls attention upon the contrasting elements of the night that are the “best of dark and bright” which was, as discussed earlier, also utilized by Blake. Not only does the narrative timeframe complement the description of the subject, it also proves absolutely necessary as a “gaudy day denies” the exposition of the poem’s subject matter.
However, aside from the similarity between Blake and Lord Byron’s use of the night as supplementary to the poetic meaning-making, the latter more clearly sets the speaker in a natural nighttime space, an effect described by Armstrong as denoting the poet’s reflection and creativeness (E52). Indeed, it humanizes the poetic process as something that is elevated but still in the realm of the natural world. Moreover, in placing the persona in a setting also accessible to the reader, the poem adds another dimension to itself – reliability. I suppose this would be the desired effect of the Romantic movement in poetry to bring the works closer to the regular folks, and, in extension, is also a testament to the movement’s success in defogging the rather obscure language of poetry prevalent before the Romantic period.
From these close, but, by far incomplete, reading of the use of time as a narrative frame, as well as an important component in negotiation of meaning and in narrowing the distance between the reader and the writer during the Romantic period, we can surmise that the era’s success in withstanding the passing of time is made possible especially by the intricate and perfect synergy of these facets described. Perhaps, I would conjecture, if the contemporary writer wishes to create pieces as lasting as the Romantic canons, they must remain committed to their subject-matter as the Romantics remained committed to the nature; and they must have time in and around their works as time was spent in and around the Romantic canons. In the end, we all know this to be true: time and commitment – they make things last.