The Romantic Warning

rom1The romantics have often been regarded as reactionaries, because of their unwelcoming attitude towards the great mutation that the industrial revolution was about to produce in their countries. A revolution is a radical, somehow violent change, whose consequences are often unpredictable, but  early romantics instinctively felt that the great transformation the world was undergoing wouldn’t have been free of charge.

Modern man, once left his “natural state” and thrown into the dynamics of a materialistic and competitive society, dominated by the threat of clock time, would have seen the nature of his certainties collapse with the consequent urgency of redefining a new scale of values. But what kind of values can a materialistic society produce? Wealth? Success? Career? Can a society, whose imperative is “time is money” and whose members are only small mechanisms of a careless system, be considered as an amelioration of the previous one in terms of quality of life and, why not, happiness? Certainly not.

That’s why the romantics kept on fighting strenuously against “modernity”, advocating the superiority of the values produced by the “old” world. If men abandoned their Eden, their natural state, just like modern Adam and Eve, they would only find pain, hard labor, misery, hence slowly becoming insensitive and indifferent. Therefore, they began to strive using their lines as weapons, lines that they had deliberately simplified in order to reach with their message the heart of as many people as possible. They talked about the importance of memory, the beauty of nature, the necessity of a world of sensibility without restraining from the impulse of imparting a moralizing lesson.

But the process couldn’t be stopped and somehow they were defeated by the course of events. The great industrial change had spread all over the country and towns, like mushrooms, kept on growing disorderly and faster and faster. At the altar of “modernity” man was sacrificing his greatest gifts as well: his creativeness, his sense of taste and harmony. Man now needed to put at the top of his scale of values beauty, many artists claimed. The most optimistic were convinced that educating people to beauty would have meant to improve man’s ethical sense at the same time, but the majority of them thought that it was too late to teach anything to anybody and kept themselves away from the rude and insensitive masses. The first five decades of folly of the twentieth century and two world wars swept away the few certainties and values left and men seemed now motionless seated on a “heap of broken images” of the past waiting for their Godot like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon. We are still waiting.

The Rime of our Life

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“A wiser and sadder man, he rose the morrow morn”….”wiser and sadder”, these two words mark the passage of the young  Wedding Guest of Coleridge’s “Rime to the Ancient Mariner” into the world of adulthood, the bitter age of experience, as Blake would call it, and this is because of a weird story told by a mysterious man, an Ancient Mariner. The narration seems to have affected  the mind of the young man so much, that in the end he falters just like one who “hath been stunned” and “is of sense forlon”. He forgets about the allure of the wedding party he had so much longed to go and proceeds back  home, where after a sound sleep,  he wakes up the following day a completely new type of person: “a wiser and sadder man”, in fact. It must have been a very powerful story indeed to produce such a reaction, even if at first glance it seems only the narration of a voyage with a lot of incidents, in a magic atmosphere, with some  religious symbolism scattered here and there. So, what had the Wedding Guest understood between the lines of the story?

viaggio12First of all why Coleridge had named his young character, Wedding Guest, rather than, I don’t know….The Student, The Lover or other stereotypes we are familiar with. What is the category of the Wedding Guest Like?  What does a Wedding Guest do? Well, I guess a Wedding Guest loves parties, noise, people. He enjoys a life focused mostly on relations, symbolized by the wedding party itself and on the rites that those relations share: food, drink, music, good conversation etc. .He actually enjoys the feast of life and somehow he believes that this is what really matters. And he is young. His youth makes him arrogant, hence he despises the man who had dared stop him just to tell a ghastly story, because he is old, nay more than old: ancient.

viaggio10The generational gap between the two would be unbridgeable but for the supernatural powers the old mariner is endowed with, which help him win the will of the young man, who, from then on, will listen to the story willy-nilly like a “three-year child”. Then the old man will use all his mastery to create that “suspension of disbelief” he needs to catch the heart of the Wedding Guest.Therefore, a gallery of extraordinary characters and events takes form : an unexpected, destructive tempest, a heavenly albatross, tremendous cold and then unbearable heat,the appalling ghosts of Death and Life in Death, crawling snakes, zombies, a mysterious hermit, only to mention the most important ones. It is the story of a voyage, and what is a voyage but the most explicit metaphor of life? The old mariner wants to open the young man’s eyes to make him understand that life will be far from being a never-ending party, an incessant whirl of joyous emotions, as rubs and bitter disappointments will be always behind the corner.

viaggio13The first part of the ballad focuses on the narration of the first days of the mariner’s voyage, when he was just like the Wedding Guest, and somehow it can be considered a metaphor of youth. When you are young, you look forward to hoisting your sails and begin your journey. At first you start to glide on the tranquil waters near the harbour with all the cheerfulness  and thoughtfulness typical of innocence. As the winds start to make your boat move and you see all the familiar places far away, the adrenaline and the excitement grow .You finally feel free to experience the world and you are confident enough to believe that you will always be able to drive your boat exactly where you want. You are so sure that life will always be an exciting, marvellous adventure, that your first, unavoidable tempest will catch you by surprise and fear and wonder will overwhelm you.Before realizing what to do, you’ll find yourself in strange, unfamiliar places, far away from where you had expected to be.

viaggio14The ship of the Ancient Mariner, in fact, is driven by the blasts of a tremendous storm to the South Pole. The sudden mist that surrounds the sailor and his crew is the symbol of their disorientation, so that when huge icebergs come floating by – when you are Young your first obstacles always seem enormous and insurmountable – terror paralyzes their mind. Experience  teaches that somehow there is always a way out, especially if you manage to find the right determination to take advantage of favourable circumstances that could be both of a natural or spiritual kind. The spirituality is represented here by the coming of the Albatross, that with its presence soothes the profound solitude of the inhabitants of the ship, who see it as sign of good omen as, since its arrival, a “good wind” has started to spring. A natural helping hand which pushes the ship northward, back home.Maybe.

Typical of youth is a certain lightness of behaviour, you live for the present and you don’t think about the future consequences of your actions. Everything seems to be for granted, so when the danger of the tempest is soon forgotten and you start to sail in more tranquil waters, that shallow and arrogant traits of that age start to surface again. So the Mariner narrates to have killed one day that Albatross, that bird which had swept away the fog of their confusion and fear, giving them the comfort of hope. He did that with no apparent reason. He was a kind of…bored.
viaggio8When you are young, the making of connections is very important. They very often become more influential and trustworthy than the family itself. Being part of a community of friends makes you feel safe and accepted, but what happens when, for some reasons, you find yourself out of it? In the case of the Mariner, the Killing of the albatross places him in a condition of seclusion and solitude. He has to face the reactions of his world of connections, here symbolized by the crew. At first, the crew condemn the action the mariner as they believe that “it made the breeze to blow”, but as soon as they see the sun rise after so many days of wondrous cold, they “all averred, he had killed the bird that brought the fog and mist”. Human nature is mutable and the mariner wants the Wedding Guest to be fully aware of that, before it is too late. He must learn to rely on himself and not on people, because if things go wrong, he will pay for all and will be let alone. In fact, when they find themselves stuck in the middle of the ocean “under a hot and copper sky”, with no water to drink and their tongues “withered at the root”, the blame falls on the Mariner alone. He becomes the only scapegoat and those, who used to be his friends,hang about his neck the dead body of the albatross as stigma.

viaggio11The crew had condemned the ominous consequences the action of the Ancient Mariner had had on them, rather than its moral implications, that’s why all the sailors are punished and die, as the ghost of Death will win them all in a game of dice with the only exception of the Ancient Mariner, who will be left in the power of the other frightening ghost: Life in Death. It is the death of his youthful innocence and the beginning of a new, tiring journey that will make him grow a new awareness on the meaning and the repercussions of his actions. It will take him a long time, a time made of prayers and expiation that covers more than the half of the whole ballad, till he succeeds in going back to where he had started, but he won’t be the same person again. He couldn’t. This is what happens when we become adult, experience makes us wiser but sadder at the same time, as we grow more aware of the world that surrounds us. Then, one day, we may become parents or teachers, “modern” Ancient Mariners, willing to help our Wedding Guests in their progress to maturity.

The Romantic snapshot

pic2I have got mixed feelings towards snapshooting, I mean, I do enjoy the language of pictures, I also follow a lot of amazing blogs about photography, however, whenever I have the opportunity of seeing something worthy of being captured in a shot, well, I always feel strangely reluctant to pick the camera and  take that picture. I still remember the overwhelming emotions I felt, when I saw my first Maldivian atoll. It was the first stop of an adventurous cruise on the Indian Ocean ( local ship and crew and just a bunch of tourists that barely knew one another). I wasn’t actually an atoll, but rather a white, sparkling sandy beach that surfaced in the middle or the most crystalline water I had ever seen.The sea had all the nuances of the blue and became whiter and whiter near the shore. Being a sea lover and beach hunter, I was dazzled. It was my dream that came true. I stood there, gazing speechless the magnificent colours for a long time and even if perfectly equipped, I completely forgot about taking pictures. The only photos I have of that trip belong to my husband, as I met him there.

pic4If I want to psychoanalyze myself to explain my idiosyncrasy about snapshooting, I could get to the conclusion that, very likely, it is grounded on my perception that it is all about catching the perfect instant rather than living it. For me it is as if I were missing the flow of the emotions in the effort of fixing them on a pic. Maybe this is my “romantic” vision of life, as I am pretty sure that Mr William Wordsworth would certainly agree with my point of view, if only he could. He was all about the ”  spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”  that arouse from the sight of amazing and unexpectedly beautiful natural landscapes. Wordsworth didn’t have cameras for sure, so he used the language of poetry to fix them. But how and when? Well, he believed in “solitude” and “tranquillity“.

pic 3Solitude” for Wordsworth is the privileged condition that allows you to see and feel in a unique, powerful way. If you are not distracted by words and noises, your self is more likely to enjoy the spiritual force of nature and be part of it. In  “Daffodils”, the poets tells us the sight of the beautiful flowers filled his mind leaving no room for anything  else ” I gazed, I gazed, but little thought” and in that moment he was overwhelmed by and incredible joy, a beatitude that you feel once you feel in harmony with the whole universe. Could he feel this way, if he had to bother about the perfect light to capture those daffodils?

For Wordsworth, in fact, poetry takes its origin from those emotions, but “recollected in tranquillity”, that is, from memory. Hence, both a poem and a picture have the same function: recreating a kindred emotion in order to be enjoyed (“My heart with pleasure fills and dances with the daffodils“), but who has experienced the greatest bliss: the poet or the photographer?

Genesis

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I don’t know what is the impulse that made you conceive the idea of creating a blog: sharing thoughts and experiences? Spreading knowledge? I’m sure everybody had a good reason but I have to admit that I didn’t. The idea of the blog, actually, wasn’t mine but my headteacher’s, my boss. First of all I have to tell you that I am the kind of teacher who is not completely involved in the many activities of the school and in time I have learnt to select the few projects I think I can manage well, thus achieving the perfect balance between the school effort and the world outside. It’s not so easy however. One day, in fact, while I was driving my boss home, out of the blue she came up with this blogging idea, as she had recently visited some schools in Sweden and noticed that every teacher there seems to have his own blog, where to put material, keep contact with families and students and stuff like that. Furthermore it was much easier to manage than a website. Had I created a blog, that would have been the trojan horse that would have torn the medieval veil that hovers our school with its touch of technological modernity. Well, I did it. That’s why, in case you didn’t notice, there is a page in my blog on how creating a WordPress blog: it’s the trojan horse. However I haven’t been that prompt, because at first I couldn’t visualize how to use this new device, as I already managed and educational website and I didn’t want to make it its copy. My first posts, actually, looked like the first baby steps in blogging: short, impersonal, insecure. Yet, there was something positive in blogging: I had got rid of my husband. He had been absolutely indispensable in managing the web site as I am not that good at programming, but now I was completely autonomous. I only needed an idea. When one day I eventually found my muse:football. Well, I have to confess I am a great football fan and in that period my team had just won one of the most important match of the season(good old times!!!) and the joy was so immense that it made think about Wordsworth‘s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. It was a true epiphanic moment. At once I set to write a post “Wordsworth and football” about the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads using the metaphor of football to explain Wordsworth‘s themes and for the first time I knew what I was doing and why. The blog could give me the opportunity of giving different perspectives to the topics we studied in class, thus promoting discussions and adding, whenever possible, a certain impression of lightness to the process of learning. It actually worked. Since then I kept on writing almost weekly and with this “unbirthday” post I felt like celebrating my first year of blogging, fun, personal growth. Thank you all.

Teaching a Wedding Guest

gustave-dore-the-wedding-guest-being-prevented-by-the-ancient-mariner-from-attending-the-wedding
In Coleridge‘s “Rime“, the narrating voice, the Ancient Mariner, has an arduous task to accomplish: telling his moralizing tale to a young man who is about to attend a matrimony, The Wedding Guest. As I said, it is a very arduous task indeed, because a Wedding Guest is usually not in the mood of listening to stories, in particular if recounted by a strange old man. How can it be otherwise, when you are just about to join your friends at a fabulous party to have a jolly good time! The Wedding Guest, in fact, symbolizes that transient, light, thoughtless, “I can do everything” moment of life, which is youth. When you are thus young this is more or less your vision of life: a never-ending party and no annoying adult voice has to break the magnificence of  this spell. However, the Mariner is not at all intimidated, but rather, provides us teachers with some interesting tips on how capturing the attention of our students willy-nilly. Actually, his first attempt turns out to be a failure, because the Mariner decides upon using his (scarce) force to stop the Wedding Guest and “holds him with his skinny hand“, which, in case you choose to follow his example in a moment of despair, is against the law, remember. Besides, the Wedding Guest is younger and therefore stronger than the Mariner, in fact he reacts violently, yelling at him “Hold off! Unhand me!” and after setting himself free from the old man’s grasp, he sneers at him defiantly, reminding him the arrogant supremacy of his youth. For him the Mariner is only a “grey-beard loon“. That wasn’t the right way. It never is. However, when you are young, you are so absorbed by your frantic life made relations, the new experiences of the world outside etc. that it happens not to pay the due attention to meaningful details. The Wedding Guest, in fact, had noticed the strange vitality of the Mariner ‘s look in a man so old, but he had not pondered enough about it and incredulously he finds himself paralyzed by the Mariner’s charm, who “holds him with his glittering eye” and “has his will”. Now that the young man stands “still”  the Mariner can finally tell him his story and it’s only in that stillness that the boy will be able to enjoy and understand the narration and its moralizing intent: a trip, a storm, an albatross, Life in Death, sin and final repentance. Is the Mariner a wizard then? Not at all, he represents the poet, that with his creative power can produce that “suspension of disbelief ” that makes everybody listen “like a three years’ child“. In that suspension, the young and the adult can meet, talk, interact. This is the point, maybe also the teacher’s effort, just like that of the poet/Mariner, should aim at creating that moment of amazement in order to involve our young Wedding Guests more. I know, it’s not easy and it can’t happen every day, but when we eventually succeed in finding the words that breach their boredom and apathy and we start to see that “glitter” in their eyes, well, it’s absolutely amazing. That’s why we teach.

Hottentot, Parisian or Romantic?

berchet

When Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein, commonly known as Madame de Staël, published her essay “De l’esprit des traductions” in 1816, on the review “Biblioteca Italiana“, translated by Pietro Giordani , it was as if a bomb had exploded in the musty Italian Literary circles at the beginning of the nineteenth century, whose secret chambers had not been touched by the Northern, passionate, fresh winds of Romanticism yet. When the Lady claimed the importance of the habit of translation as the best means to “keep a literature from falling into banality which is a sure sign of decadence”, she was actually addressing her plea to the provincial Italian audience and incited to translate the literatures from the North, in order to resuscitate Italian letters which were imprisoned by the cobwebs of Classicism. As a matter of fact, Madame de Staël aimed at provoking social and literary changes in an Italy dominated by the Austrians after the defeat of Napoleons, and somehow she was right, because this article turned out to be the spark that lit the fire of Italian Romanticism. For many intellectuals the Lady’s words were considered outrageous and offensive for the dignity of the country, but many others soon understood the rightness of her thoughts. One of them was Giovanni Berchet, whose “Lettera semiseria di Grisostomo al suo figliolo” (1816)is considered somehow the manifesto of Italian  Romanticism. In this letter he remarked the necessity of a new popular poetry opposed to the classical mythological one, and on this purpose he believed essential to form new kind of audience, someone between the “Parisians“, that is the “sophisticated”, and the “Hottentots“, that is the “grosser”. This is the point. It was not easy to be Romantic and follow the European trends in a country where there wasn’t either a common language or even an adequate audience to speak to. That something in between the “Hottentots” and the “Parisians” was the middle class, but it had to be rooted and strong enough to be able to determine the cultural taste of a country and that country was not Italy for sure, it was England. The eighteenth century English writers had celebrated the emerging middle class in the new novel form with captivating plots, whose heroes were common people who spoke a modern simple language, wrote diaries, letters, thus disclosing their hearts to a more and more fascinated audience, thus increasing the reading public. Toward the end of the century the “embourgeoisement” of common taste had affected poetry as well and became the vital force of Romanticism. In Italy,  Foscolo had tried to model his “Ultime Lettere di Jacopo Ortis”  (1802) on the European epistolary trend, in particular Goethe‘s  “Die Leiden des jungen Werther” , but he didn’t succeed in bringing his epistolary novel to that degree of intimacy that this genre requires, for the lack of what he calls “mediocrazia” that is, that middle class audience to whom address his speculations. Federigo Tozzi ‘s “Tre Croci” is regarded, in fact, as the first bourgeois novel in Italy, but it was published in 1920, one hundred and twenty years after “Le Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis“, that is when Italy had now become a country with a common language spoken by the majority of people.

The romantic prophecy

cacciata

The romantics have often been regarded as reactionaries, because of their unwelcoming attitude towards the great mutation that the industrial revolution was about to produce in their country. A revolution is a radical, somehow violent change, whose consequences are often unpredictable, but the early romantics instinctively felt that the great transformation the world was undergoing wouldn’t have been free of charge. Modern man, once left his “natural state” and thrown into the dynamics of a materialistic and competitive society, dominated by the threat of clock time, would have seen the nature of his certainties collapse with the consequent urgency of redefining a new scale of values. But what kind of values can a materialistic society produce? Wealth? Success? Career? Can a society, where the imperative is “time is money” and where men are treated as small mechanisms of a careless system, be considered as an improvement to the previous one in terms of quality of life and, why not, happiness? Certainly not. That’s why the romantics kept on fighting strenuously against “modernity”, advocating the superiority of the values produced by the “old” world. If men abandoned their Eden, their natural state, just like modern Adam and Eve, they would only find pain, hard labor, misery, hence slowly becoming insensitive and indifferent. Therefore they began to strive using their lines as weapons, lines that they had deliberately simplified in order to reach with their message the heart of as many people as possible. They talked about the importance of memory, the beauty of nature, the necessity of a world of sensibility without restraining from the impulse of imparting a moralizing lesson. But the process now couldn’t be stopped and somehow they were defeated by the course of events. The great industrial change had spread all over the country and towns, like mushrooms, kept on growing disorderly but faster and faster. At the altar of “modernity” man was sacrificing his greatest gifts as well: his creativeness, his sense of taste and harmony. Man now needed to put at the top of his scale of values beauty, many artists claimed. The most optimistic were convinced that educating people to beauty would have meant to improve man’s ethical sense at the same time, but the majority of them thought that now it was too late to teach anything to anybody and kept themselves away from the rude and insensitive masses. The first five decades of folly of the twentieth century and two world wars swept away the few certainties and values left and men seemed now motionless seated on a “heap of broken images” of the past waiting for their Godot like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon. We are still there.