Lately I've been reading both George Eliot's Felix Holt, the Radical and Coleridge's "Christabel." I've read both these works before--Felix Holt, several times before--but still they feel new to me, still mysterious. For me, this ambiguity is part of the lure of nineteenth-century literature: it's extraordinarily familiar, yet it's also remote. And both of the works I am currently reading are particularly evocative in this way. Eliot sets her novel (as she does most of her novels) in a remembered rural past; always in her writing there is a feeling of loss, a sense of the sadness of history and time. And "Christabel" is a romance in the troubadour tradition set in an unreal chivalric past. Coleridge works his way through the contradictions of legend and individuality, with varying amounts of success. Yet certain sections of the poem are a remarkable synthesis of nostalgia and disillusion, without being cynical.
It's a great loss in our contemporary writing, I think: that nineteenth-century ability to ask questions without being cynical, without losing an avowed tenderness. The flip side was the age's proliferating sentimentality. But maybe that's an acceptable fault, if the other extreme is cold-blooded irony.
Here's my current favorite bit from Felix Holt:
"Behind all Esther's thoughts, like an unacknowledged yet constraining presence, there was the sense, that if Felix Holt were to love her, her life would be exalted into something quite new--into a sort of difficult blessedness, such as one may imagine in beings who are conscious of painfully growing into the possession of higher powers."
"Difficult blessedness": is there a better way to describe those moments when we imagine the sensation of becoming better than we really are?
And here's the last section of "Christabel." Talk about messing with our sentimental expectations. . . .
from ChristabelSamuel Taylor ColeridgeA little child, a limber elf,Singing, dancing to itself,A fairy thing with red round cheeks,That always finds, and never seeks,Makes such a vision to the sightAs fills a father's eyes with light;And pleasures flow in so thick and fastUpon his heart, that he at lastMust needs express his love's excessWith words of unmeant bitterness.Perhaps 'tis pretty to force togetherThoughts so all unlike each other;To mutter and mock a broken charm,To dally with wrong that does no harm.Perhaps 'tis tender too and prettyAt each wild word to feel withinA sweet recoil of love and pity.And what, if in a world of sin(O sorrow and shame should this be true!)Such giddiness of heart and brainComes seldom save from rage and pain,So talks as it's most used to do.