Sunlight and the Reification of Culture

  • Ted Underwood


“To Keats,” Ian Jack comments, “Apollo was more than a figure of speech or a literary allusion: he was becoming something very close to the God of his adoration.”1 Keats could treat Apollo as a living god partly because Apollo was understood (through his connection to the sun) as a god of energy and ambition. He was thus a fitting patron for Keats’s social, as well as literary, aspirations. But Apollo was also particularly the god of the lyre, and Keats’s seriousness about Apollo went hand in hand with a tendency to think of poetry as a power with a real existence outside written texts—and for that matter, outside writers and readers of poems. Keats often defines poetry as pure power—agency without an agent—for instance, in “Sleep and Poetry”: “A drainless shower / Of light is poesy; ‘tis the supreme of power; / ‘Tis might half slumbering on its own right arm.”2 William Hazlitt’s lecture “On Poetry in General” reifies poetry in a similar way. For Hazlitt, “the poetical impression of any object is that uneasy, exquisite sense of beauty or power that cannot be contained within itself,” which leads him to the oddly concrete conclusion that poetry exists “wherever there is a sense of beauty, of power, or harmony, as in the motion of a wave of the sea, [or] in the growth of a flower that ‘spreads its sweet leaves to the air, and dedicates its beauty to the sun.’” Here “poetry” is less a description of a particular human activity than a name for a generalized power that encompasses life itself. “Poetry,” according to Hazlitt, “puts a spirit of life and motion into the universe.”3


Early Nineteenth Century Natural Force Symbolic Capital Potable Gold Human Aspiration 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Ian Jack, Keats and the Mirror of Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 180.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    John Keats, “Sleep and Poetry,” The Poems of John Keats, ed. Jack Stillinger (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), 74.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    William Hazlitt, The Complete Works, ed. P. P. Howe, 21 vols. (London: J.M. Dent, 1930), 5:3, 5:1, 5:3.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Friedrich Schlegel, Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms, trans. Ernst Behler and Roman Struc (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1968), 54.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Marx’s “vergegenständliche Arbeit” is sometimes translated as “reified labor,” but just as often in English it becomes “objectified” or “embodied” labor. For instance, “Ein Gebrauchswert oder Gut hat also nur einen Wert, weil abstrakt menschliche Arbeit in ihm vergegenständlicht oder materialisiert ist” is translated as “A use value, or useful article, therefore, has value only because abstract human labor is objectified or materialised in it.” Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes, vol. 1 (New York: Vintage, 1977), 129.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” History and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone (1922; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 83–222. Returning to this topic forty-five years later, Lukács attempted to distinguish the mere “objectification” that creates nouns from the “reification” that characterizes capitalist ideology (History and Class Consciousness, xxiv). I think his later definition of “reification” still conflates a critique of capitalism with a general critique of figurative language. Reification (or objectification) can give form to many different ideological impulses. Commodity fetishism is a capitalist example, but I would not conclude from that example that capitalist society has a special affinity for reification. For further discussion of this topic, see chapter 7.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Hannah Arendt, quoted in Jerome Christensen, Lord Byron’s Strength: Romantic Writing and Commercial Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), xvi.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    Thomas Holcroft, The Adventures of Hugh Trevor, ed. Seamus Deane (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), 3, 97.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    William Godwin, Caleb Williams, ed. David McCracken (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 218–19.Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    John Clare, “The Dawning of Genius,” The Early Poems of John Clare: 1804–1822, ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 451.Google Scholar
  11. For supporting evidence see Anne D. Wallace, Walking, Literature, and English Culture: The Origins and Uses of Peripatetic in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 105–07.Google Scholar
  12. For a fuller account of the diversity of eighteenth-century plebeian poetry see William J. Christmas, The Lab’ring Muses: Work, Writing, and the Social Order in English Plebeian Poetry, 1730–1830 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2001), 157–234.Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Carol H. Poston (New York: Norton, 1975), 57.Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    Letitia Elizabeth Landon [L. E. L.], “Lines of Life,” Selected Writings, ed. Jerome McGann and Daniel Riess (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 1997), 114.Google Scholar
  15. 16.
    Pierre Bourdieu, “What Makes a Social Class? On the Theoretical and Practical Existence of Groups,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 32 (1987): 1–17.Google Scholar
  16. 17.
    Randal Johnson, “Editor’s Introduction,” The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, by Pierre Bourdieu (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 7.Google Scholar
  17. 18.
    Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 37–43.Google Scholar
  18. 19.
    Raymond Williams, Culture and Society: 1780–1950 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 30–48, 110–29.Google Scholar
  19. See also Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 87–93.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Trevor Ross, “‘Pure Poetry’: Cultural Capital and the Rejection of Classicism,” Modern Language Quarterly 58 (1997): 444–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. See also John Guillory, Cultural Capital (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 124–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    George Gordon, Lord Byron, Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie A. Marchand (London: Murray, 1979), 46.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries: English Literature and Its Background 1760–1830 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 113–37.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    See Alan Bewell, “Jefferson’s Thermometer: Colonial Biogeographical Constructions of the Climate of America,” Romantic Science: The Literary Forms of Natural History, ed. Noah Heringman (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2003), 111–38.Google Scholar
  25. 26.
    Jerome McGann, “Byron, Mobility, and the Poetics of Historical Ventriloquism,” Byron and Romanticism, by Jerome McGann, ed. James Soderholm (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 36–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 30.
    In taking this theme as central to Canto IV, I follow Jerome McGann, Fiery Dust: Byron’s Poetic Development (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 130–32.Google Scholar
  27. 31.
    Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, trans. John Raffan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 145–48.Google Scholar
  28. 32.
    In this period, the catchphrase “light and life” (or vice versa) becomes very common, indeed almost inescapable, in poems about the sun. It is one of the most noticeable tics of Shelley’s style, but see also, for instance, Anna Seward, “Ode to the Sun,” The Poetical Works of Anna Seward, ed. Walter Scott, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: J. Ballantyne, 1810), 2:49–52. Charlotte Smith, “To the Sun,” Elegiac Sonnets, 8th ed., 2 vols. (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1797–1800), 2:30. Robert Southey,”The Peruvian’s Dirge over the Body of his Father” (1799), Poetical Works, 10 vols., (London: Longmans, 1838), 2:207–9. John Clare, “The Sun,” The Later Poems of John Clare, ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 1:353–54.Google Scholar
  29. 33.
    Harold Bloom, The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry (New York: Doubleday, 1963), 258–59.Google Scholar
  30. 34.
    Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man: In a Series of Letters, ed. and trans. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 43.Google Scholar
  31. 35.
    See in particular Williams, Culture and Society, 30—48. For a different (but I believe quite compatible) approach to the same problem, see Geoffrey H. Hartman, “Romanticism and Anti-Self-Consciousness,” Romanticism and Consciousness, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: W.W. Norton, 1970), 46–56.Google Scholar
  32. 43.
    Mary Shelley, “Midas,” Proserpine and Midas, ed. A Koszul (London: Humphrey Milford, 1922), 55.Google Scholar
  33. 44.
    Earl Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971), 49, 55.Google Scholar
  34. 45.
    Particle size has this effect because light goes through “fits of easy reflection and easy transmission.” Isaac Newton, Opticks; or, A Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections and Colours of Light (New York: Dover, 1952), 281–85.Google Scholar
  35. 47.
    Andrew Amos, “Shelley and His Contemporaries at Eton,” Athenaeum, (April 15, 1848), 390. The connection between Walker and Shelley is also discussed in Peter Butter, Shelley’s Idols of the Cave (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1954), 136, 140–48.Google Scholar
  36. 48.
    Humphry Davy, Elements of Chemical Philosophy (London: J. Johnson, 1812), 213. Mary Shelley, Journal, ed. F. L. Jones (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1947), 67.Google Scholar
  37. 52.
    A description of the sun as the “world’s eye” can be found both in Ovid and in Milton, but not with this implication. See Ovid A, Metamorphoses, trans. Rolfe Humphries (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955), 4:226–28;Google Scholar
  38. and John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Scott Elledge (New York: Norton, 1975), 108 (5:171–72).Google Scholar
  39. 54.
    Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964), 2:271.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 56.
    M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (New York: Norton, 1958), 130.Google Scholar
  41. 58.
    Angela Leighton, Shelley and the Sublime: An Interpretation of the Major Poems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 45–47.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Ted Underwood 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ted Underwood

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations