"Cut by Rainbow": Tales, Tellers, and Reimagining Wordsworth's Pastoral Poetics in Toni Morrison's Beloved and A Mercy

By Sandy, Mark | MELUS, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

"Cut by Rainbow": Tales, Tellers, and Reimagining Wordsworth's Pastoral Poetics in Toni Morrison's Beloved and A Mercy


Sandy, Mark, MELUS


Critics have recognized a reimagining of British Romanticism in celebrated works by twentieth- and twenty-first-century American novelists such as Willa Cather, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Saul Bellow, (1) but few have read Toni Morrison as a legatee of the British Romantic movement.

To avoid critical comparisons that might distract from the African American inflection of her writing, Morrison claims she has resisted using literary allusion to canonical authors in her work. However, given her background and formal literary qualifications, her insistence does not guarantee the absence of such allusion. (2) In fact, Martin Bidney recognizes Morrison's awareness of an integrated sense of community and her episodic encounters with nature and the sublime as indebted to William Blake, John Keats, and William Wordsworth. (3) Identifying verbal echoes and reimaginings of Romantic concerns and episodes from Wordsworth's The Prelude (1850), Bidney reminds us that Morrison has been and continues to be an attentive respondent to Wordsworth.

Limited to reading Beloved (1987) for reworking of the plots of episodic moments in The Prelude, Bidney does not acknowledge the centrality of Wordsworth's "The Ruined Cottage" (c. 1797) to Morrison's writing. The approach offered here explores the profound influence that Wordsworth's elegiac vision of the pastoral exerted on Morrison's novels A Mercy (2008) and Beloved. This account of Morrison's engagement with Wordsworth resists a tendency to regard her as a contemporary advocate of Romantic ideological beliefs, artistic conventions, or practices. Reading the two works by Morrison as meditations on and mitigations against Wordsworth's own ambivalent treatment of the pastoral finds affinity with anti-pastoral elements in the poetics of Robert Frost and Derek Walcott. Through such an interpretation, Morrison emerges as a subtle respondent to the pastoral and Wordsworth, one who is attuned to the complex, nuanced, and darker misgivings of Wordsworth's idealizing and compensatory poetics.

Given the historical, geographical, and topographical differences between Wordsworth and Morrison, definitions of the pastoral are no less critical and difficult than those of Romanticism itself. From its inception, the idealizing pastoral mode celebrated the idyllic, harmonious, rural existence, but was frequently self-conscious about its use of generic conventions and resistance to the anti-pastoral of the urban and modern. (4) To complicate matters further, Wordsworth's Romantic pastoral poetry of personal reaction to and interaction with a sublimely uncultivated landscape is distinct from the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Their version of the American pastoral has been characterized as celebrating rural industriousness and naturalizing technological innovation in their responses to nature. (5) Within the American tradition, the site of the pastoral is infrequently aligned with the idealizing imagination and epiphany and more often with the realities of aggressive colonial ownership of the land and its people. (6)

The reception of Morrison's novels as Faulknerian pastoral--surprisingly termed in John Updike's review of A Mercy as a "dreamy wilderness"--attests to a creative and literary genealogy that reaches back through Faulkner to an earlier American Romanticism and its literary negotiations with Wordsworth. Works by Thoreau and Emerson provide a vital conduit between the pastoral mode of British Romantic poetry and American letters that are indebted to Wordsworth's concept of nature, which discovers beauty, spiritual delight, and revelation in the commonplaces of natural existence and everyday language. (7)

"I Have Heard Him Say": Morrison and the Voices of Wordsworth

In the first few pages of A Mercy, Morrison announces her Wordsworthian inheritance through attention to how tales can empower a "telling [that] can't hurt you" (1)and to the limitations of words and language from which stories are created. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

"Cut by Rainbow": Tales, Tellers, and Reimagining Wordsworth's Pastoral Poetics in Toni Morrison's Beloved and A Mercy
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.