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Writing is not, in short, an end in itself, but a work done in the service of something greater--whether God or mankind.Both had been influenced by Enlightenment thinkers like Newton and Locke, but where Edwards strove to ameliorate the effects of the new rationalism by putting it in the service of Puritan theology, Franklin embraced Enlightenment thought.
his writing locates, rescues, and delivers what is various and vagrant in the near at hand.” A failure to consider the near at hand was the crime that Randall Jarrell accused Stevens of committing, but Howe does what Jarrell could not – she reads the poems as they insist on being read. One shivery sentence sums up her mode: “Secret perceptions in readers draw near to the secret perceptions in authors.” The most affecting essay here is “The Disappearance Approach” (2010), an extended elegy for her second husband, the philosopher Peter Hare, who died in 2008.
The essay leaps to Spinoza, quoting Stevens’ correspondence on that philosopher. She speaks about the day he died, pivots to the death of Jonathan Edwards, and shoots vectors to Auden, Poussin, Ovid, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, William Gass, Hölderlin, and Milton.
There’s something that we do, a Romantic, utopian ideal of poetry as revelation at the same instant it’s a fall into fracture and trespass.” As a literary scholar, Howe is predisposed to iconoclasm and animism in the manner of those who have sought or portrayed revelation through unorthodox ways.
“The patriotic zeal of local antiquarian scholarship is often doctrinal [and] it confirms a community’s need to flatter current misconceptions,” she warns in “Frame Structures.” In contrast, her project excavates experiential and intuitive truths; in “Errand” she writes, “I believed in an American aesthetic of uncertainty that could represent beauty in syllables so scarce and rushed they would appear to expand though they lay half-smothered in local history.” Her Dickinson text was followed by interview as “my favorite twentieth-century poet.” Of Stevens’ often neglected final poems, she writes, “As if from some unfathomable source, knowledge derived from sense perception fails, and the unreality of what seems most real floods over us …
His would publicly disavow his statements of deistic belief, which occasioned a bit of controversy when he was a young man of just 22 years, in 1728; but it's clear that privately Franklin never swerved from those beliefs.
Certainly his deity was no longer the angry and punishing God of Edwards' 1741 sermon.
As she states it, “The genteel American tradition is not to kill an original: we only remove the embarrassment.” His papers were removed to the Beineke at Yale where Howe studied them.
“Malice dominates the history of Power and Progress,” she writes in “There Are Not Leaves Enough to Crown to Cover to Crown to Cover.” One of her forebears, James d’Wolf, was charged by a federal grand jury in Rhode Island “with throwing a female African slave overboard during the Middle Passage because she was sick with smallpox.” She also tells of Weetamoo, “squaw-sachem of the Wampanoags,” who during King Philip’s War “escaped the murderous Christian soldiers again and again until on August 6, 1676, she was drowned while trying to float by raft to her kingdom of Pocasset.
Although she offers many exact perceptions, the real pleasures of her essays are their resonances and intimations.
“Something at the margin between thought and sound is somewhere else,” she believes.