Material: The Ordinary and the Exotic

Hallway in Versailles.

Last year, I set out on the noble, if reckless, task of reading through my old school anthology of Romantic Literature from cover to cover. I loved the course, and the sight of the book sitting unread on my shelf filled me with so much guilt that I finally gave in. It’s alphabetical (sort of), and William Blake nearly overwhelmed me – his language! His images! I haven’t lingered on each poem as long or thoroughly as a worthy scholar would, but I’ve begun to pick up a certain pattern between Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Sir William Jones, Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, Blake, and Shelley (I skipped ahead to him): a focus on what I call “exotic materials.”

The Romantics had a deep love for the natural world that they conveyed beautifully. They celebrated the “stuff,”  the materials, of nature itself such as the sun, moon, and stars; wood, stone, leaves, flowers, grass, fire; water, ice, and snow. (See Barbauld’s “Summer Evening’s Meditation” or Charlotte Smith’s September 1791 poem about the moon – they’re breathtaking).

However, when the Romantics discussed the “stuff” or materials of the human world, I see a contrast between the exotic materials of dreams and the homelier stuff of everyday. For example, Blake discusses soot and bricks in poems such as “The Chimney Sweeper” and “London,” but he dreams of gold, silver, precious stones, and melting metals in his formidable vision The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Shelley discusses a whole list of exotic materials in his enthralling poem Alastor: diamond, gold, crystal, chrysolite, pearl, gems, and alabaster (somewhere around lines 90-114).

Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge and the other anthologized writers also contrast the exotic materials of dreams and visions with the uglier, commonplace materials of Regency England (especially London). Note: British Orientalism hovers in the background of this fascination with the “exotic.”

As a writer, I realized that I, too, have a tendency to fill my dreams with exotic materials – expensive, intoxicating “stuff” that become the set and props for my daydream adventures. I made a list of the kind of materials that fascinate and compel me, that carry with them associations of magic and intrigue, adventure and romance:

  • gold
  • silver
  • silk
  • satin
  • velvet
  • mahogany
  • marble
  • bronze
  • iron
  • steel
  • copper
  • mahogany
  • cedar
  • crystal
  • glass
  • gems
Gold and crystal chandelier in front of a mirror and some red velvet curtains.

Like Anne of Green Gables, who loved the idea of an “alabaster brow” before knowing what it was, I love thinking about these materials and using them in metaphor and simile. However, I believe that writers have an obligation to reveal the beauty of our own place and time. I started to make a list of the materials I encounter every day:

  • concrete
  • plastic
  • styrofoam
  • cardboard
  • paper
  • wood
  • metal
  • rubber
  • cement
  • ceramic 
  • paper
  • cardstock
  • aluminum
  • tin
  • sawdust
Car junk heap.

Unfortunately, this list felt increasingly negative as I kept listing. Where is the poetry in plastic? The magic in concrete? The fascination in cardboard?

Back to the Romantics: in an age hovering on the brink of the Industrial Revolution, they too saw and touched ugly things every day. Even nature has its ugly moments: mud, sleet, slush, decaying bark, ashes, mold, and more. This is a fallen world; a truth-loving perspective acknowledges loveliness and hideousness, and joy celebrates and encourages the former.

With that in mind, I made a goal of listing “good” materials I encounter every day, or seeing “ugly” materials in a positive light:

  • The shining smoothness of glazed pottery
  • The dreamy reflections in a car’s gleaming exterior
  • The cheerful cleanliness of fresh paint
  • Frost glittering in the cracks of pavement
  • The crinkly delight of tissue paper

What materials construct your world? How can you describe them in order to create a vivid, tactile experience for the reader?

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