Thursday, February 7, 2013

Wordsworth's Prelude, the "Boat-stealing episode, "(i.357-400)

One of the key concepts of Wordsworth's autobiographical epic The Prelude is that our identity and character are shaped by distinct "spots of time" (xii.208ff.) that, throughout our confused and complex lives, maintain a "renovating virtue" by which "our minds / Are nourished and invisibly repaired."  For Wordsworth himself, of course, these "spots of time" typically involve some memorable encounter with the natural world. 

One famous instance is the so-called boat-stealing episode in the opening book (lines 357-400; all quotations in this post are from the 1850, 14 book version):

One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little Boat tied to a Willow-tree
Within a rocky cave, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on,
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
(Proud of his skill) to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon's utmost boundary; far above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin Pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the Water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy Steep till then
The horizon's bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head.—I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim Shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living Thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the Covert of the Willow-tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my Bark,—
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar Shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or Sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty Forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

The central narrative here is simple enough.  The young Wordsworth, led by Nature, finds a boat hidden in a lakeside covert.  He steals the boat, and—vigorous and proud of his youthful skill—heads out onto the lake on a joy-ride.  It's a beautiful scene, with the oars leaving a trail of rippling circles shining in the moonlight and the boy himself admiring the surrounding ridges and the stars and the sky beyond.

But then this peaceful image takes a scary turn.  To understand what happens here, it is helpful to keep in mind the geometry of this lakeside landscape:



When rowing a boat, the oarsman actually faces backward so that, in order to steer a straight line, he needs to pick some spot on the horizon and keep that spot directly behind the boat.  Accordingly, the boy Wordsworth fixes his view "Upon the summit of a craggy ridge, / The horizon's utmost boundary."  At the beginning of the voyage, the boat is still close to the willow covert at position (A) on the diagram, and as the boy looks up he sees nothing but the "craggy ridge" and the stars beyond. But then as the headstrong boy warms to his task and starts "lustily" dipping his oars, he advances to position (B) and beyond.  Now the sight lines have changed, and behind the first "craggy ridge" a "huge, peak, black and huge, / As if with voluntary power instinct, / Upreared its head."  Imagine how this would look from the point of view of the boy: as he moves from (A) to (B), the "huge peak" will appear to rise up from behind the first "craggy Steep."  The sight frightens the boy, but the harder he rows, the more the "huge peak" seems to come after him:

I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim Shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living Thing,
Strode after me.

Frightened and trembling, the boy—now humbled—turns around and returns the boat to its mooring and heads for home, "in grave / And serious mood."

Wordsworth, even as a boy, recognizes that this sense of a "huge peak, black and huge" rising up from the horizon and striding after him is really only an optical illusion—the peak "seemed" to have a "purpose of its own"; the mountain rises up "As if with voluntary power instinct."  But this after-the-fact rationalization does not matter—one doesn't simply explain away the boy's experience, his sense of having been pursued by a "huge and mighty Form."  Such is the point of the passage's closing lines.  This has been a formative experience, a Wordsworthian "spot of time" that has shaped and continues to shape the poet's adult consciousness. 

Taken as a whole, the boat-stealing passage offers an instructive glimpse into Wordsworth's childhood—the beauty of the Cumbrian lakes, the thrilling (if audacious) vigor of youth, the chastening power of nature, and so on.  It's a useful episode to bear in mind while considering other celebrated poems.  To offer just one example, in "Tintern Abbey," Wordsworth describes his boyish relationship to the natural world as one of raw enthusiasm,

           when like a roe
I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led.  (67-70)

This energetic interaction with nature is then likened to a flight "from something that he dreads" (71), but eventually—after the recollections in the interceding years—it awakens in Wordsworth an awareness of a "presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts" (94-95).  The movement here seems analogous to the headstrong oarsman in the boat-stealing episode who subsequently is "chastened and subdued" (to adapt the phrase from "Tintern Abbey") and becomes dimly aware of "huge and mighty Forms, that do not live / Like living men."

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Keats's Eve of St. Agnes, Stanzas 34-36




34

Her eyes were open, but she still beheld,
Now wide awake, the vision of her sleep:
There was a painful change, that nigh expell’d
The blisses of her dream so pure and deep
At which fair Madeline began to weep,
And moan forth witless words with many a sigh;
While still her gaze on Porphyro would keep;
Who knelt, with joined hands and piteous eye,
Fearing to move or speak, she look’d so dreamingly.

35

“Ah, Porphyro!” said she, “but even now
“Thy voice was at sweet tremble in mine ear,
“Made tuneable with every sweetest vow;
“And those sad eyes were spiritual and clear:
“How chang’d thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear!
“Give me that voice again, my Porphyro,
“Those looks immortal, those complainings dear!
“Oh leave me not in this eternal woe,
“For if thou diest, my Love, I know not where to go.”

36

Beyond a mortal man impassion’d far
At these voluptuous accents, he arose,
Ethereal, flush’d, and like a throbbing star
Seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose;
Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet,—
Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
Like Love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St. Agnes’ moon hath set.


Dreams have always held a complex relationship with imaginative literature, and this relationship is nowhere more prominent than in Keats's poetry. "Ode to a Nightingale," for example, traces the speaker's state of mind as he slips out of a painful reality into a dream-like trance, and then at poem's end he (perhaps) snaps back into reality—leaving us with the indeterminate question: "Do I wake or sleep?" This reality —> dream/enchantment —> reality occurs in many other poems as well, always with the implicit questions of values: "Which is 'better,' the dream or the real world? Is a life of illusory happiness better than a life of unhappy reality? Are the conditions of one's 'real' life altered by dreams? Do dreams offer some kind of insight into the real?" And so on...the list of questions could be much longer. If one considers the close analogy between dreams and works of imaginative art like novels, movies, paintings, and poems, then Keats's—or any writer's—preoccupation with dreams becomes all the more significant.

In The Eve of St. Agnes, these questions about the effects of dreams are given a distinctly narrative, even erotic treatment. At the beginning of the poem, the protagonist Madeline takes part in a ritual, the whole purpose of which is to induce a particular kind of dream. Despite the narrator's (and Angela's) skepticism, the ritual works. In the passage quoted above, Madeline is just being awakened from a dream of her future husband when she sees, very much to her surprise, the actual Porphyro. In other words, in waking up from her trance, Madeline's consciousness moves from dream to reality—from an absorption in her ritual-induced dream Porphyro to a fuzzy focus on the real flesh-and-blood Porphyro kneeling next to her bed. (I am reading the lines describing how she "still beheld ... the vision of her sleep" as indicating that Madeline was dreaming of Porphyro and then she wakes up to see the real Porphyro.) The shift is not a happy one. Her blissful dream was "pure and deep," but now she undergoes a "painful change" and "moan[s] forth witless words" when she confronts the physical reality of the actual Porphyro. As Madeline explains in stanza 35, the dream Porphyro's voice was a "sweet tremble" in her ear, and his "sad eyes were spiritual and clear"; the real Porphyro is, by sad contrast, "pallid, chill, and drear."

For his part, Porphyro initially gazes at Madeline with a devoted reverence, but soon his passion gets the better of him and he rises "like a throbbing star" and melts into her dream, "as the rose / Blendeth its odour with the violet." Or, to put this a little less obliquely, the two make love—and not just in their dreams. The act raises a number of moral and ethical issues, revolving chiefly around the question of Madeline's state of mind and consequently her consent. Is she fully awake? While stanza 34 says that she is "Now wide awake," some lines in the subsequent stanza—"No Dream! Alas!"—might suggest that she is still in a liminal, semi-dreamlike state. Whether awake or not, can she plausibly resist this man who, thanks to a "stratagem" and a helpful servant, has stolen his way into her bedroom? Or does Madeline's dream work better than even she might have imagined since she wakes up to find her actual lover already present and vowing never to forsake her?

My students tend to be harshly judgmental about Porphyro's actions here. In their view, Porphyro has his way with Madeline while she is incapable of offering any fully cognizant response, either consent or resistance. From a strictly legalistic perspective they may be right—and certainly Porphyro's excited "peeping" at the unsuspecting Madeline while she undresses for bed hardly seems like the behavior of a genuine Romantic hero (stanzas 26-28). Still, if we consider Madeline's narrative, her purpose at the beginning is quite intentionally to induce a dream, and her efforts are successful. Whatever view one might take of Porphyro, Madeline's desires—her initial intentions in the narrative—are satisfied. So couldn't we also view the conclusion of the poem as a triumph for her as well as for Porphyro?

No final answer seems quite right. The ethical complications keep us suspended, and this may well be one of the more striking effects of Keats's most romantic poem. As readers enchanted with Keats's narrative—the richness of the imagery, the stately measure of the Spenserian stanzas, the danger and intrigue of the hero's quest, etc.—we too are in a kind of liminal space not unlike that of Madeline. To paraphrase the Nightingale speaker, "Do we wake or sleep?"

In a famous passage from an 1817 letter to his brothers, Keats describes a condition that he calls "negative capability": "that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.... This purused through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration" (Keats's Poetry and Prose, ed. Jeff Cox, Norton, 2009, p. 109). And perhaps this is the genius of The Eve of St. Agnes. As readers we are supposedly enchanted by the "Beauty that overcomes every other consideration." Whether such enchantment is the final and self-justifying purpose of poetry as Keats's letter would suggest, or whether it is simply a mystification that blinds us to some very real and potentially threatening ethical lapses...such is the issue posed by the poem. The answer, of course, has everything to do with the value of Art itself—which argument far exceeds the bounds of a simple blog posting!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hone and Cruikshank on Censorship, The Man in the Moon




'The body of the people, I do think,
     are loyal still,'
But pray, My L—ds and G—tl—n,
      don't shrink
From exercising all your care
      and skill,
Here, and at home,
TO CHECK THE CIRCULATION
OF LITTLE BOOKS,
      Whose very looks—
Vile 'two-p'nny trash,'
      bespeak abomination.
Oh! they are full of blasphemies
      and libels,
And people read them
     oftener than their bibles.


George Cruikshank's engraving illustrates a passage from William Hone's The Man in the Moon, a political pamphlet published in very late 1819 or very early 1820 just weeks before the death of King George III. It was a tense and divisive moment in English history. In August of 1819, a large political demonstration in Manchester had been brutally suppressed by the yeoman cavalry with serious loss of life. The event, which came to be known as the "Manchester Massacre" or "Peterloo," served as a watershed moment in English political history. Like the Kent State shootings during the Vietnam era in the United States, here was an instance of lethal military force employed against fellow citizens engaged in peaceful protest. The result, predictably enough, was a highly polarized political environment in which radicals and reformers called for a restructuring of the whole political system while conservatives sought to maintain the traditional structure and organization. In effect, this was a later and more intense version of the debate that had developed in the wake of the French Revolution and that I've commented on in other postings here on Romanticism@UAB. (See, for example, the notes on Smith, Burke, and even Austen; also, a full-text annotated copy of The Man in the Moon is available on the William Hone BioText.)

One of the government's responses to the post-Peterloo tensions was a heightened surveillance of and attempts to control or even silence the press. The reasoning is simple enough to see: from the conservative perspective, masses of disaffected people were being organized and politicized for the purpose of insurrection and possibly even French-style revolution. This was possible because of the demagoguery of popular radical speakers (such as Henry Hunt, the headline speaker at the Manchester meeting) and because of the "circulation of little books," to borrow a phrase from the passage above. The reference is probably a general observation about the prevalence of cheap, politically inflammatory publications (e.g. the "Vile 'two-p'nny trash'"), but it might also be a more specific reference to Hone's extremely popular Political House that Jack Built (1819), another Cruikshank-illustrated squib that for a few months in late 1819 expressed, clarified, and gave voice to the radical interpretation of Peterloo.

The Man in the Moon was written in response to the Tory administration's effort to control such discourse through Parliamentary action. Political tensions had reached such a pitch in the autumn of 1819 that the Prince Regent called a special session of Parliament for the expressed purpose of debating and then passing the so-called "Six Acts"--a package of draconian legislation that was intended to stifle popular political discussion and reformist/radical publications. Hone's pamphlet--from which the focal passage has been taken--consists mainly of a parody of the Regent's opening speech to this Parliamentary session. This specific passage is Hone's parodic rewriting of the closing lines of the real Prince Regent's speech:

Upon the loyalty of the great body of the people I have the most confident reliance; but it will require your utmost vigilance and exertion, collectively and individually, to check the dissemination of the doctrines of treason and impiety, and to impress upon the minds of all classes of his Majesty's subjects, that it is from the cultivation of the principles of religion, and from a just subordination to lawful authority, that we can alone expect the continuance of that divine favour and protection which have hitherto been so signally experienced by this kingdom.
Using a rhetorical strategy often employed by Hone, the parody serves to deflate and make absurd the assumed authority of the Regent and his pompous language, skewering the future king and his ministers alike with ridicule and laughter. Having snickered at Hone's comical verse and Cruikshank's decidedly unflattering caricatures of the Regent and his ministers, it would be difficult for a contemporary audience to attend to the monarch with the sort of unalloyed reverence that his official rhetoric seems to command.

Such is the discursive strategy of Hone's parodic rhetoric. But, as Cruikshank's engraving makes amply clear, the point is anything but laughable. The image shows three prominent members of the Tory administration--Castlereagh (holding the axe and noose), Canning (with the dagger), and Sidmouth (with the chain)--all working at the violent subjugation of the female figure of Liberty who is holding a staff topped with a liberty cap, the symbol of the reform movement during the Regency period. It's an image that, to my eye at any rate, looks like something between torture and rape--maybe both. The Liberty figure responds with her right hand raised as if simultaneously to fend off Castlereagh's advance and to defend herself and the printing press from his raised axe. The image as a whole, then, depicts in baldly graphic terms the naked use of force to suppress both Liberty and the free press.

Of course, there is nothing particularly surprising in the political dynamics exhibited in such a passage. Powerful regimes--especially authoritarian regimes--almost invariably have a vexed relationship with the press, and most make some effort to curtail the liberty of public speech. But, one might ask, what does this commonly exhibited tension in political speech have to do with literature? In other words, what does censorship have to do with Romanticism? One might argue, in Northrop Frye's words, that censorship "has the same relation to criticism that lynching has to justice" (Anatomy of Criticism, "Polemical Introduction"). But I would argue that the mode of direct political censorship illustrated in The Man in the Moon is only a surface manifestation of an underlying ideological structure that is pervasive in the lives and works of "literary" romantics. Indeed, even setting aside such prominent events as the treason trials of the 1790s or the trials of Leigh and John Hunt, William Hone, (and many other radical writers and publishers) in the 1810s, a glance at the canonical romantics reveals a pattern of suppression or near-suppression. Wordsworth and Coleridge, in their earlier years, were spied on by agents of the government; Blake was tried for sedition; many of Byron's works were suppressed or heavily censored at publication, and not always for their libertarian sexual mores; Shelley was expelled from Oxford for publishing The Necessity of Atheism, and his most politically popular, influential, and potentially inflammatory poem, Queen Mab, was suppressed (as was his Masque of Anarchy). The list could be much longer, and these are only the works about which we have some record. The number of works which were written but then deemed "too dangerous" to publish can never really be known.

I dwell on the issue because Romanticism is in many ways a discourse of revolutionary dissent, a discourse of challenge to political, religious, social, and aesthetic orthodoxies. Modern readers tend to look back at this body of writing, viewing it as if all political statements were uttered in a context of the free and open exchange of ideas, as though the ideological struggles between, say, Burke and Paine in particular or the conservatives and the radicals more generally were purely discursive affairs in which all views could be uttered and the outcome of the dispute depended solely on the persuasive strength of the arguments forwarded on both sides. But such an ideal and free arena for the exchange of ideas did not exist. The fact and the threat of censorship--with the attendent risk of fines, imprisonment, and even deportation or capital punishment--served always to shape both the form and the content of public speech. Hone's comic parodic rhetoric is but one of many highly inventive responses to this very unequal arena of public writing.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Byron's "The Giaour" (ll. 387-409)




Delacroix's famous image introduces one of Byron's most compelling poems. The passage below is a bit longer than most of the features here on Romanticism@UAB, but it's both accessible to readers and illustrative of a key and recurrent idea in Byron's poetry.

The Giaour is one of several oriental tales Byron wrote during his "years of fame"—that period from 1812 through 1815 when the poet was celebrated as the author of Childe Harold I & II and before the scandals of his private life caused him to go into (self)exile in 1816. The poem offers a fragmented narrative about a strangely powerful "Giaour" (i.e. a Christian) who, as is typical of the Byronic hero, is torn by remorse and anguish. As we piece together the various poetic fragments that make up the poem, it becomes evident that the Giaour has had a passionate relationship with Leila, a young woman from the Turk Hassan's harem. At the end of the poem, the beautiful Leila is dead, killed by Hassan in revenge for her unfaithfulness; Hassan is dead, killed by the Giaour in revenge for his killing of Leila; and the Giaour lives on, a shell of his former self, having spent his closing years as a vaguely frightening and mysterious brother in a nameless Abbey (a figure likely borrowed from the gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe).

In the midst of this fragmented, discontinuous tale, the Boatman delivers these lines as an interpretation of or commentary on the narrative (lines 387-409):

As rising on its purple wing
The insect-queen of eastern spring,
O'er emerald meadows of Kashmeer
Invites the young pursuer near,
And leads him on from flower to flower
A weary chase and wasted hour,
Then leaves him, as it soars on high
With panting heart and tearful eye:
So beauty lures the full-grown child
With hue as bright, and wing as wild;
A chase of idle hopes and fears,
Begun in folly, closed in tears.
If won, to equal ills betrayed,
Woe waits the insect and the maid,
A life of pain, the loss of peace,
From infant's play, or man's caprice:
The lovely toy so fiercely sought
Has lost its charm by being caught,
For every touch that wooed its stay
Has brush'd the brightest hues away
Till charm, and hue, and beauty gone,
'Tis left to fly or fall alone.

The central figure here has to do with catching butterflies. The most fantastic and beautiful butterfly (the "insect-queen of eastern spring") entices the "young pursuer" into a chase which ultimately is unsuccessful, leaving the disappointed butterfly hunter "With panting heart and tearful eye." This, of course, is a figurative way of describing the attraction to beauty—like the young butterfly hunter, the "full-grown child" is enticed by the beauty of a "maid" into a chase that is "Begun in folly, closed in tears." What is especially interesting here is that, regardless of whether the pursuit of beauty is successful, the end is tragic for both pursuer and pursued: If the pursuit fails, then the pursuer is left with the "tearful eye" born of aroused but unsatisfied desire. If the pursuit succeeds, then the maid/butterfly sacrifices beauty to captivity (she has "lost [her] charm by being caught"), a point Byron illustrates by having the fragile pigment of the butterfly's wing brushed away by the pursuer's touch "Till charm, and hue, and beauty gone, / 'Tis left to fly or fall alone." Similarly for the pursuer, the "folly" of his pursuit is the dream of some fulfilled desire, some lasting pleasure which, of course, turns out to be illusory, leaving the pursuer in sorrow—at least until a new object of desire swims into his ken.

This is a recurrent structure in Byron's poetry (and perhaps in his life as well!), a structure that may help explain both the tragic sense of a work like Manfred and the comic narrative repetitions in Don Juan. For instance, Manfred explains a "fatal truth" in his opening monologue, that "Sorrow is Knowledge," or to put it otherwise, "The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life" (I.i.10-12). As readers of the Giaour's butterfly-hunting passage, we are in a position of "knowledge"; from our objective vantage point we can see the ultimate futility and disappointment that inevitably awaits the butterfly hunter whether or not he succeeds in catching his prize. From the hunter's point of view, however, he is alive only to his own desire for the butterfly, and he is fully engaged in his effort to satisfy that desire. The hunter does not consider such nice questions as whether the pursuit is worthwhile or whether it will lead to some final satisfaction—it is quite sufficient for him to feel and act upon his attraction to the prize. (Contrast this to Manfred, who feels the "curse to have no natural fear, / Nor fluttering throb, that beats with hopes or wishes, / Or lurking love of something on the earth" (I.i.25-27).) The hunter is fully caught up in his Life, conceived of as the goal-oriented pursuit of some object of desire; but we as readers are fully apprised of the Knowledge that such a life leads only to disappointment and sorrow: our Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.

Toward the end of the poem, when the fearsome and mysterious title character is explaining himself to the friar, the Giaour claims that ordinary worldly accolades now mean nothing to him—"I smile at laurels won or lost" (1013). He then expresses his current condition in very Manfred-like terms: "But place again before my eyes / Aught that I deem a worthy prize;— / The maid I love — the man I hate — / And I will hunt the steps of fate, / (To save or slay — as these require) / Through rending steel, and rolling fire" (1016-20). Such is the condition of the Byronic hero: stricken with knowledge of the "fatal truth," living on as the mere shadow of a once indomitable power (that others now look upon in tantalized fear), and without any possibility of worthy or worthwhile action, whether driven by love or hate. If there is any possible exit from this intolerable position, it must be, as the Giaour suggests, his own death. But, I would argue, Byron eventually discovers an alternative in the comic, zeugmatic rhetoric of Don Juan.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode," Stanza 4.


O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!
And would we aught behold, of higher worth,
Than that inanimate cold world allowed
To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd,
Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud
Enveloping the Earth--
And from the would itself must there be sent
A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth,
Of all sweet sounds the life and element!

This is the fourth stanza of Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode," which was begun in April 1802 in response to Coleridge's hearing the opening stanzas of Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality." Both poems focus on the speaker/poet's loss--loss of an ability to perceive "glory" in Nature, and thus to receive a dynamic, spiritual sustenance from the fusion of mind and nature. This was, of course, the great theme of Wordsworth and Coleridge's poems from the later 1790s, but now for both poets that capacity for a feeling, emotional, even visionary perception of natural beauty seems to be fading. As Coleridge explains in the first stanzas of "Dejection," he gazes with a "blank" eye upon the images of a beautiful sunset, and instead of being inspired by the beauty of nature, he merely registers these images as perceptions: "I see them all so excellently fair, / I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!" Images that previously would have provided emotional and spiritual inspiration are now the mere stuff of mechanical perception.

The loss of the former mode of "glorious" perception raises implicit questions for Coleridge as it raised explicit questions for Wordsworth: Where did the glory come from? Where has it gone? Can it be rekindled? Wordsworth, of course, eventually resolved these questions by positing a supernatural and immortal soul which preexists our mortal selves and that will presumably continue even after we are no longer living our natural lives. Coleridge's response, written before Wordsworth's, is less optimistic: "I may not hope from outward forms to win / The passion and the life, whose fountains are within." For Coleridge, then, the failure of the heretofore sustaining "marriage" between mind and nature is attributable exclusively to the "soul" and not to any failing on the part of nature. Further, the marriage itself, as Coleridge suggests in Stanza 4, has been a very one-sided affair.

The stanza opens (after the "O Lady!" apostrophe, an echo of the poem's origins in an April 1802 letter to Sara Hutchinson) with the claim that "we receive but what we give, / And in our life alone does Nature live: / Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!" In other words, whatever glory we once attributed to a creative fusion of mind and nature was really a projection of mind alone. Coleridge had, in effect, mistakenly posited a dynamic and reciprocal interchange between mind and nature, but it turns out that nature, itself passive, was really only reflecting back the projections of the speaker/poet--he receives but what he gives. Thus, if nature ever appeared to offer anything of "higher worth" than a mere "inanimate cold world," that "higher worth" was actually "A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud" that "issue[d] forth" from the soul. It is not (nor was it ever) the product of a fruitful interchange between mind and nature.

An analogy may help to clarify this argument. Suppose a person is sitting in a theatre, watching a film, and becoming emotionally engaged in and perhaps even inspired by the action and images presented on the screen. Initially one might conceive of this movie-goer's experience in holistic terms: the inspired, emotionally engaged condition is "caused" by a marriage of the viewer's emotional capacity to respond to the images presented on the screen, and the images themselves which are designed and organized by a filmmaker to foster just such a reaction on the viewer's part. Following through on this model, the filmmaker would be something akin to God, or, as Coleridge says in "Frost at Midnight," the "Great Universal Teacher." Hence, one might imagine a kind of visionary inspiration to derive from a "marriage" of perceiver and imagery, mind and nature, subject and object, and the viewer's inspired condition thus constitutes a feeling response to the divinity that flows in and through the perceived images. Such is the original, glorious mode of perception eulogized by Wordsworth's Ode and Coleridge's "Dejection."

But now imagine the same scene a few years later: this time the viewer does not respond emotionally to the images on the screen. The viewer still sees the images on the screen, but this is now just an indifferent and mechanical perception. The images are registered, but they are void of any particular meaning or emotional affect. They are no longer conceived as the inspired and inspiring work of some filmmaker/God figure--now they are just so much color and line with no particular significance attached. This second viewer can recall that at one time he was emotionally and spiritually engaged, but now the perceptual world is nothing but an empty show, and the viewer is left to grieve for his lost capacity to respond. (This is the "grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear, / A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief" that the "Dejection" speaker expresses in the second stanza.) What is perhaps worst of all, from his current impassive and detached perspective, the speaker now sees that his former emotionally inspired condition, his assumption that he was intuiting the intentions of the filmmaker/God, was merely an illusion born of his own enthusiasm. Rather than sensing the willful purposes of a filmmaker/God in the images on the screen, he was actually "seeing" a reflection of his own enthusiasm. Now that the enthusiasm has faded, so too does the whole emotionally inspiring experience: there is finally no filmmaker/God, no "Great Universal Teacher," no "vast ... intellectual breeze."

Under the circumstances, one can certainly understand the gloominess of Coleridge's title. The poem calls into question the central philosophical, even theological position that had dominated Coleridge's poetry in the 1790s. By poem's end, the speaker has recovered somewhat--at least he hopes that Sara's experience will be happier than his own: "May all the stars hang bright above her dwelling, / Silent as though they watched the sleeping Earth!" But for the numbed and grieving speaker of this poem, there is little hope of escape-- "afflictions bow me down to earth" and "each visitation / Suspends what nature gave me at my birth, / My shaping spirit of Imagination."

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Joanna Baillie, from "A Winter's Day"


Strutting before, the cock leads forth his train,
And chuckling near the barn-door 'mid the straw,
Reminds the farmer of his morning's service.
His grateful master throws a liberal handful;
They flock about it, while the hungry sparrows,
Perched on the roof, look down with envious eye,
Then, aiming well, amidst the feeders light,
And seize upon the feast with greedy bill,
Till angry partlets peck them off the field.
But at a distance, on the leafless tree,
All woe-begone, the lonely blackbird sits;
The cold north wind ruffles his glossy feathers;
Full oft he looks, but dare not make approach,
Then turns his yellow beak to peck his side
And claps his wings close to' his sharpened breast.
The wandering fowler from behind the hedge,
Fastens his eye upon him, points his gun,
And firing wantonly, as at a mark,
Of life bereaves him in the cheerful spot
That oft hath echoed to his summer's song.


This brief passage comes from Joanna Baillie's poem "A Winter's Day," published in 1790. The poem fits neatly within the "loco-descriptive" genre, and it is reminiscent of the landscape paintings of artists like Constable who were flourishing at roughly the same time. As Baillie's title suggests, the poem as a whole is a diurnal sketch of rural life—it follows a farm family from the rooster's cry at first light until the farmer himself gives one last check on the weather before retiring for the night. As such, the poem is organized temporally—an obvious enough point, perhaps, though note that this contrasts with Coleridge's "Eolian Harp" or Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey." These more famous and canonical Romantic poems, while still in one sense descriptive of specific natural scenes, are organized according to the poet's association of ideas rather than according to the temporal or spatial patterns of the objective world being described.

The body of Baillie's poem is made up of a series of scenes that usually seem "merely" descriptive, but that occasionally offer some sense of a figurative meaning that goes beyond the mere descriptive content. The passage presented here is one such instance. Much of the poem is devoted to the hard work of the laboring "hind," but also to the sustaining care with which he treats his family and his livestock and his broader community of neighbors. This is a world of harmonious interdependence, where the comical strut of the rooster is appreciated for what it is, and where the "grateful master" rewards the chickens (and the hungry but opportunistic sparrows) with a "liberal handful" of corn. It's an image of a joyful, ecological interdependence—the rooster and his brood depend on the farmer who is in turn "grateful" for their contribution to the life of the farm.

Nearby, however, we find a less fortunate bird—the "lonely blackbird" who is apparently too skittish to join in the farmyard feast. Instead, this wind-ruffled songbird sinks into himself, tightening his wings as though to better keep out the cold. The next figure, the "wandering fowler"—perhaps some passing sportsman with leisure time and resources enough to divert himself with hunting—apparently comes from outside this close-knit rural circle. Upon seeing the blackbird, he fires "wantonly, as at a mark," and kills him. It seems an act of senseless and impersonal violence: the blackbird provides no food or any other value for the "fowler." He is nothing more than a target and is killed without a thought. The poet, of course, recalls how the blackbird had contributed a song that made this place a "cheerful spot," but this positive engagement with the well-being of the place is lost on the hunter.

It is perhaps an easy and sentimental point, but clearly Baillie is drawing a contrast between the engaged, charitable, and ecologically sustaining lives of the laborer and his family as opposed to the wanton destruction wrought by the (presumably) leisure-class hunter. The social, cultural, and political implications of the observation are clear enough. This peasant laborer—like Wordsworth's Michael—represents a deeply grounded, ecologically engaged way of life that was quickly disappearing in the face of an increasingly cosmopolitan commercial and industrial England, and Baillie's poem is an elegy of sorts to this vanishing way of life.

Friday, October 30, 2009

P. B. Shelley's Alastor, (lines 192-205)


Roused by the shock he started from his trance—
The cold white light of morning, the blue moon
Low in the west, the clear and garish hills,
The distinct valley and the vacant woods,
Spread round him where he stood. Whither have fled
The hues of heaven that canopied his bower
Of yesternight? The sounds that soothed his sleep,
The mystery and the majesty of Earth,
The joy, the exultation? His wan eyes
Gaze on the empty scene as vacantly
As ocean's moon looks on the moon in heaven.
The spirit of sweet human love has sent
A vision to the sleep of him who spurned
Her choicest gifts.


This passage describes a psycho-spiritual condition that frequently recurs in Shelley's poetry and, indeed, that captures a familiar theme of romantic literature as a whole.

At this point in the poem, the Alastor Poet has been wandering through sites of ancient ruins while an "Arab maiden"—despite the Poet's neglect of her affections and even of her very presence—tends to his physical needs. Shortly thereafter, the Poet has an erotic, visionary dream in which he sees a "veiled maid" who seems to be his very soul-mate. In his dream, the maid—apparently a poet herself—sings about "Knowledge," "truth," "virtue," "lofty hopes," and "divine liberty," themes that mirror the most ardent thoughts and dreams of the Poet himself. Both the Poet and the dream maiden are enraptured, and eventually she gives in to the "irresistible joy" and "With frantic gesture and short breathless cry / Fold[s] his frame in her dissolving arms" (184-86). In a distinctly Shelleyan figure, visionary fulfillment is figured in baldly sexual terms. Such ecstasy does not last, and once the vision fades, the Poet is left with his solitary "vacant brain." The quotation above follows immediately on the heels of this visionary consummation. The Poet awakens with a start back in a cold physical reality which now seems inadequate—with "garish hills" and "vacant woods"—and he is left with nothing but questions: "Whither have fled / The hues of heaven that canopied his bower / Of yesternight?" Now he can only "Gaze on the empty scene."

This sense of extraordinary fulfillment followed by longing and emptiness suggests that Shelley has been reading his Wordsworth and his Coleridge. Wordsworth's Intimations Ode presents a similar pattern as his speaker is struck with a sense of loss and then wonders "Whither has fled the visionary gleam" (Ode, line 56), and Coleridge, in his "Dejection: An Ode" (written in direct response to the initial stanzas of Wordsworth's Ode), writes about a remarkably beautiful sunset: "And still I gaze--and with how blank an eye!" (Dejection, line 30). Alastor would seem to be Shelley's contribution to this poetic conversation, and the differences in how each poet copes with his particular post-vision depression are instructive. Wordsworth, famously, posits a notion of pre-existence which, if it doesn't necessarily rekindle the same sort of joy he once knew, at least provides an assurance that soul itself is immortal and thus destined for a realm beyond the mutability of Nature. Coleridge is not so optimistic. His own "Joy" has been extinguished by "abstruse research" (89) among other things, and it will not return for him, though his poem concludes with a prayer that Joy and solace might visit his beloved friend.

Shelley takes a somewhat different approach. Certainly his Poet-protagonist feels acutely the pain of a lost visionary fulfillment, but his response to that loss is to ignore the actual world (as he was oblivious to the Arab maiden who loved him and tended to his needs), and to orient his quest toward another encounter with his dream-ideal. Unlike Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley—at least in my reading—does not come to a decisive answer about the fleetingness of his encounter with this visionary moment of fulfillment. Instead, Shelley sees this interesting psychological/spiritual condition in the context of social ethics, and readers are left with a question: Are we supposed to admire the Alastor Poet's dedicated the pursuit of his ideal? Or are we supposed to question the value of such an other-worldly pursuit if it causes a real, mortal, natural world to seem inadequate by comparison?