Thursday, February 26, 2009

Intimations Ode, st. 5

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home[.]

Wordsworth's awkwardly titled "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" is one of a handful of absolute canonical standards from the romantics. The lines quoted above come from the beginning of the fifth stanza, immediately after the speaker's troubled question about the loss of "glory": "Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream?" In essence, we have a speaker who recalls a time when he was charged with a spiritual energy by gazing on and interacting with a beautiful natural world, but now, as he says at the end of the first stanza, "The things which I have seen I now can see no more." Indeed, the opening four stanzas repeatedly express the speaker's distress at his lost vision culminating in the questions about the fate of the "visionary gleam," the "glory," and the "dream."

The lines at the top of this post present Wordsworth's answer to these questions in the notion of a pre-existent soul. An explication of the passage might go something like this: While we typically think of birth as a kind of awakening, Wordsworth here calls it a "sleep and a forgetting." Why? Well, waking up (e.g. being born) into this natural, physical world is a matter of temporarily leaving behind some realm where we existed before being embodied here in nature. Using the metaphor of a sunrise (that is, the rise of our "life's Star"), Wordsworth suggests that our emergence into this physical natural world means that we had our "sunset" in some previous existence. For the most part--and certainly as adults--we forget this pre-existent condition. But when we are still young, we still can recall a few things about our original home. In other words, birth may be a "forgetting," but we haven't forgotten everything just yet; on the contrary, we come into this world "trailing clouds of glory" from our still recent contact with "God, who is our home." As the stanza continues Wordsworth describes how these youthful recollections of the Divine are eventually forgotten as the youth grows into full maturity and becomes ever more thoroughly incorporated into a natural life.

Especially relevant here in relation to the speaker's initial distress is the word "glory." In the previous stanza, the speaker wondered where the "glory" went. Now he knows. He had initially thought that nature itself was "glorious" but that he could no longer perceive that glory. Hence, the distress of the opening stanzas. Now he recognizes that "glory" was not an aspect of nature, but rather a way of perceiving nature when looking through those "clouds of glory" whose origins are in God rather than in nature. This may seem to be small comfort--after all, forgetting one's divine origins may be even worse than feeling unable to interact in meaningful ways with nature. But for Wordsworth, this is sincerely comforting--if he can recall a time when he did perceive this divine glory, that means that the glory still exists! It is not an aspect of nature and thus subject to time, mutability, mortality; instead, glory comes "From God, who is our home," and God, presumably, is beyond nature, beyond the vicissitudes of time, change, and loss.

A moment's reflection on an analogy will clarify the point: Consider the statement "Ahh! I remember the days when I had an immortal Soul. That was great while it lasted, but now I'm sad." Such an argument is, of course, absurd--one does not, by definition, "get over" being immortal. This is something like the speaker's condition in the Ode. He recalls a day when the objects of nature seemed glorious, as though "Apparelled in celestial light," but now he's gloomy, thinking that the glorious celestial light is for him extinguished. In fact, if he can recall a time when he was confident in the existence of such glory, then such glory must still exist. And this observation serves to explain Wordsworth's clumsy title--his recollections of the "clouds of glory" of early childhood are intimations of the immortality of the now rational, mature, adult speaker's soul.

Friday, February 20, 2009

"The Lamb" (11-20)

Little Lamb I'll tell thee.
Little Lamb I'll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

These lines from William Blake's "The Lamb" (Songs of Innocence, 1789) are among the most famous in all of English literature. They are uttered by the speaker of the lyric, a child-shepherd who is apparently talking directly to his lamb and answering the rhetorical question he had posed at the end of the preceding stanza: "Dost thou know who made thee?" The lines express as clearly as anywhere in Blake the condition of Innocence.

It's important first to recognize the implications of the speaker's initial question, "Who made thee?" This is a poem about Creation, or, more specifically, about the relationship between the Creator and his Creatures. From the Innocence perspective, Creation is very much an act of incarnation wherein the essence of the Creator is preserved in the creatures, thus insuring a form of identity between the Creator and a created world.

Note, for example, the progress of pronouns through the middle lines. The speaker establishes an identity, in name at least, between "He" (the Creator) and the lamb to whom the poem is addressed: "He is called by thy name, / For he calls himself a Lamb." The reference is, of course, to the recurrent Biblical trope of Jesus as the "lamb of God." In case we missed the Jesus reference, Blake follows with a nativity image: "He is meek & he is mild, / He became a little child." Since now Jesus is both lamb and child, the speaker can also sketch an identity with himself since he too is a child. The claim, in essence, is that Jesus the Creator is both lamb and child; the speaker is a child talking to a lamb; and the Creator is thus identified with us and we are identified with the Creator: "I a child & thou a lamb, / We are called by his name." And note the collective identity wrapped up in the suddenly plural "We" who are "called by his name." Expressed as a series of equivalences, we might get something like this: If He = lamb and He = child, and further if I = child and thou = lamb, then We = He and He = we.

It may be putting too fine a point on Blake's language, but it is also possible to read the repeated line in the closing couplet as underscoring the speaker-lamb-Creator identity. Blake doesn't engrave any commas into these lines, and this leads to a significant ambiguity. On the one hand, we might read the lines as though there were a comma after Lamb: "Little Lamb, God bless thee." Such would be the most common idiomatic reading. But it is also possible to read the line as though the speaker is blessing a "little lamb-god." After all, the poem has emphasized this unity of creature and Creator, so it makes sense that one aspect of divinity (the speaker) might himself bless another aspect of divinity the (Little Lamb God): "Little Lamb God, bless thee."

It's a beautiful, confident, tender sort of poem--the very essence of Blakean Innocence. It is also a potentially heretical poem. In drawing an identity between Creator and creatures, the poem suggests that the created world has not fallen away from the Divine. I won't draw out the argument here, but in this respect the poem bears close comparison with its Experience companion, "The Tyger," where the act of creation seems to generate a sense of doubt, fear, and alienation in the speaker rather than this more comforting sense of benign unity. The poem might also bear comparison with the pantheistic speculations of another potentially heretical poem on the same lines: Coleridge's "The Eolian Harp."

[As always with Blake, a merely textual, verbal discussion misses the beauty and richness of the engravings. For the full picture--in several incarnations--see the Blake Archive.]

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Childe Harold III, stanza 6, lines 46-54

'Tis to create, and in creating live
A being more intense, that we endow
With form our fancy, gaining as we give
The life we image--even as I do now.
What am I? Nothing. But not so art thou,
Soul of my thought, with whom I traverse earth,
Invisible but gazing, as I glow
Mixed with thy spirit, blended with thy birth,
And feeling still with thee in my crushed feelings' dearth.

This fascinating stanza comes from the introductory section of Byron's Childe Harold, Canto III, composed in 1816. Byron had become famous--one of the first bona fide media celebrities in the modern world--as a result of the publication of Childe Harold I and II in 1812. Since that time, the poet's wayward sexual morality and disastrous marriage had caused many to recoil from his society, though many also remained fascinated, even entranced, by his larger-than-life personality. Eventually, in early 1816, Byron went into self-exile, leaving England and taking up residence on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland (where he would be visited by Percy and Mary Shelley). At this point he took up the earlier poem once again, and at Shelley's urging he produced the very Wordsworthian Childe Harold Canto III.

One extraordinary element of this passage is the deliberate self-fashioning that, as Byron explains it, underlies his current poetic effort. The creation of art--in this case writing the present poem--is a way to "live / A being more intense." The act of artistic creation--endowing our "fancy" with some tangible "form"--enables the artist to gain something akin to the life he creates. Artistic creation, in other words, is not simply the production of some verbal artifact such as a poem; it is also a remaking of the life of the artist. As the stanza continues, Byron identifies himself, perhaps disingenuously, as "Nothing." Put another way, the artist is a kind of cipher or blank slate until endowed with life and character in the act of creation. And for Byron such creation has a double reference: the "Soul of my thought" is both his own earlier Childe Harold character (the figure who took the English readership by storm in 1812) and his months-old daughter Ada whom he left behind in England as he fled to the Continent.

The passage might be fruitfully compared with other romantic descriptions of the practice and purposes of artistic creation. One thinks, for instance, of Wordsworth's "recollection in tranquility" which occurs when the poet is in a "vacant or a pensive mood." (See Wordsworth's Preface and his "I wander'd lonely....") Or one might think of Keats's letter to Woodhouse (27 October 1818) claiming that true poets have "no identity" themselves and are continually filling the vacuum with "some other body." Such texts, and there are no doubt others, point to one strand of romantic theories of aesthetic creation.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Frankenstein, ii.4

"I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers--their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions: but how was I terrified, when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification. Alas! I did not yet entirely know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity." (vol. ii; chap. 4)

This remarkable passage comes from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; it describes the moment when the Monster suddenly perceives his image in the mirror-like surface of the "transparent pool" and recognizes that his hideous appearance sets him apart from his more graceful "cottagers." The passage can be read in any number of ways, but what I find most interesting is Shelley's representation here of a sudden split in the Monster's developing sense of identity. Up to this moment, the Monster's understanding of self--such as it is--has been almost wholly experiential. His only "identity" has been that of a self-aware body subject to such sensory impressions as hunger, thirst, heat, and so forth. He is attracted to images of comforting beauty (the moon in the trees, for example), and he is repelled by sensations of pain (when he puts his hand in a fire). As such, he has in essence the "self-consciousness" we might ascribe to a dog or a lab rat.

In this scene, however, the Monster suddenly sees how he appears to others--for the first time, he sees himself as others might see him, and he instantly compares his own appearance to the "cottagers" he has been observing from his improbable hovel. The recognition results in a kind of psycho-social rift between the self as experienced from some inner perspective of bodily sensation and thought vs. the self as perceived externally--the self one presents to others. The closing line of the passage alludes to the fallout from this split sense of self (i.e. the Monster is doomed to the life of a wandering outcast--and eventually to the life of a being bent on a violent revenge--since apparently no human society can bear to associate with him). Suddenly, the Monster has two incompatible selves. Though his inner life is presumably unchanged, his "identity" is now one of self-doubt and self abasement because he cannot physically match the "grace, beauty, and delicate complexions" of those whose society he covets. And, sadly, this new identity takes precedence in the Monster's consciousness--"I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am."

Sunday, February 8, 2009

"Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" (73-84)

The day becomes more solemn and serene
When noon is past; there is a harmony
In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,
Which through the summer is not heard or seen
As if it could not be, as if it had not been!
Thus let thy power, which like the truth
Of nature on my passive youth
Descended, to my onward life supply
Its calm, to one who worships thee,
And every form containing thee,
Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind
To fear himself, and love all human kind.

These are the beautiful closing lines from Shelley's "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty." It's a striking precursor to the famous line from Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning"--"Death is the mother of beauty." The central idea here is introduced with the afternoon and autumn images in the opening lines of the passage. Both are iconic images of decline, decline from the brilliant sunshine of mid-day or from the height of summer. The claim is that the sense of an impending end--that is, nightfall or winter--brings with it a depth of feeling and understanding that one cannot perceive while the day or year is in its ascendancy or at its height. There is something "solemn and serene," a "harmony" and a "lustre," that "is not heard or seen" during the full glare of noon/summer.

Much of the poem has been given to questions about Intellectual Beauty, Shelley's term for the ultimate but elusive source of this serene harmony. As the poem proceeds, Shelley identifies and describes Intellectual Beauty in a series of oblique similes, he wonders about and laments its fleeting nature, he describes a visionary moment in his youth when, however fleetingly, he felt its presence and power. But now there seems to be a recognition that fleetingness (or mortality) is the very condition that reveals, however temporarily, the presence of Intellectual Beauty. The poem then ends with a quiet prayer for the continuing "calm" supplied by this informing spirit: "Thus let thy power ... to my onward life supply / Its calm."

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"Chimney Sweeper" (Innocence), 21-24

Here is the final stanza from Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper" from the Songs of Innocence. The young sweeper Tom Dacre (note that it's NOT the speaker of the poem) has had a visionary dream in which an Angel releases the boys from their "coffins of black"--perhaps a reference to the chimneys they work in, perhaps a reference to death, perhaps a more general image of the bleakness of their prospects in the world, perhaps all of the above. The dream provides some comfort to the chimney sweeper on the following morning:

And so Tom awoke and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Tho' the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

As is often the case in Blake's Innocence poems, the passage lends itself to multiple, equally precise meanings. On the one hand, it can be taken at face value. These orphaned sweepers are living in horrific, even life-threatening squalor with virtually no prospect for a warmer, happier life. And yet, Tom's dream provides some genuine comfort: the speaker says as plainly as possible that "Tom was happy & warm" despite the cold morning. Expanding from this reading, one might say that, at least for Tom, religion (his dream of salvation) is a wholly positive force that enables him to find comfort, warmth, and happiness even in his lowly and impoverished condition. On the other hand, the final lines could be deeply and viciously ironic, saying, in effect, that if the sweepers "do their duty"--that is, if they continue to labor away as starving and exploited children--they will find some reward in a better world than this. This cynical reading would suggest that religion is a fool's game (Marx would later call it the "opiate of the masses") by which the self-serving economic and political power structures of the day can justify and perhaps even condone the ill-treatment of these unfortunate orphan sweepers.

My students always want to know: Which is it? Is this poem an expression of the comforting and sustaining power of religion? Or is this poem a stinging critique of the cynical and hypocritical use of religion to support a self-serving complacency in the face of human suffering? I don't know that there is an answer to these questions....unless it's "Both." Blake's poems show the contrary conditions of Innocence and Experience, and this poem seems to include both as alternative but equally plausible interpretations of the same lines. It is also possible to see Tom Dacre as still wrapped in the comfort Innocence, while the speaker--as is perhaps suggested by the strangely dogmatic proclamation of the final line--is beginning to doubt the wisdom of Tom's Innocence and is clinging to a kind of motto that begins to sound hollow in the face of hard experience.