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.