Friday, 29 January 2016

Wordsworth’s “Guide to the Lakes” and the Picturesque Tradition

John, R. Nabholtz, 'Wordsworth’s “Guide to the Lakes” and the Picturesque Tradition', Modern Philology 61:4 (May 1964),288-297

Response by Abigail Turner:

Nabholtz investigates the question surrounding Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lake Country, asking why this Guide is “fundamentally different from those of its picturesque predecessors. Why Wordsworth should repeatedly invoke the tradition he is working outside of or against?” Before Wordsworth’s guide his predecessors such as John Brown and Thomas Gray had used the beauty of the landscape to direct the reader’s eye to the scenery. However, as Nabholtz uncovers, Wordsworth was not satisfied with a mere description of scenery, he wanted the readers to gain something more when they visited the lakes.

Wordsworth throughout the Guide emphasises repeatedly the use of one’s mind. The Guide becomes then one of thought as in its different sections Wordsworth uses the picturesque not only to reach the summits of beauty, but also to take this further to the sublime and dig deeper to the scenery’s origins. The picturesque then becomes a means to open the reader’s mind to a whole multitude of ways of thinking about, understanding, experiencing and appreciating the Lake Country. Nabholtz concludes, “Wordsworth’s appreciation of the picturesque beauty of the Lake Country was in reality a sign of his reverence for nature herself.” To get to this conclusion however Nabholtz must prove how the potent copying of Wordsworth’s predecessors can form an analysis directed to visual appearance that is in turn defined by picturesque standards.

Wordsworth does this through the mind, and by using the visual appearance in conjunction with thought he is able to set the standard of the picturesque through its discovery. For example Nabholtz uses the economy of nature as an example of how Wordsworth thinks through the movements of a lake to uncover the necessity and value of water. This is also seen in his descriptions of the mountains. Drawing upon his predecessors, he values the mountains for their limestone origins, which is vital to Yorkshire’s industry.

However, not only does Wordsworth dig deep into the origin of the Lake Country’s natural beauty he soars high with the natural processes of the sublime:
Sublimity is the result of Nature’s first great dealings with the superficies of the earth; but the general tendency of her subsequent operations is towards the production of beauty; by a multiplicity of symmetrical parts using in a constant whole.”(Guide, p.35)
The Sublime is an awe-inspiring movement that requires in this case a freeing of the surface vision, that Gray and Brown used in their Guides, to reach beyond to an appreciation that is thought through natural processes to create something that contains a personal story for the reader. A good example of how Wordsworth uses this is in his comparison of the Lake’s mountains to the Swiss Alps. He uses his own imagination and knowledge of the natural world to reach a beauty that is beyond the surface of the Lake’s. By doing so he is creating a narrative that is inspirational for it also encourages the reader’s reaction to be something somewhat similar; they are drawn along by his thought and are able to transcend this to imagine their own

‘Alps.’ Therefore, what Nabholtz has discovered is how Wordsworth utilises the picturesque descriptions of his predecessors through thought processes to rediscover again and again the magnitude and sublimity in nature’s natural processes.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Childe Harold's Songs 4: 'The castled crag of Drachenfels'

Byron picked up Childe Harold for a third fit, four years after the first two were published. This time, though, his hero has changed. Previously characterised by a kind of exhausted existential anomie, the Part 3 Harry is more tender-hearted and has, it seems, fallen in love. He travels across Belgium, surveys the field at Waterloo (where of course, the previous year, the epochal battle had been fought) and is moved by the loss of life. Then he passes along the Rhine for a while, and so on up into the Alps. Indeed, Childe Harold 3 is divided into two phases: a 'horizontal' phase when Harold-Byron moves across Europe, musing on the pitiable nature of mortal humanity; and then a 'vertical' phase when he climbs up into the mountains to commune with the sublimity of his own ego and the majesty of the landscape.
But these recede. Above me are the Alps,
The palaces of Nature, whose vast walls
Have pinnacled in clouds their snowy scalps,
And throned Eternity in icy halls
Of cold sublimity, where forms and falls
The avalanche—the thunderbolt of snow!
All that expands the spirit, yet appals,
Gathers around these summits, as to show
How Earth may pierce to Heaven, yet leave vain man below. [3:62]
The 'these' that recede in the first line of this stanza are the fertile fields and cities of lowland Germany, together with their population, 'a race of faces happy as the scene'; by the last line of this stanza these people have become vain mankind. That's the hockey-stick shape of the whole.

The canto's one lyric is, as it were, the hinge point of the horizontal-vertical shift. It starts with the vertically precipitous 'castled crag of Drachenfels', on the banks of the Rhine, then descends to the 'bosom' of the lowlands, water and meadow, 'strewed' with trees and cornfields and white cities. Down here the poet thinks of his absent lover, and sends her a flower, even though he knows it will have withered and died by the time it reaches her.
The castled crag of Drachenfels
Frowns o'er the wide and winding Rhine.
Whose breast of waters broadly swells
Between the banks which bear the vine,
And hills all rich with blossomed trees,
And fields which promise corn and wine,
And scattered cities crowning these,
Whose far white walls along them shine,
Have strewed a scene, which I should see
With double joy wert THOU with me!

And peasant girls, with deep blue eyes,
And hands which offer early flowers,
Walk smiling o'er this paradise;
Above, the frequent feudal towers
Through green leaves lift their walls of grey,
And many a rock which steeply lours,
And noble arch in proud decay,
Look o'er this vale of vintage bowers:
But one thing want these banks of Rhine,—
Thy gentle hand to clasp in mine!

I send the lilies given to me;
Though long before thy hand they touch,
I know that they must withered be,
But yet reject them not as such;
For I have cherished them as dear,
Because they yet may meet thine eye,
And guide thy soul to mine e'en here,
When thou behold'st them drooping nigh,
And know'st them gathered by the Rhine,
And offered from my heart to thine!

The river nobly foams and flows,
The charm of this enchanted ground,
And all its thousand turns disclose
Some fresher beauty varying round;
The haughtiest breast its wish might bound
Through life to dwell delighted here;
Nor could on earth a spot be found
To Nature and to me so dear,
Could thy dear eyes in following mine
Still sweeten more these banks of Rhine!
If the first stanza of this short poem descends from the peak of the castle crag down to the ground; and the second stanza launches back up again: 'Above' where the feudal towers, emblematic of a vertical social hierarchy, 'lift their walls of grey' through green leaves; where rock 'steeply lours' and ruins look down. Deleuzeguattari might talk of tall trees and rhizomes, but Byron's imagination goes somewhere in between the two: flowers.

So one way of reading this would be to take it at face value: the man is missing his woman, and sends her a flower—a lily, representative of the purity of his love—to remind her of him. The poem's rhyme-trick is to pair its setting, 'Rhine', with alternately 'thine' and 'mine', as if the river can somehow mediate the separated lovers. Mind you, Byron goes out of his way to stress how the blooms will be 'withered' and 'drooping' by the time they reach his woman. It's hard not to think there's some deliberate gesture here to Shakespeare's 'Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds' (Sonnet 94, of course). Shakespeare's point is that the summer's flower is summerishly sweet unless 'that flower with base infection meet'. Is that what this lyric encodes? A La Ronde-style sense that Byron is passing on an infectious something from the blue-eyed Rhine peasant girls to his, presumably, higher-born English lover? What might all this foamy flow mean, this thousand-fold repeated motion that spends itself upon the 'haughty breast'? Should we be worried that we notice a 'spot' afterwards?

Here's Byron's own note on Drachenfels' castle

Childe Harold's Songs 3: 'Tambourgi, Tambourgi!'

Part 2 of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812) is the Greece and Albania section. It's better than Part 1, and not just because of its subject matter. I say so even though I am personally more interested in Greece than in Spain, and for reasons similar to Byron (possibly the only point at which I could be described as in any way Byronic), to do with the shaping power of a education in the Classics. But that's not it: the verse itself better here, more fluent and reflective and muscular throughout. Perhaps obeying some invisible law of balance, the one inset lyric of this section is rather worse than the inset lyrics in the other sections. It comes after some vivid Spenserian stanzas lamenting Greece's occupation by the Turks; a sideswipe at Lord Elgin for pinching the Parthenon Marbles; and then Harold sailing on up to Albania. He pities Greece, but he admires Albania; and the canto's lyric is a stomping little piece addressed to a 'Tambourgi', Turkish for Drummer:
Tambourgi! Tambourgi! thy larum afar
Gives hope to the valiant, and promise of war;
All the sons of the mountains arise at the note,
Chimariot, Illyrian, and dark Suliote!

Oh! who is more brave than a dark Suliote,
To his snowy camese and his shaggy capote?
To the wolf and the vulture he leaves his wild flock,
And descends to the plain like the stream from the rock.

Shall the sons of Chimari, who never forgive
The fault of a friend, bid an enemy live?
Let those guns so unerring such vengeance forego?
What mark is so fair as the breast of a foe?

Macedonia sends forth her invincible race;
For a time they abandon the cave and the chase:
But those scarves of blood-red shall be redder, before
The sabre is sheathed and the battle is o'er.

Then the pirates of Parga that dwell by the waves,
And teach the pale Franks what it is to be slaves,
Shall leave on the beach the long galley and oar,
And track to his covert the captive on shore.

I ask not the pleasure that riches supply,
My sabre shall win what the feeble must buy:
Shall win the young bride with her long flowing hair,
And many a maid from her mother shall tear.

I love the fair face of the maid in her youth;
Her caresses shall lull me, her music shall soothe:
Let her bring from her chamber the many-toned lyre,
And sing us a song on the fall of her sire.

Remember the moment when Previsa fell,
The shrieks of the conquered, the conqueror's yell;
The roofs that we fired, and the plunder we shared,
The wealthy we slaughtered, the lovely we spared.

I talk not of mercy, I talk not of fear;
He neither must know who would serve the Vizier;
Since the days of our prophet, the crescent ne'er saw
A chief ever glorious like Ali Pasha.

Dark Muchtar his son to the Danube is sped,
Let the yellow-haired Giaours view his horsetail with dread;
When his Delhis come dashing in blood o'er the banks,
How few shall escape from the Muscovite ranks!

Selictar! unsheath then our chief's scimitar:
Tambourgi! thy larum gives promise of war.
Ye mountains that see us descend to the shore,
Shall view us as victors, or view us no more!
It's a strange poem, this, and you couldn't really say it works. This may have something to do with its uncertain balance between 'the Byronic voice' on the one hand, and the poet ventriloquising a markedly un-Byronic persona on the other. That is to say, this is a poem that exists oddly on the borderline between the familiar Byronic poem and something formally newer and more experimental, an early kind of dramatic monologue. 'I love the fair face of the maid in her youth' is a standard-enough Byronic sentiment; but, sexual predator though he was, Byron's poetic mode is not elsewhere this nakedly aggressive:
My sabre shall win what the feeble must buy:
Shall win the young bride with her long flowing hair,
And many a maid from her mother shall tear.
That's not the usual Byronic smack. There is, surely, clearly blue water between Byronic 'wickedness' and the actual savagery of Albanian ruler Ali Pasha, who was a byword for rapacious cruelty long before his death. Ali's Wikipedia page dedicates a whole section to his atrocities. Byron's contemporaries agreed:
His craving for additional power was insatiable ... Inflexible in his hatred, his love of revenge was the vice which at last, in conjunction with his avarice, caused the downfall of Ali. ... Ali had been guilty of an incestuous intercourse with Zobeide, the wife of Veli. Having previously administered to her a soporific potion, he stole to her bed, and consummated his crime. The unfortunate wife of Veli remained ignorant of the fact till she became pregnant, when her suspicions were excited by the dark hints of her female attendants, whom Ali had threatened with death if they disclosed his infamous conduct. In her despair she sent to desire an interview with the author of her misery. His only reply was an avowal of his criminality. With much difficulty he put a stop to her tears and lamentations, and prevailed on her to promise silence respecting the atrocious deed; a deed which he soon after rendered more atrocious, by the murder of the unborn babe. Nor did Ali stop here. To remove all witnesses of his guilt, he ordered the women who were privy to it to be thrown into the lake by his black mutes. [Richard A. Davenport, The life of Ali Pasha of Tepebni, Vizier of Epirus (1837), 359]
That's just one of a whole litany of Ali Pasha's nastiness recorded by Davenport in a book whose title-page (epigraph: 'there is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger') makes slightly wrongfooting reading for the fan of C S Lewis's Narnia books:

Aslan indeed! Davenport's theme is that Ali's ‘utter contempt of truth and honour and his reckless shedding of blood afford a melancholy proof of the evils which result from the possession of unlimited authority and the absence of moral or religious restraints’. By adopting the voice of an enthusiastic Albanian warrior in Ali's army, calling on the Drummer to rouse up everybody's spirits for some slaughter and rapine, Byron runs the risk of revealing how close his more characteristic quasi-in-propria-persona works sound to this Ali-style extremity.

I don't want to make heavy weather of this. 'Tambourgi, Tambourgi!' is, on one level, a standard, even a constitutive example of Orientalism 101. But larding the verse with so many exotic-sounding 'foreign' words doesn't glamorise, or more to the point doesn't distance the poem as much as you might think. 'Tambourgi' sounds very outlandish; but etymologically it is linked to such homely English words for 'drum' as tabor and tambour, all in turn derived via the French tambour ‎(“drum”) from Arabic طُنْبُور ‎ṭunbūr. 'Ilyrian' is familiar from Shakespeare; and if we take the poem to be straightforwardly Islamophobic we may be surprised to discover that the Suliotes ('Oh! who is more brave than a dark Suliote?') were a Christian people. 'Camese' and 'capote' are French, not Turkish or Arabic, words. And so on: it is a poem as much concerned with the passage back into Europe ('Dark Muchtar his son to the Danube is sped') as it is with the imaginative projection further east into an Orientalised sexualised violence.

The bottom line is the tabor-banging insistence of this Tambourgi-metre; all those galloping anapests, that on-running prosodic fluency. It's about, and conceivably it tacitly critiques, the notion that people can get so caught up in the drumbeat urgency of the moment they commit atrocity. And the line 'Selictar! unsheath then our chief's scimitar' is either a horrid lapse into uneuphonious sibilance, or else an onomatopoeic mimicking of the sound a blade makes as it is whisked out of its scabbard. Hard to say, really.

Childe Harold's Songs 2: 'Inez'

Following on. In the first part of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Harold arrives in Portugal and travels on into Spain. The poem is set after the Convention of Cintra (which treaty Byron considers a shameful accommodation: 'Britannia sickens, Cintra, at thy name'), and quite a lot of this portion of the poem is about the battles, the glory and the loss of life of the then-ongoing Peninsular War. Actually, there's a weird flipabout of mood in the first Canto here, perhaps designed to reflect the cycloptropic personality the poem is establishing. Or perhaps just muddle. So, after expressing disdain for the slavish and cowardly Portuguese ('the Lusian slave, the lowest of the low' 33), Byron crosses the border into Spain. Once there he engages in some lively martial exhortation:
Awake, ye sons of Spain! awake! advance
Lo! Chivalry, your ancient goddess, cries,
But wields not, as of old, her thirsty lance,
Nor shakes her crimson plumage in the skies:
Now on the smoke of blazing bolts she flies,
And speaks in thunder through yon engine's roar!
In every peal she calls—'Awake! arise!'
Say, is her voice more feeble than of yore,
When her war-song was heard on Andalusia's shore? [37]
It goes on like this for a while: war is glory and chivalry and the bulwark separating honest manly resistance from tyranny and the cowering servility. Then there's an account of the battle of Talavera (July 1809), where 'Three gaudy standards flout the pale blue skies/The shouts are France, Spain, Albion, Victory!' [41]. But then, on a sixpence the mood of the poem swings about: from praising war as about glory and chivalry the narrator now takes a cynically Falstaffian line:
There shall they rot—Ambition's honoured fools!
Yes, Honour decks the turf that wraps their clay!
Vain Sophistry! in these behold the tools,
The broken tools, that tyrants cast away
By myriads, when they dare to pave their way
With human hearts—to what?—a dream alone. [42]
A couple more stanzas like this follow. Barely giving his reader time to respond 'but weren't you just saying...?' Byron then turns from Violence ('Enough of Battle's minions!' 44) to Sex ('And young-eyed Lewdness walks her midnight rounds' 46) as Harold comes to seductive Seville. There's a brief excursus on how Spanish females do not shrink from fighting in the war, always keeping in view that doing so in no way diminishes their fundamental hotness and desirability: 'Yet are Spain's maids no race of Amazons,/But formed for all the witching arts of love' [57]. There's a statement of erotic-aesthetic preference:
              how much
Hath Phoebus wooed in vain to spoil her cheek
Which glows yet smoother from his amorous clutch!
Who round the North for paler dames would seek?
How poor their forms appear? how languid, wan, and weak! [189]
Byron prefers darker women to paler, fair enough. Then he specifically urges his own poem to, as it were, heat itself up:
Match me, ye climes! which poets love to laud;
Match me, ye harems! of the land where now
I strike my strain, far distant, to applaud
Beauties that even a cynic must avow!
Match me those houris, whom ye scarce allow
To taste the gale lest Love should ride the wind,
With Spain's dark-glancing daughters—deign to know,
There your wise Prophet's paradise we find,
His black-eyed maids of Heaven, angelically kind. [59]
There's some Seville-based tourist moments: a colourful Sunday, a matador. But the real theme of the poem has been intimated: Spanish women are hot, like the climate, and the poem seeks to emulate that hotness. Which brings us to Harold's second lyric, addressed 'To Inez':
Nay, smile not at my sullen brow,
Alas! I cannot smile again:
Yet Heaven avert that ever thou
Shouldst weep, and haply weep in vain.

And dost thou ask what secret woe
I bear, corroding joy and youth?
And wilt thou vainly seek to know
A pang even thou must fail to soothe?

It is not love, it is not hate,
Nor low Ambition's honours lost,
That bids me loathe my present state,
And fly from all I prized the most:

It is that weariness which springs
From all I meet, or hear, or see:
To me no pleasure Beauty brings;
Thine eyes have scarce a charm for me.

It is that settled, ceaseless gloom
The fabled Hebrew wanderer bore,
That will not look beyond the tomb,
But cannot hope for rest before.

What exile from himself can flee?
To zones, though more and more remote,
Still, still pursues, where'er I be,
The blight of life—the demon Thought.

Yet others rapt in pleasure seem,
And taste of all that I forsake:
Oh! may they still of transport dream,
And ne'er, at least like me, awake!

Through many a clime 'tis mine to go,
With many a retrospection curst;
And all my solace is to know,
Whate'er betides, I've known the worst.

What is that worst? Nay, do not ask—
In pity from the search forbear:
Smile on—nor venture to unmask
Man's heart, and view the hell that's there.
The first thing to say about this poem is that it functions as seduction not despite but because of its denials of desire, its classic-Byronic 'see how moody and sad and isolated I am' vibe. Telling beautiful Inez that her charms have no effect upon him is a version of that creepily standard pick-up artist approach; though I suppose we have to assume that when you're as handsome and well-dressed and famous as Byron, sidling up to a woman with your demon-haunted cynic exterior act on full, and suddenly flourishing, like a conjurer, the wounded heart within is almost bound to get you laid. Not guaranteed to work for the rest of us, mind. In other words I'm saying the poem is not actually about what it purports to be about, which is true of a great deal of the best poetry when you come to think of it.

Maybe this instrumental (as it were) reading of the poem looks like I'm trying to diminish it. Not so! I like the counterintuitive way its works as a love poem by repudiating love. I like the way it seems to encode the addressee's very name in its opening words (To Inez/Nay, smile...). Given that, after eight stanzas of moody complaining, Inez is 'smiling' in line 35, we can take it that she's enjoying the originality of his approach (it's especially nice that the smile comes after the speaker's most over-inflated piece of self-dramatisation, when he aligns himself with Edgar at his lowest point in Lear, 'the worst is not/So long as we can say This is the worst'). Perhaps the specifically Spanish context here takes of the edge off. 'My sullen brows' strikes an odd, rather poseur-ish note in English; but the Spanish ceño hosco is an unobjectionable usage. 'It is not love, it is not hate' perhaps conveys depressed anomie; but the phrase in its Latin version (non amore, non odio) is a standard Legalism for impartiality; one that Dante's Monarchia uses to describe Divine Justice. And there are various clues in the poem that the despair may not be as all-encompassing as he pretends. What is it that makes him 'fly from all I prized the most'? It is, he tells us, 'that weariness which springs/From all': but here the tension between the downbeat 'weariness' and the up-leaping 'springs' suggests that the Childe's mainspring is wound rather tighter than he's letting on.

One line in particular strikes an intriguing self-contradictory note.
What exile from himself can flee?
To zones, though more and more remote,
Still, still pursues, where'er I be,
The blight of life—the demon Thought.
There's a pretty obvious confusion here, isn't there, between exile and escape. The latter is where a person runs off to avoid a pursuer. The former is when a person is expelled from their homeland. To be banished requires a banisher, but the one thing you can pretty sure about where a banisher is concerned is that s/he will not then pursue you, Fury-like. They want rid of you; hence the banishing. The line 'What exile from himself can flee?' deliberately confuses the two states, and then doubles-down on the contradiction by filling both roles with Harry himself. The person who has exiled Harold from his homeland is Harold, and the person who is pursuing Harold from his homeland is Harold. But of course, this is what Arnold pinpoints in his 1853 preface as the quintessentially Romantic turn: 'the calm, the cheerfulness, the disinterested objectivity have disappeared: the dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced; modern problems have presented themselves ; we hear already the doubts, we witness the discouragement, of Hamlet and of Faust.' And a Harold. What Arnold missed, though, or at least didn't dilate upon, was how seductive this mode of self-tormenting doubleness could be, for the right woman, at the right time, in the right place.

Childe Harold's Songs 1: 'Adieu, adieu! my native shore'

The first of a short series of posts looking at Harold's songs: that is to say, the songs inset in Byron's first great popular success, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-18), his 'I awoke one morning and found myself famous' poem. The narrative through-line of the whole thing is not complex: in onrolling Spenserian stanzas we follow the travels of Harold, a version of Byron himself, through a Europe scarred by the Napoleonic wars. Our hero has dissipated himself and scandalised England with his rakish behaviour, and so he leaves for the Continent, starting in Canto 1 (1812) with the Iberian peninsular. But before we get to Spain, we get the poem's first lyric insertion, 'Adieu, adieu! my native shore':
Adieu, adieu! my native shore
Fades o'er the waters blue;
The night-winds sigh, the breakers roar,
And shrieks the wild sea-mew.
Yon sun that sets upon the sea
We follow in his flight;
Farewell awhile to him and thee,
My Native Land—Good Night!

A few short hours, and he will rise
To give the morrow birth;
And I shall hail the main and skies,
But not my mother earth.
Deserted is my own good hall,
Its hearth is desolate;
Wild weeds are gathering on the wall,
My dog howls at the gate.

'Come hither, hither, my little page:
Why dost thou weep and wail?
Or dost thou dread the billow's rage,
Or tremble at the gale?
But dash the tear-drop from thine eye,
Our ship is swift and strong;
Our fleetest falcon scarce can fly
More merrily along.'

'Let winds be shrill, let waves roll high,
I fear not wave nor wind;
Yet marvel not, Sir Childe, that I
Am sorrowful in mind;
For I have from my father gone,
A mother whom I love,
And have no friend, save these alone,
But thee—and One above.

'My father blessed me fervently,
Yet did not much complain;
But sorely will my mother sigh
Till I come back again.'—
'Enough, enough, my little lad!
Such tears become thine eye;
If I thy guileless bosom had,
Mine own would not be dry.

'Come hither, hither, my staunch yeoman,
Why dost thou look so pale?
Or dost thou dread a French foeman,
Or shiver at the gale?'—
'Deem'st thou I tremble for my life?
Sir Childe, I'm not so weak;
But thinking on an absent wife
Will blanch a faithful cheek.

'My spouse and boys dwell near thy hall,
Along the bordering lake;
And when they on their father call,
What answer shall she make?'—
'Enough, enough, my yeoman good,
Thy grief let none gainsay;
But I, who am of lighter mood,
Will laugh to flee away.'

For who would trust the seeming sighs
Of wife or paramour?
Fresh feeres will dry the bright blue eyes
We late saw streaming o'er. For pleasures past I do not grieve,
Nor perils gathering near;
My greatest grief is that I leave
No thing that claims a tear.

And now I'm in the world alone,
Upon the wide, wide sea;
But why should I for others groan,
When none will sigh for me?
Perchance my dog will whine in vain
Till fed by stranger hands;
But long ere I come back again
He'd tear me where he stands.

With thee, my bark, I'll swiftly go
Athwart the foaming brine;
Nor care what land thou bear'st me to,
So not again to mine.
Welcome, welcome, ye dark blue waves!
And when you fail my sight,
Welcome, ye deserts, and ye caves!
My Native Land—Good Night!
This is a poem about, to deploy a modern idiom, 'The Feels'. More specifically it is about two different sorts of elegaic melancholy, set artfully in juxtaposition. On the one hand is the Childe's page, who is weeping and wailing because he's missing his Mum and Dad, and is 'thinking on an absent wife':
'My spouse and boys dwell near thy hall,
Along the bordering lake;
And when they on their father call,
What answer shall she make?'
This is a clear enough reason to be sad. The Childe himself, though, is experiencing the same sadness (he explicitly says that, if he were a little more guileless, he'd be weeping along with the lad) for diametrically opposite reasons: he is leaving nobody behind because nobody in his native land loves him. What makes this more complicated and interesting than mere emo self-pity—what makes it, that is, more classically Byronic—is the way the poem simultaneously laments and celebrates the existential vertigo of this state of affairs. Sure it's sad. But it's cool, too.
And now I'm in the world alone,
Upon the wide, wide sea;
But why should I for others groan,
When none will sigh for me?
Perchance my dog will whine in vain
Till fed by stranger hands;
But long ere I come back again
He'd tear me where he stands.
The dog is supposed to make us think of Odysseus's dog Argos, who joyfully recognised his master even though the wandering Greek had been away two decades and returned in a divinely-appointed disguise. The Childe's hound will not be so faithful. Incidentally, the only non-monosyllabic words in that stanza are the three that relate either to people other than the speaker ('others', 'stranger') or else to the possibility of otherness ('Perchance'); the whole of the rest of the stanza is paced out in words as monosyllabically singular and solitary as the Childe.

I suppose a poem like this works, or doesn't, on the level of affective reaction. I mean it twangs your heartstrings, or else it doesn't. Evidently many people have experienced the former reaction, and the vibe of this lyric, projected across the whole of Childe Harold, contributed largely to its success. For myself, if this poem happens to leave my eyes dry, that may be because I prefer my Byronic moody-magnificent existential drama leavened with a little comedy, as in Don Juan. But then it may be that there's just something about this poem. The poeticisms ('Athwart the foaming brine' and so on) strike me as jarring rather than embellishing moments, and there's ... something ... not a good something ... about the assonance. Look at the stanzas that top and tail the whole, where the Native Land—Good Night!' lines, capitalised and exclamation-marked to emphasize its pathos, is repeated.
Adieu, adieu! my native shore
Fades o'er the waters blue;
The night-winds sigh, the breakers roar,
And shrieks the wild sea-mew.
Yon sun that sets upon the sea
We follow in his flight;
Farewell awhile to him and thee,
My Native Land—Good Night!
I'm not sure what to do with that opening 'Adieu, adieu!' If we English readers pronounce it as 'adyeur' it comes dangerously close to half-rhyme tangling with the line-ending 'shore' and so tripping the poem up before it's even got started ('adyeur my native shyeur', as Inspector Clouseau might say). But if we read it as 'adyoo' then it picks up the 'blue' at the end of line 2 to similar effect. Maybe I'm being too picky. Or maybe I'm missing the point. Perhaps this slightly nebulous word, queasily uncertain of pronounciation in its alienated textual environment, is exactly what Byron is going for. It's a poem about leaving one place and going somewhere very different, although not very particular ('deserts' and 'caves' are mentioned, but that's it). To start such a poem with a French connective of direction, à Dieu, 'towards' God, chimes ironically with this broader logic, since one thing our Childe is not doing, for all that his travels are styled a 'pilgrimage', is moving towards holiness and divinity.

If I wanted to expand this discussion, I'd probably pick up the thread from Paul Elledge's influential essay 'Chasms in Connections: Byron Ending (in) Childe Harold's Pilgrimage 1 and 2', [ELH 62:1 (1995), 121-148 ], which identifies a recurring thematic of termination and bereavement at play in the first two parts of Byron's work:
Two years and twelve days after departing England for his continental tour, Lord Byron landed at Sheerness on 14 July 1811 bearing the manuscript about to rocket him into international fame. It tracks the months of recurrent dislocation intrinsic to a pilgrimage that enacted the chronic discontinuity of the poet's affinitive history. Just over one-hundred lines into the new poem, a valedictory lyric by the voyaging pilgrim sings a simulated indifference to his desertion of family and friends, and foresees as his destination the desolated terrain to which in fact its author returned. This essay explores Byron's response to the devastation he in disembarking met, principally as textualized in stanzas added to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage 1 and 2 in August and October 1811. But these supplements, partially driven by the deaths of the friends they covertly honor—John Wingfield in 1 and John Edleston in 2—also materialize the poet's apprehensions about reengaging a readership after his recklessly undiscriminating English Bards and Scotch Reviewers had jarred and piqued the British literary establishment in 1809. The stanzas in question encrypt anxieties aroused by gaps in Byron's personal landscape and inflamed by the imminence of a gap between poet and manuscript—by the rift created with his abandonment of the Childe to an uncertain audience. My subject, broadly, is Byron ending: suffering, evading, disguising, denying, performing, and surviving terminations; ending relationships, poems, relationships with poems and their audiences; designing structures to accommodate and facilitate the dissociative imperative that determines so much of his verse as it disabled so many of his connections. More particularly, I look at the complementary coincidence of fateful human with necessary authorial separation in Byron's elaborated conclusions to his cantos, whereby he converts a psychic deficiency into a textual strength that ministers to the anxieties it inscribes. Among these, ruptures not of his making actuate a Pilgrimage discourse that nevertheless exploits them in the vexatious task of textual termination.
But not time for that now. On to the next lyric.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Wordsworthian Daffodils: Dorothy's Journal and William's Poem

'Daffodils'. One of the most desperately famous poems of English Romanticism, this; which (having students discuss it in relation to the passage from Dorothy Wordworth's journal that acted as specific prompt to William's versifying) turns it into one of Romanticism's most teachable moments. The female provenance occluded; the male poet taking all the credit and so on. Maybe not outright plagiary, but something close to that. As far as William's poem is concerned, you may or may not know that the breed of daffodil native to Westmoreland at that time was the narcissus pseudonarcissus, sometimes called the Lent Lily: it has (see image above) a much whiter crown of flowers than the all-yellow daffodil familiar nowadays. Not sure knowing that adds much to our appreciation of the poem, except perhaps for making the comparison of flowers and stars a little less of a stretch:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
and twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Here, by way of comparison, is the journal entry by Dorothy that, two years after the walk it records, William read and adapted into his poem:
Thursday 15th [April, 1802]. It was a threatening misty morning—but mild. We set off after dinner from Eusemere. Mrs Clarkson went a short way with us but turned back. The wind was furious and we thought we must have returned. We first rested in the large Boat-house, then under a furze Bush opposite Mr Clarkson's. Saw the plough going in the field. The wind seized our breath the Lake was rough. There was a Boat by itself floating in the middle of the Bay below Water Millock. We rested again in the Water Millock Lane. The hawthorns are black and green, the birches here and there greenish but there is yet more of purple to be seen on the Twigs. We got over into a field to avoid some cows—people working, a few primroses by the roadside, woodsorrel flower, the anemone, scentless violets, strawberries, and that starry yellow flower which Mrs C. calls pile wort. When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here and there a little knot and a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway. We rested again and again. The Bays were stormy, and we heard the waves at different distances and in the middle of the water like the sea. Rain came on—we were wet when we reached Luffs but we called in. Luckily all was chearless and gloomy so we faced the storm—we must have been wet if we had waited—put on dry clothes at Dobson's. I was very kindly treated by a young woman, the Landlady looked sour but it is her way. She gave us a goodish supper. Excellent ham and potatoes. We paid 7/- when we came away. William was sitting by a bright fire when I came downstairs. He soon made his way to the Library piled up in a corner of the window. He brought out a volume of Enfield's Speaker, another miscellany, and an odd volume of Congreve's plays. We had a glass of warm rum and water. We enjoyed ourselves and wished for Mary. It rained and blew when we went to bed. N.B. Deer in Gowbarrow park like skeletons. [Mary Moorman, Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth: The Alfoxden Journal 1798, The Grasmere Journals 1800-1803 (New York: Oxford UP, 1971), 109-110]
William's poem is a very vertical, abrupt piece: he's up like a cloud, he's down beneath the trees and in the dirt with the flowers; he's back up with the stars, he's down on his couch. Where Dorothy describes the process of gradually coming across more and more of the daffodils ('When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side ... as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road.'), William sees his blooms altogether and 'all at once'. Much abrupt. Mucho abrupto. Conversely, where William cuts sharply from encountering the daffodils to being, suddenly, far removed from them, on his couch in pensive mood, Dorothy spools the walk out with lots of vivid detail, and then reels it back in again. For Dorothy not only are the daffodils part of a rich variety of other blooms ('primroses, woodsorrel flower, the anemone, scentless violets, strawberries, pile wort'), but the daffodils themselves do more than just dance: some lay their heads down as if sleeping, some laugh, some reel and dance, some glance. For William there are only daffodils, a nether-sky of daffodils in oppressive monotonous profusion, and all they do is dance: 'dancing [6] ... never-ending [9] ... dance [12] ... danced [13] ... dances [24]'. I think by numbering the daffodils, as he does in line 6, Wordsworth in a small way adds to this sense of slightly manic monotony.

But the main difference between the two accounts is that Dorothy's is so naturally embedded in a human context where William's is so alienated from precisely that. In Dorothy's version she and William go walking, with (for a time) Mrs Clarkson, and along the way they recall Mrs Coleridge, and are kindly treated by a women in the inn and sourly by the landlady. And it's not just a personal context. This is a landscape being worked: the ploughman is turning over the April soil; when the Wordsworths hop over a wall to escape some cows they meet 'people working'. This landscape, described with such vivid particularity, and with such an fine sense of pace and flow, is a lived-in landscape, various and well-textured. Nor is it idealised: the rougher weather makes the Wordsworths frère et soeur wet and unhappy; and we realise it won't make the lives of the workmen and ploughmen any more pleasant. The deer at the end are skeleton thin because they're the ones who have survived—just—the starvation of winter and made it into the start of Spring. By contrast William has excised not only Dorothy but everybody else as well from his account: it's all I, I, I; it's 'A' poet; it's the bliss of solitude. It's the psychosubjective claustrophobia of the Egotistical Sublime. It's Mr Narcissus admiring his own reflection in the narcissus pseudonarcissi.

We could say that Dorothy's account is 'more novelistic' and Wordsworth's pared down poem more 'lyrical'. But that hardly seems right. True there are many novel-like details in Dorothy's account ('Excellent ham and potatoes') but, as Coleridge several times says, prose is no true antithesis of poetry. And the fact is, there is immense lyrical subtlety and effectiveness in Dorothy's account, and not only in the way she starts, more or less, with iambic pentameters:
It was a threat'ning misty morn—but mild.
We set off after dinner from Eusemere.
Ms Clarkson went a short way with us but
Turned back. The wind was furious and we thought
and then again, a little later
The Bays were stormy, and we heard the waves
At diff'rent distances and in the midst
Of the water like the sea the rain came on
and so on. There's also the way, throughout, her precisely observed prose keeps trembling on the edge of reverting to verse:
The hawthorns here are black and green,
The birches there are greenish
But there is more of purple seen
On the Twigs ...
and so on. It is a poetry of variety, as Wordsworth's is a poetry of monotony. More, as verse this little lyric is not WW's best: in what universe is 'Ten thousand saw I at a glance' a better line of poetry than 'I saw ten thousand at a glance'? And 'What wealth the show to me had brought' is a frankly contorted line. So I suppose the question becomes: why has this poem become so very, very famous (and Dorothy's lovely prose not)?