Saturday, 13 February 2016

John Keats and the Woman Who Eats Toes

Here's a curious Keatsian story of toe-eating, from a letter to James Rice from December 1819:
My dear Rice,

As I want the coat on my back mended, I would be obliged if you will send me the one Brown left at your house, by the Bearer … If you do not see me soon it will be from the humour of writing, which I have had for three days, continuing. I must say to the Muses what the maid says to the Man---"take me while the fit is on me.”

Would you like a true Story[?] There was a Man and his Wife who being to go a long journey on foot, in the course of their travels came to a River which rolled knee deep over the pebbles---In these cases the Man generally pulls off his Back. This Man did so; and his Wife being pregnant and troubled, as in such cases is very common, with strange longings, took the strangest that ever was heard of. Seeing her Husband’s foot, a handsome one enough, look very clean and tempting in the clear water, on their arrival at the other bank she earnestly demanded a bit of it; he being an affectionate fellow and fearing for the comeliness of his child gave her a bit which he cut off with his Clasp Knife---Not satisfied she asked another morsel---supposing there might be twins he gave her a slice more. Not yet contented she craved another Piece. “You Wretch cries the Man, would you wish me to kill myself? take that!” Upon which he stabb’d her with the knife, cut her open and found three Children in her Belly two of them very comfortable with their mouth’s shut, the third with its eyes and mouth stark staring open. “Who would have thought it” cried the Widower, and pursued his journey …

Ever yours sincerely John Keats—
What to make of this? Roy Booth reports back from his reading of Simon Goulart’s Admirable and memorable histories containing the wonders of our time. Collected into French out of the best authors (1607), which includes a whole clutch of stories about pregnant women devouring their husbands, part or whole. He ponders what it all means:
Perhaps one can hazard something about the story type. Obviously, it’s about long-suffering men and demanding women, but there’s the myth of Chronos here somewhere: the recurrent feature of the pregnant woman demanding to eat part of the man’s legs, and her unborn child suffering if she doesn’t get it, perhaps speaks of the disabling effect of fatherhood, the man who loses part of his strength to the unborn generation, and has to accept as much.
This sounds about right to me, although having spent two separate portions of my life living with a pregnant woman I was also struck how much the stories Roy reports from Admirable and memorable histories channel a very common experience of pregnancy, viz. weird food cravings. We might say that the craving to eat a husband’s toes is an extreme form of craving, but it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility. Luckily my toes aren’t very tasty. Actually my wife is oddly phobic about toes, so perhaps that’s what saved me.

Toes might strike you as a trivial matter; but I would suggest that they're an important subject, one which bears further study. No parent who has ever played This Little Piggy Went To Market can doubt that there’s a particular connection between toes and babyhood. Being struck by the sheer delicious edibility of tiny little babies is one of my primary memories of becoming a father—that and the extraordinarily lovely smell to be found on the exact top of their heads. I can’t be the only father to have felt the urge to gobble up his delicious, delicious children. I’d probably start with the gorgeous little toes.

Perhaps eating toes has advantages over eating other organs in that toes seem more disposable; we feel we can do very well without toes in a way we don’t about noses, eyes, kidneys, hearts and so on. We don’t really use them for anything. They’re hidden away inside shoes most of the time, so nobody can be sure if I have toes or not. They embody a sort of pleasurable abjection; a playful sense of the body as dismantleable that goes hand in hand with the sense of the body as, as it might be, mantleable—capable of assembly. Which of course is what happens during pregnancy; the assemblage of a whole human being inside the uterus. Look at that Keats letter again: he asks for a coat to be sent to him. Clothing is a sort of detachable organ. Then he excuses his lack of social interaction because the Muse has been so demanding upon his time (‘the humour of writing, which I have had for three days, continuing. I must say to the Muses what the maid says to the Man---"take me while the fit is on me."’). This notion of a demanding woman metaphorically devouring a man leads him, associatively, to a story about a demanding woman literally devouring a man. The little narrative keeps reverting to detachable body parts, so that Keats says not “in these cases the Man generally gives his wife a piggy-back” but rather “in these cases the Man generally pulls off his Back”, as if his back can be unlatched and dropped to the floor. I said at the top there that the lady in Keats’s letter ate his toes; but actually Keats isn’t so specific:
Seeing her Husband’s foot, a handsome one enough, look very clean and tempting in the clear water, on their arrival at the other bank she earnestly demanded a bit of it; he being an affectionate fellow and fearing for the comeliness of his child gave her a bit which he cut off with his Clasp Knife.
Why ‘foot’, not ‘toe’? Because, of course, Keats’s mind is running on poetry; and feet is what poems walk on—what the poetic line breaks into. What the letter actually codes, I suppose, is a weird masculine dream of poetry as a bodying-forth from oneself, a quasi-pregnancy, a giving birth to new life. The man cuts his own feet off to satisfy the cravings of his poems (cravings for feet). The three feet-eating babies (wide-open mouth, mouth-comfortably-shut, mouth-comfortably-shut) themselves constitute a foot. Famously Keats had so little Greek he could only encounter Homer in Chapman’s translation; but I wonder if he didn’t know, or if he somehow intuited as a poet, that the Greek for toe is dactulos, same as finger (the same applies in Latin, where digitus means both finger and toe). The same word, dactyl, describes the metrical foot that Keats’s three babies embody: stressed, unstressed, unstressed, o - -.

Keats's 'Belle Dame Sans Merci'

It has only belatedly occurred to me that Keats's ‘Belle Dame' is named for the triple goddess. That is to say, hers is three names in one: the beautiful young maiden (Belle), the mature matron (the Dame) and the old crone (the Beldame). But of course she is.

'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' may be my single favourite short poem in the language.

So, the image at the head of this post is Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 1848 illustration to Keats's poem. I quite like its quasi-mannerist visual punning, such that the Belle Dame herself seems to blend seamlessly into the tree, as if she is some kind of forest spirit, which emphasizes her uncanny, supernatural quality. Cleverer, perhaps, is the knight. His slightly awkward almost-embrace is expressive of both his desire and his reluctance, and the result resembles the topmost arch of a narrow Gothic window, through which the Dame looks to be peering. And if his arm is the frame to a stone window, then it effectively positions him as part of the architecture of a church, and the addition of the little dog in the bottom left is there to put us distantly in mind of those supine stone statues of dead knights, with little stone dogs at their feet. It's all a way of implying without overtly stating that the knight is dead, and the lady Death.

Keats, of course, took his title and mood, if not much else, from French poet Alain Chartier's 856-line 'La Belle Dame sans Mercy' (probably written 1420). This was translated into English by a gentleman called Robert Roos, sometime in the mid 15th-century, and this version was often reprinted. Keats may have read it in Bell's Edition: The Poets of Great Britain (1782); we know that he read various of Bell's anthologies. Roos's version of Chartier's poem opens:
Halfe in a dreme, not fully well awaked,
The goldin Slepe me wrapped undir his wyng,
Yet not forthy I rose, and well nigh naked,
Al sodainly my self rememberyng
Of a mattir, leavyng all othir thyng,
Which I must doe withoutin more delaie
For them whiche I ne durst not disobaie.

My charge was this, to translate by and by,
(All thyng forgive) as parte of my penaunce,
A boke callid La bel Dame sans Mercy,
Whiche Maistir Aleine made of remembraunce,
Chief Secretarie with the Kyng of Fraunce;
And hereupon a while I stode musyng,
And in my self greatly imaginyng

What wise I should perform the said processe
Considiryng by gode advisement
My unconnyng and my grete simplenesse,
And ayenward the straite commaundement
Whiche that I had; and thus in myne entent
I was vexid and tournid up and doune,
And yet at last, as in condusioun,

I cast my clothis on, and went my waie,
This soresaid charge having in remembraunce,
Till I came to a lustie grene valaie
Full of flouris to see a grete plesaunce,
And so boldly, with ther benigne susssraunce
Which redin this boke, touching this matere
Thus I began, if it plese you to here.
This is the translator (obviously): not the original Alain Chartier. What's interesting about it, I think, is the way it foregrounds the poet as the palely-loitering one. Then the echt Chartier begins:
Not long ago, ridyng an esie paas,
I fell in thought of joyful desperate,
With grete disese and pain, so that I was
Of all lovirs the most unfortunate,
Sith by his dart moste cruill full of hate
The Deth hath take my ladie and maistresse,
And left me sole, thus discomfite and mate,
Sore languishing and in waie of distresse.
And so on. Death, of course. There's an inversion in the way the influence works. In the medieval French poem, it is the lady who is dead; in Keats's version she is alive, and the knight is the one who exists in a sort of half-life. Assuming she is alive, which, as I say above, I don't think is true. Not that she's dead. She is the death that happens to other people.

One question is how far the very un-martial Keats (one K-name) inscribes himself into the Knight-at-arms (another K-name) of his poem.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
Ail brings the dipthong of Keats into the 'K[night]-at-[arm]s' of the poem (we tend to pronounced Keats keets, but he himself and his contemporaries tended to say kaits). Then again, the surname Keats, as the poet certainly knew, derives from the Old English for kite, the bird. If ever a poem was about a bird who fails to take these broken wings and learn to fly, it is this one. 'Sedge' refers to a variety of marsh grass; but sedge is also the term for a group of herons. It also glances as 'saids', as in 'the things said', and which has in this case withered. And no poets sing.

This is a poem (to quote another pop song by the same writer) about a lover, not a fighter. The pun on 'arms' is right there, in the first line: arms to fight with, arms to embrace and love with. Rossetti is drawing attention to precisely that pun in the image at the top of this post: his knight-at-arms abandoning his military arms and draping his actual arm over the lady. 'Palely loitering', perhaps the poem's most celebrated phrase, has always chimed in my ear as a jumbled-up version of 'lonely-poetling'. That, I readily concede, is an idiosyncratic and personal reaction.
O what can ail thee, poet-in-love,
Alone and palely loitering?
What's said has withered from the lake,
And no kites sing.
Wentworth House, where Keats was staying during his annus mirabilis and where he wrote this poem, is not far from a rather nice little lake (277 on the map, below). There's even sedge.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Byron's "The Giaour" (1813): Leila's Fate

That's Leila, up there, from an 1820s steel engraving illustration of Byron's poem. Her fate is not jolly. A member of the harem of Ottoman lord Hassan, she has an affair with the infidel (that is, Christian) Giaour—a Venetian nobleman, not otherwise named in the tale. This Giaour, rhymes with 'tower', is the work's Byronic locus: handsome, charismatic, driven, passionate, sexy, more than a little diabolic. At any rate, Hassan discovers Leila's infidelity with the infidel, puts Leila in a sack and drowns her off a Greek island. Thereafter the plot of The Giaour (1813) is simple: the titular hero thunders through on his black steed, like a meteor, 'scathed by fiery passion's brunt', vengeance on his mind. He catches up with Hassan, not to mention the twenty vassals in Hassan's train, ambushes them, and kills them all. Then he thunders off again to a Christian monastery where with the help of a generous financial donation to the Abbot he buys a cell, solitude and the chance to brood darkly over his loss, otherwise taking no part in monkish life. The only wrinkle in the telling of this tale, written in fluent and onrushing rhymed tetrameters, is that Byron chops it up and mixes it about; different sections are told by different individuals, but there's no hint as to which is which or who is whom. Some parts are narrated by a Greek (I think) fisherman, whose boat is appropriated by Hassan to take Leila out into the bay and sink her. Some parts are narrated by Hassan, and the later portions by one of the monks at the monastery, who proves no friend of the Giaour's. It's possible some portions are narrated by the Giaour himself.

None of it is narrated by Leila.

Byron is upfront about this fragmentary textual strategy. THE GIAOUR: A FRAGMENT OF A TURKISH TALE yells the title page, and then:

So the chopabout shifts of p.o.v. are by design, not by inadvertence. As for the story, there are various hints that we're being invited to read it as both an individual tale of melodrama, romance and revenge and as a fuzzy-at-the-edges allegory for the situation of Greece itself. Hassan is the Ottoman empire; Leila is beautiful Greece, slain by Ottoman tyranny; the Giaour is the West, intervening as Byron himself was later to do (indeed, as he was to die doing) too late. The opening lines of the poem point us in this direction:
No breath of air to break the wave
That rolls below the Athenian's grave,
That tomb which, gleaming o'er the cliff
First greets the homeward-veering skiff
High o'er the land he saved in vain;
When shall such Hero live again?
This Athenian hero to which this makes reference is Themistocles, whose clifftop tomb overlooks the Aegean. Themistocles, I'm sure I don't need to remind you, was the man who persuaded Athens to spend its windfall silver-mine wealth on a great navy rather than disbursing it equally amongst the citizenry. such that they were subsequently able to repulse Persian aggression, hold back the Spartans and build an Athenian navy. Once, Byron is saying, Greece was a land of heroes capable of opposing tyranny and assault, able to preserve and promote democracy and all the glories of Attic culture. But now? Now Greece is dead, although, according to a weirdly morbid-erotic extended simile inserted near the beginning of the poem, only just dead:
He who hath bent him o'er the dead
Ere the first day of Death is fled,
The first dark day of Nothingness,
The last of Danger and Distress,
(Before Decay's effacing fingers
Have swept the lines where Beauty lingers,)
And marked the mild angelic air,
The rapture of Repose that's there,
The fixed yet tender thraits that streak
The languor of the placid cheek,
And—but for that sad shrouded eye,
That fires not, wins not, weeps not, now,
And but for that chill, changeless brow,

Where cold Obstruction's apathy
Appals the gazing mourner's heart,
As if to him it could impart
The doom he dreads, yet dwells upon;
Yes, but for these and these alone,
Some moments, aye, one treacherous hour,
He still might doubt the Tyrant's power;
So fair, so calm, so softly sealed,
The first, last look by Death revealed!
Such is the aspect of his shore;
'T is Greece, but living Greece no more!
So coldly sweet, so deadly fair,
We start, for Soul is wanting there.
Hers is the loveliness in death,
That parts not quite with parting breath;
But beauty with that fearful bloom,
That hue which haunts it to the tomb,
Expression's last receding ray,
A gilded Halo hovering round decay,
The farewell beam of Feeling past away!
This is one of the most necrophiliac passages of English Romantic verse: a tone of weird leching over a female corpse, 'so coldly sweet, so deadly fair'. But then again, this is the tenor of the poem as a whole. Manifest 'story' of the poem's plot aside, this is a work that is about the way some dead things refuse to be dead, but carry on living; and more to the point, continue exerting a weirdly compelling attraction after their undeath. This is the text, several years before Polidori's The Vampyre (itself, of course, based on a Byronic idea, and cementing in itself a mode of the Byronic persona) that first brings vampires into the English literary mainstream. After he has killed Hassan, the Giaour is cursed by Hassan's people:
But thou, false Infidel! shalt writhe
Beneath avenging Monkir's scythe;
And from its torment 'scape alone
To wander round lost Eblis' throne;
And fire unquenched, unquenchable,
Around, within, thy heart shall dwell;
Nor ear can hear nor tongue can tell
The tortures of that inward hell!
But first, on earth as vampire sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race;
There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life;
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse:
Thy victims ere they yet expire
Shall know the demon for their sire,
As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
Thy flowers are withered on the stem.
But one that for thy crime must fall,
The youngest, most beloved of all,
Shall bless thee with a father's name--
That word shall wrap thy heart in flame!
Yet must thou end thy task, and mark
Her cheek's last tinge, her eye's last spark,
And the last glassy glance must view
Which freezes o'er its lifeless blue;
Then with unhallowed hand shalt tear
The tresses of her yellow hair,
Of which in life a lock when shorn
Affection's fondest pledge was worn,
But now is borne away by thee,
Memorial of thine agony!
Wet with thine own best blood shall drip
Thy gnashing tooth and haggard lip;
Then stalking to thy sullen grave,
Go - and with Gouls and Afrits rave;
Till these in horror shrink away
From spectre more accursed than they!
Whole libraries have been written about the vampire as symbolic articulation of appalling-appealing transgressive sex, of course; and here the Byronic Giaour is cursed to feed on his own beautiful wife and daughters in a way that fills him with shame from which no death can quit him. Odds are that, at the time of writing The Giaour, Byron had not yet begun his incestuous relationship with his sister Augusta Leigh (she is much more a presence in the follow-up tale, The Corsair), but that's not to say that he wasn't already thinking in terms of the closed-loop of arid intrafamilial desire that short-circuits life and death. Greece is dead, but Byron still loves her. Leila is dead, but she remains the centre of Giaour's life. Byron is dead but Byron goes on living.

As for Leila herself, she has no voice, and is given no lines to speak in this poem. Of her beauty, the poem speaks in more-or-less conventionalized manner:
Her eye's dark charm 'twere vain to tell,
But gaze on that of the gazelle,
It will assist thy fancy well;
As large, as languishingly dark,
But soul beamed forth in every spark
That darted from beneath the lid,
Bright as the jewel of Giamschild.
Still, re-reading The Giaour again to teach it, I was very struck by the passage that describes Leila's death. Hassan instructs the fisherman to row his boat out to the middle of the bay. The fisherman himself reports what happens next (the 'it' referred to here is the 'burden' Hassan is carrying, a parcel that 'claims his utmost care' and which the fisherman assumes 'holds some precious freight'):
Sullen it plunged, and slowly sank,
The calm wave rippled to the bank;
I watched it as it sank, methought
Some motion from the current caught
Bestirred it more,—'twas but the beam
That checkered o'er the living stream:
I gazed, till vanishing from view,
Like lessening pebble it withdrew;
Still less and less, a speck of white
That gemmed the tide, then mocked the sight;
And all its hidden secrets sleep,
Known but to Genii of the deep,
Which, trembling in their coral caves,
They dare not whisper to the waves.
This is an extraordinary piece of verse: the love-object sinking into the depths, diminishing and then vanishing. What's so remarkable is the way this vignette emblemmatises the emotional and erotic core of the whole: it's rather like the scene at the end of James Cameron's Titanic, where Jack (is it?) drops into the fathomless and chill depths of the Atlantic, a moment that consummates the overwrought romance between the di Caprio character and the Kate Winslett one. This, rather than the actual copulation inside that steamy automobile, is where the romance storyline finds its perfect expression. If you're tempted to say: 'that's a rather morbid thought, though, isn't it?' I wouldn't disagree with you. But just as all those sexy vampire tales, so prominently a feature of 21st-century cultural life, can trace their lineage back, through Dracula, and Heathcliffe, and Polidori's Vampyre, back to Byron himself, so does this imagistic expression perfection of erotic deathlove/lovedeath spread out from a Byronic kernel, here. Death is the true seal on love.

Look again at the passage quoted. In the original it is separated out from the rest of the poem:

(Apologies for wonkiness, here: blame Google Books scanners). Taken on its own this is a fourteen-line almost sonnet blending love-poem and elegy. Leila is 'it', not 'she'; and she disappears downwards. The loved one is quiet, calm, motionless (perceived motion turns out to be 'but the [sun]beam/That checkered o'er the living stream'). As 'it' goes 'it' changes, first to a pebble; then to 'a speck of white/That gemmed the tide'—a pearl, presumably. Finally Leila disappears into the realm of the sea's 'hidden secrets'
Known but to Genii of the deep,
Which, trembling in their coral caves,
They dare not whisper to the waves
We're bound to think this metamorphosis of a woman into an exotic, uncanny thing recalls The Tempest: as Leila changes in the rhetoric of the poem from flesh into pearls and coral, we think back to 'of his bones are coral made' and 'those are pearls that were his eyes'. My guess is that Byron is drawn, distantly, to this intertext for reasons similar to T S Eliot a century later: a disinclination, one, to separate out sexual desire and death, and, two, a flat inability to see death as either an end or as the opportunity for rebirth and new life. Instead the dead body marks a vampiric alteration into something neither alive nor dead, beautiful and inhuman and hidden:
Nought of Leila that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change.
Into something rich and strange.
Ultimately this hidden, metamorphoses creature of rich strangeness is desire itself, the structuring principle of the subconscious, the currency of the cult of Byronism. All of Byron's verse is about this: it is hidden because it is buried deep in the psyche; but if it is hidden it must be shameful, and from shame grows guilt and guilt turns out to be the transgressive, undead truth of desire in the first place.

In case we miss it, Byron follows his core unsonnet, loving-grieving Leila's drowning, with an image of a beautiful purple butterfly chased over the suspiciously artificial-sounding 'emerald meadows' of from-Greece-very-distant Kashmir; either a pointed underscoring of the great gulf separating the (male) lover and the possibility of apprehending what he desires, or else Orientalism 101, in which 'the East' is taken as a kind of catch-all single place:
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.
The butterfly is the soul, I suppose; and here it symbolizes the tantalus impossibility of erotic consummation. And the transition from caterpillar to butterfly is a longstanding emblem of change itself. But, we remember, the everything tha Except that, as we've already established, everything that changes in this poem changes into something richer and stranger than a purple papillon:

The verse-paragraph that follows this too-pretty butterfly switches-out its insect for something rather more severe:
The mind that broods o'er guilty woes,
Is like the scorpion girt by fire;
In circle narrowing as it glows,
The flames around their captive close,
Till inly searched by thousand throes,
And maddening in her ire,
One sad and sole relief she knows,
The sting she nourished for her foes,
Whose venom never yet was vain,
Gives but one pang, and cures all pain,
So do the dark in soul expire,
Or live like scorpion girt by fire;
So writhes the mind remorse hath riven,
Unfit for earth, undoomed for heaven,
Darkness above, despair beneath,
Around it flame, within it death!
This ('full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!') is a rather different Shakespearian intertext; but more to the point is replaces the mazy and evasive flight of the butterful with a circle within a circle, a vampire state neither alive nor dead 'unfit for earth, undoomed for heaven' in which fire, pain and remorse complete the short-circuit circle of desire.