Thursday, April 23, 2009

Wordsworth's "We Are Seven," (lines 65-69)

"We Are Seven" is one of the most evocative, yet disarmingly simple of Wordsworth's contributions to the famous Lyrical Ballads of 1798. The poem describes an encounter between the first-person speaker and an eight-year-old "cottage girl." This encounter represents the contrast between a relatively experienced, urbane, and rather patronizing speaker and the simple, innocent, rural life represented by the girl, and one might expect the weight of the "argument" to favor the more sophisticated speaker. As the final stanza (below) illustrates, however, the speaker is unable to persuade the girl that his view is "correct." Thus, the contrast between these characters is not resolved within the poem—they never agree with one another—but the poem as a whole is suffused with a gentle, sometimes comical irony that undercuts the speaker's supposed "superiority."

Initially, the speaker meets the girl, asks how many brothers and sisters she has, and finds out that, of the seven original siblings, four have moved to distant locations and two have died. By the speaker's reckoning, the dead siblings no longer "count," so the girl should have said that there are now a total of five siblings. The girl, however, insists on "counting" the dead siblings. After all, they are perhaps even more present to her than her absent living siblings—she still goes to their graves to knit her stockings or eat her porridge. The speaker, of course, tries repeatedly to get the girl to see the "error" in her thinking, but, to the speaker's growing exasperation, she sticks to her claim. Finally, in the last stanza the speaker exclaims

"But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!"
'Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, "Nay, we are seven!"

It's an amusing conclusion to the poem, and perhaps more subtle than it might first appear. The speaker, of course, expresses a kind of half-genuine, half-mock exasperation at the girl's stubborn refusal to acknowledge his accounting. This is followed by the common expression, "'Twas throwing words away"—the line seems to me to have a familiar tone, as one might adopt in telling the story to a confidant who (you were certain) agreed with your way of thinking. Ironically, however, it is the speaker who has been "throwing words away"—it is the speaker's arguments that have failed to convince the girl, and she is the one with the poem's final words.

Potentially even more significant here are the religious overtones to the "argument." From the speaker's point of view, death is a matter of transcendence and complete separation. The spirits of the departed are...well...departed—they no longer "count" in the world of nature. Or, to put this another way, the speaker sees human identity in metaphysical terms. Once the "spirit" is in "heaven," the body no longer counts for anything. From the girl's perspective, however, this absolute identification with the spirit and consequent dismissal of the body is simply wrong. While she fully acknowledges that, at some level, her sister Jane "went away" and that her brother John "was forced to go," she also recognizes that they still—in the actual practice of her daily life—are very much physically present. She insists, in effect, that one cannot make such a clean distinction between the spirit and the flesh, between body and soul, as the speaker assumes. The tangible, physical world of porridge and knitting and singing and Nature itself offers a comforting and companionable presence even when the spirit has departed.

The poem is a short easy read, and easily accessible on the web. One tidy reading copy is on; or, check the edition from the University of Oregon. For a full-blown and beautifully edited electronic edition, complete with the many different versions of Lyrical Ballads and "We Are Seven," see the Electronic Scholarly Edition at Romantic Circles.

Read well.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

"The Cenci" - II.ii.27-40

Though your peculiar case is hard, I know
The Pope will not divert the course of law.
After that impious feast the other night
I spoke with him, and urged him then to check
Your father's cruel hand; he frowned and said,
'Children are disobedient, and they sting
Their fathers' hearts to madness and despair,
Requiting years of care with contumely.
I pity the Count Cenci from my heart;
His outraged love perhaps awakened hate,
And thus he is exasperated to ill.
In the great war between the old and young,
I, who have white hairs and a tottering body,
Will keep at least blameless neutrality.'

At this point in Shelley's tragedy we have already seen the horrific and sadistic cruelty of Cenci—his ghastly dinner party in honor of his sons' deaths, for instance, which is the "impious feast" in Camillo's speech above—and we have seen (in the play's opening lines) that Cenci's viciousness is tacitly condoned by the Church since it allows the Church to claim Cenci's property as a sort of "hush money" for his crimes. In the present speech, Camillo is explaining to Giacomo, one of Cenci's ill-treated sons, the Pope's view of his predicament. In Shelley's hands, this is a stark indictment of the corruption at the heart of the Church and the State.

The facts of the case are already quite clear, even to Camillo. Cenci, by his own admission, delights in torturing others. He loves the "sight of agony" (I.i.82) and, much as he enjoys killing his foes and hearing the groans and seeing the anguish of others, he most enjoys keeping his victims alive so that he can "feed [them] with the breath of fear / For hourly pain" (I.i.116-17). Such cruelties are certainly not reserved for others—it is common knowledge, thanks to Beatrice's speech at the "impious feast," that Cenci similarly tortures the members of his own family, from his wife Lucretia, to his daughter Beatrice and his (remaining) sons Giacomo and Bernardo. None of this is in any doubt: Cenci, by his own proud boast, is a cruel, tyrannical, vicious man.

Of course one would expect the Church to condemn such behavior, and, in a society where ecclesiastical and civil law are indistinguishable, to try to stop Cenci's wanton cruelty. Such at least is Giacomo's hope in appealling, through Camillo, to the Pope. But instead of sympathy, Camillo reports only the Pope's sympathy for Cenci. The Pope "will not divert the course of law"—even when that "law" sanctions such appalling cruelty. And, adding insult to injury, the Pope reads the situation according to a cultural stereotype that has over-reaching, greedy children who repay their father's "years of care" with scorn and insults ("contumely"). In short, the Pope reads the problems of the Cenci household as an instance of the "great war between the old and young" wherein the young are at least as much at fault as the old. The Pope claims a "blameless neutrality," but we know that the Pope in particular and the Church in general profit greatly from Cenci's acts.

There could scarcely be a clearer instance of Shelley's characteristic critique of the hypocrisy he saw in the collusion of Church and State. The play as a whole is ideologically lopsided—Cenci and the ecclesiastical politics that tolerate him are clearly evil; Cenci's wife and children are (at least until Cenci's murder) clearly virtuous. And yet all the instruments of church and state are brought in to support Cenci. Why? Part of the answer lies in simple materialistic hypocrisy. As noted above, it is profitable for the church to let Cenci commit his crimes and then to extort his property as punishment. But the answer also lies in the patriarchal social order. In the Pope's view, the domestic politics of the Cenci household offer an image of his own power as "father" of church. Camillo says as much a few lines later when he reports that the Pope "holds it of most dangerous example / In aught to weaken the paternal power, / Being, as 't were, the shadow of his own" (II.ii.54-56). In other words, the Pope sees an analogy between the organization of the individual household and family and the organization of the church and state.

The conception is illuminating, particularly with respect to "private sphere"/"public sphere" distinctions from the 18th century or the gendered "separate sphere ideology" that emerged strongly in the 19th. It also adds a new dimension to the political strife that rocked Britain in the years following the French Revolution. In Shelley's view, this was not just an abstract political question; instead, it also plays itself out in the domestic politics at the level of the individual family.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Burke's Reflections -- "The age of chivalry is gone."

I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her [Marie Antoinette, the French Queen] with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more shall we behold the generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.

The months and years following the French Revolution in 1789 saw an intense political debate in England. Much of the controversy fell along predictably self-interested party lines—those who supported the traditional hierarchies of the English aristocracy claimed their traditional "right" to power and authority; those from the disenfranchised "lower orders" pointed to the structural inequities in the traditional hierarchy that undermined their "right" to better their own lot (let alone influence the government of their own country). Within the din of self-interested political rhetoric, however, several voices stand out as examples of thoughtful cultural and political analysis. Among these are Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Thomas Paine, and later Wordsworth, Shelley, and a whole host of romantic-era writers and thinkers. In a way, though, it is possible to see much of the political analysis as a reaction to the claims of Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

Perhaps the most famous line in the Reflections is Burke's claim that the French Revolution is evidence of an irreversible sea-change in modern cultural history: "The age of chivalry is gone." What exactly is this "age of chivalry"? Well, for Burke the phrase stands as a sort of short-hand for a social order founded on mutual respect and obedience to one's duty as defined by gender and social rank. The example he elaborates here is one of the noble courtier who, setting his own safety at naught, would stake all in the courageous defense of his queen. For Burke, this is not a self-interested figure who defends the queen (and, by extension, the state) because he expects some personal reward or because he is a salaried member of the court or the military. Instead, "chivalry" refers to a figure whose very identity is defined by this sense of fulfilling a proper place in the social order. That sense of "dignified obedience," to borrow Burke's words, leads rather paradoxically to "the spirit of an exalted freedom" which emerges "even in servitude itself." The crucial point here is that the courtier who exhibits some act of genuine chivalry is not motivated by some individual profit motive (whatever the rewards might be), but rather by a "generous loyalty" that finds meaning and satisfaction in fulfilling his role in the larger social order.

Burke is remarkable for his insight into the roots of the revolution in Europe. Most writers saw the conflict as one between older aristocratic norms and the "levellers" or republicans who sought (sometimes using violence) to expand the franchise of those persons who were, on the present system, excluded from any genuine political significance. But Burke identifies these renegades not as "levellers" or "republicans" or even as the discontented and disenfranchised "lower orders"; instead, he calls them "sophisters, economists, and calculators"—in other words people who consider their actions in the world in fundamentally selfish economic terms. Such a person, in Burke's view, would not jump to the queen's (or the state's) defense simply out of "generous loyalty"—no, these "economists" and "calculators" would spring to the queen's defense only if there was reason to believe such a daring act would be personally profitable.

In this assessment, Burke was prescient. In the American revolution, the French revolution, and eventually the British unrest that led eventually to the Reform Bill in 1832, what was really at stake was not so much a battle between the "haves" and the "have nots." Instead, it was a realignment of individuals' psychological and cultural relationship to the monarch in particular and the state in general. In Burke's view an older chivalric code of selfless devotion to the monarchy was giving way to a modern economic consciousness in which actions are motivated by self interest. The very fact that my students today tend to see paradox (or even self-contradiction) in Burke's claim that "freedom" is to be found in "dignified obedience" demonstrates just how thoroughly the ideology of the "economists and calculators" has won the ideological conflict. Burke is right—"The age of chivalry is gone." Whether that death ought to be mourned or celebrated is still an open question.

For useful comparison texts, readers may want to look at the excerpts from Charlotte Smith's Emigrants (which notices the causes of civil unrest in the 1790s) and from Wordsworth's Michael (wherein the title character represents an irretrievably lost agrarian life that is in some ways analogous to Burke's chivalry).

Friday, April 3, 2009

"Ode to a Nightingale" (lines 21-30)

I'll admit that I've never been a big fan of Keats, but some lines strike me as eerily unforgettable. Among these, the third stanza of "Ode to a Nightingale" has to rank near the top. In the first two stanzas, the speaker of the poem describes his world-weary heartache and then contemplates drinking too much wine so that he "might...leave the world unseen" and, with the nightingale, "fade away into the forest dim" (19-20). The third stanza explains just what it is that the speaker seeks to escape—he wishes to...

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
  What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
  Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
  Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
    Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
      And leaden-eyed despairs;
  Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
    Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

I don't know of a more poignant expression of human sorrow anywhere in English literature. The speaker wants to escape from "The weariness, the fever, and the fret" of humankind, "where men sit and hear each other groan." It's a bleak picture, and one might wonder just what in the human experience could evoke such despair. Well, initially it appears to be a familiar comment on mortality and the sheer indignity of age, "Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs." But such infirmities are not limited to the aged, for youth too "grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies." This line often gets an editorial footnote drawing the reader's attention to the fact that Keats had recently lost his brother to "consumption" (tuberculosis), and no doubt this fresh tragedy was weighing heavily on Keats in early 1819. But to read the line in this way also, in my view, limits the significance—while Keats may have his brother's death in mind, that death is the example of a larger point about mortality and the fragility of even youthful life and vigor. Death, pain, and frailty are not restricted only to the aged and the palsy-stricken. Youth, beauty's "lustrous eyes," and even Love itself are short-lived experiences. Though we may wish to merge into some realm of transcendant and immortal beauty as that represented here by the nightingale's song, we are only too soon pulled back into a gnawing sense of pain, sorrow, and loss. It's little wonder that "to think is to be full of sorrow / And leaden-eyed despairs."