Monday, May 25, 2009

Byron's "Don Juan," Canto I, st. 93

In thoughts like these true wisdom may discern
  Longings sublime and aspirations high,
Which some are born with, but the most part learn
  To plague themselves withal, they know not why;
'Twas strange that one so young should thus concern
  His brain about the action of the sky:
If you think 'twas philosophy that this did,
I can't help thinking puberty assisted.

At this point in Byron's hilarious Don Juan, the young eponymous hero has just begun to emerge from his quirky moral education. Juan and the beautiful Donna Julia are falling in love, but Juan recognizes that, because Julia is married, any potential relationship is illicit. Recognizing his danger, Juan tries to distract himself. He wanders in the "leafy nooks" and seeks "self-communion with his own high soul"—Byron's parody of the stereotypical stance of the Romantic Poet (he mentions Wordsworth and Coleridge by name). And Juan tries to distract himself with sublime thoughts about astronomy, philosophy, and "the many bars / To perfect knowledge of the boundless skies." These are examples of the "Longings sublime and aspirations high" in the second line of the stanza quoted above.

Ordinarily we think of such "aspirations high" as motivated by some purely intellectual or spiritual calling. One seeks "perfect knowledge" as an end in itself—that which is beautiful or good or true (to borrow the Platonic trinity) is its own self-justifying end, and such perfection is typically assumed to be an intellectual or spiritual pursuit far removed from and unsullied by the base appetites of an actual physical, sexually interested body. The comedy of Byron's poem depends in part on his linking of the base and physical with the intellectual and spiritual. In the process, the "lofty" or "sublime" becomes a kind of side-effect of thwarted sexual desire—"If you think 'twas philosophy that this did, / I can't help thinking puberty assisted." The supposedly transcendent is brought crashing down to earth with all the slapstick of a dreamy stargazer slipping on a banana peel.

One way to understand what makes Byron's later poetry so funny is to consider a rhetorical figure called a "zeugma." With its origins in the Greek word meaning "yoke" (as one might yoke oxen together to pull a heavy load), "zeugma" has come to mean a yoking together of dissimilar elements. A corny example:

The senator departed for the statehouse, his mind inflamed by lofty principles and cheap bourbon.

Here the "lofty principles" that one might expect from a senator are yoked together with "cheap bourbon"—both are, in fact, parallel objects of the preposition "by," both are elements that might affect (albeit in very dissimilar ways) the senator's mind. The "lofty principles" are thus brought into a distinctly worldly context and the result, if all goes well, is the reader's knowing laughter. Pretensions are exposed, hypocrisy skewered. Byron's poem often adopts a form of zeugmatic thinking in order to produce its own sort of comedy. In the passage above, for example, poor Juan is himself motivated by both "philosophy" and "puberty"—one lofty and transcendent impulse, the other very physical and worldly. (An instructive exercise, by the way, is to identify passages that seem most likely to inspire the reader's laughter, and then see whether there is some zeugmatic structure involved.)

The point is particularly significant in light of romanticism's preoccupation with the connections between the human/natural world and some supernatural realm beyond (as captured in the title of a classic of romantics criticism from the mid-2000s, M. H. Abrams's Natural Supernaturalism). Byron, in an earlier moment in his career, descibed the condition of humankind as suspended between "dust" and "deity" and thus belonging to neither realm and perpetually discontent. In Manfred, unless one reads the drama as parody, this condition led to a kind of anguished and self-destructive alienation. Here in Don Juan, the "dust" and the "deity" are also linked, but the result now is laughter.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Coleridge's "Eolian Harp" (lines 44-48)

And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversly framed,
That tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

This passage comes from Coleridge's early "Effusion XXXV" (1795) which was later revised and retitled as "The Eolian Harp." The lines present one of the clearest statements anywhere of the pantheistic thinking underlying many of Coleridge and Wordsworth's early poems.

The poem as a whole develops the Eolian harp as an extended metaphor for human/divine relations and the origins of poetic creation. Eolian harps themselves are devices that function something like stinged-instrument versions of wind chimes. They are made of wood fashioned into a shape resembling an elongated hollow box/sounding board with strings stretched lengthwise inside. On either side of the box are holes to let the breeze pass through. The harp is then clasped into a window frame ("and that simplest lute / Placed lengthwise in the clasping casement" [12-13]), and, as the wind blows, the strings vibrate and create the "floating witchery of sound" (20) that here inspires the poet's musings on this otherwise tranquil evening.

For Coleridge, the Eolian Harp becomes a metaphor for human consciousness, especially the consciousness of a perceptive poetic mind. The structure of the metaphor works something like this: The human mind is analogous to the harp itself—well made and finely strung perhaps, but inert and passive unless activated by some external force. Taken literally, this external force is, of course, the breeze that causes the strings of the harp to vibrate; metaphorically this breeze is the flow of visual, auditory, even olfactory perceptions that inspires the thoughts and musings of the perceptive human mind (hence all the descriptive "here and now" detail of the poem's opening verse paragraph.) Following through on the figure, the music produced by an Eolian harp would, metaphorically, refer to those thoughts and musings—including poems like this one—that are produced by human intellectual and creative effort.

It is this line of metaphorical thought (recurrent, as M. H. Abrams and others have shown, in canonical romantic poetry) that explains the romantic fascination with nature in general and natural beauty in particular. Nature presents a beautiful, sometimes awesome, and constantly changing array of perceptions which flow through the attentive and receptive mind of the poet. The resulting poetry—that is, the music produced from the poet's mental "harp"—is thus a joint product of Nature and Mind, the inspiring breeze and the well tuned harp.

There are a number of significant implications of this model of human consciousness and creativity. One involves the (potentially heretical) religious stance of pantheism. As the speaker of Coleridge's poem muses on his current scene and as he develops and contemplates the Eolian harp metaphor, he suddenly generates the speculative question expressed in the passage quoted above. In effect, the speaker expands on the harp metaphor, considering that, if such a structure is applicable to human beings, then why wouldn't the same structure apply to "all of animated nature"? After all, humans are not alone in being equipped with the ability to perceive the natural world around them, so wouldn't cows and fish and foxes and the rest of "animated nature" be similarly harp-like? And further, if all creatures of "animated nature" are essentially "organic Harps diversely framed," then all are animated by the same "intellectual breeze" (the word "intellectual" meaning something like "non-material" or "metaphysical" here—see the commentary on Shelley's "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty"). Human beings and "animated nature" are thus all the instruments of a single metaphysical entity which might here be equated with Nature and which is, in effect, our single collective soul and our God. Though it's important to recognize that Coleridge expresses this idea as a speculative question rather than a philosophical or theological claim, the passage nonetheless stands as a singularly decisive statement of romantic pantheism.

In thinking further about this Coleridgean theology, it would potentially be fruitful to consider the pantheism of the focus passage here in the context of the repudiation that follows immediately thereafter. Why does Coleridge's wife cast a look of "mild reproof" on these speculations, and why does the speaker of the poem acquiesce in this repudiation of "philosophy's aye-babbling spring" (57)?

Another useful comparison would be to see the pantheism of "Eolian Harp" in relation to Blake's condition of Innocence as expressed, for example, in "The Lamb." Both identify a sense of common divinity between human beings, animals, and some inspiring metaphysical force. Does that mean that Blake, too, is a pantheist?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Blake's "London" (lines 1-4)

It's been a few weeks since I've opened my Blake, but he's the first poet I turn to when the semester is over and I have time to collect my better thoughts. I've been struck this week by Blake's epigrammatic writing. It's such remarkably rich poetry that virtually any couplet would serve as the foundation for a fruitful close reading. That said, I've decided to focus this week on the opening quatrain of "London" from the Songs of Experience:

I wander thro' each charter'd street
Near where the charter'd Thames doth flow
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In pointed contrast to the speakers of the Innocence lyrics (see discussion of "The Lamb," for example), the speaker here is embittered, alienated, pessimistic. He "wanders" through an urban landscape rather than through the pastoral scenes of Innocence, and his view of this space reflects the kinds of selfish exclusion and psychological isolation that are characteristic of Experience in general and modern city life in particular. In the first two lines, the repeated adjective "charter'd" underscores this sense. The word refers literally to some preemption for private use—as one might "charter" an aircraft or a bus, taking it out of general public service and using it for some private purpose. In the present case, both urban space ("each charter'd street") and even nature itself ("the charter'd Thames") have been appropriated to some private purpose and are thus not available—at least not available in the same way—to the speaker of the poem.

One might see this as a familiar complaint about urban life—that private property is held and controlled through legal or financial means, and that this fosters a sense of envy or resentment among those, like the speaker of the present poem, who feel themselves excluded. The speaker's analysis becomes even more emphatic in the next lines. Consider the word "mark" that appears three times in the space of two lines. The first instance is a verb, "[I] mark in every face I meet...." The meaning here would be something like "see" or "notice" or "remark," as in the familiar expression "Mark my words!" In the fourth line, "marks" is a noun which means something like "signs." Following through on this reading, a paraphrase of these lines would be "In every person's face I notice signs of weakness and woe." Putting the whole quatrain together, we get the image of a disaffected and unhappy speaker who feels himself excluded from any real connection with both human and natural environments and who sees similar signs of alienation on the faces of everyone else he meets in London. It's a gloomy condition, a classic expression of Blakean Experience.

There may be some truth to this critique of modern urban life (certainly such expressions of alienation are common enough in literature and popular music), but the poem offers also a novel and distinctly Blakean reading of the possible causes of this condition. Suppose we return to that word "mark" in line three, and suppose now we read the word in a different light altogether, as synonymous with "making a mark" (as one might "mark on a paper" or "mark on a chalkboard"). This changes everything. One assumption underlying the paraphrase presented above is that the speaker of the poem functions like a camera, noting and describing what he sees as he "wanders" the streets of London. If we adopt this second way of understanding "mark" however, the speaker-as-camera idea becomes speaker-as-projector. That is, instead of simply recording signs of weakness and woe that we assume are already and unequivocally evident on other people's faces, the speaker actually projects those signs onto the faces of everyone he meets. This is by no means as far-fetched an understanding as it might first appear—after all, reading the expression on someone else's face is a matter of interpretation not simply a recording of fact, and interpretation is inevitably shaped by the state of mind and the purposes of the interpreter. The alienated speaker, in this view, actually creates his own alienating environment, or, more accurately, the environment he describes is as much a projection of his own alienated condition as it is some pre-existent "reality" that he comes upon in his wandering.

Blake says elsewhere (in "The Mental Traveller") that "The eye altering, alters all." The line could be a gloss on this passage from "London"—the environment the speaker perceives is not some stony "reality" that is external to himself; rather, that environment is itself a function of his mode of perception, of his condition of Experience. And this is perhaps the crucial point of Blake's Songs. The poems illustrate, as the subtitle says, the "contrary states of the human soul." Hence, in reading the Songs, our task is not so much to believe the speaker at face value as it is to see the speaker as exemplifying a particular psycho-spiritual condition of Innocence or Experience. That speaker might, as in "The Lamb" for example, feel himself to be at one with both Creation and the Creator, or he might, as in "London," feel himself isolated, bitter, and alienated. The point is not so much to arrive at some true representation of an external reality; rather it is to exemplify how reality itself is a product of the mental condition of the perceiver. In my view, this reading helps explain one of Blake's most famous phrases, the "mind forg'd manacles" that appear in the next stanza of "London"—but I'll leave it to my readers to explain this intriguing phrase.

As always with Blake, the verbal interpretation is only part of the story. To see several different versions of the illustrated page, consult the Blake Archive.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Keats's "Lamia"; Part II, lines 231-38

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture — she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine,
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-personed Lamia melt into a shade.

This passage in particular—and Keats's Lamia more generally—expresses a troubling philosophical and aesthetic problem involving a kind of side-effect of rational, scientific understanding.

As the narrative goes, the gullible adolescent Lycius is seduced by Lamia, a serpentine immortal who, to accomplish her purpose, adopts the outward form of a beautiful young woman. Lamia does not apparently have evil designs in mind. Her deception of Lycius seems intended solely to make it possible for the two to live in the easeful joy of one another's company. And it is undeniable that Lycius is delighted in his "prize."

But it is also undeniable that Lamia has deceived Lycius. She is pretending to be something she is not, and for that reason the love between the two is founded on utterly false pretenses. Lycius's tutor Apollonius, of course, instantly sees through Lamia's beautiful deception, and, staring through her, causes her to vanish "with a frightful scream" (ii,306). Lycius himself then collapses and dies, apparently suffering mightily for the loss of his beloved.

The narrative as a whole, then, poses a difficult dilemma. Is it better to live happily and in love even if that life is founded on a lie? Or is it better to acknowledge the "truth," even if that truth destroys one's happiness?

The specific passage quoted above expands on this dilemma, presenting it not in the ethical context of characters in a narrative but rather as a question of scientific understanding. The central idea is something like this: Try to imagine what a rainbow must have looked like—what it "meant"—in a world before we understood the physics and optics that we now know causes this beautiful natural phenomenon. In such a pre-scientific world, it is easy to see how a rainbow might be understood as a divine gift perhaps, or the "awful" sign of some other divine intention, or at the very least some inexplicable marvel that is all the more beautiful for its mystery. There are numerous other similarly inexplicable phenomena (comets and earthquakes come to mind), and a person in such a world might well imagine these phenomena to be the workings of spirits in the air or gnomes working in mines underground. Some such logic may well be the inspiration of whole pantheons of spirits—the gods that people Olympus, for example.

But now imagine the same rainbow, seen with a full understanding of the optical principles that produce it. Now, instead of some semi-sacred mystery, the rainbow is simply another item in the "dull catalogue of common things." "Philosophy"—by which Keats here refers to what we would call Science—has solved the mystery, seen through the appearance to its cause, but in so doing it also "clip[s] an angel's wings" and dispels as irrational any notion of spirits hovering in the air or gnomes working their subterranean mines. All mysteries have been conquered by "rule and line," and the rainbow has been unwoven.

The question, of course, is whether seeing this scientific truth is ultimately beneficial. Is it better to live in a world of mystery and romance and immediate human connection to the phenomena of the world? Or is it better to approach such phenomena with the instruments of science and replace mystery with knowledge, even if that knowledge causes us to see the world as a spiritless, empty, and mechanistic Other?

These are challenging questions, and they were very much at the forefront of romantic-era thinking. Consider, for example, Wordsworth's "The World is Too Much With Us...." sonnet where the speaker longs for a less "forlorn" and empty relationship with the natural world. Or consider Thomas Love Peacock's essay called "The Four Ages of Poetry" (which argued that imaginative writing had served its cultural purpose and that now we should turn to science and technology) and Shelley's "Defence of Poetry" (which rebuts Peacock's claim with a sustained argument about the supreme value of poetry).