Friday, October 30, 2009

P. B. Shelley's Alastor, (lines 192-205)

Roused by the shock he started from his trance—
The cold white light of morning, the blue moon
Low in the west, the clear and garish hills,
The distinct valley and the vacant woods,
Spread round him where he stood. Whither have fled
The hues of heaven that canopied his bower
Of yesternight? The sounds that soothed his sleep,
The mystery and the majesty of Earth,
The joy, the exultation? His wan eyes
Gaze on the empty scene as vacantly
As ocean's moon looks on the moon in heaven.
The spirit of sweet human love has sent
A vision to the sleep of him who spurned
Her choicest gifts.

This passage describes a psycho-spiritual condition that frequently recurs in Shelley's poetry and, indeed, that captures a familiar theme of romantic literature as a whole.

At this point in the poem, the Alastor Poet has been wandering through sites of ancient ruins while an "Arab maiden"—despite the Poet's neglect of her affections and even of her very presence—tends to his physical needs. Shortly thereafter, the Poet has an erotic, visionary dream in which he sees a "veiled maid" who seems to be his very soul-mate. In his dream, the maid—apparently a poet herself—sings about "Knowledge," "truth," "virtue," "lofty hopes," and "divine liberty," themes that mirror the most ardent thoughts and dreams of the Poet himself. Both the Poet and the dream maiden are enraptured, and eventually she gives in to the "irresistible joy" and "With frantic gesture and short breathless cry / Fold[s] his frame in her dissolving arms" (184-86). In a distinctly Shelleyan figure, visionary fulfillment is figured in baldly sexual terms. Such ecstasy does not last, and once the vision fades, the Poet is left with his solitary "vacant brain." The quotation above follows immediately on the heels of this visionary consummation. The Poet awakens with a start back in a cold physical reality which now seems inadequate—with "garish hills" and "vacant woods"—and he is left with nothing but questions: "Whither have fled / The hues of heaven that canopied his bower / Of yesternight?" Now he can only "Gaze on the empty scene."

This sense of extraordinary fulfillment followed by longing and emptiness suggests that Shelley has been reading his Wordsworth and his Coleridge. Wordsworth's Intimations Ode presents a similar pattern as his speaker is struck with a sense of loss and then wonders "Whither has fled the visionary gleam" (Ode, line 56), and Coleridge, in his "Dejection: An Ode" (written in direct response to the initial stanzas of Wordsworth's Ode), writes about a remarkably beautiful sunset: "And still I gaze--and with how blank an eye!" (Dejection, line 30). Alastor would seem to be Shelley's contribution to this poetic conversation, and the differences in how each poet copes with his particular post-vision depression are instructive. Wordsworth, famously, posits a notion of pre-existence which, if it doesn't necessarily rekindle the same sort of joy he once knew, at least provides an assurance that soul itself is immortal and thus destined for a realm beyond the mutability of Nature. Coleridge is not so optimistic. His own "Joy" has been extinguished by "abstruse research" (89) among other things, and it will not return for him, though his poem concludes with a prayer that Joy and solace might visit his beloved friend.

Shelley takes a somewhat different approach. Certainly his Poet-protagonist feels acutely the pain of a lost visionary fulfillment, but his response to that loss is to ignore the actual world (as he was oblivious to the Arab maiden who loved him and tended to his needs), and to orient his quest toward another encounter with his dream-ideal. Unlike Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley—at least in my reading—does not come to a decisive answer about the fleetingness of his encounter with this visionary moment of fulfillment. Instead, Shelley sees this interesting psychological/spiritual condition in the context of social ethics, and readers are left with a question: Are we supposed to admire the Alastor Poet's dedicated the pursuit of his ideal? Or are we supposed to question the value of such an other-worldly pursuit if it causes a real, mortal, natural world to seem inadequate by comparison?