Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Keats's Eve of St. Agnes, Stanzas 34-36


Her eyes were open, but she still beheld,
Now wide awake, the vision of her sleep:
There was a painful change, that nigh expell’d
The blisses of her dream so pure and deep
At which fair Madeline began to weep,
And moan forth witless words with many a sigh;
While still her gaze on Porphyro would keep;
Who knelt, with joined hands and piteous eye,
Fearing to move or speak, she look’d so dreamingly.


“Ah, Porphyro!” said she, “but even now
“Thy voice was at sweet tremble in mine ear,
“Made tuneable with every sweetest vow;
“And those sad eyes were spiritual and clear:
“How chang’d thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear!
“Give me that voice again, my Porphyro,
“Those looks immortal, those complainings dear!
“Oh leave me not in this eternal woe,
“For if thou diest, my Love, I know not where to go.”


Beyond a mortal man impassion’d far
At these voluptuous accents, he arose,
Ethereal, flush’d, and like a throbbing star
Seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose;
Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet,—
Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
Like Love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St. Agnes’ moon hath set.

Dreams have always held a complex relationship with imaginative literature, and this relationship is nowhere more prominent than in Keats's poetry. "Ode to a Nightingale," for example, traces the speaker's state of mind as he slips out of a painful reality into a dream-like trance, and then at poem's end he (perhaps) snaps back into reality—leaving us with the indeterminate question: "Do I wake or sleep?" This reality —> dream/enchantment —> reality occurs in many other poems as well, always with the implicit questions of values: "Which is 'better,' the dream or the real world? Is a life of illusory happiness better than a life of unhappy reality? Are the conditions of one's 'real' life altered by dreams? Do dreams offer some kind of insight into the real?" And so on...the list of questions could be much longer. If one considers the close analogy between dreams and works of imaginative art like novels, movies, paintings, and poems, then Keats's—or any writer's—preoccupation with dreams becomes all the more significant.

In The Eve of St. Agnes, these questions about the effects of dreams are given a distinctly narrative, even erotic treatment. At the beginning of the poem, the protagonist Madeline takes part in a ritual, the whole purpose of which is to induce a particular kind of dream. Despite the narrator's (and Angela's) skepticism, the ritual works. In the passage quoted above, Madeline is just being awakened from a dream of her future husband when she sees, very much to her surprise, the actual Porphyro. In other words, in waking up from her trance, Madeline's consciousness moves from dream to reality—from an absorption in her ritual-induced dream Porphyro to a fuzzy focus on the real flesh-and-blood Porphyro kneeling next to her bed. (I am reading the lines describing how she "still beheld ... the vision of her sleep" as indicating that Madeline was dreaming of Porphyro and then she wakes up to see the real Porphyro.) The shift is not a happy one. Her blissful dream was "pure and deep," but now she undergoes a "painful change" and "moan[s] forth witless words" when she confronts the physical reality of the actual Porphyro. As Madeline explains in stanza 35, the dream Porphyro's voice was a "sweet tremble" in her ear, and his "sad eyes were spiritual and clear"; the real Porphyro is, by sad contrast, "pallid, chill, and drear."

For his part, Porphyro initially gazes at Madeline with a devoted reverence, but soon his passion gets the better of him and he rises "like a throbbing star" and melts into her dream, "as the rose / Blendeth its odour with the violet." Or, to put this a little less obliquely, the two make love—and not just in their dreams. The act raises a number of moral and ethical issues, revolving chiefly around the question of Madeline's state of mind and consequently her consent. Is she fully awake? While stanza 34 says that she is "Now wide awake," some lines in the subsequent stanza—"No Dream! Alas!"—might suggest that she is still in a liminal, semi-dreamlike state. Whether awake or not, can she plausibly resist this man who, thanks to a "stratagem" and a helpful servant, has stolen his way into her bedroom? Or does Madeline's dream work better than even she might have imagined since she wakes up to find her actual lover already present and vowing never to forsake her?

My students tend to be harshly judgmental about Porphyro's actions here. In their view, Porphyro has his way with Madeline while she is incapable of offering any fully cognizant response, either consent or resistance. From a strictly legalistic perspective they may be right—and certainly Porphyro's excited "peeping" at the unsuspecting Madeline while she undresses for bed hardly seems like the behavior of a genuine Romantic hero (stanzas 26-28). Still, if we consider Madeline's narrative, her purpose at the beginning is quite intentionally to induce a dream, and her efforts are successful. Whatever view one might take of Porphyro, Madeline's desires—her initial intentions in the narrative—are satisfied. So couldn't we also view the conclusion of the poem as a triumph for her as well as for Porphyro?

No final answer seems quite right. The ethical complications keep us suspended, and this may well be one of the more striking effects of Keats's most romantic poem. As readers enchanted with Keats's narrative—the richness of the imagery, the stately measure of the Spenserian stanzas, the danger and intrigue of the hero's quest, etc.—we too are in a kind of liminal space not unlike that of Madeline. To paraphrase the Nightingale speaker, "Do we wake or sleep?"

In a famous passage from an 1817 letter to his brothers, Keats describes a condition that he calls "negative capability": "that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.... This purused through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration" (Keats's Poetry and Prose, ed. Jeff Cox, Norton, 2009, p. 109). And perhaps this is the genius of The Eve of St. Agnes. As readers we are supposedly enchanted by the "Beauty that overcomes every other consideration." Whether such enchantment is the final and self-justifying purpose of poetry as Keats's letter would suggest, or whether it is simply a mystification that blinds us to some very real and potentially threatening ethical lapses...such is the issue posed by the poem. The answer, of course, has everything to do with the value of Art itself—which argument far exceeds the bounds of a simple blog posting!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hone and Cruikshank on Censorship, The Man in the Moon

'The body of the people, I do think,
     are loyal still,'
But pray, My L—ds and G—tl—n,
      don't shrink
From exercising all your care
      and skill,
Here, and at home,
      Whose very looks—
Vile 'two-p'nny trash,'
      bespeak abomination.
Oh! they are full of blasphemies
      and libels,
And people read them
     oftener than their bibles.

George Cruikshank's engraving illustrates a passage from William Hone's The Man in the Moon, a political pamphlet published in very late 1819 or very early 1820 just weeks before the death of King George III. It was a tense and divisive moment in English history. In August of 1819, a large political demonstration in Manchester had been brutally suppressed by the yeoman cavalry with serious loss of life. The event, which came to be known as the "Manchester Massacre" or "Peterloo," served as a watershed moment in English political history. Like the Kent State shootings during the Vietnam era in the United States, here was an instance of lethal military force employed against fellow citizens engaged in peaceful protest. The result, predictably enough, was a highly polarized political environment in which radicals and reformers called for a restructuring of the whole political system while conservatives sought to maintain the traditional structure and organization. In effect, this was a later and more intense version of the debate that had developed in the wake of the French Revolution and that I've commented on in other postings here on Romanticism@UAB. (See, for example, the notes on Smith, Burke, and even Austen; also, a full-text annotated copy of The Man in the Moon is available on the William Hone BioText.)
One of the government's responses to the post-Peterloo tensions was a heightened surveillance of and attempts to control or even silence the press. The reasoning is simple enough to see: from the conservative perspective, masses of disaffected people were being organized and politicized for the purpose of insurrection and possibly even French-style revolution. This was possible because of the demagoguery of popular radical speakers (such as Henry Hunt, the headline speaker at the Manchester meeting) and because of the "circulation of little books," to borrow a phrase from the passage above. The reference is probably a general observation about the prevalence of cheap, politically inflammatory publications (e.g. the "Vile 'two-p'nny trash'"), but it might also be a more specific reference to Hone's extremely popular Political House that Jack Built (1819), another Cruikshank-illustrated squib that for a few months in late 1819 expressed, clarified, and gave voice to the radical interpretation of Peterloo.
The Man in the Moon was written in response to the Tory administration's effort to control such discourse through Parliamentary action. Political tensions had reached such a pitch in the autumn of 1819 that the Prince Regent called a special session of Parliament for the expressed purpose of debating and then passing the so-called "Six Acts"--a package of draconian legislation that was intended to stifle popular political discussion and reformist/radical publications. Hone's pamphlet--from which the focal passage has been taken--consists mainly of a parody of the Regent's opening speech to this Parliamentary session. This specific passage is Hone's parodic rewriting of the closing lines of the real Prince Regent's speech:
Upon the loyalty of the great body of the people I have the most confident reliance; but it will require your utmost vigilance and exertion, collectively and individually, to check the dissemination of the doctrines of treason and impiety, and to impress upon the minds of all classes of his Majesty's subjects, that it is from the cultivation of the principles of religion, and from a just subordination to lawful authority, that we can alone expect the continuance of that divine favour and protection which have hitherto been so signally experienced by this kingdom.
Using a rhetorical strategy often employed by Hone, the parody serves to deflate and make absurd the assumed authority of the Regent and his pompous language, skewering the future king and his ministers alike with ridicule and laughter. Having snickered at Hone's comical verse and Cruikshank's decidedly unflattering caricatures of the Regent and his ministers, it would be difficult for a contemporary audience to attend to the monarch with the sort of unalloyed reverence that his official rhetoric seems to command.
Such is the discursive strategy of Hone's parodic rhetoric. But, as Cruikshank's engraving makes amply clear, the point is anything but laughable. The image shows three prominent members of the Tory administration--Castlereagh (holding the axe and noose), Canning (with the dagger), and Sidmouth (with the chain)--all working at the violent subjugation of the female figure of Liberty who is holding a staff topped with a liberty cap, the symbol of the reform movement during the Regency period. It's an image that, to my eye at any rate, looks like something between torture and rape--maybe both. The Liberty figure responds with her right hand raised as if simultaneously to fend off Castlereagh's advance and to defend herself and the printing press from his raised axe. The image as a whole, then, depicts in baldly graphic terms the naked use of force to suppress both Liberty and the free press.
Of course, there is nothing particularly surprising in the political dynamics exhibited in such a passage. Powerful regimes--especially authoritarian regimes--almost invariably have a vexed relationship with the press, and most make some effort to curtail the liberty of public speech. But, one might ask, what does this commonly exhibited tension in political speech have to do with literature? In other words, what does censorship have to do with Romanticism? One might argue, in Northrop Frye's words, that censorship "has the same relation to criticism that lynching has to justice" (Anatomy of Criticism, "Polemical Introduction"). But I would argue that the mode of direct political censorship illustrated in The Man in the Moon is only a surface manifestation of an underlying ideological structure that is pervasive in the lives and works of "literary" romantics. Indeed, even setting aside such prominent events as the treason trials of the 1790s or the trials of Leigh and John Hunt, William Hone, (and many other radical writers and publishers) in the 1810s, a glance at the canonical romantics reveals a pattern of suppression or near-suppression. Wordsworth and Coleridge, in their earlier years, were spied on by agents of the government; Blake was tried for sedition; many of Byron's works were suppressed or heavily censored at publication, and not always for their libertarian sexual mores; Shelley was expelled from Oxford for publishing The Necessity of Atheism, and his most politically popular, influential, and potentially inflammatory poem, Queen Mab, was suppressed (as was his Masque of Anarchy). The list could be much longer, and these are only the works about which we have some record. The number of works which were written but then deemed "too dangerous" to publish can never really be known.
I dwell on the issue because Romanticism is in many ways a discourse of revolutionary dissent, a discourse of challenge to political, religious, social, and aesthetic orthodoxies. Modern readers tend to look back at this body of writing, viewing it as if all political statements were uttered in a context of the free and open exchange of ideas, as though the ideological struggles between, say, Burke and Paine in particular or the conservatives and the radicals more generally were purely discursive affairs in which all views could be uttered and the outcome of the dispute depended solely on the persuasive strength of the arguments forwarded on both sides. But such an ideal and free arena for the exchange of ideas did not exist. The fact and the threat of censorship--with the attendent risk of fines, imprisonment, and even deportation or capital punishment--served always to shape both the form and the content of public speech. Hone's comic parodic rhetoric is but one of many highly inventive responses to this very unequal arena of public writing.