Tag Archives: romantics literature

John Keats’ “Lamia”, and the Power of Human Imagination

It’s been awhile since I’ve read my collected writings of John Keats.  I admit many of his earlier poems are mediocre, but this only adds to the joy of seeing the development of his prose through the short time that he wrote.  By far Keats’s masterpiece is his poem “Lamia”, where he demonstrates his growth as a poet by taking his time to let the characters breath and roam free through well-paced narrative.

The title character, Lamia, appears to be beyond any consistent description:  “She was a Gordian shape of dazzling hue, Vermilion-shaped, golden, green, and blue; Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard, Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d”(Keats, John. “Lamia,” lines 47-50).  Her appearance, both as serpent and woman, is filled with allegorical affirmations of her beauty, but it is a surreal beauty that lacks any real substance.  Akin to a pleasant dream, where the dreamer is engulfed by the euphoria overtaking his sleep, but cannot grasp the images around him because no matter how vivid and enticing they are, they are still simply imaginary.  This is the reality in which Lamia exists, completely dependent on a dreamer’s slumber to give her substance, which in essence is not much of a reality at all.  Even after being turned human by the god Hermes, Lamia’s entire existence rests on having others, namely her lover Lycius, unquestionably recognize her as the human being she is pretending to be.  And she knows that once the spell is broken, so is any claim she has to the material world:

His spirit pass’d beyond its golden bourn

Into a noisy world almost forlorn.

The lady, ever watchful, penetrant,

Saw this with pain, so arguing a want

Of something more, more than her empery

Of joys; and she began to moan and sigh

Because he mused beyond her, knowing well

That but a moment’s thought is passion’s passing bell (lines 32-39).

Lamia exists as a thought, a passion, made real by the mind of the person that holds her image as true, but just as any thought, it can only be sustained for as long as a person is willing to, before it vanishes or is replaced.  Lamia’s existence appears to be just as capricious.

Keats’s Lamia is a creature whose entire interaction with the material world is determined by a person’s faithful acceptance of her human form.  Which is why all it takes to destroy Lamia is for the skeptical Apollonius to refuse to be mystified by her trance, “More, more he gaz’d: his human senses reel: Some hungry spell that loveliness absorbs; There was no recognition in those orbs” (lines 258-260).  And due to Apollonius’ wakeful eyes, Lamia’s fate is sealed, “Than with a frightful scream she vanished” (line 306).  Therefore, through this final exchange, Keats’s supernatural being turns out to be a nonbeing.  The fact that Lamia was endowed with the finest beauty and imagery might serve, in Keats’s view, to enhance man’s spiritual soul, but it does not change the fact that no matter how enticing or soul-fulfilling, Lamia is not material—hence not real.

Much of Keats’ personal convictions can be found in the text.  Where the mysteries and anomalies of life are accepted and revered–as Lamia’s character is revered throughout the poem–but the underlying cause of this experience is not externalized to an outside source, existing beyond the imagination of the individual person that has dreamed up the image.  Rather it is a reflection of man’s deep struggle with the mysteries of life, and his attempt to cope with his inability to sufficiently account for them.  Though despite all of this uncertainty, the unimaginable still has to be understood as being imaginary.
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The Darker Side of William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth’s 1798 poem, “The Complaint of a forsaken Indian Woman”, takes the reader into the emotional turmoil of loss, regret, and death, as they shape the human experience and understanding of the world that surrounds us.  The prose begins with the startling lines, “Before I see another day, Oh let my body die away!”  A clear plea for death, enunciated through a tone of exhaustion.  The prospect of continued existence has become an unbearable burden to the speaker, forcing the exclamation of “Oh” as a preemptive sigh of gratitude for the sweet relief of death that the speaker hopes will come soon as a deliverance.  In common Wordsworthian fashion, the narrative is not complete unless it offers a reverence to the natural surroundings of the poem’s setting:

In sleep I heard the northern gleams;

The stars, they were among my dreams;

In rustling conflict through the skies,

I heard, I saw the flashes drive,

Judging by the description above, the speaker is in the icy regions of the northern latitude, where the famous Northern lights have been documented as making a seemingly “rustling” and crackling noise through the air.  The diction implies that the speaker has been stranded to look at this scenery for some time, and though overwhelmed by the majesty of it, the beauty of the imagery only works to remind the speaker of the blissful state that death would bring, “And yet they are upon my eyes, And yet I am alive.”  The beauty of the northern sky serves as a contrast to the narrators destitute state, which stands in for Wordsworth’s greater message that while we who dwell under Nature’s grace will inevitably fade away, the grace of Nature itself will always be eternally observable in the night sky, no better the fickle state of the observer.

The poem transitions from the sky, back to the individual, as the narrator draws links between natural processes and the human experience:

My fire is dead:  it knew no pain;

Yet it is dead, and I remain:

All stiff with ice the ashes lie;

And they are dead, and I will die.

The speaker understand that once death arrives, she will no longer be in any state to either contemplate the event, or complain about it–in death the fire knows no pain, and neither will any of us.  Watching the ashes that remain from the once flaming campfire focuses the narrator’s mind to recognize the temporary reality of her current pain.

Though the poem appears to have reached a point of serenity for the character involved, the prose quickly takes a turn towards reminiscences of life and regret:

Alas!  ye might have dragged me on

Another day, a single one!

Too soon I yielded to despair;

Why did ye listen to my prayer?

Wordsworth’s poem narrates the story of an American Indian woman left behind by her companion when she decided she could not continue the journey any longer.  The first two lines in the above passage would have the reader assume that this is a tale of callous abandonment, but the last two lines imply that the woman’s companions continued on without her, at her own insistence (hence, the retrospective woe, “Why did ye listen to my prayer?”).  The whole passage is one of  self-scorn for not having persisted against the obstacles faced, for not having chosen life over a defeatist end.  Although the speaker now recognizes that she could have held on further, the recognition comes too late; she now is where she saw herself at when she chose to give up trying.

The narrative then adds another layer of dimension to the emotional turmoil of the poem, with the following lines:

My Child! they gave thee to another,

A woman who was not thy mother.

When from my arms my Babe they took,

On me how strangely did he look!

Through his whole body something ran,

A most strange working did I see;

–As if he strove to be a man,

That he might pull the sledge for me:

And then he stretched his arms, how wild!

Oh mercy! like a helpless child.

The story of loss takes a new turn, as the seemingly abandoned woman now takes on the role of an abondoner.  Wordsworth draws a contrast in the behavior of the child in comparison to his mother; whereas the mother lays down to surrender to the elements, the boy’s demeanor is one of positive life affirmation–a desire to continue forwards at all cost–against whatever may arise in his path.  But the mother recognizes that this positive determination in her child’s eye is futile to help her, and gives the impression that she holds herself responsible for not meeting the boy’s drive and forcing herself to head on.  To be separated from one’s child is a reality all people will eventually face as they shuffle off this mortal coil, but to hand him away to another and then wait remorsefully for death to come is the very zenith of despair.  Perhaps this is the reason for the narrator’s initial unwillingness to muster forward after her premature surrender to the forces of nature, causing her to later muse privately to her gone child, “Then do not weep and grieve for me; I feel I must have died with thee.”

The theme of despair and sorrow is not uncommon in Wordsworth’s poetry, but usually it is told in a sense of pining for Nature’s simplicity, and a romantic plea for greater introspection of the joy’s of life and love.  But in “The Complaint of a forsaken Indian Woman”, the poet deviated from the format his reader’s are accustomed to.  Here, the tone begins in pain and ends in pain; the reality of Nature’s cruelty is not rationalized away–no apologizes on behalf of Wordsworth’s deified grace of Nature is offered.  As the poem’s ending shows, loss, regret, and death are inseparable components of life, and no retrospective pleas or complaints of one’s past actions will amend this fact:

Young as I am my course is run,

I shall not see another sun;

I cannot lift my limbs to know

If they have any life or no.

My poor forsaken Child, if I

For once could have thee close to me,

With happy heart I then would die,

And my last thought would happy be;

But thou, dear Babe, art far away,

Nor shall I see another day.

Bibliography

Wordsworth, William.  “The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman,” 1798 (Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, Cambridge Edition, 1932 reprint).

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as Allegory to the Terrors of the French Revolution

Although it came to serve as a hallmark for the advent of the Gothic literary genre, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein cannot be separated from its origins in the Romantic tradition.  The Romantic movement in literature (circa 1800-1840) was a reaction to the perceived mechanical, stoic approach to viewing the natural world through the logic of Enlightenment rationalism.  The aim of the Romantics was to introduce the value of the emotional experience in human expression, especially in its relation towards physical reality.  Arguably, it’s historical infusion in English literature can be traced directly to the artistic response to the Reign of Terror (1793-94) which arose out of–and in many ways defined the popular image of–the French Revolution.

The poetry of William Blake and William Wordsworth, which exalts the aesthetic beauty of nature over its rudimentary empirical observations, set the tone for much of the later Romantics who followed.  Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley’s husband, was another key figure in the Romantic movement, who heralded the naturalistic worldview, without making reference to the lifeless trappings of cold rationalism.  This is the environment Shelley was surrounded by as she penned her novel in 1818.  Despite often being overlooked as a mere accomplice to Percy’s more provocative work and demeanor, it was Shelley who expressed most poignantly the Romantic horror towards the Revolutionary elements that sparked the literary appeal for a greater appreciation for the aesthetics.

In the novel, Dr. Victor Frankenstein is a passionate man, enamored by the creative possibilities offered by scientific thought and rigor:

None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science.  In other studies you go so far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is food for discovery and wonder (Chapter 4, page 49).

He is the quintessential child of the Enlightenment, not content with merely contributing to the understanding of life, but seeking to challenge the conventions that have traditionally constituted the definition of life itself:

Whence, I asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?  It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice and carelessness did not restrain our inquiries (page 50).

In this pursuit he labors, and theorizes, and experiments, until his desire for reanimating life in the lifeless is actualized.  The philosophical origins of the French Revolution followed a similar intellectual path.  The Enlightenment writings of Voltaire, Diderot, Paine, and Locke (among numerous others), too, sought to instill the spark of life in a lifeless body; the lifeless body being the decaying corpse of the common populace, whose dire condition was sustained through the traditional conventions that maintained its own authority by reducing the worth of the powerless to little more than a living death.  Like the feverish thrill of excitement that accompanied Dr. Frankenstein’s climactic success in creating life, the uprising of the lower caste of society against the social order that governed them–most vividly symbolized by the popular storming of the Bastille in 1789–served as a reinvigorated yelp of life echoing the labors of the minds that planted the seeds of its ascent; or, as articulated in Dr. Frankenstein, “After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter” (page 51).

Within the context of Shelley’s narrative, Dr. Frankenstein isn’t a malicious figure.  Indeed, he is a rather sympathetic character, whose intellectual feats and desire to push the frontiers of knowledge are quite admirable; even benign.  However, the man allows his zeal to take control of his reason, causing him to lose track of the reality he is bringing about before him:

But this discovery was so great and overwhelming that all the steps by which I had been progressively led to it were obliterated, and I beheld only the results (page 51).

The excitement of the event blinded the young scientist from contemplating either the means by which he was arriving at his desired results, or the possible consequences that these results would bring to fruition.  Thus, upon reaching the final hour of his work, Dr. Frankenstein at last stood back to observe and reflect on his creation, only to gasp in horror at what he had brought about into the world:

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form?  His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful.  Beautiful!  Great God! / I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. / I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart (Chapter 5, page 56).

Unable to deal with the reality of his creation, Dr. Frankenstein abandons it in disgust and fear.  Forcing the creature to venture into the world without order or guidance to nurture his maturity.

One can imagine the philosophical architects of the French Revolution having a similar reaction to the Reign of Terror that arose out of the hopeful revolt in 1789.  The events that disposed of the royal ruling order of France were instigated by the widespread uprising of the exploited masses against the forces that sought to keep them in chains.  It was seen as the will of the people at long last triumphing over the tyranny of their rulers.  Oppression and persecution at the hands of the monarchy was at an end, and the calendar could be set back to Year One, to symbolize the dawning of a hopeful new era of liberty and justice.

Unfortunately, the hope for change proved short-lived, as the concept of liberty and justice, rather than being put to practice, became mere cult devotions in the new regime, which swiftly began to denounce all who failed to properly adhere to the new revolutionary system as heretics to both.  Therefore, like Frankenstein’s creature, the Revolutionary model was arguably created with the most virtues of intentions, assembling together the most intellectually viable parts and ideals available.  Yet, outside of the containment of philosophical musings, where hypothetical entities and situations obey the whim of the ponderer, this idealistic goal turned into a nightmare.  Or, more astutely, once “rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived” (page 57).

Frankenstein’s creation begins life innocently, but the grotesque circumstances of his existence fuel within him an unyielding destitute and hate.  At first, he wants to uphold the greater aspects of the human spirit (and contribute to it positively, if possible), but his abandonment by his creator, and the scorn leveled at him for his monstrous appearance, causes him to become evermore vengeful and destructive:  “Shall I not then hate them who abhor me?  I will keep no terms with my enemies.  I am miserable and they shall share my wretchedness” (Chapter 10, page 96).  His creation came about through the feverish frenzy of a strained mind, and his continued presence, incapable of assimilating with his greater surroundings, must therefore be justified by virtue of force and, if need be, destruction.   Particularly towards the person that gave him life and subsequently wishes to deprive him of it.

Similarly, the Revolutionaries who spearheaded the rise of the new order, and had zealously advocated the use of terror as an instrument against all possible dissenters, began to see their creation turn against them, as even the most powerful of them were duly marched to the blade of the guillotine.  Signifying how, in the end, the Terror ultimately managed to subdue even its own makers, who failed (or refused) to restrain it when they still held the power to do so.  This shift in control between creator and creation is a sentiment best captured when Frankenstein is confronted by his creature’s haunting words against him, “Remember that I have power; you believe yourself miserable, but I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you.  You are my creator, but I am your master; obey!” (Chapter 20, page 160).

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley gives a body to the monstrous history that spurred the Romantic literary tradition she was an immutable figure in.  However, in doing so, she also diverting from the standard premise promoted by her Romantic counterparts, by emphasizing on the fact that while man’s creative nature and passions can bring about unspeakably valuable works of creation and wonder, allowed to go unrestrained, this same nature can bring about monstrous consequences; for both the innocent and guilty alike.  No matter how well-intentioned the initial motivations may be.

Bibliography

Shelley, Mary.  Frankenstein; Or The Modern Prometheus, (Signet Classics:  New York), 1818.  1983 reprint.