Ambiguity and Private Poetry

John Addington Symonds’s poem “A Lieder Kreis IV” capitalizes on the overwhelming ambiguity discussed in the Ledger and Luckhurst Fin de Siecle introduction in a multitude of ways. Tying in themes of love, potentially unclear or forbidden sexuality, and religion, Symonds allows all of these questioned focuses during the time period into his diary-like poem.

Examining the lengthy title included with the work proves an interesting point to look through these notions. According to basic internet translation, “lieder” means “song” and “kreis” means “circle.” Put together, the internet translates the phrase into “a dissolute circle.” The poem’s rhyme scheme and rhythm makes it sound like a song when read, but the “dissolute circle” marks Symonds’s feelings of shame over his homosexuality (which is discussed in the other Ledger and Luckhurst reading) and the fact that he is trapped in this never ending circle of not wanting to be outside what is considered normal, yet feeling unable to exist any other way. Returning to the idea of song, the boy in the poem sings, and the “IV” could indicate this poem is part of a cycle or a series of poems on similar topics. The next part of the title translates from Latin into “fragile and fleeting,” potentially describing his mental state at the time of writing. The most intriguing words are in the last clause: “25 copies printed for the author’s use.” This indicates the diary-like quality and the fact that he perhaps never wanted these emotions to be detected by anyone else. Even in the title alone, ambiguities felt during the period are visible, strengthened by the fact that they are not even confessed in English.

The poem itself is “fleeting” with only 12 lines. The song-like quality is found through the nearly regular line lengths and rhyme scheme, which takes on the form of ABAB CDCD EFEF. The first stanza sees a repetition of “my” and “mine,” the second repeats “his” twice, and the third repeats “he” twice, “me” only once, and “I” twice. This joins the subjects of the poem together, focusing on author, on external subject, and then drawing the two together in conclusion.

The interesting nature of sexuality in this poem takes its form from the first line: “Love sat like a boy by my pillow.” This simile does not declare the boy definitively is love personified, but suggests that to Symonds he might be. Considering that Venus is the goddess of love, something the Michael Fields seized upon many times, it is interesting that Symonds assigns love a different gender, reflecting back upon the “25 copies printed for the author’s use” statement. Perhaps love was classified as male because Symonds did not believe the poem would be seen by anyone else. Continuing to look at the personified “love,” it takes on the form of a boy. Not a man to match its author, but a boy instead. This could, for Symonds, conjure up images from his childhood when he began feeling homosexual desires (Ledger and Luckhurst 309-313), or it could embody youth in a way similar to what is seen in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Furthering these notions, the young boy could even be Symonds reflecting upon himself as a young boy: sweet but full of sorrow (line 5), fearing what tomorrow would bring (line 7), and pained from these notions of what society deems cannot be (line 8). This ties into the third stanza when he declares that this boy/love “kissed me with kisses of air” (line 10). The boy appears in a dream, causing Symonds to wring his hands in vain (lines 11-12), knowing that he is unable to change his sexuality. This “passion of prayer” could be either against his current feelings, or for the day these feelings will be acceptable. This leads to ambiguities of not only love and sexuality, but also religion, knowing that Symonds is gay yet also prays to a god who, at this point in time, likely is not said to condone his behavior.

Within this poem, Symonds expresses ambivalence over his sexuality, but seemingly owns it by calling his figment of love a youthful boy rather than a grown Venus, upsetting the norm in verse as well as in private thoughts. He expresses ambivalence through these declarations, yet rather than publicizing them and openly contributing to the feelings of the period, he hides them inside a poem intended for his eyes only. Through these focuses, Symonds is able to embody the questioning mentality of the Fin de Siecle.

An eternally unclear division

During the Fin de Siecle, as discussed by Ledger and Luckhurst in the reading under the same name, the topic of contemporary identity, “whether concerning gender politics, sexual identity, or conceptions of subjectivity itself,” was not a clear-cut issue (xvii). According to the reading, “Such problematic complicities and ambivalences at the beginnings of modern feminist thought have proved productive sites for thinking through the articulation of gender with other significant markers of identity” (xvii). With this quotation we see room for differentiation between gender and identity, opening a whole new realm of discussion for what it means to be male or female, homosexual or heterosexual.

Within The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde takes these ideas of relatively fluid lines between the two sexes and alters them, changing them in the way that mentalities were changing during this time of “complicities and ambivalences.” One of the ways in which he does this, at least in this particular scene from the book, is by clearly defining gender lines while the readers already know that the characters cannot be defined so simply.

When Dorian and Harry are visiting with the Duchess of Monmouth, exchanging rhetorical and witty banter amongst other conversations, the Duchess says, “We women, as some one says, love with our ears, just as you men love with your eyes, if you ever love at all” (88). This seems like a straightforward statement, placing men and women into their own gendered categories, not allowing room for overlap between the two.

However, Basil and Dorian, two of the novel’s primary characters, complicate this almost immediately. Basil is clearly a male character, meaning he should align with the latter part of the Duchess’s statement. The fact that he is an artist should also, and does, align him with the latter because he loves Dorian with his eyes and he loves his artwork through his eyes. But throughout the novel, it is made clear that Basil lusts after Dorian, aligning his sexual preferences with that of a female, indicating that he could very easily fit into the first category of “loving with his ears.” Yet Basil cannot hear his paintings and prefers to see Dorian rather than hear him, since he does not always agree with the words Dorian speaks. Regardless of the words that exit Dorian’s mouth, his face and image do not change and Basil continues to lust for him due to that. These factors of his profession and the way in which it is clear he loves with his eyes makes his masculinity appear a clear-cut issue, but the fact that the one he loves with his eyes is male makes the issue not as simple.

In the case of Dorian, these ideas are reversed. Although Dorian is a male, never portrayed as showing serious lust for any of his male friends and instead giving voice to the fact that he wished Basil would not complicate their friendship with talk of love, he does not align with the latter part of the quotation. Dorian appreciates women, rejects the notion of feelings for Basil, and holds his male friends in general at a distance. Despite this, when Sibyl is introduced, Dorian arguably loves her with his ears more than he does his eyes. Surely he does, to a degree, love her with his eyes as a man is “supposed” to do, but more than that he falls in love with her through his ears. It is through her acting, in particular the audible delivery of text and her verbal conveyance that she has fully transformed into the characters she plays, that he falls in love with her. The night she falls fully in love with Dorian is the night he falls out of love with her, the change coming about through the fact that she delivers a dry and awful portrayal of Juliet, an assault on Dorian’s ears. Through his ears he falls both in and out of love with Sibyl, so although his sexual desires match with what is considered ordinary for those of his sex, the way in which he loves is the opposite of what the Duchess declares it should be.

In this manner, the characters of Basil and Dorian have almost swapped traits because the two men love opposite the way that they supposedly should. This returns to the question of the artist permeating his work because Wilde’s choice to blur these lines speaks to his own issues of blurred lines in terms of sexuality, potentially saying more about his beliefs than those of his characters.

The Common Good in the Midst of Evil

The primary discussion in the Carol A. Senf article, “Dracula: The Unseen Face in the Mirror,” is about good and evil as coexisting ideas rather than opposing forces. She wrote, “…the majority of literary critics read Dracula as a popular myth about the opposition of Good and Evil … my reading of Dracula is a departure from most standard interpretations in that it revolves, not around the conquest of Evil by Good, but on the similarities between the two” (421). She continues on to establish connections between the “good” narrators and the “evil” Dracula, pointing out that in multiple ways, the behaviors are exactly the same with the only difference lying in who is narrating the scene. Similarly, she mentions that “the only difference between Dracula and his opponents is the narrators’ ability to state individual desire in terms of what they believe is the common good” (427).

A particular passage of Dracula that confused me was not mentioned within Senf’s article, but the article can be applied to it. The passage is an exchange between Van Helsing and Mina:

“’Oh, Madam Mina, I will be grateful; you will do me much favour.’ I could not resist the temptation of mystifying him a bit – I suppose it is some of the taste of the original apple that remains still in our mouths – so I handed him the shorthand diary. He took it with a grateful bow, and said:-

‘May I read it?’

‘If you wish,’ I answered as demurely as I could. He opened it, and for an instant his face fell. Then he stood and bowed.” (195)

The reference to Adam and Eve stood out as feeling incongruous, even though the general topic of temptation seems to permeate the entirety of the text, especially when reading it through the lens of Senf’s argument with good and evil in conjunction. Senf claims that “By the conclusion of the novel, all the characters who have been accused of expressing individual desire have been appropriately punished: … even Mina Harker is ostracized for her momentary indiscretion.” Although this seemingly minor conversation was not the moment of indiscretion that gets Mina into trouble, the message underlying the text denotes the “evil” individual desire linked to Dracula rather than the “good” group Mina belongs to. She uses the word “temptation” in combination with the story of the fall, which both portray this idea of the desires of the individual. Her “temptation” was in momentarily fooling Van Helsing and, through that action, proving her own intelligence equivalent to that of her male counterparts. When he figures out that he cannot read it without her assistance, he is initially displeased, but quickly the displeasure turns to being impressed by her abilities. The word “demurely” adds to the subtext, seeming unnecessary in this interaction, indicating that what Mina is doing is wrong and something she should be shy about. Yet Mina gives into this temptation, generally regarded as falling into the category of “evil,” even though the action of handing over the diary for the benefit of the group is “good.” Looking at this in the terms of Senf’s argument, the motion aligns her with the group pursuing Dracula while the intention aligns her with Dracula himself.

A few lines after the passage above, Mina says, “By this time my little joke was over, and I was almost ashamed” (196). According to Senf, “The narrators insist that they are agents of God and are able to ignore their similarity to the vampire because their commitment to social values such as monogamy, proper English behavior, and the will of the majority” (430). Mina’s feeling of shame likely stems from the fact that she is committed to these upright behaviors. She knows that her game is postponing the mission of “the will of the majority,” even if only slightly, and by the action she is not accomplishing anything for the “common good,” only giving herself an ego boost. However, it is important to notice that despite having the feeling that she should not have tricked Van Helsing for selfish purposes, she is only “almost” ashamed. Not feeling fully ashamed is just one step closer to the “evil” of the vampire and one step away from the “good” of the group.

By making this comparison between Mina, Adam and Eve, and the fall in this seemingly insignificant moment within the text, Stoker could easily be making the claim that by succumbing to even the smallest of individual desire or wishing to elevate herself to the status of the men around her, Mina could risk the success of the entire operation, the “common good.”

Ambiguity of Gender in a Questioning Age

As previously discussed in class, the Sir Conan Doyle story “A Scandal in Bohemia” plays around with the roles of gender and gender ideology, primarily through the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, although we have also discussed Watson in this manner. As noted in the Fin de Siècle reading, gender was a primary focus of the time period along with the struggle for personal identity, bringing these issues to the forefront of people’s minds. Through the characters of Holmes and Adler, Doyle mimics the same action by drawing upon stereotypes to make it appear that his characters conform to their given genders, while mixing the ideologies of masculinity and femininity to comment on these developing societal notions.

Within the story, adjectives used to describe the characters are as important as their actions. In the first paragraph on the first page, Sherlock is described as a sort of machine, “cold” and “precise” with “perfect” reasoning and observing skills, never speaking about the “softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer.” Whether or not this was definitively the description of a masculine figure at the time, it is along the lines of how society describes masculinity now. Masculine figures show ambition, but not excessive emotion. Placing this description of Holmes in the context of his feelings, or lack thereof, for Irene Adler, seems to solidify the notion that he has better things to worry about than feelings, which sets him on the masculine end of the spectrum. However, the second half of the paragraph turns this metaphor into a more vague question of gender when the machine becomes “delicate” with a “finely adjusted temperament,” threatened by the smallest piece of “grit.” Here, the line separating genders is altered and no longer clearly defined as it was in the first half of the paragraph.

As for Irene Adler, the first introduction the reader has to her is as “the woman,” who “eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex” (1). This statement undeniably aligns her with the female gender and does so through the eyes of a man. The gaze here becomes important when the King of Bohemia describes her as having “the face of the most beautiful of women, and the mind of the most resolute of men” (8) and later Holmes refers to her as “a lovely woman, with a face that a man might die for” (11). What is intriguing about these statements is that a resolute mind is not expected of a woman, but her beauty is mentioned many times within this one story. It seems as if the expectation of women portrayed throughout descriptions of Adler is to be a pretty face, but no resolution or strength of mind are expected. Adler’s masculine description here and eventual disguise as a man tie into the notion from the reading about the icon of New Woman that could “mark an image of sexual freedom and assertions of female independence, promising a bright democratic future” (xvii). Adler begins to show this female independence, but in the context of this story, not without masculine-leaning tendencies.

“A Scandal in Bohemia” brings into focus the “questions of contemporary identity, whether concerning gender politics, sexual identity, or conceptions of subjectivity itself” (xvii), in part due to the descriptions and in part due to the processes of thought. In order for Holmes to outsmart Adler, he must think like a woman, and for Adler to outsmart Holmes, she takes on the thinking strategies of a man. The two cross identities, so to speak, in order to play their game, bringing in these topics of the Fin de Siècle and introducing the questions of what makes a person masculine or feminine and where is the line drawn between the two, potentially using gender to highlight the larger theme of ambivalence about the time period. The reading states, “Such problematic complicities and ambivalences at the beginnings of modern feminist thought have proved productive sites for thinking through the articulation of gender with other significant markers of identity” (xviii), and this is what Conan Doyle takes advantage of within the text. Not only is Irene Adler beautiful and intelligent, but she, unlike all of the other white, British, male criminals we’ve read about in the context of these stories, is able to outsmart Sherlock Holmes’ “best plans” by use of “women’s wit” (19). In this instance, what was once believed to be straightforward was taken and challenged, similar to what happened during the Fin de Siècle.

An element of humanity or method of control?

A passage of particular and personal intrigue within The Island of Dr. Moreau occurred following Dr. Moreau’s death when Prendick is forced to take control over the island and its creatures. On page 80, Prendick says to the Beast-People, “’He has changed his shape – he has changed his body,’ I went on. ‘For a time you will not see him. He is … there’ – I pointed upward – ‘where he can watch you. You cannot see him. But he can see you. Fear the Law.’”

This passage integrates the idea of law as well as the themes of religion and humanity. Prendick spends his time on the island trying to reach a conclusion about which characteristics make a human and which make an animal, but does not make up his mind definitively on that subject, nor on the topic of whether these creatures are closer to beasts or people. Due to this confusion, he never appears sure of how to treat the islanders he encounters and does not have to make a decision until he becomes the only true man remaining on the island.

Knowing of Moreau’s teachings of “the Law,” Prendick opts for a more human approach to control. According to Christensen, the function of “the Law” is “shaping of the animals into a society that mimics human society” (578). Having the law set in place made this job easier for Prendick because already he and the islanders shared a common understanding. However, when the beast people are hesitant to believe what he says, he transitions to another human notion: religion.

Similar to what happens on the island, in the Longman Anthology introduction to the Victorian Age, it says, “The crisis of religious doubt occasioned by biblical scholarship and scientific discoveries hits Christian belief hard. But it prompted an array of coping strategies and new ideas about the position of human beings in the universe that remain significant to this day” (1056). Although the context is different and the meaning not quite the same, this is not unlike what happens on the island. With the creatures threatening to stop believing the Law, Prendick takes on a new coping strategy and positions the “human beings” in a different manner, which is significant because it is common with what many other humans do.

Here, Prendick integrates the human qualities of fearing the unknown and fearing punishment from a being unable to be seen in order to gain control over the beasts. Moreau had already been seen as a god-like figure, vivisecting animals to create half-humans for his own purposes, but this passage makes this allusion clearer. Prendick says Moreau has changed his shape and his body to something invisible. But the interesting part of the invisibility is that the statement does not stop there, but continues, “For a time you will not see him.” The “for a time” segment seems reminiscent of religion, where those who believe are meant to meet their creator after death. In addition to meeting their “god” after “a time,” Prendick points upward to explain where Moreau has gone and how he has the ability to watch without being seen, but not without hesitation. This, to me, appears similar to how a child might be taught religion and the presence of a god and seems vaguely similar to the few memories I have of childhood explanations. In a way, this almost explains how religion came into existence, as a threat to beings reminding them constantly to do the “right” thing.

Again, this is very much a human notion and seems to imply that in order to be a human, there must be a belief in a god-figure who guides the way to righteousness with the ever-present threat of this figure somehow knowing when a being has done wrong and therefore inflicting punishment. As stated in the Longman Anthology introduction, “Tennyson hoped man might transcend animality by encouraging his divine soul to ‘Move upward, working out the beast, / And let the ape and tiger die’ (1057),” supporting this claim.

But ironically, the only living creatures on the island who have found some sort of a religion are the beast people. Dr. Moreau, Montgomery, and Prendick do not voice religious concerns unless they are in order to keep the vivisected population under control. In this case, the question is then posed: does one need religion to be human or is it simply a method of control?