She walks / in beau/ty, like / the night (8)
Of cloud/less climes / and star/ry skies; (8)
And all / that’s best / of dark / and bright (8)
Meet in / her as/pect and / her eyes; (8)
Thus mel/lowed to / that ten/der light (8)
Which hea/ven to gau/dy day / denies. (9)
I guess it’s the sounds in Michael Field’s “Cyclamens” that reminds me of the first stanza of “She Walks in Beauty.” What first struck me about Michael Field’s poetry is the intimacy in the poetic voice, which is quite absent in many of the love poems written from the male lover’s prospective (thinking of Romantic and early modern poets). There are a lot of factors at play in regard to this difference, but I would like to focus on meter in this blog post. I have given my scansion on both texts. “She Walks in Beauty” is in iambic tetrameter, so it consists mostly of iambs. While “Cyclamens” consists of both iambs and anapests. Iambs have a skippy rhythm like the beat of a song, which serves the purpose of the poet praising, idolizing the beloved. Mixing anapests with iambs, “Cyclamens” reads more like natural speech. This poem resists patterns and regularity. Anapests do not give the satisfaction of balance and rhythm like iambs. The rhymes also seem casually in place. There is not a clear rhyme scheme. This poem is inching towards free verse.
By rejecting regular metrical and a rhyme scheme, “Cyclamens” is rejecting the idealization of the beloved and stating that such idealization does not truly capture human intimacy. Byron’s beloved contains “all that’s best of dark and bright,” has the tenderness of “cloudless climes and starry skies.” But there’s a bit of tension, even violence in “Cyclamens.” The flowers are “terribly white,” “chiselled white”; the sky is “cut” by the light. And the speaker is unimpressed by what Byron praises, the sky, the moonlight, the snow. The lines become longer as the poem goes on except for the last line, as if purposefully refusing to give any closure.
Reading “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” the speaker frequently reminds me of Jane Eyre. The sonnet sequence, although addressed to the beloved, is more importantly a conversation with the self, a rational assessment of the situation that the speaker is in. Both Jane and EBB contemplate the dynamic between the lovers, are the man and woman of equal standing? Sonnets VIII and IX ask the questions “What can I give thee back” (i) “Can it be right to give what I can give” (i). The tone here is especially interesting, she does not phrase it as “Is it right to give what I give.” The repeated “can” weakens the tone, conveys a sense of reserve. Jane shares EBB’s concern that Rochester provides her a means of living, a place to live, but she has nothing to give back. Another theme shared between Jane Eyre and “Sonnets” is, in the words of EBB, the “silence of my womanhood” (ix, XIII). Both women are brilliantly eloquent in their writing, contemplative in their inner dialogue, but they have trouble verbalizing their sophisticated emotions. The male-dominated society and language don’t allow space for female voices. As a result, EBB and Jane rely heavily on their spirituality as their way of self-exploration. They address frequently to God and the soul, who are their only listeners. The gothic theme also rises out of the repression of female voices. Jane’s double, Bertha, causes chaos in the male-governed mansion, warns Jane of the danger of marriage before her wedding. Similarly, in sonnet I, EBB notices “how a mystic Shape did move / Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair” (x-xi). Their anxiety over losing their selves in the marriage is demonstrated in moments of terror, where the repressed selves send a violent warning.
“Christabel” begins with the night castle that belongs to the Baron. The castle is conventionally a male-governed space, a fortress, symbolizing military success (“The gate that was ironed within and without, / Where an army in battle-array had marched out” (120-121)) and safety (“Saying that she should command / The service of Sir Leoline, / And straight be convoyed, free from thrall, / Back to her noble father’s hall” (102-105)). But on the other hand, the castle, being a frequently used trope in gothic literature, also represents history (especially family history), an enclosed space with restrictions. Part I of “Christabel” takes place at night and is a completely female-dominated narrative. All of the characters are female, including the ghost of Christabel’s mother and the mastiff. Being a male-owned property, the castle acts as a way of repression for women. Christabel can only seek her freedom at night, outside the castle. After what’s possibly a sexual dream about her “betrothed knight” (28), that made her “moan and leap” (29), Christabel went to the woods to pray for his health. The woods have the connotation of promiscuity and fertility. The outside becomes a symbol for the liberation of desires, which the indoors (the castle) represses. This liberation of sexual desires invites a supernatural encounter with Geraldine.
Christabel’s room is portrayed as a hidden place, deep in the castle, where the ghost of her mother roams. The poem dedicates 7 stanzas to their journey from the woods to Christabel’s room. They had to cross the moat, the gate, the court, pass the mastiff’s kennel, the hall, go up the stairs and past the Baron’s room. And they end up in a room where “not a moonbeam enters” (168), in which “The lamp with twofold silver chain / Is fastened to an angel’s feet” (174-175). The chain fastened to the angel’s feet embodies Christabel’s lack of freedom in the castle. This room that is decorated with strangely carved figures (171), hidden deep in the castle, is full of secrets, and unspeakable horrors will soon unfold there.
Something about this poem really interests me and I’m not sure what. The speaker of the poem is a listener of the voice of nature. This voice comes not from animals, the cattle, or the frogs and duck in Blake’s illumination, but inanimate objects. The clod and pebble speak in verse; the first and third stanzas are in quotation marks. The speaker of the poem is but a transcriber. I find the voice of the speakers in Blake’s poetry very interesting. He likes to take on the voice of different characters in his poems, whether the nurse, the children, the chimney sweeper, or an infant. Blake’s own voice is a lot of the times absent in his poetry, and in this case, Blake avoids the reference of the lyric “I.” The speaker here is a translator for nature. Unlike many other Romantic poets, Blakes positions himself here as a mediator and a messenger, instead of a God-like, solitary hero who contains the power of imagination and wisdom.
The relationship between the clod and the pebble here is also interesting. The “little” clod of clay that has to endure the weight of the cattle finds Love to be generous and selfless. It “sang” a praise for Love. But the pebble “Warbled out” in response that Love is in fact quite brutal. The clod of clay is immobile, stuck under the weight of the cattle (a massive herd actually, in the illumination), while the pebble of the flowing brook has freedom and the ability to travel. In the top half of the illumination, the page is crowded with the cattle; there isn’t much room. The lower half has motion and space for the frogs and the duck to move around. The pebble and the speaker so it seems, prize freedom over selfless Love. This argument between the clod and pebble evokes the sounds of frogs in the illumination. Also the personification of Love here is an early modern tradition (Petrarchan tradition?), together with the ballad form, is a demonstration of Romantic poetry adhering to poetic traditions.
“A Summer’s Evening’s Meditation” by Anna Laetitia Barbauld
This dead of midnight is the noon of thought,
And wisdom mounts her zenith with the stars.
At this still hour the self-collected soul
Turns inward, and beholds a stranger there
Of high descent, and more than mortal rank (51-55)
These lines recall “She mused away the gaudy hours of noon / And fed on thoughts unripened by the sun” (21-22). The “noon” in both places invoke the moon. The juxtapositions in this poem, light and dark, sun and moon, day and night, are demonstrated in the syntax of line 51, juxtaposing “dead of midnight” and “noon of thought” while playing with the words “midnight” and “noon.” These lines also introduce a juxtaposition of the silence and stillness of the night, and the excitement of the soul, with the quiet “w,” “s,” “h,” and “th” sounds in words like “wisdom,” “inward,” and “beholds,” in contrast with the strong verbs, “mounts,” “collected,” and “turns.” These lines and the poem in whole praise the capacity of human-beings, and women especially. As a mortal, the speaker’s wisdom can reach the stars. The speaker is able to contain the divine, “An embryo God” (56) like a mother. The sun being masculine fails to ripen the speaker’s thoughts, but the moon being feminine and usually associated with fertility, stimulates the soul. By observing and immersing herself in nature, the speaker has a sublime experience that elevates her spirit to a self-discovery. Apart from the sublimity, self-discovery, and the solitary hero (heroine in this case), giving humans immortal powers is also a Romantic trope (I’m thinking of Byron’s Manfred). The mortal is able to contain and become one with the infinite. The light dies with the sun, but the human soul comes alive. I’m also intrigued by astronomy and the empirical science in the Romantic era and the role of women in science. The speaker is simultaneously turning inward to observe the self and looking outside herself at the universe.