United States Naval Academy

 

 

 

HE504, Robert Frost: The Great Misgiver

Spring, AY 2014

 

 

Texts

Robert Frost, Collected Poems, Prose and Plays (CPPP)

Jay Parini, Robert Frost: A Life (Life)

 

On Reserve in Nimitz (click)

 

 

 

 P  O  S  T  I  N  G  S

1.  Course policies (click)

2.  Possible paper topics (click)

3.  Frost and the sonnet (click)

4.  Websites linked to Frost (click)

5.  Changes in titles of poems (click)

6.  Map of “Frost country 1886-1912” (click)

7.  Frost’s STEM poems (click)

8.  Sayings in N of B  (click)

9.  Prompt for short paper due on 19 February (click)

10. Sample successful capstone papers from past (click)

 

Schedule of Readings, Assignments and Activities

                                      Date                                 Readings                                                                     Topics, Assignments and Activities

WK  1

Jan  7

Introduction to the Course

CPPP: “The Road Not Taken,” 103; “Nothing Gold . . . ,” 206; “The Need of Being Versed . . . , 223; Letter to Untermeyer, 692

Discuss several typical Frost poems

 

Jan  8

CPPP: A Boy’s Will, 15-27

Identify Patterns and Themes; critical Reception; pound’s role

 

Jan 10

CPPP: A Boy’s Will, 27-38

Discuss poems

WK  2

Jan 13

CPPP: 664-79 (some early letters)

Cont. discussion of A Boy’s Will; bring list of patterns, themes, problems

 

Jan 15

CPPP: North of Boston, 39-58

Group introduction to N of B (Brianna French, Adam Jatho, Andreas Jackson)

 

Jan 17

CPPP: North of Boston, 59-71

Life:  have completed Chapters 1-8

“Dramatic” poems; “book of people”

WK  3

Jan 20

No Class—King Day

 

Jan 22

CPPP: North of Boston, 71-101

Bring and post list of patterns, themes, problems

 

Jan 24

CPPP: 680-91 (Letters and talk); review;

Life: have completed chapters 9-10

Life and the work; Frost’s territory north of Boston (click)

 WK  4

Jan 27

Open

Review: discuss cruxes, problems, areas of possible research

Jan 29

CPPP: Mountain Interval, first half

Group introduction to MI (Angie Nordstrom, Matt Steffens, Haley Sobrero)

 

Jan 31

CPPP: Mountain Interval, complete

Discuss poems; “Birches” and Lucy Larcom’s “Swinging on a Birch-Tree” (click); “Like girls . . . that throw their hair/Before them over their heads to dry in the sun” (click)

 WK  5

Feb  3

CPPP:  692-97 (Letters and talk)

Life:  have read Chapters 11-12

Bring and post list of patterns, themes, problems

Feb 

Open

Review: discuss cruxes, problems, areas of possible research

 

Feb  7

CPPP: New Hampshire, 151-87

Group introduction to NH (Megan Glancey, David Guerin, Jay Thomas)

 WK  6

Feb 10

CPPP: New Hampshire, 187-201

Discuss poems

Feb 12

CPPP: New Hampshire, 201-23

Discuss poems

Feb 14

CPPP: 698-712 (letters and talks)

Life:  have completed Chapters 13-14

Becoming public and political

WK  7

Feb 17

No Class––Washington’s Birthday

 

Feb 19

Open

Review: cruxes, problems, areas of possible research; short papers due click

 

Feb 21

CPPP: West-Running Brook, 224-36

Group introduction to WRB (Emily Strong, Taylor Yust,  Cat Cortesio)

 WK  8

Feb 24

CPPP: West-Running Brook, 236-48

Discuss poems

Feb 26

CPPP: West-Running Brook; 739-54 (Letters and prose)

Bring and post list of patterns, themes, problems

Feb 28

Open

Review: discuss cruxes, problems, areas of possible research

 WK  9

Mar   3

CPPP: A Further Range, 249-68

Group introduction to AFR  (Susannah Johnson, Montana Marsh, Logan Wilk)

Mar   5

CPPP: A Further Range, 269-74

Discuss poems (early version of “Design” click; “Desert Places” and Stevens’  “The Snowman” click

 

Mar   7

CPPP: A Further Range, 275-97

Life:  have completed Chapters 15-16

Bring and post list of patterns, themes, problems 

 

Mar 10  -

 -   Mar 14

SPRING BREAK

 WK 10

Mar 17

SNOW DAY

Mar 19

CPPP:  “A Way Out,” 565-75

How does it fit in?

 

Mar 21

CPPP: 714-30; 734-48; 776-78; 759-67 (Prose and letters)

Frost and the modernists; poetry and education

 WK 11

Mar 24

CPPP:  A Witness Tree, 301-18

Group introduction to AWT (Liz Cotter, Erin Bacon, Katie Laderer)

Mar 26

CPPP:  A Witness Tree, 318-38

Life:  have completed Chapters 17-18

Discuss poems  Bring and post list of patterns, themes, problems

Mar 28

CPPP:  A Witness Tree, cont.

Review:  discuss cruxes, problems, areas of possible research; abstract for major paper due

 WK 12

Mar 31

Frost’s birthday celebration/noon time get together over food with English Department faculty

R&R

Apr   2

CPPP:  A Steeple Bush, 339-71

Life:  have completed Chapters 19-20

Group introduction to ASB (Conor Cross, Erin Bacon)

 

Apr   4

Life:  have completed Chapters 21-Conclusion and Afterword

Bring and post list of patterns, themes, problems (for A Steeple Bush)

 WK13

Apr   7

CPPP:  the masques, 372-417

“Old Testament Christian”

Apr   9

Open

Review:  discuss cruxes, problems, areas of possible research

Apr  11

CPPP: In the Clearing (read “Kitty Hawk,” and sample the other poems)

Discuss poems

 WK 14

Apr  14

Noon-time session over food: Prof. Virginia Smith talks about science poems

Poems to be announced

Apr  16

CPPP:  867-93; 902-26

Frost as talker

 

Apr  18

Open period for research

Discuss drafts

 WK 15

Apr  21

Open period for research

Discuss drafts

Apr  23

Open period for research

Discuss drafts

 

Apr  25

Open period for research

Discuss drafts

 WK 16

Apr  28

Submit Research Papers

 Complete Instructor Evaluations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Goals, Policies, and Requirements

1.  Goals. To develop an advanced understanding of Robert Frost’s poetry, its reception, his aesthetics and politics, and his role as “American poet.”

2.  Instruction.  Largely student driven, tending toward interests developed as the term unfolds. 

3.  Assignments and Grading.  

Group presentations

about 15%

Short, out-of-class essay (about 3 pages)

about 20%

Lists of themes, cruxes, and problems

about 15%

Major research paper (20 or so pages)

About 50%

5.  Office Hours.  I am in my office at least four days per week (MTWF) for most of the day, but I have reserved the 1st, 3rd, and second half of 5th on MWF and 9-11 and 2-3:30 on Tuesday for official office hours.  I respond to my e-mail regularly

6.  Final Grades.  Unless otherwise noted, you must do all the assigned work in order to pass the course.
 

 



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Texts on Reserve in Nimitz

 

Cramer, Jeffrey. Robert Frost among His Poems. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996.

 

Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 1997

 

———, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.

 

———, ed. The Notebooks of Robert Frost. Cambridge, MA: Bellknap-Harvard UP, 2006.

 

Hoffman, Tyler. Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry. Hanover: UP of New England, 2001.

 

Kearns, Katherine. Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. New York: Cambridge U P, 1994.

 

Kilcup, Karen L. Robert Frost and Feminine Literary Tradition. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1998.

 

Lathem, Edward Connery, ed. A Concordance to the Poetry of Robert Frost. Guilford,CT: Norton, 1994.

 

O’Brien, Timothy D.  Names, Proverbs, Riddles, and Material Text in Robert Frost.  Palgrave Macmillan

 

Poirier, Richard. Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1990.

 

Richardson, Mark. The Ordeal of Robert Frost: The Poet and His Poetics. Chicago:U of Illinois P, 1997.

 

______. ed.  The Collected Prose of Robert Frost.  Harvard UP

 

Thompson, Lawrence. Robert Frost: The Early Years, 1874–1915. New York: Holt, 1966.

 

——— . Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph. New York: Holt, 1970.

 

———, ed. The Selected Letters of Robert Frost. New York: Holt, 1964.

 

Thompson, Lawrence, and R. H. Winnick. Robert Frost: The Later Years,1938–1963. New York: Holt, 1976.

 

Tutein, David.  Robert Frost’s Reading: An Annotated Bibliography. Mellen

 

Tuten, Nancy Lewis, and John Zubizarreta, ed. The Robert Frost Encyclopedia. Greenwood, 2001.

 

Untermeyer, Louis, ed. The Letters of Robert Frost.  Holt

 

Van Egmond, Peter, ed.  The Critical Reception of Robert Frost.  G. K. Hall

 

Wagner, Linda W. Robert Frost: The Critical Reception. New York: Franklin,1977.

 

Wilcox, Earl and Barron, eds. Roads Not Taken: Rereading Robert Frost. U of Missouri P.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                     Possible Topics for HE504 Papers on Frost

 

Each of these is just a "topic," not a thesis.  It points to an area of interest, tension, or trouble in Frost's poetry/career/life out of which you might be able to make something—an argument or claim—that will help us to understand even more completely Frost's work.

1.  Animals in Frost's poetry.

 

2.  Allegory in Frost.  Theodore Spenser, for instance, in his New Republic, 58 (Feb 20, 1929) review of West-Running Book complains that Frost gives in to "an allegorizing method which is far less important" than his approach in his former books of poetry.

 

3.  Women in Frost's poetry and career.  All sorts of avenues here, including of course his relationship with his mother and or wife, not to mention the way women function in his poems. See Kearns.

 

4.  Work.  Is "Mowing" in fact the definitive view of this topic, or does it have more to it?  An interesting topic from a man who frequently stylized himself as lazy, as having to succumb to the extravagant waste of inactivity in order  to produce anything.

 

5.  Philosophical, religious concept of design.

 

6.  Politics.

7.  Utopia/dystopia.

 

8.  Eden or depictions/allusions to Paradise.  It could easily be argued that Frost's most frequently addressed subject is Eden.

 

9.  Punning.  One approach here is to explore the question of how the really subtle punning that Frost does coincides with his strongly oral sense of poetry, with his notion of sentence sounds and his "saying" his poems at readings rather than reading them.

 

10.  Sound of sense.  This coincides somewhat with the topic above.  The question here is not just to understand Frost's theory but to explore the accuracy of the claims he makes for it.  For instance, he often suggested that he was the first to have thought of the idea.  Is this true?  Is it possible to read Frost's poems thoroughly and as he would want you to if you literally adhered to this notion of discovering the meaning of his poems in terms of sentence sounds or tones?  I'm thinking particularly of the ending to "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things," where the line(s) seem shaped as sentimentality but clearly mean something quite unsentimental.

 

11.  Rivers, streams, water in Frost.

 

12.  Frost and education.  Does his sense of what education aims at drift into his poetry?  How about the contradictions, or apparent contradictions:  anti-academy but lodged most of his life in the academic world or his laissez faire attitude vs. the notion of altering thinking of others as in education.

 

13.  Frost and war, or violence (his war poems, his public and private views of war, etc.).

 

14.  Heroism and/or courage.

 

15.  Frost calls his poems "momentary stays against confusion." However, he often unfolds sentences that seem to promote confusion.  He uses double-negatives as often as any poet I've seen. He is also fond of the unclear or indefinite pronoun. What's going on with this sort of unnecessarily difficult or somewhat clouded wording, especially in a poet who seeks directness of expression?

 

16.  The myth of Narcissus in Frost's poetry, including perhaps Echo. Pygmalion?

 

17.  Houses and homes.  See Poirer (Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing) for an entre into this topic.

 

18.  Frost's adherence to traditional forms, but at the same time his play with them.  The sonnet, for example.

 

19.  The "fall" in Frost's poetry.  (This relates to #8 above).

 

20.  Borders—fences, doors, walls, the body—in the poetry and drama.  One could easily write a fascinating essay simply on doors in the poetry (and in his letters).  Also, he often expresses interest in the gaps between things, openings, etc.--the spaces between stars, for instance.  Anything going on here?

 

21.  Frost's curious escape to the Dismal Swamp.  Where did he get the idea to go there?  How did he frame this event retrospectively?

 

22.  Frost has been compared to Chaucer as one of the English language's great poets on the subject of marriage.  Look at marriage in the works and life.

 

23.  Math in the poems.  As in "The Oven Bird" ("He says that leaves are old and that for flowers/Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.").  Does this tendency to count, to set up proportions, to equate constitute a pattern?  If so, what does it mean?

 

24.  Iconography of Frost—representations of him.

 

25.  Is Frost any help in explaining the meaning of his poems?  What is his attitude toward interpretation by critics?

 

26.  Frost's illustrator(s).  J.J. Lankes was the primary one, illustrating several poems published individually and also New HampshireWest-Running Brook, and The Collected Poems. There’s an exhibition current at Richmond University.

 

27.  Frost's sense of the published book as material document.

 

28.  Escapism.  Frost seemed to object to this term, calling himself a "pursuitist," but he did a lot of escaping, even out the back door/window of his homes.

 

29.  The theme of loss in Frost's poetry.

 

30.  Waste.  Frost is fond of this notion that waste is productive.  Is there any change, by the way, that Frost's interest might be related to the title of Eliot's most famous poem?

 

31.  The sports/games and arts connection in Frost's work and letters.

 

32.  Take a look at one of Frost's "pet" words other than the waste of # 30 above--saytake, or wild, for instance--and see what you can make of it.

 

33.  The market place, or selling and buying in Frost's works.

 

34.  Science in the poems and masques. Professor Virginia Smith in our Chemistry Department has expertise in this area.

 

35.  The mentioned but silent--or barely speaking--characters in the poems.

 

36.  Frost as poet of terror--see L. Trilling, "A Speech on Robert Frost," Partisan Review 26 (Summer 1959: 445-52.

 

37.  The "guide" in Frost's poem; the Virgil-figure, if you will.  "Directive" and "A Fountain, a Bottle, a Donkey's Ears and Some Books" are two examples. 

 

38.  Transitions between volumes.

 

39.  Confused tenses, chronology, and time in Frost’s poems.

 

40.  Lyric impulse in narrative poems of N of B.

 

41. Frost’s “men of the cloth.” 

 

42.  Sexuality and Frost.

 

43.  Frost and the moon—his boast that bad poems are often about the moon.  But what about the moon in his poems?

 

44.  Frost and Native Americans.

 

45.  Frost and McCarthyism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In White

(1912)

 

A dented spider like a snowdrop white

On a white Heal-all, holding up a moth

Like a white piece of lifeless satin cloth—

Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight?

Portent in little, assorted death and blight

Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth?

The beady spider, the flower like a froth,

And the moth carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,

The blue Brunella every child’s delight?

What brought the kindred spider to that height?

(Make we no thesis of the miller’s plight.)

What but design of darkness and of night?

Design, design! Do I use the word aright?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                 Frost’s “STEM” Poems

 

“Accidentally on Purpose,” 438

“At Woodward’s Gardens,” 266

“All Revelation,” 302

“The Bear,” 247

“Bursting Rapture,” 362

“An Encounter,” 121

Canis Major,” 239

“Fire and Ice,” 204

“In Time of Cloudburst,” 259

“Iris by Night,” 288

“I Will Sing You One-O,” 201

“The Literate Farmer and the Planet Venus, 335

“A Loose Mountain,” 327

 A Masque of Reason, 372

“The Master Speed,” 273

“The Milky Way Is a Cowpath,” 247

“Nature’s First Green Is Gold,” 206

“A Never Naught Song,” 439

“On a Bird Singing in Its Sleep,” 275

“On Looking Up by Chance at the Constellations,” 246

“Pod of Milkweed,” 425

“Sitting by a Bush in Broad Sunlight,” 244

“Skeptic,” 353

“A Soldier,” 240

“Some Science Fiction,” 473

“Star in a Stone-Boat,” 162

“The Star-Splitter,” 166

“The Telephone,” 114

“There Are Roughly Zones,” 278

 “Too Anxious for Rivers,” 342

“An Unstamped Letter in Our Rural Letter Box,” 343

“West-Running Brook,” 236

“What Fifty Said,” 245

“The White-Tailed Hornet,” 253

“Why Wait for Science,” 359

“A Wish to Comply,” 355

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frost's Sonnets by the Numbers (32 in The Collected Poems)

      9 Shakespearean (Vol)                                    12 Italian (Vol)                                    11 Variations (Vol)

Putting in the Seed  (MI) 120

Dream Pang (BW) 25

Into My Own (BW) 15

On a Tree Fallen . . . (NH) 220

The Vantage Point (BW) 26

Mowing (BW) 26

Acceptance (WRB) 228

Meeting and Passing (MI) 115

The Oven Bird (MI) 116

The Master Speed (FR) 273

Range-Finding (MI) 122

Once by the Pacific (WRR) 229

The Silken Tent (WT) 302

The Flood (WRB) 233

Acquainted with . . .(WRB) 234

Never Again . . . (WT) 308

A Soldier (WRB) 240

The Birthplace (WRB) 243

Time Out (WT) 323

The Investment (WRB) 242

Unharvested (FR) 277

Etherealizing (SB) 359

Design (FR) 275

On a Bird Singing . . . (FR) 275

No Holy Wars for Them (SB) 361

Why Wait for Science (SB) 359

A Trial Run (FR) 279

Any Size We Please (SB) 359

One Step Backward. . .(SB) 340

Bursting Rapture (SB) 362

The Planners (SB) 361

The Broken Drought (SB) 363

Sonnet Forms and some Frost Variations

Shakespearean

 

 

 

A

B

A

B

 

C

D

C

D

 

E

F

E

F

 

G

G

 

 

Frost Variation

“Putting in the Seed”

 

A

B

A

B

 

A

B

A

B

 

C

D

C

D

 

E

E

 

Petrarchan

 

 

 

A

B

B

A

 

A

B

B

A

 

C c  c c

D d d c

D e e c

D c c c

C d e e

D e d e

 

Spenserian

 

 

 

A

B

A

B

B

C

B

C

C

D

C

D

 

 

E

E

 

Frost Variation “Unharvested

 

 

A

B

A

C

B

C

D

A

D

E

 

E

D

F

F

 

Sonnets Per Volume 
4    A Boy's Will (BW) 
0    North of Boston (NB) 
4    Mountain Interval (MI) 
1    New Hampshire (NH) 
7    West-Running Brook (WRB) 

5    A Further Range (FR) 
3    Witness Tree (WT) 
8    Steeple Bush (SB) 
 

Oddities

1 terza rima sonnet:  "Acquainted with the Night"

5 sonnets in couplets:  "Into My Own," "Once by the Pacific," "The Birthplace" (tetrameter), "On a Bird Singing in Its Sleep," "One Step Backward Taken" (tetrameter)

1 sonnet in triplets:  "The Planners"

"Hyla Brook" (MI) often considered a 15 line sonnet

13 vary in form from manifesting slight irregularities in their stanzas to bold rearrangements that put them in the far right column above

Frost on the Sonnet (the Poem):

1.  "The background in hugeness and confusion shading away from where we stand into black and utter chaos; and against the background any small man-made figure of order and concentration.  What pleasanter than that this should be so?" ("Letter to The Amherst Student").

2.  "The sonnet is the strictest form I have behaved in, and that mainly by pretending it wasn't a sonnet."  (Letter to Untermeyer, 1961).

3.  Second half or so of "The Constant Symbol," with such quotes as, "Many a quatrain is salvaged from a sonnet that went agley, " or "Every poem is an epitome of the great predicament; a figure of the will braving alien entanglements."

4.  Read "The Silken Tent" and "On a Tree Fallen . . ." as sonnets partly about the sonnet form. 
 

Short Bibliography:

Evans, Oliver H.  "'Deeds That Count':  Robert Frost's Sonnets."  Texas Studies in Literature and Language 23 (Spring 1981): 123-37.

Fussell, Paul.  Poetic Meter and Poetic Form.  New York:  Random House, 1979.

Maxson, H.A.  The Sonnets of Robert Frost:  A Critical Examination.  Jefferson, N.C.:  McFarland, 1998.

Rood, Karen.  "Wildness Opposing 'Sentence Sounds':  Robert Frost's Sonnets."  Frost: Centennial Essays II, ed. Jac Tharpe.  Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1976. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                               

 

                                

                              Links to Some Frost Sites of Interest

 

1.  University of New Hampshire Collection (click)

 

2.  University of Virginia Frost Collection Exhibit from 1996 (click)

 

3.  Academy of American Poets (click)

 

4.  Frost Friends of Shaftsbury (click)

 

5.  Clifton Waller Library of UVA (holdings) (click)

 

6.  J.J. LankesWest-Running Brook (click)

 

7.  J.J. Lankes’ woodcuts at Dartmouth (click)

 

8.  Amherst College Library (click)

 

9.  University of Maryland collection (click)

 

10. Library of Congress online resources (click)

 

11. Jones Library, Amherst (click)

 

12. Boston U (click)

 

13. University of Richmond Lankes Exhibition (click)

 

14.  “In White” vs. “Design” (click)

 

15.  Dartmouth College collection (click)

 

16. Manuscript of “The Gift Outright” (click)

 

17.  Modern American Poetry page with links and images of Frost (click)

 

18.  Edited typescript page form “Education by Poetry” (click)

 

19.  Robert Frost Society Homepage (click)

 

20.  Robert Frost Review Facebook (click)

 

21.  Images of the Frost Place, Franconia, NH (click)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                         Frost's Readiness to Change Titles of Poems after Initial Publication

The following list excludes those poems like "Design," "Range-Finding," and "For Once, Then, Something," for instance, whose titles changed from draft to publication.  Thirty-seven in all. 
  
 

Titles on Later Publication

Titles on First Publication

All Revelation

Geode (1938)

America is Hard to See

And All We Call America (1951

Atmosphere

Inscription for a Garden Wall (1928)

The Broken Drought

But He Meant It (1947)

Brown's Descent

The Story of Brown and the Winter Wind (1916)

Canis Major

On a Star-Bright Night (1925)

Choose Something Like a Star

Take Something Like a Star (1963)

The Code

The Code--Heroics (1914)

Does No One At All Ever Feel This Way in the Least?

Does No One But Me . . . (1952)

Door in the Dark

Speaking of Metaphor (1928)

Dust of Snow

A Favour (1920)

The Egg and The Machine

The Walker (1928)

Evil Tendencies

Tendencies Cancel (1936)

The Flood

Blood (1928)

The Hardship of Accounting

Money (1936)

An Importer

The Importer (1947)

In Hardwood Groves

The Same Leaves (1926)

It Takes All Sorts of in and Outdoor Schooling

The Poet (1959)

The Objection to Being Stepped On

My Objection (1957)

Of the Stones of the Place

Rich in Stones (1942)

On Going Unnoticed

Unnoticed (1925)

Our Doom to Bloom

Doom to Bloom (1950)

A Passing Glimpse

The Passing Glimpse (1926)

Pea Bush

Pea-Sticking (1914)

A Peck of Gold

The Common Fate (1927)

Quandary

Somewhat Dietary (1959/The Old Pair (1960)

The Quest of the Purple-Fringed

The Quest of the Orchis (1901)

Questioning Faces

Of a Winter Evening (1958)

The Secret Sits

Ring Around (1936)

A Soldier

The Soldier (1927)

The Sound of the Trees

 The Sound of Trees (1914)

The Span of Life

The Old Dog (1935)

To a Thinker

To a Thinker in Office (1936)

To the Right Person

Fourteen Lines (1946)

Triple Bronze

Triple Plate (1939)

Unharvested

Ungathered Apples (1934)

Why Wait for Science?

Our Getaway (1946)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little Iddens  click

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                           “Sayings” in North of Boston

 

“Mending Wall”

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”

“Good fences make good neighbors”

 

“The Death of the Hired Man”

Silas’s “I’ve come to ditch the meadow”

Mary’s home is “Something you somehow haven’t to deserve>’

The husband’s  “Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in.”

 

“The Mountain”

“But all the fun’s in how you say a thing.”  ?????

 

“A Hundred Collars”

????

 

“Home Burial”

“Three foggy mornings and one rainy day/Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.”

 

“The Black Cottage”

The widow’s quaint phrases:  “descended into Hades” and  “all men are created free and equal” ??

 

“Blueberries”

?????

 

“A Servant to Servants”

Len’s “the best way out is always through.”

“the only asylum/Was the poorhouse”

“It’s time I took my turn upstairs in jail”

“But behind’s behind”

 

“After Apple-Picking”

“The woodchuck could say . . . “  ????

 

“The Code”

“bulling tricks”

the code—a saying????

 

“The Generations of Men”

?????

 

“The Housekeeper”

John’s “Better than married ought to be as good/As married.”

   “ , “He’d say ‘she does it more because she likes it.”

“If they’re worth/That much to sell, they’re worth as much to keep.”

 

“The Fear”

????

 

“The Self-Seeker”

??????

 

“The Wood-Pile”

??????

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

 Passage 

Volume (1pt) 

Title of Poem (2pts)

They would not find me changed from him they knew-- 
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

                        ?

                    ?

The birds that came to it through the air 
At broken windows flew out and in, 
Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh 
From too much dwelling on what has been.

                  ?

                    ?

I made him gather me wet snow berries 
On slippery rocks beside a waterfall. 
I made him do it for me in the dark. 
And he liked everything I made him do.

                  ?

                     ?

                               . . .Then the boy saw all-- 
Since he was old enough to know, big boy 
Doing a man's work, though a child at heart-- 
He saw all spoiled.

                  ?

                     ?

Lately in converse with a New York alec 
About the new school of the pseudo-phallic, 
I found myself in a close corner where 
I had to make an almost funny choice. 
'Choose you which you will be--prude, or puke . . .

                  ?

                     ?

I wonder how far down the road he's got. 
He's watching from the woods as like as not.

                  ?

                     ?

And thus it is I know so well 
   Why the flower has odor, the bird has song. 
You have only to ask me, and I can tell. 
No, not vainly there did I dwell, 
    Nor vainly listen all the night long.

                  ?

                     ?

                                          You're searching, Joe, 
For things that don't exist; I mean beginnings. 
Ends and beginnings--there are no such things. 
There are only middles.

                  ?

                    ?

'Home is the place where, when you have to go there, 
They have to take you in.'

                                                'I should have called it 
Something you somehow haven't to deserve.'

                  ?

                     ?

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows. 
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

                  ?

                     ?

Then leaf subsides to leaf. 
So Eden sank to grief, 
So dawn goes down to day.

                  ?

                     ?

'Scare you.  But if you shrink from being scared, 
What would you say to war if it should come? 
That's what for reasons I should like to know-- 
If you can comfort me by an answer.'

                  ?

                     ?

Ah, when to the heart of man 
    Was it ever less than a treason 
To go with the drift of things, 
    To yield with a grace to reason, 
And bow and accept the end 
    Of a love or a season?

                  ?

                     ?

To think to know the country and not know 
The hillside on the day the sun lets go 
Ten million silver lizards out of snow!

                  ?

                     ?

Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day, 
I paused and said, 'I will turn back from here. 
No, I will go on farther--and we shall see.' 
The hard snow held me, save where now and then 
One foot went through.

                  ?

                     ?

I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark 
Of almost too much love,  
The sweet of bitter bark 
And burning clove.

                  ?

                     ?

The finger pieces slid in all directions. 
(Where did I see one of those pieces lately? 
Hand me my button-box--it must be there.)

                  ?

                     ?

Some day when they are in voice 
And tossing so as to scare 
The white clouds over them on. 
I shall have less to say, 
But I shall be gone.

                  ?

                     ?

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know 
What I was walling in or walling out, 
And to whom I was like to give offense.

                  ?

                     ?

Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb, 
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture, 
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain, 
Something more of the depths--and then I lost it.

                  ?

                     ?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guidelines for Short Paper (Due 19 February)

 

In this short paper (2-3 pages, double spaced), you ought to grapple with a very narrow area of concern in the Frost material we have studied so far.  The obvious focus would be the poetry, but certainly the letters or some of the talks or even a biographical matter might engage your interest and that of your class, which is the audience for your paper.  You can focus on a pattern you see operating within Frost’s works; you might focus on a problem with a volume of poems or even a single poem.

 

The strong paper will identify the issue, frame it within a discussion (among us in HE504 at least and/or within some of the writings done on Frost or done by Frost (the letters, for example).  It will make strides at sorting out the elements of which the issue is comprised. 

 

I have put together three sample papers (click ) that trace and try to explain a pattern.  Along with this group you will find a couple successful student essays of this short variety from a past seminar on Frost.  There are all sorts of cruxes in individual poems that you could address in a concentrated way.  I’m thinking of the lines, “A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had! / Worth three cents more to give away than sell / As may be shown by a simple calculation.”  Nobody, including Frost scholars, has made sense of those lines to me at least.  What is the calculation here?  What does it involve? Postage at that time, maybe?  Even the last three lines of “Hyla Brook” raise a bunch of questions, not the least of which is simply the antecedent to “This” and the target of the reference to “brooks taken otherwhere in song.”  We have also been stopped by the curious passage about at the end of “The Black Cottage.” What’s going on there?  What about the claim that “there are only middles,” which the wife make in “In the Home Stretch?”  Addressing that sort of thing would work just fine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SAMPLE SHORT PAPERS

How Much to Make of a Diminished Thing?

            The group kicking off our study of Mountain Interval observed something about the book that has stuck with me:  the volume is about “how to value things.”  I think that’s right. We would be hard pressed to find a poem in this volume that does not address this matter of evaluating the worth of something. The claim holds true for poems ranging from “The Road Not Taken” to “Christmas Trees” to “The Vanishing Red” even.  A subset of this theme of how to value things, though, strikes me as particularly curious; that’s the tendency to count, to mark off quantitatively, to measure.  That particular tendency prevails in the book, in some ways seems so “unaccountable” (if you will forgive the pun), and perhaps feels so un-at-home in poetry.  At the same time, however, it speaks to a fundamental tension within Frost and his poetry between the practical and imaginative, the market and the aesthetic realms.  

             “Christmas Trees” might best serve as an example of this pattern.  The farmer, tempted by the “trial by market everything must come to,” permits the citified buyer of Christmas trees to survey his woods for profitable trees to sell in the city.  The “value” of the farmer’s land unfolds, then, in numbers and the factoring of those numbers:  1000 trees for $30, which the farmer figures as 3 cents apiece.  He tells us that his city friends will buy each tree for $1.  And “each” tree he owns, the farmer regards as good as “vestry trees whole Sunday Schools / Could hang enough on to pick off enough.”  The emphasis on quantity here, I think, is obvious, especially since “vestry” indicates not just a place but the church committee assigned to raising funds.  The poem includes one more calculation:  the farmer muses that his trees are “Worth three cents more to give away than sell / As may be shown by a simple calculation.”  What factors are being calculated here?  At any rate, what I want to establish is this curious concern with accounting, which emerges in a number of other poems in this volume.

            “Meeting and Passing,” that sonnet about the hesitant emotional relationship perhaps between the young Rob and Elinor, resorts to numerical terms.  The two potential lovers accumulate footprints in the dust as they meet briefly, “as if [they] drew / The figure of [their] being less than two / But more than one as yet.”  What’s more, the hesitant relationship, if I’m right in assuming a male speaker (Frost/poet), is punctuated by a symbolic, gender reversal:  her parasol “Point[s] the decimal off with one deep thrust.”  Ouch!  Hyla Brook” follows, with its less numerical way of evaluating “the things we love,” and then “The Oven Bird” appears with its use of a ratio to express the diminishment expressed by that ground-nesting bird:  “He says that leaves are old and that for flowers / Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.”  “Time to Talk,” interestingly makes a point of measuring the elevation of the hoe the famer plants in the ground before he strides out to the road where he will talk with a neighbor:  “Blade-end up and five feet tall.”  “’Out, Out ––‘” counts the mountain ranges in the distance as five; and the watchers of the boy’s dying have to quantify what’s left of the pulse they measure as “nothing” before they move on.  In “Snow” and in “Brown’s Descent,” not to mention “The Gum-Gatherer,” we are asked to regard the number of miles travelled and remaining in peoples’ journeys.  “Snow” seems overly interested, also, in measuring elapsed time.  Meserve himself quantifies two things: first, the number of chances we get in life, as people commonly spout the lie that “nothing / Ever presents itself before us twice.”  “Our very life,” he continues, “depends on everything’s / Recurring till we answer from within. / The thousandth time my prove the charm”; and second, the comparative weight of himself and Chickadees, as he explains why he must “man-up” and continue his venture home in the menacing storm––“Shall I be counted less than they are”? / Their bulk in water would be frozen rock / In no time out tonight.” 

            In at least eight more poems this quantification occurs, even if in less overt ways.  “The Road Not Taken,” as I have hinted, involves measuring the value of the two roads in terms of amount of travel over them.  In “The Exposed Nest” the parent and child try to protect the nestlings from a massive job of quantification––“too much world” to face. “In the Home Stretch” the wife calculates out at two weeks the time they will have the moon “Night after night and stronger every night / To see us through” their first spell in unfamiliar confines of their new farm home.  The speaker immediately recognizes in “Pea Bush” that there are plenty enough birch boughs for bushing his peas.  Even the title of “Range-Finding” indicates a systematic calculation.  Mountain Interval ends, moreover, with a poem––“The Sound of Trees”––that describes the persistent noise of the trees outside the speaker’s home as something that will eventually cause him and his family to “lose all measure of pace. / And fixity in [their] joys . . .” (emphasis added). 

            The problem, of course, is what to make of this heightened emphasis in Mountain Interval on quantification.  In a sense we already have one answer at hand:  it is one means by which Frost develops the theme of “how we value things,” as our in-class introduction framed it. Those numerical terms, those decimals, those ratios define value.  The pattern seems to involve more than that, however.  To say, as the speaker does at the end of “Hyla Brook,” that we value or “love the things we love for what they are” says a lot and it also says very little.  What does it mean to love the things they are for what they are?  That’s a circular explanation essentially.  It has perhaps “poetic” authenticity; it “feels” right; but it does not, to put it crudely, “sell.”  In some ways, then, these numerical terms operate both to highlight through contrast the inexpressibly expressive meaning communicated by poetry and at the same time to betray the poetic voice giving in to the market where actual things have to be physically exchanged or communicated in mutually agreed ways.  These terms express, then, the need to legitimize and nail down urges, feelings, and relationships.  Thus the use of “measure” in “The Sounds of Trees” becomes vitally important.  “Measure” refers to meter, so that to an extent it is poetry that actually provides quantification to something as haunting and unconsciously persistent as the taken-for-granted noise of the trees swaying outside our houses. Moreover, we become lost in unaccountable desires––in this poem the urge to escape, to follow a reckless choice of departure for an unknown purpose––once “we lose all measure of pace, / And fixity in our joys” (emphasis added).  The “measure” here expresses Frost’s notion of the easy temptation of “free verse,” unmeasured poetry, as it were.  It also expresses the need in our lives and relationships for a sense of clarity, something like a mark to measure, for instance, how far along a relationship has come, even if signaled by the jabbing of a parasol in the dust.  Such measurement even makes the inevitable slide of mortality somehow palatable through quantification: decline sounds almost acceptable as the rationale “Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten,” even though the numbers are dauntingly clear about the extreme decline registered so soon as the arrival of summer.  This pattern of quantification also betrays Frost’s adherence, though not an untroubled one, to the market, to measurement, to quantification.  And that can mean anything from the farmer’s Christmas Trees; to the sudden worthlessness of the dead child in “’Out, Out’––,” who no longer supplies free labor to the family; to the book sales of Frost’s volumes of poetry, coincidently at a time after the widely popular “hit” of North of Boston when he had become concerned about how well this new volume would do in the marketplace. 

 

Cold, White Silence 

        I've noticed a strand that runs through a number of the poems in A Boy's Will.  The clearest I can be about it at this stage is that it involves silence and the absent, female partner.  In various shades the strand emerges in the following poems:  "Love and a Question,"  "A Late Walk," "Stars," "Wind and Window Flower," "A Prayer in Spring," "Flower-Gathering," "Waiting," "A Dream Pang," and "Revelation."  Even more often than in these cases, the speaker of the poems focuses on a mute object, invests it with meaning, and thus makes words from it.  Based on my experience so far with Frost's poems, I would say that this encounter with a mute object is the framework for almost all of his poems.  What I'm noticing, though, is the more troubling and resistant silence the speaker faces and identifies in his partner.

        "Wind and Window Flower" and "Flower-Gathering" express this theme most clearly, with "Stars," "Waiting," and "Revelation" not far behind in the intensity with which they develop it.  The ballad like love story of the window flower and the winter breeze, tame though it seems, deals rather harshly with the flower.  Outwardly, of course, the winter breeze is the harsh element, the one "Concerned with ice and snow,/ Dead weeds and unmated birds" and the one who "little of love could know."  The window flower is associated with warmth:  "the firelit looking-glass/And warm stove-window light."  But the wind is the one who seeks the attention of the window flower and is finally repulsed, as the tone of the last stanza suggests: 


                                            But the flower leaned aside 
                                            And thought of naught to say, 
                                            And morning found the breeze 
                                            A hundred miles away.

Though these are natural entities confined to their separate places, this stanza comes very close to suggesting a cause and effect relationship between the silence of the flower in response to the wind and the wind's departure.  "Flower-Gathering" lingers even more over this problem.  The speaker returns at dusk after "the little while" that he has "been long away" from his lover.  He is "Gaunt and dusky gray with roaming" as he approaches her with a bouquet of faded flowers.  His question tells volumes about her apparent disapproval, despite the bouquet:  "Are you dumb because you know me not, / Or dumb because you know?"  Needless to say "dumb" refers to her silence, not her lack of intelligence.

        Even the most cursory reading about the Robert-Elinor Frost (nee White) relationship tells us that her silence drove Frost to distraction.  In fact her cold, curt response to his delivering a bound copy of early poems (Twilight) to her while she, still unmarried to Robert, was a student at St. Lawrence University in New York sent him on a bizarre, self-destructive escape to the Dismal Swamp in Virginia.  In this respect it's not too difficult to see him as the wind and she as the window flower.  And it's difficult not to see Frost's poem about stars as at least in part a way to capture the coldness he often felt from his wife:  ". . . like some snow-white / Minerva's snow-white marble eyes / Without the gift of sight."  Is it possible to imagine that Frost was not aware of the "white" in this poem calling up also Elinor's maiden name?

        Whatever the biographical circumstances, the female partner serves largely as the poet's inspiration, even, in a sense, the lady to whom the knight brings the prize, which in this case is the formal expression, the poem itself, as in "Waiting," or the symbol of it, a flower, as in "A Late Walk," or a bouquet, as in "Flower-Gathering."  And that inspiration largely comes from her silence, the very absence of speech associated with her.  However troubling that silence is, it seems to inspire the speaker of these poems.  But there's also a kind of petrifying aspect to his return to the female's domestic arena, as the woman is associated not with romance and imagination but with reason.  If our reading of "Stars" is right, she is Minerva, the goddess associated with chastity and cold reason.  And in "Dream Pang," when the dreaming speaker awaits to find that the dream of a lack of communication between the lovers is not real because she is really beside him in bed, he writes, "But 'tis not true that thus I dwelt aloof,/For the wood wakes, and you are here for proof."  "Proof" here, I think, implies more than just the fact that she is evidence that what he experienced was a dream.  The word associates her with something quite antagonistic to imagination and even passion--proof, rationality, even judgment.

        This is about as far as I've gotten with understanding this motif.  I am aware that at least one poem, "In a Vale," contradicts the idea, on the surface anyway. That poem's female figures (fairies or whatever they are) are the voluble ones, while the speaker is the silent receiver of the communication.

 

Saying Things in North of Boston

        In the third poem of North of Boston, "The Mountain," the speaker of the poem and the man in the ox cart discuss the mountain Hor, and especially the spring that only perhaps emerges at its peak.  A new England slope, the mountain resembles Helicon, the home of the muses on top of which wells up a spring originally stamped out by Pegasus.  In light of this allusive resemblance, it is interesting to hear the man in the cart "level with" the speaker about the spring's not really changing temperature during the seasons:

                                I don't suppose the water's changed at all 
                                You and I know enough to know it's warm 
                                Compared with cold, and cold compared with warm, 
                                But all the fun's in how you say a thing (emphasis added)

In a sense this last line amounts to any poet's "creed"; and just as likely, this poem about a mountain is also a poem about poetry and the poet's achieving a poetic reputation, his/her defying gravity, to use a favorite Frost metaphor, by reaching the peak of this Parnassus.

        But this line also calls attention to a larger motif within this volume:  the emphasis on "how a person says a thing."  I count 11 of the volume's 16 poems in which this concern surfaces quite plainly.  In the others it takes a muted form.  Here, briefly, are the poems and a short-hand version of the shape the motif takes:  "Mending Wall," with the neighbor's saying, "Good fences make good neighbors";  "The Death of a Hired Man," with the hired man's rote claim that he's come "to ditch the meadow" and the couple's exchanging sayings about the meaning of home (43); "The Mountain," and the line quoted above; "Home Burial," with the husband's saying, "Three foggy mornings and one rainy day/Will rot the best birch fence a man can build," not to mention the wife's repeated complaints about his inability to say things right; "The Black Cottage," with the old lady's anticipated objection to eliminating the phrase "descended into Hades" from the Creed (66); "The Code, and the violent consequences of someone's saying something in a way that violates the unspoken code (71, for instance); "The Generations of Men," and its lingering over the way the young man pretends to say the prophecy heard in the brook (80); "The Housekeeper," with John's saying, "Better than married ought to be as good/As married" (84); "The Fear," and the wife's telling Joel, "We mustn't say hard things. You mustn't either" (91); and finally "The Woodpile," and the bird's being ever so careful to "say no word to tell [the speaker] who he was" (100).

        There's no room in this short paper to analyze the various permutations of this pattern, which could in part stand in well, I suspect, as illustrations of the things Deborah Tannen has to say about the differences between male and female talk.  One element in this motif, however, attracts my attention:  the men's tendency to rely on sayings.  Whether it's the neighbor in "Mending Wall," the husbands in "Home Burial" and "A Servant to Servants," or John in "The Housekeeper," the saying seems to cut the male off from sympathy with another, while at the same time serving as a kind of pragmatic shortcut for dealing with emotional turmoil and/or the unknown.  It's a self-protective way of "getting on with life," even if it involves a kind of blindness to surrounding complexities.  It's also a way to tether words and language to a fixed pole, to prevent it from sliding in its meaning.  Though this tendency makes the men almost "fools," to use the housekeeper's term for John, Frost does not seem to display it as entirely negative.  In fact he almost offers it as one way that we can put up a "stay against confusion" in our lives.  Finally, though, with Frost's constant emphasis in his poetry on "the struggle" to erect this "stay," it seems that the men come too easily upon, and stay too unquestioningly with, their sayings.  It's not so bad to build the wall, but to do it as easily as the neighbor in "Mending Wall," comes too close to a kind of resignation for Frost, a return to the old savages armed. 

 

                          A Couple Sample Short Papers from Students

The Split Personality of A Boy's Will

 

        The first two poems of Robert Frost’s A Boy’s Will, “Into My Own” and “Ghost House,” tell very different tales.  “Into My Own” delves into the human mind and races through a fantastic daydream of both “the self” and others.  “Ghost House” muses on loneliness, nature, and what has come and gone.  Underneath their surface subjects, though, the two poems share a complex look at a struggling mind, for the narrator repeatedly encounters contradictions and paradoxes.  While there are few unbending concepts in either poem, one thing stands clear: at every turn, the narrator’s split personality lives on.

        The title “Into My Own” contains two possessive words: “my” and “own.”  “My” appears again in lines 1 and 10, “I” appears in 6, 9 (twice), 12, and 14, and “me” appears in 11 (twice) and 13.  These words show the narrator’s consumption with possession and “the self.”  He wants to “steal away” into the trees, and while he uses “steal” in the desperate, escapist sense, the careful reader should pause at the secondary, possessive meaning (6).  In terms of the self, even when the narrator muses about others, he makes it clear to relate “them” to “him.”  It is “my track,” he says, and he wonders if they “should miss me”  (10,11).  “Their” track does not exist, and he only mentions his feelings toward others when he wonders if the nameless “they” will “long to know if still I held them dear” (12).  In this sense, the narrator seems obsessed with himself, but the perceptions of others actually fuel his obsession.

        The poem’s title and last two lines add to the self vs. others struggle of obsession.  The title, “Into My Own,” should beg the question, “from where?”  The logical predecessor phrase should be, “Out of Other’s Own,” thus adding to the power that other people wield in the narrator’s psyche.  Similarly, the last two lines imply that the narrator is not satisfied with himself, for he wants to improve, to become “more sure” (14).  This improvement, though, has nothing to do with healthy self-criticism; instead, it directly relates to when the others “find him” not “changed,” but “more sure” (13, 14).

        While he is careful to put “not” in front of “find,” the word “find” implies a sense of hiding or being lost.  The “mask of gloom” in line 3 supports the small but important theme of hiding, for one hides behind a mask in order to escape the eyes of others (reality).  Similar to the “not find” phrase in line 13, “not” precedes “mask” in line 3.  This negation adds to the confusion and denial of the narrator, who struggles with the thoughts of others, with what he does and does not “have,” and with what he wants to become.  All he really has is “wishes,” and this is a sign of his displeasure with himself, others, and reality (1).

        Building on the concept of reality, the self vs. others contradiction clouds the narrator’s mind and leaves “Into My Own” sitting on a tangle of fantasy and reality.  In line 1, the poem starts with the phrase: “One of my wishes…”  The poem ends with: “… all I thought was true”  (14).  The “wishes” clash with “true” because wishes represent a passion-filled fantasy, while something true embodies a cold, undeniable fact of reality.  Though nearly the entire poem is a daydream (fantasy) that the narrator hopes to enact “some day,” the mention of “truth” brings a clashing, concrete reality to the poem’s end.

        “Ghost House” furthers key themes found in “Into My Own.”  Without wasting time, the narrator starts “Ghost House” with “I dwell” and repeats this phrase in line 9.  In line 1, he dwells in a “lonely house,” which relates to the poem’s title, “Ghost House.”  Comparing “Ghost House” to “lonely house,” “ghost” equals “lonely.”  If one takes “ghost” to mean a dead person, then to be dead is to be lonely.  Conversely, to be alive is to be accompanied.  The jarring, contradictory thing about the poem is that the narrator, while physically alive, is actually dead because he has no company.  The “lass and lad” under “[t]hose [grave]stones,” while physically dead, are “sweet companions,” and thus alive (22, 19, 24).

        To make up for his loneliness, the narrator feebly interjects himself into the surrounding world.  Aside from the two “I dwell” comments, he also muses that “I hear [the whippoorwill]” and “ I know not who these mute folk are”  (11, 18).  The narrator also states that “these mute folk… / … share the unlit place with me”  (18,19).  No symbiotic, give-and-take, true sharing exists, though, for the narrator only sits couched among his own observations.  In addition to commenting on the “mute folk,” he merely observes the life (whippoorwill) and death (gravestones) around him.

        Of course, aside from the life and death observations, the shallow reference to sharing and the “I” interjections serve as mere appendages of “Ghost House.”  The true meat lies in the paradox of presence and absence, which fleshes out the split personality of the narrator.  The paradox begins in the first two lines of the poem, for he “know[s]” of a “lonely house” that “vanished” (1, 2).  Thus, it seems like he knows “something,” (and thus a kind of presence) but he really only knows of what vanished, what does not exist anymore; he knows “nothing” (an absence of something).  The narrator complements this presence/absence paradox in line 3, when he says that the house “left no trace but the cellar walls.”

        To rephrase, the house did, in fact, leave a trace, and the trace was the cellar walls.  Breaking this thought down, the house was once seen as a physical presence, but since it vanished, it is now seen as an absence.  The trace it leaves may be seen as an absence at first glance, but it is actually a residue presence to remind observers of the original presence.  Finally, the cellar walls are a physical presence, but they are also boundaries that “house” an absence (nothing), like an empty clay pot. 
The “daylight falls” phrase of line 4 follows with another presence/absence twist, for the connotation of “light” greatly contrasts with “fall.”  “Light,” or the presence of goodness, clashes with “fall,” which alludes to Adam and Eve’s break with the ultimate light or goodness, God.  In the Gospels, Jesus embodies God as “The Light of the World;” also, “light” relates to “sight” in both rhyme and meaning, for light entering the eyes allows for sight to take place.  Conversely, no light (no God) equals darkness and no sight.  Paradoxically, since Adam can be seen as a “boy” when compared to God, the “boy’s will” of Adam clashes with “God’s will” when Adam eats of the apple.  Adam’s eyes were open to the light (fuller sight), and as a result, he and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden (they could no longer “see” the Garden, or God).  This play on “daylight falls” adds to our understanding of the narrator’s struggling mind.

        Going back to the “ghost” equals “lonely” equals “dead” relationship, Frost may have chosen the title “Ghost House” over “Dead House” because of the presence/absence paradox of the word “ghost.”  A ghost, while indeed a dead person, implies a spirit living on in the afterlife, such as a white-sheeted spook haunting the attic.  Thus, even in death, (the absence of life) a contradictory presence of life exists.

        The paradoxes found in the first two poems of A Boy’s Will may seem unrelated at first glance, but their differences only add to their core similarity.  That is, the narrator struggles with a split personality.  In “Into My Own,” he befriends negation and outlines an ego obsession that relates to the thoughts of others.  He also begins the poem with fantasy and ends with reality.  In “Ghost House,” the narrator confronts the relationships of life and death, presence and absence, and sight and blindness.  Readers might not see these paradoxes all at once, but that is part of the beauty of Frost.  Multiple readings yield multiple meanings, and without such a multiplicity, the poems would be constant and one-dimensional.  Without multiplicities in life, humankind would be constant and one-dimensional as well.  Thus, while the narrator’s split personality may be disturbing at times, it helps usher a full human perspective into the first two poems of A Boy’s Will

Diving Deep Into "November"

        A close, careful read of Robert Frost’s poem “November,” found in A Witness Tree, yields a cache of allusions, recursive references, and complex meanings.  While some meanings contradict and others flow together seamlessly, all meanings combine in a tour de force of a poem that tackles a number of heavyweight themes.  The themes include: science and the time-space continuum, “the fall,” the sound of words, waste, Mammon, and man vs. nature.  With such a cornucopia of themes in a relatively short poem (15 lines), a deep dive into “November” becomes necessary for even a basic understanding.  Though a line-by-line and word-by-word analysis may seem random at times, this randomness clues readers into the very fullness of life in "November."

        “November,” a poem of one stanza, begins with the line: “We saw leaves go to glory[.]”  Before any other thought or word, the nameless “we” establishes a general companionship that is more comfortable than solitude.  “Saw” relates to sight and the eyes.  “ I saw it with my own eyes,” or, “My life flashed before my eyes,” one might say.  This implies an elevated importance, a slow-motion Godsend that forces the observer to notice minute details.  “[L]eaves” going “to glory” relates to when leaves change color during the “fall” season.  Soon after they change color from drab green to brilliant hues of red, orange, or yellow, they fall from a tree, twirling through the air like streamers.  They float and flitter and wheel, as in slow motion.  The “go to glory” phrase adds a wrinkle to this otherwise pleasant image, though, because if something is rising to glory (growing brilliantly colored), then it must have risen up from something less than glory.  However, the leaves are “falling,” alluding to Adam and Eve’s fall from God, so they are going from a high state of being to a low.  Thus, the “glory” lies only in the visual beauty of the leaves.  The sadness and tragedy lies in the symbolic meaning of such a fall, because a tragedy is a fall from “glory” to misfortune.

        The second line, “Then almost migratory,” describes foreshadowing instead of paradoxes.  “Then” implies a fluid flow, a quickness of movement.  “[A]lmost” is a Frostian trademark, adding uncertainty and doubt to the line.  “[M]igratory” implies the movement of the birds, a seasonal coming and going to escape the cold.  A “leaving” of the birds, if you will, to relate back to the “leaves” of the trees.  This combination of nature imbues a light, windy feel to both the birds and the leaves.  To borrow from Ecclesiastes 2:17, “all is vanity and chasing after the wind.”  The concept of vanity also relates to waste and vain human beings, which will be covered frequently by the narrator in later lines.

        The third line, “Go part way down the lane,” relates back to both the first and the second line.  “Go” implies activity, paralleling the “go” in line one.  “[P]art way” reminds us of “almost” of line two.  “[D]own” is interesting because it contains multiple meanings.  One meaning is that of down feathers, which relate to “leaves” in physical makeup and in ability to be swept away by “the wind.”   Another meaning of “down” is that of a horizontal movement “down the lane,” but the earlier reference to “going [down] to glory” should cause the careful reader to pause and think of Adam and Eve’s vertical “fall down.”  Finally, “the lane” sits chock-full of meaning because a “lane” is so much more than just a path.  Rather, it has commercial, human, rat-race connotations, and it relates to the traffic/passing lanes for cars in the street, planes in the sky, ships on the ocean, swimmers in the pool, and runners on the track.  Even in the old-fashioned sense of “lane,” Merriam Webster’s 10th Edition explains that a lane is “a narrow passageway between fences or hedges.”  The fences or hedges are man-made excess, paralleling the excess and waste of the rat race and competition of humanity.  Mammon makes its cameo appearance in “November” with the mention of the “lane” and extrapolation to waste, only to return again in later lines.

        The fourth line, “And then to end the story,” rivals line one with its depth of paradoxes.  “And then” reminds us of the “[t]hen” of line two, the fluidity and quickness of movement.  However, the “end” of line four brings an unexpected abruptness to the reading.  “[T]he story” also carries a certain lightheartedness that clashes with the weighty issues of “the fall” from earlier lines.  “Story” implies a bedtime story, as a parent would read to a child.  (A doting mother hovers over the bed as her child whines, “Tell me a bedtime story!”)  A story might not be real, for it could be a fantasy or whimsical fable.  Conversely, a story could be a part of history, a tale passed down the generations to preserve “the truth.”  Regardless of this ambiguity, the narrator leaves line four with “story” and moves on.

        The fifth line, “Get beaten down and pasted,” directly references both the first and the third lines.  The first could read, “go [down] to glory,” and the third does read, “[g]o part way down.”  Line five adds to this downward spiral with, “[g]et beaten down.”  The “[g]et” also parallels the active “go”s of lines one and three.  The word “beaten” implies violence, brutality, and punishment.  Though God did not exert physical violence on Adam and Eve, he did punish them for violating his trust, for plucking the fruit (among the “leaves”) from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17).

        The word “pasted” also adds multiple meanings to the line.  One reading of “pasted” adds violence to “beaten down,” and a second reading hints at the futility of all things physical, of the Mammon world that man has created and worshipped.  The “leaves” lose their original strength and metaphorically “fall” to a “paste,” an “almost” state of matter between liquid and solid.  Furthermore, “paste” provides an excellent example of a deceiving, Mammon-filled life, for paste loses its original luster and fluidity in anything but the most ideal of conditions.  Specifically, when paste or glue is taken out of the bottle and applied, it loses its flexible properties.  Likewise, when the man-made and Mammon-infested pleasant and ideal conditions of earthly existence are replaced with death, human life will be reduced and lowered to “paste,” or “dust.”  In Genesis 3:19, one finds that, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  In this sense, the narrator’s use of the word “pasted” offers hope, for despite Mammon faults, “we” become drawn into the dust (paste)-filled cycle of life, death, and renewal (“return”).

        The sixth line, “In one wild day of rain,” couples nature with unrelenting power.  In terms of sound, though, “one wild” rolls off the tongue with ease because the sound of “one” is really that of “won,” which flows together with “wild.”  “Won” implies victory, and since the “leaves” (man’s Mammon, rat race, passing “lane,” competitive accumulation) are definitely the “losers” (that which “falls”) in the “story” (the game of life), the “winner” is nature (that which punishes).  Focusing on literal meaning, though, “one” adds concentration to “wild day,” for not only is nature all-mighty and powerful; it is also knows when to be excessive (“wild”) and when to be prudent (“one”) while doling out punishments (“beatings” and “pastings”).  In the Bible, one finds: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven”  (Ecclesiastes 3:1).  Thus, nature keeps “time” and the cycle of life in mind when raining.

        When reading about wild days of rain, though, the careful reader should pause and recall the “story” of Noah and the Ark, in which God punished (“beat,” “pasted”) the non-Noah supported life by raining (destroying) them “down” into “paste” (“dust”).  The non-Noah supported life had “fallen” from God’s good graces, much like Adam and Eve had fallen in Eden (paralleling the “falling down” of lines one, three, and five).  Furthermore, the “wild rain” of line six comes “down” from the same place that all rain comes from, which is the sky, or “heavens ” (God).  Also related to God in line six is the apocalyptic power of nature, because like the forty days and forty nights of the Great Flood, the “wild rains” of “November” “fall” for one day.  By no means does this one day elevate the power of nature to that of God, since nature can ravage man in a shorter time span.  Rather, the one day of rain shows that despite not being God, nature can still exert massive power.

        Another important thing to note about the “wild day of rain” is that it takes place during the day.  Daytime implies light, sight, knowledge, and some degree of goodness, so nature is not completely evil when giving out a punishment (beating, pasting).  Also, a sun shower is something that does not usually happen, for rain is often coupled with darkness, black clouds, thunder and lightning.  Thus, even when punishing, the nature of “November” leans on the side of gentleness and hope. 
        The seventh line, “We heard ’Tis over’ roaring[,]” continues threads of Mammon and contradiction already found in the poem.  The important phrase to recall is “We saw,” from line one.  Though the nameless “we” smoothly returns from line one, “heard” both clashes and merges with “saw.”  The two words merge because they are senses, and they emphasize the reliance on the sensual world of Mammon.  However, they are two different senses, so the words cause a change of gears as the poem’s reader continues.

        The phrase ’Tis over’ roaring” adds yet another paradox, because “ ’Tis over” sounds like a dainty, off-hand, arm-chair English remark.  “[R]oaring,” however, implies ferocity and nature.  The “heard” of earlier should resurface to the careful reader, though, because the sound of “heard” is actually that of “herd,” as in a herd of a wild animals.  Though lions usually roar, a herd of angry elephants could surely make a comparable sound when roused to anger.  Thus, the animalism of “roaring” blatantly clashes with its preceding phrase, ’Tis over.’”

        Like line seven, line eight is its own sentence, and this act by Frost elevates the significance of both lines.  The eighth reads, “A year of leaves was wasted.”  At this point, Frost slyly slips science into his poetry with the time-space continuum.  He gives an amount of time (a year) a physical space, or value (an amount of leaves).  While this reference of science is not as obvious as those found in other AWT poems, such as “A Loose Mountain (Telescopic),” “It Is Almost the Year Two Thousand,” or “A Question,” it does touch base with the scientific world.

        Aside from the science of “[a] year,” this word choice sounds more hopeful than “all the leaves.”  In this sense, a year implies a season that is capable of renewal, like “migratory” of line two.  Unlike a physical amount (“all”), an amount of time (“year”) always follows with more time.  Time never starts and stops; it will continue until the “end of time,” and only God knows when that will happen (“[Y]ou know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13).).  Thus, despite the punishing power of nature in “November,” hope exists for the future.

        In a final note on line eight, the narrator introduces the word “wasted.”  The student of Frost will immediately see “waste” and think back to the countless references in his other poems, in which waste is an essential part of life.  In “November,” the glory of the leaves (their changing color, which looks pleasing for Mammon-infested humans) and the leaves (Mammon accumulation) are beaten into “paste” (“dust”) by nature (“rain”).  Not all is lost, though, because while nature brings life and death, it also brings seasons, renewal, and growth (“a time for everything”).  Thus, despite human shortcomings, “we” also find hope and a future.

        The ninth line, “Oh, we make a boast of storing,” pops out of left field.  Instead of musing about leaves and nature, the narrator seems to changes the subject.  Once again, the sound of a word offers several potential interpretations.  “Oh” could be read in a stern, tired, or rueful voice, among others.  The stern voice would carry anger and a finger-wagging parent approach.  Tiredness would imply exasperation and, “I give up.”  Finally, a rueful slant would bring a hearty, sarcastic, laugh-filled wisdom made by scars.  Whatever the case, “Oh” perches at the start of line nine guarding all sorts of possibilities.

        The word “we” immediately follows, bringing back that nameless, comfortable mass of companionship found in lines one and seven.  However, “make a boast of storing” brings only vile connotations to the nameless “we.”  First off, “we make” implies a human creation process like Frankenstein, in which “we” play God.  As if that is not bad enough, “we” make a “boast,” which is a pride-filled hollow in their lives.  Finally, the boast is made because of storing, in which Mammon connotations abound.  Storing, like all other acts of physical worship, leads humans away from God and to a hollow life.

        One should pause after reading line nine and wonder why Frost did not leave a space between eight and nine.  A lack of space should mean that there is no need to distance the two lines; they share enough similarities to remain together.  Thus, words and thoughts of nine must relate back to something else.  The “we make” traces back to “[w]e saw” and “[w]e heard” (1, 7) but more importantly, the “storing” relates back to the “leaves” of earlier leaves.  Just as leaves represent our fleeting physical things of this world, our storing is also fleeting.  Leaves may change colors and rise to glory, but they then “fall” and die.  Likewise, “storing” up anything of this world is a fruitless endeavor that only bows us down to wealth and causes us to “fall” from God’s will.

        The tenth line, “Of saving and of keeping,” adds to the role of Mammon found in earlier lines.  Naturally, “saving” relates to “keeping” relates to “storing,” but in addition to actually doing these things, “we” also have the gall to “boast” about them all.  At this point in “November,” it should be apparent that the narrator glowers down at mankind with shame.

        In line eleven, readers find out that one thing “we” “ignore” in order to “boast” of “storing, saving,” and “keeping” is the “waste of moments sleeping.”  The nameless “we” thus becomes useless at night, in the dark, without any God-given light, and so they essentially stop functioning and sleep.  The use of the word “moments” makes the usual amount of time that humans sleep (hours) seem excessive.  This excess relates to the waste of the sleep, which we ignore.  If the nameless “we” did not ignore the waste and excess of their lives, they would not make their boasts.  Without these acts of pride (both ignoring and boasting), “we” would become more humble and God-like, accepting waste as “natural” and cyclic.

        The use of “moments” also greatly contrasts with earlier amounts of time in the poem, namely “one wild day” and “[a] year” (6, 8).  This contrast polarizes the existence of humans, which live minute, moment-filled lives that “we” “ignore,” against nature, which ravages and punishes for much larger amounts of time.

        Line thirteen “almost” mirrors line twelve: “The waste of pleasure weeping.”  Though weeping is usually done in sorrow, it can be done in joy, in excessive pleasure or happiness.  The excess, or waste, serves as the second thing that “we” ignore in order to boast.  Taken separately, both “pleasure” and “weeping” represent a different type of waste: pleasure being excessive human indulgence, weeping being excessive human sorrow.  The “leaves” (Mammon accumulation) of the nameless “we” become “wasted” due to excessive human emotion.

        Line fourteen, “By denying and ignoring,” “almost” mirrors line eleven.  However, we both deny and ignore the “waste of nations warring” (15).  The use of “deny” may seem excessive, since “ignore” was already used in line eleven.  However, since the magnitude of “waste” increases from “sleeping and weeping” to “nations warring,” the amount of explaining words also increases.  The plight of nations becomes harder to swallow by individuals, and so “we” must both deny and ignore the truth. 
        After carefully dissecting “November,” even the most patient of Frost’s readers might be tempted to sigh and wonder, “What does it all mean?”  With a poem so short and packed, meaning simply oozes in every imaginable direction.  The more one closes a hand onto one meaning, the more another meaning will slip through the fingers.  Thus, it is essential to keep many things in mind at the same time.  For starters, hope does exist for the nameless “we.”  Despite the many references to Mammon, the references to waste and the punishing force of nature carry along themes of “dust to dust,” seasons, life through death, and renewal.  The large number of gerunds also implies that certain actions have not been finished yet, and thus they can be stopped.  Conversely, if their ceaseless “nature” means that they cannot be stopped, then this timeless quality promises for a future potentially filled with change.  Also, the “one wild day of rain” brings a washing, cleansing effect on God’s part that will be used to make the world a better place.  Taken together, these thoughts provide an impressive cornucopia of meaning in the short, normal-looking "November." 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sample Successful Honors and Capstone Papers from Past Courses

 

 

The Court MUSE: BEAUTY or Wit?
The Shifting Role of Women at the SEVENTEENTH-Century Court

 

The treatment of women courtiers in seventeenth-century poetry gradually shifts from the traditional notion of a lady as a muse to that of a lady courtier who exerts a great deal of real power over the goings-on at court in an unofficial political role. Throughout the century, poets and artists were dependent upon the good graces of a noble family to support them financially, a relationship which is reflected in the correspondence of the time between poets and their patrons. In return for support, or to plead for it, poets like Donne and Jonson wrote short works, panegyrics, that they dedicated to their patrons of choice. Poets and writers wrote about and dedicated their work to the greatest ladies, like Lady Bedford in the 1610s and especially Lady Carlisle during the 1630s. The literary roles played by the Countess of Bedford and the Countess of Carlisle reflect the central themes in the era in which they lived, and even a changing view of the “ideal” woman over the course of the century. As women at court grew more politically powerful, the importance of their intellectual qualities faded. Over time, portraiture and satire gradually supplanted poetry. The center of powerful women at court changed over the course of the century from those in the queen’s retinue to those who were the favorites of powerful men, and eventually even the king’s favorites.

            Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford, lived from 1581 to 1627, during the reigns of Elizabeth, James I, and Charles I. She was apparently very well-educated; John Florio praised her for her abilities in Italian, French, and Spanish in the dedication to his Italian-English dictionary as early as 1598, when she was just seventeen (“Lucy Russell,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). She and her husband were quite active in the Elizabethan court, experienced all of its excesses, and accumulated significant debts during this time that would later force her to work hard at James’s court to keep their household financially solvent after her husband was incapacitated in a riding accident.

            At court, the Countess of Bedford was a lady of Queen Anne’s bedchamber, a socially prominent position that allowed her to insert herself into the social intrigues of the royal court. From 1603-1615, she acted as a patron of the arts, sponsoring poets, playwrights and translators, but her financial state after 1615 precluded much further generosity. A series of deaths in her immediate family and the death of her patron, the Earl of Salisbury, left her with an estate with debts totaling approximately £40,000. She was quite active in attempting to resolve her debts: she invested in several colonial ventures and secured grants from sea-coal revenue and the royal mines. Through her position at court, she was able to grant some patronage although she was not nearly as active or successful as Lady Carlisle was twenty years later, mostly because Queen Anne, her patroness, had less influence on James I than Henrietta Maria, Carlisle’s patroness, exacted on Charles I.

There was a surprising amount of distrust in the royal household, even before Lady Carlisle arrived on the scene. In January of 1617, a woman named Lady Anne Clifford was involved in a property dispute with her husband, and the king had offered to mediate. In her diary, Anne notes that, “The Queen gave me warning to take heed of putting my matters absolutely to the King lest he should deceive me” (Clifford 110). Queen Anne of Denmark and James I did not live together after approximately 1607, and their distaste for each other eventually devolved into an open enmity, as demonstrated by Anne’s comment to Clifford. The royal court was the stage upon which fortunes were gained and lost, and reputations were made and destroyed. Here, Lady Bedford could play more than a bit role in shaping the fortunes of her family members.

            The poets of her time wrote quite prolifically about Lady Bedford; Jonson, Daniel, Davies, Drayton, and most importantly John Donne counted themselves among her beneficiaries. Though ladies of the court would later hold salons for the exchange of ideas between their favorite artists, during Lucy Russell’s time the relationship was less formally intellectual and based more on patronage. Artists like Donne depended on the patronage of nobles for their economic survival, and also for the representation of their interests at court. Even Lady Bedford herself had a male patron in the king’s bedchamber to help her financially, Robert Cecil, first earl of Salisbury, secretary of state and lord treasurer (“Lucy Russell,” ODNB). The poems written to her almost never explicitly ask for money; the only one that does is an uncharacteristically blunt letter from Donne after the death of her brother in which he writes: “Since your noble brothers fortune being yours…I humbly present [this piece]” (Donne, Poetical Works, 270). After the receipt of this letter and her subsequent refusal to give him any great sum of money, the relationship between Donne and Bedford began to chill. However, during their period of close acquaintance from 1607-1615, they maintained a lively correspondence.

            The relationship between John Donne and Lady Bedford has been the source of much conjecture over the years. Some sources claim that they were lovers, but more probably, Donne was a friend and beneficiary of Lady Bedford who maintained close communication with her over the course of approximately eight years. He wrote at least half a dozen poems to her as well as a series of letters to and about her, which deliver a great deal of insight into their relationship. According to Donne’s rather hyperbolic poems, Lucy Russell was the picture of ladyship and even divinity (“To the Countess of Bedford” 2). She was his muse, his inspiration, and one of his most important patrons in the years before he entered the clergy.

            The poetry exchange was not unidirectional in any sense. No matter what the period, any poetry written about these prominent women would elevate their status in court. The courtiers were an erudite crowd who recognized the value of being the subject of both literature and art. Donne, too, saw the value of his poetry for Lady Bedford:

                        Verse embalms virtue; and tombs, or thrones of rhymes,

                        Preserve frail transitory fame, as much

                        As spice doth bodies from corrupt air’s touch.

(“To the Countess of Bedford at New Year’s Tide” 13-15)

However much he immortalized her in verse, though, he ultimately valued her monetary contributions that kept him and his family afloat. In 1614, as her own finances were falling into disarray, she could not comply with his gracefully-hinted request for money in his “Obsequies to the Lord Harrington.” In a letter to Sir Henry Goodyer that year, Donne complains that she only sent him £30 in response, though “her former fashion towards me had given a better confidence; and this diminution in her makes me see, that I must use more friends than I thought I should have needed” (The Major Works 259).

            Not every poet who wrote to Lucy Russell was quite as obviously mercenary as John Donne (or at least they did not leave written evidence of their intentions). As one reads through the score of poems written about Lady Bedford, a pattern of flattery begins to emerge that might characterize the ideal woman in the eyes of the early seventeenth-century poet. If any woman could fulfill these qualifications, it was Lucy Russell, a witty woman who wrote well enough that one of her own poems was misclassified as Donne’s for several centuries. Her poem, an elegy playing on Donne’s “Death I recant,” reads like a continuation of his own poem (John Donne a Life 296; Donne, Poetical Works 422). Her vocabulary, religious knowledge, and the smooth rhythm to her poem all showcase a smart, engaging woman who deserves the praise the poets give her.

            Samuel Daniel, another poet who admired Lady Bedford, wrote her a poem that covers many of the aspects that Donne touched upon, but with a different bent to his flattery. In “To the Lady Lucie, Countesse of Bedford,” he notes that the best way for her to achieve glory and “true happines” is through her studies (Daniel 29-32). If she could “unlock that prison of [her] sex” and so lose her feminine weakness, she could see the world how it truly is because she is smart enough to comprehend it. Unlike the physical flattery that Lady Carlisle later will receive, Lady Bedford is told that she “hath state and greatnesse to doe worthily” (22). This praise resounds because it does not discriminate between the sexes: Daniel knows that she is a woman of strong and worthy character. This character, which should be able to judge a conscience, can, he writes, be improved through reading books (80-83). Lady Bedford fosters a group of poets around her to develop herself both intellectually and socially.

            In their flattery, Donne, Jonson, and Daniel tend to repeat their praise of the same basic characteristics of Lucy Russell. First, the idea of virtue repeats strongly, especially in the set of Donne poems. In one of his poems to her, he refers to both her virtuous soul and her person as “virtue’s temple” (“To the Countess of Bedford” 152). She is both the good and the lovely (56). A motif of light runs throughout many of the poems. To Jonson, she is the “brightnesse of our spheare,” and the “morning-starre” (Jonson, Poems XCIV.1-2). In an earlier poem, he writes that “the day-star should not brighter rise” (LXXVI.7). The traditional symbolic meanings of light, which are godliness, purity, and knowledge, can each be applied to Lady Bedford. Even her name itself derives from the Latin lux, or “light.”

            Of course, the poets refer explicitly to Lady Bedford as a muse, especially using Greek references. John Davies writes that her name flows from his pen like the springs on Mount Helicon that are so sacred to the Muses (Davies 62). In his “The Epistle Dedicatorie,” he tells her that in writing about her, “Poets Plowes (their Pennes) doe plow/ the fertil’st Grounds of Art” (4).  Jonson tells her that when he went to ask his muse what sort of creature would be best to write about, she “bad him, Bedford write” (Poems LXXVI.18). Though these poets are perhaps a bit hyperbolic, they still raise the valid point that in terms of the classical virtues of honor, knowledge and beauty, Lady Bedford is a perfect subject.

             Perhaps most importantly, Lady Bedford is a wit. She has great mental ability, and she is clever and talented. Davies writes that she has such great worth “because [her] WIT and WORTH doe worke so much” (Davies 4). He continues in his praises:

                        For Wit and SP’RIT, in Beauties Liuery,

                        Doe still attend thine all-commanding EYES;

                        And, in thAchiuements of thine Ingenie,

                        The glosse thereof, like Orr, on Sable lies (5).

 

This is high praise for a seventeenth-century woman, especially because women’s education during this time tended to be limited to the skills necessary for the typical housewife and little focused in terms of formal classical education, which was reserved for the boys (Mendelson 90). In one poem that Donne writes to Bedford, it is abundantly clear that he believes her to be well-versed not only in classical mythology but also in the current scientific trends. In the same poem, he alludes to Jove, Dian, the Muses and also to Copernicus’s “new philosophy [that] arrests the sun, / and bids the passive earth about it run” (Donne, The Major Works 187.37-38).  Ben Jonson rather explicitly praises her mental achievements in pointing out that “rare poems ask rare friends” in his “To Lucy, Countess of Carlisle, with Mr. Donne’s Satires” (Jonson 197).These poets speak directly to her and expect that she understands the allusions that they make. Especially in Donne’s poetry written to her, which is often quite dense, Lady Bedford seems to have a developed thirst for knowledge and literature.

            There are fewer paintings of Lady Bedford than of later influential women at court. After the death of her second child in 1611 and a serious illness following that, she forswore the pageantry of the court and seems to have taken to wearing more somber dress and avoiding portraiture. Nonetheless, in 1606 she had three portraits painted of her, all in the dress that she would wear for the court masques of Queen Anne [appendix I]. Specifically, these paintings, done by John de Critz, were in honor of Ben Jonson’s Hymenaei, which was performed that year (Strong 261-262). Additionally, the Countess of Bedford was less interested in her own self-promotion politically than her successors at court would be. Whereas the Ladies Carlisle and Castlemaine would attempt to exert their influence over even the Queen herself, especially through their portraits, Bedford, though influential, was not so controversial. The masques that she danced in with the Queen and her ladies were meant to secure their places in the Queen’s favor (Bald 171-72). Finally, in her later years, she grew more puritanical, and was deeper in debt; thus, she was less likely to engage in the costly excesses of hiring a court painter.

            The Countess of Carlisle was born Lucy Percy in 1600. Her father, the earl of Northumberland, was imprisoned in the Tower for much of her childhood. At age 17, she decided to marry James Hay against her father’s wishes, but with the help of the Countess of Bedford she succeeded. By the age of 26, she was rising to prominence at the court of Charles I and Henrietta Maria. Even in her early twenties, she had a reputation for being trouble: in 1622, she had an affair with George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, and it was widely assumed that if given a spot in the Queen’s bedchamber, she would attempt to seduce the king (“Lucy Hay,” ODNB). When her scheming failed, she ingratiated herself with Henrietta Maria, and so began a long, often bumpy friendship.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes that “in the course of her life, the countess of Carlisle achieved a status in politics normally reserved for the queen” (ODNB). Her early years at court were spent attempting to gain political positioning for her husband. After his death, she continued to work to maintain his estates, but she was also independently politically motivated to the restoration of the monarchy in her later years. She met with the most important men, held property in Ireland, and even spent time in the Tower of London during the Commonwealth for her activities (Betcherman 303). As she moved into the political realm, she also became the subject of more satires and commentary than her predecessor, the Countess of Bedford, had been.

Much conflict has arisen over the Lucy Hay’s actual character. Though much of the poetry written about her is flattering, some contemporary accounts by her acquaintances seem to demonstrate a notable lack of tact and humility, among other faults. Tobie Matthew, one of her hangers-on, wrote a character of her that, while remaining respectful, is biting in its critique of her person. In terms of friends, Matthew writes, “She is of too high a mind and dignity, not onely to seek, but almost to wish, the friendship of any creature” (Matthew A4-A4V). Not only does she seem to scorn friendship, but also love. “Since she cannot love in earnest, she would have nothing from Love. So contenting her self to play with love, as with a child” (A5V). Far from the seemingly approachable Bedford, Carlisle is a woman who desires power and does not need nor desire affection. As the unknown author of the Hargrave Manuscript writes, she is naughty, “The pryde of her Harte not sufferinge hir, to admit of externall submissions, for the obtayninge of invisible delyghte” (238r.18-21). From these representations of her, the reader sees a thoroughly modern woman who has set goals for herself on which she is singularly focused. Any show of weakness would force her out of the political actors’ scene and back into the traditional role of women in the seventeenth-century as the creator and maintainer of the family line.

Unlike our gentle Lady Bedford, “This: Ladye, is held by some, to be disdainffullye high of Harte, and wthall, to be severe, and sharpe in hir Censures” (240v.3-5). She is notably standoffish, and though perfectly civil, seems to have been scornful behind people’s backs (Betcherman 167). Waller praises this aloofness in a quite charming manner; he alone among the poets writing on Lady Carlisle will dare to take a noted fault and turn it to a virtue:

            No worthy mind but finds in hers there is

            Something proportioned to the rule of his;

            While she with cheerful, but impartial grace,

            (Born for no one, but to delight the race

            Of men) like Phoebus so divides her light,

            And warms us, that she stoops not from her height (Waller 26).

 

Waller’s turn of words in this passage makes what others call coldness seem graceful and high-minded. She, like Bedford, provides light to the world, but she does not stoop to the level of the lesser, common man in providing it.   However, some might have praised Lady Carlisle’s harsh demeanor because through it, she may have helped dispel the rumors that she involved with various members of the king’s court (Buckingham, Stafford, and later Pym). If she was so distant and aloof, she might have had an easier time ignoring slights against her feminine virtue.

Of Lady Carlisle’s admirers, Waller exaggerates most egregiously.  In “Of Her Chamber,” her bed becomes heaven, and death turns into the “dart of love” that strikes any man that comes across her path (26). He also had the biggest stake in gaining her favor out of all of her poetic admirers; he was in love with her niece, Dorothy Sidney, and was hoping to curry favor with the family (Anselment 220). In Waller’s poems, the line between deity and woman seems to blur as she drifts into the classical realm of gods and goddesses. In “The Country to my Lady of Carlisle,” he compares her to Orpheus, whose music awoke the woods just as her beauty does (Waller 21). Later, he writes that Juno, Pallas and Athena all came down from the skies to plead for Carlisle’s beauty. Even in his lavish praise of Lady Carlisle, his poetry serves an epideictic function; he attempts to display his skill with words, her excellence, and on some lower level, to teach mythology.

Both Waller and Davenant write on the occasion of the death of the Earl of Carlisle, her husband; each recognizes that her powerful attraction does not just command men to love, but also to grieve. Davenant praises Carlisle slightly less ostentatiously than does Waller, but he still throws in a few good lines. For example, her face is like “The Morning’s early’st Beam, life of the Day, /The Ev’ns last comfort, and her parting Ray” (Davenant 65). No poem of mourning, it seems, would be complete without lavish praise for the widow. Waller takes praise to another, even gaudier level when writing about Carlisle’s grief: he commands her, “If thou lament, thou must do so alone; /Grief in thy presence can lay hold on none” (Waller 23). She is so beautiful, apparently, that even while she is mourning, no one can be sad if they are near her.

The poems concerning Lady Carlisle grow more and more extravagant in their praise, but they tend to stick to praises of her beauty, rather than her wit, charm, or virtue. Thomas Carew writes of her “beautie’s ever-flourishing estate” and the “rosie hue” on her cheeks (Carew 41). He continues in his “New-Yeare’s Sacrifice to Lucinda” by laying gifts of “incense, vowes and holy rites” before her shrine, hoping to leave her a poem in which to perpetuate her “immortall name” (41). This deification by poetry is a common theme throughout the century; even Donne acknowledges that only through his poetry will Lady Bedford’s name be remembered for longer than her lifetime.

Lucy Hay had several signature portraits painted of her by Sir Anthony Van Dyck, the most prominent court painter of her time. In them, her near-mythical beauty is readily apparent. Van Dyck’s representation of movement in fabric, shadow, and body positioning was revolutionary in his time. The painting that he did of the Countess of Carlisle in 1637 shows her ascending a staircase in an opulent dress of shimmering blue fabric with a slight, knowing smile on her face (Van Dyck 454, appendix II). She shows none of the meanness for which she was so well-known, but the mischievous egoist does raise her head in a grin.

Some poets took issue with the excessive praise being given to Lady Carlisle, who they thought was a coquette who had slept her way into the inner circles of English government. In 1639, William Twysden wrote of her artificial beauty, her “perfection” which “none at any time can see /without arts addition” (Twysden 6-8). She apparently wore so much make-up that it was as if she was under a mask. Twysden also notes that she seems to be editing the work that is written about her, only allowing the good or even better, enhanced, to be published:

Who did characterize

told indeed that little good

for which thou standst on natures skore

and omitted all the store

which thy owne hand addeth more (11-15).

 

Waller, the great defender, rose to help Lady Carlisle in his response, “In Answer to One Who Write Against A Fair Lady.” He probably goes overboard in his defense of the lady, who seems to have deserved some of the complaints against her. However, Waller, always the gentleman, calls Twysden a “spiteful owl” and goes so far as to compare Carlisle to the “Queen of Love” (Waller 24-25).

The satirists target Lady Carlisle far less than they eventually will Lady Castlemaine, but she still is the subject of a fair number of derogatory poems. Mainly, Sir John Suckling decides that her image needs to be deflated, especially in his “Upon my Lady Carliles walking in Hampton-Court Garden.” This poem is set up as a conversation between Suckling and Carew in which Carew gives his normal, inflated impressions on Carlisle, and Suckling tells the plain, sarcastic truth. When Carew writes of the “rare perfumes” that he smells upon her passing, Suckling says that he did not get a whiff. Suckling laughingly tells Carew of his attempts to figure out what was under all of those clothes as Carlisle passes them. Here, the reader gets a glimpse of the “real” reaction to Lady Carlisle, which seems to be mainly sexual attraction in Suckling’s case (Suckling 21-22). In Suckling’s “Session of the Poets,” he gives Carlisle a brief mention as the “sorry Lady Muse” of Toby Matthew (11). This reaction is certainly an about-face from the doting honor that is heaped upon Lady Bedford and is probably a reaction to Carlisle’s growing politicization.

After Carlisle arrived at court in the mid-1620s, she became the chief rival of Henrietta Maria, while at the same time being one of the queen’s favorites (Sanders 451). There is some discussion as to the scope and importance of the salons that Lady Carlisle hosted in her home. In general, a salon was an informal gathering of people of similar interests; for her, it was composed of poets and playwrights.  These salons were not just meant to develop creative output, but also to refine a faction at court. So, the more important the members of a lady’s salon, the more influence and favor that she might be able to garner at court. It seems that Lady Carlisle was a master at manipulating the men who surrounded her (Sanders 453-54). Waller, Matthew, Cartwright, and Montagu all wrote flattering paeans to her, and although they were unflattering, Suckling also paid homage to her influence by including her in his pieces. However, no evidence exists of actual monetary support that she might have given to members of her salon. She never had a great deal of disposable money, especially after she lost her Irish estates, but the power and influence that she could lend to her supporters more than made up for the lack of emoluments that she could provide.

After her husband’s death in 1636, Lucy assumed possession of all of his holdings, and she began to maneuver even more to attempt to maintain control of them. Politically, Lady Carlisle reached the peak of her power in 1638, when her brother was made Lord High Admiral (Anselment 227). At approximately that time, the minor poet William Habington again heaped praise upon her, this time giving her the role of goddess of light.

In true perfection, by a glimmering light,

Your language yeelds us, we can guesse how bright

The Sunne within you shines, and curse th’ unkind

Eclipse, or else our selves for being blinde (Habington 467).

 

One would assume that her “bright sunne” would have helped her to leverage her influence, but she eventually lost control of her Irish property during the uprisings in the early 1640s (ODNB).

            In the 1640s, Lucy began to really insert herself into the court intrigues at a higher level than before, this time plotting against Charles I. Rumors flew that she was sleeping with John Pym, and though she probably was not, she certainly was conspiring with him. She is reportedly the person who informed Pym that the King was planning to arrest him in the House of Commons in 1641 (ODNB). At this point, Lady Carlisle is very far removed from the court intrigues of the comparatively prim Lady Bedford. She continued her scheming during the Civil War, eventually trying to make peace with the king through mediations with the French. Because of this interference, when Cromwell took office she was imprisoned in the Tower of London for a year and a half. After being released in 1650, she continued to involve herself in affairs of state, eventually taking part in the negotiations over the restoration. She died while making preparations to see the newly-arrived Henrietta Maria at age sixty-one (Betcherman 336).

            Lady Carlisle, while she was still young, beautiful, and influential, was nearly as powerful as the Queen. In the poetry and character sketches about her, the reader sees more specific personality traits emerge than in the works surrounding Lady Bedford. Bedford was idealized in the intellectual realm whereas Carlisle is praised almost exclusively for her beauty and its attendant virtues. Lady Carlisle also moved with a greater freedom through the court of Charles I, directly challenging the pre-eminence of Henrietta Maria, than did Bedford in the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts. Of course, Queen Henrietta Maria also was more powerful, and had her husband’s ear, much more than did Queen Anne. Bedford fulfilled more the more traditional role of a woman at court: she secured places in the queen’s retinue for her family, proposed marriage arrangements, and represented her family in suits for influence and the spoils of the court. Carlisle moved far beyond the simple social aspects of the royal court into its actual domestic and international politics. The role that she, a woman, played in the deposition and re-instatement of the monarchy was absolutely unprecedented in the seventeenth century.

In terms of the poetry written to these women, it is safe to say that Lady Bedford was the recipient of the more flattering poetry. The poets who wrote to her and about her knew that she would be reading their works for her own enjoyment, and even perhaps emulate their styles in her own poetry. They also knew that a good poem might perhaps bring them some sort of monetary reward from her if she had money available. By the later part of Charles’ reign, when Carlisle was at the high point of her power, the aristocracy simply had far less money to mete out to poets. Between the on-and-off wars with the Netherlands, France and Spain, the Civil War, and general civil turmoil, the aristocracy was spending its money, but not on personal poets. The poets generally could not rely upon the aristocracy for financial support, and so the entire character of the poet-patroness relationship changed. Now, when Lady Carlisle was featured in poems, they were not all flattering. She enjoyed a great deal of literary attention because of the power that she commanded at court, but not necessarily for the for her admirable character traits, as had Lucy, Lady Bedford. In Carlisle’s time, the shift began from poetic portraiture to satires and paintings to honor or harangue the court ladies.

            After the Restoration, another prominent woman emerged onto the courtly scene: Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine. She came to prominence through her romantic relationship with Charles II, which lasted for nearly ten years from 1660-1670. She had five children by the king, whom he recognized officially and to whom he gave landed titles. Diarists and court writers wrote prolifically about her, and Sir Peter Lely painted a series of rather scandalous portraits of her. Her rise and fall at court was mirrored in her political fortunes. While she held the ear of the king, her pre-eminence at court was assured. Few poets wrote about her, though, a sign of the changing literary style. By the reign of Charles II, odes to powerful ladies had fallen out of fashion, never to regain their popularity. However, John Dryden wrote her a sort of “thank-you” poem after she encouraged the production of his first play, The Wild Gallant. In it, he describes her as his muse. Although others were generally disdainful of her promiscuity, Dryden writes that “Your Foes are such as they, not you, have made” (“To the Lady Castlemain” 31). She is “Beauties general Heir,” who has a great Soul and such sweetness and beauty that she must be nearly divine. The level of flattery here is quite similar to a Donne or Waller poem about their respective lady muses.

            Castlemaine did figure prominently in the satirical literature of the day. She was a target that was quite easy to hit because her power over the king was so great, especially in the first half of the 1660s. Andrew Marvell skewered her and her bastard children in his set of “Instructions to a Painter” as the king’s mistress who held far too much influence over him. Pepys seemed to be entranced by her: he writes about her and her beauty very frequently in his diary.

            Most important, though, as representations of Lady Castlemaine’s power, are the portraits that Lely painted of her. In the first painting, she has her long hair worn down, and she rests her head on her hand [appendix IV]. Though it seems to be a simple picture, the iconography is that of the Magdalen.  By placing her as the Magdalen, Lely alludes that the king is Castlemaine’s Jesus, and that she is more important than the queen (MacLeod 120).  Barbara Villiers outshined Catherine of Braganza, and the paintings of Barbara reflect that power struggle between the queen and her.  In one portrait, she actually poses as Catherine of Alexandria, a direct affront to the queen in which she even appropriates the queen’s name for herself [appendix VI].  In another painting done by Lely, Castlemaine poses with a child who is generally assumed to by her second son by the King, Henry [appendix V]. The imagery in this painting is that of Mary and Jesus, which is of course ironic given the fact that this is a painting of the king’s mistress and his bastard child. The father, the king, is conflated with God, which is fitting because he was in fact the head of the Church of England. During her time as the king’s favorite, Barbara Villiers acquired a power that the queen herself envied, for she maintained control of the king’s attentions and his bed for almost ten full years.

 


Bibliography

 

Anselment, Raymond A. "The Countess of Carlisle and Caroline Praise: Convention and

            Reality." Studies in Philology 82, no. 2 (Spring 1985): 212-233.

 

“Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

(accessed October 15, 2008).

 

Betcherman, Lita-Rose. Court Lady and Country Wife. New York: Harper Collins, 2005.

 

Carew, Thomas. The Works of Thomas Carew. Edinburgh: W. and C. Tate, 1824.

<http://books.google.com>.

 

“The Character Of the incomparable, Ladye, the Countesse of Carlile.” Hargrave Manuscript

226, 21. British Library.

 

Clifford, Anne. The Memoir of 1603 and the Diary of 1616-1619. Ed. Katherine Acheson.

Toronto, Broadview Editions, 2007.

 

Daniel, Samuel. “To the Lady Lucie, Countesse of Bedford.” The Penguin Book of

Renaissance Verse. London: Penguin Books, 2005: 504-506.

 

---. Poems and A Defence of Ryme. Ed. Arthur Colby Sprague. Chicago: The University of

Chicago Press, 1965.

 

Davenant, William. The Shorter Poems, and Songs from the Plays and Masques. Ed. A. M.

            Gibbs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

 

Davies, John. The Complete Works of John Davies of Hereford, volume 2. Edited by Rev.

            Alexander B. Grossart. New York: ASM Press, 1967.

 

Donne, John. The Major Works. Edited by John Carey. Oxford: Oxford University Press,

2000.

 

---. Donne, Poetical Works. Ed. H.J.C. Grierson. Volume 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912

 

Dryden, John. "To the Lady Castlemain, Upon Her incouraging his first Play." In Poems of

John Dryden. New York: Pearson Education Limited, 1995: 153-154.

 

Habington, William. “To the Right Honourable The Countesse of C.” The Works of the

English Poets from Chaucer to Cowper. Volume VI. London: 1810.

 

Jonson, Ben. The Complete Poems. London: The Penguin Group, 1996.

 

---. Poems. Edited by Ian Donaldson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975

 

“Lucy Russell [née Harington] Countess of Bedford.” Oxford Dictionary of National

Biography. (accessed October 15, 2008).

 

“Lucy Hay [née Percy] Countess of Carlisle.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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Marvell, Andrew. “Last Instructions to a Painter.” The Complete Poems. New York: Penguin

Classics, 1977: 157-166

 

Matthew, Tobie. “The Character of the Most Excellent Lady, Lucy, Countess of Carleile.” A

Collection of Letters, made by Sr. Tobie Mathews Kt. With a Character of the most Excellent Lady, Lucy, Countesse of Carliele: By the same Author. To which are Added many Letters of his own, to severall Persons of Honour, who were Contemporary with him. London: Henry Herringman, 1660.

 

Maurer, M. “The real presence of Lucy Russell, countess of Bedford, and the terms of John

Donne’s ‘Honour is so sublime perfection,’” ELH: a Journal of English Literary History 47, no. 2 (1980): 205-234.

 

Mendelson, Sara and Patricia Crawford. Women in Early Modern England. Oxford:

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Sanders, Julie. “Caroline Salon Culture and Female Agency: The Countess of Carlisle,

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Appendix I

Lucy Harrington, Countess of Bedford, in a Masque Costume Designed by Inigo Jones, 1606

John DeCritz the Elder, c. 1606

Oil on canvas, 3324 x 5200 mm

 


Appendix II

Lucy Percy, Countess of Carlisle

Anthony Van Dyck, 1637

Oil on canvas, 2184 x 1308 mm

 


Appendix III

Lucy (Percy), Countess of Carlisle

Pierre Lombart, after Anthony Van Dyck, 1637

Line engraving, 345 x 255 mm

 


Appendix IV

 

Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine

Sir Peter Lely, c. 1662

Oil on canvas, 1910 x 1315mm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appendix V

 

Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine and her son, Charles Fitzroy (1662-1730)

Studio of, or contemporary copy after, Sir Peter Lely, c. 1665-75

Oil on canvas, 1752 x 1143 mm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appendix VI

 

Barbara Villiers, (née Palmer), Duchess of Cleveland (1662-1730)

after Sir Peter Lely, c. 1666

Oil on canvas, 1245 x 1010 mm

 

 

 

The Architecture of Intimacy: Controlling the Privacy Space

Humans subconsciously react to the spaces that surround them.  This automatic response can be studied in relation to the privacy space, and what types of architecture create a sense of comfort, intimacy, or lack thereof.  Through close examination of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel, We, in which the One State has created a society entirely enclosed by glass architecture, it is possible to discern the social effects of a diminished privacy space.  This affects the social structure on group, economic, and personal levels.  Because the architecture of the city developed in the novel can reflect different aspects of the human psyche it is ideal for this study.  Particularly the two main characters—who represent both the rational and irrational facets of human nature—offer insight into the different ways in which people react to intimate spaces.   Social nostalgia and public intimacy also create a considerable threat to the totalitarian state and factor into architectural decision-making.  Even manipulation of the biological privacy space has a role in Zamyatin’s One State at the height of its social domination.  After study in depth it becomes evident that architecture can be utilized to control human behavior through manipulation of the privacy space, as shown in Zamyatin’s We and supporting architectural and social theories.

The first concept that requires unraveling is that of the privacy space itself as an asset to society as a whole, and its effect on personal lives.  The privacy space is important because it presents a threat to totalitarian states in multiple ways.  Gaston Bachelard asserts that “the passions simmer and re-simmer in solitude: the passionate being prepares his explosions and his exploits in this solitude,” recognizing that when left alone with his mind in an intimate space man is inclined towards deep thought and its resulting passions (Bachelard 9).  Seclusion therefore facilitates creativity and passion, both of which are dangerous to a government seeking a monopoly on social construction.  In a room where a man feels at ease “his solitude is creative” and allows development of new ideas, enabling action and/or inclusion of others in those activities (Bachelard 10).  Fostered creativity may be illuminating or beneficial on a personal level, but is potentially damaging to a police state seeking to maintain its domination of social policy. 

Additionally, interior space “evokes the domain of the psychological, of inner life or authentic self.  It also evokes a more familial sense of privacy and intimacy,” stimulating not only creative thought, but also the growth of relationships (Bickford 357).  The word familial is particularly alarming to a police state, as it evokes imagery of a community when individuals are easier to control.  The One State destroys the possibility of familial intimacy in large part by controlling sex and reproduction schedules.  Out of desperation to satisfy her maternal instinct O-90 risks the Benefactor’s Machine just to “feel it, feel it within [her]” (Zamyatin 112).  She understands that execution is inevitable, which is indicative of the One State’s control of the relationship space.  Intimate spaces encourage exactly the independent thought and intimate associations that the One State in We seeks to avoid at all costs.

While passion can be political or theological in nature, its potential connection to romance cannot be overlooked and is essential to the novel.  Love plays an enormous role in We as the central reason D-503 falls away from obedience to the One State.  The Ancient House is the only true privacy space in the novel and makes the innate connection between opaqueness and passions as “the heavy, creaky untransparent door closed, and at once [D-503’s] heart opened painfully wide” (Zamyatin 74).  His time spent with I-330 in the Ancient House affirms both his diagnosed soul and fresh romantic emotions as indicators of the effects of perceived privacy.  Because he feels comfortable and unwatched he is free to act on his new emotions.  The sense of intimate space changes dramatically in the novel the first time that he enters the Ancient House.  For the first time, a citizen is seen giving in to passionate love (rather than merely partaking in sexual intercourse) with “no pink coupon, no accounting, no State” (Zamyatin 74).  This use of the privacy space as the primary stage for romantic engagement emphasizes its role in society as a location for both intimate thought and acts.

Those perceptions of the privacy space make it imperative for a totalitarian state to “pay heed to these relations between locations and spaces… to help in thinking of the relation of man and space” in order to control such intimacy if it is to be used at all (Heidegger 154).  Understanding that privacy is inextricably linked to man’s passions is a necessity in making strategic architectural decisions.  In Zamyatin’s novel the One State decides in favor of strict control of social intimacy, so “having conquered Hunger… launched its attack against the other ruler of the world—Love” (Zamyatin 21).  The use thorough use of glass, public executions and similar discipline, and the use of shades to declare sexual intercourse at approved times reflect the state’s architectural manipulation. 

While the drawing of shades gives the false appearance of privacy, that action truly serves an opposite role as the public declaration of what is taking place within the room.  Because citizens of the One State otherwise “live behind [their] transparent walls that seem woven of gleaming air… always visible, always washed in light,” the blinds really serve as an emotionless and sterile reminder that a natural human need for sex and sex only is being fulfilled.  This conscious and public mockery of the traditionally intimate space aggressively discourages any real passion and the resulting complication of romantic relationships.  Because in architecture “the idea becomes a parody of the physical sensation; the idea assumes a life of its own, in imitation of the physical sensation,” the government of the One State has effectively resorted to sterilized design concepts to deter sexuality (Hendrix 6).  In this way authorities can largely maintain control of any sexual reproduction and/or development of threatening romantic, political, or social ideas.

The use of glass in the science fiction novel, We, and its connection to Michel Foucalt’s theory of the panoptic schema for social discipline is an important inversion of these intimate spaces.  Much like D-503’s naive perception that “the whole world is cast of the same impregnable, eternal glass as the Green Wall, as all [their] buildings,” the panopticon constructs a sense of uniform transparency (Zamyatin 3).  Public executions carried out by the Benefactor reinforce the visible social discipline that the One State seeks to maintain.  In the “infinite second” that is both “elementary and known to everyone,” a human being is dismantled atom by atom, and this act is generally accepted as a necessary reaction to abnormal behavior (Zamyatin 48).  This transparent punishment and its effectiveness support the strategy of a panoptic society championed by Foucault.

Such thorough architectural and punitive transparency creates not only a sense of being watched by others, but also an implied responsibility to watch others.  While the government is the primary enforcer of social standards, the architecture of the One State manipulates glass to “be like a faceless gaze that transformed the whole social body into a field of perception: thousands of eyes posted everywhere” (Foucault 205).  Pellucidity makes every citizen accountable to himself, his peers, and (most importantly) his ruling body.  In fact, in the strictly controlled environment of the One State, “full lighting and the eye of the supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected.  Visibility is a trap” (Foucault 200).  The light eliminates any kind of dissidence—or even the potential for social nonconformity—with “a vigilant eye fixed upon you, lovingly protecting you against the slightest error, the slightest misstep” (Zamyatin 66).  Ideally, all citizens of the One State resemble D-503 in this affectionate view of the Benefactor and consider this visibility an asset.  If it is generally agreed that “the only means of ridding man of crime is ridding him of freedom,” then there is no incentive to seek liberation (Zamyatin 35).  In these ways the use of glass architecture parallels Foucault’s panopticon.

The panopticon as utilized by the One State also works by illuminating individuality as mechanical, functioning parts of a social whole, rather than encouraging interpersonal connection.  The many apartments are “like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized,” as “the relationship between house and space becomes an artificial one.  Everything about it is mechanical and, on every side, intimate living flees” (Foucault 200; Bachelard 27).  By refusing to let citizens live together—their only shared moments are state-approved activities—the One State emphasizes individuality to diminish intimate relationships.  Even D-503 recognizes his “glass cage” and its connection to the “grandiose celebration of the victory of all over one, of the sum over the individual” (Zamyatin 147, 46).  Members of the One State live like contributing bees in a transparent beehive.  Where there is nowhere to hide and no privacy to socialize on more than the shallowest level, personal relationships have nowhere to grow and the government maintains control as “the crowd, a compact mass, a locus of multiple exchanges, individualities merging together, a collective effort, is abolished and replaced by a collection of separated identities” (Foucault 201).  Focus on the function of an individual removes the camaraderie of a crowd.  So it becomes clear that the individual as a mechanical piece, rather than a personal bond, is what is valuable to a totalitarian state.

The connection between the privacy space, the panopticon, and power becomes increasingly important as concepts become economical in focus.  Because “space is in essence that for which room has been made, that which is let into its bounds,” the One State must use its influence to develop spaces meant primarily for productivity to manufacture citizens dedicated to the assembly of a forward-looking society (Heidegger 152).  If it is understood that “power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes,” then the One State appropriately arranges its citizens for prime motivation to be productive and timely (Foucault 202).  The visibility and lack of privacy to be either creative or, conversely, completely lazy is conducive to the strong state economy.  D-503’s commitment to his work is nurtured by the knowledge that he is being watched through the glass of both his home space and his workplace near the Integral.  A totalitarian state’s goal is for human missteps to be “only breakdowns of minor parts which can easily be repaired without halting the eternal, grandiose movement of the entire Machine” (Zamyatin 14).  Its citizens must balance recognition of their own insignificant role in the social structure with maintained productivity.  The One State’s power of transparency largely lies in the social pressure to be a productive, contributing member of society.

In addition to personal privacy, public intimacy creates a potential threat to any totalitarian regime.  Giuliana Bruno writes in her book Public Intimacy: Architecture and the Visual Arts that people use the movie theater and museums as a “site of intimate exploration,” which can create a “material site of loss” encouraging public intimacy (Bruno 38, 41).   She works with the idea that places serving as some kind of memorial to a different time or place may foster a sense of group comfort and/or self-reflection.  This idea is reflected in Zamyatin’s We, reaching comparisons between museums and the relic that is the Ancient House.  Much like Bruno’s sense of nostalgia, D-503 is moved by the archaic objects he was initially repulsed by and begins to find solace in their hectic nod to a lost era.  Since public intimacy can only exist with memorials the One State abolishes everything but the future—they always look to improvement and further accomplishment rather than seeking out memories.  The lack of nostalgia within Zamyatin’s futuristic society eliminates the retrospection that Bruno theorizes and enables the transparent and hyper-organized world they live in. 

At Giuliana Bruno these “sites of intimate exploration” or “material sites of loss,” people are inclined to reflect on past discretions or successes (Bruno 38, 41).  This introspection inevitably leads to a search for reform or social progress of some sort.  It is obvious that this theory is incredibly detrimental to a forward-looking One State that seeks to eliminate public contribution to social doctrine.  An important event hosted in We is the annual election of the Benefactor, which inverts the site of loss by creating an origin-free, purely forward-looking social event.  The citizens have no knowledge of past conflict, but instead believe that “the history of the One State knows no occasion when even a single voice dared to violate the majestic union” (Zamyatin 137).  Elections never in change in this dystopia and so construct a sense of community without allowing for any memorialization of past benefactors or even past uprisings.

The destruction of potential memorials or triggers of nostalgia is paramount in diminishing desire for social change.  It is important because of the potentially harmful idea that “primal images, simple engravings are but so many invitations to start imaging again…we have the impression that, by living in such images as these… we could start a new life, a life that would be our own, that would belong to us in our very depths” (Bachelard 33).  Interestingly enough, retrospection creates endless possibilities for the future.  Imagining possibilities is exactly what the One State wants to prevent its citizens from doing; there should be only one future, and that future is carefully manufactured by the totalitarian social architects.  Memorials and relics create hope for a new future, so public intimacy is a dangerous sense of kinship reflective of the exact relationships discouraged in We. 

In Zamyatin’s novel the One State allows only one relic with the potential to serve as a public site of loss and that is the Ancient House.  This building stands as an eclectic collection of ancient clutter where I-330 feels perfectly at home.  Its privacy allows D-503 to construct a previously impossible future with an unimagined romantic interest.  He even likens her to the relic itself, wondering “what was behind the shades within her” (Zamyatin 26).  His frustration that the house is unlike the organized beauty of the surrounding glass metropolis starts to conflict with the new possibilities he associates with this preservation of past civilizations.  D-503’s comfort in a space memorializing ancients who were known to appreciate the romance he finds so uncomfortable evolves his perspective on I-330, framed attractively by the “savage whirlwind of the ancient life” (Zamyatin 28). 

This very relationship so dreaded by the One State is exemplified in that of D-503 and I-330, who find love in a hopeless situation.  It is obvious through even a shallow reading of the novel that these two main characters represent the dichotomy existent within every individual’s irrational and rational mental tendencies.  D-503, with his basic aversion to jokes which “contain a lie as an implicit function,” clearly is representative of the logical side and its role within the One State (Zamyatin 14).  He is troubled by his attraction to I-330, who makes his scientific clarity “somehow cloudy, cobwebby, shadowed,” as he starts to unveil his soul and fall in love (Zamyatin 22).  I-330 is of course indicative of the opposing irrational, or emotional, half of the human psyche.  She challenges D-503 to see beyond the green walls of the One State and its structure by showing him both romantic love and a physical introduction to the outside world.  When she kisses him, D-503 writes that it is “an ancient, absurd, miraculous ritual,” indicating that the passion he associates with I-330 is equally associated with the disordered, irrational ancients (Zamyatin 154).  Moving beyond the manipulation of his emotions, I-330’s anarchist plot opposes D-503’s beloved Integral project in an expanded perspective on their relationship and the human mind.  I-330 threatens the engineering work of her companion to destroy the scientific dystopia in turn. 

D-503’s association with the architecture of the One State is incredibly important.  His role as representative of the rational aspect of the human psyche is indicated through his relationship with the glass and logic of his society.  He truly considers social authority “the great, divine, exact, wise straight line—the wisest of all lines” until he starts to doubt himself because of his feelings for I-330 (Zamyatin 2).  His obsession with routine and timeliness—a result of rigorous schedules maintained by the One State—is shaken by the discovery of his soul and its capacity. 

Even when he feels joy in love, though, D-503 is resistant to his newfound emotions; he resents living “in the ancient nightmare world, the world of square roots minus one” (Zamyatin 77).  He consistently fights the emotional liberation their relationship enables, instead cherishing the “bounding wisdom of walls and barriers” (Zamyatin 93).  Despite his progression into romantic feelings D-503 cannot escape his logical nature and maintains that “everything great is simple; only the four rules of arithmetic are eternal and immutable” (Zamyatin 116).  This obsession with mathematics and structure reflect the architecture of the One State, which wholly relies on these particular concepts.  He is the ideal champion of the exact schedules, economical workday, and even the perfect walking lines such a society demands.  Throughout the novel D-503 is resistant to the disorder love creates within himself.

            D-503’s lack of passion before I-330 and the Ancient House also parallels his connection to the glass architecture of the One State.   First is the connection that D-530 has with the architecture of the One State.  Not only is he obsessed with the order of his futuristic and hyper-organized society, but his meticulous and emotionless logic is associated with the transparency of the constant glass buildings.  Before his romance he would eagerly let the One State “free [him] of every squirming, torturing, nagging question mark” that originates from the problematic soul (Zamyatin 207).  He feels no passion even when the blinds are closed to create a false sense of intimacy, but only affection and natural sexual desire.  The main character even recognizes and treasures his personal connection to the architecture, noting a little pretentiously that “there are clay ideas” (those of the ancients) and “there are ideas forever carved of gold or of [their] precious glass” (Zamyatin 115).  This is the case until I-330—herself connected more to clay ideas—“robs” D-503 of his enjoyment of emotionless sex and tears his connection to the glass architecture (Zamyatin 78). 

In opposition to D-503 is his love interest, I-330, who clearly represents the irrational aspect of the human psyche.  Particularly her association with the Ancient House is important as its architecture dramatically contrasts that of the rest of the One State.  It is a relic of a house that is cluttered and closed, with small windows and rooms full of past mementos.  This nicely parallels her role as the emotional part of the human mind.   She is recognized as similar to the Ancient House, “made as absurdly as these preposterous ‘apartments’; human heads are opaque, with only tiny windows in them—the eyes” (Zamyatin 27).  Her link with the shades is also clear as D-503 constantly refers to her eyes as “lowered, like shades” to indicate the more intimate and secretive sides of human nature (Zamyatin 26).  I-330 is consistently a mystery to him, and frustratingly opaque like the Ancient House.  She is the primary character full of surprises and encouraging passion, which “irritates and repels… almost frightens” the protagonist in spite of his sexual attraction to her (Zamyatin 25).  Of course I-330’s interaction with the Mephi outside the green wall is exemplary of the “madness” that temporarily intoxicates D-503, and magnifies the irrational influence constantly tugging at his rigid logical viewpoint (Zamyatin 158).

            This conflict between the rational and the irrational can be seen within architecture both of the One State and in general.  Government must understand the relationship between its citizens and their privacy space to adequately control human behavior.  Because “the relation between the mind and the material world is as old as philosophy, as in the relation between nous poietikos, creative intelligence, and the nouse hylikos, material intellect,” architecture can be used to manipulate the mind via the material world (Hendrix 1).  The One State revolves around a social acceptance that “neither mathematics nor death ever makes a mistake,” and manipulates architecture so that it is as close to mathematical perfection as possible (Zamyatin 101).  Because “architecture stages the problematic relation between reason and nature,” a totalitarian government may reduce that relationship so that nature becomes either unappealing or insignificant in the face of logical design (Hendrix 3).  The separation from nature and movement towards structure diminishes the importance of personal comfort and instead forces the development of a “public identity that relies not on the uncovering of a deep psychological self, but on the creative disclosure of a public self through speaking and acting with nonintimate others” (Bickford 357).  By forcing architecture to closely resemble geometric, logical design, the One State can redefine social identities.

            A particular method effectively utilized by the One State is destruction of what is dubbed by Christopher Alexander in his book A Pattern Language as the “intimacy gradient” (Alexander 552).  This architectural theory suggests that people require a gradual introduction to intimate spaces to feel comfortable.  For instance, entering a stranger’s household directly into the master bedroom will inevitably create discomfort for a visitor.  The solution for this is, of course, arranging spaces “in a sequence which corresponds to their degrees of privateness,” to accommodate guests (Alexander 610).  The One State uses this theory irreverently by destroying the gradient through the use of glass to intentionally create discomfort for its citizens.  A complete loss intimacy occurs after collapsing the gradient and removing all possible movement into a privacy space. 

When the “public is a place of risk, uncertainty, incompleteness… a realm of exposure,” the State holds a great advantage over its vulnerable citizens (Bickford 357).  If the entire city is built of glass, with the exception of the occasional use of blinds, then the entire city is the public space.  Citizens have no opportunity to feel at ease or inclined to intimacy, and “the intimacy gradient makes it clear that every house needs rooms where individuals can be alone” to feel at ease (Alexander 669).  Removing people from their comfort zone is a convenient way to ensure the One State’s dominance in We.  Unlike spaces whose “being is well-being,” the glass society bares all to the omniscience of the Benefactor and society as a whole (Bachelard 12).  As mentioned previously, the scheduled and required use of blinds for intimacy is particularly useful as an abrupt and blatant social announcement that a sexual act is taking place to disrupt the gradient. 

This gradient also explains why the Ancient House is so conducive to the romantic encounters that I-330 facilitates.  Considering how movement into the Ancient House, down into the tunnels, and even beyond the glass wall pushes D-503 further and further away from his treasured logic and towards his emotional and irrational side makes it clear that this architectural relic is an example of the intimacy gradient effectively putting someone at ease.  Because D-503 seems uncomfortable on the other side of the wall it is clear that logic fights intimate spaces.  On the other hand, I-330’s comfort and pleasure at the liberation of the natural world reflects her emotional reaction to the privacy space.  It is an indication of the different ways in which the logical and passionate aspects of humanity respond to intimate spaces.  While the irrational relishes such places, it is clear that logic is at a loss.

            To take an opposing view of this research it is important to consider Anthony Damasio’s Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, in which he suggests that logical and emotional thoughts are not necessarily in opposition with one another.  In fact, he argues that “certain aspects of the process of emotion and feeling are indispensable for rationality” (Damasio).  The idea that logic is not the infallible or purest part of human nature is presented effectively through scientific study, and seems in some ways to contradict the idea that Zamyatin’s characters are in opposition.  The obvious conflict D-503 experiences as he goes through his diagnosis of a soul and that an operation is necessary to bring him peace create an interesting dilemma.

Perhaps the split of the human psyche is still interesting to study despite the acknowledgment that the entirety of the mind must function in coordination, and perhaps because of it.  Indeed, there may be a flaw in setting reason against emotion when it comes to the discussion of intimacy as the two can never completely separate themselves.  Even in his isolated and glass One State D-503’s soul finds him and encroaches upon his emotionless mind.  Damasio’s argument may also indicate that in architecture and in literature intimacy requires the emotional aspect of humanity to overcome the rigidity of logic.  The ways in which D-503 evolves in regards to his soul and private passions show how both parts of the human psyche react to the spaces that surround him. 

            An additional aspect of architecture is biological in We when the One State begins to implement the Great Operation.  In large part because “architecture mirrors the activity of mind in self-consciousness,” the anatomy of the brain is easily compared to architectural design and perhaps too easily viewed as a structure (Hendrix 3).  Its spaces can be analyzed according to their function and layout.  Therefore the most intimate of all privacy spaces—the mind—is invaded and dismantled through a surgical procedure.  Though D-503 feels as if “a kind of splinter was pulled out of [his] head,” the operation destroys the potential and desire for intimacy on its most fundamental level (Zamyatin 231).  The Great Operation is the epitome of privacy invasion.  D-503 no longer has any room for development of his personal passions or exploration of his new soul because the beauty of logic is all that exist for him anymore.  The famous theorized hut dream referenced by Gaston Bachelard recognizes that human beings “hope to live elsewhere, far from the over-crowded house, far from city cares.  We flee in thought in search of a real refuge” (Bachelard 31).  Armed with the understanding that human beings will always seek to dwell apart in a remote sanctuary of privacy, the government in We develops technology capable of removing such innate desires.  Indeed the One State has perfected the extraction of such hope, effectively using biological architecture of intimate space to control society.

            In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel, We, the two main characters and the opposition of human nature they indicate create a dilemma.  D-503 and I-330 appear diametrically opposed to one another, yet bear an irresistible attraction that cannot be ignored.  Such a specific case of opposites attracting ends in devastation, but raises relevant points nonetheless for a study on the human psyche, the architecture of intimate spaces, and society in general.  It is clear that Zamyatin creates D-503 to adhere to belief in “mathematically infallible happiness” and represent the more rational and purely logical side of human nature (Zamyatin, 1).  Conversely, the woman he inadvertently falls in love with, I-330, whose eyes bear “within them, the burning fireplace, the stirring shadows,” is the embodiment of the feminine, emotional spontaneity of mankind (Zamyatin, 87).

            Through architectural and social theory, Zamyatin’s We can be used as a sociological study on governmental control of human behavior.  Through destruction of the privacy space citizens can be manipulated on an elemental level.  Lack of personal comfort diminishes the creativity process which in turn diminishes concepts for social change.  Loss of intimate spaces also reduces the ability and inclination of human beings to build lasting familial or romantic relationships.  This disjointedness creates independent, vulnerable units for the state’s use.  The sense of being watched encourages economical behavior in people, which is also beneficial to the One State in We.  Finally, the lack of memorial sites or extensive historic records removes nostalgic inspiration for future change.  The One State must manipulate its citizens to see only one future, and that future must be carefully constructed to revere logic and order.  Transparency—illustrated with the use of glass in the novel—is a tool easily honed into a weapon for use by a totalitarian state.  Visibility is accountability.  Without intimate spaces human beings lose touch with their private selves. 

 

Works Cited

Alexander, Christopher, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York: Oxford UP, 1977. Print.

Bachelard, Gaston, and M. JolasThe Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon, 1994. Print.

Bruno, Giuliana. Public Intimacy: Architecture and the Visual Arts. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2007. Print.

Damasio, Antonio R. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Putnam, 1994. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.

Hendrix, John Shannon, "Architecture as the Psyche of a Culture" (2010). School of Architecture, Art, and Historic Preservation Faculty Papers. Paper 8.

Susan Bickford.  “Constructing Inequality: City Spaces and the Architecture of Citizenship.” Political Theory , Vol. 28, No. 3 (Jun., 2000), pp. 355-376

Zamyatin, Yevgeny Ivanovich, and Clarence Brown. We. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin, 1993. Print.

 

 

Dreams of Home: A Bachelardian Reading of the Use of Domestic Space in Zamyatin’s We and Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion

I. Introduction

            In the middle of the twentieth century, French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard changed the landscape of literary criticism in regard to the home and domestic space. The publication of his work The Poetics of Space (1958) introduced into this field the idea of dreams, imagination, and subjectivity in ways that were revolutionary for the study of architecture and how it can relate to literature and the human experience. Bachelard delved into the subconscious in order to understand how the brain functions with respect to the space that we inhabit in our daily lives. We may assume that Bachelard’s philosophies should be relatable to all of humanity and that his assertions are universally applicable. Therefore, the intent of this paper will be to apply a Bachelardian philosophy of domestic space to two completely different novels and analyze the results.

The novels that will be analyzed are Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1920-21) and Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion (1987). These two texts could not be more different, but, before examining their differences as texts, I will discuss why they were chosen for this comparison. Gaston Bachelard lived and worked in the context of the twentieth century. His life spanned from the late 1800s until the 1960s. This time period was marked by wars that encompassed the entire globe, and it was also defined by great technological advances that brought both hope and fear to all of humanity. It is no surprise that within this tumultuous time-frame Bachelard penned The Poetics of Space. This work seems to defy the exterior-oriented, fast-paced, and technology-driven society that he inhabited. Bachelard’s writing seeks to draw the reader inside of his own mind – into his subconscious. By analyzing the home, Bachelard takes the reader away from the hustle of modernity’s metropolitan landscape and brings him into the “legend, of [the] hermit’s hut” (31).

        Both Zamyatin and Ondaatje also wrote during the twentieth century, but not concurrently: Zamyatin wrote in the early half of the century, while Ondaatje wrote primarily in the second half. Chronologically, this an ideal pair of authors to consider. Because both of them are products of the twentieth century, the societal context that Bachelard wrote in should be relatable to them in some manner. Culturally, these two authors could not be more different. Ondaatje writes from the perspective of not only a Westerner, but of a Canadian. Canada may often be neglected in the literary world; normally, the Anglo world is viewed as either English or American. However, Canada is the ideal mix of the two. While a distinctly commonwealth nation that retains remarkable similarities to her mother-country (Great Britain), she also holds to her identity as a member of the Americas, and her culture reflects this unique juxtaposition. Canada – especially in the time of Ondaatje – represents ultimate freedom. Her capitalistic and free-spirited nature is coupled with the wild frontiers that define her landscape.

Conversely, Zamyatin wrote in almost the opposite cultural environment from Ondaatje. As a Russian author during the time of the October Revolution and the dramatic transfer of power from the Tsars to the Soviets, Zamyatin certainly did not speak the language of freedom that can be associated with a late twentieth century Canada. The only remote association between Canada and Russia at this time would probably be the fact that their countries both extend into the Arctic Circle. Zamyatin’s idea of the world would instead be shaped by suffering: suffering under the Tsars, suffering under the Bolsheviks, and suffering through the harsh economic plights of the Russian population.

Furthermore, these two novels (We and In the Skin of the Lion) are both written for two separate genres. While We is certainly a science-fiction novel, In the Skin of the Lion is more of a historical-fiction drama. But within the confines of their distinctly different genres, both of these novels incorporate the theme of domestic space in important ways throughout their plots. Therefore, within these two novels we find our prime examples for testing a Bachelardian application of domestic space philosophies. Their similar time-frames yet dissimilar contexts and their reliance on domestic space ideally lends them to this analysis.   

II. What is a Bachelardian view of Domestic Space?

 

            The first issue that must be addressed within this essay is what actually defines a Bachelardian view of domestic space. Bachelard’s arguments begin ultimately with the importance of the home. For him, this issue is fundamental. He writes, “For our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word. If we look at it intimately, the humblest dwelling has beauty” (4). Domestic space for Bachelard is not merely some abstract concept; instead, it is the entirety of the cosmos. Its reality comes from its universality.

In addition to this all-encompassing view of the home, Bachelard also evokes the humble nature of the home, but with the added reliance on the concept of primitiveness, “Authors…[normally] describe [the humble home] as it actually is, without really experiencing its primitiveness, a primitiveness which belongs to all, rich and poor alike, if they are willing to dream” (4). This primitiveness in Bachelard’s eyes is not a fault or something to be remedied. Instead, it is something to be reveled in.

This reverie over the primitiveness of the house should lead us to Bachelard’s primary thesis that one’s understanding of the home can only come through the act of dreaming (or more specifically day-dreaming):

Before he is ‘cast into the world,’... man is laid in the cradle of the house. And always in our daydreams, the house is a large cradle. A concrete metaphysics cannot neglect this fact, this simple fact, all the more, since this fact is a value, an important value, to which we return in our daydreaming. Being is already a value. Life begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house. (7)    

We were born into this understanding of home, and it is innate within everyone’s lives. Our view of the home is ultimately shaped by our dreams, and conversely, all of our dreams use the home as their initial frame of reference.

            This influence of dreams and imagination in relation to the home manifests itself in the reality of the human notion of home. A “home” is not a definable element per-se, instead, “All really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home...We shall see that the imagination functions in this direction whenever the human being has found the slightest shelter…” (5). Everything which we subvert to our habitation becomes this spark of daydreaming – it is our home, our world, and our cosmos. In these instances, Bachelard argues, imagination and reality are combined and they manifest themselves within our use of the present in understanding our subconscious.

            In respect to the literature of the house, Bachelard is, as usual, unspecific and leaves much room for subjective interpretation. Because our understanding of the house is related to our dreams and is thus a unique encounter that is fueled solely by our individual experiences, then it is essential that the author does not get in the way of this experiential act. Bachelard states, “Paradoxically, in order to suggest the values of intimacy, we have to induce in the reader a state of suspended reading. For it is not until his eyes have left the page that recollections of my room can become a threshold of oneirism for him” (14). The reader must read the room within the text of his own room. It cannot be heavily influenced with the authors own interpretation because that deprives the home of its most fundamental building block: dreams.

These dreams are not only the stone and mortar of the oneiric house, but they also make up the possessive nature of the dreamer in respect to his home. Humans inherently require control. They need to have something which they can claim as their own. The house, or the dream of the house, is one such thing. In Bachelard’s words, “This dream house may be merely a dream of ownership, the embodiment of everything that is considered convenient, comfortable, healthy, sound, desirable, by other people. It must therefore satisfy both pride and reason, two irreconcilable terms” (61).  Bachelard’s claim that the house of dreams, in respect to ownership, must satisfy the irreconcilable terms of pride and reason, again points to the crucial element of the subconscious in respect to the house. Only in the oneiric world is it possible for concepts that are mutually exclusive to exist in harmony.

Bachelard’s perspective on domestic space, because of its focus on dreams, is inherently appealing to readers. The appeal stems from Bachelard’s innate understanding of the human condition. When he writes that, “when we are lost in darkness and see a distant glimmer of light, who does not dream of a thatched cottage or, to go more deeply still into legend, of a hermit’s hut?” (31), who can disagree? Who has not had this image inhabit his dream life? Daydreaming is not the realm of nightmares; rather, it is the realm of comfort. Our imagination does not inherently dwell on that which will bring us pain; instead, it dwells on the good that we may encounter in life. The cottage of the hermit is one such example. While the cottage in and of itself holds no special significance, this significance comes from the aspect by which it is presented. Bachelard depicts the cottage as a place of peace, its sloping roof (verticality) points toward a rationality that extends even beyond the dream state that is fundamental in Bachelard’s writing (18). While this place may not exist in reality, that fact is negligible to Bachelard. What matters is its reality within the dream state – a limitless domain.

This cursory overview of a Bachelardian philosophy of Domestic Space may demonstrate the challenge of applying a concise Bachelardian perspective on any text. Bachelard, even in his most succinct points, does not offer a concise philosophy. He gives to us not an objective, but a subjective, view of the world. As critic Daniel Peck posits, “A Bachelardian approach is necessarily subjective...The area into which Bachelard leads us – the psychology of response – is so complex and so little understood that a subjective approach may... be far more expeditious and illuminating than one which claims objective distance” (84).

Peck’s proposition on the subjective nature of Bachelard begs the question: is it even useful to attempt to apply Bachelard when his very tenets seem to lack an objective basis? The answer is most definitely yes. While seemingly subjective, Bachelard taps into a fundamental aspect of our reading of literature. According to Peck:

Bachelard restores our confidence in our more immediate and pre-analytic responses to books and in doing so licenses our pleasure in the act of reading. He says that reverie induced by reading may become a “way,” and almost reverses the normal order of things by making the text an instrument toward reverie; in the present intellectual environment this is nothing less than a revolutionary idea. (79)

It is useful to attempt to apply Bachelard to different texts because ultimately his understanding of how a text should be read is (while less academic) more in touch with the average reader than with the majority of critics. Bachelard approaches a text from the human level. He views the home not as an outcropping of realism, but rather as a holdout of the subconscious. Moreover, the actuality of the house does not weaken this argument; rather, it provides the experiential framework by which an oneiric house can thus be conceived.   

III. Applying Bachelard to Zamyatin’s We

 

            Yevgeny Zamyatin's We will serve as our first sample in our inquiry into an application of Bachelardian philosophies. The world that the reader encounters in We should be like nothing he has ever experienced. Especially from a western capitalist worldview, the dystopia that Zamyatin builds within the confines of his novel is almost unimaginable. The mass of humanity (or what is left of it after an apocalyptic war) has been subjected to the rule of a single government, “OneState,” and this state demands an exacting price for the social conditions which it makes possible. OneState is built upon science and transparency, and between these two concepts the basic premise of OneState can be understood.

The novel is intended as a social critique of the communist philosophies that took over Russian society during the later years of Zamyatin’s life. The outlook as painted by Zamyatin is bleak, and his take on the end result is neither appealing nor encouraging. However, from the outset, the manner in which Zamyatin presents this society comes not from the critical onlooker, but instead from the first person account of an over awed participant in this revolutionary new order. The protagonist of the novel, D-503 – from whose perspective the entire novel is written – holds a lofty scientific position within the society of OneState and his attitude towards the government is not one of disgust or cynicism. Instead, D-503 lauds the government for the many advances they have brought society. All of the many oddities of OneState that repulse the western reader are in fact the things of which D-503 is most proud.

One of the most significant differences between the Zamyatin’s dystopia and reality is the manner in which the numbers [people] in OneState go about their personal lives. The numbers lack primarily the concept of free will, but they lack it while maintaining their inherent ability to make choices for themselves. It is not the act of making conscious decisions that the numbers lack; instead, it is the framework under which they make countercultural decisions. Every thought is brought into submission of the state because every experience that makes up the numbers’ existence is defined and sculpted by the government. There is nothing outside of OneState because that is the only image of reality that the state allows to be witnessed.

It is within this framework that we can begin to understand the idea of domestic space as presented within the novel. All of the architecture within OneState is constructed out of glass. This element inherently goes against modern conceptions of privacy in respect to dwellings and their architecture. The average dwelling serves not only to shelter the inhabitant physically, but it should also (in Bachelardian terms) shelter the dreams of the inhabitants. This sheltering of the dreams inherently implies privacy. We can glean from Bachelard’s argument that the ultimate ideal of domestic space is the dwelling of the hermit. More than anyone else, the hermit is allowed to day-dream in peace. As Bachelard explains, “The image [of the hut] leads us on towards extreme solitude...and there radiates about this centralized solitude a universe of meditation and prayer, a universe outside the universe” (32). Therefore, by taking away the visual boundaries of the house, eliminating privacy and negating the existence of a hermitage, Zamyatin takes away a fundamental aspect of the home for a Bachelardian philosophy.

Does this loss of privacy then point us to a contradiction within Bachelard’s arguments? While on one hand, Bachelard describes the home as that which protects the daydreamer (hermitage) (6), on the other hand, he defines the house as somewhere that merely offers mankind the illusion of stability (17). It appears that although Zamyatin’s world does not offer the inhabitant a location in which he can privately dream, at least that person does have an illusion of stability. In fact, his entire existence is stability manifested in the control of the state. A much closer reading of Bachelard’s text, though, will demonstrate that this stability (while a crucial aspect of the home) is only truly stable when coupled with the ability to dream. Instead of the transparency pointing to a contradiction in Bachelard, it becomes our first instance where we can adeptly point to a clear correlation between Bachelard’s philosophies and Zamyatin’s writing.

As we have seen, dreams and imagination are crucial elements within a Bachelardian perspective, but in the world of OneState, dreams are actually one of the first things to be taken away by the state. Instead of being a natural occurrence in OneState, dreams are regarded as “a serious mental illness” (33).

Within a Bachelardian mindset we can clearly see this correlation between a lack of private space and the inability to dream. It could even be suggested that the method by with OneState took away the ability to dream was not an intentional operation or evolutionary process, but rather the elimination of the fundamental structure of domestic space. If a dwelling’s inherent purpose is to shelter daydreaming, but the critical elements of domesticity are removed from a habitation, then that habitation would no longer allow for dreaming. Subsequently, if all shelters of the unconscious were destroyed, then it would make sense that dreaming itself would be lost from this culture.

            This progressive society, though, does have one element that harkens back to the ages that preceded it. Although the foundation of this society is based on transparency and dissolution of privacy, there remains one act that has yet to be made fully transparent: sex. The characters in the novel are required to live in their glass dwellings completely exposed to the world around them. However, when their animalistic need for sexual pleasure manifests itself, they are allowed to close the blinds of their rooms, and return (if only briefly) to that experience of domestic space that would have been always present within the culture that came before OneState. It is fitting, from a Bachelardian perspective, for this reinstatement of sexual privacy to occur. Even in a society where dreams and imagination are expunged from the national consciousness, the effect that sexual intimacy has on one’s daydreams and imagination appears to be in direct correlation with the fact that the blinds are closed during these instances that would inherently evoke a strong impetus for dreaming. 

The plot of Zamyatin’s novel goes on to reinforce a Bachelardian application. The novel juxtaposes the open and transparent dwellings of OneState with that of the “Ancient House.” Within OneState, there is a focus on doing away with anything that goes against progress, science, or evolution; therefore, the very existence of this Ancient House seems counter-intuitive. But, in theory, this house serves to demonstrate to the citizens of OneState how far they have progressed. Its purpose is solely to discredit the cultures that thrived before the apocalyptic conditions that were the impetus for the formation of OneState. This Ancient House is described as the epitome of a seemingly (to us) normal house, from its “opaque door” to its “sofas [of] unbearably clashing fabrics” (28), and it is within this house that Zamyatin’s protagonist is first infected with the calamitous disease of dreaming. It is no coincidence that dreams and imagination do not become manifest until the character is exposed to an actual house. The disease is not linked solely to the people who spread it; instead, it is jointly connected to the Ancient House.

His exposure to the Ancient house begins to quickly erode all the social conventions upon which D-503 used to cling. Originally the ability to glimpse others living within the same social constructs was an enjoyable experience for D-503. As he tells us, “To the right and left through the glass walls I see something like my own self, my own room, my own clothes, my own movements, and all repeated a thousand times. It cheers you up: You see yourself as part of an immense, powerful, single thing. And such a precise beauty it is.” (34). Not only does D-503 originally enjoy the transparency and perfection of his society, but he revels within it. Ultimately, though, his world is turned upside down with his discovery of the influences of the Ancient House through the urging of his devious foil, I-330. Although his progression into this illness is definitely fraught with difficulties, eventually the influence of I-330 and the Ancient House has D-503 proclaiming, “Now I know that I have [an imagination], that I’m sick. And I also know that I don’t feel like getting well…that’s all.” (80).

In regard to our initial inquiry, it can be seen that Bachelard is applicable within the context of We. In fact, it is almost uncanny how similar the arguments that Bachelard makes are to the actual text. Zamyatin – writing before Bachelard’s theories even came about – links the diseases of dreaming and imagination to the confines of and privacy of the Ancient House and those intimate times when privacy is returned to the home.

IV. Applying Bachelard to Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion

Unfortunately, applying Bachelard to Ondaatje’s novel will not be anywhere near as simple and clear cut as it was for We. While Zamyatin wrote a fantasy novel that could almost be described as an allegory of a large portion of Bachelard’s theories, Ondaatje’s novel is much more complex and involves a more diverse and less understandable human component than we  get in our readings of Zamyatin. In the Skin of a Lion is much more of a cultural exposé of real life. Instead of the fantastical world that we encounter in We, Ondaatje writes realistically and paints a portrait of Toronto from the perspective of the lower working class in the early twentieth century.

 Our analysis of Ondaatje will begin by using the premise of Bachelard’s that anything that is inhabited can become a home. As he puts it, “All really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home...We shall see that the imagination functions in this direction whenever the human being has found the slightest shelter…”(5). Unlike We, Ondaatje’s text confronts us with an overt lack of utilization of the home. In fact the protagonist, Patrick, is the very opposite of a grounded individual. The places he resides in throughout the novel are numerous, and they vary from a country home during his childhood to dingy hotel rooms that he drifts through with no sense of regularity. Any stereotype that Patrick should fit into, he breaks – especially in regard to domestic space. While a native of Canada, he becomes almost a foreigner in his native land, and by the midpoint of the book he associates more with the immigrants and ethnic outsiders than he does with his fellow Canadians. For this reason, it will be important for us to remember that to Bachelard, it is not the physical representation of a steady home, but rather the inhabitation of a space, that determines its domesticity and its ability to encourage dreaming.

The novel begins with Patrick’s childhood and in the first few pages an easy application of Bachelard begins to take shape. Throughout his life, Patrick will demonstrate an ability to make himself at home in any room or space which he is in, and this can be seen very early on his life. While describing young Patrick, the narrator tells us:

He longs for summer nights, for the moment when he turns out the lights, turns out even the small cream funnel in the hall near the room where his father sleeps. Then the house is in darkness except for the bright light in the kitchen...Later, he walks through the dark living room, his hand stretched out in front of him...He stands in darkness, rubbing his arms to bring energy back into his body. He is forcing himself to stay awake, take his time. (8)

His need to be alone in the space, to relate to it in near darkness, will be crucial elements within the development of Patrick’s life. In addition they both point toward Bachelardian philosophy. This passage harkens to Bachelard’s premise about the myth of the cottage. When discussing the importance that the home plays in people’s daydreams he builds up the idea of the hermit’s cottage in the wood and the relation of the dark wood to the light of a lone candle. Bachelard writes, “When we are lost in darkness and see a distant glimmer of light, who does not dream of a thatched cottage or, to go more deeply still into legend, of a hermit’s hut?” (31). This distant glimmer of light, like the lone light in Patrick’s house, is fundamental to the imagination and will remain a fixed entity within Patrick’s life. All of dreams are a product of our experiences, and thus this idea of a dimly lit room in the country will implant itself upon his memory and be an inherent part of his subconscious.

            As he leaves home and begins his perpetually vagrant lifestyle, Patrick develops an uncanny ability to make himself “at home” in almost any space he encounters through the use of his subconscious and a seemingly sixth sense – a clearly Bachelardian concept. In the narrator’s words, “Sometimes when he is alone Patrick will blindfold himself and move around a room, slowly at first, then faster until he is immaculate and magical in it. He will parade, turn suddenly away from lampshades, duck under hanging plants, even across the room and leap in the darkness over small tables” (79). Patrick can see the room in his mind’s eye, an ability that will transpose itself into his dreams. Patrick makes himself at home in any space he enters, and he subconsciously imprints a map of it on his mind. Patrick’s ability to transform any enclosed or inhabited space into a home reminds us of Bachelard’s proposition that “The unconscious is housed...it is well and happily housed, in the space of its happiness. The normal unconscious knows how to make itself at home everywhere…” (10).

            So far Bachelard’s philosophies have been able to illuminate a few portions of Ondaatje’s text and thus point to an early conclusion that Bachelard could be considered universally applicable. But let us continue through Ondaatje’s text and see where that will take us. One of Bachelard’s main premises that was mentioned earlier was the importance of the hermit, of solitude (32). The ultimate essence of the house, of its ability to house the dream state, is found within solitude. We begin to witness this capacity early on in the novel through Patrick’s childhood; however, this theory quickly deteriorates in its application to the novel as Patrick’s life progresses. After being left by the girl of his dreams, Clara Dickens, Patrick’s life descends into a pathetic existence. In particular, his home life deteriorates. After encountering one of his old acquaintances after his first slip into this state, she remarks:

-How long have you lived here?

-Almost a year [he replies].

-There’s just a bed!  (89)

From this point in the novel onwards, Patrick’s life follows a particular pattern. When he is in a relationship or community, he is able to settle down and begin to build a legitimate life; however, when outside of this community he cloisters himself. But, unlike in the ideal Bachelardian premise, instead of secluding himself into a state of deep psychological reverie, he instead slips into a seemingly cognitive comatose state. For instance, when finally meeting (after months of seclusion) his foreign neighbors for the first time, “Patrick felt ashamed they could discover so little about him. He had reduced himself almost to nothing. He would walk home at dusk after working in the lake tunnel. His radio was on past midnight. He did nothing else that he could think of” (113). His life of seclusion was not a home life; it was a nonexistent life. If home “constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability” (Bachelard 17) then Patrick is certainly not at home. Although he clearly inhabits space, albeit dingy apartments or hotel rooms, he does not reside, neither does he dream nor live. His seclusion, instead of reinforcing reveries of home, disintegrates his entire state of being. Only when he resides and functions within some sort of community is Patrick able to once again assume an actual sense of life. While the majority of Bachelard’s arguments are seemingly applicable throughout this novel, especially in regard to Patrick’s ability to inhabit any space (as long as he is in community), this one premise of Bachelard’s appears to not hold true at all with respect to In the Skin of a Lion. While this claim does not necessarily disprove any universality in Bachelard’s arguments, nor does it discredit all of his maxims, this one aspect demonstrates that (at least in this regard) a completely Bachelardian reading of a text will not necessarily be productive or universally applicable.  

V. Conclusions

 

            If we recall the initial description of Bachelardian philosophies in this essay, our attention should return to the words of Donald Peck in his discussions of Bachelard, “a Bachelardian approach is necessarily subjective” (84). Peck emphasizes this point by describing it as a strength, rather than a weakness in Bachelard’s arguments. Because - especially where literary criticism and philosophy are concerned - objectivity is so hard to achieve, it is very possible that this subjective approach will yield a better result in our study of Bachelard. However, it is important not to stray completely down that path. Adopting a completely subjective approach would inherently make any study or application of Bachelard fruitless; there would be no point. Instead of adopting a completely subjective approach, I would rather conclude this essay by focusing on a different aspect of Peck’s critique on Bachelard. Peck writes:

Bachelard does not provide us with a method as such; rather, he invites us to create one by discovery. And it is exactly at the moment that the practical critic makes Bachelard’s salutary emphases the property of his own intelligence that something like a method comes into being. Filtered through the intellect of the critic reverie (free-floating, undirected, undisciplined) becomes analysis. (85)

While it turns out that not every single one of Bachelard’s arguments can be made to fit every single aspect of dreams and domestic space within the works I analyzed, that drawback certainly does not negate the arguments that Bachelard makes. Furthermore, even looking for a completely universal understanding of anything that relates to human nature is asking for problems. Instead, as Peck suggests, when engaging with a text we should let ourselves become lost in our own reveries. We should allow not a strict Bachelardian application, but rather a loose Bachelardian (heavily influenced by our own experiences) application to take root.

            While we cannot merely assume that a Bachelardian perspective will be universally applicable when we desire to analyze dreams or domestic space, we should not be afraid to attempt to utilize his philosophies. While not universal tenets, they are useful, and the connections they draw between domestic space and the subconscious are hugely important. In closing, one final Bachelard quote succinctly wraps up these observations, “People could be classified according to whether they aspired to live in a cottage or in a palace. But the question is more complex than that. When we live in a manor house we dream of a cottage, and when we live in a cottage we dream of a palace. Better still, we all have our cottage moments and our palace moments” (63). While we could attempt to relegate certain texts, ideas, and concepts to one set way of viewing things (or one set application of Bachelard), we should, instead, look at what is given to us, apply it as well as we can, and then take both aspects (like the cottage and palace) and move forward. Therefore, while Bachelard is not universally applicable, his philosophies resonate deeply within modern criticism and ought to be remembered when considering domestic space in novels.

Works Cited

 

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon, 1994. Print

Ondaatje, Michael. In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel. New York: Knopf, 1987. Print.

Peck, H. Daniel. "An American Poetics of Space: Applying the Work of Gaston Bachelard."             The Missouri Review 3.3 (1980): 77-91.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. Trans. Clarence Brown. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. Print.

 

 

 

Manipulating the Observer: “More Bliss than Man May Crave” in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Triple-Work” Ekphrases: La Bella Mano and Proserpina

 

Introducing the Concept of “Triple-Work” Ekphrasis

                                 

            During a time that many critics claim to be the beginning of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s artistic decline (Johnston 38), he completed two works unlike any others in his ouevre, Proserpina in 1874 and La Bella Mano in 1875 (Rossetti Archive). Although most agree that the formal elements of these paintings are not representative of Rossetti’s earlier prowess, the completion of these two works should be seen as a conceptually significant shift in common ekphrastic practices of the time. Rossetti termed this new form of ekphrasis, “triple-work” (Rossetti Archive, “La Bella Mano Collection Intro”).

For Rossetti and his contemporaries, double-work ekphrasis was already a common practice, existing in two main forms. One, where the poet found inspiration in the paintings of other Pre-Raphaelites; a famous example is William Morris’ poem “The Blue Closet” that was inspired by Rossetti’s watercolor of the same title. Two, the same artist acted as a painter-poet, creating his/her own poem for his/her own painting; Rossetti systematically explored this type of ekphrasis with his Sonnets for Pictures and Other Sonnets (Rossetti, Collected Poetry and Prose, 182).  With the “triple-work,” however, Rossetti unified poem and painting in a theretofore unseen way: the physical union of painting and poem. In La Bella Mano, Rossetti attached the Italian version of his poem “La Bella Mano (Per un Quadro)” to the frame of the painting. In Proserpina, Rossetti depicted the Italian version of his poem “Proserpina (Per un Quadro)” in the upper right-hand corner of the painting itself.

It would be impossible for the viewer to ignore the ekphrastic overtones present by seeing the painting and poem together. The viewer, of course, does not have to be aware of ekphrastic theory to recognize a linkage exists between the two artistic media. Nevertheless, the paintings with their affixed poem still only represent a variation on double-work ekphrasis. Knowing that most of the viewer-readers in 19th Century Britain did not speak Italian, Rossetti translated each of the attached sonnets into an English version, which resulted in “La Bella Mano (For a Picture)” and “Proserpine (For a Picture).” Collectively, the painting, the appended sonnet in Italian, and the translated sonnet create Rossetti’s “triple-work.”

This connection of the three works does not then allow – as is the case for double-work ekphrasis – multitudinous ways for one to approach any one of the constituent pieces of the “triple-work”; instead, the concept of a “triple-work” conveys an indivisible unity of what would ordinarily be considered three separate, but associated, works of art. Accordingly, the concept of “triple-work” ekphrasis can become a tool for the artist to manipulate the observer. For Rossetti, the concept’s creator, it indeed is used as such. In particular, this manipulation of the observer is manifest in a contrived viewing structure, whereby the way in which the observer sees – the gaze – is altered. Rossetti’s “triple-works” cause the spectator to assume a perspective that the painter-poet creates. Specifically, it is the gaze of a heterosexual male. It is important to note that the ‘viewer-reader does not necessarily chose to assume the perspective of a heterosexual male, rather that the “triple-work” does so for the viewer-reader by limiting the information the spectator has available to him.1 John Berger opens his foundational text Ways of Seeing with, “The way we see things is affected by what we know [. . .]” (Berger 8). If the artist can somehow control what the spectator knows, then s/he naturally can control how s/he sees: this largely explains how Rossetti’s “triple-works” manipulate the viewer’s gaze.

 Even if a reader were to discover one of the English sonnets unaccompanied by its painting, the subtitle of each poem is “For a Painting.” At a minimum, Rossetti tampers with the way in which the painting’s onlooker would see it if the sonnet were absent from the frame or canvas. The reader then infers that the painting that inspired the poem should only be viewed in-conjunction with the poem. As such, the painter-poet forces the painting’s viewer or the poem’s reader to transcend either of those independent roles to become a viewer-reader. For non-Italian readers viewing the painting-poem, however, this further requires the on-looker to read the English translation of the poem. The viewer-reader’s visual experience can, therefore, only be complete when the three works are examined together and in relation to one another. Further evidence for this deliberate manipulation of the reader-viewer’s experience is that Rossetti himself wrote the English translation, thus prohibiting the validity of an alternate English translation, either by another artist, or the on-looker him/herself.

What Rossetti’s “triple-work” concept seems to overlook, however, is that it does not provide a reason for a reader of Italian, or a native Italian, to seek out the English translation of the sonnet visible with its painting. How would an Italian speaker even know to look for such, given all that he2 sees is the Italian sonnet, which he presumably understands, and the painting? This apparent oversight is really no different than the limitations for any other type of ekphrasis. Rossetti’s works were seen and bought by an almost exclusively English speaking viewership (Rossetti Archive), knowing this, there would be little need to keep in mind speakers of any other language; that is, Rossetti did not translate his attached sonnet into Chinese, even though a Chinese speaker would understand neither the English nor Italian version of the poems. Even if this were a true pitfall in the concept of the “triple-work,” which it is not, it would, to an Italian speaker, simply make the painting and affixed sonnet a variation on already existing ekphrastic practices. One naturally asks, then, what distinguished those earlier concepts of ekphrasis?

Although ekphrastic practices have a long history extending from ancient Greece, it is important to reiterate a seemingly simple question that is asked by the title of Simon Goldhill’s essay “What is Ekphrasis for?” Rossetti would have similarly thought about this question when creating the La Bella Mano and Proserpina “triple-works.” For the Pre-Raphaelites, and especially for Rossetti, “triple-work” ekphrasis highlights a more fundamental element of their aesthetic beliefs l’art pour l’art, or art for art’s sake (Roe back-cover). Producing a painting, a sonnet in Italian, and then a sonnet in English with the same title suggests the inadequacy of a single medium. That is, because of their medium as paintings, La Bella Mano and Proserpina lack, or are unable to achieve, something present in the poems. In true “art for art’s sake” fashion, the artist would not want to limit him/herself from expressing beauty, truth, form, genius, status, etc. by only one medium (Berger 11).

In fact, “the [traditional] use of ekphrasis was not to simply provide astute details of an object, but to share the emotional experience and content with someone who had never encountered the work in question” (Welsh). For a viewer of La Bella Mano and Proserpina, however, one would necessarily have to encounter the painting because poem and painting are united in the same space. Also inherent in this account of ekphrasis is the preference of the non-verbal work, here the paintings. Rossetti’s concept of the “triple-work,” turns this traditional view on its head by attempting to equalize painting and poem; specifically, the Italian sonnet achieves an equality slightly above the English sonnet solely based on proximity. The progression of this attempt is shown by the difference in sonnet placement between  his two “triple-works.” The earlier of the two works, La Bella Mano, has the sonnet affixed to the lower rung. The effect is that the sonnet is still united with painting in an uncommon way, but the sonnet for Proserpina takes this a step further by actually painting the sonnet on the canvas itself. If Rossetti was indeed hoping to equalize painting and poem in the viewer’s eyes, then he does so more effectively in Proserpina.  This reasoning still only accounts for double-work ekphrasis, however: painting and one poem. Why then would Rossetti translate the affixed Italian sonnets into English?

 

Translating a Translation?: Limitation of Medium to Medium Ekphrasis

In practical terms, there is a question of viewership: most of the onlookers in 19th Century Britain did not read Italian, making the attached sonnets relatively useless to the onlooker. Theoretically, however, the language translation is more significant. Superficially, it acts as a play on the concept of ekphrasis in that ekphrasis is already a particular type of translation – that of one medium to another. The language translation, then, is really a translation of a translation. W. J. T. Mitchell provides a possible explanation for why Rossetti would have even been interested in complicating, or in a sense, refining, ekphrasis as it was known. Mitchell names the “seeming impossibility of the visual and verbal ever meeting as ‘ekphrastic indifference’” (Welsh). Viewed as an artistic and theoretical challenge, Rossetti achieves “‘ekphrastic hope’” with the “triple-work,” which “opposes the indifference in a moment of inspiration or metaphor or imagination where the gap between the verbal and the visual is somehow closed by a means that can only be described as ekphrasis” (Welsh). Rossetti attempted to close the gap, in part, with translation. This suggests that the English language itself lacked something that could only be expressed in Italian. That is to say, taken together – the two poems and painting – express more fully the essence of the art than a painting and singular poem.

In a letter to her younger brother, Maria Francesca Rossetti explains the reasons for the language translation as it relates to the ekphrasis of Proserpina:

Graceful and melodious as is your English sonnet, I agree with you in preferring the Italian. But no wonder; for, as it is thought and character that create language, thoughts that would more naturally take birth in an Italian than in an English character will of course find the most fitting expression in Italian. (Rees 34)

It is of course impossible to know which particular thoughts Maria Francesca considers to be better expressed in Italian, but they are likely the ones that account for the differences in images between the Italian and English sonnets. For example, lines 9-10 in “Proserpina,” “Lungi da me mi sento; e ognor sognando / Cerco e ricerco, e resto ascoltatrice;”,3 are translated by Rossetti as, “Afar from mine own self I seem, and wing / Strange ways in thought, and listen for a sign:”.4 I would directly translate lines 9-10, not accounting for poetic formations or elements like alliteration, as: “I feel far away from myself, and every hour dreaming / yet I search and search, and remain a listener.” Ascoltatrice in Italian, however, conveys much more than what I translate as “listener” and what Rossetti sums-up with the verb “listen.” The –trice suffix is reserved to describe a female noun who does a specific function, as in attrice for actress opposed to attore for a male actor. When used with the verb ascoltare, to listen, other than making it a noun, the  ­-trice­ ending suggests a helpless passivity that the English noun form “listener” does not imply. What is more, in English, “listener” is in a gender-neutral form, where in Italian, the –trice ending feminizes the noun. The Italian noun’s male counterpart, ascoltatore, does not hold with it the same implications of passivity and helplessness. Particularly referencing the feminine form of the Italian “listener,” the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera’s usage guide says it is most used in reference to women waiting to hear a response to a prayer. Similar semantic differences exist between the English and Italian versions of “La Bella Mano,” as well.

Also interesting is that Maria Francesca commented that the euphony of the English translation of “Proserpina” is both “graceful and melodious.” Yet, the nature of the Italian language, with its frequent vowel use, has a musicality to it that is difficult to, if not impossible to, reproduce in English. Additionally, the form of the sonnets is Petrarchan, named after Francesco Petrarca, who lived in Tuscany just over a century before Raphael did. Although knowledgeable of the English tradition’s Shakespearean sonnet, Rossetti decided that the octet-sestet form of the Italian tradition was better suited because of its “Italian character.” Of little consequence to meaning, but significant in terms of the “triple-work,” the punctuation is also different between the English and Italian sonnets, for both “La Bella Mano” and “Proserpina.” Cumulatively, these differences created by language cause the attentive reader to delve more deeply into particular aspects that would be overlooked if both a language and medium-to-medium (painting to poem) translation did not exist. In this sense, each constituent piece of the “triple-work” contributes a clue to a better understanding of the “triple-work” as whole. This understanding, however, is just that – a particular way to view the works.

 

The Theory of the Gaze: Rossetti Controls the Viewer-Reader’s eyes

            Implicit within the concept of the “triple-work” is that the poems focus the attention of the reader to particular aspects of the painting; that is, they tell the viewer where to direct his/her eyes. For example, in the two opening lines of  La Bella Mano (For a Picture),” “O lovely hand, that thy sweet self dost lave / In that thy pure and proper element” (Rossetti), the reader is directed first to see the hand, and then to lower his view slightly to the “proper element,” meaning the seashell washbasin. Identifying the basin as a seashell is critical to how Rossetti wants the viewer to see the painting and the rest of the poem. Immediately, the viewer should be reminded of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, as she, the goddess of erotic love, was born out of a seashell. The very next line of the poem references Venus more specifically as the “Lady of Love,” although she is not explicitly named until the sestet, at least in the English translation.  In the Italian sonnet, despite the nearly identical first three lines to the English, Venus is directly named in line six: “Come a Venere [Venus] a te l’oro e l’argento” (Rossetti). The sequential order in which information is revealed to the viewer-reader is only a small aspect of how Rossetti comes through his work to manipulate the spectator’s experience. The viewer, however, is wise enough to not let the poem dictate to a significant degree what s/he focuses on. In “La Bella Mano,” for instance, there is no mention of the mirror, yet in the painting, it is a dominant element that the observer cannot help but examine.

            Every spectator, of course, is different. The average gallery-goer likely sees differently than another artist, who sees differently than the collector or benefactor. Nevertheless, the fundamental assumption behind the way one views Rossetti’s “triple-works” is that s/he is willing to sincerely engage with the whole work, that is, each of its component works together. In fact, Goldhill points out that the concept of the “critical gaze” originates with ekphrastic theory because “many of the poems discuss how to look as they do [. . .]. The critical gaze [. . .] is committed to a value-laden view of things. It creates and regulates the viewing subject – both by selection of what to look at and how to look – and by parallel exclusions too” (Goldhill 2).

            At a minimum, ekphrasis manipulates how and what the viewer sees. To the extreme, ekphrasis produces a “viewing subject” (Goldhill 2). As Rossetti’s “triple-works” are a particularly powerful form of ekphrasis – they join painting and poem within the viewer’s limited space and have a third artwork, while most ekphrases only have two – it follows that the La Bella Mano and Proserpina “triple-works” are capable of producing a viewing subject. Goldhill goes as far as to say that “[ekphrasis] sets out to make a slave of you [the viewer]” (Goldhill 7). It is doubtful that Rossetti intended to enslave the spectator, it is true, though, that his “triple-works” are controlling, and not the least-bit emancipatory. For example, the artist strictly interested in formal elements of painting cannot escape that the poem “Proserpine” is inscribed on the painting itself.

            Although Rossetti’s concept of the “triple-work” was “in advance of conventional thought” for ekphrastic theory in the late 19th century (Riede, Dante Gabriel Rossetti Revisited 55), it follows the same gaze tradition present in Europe since the Renaissance: “women were depicted as being aware of being seen by a male spectator” (Chandler). More fundamentally, Berger asserts that “the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him” (Berger 64). This is especially true for the two “triple-works” as their depicted subjects are not only female, but females whose mythic origins are tied to sex. Even more to the point, it is clear that the artist himself viewed these works as containing sexual elements, particularly because the models were both his lovers, Jane Morris as Proserpine (Riede, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Limits of Victorian Vision 249) and Lizzie Siddal for La Bella Mano (Benson 192). Laura Mulvey succinctly describes how the gaze and eroticism are intertwined:

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between the active male and passive female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact [...] woman to be displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle (2088).

            The eroticism of Rossetti’s work was seen as a “sensually liberated and liberating antidote to Victorian prudery” (Riede, Dante Gabriel Rossetti Revisited 55). Given the way in which females were portrayed, and the societal power differences that made the “ideal” spectator a male, it should be noted that these same erotic elements that are so attractive to the male spectator would presumably be just as attractive to a lesbian onlooker. Yet, a close examination of Rossetti’s “triple-works” specifically eliminates the possibility of the lesbian gaze by producing the “viewing subject” as a heterosexual male.

 

La Bella Mano: “Of More Bliss than Man May Crave”

            Chief among the non-human erotic elements in La Bella Mano is the mirror over the main female subject’s head. In one sense, it resembles the shape and lighting of a halo, which is typically reserved for a saintly individual, often used to show holiness. This, of course, would seem out of place in an erotic picture, unless there is something distinctly sexually attractive about holiness. Often associated with holiness is the idea of purity, particularly virginity. In terms of erotic heterosexual male fantasy, virgins are incredibly desirable. Moreover, two young, winged maidens, also presumably virgins, attend to this particular virgin. The maidens’ white garb also demonstrates that Rossetti wanted the viewer to see them as virginal. As the poems elucidate, the viewer-reader learns that this virginal beauty is paradoxically also the goddess of love, Venus. The heterosexual male’s simultaneous desire for sexual innocence and experience is embodied in this painting. 

The halo-mirror also reveals the setting: a bedroom. The location of the convex mirror that surrounds the primary female figure’s head places the viewer squarely in front of it, as if he is able to see himself in the space. If the space of the painting were expanded in a three-dimensional way, the viewer would be standing between the three women and the bed, with the only way to access the bed being through the viewer, who, because of the mirror, has now become a participant. Moreover, as the female figure simultaneously looks at the bed and the viewer, it is as if she invites him to enter into the space of the painting, her bedroom. As with the poem on the frame, Rossetti once again interferes with how the viewer interacts with the “triple-work.” Despite the viewer’s desire – which is only a desire for a heterosexual male or a lesbian – to enter the painting, he cannot literally do so. He is not only one-step removed by virtue of looking at a female figure through a painting, but even further removed by seeing not the bed itself, but a distorted image of the bed through a mirror. Although the painting depicts an overt wish-fulfillment fantasy, it remains still a wish, as the viewer can only voyeuristically participate.

At the same time that the viewer accepts the impossibility of entering the painting, he recognizes that he is in a viewing position that empowers him to see the carnal thoughts of the female figure. The bed’s reflection, placed above her head, suggests that the bed is all that is on her mind at that moment, as if the thought manifested itself as an image in the mirror. The effect is a visual practical joke – a taunting of the viewer, as if to say, “until thou be, / O hand! heart-handsel’d in a lover’s hand” (line 13-14). The joke is even greater in Italian through Rossetti’s use of “infin,” which suggests an infinite distance from the hand, and therefore the woman (line 13). The joke is reinforced by the handmaidens’ admiration of the same female beauty as the viewer, instead of the handmaidens admiring the male onlooker.

To express the subtle erotic elements in the Italian sonnet, Rossetti uses a reflexive construction of piacere, “to pleasure/to please,” in the first line: “O bella Mano, che ti lavi e piaci.” Although the reflexive pronoun “ti” in the first line is absent for metrical reasons before “piaci,” to an Italian speaker “ti” unquestionably applies to the second verb, piacere, as well: “O bella Mano, che ti lavi e [ti] piaci.” The analogous syntax in English would be clunky, but along the lines of “O beautiful hand, which you yourself wash and gives yourself pleasure.” Rossetti’s English version, however, lacks any mention of the piacere/pleasure verb; this is likely because “lovely” already achieves the subtle eroticization of the poem. Even so, what remains true for both poems is the apostrophic address to the hand of the primary female figure in the painting. In all three works, the hand becomes springboard for, and the focus of, the pervasive eroticism.

The hand as the dominant sexualized object is highlighted by Rossetti’s pictorial techniques that frame the hand in the center of the painting. The hand is nearly perfectly centered, framed by the three figures in the painting and by the viewer outside of the painting. The light further focuses it in the viewer’s eyes. One inevitably has to ask, “Why does the hand – typically a benign body part – become the dominant focus of an eroticized “triple-work?” One could never know with certainty what Rossetti found sexually attractive, but what is likely true, though, is that the Victorian mores would never have allowed the display of an explicitly sexual painting. By washing a typically asexual body part in a basin that recalls the mythic birth of Venus from a seashell eroticizes the painting. Furthermore, the washing of the unadorned hand, which hitherto, in a sexual context, has only been used by the dominant female figure to give pleasure to herself, reiterates the desire for a virginal sexual act to soon take place.

A similar sexual exigency exists in the sestet of both the English and Italian sonnets. The speaker – the viewer-reader – observes then commands, “A flower of Venus’ own virginity, / Go shine among thy sisterly sweet band” (lines 10-11). In “La Bella Mano (Per un Quadro)” the imperative is stronger and present at the start of the sestet with “dove onor t’invii” (“where honor sends you” [my own translation]), and is reiterated in the following line, “Vattene adorna, e porta insiem fra tante / Di Venere e di vergine sembiante” (“Go forth and adorn, and bring together between the many / Of Venus and of a semblance of virginity” [my own translation]) (lines 9-11). The poem gives an element of control back to the male onlooker who has realized that he could never truly enter the space of the painting. Using the imperative form more strongly in that Italian sonnet, which is the poem affixed to the painting, allows the male spectator to regain control. This reaffirms the societal power balance: the man acts and the woman does. More importantly, the man gives the orders of what the woman does: “Go forth,” “Go shine,” “bring together,” etc. Bristow argues that all heterosexual male viewers come into union when the power is regained as a “mode of bonding that consolidate[s] patriarchal authority when males engage in sexual rivalry over a female object” (366). Even though the eroticism is applicable to both heterosexual males and lesbians, because the poem consolidates power in a strictly male way, the viewer must be male.

Expressing the male viewing subject more explicitly are the closing lines of the octet in “La Bella Mano”: “While each / Looks to those lips, of music-measured speech / The fount, and of more bliss than man may crave” (Rossetti). The same lines in the Italian sonnet, however, do not identify a gender: “e ognun riguarda attento / Quel labbro, sponda, ahime! di voce e baci” (Rossetti lines 7-8). This can be translated as, “and everyone looks attentively at / those lips, like river banks of voice and kisses, alas!” The “everyone” certainly does suggest the possibility of a lesbian onlooker is valid, but the heteronormativity implied by the erotic lips for kissing more so applies to a male onlooker. Furthermore, the concept of the “triple-work,” which requires the viewer examine all three constituent pieces together, eliminates the ambiguity of the Italian sonnet by answering the question of gender in the English. Unlike earlier with “Proserpina,” the limits of language were salvaged by the English translation, not the Italian.

Additionally, the lesbian spectator would more likely project herself into the space of the painting by assuming the role of one of the attendant handmaidens. Given that no male directly exists in the space of the painting, it is highly improbable that the heterosexual male viewer would consider himself to be one of the young virginal handmaidens that he also wishes to seduce. Rossetti provides the entrance into the painting for the heterosexual male via the mirror, for which a lesbian onlooker would have no need, as she already can enter through one of the other women depicted.

 

Proserpina: “Woe’s me for thee,” Enslaved Goddess

            In addition to the “triple-work” ekphrasis of Proserpina, Dante Gabriel Rossetti also wrote a prose description of the painting, which provides a lucid narrative:

The picture represents Proserpina as Empress of Hades. After she was conveyed by Pluto to his realm and became his bride, her mother Ceres importuned Jupiter for her return to earth, and he was prevailed on to consent to this, provided only she had not partaken of any of the fruits of Hades. It was found however that she had eaten one grain of a pomegranate, and this enchained her to her new empire and destiny [. . .] (Rossetti Archive).

The spectator, however, only immediately has access to the painting and Italian sonnet. As such, unless he were familiar with the story of Proserpine, he would only be able to surmise that the female subject is being held captive. Within the viewing subject, this conjures “ideas about female passivity and weakness, but also romantic ideas about masculine creativity and control” (Riede Dante Gabriel Rossetti Revisited 53).

            The conception of the heterosexual male viewer is already different from that in La Bella Mano, but once again, no other gendered gaze is possible to examine this “triple-work.” Proerpine’s eyes express a more intriguing variety of female seductiveness, that of power and helplessness (Kern153), which is particularly appealing to a heterosexual male wishing to live-out a ‘damsel in distress’ fantasy. As a member of the dominant group – heterosexual, white male – it stands that the viewer of Proserpina would want to save the captured beauty. Kern clarifies the male rescue fantasy: “A man fantasizes about rescuing a woman because he feels helpless to win her love. The more unattainable the love, the more extravagant the fantasy (Kern 181).

            The narrative situation in the Proserpina poems reinforces the helplessness of the female subject. “The poems take us into the mind of the woman, telling us what she is thinking as she stands brooding, with the bitten fruit in her hand” (Rees 33). Rossetti’s repetition of “afar” and “far” mirrors the viewer’s distant feeling while observing the painting and poem. There is no access point to enter the painting, as in La Bella Mano. Even if he could enter the space of the painting, how could he fight against Hades, a god, who holds Proserpina captive as his bride? The best the male onlooker can do is to sympathize with the feelings the goddess expresses, “Woe’s me for thee, unhappy Proserpine!” As the ending line of the poem, the emotion culminates in the heterosexual males’ desire to redouble his efforts to save this damned beauty.

            Since he cannot enter the space to save her physically, he attempts to enter her mind through her eyes. Indeed, almost every critic writes about the eyes of Proserpina. Rees writes, “the eyes of the figure in the painting gaze past us at some view we could never hope to see but the images of the poem reveal to us how Rossetti interpreted her experience and enable us to participate in it” (35). This fits with the greater patterns of the time: “the art of rescue [. . .] reveals a pattern of fascination with the eyes of women in crisis” (Kern 182). The heterosexual male realizes he is incapable of being a hero to Proserpine.

            The desire to rescue is rooted in two key areas: first, the guarantee of her devotion, sexual and otherwise, forever after a successful rescue; second, the reaffirmation of men being in control. Sexual elements in Proserpina serve to encourage the spectator to not give-up in finding a way to save her. Proserpine’s long flowing hair, the deep cut of the gown to expose her nape, the prurient redness of her lips, which match the redness of the fruit, all add to the subtle erotic elements that encourage the man to keep fighting, despite the futility in doing so.

            Should a lesbian be the spectator of this “triple-work,” she is more likely to identify with the feelings of being trapped like Proserpine. As homosexuality, including lesbianism, although to a lesser degree than male homosexuality, was socially taboo, the split within the Proserpine’s identity would clearly parallel that of the lesbian onlooker. Certainly the same sexualized aspects of the painting are equally as appealing to the lesbian viewer as to the heterosexual male, but the lesbian on-looker likely assumes the same feelings of hopelessness as the subject herself. On the other hand, the male wishing to fulfill his rescue fantasy cannot give-up, although he recognizes he cannot succeed.

           

 

 

Synthesis: Gendering the Viewing Subject

            It is unquestionable that women did view art, and in fact, several female artist arose out of the same Pre-Raphaelite tradition as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his sister Christina being among them. Nevertheless, the dominant social structure that Mulvey identifies placed the power in terms of the masculine. Furthermore, Berger points out that many women were socialized to view from the male gaze; as such, the woman would identify with both the subject being viewed and be the viewer (44). The ekphrastic concept of the “triple-work” brought this gender power imbalance to greater heights. If there were the possibility for a woman spectator to gaze as a woman, the “triple-work” prohibited such. Not that Rossetti reacted out of some real or perceived fear, rather he was a heterosexual male who painted in La Bella Mano and Proserpina two women with whom he was romantically involved. His decision to unite painting and poem in the same space, and then write an English translation of the Italian poem, further prohibited the possibility of the female gaze of the painting alone. The indivisibility of the three works that make up a “triple-work” each restrict the possibilities that a combination of any two alone might open.

            This restriction of possibilities most clearly manifests itself in the way the viewer-reader sees the “triple-work.” Each constituent piece has notable differences that distinguish it from the next. Yet images, and therefore meanings, that appear in one do not necessarily appear in the other. The viewer-reader’s visual experience is accurate when examined as a whole work. More precisely, these differences in meaning sexualize the works in such a way that demands the spectator to assume the gaze of a heterosexual male. The artist’s manipulation of the viewer-reader through the use of differences created by both artistic medium and language demonstrate the strong heterosexual male overtones present in each of his “triple-works.” Manipulation, here, is a form of control.

            The idea that the artist can come through his/her works to control the spectator is an unnerving one. Moreover, Rossetti’s decision to shift from the common ekphrastic practice of allowing another artist to write a poem or prose piece based off of his paintings reiterates his desire to express control over these two works in particular. And then, the added step, of attaching his poem to the frame is a telltale sign to any other artist to not even attempt to write an ekphrasis of these works. Although the subjects were indeed lovers of Rossetti, and that would in part explain the strong personal desire to eliminate someone else’s interpretation, who would not be able to capture his feelings, it does not fully explain his control of the spectator.

            As Mitchell identifies, the “triple-work” simultaneously exhibits “ekphrastic hope” and “ekphrastic indifference” (Welsh); meaning, the artist is keenly aware that a division exists between word and image, and a real fear exists that word could never express all that is depicted in image. Rossetti’s creative solution – his ekphrastic hope – was the creation of the “triple-work.” It affords him the most control, and therefore the greatest possibility, of closing the gap between word and image. His knowledge of both Italian and English furthered his ability to close the gap. What could not be expressed in one language – because of vocabulary, syntax, or rhyme – could be in another.

            In working to overcome this gap, however, either intentionally or unintentionally, the viewing subject becomes gendered to a greater degree than in other forms of ekphrasis. Others, particularly Mulvey, Berger, and Goldhill have identified the ekphrastic tradition to be gendered, but none explain why, particularly for the eroticized artworks, why the lesbian gaze is prohibited. These theorists largely exist within a heteronormative tradition where the question may not have even been broached. It seems natural enough, however, to ask if a heterosexual male and a lesbian woman are sexually attracted to similar erotic depictions, why does the “triple-work” expressly prohibit this view. That is, what is lost by viewing these paintings from the lesbian gaze?

Ultimately, the lack of other pieces that attempt to replicate the concept of the “triple-work” is likely a good thing. The extreme limitation Rossetti places on the spectator closes the possibilities of interpretation. Few likely view art with the desire to feel controlled, manipulated, or trapped. Nonetheless, the concept of a “triple-work” has added to the critical debate surrounding ekphrasis. Most powerfully, perhaps, is that it seems to inextricably link ekphrasis with a particular way of viewing – the gaze.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes

1. I intentionally do not use “her” here because the heterosexual male gaze created by the “triple-work” excludes such language, and, in fact, would be contradictory.

2. See note 1.

3. I violate the normal stylistic rule of putting the punctuation I write inside of the quotation mark because it is important to show that the Italian and English versions have two different punctuation marks that close line 10.

4. See note 3.


Poems

ITALIAN

 

“La Bella Mano (Per un Quadro)” – DGR

 

1          O bella Mano, che ti lavi e piaci

In quell medesmo tuo puro elemento,

Donde la Dea dell’amoroso avvento

Nacque,  (e dall'onda s'infuocar le faci

5          Di mille inispegnibili fornaci): --

Come a Venere a te l'oro e l'argento

Offon gli Amori; e ognun riguarda attento

8          Quel labbro, sponda, ahime! di voce e baci.

 

9          Con dolce modo dove onor t'invii

Vattene adorna, e porta insiem fra tante

Di Venere e di vergine sembiante

12        Umilemente in luoghi onesti e pii

Bianca e soave ognora; infin che sii,

14              O mano, mansueta in man d'amante.

 

 

ENGLISH

 

"La Bella Mano (For a Picture)" - DGR

 

1          O lovely hand, that thy sweet self dost lave

In that thy pure and proper element,

Whence erst the Lady of Love’s high advent

Was born, and endless fires sprag from the wave:--

5          Even as her Loves to her their offerings gave,

For thee the jeweled gifts they bear; while each

Looks to those lips, of music-measured speech

8          The fount, and of more bliss than man may crave.

 

9          In royal wise ring-girt and bracelet-spann’d,

A flower of Venus’ own virginity,

Go shine among thy sisterly sweet band;

12              In maiden-minded converse delicately

Evermore white and soft; until thou be,

14        O hand! heart-handsel’d in a lover’s hand.

 

 

ITALIAN

“Proserpina (Per un Quadro)” - DGR

 

1          Lungi è la luce che in questo muro

Rifrange appena, un breve istante scorta

Del rio palazzo alla soprana porta.

Lungi quei fiori d’Enna, O lido oscuro,

5          Dal frutto tuo fatal che omai m’è duro.

Lungi quel cielo dal tartareo manto

Che quì mi cuopre: e lungi ahi lungi ahi quanto

8          Le notti che saràn dai che furo.

 

9          Lungi da me mi sento; e ognor sognando

Cerco e ricerco, e resto ascoltatrice;

E qualche cuore a qualche anima dice,

12        (Di cui mi giunge il suon da quando in quando,

Continuamente insieme sospirando,) - -

14        Oimè per te, Proserpina infelice!”

ENGLISH

“Proserpine (For a Picture)” - DGR

1          Afar away the light that brings cold cheer

Unto this wall, - one instant and no more

Admitted at my distant palace-door

Afar the flowers of Enna from this drear

5        Dire fruit, which, tasted once, must thrall me here.

                      Afar those skies from this Tartarean grey

                        That chills me: and afar how far away,

8          The nights that shall become the days that were.

 

9          Afar from mine own self I seem, and wing

Strange ways in thought, and listen for a sign:

And still some heart unto some soul doth pine,

12        (Whose sounds mine inner sense is fain to bring,

Continually together murmuring) —

14                    “Woe’s me for thee, unhappy Proserpine!”

 

 

           


Works Cited

Benson, Arthur C. English Men of Letters: Rossetti. New York: MacMillan Co., 1904. Print.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: BBC, 1972. Print.

Bristow, Joseph. “‘He and I”: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Other Man.” Victorian Poetry 39.3 (2001): 365-388. Print.

Chandler, Daniel. “Notes on the ‘Gaze.’” Aberystwyth University, Ceredigion, Wales. 10 April 2000. Web. 02 Dec 2011. <http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/gaze/gaze08.html>

Corriere della Sera. RCS Media Group. 2011. Web. 08 Dec. 2011. <http://dizionari.corriere.it/dizionario_italiano/A/ascoltare.shtml>

Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London: Penguin Books, 1998. Print.

Goldhill, Simon. “What is Ekphrasis For?” Classical Philology 102.1 (2007): 1-19. Print.

Johnston, Robert D. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. New York: Twayne  Publishers, 1969.

Kern, Stephen. Eyes of Love: The Gaze in the English and French Culture, 1840-1900. New York: NYU Press, 1996. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd Edition. Ed. Vincent Leitch, William Cain, et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 2084-2094. Print.

PreRaph.org. La Bella Mano by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. No editor listed. No date of publication. Delaware Art Museum. 20 October 2011. Web.

            <http://www.preraph.org/media/audio/56_22/07_La%20Bella%20Mano.mp3>

Rees, Joan. The Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Modes of Self-Expression. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981. Print.

Riede, David G. Dante Gabriel Rossetti Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992. Print.

---. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Limits of Victorian Vision. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983. Print.

Roe, Dinah, ed. The Pre-Raphaelites: From Rossetti to Ruskin. New York: Penguin Classics, 2010. Print.

Rossetti Archive Online. “La Bella Mano Collection Intro.” Editors of the Rossetti Archive. No date of publication. Rossetti Archive, Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia. 20 October 2011. Web. <http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/34-1875.s240.raw.html>

---. “Proserpine Collection Intro.” Editors of the Rossetti Archive. No date of publication. Rossetti Archive, Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia. 20 October 2011. Web. < http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/11872.s233.raw.html>

Rossetti, Dante G. Collected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Jerome McGann. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. Print. 189-196.

---. “Letter to Frederick Stephens, ca. 10 August 1875.” Ed. Rossetti Archive Online. Rossetti Archive, Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia. 20 October 2011. Web. < http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/dgr.ltr.0545.rad.html#p2>

Steiner, Wendy. Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in 20th Century Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Print.

Tate.org. Proserpine. Ed. Terry Riggs. February 1998. Tate Online Gallery. 28 October 2011. Website. <http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?workid=12804>

Welsh, Ryan. “Theories of Media: Keywords Glossary: ekphrasis.” University of Chicago, Winter 2007. 01 December 2011. <http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/ekphrasis.htm> 

*** I also consulted Commander Mauro Panarello, Italian Navy exchange officer to the United States Naval Academy, about a few translation questions. He can be reached at panarell@usna.edu or 410-293-6199.