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Time of Beauty, Time of Fear
The Romantic Legacy in the Literature of Childhood
University of Iowa Press
Copyright © 2012 University of Iowa Press
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Chapter One JAMES HOLT MCGAVRAN, JR.
Missing But Presumed Alive
Lost Children of Lost Parents in Two Major Romantic Poems, "Michael" and "Christabel"
William Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," the Ur-text behind so much "classical" children's literature—and perhaps too much children's literature criticism—casts long, dark shadows in which stalk the monsters that always devour childhood innocence, simplicity, and spirituality. True, Wordsworth essentializes the child as a heavenly visitant, apostrophizing the newborn, "Mighty Prophet, Seer Blest!" But the "Ode" also prophesies the dangers that lie in wait for these angel-children, showing how parents and other adults, often but not always with the best intentions, drive the young to subterfuge or despair by forcing them to play all the parts their secular society requires, "as if ... [their] whole vocation / were endless imitation," and thus setting them "blindly with ... [their] blessedness at strife" (ll. 114, 106–07, 128 Oxford Wordsworth 300). In Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth praises little children like the girl in "We Are Seven" and the boy in "Anecdote for Fathers" who subvert the attempts of bullying adults to teach them to think, speak, and act correctly, thus perhaps holding on if only temporarily to "the hour / Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower" that the poet himself so splendidly invokes in the "Ode" (ll. 180–81 Oxford Wordsworth 302). And critics Catherine Robson and Judith Plotz have reminded us that in the first two books of The Prelude, recreating his own boyhood self, he presents a sensitive, sometimes spiritual but sometimes lawbreaking good-bad boy (Robson 17–18; Plotz 45–47; see also McGavran, "Wordsworth, Lost Boys ..." 131), almost a Lake District Huck Finn, who finds both sublimity and morality through his early experiences in nature that will guide him later when he is handed the various scripts society expects him to learn by heart: the university student, the city dweller, the political activist (see Prelude Books Three, Seven, and Nine through Eleven respectively).
But Luke and Christabel, children respectively of Wordsworth's sturdy old shepherd, Michael, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's whiny old lord of the castle, Sir Leoline, neither act the acceptable parts nor have the strength to script alternative selves. Instead of trailing "clouds of glory / From God" (ll. 64–65 Oxford Wordsworth 299) like the child in the "Ode," by the end of their respective texts, "Michael" and "Christabel," they seem possessed by demons. Like conjoined twins with a shared heart of darkness, in spite of their differences of sex and class, they grow up seemingly snug and safe only to be lost to parents who must have thought—on a mountain, in a castle—to protect them from the evil of the world, to give them a childhood while they learned to be grownups. Beautiful, promising ingenues as their stories begin, they yield like Joseph Conrad's Kurtz a century later to both internal and external temptation, committing transgressions that alienate them from themselves and their parents, while the latter cannot rescue them and indeed share in the responsibility for their abrupt and terrifying declines. Cutting through the obvious surface differences between Wordsworth's wet, windy mountaintop naturalism and Coleridge's spooky Lenten gothicism, both texts, far from child-worship, destabilize any simplistic reading of Romantic childhood to call parenting and ultimately kinship itself into question, as Kenneth Johnston and David Collings have noted (Johnston 744; Collings 157–79 esp. 168–69). And metadramas abound, reinforcing these doubts with personal and interpersonal conflicts. Both poets, orphaned early, draw perhaps unconsciously on memories of their own sadly truncated childhoods as they write. Moreover, the intertwined textual history of these poems documents rifts in the intense friendship of their creators, reinscribing kinship tensions on interpersonal and textual levels: Coleridge, better known as a poet than his friend through most of the 1790s, lost poetic ground with the first publication of Lyrical Ballads, which contained far more of Wordsworth's poems. And while the Wordsworths had praised the second part of Coleridge's poem when they first heard it in the fall of 1800, William worked obsessively afterward to finish "Michael" as a replacement for "Christabel" in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (Gill 187; Johnston 743). Yet, as Collings has written, "Michael," written "to oust Coleridge's improper and extravagant text from his own apparently domesticated collection, becomes another version of it" (161; see also Johnston 745).
Like other familiar Romantic Era fathers—Jane Austen's Mr. Bennet and Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein to name two—Sir Leoline has retreated into himself and away from parental responsibility. Meaning well, perhaps, but by no means always doing good—or indeed doing anything at all—Leoline has somehow managed to teach his daughter, "whom her father loves so well" (I: 24 Oxford Coleridge 67) to think that he is on her side; thus Christabel brags to Geraldine early on about her father's authority and power: "O well, bright dame! may you command / The service of Sir Leoline" (I: 106–07 Oxford Coleridge 69). True enough, Geraldine does command the Baron by the end of Part II; but he is hardly to be regarded as a service-provider of any sort; his is "a world of death" (II: 333 Oxford Coleridge 75), a world of sleeplessness and bad health where he has been stuck ever since Christabel's mother died giving birth to her—although he mourns less in spousal grief than because he has been missing the best male friend of his youth, Lord Roland, all the years of Christabel's childhood. His neglected, lonely, bored, and sexually curious daughter becomes the plaything of Geraldine, monstrous but gorgeous, who appears like Blake's tiger "burning bright" in the moonlight, seduces and silences the besotted girl, but then drops her to go after Leoline (having already confronted and banished the spirit of Christabel's dead mother). But of course Christabel enables Geraldine, indeed almost wills her to appear, by leaving her father's castle at midnight, ostensibly to pray for her faraway boyfriend.
Michael and Isabelle, Luke's parents in William Wordsworth's equally tragic antipastoral, would not at first glance seem to belong in the same company with the Bennets, the Frankensteins, and Sir Leoline. Do they not provide an inspiration, a literal and figurative beacon of hardworking, clean-living goodness and love, not just for their son Luke but for their entire community? "The Evening Star," that's what the neighbors call the lamp in their window: "The Light was famous in its neighbourhood, / And was a public Symbol of the life, / The thrifty pair had liv'd" (ll. 146, 136–38 Oxford Wordsworth 228). Shining as bright as—Geraldine? Upon closer study, Michael and Isabelle appear not as the rurally pure, unstained contrary of Leoline and the others but rather as having much in common with them in their Burkean obsession with money, land, inheritance, and control and thus intensifying our final recognition, when we see Michael sitting and "never ... [lifting] up a single stone" at the unfinished sheepfold (l. 475 Oxford Wordsworth 236), that they have lost their only child and their land because of their greed and hubris. For his part, Luke tearfully agrees—or at least submits—to his father's wish for a covenant between them but seems almost as eager as Christabel to escape the safety of home and seek his fortune in London, that ultimate Blakean forest of the night that leads to his and his family's undoing. The manifestly unfinished state of Coleridge's poem makes it impossible for us to know for sure whether Christabel and/or Langdale Hall will be lost to Leoline's posterity, but the future does not look good at the end of Part Two. Surrounded like her father by "whispering tongues that poison truth" (II: 409 Oxford Coleridge 77) speaking perhaps of same-sex unions, Christabel collapses on her father's floor, writhing like a serpent, after begging her father by her mother's soul to send her seducer away. Michael and Isabelle's Luke—an Isaac unspared by the Lord, a prodigal who can't or won't go home again—falls in London to some evil so irremediable, or so alluring, that he exiles himself far away across the seas where his heartbroken old parents cannot follow him and forgive him.
If first-time readers of "Christabel" are perplexed when the poem stops in mid-career after Part Two, they are thoroughly confused by Coleridge's addition, ostensibly as a "Conclusion to Part II," of a verse-letter he had written to Southey in 1801 that seems totally unrelated to the poem (II: 656–77 Oxford Coleridge 84; Griggs 2:398). In it Coleridge describes the complex, contrary feelings he experiences while watching his young son Hartley at play: "And pleasures flow in so thick and fast / Upon his heart, that he at last / Must needs express his love's excess / With words of unmeant bitterness"; continuing to the verge of sadomasochism, he writes, "Perhaps 'tis tender too and pretty / At each wild word to feel within / A sweet recoil of love and pity" (II: 662-65, 670–72 Oxford Coleridge 84). Cynics take this textual patchwork as a Coleridgean admission of defeat, proof in spite of his various recorded plans for finishing the poem that he really had no clue how to finish it. Unlike Coleridge's other famous fragment, Kubla Khan, which has often been read as a complete poem on the tensions rife in both sexual and artistic creation, "Christabel" remains not only unfinished but disintegrating, collapsing like its eponymous heroine under the weight of its own indeterminacy: Is Geraldine good, evil, or beyond easy moral definition? Is her embrace of Christabel sexual, spiritual, psychological, political, or all—or none—of the above? What is going to happen next? Will Christabel rise to life again? Or, struck by the tiger Geraldine, whose horror Christabel alone can see, is Sir Leoline's daughter, to use another Blakean analogy, a rose too sick ever to recover?
But perhaps Coleridge added the verse-letter about Hartley, drenched in the tone of the adoring but potentially abusive parent, because he wanted readers to see the gothic creepiness of "Christabel," its concern with both same-sex and opposite-sex relationships, its social-psychological-verbal collapse and paralysis in the larger context of intergenerational conflict within the nuclear family. Geraldine's putative disfigurement, then—"Behold her bosom and half her side!" (I: 252 Oxford Coleridge 73)—may thus inscribe faultlines that crack apart the supposedly solid, safe, and tranquil precincts of the bourgeois castle home—or the healthily windswept family farm-just as the verse—letter to Southey adds an initially dissonant voice to that of the ballad narrator in "Christabel." Over forty years ago, Gerald Enscoe integrated the "non-conclusion's" message of intergenerational conflict into his Eros-based reading of "Christabel" when he wrote that to save his child from the world a father must destroy its innocence (58), and thus that the parent's "words of unmeant bitterness" are in a way meant, and they are in any case necessary, customary if the child is to grow up knowing all its lines, all its scripts. But Anya Taylor counterargues that "the father's wounding words ... can [and do] blight a child's growth" (9), permanently damaging her psyche; and she sees this monstrous mental trauma happening to Christabel.
However much their real estate both elevates and curses them, however much they even unconsciously send Luke to London to complete his education, Michael and Isabelle are no more solely responsible for the moral collapse Luke apparently experiences in London than Leoline is for his daughter's failure. Granted, as Guinn Batten has eloquently put it,
"It is no coincidence that the era that produced ... Wordsworth's 'Michael' invented our ... ideal of the family as an intimate, private, and loving space where two heterosexual, married adults delay the child's fall into the world. Yet the family then as now ... served as the site for the child's instruction in experience and for the interpellation of ideology as often as it offered the child its shelter." (6)
Luke, then, learned more from his parents' early experiment in the nuclear family than to love the land and to run a sheep farm; they instructed him in the commodity capitalism of his times, and thus he came to suffer from what Batten calls the orphaned imagination—and the dehumanization and melancholy that accompany this. Luke is not literally an orphan, but he "orphanizes" himself by cutting himself off from both the sheltering and teaching functions of his family. Wordsworth is intriguingly vague about the exact nature of Luke's downfall: the poet may have felt limited by the gaps in the real-life stories upon which the poem is based, one of a profligate son and one of a sheepfold-building shepherd (see Moorman 497); or he may have deliberately enhanced the mystery by omitting particulars; but he says enough to imply that Luke succumbs to some temptation to which he had never been exposed in the Lake District, something which neither he nor his parents could anticipate or prevent. Trying as hard as they can to integrate their traditional rural work ethic and love of their land with an up-to-date awareness of how English economic life was changing around them, Michael and Isabelle struggle to raise a good son, stepping surprisingly wide—as we shall see—around the class and gender stereotypes that shackled the Bennets and the Frankensteins, but manage instead, to produce an errant one. Moreover, unlike Christabel, Lydia Bennet, and Victor's patchwork son, prodigals who transgress and then long to return to their fathers' good graces, Luke crosses a border he is unable, but also perhaps unwilling, to recross—from "good" to "bad," from country to city, from seeming part of his family to internalizing a role as Michael's Other.
In his much quoted 1801 letter to Parliamentary Whig leader Charles James Fox, Wordsworth describes Michael as one of a dwindling group of "small independent proprietors of land here called statesmen, men of respectable education who daily labour on their own little properties" (Letters: Early Years 314). And in the poem Wordsworth idealizes Michael's attachment to his land: "These fields, these hills / Which were his living Being, even more / Than his own Blood—what could they less? had laid / Strong hold on his affections, were to him / A pleasurable feeling of blind love, / The pleasure which there is in life itself " (ll. 74–79 Oxford Wordsworth 226). Note, however, that Michael's love is "blind," missing something, deluded in some way. Michael and Isabelle try to act appropriately to secure Luke's inheritance, unlike Austen's Mr. Bennet, who looks far more the country bumpkin by contrast since he makes no attempt to offset the loss that the entailment of Longbourn will impose upon his wife and daughters when he dies. Reversing the impression Wordsworth himself gives in the letter to Fox, that Michael and Isabelle were among the very last of a dying breed of English small landowners, Alan Liu has argued that "we will do best to make the yeomanry ... [that is, farmers like Michael] our norm of middle-class rural life" (241) of the late eighteenth century—that is, quite numerous in both life and literature. If we allow for the topographical differences, Michael and Isabelle are not far below the Musgroves in Austen's Persuasion and are quite the equals of the Martins in Emma, whom Emma herself sneeringly calls yeomanry (25). Michael's relatives in the city make their livings in the new market economy; in fact it is to one of them that they turn for financial help—"a prosperous man, / Thriving in trade" like the Bennet sisters' Uncle Gardiner—just as it is to another relative that Michael owes the forfeiture, a nephew "of an industrious life, and ample means" who yet has become a victim of "unforeseen misfortunes," amounting to "little less / Than half his substance" (ll. 259–60, 222–23, 226–27 Oxford Wordsworth 230–31).
Far more awake to the world than Leoline, Luke's parents are all too familiar with the vicissitudes of individual fortunes caused by unwise investments or market fluctuations. Moreover, we later learn that Michael himself came into only half of his inheritance as a young man, the rest having been mortgaged away, and "toil'd and toil'd" (l. 387 Oxford Wordsworth 234) until he was forty to buy back the rest of it. Critic Tracy Ware has called this "the most perplexing detail in the poem" (371) and has noted, as have many others, that rather than send him off to London, Michael and Isabelle could simply have let Luke in his turn inherit half the land and, through careful management of his resources, earn enough to recoup the other half like his father before him (Ware 372; see also Lea 58).
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