Monday, March 7, 2011

All the King's Horses

If Mr. Beddoes is the poet of physical death and mystical resurrection, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) represents a scientific possibility of life after death. Dr. Frankenstein creates his monster choosing the most beautiful human body parts. But to his surprise and abhorrence the human he reanimated turns out to be a hideous and loathsome creature. Dr. Frankenstein project of collecting human parts and putting them together to breathe life into them is a transgression equal to Prometheus': the novel's subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, emphasizes Frankenstein's  crime and punishment for his defiance of the Olympian gods. Just as Prometheus, Frankenstein is punished for usurping a power that belongs to God alone: the power to create life.

The story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster evokes not only the Promethean myth but also intimates myths of dismemberment and rebirth associated with Orpheus and Dionysus. Orpheus, the patron of all poets, dares to defy fate and death and attempts to bring Eurydice back from the underworld. He is eventually dismembered by the Maenads, the female followers of Dionysus in Bacchic frenzy. Orpheus is said to have founded the cults of Dionysus and Apollo. Dionysus is the god of wine and harvest, associated with irrationality and madness but also immortality. In one version of the myth, the jealous Hera sent the Titans to rip  baby Dionysus into pieces until Zeus intervened but not until the Titans devoured all the body parts except for the heart. Zeus then is said to have sewn Dionysus' heart into his thigh and the child recreated was born again. Frankenstein's ugly monster is born again or reanimated from various dismembered body parts and betrays an anxiety over not only scientific and technological progress as a means to gain unnatural, almost divine, knowledge by men but also implies a fragmented cultural experience that cannot be put together by any human attempt. If it ever is, it will prove nothing other than a monstrosity, an abortive project.

Three years after the battle of Waterloo, during the Regency after King George III is proclaimed insane, the time of excess and decadence, a year before the infamous Peterloo massacre and two before the hated Regent is crowned becoming George IV, Mary Shelley is responding to the unrest of the period. The world in her eyes does not correspond to her husband's grand vision. In 1820 P. B. Shelley offers his own myth of Prometheus in his drama, Prometheus Unbound. For P. B. Shelley, Prometheus becomes the hero of the human race and, according to Marilyn Gaull, "embodies the history of all those god-men, the divinities, who chose to participate in human life and the human beings who were touched by the sacred: Apollo, Dionysus, Orpheus, Buddha, Job, Moses, Christ, Zoroaster, even Satan" (Gaull 203). Shelley's myth ends with a release of the world from tyranny and culminates in the Earth and the Moon joining in an ecstatic, joyous, erotic union, and the Earth proclaims man to be the ultimate power capable even of controlling lightning. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is not the usurper of a power greater than himself and a transgressor of human limitations but a heroic figure who liberates the world from tyranny and suffering.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Raising Ghosts

               And by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. (Hamlet III.i)
Having gotten into a dangerous and rather scary skiing accident a few weekends ago, I found myself in the ICU with--to the amusement of all the nurses and doctors--an appropriate book: Thomas Lovell Beddoes' Death's Jest Book. I must admit that Mr. Beddoes has been growing on me since I was introduced to his poetry a few years ago. The fact that he considered himself almost a disciple of Shelley further establishes him for me as an iconic figure in the limited and otherwise unimpressive canon of the so called "third generation Romantics." What I find most fascinating with Mr. Beddoes is his obsession with death. Beddoes is a kind of a 19th Century Hamlet; but where Hamlet oscillates in his ideas about death, Beddoes has made up his mind: he is convinced of the "sleep" being a desirable escape from "The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."

Beddoes, of course, is not the only one with a death wish in the Romantic period. Let's track chronologically some of the more memorable death wishes and their transformation throughout the period.

For Charlotte Smith throughout the 1790s the world of the living is a world woes and of suffering and death seems a pleasant escape. For example, in “Sonnet IV: To the Moon” she complains that life is a pilgrimage of suffering and imagines that the dead end up with the moon, which she finds soothing, and wishes to get there as well. In other poems, such as "The Dead Beggar" she rhapsodizes about death's being the end all sorrow and freedom from the woes of this world. In "To Tranquility," she wishes for a temporary relief from sorrow. And in the poem "Written in the Church-yard at Middleton in Sussex," she recognizes that the dead are insensible to the destructive forces of this world. Although in most of her poetry she finds death a welcome end, she often lingers in metaphors and subtleties and her conception of death seems ambiguous but terminal.

Another notable example of a death wish is Lord Byron's Manfred. Written in 1817, the play portrays an existential hero, who guilty of incest and of breaking his beloved sister's heart lives in isolation in the Bernese Alps. Since the spirits he summons through his mastery of language and spell-casting cannot grant him forgetfulness, he prefers to die defying religion and its power of redemption from sin proclaiming at the end to the Abbot, "Old man! 't is not so difficult to die." Even though for Byron dying seems an easy task and death is not the end of existence, evidenced by the ghost of Astarte, there's still a certain finality in it.

Moving towards the end of the Romantic period, the death wish seems to become more persistent in poetry. Felicia Hemans, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Letitia Elizabeth Landon all engage in their poetry in the idea of death.

Hemans, for example, in "The Grave of a Poetess" (1827) bemoans the fate of a poetess and, reminiscent of Smith, finds death liberating from a world of woes. Hemans wrote a whole catalog of poems representing historical scenes from women's perspectives. The women remain faithful to the men who often abandon or betray them. In "Indian Woman's Death-Song" (1828) a woman chooses death for her and her daughter when her husband finds another woman in favor. Properzia Rossi (1828) pines away after her lover abandons her but leaves a sculpture of Ariadne for him, so he can remember that she loved him best. And in "The Wife of Asrubal" (1819) the heroic wife of a man who proved to be a traitor and who left her to in a burning city jumps off a citadel with her children and perishes in the flames. Even though Hemans' heroines are quick in condemning themselves to death, they do it for the love of their men or husbands, upholding those traditional patriarchal values.

Tennyson in Mariana from 1830 also expresses a death wish of a woman who has been abandoned by her lover. But even though Mariana repeatedly says, "I am aweary, aweary,/ I would that I were dead!," she doesn't do anything to bring that death about. The poem is famously static, and the woman--as opposed to Hemans' heroines-- is disturbingly passive.

L.E.L. in "Hebe" and "Corinne at the Cape of Misena," written in the 1830s, also expresses a death wish. Hebe, the goddess of youth and spring, was gods' cupbearer until she fell and spilled the wine. She was replaced by Ganymede. In "Hebe" the goddess wants youth and childhood to “pass on” because it has “too much unrest.” She wants her heart to “grow calm and cold/ Calm to sorrow, cold to love.” Since her hope, truth, and faith have ceased, so she wants her heart to rest or die. Likewise, a poetess's mind seeks "a home" in "a grave; and hope/ That looks beyond to heaven!" What is particular about Corinne is that her song lives on: the music is gone but the words participate in "immortality of pain." The universal feeling of pain and suffering so persistent in a poet are eternal and live beyond the individual poet's grave.

It seems that by the mid-19th Century we evidence if not a denial of death then at least life's extension beyond the grave. For Beddoes especially, death becomes nothing other than another state of living. Virtually all of Beddoes' poetry is haunted by ghosts: in his plays characters often proclaim that death is non-existent. For example, in The Bride's Tragedy Olivia, the forlorn bride of the condemned Hesperus says:
                           Death! Thou silly girl,
There’s no such thing; ‘tis but a goblin word,
Which bad men conjure from their reeking sins
To Haunt their slumbers; ‘tis a life indeed.
These bodies are the vile and drossy seeds,
Whence, placed again within their kindred earth,
Springs Immortality, the glorious plant
Branching above the skies. What is there here
To shrink from? (V.iii)
Death is but a "life." The grotesque physicality of this existence beyond the grave as buried bodies become the seeds contrasts starkly with the abstract notion of "Immortality." The two ideas are combined to create a strange breed of the walking dead.

Death is not only a state of being but one that is desirable and which shouldn't be feared. For Hesperus life is the "ailment." And for Mandrake in Death's Jest Book death is an invention of doctors and undertakers:

[The dead] live all jollily underground and sneak about a little in the night air to hear the news and laugh at their poor innocent great-grandchildren, who take them for goblins, and tremble for fear of death, which is at best only a ridiculous game at hide-and-seek. That is my conviction, and I am quite impartial being in the secret, but I will only keep away from the living till I have met with a few of these gentle would-be dead, who are shy enough, and am before initiated into their secrets, and then I will write to the newspapers, turn King’s evidence and discover the whole import and secret, become more renowned than Columbus though sure to be opposed by the doctors and undertakers whose invention the whole most extravagant idea seems to be.

Effectively, Beddoes' world is filled with harmless zombies, such as Wolfram, who is raised from his tomb by an African necromancer. In a poem, "A Dirge" published posthumously in 1851, Beddoes dismisses life and glorifies death. The uncertainty of tomorrow becomes the source of fear rather than death. Because life is death and the corporeal body is the tomb, "To die is to live." This paradox transforms suicide into a resurrection and the unfortunate suicide victim into a necromancer.

Throughout the 19th Century then although we consistently see a wish for death rather than an endurance of a life of woes and sorrows, especially in women's poetry, the desire becomes more concrete and turns into an obsession. The prospect of an immortal life replaces the finality of death. And the mid-century world is occupied by the walking dead. And given Beddoes' opinion of poetry of his day, the recently deceased Keats, Shelley, and Byron are among the zombies haunting the poets of his time.