Tag Archives: birds

Henry James – The Wings of the Dove (1902)

Kate Croy, the child of a poor and socially scorned father, is given the choice to be brought up by her aunt or stay with her father. She stays with aunt, but her desire to be married to Merton Densher, a poor British journalist, is complicated by her Aunt Maud Lowden’s desire to marry her well (to Lord Mark). Merton and Kate declare an informal engagement before he leaves for the US on an assignment from his newspaper. While there, we learn that he has met Milly Theale, a fabulously rich but somewhat culturally naive American, and Susan Shepherd, her culturally savvy tag-along. They are traveling in Italy, but decide to go to London, where they fall in with the crowd at Lancaster Gate. Everyone likes everyone else, but everyone also “working” everyone else according to their “quantity” and ability to “give.” Milly confides in Kate that she has a terminal disease. Merton returns and Kate tries to convince him to marry Milly (with the secret intention of her dying and leaving her money to Merton so that she can then marry Merton and have Milly’s money). Milly goes to Venice and everyone follows. Merton is conflicted about what to do, and Lord Mark has suspicions: he suspects that Merton and Kate are engaged despite Milly’s insistence that Merton has declared his love for her. Lord Mark spills the beans and Milly dies. She leaves some money to Merton anyway, but he refuses to take the money and instead says that Kate can have the money (but she will lose him) or she can refuse the money and marry. Merton says, I will marry you in an hour “as we were,” but Milly responds, “We will never be as we were.”

Combines, in James terms, “the narrative and dramatic lock,” but the theatrical melodrama, of which there is a lot, takes place “offstage”: we do not see the betrayal of the conspiracy, its revelation to Milly, or the immediate effects on Milly.

Milly’s “gift” to Merton and Kate has a similar damaging effect as it does Ralph Touchet’s “gift” to Isobel Archer: she is given social freedom, but it destroys her by “grinding her into conventionality.” However, Milly’s gift is also the opportunity for these two individuals to separate and gain a certain amount of narrative freedom. But it is through a refusal that such freedom is gained. Talk about this in relation to James shift from omniscient narrator to the creator of the “Scenario.”

Figure of the Dove. Taken from Psalms: David wishes to be a dove so that he may avoid death, but God is also likened to a Dove that descends and protects. How is Milly both? And does this bird differ from, say, the eagle in Isaiah that soars on wings because of a trust in the Lord that grants a renewal of strength. The Dove is inherently weak. The wings are also tipped with gold (connect to Golden Bowl and all the other instances of Golden (Marius, Dorian Gray, Mill on the Floss, Tale of Two Cities)). Simply put, Milly in life plays the object of desire (a dove that can be petted) to the a subject of desire in death that literally envelops all the characters.

Quantity – People are often referred to as quantities. This successfully integrates characters into the perverted circuit of gifts that sustains the rampant exploitation of London society. Also, Aunt Maud is referred to as “large,” as if James is playing with the idea that enough of something, anything, can tip over into a quality in itself. This is what happens to Milly’s money in the end: does it convert into a love? Perhaps, but a love that makes an impossible demand if it is taken up.

Life – As in the Ambassadors, Milly is obsessed with “living.” She goes to London readying herself for the “assault of life.” The anxiety of living a full life runs throughout James work, finding its most refined expression in “The Beast in Jungle,” where Marcher confides to May that his one flaw (what  makes him unique) is his sense of perpetual anticipation. May dies knowing that what he has been waiting for has come: the terrible realization that he has wasted a life in waiting. Leo Bersani associates the indefinable “It” for which Marcher is waiting with the Freudian “Id” which contains the pure potentiality of unconscious desire. In James this expectancy and potentiality becomes constitutive of the subject itself: Can we read Densher’s final freedom (and his gift of freedom to Kate) as pure potentiality? Importantly, this must be routed through an indirect object: Kate’s gold.

Thingliness – Use Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology to talk about how emotions, states of consciousness, desire, relations, take on texture: “the sticky and slippery couch” on the first page, the sheer density of the perceptual field when Merton visits Aunt Maud for the first time is disarming, crowding out the ability to think lucidly. Aunt Maud treats Merton with a “softness…the quality of fin velvet, menat to fold thick, but stretched a little thin” (502).

Sickness – Compare to The Good Soldier, in which bourgeois Londoners are constantly afflicted with “heart problems” that do not in fact exist as a pretext for traveling to a spa, where they can carry on elicit affairs with one another. The one character that does die of a heart problem (Maisie Maiden swallowed by a suitcase) is the one persistently abused by everyone else, especially Edward.

Novel as mode of enquiry – how can we conceive of late James novels as modes of enquiry into the incalculable adjustments and comportments that lead to subject formation. Can we think about it in terms of the temporal limit of affect–not where affect ends but where it beings–where the concessions, intersubjective emotions, etc.make possible a subject but do not bind that subject at the other end? Wings of the Dove refuses to put a limit on the affectively possible: it is rendered (however negatively) as the pure potential of not exercising an exploitative power.

Thomas Hardy Poems

Hap (1866)

A hybrid sonnet–half English, half Italian–that takes Hardy’s anxiety about the lack of meaning and extends it even to the certainty of there being no meaning–that is, even tragic irony is withheld from this poem. “If but some vengeful god would call to me / From up the sky, and laugh.” Indeed, the form is syllogistic (If…then..but not so) but causality is almost entirely absent.  The wish for a relinquishment of agency into the “Powerfuller than I” does not result in any sort of knowledge that can recuperate the “unmbloomed” hopes. Instead, “these purblin Doomsters has as readily strown / Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.” Formally, the sestet (ABABBA), manges to slip in a Spenserian quatrain, which might just be a way if indicating the amount of finagling poetry will go through in order to extract the meaning that is denied it. ??

Neutral Tones (1867)

16 line poem comprise of four In Memoriam quatrains. Here, memory is shown to be a perverting force that can only yield a peculiar type of knowing: realizing how one’s own making-sense is an act of perversion, or “graying.” The event recounted by the speaker is a meeting between him and another by a pond. Both subjects are nameless despite the intense intersubjectivity: “Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove / Over tedious riddles of years ago.” The speaker thus takes on the eyes of his interlocutor as the principle of mode of epistemology determining  the poem. Indeed, the vagueness of the scene bears out the inability of the speaker to remember much of anything: “And some words played between us to and fro / On which lost the more by our love.” The temporal distance that would render the immediate encounter intelligible (“Since then…”) merely give shape to a redundant “face,” “God-curst sun,” and a “tree”–that is, even less distinct generic properties that are no longer “gray” but “grayish.” One wonders, then, about the status of the recounted scene at all–was it gray or grayish? In what register of possibility does a phrase like this exist: “The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing / Alive enough to have strength to die” ? This move towards death, as the condition for representability and “aliveness” writes the power of poetry as the intervention into a time that can somehow “fix” the perpetual non-synchronicity of historical action–for instance, the sort of problematics we get in the novels. But this fix is merely a writing oneself back into a missed opportunity whose recession can only be gestured at. ….

Darkling Thrush (31st December 1900)

A rewriting of Keats’ “Ode to Nightingale”…but in this poem, the bird is seen and heard, and is therefore not the eternally exchangeable nightingale that can be substituted for every other Nightingale Keats has never seen:

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen this to fing his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

The melodramatic scene of poetic action causes the poetic speaker to be impressed with the certainty that some meaning must be around somewhere…inhering in the poetic object itself: “Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware.” The inability to determine meaning is offset by the particular rawness of the poetic source of inspiration: “The tangled bine-stems scored the sky / Like strings of broken lyres.” Yet all of this song is ungrounded, disconnected from its referent: from one angle absurd, from another angle desiring-producing–not art to fill a hollow created by desire, but desire as the desiring of desire. Thus possibility. Read as possible counter-example or complication to “Hap” and “Neutral Tones.”

Poems 1912-1913

A collection reckoning with the death of his wife Emma. The latin epigraph opening the collection translates (the traces/signs/ashes of an old flame). The poems are “melancholic,” yes, but not in ways that easily fit the Freudian model of a memory that can’t be located–and is therefore productive of a symbolic regime of sorts. Instead, it seems that the memory (a presence from which the the loss of the presence can be gauged) was compromised form the very beginning. Emma’s forms of withholding are not only constructed within the framework of memory, but are are constructive of those frameworks.

“The Going” – “Why did you give no hint that night” the poem opens: already this is not a complaint about loss, but about the loss of not being able to participate in the scene of loss. As in “Hap,” Hardy is mourning the inability to engage in sorts of poetic relationships. “Unmoved, unknowing,” in the second stanza can refer both to the morning light hardening on the bedroom wall, or can refer to the epistemological stasis-emptiness of the speaking subject. The speaker is being excised form a relationship of possession that was never memorialized–because it was never present.

“The Walk” – Here Hardy plays with the idea of habituation to loss–he cannot tell the difference between the recurrent loss during Emma’s life and the permanent loss he suffers after her death. The question is how one carries over this sentiment: “Not thinking of you as left behind.” The difference in the two experiences, is that the present walk (post-death) is concluded by returning to an empty room. Curious analogy to Freud’s fort/da. “Only that underlying sense of the look of a room on returning thence.” How doe sone account for the difference between a proximity that was not an effort and a permanent absence? One could argue that the material traces of everyday existence is what signified Emma’s duration, existential capacities. Now, the room can only signify nothing, where as previously it could signify lack or desire, depending on the paradigm one chooses.


Apology (1922)

Opens up 1922 collection Later Lyrics and Earlier. He is conscious of his career stretching across two “time-periods”–the mid-Victorian to the neo-Georgian, as he calls them–a vocational longevity that allows him to quote himself: “If way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst.” He calls this progress towards human betterment “pessimism,” or “evolutionary meliorism.” This Darwinian fate/progress results in something very much like an affective steady-state:

And looking down the future these few hold fast to the same: that whether the human and kindred animal races survive till the exhaustion or destruction of the globe, or whether these races perish and are succeeded by others before that conclusion comes, pain to all upon it, tongued or dumb, shall be kept down to a minimum of loving-kindness, operating through scientific knowledge, and actuated by the modicum of free will conjecturally possessed by organic life when the mighty necessitating forces–unconscious or other–that have “the balancings of the clouds,” happen to be in equilibrium, which may or may not be often.

“Loving-kindness” stands in for that deathly/deathless moment from which one could narrate the workings of “these disordered years of our prematurely afflicted century.” But the price that must be paid for clarity of representation means reducing the capacity for human action to the amount of freewill which Drawing granted to organic beings under the name of instinct. By contrast, most art in 1922 is invested, at least in part, in resisting the idea of mechanical causality  extending to the domain of artistic creation. To this end, Hardy takes up Arnold’s definition of poetry as “the application of ideas to life” and thinks of it in terms of this Darwinian affectivity. Thus poetry is “the visible signs of mental and emotional life, [which] must like all other things keep moving, becoming.” Thus Hardy imagines, briefly, the becoming of a poetry that merges the stability of the church with Enlightenment rationality.

Yeats – Leda and the Swan (1928)

From The Tower (1928), but dated 1923. Leda is Helen’s mother, this therefore connects with both “No Second Troy” and “September 1913.” Two quatrains of alternating rhymes followed by two tercets rhyming ABC/ABC. The poem connects the insemination of Leda directly with the fall of Troy:

A sudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.

Yet one more instant of Yeats connecting birth and reproduction with destruction (cf. Easter 1916, Second Coming), yet here, in tis penetration of the human by the divine, the argument is that history (blind, violent) takes place as a rape. The question of knowledge and self-consciousness remains: the interrogatives of the second stanza are paired with interrogatives in the final stanza:

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop.

This begins to get at a question that runs throughout Yeats: What sort of relationship to history can historical actors actually have? Do we act blindly, or can we achieve soem sort of objectivity in relation to our actions, contingent as they may be? The beauty of the opening stanzas points to the ability to aestheticize these histories. “A sudden blow” contains a  mimetic quality–not entirely referential–that may be required of language if we are going to be able to put on a knowledge at all.


Yeats – The Second Coming (1921)

One of the last poems in Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), “The Second Coming” opens with an image of a gyre ceding unifying strength to a centrifugal force coming from an unidentifiable force.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is looked upon the world.

This scene of chaos flows into a plea that borrows its tone and semiotics from Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”: “Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the second coming is at hand.” This anticipation is answered by an image (reminiscent of “Ozymondiaz”) of a creature half-lion, half-man, “[Slouching] towards Bethlehem.” The reference to Chist’s birth is peculiar because it is triggered by modern events that seem to render that event suddenly timely….that is, the history of the western world (Stephen’s “nightmare from which I am trying to wake) suddenly makes sense because it is retrospectively written as a history of disaster culminating in the mass destruction of the frist world war. There is revelation here (unlike in Hardy), but it is only showing that our future is a past that we have failed.

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Connect this with untimeliness in general: how poetry (and all other forms of knowing) comes too late. Untimeliness.  Also, the imposition of a question at the end. Why? Track the tortured interrogative in Yeats (“No Second Troy”)

Connect rocking cradle to “a terrible beauty is born.” Connect this with the language of reproduction and birth that runs throughout Victorian and Modernist literature, especially as it relates to culture and nationalism.

Yeats – The Wild Swans at Coole (1919)

The title poem from Yeats’ 1919 volume. It’s empirical reference is Lady Gregory’s Estate in Galway near Sligo. The following poem “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” is direct allusion to the absence around which “Wild Swans” seems to revolve. Opens with description of autumnal lake scene whose “romanticism” is problematized first by the fact that the water is mirroring a “still sky” and not “still water” mirroring a sky (Under the October twilight the water / mirrors a still sky), cf. Dekoven; but also by the odd number of swans (the missing one is Robert).

Second stanza opens with nineteenth autumn, making the first iteration 1900, which solidifies the dialogue with Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush.” Before the speaker finishes counting them, they all mount in “great broken rings,” an iteration of the gyre that will become paramount in Yeats. Third stanza “All’s changed,” invokes the Tintern effect. Yet the poem insists that the poetry has not been drain of the swans themselves (poetry still has an object, but there is an apophatic intimation of the agin poetic capacity. The swans recede into adjectives more appropriate to early Yeats (beautiful, mysterious), but that is not to celebrated as much as mourned in frustration. The image of the poet’s belated waking recall Keats’ Belle Dame Sans Merci, and also the cold dawns that being to crop up throughout Yeats (Fisherman, The Dawn, etc.)

The collection as a whole is more overtly militaristic (in its content) than anything published previously, with poems dedicated to dead soldiers and the poem “An Irish Airman foresees his Death”). The poems cary widely in their structure, ranging from the four line “The Balloon of the Mind” “Memory”–

One had a lovely face,
And two or three had charm,
But charm and face were in vain
Because the mountain grass
Cannot but keep the form
Where the mountain hare as lain

To the sprawling dialogue “The Phases of the Moon.” There is a heightened self-consciousness about the resources and limits of poetry, especially in relation to history, death and beauty. This makes Keats (with Hardy as a mediator) a crucial historical figure in this collection.