"Sweet Influences": Human/Animal Difference and Social Cohesion in Wordsworth and Coleridge, 1794-1806*
Kurt Fosso, Lewis & Clark College
Ours is the reptile's lot, much toil, much blame,
Manifold motions making little speed,
And to deform and kill the things whereon we feed.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Psyche"
Were a seventeenth-century English painter to travel in time to a gallery in the latter half of the eighteenth century he or she might well exclaim, wide-eyed, "Where did all the animals come from?" For the animals depicted in those portraits and landscapes had somehow migrated from the backgrounds they had previously inhabited to become foregrounded pictorial subjects in themselves: cattle in fields, dogs and horses standing alone or beside proud owners, horses arranged like Grecian statuary, wild birds, exotic lions, and inquisitive monkeys painstakingly depicted in quasi-natural habitats. Where indeed had all these animals come from, and why were they here? 1
The phenomenon of George Stubbs (1724-1806), the renowned English "horse painter," would itself have shocked our traveler. Consider, for example, Stubbs's portrait of "Captain Samuel Sharpe Pocklington with His Wife, Pleasance, and possibly His Sister, Frances" (1769). Although anthropocentrically enough titled and most likely commissioned as a marriage portrait, this painting is really a study of Captain Pocklington's horse. Whether or not the Captain or his wife was cognizant of the fact, Stubbs, whose popular Anatomy of the Horse had been published three years before in 1766, was clearly using the much-prized, status-confirming animal not just as the group portrait's focus but also as its main point of interest. It is the horse around whom the three human figures are posed, and it is the horse, not the good Captain, who receives Mrs. Pocklington's affectionate attentions. In his life-time Stubbs painted many such animal-oriented works, including horse portraits like the well-known "Whistlejacket" (1762) and the series of equine formal studies, "Mares and Foals" (1762-68, 1776), as well as numerous paintings of dogs and more exotic creatureslions, zebras, and the occasional rhinoceros. Stubbs had made a career of it.
Similarly, John Constable's landscape paintings are populated by as many animals as people, with animals frequently serving as a work's focus or focusing agent, as in "The Haywain" (1821) and "Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows" (1829). In each tableau a lone, attentive dogthe sole depicted observermediates the viewer's gaze, directing it to a dramatic animal scene of wain-pulling horses.2
These and other creative works of the Romantic period interconnect human perception and animal perception or being, human economy and animals' various places within it or outside it, and by so doing foreground both human-animal similarities and differences, among other things. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries such representations of animals indeed are by no means merely familiar (or exotic) subject matter or handy rhetorical tools readily substitutable by other signs. On the contrary, in these years animal depictions are fundamentally tied to Englishmen's shifting social existence, as indices of cultural change, of difference, and of identity.3
|4|| Not coincidentally, and for more
than a few thinkers of the time not a little fortuitously, the human monarchy
of nature had itself recently been toppled and reconceptualized under a
new system of animal classification.4
A Copernican revolution all its own, the Linnaean taxonomy, as utilized
by English natural scientists like Erasmus Darwin, resituated homo sapiens
as one animal among many similar, interconnected species. Hence, in the
preface to his epidemiological taxonomy, Zoonomia (1794),5
Darwin could argue that, although the "Creator of all things has infinitely
diversified the works of his hands," he has also "stamped a certain
similitude on the features of nature, that demonstrate to us, that the whole
is one familyof one parent" (B; original emphasis). Darwin's metaphor
of the family aptly sums up the then-emerging view of the biological commonality
of all creatures, a view that posited creatures' mutual bonds and shared
affectionsand also significantly implies the social connections within
and between species. In the widely popular natural histories by Buffon and
Bewick one similarly finds animals' social nature to be a foregrounded concern,
these histories' illustrations depicting animals in "clearly defined social
setting[s]," with careful attention also given to their relationship to
human economy (Potts 18). |
In a manner equally typical of the Romantic era, Darwin moreover holds the source of human virtue itself to rest in "our intellectual sympathies with . . . the miseries, or with the joys, of our fellow creatures" (255). Our connection to animals is for him, as for others of his time6,
dependent upon our sympathetic identification with these "our fellow creatures." In this way, eighteenth-century natural history presented to British men and women not just a further blow to traditional notions of the place of human beings"a dissolution and reconstitution of conceptual patterns by which natural phenomena had been understood" (Kroeber 18)but also an important means of re-envisioning humankind's proper place in the social and natural fabric: as a part of a unifying (albeit for some thinkers also a dislocating)7
whole of interconnected specieseven of a dynamic "family" of people, horses, dogs, and other, undomesticated creatures.
In Romantic Ecology Jonathan Bate argues that what poets like William Wordsworth added to this new matrix of an interrelated ecosystem or "economy of nature" (the English title of one of Linnaeus's essays) was their "emphasis on a symbiosis between the economy of nature and the activities of humankind": the Wordsworthian "'one life' within us and abroad" (39-40).8
And, as James Turner observes, this is where animals "came in," answering the psychological call on the part of late-eighteenth-century men and women for a "bulwark" against "the wrenching changes wrought by factory and city" (31-33). The enormous popularity of animals in the period, both in paintings and in zoos, can of course be attributed to other factors as well, ranging from an urban population's nostalgia for rural times and places past9
to a growing empire's appetite for exoticism.10
But turn-of-the-century animal representations particularly responded to the anxieties and desires prompted by social and political changeby revolution, war, domestic disrule, and reformand by the era's wrenching economic transformations. At a time when age-old "securities of class and status and theological assumptions" were themselves being shattered (McFarland 20), when distrust of government and the old orthodoxies was at an all-time high, and when deep fissures could be glimpsed within England's social, political, and economic landscape, artists responded to these historical pressures by attempting in their works to discover and represent new forms of social organization and subjectivity.11
And it is in this cultural project that animals came into the picture.
Indeed, for Romantic artists animals particularly satisfied a desire to find alternative, local, and noneconomic means of human connection, a social appeal that is especially prominent in the late-eighteenth-century poetry of Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. During the increasingly turbulent years from 1794 to 1800, including the nadir of the Terror, these two poets depict new forms of social cohesion and identity based upon lasting bonds able to "bind all men together" (Eisold 122). The poets' sociological project leads them to represent communities articulated by mysterious human-animal linkages, as in Wordsworth's "Lines Written in Early Spring," from his and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads of 1798. Here Wordsworth describes his experience of nature as a product of his abiding belief (most likely owed in part to Erasmus Darwin) that the "human soul" is intricately linked to nature's "fair works" (ll. 5-6). For Karl Kroeber this provocative hypothesis in fact implies the speaker's understanding that "all human cultures are constructed by natural creatures" (45). And the poet's belief indeed suggests not just his pantheism but also his understanding of a profound social connection between human beings and animals, one with the potential to form a "true community . . . / Of many into one incorporate," as Wordsworth describes matters in Home at Grasmere (MS. B.819-20). To a diseased social-political world "where no brotherhood exists" (The Prelude 2.404), human and animal relationships offered to these poets and to other artists important potential bonds for human connection: "mysteries of passion which have made, / And shall continue evermore to make . . . / One brotherhood of all the human race" (10.84-88).
Although Coleridge himself winced at Wordsworth's lingering "One Life" pantheism (despite the fact that Wordsworth had gleaned much of it from him) and, in Kroeber's words, would in later years "devote major energies . . . to defending a transcendental vision of divinity hostile to Romantic proto-ecological nature poetry" (67), in the waning years of the eighteenth century he generally shared his friend's "proto-ecological" orientation and belief in the divine, and deeply social, power of nature's animals. Notably, in Coleridge's "Fears in Solitude" (1798), the poet, fearing the rumored French invasion of England, finds consolation that in a "spirit-healing nook" a man still may
...lie on fern or withered heath,Communion with nature's "best" minstrel produces in the quiet listener "[r]eligious meanings" and "dreams of better worlds" (24, 26) set in stark contrast to a violent world of "[i]nvasion," "fear and rage, / And undetermined conflict" (36-38), a world made all the more despicable by these contrasting, nature-bestowed dreams of more tranquil "society" (218). Nature's harmony here has the power to guide the self from such alienating political preoccupations to "[l]ove, and the thoughts that yearn for human kind" (232)thoughts of one's natural connection to his or her "brethren" (155). Like the well-known dictum of Wordsworth's Prelude, that love of nature leads to love of humankind, these lines by Coleridge describe nature's active involvement in fostering community. And, although the lark's music is missing from the poem's concluding description of a now "silent dell" (228) (and even may have been owed to the poet's recollection of a past visit), at the outset that songbird, singing "unseen / The Minstrelsy that solitude loves best," like some "angel in the clouds," singularly contributes to those vital "sweet influences" that tremble over the speaker (19-21, 28) and elicit both his "melancholy" thoughts about his warring "human brethren" (32) and his more hopeful visions of "better worlds" populated by animals and (animal-) loving human beings.
Coleridge's earlier poem "To A Young Ass" (1794), popular enough to have been lampooned by Lord Byron, similarly represents animals as makers or markers of community and communitarian feeling. It also presents the animal as an emblem of oppression, the "[p]oor little Foal of an oppressed Race" (1).12
The speaker exclaims, "I hail thee Brotherspite of the fool's scorn! / And fane would take thee with me, in the Dell / Of Peace and mild Equality to dwell" (26-28). The latter reference is to Coleridge's and Robert Southey's ambitious utopian scheme, "Pantisocracy," but we should not let their failure ever to realize that idealized dell overshadow the poem's more immediate aims,13
akin to the French Revolution's own, by then vanishing, goals of liberté, égalité, fraternité. The "Brother" foal, italicized in Coleridge's text arguably to emphasize precisely this revolutionary significance,14
is to be set freeso the speaker would wish, anywayto dwell in "mild Equality" with the poet and his fellow pantisocrats, in a life of work and playful "bray[s] of joy" (34-35). The poem's animal addressee thus serves not just as an exemplum of rural poverty's brutalizing effects but also as a sign and source of resistance to such economic brutalization. For the speaker, true brotherhood, not to mention true equality and liberty, must include the foal. In this Coleridgean manifesto of sorts the principal source of social cohesion rests in the socializing sympathies the foal itself occasions and which its brays repeatedly confirm, in stark contrast to the caged bird in the imprisoning city, whose "warbled melodies" merely "soothe to rest / The aching of pale Fashion's vacant breast!" (35-36).
Wordsworth's "Poor Susan," from Lyrical Ballads of 1800, also describes a caged bird's song, heard by Susan from a London street corner. The lone thrush's singing prompts her to daydream of remembered "Green pastures . . . in the midst of the dale, / Down which she [had] so often . . . tripp'd with her pail" (9-10). In lines later excised at Charles Lamb's urging, the poem's speaker goes on to chastise Susan as a "Poor Outcast" (perhaps a prostitute, then no uncommon condition) who should return to her father's rustic home and, having replaced her fancy loomed dress for a "plain russet" home-spun gown, once again hear a "thrush sing from a tree of its own" (17-20). Here, too, the countryside is depicted as an ideal dell of free animals and concomitantly liberated human beings. By contrast, the city is a place of imprisoned humans and animals alike. At the same time, of course, such liberating communitarian contact with animals is in some manner occasioned by, or is at least responsive to, their past and present suffering.
To return for a moment to Wordsworth's "Lines Written In Early Spring," we find its poet similarly seeking social connection and belonging, his desires' fulfillment resting in his firm "faith that every flower / Enjoys the air it breathes" (11-12). Yet the flowers' enjoyment of their life processes is, like the thoughts of the birds hopping about nearby him, something he "cannot measure" (14). This conclusion of his is more than a poetical jab at Enlightenment rationalism's tendency to quantify and calculate all things. For these creatures, although sentient and pleasure-loving like the speaker himself, serve as a "measure" of his difference from them as well as from those men unable or unwilling to accept a faith established in opposition to "[w]hat man has made of man" (8). Such faith implicitly seeks a missing or lost form of social cohesion, a form the poem's speaker lacks and fervently desires. Still, despite his depressing awareness of his alienation from his destructive fellow human beings, the poet points to what in Wordsworth's and Coleridge's poetry proves to be an implicit basis for human connection and for humanity's amelioration: that, in spite of, or because of, animals' difference from human beings, nature's creatures nevertheless have this power to "link" together the "human soul" that runs as one life through living things. As other works by Wordsworth and Coleridge reveal, it is in fact this irreducible difference between animals and human beings that ultimately makes such linkages between modern people possible, and even necessary. "What man has made" of animals, and what animals in turn can make of man, becomes a basis, in places even the sole basis, for community.
|12|| Coleridge's "The Nightingale: A
Conversation Poem," also from Lyrical Ballads (1800), while of paramount
importance in this social articulation of human beings and animals, may
well at first seem an odd choice, for it is clearly skeptical about at least
some of the connections poets discern between humankind and nature's animals
(those animals' thoughts being immeasurable even in Wordsworth's more optimistic
"Lines"). Indeed, Coleridge's poem starkly decries our narcissistic tendency
to transform nature into but a distorted mirror of ourselves. In a notable
turn against classical and Miltonic tradition, and against the "pity-pleading
strains" of his own prior poem "To A Nightingale," Coleridge's speaker insists
instead that the singing nightingale, rather than being "melancholy" (in
accordance with the Greek myth of Philomela), is "full of love / And joyance"
(15, 42-43). The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the Spenserian
word joyance was, according to Samuel Johnson's own lexicographical
judgment, obsolete by the eighteenth century. The antiquated term was then
reintroduced by Coleridge (and Southey), to become a favorite archaism of
later poets like Percy Shelley, as in his avian poem "To A Skylark." Coleridge
had recoined the word "joyance" in "Lines on an Autumnal Evening" (1796),
and then chose to redeploy the term in "The Nightingale," with the reasonable
expectation of the word's antique strangeness to his readers. |
The term "joyance" interestingly denotes as much an activity as a state of feeling or being, referring, unlike the common word "joy," both to feeling joy and to the action of showing it (OED). The archaism thus serves to underline animal nature's active role in altering human feeling: its power to help compose in the listener an active, participatory joy similar to animals' own. Yet while the word "joyance" suggests an active role for nature's creatures15
and their "sweet influences," at the same time the term's use in these lines also reveals its human authors' limits. Coming as the word does on the heels of the poet's impassioned condemnation of past writers' attributions of "melancholy" to the famed songbird, his own corrective perceptions of "love" and "joyance" in the bird's song must raise suspicions. Is not his revisionist view but the narcissistic antithesis of the rejected Miltonic, and prior Coleridgean, perspective, too simply exchanging avian sadness for avian happiness? While one should think it true that in nature there indeed is "nothing melancholy," given such anti-anthropomorphic, anti-anthropocentric logic as the speaker has proposed, can sentient nature be said to be full of active "joyance" either?16
In this particular context, the word joyance itself becomes increasingly suspect: as a term that signifies not just being but showing: display, semblance, and, by implication, perception.
The reader might also raise a skeptical eyebrow when the poet proceeds to describe the singing nightingale as "disburthen[ing]" his "full soul" in an expressive activity analogous to the actions of Coleridge's own proper poet, who similarly "surrender[s] his whole spirit" (48, 29). Such identifications again smack of anthropomorphic narcissism, not to mention of the pathetic fallacy, especially in light of the poet's prior indictment of the solipsistic penseroso whose "melancholy" personificationsbad figures of speechmerely tell back "the tale" of his "own sorrows" (20-21). Given Coleridge's staunch rejection of just such artificial "conceit[s]" (23), his treatment of the bird's "joyance" generates troublesome contradictions indeed, contradictions that in turn point to significant problems of perceiving and representing animals (miring the "One Life" doctrine in something of an epistemological quandary). The singing bird, appropriately and traditionally unseen, in this way remains intriguingly beyond the culturally constraining powers of human categorization and understanding. And, in this way, as a text "The Nightingale" provides within itself a curious resistance to its own anthropomorphic reductions, a resistance significant, as it turns out, to the poem's representation of human/animal community.
This social lesson is revealed principally in the closing lines' repeated adieus to the bird and to its human audience of friends: "Once more, farewell, / Sweet Nightingale! once more, my friends! farewell" (109-10). The salutation forms a chiasmus of addresses and addressees:
This rhetorical figure serves, along with the associative repetition of the lines' adverbial phrases ("Once more," "once more"), to conflate the avian singer with its human audience. In fact, the chiasmus figuratively connects the bird and its crowd of listeners as one community, engaged in a type of nocturnal conversation. The human friendships of course to some extent precede this meeting in the company of the nightingale (and of its fellow singers in nearby fields), yet the meeting of friends is occasioned by the bird's audible presence. Indeed, the propinquity of these "loitering" listeners (89) is made possible only by the animal "joyance" produced by the nightingale's "love-chant[s]" (48)chants that will in turn lead to the next night's consolidating farewells: "till tomorrow eve, . . . a short farewell" (87-88). For, as the poet proclaims, such bird-song is the stuff of answer and provocation, of "skirmish and capricious passagings, / And murmurs musical and swift jug jug" (58-60).
|16|| The phrase "jug jug" itself merits
attention. The word jug was one commonly used to signify the notes
of nightingales and other songbirds, and so has more sense than nonsense
about it (although even such onomatopoeic words as jug are conventional
and arbitrary rather than strictly motivated and, for lack of a better word,
Coleridge's poet strikes a position between cultural revision and traditionalism,
arguing for nonmelancholy, perhaps even nonjoyful, "skirmish," and for so
customary a description as "jug jug." At the same time, such jugging
does "bid us [to] listen" (96), while at the same moment importantly frustrating
our attempts to interpret, let alone to reproduce, the intricate song. Rather
like the poet's child, who though "Nature's playmate" yet "[m]ars"
all its sounds "with his imitative lisp" (92-97),18
the speaker and his friends mar the bird's inimitable singing, and in fact
seem to be drawn together night after night by what the nocturnal scene
precisely does not provide them: by what their language of poetic
archaisms, onomatopoeias, and other suspect figures of speech cannot reproduce
"once more." For the adult friends, as for the child, the nightingale's
"love-chant" remains a "fast thick warble" of notes "delicious" for their
difference, resistance, complexity, and mystery. Such resistance to knowing
bids the bird's human listeners return to become more "[f]amiliar" with
enchanted song that remains strange. And in seeking this familiarity with
animals the listeners are thereby themselves nightly associated in a ritual-like
gathering of initiates poised on the epistemological verge of delimiting
perceptions. "The Nightingale" is in this way very much a "conversation
poem," as Coleridge subtitled it, but one of limits and transgressions,
in which human and animal discourse produces a kind of social conversion
based upon linguistic and other forms of discord, violence, and desire.19
And, as shall now be shown, this marring and atonement are themselves really
key parts of a deeper, darker Coleridgean and Wordsworthian schema of human
and animal "society" as a collective of "sweet influences" prompted by animal
"mysteries of passion," including animal suffering and sacrifice. |
Although it might at first appear to be a quite different human/animal scheme that we encounter in Coleridge's well-known lyrical ballad, The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere (1797-98), in fact this poem makes even clearer the violencea markedly physical violenceand atoning acts of sympathy and story-telling that frequently underlie animal-based community. James McKusick sees the story's Mariner, a sea-farer cursed for his thoughtless shooting of an albatross, as at the outset "a Cartesian dualist, a detached observer cut off from any feeling of empathy or participation in the vast world of life that surrounds him," but who is eventually transformed into a Linnaean or Darwinian self "released from his state of alienation from nature" (385).20
For, according to McKusick, the Mariner learns "what the Albatross came to teach him: that he must cross the boundaries that divide him from the natural world, through unmotivated acts of compassion between 'man and bird and beast'" (387). This moral, which Coleridge later criticized as being too explicit, is well known even to those unfamiliar with the poem, being a message also proffered by Goody Two-Shoes and other children's books of the eighteenth century:21
He prayeth best who loveth best,Oddly, and in contradistinction to Anna Barbauld's, Erasmus Darwin's, and others' belief that the humane treatment of animals was a key means to human moral improvementfor Barbauld, specifically for improving the lower and middle classesit is because of the Mariner's murderous disregard for one of God's beloved creatures that he comes to be morally improved. His release from the curse placed upon him is earned, as he himself sees it, by his unconscious blessing of other, decidedly less desirable creatures: "water-snakes" swimming alongside his ship. "O happy living things!" he cries in a heart-felt "spring of love" (274, 276). By blessing them "unaware" (277), without ulterior motivation, the Mariner earns the pity of two local nature spirits, one of whom he overhears proclaim to the other that, "the man hath penance done, / And penance more will do" for having offended a fellow-spirit who "lov'd the bird that lov'd the man / Who shot him with his bow" (409-10). However just or unjust the Mariner's divinely bestowed punishment may be, his show of love for animals spares him the gruesome, zombie-like life-in-death inflicted upon his shipmates (who had first condemned but then praised his murder of the albatross, making them, in the words of the poem's later-added commentary, "accomplices in the crime"). It also leads him, by these mysterious rites of suffering, to regard all life, both human and animal, as sacred and interconnected. But "penance more" is nonetheless owed the natural world, and it is in this indebtedness that the social aspects of Coleridge's sea-tale are revealed.
At his tale's end the Mariner relates how, his ghost ship having sunk off the shore of his native land, he at once found himself stricken
With a woeful agony,The Mariner thereupon must tell that chosen listener the tale and its compassionate moral. The narrative in this way provides an explanatory coda of its origins: that "penance" owed for animal murder, what the shipmates misinterpreted as beneficent sacrifice, drives the narrative to be rehearsed (reproduced and exchanged), in order, one must suspect, to disseminate this hard-won wisdom about humankind's treatment of, and moral dependence upon, animals. Hence, the Mariner's story is one we overhear as it is told by him to a diverted, spell-bound "wedding-guest," at that most traditional and social of rituals, a marriagea setting that underlines the tale's social significance.22 "[S]tunn'd" and "of sense forlorn" from the tale's telling, the guest arises the next day a "sadder and a wiser man" (655-59), his altered condition a result of that narrative. Such learning about animals and human beings completes what might well be called an eco-communitarian circuit, manifesting as it does a system of intertwined human and animal relationships transgressed against in the Mariner's ignorant slaughter of the albatross and then repaired, in part, by his benediction to the water-snakes and his subsequent transmissions of wisdom to a series of distraught but enthralled "guests."
Accompanying this animal-oriented wisdom is the underlying guilt upon which such narratives and their implicit cultures are based: a sacrificial23
originary before whose knot of sin cannot be undone but whose irredeemable violence makes atonement and its totemic human-animal wisdom possible. Narrative in The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere is in this way eucharistic and guilt-ridden; hence, perhaps, the poem's oddly irreconcilable Christian imagery, including the Mariner's "cross bow" (79), a weapon that for McKusick embodies both the "destructive tendency" of technology and "the traditional Christian imagery of sacrifice and atonement" (386). (The dead albatross itself substitutes for a cross when the sailors hang it around the Mariner's neck). Coleridge's poem presents a genealogy of human violence and atonement regarding animals, and reveals itself to be predicated, as a narrative, upon such transgressions and their authors' attempts to amend them. Yet, as the text makes clear, such acts of atonement are never enough. The mariner's guilt is, rather like his tale, and like Adam's own sin, irrevocable and perpetual, and yet also, in its case, consolidating of relationships ("love") between human beings and animals and between those who grieve and atone;
in this instance, between a saddened guest and his haunted mariner-host.
Like other such transformational tales, the Mariner's story of sacrifice and atonement is ambivalently predicated upon animal difference and relatedness ("He made and loveth all").24
It acknowledges the commonality and otherness upon which human-animal relationships, here as in "The Nightingale" and in Wordsworth's "Lines," are inherently founded and structured. Coleridge's Ancyent Marinere is in this sense an allegory not just of human benevolence toward animalsan RSPCA forerunner of sortsbut of the binding invisible connections between human and animal realms. It tells how such connections can form communities of human beings bonded by their shared observance of past transgression and present or future atonement. The perpetuity of the narrative and its serial community of tellers and listeners indeed argues for the long journey such wisdom requires. In fact, as we find in Wordsworth's "Hart-Leap Well" (1799) and in Home at Grasmere (1800, 1806),25
such community is never won easily nor ever entirely; it is attained through violence and the post hoc lamenting of what "man" has done to animal.
|21|| In Home at Grasmere Wordsworth
describes his and his sister Dorothy's journey into Grasmere's inclement
vale. He lingers, as they lingered then, entranced in the locale of Hart-leap
Well, which auspiciously intimated to them a "milder day" and "fairer world"
to come (B.237-38). This locodescriptive passage is also an intertextual
one, alluding to Wordsworth's previously mentioned, appositely titled lyrical
ballad "Hart-Leap Well." The latter poem recalls the medieval knight Sir
Walter's renowned chasing down of a hart, which then killed itself in its
last of three desperate leaps, leaving the spot "curs'd" (124, 141-42).
As Raimonda Modiano points out, "by voluntarily leaping to its death" the
deer transformed a hunt into a sacrifice; hence Sir Walter's ritualistic
raising of three stone pillars to commemorate the dead stag (497). And yet
Walter's act of memorialization seems ultimately inconsequential or even
impious, due to its lack of the atonement required for such acts of sacrifice
and commemoration. "Without mourning," Modiano observes, Walter's action
becomes "profane" (499), a "murder," in the words of the poem. David Perkins
sees this hunter's killing of the hart as an act of "solipsistic egoism,"
similar in its way to the Mariner's own "egoistic self-assertion" and rightly
memorialized not just by the pillars but by the adjacent pleasure house
Walter builds as an expression of his selfish, libidinal desire ("Wordsworth"
In lieu of its proper mourning, the hart's death is lamented, we learn, not just by the poem's narrator and tale-telling shepherd but also by nature itself. "This beast not unobserv'd by Nature fell," the poet states, "[h]is death was mourn'd by sympathy divine" (163-64). The animal's "murder" has for the narrator two important "lesson[s]" to teach: first, that we ought never to "blend our pleasure or our pride / With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels" (179-80), and second, as in the Ancyent Marinere, that nature's "Being" "[m]aintains a deep and reverential care" for those "quiet creatures whom he loves" (167-68, 177-80). Yet, although "Hart-Leap Well" does in some sense represent an ecological interpenetration of cultural and natural observances"how the conventionally antagonistic 'cultural' and 'natural' may in fact felicitously interanimate" (Kroeber 55)the poem ultimately presents a picture less of human-animal felicity than of struggle, at least of past struggle.
In Home at Grasmere it is at this ambivalent topographical and intertextual spot of Hart-leap Well that Wordsworth and Dorothy, still transfixed in "awful trance," receive the quasi-religious "intimation of the milder day / Which is to come, the fairer world than this" (238-39). This prognosis or prophecy, owed to their more proper observance of animal suffering, becomes its own form of sacred election, raising them up:
...dejected as we wereIn their "trance" the poet and his sister experience a religious "Vision of humanity and of God / The Mourner, God the Sufferer" (243-44), of God the Paschal Lamb, that re-emphasizes this passage's intertextual connection to animal sacrifice and to the ritualized eucharistic fellowship that such death or suffering can make possible. In their ambivalent intermingling of "sadness" and "joy" at this past prospect of a creature "suffer[ing] wrongfully" the thoughtful couple finds, significantly, a "promise": that through their observance of past sacrificetheir Christian-like sacralizing of a prior, profane "murder"their "love" and "knowledge" might "secure" them a "portion" of nature's benevolence (247-55). On the one hand, Wordsworth of course simply hopes that in a world where the death of a hart is signified by nature the lives of humans will receive a similarly blessed accounting. But, on the other hand, as this strange "episode in mourning" shows, it is humans rather than nature spirits who must first undertake such rectifying work (Modiano 499).
Their requisite mourning in turn implies that animal death, nature's "tribute of inevitable pain" (l. 841), is what provides the lasting basis for Wordsworthian dwelling and community in Grasmere's vale: first profaning violation (botched animal sacrifice, "murder"), then sacralizing compensation of human sorrow, and finally the hoped-for blessings of fellowship and dwelling such observance may bequeathblessings that, the poet and his sister hope, may extend beyond a solitary "pair seceding from the common world" to encompass "all the Vales of the earth and all mankind" (249, 256).26
And yet, in the intertextual domain of these closely linked poems, at least one question remains. Might this couple's aforementioned "joy" at a retrospect of animal suffering, given such joy's proscription in the first of the two lessons of "Hart-Leap Well," profane their commemoration of the hart, thus marring their communitarian fortunes? If such mingling of "joy" and "sadness" at the hart's death makes mourning incomplete or improper, would matters then require, as in Coleridge's sea-tale, that further narratives or revisitations be proffered? Profanation may be unavoidable here, as animal death in Wordsworth and Coleridge ever wavers between murder and sacrifice. At the same time, such ambivalently registered failure and incompleteness may also serve to afford people, in Home at Grasmere as in both "The Nightingale" and The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, further possibilities for mourning and for its continuing promise of social cohesion.
However one in fact sorts out this dilemma, the couple's sense of belonging to a place, and their concomitant sense of belonging to one anotherof "twain" made "pair"is grounded in their, and in their hoped-for community's, uneasy relationship to (past) animals. Their prospect of dwelling in the death-shadowed valley will be secured by their love for the sacred murdered hart and their (insufficient) sadness at its loss, in a community that is, in contrast to what the poem's speaker espouses, necessarily not "without dependence or defect, / Made for itself and happy in itself, / Perfect Contentment, Unity entire" (167-70). For such community in Grasmere is neither independent nor even necessarily "happy in itself"; it is uneasily dependent upon prior animal death for its blessings.
This communal dependency upon animal loss is the subject also of another episode, where the poet ponders the likely fate of a missing "lonely pair / Of milk-white Swans" (322-23) that had frequented the lake:
These above all, ah, why are they not hereWith regard to the actual fate of the swans, Wordsworth speculates that some local shepherd may "have seized the deadly tube / And parted them, incited by a prize / Which . . . / He should have spared; or haply both are gone, / One death, and that were mercy given to both" (352-57). In reasoning thus he knows he seems to "wrong" the very community he and Dorothy are seeking to join.27 But the birds' loss nonetheless requires explanation, and seems to threaten the isolated human pair's own place in the vale. Yet, in thus mourning and questioning the swans' likely fate something different results: "No, we are not alone," the poet assures his sister, "we do not stand, / My Emma, here misplaced and desolate, / Loving what no one cares for but ourselves" (646-48). As with their mourning of the hart, this grief over putative past animal suffering or death also promises to earn them inclusion in Grasmere. "Look where we will," the poet holds, "some human heart has been / Before us with its offering. . . . Joy spreads and sorrow spreads" (659-60, 659)at Hart-leap Well and now here by the lakeside, as a further covenant formed of profane sacrifice and of memorializing, (re)sacralizing grief.
If their community in Grasmere is a "unity," then, it is for Wordsworth a profoundly totemic and eucharistic one, comprised of mournful humans and mourned, missing or dead animals and founded both in violence and in ensuing, responsive practices of commemoration. As in Coleridge's Ancyent Marinere, such society is uneasily based upon past human/animal difference and transgression, as it is upon present and future acts of responsive, supplemental human atonement. It is in the end a troubling "knowledge" imparted to (or by) him and Dorothy, but at the same time it is social knowledge that transforms the vale of Grasmere into a prospect of a "community . . . / Of many into one incorporate": of a social formation of "[c]ompanions, brethren, [and] consecrated friends" (347) sanctified by the communion and "brotherhood" that human and animal relationshipsforms of animal sacrifice and human atonement"once more" provide.
For Wordsworth and Coleridge, and for other Romantic-period artists, human beings' relationships with animals are vitally social and efficaciously vexed. "Love" for animals seems, often as not in the above poems, and in others such as Wordsworth's "There was a Boy" (a.k.a. the "Boy of Winander"), to arise out of the gulf of difference between humans and animals. In poems like Coleridge's "Nightingale" and Wordsworth's "Lines" we find speakers mindful of the marring effects of human cognition and action upon animal otherness. We also discover that community is repeatedly represented as a product of such difference and of its violent clashes. As Wordsworth's Home at Grasmere and Coleridge's Ancyent Marinere even more clearly reveal, animal otherness, more than human/animal sameness (as Erasmus Darwin proclaimed), is the principal foundation for community, a community ever observing, belatedly, its difference from and violence toward the myriad animals with which it identifies. In these Romantic-era representations, animals help to realize alternative, perhaps truer or more legitimate, forms of community founded not upon the vagaries of political revolution, reform, or even nationality but upon ritual observance: a working-through of what remains deeply problematical in human beings' relationships with animals.
|29|| In the later eighteenth century and
early nineteenth century, animals' "preeminent utility to mankind" (William
Kirby, ca. 1835; cited Thomas 28) indeed was, for writers and painters,
a social utility: a capacity to produce communities founded upon observance
and the playing over "once more" of that which remains unsung or unmemorialized,
even violent, in human beings' troubled relationships with nature's creatures.
And while Wordsworth's and Coleridge's desire for such animal-derived community
would appear to wane in subsequent years, owed in part no doubt to the poets'
restored confidence in the institutions and religious orthodoxies they had
previously questioned or condemned, at the turn of the century their longing
for new, alternative means of social cohesion was acute. Animals uniquely
answered their call, as they did the calls of other artists, both for a
broader notion of "brotherhood" and for "a transformative process" (Fulford
124) capable of constituting or renewing communitarian connections.28
One thus finds in Stubbs's portrait of the Pocklington family that the foundational relationship of husband and wife is triangulated and emblematized by the horse, to whom Mrs. Pocklington gives her hand and affections, and beside which the captain stands, legs mimetically poised like the animal's own. Such formal human-animal, quasi-familial similitude of course also serves to emphasize actual human-animal difference. As Onno Dag Oerlemans observes, "[w]hat makes Stubbs' paintings distinctive . . . is that they also very often attempt to render the animal strange, distant, and 'other' than its would-be owner" (9). For Oerlemans, Stubbs represents such domesticated animals "as having an energy and presence not possessed or even understood by the humans around them," a vitality subtly encoded by just such likenesses of "expression" as we find between owner and horse (9-10). And yet the structure of the Pocklington community is established in the human figures' attention to this most valued of Britain's animals, without whose presence and differential tension, it seems, given Stubbs's arrangement, there could be no proper marriage, or minimal community, at all.
In this foregrounding of animals and of animal-oriented economies of various kinds, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries ultimately represent something of a historical bubble in the cultural articulation of the human and the animal. At no time before or since have domestic and wild animals been so conspicuous within and so central to Western conceptions of human social interconnection and subjectivity. But it was a time that passed. Stubbs and even his more emotive artistic successors fell out of public favor (Vaughan 171). As Britain's social and political structures changed it would appear that animals were less needed as the subjects of these artists' social reimaginings.29
Animals thereupon receded into the pastoral backgrounds and rural memories from which they had come. As Lyle Rexer contends, the French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) "was, perhaps, the last great Western painter for whom animals really mattered." Since that time animals have been "increasingly absorbed into a corner of the public's consciousness" as trivial symbols "of times past and places elsewhere" (37). Polly Chiapetta similarly perceives animals' decline in the paintings of the English Victorian artist Edwin Landseer (1802-73), whose works anthropomorphically represent animals in such a manner as to bring "the sublime and the ridiculous . . . perilously close" (60). For his part, John Berger mourns the loss even of such distorting anthropomorphisms, for their loss marked animals' definitive cultural disappearance. Today, he laments, "we live without them" (9). Despite the advent of Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory, in our era we are perhaps farther than ever from his grandfather Erasmus Darwin's social conception of humans and animals as "one family," and from Wordsworth's, Coleridge's, and other artists' depictions of human/animal intra- or inter-familial difference as a basis for cohesion. And yet, as Rexer argues, even in our time, on some level, animal-oriented artists continue to seek "to 'make a connection,' to reforge a broken bond" (40). It may be that these artists' and their Romantic predecessors' representations of animals still retain a certain cultural "utility," providing alternative visions of identity, difference, and communityeven for a post-Romantic age.
Romantic Circles - Home / Praxis Series / Romanticism and Ecology / Kurt Fosso, "'Sweet Influences': Human/Animal Difference and Social Cohesion in Wordsworth and Coleridge, 1794-1806"