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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Jane Austen's Letter 89: "'Tis night, and the landscape is lovely no more" , "I am the mistress of all I survey", and Nimmie Amee the Munchkin Girl

If you're wondering how in the world this post is going to connect all three of the above pieces, read on, by the end your mind might just be as blown as my was in writing it!

But has been previously duly noted by various Austen scholars (and Le Faye) that Jane Austen's Letter 89 contains not one but _two_ poetic quotations:

" 'Tis night, and the landscape is lovely no more"--- an exact, accurate quotation of one line from James Beattie's _The Hermit_:


"I am the mistress of all I survey" --- a quotation (with one important word changed, as noted below) of one line from Cowper's "Verses supposed to be written by Alexander Selkirk, During His solitary Abode in tbe Island of Juan Fernandez"

But I don't see that any Austen scholar has looked at these two quotations in tandem and speculated _why_ they both appear in Letter 89, when JA did not previously (or subsequently) show any particular inclination to quote poetry in her letters to CEA (or to anyone else, for that matter).

Well...if you read the two poems which contain these two quoted lines, you'll quickly notice an _obvious_ thematic linkage--both are about individuals who find themselves in complete isolation from other people, far away from the rest of the human world.

As the Beattie page I linked to, above, states, "The Hermit features the narrator reflecting on the priority of nature over society and humanity as his teacher and moral exemplar. The poem is highly stylized, but reflects a philosophy of life that is congenial to its narrator and anticipates themes of the romantic movement."

And Cowper's poem is (obviously) in the imagined voice of the real life Alexander Selkirk, whose 4 1/2 year solitude alone on an island provided the inspiration for Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. A pretty well known poem.

So...JA has assumed the personae of these two individuals far far away from the madding crowd, and it seems equally obvious why. Both poems reflect her sense of being _physically_ present in the snobbish, insular, wealthy society at Godmersham for the first time in years, and yet, internally, feeling psychologically, emotionally and (most important) _morally_ distant from brother Edward and his vain, hypocritical world.

And note in particular that JA alters the word "monarch" in Cowper's poem to "mistress", to make it crystal clear that she is a _woman_ speaking.

But let's dig a bit deeper. When you read the Cowper poem, it is apparent from the first stanza's final two lines that the first line is meant to be read ironically. The speaker begins saying he is the monarch of all he surveys, but rapidly deflates the mood, concluding (opposite to Milton's Satan) that he'd rather live a troubled life among other people than reign in total solitude.  Beattie's hermit is more enigmatic, but I see him as finding peace, as he sheds human vainglory and simply tunes his soul to nature.  Two very different views of nature and the human soul.  So Selkirk and the Hermit might have a very interesting debate about the plusses and minuses of extended solitude.

And if we stop there, this heretofore unexplored thematic connection between these two quoted lines in Letter 89 would be of real interest to Janeites wishing to better understand JA's poetic inclinations, and also her sense of her place in the extended Austen family in late 1813---And that would be well worth knowing, if that were all the juice to be squeezed from this particular fruitful bit of analysis.

But that's just part one of this post, because the coolest part of this came to my attention only because I had a very strong hunch that JA did not bring books of poetry with her to Godmersham---a place which had, as is now known, a -pretty good sized library in 1818 when its books were catalogued, and therefore likely had most if not all of those same books in September 1813 when JA visited---but chose her reading from that very same library during her stay.

In this regard, read Gillian Dow's article:

So.....I just _knew_ in my gut that JA had found _both_ of those poems in the Godmersham library, and, if I was lucky, she found them in the same book. And guess what, Google Books has just shown me that that was almost certainly the case, as I believe I have identified not only the book JA was reading that day at Godmersham, but the actual _page_! And, if you follow this trail to the end, it leads all the way over the rainbow to the Emerald City--so follow the yellow brick road as I lay it out for you, if you dare! 

The book I believe JA read in the Godmersham library that day is the "P" volume of  an 1813 (i.e., published _just_ before JA's visit to Godmersham) multivolume work called "Pantologia: A New Cyclopaedia, Comprehending a Complete Series of Essays" By John Mason Good, Olinthus Gregory, & Newton Bosworth.

And here is the text I found in the _same_ column on the same page in the midst of the long article on "Poetry" in the long subsection entitled "On English versification":

"In the celebrated elegy of Gray, its defects, however, are all concealed by a profusion of poetical beauties; and by the graceful muse of Hammond its fetters are rendered elegant and ornamental:

"Why should the lover quit his pleasing home, In search of danger on some foreign ground?
Or from his weeping fair ungrateful roam, And risk in every stroke a double wound ?
Ah! better far, beneath the spreading shade, With cheerful friends to drain the sprightly bowl,
To sing the beauties of my darling maid, And on the sweet idea feast my soul."

The common anapestic verse, of eleven and twelve syllables, in which the accent falls on every third syllable, has generally been appropriated to humorous subjects: when formed into the stanza, it assumes a different character. In the noble warsong of Burns it is however a strain truly sublime; and in the following passage of Beattie flows with equal sweetness and pathos:

" 'Tis night, and the landscape is lovely no more:
I mourn, but, ye woodlands, I mourn not for you;
For morn is approaching, your charms to restore,
Perfum'd with fresh fragrance, and glittering with dew.
Nor yet for the ravage of winter I mourn;
Kind nature the embryo blossom will save:
But when shall spring visit the mouldering urn?
Oh! when shall it dawn on the night of the grave?"

This stanza is, from the intractable nature of the anapestic measure, of difficult execution. In that employed by Cowper in the following instance, constructed on similar principles, the syllables are less numerous, and the cadence is in general more harmonious:

" I am monarch of all I survey, My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre, all round to the sea, I am lord of the fowl and the brute.
O Solitude ! where are the charms That sages have seen in thy face?
Better dwell in the midst of alarms Than reign in this desolate place.''    END QUOTE FROM PANTALOGIA ARTICLE

OK, the fact that both of the quoted lines appear in the same column in this 1813 encyclopedia article would be a remarkable coincidence standing alone. But what takes it from likely to almost certain that JA read Beattie's poem in this Pantalogia article and not in some other publication (such as Elegant Extracts, which did  contain Beattie's poem in full) is that the line JA quotes in Letter 89 is _not_ the first line of the poem, but is actually the first line of the _fourth_ stanza (out of six) in the poem!

So, what at first appeared to be JA selecting for quotation the 19th line (which as you can see, is utterly cryptic when taken out of context from the poem) in particular out of all _48_ lines in Beattie's poem, was actually JA selecting the _first_ line quoted in the Pantalogia article--as to which it would therefore be the best line for her to select!

And the same is true to a lesser extent in Cowper's poem--did JA merely quote the first line of the entire poem (which, like Beattie's, consists of six stanzas), or (as I believe was the case) did JA quote the first line out of a single 8-line stanza? The latter is much more likely.

My conclusion is that as JA was browsing through the Pantalogia article on "Poetry" that day--just as Fanny Price would have done---feeling particularly isolated among the snobs of Godmersham, and missing the "troubled" Miss Batesian female community (with CEA, Martha and, yes, even Mrs. Austen) at Chawton Cottage--a community in which it did not matter if your name appeared in the Peerage, or how many thousands you had per year---she noticed, with her quick eye, that the two poem excerpts quoted on that same page were both about isolation, and so she chose to quote _both_ in Letter 89, expecting CEA to read between the two lines (so to speak) and hear the hidden message.

And just in case you were wondering, I have written to Gillian Dow to ask her whether the Pantalogia was actually there in the Godmersham catalogue of 1818--anyone want to bet on whether she'll confirm it was? 

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: Note also that the passage in the Pantalogia includes a brief discussion of Gray's Elegy,  a famous poem which we all know was quoted by JA in both NA and _Emma_---all the more reason for JA to have zeroed in on that particular page.

P.S.:  Now to finally land the plane and bring you to the third part of my Subject Line, I invite you to join me in reading, with wonder,  the following excerpt from "The Complete Book of Oz" by L. Frank Baum:

"Are you happy?" asked the Tin Soldier.
"Of course I am," said Nimmie Amee; "I'm the mistress of all I survey--the queen of my little domain."
"Wouldn't you like to be the Empress of the Winkies?" asked the Tin Woodman.
"Mercy, no," she answered. "That would be a lot of bother. I don't care for society, or pomp, or posing. All I ask is to be left alone and not to be annoyed by visitors."
The Scarecrow nudged Woot the Wanderer.
"That sounds to me like a hint," he said.

Is that thematic resonance with the poetry quoted by JA in Letter 89 just a coincidence? Nimmie Amee is saying, very clearly, that she doesn't "care for society, or pomp, or posing".  That is _exactly_ the overarching theme of Letter 89! And it's just hilarious to think of the chief society lady in the Godmersham circle as Empress of the Winkies!  And recall that Baum wrote the above passage in 1900, a scant 16 years after Brabourne's edition of JA's letters---_including_ Letter 89---was published, plenty of time for Baum to have read them, and to have taken particular note of Letter 89.  Sure sounds like L. Frank Baum was a closet Janeite!

Now, not being an Oz aficionado, I went to Wikipedia and learned that Nimmie Amee is the Munchkin Girl whom both the Tin Woodman and the Tin Soldier once loved, but who was enslaved by the Wicked Witch of the East preventing her from marrying either of them--- but eventually she does marry a kind of Frankenstein composite man who is made up, one half each, from the bodies of the two Tin wooers!

According to this blogger, this is L Frank Baum fantastical reenvisioning of Mary Shelley's fantastical Frankenstein...

...but now I think that Baum not only had Mary Shelley on his radar screen, but also had JA in his sights as well!

And there I suggest that you all click your heels twice and return to your daily life, already in progress! 

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