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

Monday, October 28, 2013

" 'Tis NIGHT, and the LANDSCAPE is LOVELY NO MORE" & “SO FRAIL, so fair, are THE FOND VISIONS of thy early day”: The Blind-Becoming, Poetry-Loving “Hermits”, Jane Austen & Anne Elliot

Happily, my research has reached the advanced stage, when, more often than not, new discoveries often connect the dots between earlier finds which did not seem related at all. This post is a classic example.

In a post last week…

…I claimed that Jane Austen in writing “I have not YET FELT QUITE EQUAL to taking up your Manuscript…” to niece Caroline in Letter 123, was referring to her own long-term and worsening “eye  weakness”, a condition which Caroline remembered a half century later in her memoir of her aunt.

In that post, I also provided links to a series of seven posts which I wrote two months ago about Anne Elliot’s vision impairment in Persuasion, which I claimed were autobiographical to Jane Austen own “spect-ocular” woes.

Today, I am back to add an eighth post to that series, which weaves all the strands of this theme of vision impairment in Persuasion and in Jane Austen’s own life, even more tightly together, as will be clearly visible to those who carefully follow all the relevant strands of meaning & thinly veiled allusion, below.


In the first of those seven earlier posts in the series…

..I argued that one strong bit of textual evidence of Anne Elliot’s vision impairment was (like Odysseus’s and Sherlock Holmes’s proverbial dogs who did NOT bark) the absence of real-time external visual perception by Anne Elliot as she walked between Winthrop and Uppercross, because Anne during that walk only has eyes, so to speak, for the internal poetically-inspired re-creations of her own mind during that walk. Here’s how I put it then:

“…Anne derives pleasure from “repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which had drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling. She occupied her mind as much as possible in such like musings and quotations” –the poignant irony of this activity cannot be overemphasized— here Anne is, in the midst of actual visual, picturesque beauty during actual autumn, but she has zero access to that direct experience, and instead MUST derive what pleasure she can from the indirect, internal, cerebral imagining of that beauty as expressed by word poets. Talk about being too much in one’s head and not enough in the moment! But it does not appear to be an indifference or lack of interest, it appears to be a mechanical problem with the operation of her eyes.”

Today, while reading an excellent article I just obtained in followup to my investigation of the hypocritical mourning of James Benwick in Persuasion as a negative representation of the real life mourning hypocrite, recently widowed Capt. Charles Austen…

…I received the unexpected and serendipitous bonus of learning that Prof. Anne Ehrenpreis, way way back in 1971, had suggested that one of those “some few” poems which Anne Elliot very likely repeated to herself as she walked near Winthrop, was Charlotte Smith’s famous Elegiac Sonnet 2.  

I learned this from “Time and mourning in Persuasion” by Loraine Fletcher, Women's Writing Vol. 5, Issue 1, 1998 ppg 81-90, where Fletcher writes as follows:

“The walk to Winthrop takes place in November 1814. Wentworth with his pompous musing on the hazel nut is as eager as Wordsworth to find a moral lesson in Nature. Anne sees the landscape through a colouring of regret. As she walks she remembers one of Charlotte Smith’s elegiac sonnets, first published in 1784 but reprinted 11 times in England before the date of Persuasion, including 1806, the year of Anne’s meeting and parting from Wentworth. Smith’s Sonnet 2 is refracted through Anne’s consciousness [ALL CAPS added by me for emphasis of words associated with loss of vision]:
The garlands FADE that Spring so lately wove,
Each simple flower, which she had nurs’d in dew,
Anemonies, that spangled every grove,
The primrose WAN and harebell, mildly blue.
No more shall violets linger in the dell,
Or purple orchis variegate the plain,
Til Spring again shall call forth every bell,
And dress with humid hands her wreaths again. -
Ah! poor humanity! so frail, so fair,
Til tyrant passion, and corrosive care,
Another May new buds and flowers shall bring;
Ah! why has happiness – no second Spring? 

I agree with Ehrenpreis’s brilliant catch, and further assert a fresh insight, which is that JA chose to covertly allude to this particular Sonnet 2 by Smith, precisely because a diminishment of visual experience was central to that Sonnet’s imagery of irretrievable loss. That of course corroborates my claims in my earlier series of posts about Anne Elliot’s visual impairment, —and please note that this is a case of convergent evidence, because as far as I can tell, Ehrenpreis claimed (and Fletcher reiterated) the identification of this covert allusion to Smith’s Sonnet 2 by JA, based on thematic resonance having nothing to do with vision impairment, but instead on parallels between Smith’s Sonnet 2 and Persuasion in the contrast of renewal in nature vs. irretrievable loss in the individual human being.  


And now, those who’ve been reading along in my very recent posts can probably guess what writing Part One, above, made me realize, with the excitement that only a literary sleuthing nerd like myself can feel. I.e., I realized that the theme of Smith’s Sonnet 2 was uncannily parallel to that of Beattie’s “The Hermit”, the poem which JA explicitly refers to in Letter 123 to Caroline Austen, and which I was just writing about last week, and which I will reproduce here again now {again with ALL CAPS to pinpoint the imagery of visual impairment]:

 THE HERMIT by James Beattie

At the close of day, when the hamlet is still,
And mortals the sweets of forgetfulness prove,
When nought but the torrent is heard on the hill,
And nought but the nightingale's song in the grove.
'Twas thus, by the cave of the mountain afar,
While his harp rung symphonious, a Hermit began
No more with himself or with nature at war,
He thought as a Sage, though he felt as a Man.

"Ah, why, all abandon'd to DARKNESS and wo,
Why, lone Philomela, that languishing fall?
For Spring shall return, and a lover bestow,
But, if pity inspire thee, renew the sad lay,
Mourn, sweetest complainer, man calls thee to mourn;
O soothe him, whose pleasures like thine pass away
Full quickly they pass - but they never return.

"Now gliding remote, on the verge of the sky,
The Moon, half-extinguish'd, her crescent displays:
But lately I mark'd, when majestic on high
Roll on, thou fair orb, and with gladness pursue
The path that conducts thee to splendour again.
But Man's FADED glory what change shall renew!
Ah fool! to exult in a glory so vain!

I mourn, but, ye woodlands, I mourn not for you;
For morn is approaching, your charms to restore,
PERFUMED with fresh fragrance, with glittering 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!
O when shall it dawn on the night of the grave!

"'Twas thus, by the GLARE of false Science betray'd,
That leads, to bewilder; and dazzles, TO BLIND;
My thoughts wont to roam, from shade onward to shade,
Destruction before me, and sorrow behind.
'O pity, great Father of LIGHT,' then I cried,
'Thy creature who fain would not wander from Thee!
Lo, humbled in dust, I relinquish my pride:
From doubt and from DARKNESS thou only canst free.

"And DARKNESS and doubt are now flying away,
No longer I roam in conjecture forlorn.
So breaks on the traveller, faint, and astray,
The BRIGHT and the balmy effulgence of morn.
see Truth, Love, and Mercy, in triumph descending,
And Nature all GLOWING in Eden's first bloom!
On the cold cheek of Death smiles and roses are blending,
And Beauty Immortal awakes from the tomb."

Now that I read “The Hermit” through the lens of Smith’s Sonnet 2, I see that Beattie’s poem also deploys imagery of diminished vision as part of its theme of mourning for that which was loved but is now irretrievably lost.

And …’s the best part---which almost made me fall out of my chair---it turns out that the line in Beattie’s poem which is the epicenter of its vision-loss subtext is:


is--as anyone who paid close attention to my Subject Line may have already realized--that line is one that Jane Austen actually quoted in a Letter—and it wasn’t even Letter 123! Again, by serendipity, as I searched in my blog to find the text of “The Hermit”, so I could post it now--the search function showed me I had not posted the text of “The Hermit” before, but it also led me to an earlier post of mine….

…which I had written nearly a year ago, as part of our same Group Read of JA’s Letters, that one being about Jane Austen alluding to Beattie’s The Hermit in Letter 89 dated 9/24/13!

You are welcome to read that earlier post in full, but if you don’t want to, then just know that in Letter 89, to CEA, written two years before JA wrote Letter 123 to niece Caroline, Jane Austen, while staying at Godmersham, had quoted that very same line from The Hermit, "'Tis night, and the landscape is lovely no more".

In my above earlier post re same, I suggested this line, along with the line JA also quoted therein from Cowper’s “Alexander Selkirk”, was a marker of the increasing isolation that JA felt from her world. I suggested that this isolation was psychological, a reflection of her deep alienation from the Godmersham elite set with which she was mingling at that moment, and I still hold to that interpretation.  As I suggested in that earlier post, JA was thumbing through a book of poetry in brother Edward’s home library, and came upon Beattie’s poem, and also Cowper’s “Alexander Selkirk” on the same page, and found both struck a chord for her in that common theme of isolation.

But now I also understand that Beattie’s poem must have also resonated to JA’s own experience as her vision was deteriorating, shrinking and fuzzying her distance vision, and making her, of necessity, feel that sort of perceptual isolation as well! That’s why she wrote “ ‘Tis night” –for Jane Austen, even as early as 1813, “night” was beginning to descend gradually on her vision! And that’s why Anne Elliot, in walking between Winthrop and Uppercross, is not even looking around her at the landscape—she can’t see it! Hence, “the landscape is lovely no more”!

And so, based on all of that, it almost goes without saying that I now believe that my hunch last week that Caroline Austen was not actually playing The Hermit all the time as JA seemed to be saying in Letter 123, was spot-on.  It seems clearer than ever that JA had deliberately chosen to indirectly allude to Beattie’s lyrics, to convey the idea of not aggravating little Cassy’s grief for her recently deceased mother. But she also worked her own vision impairment into the subtext of Letter 123, coinciding with her writing, perhaps, of the Winthrop scene in Persuasion!

That JA was quoting from Beattie in Letter 89 two years earlier, and in such a pointed but veiled thematic way, shows that JA was quite deliberate in her reinvoking Beattie’s words in Letter 123 in a similarly thematic but veiled way.

And by the way, add this to the long list of Footnotes Le Faye Ought To Have Written. Even in the new 4th Edition, she does not in the footnote for Beattie’s “Hermit” in Letter 123 refer to the footnote for Beattie’s “Hermit” in Letter 89, or vice versa. To have realized the connection from her edition, you’d have to go to her listing for Beattie allusions under her Topic Index heading “Authors”, and then follow each one to see if they overlapped. In other words, you’d have to have already known about it, as I did!


I also believe that we owe another line in Persuasion to Beattie’s poem---When Anne Elliot seems to be walking on air after leaving Mrs. Smith’s apartment, I think she’s recalling the one optimistic line in Beattie’s poem:

For spring is returning your charms to restore, PERFUMED WITH FRESH FRAGRANCE and glittering with dew.”

And that’s why we read, at that instant, in Persuasion:

“It was almost enough to spread purification and PERFUME all the way.”

It’s not just the “perfume” that would be needed for “purification” of Anne’s shoes, and of the air she breathes, as she walks through the poo outside Westgate Buildings in the lowrent part of Bath…

….it’s also the “perfume” from Beattie’s poem, the happy ending that Anne Elliot is about to reach

So there you have it from Letters 89 & 123: strong corroboration of my claim that Beattie’s “The Hermit”, and Ehrenpreis’s claim that Smith’s Sonnet 2, were both very likely two of the short list of  poems Anne Elliot chanted to herself as she walked between Winthrop and Uppercross!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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