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Saturday, May 6, 2017

Jane Austen’s expanding Mozartean sentences: exactly as many WORDS as are necessary!

Are you one of the many, like me, who know and love the scene in the film Amadeus which picked up on the widely repeated story (whether true or apocryphal) reported, e.g., by Gehring in his 1911 biography Mozart:     “[Mozart’s comic opera] Entfuhrung aus dem Serail [The Abduction from the Seraglio] was represented for the first time on the 16th of July, 1782. Its success was extraordinary, and several numbers were encored. Nevertheless the Emperor said to Mozart, ‘Too fine for our ears, my dear Mozart, and a great deal too many notes.’ To which Mozart replied, ‘Exactly as many notes as are necessary, your Majesty.’ “  END QUOTE

Believe it or not, before the end of this post, I am going to claim a connection between that famous anecdote and the conclusion of my post yesterday about the heretofore unrecognized (as to its pervasiveness) influence of Cowper’s poetically expressed ideas (about the horrors of colonial slavery) on Mansfield Park. In that conclusion, I analyzed what I described as the Cowper-infused poetic ruminations of Fanny Price while on her dreamily romantic Sunday seaside promenade with Henry Crawford:

‘The day was uncommonly lovely. It was really March; but it was April in its mild air, brisk soft wind, and bright sun, occasionally clouded for a minute; and everything looked so beautiful under the influence of such a sky, the effects of the shadows pursuing each other on the ships at Spithead and the island beyond, with the ever-varying hues of the sea, now at high water, dancing in its glee and dashing against the ramparts with so fine a sound, produced altogether such a combination of charms for Fanny, as made her gradually almost careless of the circumstances under which she felt them.’

Here is my analysis one more time, before I get to the Mozartean connection I see:
“Austen begins simply enough with a 5-word sentence, as to which we cannot know how much is objective fact about the loveliness of the weather, and how much is the buoyant Fanny’s subjective perception of it. That first sentence is followed by a 4-word statement, which is purely factual: it was “really March” –[and by the way, it’s no coincidence that we are reminded, ironically, of Mary’s much earlier bon mot (“Oh! do not attack me with your watch. A watch is always too fast or too slow. I cannot be dictated to by a watch.”), but this time it’s Fanny who cannot be dictated to by a calendar!] But that factual statement pauses at a semicolon instead of ending with a period. Why? Because the 20-word passage which follows it begins with “but”, and thus constitutes a fanciful poetic negation of the fact of March (winter not quite over) with Fanny’s feeling of April (as if spring had already begun). And that of course corresponds to the “spring” which has thawed Fanny’s heart, after the long cold “winter” of silent, frozen jealousy of Mary’s seemingly limitless power over Edmund.
And then, the passage pauses again, at a second semicolon, but this time the pause is not to negate, but to amplify, what immediately preceded it. And that sets the stage perfectly for JA, in her masterful synthesis of syntax, rhythm, description, and symbolism, to virtuosically extend the remainder of that second sentence for a remarkable additional seventy seven words, filled from one end to the other with subtle poetic description of what Fanny sees and feels! I am reminded of the mastery of the likes of Mozart and Beethoven, who knew how to delay and extend resolution for a seeming eternity, to make that climax all the more satisfying (and all sexual innuendoes are intended, in Fanny’s case!)”

This morning I was happy to awaken to Diane Reynolds’s marvelous response to my overall point about the Cowper in MP, and also to Diane’s independently bringing forward the long sentence in Persuasion which she had mentioned earlier in the week as having caught her sharp eye:


It took me ten seconds to realize, with the kind of excitement that only a hardcore Austen wonk like myself could feel, that this narrative passage in Persuasion was composed by JA with EXACTLY the same expanding, tripartite structure that I had just detected and parsed in Fanny Price’s poetic seaside ruminations, written by JA only two years earlier; and, what made it immeasurably more wonderful, was that it was ALSO a super-long sentence in which the presence of poetry loved by Austen was not only implied (as with The Task in Fanny’s ruminations); the poetic presence in this later-written passage now consisted of two poets JA and Anne Elliot read and loved (i.e., Scott and Byron), whose poems are now explicitly named!

But it gets even better. This latter-written passage is an even more virtuosic three-stage, exponential expansion of the germ of a tiny idea than the above passage in MP. I.e., in the earlier one, the first part is 5 words long, the second 4 words, and then the third, an organic outgrowth of the first two, is twenty times longer than the first two: 77 words. Well, apparently JA was only getting warmed up in MP. In the narrator’s account of Anne’s and Benwick’s sharing poetry faves, JA starts out about twice as long as in the MP Cowperian passage, with the first part at 8 words; then the second at 13 words. But then the third --- again an organic outgrowth of the first two --- is more than twice as long as the comparable third part of the MP passage, coming in at a mind-blowing 172 words!

[And Diane, just reading your latest post as I was getting ready to post this---yes, last year I also mentioned that I loved the dry deflating irony of “moreover, how the Giaour was to be pronounced”!]

So, is it just a coincidence that these passages in MP and Persuasion are so remarkably similar in structure and poetic resonance, with the latter twice as large as the former? I don’t think so!! What this suggests to me is two things for starters, although I’d love to hear other reactions, as surely there is much more to be gleaned from this intriguing parallel:

First, as my Subject Line suggests, I see this as JA, an immortal composer of words, applying a musical compositional technique of expansion that she would’ve encountered repeatedly, and understood and loved as a player of piano music, taken to the highest levels of perfection of sonata form by the musical immortals of the Classical era, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. And just as the expanded sentence is twice as long in Persuasion as in MP, so too are the late sonatas, symphonies, and concertos noticeably longer than those of Mozart and Haydn.

Second, these two poetry-inspired passages make me wonder whether there might have come a time when, reversing Scott’s career trajectory, JA might have begun to write serious poetry, had she lived another decade or two. If so, would she have broken away from the model of line after line of equal length, and instead taken what she was already experimenting with in her prose fiction, and make a daring leap into a new form of poetry, based on the expansionary model I see in those passages?

Finally, with all of the above as preface, I am now ready to respond to what Ellen wrote in response to Diane’s posting of that passage in Persuasion:
“How much of this comes from the reality this is not a finished text. It's not the first or even second draft; let's suppose a ninth. If you look at Sanditon and the canceled chapters of Persuasion, you see these long sentences, packed with thought and feeling ....”

As must be apparent from my “preface”, I couldn’t disagree more with Ellen’s take on JA’s later long sentences (which, Mozart’s imperious Emperor, if he had been a reader, might’ve asserted contained “too many words”) as representing preliminary drafts by JA. I am highly skeptical that they represent raw  ideas as they emerged, Athena-like, from her fertile brain; ideas which, had she been healthy, she’d supposedly have radically altered later so as to make her long sentences much more compact.

No, I believe precisely the opposite is the case. Like Diane in her noting the highly polished nature of those long sentences, I see JA the author, inspired by her delvings into the great poetry coming to her hot off the presses while she was writing her later novels, engaging in some masterful literary alchemy. She was in the process of finding a way of combining what she absorbed from her poetic explorations with her longstanding deep musical sensibility and knowledge, when illness and then death cruelly cut that process short.

And one more relevant point -- beginning with MP, we also know that JA was, for the first time since she became an adult, writing novels from scratch, rather than revising and rerevising what she had written before. That was perhaps a very liberating turning point in her career, emboldening her to begin really experimenting with developing new and varied forms of sentence structure “packed with thought and feeling” (as Ellen does aptly put it). In this way, she was reaching toward accommodating her own steadily continuing maturation as a writer, and, as we can see with 21st century hindsight, pointed the way toward the unimaginably rich expansions in psychological fiction by the likes of James, Joyce, and Nabokov, among many others.

So, what happy serendipity, Diane, that you brought forward that Persuasion sentence at the exact moment when I had just parsed out that passage in MP. I say, now the fun can really begin. Can anyone else bring forward some other comparably long sentences from any of JA’s fiction from MP onward, so we can see how it relates to the poetic pattern I’ve outlined.

Cheers, ARNIE

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