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Saturday, February 10, 2018

Jane Austen’s Days of Future Past: Another Unnoticed Romantic Poetry Allusion in Persuasion

Apropos my recent posts about Jane Austen alluding to Coleridge’s "Kubla Khan" in the Pinny passage in Persuasion, which I claim points to Anne Elliot’s sexual reawakening, I confess that I have a very spotty knowledge of Romantic poetry. Which is why I’m surprised that, in following up on my latest post on that subject, I’ve now come upon yet another Austen allusion to another famous Romantic Era poem, which, as far as I can tell, no Austen or Romantic poetry scholar has described as such. 

The allusion I stumbled upon is foregrounded in the passage in Chapter 23, which I was looking at in following up on the significance of the word “recollection” (i.e., memory) in regard to Anne’s sexual reawakening. We read Anne’s ecstatic reflections after she and Wentworth are at last reunited:

“There could not be an objection. There could be only the most proper alacrity, a most obliging compliance for public view; and smiles reined in and spirits dancing in private rapture. In half a minute Charles was at the bottom of Union Street again, and the other two proceeding together: and soon words enough had passed between them to decide their direction towards the comparatively quiet and retired gravel walk, where the power of conversation would make the present hour a blessing indeed, and prepare it for all the immortality which the happiest RECOLLECTIONS of their own future lives could bestow. There they exchanged again those feelings and those promises which had once before seemed to secure everything, but which had been followed by so many, many years of division and estrangement. There they returned again into the past, more exquisitely happy, perhaps, in their re-union, than when it had been first projected; more tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other's character, truth, and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting. And there, as they slowly paced the gradual ascent, heedless of every group around them, seeing neither sauntering politicians, bustling housekeepers, flirting girls, nor nursery-maids and children, they could indulge in those retrospections and acknowledgements, and especially in those explanations of what had directly preceded the present moment, which were so poignant and so ceaseless in interest. All the little variations of the last week were gone through; and of yesterday and today there could scarcely be an end.”

That passage is saturated with romantic “recollection” in various forms, and here is the excerpt containing the allusion I spotted:  “prepare [the present hour] for all the immortality which the happiest recollections of their own future lives could bestow.”

My eye was caught by that sentence, because something was strange in it, which required me to pause and parse it. What exactly are “recollections of their own future lives” –shouldn’t it be “recollections of their own past lives”? I recognized this immediately as a poetic reversal of expectation by JA, a deliberate paradox to convey how Anne, in her bliss, has come unstuck in time.

That suggested to me that this was likely itself an allusion to another poem (by Coleridge?). So I Googled “immortality” and “recollections” together, and I was immediately rewarded in the search results with the title of a poem as famous as Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, a poem with which Jane Austen was surely familiar, but by a different famous Romantic poet!:

“Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” by William Wordsworth

When I then checked the JASNA website, I was led to Susan Allen Ford’s Editor’s Note to the latest issue of Persuasions Online, in which Susan wrote the following about the theme of the JASNA AGM held in October 2017:

“As the world celebrated Jane Austen on the 200th anniversary of her death with banknotes and benches, exhibitions and eulogies, teas and tours, members of JASNA gathered in Huntington Beach for the AGM. The theme was fitting: “Jane Austen in Paradise: Intimations of Immortality”. That title, of course, alludes to both Rudyard Kipling’s comic poem “Jane’s Marriage,” in which Jane Austen arrives in Paradise, and William Wordsworth’s more meditative “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” Two hundred years of afterlife might lead either to lightness of heart or to some solemn and philosophical musings, worthy of Fanny Price at her most rhapsodic. But “immortality” is a word that neither Jane Austen’s characters nor her narrators seem comfortable with.
A search of an online concordance finds only one instance, near the conclusion of her last completed novel, Persuasion, as the narrator overflows with powerful feelings of affection and delight in the happiness of her two lovers:  “soon words enough had passed between them to decide their direction towards the comparatively quiet and retired gravel-walk, where the power of conversation would make the present hour a blessing indeed; and prepare for it all the immortality which the happiest recollections of their own future lives could bestow.” 
Here “immortality” is a natural sequel to “blessing,” redeeming the sorrows and losses of Anne and “immortality” is also teasingly parodic, a way of poking gentle fun at the transcendent emotions of the pair. In addition to the celebratory comedy of overfull emotion, “immortality” also picks up the novel’s emphasis on time, its expansions and contractions, its confusions of past, present, future.  In this passage the narrator looks forward from “the present hour” to their “future lives,” in which they will happily recollect the past (this present moment), which will then be transformed to the timelessness of immortality…”   END QUOTE FROM FORD’S EDITOR’S NOTE

Even though Ford quotes Wordsworth’s poem title in the first paragraph, and Austen’s echoing narration in the second, she does not connect them; nor does she claim that Austen intentionally alluded to Wordsworth. That does not surprise me, because mainstream literary scholars rarely assert the existence of an allusion without explicit evidence, and this is not explicit, although, to my mind, to paraphrase that other lover of Romantic poetry, Marianne Dashwood, the allusion “was in every word implied, but never professedly declared.”

I felt certain, especially in the context of all the Romantic poetic allusions by Austen in Persuasion (and, for that matter, in Mansfield Park), including the veiled allusion to Kubla Khan. So I dove into the scholarly databases to see if I could discern its meaning from articles which might give hints to explain why JA would point to Wordsworth’s famous poem at that romantic climactic point in Persuasion.

I wound up finding several very interesting articles, which will all require a great deal of followup study in order for me to arrive at any sort of confident interpretation. However, from my quick skimthrough of  those articles, my tentative hypothesis is that the key clue is the strange reversal of temporality in Anne Elliot’s blurring of past present and future in the midst of her bliss. As far as I can tell so far,  Wordsworth’s poem is itself known for a comparable blurring of time in the heart and mind. All of which fits so perfectly and ironically with Anne’s worry for Benwick’s overindulgence in Romantic poetry – the joke is that it is Anne who repeatedly resorts to Romantic poetry as her heart (and her sexual body) lurches awake after 8 ½ years of hibernation.

I will return with whatever I come up with, once I have completed that review, but at least wanted to get the basic idea out there in the interim.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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