Archive for category Victorian Lit

Be Beginning to End

Another paper! This one explicates Gerard Manley Hopkins’s (unconventional) sonnet “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” and particularly argues that the poem depicts the approach of the Final Judgment. I’m content with this paper and, at the least, enjoyed the close reading of such a difficult poem. My only real regret is the dearth of footnotes. I include the poem below and would strongly encourage any to read the poem through carefully a few times.

Gerard Hopkins’s “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”

Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, | vaulty, voluminous, . . . stupendous
Evening strains to be time’s vást, | womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night.
Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, | her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height
Waste; her earliest stars, earl-stars, | stárs principal, overbend us,
Fíre-féaturing heaven. For earth | her being has unbound, her dapple is at an end, as-
tray or aswarm, all throughther, in throngs; | self ín self steepèd and páshed – quite
Disremembering, dísmémbering, | áll now. Heart, you round me right
With: Óur évening is over us; óur night | whélms, whélms, ánd will end us.
Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish | damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,
Ever so black on it. Óur tale, O óur oracle! | Lét life, wáned, ah lét life wind
Off hér once skéined stained véined varíety | upon áll on twó spools; párt, pen, páck
Now her áll in twó flocks, twó folds – black, white; | right, wrong; reckon but, reck but, mind
But thése two; wáre of a wórld where bút these | twó tell, each off the óther; of a rack
Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, | thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd.

Be Beginning to End: Ending and Judgment in Hopkins’s “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”

“Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” is a meditation on ends and ending. The close of day propels the poet toward the thought of the very end of all mortal things, the Day of Judgment. The central image of evening in balance between day and night embodies the poem’s tension between the present endings and their final conclusion. This poem works in that tension between the now and not-yet, between a tale and an oracle; Hopkins not only foretells what will end but what is now always ending. The poem serves as a call for himself and his reader to participate in that process: to be beginning to end.

The octave presents the literal image of evening that provides the foundation for the whole poem. The poet looks out at a fading day and describes the frustration of his senses as all things diminish from their sunlit hues to flat greyscale. The poem opens with a lengthy catalogue of epithets that delay evening until the second line; these adjectives build suspense that peaks in the pause before the poet finally settles on stupendous to characterize this evening. There is something of a shock as evening finally gives these modifiers a context. Hopkins shapes an evening here that is first earnest: it has agency; it strains with intensity and seriousness towards night. It is a thing apart from and above the speaker. It is itself in balance between light and dark—the evening is the cusp—and it is able to bring all things into balance, into harmony. After the caesura, vaulty hints at the noun that will come: it captures the arch of the sky over the poet. It is voluminous: not merely large, but literally able to fill volumes of poetry. Yet the evening is clearly incommunicable for the poet slips into an ellipsis that marks a pause and denotes something missing: the volumes unsaid that would clarify this evening so vast and beyond the reaches of the poem. Finally Hopkins settles on stupendous, with its implications of immensity and some of the original Latin’s[1] force of stunning and astounding. This foreshadows the straining of evening to encompass all and become the night that will “whélm” the poet at the close of the octave (8).

When the long-delayed “stupendous / Evening” finally comes, it contextualizes the speaker beneath the sky at the close of the day. The evening is not yet but strains to become night, and the stupendous evening is more cosmic by reaching towards not merely the earth’s night but the vast night of time in two senses at play with each other: this striven-for night belongs to time and yet encompasses time, reaching to be its womb, home, and hearse. This language initiates the apocalyptic implications that will unravel in the sestet, and there are significant echoes of scriptural language from the book of Revelation where God declares himself “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end . . . who is, and who was, and who is to come” (Douay-Rheims, Rev. 1.8). Here, though, the night is pointedly not yet upon Hopkins, and it is important not to let hearse overpower womb and home. While there looms a death, another birth and life likewise remain.

The “fond yellow hornlight wound to the west” (3) is of course the sun that has slipped beneath the horizon pictured as the cloudy light through the horn pane of a lantern, and Hopkins imbues it with all the warmth and familiarity of fond. It is hard not to recall the “last lights off the black West” of “God’s Grandeur” (11), but “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” withholds the promise of an imminent dawn. This warm but vanishing light is balanced above the speaker by the “wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height” (3). This is the pale, blank light of the fading day, not yet the darkened night sky. It is a vast blankness, empty and grey. Hoar further implies an ancientness. This scene is jarred by the verb isolated on the next line: “Waste” (4). These last bastions of day are spending, exhausting themselves and fading into the annihilation of night. With all its implications—of barrenness, wild ruin, and decay—this verb aggressively prepares for the confusion to come. Peter Milward’s otherwise sensitive and insightful commentary on “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” at this point goes astray. He insists rightly that the term emphasizes the sense that “all is but a vast and empty desert” in the gloam, but he then argues that it must be taken as an adjectival description; to take it as a verb “immeasurably weakens its force”, he argues (87). But waste as a modifier would leave this no sentence but a fragment with little sense and less force. It is precisely because this vestige of day is actively, presently wasting that the poet is spurred on to the despondency of the second half of the octave. The action of this poem is the process of ending, and the verb here complements and reiterates that movement.

The night’s way is prepared by the first stars that appear above the poet. These stars are “earliest” (4) at least in appearance on this particularly evening, but perhaps in creation as well. They are “earlstars, | stars principal” (4), stars personified as leaders and nobility, chief among stars. This “Fíre-féaturing heaven” that “overbend[s]” the world is peopled (4-5); principal connects these beings with the angelic principalities. The poet is small beneath these stars that bend over, looking down upon him as if in judgment. That playfulness of Hopkins’s earlier poem “The Starlight Night” is absent here: this evening is sparer than that other night’s “fire-folk sitting in the air” (2). Hopkins likely had in mind the role of stars in Revelation and their close connection to the judgment of God. There, the Apostle John sees omens of the day of “the wrath of the Lamb” when “the sun became black as sackcloth of hair” and “the stars from heaven fell upon the earth” (Rev. 6.12-13, 16). Hopkins’s stars are not yet falling, but they draw ever nearer to the earth with a fiery countenance.

These stars approach and overbend in judgment because, Hopkins tells us, “earth | her being has unbound” (5): confusion reigns below; the poet’s sight is confounded in the gloaming; the earth’s pied beauty is flattened into silver-grey. All things are “as- / tray”, and the line-break severs the very word (5-6). Hopkins turns from the confusion of the natural world to human nature: self, the distinguishing, identifying particularity of a thing, is turned inward, violently dislocating itself from all things and forgetting them. Echoes from Hopkins’s comments on the Spiritual Exercises inform this language: there he speaks of the fall of Lucifer as a turning away from God, an “instressing of his own inscape”; Lucifer raised his own hymn of selfpraise against Christ’s call to praise God “which indeed was a call into being”; Satan’s hymn is joined by other angels becoming “a counterpoint of dissonance and not of harmony” (Sermons 200-201). The poem here also bears echoes of Hopkins’s comment that, in death, “all that energy or instress with which the soul animates and otherwise acts in the body is . . . thrown back upon the soul itself” (Sermons 137). Such moral dissonance, the separation from God, works on the language of “self ín self steeped” and all things “throughther, in throngs” (6).

The structure of rhyme in this octave proffers a counter-voice to the discord and confusion that Hopkins mourns. Even the same violence exemplified by the severing of “as- / tray”, allows for the elaborate rhyme that ties “end, as-” back to the “stupendous / Evening” and the more orderly stars that “overbend us”; the rhyme clings and lingers even when the poet says his night “will end us” in the last line of the octave. Hopkins is able to instress a structure that persists within the chaos of the evening that he sees before him, and this more hopeful seed will flourish in the orderly division of all things in the sestet.

Hopkins’s heart, he says, sees something of that structure and rounds on him. The primary sense of round is to whisper, and it is a whisper that Hopkins affirms is “right” (7). The OED notes the sense of to open or widen the eyes (“round v.2”), and here the poet’s heart is widening his view so that it encompasses not only this particular, literal night, but the world’s last night, the end of all things, that brings with it God’s final judgment. Hopkins marked stresses on both ours, and the effect is to separate him from the chaos of the evening before him, his evening from this particular, literal evening, and the coming night from his all-encompassing night which “whélms, whélms, ánd will end us” (8). The end of day then becomes a picture of the end of all things; the confusion of literal sight and its reduction to monotone shades pictures the moral blindness and the division of all things into black or white that will come to the forefront in the poem’s conclusion.

The “Only” that opens the sestet presents a forceful opposition to all the chaos and confusion of the octave: Hopkins calls himself and us to attend this singular thing. It is also an only of exception: but for this one thing he would patiently await the oncoming night. What demands this attention and exception is a tree that Hopkins sees silhouetting the twilit silver of the sky. Its boughs are “dragonish”, and the poet emphasizes that they are “black, / Ever so black” against the “bleak light” of the sky (9-10). That these boughs are dragonish places them in a distinctly ominous light and reifies the connection to Lucifer discussed above. In those same notes on the fall of Lucifer, Hopkins observes the dragon to be “a type of the Devil to express the universality of his powers” and a symbol of “one who aiming at every perfection ends by being a monster, a ‘fright’” (Sermons 199). These boughs, then, are of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which Satan “[s]elf-trellises” in “The dark-out Lucifer” (2). That tree and the eating of its fruit by Adam and Eve is, in Christian thought, the font of original sin that cuts mankind off from God. Hopkins likewise wrote of the constellation Draco, the sign in the heavens which he takes to represent Satan’s attempt “to possess himself of the sovereignty of things, taking . . . the culmination of the firmament towards the pole, as a throne and post of vantage and so wreathing nature and as it were constricting it to his purposes (as also he wreathed himself in the Garden round the Tree of Knowledge)” (Sermons 198). In Hopkins’s thought, the dragon, Satan, and the Tree are closely intertwined; the devil’s rebellion spans time from before the world’s creation to the Day of Judgment. Here, it interposes itself between the speaker, who stands in the evening on the darkling earth, and the bleak but still illuminating pale light of the firmament. As this light becomes associated with the white and right of the poem’s close, it stands here for God.

Comments from Hopkins’s meditation on Hell further elucidate this image of boughs blotting out the grey light. These damasking branches mirror the effect of what he calls “scapes”, artifacts of thoughts and actions that are the source of the suffering of those in Hell; he says, “Our action leaves in our minds scapes or species, the extreme ‘intention’ or instressing of which would be painful and the pain would be that of fire” (Sermons 136). Pivotal to his idea is that, as creatures of God, we are directed and so strain towards Him; for the fallen, the scapes of sinful actions interpose themselves between us and God and so blot Him out and painfully rebound.

But this constraint and this blindness or darkness will be most painful when it is the main stress or energy of the whole being that is thus balked. This is its strain or tendency towards being, towards good, towards God—being, that is / their own more or continued being, good / their own good, their natural felicity, and God . . . . The one stress or strain then encountered and clashed with the other; for instance the will addressed, ‘at forepitch’, towards beatitude, happiness, in God, with its own act of aversion, with the scape or species, indurated in it, of the act by which it turned aside; the understanding open wide like an eye, towards truth in God, towards light, is confronted by that scape, that act of its own, which blotted out God and so put blackness in the place of light; does not see God but sees that . . . . (Sermons 138-9)

As the poet’s heart rounds him and his vision is widened to see this soon-to-whelm night, he recognizes these scapes of sin that separate him from his God. Hopkins of course is not in Hell, where the lost see nothing but these scapes, but he is an inheritor of the Fall and so must wrestle with his own sin. This same analogy between himself and the lost is present in “I wake and feel” where he says, “I see / The lost are like this, and their scourge to be / As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse” (12-14). The scourge of the lost is utterly to be themselves, to fully realize and perpetually instress their own sin. They are worse off than the poet: he is not cut off from God utterly: the light, though bleak, is not wholly blocked by these dragonish boughs.

This is not merely the poet’s own struggle: the Fall is of all mankind, and these dragonish boughs darken the vision of each man, woman, and child. That it is a general experience will be affirmed by the close connection to the biblical judgment of all mankind in the next few lines of the sestet. In an earlier poem, “The times are nightfall”, Hopkins calls on his readers to deal with their sin. The setting and language of that poem are strikingly similar to “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”: “The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less; / The times are winter, watch, a world undone” (1-2). In the midst of this undone world, Hopkins calls his reader to turn to “your world within. / There rid the dragons, root out there the sin” (9-10). This is “Óur tale”, the story of all mankind since the Fall begat original sin. The metrical stress on our makes this tale parallel to “Óur évening” at the close of the sestet. This tale then is of life’s evening when we see as in a glass darkly but with vision enough to distinguish these dragons and begin to end them, to root them out.

Likewise, “óur oracle” corresponds to “óur night”, and it is to this oracle, this prophecy, of the end of things that the poet turns in the concluding lines of the poem. This oracle is spelled out by the leaves that damask the sky, and it is from this image that the poem draws its name. These are the oracles of the Sibyl, scattered to the wind. The closest allusion is to the Dies Irae, the hymn of the day of God’s wrath and judgment. There, the Sibyl is paired with the biblical King David as those who sang of the day when God will judge the quick and the dead, when all hidden things will be revealed. Coupled with the explicit reference to Christ’s own words about his return and his subsequent judgment in the next several lines, this squarely places the sestet in the setting of the biblical apocalypse where all are separated based on their relationship and obedience to God. This oracle looks forward to something far more encompassing than the night of “The times are nightfall”; in that day, the time for rooting out sin will be past, and naught will remain but to join the world in being judged.

The poet calls on his own heart to allow life—now wound down and faded with the sunlight to the West—to unravel, as one would yarn, all of its dappled “variety” according to its general color: black or white. What of life has hitherto been bundled up together in the poet’s actions and heart, he calls to be separated out on two spools. This consummates the octave’s image of twilight: in the last vestiges of light, the particular shapes and shades of a thing are indiscernible; what can be made out is merely a thing’s barest shape, its barest reality. It is or is not: has being or is not-being. Here that being is toward God, or it is the blackness of not-being, privation, away from Him. This variety being divided is also, given its biblical background, people: souls pitched toward or away from God. The whole passage depends on that binary opposition: either/or—one spool or the other—with nothing outside or in between. Hopkins calls for Christ’s words to be fulfilled: “He that is not with me, is against me; and he that gathereth not with me, scattereth” (Luke 11.23). He again calls on himself to participate in this, to be an agent of the Judge: “párt, pen, páck” all into “twó flocks, twó folds—black, white; | right, wrong” (11-12). The language drawn from shepherding is rampant throughout scripture, and it ties the sestet back to all things “astray” in the octave. These flocks then are primarily people and secondarily the activities that move the agent either toward or away from God. The good and bad actions of a person are intimately bound up with their being, their self, and are definitive of their relationship to God and their eternal existence. Hopkins wrote,

God is good and the stamp, seal, or instress he sets on each scape is of right, good, or of bad, wrong. Now the sinner who has preferred his own good, as revenge, drunkenness, to God’s good, true good, and God, has that evil between him and God, by his attachment to which and God’s rejection of it he is carried and swept away to an infinite distance from God; and the stress and strain of his removal is his eternity of punishment. (Sermons 139)

The tension between moral good and evil plays out in the rhythm. The two sets—“bláck, white” and “ríght, wrong” are each metrical feet, and both black and right have stresses marked. White and wrong do not easily take a slack, however, and the rhyme between white and right invites a weight there that black and wrong lack. It is fitting that this tension in the rhythm exists here for in dividing up souls, actions, and things in this manner, both the pied beauty of things and the variety that is a valuable good are sacrificed for that ultimate division between right and wrong, yes and no.

Again, this separation of things is both a tale and an oracle: now and not-yet. Now, the speaker may labor to divide the actions in his own life, his own heart. He may engage in the ending, the winding down of things and begin, in small, to separate his chaff from his wheat. The language of shepherding is particularly apposite given Hopkins’s responsibilities as a pastor, shepherding the flock of Christians. From these sheep comes the wool and yarn that provide the metaphor in the sestet. The oracle presages a day to come: that final day about which Christ spoke “when the Son of man shall come in his majesty . . . . And all nations shall be gathered together before him, and he shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left” (Matt. 25.31-33). Christ gave the terrible warning that for those who failed to do justice or charity to the least among mankind, there waits the “everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” (25.41). This is the primary sense of the close of the poem. Hopkins calls himself to let all things—him included—be separated in this manner, to resist the chaotic blending and confusion of the octave, the ramifying effects of the Fall. The night that will end him brings with it the final division, when he and all things will be separated to or against God.

That dreadful end appears vividly to the poet who, in his meditation on Hell, sought to “see with the eyes of the imagination the length, breadth and depth of hell” and experience “an interior sense of pain which the lost suffer, so that if I should through my faults forget the love of the Eternal Lord, at least the fear of punishment may help me not to fall into sin” (Sermons 135-36). In this exercise, he aimed to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel the suffering of those in Hell. The reality of his imagination permeates the meditation, and it inspires the warning to heed nothing in life but these two flocks: “reckon but, reck but, mind / But thése two” (12-13). This warning is threefold: to measure out or count out all into these two, to heed and to concern oneself with only these two, and to take thought after or to hold in the mind only these two. The significant semantic overlap between these terms enforces the seriousness behind the poet’s call. He continues to admonish himself and his reader both to beware and to be aware of the world of the Day of Judgment where these two flocks will “tell, each off the óther”—that is, where they will count off of the other: an addition to one is a detraction from the other (13). Every son and daughter of Adam will be reckoned up in one of these two flocks: the poet’s somber warning is to heed which flock it is that we stray towards.

Ware takes a second direct object: a rack. The rack consummates the rhymes begun by pack and black, and the consonantal violence of reckon and reck; it pointedly puns on wrack. Here Hopkins shows us the ruin of the lost. On this rack are thoughts: the thoughts wring themselves, tortured by the instressing of the scapes of their own sin; they string themselves by their own aversion from God and even constitute the rack on which their selfishness strings them; they are disembodied, unable to find shelter, unable to escape their selves. Like Milton’s Satan and Hopkins’s own Caradoc, they and their actions are themselves their Hell. Hopkins wrote that “in man all that energy or instress with which the soul animates and otherwise acts in the body is by death thrown back upon the soul itself”, and here that violence grinds them (Sermons 137). This is the final equivalent to the octave’s earlier “self ín self steeped and páshed—qúite / Disremembering, dismembering | áll now” (6-7). On this rack, we are shown the lost synecdochically as thoughts: from a whole person the body is torn away, and the spirit is reduced to only the thoughts that are its torture, its godlessness. The blending of spiritual and physical in the thoughts which “agaínst thoughts ín groans grind” (14) is characteristic of Hopkins’s view of Hell where the lost suffer sensibly through the “intellectual imagination” (Sermons 136). The instressing of themselves—their own sin—is their rack. For those who say no to God, who strive after the black and the wrong, this end realizes fully their disobedience. With this dreadful warning of what end awaits the lost in that final day, the poet concludes the sonnet.

Hopkins introduced his meditation on Hell by noting all the different classes among the lost, and he states his intent to make “a Colloquy with Christ our Lord . . .  therewith to give Him thanks because He has not permitted me to fall into any of these classes by putting an end to my life” (Sermons 136). In light of the inextricable relationship between the language and imagery of “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” and this meditation, it is important to emphasize with Hopkins the sharp divide he draws between himself and the lost. As wholly as he enters imaginatively into the experience of that place, he is not of it and does not remain there. It rightly spurs him on to holiness as it never does for the truly lost. For all the spiritual struggles that his darker sonnets convey, Hopkins does not abandon himself to Hell. Unfortunately, some critics have proven all too ready to read Hopkins as the primary victim of the rack in the last two lines of this poem. While thoughtful in his analysis, Raymond V. Schoder reads the poem so and therefore misses the thrust of the eschatological language. Schoder sees in the close of this sonnet a poet who, in response to the whelming night, “must no longer fear or struggle against this darkness in his mind and soul. Rather he must understand and accept it, even welcome it as an implicit promise of a coming, however distant, dawn” (645). The final rack is “of his own bitter meditations” that he is wrung upon willingly, argues Schoder (645). The poem resists such a reading. The black (actually of the boughs silhouetting the pale evening, not of the night) is a moral darkness, against which Hopkins would certainly continue to struggle. And, again, the rack is so closely connected to Hopkins’s thoughts on Hell that it seems beyond belief to think that he would consider himself truly stretched upon it. In context, the rack exists first in an oracle; it is not a present, personal torment that he here describes.

I join Robert Boyle, contra Schoder, in finding “no ring whatever of relief, patience, or resignation” in these concluding lines (141). Boyle helpfully and respectfully corrects some of Schoder’s interpretation where it goes astray, but, like Schoder, he reduces the eschatological force of the sestet and finds Hopkins presently on the rack: “He strings himself,” says Boyle, “to resist that torture, that wringing, which he himself inflicts on himself” (142). The earth unbounding her being and falling into darkness is not a normal law of the spiritual life and so not a model for Hopkins, as Schoder argues: Boyle takes it to be precisely that falling into night that Hopkins must resist so terribly and painfully. He must fight the “advance of self-induced darkness, hanging on to what is left of day” (142); his “thoughts would not grind together in his heart if he would loosen the tension . . . if he would relax into being a rebellious or disloyal man . . . and give up reaching for a share in God’s life” (143). This unfortunately misconstrues the pivotal difference between the night of the octave that will end us, and the blackness of the dragonish boughs in the sestet that blot but have no clear movement within the poem: they do not whelm as does the night. The poet’s statement (with the definite modal auxiliary will) does not seem to leave room for the resistance to the night that Boyle finds, and there is little room to wiggle in the poet’s clear and firm assertion of what night will bring: conclusion and judgment. Nor does such a reading easily make sense of the sestet as an oracle of that future world which informs the central emotion of this passage. Where Boyle wants to read only a present reality in this image, the poet looks at the future spelt upon these leaves. It is precisely the consummation of all things that are presently ending that is so arresting about this final world and this rack.

“Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” depicts endings: the end of day and dapple that draws Hopkins’s thoughts to the final end of all mortal things. Not merely descriptive, the poet calls himself and his reader to be beginning to end, to engage in that divisive process of all things towards or away from God. It is this ultimate end that the poet instresses in the strain of evening towards night, in the confusion of all things in the growing darkness, and in the scapes of his own and of all mankind’s sin that stand between us and God. The eschatological language is primary in this poem and so must be read as central to interpret rightly. However conclusive, the poet does not despair for this ever ending world but spurs himself and his readers to end rightly, to divide up all things, and await in readiness the end that will come like a thief in the night.

 

 

 

Works cited

Boyle, Robert. Metaphor in Hopkins: “That Small Commonweal”. Chapel Hill: University of

North Carolina, 1961. Print.

Douay-Rheims Bible. Ed. Richard Challoner. 1752. Sacred-texts.com. Web. 2 December 2015.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ed.

Christopher Devlin, S.J.. New York: Oxford, 1959. Print.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Major Works. Ed. Catherine Phillips. New York: Oxford,

  1. Print.

—. “God’s Grandeur”. 128.

—. “No Worst”. 167.

—. “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”. 175.

—. “The dark-out Lucifer”. 129.

—. “The times are nightfall”. 161.

Milward, Peter. Landscape and Inscape: “Wild Hollow Hoarlight”. Grand Rapids: William B

Eerdmans, 1975. Print.

“round, v.2.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 25 November 2015.

Schoder, Raymond V. “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”. Thought 19 (1944): 633-648. Print.

“stŭpĕo”. Simpson, D. P. Cassell’s Latin Dictionary: Latin-English, English-Latin. Boston:

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1977. 146. Print

 

[1] From stupendus, the gerund form of stupēre, “to be stunned, struck senseless” (“stŭpĕo”).

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Victorian Lit Essay

Or: Two Hours and This To Tell For It?

I was not going to post this because it was a rush job (per the assignment) and I can’t really say I am exceedingly happy with it.  It is okay, but it does suffer from the same faults that many of my essays do.  I feel like I am standing in the archery range, releasing arrows one after another and coming within a few inches of the bull’s-eye but always just ever so slightly missing the mark.  I feel like my essays of the last year have been plagued with shy attempts to articulate my thoughts and occasionally succeeding and often coming just short.  Still, if I don’t try I will never improve.   It occurs to me that I certainly got the better end of the deal in that I never have such problems when writing narrative/fiction (though I will leave this open for any of my readers to debate).

(Oh dear, I just realized I submitted this  to Hube with a rather silly grammatical error.  I should probably recognize the insignificance of such and be absolved of my shame, but I find such far from simple.)

The essay:

As soon as Henry Tilney can utter these words at the end of the twenty-fourth chapter in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey “Consult your understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. . .” Catherine is altered irrevocably, and, as Austen succinctly summarizes, “The visions of romance were over” (Austen, Northanger Abbey, XXIV, XXV). And thus Austen, who was living on a nebulous line demarcating the cusp of the Victorian era while Romanticism was slipping away, announces the end of that framework that defined Romanticism. In Northanger Abbey, Austen takes advantage of the Victorian’s acute, self-conscious, and explicit awareness of themselves and makes a microcosm of that shift from Romanticism to Victorianism, embodying it in the life of Catherine Morland.

Catherine, throughout Northanger Abbey, embodies some of the most obvious of those characteristics that define Romanticism. Austen constantly reminds us of Catherine’s brilliant imagination and emotive cognitive processes. The ubiquitous reminders of her fascination with those Gothic novels that so define her is also a driving motif throughout the work. Moreover, Catherine has a persistent belief in the innate goodness of individuals—or, at least, she has a faith in the total goodness of those good individuals, and the total depravity of those evil individuals. As we see, one of the results of her paradigm awakening or disillusionment towards the end of the novel was the realization that, while in Romanticism “such as were not as spotless as an angel, might have the dispositions of a fiend,” in the Victorian era, in the real world, is instead “a general though unequal mixture of good and bad.” In the character of Catherine, those Romantic traits are displayed in an extreme. The most blatant, of course, is her obsession with the Gothic, the sublime, which drives the plot of much of the second volume of the novel.

The plot of Northanger Abbey through the twenty-third chapter builds up the character of Catherine and enables us to see what she only sees in hindsight, that she arrives at Northanger Abbey “craving to be frightened.” Before she has arrived at the Tilney residence, Catherine attempts to imagine it more than simply an abbey just as she attempts to integrate something beyond life into the character of General Tilney. This constitutes the essential flaw in the character as well as an essential distinction between Romanticism and Victorianism.

In a manner analogical to that with which the classical Romantics attempted to find meaning and truth in nature, the pre-awakening Catherine attempts to find the meaning in things, places, and people that she is unable and unwilling to concede are nothing more than things, places, and people. There is a place called Northanger Abbey. There is a man known as General Tilney. Yet, to Catherine, if there is nothing more, they have absolutely no meaning. And so, from her Romantic framework developed through prolific perusal of Romantic and Gothic literature, Catherine integrates the places, things, and people that she knows with standards that are not in any conformity to the real world. Her “sense of the probable,” as Henry Tilney calls it, is skewed to such a degree that to overlay these Gothic stereotypes onto reality in order to discover or create some meaning is fully sensible.

The reversal in chapter twenty-four is utterly simplistic and yet strikingly profound within the context of the plot around the well-developed character of Catherine. Catherine finally makes her way into Mrs. Tilney’s bedroom, the bedroom that must reveal the nefarious truths about Mrs. Tilney’s death that must be more than simply a sudden, fatal illness. And, of course, Catherine finds a bed, and a wardrobe, and chairs, and, in the end, exactly what one would expect to find in a bedroom: perfectly mundane innocence and simplicity. It is a testament to Austen’s narrative skill that the seemingly self-evident discovery that a bedroom, in fact, is a bedroom, can be such a dramatic upheaval for her characters. The recognition of the “common sense” (and her hitherto lack thereof) that immediately overcomes Catherine begins the paradigm shift away from Catherine’s Romanticism to an almost skeptical Victorianism which rejects far-fetched integrations. In the stead of the Romantic risk of absurdity by going to such extremes as Catherine has done in order to find meaning in daily experiences and interactions, the Victorian Catherine rejects the search for such integrations by denying the necessity that a house be any more than a house or a man be any more than merely a man. There need not be any sublimity. In other words, Catherine’s revelation exemplifies the Victorian era’s reaction to the Romantic’s over-wide realm of the probable by limiting the meaningful to only the extant and eliding the excessive, and external integrated meaning.

“The visions of romance were over. Catherine was completely awakened.” She is suddenly made aware of the “extravagance of her late fancies,” “[t]he liberty which her imagination had dared to take. . . ,” and “the absurdity of her curiosity and fears” (Ibid. XXV.) In this, Austen sums up the dramatic shift from the Romantic mindset into that of the Victorian era, from the over-inclusive to the skeptical. But there is nothing to fear in this shift, and Austen offers this comfort for Catherine and her readers: “Her [Catherine’s] mind made up on these several points, and her resolution formed, of always judging and acting in future with the greatest good sense, she had nothing to do but to forgive herself and be happier than ever. . .” (Ibid. XXV).1

1. Dr. Hubele, please know that your temporal restrictions have resulted in this inchoate creation which you have (no doubt) perspicaciously perused. I would have liked to discuss the idea that Henry’s acutely aware recognition of his own framework is a key component of Victorianism, but your restrictions have cruelly cut off the head of these thoughts before they had time to integrate and fructify. I will end this superfluous footnote by mutilating John Milton:

‘Doth Hube exact hard labor, time denied?’

I fearf’ly ask. But Prudence, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: ‘Hube doth not need

Either your work or the whole class’s: who

Simply write their essays, they serve him best.’

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