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Vincent Walsh Lehigh University December 14, 2007
1 Engaging Wordsworth‟s complex and intricate meaning in Book V of The Prelude has presented a singularly daunting challenge for scholars and critics in recent years. Michael Jaye, for one, asserts that there is serious lack of coherence in the text, and that this is deliberate on Wordsworth‟s part, because the poet sees it as a necessary and inevitable reflection of subject matter, and therefore unavoidable. “The experiences depicted in book 5,” he advises us, are ones in which “Wordsworth confronts inharmonious complexities. The tension and conflict which arise out of these experiences remain unrelieved. Even in those instances where Wordsworth later attempted to reconcile the sense of disparities he created . . . he failed.” The reader ought, in Jaye‟s view, “to understand contradictions as contradictions, unresolved conflicts as unresolved, and inconsistency as inconsistency” (33-34). For Jaye, there is a despair reflected in the text (particularly lines 11-27) over the fragility of knowledge and the impotence of language, the impermanence of any written human record, despair for man‟s necessarily futile attempts to create meaning in a world where death is inevitable and cataclysm imminent. The image of the Arab riding on the camel with the shell in his hand and the stone tucked under his arm, gaze directed backward fearfully over his shoulder at the rapidly encroaching deluge, betokens the hopelessness of the human endeavor to find meaning, at the same time as it bespeaks the heroism of that defiant, though doomed, attempt. The dream vision in Book V “suggests that madness results from the attempt to sustain meaning in the face of a vision of impending cataclysm and total destruction,” but man‟s effort to maintain a voice despite the inevitability of its dissolution, his determination to remain “still holding intense
2 thoughts constant in the conscious mind” constitutes a “continuing heroic response to life” (42). This human defiance, in Jaye‟s view, is a posture that makes no sense because it is understood to be futile, and therefore reflects a kind of insanity, “a madness which results from isolating and sustaining the thought that all things perish;” nevertheless, there is courage in such a stance, an uplifting quality to this gesture, however futile. Such defiance may represent the only possible approach humans can take to sustain a sense of identity and dignity: “In a world of sorrow and impending doom, the only truly reasonable response may be madness . . . Such a response, by concentrating and nurturing the most intense experience, opposes a disintegrating world, and by this opposition sustains and affirms the continuity of the self” (43). Because of its inexplicable, mysterious subject matter, Jaye advises us, Wordsworth‟s Prelude is hopelessly problematic, and defies definitive explication; it is a reflection of the complexity of lived experience. Moreover, as an authentic response to experience, it becomes a part of the very mystery it reflects: “Great poetry . . . records man‟s best response and may continue to effect a response in man by leading him to an awareness of profound and unreconcilable disparities in the universe. . . . Great poetry is not second to nature nor a parallel force, but is recognized as another mystical manifestation of the power of nature itself” (45). In the end, there necessarily remains “disjunction in the reader‟s experience” of Book V because he is confronted with “an artificial conceptual resolution” to the “tragic irreconcilables of the Arab rider passage” (46). But one can ask no more of poetry, Jaye suggests, than this, for the subject matter itself precludes clearer or more harmonious understanding.
3 William Galperin offers a much different reading, even as he pays close attention to Jaye‟s account. Galperin also perceives disjunction in the text, but he goes further, referring to Book V as a “mélange of invective, reverie, memory, and allusion” (613). Galperin follows a deconstructionist approach, attempting to balance the perceptions of Jaye with the analysis of Cynthia Chase, who challenges the notion of authorial authority in the text, and sees the self-limiting quality of language itself, not the “unreconcilability” of experience, as the principal concern for exegesis. In Galperin‟s version of deconstruction, we must regard Wordsworth‟s account of the dream vision in Book V as self-reflexive: “Through the Arab dream, Wordsworth – the resisting writer – depicts himself, the „Poet,‟ for what he is: a crazed, deluded wanderer implicated in a mythic or representational structure that is uncompletable” (621-22), because it entails looking into layer after layer of the author‟s own persona as writer, like perceiving infinitely nuanced repetitions of authorial selves in a series of duplicating mirrors. Further, in a move that will have important implications for my own argument about a possible reading of the text later on in this paper, Galperin attempts to convince us that other representations in Book V are also just versions of the imagined persona of Wordsworth himself, rather than referents to other characters, or to some larger thesis or theme. The child Wordsworth refers to as a “monster birth / Engendered by these too industrious times” in lines 293-94 is not merely indicative of “an attack ostensibly on modern education,” but in Galperin‟s view is also a representation of the “Poet.” . . . he is a positivistic version of the figure so recently impeded in his progress by remembrance or whose “remembrances” as such are at variance with his “book‟s” progress. That is, he is the sorry, literally
4 freakish, result of an attempt to situate childhood within a conception of human development both progressive and deterministic – a conception that by rejecting memory, or by idealizing the past, is able then to circumvent “fear.” (624) In Galperin‟s reading, following the deconstructionist slant of Chase, and others of similar tendency and inclination, we are dealing not so much with Wordsworth‟s view of modern education, as with some kind of involuted perception of the poet; the text reflects not the “unreconcilability” of the universe, but the virtually inextricable and inexplicable complex layers of the persona of the author himself: “Placing himself, the character of Wordsworth, at continuous remove, the poet has not only read himself in Book V; he has been made aware in his reading that the inscribed self, Wordsworth the Poet, would have been impossible had not he, Wordsworth the Poet, conceded his own vassalage as a prelude to self-inscription” (627). There is no space here to comment further on the value, or limitations, of such an analysis as the one Galperin offers, nor do I possess sufficient expertise, except to say that it seems ironic that in such a deconstructionist approach, the attempt to elucidate the use of language in the text not only seems to cause the text to lose reference to the world of actual experience, and to cause one to drift farther and farther from the text itself, but that one seems increasingly removed even from an ability to interpret the language utilized in the criticism to describe the language in the text. For Gordon K. Thomas it is in the dream state itself, in the depiction of the Arab on the dromedary carrying the shell and stone, where we find an answer to Wordsworth‟s concern about the lasting quality of written language, and the permanence of the knowledge human beings have acquired over the centuries, the meanings they have been
5 able to derive and articulate over millennia of struggle and aspiration. Thomas interprets the dream vision as being literally a dream, not merely a literary device or convention, and claims that it is this very quality of being a dream that provides the answer to Wordsworth‟s concern about the durability of “books” in a world faced with imminent destruction due to conflagration, earthquake, or holocaust. Thomas proposes that, while the circumstances surrounding the dream vision in the poem are fictions, something he concludes from comparing differing versions of the dream‟s sources in early and final manuscripts, the details of the two books (represented by the stone and the shell) in the dream itself are largely factual, citing Jane Worthington Smyser‟s identification of their source in a dream described by Rene Descartes more than a century earlier. “There is every reason to believe that Descartes‟ dream experience was genuine. And there is equal reason to see . . . that Wordsworth‟s poetic dream in The Prelude was in fact the dream of Descartes” (449). Therefore the anxiety about the future of the written word articulated in the opening lines of Book V is alleviated in the dream vision, because “there could indeed be nothing in the dream touching on the fragility of books, for in Wordsworth‟s version the two bound books that Descartes saw lose both their paper and their print. They become by dream transformation a stone and a shell.” Yet “somehow” they still “remain, and beyond argument, books.” The question posed at the beginning of Book V – “The consecrated works of Bard and Sage / . . . Where would they be?” (l. 41, 44) – is thus neatly, succinctly, and unequivocally answered in the dream for Thomas: “books only have real existence in the minds of their readers, and in that setting they are indestructible” (449).
6 It would seem that from Thomas‟s point of view, Wordsworth has simply expropriated Descartes‟ dream and made it his own, and that despite the fact that it is derivative, it is a real dream none the less. What‟s more, this dream, or perhaps dreams in general (or at least prophetic, visionary dreams like this one) assume a reality more relevant and significant than that of waking life itself, so much so that the quixotic character of the Arabian knight in Wordsworth‟s account serves more a symbol of a higher realm of existence than a cautionary sign warning of the danger of misinterpretation: But it is only after he awakens from the dream that the speaker recognizes the truth which underlies all these shifting illusions of what he insistently calls the “world of sleep” (5.141). He grasps for the comparative solidity of the dream images in a wakeful world proving to be filled with unsolid reality, or unreality; he determines that the surety of guidance available from a fiction, and that fiction the most notorious madman in all literature and thus apparently a further step away from what we usually call reality, is the only way for him to get safely through the terrifying world of “glittering light” (5.129) which masquerades with most of us as the real world. (450) For Thomas, then, it is neither the stone nor the shell that have preeminence; they serve merely as symbols in a dream which somehow has substance, if that word can be meaningfully employed in this context, in individual consciousness, whose endurance in and through time and space and calamity, is assured. This notion is fully supported, according to Thomas, in lines 34-37 from the opening meditation: Yet would the living Presence still persist Victorious, and composure would ensure,
7 And kindlings like the morning – presage sure Of day returning and of life revived. Thomas argues that the assurance of the survival, and not only the survival but the enduring meaning, of the works of Bard and Sage rests on a Platonic conception that posits true existence as residing, not on the physical plane, which is ephemeral and illusory, but in the world of Ideal Forms, to which individual mind corresponds. Thus we need not fear that knowledge of the real expressed in language that conveys true meaning will fail to endure, because it abides eternally within consciousness: “the language of most worth has its only abode and meaning and exemption from injury not on the carefully preserved engraved inscription on stone or metal plate, nor on the expensively bound and shelved printed page, but in the mind of man” (451). Robert Philmus also regards the sequence of the Arab on the dromedary crossing the desert ahead of an advancing deluge as a dream, despite questions about whether the dream is Wordsworth‟s own or his friend‟s, or if it actually derives originally from Descartes. Regardless of any of such mitigating factors, Philmus assures us, the dream is a bona fide dream, and as such is perfectly susceptible to Freudian interpretation, although he does caution us that some of its elements – the Oedipal significance of the lance carried by the Arab indicating fear of impotence, for example – were probably outside Wordsworth‟s awareness (188-89). For Philmus (as for Galperin, with his perspective on the self-reflexive nature of the poetic narrative, and of language itself), the thematic import of the poem reflects back on the author, rather than conveying general significance: “the real thought-content of the dream . . . dramatizes an anxiety about the destructibility, the mortality, of the dreamer, not about that of all humankind or of the
8 embodiments of its spirit” (186). Wordsworth, Philmus instructs us, “understands the dream to be about his anxieties as to his own poetic mortality” (188). Philmus maintains that there are numerous levels of possible nuanced meaning that unfold for the reader, irrespective of authorial intention (which may have been warped by self-deception), including fear of paternal rejection, idealization of madness, expropriation of a dream (which is transformed to nightmare and then displaced onto someone else – “a Friend”), and various “misdirections” that “entail a mental process, closely cognate to Orwellian double-think” (189). Philmus maintains that the dream of the Arab comprises a “nightmare whose express manner of meaning mandates a Freudian reading.” In a very real sense, Philmus advises us, Wordsworth “anticipates” Freud, “whose work can be largely regarded as the outcome of a Romantic preoccupation with the kind of subjectivity which dreams express,” although the dream in Book V is the only example in English Romanticism of a “dream-account as authentic by Freudian standards” (190). The crucial issue here for this paper is whether the dream sequence merely reflects back on the author, as in Galperin‟s analysis from another quite different perspective, or whether it is intended as an allegory that is meant to convey significant generalized import. Like Galperin, Philmus implies that the dream tells us something about Wordsworth himself, rather than revealing conditions of or prospects for the world at-large. In Theresa Kelley‟s analysis, the dream vision of the Arab on camelback, whether bona fide dream or not, resolves the contradictions and answers the questions posed in the prologue of Book V, the opening meditation on apocalypse, and thus serves as not just a vehicle for self-reflection, but an emblem for exhibiting crucial truths about the
9 world Wordsworth inhabited and brooded upon. For Kelley, Wordsworth understood the Arab on camelback sequence in Book V as an embodiment of the power traditionally granted to dreams as symbolic narratives which either prophesy the future or reinterpret problems that the conscious mind had previously entertained . . . in reinterpreting the fears introduced in the prologue, the dream responds to them in the guise of prophetic speech. The strategy which underlines its response is resolutely metonymic in that the dream transforms the inflexible opposition of the prologue by replacing its key terms with two new symbols. (565) These symbols are, of course, the shell carried by the Arab in one hand, and the stone he has tucked under his other arm as he flees across the desert ahead of the rapidly advancing floodwaters. Critics have long characterized the stone as representing science, and the shell poetry, a conventional interpretation strongly reinforced by Jane Worthington Smyser‟s convincing argument, dating back to 1956, that Wordsworth derived his dream sequence in Book V from the famous three dreams of Descartes on November 10, 1619; in the last of these he beheld two books – one a dictionary (containing all scientific knowledge), the other a book of poetry. Kelley notes that an unfortunate, though probably unintended, consequence of Smyser‟s finding is that critics have taken it to justify a position that is “unequivocal both in its separation of science from poetry and its designation of poetry as the treasure „of more worth;‟ ” this characterization is inaccurate, and inadequate for accounting for Wordworth‟s true meaning, according to Kelley, because “the easy binomialism of this reading mistakes both the argument of the Arab dream and the symbolic logic of its treasures” (564).
10 Rather, Kelley maintains, we ought to view the stone as a manifestation of “not science in general but that traditional knowledge which is sustained by rigid logic and resists change . . . the shell embodies a new kind of knowledge which is at once geometrical and poetic.” Furthermore, “because the shell contains voices which are multiple and divine and speaks an ode, its language is no less dynamic than its [spiraling] form.” The shell, then, comprises the best of both logical, philosophical, mathematical, scientific knowledge, on the one hand, and the figurative, inspired, intuitive, visionary knowledge expressed by poetry, on the other, in a form that is flexible and responsive to changing human requirements and needs. Unlike that contained in the stone, the knowledge embodied in the shell can survive cataclysm without being buried because “it can create and inhabit other forms and voices when old ones disintegrate” (565). The shell, then, represents not just poetry, but poetry and geometric truth (that is, the best of scientific knowledge) together in a form that is flexible and adaptable, and can incorporate new learning as experience unfolds; “the shell [is] the dream symbol for knowledge that can endure cataclysm” (567). The stone, on the other hand, in Kelley‟s analysis, represents Euclidean geometry that, while stable and enduring, is “static and hence only secure within its limits,” limits that in Wordsworth‟s time were being “subverted gradually by late eighteenth century studies in landforms, botany, biology, and chemistry.” Wordsworth‟s vision in the dream offers the shell as a treasure of more worth because the stone “has no voice” and “cannot assimilate new data or substitute new knowledge for the old,” while the shell, being “regenerative and organic . . . speaks for a new poetic and scientific age, one whose adaptability reflects the dynamisms of the world and its forms” (571-72). For Kelley then, the apparent
11 opposition of science and poetry found in the symbols of stone and shell is deceptive; the stone and shell are “antagonistic yet complementary” (582), “not simply images of an opposition of poetry and science.” From Kelley‟s perspective the shell encompasses poetry as well as scientific and all other human knowledge, and embodies these in living form capable of evolving in accordance with changing circumstance and the unfolding demands of time. The shell is a dream, and dreams in this reading are understood to be prophetic. Smyser claims that this was certainly the case for Descartes in his dream experience, the one that inspired Wordsworth‟s vision of the Arab carrying the shell and stone: “To Descartes the dreams were so clearly indicative of divine blessing upon his philosophic mission that in his thankfulness he vowed a pilgrimage to Loreto and fulfilled the vow four years later” (270). This notion of extraordinary power invested in the dream of the Arab clearly implies that this sequence transcends concerns about the author‟s own mortality, as well as fears of paternal rejection, and that it carries import for humankind and the world generally: “Because it is prophetic, the shell can witness a collaboration between poetry and geometric truth not available within the traditional constraints of the stone” (579); such a collaboration “introduces the prospect of an apocalyptic harmony of poetic utterance with a new kind of science” (580). What is more, the significance of the shell as symbol also provides an answer to the anxious query in the opening meditation about the survival of the written records of human learning and poetic expression. The shell, for Kelley, is a “treasure of „more worth‟ because it can be re-created;” despite the fact that “the shell is only an „earthly
12 casket‟ and will turn to dust as all physical containers do,” (Prelude, 164-64) nevertheless “the spirit which governs that container are its voices: immaterial, multiple, and divine” (574). Humans need have no fear lest the manifestations of their highest yearnings and noblest ideals should not endure through whatever apocalypse might threaten, for the “divine voices in the shell, whose ode the dreamer understands even though it is uttered in an „unknown tongue,‟ implicitly teach the dreamer that their voices are echoes of his own spirit;” humankind can be assured of the enduring meaning of its written work, as embodied in the shell, through time, for “the ode which the dreamer can only hear by putting his ear to the shell must be his own utterance” (578). Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch takes a stance that provides a perspective on Book V that harmonizes with certain elements of other viewpoints we have considered so far, yet he pursues a direction that is uniquely his own. Great poetry like Wordsworth‟s seems to invite a multiplicity of readings due to its very richness, its mimetic qualities that reflect the inexplicable complexities and mysteries of existence. Bernhardt-Kabisch‟s argument bears some resemblance to aspects of Michael Jaye‟s position, though he makes no reference to disjunction, or to “unreconcilability” of elements. Still Bernhardt-Kabisch, like Jaye, sees Wordsworth ascribing to poetry a reality of its own that makes it an essential part of Nature in its own right: Wordsworth begins by positing a close analogy between God and Man, Nature and Art, Nature and Scripture. Man, like God, or the “sovereign Intellect,” is creative, at once the source and subject of vital revelations, disclosing himself in discourse as God discloses himself in Nature. As Nature is a “speaking face”
13 whose features express the divine spirit of life, so Poetry, using that term in its widest sense, is a second Nature through which man presents himself to himself. (467) This notion of an independent reality for poetry serves as a stepping stone toward resolving the question of impermanence in human culture that prompts such “tremblings of the heart” (line 21) in the opening passage. Thus, though “material nature continues to be seen as the manifestation of essence, it is acknowledged to be both destructible and destructive, and human nature is said to inhere largely in the culture man creates and transmits rather than in the inalienable endowments of Nature” (459). This assured ontological status for poetry, and human culture generally, enables Bernhardt-Kabisch, in roughly similar fashion as Michael Jaye, Gordon Thomas, and Theresa Kelley, to understand the dream of the Arab as providing some reassurance about the permanence of human knowledge, scientific as well as literary, and some enduring purpose and meaning for human aspiration, and its articulation in thought and in art. Jaye‟s version of such understanding is somewhat vague and nebulous; he indicates a kind of madness is involved, though one ennobled, at least in principle, by its quality of courageous defiance of the apparent meaninglessness in a chaotic, contradictory world, a stand akin to an existential heroism of self-affirmation in the face of the absurd. Thomas is far less specific: meaning simply persists in the “mind of man.” Theresa Kelley asserts that the power of the shell is regenerative, and that humans can be assured they will always hear the echo of their own prophetic utterances in the timeless voices emanating from its inner hollows. Bernhardt-Kabisch implies a resolution that is more explicitly the outcome of the nature of poetic articulation itself, and connects this conclusion in pages
14 486 and 487 of his article to the incomparably beautiful lines that come right before the close of Book V: The dream . . . constitutes, as it were, a liberating myth that cleanses the poet of his obsession with perishableness of language and his fear of nakedness and enables him to envision art at the end of Book V as “the great Nature that exists / In works of mighty Poets” and as “a power like one of Nature‟s” (XII.312), and language as something more than the frail shrine and worn garment of the preamble. . . . The great apotheosis of poetry at the end of Book V completes and resolves this motif of the garment of language. Visionary power Attends the motions of the viewless winds, Embodied in the mystery of words: There, darkness makes abode, and all the host Of shadowy things work endless changes, -- there, As in a mansion like their proper home, Even forms and substances are circumfused By that transparent veil with light divine, And, through the turnings intricate of verse, Present themselves as objects recognized, In flashes, and with glory not their own. (V.595-605) While Bernhardt-Kabisch‟s apparent resolution for the dilemma over the survivability of human culture through and despite apocalypse seems similar to the reassurances
15 offered in the accounts of Thomas and Kelley, it is arrived at through a more intricate analytical process, and even then, in fact, is not so straightforward as it might at first appear. Crucial to the entire discussion of Book V, and The Prelude generally, he maintains, is Wordsworth‟s concern about the nature of language. In the late eighteenth century there was increasing concern about the quality and substance of knowledge itself, which, in turn, precipitated further questions about language. No longer was the Platonic, or Neoplatonic, conception of the universe simply a given; with the Enlightenment, and particularly with the increasing influence of Kant, debate about what we know, how we know it, and how we express what we know, became a general feature of intellectual discourse, involving issues that persist to our own day. According to Bernhardt-Kabisch, what was involved, and what is clearly reflected in Wordsworth‟s writing, especially here in Book V, is a dispute . . . not only between nature and nurture but between a Platonic or Neoplatonic and a Kantian viewpoint, or what one might call, respectively, the Orphic, or ontological, and the Hermetic, or epistemological, frame of mind, a dispute that underlies a great deal of romantic writing. Is what we perceive and think a representation of what exists independently of the human mind, authenticated by its participation in that external reality, or is meaning essentially autonomous and reflexive and constituted in the act of articulation? Is there a – positive or absolute – truth, or are there only contending theoretical constructs and fictions?
16 Furthermore, Bernhardt-Kabisch maintains, this speculation about the nature, and objectivity (and verifiability) of knowledge logically extends into the domain of language as well: An analogous ambivalence between representative and constitutive function characterizes the post-Lockean age‟s theories of language: its reluctant acceptance, on the one hand, of language as a system of arbitrary, man-made signs which we use to manipulate a world of indeterminate phenomena, and its potential nostalgia, on the other, for the older idea of a divinely given, magical Ursprache, in which words bore a necessary, organic relationship to their referents . . . (457) This ambivalence, for Bernhardt-Kabisch, lies at the heart of the Arab dream in Book V, and informs the significance of the parallel but contrasting symbols of the shell and the stone: “The problem that Wordsworth confronts here is the discrepancy between man‟s existential, historical condition and a time-honored view of essential being that Wordsworth had never seriously questioned” (462). We are no longer dealing with just an obvious distinction between science and poetry, as suggested in Descartes‟ dream, where the two books “involve only a simple univocal synecdoche (one book standing for many books),” for the stone and shell “exhibit the genuinely metaphoric or metonymic character of actual dreams and other displacements and as such have the more potent imaginative appeal of archetypes” (479). It is interesting to note here that BernhardtKabisch, like Robert Philmus, treats the dream vision as a bona fide dream, not merely an allegorical artifact; however, he does not subject that dream to interpretation in Freudian terms, but rather seems to regard it, as Kelley does, as possessing prophetic properties.
17 Nevertheless, we cannot say Kelley‟s account is entirely adequate according to this analysis, either, for in Bernhardt-Kabisch‟s reading the stone and shell come to symbolize far more than just the realms of geometic and poetic truth, no matter how much the shell, in Kelley‟s version, embodies the best of both domains. On a basic level, the stone and shell represent interpretations of the qualities of language in terms of the discrepancies described above. There is serious concern expressed in the opening lines of Book V, to which we referred earlier, about the futility of written expression in the face of cataclysm: In progress through this Verse, my mind hath looked Upon the speaking face of earth and heaven As her prime Teacher, intercourse with man Established by the sovereign Intellect, Who through that bodily Image hath diffused A soul divine which we participate, A deathless spirit. Thou also, Man, hast wrought, For commerce of thy nature with itself, Things worthy of unconquerable life; And yet we feel, we cannot chuse but feel, That these must perish. Tremblings of the heart It gives, to think that the immortal being No more shall need such garments; and yet Man, As long as he shall be the Child of Earth, Might almost „weep to have‟ what he may lose, Nor be himself extinguished, but survive
18 Abject, depressed, forlorn, disconsolate. (11-27) The anxiety expressed here reflects the idea that language is merely reflexive, a construct that refers less to an objective reality than back on itself. Here Wordwsworth “redefines human discourse, not as an Orphic reflection of an expressive, sacramental or apocalyptic, Nature, but as Hermetically „wrought‟ and reflexive . . . and thus coterminus with time and history, despite its aspirations to „unconquerable life‟ ” (464). Having posed the problem in these terms, according to Bernhardt-Kabisch, Wordsworth is nevertheless compelled to find a resolution that is more satisfactory, that places humankind, as well as writing, on firm ontological ground: Cognizant of the essentially conventional, and historical nature of language, Wordsworth could not but apprehend that, so conceived, language must lose touch with reality and become a purely formal structure . . . The ideal opposite of such an Hermetic Nessus shirt would be an Orphic language . . . wherein thing, thought, and word would form a magical triunity and the poet‟s speech would be a direct expression of nature‟s own voice . . . it is this fundamental dialectic between Orpheus and Hermes, Realism and Nominalism, authenticity and autonomy, between language as referential emanation and language as differential and reflexive bricolage, that underlies Book V of The Prelude and specifically the Dream of the Arab . . . (458). The overwhelming anxiety for the poet, it seems, is not one over personal mortality, nor simply the endurance of his work over time, but the fate of culture, the durability of language, the meaningfulness of human aspiration itself. In Hermetic terms:
19 The forms of consciousness, unlike the forms of nature, cannot reproduce themselves, for they inhere neither in the mind of God nor in the properties of matter but only in language. Mind therefore can neither recreate its culture nor can it exist apart from it since it is itself only the sum of what it has thought and spoken. . . . What is at issue is an excruciating clash between a residual Platonic metaphysic that conceived Culture and Scripture as universal because grounded in a nature emanating typologically from the Being of God and an emergent historicism perceiving Culture and Scripture as unique and unrepeatable because grounded merely in language and in originating circumstance. (468-69) Although Bernhardt-Kabisch understands the discrepancy between Orphic and Hermetic language to be crucial to the Arab dream and the symbolic import of the stone and shell, it is not entirely clear in his argument where each form of language inheres in this symbolic system, except perhaps by inference. In any case, he goes quite a bit further than any other commentator, including Theresa Kelley, in describing the possible ramifications of meaning inherent in each of these images. Of course, he accepts the conventional notions that the stone embodies Euclidian geometry and that the shell represents poetry. But more than that, he claims, the stone, representing “the science of mathematics . . .is the paradigm of all learning . . . and thus provides access to the world of pure form” (475). Furthermore, the stone, “points to a timeless, intelligible, astral realm of pure Being or Form” (476); “in its weight and durability, its compactness, closure, and self-sufficiency, [it] is a natural symbol of foundation, and permanence, boundaries, law, and mathesis generally.” It embodies a displacement of the male principle, and is “mechanical,” “closed,” and “abstract” (480). The stone, unlike the shell,
20 “remains forever silent,” and conveys “but a cold comfort, in its silent, inexorable rigor and externality, to our affective being” (481). The shell, in contrast, “is quite literally „involved‟ and immersed in the temporal, sublunary world of Becoming or Event, of process and history, of geology rather than geometry, the „abyss of things‟ rather than the „Firmament of thought‟ . . . More importantly, it represents those very „welterings of passion,‟ the motions of the heart and the senses, that the Stone excludes . . .” (476). Far from silent, the shell “is the source and receptacle of sound and articulate utterance,” it “embodies natural process in voice expressive of feeling and imagination” (477); the shell “treats of actual existence rather than ideal essence” (478). It “symbolizes the female, maternal power of fertility and process, of ebb and flow, as the stone symbolizes the paternal realm of law and order” (482). I think what would be even more satisfying for me in observing BernahardtKabisch developing his fascinating and compelling argument about the significance of the stone and shell would be if he connected each of these more explicitly to the contrasting qualities of Orphic and Hermetic language, a matter to which I will return momentarily. Together, stone and shell can be seen exemplifying the contrasting qualities of “Head and Heart, Reason and Passion or Imagination, Law and Impulse, Form and Feeling, Mathesis and Poesis, geometry and geomancy, Logos and Mythos, celestial and elemental, Masonry and Music, Apollo and Dionysius . . . Philosophy and Poetry . . . law and process, reason and desire, stability and abundance” (478). What is most pertinent, and crucial, for our purposes here is not just the elaboration of manifold qualities Bernhardt-Kabisch ascribes to shell and stone as symbols in the dream, but the manner in
21 which they, in their combined effect in what Kelley would describe as a new, creative synthesis of flexible, adaptable, unfolding human knowledge and expression, might provide an answer to the central question in Book V, the one raised in the opening lines about the impermanence of written expression in the face of cataclysm. Kelley maintains that there need be no concern about futility or decay of the “earthly casket”of language because it is an expression of, and is informed by, the voices of the human spirit, which are “immaterial, multiple, and divine.” Berhahardt-Kabisch argues along the same lines, but in far more detailed, and one might even add (as if he were caught up, consciously or not, in the beauty of Wordsworth‟s language) more eloquent manner. In the first place, he asserts that together the shell and stone represent the best of human knowledge and expression – presumably in both the Orphic and Hermetic sense. Like Kelley, he seems to feel that this sum of achievement derives from and is inherently one with the human spirit, and implies that, as spirit, it is -- by definition, by its very nature -- immortal. In the shell itself, the domain of poetry, “the sounds of the external world are fused with the murmur of the bloodstream into prophetic articulations of man‟s desires and fears” (483). Moreover, written expression as represented by the shell possesses ontological status in its own right that is transformative, that adds to the sum and substance of the natural world and elevates it: “Nature . . . may be begotten of the „living Presence‟ [the divine essence that comprises all reality], but it is raised and transfigured only by the „turnings intricate of verse,‟ the mystery of the human spirit made word” (487). The desert across which the Arab on camelback hastily retreats is an image of empty, barren existence, desolate, and subject to annihilation: “In the dream of the Arab . . .
22 existential anxiety is raised to a global scale. The dreamer is lost in a limitless waste, unable to give directions and receiving none . . . with no home or quietude in sight, but instead confronted with the imminent destruction of all habitations – and hearts – whatever”(460). This dread of the possibility of imminent cataclysm, of which there was much discussion in Wordsworth‟s time, raises the question of the futility of human aspiration, and creates a sense of uneasiness that prevails throughout the text: “What is dramatized . . . in the Dream of the Arab is . . . the anxieties of an excessively apocalyptic mind, whose affirmations of „transcendant power‟ both springs from, and is threatened by, an overwhelming intuition of the desolation of natural and historical process. The nightmare of a drowning or else a denuded world is never quite exorcised in The Prelude, but it is progressively disarmed” (490). Bernhardt-Kabisch does not make it exactly clear just how this process of “disarming” occurs in the text, especially in terms of the roles played each by Orphic and Hermetic language, and how these operate within the context of the contrasting but complementary qualities of the shell and stone. What Bernhardt-Kabisch does assert, and quite beautifully in my opinion, is that together shell and stone, as combined images of human aspiration and achievement, “are the mind‟s twofold answer to the desert of mere existence: its vacancy upon which man imposes form and measure, and its silence, which . . . he breaks and fills with the power of patterned or articulate sound” (478). My understanding of what Bernhardt-Kabisch is saying is that the shell involves Hermetic language in that it is represents expression that is particular and subjective; it involves “feeling and imagination,” and “articulates the vicissitudes of temporal existence.” But insofar as the utterances of the voices in the shell are prophetic, and poetic, they employ
23 Orphic language as well, language that reflects a transformative realty, one that is idealized and of the spirit: “Poetry offers no . . . safeguard against calamity . . . But by its giving artistic form to the diluvial forces of chaos . . . and transforming prophecy into harmony, it co-opts calamity and death in order to transmute and redeem them. This [is] the transfiguring function of poetry . . .” (477). Returning once more to lines 595-605, which Bernhardt-Kabisch feels summarize the essence of the argument Wordsworth is making in Book V, and which fittingly come near its end, he asserts that in its labyrinthine splendor the passage embodies the very qualities it predicates of poetry and all but resists analysis. All of the book‟s leading motifs are here assembled in a grand resolution. The frail “shrine” has become a solid stone “mansion” in which Nature finds not only lodging but “abode” – her true habitation. At the same time, the “garment” has rarefied into a “transparent veil” that invests both sensible things and intelligible forms with preternatural radiance, “circumfusing” them as the divine “Presence” of Tinturn Abbey was said to be “interfused” both among the things of Nature “and in the mind of man.” Above all, the Shell appears here in all its qualities – its brightness, its voice beyond the power of the winds, and the “turnings intricate” of its convolutions. In its chambers, life‟s darkness and mutability are fully acknowledged. But breath is also made spirit, and the merely “viewless” becomes “visionary.” (487) The progressive disarming of nightmare and dread that unfolds in Book V, as throughout The Prelude, occurs, in Bernhardt-Kabisch‟s reading, because poetry and science and philosophy, and all human knowledge that is worthy of being called such, is celebrated
24 throughout the text as a manifestation of invincible human mind and spirit; there need be no fear that this spirit, and its linguistic expression, will fail to endure, or even, borrowing the words of William Faulkner‟s Nobel Address, prevail. This triumph of spirit occurs through the mediation, and medium, of language that is both Orphic and Hermetic simultaneously, in a manner that is at once inexplicable, and exhilarating. The resolution arrived at by the close of Book V to the question posed in its opening lines represents an imperious affirmation of a mind that is a “mighty flood” unto itself, that has “more power than all the elements” – including those of Euclid – a mind that needs no “spoils or trophies,” no “garments,” “shrines,” or “caskets” to survive, and revive, undiminished, and which can therefore afford to lose what it may rejoice to have. Out of such twofold intuition, of an Orphic “life of things” and an Hermetic light of words, Wordsworth shapes his precarious visionary course. (490) It is interesting to me that in light of all this discussion about the meaning and import of the Arab dream and the symbols of the shell and stone there is very little commentary on how the section dealing with the “dwarf child” relates to the Dream of the Arab (although there is ample detailed analysis of the relationship of the dream to the Boy of Winander and the Drowned Man in Bernhardt-Kabisch‟s account and elsewhere), apart from some brief remarks about how this dwarf child reflects Wordsworth‟s concern over the kind of „rational” education that was being pushed in his day, one where factual information was being emphasized at the expense of all else. Alan Richardson informs us that this issue of “rational” education was a central concern for Wordsworth in The Prelude, and in other places in his work: “Wordsworth devotes a stanza of the
25 „Immortality‟ ode to satirizing the new rational approach to education, with its emphasis on method and factual knowledge; a similar critique is developed in The Prelude, where rationalist educators are scorned for creating a „dwarf man‟ of the child who, in the words of the Ode, is born a „Mighty Prophet‟ ” (4). Bernhardt-Kabisch refers to this matter only twice in his article, both times as if just in passing. Book V, he tells us, “discriminates carefully between books that „lay their sure foundation in the heart‟ and books that promote factual knowledge at the expense of visionary „Power‟: the dichotomy is no longer between books and nature or theory and life but between books and books and more particularly between the right and wrong use of books in child-rearing” (459). Furthermore, Bernhardt-Kabisch maintains, Wordsworth in his contrast of the qualities of the shell and the stone “excludes, as nonessential, all merely factual, empirical knowledge, the sort of encyclopedic „book learning‟ that Wordsworth disparages in the middle section of The Prelude” (473-74) – Bernhardt-Kabisch is presumably referring here to lines 291 through 387 in Book V. It seems to me that this long passage on the dwarf child deserves more attention in the discussion of the significance of the Dream of the Arab than a mere passing reference to Wordsworth‟s critique of rationalist education. Though the passage certainly implies such a scathing criticism, I think it does much more. After all, it is the grown man who is the product of this educational system, the father who develops out of this dwarf child, who will rule the world, and attempt to chart the course of human destiny. For one thing, the propagators of this educational approach are themselves adults, who claim the status of Sages, who in their prescience would controul All accidents, and to the very road
26 Which they have fashioned would confine us down, Like engines . . . (380-83). Certainly, in light of the emerging industrialization of his times, it is not merely by chance that Wordsworth chooses the simile of engines here to describe the current “wisdom” not only in education, but in public policy generally. The adult who emerges from such an educational system will move on and assume a position in society in which he will posture as preeminent: The Ensigns of the Empire which he holds, The globe and scepter of his royalties, Are telescopes, and crucibles, and maps. Ships he can guide across the pathless sea, And tell you all their cunning; he can read The inside of the earth, and spell the stars . . . (328-33). This dwarf child, this “monster birth / Engendered by these too industrious times” (29394) soon turns into a “dwarf Man” (296), who “in learning and in books / . . . is a prodigy” (442). This is the government official, the businessman, the technocrat who will dictate public policy: . . . he sifts, he weighs; Takes nothing upon trust: his Teachers stare, The Country People pray for God‟s good grace, And tremble at his deep experiments. All things are put to question; he must live Knowing that he grows wiser every day,
27 Or else not live at all . . . (337-42) Where we were at first invited to tremble for the endurance of human knowledge and the products of human language in the opening lines of Book V, we are now impelled, midway through, to tremble at the danger inherent in such supposed wisdom, this arrogance and lust for power, that through command over factual knowledge, it is presumed, will provide mastery over all things: Vanity That is his soul, there lives he, and there moves; It is the soul of every thing he seeks; That gone, nothing is left which he can love. (354-57) For all his pretense, Wordsworth warns, the dwarf man‟s scheming is an empty thing: “this is hollow, „tis a life of lies / From the beginning, and in lies must end” (350-51). This dwarf man has missed the wonder, the magic of experience; he is separated from Nature, from the spirit which transfigures, which elevates human accomplishment and assurances it of permanence. His claim to mastery and power over Nature makes him omnipotent in his own eyes: “fear itself, / Natural or supernatural alike, / Unless it leap upon him in a dream, / Touches him not” (315-18). Yet one cannot help but feel that dreams will surely come, ones like the nightmare that has just been described with the Arab racing ahead of apocalypse; for all man‟s pretending, the threat, and reality, of cataclysm is forever looming on the horizon. Public policy based on such illusion as that propounded in rationalist education, and in man‟s presumption of mastery over the material world, is mere self-delusion, Wordsworth implies, and cannot produce happy outcomes in the long run, for a natural
28 balance has been overturned, and the crucial knowledge embodied in the shell and the stone has been overlooked. This dwarf man is alienated from his roots, from the world, from his own inner being: Meanwhile old Grandame Earth is grieved to find The playthings, which her love designed for him, Unthought of: in their woodland beds the flowers Weep, and the river sides are all forlorn. (346-49) Whatever knowledge, whatever power this dwarf man pretends to claim will prove illusory in the shifting sands of time, for it is a merely factual knowledge after all, knowledge which may provide some degree of control over the material aspect of nature, but that apprehends nothing of the “living Presence,” the spirit which is the essence of everything. This merely factual knowledge is empty, and as such it loses any claim it might have had to real “knowledge, rightly honored with that name, / Knowledge not purchased with the loss of power!” (448-49). Unfortunately, it occurs to me here, that just when we might have seemed to arrive at some understanding of the complex meaning of Book V, realizing the possibility of converging interpretive streams in the conceptualizations of Michael Jaye, Gordon Thomas, Theresa Kelley ( putting aside, for the moment at least, the self-reflexive and therefore more limiting readings offered by William Galperin and Robert Philmus), and Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch, one encounters a more recent argument offered by Henry Weinfield, employing the very phrase in its title I had thought to confidently close out my own comments with – “knowledge not purchased with the loss of power.” Weinfield‟s reading throws still other perceptions into the possible mix of interpretations of Book V
29 and the Dream of the Arab. Perhaps that is inevitable when we approach great poetry; perhaps we have to admit a final critical analysis can never be arrived at that all will deem complete and wholly satisfactory, simply because great poetry reflects the ineffable mystery of life. Unlike Jaye, Weinfield sees no incoherence or disjunction in the Arab dream sequence; rather, he feels that “this section of The Prelude is beautifully unified and extraordinarily resonant almost from beginning to end. . . . the melding of philosophical meditation with narrative thrust is virtually seamless” (336). The problem with the Arab dream, and with the symbolism of the shell and stone (which Weinfield agrees signify poetry and science respectively) is that there is no resolution to the problem of permanence posed in the opening meditation at all. Weinfield concurs with Kelley and Bernhardt-Kabisch that poetry is a manifestation of the human spirit, and is thus immortal, but he points out that poetry must be contained in material form, in books that are subject to destruction, like all other material objects, and that this presents a daunting problem. The value of books for Wordsworth, as of all intellectual and artistic productions, is precisely that they encapsulate an individual spirit that would otherwise be ephemeral . . . [but the] paradox is that to the extent that the individual creative spirit is an embodiment or reflection . . . of „immortal being‟ or the „deathless spirit,‟ it is itself immortal, but able to manifest that immortality only in productions which, because they are material, or at least enclosed in matter, are ultimately as mortal as the human bodies that created them. (337)
30 Moreover, because Wordsworth believes that only the “living Presence,” the universal spirit that pervades and informs all existence (which Wordsworth would call God) can truly be said to exist, all other beings simply manifest aspects of that one ultimate reality, and therefore individual existence itself ceases to be meaningful. In the Arab dream, then what gives the poet cause for despair is the thought that “immortal being” is finally all that exists, and consequently, that the individual and his works are unnecessary, however much they may manifest and participate in the “deathless spirit.” . . . The garments metaphor suggests that books and other productions of the human spirit, like the body itself, can be dispensed with . . . the awareness of an overarching spirit or totality that sweeps everything up into its midst is only the other side of the coin of awareness of the essential nothingness of the individual, in the face not only of death but, strange to say, of being itself. (338) Although Weinfield agrees that the shell and the stone represent poetry and science, he does not elaborate on their respective characteristics in anywhere near the detail that Bernhardt-Kabisch does, nor does he see the unifying tendency, the complementary quality of the two domains that is crucial for Kelley‟s thesis. Though he refers, as others do, to Smyser‟s argument about the dream of Descartes, Weinfield pictures shell and stone as existing in oppositional relationship, taking a position that Kelley adamantly argues against as too simplistic, as too easy a form of binomialism. The stone, Weinfield insists, signifies philosophy, reason, and mathematics, and is transcendental; it “offers the precision of the Aristotelian law of noncontradiction (it is or it is not) without the disturbances of the passions, of individual subjectivity, or even of space and time” (345). The shell, or poetry, in contrast, “is bound up with the sensuous life of the individual . . .
31 in a way that cannot be systematized or purified of error or opinion” (343).The two seem to preclude each other, to operate in opposition to each other, in Weinfield‟s reading, in a manner that is not resolvable, and in a way where neither seems to be preeminent. In this interpretation the two “books,” the shell and the stone, have different things to say to us; it is unclear whether one takes precedence, but, in any event, they tend to cancel each other out. The shell is this-worldly; it pertains to space and time; its voices have power “[t]o exhilarate the spirit, and to soothe, / Through every clime, the heart of human kind” (108-09); it inspires the individual to think of himself as being inspired by a god, and thus as being a god (“The other that was a god, yea many gods” ). The stone is other-worldly; it joins “soul to soul in purest bond / Of reason, undisturbed by space or time” (104-05); and far from elevating the individual to godhead, it negates the meaning of individual life as such . . . there is real choice here, and it is by no means certain that poetry . . . takes precedence. (346) In the end, for Weinfield, poetry, despite its utmost attempts to manifest the human spirit, to express the immortal, and thus become immortal, must fail; the same lines quoted by Bernhardt-Kabisch as embodying the epitome of human expression in all its “labyrinthine splendor” (595-605) are seen by Weinfiled as manifesting an accumulation of “oxymorons and sensory paradoxes” that serve merely to demonstrate a fundamental limitation to poetic expression: in these lines the “ „mystery of words,‟ which is indeed Wordsworth‟s burden, suggests that poetry lifts us up even as it weighs us down” (358).
32 Ultimately, of course, each of us as readers must arrive at our own conclusions about the Arab dream and the significance of the shell and the stone. For me, the interpretation that comes closest to the truth of the matter is the argument presented by BernhardtKabisch, though there is much of value also in the analyses offered by Theresa Kelley and Michael Jaye, in my view. It seems to me that the arguments put forward by William Galperin and Robert Philmus are too limiting; no one can know for sure, but my strong sense is that Wordsworth would object to the notion that in Book V he was merely writing about himself, or that his main concern was his personal mortality, or fear of paternal rejection. In a similar way also I feel that Henry Weinfield‟s thesis, although intriguing, limits Wordsworth‟s intention, and the scope of great poetry itself, far too much. His argument, in the end – at least for me – is too reductive; in that sense it reminds me of the differing approaches of Galperin and Philbus, each of whom in their own way, I think, attempt to place Wordsworth in a conceptual box that cannot possibly encompass his genius. Wordsworth was right about this much, for sure: as long as there are scholar and critics reading literature and writing about what they discover there, the discussion about the true meaning of the Arab dream and the shell and the stone will live on, and on.
Works Cited Bernhardt-Kabisch, Ernest. “The Stone and the Shell: Wordsworth, Cataclysm, and the Myth of Glaucus.” Studies in Romanticism, 23, No.4 (1984 Winter): p.455-490. Galperin, William H. “Authority and Deconstruction In Book V of The Prelude.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 26, No. 4 (1986 Autumn): p.613-637. Gill, Stephen, ed. William Wordsworth: The Major Works. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. Jaye, Michael C. “The Artifice of Disjunction: Book 5, The Prelude.” Papers on Language and Literature, 14 (1978): p. 32-50. Kelley, Theresa M. “Spirit and Geometric Form: The Stone and the Shell in Wordsworth‟s Arab Dream.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 22, No.4 (1982 Autumn): p. 563-582. Philmus, Robert M. “Wordsworth and the Interpretation of Dreams.” Papers on Language and Literature, 31, No. 2 (1995 Spring): p184-195. Richardson, Alan. Literature, Education, and Romanticism: Reading as Social practice, 1780-1832. Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1994. Smyser, Jane Worthington. “Wordsworth‟s Dream of Poetry and Science: The Prelude, V.”PMLA, 71, No.1 (1956 March): p.269-275. Thomas, Gordon K. “Fact and Fiction, Stone and Shell: Wordsworth‟s Dream of the Poetic Paradox.” Neophilogus, 69, No. 3 (1985 July):p.446-451.
34 Weinfield, Henry. “ „Knowledge Not Purchased by the Loss of Power‟: Wordsworth‟s Meditation on Books and Death in Book 5 of The Prelude.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 43, No. 3 (2002 Fall): p.334-363.
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