“Beachy Head:” A Lack of Understanding is Bliss

As I was reading Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head,” I came across a passage that puts a spin on the idea that ignorance is bliss:

“Yet they are happy, who have never ask’d

What good or evil means. The boy

That on the river’s margin gaily plays,

Has heard that Death is there—He knows not Death,

And therefore fears it not . . .

. . . he climbs the boll

Of some tall pine; and of his prowess proud,

Is for a moment happy” (ll. 259-268)

At first I thought that the speaker was saying that ignorance was bliss, but after reading it over and over, I realized that the speaker was making the case that a lack of understanding was bliss. There is a distinct difference as ignorance refers to not having the knowledge while understanding is about comprehension of information.

With that difference in mind, the idea of the lack of understanding is bliss becomes clear in especially this section of the passage: “Has heard that Death is there—He knows not Death/And therefore fears it not” (ll. 262-263). This quote is referring to the boy and explains that despite hearing about Death, the boy is not scared and thus is able to happily go about playing. There is the acknowledgement that the boy does not know Death, but I think that is talking about having any experience with Death. For instance, maybe the boy has not gone to a funeral or had a relative that he knows die. If no one has died in his proximity, then that would explain how the boy would have “heard” about Death without actually “knowing” Death. This state of the boy’s knowledge leaves him in a place of semi-knowing of the Death concept without comprehending what the Death concept is and means for him.

Looking back at the difference between ignorance and understanding, that means that an interpretation of the passage can be that it is not ignorance that is bliss, but instead a lack of understanding is. The boy is happy because while he has heard of Death, he does not actually comprehend what Death is. This means that while he has heard of Death, “he knows not Death” (ll. 262).

(Word count: 365)

“Sonnet [I am]” by John Clare: Freedom and Agency, Not Suicide

In class, we briefly discussed how John Clare’s “I Am” poem can be read as the speaker wishing that he were dead, but that it did not truly seem like it due to a reference to being between the sky and the grass. Because “Sonnet [I am]” has a lot of the same tone and similarity in name (also could have been a previous draft of “I Am”), I went back to “Sonnet [I am]” and think I have a better grasp on the suicide question.

I admit that even after reading the poem a few times, I still felt like the speaker was suicidal in “Sonnet [I am]” like in “I Am.” After reading it some more and looking at the lines very carefully, I think that it is not so much suicidal idealization as it is the yearning for freedom. For instance, the speaker says:

“A spirit that could travel o’ver the space

Of earth and heaven,—like a thought sublime,

Tracing creation, like my maker, free,—

A soul unshackled—like eternity” (ll. 9-12)

Now, yes, “spirit” could be a reference to the speaker being dead and having the ability to go wherever (because, you know, he’s dead and all; no boundaries or limitations), but I think the important parallel to remember is that the speaker says “like my maker.” Assuming that the speaker is referencing God, the implication can be that the speaker was to be free like God. God has the freedom and agency to do whatever He wants; no one can make him do anything or keep him anywhere. With this idea of freedom and agency in mind, the speaker’s true desire is seen: instead of being stuck in “Earth’s prison,” he wants to be have the ability to go and do what he wants (ll. 3). He does not necessarily want to commit suicide. It was just the word usage of “spirit” and “soul” with the mention of God that a person could draw the conclusion that the speaker means that death would be the solution.

(Word count: 342)

Wordsworth: The “Whiteness” in the Arab

I know that I talked a lot of the problematic handling of the Arab in the Prelude, but when asked about how to take/interpret the fact that the Arab was “not the Knight/But was an Arab of the desert, too/Of these was neither, and was both at once,” I didn’t really have an answer (ll.123-125). My first thought was that maybe Wordsworth was trying to understand a person that exists outside of British society and someone he would have never had any personal interaction with. I did not necessarily see Wordsworth’s description as positive or negative, but more problematic with an acknowledge that it was a step in the right direction (and was not era-typical racist depiction of a non-white, non-British person). However, my Studies in American Literature class had a discussion about the protagonist of Their Eyes Were Watching God that has made Wordsworth’s Arab even more disturbing to me.

In the class, we were discussing how Janie from Their Eyes Were Watching God was not completely black (and may not be as dark as the other African American characters) and perhaps the African American, male characters loved Janie for her “whiteness” (at least in some capacity; not necessarily entirely for her “whiteness”). We discussed that perhaps her hair was not that typical of African Americans since all of Janie’s love interests seemed so in love with her hair. The reason that I bring this up is because thinking of “whiteness” in a non-white character made me look back at the Arab and how he is described.

When I reread the passage dealing with the Arab, I found a passage that is reminiscent of “whiteness” in a non-white character:

“. . . Lance in rest,

He rode, I keeping pace with him; and now

He, to my fancy, had become the knight

Whose tale Cervantes tells; yet not the Knight

But was an Arab of the desert, too;

Of these was neither, and was both at once” (ll. 120-125)

My first thought was that Wordsworth was attempting to understand the Arab by using his own culture’s equivalent because of his lack of actual interaction with actual Arabs and terminology. I did not think it was necessarily a good thing, but I did not think was necessarily an awful thing either. With the idea of “whiteness” in a character and Janie in mind, however, my opinion and interpretation has shifted a bit. I still give Wordsworth brownie points for not making the Arab a violent person (as I was expecting when I started reading the Arab’s section), but what Wordsworth has done is given the Arab a “whiteness” for a British audience to like.

For instance, we as a class (in Senior Seminar) discussed how the lance could be a biblical reference. During Wordsworth’s time, Christianity was very much a “white” person religion with Jesus depicted as a “white” person. I will be completely honest when I say that I am not completely sure what religion an Arab  would have practiced during that time period, but I am willing to bet that the British audience would assume it was either Islam or some kind of “savage” religion. On top of the lance, the fact that Wordsworth thinks of the Arab as knight-like also reads as “whiteness” because the knights that the British audience (and possibly Wordsworth himself) would think of are white and British, not really Arab or non-white. So, what Wordsworth has done between the lance and connecting the Arab to knights is injected items of the white, British culture into a non-white character, giving the Arab some “whiteness” to go with his “Arab-ness.”

(FYI: Maybe I want to do this for my final paper instead?)

(Word count: 615)

 

“The Two Part Prelude” and St. Leon: Nature as a Guiding Force

As we were talking in class today, Dr. Gates said something that got me thinking: in “The Two Part Prelude,” nature is a constant guardian for the speaker in the poem; that nature (the parent) would outlive the mortal parents. I find the concept fascinating, especially when it is applied to Reginald in St. Leon.

Reginald had never known his father because the man had died before Reginald was born. He had his mother until he was about seventeen or eighteen, losing her to death. He then had his maternal uncle for a couple of years until the uncle died. Reginald also had a kind of relationship with the king (if I am remembering correctly), but the king was kept prisoner and Reginald is never able to rekindle that relationship. Without a guiding force, Reginald succumbs to his vice of gambling and righted only when taken under the wing of his wife’s father. He, of course, loses this guardian as well, and Marguerite stepped up in fulfill that role by marriage. After this, Reginald is at peace until he is once left without a guardian and wrecks his life. His wife takes the reins, Reginald finally rights himself, and they manage to build a peaceful life once again. That is, until the stranger appears who, like Marguerite’s father, assumes a parental authority over Reginald.

Like how Marguerite’s father saw Reginald’s gambling as a problem, the stranger is upset with how Reginald is living his life under the “thumb” of his wife. The stranger continues in the man’s footsteps by attempting to “fix” Reginald’s relationship with his wife (along with getting Reginald to take care and listen to him, but that is irrelevant to my point). Much like Reginald’s other guardians, the stranger is successful and dies as well.

Once I looked at the line of succession for Reginald’s guardians and thought nature as a guardian, I realized that Reginald once found comfort in nature when he had gotten himself and his family exiled from France. He was distant from his family and walked for long stretches of time in nature. Nature actually functions as the other guardians do and gets Reginald to clean up his act. If I remember correctly, Reginald pulls himself together in that section because of a natural disaster and realizes the error of his ways. I don’t recall Reginald taking comfort and being disciplined by nature again further in the novel, but I think nature shows up in another way: he follows in the footsteps of nature.

Much like how he did what his mother wanted him to, attempted to follow his father’s footsteps as a soldier, straightened himself as Marguerite’s father wanted, and did as the stranger wanted, Reginald became a constant much like nature and now watches humanity like nature does. He is separated from humanity, no longer mortal and instead is a circular immortal like nature (starting young, growing old, and starting young again like the seasons). Though Reginald did sort of follow the stranger’s example, Reginald attempts to help and better humanity which I see akin to how nature (despite how we don’t like ice, tornadoes, and such) grows and tries to provide what mortals need to survive. Reginald just does not do it as well.

(Just an FYI, I think I might want to run with this for my final paper so any comments are welcome.)

(Word count: 567)

“Michael” and St. Leon: Isolated Fathers

After finishing St. Leon, I still could not understand why Reginald was attached to his son Charles more than his daughters. I wanted to chalk it up to the fact that Charles is basically his heir and a way to pass on the family name, but that explanation fell flat. Charles had taken up his mother’s name so I do not think that his children would have the name St. Leon. I then shelved that theory and reread the ending of St. Leon and came upon this quote: “[Charles] was my constant attendant, my careful nurse, and my affectionate friend” (Godwin 449). Reginald is talking about how Charles had been so close to him and so dear, but I could not see the relationship as Reginald did. I saw his wife Marguerite in that role more than Charles. However, then I read Wordsworth’s poem “Michael” and reevaluated my understanding of Charles and Reginald’s father-son relationship.

In “Michael,” a family of three live in almost total isolation, much like Reginald and his family. Michael and his son Luke work tirelessly every day and spend so much time together that Michael says: “—But we were playmates, Luke; among these hills/As well thou know’st, in us the old and young/Have play’d together . . .” (Wordsworth ll. 363-365). Michael says this after describing raising and loving his son Luke as a father and then proceeds to describe their relationship akin to friendship. After reading about Michael and Luke’s relationship in which friendship and family bleed into each other, something clicked in my brain about Reginald and Charles: they were a lot like Michael and Luke. Though Reginald has a considerably bigger family than Michael, he lacks male companionship like Michael. Reginald does not seek out friend for much of the book and what male friends he does gain end up dying. That leaves Reginald not exactly lonely, but instead isolated from male companionship. He has his family, but he has no father, uncles, male cousins, or any friends. He has only his son Charles to have any sort of male conversation and companionship that he seeks for often in the novel, illuminating a touch of humanity in Reginald that I often thought was missing.

(Word count: 368)

Wordsworth: What a Poet Does with Nature

In his Preface, William Wordsworth talks about what a poem should be like and what a poet should do with his poetry. What is particularly relative to Wordsworth’s poem “Ode [Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood]” is what he says a poet should do:

“. . . he will apply the principle on which I have so much insisted, namely, that of selection; on this he will depend on removing what would otherwise be painful or disgusting in the passion; he will feel that there is no necessity to trick out or elevate nature: and, the more industriously he applies this principle, the deeper will be his faith that no words which his fancy or imagination can suggest will be to be compared with those which are the emanations of reality and truth” (339).

What I take him to mean is that the poet will write nature as it really is and not try to make nature as what is not is: superior and/or better than it really is. The poet should be writing a kind of truth. I think that Wordsworth does accomplish his own rule in “Ode [Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood].”

In this poem Wordsworth describes nature and parts of it quite a bit, but he does not go overboard or try to oversell nature. For instance, when he does refer to nature having been “apparelled in celestial light,” the description is prefaced with the line “to me did seem” which reads to me as a way to clarify that nature was perhaps so unnaturally beautiful in only his perspective; that is, his perspective clouded the true appearance of nature and therefore his vision was his truth, not applicable to everyone (ll. 3-4). In Wordsworth’s own way, he is simply describing how nature appeared to him when he was young and is not trying to say that nature was actually supernaturally beautiful. That is his truth.

This applies to every time he describes a part of nature. When he says “the sunshine is a glorious birth,” I cannot disagree with him because a sunrise is often referred to a kind of birth and/or beginning (ll. 16). I can see the truth that he is working with and writing in his poem. Wordsworth did not go on and on about that specific sunshine, but instead he gave us a single, simple line to describe it. This simplicity can be seen throughout the poem: “The Rainbow comes and goes/And lovely is the Rose” (ll. 10-11). These are truthful yet simple statements just like how Wordsworth said a poet should write about nature.

St. Leon: Bethlem Gabor, a What-If for Reginald

After finally finishing St. Leon, I find myself interested in Bethlem Gabor in how he is a foil to Reginald. Though Bethlem Gabor is slightly older than Reginald’s mental age, they have experienced a similar event: losing their wives and children.The parallel between the deaths of their wives is fascinating because of who they assign blame to. Reginald, as he mentions several times over, feels responsible for Marguerite’s death and often refers to the feeling that he is her murderer. Reginald also attributes to his closeness to her as a reason for her death. In short, Reginald blames himself. Bethlem Gabor is the opposite of Reginald in this regard. The murder of his wife happens when he is away and unable to defend her. While Reginald would have instantly had great man-pain and agonized about his absence, Bethlem Gabor turns his hatred and the noose of blame to humanity: “‘My revenge is not causeless; this was not the act of individuals. All men, in the place of these murderers, would have done as they did. They are in a league together'” (Godwin 398). Unlike Reginald, Bethlem Gabor blames humanity for the death of his wife and children and thus wants revenge.

This difference is not surprising as Bethlem Gabor’s family was murdered while Reginald lost his family due to his own actions. Marguerite falls ill after Reginald’s lies have chased Charles, their only son, off. Charles leaves because he cannot trust his father anymore and does not want to become like his father. Reginald loses his daughters because he purposefully sets them up in his old home and abandons them. Reginald was the author of their loss while Bethlem Gabor had his family ripped away from him, in turn causing Reginald to strive to find the good in humanity and for Bethlem Gabor to find none.

I find it fascinating that the loss of their families caused such different opinions about humanity in Reginald and Bethlem Gabor. In a way, Reginald is attempting to rise above his sorrow and detachment to save people that he can with his wealth. He is never perfect, but he does try to help others. In contrast, I see Bethlem Gabor as descending into madness and villainy. He wants to punish humanity as a whole for his family’s murder. Reginald and Bethlem Gabor want opposite goals for humanity. Personally, because of these parallels, I see Bethlem Gabor as what Reginald could have become: a man severely changed by grief and loss, birthing a blood-lust for the punishment of humanity.

(Word count: 425)

St. Leon: The Stranger’s Reason for Choosing Reginald

As we keep discussing Reginald’s character in St. Leon, I find myself circling back to the stranger and his motivation for telling Reginald the secret of immortality and boundless wealth. Payton has said more than once that perhaps the stranger needed to tell Reginald in order to die, that it is like a curse that has to be passed on before the cursed person can finally die. I do not agree with Payton’s idea, but it did prompt me to reread the stranger’s introduction in the story.

What struck me was what the stranger said to Reginald: “The only thing I have left to do in the world is to die; and what I seek at present, is a friend who will take care that I shall be suffered to die in peace. Shall I trust you? Will you be that friend to me?” (Godwin 156). His words leave little room for interpretation: he wants to die and wants to someone to care for him for just a little while. Of course, like Allee mentioned in class today, the stranger seems to subscribe to the sentiment of gentilesse which refers to the idea that the nobility are “naturally” good people and gentlemen: “You are, I understand, a Frenchman, and your name the count de St. Leon?” (Godwin 156). It is after the stranger is assured that Reginald is a nobleman that the stranger decides Reginald could be a possible friend and confidant. To a modern audience, the stranger’s subscription to the idea of gentilesse can (and mostly will) be met with disgust and eye-rolling, but I think with the exposure of stranger’s bias and archaic beliefs, the audience can infer some facts about the stranger that are not otherwise told to us.

For instance, notice how the stranger is not affected by the fact that Reginald is a Frenchman. In fact, he thinks that is another important trait of Reginald’s, a kind of proof that Reginald is “worthy” or “acceptable” as a friend/confidant. If the stranger was only interested in the fact that Reginald was a nobleman, then why would it matter what country Reginald is from? And for it to matter so much that the stranger mentions that fact first instead of Reginald’s nobility? At first, I did not think it matter, but after revisiting the scene, I picked up an interesting bit of truth that the stranger gives us about his origin: “My name is not Zampieri; I am no Venetian” (Godwin 156). Now, this information by itself is not much, but when examined next to what the stranger finds important about Reginald’s identity, that being his country of origin and social status, I think there is a subtle hint about the stranger’s origin: that he is a Frenchman and most likely of nobility. If the scene is revisited with that information, everything falls into place.

The stranger found a person that he is willing to tell his secret to and to trust to care for him. After reading what unfortunate circumstances that Reginald finds himself in (and makes for himself) and the paranoia that he starts to develop, the stranger’s lack of trust is more understandable. However, unlike Reginald who finds help with society’s outcasts, the stranger places his trust in the notion of gentilesse and thus seeks someone of similar nature. As creepy and disgusting as it sounds, I think the stranger came to trust only “his own kind” as the years went on, and thus would mostly trust someone that he considered as one of “his own kind.” This would explain why, despite our own concerns and thoughts of Reginald being a good candidate, the stranger chooses Reginald as his friend/confidant; because like Reginald, the stranger is/was a noble Frenchman.

On top of all that, Reginald never introduces himself to the stranger. Instead, the stranger already knows who Reginald, almost as if he had been searching for Reginald on purpose and/or purposefully chose Reginald’s house: “As soon as we were seated, the stranger began: ‘You are, I understand, a Frenchman, and your name the count de St. Leon?’ [Reginald] bowed assent” (Godwin 156). The stranger, with this confirmation, then immediately asks Reginald to be his friend/confidant. There is no building of their relationship nor significant passage of time. The stranger showed up in the evening, went to bed, and he talks to Reginald about being his friend almost first thing in the morning. So, for all intents and purposes, Reginald suppose to be a complete stranger to the stranger, but that is shown to be false due to the stranger’s knowledge of him. Thus, I argue that the stranger intentionally “stumbled” upon Reginald’s house and chose Reginald due to his similar status as a French nobleman.

(Word count: 789)

St. Leon: The Isolating Effect of Knowledge, a Parallel to Paradise Lost

As I have been reading St. LeonParadise Lost keeps coming back to my mind. Reginald refers to Paradise Lost in the novel so it is not surprising, but an interesting idea dawned on me when I read this quote in St. Leon:

“I might now be said to have reached the end of my adventure: I had closed one grand experiment upon the donation of the stranger. What had it produced to me? Not one atom of the benefits I anticipated; not a particle of those advantages which a little while ago had made the intoxications of my waking dreams. Its fruits had been distasteful and loathsome. Whether I looked to my person, my family, or my fame, I had felt in all the miserable effects of this treacherous and delusive gift” (243)

Reginald says this after he has been imprisoned for refusing to tell the magistrate about the stranger, where and why the stranger died, and Reginald’s part in the event. He also refused to clear up how and why he suddenly had an impressive amount of wealth after the death of the stranger. So while Reginald expresses unhappiness with his decision to do as what the stranger told him that Reginald could do (that is, become “immortal” and have an endless supply of money), he is sitting in a cell that he is in due to his refusal to grant the magistrate knowledge. Reginald keeps his silence because that he is what he promised the stranger that he would do, not necessarily to be difficult or to hoard his knowledge. However, this incident echoes previous points in the novel in which Reginald’s silence on the matter of the stranger and the money has negative affects on Reginald’s life and relationships.

A devastating example is when his son Charles demands to know the truth and for Reginald to prove that he is not a bad person and that he did not commit some horrible act to get wealth. Reginald refuses and pleads his innocence, but Charles uses undeniable logic against his father:

“You have given utterance to different fictions on the subject, fictions you now confess to be such; how am I to be convinced that what you say at this moment is not dictated more by a regard for my tranquillity, than by the simplicity of conscious truth? . . . Your character is blasted; your honour is destroyed” (213)

To sum up, Charles is saying that because his father (Reginald) has lied so much, Charles can never believe him. This drives Charles to leave his father, as to not be dragged down into disgrace, and to cut ties even with his sisters and his mother. Even when faced with Charles’ severance, Reginald keeps his mouth shut about the truth and does not reveal even a hint of the truth and knowledge that he gained from the stranger.

While the events with the magistrate and Charles do not parallel with Paradise Lost, the way that gaining and keeping the knowledge affects Reginald’s life does. Thinking back to how eating the Forbidden Fruit affects Eve is where I draw the parallel. For a moment, Eve does consider how she is now (or will be) superior to Adam, but it does not take long for Eve to realize that her action could isolate herself from Adam, emotionally or physically. The realization that now Eve could lose Adam and be alone is what drives her to give Adam the fruit. While Reginald has not currently given anyone his “fruit of knowledge,” he is experiencing what Eve did for a short instance: isolation, loneliness, and disconnection. There are multiple times in which Reginald expresses being cut off from humanity and from his family, like there is a distance between him and them that was not there before. The emotional response to that sentiment varies, but when he is in prison, Reginald hates that he did what the stranger had done which in turn is a hatred for his knowledge. He is where he is not only because he refuses to “give” his fruit of knowledge, but because his “eating” of the stranger’s “fruit” has led him there. If he had not listened, if he had refused to keep a secret, Reginald would not be in prison. His family would still be at peace, and his son would be at home. However, just like Adam and Eve, Reginald “ate” the fruit and thus was exiled from his Garden of Eden.

(Word count: 745)