Friday, September 27, 2013

The Wild Nights of Women Writers

Sappho, Dickinson and Centuries Old Desire

Art of all forms has been struggling to define love since the first man fell for the first woman. Poets, in particular, use love as an encompassing theme, a foundation on which to focus their art. And yet a poet cannot be given love—if it were easy to love and be loved in return, there would be no conflict, no agony to translate to paper and ink. Emily Dickinson and the Ancient Greek Poet, Sappho, demonstrate this torment of love in quite a few of their most famous poems. Often for them, love is a kind of negative force that pains them beyond description, and yet fuels their fire for life simultaneously.  In this paper I am going to compare two poems: Dickinson’s “269” and Sappho’s “20”. These poems, written by women socially compelled to restrain from acting on their lusts, speak very differently about love; yet both women feel an unrequited passion that leaves the soul craving more than consummation. By their use of conceit, object correlative, and punctuation, both Sappho and Dickinson scramble to define and, thereby, dominate their overwhelming desire.
To go chronologically, we will start with Sappho. Poem “20” is written from the perspective of the poet quietly observing her beloved and the ‘other woman’ with whom he is flirting. Much of this poem can be called an object correlative, because Sappho never puts into words the emotion she is feeling, and yet when she speaks of the “laughter that stings (her) breasts” and the “chill sweat (that) slides down (her) body”, the reader is able to inference the wave of jealousy that comes over her. The way she describes her sensations paints us a picture that begins externally with the senses and eventually forms the poet’s internal thoughts and feelings:
If I dare the shock of a glance
I cannot speak,
My tongue sticks to my dry mouth,
Thin fire spreads beneath my skin,
My eyes cannot see and my aching ears
Roar in their labyrinths. (7-12)
She is jealous as well as desirous, irritated, amorous, nervous and enraged. Without explicitly writing any of these words, Sappho makes us feel all of those things in the split second with her, a beautiful example of the power of correlatives. Her sensations are a reaction to an observation that affects an emotion so deeply rooted in her Self, she cannot name it. By simply recording her sensations, she leads the reader on an even more involved journey while she is experiencing it herself.
               Sappho achieves these vivid images by her use of punctuation as well. No comma or period is haphazardly placed: all mean a change of thought, a dramatic pause, or a moment for reflection. See how she opens “20” with a stuttering, unsure air of tentative anxiety:
He seems to be a god, that man
Facing you, who leans to be close,
Smiles, and, alert and glad, listens
To your mellow voice (1-4)
She involves you in every moment, every touch, by unraveling the scene the very instant it happens. It takes longer to read these lines because they mimic the timeline of life. The reader is narrating what is happening before the poet’s eyes—the commas make it seem like that moment lasts forever. Dickinson, similarly, uses punctuation in a unique and effective way, though instead of commas, she uses undefinable dashes to sketch the speed of her thoughts in lines such as:
Rowing in Eden -
Ah - the Sea!
Might I but moor - tonight -
In thee! (9-12)
These dashes give the reader a sense of urgency in one interpretation, a feeling of the mind wandering in another, and some dashes even seem to be a symbol of interruption, where the poet is unable to articulate her true feelings.
               Dickinson embodies her passion in a poem addressed to her lover; “269” consists of only three stanzas made up of very short lines—some only two words apiece. Dickinson’s ability to capture the very essence of love in so few words is done through many techniques, conceit being one of the main ones:
Futile - the winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart! (5-8)
Here Dickinson uses an elongated metaphor to bring the reader on the ‘voyage’ of her emotion, which feels, to her, like a ship in port. She had already established the separation between her and her lover, and the helplessness she feels at this situation is a natural inference made in the first stanza. The parallel drawn between herself and a ship is meant to stir the image of a vessel that rides the waves (often representative of romance, love, and passion) and allows them to steer her. Ideally, the two beings (ship and sea) work harmoniously together, woven in a kind of symbiotic relationship that is liberating and unrestrained. However, when the ship is forced to dock, when it is tied or anchored down, neither the winds nor the waves are of any sway to it. Dickinson brings this image of an imprisoned ship gracefully into our minds without much description or explanation.
The startlingly sexual connotations of “269” are cleverly enveloped in this metaphor of a tumultuous sea stroking the sides of a stalwart ship. In only 43 words, Dickinson says so many things at once! She speaks directly to her lover leaving nothing undisclosed, so the reader feels almost like an intruder:
Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury! (1-4)
In this poem, Dickinson reveals her passionate, vulnerable side: a trait that she shares, incidentally, with Sappho. Both women have a quality to their poetry that is innately feminine and intriguingly honest.  Both are poets of desire, whether they are desirous of man, woman, child, sanity, freedom, or perfect poetry, their writing has great resonance with the readers who admire it because of the longing injected into every word.

               These poets of desire not only define love as something intangible and undefinable, they use the common feeling to unite all people and reduce them to their simpler forms: beings of lust and loss, ever seeking to find balance between the two. The only thing that could possibly unite these two unlikely poets is that transcendental emotion that strings centuries together: love. These two poems beautifully embody the synergy of technique and emotion, a formula for success that only great poets come to master. 
(By Kaylie Hayter)

Jane Eyre

Character Shaped through Negative Space in Bronte’s Jane Eyre

               Although Jane Eyre was written in the style of an autobiography, it is a work of fiction that psychologically explores the personality and life of an English governess in the nineteenth century. Bronte makes several statements about social class, family and feminism in Jane Eyre, using the development of the main character and her encounters with those around her to illustrate the shaping of a strong, independent woman. Through each encounter included in the novel Jane learns lessons and gains principles that ultimately define her by the end, and the reader meets others in the world of Jane Eyre and naturally compares them with what they know of Jane. The two most important foil characters in this novel are that of Mrs. Reed, Jane’s aunt and guardian, and Blanche Ingram, Jane’s stark opposite and competition for the love of Mr. Rochester. Bronte writes these two characters into the story in order to clearly define what Jane is not, therefore using the concept of “negative space” to define and refine Jane Eyre as not only a character, but a person the reader connects with and supports. 
               Sarah Reed is introduced to the reader on the first page of the novel. She is set in the drawing-room, reclining “on a sofa by the fireside, with her darlings about her”, her darlings being her three children, Eliza, John and Georgiana. Immediately, Jane is an outsider, looking in on this family of four in their great Victorian house. She is an ugly orphan who is unwanted and unloved by her relations. Mrs. Reed distances Jane from her three angels as a necessity until Jane can learn “to acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and spritely manner,” and so forth. We have not yet made it to the third paragraph and we already dislike this haughty woman and her spoiled children.
               In this way, and through similar themes throughout the text, Bronte makes it very clear that the reader is to find in Mrs. Reed an antagonist most vile. We watch through Jane’s innocent eyes as Mrs. Reed abuses and frightens her, shames her for her “otherness,” and locks her in a terrifying room for a crime that could be called, at worst, self-defense. Mrs. Reed seems wholly bad, written only to torment Jane and build in her a sense of rebellion, and Jane wholly good: an innocent child wronged by circumstance as well as relation. This view changes somewhat during the interview with Mr. Brocklhurst where we see Jane stand up for herself for the first time. Fuming and embarrassed, Jane confronts Mrs. Reed and accuses her of “miserable cruelty” toward a child who only wished for her love.
               This incident is monumental in the development of Jane Eyre, because she speaks for and of herself for the first time. She is learning to define her view of her life, her personality, and the mistreatment that she has been forced to suffer in her short ten years of life. The encounter is also crucial in the development of Mrs. Reed. She is so startled at Jane’s outburst that she quits the room, hurriedly, looking “as if she would cry.” Mrs. Reed is deeply affected by this encounter, and when she reappears later in the novel, she brings it up as a moment that has been haunting her every day since. This is an example of two very different persons reacting to the same situation in starkly opposite ways. Both have a tendency toward the dramatic, and in both women we see a consciousness that holds on to guilt and fervently tries to avoid wrong doing. However, it is the actions of Mrs. Reed that form the negative space that obviously contrasts the rapidly developing individual, Jane Eyre. Mrs. Reed is written so clearly as an antagonist, all her traits and all her actions only contribute to the villainy she has established in the reader’s mind. This is her important role, and her static character brings out the change that takes place in Jane.
               When Jane hears that Mrs. Reed is laying on her deathbed and asking repeatedly for her, she wastes no time and runs to Gateshead in full confidence that she belongs there. Unlike her experiences as a child, when she belonged anywhere but Gateshead, newly mature Jane sees that the greater need within her hated childhood home trumps her dread of crossing the threshold. Through her forgiveness of and genuine care for Mrs. Reed, Jane becomes a protagonist with new, different layers to her character. The reader tends to wish Mrs. Reed would “get what she deserves,” but Jane chooses the higher ground and goes to her aunt in full compassion. In this way, Jane is now set above her guardian, and when Mrs. Reed laments that “she wished (Jane) had died!” the contrast between Jane Eyre and Sarah Reed is stronger and more potent than ever. Reed, begrudgingly wishing for the death of a child in her care, lays on her deathbed while Jane, benevolently leaning over the dying woman, verbally and mentally forgives her of the trespasses of the past. This act not only redeems Jane of any rash action or word toward her aunt in the reader’s eyes, it develops an element of her character that had not yet been explored by the novel by juxtaposing her with the greatest negativity yet.
               When Blanche Ingram comes on the scene by way of an extended party at Thornfield, she is immediately described by Mrs. Fairfax from head to foot as “beautiful”, “fair”, and “much admired.” At this point Jane is very much in love with Mr. Rochester but is still coming to grips with her feelings. Blanche floats in as Rochester’s particular favorite, and as the rumors of their engagement fly, Jane is invited to their evening social hour every night in order to watch their flirtation from the best vantage point. This is a very painful experience for Jane that further outlines her “otherness,” as she hides in a dark corner watching Miss Ingram prance and peacock through Thornfield.
               Blanche Ingram is both talented and accomplished and described by Mrs. Fairfax as “certainly a queen.” She is written to be the Victorian ideal, the “perfect woman” in the eyes of high society in the time Bronte was writing. Everyone has an obsession with her—even Jane thinks about her frequently and sketches her portrait in distaste. Although Blanche is the center of the attention at Thornfield, to the reader she seems a simpering, whining child who is both vapid and silly. Her name itself speaks of her personality: “Blanche” seems to us pure and cold as well as blank and empty. We see no depth to her, no intellect to speak of and definitely nothing to interest Rochester in the long term. An antagonistic view is immediately encouraged, and no woman could seem more opposite to Jane Eyre than Miss Ingram, an obvious fact made even more potent by the concept of negative space and how it shapes Jane Eyre at this crucial time of her life.  
               Bronte makes an interesting, back-handed statement with the character of Miss Ingram. Setting Jane Eyre against a Victorian stereotype and leading the characters and the reader to prefer Jane upheaves an entire set of beliefs for Victorian England. The two characters in contrast have entirely different motives for marrying Rochester, and although Miss Ingram’s is traditionally “right” and Jane’s traditionally “wrong”, Blanche is not the hero and does not win the reader’s support. As Jane says herself, “I would always rather be happy than dignified.” Plain, feisty, somber Jane who has no social qualities and no money to speak of should pale in comparison to the wealthy, fair Blanche, and if Jane knew what was good for her, she would try to be more like the idealistic Miss Ingram. And yet, Bronte sets up the story so not only Rochester, but the reader also prefers Jane to Miss Ingram a hundred to one, and Jane herself looks upon Blanche with disdain and pity: she has no desire to emulate her traits or actions in any way. This is Bronte’s biggest statement, and Jane’s most defining characteristic: that of love (both self-love and love for others) conquering social class as well as physical appearance.
The many differences between Jane Eyre and the ‘Victorian ideal’ are the very reasons that she must fight for herself, find her own place in the world, and move past the trials of her past and onto a brighter future. These elements of Jane are what bring us as the reader back to the book again and again. Bronte clearly breaks social constraints by pointing out the strength in the different, the frowned upon, the outcast and the unique, and turning the unusual into the hero. This resonating theme could not be achieved fully without the character of Blanche Ingram to hold up against that of Jane Eyre. Without Blanche’s form creating the negative space around Jane, without Blanche being exactly what Jane is not, the reader would not be able to as clearly refine exactly what Jane’s otherness is, and why it is so likeable.
These two characters set in contrast to the protagonist, Jane Eyre, form the image of the character of Jane for the reader by using “negative space;” by outlining what Jane is not and why. This is a very strong way to set up a character, because the reader is given to ability to inference the positive space or the actual form of the protagonist, therefore making her personally and individually relatable to each reader, yet still true to herself. Jane is formed by those she encounters, but it is not a passive, helpless process, it is active for Jane and exciting for the reader. Bronte uses brilliant literary devices to develop this theory of “otherness” about Jane as she tells her story and builds a frightened ten year old orphan into an assertive married woman with property and claims of her own. Through her use of contrast and comparison, Bronte creates Jane Eyre: a character that lives, breathes and demands to be remembered.

(Paper by Kaylie Hayter. Sketch by Amalia Zeichnerin)

A Flurry of Papers

Just wrote a paper on Jane Eyre and the foil characters in the novel. The next day, a paper was due in my poetry class, in which I compared "Wild Nights" by Emily Dickinson with "20" by Sappho, that was interesting. And now, I'm writing a paper on the Muslim mystic Rabi'a and her use of the feminine soul in her poetry.

School is in full swing, and even though I usually want to pull my hair out, I'm finally studying the things I love. Even if I have to write pages and pages analyzing literature, at least I'm analyzing literature, right? Sometimes I feel like the tiniest drop in the sea, sometimes I feel like I'm drowning in possibilities and responsibilities and the disabilities of my brain aren't letting me even make a ripple in the sea of humanity, of literature. But at least my little drip hasn't been dropped into a vat of oil.

Friday, September 20, 2013

A quick Dickinson to get you through.


Hope by Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune-without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Monday, September 9, 2013

"The curse is come upon me," cried The Lady of Shalott.

At the risk of sounding cliché:
The Lady of Shalott

by Alfred Lord Tennyson

John William Waterhouse
Part I.

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro' the field the road runs by
           To many-tower'd Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
           The island of Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro' the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
           Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
           The Lady of Shalott.

By the margin, willow-veil'd
Slide the heavy barges trail'd
By slow horses; and unhail'd
The shallop flitteth silken-sail'd
           Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
           The Lady of Shalott?

Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
           Down to tower'd Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers "'Tis the fairy
           Lady of Shalott."

Part II.

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
           To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
           The Lady of Shalott.

And moving thro' a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
           Winding down to Camelot:
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
           Pass onward from Shalott.

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,
Or long-hair'd page in crimson clad,
           Goes by to tower'd Camelot;
And sometimes thro' the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
           The Lady of Shalott.

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights,
For often thro' the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
           And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
"I am half-sick of shadows," said
           The Lady of Shalott.

Part III.

A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro' the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
           Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A redcross knight for ever kneel'd
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
           Beside remote Shalott.

The gemmy bridle glitter'd free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle-bells rang merrily
           As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazon'd baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
           Beside remote Shalott.

All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewell'd shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn'd like one burning flame together,
           As he rode down to Camelot.
As often thro' the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
           Moves over still Shalott.

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow'd;
On burnish'd hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow'd
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
           As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flash'd into the crystal mirror,
"Tirra lirra," by the river
           Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro' the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
           She look'd down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
           The Lady of Shalott.

Part IV.

In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale-yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
           Over tower'd Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
           The Lady of Shalott.

And down the river's dim expanse –
Like some bold seër in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance –
With a glassy countenance
           Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
           The Lady of Shalott.

Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right –
The leaves upon her falling light –
Thro' the noises of the night
           She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
           The Lady of Shalott.

Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken'd wholly,
           Turn'd to tower'd Camelot;
For ere she reach'd upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
           The Lady of Shalott.

Under tower and balcony,
By garden-wall and gallery,
A gleaming shape she floated by,
A corse between the houses high,
           Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
           The Lady of Shalott.

Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they cross'd themselves for fear,
           All the knights at Camelot:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, "She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
           The Lady of Shalott."

This poem just takes my breath away, it makes me want to... paint something! Write a song! Kill myself in some romantic, poetic way! I just can't even deal with the beauty of it all. There's a ghostly quality about his writing here, and the flow of the words almost enhances that other-worldly-ness. I don't know about you, but I can so easily picture this woman alone in a great tower, weaving at her loom and constantly looking in the mirror that shows her the progress of her work. This was all she knew, and when that reality was shattered, she was overcome with a hopeless desperation that is so poetic. I can just hear her song pierce through the still air of the night as she rides her little boat down to her final destination, "The Lady of Shalott" written on the side, like a headstone.  This poem by Tennyson has inspired some of the most amazing artwork, throughout centuries and across many mediums. Some of my favorites:
Arthur Hughes

Janet Chui

John Atkinson Grimshaw

John William Waterhouse
John William Waterhouse

After I read "The Lady of Shalott" I wanted to sketch something of my own. Please forget that you ever saw those gorgeous paintings above while you gaze skeptically at my mechanical pencil sketch: