“The Idiot Boy” and the pony

Today I am choosing to examine the pony in Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy.” The more I read “The Idiot Boy” over, the more confused and curious I am by the speaker’s remarks about the pony and what messages they build into the poem, presumably about nature and human relationship to animals.


For of this Pony there’s a rumour,
That, should he lose his eyes and ears,
And should he live a thousand years,
He never will be out of humour.

So, here the message I’m getting is that the pony in question will remain good-natured (hah. It now occurs to me how that description is coded!) and useful so long as he lives, “humour” meaning in 1798 “compliant and agreeable”, according to the OED. I’m interested here in the pony’s personification, as Wordsworth seems to be suggesting a quality of the pony’s character rather than his usefulness as a horse.

But then he is a horse that thinks!
And when he thinks, his pace is slack;
Now, though he knows poor Johnny well,
Yet, for his life, he cannot tell
What he has got upon his back.

Again, the pony is doing people-things! Weird! He’s a horse that thinks and apparently can’t multitask. And, while knowing his rider very well, he doesn’t recognize him? Why is this here and what does it mean?
Unworthy things she talked, and wild;
Even he, of cattle the most mild,
The Pony had his share.

Here, it would appear to me that Betty Foy, in her mad dash around the woods to find Johnny and the pony, is blaming even the pony for Johnny’s disappearance…could this suggest human projection onto animals? Perhaps the dichotomy between humans’ construction and animal nature? And, how does that question relate to the pony who apparently thinks as he meanders down the road?

And now she sits her down and weeps;
Such tears she never shed before;
“Oh dear, dear Pony! my sweet joy!
Oh carry back my Idiot Boy! 0
And we will ne’er o’erload thee more.”

Now Betty Foy is feeling guilt for her treatment of the pony and using fair treatment as leverage for the pony bringing him back. Again I think of human projection onto animals.

A thought is come into her head:
The Pony he is mild and good,
And we have always used him well;
Perhaps he’s gone along the dell,
And carried Johnny to the wood.

Apparently that guilt part wasn’t such a big deal to Betty Foy…here I see the frailty of our projections, how they are ultimately constructions that we impart onto animals, nature, etc. that do not inherently have these ideas, intentions, motivations or abilities.

Your Pony’s worth his weight in gold:
Then calm your terrors, Betty Foy!
Why would the speaker say this and what does he mean? Why is the narrator interacting about the pony now and his worth? Perhaps that animals can be reduced to their material worth, and that’s it?

She pats the Pony, where or when
She knows not, happy Betty Foy!
The little Pony glad may be,
But he is milder far than she,
You hardly can perceive his joy.

Perplexed! Again. Betty Foy is excitedly patting the pony all over the place, and conversely, the pony feels mild gladness that can hardly be perceived…again, though, the pony has joy in being reunited with Betty Foy.

I don’t quite know what is going on here but I am so excited to find out!

Kubla Kahn or Vision in a Dream – Coleridge

To start things off, I can’t stop hearing the newsreel announcer from Citizen Kane saying, “Here in Xanadu…” in the “News on the March” segment of the 1941 film. .

Ironically having spent my reading last night for my Women & Gender Studies class on queer domesticities in Chinese immigrant opium dens of the late 1900s, I come here now to write on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn” or “Vision in a Dream.” The poem was apparently composed by Coleridge one night after an opium-induced dream after reading a work on the Tartar king, Kubla Kahn (Wikipedia). The poem was intended to be 200-300 lines, until Coleridge was interrupted by a “Person from Porlock” who caused him to forget the rest of the lines. Scholars today claim that this was likely an excuse on Coleridge’s part to come up with a plausible explanation for being “already stuck” with the poem.

Being familiar with Citizen Kane and comfortable with the themes, it made more sense to me in deciphering my reading of Kubla Kahn. I notice a suggestion of man-made pleasure interspersed with natural, ancient beauty: “In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn / A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river ran, / Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea” (1-5). It’s starting to sound a little gothy for me, too, with the “sunless sea” = darkness and whatnot. Moving on, I notice more instances of this with the “twice five miles of fertile ground / With walls and towers were girdled round” (6-7). Being that Kane’s “Xanadu” is unfinished, decrepit, a symbol of excess…I wonder if this is what is suggested in “Kubla Kahn.” I’m not really to make that assumption yet. In fact, I’m not entirely sure what is going on in Kubla Kahn, and going off of various online analysis feels like playing video games with cheat codes…ack.

Frost at Midnight

What I am curious about examining from this week’s poem, “Frost at Midnight” by Coleridge, is how the poem is spoken by father to infant, and this prevailing theme in other romantic poems we’ve read previously. It causes me to wonder, “Why does this keep coming up and what does it mean?”

Before I get started, I found a neato page that describes the context of the poem right here.

In “Frost at Midnight,” the speaker is awake at night in solitude, as his infant sleeps peacefully in his arms, in real life, Coleridge’s son, Hartley. According to the U-Alberta link from above, Coleridge closely observed his son’s growth, journaling his speech and bodily development frequently. At the time of the poem, Hartley would have been about 16 months old.

Amidst the speaker’s musings about his sweet childhood, he addresses the infant. “it fills my heart with tender gladness, thus to look at thee, And think, that thou shalt learn far other lore, and in far other scenes! For I was rear’d In the great city, pent mid cloisters dim, And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.” The speaker is joyful that his young son will be able to live in the countryside in conversation with nature, whereas he grew up in the city. Nature is made of “the lovely shapes and sounds intelligible” of God’s language, which “shall mould Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.”

This reminds me of “The Nightingale,” in Coleridge’s line “I deem it wise to make him nature’s playmate.”

So, I wonder more about why this is coming up…perhaps it is just Coleridge’s new-dad glee…or perhaps there is something more to this pervading theme of offering nature to the newly born.

Lines Left Upon a Seat in a Yew Tree

In reading this poem, I was curious about the imagery of yew trees and their symbolism. According to Ancient-Yew.org, yew trees traditionally grow in church yards, so one symbol associated with the yew may be mournful, somber or elegiac.

“The Yew has been the subject of myths, legends and Acts of Parliament. It has become part of religious beliefs and is featured in a wealth of literary material. The Yew has also been used as a marker in the landscape because of its exceptional longevity.”

Yews are gigantic and live for centuries; they are regarded as ancient with branches that reach to the ground, as are their roots and foliage poisonous. Yews are also associated with paganism and as having pre-christian roots (yay tree puns). It does not surprise me that the yew is associated with an earth worship, something that the romantics would come to write about and revere.

Therefore, “Lines Left Upon a Seat in a Yew” struck me as being about a man who, dejected by the jealousy, hate and scorn of society, goes into nature to become a hermit. Sheep come and hang out with him sometimes, but other than that he just watches nature.

However, I gather that Wordsworth suggests this man is misguided. Paradoxically, with “morbid pleasure nourished” in his unfruitful life, he so self-obsessed that he is unable to achieve the full blessing and reverence that nature provides.

I am struggling to understand exactly why he is being discussed, though. My hypothesis is that, instead of being completely enraptured by nature, he was unable to forget the people he left and thought himself superior, perhaps? I gather this from the line “then he would sigh with mournful joy, to think that others felt What he must never feel.” I gather this, also, from this line, “pride, Howe’er disguised in its own majesty, is littleness; that he, who feels contempt for any living thing, hath faculties Which he has never used.”

 

The Haunted Beach

My first interest in reading “The Haunted Beach” was to get some background information on Mary Robinson.

According to Wikipedia, Robinson was an English poet and novelist who lived between November 1757 and 26 December 1800. During her lifetime she was known as ‘the English Sappho.’

Her story sounds similar to Charlotte Smith’s; Robinson was urged to accept the proposal of an articled clerk, Thomas Robinson, who claimed to have an inheritance, but did not. She supported their family until her husband squandered their money; they proceeded to flee to Whales, then live under house arrest. During this time, Mary wrote her first volume of poems, Captivity, sponsored by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (for a moment I confused her with Mary Rowlandson and was both intrigued and confused why she would be showing up here). What’s up with these locked up female poets and their jerky husbands of the olden days?

Robinson was also an actress and became the mistress of George IV, though he soon abandoned her, which destroyed her reputation. After subsequent lovers, she suffered an illness that left her paralyzed, and from the 1780s on became distinguished by her poetry.

“The Haunted Beach” comes from Lyrical Tales, 1800, composed only months before her death. Lyrical Ballads was planned by Wordsworth & Coleridge in 1797 and published in 1801, only five weeks apart I am sure that the inclusion of Robinson’s poem is indicative of the poetry of the time period, setting an idea for what Wordsworth & Coleridge were working in and what they were drawing from to publish.

Indeed, Miles Durrance writes that Coleridge and Robinson were influenced by one another. “Coleridge openly borrowed the meter for his poem The Solitude of Binnorie from Robinson’s The Haunted Beach (which, in turn, owes much in terms of its gothic aspects to STC’s Christabel and Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Durrance also writes that it is not so much the content of The Haunted Beach from which the poem derives its popularity, but its publication history and connection with Coleridge and Lyrical Ballads.

 

Charlotte Smith, Nightingales and Fairy Tales

In seeking some information about nightingales in poetry, I stumbled upon this very article by James C. McKusick at the University of Montana, that did a dandy job of tracing the recurring birdy theme.

Nightingales have been a symbol for poets since at least Homer in the Odyssey, if not before. Sophocles’ Tereus, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Chaucer, and T.S. Eliot, all evoke this symbol through utilizing or alluding to the myth of Philomela and Procne. Being such a pervasive theme in poetry and not knowing anything about it, I set out for a synopsis of the myth.

Philomela & Procne are sisters. Philomela, the princess of Athens, is escorted to Thrace by King Tereus of Thrace, Procne’s husband. Tereus had a creepy thing for Philomela on the voyage and rapes her upon their arrival in Thrace. Philomela makes an obstinate speech that incites Tereus to cut out her tongue. Philomela (whose name literally means “love song” or “lover of songs”), then weaves a tapestry to tell her story and sends it to Procne (wondering why a letter wasn’t sufficient). Charmingly, Procne kills her son by Tereus and proceeds to serve him to Tereus for a pleasant dinner. Mmm son confit. Tereus finds out and attempts to kill the sisters, but in the end, all three were changed by the Olympian gods into birds. I wish most conflicts were resolved that way. Actually, birds are creepy. Bad idea.

Depending on who’s telling the tale, Tereus was changed into a hawk or a hoopoe, Philomela was turned into a swallow, which has no song, and Procne turns into the nightingale, who sings a beautiful but woeful and regretful melody. According to Wikipedia, “later sources, among them Ovid, Hyginus, and Apollodorus (but especially English romantic poets like Keats) write that although she was tongueless, Philomela was turned into a nightingale, and Procne into a swallow.” Despite the differences in folks, the nut of the story remains the same.

So, historically, I have an idea now that the nightingale is loaded with thoughts of woe and regret; in some sense, it is believed to travel the heavens with much shame and penance.

Finally, onto Charlotte Smith’s poem, Sonnet III To A Nightingale. I noticed these tropes recurring in Smith’s description, the bird is “poor” and “melancholy,” telling the night of its “tender woe,” and “sweet sorrow” through  its “mournful melody of song.”

Ok, the nightingale’s regretful and morose. Got it. Smith then equates the poet to have a similar understanding with the bird, suggesting that the poet’s preference to muse is akin to the nightingale’s habit to weep, as though the medium is different, but the content the same.

While I’m not sure in the last stanza, though it would be my guess, when Smith writes of “pale sorrow’s victims” and the haphazard situations man can entangle himself in, “cruel wrong” from friends, or being the “martyr of disastrous love,” these would be situations similar to that which causes the nightingale to weep at night, and similarly the poet to muse.

Related, I’m interested in how the Hans Christen Anderson fairytale, “The Nightingale” has a similar romantic theme around the nightingale; a Chinese emperor who prefers the mechanical noise of a music box is revived on his sick bed only by the sound of the beautiful, real nightingale. Hmmm. Cool (albeit likely rather Orientalist) illustrations & the tale can be found here. More for me to look into later.

Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey

I read “Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, 13 July 1798” as Wordsworth’s basis for his pantheism with nature. I was first interested in gaining some historical background about Wordsworth, his trips to Tintern Abbey and his life in general in what led up to his perspective that forms the body of “Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey.”

According to Wikipedia, Wordsworth was revisiting Tintern Abbey when he wrote the poem in 1798; he had visited 23-years previously on a solitary walking tour. Since then, his life had “taken a considerable turn: he had split with his French lover and their illegitimate daughter, while on a broader note Anglo-French tensions had escalated to such an extent that Britain would declare war later that year. The Wye, on the other hand, had remained much the same, according the poet opportunity for contrast.”

Understanding this context in which Wordsworth was writing, I gain a more clear understanding of an element of “Lines,” that is, one of the rapturous qualities of nature is that she is cyclical and timeless. Wordsworth is revisiting a river that he visited over twenty years before, a changed man from the young man he was years earlier, to realize that nature has stayed the same.

“And this prayer I make, / Knowing that Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her.”

Focusing on the word “betray,” according to the OED, during Wordsworth’s time, betray would have meant “to prove false to,” “to lead astray or into error, as a false guide; to mislead, seduce, deceive.” I would suggest that Wordsworth is saying here that Nature (paying attention to the capitalization…meaning that nature is capitalized here similarly as the capitalization of god/God), is a truth to her admirers; she does not lead falsely, seduce or deceive, rather, she simply continues on in her cycling. Wordsworth is captivated by her because of this truth and loyalty that continues on, untarnished, while man continues to change who he is.

What I would like to gain more understanding about is how/why/where Wordsworth measures what is unchanging/constant as more divine than man’s capacity for changing and being changed over time. While I see the distinction, I would like to understand more about what makes nature divine in her timelessness, but what makes man “mere” in the equation.