Irish Werewolves, Greek Callicantzari, and Rabidity
Matthew Beresford wrote:
"Pliny says that this notion of changing into a wolf is quite com- mon, and that it is known as versipellis, that is, ‘skin changer’ or ‘turn skin’. In the classical world the word seems to have referred to a form of madness that men could suffer from, whereby they believed them- selves changed into a wolf. This is our earliest reference to what became known as the condition ‘lycanthropy’, a disease which was obviously known to the Romans, and seems to have been applied to a person who had undergone a noticeable change in his character or habits. Pliny further explains where this initial belief comes from, and quotes the Greek author Euanthes, when he says that
"the Arcadians assert that a member of the family of one Anthus is chosen by lot, and then taken to a certain lake in that district, where, after suspending his clothes on an oak,
"he swims across the water and goes away into the desert, where he is changed into a wolf and associates with other animals of the same species for a space of nine years. If he has kept himself from beholding a man during the whole of that time, he returns to the same lake, and, after swimming across it, resumes his original form, only with the addition of nine years in age to his former appearance."
Actaeon stumbled upon the goddess Artemis who was bathing naked in the forest. She turned Actaeon into a stag in punishment for looking at her, and his raging hounds, struck with a ‘wolf ’s frenzy’, tore him apart as they would a stag.
According to the medieval specialist Claude Lecouteux,
"it is possible to discover an important belief in the history of our ancestors only if we shed the weight of clerical interpretation obscuring the pagan substratum – that is, the interpretation representing the Church’s true dictatorship and facilitated by the monopoly over fact that the Church exerts on the world of writing."
St. Patrick drove the snakes into the lake at the bottom of the mountain, the Log na Deamhan (Demons’ Hollow): 'laboured by prayer and other exercises of devotion to deliver the island from the triple pestilence [and] taking the Staff of Jesus into his hand, St Patrick hurled the reptiles into Log na Deamhan’. This episode most likely represents the power of Christianity over the devil (embodied in the serpent or dragon) that is regularly observed in early Christian symbology. However, ‘St Patrick and the Irish’ from Giraud de Barri’s Topographia Hibernica relates how natives were displeased by the saints’ attempts to convert them:
"the Irish began to howl like wolves against St Patrick who was preaching to them about the Christian religion. (In punishment for their lack of faith) the saint obtained from God that certain among them would be transformed into wolves for seven years and they would live in the woods like the animals whose appearance they had taken on."
In The Wonders of Ireland we learn that
"certain people in Ireland . . . who go in the shape of wolves when it pleases them, and they kill livestock in the manner of wolves. And they leave their own bodies . . . if they are wounded, those wounds will be in their bodies at home, and the raw meat which they devour will be in their teeth."
These two examples demonstrate a continuation in the Christianized early medieval period of the Germanic practice of leaving one’s body to become a werewolf (the ‘double’).
In De Nugis Curialium, a twelfth-century account, Walter Map advances the notion of the ‘double’ in Christianized society which lends weight to the later witchcraft ‘fanaticism’.
In Greece werewolf folklore is also linked to Christmas: a time when
"participants dress up to resemble the monstrous callicantzari that emerge at the dark of the solstice to take control of the world. Modern-day Greek celebrants blacken their faces and cover themselves with feathers. The callicantzari are pictured as covered with shaggy hair, heads and sexual organs out of proportion to the rest of their bodies."
This image of blackened faces echoes that of Monsieur de la Forêt, discussed earlier. It is also important to note that the callicantzaros are clearly linked to fertility, given the accentuated phallus and the links to the winter solstice that punctuate the ‘death’ of the natural world in winter and its rebirth in spring. The folklorist J. C. Lawson describes the callicantzaros as seized with a ‘kind of bestial mad- ness which often effects a beast-like alteration in their appearance . . . [with] all the savage and lustful passions of a wild despite its being more akin to a vampire, was originally closer to a werewolf creature. The name
"vrykolakas has etymological links with the word werewolf (English and German), warwulf (Scottish) and loup-garou (French) . . . some believe that the term vrykolakas was bor- rowed from Slavic, meaning ‘wolf ’ or ‘pelt’, and was originally used in Greece to mean a werewolf."
It may also have links with the ‘wolf girdle’ worn by potential were-wolves to‘transform’ into the beast.
For a Jacobean audience the werewolf and the Catholic were similar beasts; both were essentially ‘wolves dressed as men’, otherwise indistinguishable from the rest of society but still a threat to church and state and both as depraved, bloody, and ruthless as each other.
Others have argued that it reflected national identity:
"The figure of the wolf in early modern England is not only emblematic of Catholics, but often a topical allusion to the Irish as well . . . according to medieval authorities the Irish shared a special relationship to wolves."
So perhaps Webster was using the werewolf as a metaphor for social ‘deviants’, the Catholics or the Irish, and also playing the role of ‘prophet’ in suggesting that the ‘werewolf disease’ would eventually drive you ‘mad’. The cure to this ‘disease’ was of course the good old Church of England. After all, the reason there were no werewolves in England was obviously because of the Church of England, or so teachings said. A few years before Webster wrote The Duchess of Malfi, Shakespeare’s As You Like It had given weight to the above theory with the line: ‘Tis like the howling of Irish wolves against the moon.’ And Edmund Spenser had described how the Irish were descended from the Scythians, who, as analysed in Chapter Two, have links with werewolves. The Italians also took their share of the abuse from the play, given its Italian setting, and the fact that an Italian becomes a werewolf. For the moment, however, it is worth considering the Irish:
"Up until the eighteenth century Ireland always had a problem with wolves . . . the country was largely covered by thick and almost impenetrable forest, which made it an ideal breeding ground and hunting place for the animals."
The dog used to hunt wolves was even given the wolf ’s name to label it as such: the Irish Wolfhound. However ‘the name . . . is probably something of a misnomer, because the dogs are not native to the island (and were) imported from England during Roman times’. In addition, the Romans had acquired the breed from the indigenous Britons of the Iron Age tribes.
Whilst Stevenson’s novel Jekyll and Hyde, could not be argued to be a werewolf story, its topic is markedly similar: there is a beast in us all, fighting to be unleashed. Stevenson himself echoed those words when he wrote about the critics he deemed to be hypocrites:
"the hypocrite let out the beast in Hyde, who is no more sexual than another, but who is the essence of cruelty and malice, and selfishness and cowardice, and these are the dia- bolical in man."
Stevenson goes on to explain how he had
"long been trying to write a story on this subject, to find a body, a vehicle for that strong sense of man’s double being which must at times come in upon and overwhelm the mind of every thinking creature."
Man’s ‘double’ is thus perfectly described. It is as though a circuit of understanding that which is within us has been completed. In Stevenson’s time, and indeed in our time, the werewolf was and is no longer the relevant ‘vehicle’. In the present, we consider the werewolf as something totally separate from the question of Man’s inner self, his spirit twin, his double. Today, the only werewolves that exist are those fea- tured in films and novels. Belief in a ‘double’ has not vanished: it might not be understood, and it does not necessarily take the form of a wolf anymore. As Stevenson said, ‘Man is not truly one, but truly two.’
Writing in the seventh century, the Byzantine physician Paulus Aegineta (Paul of Aegina) described the physical condition of lycanthropes but not the manner in which they were inflicted:
"On Lycaon, or Lycanthropia. Those labouring under lycanthropia go out during the night imitating wolves in all things and lingering about sepulchres until morning. You may recognise such persons by these marks: they are pale, their vision feeble, their eyes dry, tongue very dry, and the flow of their saliva stopped; but they are thirsty, and their legs have incurable ulcerations from frequent falls. Such are the marks of the disease."
Earlier still, in the fifth century, the Byzantine physician and medical writer Aëtius of Amida discussed lycanthropia, or ‘wolves fury’, in On Melancholy, and told how sufferers would disturb graves, eat bones, suffer a great thirst, howl and have a haggard, hollow appearance. Marcellus Sidetes (Marcellus of Side), in the poem De Lycanthropia, explained how sufferers experienced their symptoms at night and in cemeteries ‘in a context removed both temporarily and spatially from that of normal life’. Early knowledge of the disease was thus reasonably generalized but the causes could not be exactly pinpointed. By the later Middle Ages, the disease was attributed to melancholy (as were many other ailments), and in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) Robert Burton dedicated his ‘Subsect iv’ to this and similar diseases. He wrote that those suffering from lycanthropy, which he believed was a form of melancholy, ‘lie hid most part all day, and go abroad in the night, barking, howling, at graves and deserts; they usually have hollow eyes, scabbed legs and thighs, very dry and pale’.7 This seems almost to be an amalgamation of the descriptions given by Aëtius and Aegineta, so whether Burton was merely repeating what he knew from other works or whether, over 1,000 years later, the disease was still occurring exactly as it had in earlier times, we cannot be sure.
In the Letter to Lord Cawdor (1831), the English antiquary Algernon Herbert described how
"atrabilious patients take a fancy that they are wolves, and go about howling and biting, and in some instances committing cruel acts of homicide. In all digests of medicine that malady is regularly described, under the name of lycanthropia, and remedies (in the nature of depletion and febrifuge) are prescribed for it."
These terms ‘atrabilious’ and ‘febrifuge’ again hint at melancholic suffering, or as it might be termed today, ‘depression’, or ‘fever’. Both, however, suggest mental illness. Writing in 1557, Johannes Arculanus, a Veronese physician, believed that those suffering from melancholy ‘seem in very truth to be men no longer but incarnate devils and ravening wolves’. However, by the time the second half of the nine- teenth century arrived, medical knowledge had duly advanced and new discoveries demonstrated that earlier theorists, such as Arculanus or Burton, were probably mistaken.
Sabine Baring-Gould argues that melancholy is not the main cause of lycanthropy, rather it is due to hallucinations that are brought on by fever (‘disturbs the senses and causes visions’), possibly caused by typhus. As such, sufferers ‘often believe their limbs have been severed due to a deranged nervous system’. This reflects Herbert’s thoughts , in regard to links with fever. Furthermore, as analysed by Baring-Gould, ‘a disordered condition of mind or body may produce hallucination in a form depending on the character and instincts of the individual’. An ambitious man, labouring under monomania, could, with this ‘symptom tracker’, imagine himself a king; a covetous man might be plunged into despair by believing himself to be penniless; or a naturally cruel man might suppose himself to be transformed into the most cruel and bloodthirsty animal with which he is acquainted. The links between hallucinations and the werewolf myth have been exposed here at length, and although purposeful hallucinations were apparently brought on by mind-inducing substances, this ‘newer’ evidence suggests that sometimes it might not be self-imposed.
Rabies proves an interesting case: amongst the many wolves roaming the countryside, any infected creatures would have proved a real threat to people. Indeed,
"Rabid wolves become irritable, restless and nervous and show exaggerated responses to sudden stimuli of sight and sound.
These animals show no fear and charge relentlessly, often inflicting massive injuries and death."
This sounds like a description of the Viking berserker warriors after they had consumed their intoxicating drink. Yet does rabies explain the medical cause behind the myth?
The horror of a crazed beast, frantically assailing people, is often amplified by the hair-raising sounds which rabid animals emit due to the paralysis of their laryngeal musculature. Could rabid wolves have contributed to the belief in diabolically possessed werewolves who fiendishly and relentlessly attacked, killed and sometimes devoured humans?
The suggestion that porphyria may be relevant to the werewolf myth was first popularized by Lee Illis in the 1960s, as he examined the symptoms of the sufferers and how these could relate to the werewolf. These symptoms include, but are not exclusive to, extreme sensitivity to light causing sufferers to go out at night, and skin dam- age. This is particularly in cartilage around the face (nose and ears) and in the hands and fingers, giving a ‘paw-like’ appearance. Illis argued that the so-called werewolves of the past may, at least in the majority of instances, have been suffering from congenital porphyria. The evidence for this lies in the remarkable relation between the symptoms of this rare disease and the many accounts of werewolves that come down to us.
Another important factor for the porphyria / werewolf link is that some manifestations of the disease – notably, ‘mixed porphyria’ – show a marked sexual differentiation in favour of males. Illis came to the conclusion that the following symptoms were relevant to the werewolf myth:
"Severe photosensitivity in which a rash is produced by the action of light. This may be especially noticeable during the summer or in a mountainous regions.
The urine is often reddish-brown as a result of the pres- ence of large quantities of porphyrins (such as heme, the pigment in red blood cells).
There is a tendency for the skin lesions to ulcerate, and these ulcers may attack cartilage and bone. Over a period of years structures such as nose, ears, eyelids, and fingers, undergo progressive mutilation.
On the photosensitive areas extreme hair growth and pigmentation may develop.
The teeth may be red or reddish-brown due to the depo- sition of porphyrins.
The bone marrow is hyperplastic, which can cause enlargement."
Illis’s research positions the sufferer in relation to the werewolf:
"such a person, because of photosensitivity and the resultant disfigurement, may choose only to wander about at night . . . the unhappy person may be mentally disturbed, and show some type or degree of abnormal behaviour. In ancient times this would be accentuated by the physical and social treatment he received from the other villagers, whose instincts would be to explain the apparition in terms of witchcraft or Satanic possession. The red teeth, the passage of red urine, the nocturnal wanderings, the mutilation of face and hands, the deranged behaviour: what could these suggest to a primitive, fear-ridden, and relatively isolated community?"
Twenty years later, David Dolphin suggested that sufferers of porph- yria might have been the reason for the early vampire myth. From both Dolphin’s and Illis’s research, sufferers, whilst admittedly having an aversion to sunlight (photosensitivity) and very pale skin (both hugely important traits to the modern vampire myth), can also suffer from skin discolouration, a growth or thickening of body and facial hair, and sores on the body.
Another factor that may also have contributed to the werewolf myth from a medical perspective is the outbreak of ergotism, which coincided in a widespread manner with the werewolf accounts in the medieval period. Ergot outbreaks were quite common through- out medieval Europe, and occurred because of the ergot bacteria contaminating rye and wheat, which was then used to make bread. The hallucinants contained in the ergot could have persuaded those who had eaten the contaminated substances that they were a were- wolf, or produced visions of man-beasts, amongst other side effects. It has been suggested that there are two types of ergotism that may relate to the werewolf myth. The first is convulsive ergotism, with symptoms such as trembling, twitching and shaking, and the second, gangrenous ergotism, which creates a burning sensation and gangrene. Ergot poisoning has occurred as recently as the 1950s in Pont- St-Esprit in southern France, where 135 people were hospitalized and six died. All had eaten bread contaminated by ergot. Reports recounted how victims had experienced horrible visions of tigers and snakes and some believed they were actually turning into beasts.
The most obvious of all the medical explanations, though, is ‘werewolf syndrome’, or Congenital Generalized Hypertrichosis Terminalis (cght). The disease is also sometimes known as ‘Ambras syndrome’, for reasons that will become clear shortly. The main feature of the disease is extreme hair growth, which usually covers the entire body, including the face and hands. Those suffering from it will gen- erally have excessive dark hair on their bodies and faces and some have large ears, mouths and thick lips, giving them a wolf-like appearance. The first documented case comes from the sevententh century, when four generations of the Gonzales family suffered from it, starting with Petrus Gonzales and documented by Altrovandus in 1648. Altrovandus nicknamed them the ‘Ambras Family’, after discovering their portraits at Castle Ambras, in the Tyrol region, in western Austria. Curiously, in the very same castle is a fifteeenth-century portrait of Vlad Dracula, the Impaler, the (wrongly) suggested originator of the vampire myth.
Those with werewolf syndrome had gene mutations in Chromosome 17, where copy number variations reflected ‘missing’ dna. Zhang suggested that missing genes may affect ‘neighbouring’ genes, and one of these, sox9, is linked to hair growth. If this gene is missing, it can cause hair loss, or alopecia. Several medical explanations for the werewolf myth are available, and yet they are too inconclusive to explain the werewolf phenomenon…" [The White Devil]
"ἐδιζησάμην ἐμεωυτόν." [Heraclitus]
"All that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both." [Aeschylus, Prometheus]
"The history of everyday is constituted by our habits. ... How have you lived today?" [N.]
*Become clean, my friends.*
Lyssa Har Har Harr
Gender : Posts : 9031 Join date : 2012-03-01 Location : The Cockpit
"The Lord thy God is the invisible stranger at the gate in the night, knocking. He is the mysterious life-suggestion, tapping for admission. And the wondrous Victorian Age managed to fasten the door so tight, and light up the compound so brilliantly with electric light, that really, there was no outside, it was all in. The Unknown became a joke: is still a joke." [Kangaroo]
The difference in the rape of Zeus and the rape of Hades, is one between marriage and wedding respectively.
Marriage - to lead a woman, a suit-or, is a taking over from the father.
Wedding - to pledge with a woman, woman-become-pledge-'Kore', is a taking away from the mother.
In Klimt's painting, one sees much of this "undifferentiatedness" that can be pathological the more a girl remains undifferentiated with her mother, kept in her "shadow" from becoming her own woman, and so has to be seized by the "shades" [hades]…
The Black Swan captures the broad aspect of this myth between the mother-daughter, and the psychological split that occurs between Persephone alternating between the underworld and the earth seasonally, but an unsuccessful transition into the wedding…
"ἐδιζησάμην ἐμεωυτόν." [Heraclitus]
"All that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both." [Aeschylus, Prometheus]
"The history of everyday is constituted by our habits. ... How have you lived today?" [N.]
*Become clean, my friends.*
Lyssa Har Har Harr
Gender : Posts : 9031 Join date : 2012-03-01 Location : The Cockpit
""The Lord thy God is the invisible stranger at the gate in the night, knocking. He is the mysterious life-suggestion, tapping for admission. And the wondrous Victorian Age managed to fasten the door so tight, and light up the compound so brilliantly with electric light, that really, there was no outside, it was all in. The Unknown became a joke: is still a joke." [D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo]
Lawrence’s magisterially dismissive account identifies what he sees as the deficiencies of an exacting rationalist orientation, opposing his intuitive being and aesthetic aspirations to the pragmatic limitations of unenlightened utilitarian imperatives, which are acerbically imaged as a secure, well-lit ‘compound’. This tyrannically systematising and super-civilised Victorian mind was, according to Lawrence, revered at the expense of ‘the mysterious life-suggestion’: instances of multiplied sensuous perception an individual could not fully voice and of which he was not always conscious. Lawrence contends with blustering verve that behind the sanctimonious superiority of the Victorian scientific priesthood was a deep distrust of an unconscious primitive self, of the chthonic darkness beyond and below the ‘compound’. Lawrence impugns the habit of many mid-nineteenth century ethnologists to gauge history as a vertical continuum in which non-Western natives and their ‘primitive’ cultures were infantilised, rooted firmly to the bottom of the social evolutionary scale that began with so-called ‘savagery’, proceeding through ‘barbarism’, and culminated in the apex of Western Victorian ‘civilisation’.
Clinging to the language of bland rationality as the principal means of arranging felt experience, ‘the Victorian Age’ in Lawrence’s sardonic critique lamentably failed to register how its own culture’s analytical, authoritarian, and hierarchical strategies stifled creative synthesis and eventually overwhelmed the mediation of polarities traditionally proffered in Lawrence’s version of the Persephone myth. ‘I honestly think’, he states in Fantasia of the Unconscious, ‘that the great pagan world of which Egypt and Greece were the last living terms, the great pagan world which preceded our own era once, had a vast and perhaps perfect science of its own, a science in terms of life’.5 Lawrence signifies that the dark gods must be made to address a society where individuals are fragmented in consciousness, routinely thwarted in their attempt to reconcile opposing tendencies, haunted by impulses and appetites they would repress but which they cannot altogether regulate.
Lawrence’s pointed reference to the brilliantly lit Victorian ‘compound’ mischievously summons up Culture and Anarchy (1869) in which Matthew Arnold, reacting to the political turmoil, potentially the worst in Britain for thirty-five years, that arose during the period culminating in the Second Reform Bill (1866-7), coined the phrase ‘sweetness and light’ to characterise the humanistic values of decorous order and civility – ‘the best that has been thought in the world’ – he identified with Hellenism. Arnold’s phrase came to epitomise the supposedly unblemished serenity of a ‘bright’ Greek civilisation, by which was meant fifth-century Athens, in contrast to the searing sense of his own era as ‘an age of spiritual discomfort’, tardy in embracing the Hellenic repose, moderation and impeccable balance of mind that would act as the moral corrective necessary to a tainted national culture.
To Lawrence, this sanitisation, motivated by a blend of paternalistic righteousness, Christian piety and resigned nostalgia reduced the ‘Unknown’ to a ‘joke’. Like many features of Hellenism in mid-Victorian Britain, Arnold’s theorisation had its origins in German scholarship. As Frank Turner remarks, during this period most Hellenic research ‘invoked prescriptive images of Greek civilization that supported the social and moral values of the traditional British elites as models for the new middle class leaders of the nation’. As late as 1928, H. J. Rose’s immensely popular Handbook of Greek Mythology notes that ‘[t]he Greeks at their best were sane, high- spirited, clear-headed, beauty-loving optimists, and not in the least other- worldly. Hence their legends are almost without exception free from the cloudiness, the wild grotesques, and the horrible features’ that ‘beset the popular traditions of less gifted and happy peoples’.
That the Demeter-Persephone myth, with its unnerving images of abduction, random violence, wrath, and rape, was considered suitably ‘bright’ material for the moral edification of mid-Victorian children reflects a widely held view of the ancient Greeks as a blithe, sportive, and carefree race in which, ‘man is at unity with himself, with his physical nature, with the outward world’. In 1853 Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales was published, a collection of classical myths retold for children.
Hawthorne included a story entitled ‘The Pomegranate Seeds’, his expurgated version of the Persephone myth in which the maiden goddess is surprisingly content with having been snatched by Hades and transported to his palace: she ‘was not quite so unhappy as you may have supposed. The immense palace had a thousand rooms, and was full of beautiful and wonderful objects’. Walter Pater, in the first part of his 1876 essay on ‘The Myth of Demeter and Persephone’ similarly deplored the ‘familiar view’ of Greek religion as a ‘religion of mere cheerfulness, the worship by an [...] unreflecting humanity, conscious of no deeper needs, of the embodiments of its own joyous activity’.
The oldest, most complete, and well-known extant version of the Demeter- Persephone myth is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Composed in dactylic hexameter verse (the same metre used in the Homeric epics), the Hymn was probably written between 650-550 B.C.E by an unknown bard, and celebrates the Greek goddess of grain Demeter and her only daughter Kore (‘maiden’) or Persephone.
Kore is enticed by the beauty of the lush meadow, strays from her companions and innocently wanders to gather roses, lilies, crocuses, violets, and hyacinths. Suddenly, the earth opens and the Lord of the Dead (Hades or Aidoneus) springs out and seizes her against her will, sweeping her off in his golden car to be his queen in the world below. The scene of the abduction, which may have been in any part of Demeter’s far-ranging domain, was said to be at Eleusis. Crazed with grief, Demeter roams the world searching for news of her daughter without success for nine days and nights. On the tenth day, she encounters Hecate, who knows no more than she does. Demeter and Hecate consult Helios, who informs them that Zeus gave Persephone to Hades to be his bed-mate. Bereaved and enraged, Demeter returns to Eleusis disguised as an old woman and gathers evidence of Hades’s guilt and Zeus’s connivance in the abduction. She blights the earth with barrenness until Kore is restored to her. Alarmed, and after several futile pleas to Demeter, Zeus orders Hades to return the maiden to her mother. Hades complies, but not before he has tempted Kore to eat the pomegranate that binds her to the world below. Compromising both with Hades and Demeter, Zeus permits Kore to live in the upper world for two- thirds of the year, but one-third is to be spent in the Underworld. Demeter’s unalloyed joy in her reunion with her daughter is thus forever shadowed by the bitter knowledge of Kore’s yearly departure for the infernal realm. Nevertheless, she transforms the dusty fields to golden grain, revealing to the princes of Eleusis her rites and sacred mysteries. Hecate, a mythic ‘double’ of Demeter, is entrusted with the task of watching over Kore/Persephone; Demeter returns to Olympus, and the revelations at Eleusis become the origins for the sacred rituals enacted there yearly.
Lawrence revelled in the fact that philosophers, historians, theologians, linguists, political theorists, anthropologists, and literary critics all had some cause to ponder the dual goddess of Demeter- Persephone, though it was difficult to claim as the legitimate and exclusive territory of any one intellectual discipline. His radically revisionist treatment of Persephone in his 1920 novel The Lost Girl, is anchored to some extent in a feeling of wonder at the sheer resilience and bewitching fascination of this ancient narrative: weathering the decline of antiquity, surviving the Middle Ages to emerge resplendent in the Renaissance.
Walter Pater, exploring the mechanisms at work in the genesis and evolution of ancient myths, affirmed that the imaginative and creative procedures underlying Demeter-Persephone were intertwined with a community’s halting endeavour to comprehend and articulate its own most searing impressions. Pater argued that Demeter-Persephone might be scrutinised as a mode of primitive science and encrypted history, adumbrating the partially concealed patterns of human thought.31 Lawrence averred that a myth’s survival in modified versions was predicated on its capacity to reproduce, at least in part, the cultural values required for its survival.
Milton prefigures Eve’s temptation with a memorable evocation of Persephone in Paradise Lost Book IV:
Not that faire field Of Enna, where Proserpine gathering flow’rs Herself a fairer flow’r by gloomy Dis Was gathered, which cost Ceres all that pain To seek her through the world. (IV. 268-272)33 Thereafter the Demeter-Persephone myth is as firmly grounded in English verse as in Latin or Greek. But when the Renaissance light dims, these fertility deities seem to vanish from poetry according to Guy Davenport: ‘[n]either the eighteenth century nor the early nineteenth century thinks it sees anything in her myth, except to reflect the subterranean existence of her Paradis artificial in such figures as [...] Poe’s Ligeia’. Why the myth should rise with such peculiar zest from its obscure artistic underworld into the ‘well-lit compound’ of Lawrence’s ‘wondrous Victorian age’ is uncertain.35 Direct influence of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter on Western art and literature re-emerges after the discovery in a stable in Moscow of the single mutilated medieval manuscript (dated to the early-fifteenth century) in 1777.
What is undeniable is that this account of a youthful goddess in flux, ‘wandering between two worlds’, from subterranean murkiness to springtime regeneration, resonated forcefully with a restless and nervously self- questioning generation of intellectuals who seemed to proclaim little of the smug self-regard that Lawrence’s Kangaroo ascribes to them. Matthew Arnold, however strenuous his need to fashion a resplendent Hellenic principle to shore up the foundations of a national idea, shows his speaker at the Grande Chartreuse unconvinced that a promising new dawn will follow night: ‘[y]ears hence, perhaps, may dawn an age, More fortunate, alas! than we’. Carlyle was tentative as to when that ‘dawn’ would irradiate his leaden surroundings: ‘[t]he doom of the Old has long been pronounced [...] but, alas, the New appears not in its stead; the Time is still in pangs of travail with the New’.
To John Stuart Mill ‘[t]he present age [...] is an age of transition. Mankind have outgrown [...] old doctrines, and have not yet acquired new ones’. ‘All ages are ages of transition’, Tennyson complained, ‘but this is an awful moment of transition’.
Lawrence’s tendentious critique in Kangaroo implies that any rigorous, sustained enterprise to resuscitate and reconfigure Demeter, Persephone, and other ‘dark gods’ was not properly inaugurated until after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘The Dead Pan’ (1840) exhorts her fellow writers to ‘Look up’ to the Christian heavens and not be distracted by the chthonic deities impiously lauded in Schiller’s poem The Gods of Greece (1788):
O ye vain false gods of Hellas, Ye are silent evermore! [...] Get to dust, as common mortals, By a common doom and track! Let no Schiller from the portals Of that Hades, call you back [...] (ll. 211-12, 218-21)
Barrett Browning’s righteous indignation fell largely on deaf ears. To Walter Pater, the myth of Demeter and Persephone was ‘perhaps the most popular of all Greek legends’ (GS, p. 111). Between 1850 and 1900 not only were the ‘vain false gods of Hellas’ reclaimed, but also a virtual cult of Demeter-Persephone appeared among a seminal group of poets, artists, ethnographers, and novelists. Lawrence fails to concede that the goddess snatched by Hades from the fields of Enna and dragged down to the shades, to re-emerge at last and reunite with her panic-stricken mother, takes on a complex, multi-layered significance in ‘the wondrous Victorian age’.
The years 1857-1859 denote an anthropological and archaeological fault- line, marking not only the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, but also the discovery of artefacts by Charles Newton (1816-1894) at a small cave sanctuary dedicated to Demeter in the ancient Greek port of Cnidus, situated at the end of a long finger of land pointing out into the Aegean sea from the southwest coast of Turkey. In ‘the year 1857’, Walter Pater explained, the ‘discovery of the marbles, in the sacred precinct of Demeter at Cnidus, restored to us an illustration of the myth in its artistic phase, hardly less central than the Homeric Hymn in its poetical phase’. Knowing, he continues, ‘so little, as we do, of the greater mysteries of Demeter, this glance into an actual religious place dedicated to her, and with the air of her worship still about it, is doubly interesting’ (GS, pp. 140, 142- 43).
Charles Newton was a pioneer of the nascent discipline of archaeology as it battled for a voice in the rendering of ancient Greek cult practices and mythic narratives to modern Europe. Newton was appointed as the first keeper of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum (a post he held from 1861 to 1888). Many artefacts came to the Museum from Newton’s digs, the most famous of them being the statues of Demeter and Persephone, now exhibited with other Cnidian relics in Room 22 of the Hellenistic Gallery. Newton’s chronicle of his expedition to several Hellenistic sites in Turkey from October 1856 to June 1859 is contained in an elephantine two-volume folio History of Discoveries at Halicarnassus, Cnidus, and Branchidae. Newton’s opus manifests the tensions between archaeology and Arnoldian Hellenism in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Chafing against the cheery, child-like Greek ideal and more attuned to anthropological insights, Newton advocated diligent collection and arrangement on typological principles over those of the aesthetic value or rarity prized by dilettanti amateur antiquarians. Newton interpreted, for example, the vases at the British Museum as striking textbooks of ritual culture, for they denoted ‘the penetration of Greek religion into all details of daily life and revealed religious practices and stories not included in the traditional myths’.
It is a piquant irony that many of the figures to whom Lawrence owed an imaginative debt in terms of unlocking the ‘door’ to the chthonic deities ‘tapping for admission’ were the very same rationalist Victorian scientists given such short shrift by Kangaroo’s imperious narrator. Charles Newton’s most renowned student, Jane Ellen Harrison, subsequently employed these materials in her expose of the dark gods who inhabited the irrational undertexture of Greek fertility cults. Harrison, reflecting on the 1871 publication of The Descent of Man in her 1909 pamphlet The Influence of Darwinism on the Study of Religions, inferred that research into primitive matriarchal deities ‘has been made possible, and even inevitable, by the theory of Evolution’, liberating humanity from the ‘presupposition that the essence of religion is dogma’. It was thanks to Darwin, Harrison opined, that the genesis and evolution of religious phenomena could finally be measured, like other phenomena, in a scientific way, that is, as a complex anthropological process. Instead of the inflexible images of Arnoldian Hellenism, evolutionist theory postulated endless mutability, ‘the continuity of life, the absence of breaks’, the ‘“acquirement of each mental capacity [even religion] by gradation”’. With these ‘memorable words’, the door [...] opens on the new horizon. The mental focus henceforth is not on the maintaining or refuting of an orthodoxy, but on the genesis and evolution of a capacity, not on perfection, but on process.
Lawrence’s ‘mysterious life-suggestion tapping for admission’ can be weighed against Harrison’s exultant notion of a ‘door’ opening on ‘the new horizon’. For Harrison this ‘process’ is aligned with a female earth-goddess such as Demeter, not a male divinity. She converts Darwin’s interpretation of nature into a courageous levelling of the variables essential to her concept of a male principle: fixed hierarchy, stern competition, a coercive morality, bullish individualism and rarefied spirituality. She constructs Darwin as the key exponent of a primarily physical view of humanity, since any superior mental traits evolved out of the species’ physical battle to survive. For Darwin, morality is not an unalterable right and wrong, laid down by religion. Instead, law is based on pressing social needs that are dynamic, volatile and fluid. Darwin’s evolutionary worldview privileged, according to Harrison, an amoral and collective female potency. Harrison would invoke Aeschylus’ Oresteia to show that law is a component of the social entity’s will to survive and thrive, just as matriarchal ‘blood-law’ is anchored not in mercy but in condign retributive justice which safeguards family structure, and especially ties to the mother.
Harrison’s image of ‘the door’ opening on a ‘new horizon’ in 1871 is notable, given that this year also saw Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) embark upon excavations at Ithaca to found Troy. Harrison read into the work of Schliemann unassailable proof that visions can become real and tangible:
‘We Hellenists were, in truth, at that time “a people who sat in darkness”, but we were soon to see a great light, two great lights – archaeology, anthropology. Classics were turning in their long sleep. [...] I had just left Cambridge when Schliemann began to dig at Troy.’ Hugh Kenner’s observation that ‘Schliemann had been to Troy, and a cosmos had altered’ may seem intemperate. But the activities of Schliemann and his acolytes at Troy and Mycenae became a source of enormous popular interest; readers relished the florid reports of how ‘the spade brought to light tomb after tomb, and how each tomb yielded its golden hoard’.
Swiss historian J. J. Bachofen argued in the 1860s that the earliest form of social structure was both matriarchal and matrilineal, a notion that offered little solace to the social and moral verities of the British elite who discussed a sublimely content and child-like Greek. This ideology of stability and permanent value chafed against Charles Newton’s ‘archaeological’ view that furnished material evidence of profound variation, and thus, a compelling rival system for interpreting the Greeks and their mythological heritage.
The ominous atavistic potencies that Lawrence explicitly links with ‘Demeter, Persephone, and the halls of Dis’, were also addressed in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, which appeared in 1872. Harrison (whose Prolegomena posits that the Olympian gods overthrew an older matriarchal cult and overlaid Dionysian ecstasies with Apollonian reason) believed no artist, philologist or archaeologist could scrutinise Greek drama or myth in the same way after Nietzsche’s illustration of the turbulent ‘Dionysian’ side of Greek religion. In 1909 she called The Birth of Tragedy ‘real genius’, and in her opinion, the rites of purification belonging to the lower stratum, ‘repulsive as they often are, [...] furnished ultimately the material out of which “mysteries” were made – mysteries which, [...] when informed by the new spirit of the religions of Dionysos [...] lent to Greece its deepest and most enduring religious impulse’ (PGR, p. 29). Harrison followed Nietzsche in imagining a kind of ‘Dionysian’ merging with others as a still desirable occasional goal, an escape from crippling inhibition, rather than a stage of totemism to be discarded forever.
For Pater, writing in the mid-1870s, the physical remains of Demeter and Persephone personified the Greeks’ ‘deepest thoughts concerning the conditions of [their] physical existence and spiritual life, maintained their hold through many changes, and are still not without their solemnising power even for the modern mind’ (GS, p. 151). Pater did not shrink from the fact that the ‘solemnising power’ included intimations of savage mysticism and violent disorder, even the orgiastic irrationality of a bacchanal.
One of Nietzsche’s most provocative arguments was directed against the ideality of Olympian religion and the entrenched classical tradition perpetuating Arnold’s fiction of Hellas as a chaste, static harmony rather than as a historical ferment. F. W. Robertson received a stern rebuke from Arnold for belittling the noble simplicity and serene greatness of Greek culture; but Robertson’s stringent analysis of Hellenic myth foreshadows a key component of Nietzsche’s theory by some twenty years: This bright world was all. Its revels – its dances – its theatrical exhibitions – [...] these were blessedness; and the Greek’s hell was death. Their poets speak pathetically of the misery of the wrench from all that is dear and bright. The dreadfulness of death is one of the most remarkable things [...] in those ancient writings.
Harrison’s high estimation of the Nietzschean perspective is perhaps unsurprising given that through her own analyses of specific festivals and cults, Olympian religion is everywhere perched precariously upon an older, precedent stratum of worship involving ‘snakes and ghosts and underworld beings’ (PGR, p. 28).65 For Nietzsche the entire Greek world was much more sinister than earlier Hellenists had ever conceived: ‘This mode of access to Antiquity [the Dionysian] is best left buried under rubble [...] It seems that the Greek world is a hundred times more concealed and alien than scholars of today in their brash manner would have it’. For Nietzsche the Dionysian Greek was no sober rationalist devoted to the soothing symmetries of logic, but deeply ‘intoxicated’ by religion, in its earliest form comprised of ‘festivals centred in extravagant sexual licentiousness’, a ‘horrible mixture of sensuality and cruelty which has always seemed to me to be the real “witches’ brew”'.
Nietzsche’s designation of ancient festivals as a ‘witches’ brew’, an irrational aspect largely elided in Arnold’s Hellenism, was prescient, given that archaeological digs in the 1870s would slowly establish the primacy of matriarchal goddesses like Demeter and Persephone behind Dionysian fertility cults. Though ‘nature for the first time attains her artistic jubilee’ in the ‘Dionysian orgies of the Greeks’, there was little room for imperious goddess-heroines in Nietzsche’s conception of Hellas, given that both Apollonian and Dionysian principles were overshadowed by male archetypes. It is in Harrison’s later inquiries that the Great Mother is elevated as prior to masculine divinities, that even Dionysus was a later cult merged with earlier mysteries and rituals dominated by goddess-worship.
In the late nineteenth century archaeologists of Greece decided that the compiler and classifier of excavational data in a multi-volume site report was the ideal creative persona’.69 But by focusing on non-narrative forms, archaeologists like Charles Newton inhibited their own capacity to elaborate the story of the relationship between ancient Greece and the West, which was for Ruskin a far more worthwhile pursuit.
Though sympathetic to Tylor’s arguments, Ruskin averred that man’s experience of the natural world was the true foundation upon which the Persephone myth rests. Though E. B. Tylor was, like his brother, a rationalist, he did not deny the vital role of poetic intuition in comprehending Persephone: ‘[f]ully to understand an old-world myth needs not evidence and argument alone’ but also ‘deep poetic feeling’.
John Addington Symonds, in Studies of the Greek Poets (1873-76), pushed the point further by calling myth a unique art-form, ‘[t]he raw material of silk may interest the merchant or the man of science; the artist cares for the manufactured fabric, with its curious patterns and refulgent hues’. Symonds and Ruskin argue that the Persephone myth, as it appears in great literature, is an occult expressive mode that registers unseen correspondences – a mode suited to the experimental artist. Winckelmann had viewed the first founders of Greek religion as ‘poets’. For Pater, the grammar of myth is one of mystical clairvoyance, purification and fleeting ecstatic illumination, distilling myriad experiences in an instant of vision. The mysteries of these displaced earth deities are discerned perhaps best by the maverick artist-hierophant, who prepares for them through stoical self- suppression and unswerving commitment to the arcane rites of craft.
If Ruskin chose to dwell on more ethereal and invigorating aspects of Greek religion, it is also apparent that the strength he drew from its mythology was inextricably connected with the chthonic shades that Lawrence depicts encroaching upon the spotless Victorian ‘compound’ illumined with sweetness and ‘electric light’. In an 1861 lecture on ‘Tree Twigs’, Ruskin spoke of the Greeks’ passionate attachment to flowers:
There is no Greek goddess corresponding to the Flora of the Romans. Their Flora is Persephone, “the bringer of death.” She plays for a little while in the Sicilian fields, gathering flowers, then snatched away by Pluto, receives her chief power as she vanishes from our sight, and is crowned in the grave. Ruskin’s Proserpina, whose cadences have more of an archaic Greek timbre than many of the period’s orotund translations, closed the gap between nature myth and stringent botanical enquiry, seeing plants in human terms. Indeed, mythical reference fuses with vivid personal memory in his elegiac title, Proserpina: Studies of Wayside Flowers, while the air was yet pure among the Alps, and in the Scotland and England which my Father knew. Though Ruskin relished the elaborate floral connotations of the mythic narrative, he also addressed Persephone’s kinship with the ineffable mystery of mortality; as did Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who began his brooding portrait of Jane Morris holding the pomegranate in 1872 and toiled with turbid luxuriance on successive versions of the picture Proserpina until his own death ten years later.
Ruskin revisits the Greek concept of death, with which his Persephone is associated, in The Queen of the Air (1866-1869): ‘Proserpina plays in the fields of Sicily, and thence is torn away into darkness, and becomes the Queen of Fate – not merely of death, but of the gloom which closes over and ends, not beauty only, but sin’. Ruskin’s sense of the ‘truth’ inherent in the myth’s ‘underworld tone’ was not literal but anchored in its moral implications, for the acute feeling of religious awe it conveyed. In The Queen of the Air, Greek mythology emits altogether more sinister energies as a sometimes degraded and wilfully misguided religion, ‘I could get, and do get, some help out of Greek myths – but they are full of earth, and horror, in spite of their beauty. Persephone is the sum of them’. Thus he wrote to Charles Eliot Norton in a mood of deep depression and nagging uncertainty.
Ruskin’s conception of the Persephone myth as ‘full of earth’ and ‘horror’ reflects in part the existential weariness and loss of Evangelical faith typifying his later years. Yet his humanistic accent on the religious intensity of Greek myth, appraising Greek handicrafts with graceful precision and delicacy, positing Greek coins as a correct reflection of Greek art, hailing sculpture as more instructive than Greek literary artefacts – all this anticipates Walter Pater’s materialist account of Demeter-Persephone in the 1870s. Ruskin’s notion in The Queen of the Air that ‘the highest phase in the human pottery [...] differs from common china-ware, primarily, by a measurable degree of heat’ evolves into Pater’s concept of man as an ‘old earthy creature’, ‘moulded’ from and slipping back into the soil as ‘perishing human clay’. Ruskin’s regard for the poignant commonness of the urns and utensils salvaged from the rubble at sites such as Pompeii and Vilci becomes in Pater’s scheme sympathy for the broken vessel of man who both emerges from and returns to Demeter’s earth.
Pater refers to the role of change itself as the cornerstone of culture:
[f]rom the vague and fluctuating union, in which together [Demeter and Persephone] had represented the earth and its changes, the mother and the daughter define themselves with special functions, and with fixed, well-understood relationships, the incidents and emotions of which soon weave themselves into a pathetic story. (GS, p. 92) Fashioned initially from an aesthetic response to seasonal shifts, Pater explains that over time the Greeks translated the unavoidable features of mutability and decay into a transcendental image of a mother and daughter.
For Pater the dual goddess of Demeter-Persephone is connected with both light and shade. The traditional sign of the grieving Demeter is her ‘robe of dark blue [...] the blue robe of the earth in shadow’ (GS, p. 116). In Marius the Epicurean, Marius’s mother is depicted as ‘languid and shadowy’ in her pious and wistful worship of the dead, suggesting the duality of the great goddess, an image of the mater dolorosa but also the deity at the threshold of the underworld. However much Pater may strive to domesticate and personalise the eerie death-goddess Persephone, even to the point of using terms and cadences evoking the Mona Lisa in The Renaissance, she is still for him ambiguous and unsettling, hinting at the freshness of new life in its intrinsic and anguished proximity to decomposition. His Persephone is sublime, grave, and chaste, embodying change, yet beyond change herself.
She is compact of sleep, and death, and flowers, but of narcotic flowers especially, – a revenant, who in the garden of Aidoneus has eaten of the pomegranate, and bears always the secret of decay in her, of return to the grave, in the mystery of those swallowed seeds; sometimes, in later work, holding in her hand the key of the great prison-house, but which unlocks all secrets also; [...] sometimes, like Demeter, the poppy. [...] Her shadowy eyes have gazed upon the fainter colouring of the under-world, and the tranquillity, born of it, has ‘passed into her face’. (GS, pp. 148-49)
This lady as sumptuous, almost bodiless deity, touching both arcane, trancelike awareness and oblivion, evokes the impassive, twilight Proserpine of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads. Pater intimates the inscrutable presence of Swinburne’s death-goddess, yet adroitly sidesteps what he considered Swinburne’s belligerent antitheism. Pater’s Persephone is not merely a deeply disquieting end toward which all things draw, but an ineffable presence containing a promise; her mysteries include not only ‘the secret of decay’ but ‘all secrets’ perhaps even that of resurrection – the ‘promise of life to come’ implicit in the ecstatic reunion of mother and daughter (GS, p. 93). This may explain why motifs of disinterred vestiges of forgotten cultures, opened graves and radiant cadavers are so prominent in Greek Studies as affecting metaphors of material transfiguration, ‘the very spirit of life itself’ working incessantly to fashion ‘soul and body out of the lime and clay of the earth’. Pater’s responsiveness to the ‘darker’ components of Persephone affects a narrative strand in late-Victorian poetry that translates the myth increasingly into what Adrienne Rich would term a century later as ‘the essential female tragedy’:
The loss of the daughter to the mother, the mother to the daughter, is the essential female tragedy. We acknowledge Lear (father-daughter split), Hamlet (son and mother) and Oedipus (son and mother) as great embodiments of the human tragedy: but there is no presently enduring recognition of the mother-daughter passion and rapture.
There was such a recognition, but we lost it. It was expressed in the religious mystery of Eleusis, which constituted the spiritual foundation of Greek life for two thousand years. [...] The separation of Demeter and Kore is an unwilling one, it is neither a question of the daughter’s rebellion against the mother, nor the mother’s rejection of the daughter [...] Each daughter, even in the millennia before Christ, must have longed for a mother whose love for her and whose power were so great as to undo rape and bring her back from death. And every mother must have longed for the power of Demeter, the efficacy of her anger, the reconciliation with her lost self.
For Alfred Lord Tennyson ‘the mother-daughter passion and rapture’ is fundamental, focusing specifically on the mourning and rage of Demeter, following her path of resolution and reconciliation with Persephone, through initiation into her Mysteries, and participation in her ability to confront the forces of mortality and transfigure them.103 But for female poets, the ‘religious mystery’ often conveys a sharp sense of physical and emotional trauma – to not know where one is heading, to recover and rely upon neglected parts of the self, waiting like a seed for a new unfolding that may never be attained.
One of the most seminal representations is Swinburne’s ‘fatal’ figure of the daughter goddess in the poems ‘Hymn to Proserpine’, ‘The Garden of Proserpine’, ‘At Eleusis’ and ‘Hesperia’, all published in the 1866 Poems and Ballads. Unlike classical storytelling which aims to reconcile polarities, signalling an ongoing cycle of blossoming-death- regeneration and transcendent spheres of experience, Swinburne envisages his own cultural milieu as one posited on the grim inevitability of division, alienation, and repression. He intimates that the true dancing ground for the Demeter-Persephone myth and its ‘shadowy’ dynamics is now the restlessly modern psyche. "Demeter sighs, but sure ’tis well The wife should love her destiny:
They part, and yet, as legends tell, She mourns her lost Persephone; While chant the maids of Enna still – ‘O fateful flower beside the rill – The daffodil, the daffodil!’" [Jean Ingelow, ll. 106-112] Ingelow is drawn to the myth as a paradigm in Greek art and literature for human marriage as a rite of initiation; in matrimony the bride undergoes a symbolic death before reincorporation into a new household as wife and mother.
The unutterably weary ‘sigh’ of Ingelow’s Demeter in the final adroitly structured, incantatory stanza conveys jaundiced recognition not only of the irrevocable and harrowing effects of the abduction, but also signifies that Persephone’s arranged marriage to Hades is a ‘dark hour’ (l. 97) the helpless daughter must learn to ‘love’ as a divinely ordained ‘destiny’. This cuts against a reading of the myth based on how the agricultural cycle, Demeter’s role as mediator on earth between heaven and Hades, and the stealing and eternal return of Persephone are all ‘necessary’ to link natural patterns with a human culture characterised by strict regulation of sexuality by matrimony. Instead, the daughter has to deal with the consequences of the most violent sexual interaction between men and women as if it were an irreproachable facet of genteel respectability. This is reminiscent of Michael Field’s 1881 evocation of ‘the dark world’ of ‘Aïdoneus’ in which the ‘Queen of Hades’ becomes a spectral apparition cut off from a romantic paradise of carefree joy, ‘wasted’ and longing for ‘the years / Of her girlhood amid the gay fields’.
However, Ingelow implies Persephone’s awareness of her own fate is more elliptical than what is strongly hinted by the opening scene of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which portrays her marriage to Hades as a deceptive and pitiless trick foisted by brutality upon an idyllic mother- daughter relationship. Ingelow’s maiden is also strangely entranced as she stoops ‘to gather by the rill / The daffodil’,6 a snare set by the Underworld Lord for whom she feels an intense, mysterious, though unarticulated sexual fascination. Demeter’s urgent question centres on why Persephone plucked the ‘flower’ (l. 111) that binds her to the ‘forlorn’ wastes of the netherworld. Ingelow intimates Persephone’s contradictory longings: the wish to be nurtured and the countervailing impulse to proclaim her own selfhood, unhampered by a stifling self-image dependent on unqualified identification with maternal and domestic duty. But the intricate rhyme scheme also encapsulates in sound-patterns the difficulty of breaking free from the coercive and claustrophobic grip of Hades:
What moved thee, daughter, to forsake Thy fellow-maids that fatal morn, And give the dark lord power to take (ll. 78-80)
Ingelow’s Persephone reflects pensively upon the ‘fateful doom’ that gives Hades dominion over her. The daughter has acquired a vividly realised corporeal identity upon her return to the fecund surface world of ‘harvest fields’ (l. 59) after enforced withdrawal in the subterranean realm: ‘[h]er eyelids droop with light oppressed, [...] / Her cheek upon her mother’s breast’ (ll. 85, 87).7 Demeter serves as the fitting symbol of beneficent maternity and loving concern, persevering in her desire to maintain control over her daughter, who represents both the biological extension of Demeter’s womanhood and her identity prior to sexual experience. The abducted Persephone emerges as a more nebulous entity, subverting social norms because of her removal from the rhythms of quotidian existence and her indissoluble link with mortality as the infernal queen. For Persephone, Demeter represents both the mothering she craves in an extended childhood and the maternal function she will assume as part of her sexual identity and as a consequence of rape.
Yet Ingelow’s Persephone may also logically appeal to male fantasies of power and privilege because of her silent, albeit only seasonal, enslavement to her spouse. She cannot stay with Demeter after her return, not merely because she has eaten ‘the cleft pomegranate seeds’ (l. 64) that her consort tricked her into consuming, but also because he has ‘left his shadow plain to see’ on her ‘fair face’ (ll. 104-5): initiation into heterosexual activity, Ingelow implies, has ‘left’ its indelible impression or ‘trace’ (l. 96), irreversibly altering the maiden’s subjective perception of ‘the fair Eleusian meads’ (l. 55) and the condition of near-fusion she once enjoyed with her mother and other young women.8 This sharply contrasts with Tennyson’s later representation of the returned Persephone, in whose ‘face’, according to Demeter, a ‘gleam of the moon’ chases away that ‘shadow of a likeness to the king / Of shadows, thy dark mate’ (ll. 13-17). This gradual evolution of consciousness, from ‘Demeter’s daughter fresh’, ‘child of light, a radiant lass’ (ll. 2-3) to ‘Calm Queen of Hades’ (l. 89) is unavoidable: the stoical and numbed calmness Persephone adopts in the underworld is measured against her ‘gloomy-browed’ mother’s frantic and febrile preoccupation with her daughter’s safety after the seizure.
But Ingelow’s closing stanza problematises this idea of Persephone’s inexorable growth: ‘as legends tell’ Demeter ‘mourns her lost Persephone’ (ll. 108-9). Does Ingelow reveal here the myth is merely one of those canny male-devised ‘legends’ compelling us to sanction the daughter’s rape not as unpunished crime but as the predictable by-product of her wayward curiosity and insistent cravings for greater independence? Ingelow makes a more trenchant point: whatever ‘legends’ may ‘tell’ us about the interests of the male chroniclers who invent and perpetuate them, the female poet can successfully inhabit gaps and hesitations in these traditional narratives, fashioning urgently modern meanings that do not blandly reproduce or acquiesce in conventional belief. Ingelow evokes a nuanced mythic heritage and rehabilitates a story about women who are not exclusively engaged in securing or spurning a mate.
Probably because she herself had lost a daughter, Mary Shelley tells the story almost completely from the mother’s perspective, an elegiac tribute to female fecundity as ‘[l]eaf, and blade, and bud, and blossom’. Just as Ingelow charts the extent to which the seizure of Persephone severely disrupts a pastoral period of relaxed communality between women, so Act I of Shelley’s Proserpine recounts the story of Arethusa, the female stream that flees from the brackish waters of pursuing Alpheus, presaging a future disaster that will divide the mother from maiden.
Shelley anticipates Ingelow and other Victorian women poets in rendering the Demeter-Persephone myth as a peculiarly rich female version of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The original verdant garden is lost not through any female transgression, but due to a male predatory interloper. The abduction and rape of the daughter takes place in the silence between Shelley’s Acts I and II, implying that the iron car, steeds, and spear of Hades are too terrifying to represent; his absence is fitting since he presides over a domain of non-being. The underworld Lord’s ‘authority’, a bullish and belligerent energy that destroys, is directly opposed to the Mother-Goddess’s tender capacity to create and sustain, showing unswerving devotion to her missing child. Susan Gubar pushes the point further: ‘Shelley seems drawn to the myth precisely because it allows her to remember a time when such so-called “feminine” qualities as emotional responsiveness, physical spontaneity and instinctual selfhood were valued over “masculine” rationality, competition and control.’
While Shelley and Ingelow articulate the mother’s grief, Elizabeth Barrett Browning focuses more on the daughter’s plight, although she also avoids a direct depiction of the underworld male’s aggression. In her verse novel Aurora Leigh (1856), Marian Erle’s innocence and her child, a ‘rosier flushed / Pomegranate’ (VI. 564-65) recalls the mythic Persephone. No cleaner maid than I was, took a step To a sadder end, – no matron-mother now Looks backward to her early maidenhood Through chaster pulses. (VI: 756-759)
Marian describes herself as not ‘seduced’ but ‘simply, murdered’ (VI. 769- 70). She asks, ‘Do wolves seduce a wandering fawn? [...] / Do eagles, who have pinched a lamb with claws, / Seduce it into carrion? (VI. 766-68). Browning shows Marian, at a much earlier age, fleeing her family when handed over to an affluent squire whose ‘beast eyes’ seemed ‘as if they would swallow her alive’ (III. 1050-51). This pernicious pattern of entrapment and deprivation indicates Marian’s sexual initiation is an inescapable kidnap to Hades in which she is ‘ground’, and ‘tortured’ (VI. 810), implying a ‘darkness where obedience was the only seen duty of women’. Marian’s plight evinces, in the words of H.D., how the mythical ‘script’ is itself ‘a snare’, in which even the most quick-witted heroine would feel enmeshed in an uncongenial and life-denying plot. Compelled to submit to male prerogative, Marian gives birth to a child described as a ‘flower of death’: like Ingelow’s Persephone, Marian is indelibly ‘marked’ and ‘bruised’ (VI. 811) by her enforced estrangement from female community in the subterranean setting. Marian senses that the mother in her has survived, but she is ‘not less dead for that: [...] nothing more / But just a mother’ (VI. 822-23).
Whereas Ingelow mines the mythic material to explore the impact of a male intruder’s unprovoked assault upon a mother-daughter bond Demeter perceives as more precious than her own immortality, the post-Christian Swinburne reappraises the ancient text to foreground issues of continuance beyond the grave feverishly debated among his peers. Swinburne registers to what extent the vague prospect of immortality was assessed by many nineteenth-century writers who maintained liberal or even wildly unorthodox views about the Christian theology of the afterlife. Dickens, Emily Brontë, Tennyson, and the Brownings all attempted to hold onto ‘the steadfast rock of Immortality’ with a desperate energy. What takes place after death, and what slender form of life in futurity, if any, is vouchsafed the visionary artist through the continuation of his work, are key questions imbuing the majority of Victorian poems written by men on what Francis Turner Palgrave called in 1871 the ‘realm of the dread Maid, Demeter’s child, / Who gathers all, and gives none back again’. Swinburne’s ‘Hymn to Proserpine’, ‘The Garden of Proserpine’, ‘At Eleusis’ and ‘Hesperia’, perform a tricky act of negotiation with ideas of pagan survival and poetic endurance. For Swinburne, persistent engagement with unresolved questions about how his own words might contribute to human culture infuses his self-defining refutation of Christian faith and its theology of the afterlife.
Swinburne’s Proserpine lyrics, though hinging upon issues of temporal continuation and historical flux, refuse to dramatise the brooding anxiety over the soul’s endurance fuelling Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850). Nor do they seek the glib consolations of kindly revenants in the final poem of Christina Rossetti’s Later Life: A Double Sonnet of Sonnets (1881), where the speaker finds solace in benign phantasmal presences: ‘the dead may be around us, dear and dead / The unforgotten dearest dead may be / Watching us with unslumbering eyes and heart’ (ll. 9-11). Without aping the secular extremes of Percy Shelley’s Adonais (1821) – locating comfort in the notion that the dead no longer register the grievous disappointments of earthly life – Swinburne’s Proserpine lyrics hesitantly contemplate the problems and possibilities of departed energy returning to irradiate the twilight years." [The Lost Girls]
"ἐδιζησάμην ἐμεωυτόν." [Heraclitus]
"All that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both." [Aeschylus, Prometheus]
"The history of everyday is constituted by our habits. ... How have you lived today?" [N.]
*Become clean, my friends.*
Lyssa Har Har Harr
Gender : Posts : 9031 Join date : 2012-03-01 Location : The Cockpit
"Swinburne anticipates Ezra Pound and H.D. who invoke the ancient gods not only as figurative markers in civilised discourse, but also as psychological markers within the creative process itself. But a belief, in the words of ‘The Last Oracle’, that the pagan ‘past is not utterly past’ is smothered by a bleak awareness that ancient deities and occult practices have been assimilated into orthodox Christianity through its unrelenting crusade to project itself as more palatable to the peoples it strives to quell and convert. In ‘Hymn to Proserpine’, an attenuated Demeter is preserved by the Church as a masculine saint figure – Saint Demetrius, patron of agriculture.
‘Hymn to Proserpine’, the monologue of an ancient pagan, mourns the collapse of his religion at the arrival of a sterile Christianity, a faith inimical to the sensual indulgences of his tangible milieu. The ‘Hymn’ projects – in a manner not dissimilar to Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues in Men and Women (1855) and Dramatis Personae (1864) – an individual anxiously situated at a cultural crossroads in Western religious history. Swinburne turns away from Demeter to Proserpina, who becomes the core embodiment of a beleaguered, though cherished, pagan ideal. Swinburne’s speaker laments the dishonouring and remorseless erasure from consciousness of the feminine deity and all she personifies: the hypocritical requisition of her powers by a ruthless, renegade, masculine invader. Even more scalding is the dominance of a split-off masculine vision that defines itself by its autonomy from female, body, and nature; and the reductive imposition of this autonomy as the only blueprint for social identity in both men and women. All this is intermingled with the long shadow cast by the ‘pale Galilean’ and a Christian faith that has made ‘the whole world moan with hymns of wrath and wrong’. The ‘Hymn to Proserpine’ exploits the associations that cluster around the youthful goddess to protest against the dissolving of the pagan faith she personifies and its violent usurpation by Christian teaching. The motto epigraph of the ‘Hymn’ Vicisti, Galilæe (‘You have conquered, Galilean’) were the supposed dying words of Julian the Apostate, emperor of Rome 360-63, who had unsuccessfully tried to restore paganism to the empire. Swinburne’s speaker sarcastically adapts the emperor’s declaration to accommodate his antipathy for a stultifying Christian creed.
Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath; We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death. Laurel is green for a season, and love is sweet for a day; But love grows bitter with treason, and laurel outlives not May. Sleep, shall we sleep after all? for the world is not sweet in the end; For the old faiths loosen and fall, the new years ruin and rend. Fate is a sea without shore, and the soul is a rock that abides; But her ears are vexed with the roar and her face with the foam of the tides. O lips that the live blood faints in, the leavings of racks and rods! O ghastly glories of saints, dead limbs of gibbeted Gods! (ll. 35-44)
In the ‘Hymn’, Proserpine is earth’s daughter, and like all of earth’s offspring she belongs in the dark of the soil. As goddess of mortality, she will overpower all other deities, both pagan and Christian; Venus and Apollo have perished and the Galilean’s austere kingdom will pass, but the ‘Goddess and maiden and queen’ (‘Hymn’ l. 2) of the departed ‘surely abide[s] in the end’. Her gifts, the rose-sweet poppies of forgetfulness, are superior to art and love, more substantial than the gifts of Christ and Mary (‘Hymn’ ll. 71- 90). For in Proserpine’s domain only, according to Swinburne’s speaker, is there serene harmony and the calm of oblivion: ‘[t]here is no God found stronger than death; and death is a sleep’ (‘Hymn’ l. 110). This final statement, in what has been interpreted as a foretaste of modish 1890s nihilism, bluntly repudiates the Christian doctrine of immortality, and even the desire for everlasting life. These lines fortify a sense, not so much of the defeat of death, but of its terrible and desolating ubiquity. Swinburne’s ‘Proserpine’ lyrics tackle, with a fretful energy that is at times virulent, the growing challenge of pessimism to contend the moral implications of mortality, the sanctity or outrage of the material universe, and whether despair emancipates individual consciousness instead of crushing it.
‘Hymn to Proserpine’ and the better-known if gentler lyric ‘The Garden of Proserpine’, provoked John Morley to respond that Swinburne was always either ‘the vindictive apostle of a crushing and ironshod despair’, or else ‘the libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs’. Jane Harrison’s reaction to Swinburne’s ‘Proserpine’ poems was in striking contrast to Morley’s hysterical censure. She resonated with the classical ideas and imagery, but also fell under the hypnotic spell of the Swinburnian cadences, his ‘beguiling witchery of sound’. To her, Swinburne’s poetic vision in the Proserpine lyrics epitomised ‘passion and rebellion and liberty and the sea’, as opposed to the deadening disappointment of everyday perception, ‘the dull residuum of golden dreams’. It was Swinburne’s avowed aim to subordinate his own gifts to the ideal of re-creating a version of Hellenism for the sustenance of those consigned to a hidebound and humourless cultural milieu in which ‘the watersprings that spake are quenched and dead’.
In his ‘Notes on Poems and Reviews’ (1866), Swinburne describes ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ as a dramatically expressive lyric rather than as a crisp and systematic philosophical statement; it illustrates ‘that brief total pause of passion and of thought’ (after ‘tempestuous pleasures’) when ‘the spirit, without fear or hope of good things or evil, hungers and thirsts only after the perfect sleep’.
In this poem Proserpine stands at the garden-entrance to the domain of the dead, garlanded with a crown of poppies and having prepared a wine of oblivion from them. Although Wordsworth’s ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’ (1800) and Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819) famously invoke the easeful or restful condition of death, a theme continued by Tennyson’s ‘The Lotos-Eaters’ (1832) and Christina Rossetti’s sonnet ‘Rest’ (1862), Swinburne’s lyric is unusual in expressing feelings generalized, codified, and theoretically validated by a worldview whose tone is ‘pointedly unconsoled, even anti-consolatory’.39 Celebrating the finality of death, he depicts the tranquil ‘pale’ charm of the goddess who welcomes the poet- speaker in retreat from ‘tears and laughter’:
No growth of moor or coppice, No heather flower or vine, But bloomless buds of poppies, Green grapes of Proserpine, Pale beds of blowing rushes Where no leaf blooms or blushes Save this whereout she crushes For dead men deadly wine. (ll. 25-32)
Swinburne diminishes Proserpine’s tangible actuality both here and in the ‘Hymn’. Even in the blank verse of ‘At Eleusis’, when Demeter tries to ascribe vivid physical specificity to her lost daughter, she remains nebulous and insubstantial:
Seeing I have sworn by the pale temples’ band And poppied hair of gold Persephone Sad-tressed and pleached low down about her brows, And by the sorrow in her lips, and death Her dumb and mournful-mouthed minister (ll. 207-11)
Though commentators maintain that the physical presence of Swinburne’s female figures tends to dissolve through synecdoche into an impressionistic haze of rarefied grace, Proserpine is the most ungraspable entity. Indeed, Swinburne’s fate has frequently been to be perceived as a poet too engrossed with diffuse verbal textures.
Proserpine has only eyes like moons and ‘the sweet low light of [her] face’ (ll. 95, 101), signifying the radiance of consciousness liberated from the prison-house of flesh. This is a less threatening and sinister rendering than that in Francis Turner Palgrave’s ‘Alcestis’ (1871): ‘Persephone, crown’d with harvest’s golden ear, / And eyes too dreadful to be look’d upon’ (ll. 236-37). In ‘The Garden’, Proserpine uses ‘cold immortal hands’ to garner ‘all things mortal’, not merely the flowers, since in her new realm ‘flowers are put to scorn’ (‘Garden’, l. 64) but also the tainted, trivial and perishable blossoms of human lives. The chill of her immortality in this death-obsessed poem negates any gentle sense of palpable presence that the image of the hands might otherwise imply. This Proserpine also has pale skin and ‘languid lips’ (‘Garden’, l. 53) denoting a form at once delicate and seductive. Swinburne’s Proserpine, as a death- goddess, must evoke either a cadaver or the bodiless state itself; but since she also disavows life as a gesture to be valued, she epitomises a rejection of the female body as a vessel of earthly existence.
Swinburne fashions a Proserpine in these poems as the antithesis to Venus, a luxuriously fecund and joyously sensual figure who exhibits ‘deep hair heavily laden with odour and colour of flowers’ (l. 82). Venus exudes a triumphant maternity: she is a powerfully procreative ‘mother of Rome’ (‘Hymn’, l. 80). Proserpine on the other hand is in both poems a baffling conundrum, a goddess as mixed metaphor combining the visual and aural, whose outlines dissolve in an enticing, willed haze. She is the daughter who ‘forgets the earth her mother’ (‘Garden’, l. 59) and who is estranged from its cyclical rhythms and the banal facts of matter itself. In the ‘Hymn to Proserpine’ Venus’s vibrant immediacy is measured against Proserpine’s almost total abdication from that arena of bodily delight, through which Swinburne proposes metaphors evading crisp precision with a sustained strategic deliberateness. This duality also infuses the ‘Fatal’ Proserpine figures fashioned by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Swinburne’s close friend at the period of these poems. As Rossetti’s paintings demonstrate visually, the Pre- Raphaelite Proserpine is a strangely pallid but sultry-looking queen, drained, indeed almost lifeless through sleep-inducing poppies, despite making a spectacular appeal to the senses.
Rossetti’s visual and literary representation of Proserpine was to D. H. Lawrence a cynical counterfeiting of real emotions, sapped of natural heartiness and lacking the sensual quality it seemed to flaunt. As a mythological figure, Proserpine harmonises with Rossetti’s artistic manifesto of replication and resurrection. Her abduction at the hands of Pluto and subsequent interment in the underworld for six months of each year places her at the centre of a struggle between life and death evinced through a multitude of images such as light and dark, hope and despair, renewal and decay, togetherness and separation, which are so integral to Rossetti’s oeuvre:
Afar away the light that brings cold cheer Unto this wall, – one instant and no more Admitted at my distant palace-door. Afar the flowers of Enna from this drear Dire fruit, which, tasted once, must thrall me here. Afar those skies from this Tartarean grey That chills me: and afar, how far away, The nights that shall be from the days that were. Afar from mine own self I seem, and wing Strange ways in thought, and listen for a sign: And still some heart unto some soul doth pine, (Whose sounds mine inner sense is fain to bring, Continually together murmuring,) – “Woe’s me for thee, unhappy Proserpine!”
His sonnet opens by evoking a distinct lack of light ‘that brings cold cheer’ for an ‘instant and no more’ (ll. 1-2). This image is far from the vale of ‘Enna’ where Proserpine was snatched by the lustful Pluto. The sonnet casts a shadow over that life once apprehended, conveying a feeling of the chill emptiness of nights to come. The transient nature of existence is constructed through this image of light narrowed and restricted, much as it is in ‘Our Lady of the Rocks’, where ‘[t]ime’s each instant’ demands a blessing for the dead, and the ‘Tartarean grey’ invokes the ‘dark avenue / Amid the bitterness of things occult’. The sestet of the ‘Proserpine’ sonnet expresses the imprisoned female, echoing the transformation of Mary following the Annunciation: ‘[a]far from mine own self I seem, and wing / Strange ways in thought, and listen for a sign: / And still some heart unto some soul doth pine’ (ll. 9-11). As the immortal female figure cast in the role of sorrow and bereavement, Proserpine prefigures the Virgin Mary, but in Rossetti’s art she is created out of Mary.
Swinburne’s Proserpine lyrics avoid Rossetti’s visual and verbal emphasis on the goddess as a product of his multiple visions of Mary’s ‘great sorrow and great reward’: ‘What more of anguish than / Endurance oft hath lived through, the whole space / Through night till day, passed weak upon her face’. But both are drawn to Proserpine as a feminine ideal of death-worship, evacuated of vibrant, enabling attributes. In Swinburne’s ‘Garden’ the young goddess is only one among myriad images of oblivion by which the reader’s perception is relocated to a trance-like visionary comprehension of the ‘sleep eternal / In an eternal night’ with which the poem concludes (‘Garden’, ll. 95-6). Proserpine represents nullity, a void of unbeing, pointing to the abject failure of all signification, questioning the status of language to distil not only this condition, but all life’s perfidious, impermanent ‘dreams’ (‘Garden’, l.15). This is in striking contrast to the later Swinburne poem ‘In Memory of Barry Cornwall’, which revisits the Proserpine imagery (flowers and the soft sweet slumber of death), and adds a teasing sense of incorporeal, ineffable continuation largely absent from the earlier lyrics:
Time takes them home that we loved, fair names and famous, To the soft long sleep, to the broad sweet bosom of death; But the flower of their souls he shall take not away to shame us, Nor the lips lack song for ever that now lack breath. For with us shall the music and perfume that die not dwell, Though the dead to our dead bid welcome, and we farewell. (ll. 31-6)
The wistful interlocking of ‘death [...] breath’ and ‘dwell [...] farewell’ captures the inevitability of earthly life’s cessation, but despite negatives – ‘take not’, ‘[n]or [...] lack song [...] lack breath [...] die not’ – the stanza intimates a plangent feeling for some fragile, flickering hope of continuance for Cornwall’s cadence despite the ultimate clammy confinement of the grave. The images and rhythms, the substance and formal movements, express with delicate sureness of touch how Cornwall is absorbed into the climate in which men and women live too, as if mysteriously part of the breathed atmosphere, through the lulling intangibles of ‘music and perfume’, sound, and scent.
In Swinburne’s Proserpine lyrics, however, the goddess of sleep is a galling reminder that the things blithely designated as concrete actuality are not victoriously clear, but rather are sketchy, treacherous and ephemeral figures offering no guarantee of a more rewarding existence. Swinburne presents a universe whose torment is a weary weight sustained by the blind will to live, which we must learn to deny. This may be one reason why the Proserpine poems exert such an irresistible hold over Hardy’s imagination in Tess of the d’Urbervilles: with sumptuous verbal strategies the ‘Garden’ signifies that words, however mellifluous, have only a tenuous and unstable relation to the things they describe.47 Hardy relished the caustic irony that regardless of whether we turn towards the Hymn’s expansive, rolling, hexameter cadences, or The Garden’s more compact iambic trimeters,48 the goddess infusing both poems conveys the unsettling absence of rhythmical poise and order, the slippery ambiguities of language itself, and the ineluctable slide into meaningless flux.
One of the first poems overtly to address the image of Swinburne’s sinister fertility goddess was penned by Christina Rossetti’s Anglican feminist friend Dora Greenwell, in the 1869 volume Carmina Crucis. Greenwell’s poem ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ identifies the driving energy of the myth as intoxicatingly sensual rather than strictly and narrowly pious. Greenwell reappraises Swinburne’s concept of Proserpine’s association with poppies, narcotised slumber, and mortality to denote the soul’s hesitant yet highly charged awareness of physical appetite at odds with religious teaching:
No roses, white nor red, Glow here, the poppy’s head Droops drown’d in spells that keep The keys of death and sleep, Of anguish, ecstasy, and wild desire (ll. 13-17)
In the final four lines – reminiscent of the ‘daffodil’ refrain of Jean Ingelow’s ‘Persephone’ – Greenwell’s Proserpine measures her own intense yearning to recover lost virginity (‘a crimson stain’, ‘petal hints at grief’) against the ‘brief thrill of rapture in a pang that dies’ experienced in Pluto’s bed of fragile blossoms.
Here walks a Queen with steadfast eyes unwet, With white Narcissus garlanded, that still Dreams of fair Enna’s sunlit mead, and yet Mourns for the fresh, ungather’d daffodil. (ll. 24-27)
Whereas Ingelow’s tightly regulated stanzas and lulling ‘daffodil’ refrains enact a numbed, disoriented coming to terms with Persephone’s enforced withdrawal from the mother, Greenwell’s nervously variable metrical patterns and rhyme schemes manifest a chafing unease at how irreversible changes have taken effect, to which the speaker cannot be silently reconciled.
Ingelow and Greenwell both adopt the Persephone myth as a means of portraying how heterosexual experience in general, and bourgeois matrimony in particular, disrupts the traditional communal ties between women. This poetic tactic is a counterbalance to the themes of pessimism and immortality explored with dogmatic severity in Swinburne’s Proserpine lyrics. Greenwell’s Maiden goddess is beguiled by that ‘garden rare’ (l. 65) with its ‘dark, fiery, sweet’ Hell-flowers (l. 66), while also seeking the artless sensuality of her earlier contact with her mother.
But, mother, tell me of the wet Cool primrose! Of the lilac bough And its warm gust of rapture, met In summer days! – art listening yet? (ll. 75-78 )
The carefully calibrated description of Cora’s underworld garden, the perishable beauty of whose flowers is alliteratively ‘fed with fire’ (l 71), evokes not only Baudelairean fleurs du mal but invite comparisons with Swinburne. However, Greenwell’s portrayal of ‘fair’, ‘large-leaved’, ‘large- blossomed’ plants conveys an overflowing ripeness transcending the parched, barren elegance of Swinburne’s ‘Garden of Proserpine’ whose destructive iconoclasm seems to induce a modern existential misery by which selfhood is ‘shut fast / In its own jail of [...] solitary pain’. The intensity of feeling inspired by these flowers (‘They kindle in a torch-like flame / Half-ecstasy, half tender shame’, ll. 72-3) moves away from straightforward floral metaphor to give veiled indications of what Greenwell signals as the subjective experience of a ‘fallen woman’. Cora’s insistence that these blooms are ‘frail’ and soon to die (ll. 110-11) reaffirms a traditional association of female beauty and sexuality with the swift mortality of flowers, as in Edmund Waller’s ‘Go, Lovely Rose’ or Robert Herrick’s ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’; but while this association is usually affirmed to exhort women to indulge men’s desires, Greenwell employs it here not only to privilege female satisfaction, but to denote that the attainment of such satisfaction is morally problematic.
George Meredith, Swinburne’s friend and fellow radical, stubbornly resists Swinburne’s disillusioned semiotics while reinforcing his firm rejection of an orthodox Christian afterlife.53 Meredith’s Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth (1883) were reviewed by the St. James’s Gazette as a compelling antidote to the ‘deeply pessimistic note’ typical ‘of much of the poetry that has appeared lately’; and by the Pall Mall Gazette as reviving ‘an old aim of the poet, now in some danger of being forgotten, that of celebrating the good which man has in that he simply lives and shares in the seasons’.54 Both reviews warmly praise ‘The Day of the Daughter of Hades’, which furnishes a new addition to the myth, in the figure of Skiageneia (‘shade-born’), Persephone’s daughter by Hades. Skiageneia, forbidden by Hades to visit the living upper world, has for once concealed herself in her mother’s chariot to see that vibrant locale in which she can never stay and to which, she knows, she is doomed never to return. Her encounter with the mortal singer Callistes is the poem’s central focus, but it is not a mawkishly sentimental encounter: Skiageneia’s ‘wan smile’ and ‘wonderful voice’ suggest an uneroticised physicality, rejoicing in simple earthly pleasure as opposed to Swinburne’s Proserpine. As Callistes witnesses her enjoyment of every living thing, he gradually and joyously acknowledges that the life of a ‘husbandman’s toil and strife about him’ in a rapidly changing world is numinous. Callistes accepts that Skiageneia’s fate is that of all humans. She embodies the religion of nature that Meredith everywhere avows: the brevity of quotidian life, the inevitability and finality of death, and the holiness of that which can be enjoyed for so short a time.
Meredith’s enabling sense of the mystical contained within and released by the everyday – the cadences are crowded with vegetable life such as crocus, asphodel, narcissus, hyacinth-bells – is buttressed by the propulsive anapaestic trimeters which enact the expansion and contraction of sound waves as intensely physical phenomena to which humans respond with delighted excitement. The sacred truth of the palpable environment awaits our grasp, in ‘corn, wine, fruit’ and ‘oil’. The arduous work of physical subsistence, seeking nourishment from the fruits of the earth, which Swinburne dismisses with drained ennui in ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ (ll. 5- 7, 9-12, 59-60), carries an ongoing sacramental suggestiveness in Meredith’s poem (section 8: ll. 40-61).56 Death itself, then, affirms the values of life, whereas in Swinburne’s early work death undermines and corrodes all human belief. In this might be seen Meredith’s mild criticism of Tennyson, who, instead of extolling the copious holy material of the sublunary world, sought a means of transcending it, to save the human spirit from the crushing certainty of extinction. Meredith’s intensely celebratory secular vision repudiates winsome nostalgia, and affords a more bracing mode of resistance to the tenor of Swinburne’s Proserpine lyrics. Tennyson, whose attitude to Swinburne was an uneasy blend of haughty disdain, intense artistic competitiveness, and wonder at his younger rival’s dazzling technical expertise, counters and strives to rectify what he regards as Swinburne’s uncompromisingly anti-Christian treatment of the myth.59 The story of Persephone’s exile had been familiar to Tennyson since his childhood, long before Swinburne drafted his Proserpine lyrics. Tennyson had translated part of Claudian’s De Raptu Proserpinae, and the myth resurfaced in myriad allusions and similes from The Lover’s Tale (1828 ) onwards, though emphasis is on heterosexual love rather than on immortality.
Critical debate of Tennyson’s version of the Persephone myth tends to view the flower maiden as a figure for the poet’s impatient creative personality. G. Robert Stange sees her as Tennyson’s articulation of the qualities cherished by the artist – imperial, dispassionate and moving between the divided and distinguished worlds of concrete forms and visionary splendour. However, Tennyson’s Persephone is not so much a symbol for a largely untapped wellspring of artistic vigour as the distilled essence of a barely remembered history that the mature, chastened artist tries to resuscitate. His many expressions of craving for such an ideal heritage generally reveals strong affinities between the flower maiden, her bucolic playground, and the fecund countryside whose contours signify the vanished world of a magisterial past. In a letter Tennyson described this association between a pastoral locale and a condition of life far removed from the exigencies of an unlovely modernity:
dim mystic sympathies with tree and hill reaching far back into childhood. A known landskip is to me an old friend, that continually talks to me of my own youth and half- forgotten things, and indeed does more for me than many an old friend that I know. An old park is my delight, and I could tumble about in it forever.
In pointed contrast to Swinburne’s Proserpine, who guards a nebulous, inchoate, and shadowy domain, Tennyson reinvents the goddess so that she gives anthropomorphic form to the rural ‘parks’ of a limpid, crisply structured, and unclouded past. Tennyson’s Persephone, with her own sacred vale of Enna, is the presiding spirit for ‘tree’ and ‘hill’. She beckons the adult poet, disenchanted with the vistas of a blighted present, into a serene visionary state, implying the child’s attainment of rapt harmony with a natural milieu.66 Tennyson’s Persephone is interchangeable with her environment so that the mere imprint of her foot can restore verdure that had seemed dreary and parched while she was incarcerated in Hades: ‘See’, cries Demeter, ‘thy foot has touched it; all the space / Of black earth-baldness clothes itself afresh’ (ll. 48-49).
Tennyson, like Meredith, elaborates the shock and mourning of a mother bereaved of her child and her joy at their reunion. The monologue reveals little about the psychology of Aidoneus (Pluto/Dis) himself, or whether the underworld approximates to the creative unconscious. Instead of depicting the suddenness and brutality of Persephone’s transition to the world below, Tennyson reduces the maiden to a ‘dazed and dumb’ cipher at the hands of Aidoneus, glossing over the sojourn in Hades as an intermission of existential emptiness, an energy sink. It was Demeter alone for whom the poem was originally named and who gave Tennyson occasion to write the monologue in the first place (she was, he said, ‘one of the most beautiful types of motherhood’).
Although Demeter has been construed as the surrogate spirit for the poet himself, Tennyson, while conveying the deity’s thought-patterns in response to the rupture, is not so preoccupied by rendering her rhythms of consciousness. Demeter’s utterance is aimed, not inward, but towards her daughter and functions primarily as a past-tense narrative of events that have occurred in Persephone’s bitter absence. The mythic structure becomes a domestic drama of the hearth, and though a goddess, Demeter loses none of the mother’s implacable intensity. Tennyson filters her passion through the decorous, dignified restraint befitting the august authority of a deity, rather than hinting at any feral resolve to protect a defenceless child, the seed life full of potential that is not to be cut down by premature death. ‘[I] heard / The murmur of their temples chanting me, / Me, me, the desolate Mother!’ The repetition of ‘me’ suggests a rising emotional gradient, but only in the context of the worship accorded to Demeter as her natural right and privilege.
The mythical archetype gave Tennyson a structural principle that resonated with his private obsessions, allowing him to explore an initial age of prelapsarian tranquillity in which Persephone plays in the fields, symbolising continuity and simple wisdom; a second, visionary stage, reflecting the emergence of Hades and the abduction of the flower maiden that separates two time periods, one of innocent delight in felt sensation to poisoned realisation; a third stage, in which the world languishes in a bleakly monotonous wasteland; and finally, a partial restoration of equilibrium as mother and daughter are reunited, though shadowed by the dark knowledge that anarchic energies could recrudesce at any moment.
Tennyson challenges Swinburne’s poetic strategies by depicting Christianity as a ‘superior’ theology to paganism because of its relation to the account of a mother’s love so resonant it could compel a profound alteration in the divine order. Though Tennyson reacts to the myth as an evocative, female-centred text, he converts the jarring details of abduction, rape, and bereavement into a measured Christianised hymn venerating Demeter as the archangel of the house. His analysis anticipates Robert Bridges, who in 1904 wrote the masque Demeter, specifically honouring the traditional feminine roles to be fostered by inaugurating a new building at the Somerville College for women. In his youthful translation of Claudian, Tennyson elaborated the cosmic and geological convulsions induced by the rape, with seas displaced and volcanoes erupting.
Tennyson’s softening of the apocalyptic upheaval triggered by the incursion of Aidoneus clashes with Helen Hunt Jackson’s poem ‘Demeter’ in Verses (1888 ) which renders the myth as a ‘legend of foul shame to motherhood!’ because the earth-goddess was willing to blight the landscape into ‘a fruitless fallow’ (l. 116), sacrificing other children in frenzied pursuit of her own. Tennyson’s conception of Demeter, whose domesticity and deity are inextricably intertwined, deploys many conventional traits in the cultural construction of late-Victorian femininity. Her domestic role of mother is ennobled by her deity and her deity modified and made approachable through her solicitude and envy, while searching for her ‘lost’ daughter, of ‘human wives, and nested birds, / Yea, the cubb’d lioness’ (ll. 52-3).
Demeter’s mothering is twofold here: presiding both over her daughter and the rich profusion of the ‘olive-yard and vine / And golden grain’ (ll. 108-9). Although intimately concerned with flora and its fruits, she is less a goddess of raw uncultivated nature than of what could be consciously planted and deliberately grown, tended, and harvested, both for food and for spiritual offerings.
This portrayal may have been shaped by Jane Ellen Harrison’s assessment of Demeter in 1883 not as a goddess primarily of agricultural fertility, but related to the essentially domestic sphere of female generation, whose kindly maternity is linked with hearth, hymen, and housework. She is, as Pater relates, ‘the deity of the discretion of wives’ (GS, p. 108 ):
because she is the goddess of hearth and home, of order and custom, she is above all things friend and helper of housewives, of women who rule in the home. She is the goddess of marriage, the patron deity of civilised custom.
A ‘swimming fleece of winter grey’ (l. 20) at first shrouds the upper world when Persephone rises at the dawn; Hades, ‘the shadowy warrior’ (l. 150) emerges in a ‘drift of flickering spectres’ (ll. 26-7), and his chariot leaves a geological scar, ‘one black blur of earth / Left by that closing chasm’ (ll. 37-8 ); at the end Demeter hopes that her daughter will ‘see no more’ the ‘dimly-glimmering lawns’ of Hades’ realm (l. 148 ). As in Swinburne’s ‘Garden of Proserpine’, the outlines of shapes are shifting, ominous, uneasy; even the Fates cannot respond positively to Demeter’s tormented queries ‘[w]here is my loved one?’ and moan ‘[w]e know not’ (ll. 61, 66, 84-6). Demeter learns of her daughter’s fate only through a vision, in which Persephone’s ‘shadow’ wails that ‘Bright and Dark’ have made her ‘the Bride of Darkness’ (ll. 90-99).76 By referring to ‘Bright and Dark’ instead of ‘Zeus and Hades’, Tennyson, at least on a cursory analysis, seems to pursue the Swinburnian tactic of transforming the myriad tangible associations of Persephone’s subterranean story into a brittle, bewildering abstraction. It is only when Persephone makes her return to ‘the glad [...] air’ (l. 45) of the surface world that physical terrain shimmers with rejuvenated vivacity: the ‘field of Enna, now once more ablaze / With flowers that brighten’ as her ‘footstep falls’ (ll. 35-6); a ‘sudden nightingale’, seeing Persephone’s emergence, flashes into ‘a frolic of song / And welcome’ (ll. 11-13), and the mother regards her daughter’s restoration (‘Thine eyes / Again were human-godlike’) as the eternal promise of Christian transfiguration (ll. 11-13, 19-21, 135-47). Tennyson’s Demeter denotes not so much a self-assured and clear- sighted Church, but a pagan deity whose cadence is modified by the self-scrutinising theological speculations of a nineteenth-century agnostic, beleaguered by nagging doubts about the problems of sudden, senseless loss and the imperfect capacity of imagination to hold onto the deceased in memory. Tennyson’s Demeter impatiently repudiates the deities she knows because of their suspect morality (ll. 127-34), and grieves at her own failure to locate a convincing and authoritative gloss on the theological issues that continually vex her (ll. 59-86).
What Demeter craves most she can only refer to as a mysterious ‘Light’ that irradiates the ‘younger kindlier Gods’ of whom she dreams (ll. 136, 129) and that will bring her into union with all she loves. When these more temperate and merciful ‘Gods’ have ousted such violently erratic deities as Zeus and Hades, then, she hopes, her daughter will ‘dwell the whole bright year with’ her, receiving together the ‘worship which is Love’ (l. 147), rather than the ‘worship which is Fear’ of which Persephone is the tragic victim as ‘Queen of Death’ (l. 141). Tennyson does not portray Demeter as one of the divinities to be displaced; as earth-goddess she will simply come under Christ’s ineffably generous protection, her world illuminated by His victory over the ‘sunless halls of Hades’ (l. 134).
Yet the sacramental vision itself is beyond Demeter’s scope; she has no justification for her buoyant augury, preferring to extract the most cheerful message from the gnomic utterance of the Fates, that ‘[t]here is a Fate beyond us’ (l. 86).
As a mother-goddess, Tennyson’s Demeter is caught between the gravitational pull of a painful past and its sobering lesson that Persephone will be stolen from her again, and her vision of a loftier regime that is not yet accomplished. But the presence of the god of death and his incursion reminds Demeter that her surface world of apparent orderliness, plenitude, and harmony only holds in abeyance much more formidable forces of mortality, lawless caprice, dissolution, and benighted vision. Hence most of her monologue is couched in the past tense and ends in the future tense, revealing the world of the dead that Demeter has transcended but cannot make disappear altogether. The few lines in the present tense all imply her apprehensive, fretful placement between the history she seeks to cleanse of hurt and the future she cannot yet savour with unbridled confidence: ‘I feel the deathless heart of motherhood / Within me shudder, lest the naked glebe / Should yawn once more’ (ll. 41-43); ‘[y]et I, Earth-Goddess, am but ill-content / With them, who still are highest’ (ll. 126-27).
As Tennyson would have known from Pater’s 1876 essay on the myth, Demeter is both deity and priestess. In the Great Mother’s utterance is contained both the genesis and regal enactment of Eleusinian mysteries from ‘buried grain thro’ springing blade’ (l. 144). She reacts not only to a specific occurrence, Persephone’s first exultant return, but also crafts the ‘harvest hymns of Earth’ (l. 146) that will be recited cyclically as Persephone departs and reappears in the future. This is consistent not only with the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, to which Tennyson was directed by R. C. Jebb, but also Pater’s research on Demeter who appears in the hymn as a teacher of rites, converting the quotidian processes of life into religious solemnity.
Tennyson’s Demeter is a hierophant and seer who initiates her youthful auditor into a higher realm of knowledge, when ‘the Shadow’ of paganism might ‘die into the Light’ of Christianity (l. 136). Even here, on one level, she is the agitated maternal presence, suturing the gap in shared experience with her cherished daughter – even as the ‘black blur of earth’ is sealed by the answering touch of Persephone’s foot (ll. 37, 47-50) – by confiding to her what she has suffered in the daughter’s absence. But as hierophant, she is doing no less than steering the just-returned queen of the dead back into life (ll. 8-11).
Demeter is not simply identifying but evolving an identity, routing death and Persephone’s initial likeness to Aidoneus and re-inventing her as Earth’s devoted daughter. This final stately flourish demonstrates that Tennyson’s Demeter is mother, priestess, and goddess, as well as a supremely gifted poet, harnessing the magical and redemptive energy of words. She is the ‘creator’ of a monologue, the Eleusinian ritual narrative that was always afforded an intensely dramatic rendering at Demeter’s annual festival. Thus the poem’s narrative trajectory reflects and ritualistically enacts the painstaking process by which Tennyson crafted the monologue in the first place.
As ‘poet’ of a monologue, Demeter generates the ritual and is a dramatised ‘performer’ in it; she speaks so that she may both rehearse her acute feelings to herself (‘I [...] am but ill-content’) but more importantly she speaks to enlighten Persephone, winning her back as daughter by elevating ‘the buried life’ from ‘gloom to bloom’ (l. 97). Demeter’s imaginative faculty is so sturdy and insistent that it accomplishes the miraculous feat of reversing temporal sequence, compelling a disappeared ideal back from the past. Persephone is often seen as an elliptical symbol in the monologue, redolent of Swinburnian speakers who view the Kore through the ‘lens’ of their own tentatively provisional metaphysics. However, Tennyson situates Persephone in the role of a keenly responsive ‘reader’ of her mother’s monologue, listening, at first a feckless and stunned ‘lost self’, but steadily resuscitated by inhabiting the modulations of her mother’s highly charged utterance.
Demeter permits Tennyson to define the redemptive potential of imagination and to underscore the centrality of memory in visionary experience not as frivolously fictive, giving at best only articulations of pleasurable melancholy, but as a formidable commemorative device. Since the world of the past epitomised in the fields of Enna is the one realm that is soothing and solid, it is only natural that Demeter’s memory, the sole faculty binding her to a precious but threatened heritage, will become the key element in energising and ennobling the imagination, as it is the only way by which her mind can combat the limbo of dead people and the oblivion of defunct experience, Hades. The myth itself in Tennyson’s conception becomes a hymn to the extraordinary potency of memory, ranged against chthonic forces that discourage its enduring vitality and compel extinction.
Demeter’s ardent belief in the emergence of a Christian ‘Light’ whose exact nature she cannot yet totally apprehend or express, counteracts what Tennyson saw as the ironic negativity of Swinburne’s ‘Garden of Proserpine’, by vouchsafing a visionary, if halting hope on behalf of a human race with whom she identifies. Demeter’s faith has been partially confirmed; the ‘God of ghosts and dreams’ (l. 5) has restored Persephone herself, and the ‘field of Enna’, ‘once more ablaze’ with flowers has ‘chased away’ from Persephone ‘that shadow of a likeness to the king / Of shadows’ with which she at first appeared (ll. 34-5; 15-17). Tennyson converts the mythic material into a tool by which he can elevate a passionate faith in the workings of memory as the core component in a corporeal resurrection, infusing imaginative activity with an empirical foundation – palpable flesh and blood, definite times and schedules, observable alterations in climate and flora – asserting that vision is viable, tangible and inspiriting, rather than a wispy, facile or elegiac fancy.
Persephone’s return to Enna is proof that what seems like the hopelessly lost past can be reclaimed if the imaginative memory is persistent enough in its concentration. However the mythic story, with its rhythm of repeated bereavement and descent into visceral experience and disabused wisdom, also connotes the grievous limitations of imaginative flight. Swinburne’s ‘Proserpine’ lyrics point towards a nullity or void awaiting us beyond the doubtful dreams of dreams; Tennyson also signifies a mysterious realm beyond the linguistic resources of his poetic repertoire to articulate, irradiated not by obsessive longing but by an undying, reconciling Light. Although faith in the power of imagination may yield concrete results, they are still subject to time and cannot give more than a transitory interlude that is inevitably sullied by the apocalyptic rupture caused by Aidoneus. From this perspective, Persephone’s abduction and enforced withdrawal is really Demeter’s story: it is she, not the daughter, who loses her innocence by being forced to acknowledge that no matter how potent her memory is, how soaring her rhetoric, it cannot combat the tyranny of the temporal that will bring the appointed hour of Persephone’s return to Hades.
For Tennyson, Persephone’s promise of a recurring spring is only part of the narrative: equally resonant are the myth’s radical ambiguities that express far less consoling aspects of evolutionary theory that recur. The sinister life of lower phase in the subterranean domain that the flower-maiden overcomes always remains on the margins of the monologue; the very cyclical nature of the myth indicates that the passing of nine months will bring another period of estrangement and mourning. If Persephone evinces the flickering possibility of a gradual spiritual evolution towards some imposing Christian perception, then her cyclic disappearance reflects the chilling dominion of those corrosive and regressive energies that hinder the soul’s progress.
Thus Tennyson’s Aidoneus assumes an additional function, appearing not only as a symbol for cultural and cosmic chaos, but for individual degeneration as well, a figure for atavistic reversion, a ‘lower phase’ where man is ‘half akin to brute’; the marriage pact underlines the strength of that darker world within in which Persephone acquiesces. Perhaps Tennyson implies that her periodic descents into Hades do not augur progressive enlightenment, but a joyless mechanical repetition of defeat, a clockwork cycle that appears early in the elegy as seasonal reiteration, beating out the same old birth-to-death pattern against which nothing can prevail: ‘[t]he seasons bring the flower again, / And bring the firstling to the flock; / And in the dusk of thee, the clock / Beats out the little lives of men’ (ll. 5-8 ).
The Demeter-Persephone myth intimated benign solutions to some of Tennyson’s abiding poetic preoccupations – underscoring how imaginative memory could reify its object in flesh and blood, allowing the deceased to remain corporeally intact and communicate in poignantly human terms with the living. Still, the mature poet was not prepared to excise the myth’s negative aspects, namely that Persephone must always return to Hades, and that the rage of maternal grief necessary to restore her also devastates the material present – heroic devotion becomes savage neglect. Demeter’s imagination, however single-mindedly it tries to revivify a lost ideal, also becomes cataclysmic in its very concentration, unleashing a famine upon the earth.
Infertility on a grand scale does not happen by itself, just because Persephone has been abducted from the surface, but rather because Demeter’s dreadful strike puts an end to the successful harvests a vegetation goddess can naturally guarantee. In her disruptive and dangerous wrath, Demeter ignores her sacred duty to make the earth bear human food in her pursuit of her snatched child. Tennyson stresses this wanton disregard: flowers and birds die because of her ‘tears’ and ‘ravings’; man’s food wilts because ‘I failed / To send my life’ through his vines and grain. Demeter’s reaction to her daughter’s disappearance is a means for Tennyson to explore the tension between grave social responsibilities and the wayward, freakish promptings of private imagination. As Demeter, Tennyson can channel his energy towards reconstituting Persephone and her shining ideal of a past, permitting the present to turn fallow; or he can disavow Persephone forever by consecrating his art to anodyne but laudable social projects.
But for the 1890s generation, it is Swinburne’s Proserpine that exercises the most profound fascination. This is borne out by Caroline Fitzgerald’s ‘Hymn to Persephone’ from Venetia Victrix and Other Poems (1889), a volume she dedicated to Robert Browning in the year of his death.86 The poem signals the impact of the tradition elaborated by Swinburne, not only in the title, but also in the twilight dimness of the poem’s faded ambience, in the methodical pairing of conflicting tropes, and in the sober implication that Persephone’s new disabused knowledge is of lingering torment rather than of energising sexual initiation. Fitzgerald’s lyric portrays the goddess solely as representative of nature’s cycle and the immortal pain inspired by awareness of those cyclical rhythms. The bright melody of her idyllic childhood in ‘the meadow’s morning dew’ is qualified and overshadowed by the insistently mournful chant of her mature experience, her ‘godhead’s ceaseless moan’. The verbal masonry of Swinburne’s more intricate stanzas moves gradually towards a sharp sense of an original loss that still lingers, a chilling absence or echoing emptiness best expressed in the silence, not of personal grief and unshakable reserve, but of death. Fitzgerald’s compact, hymn-like cadences by contrast evince that Persephone’s melancholy perception can infuse the speaker’s ‘song’ with a significance that might help unlock the mysteries of a new condition of reality.
A stress on the grimmer implications of the Maid’s experience informs the atheist feminist Mathilde Blind’s poem, ‘The New Proserpine’ from her 1895 Birds of Passage volume. Blind’s speaker lulls the reader through a traditionally framed portrait of a lady as the epitome of objectified delicacy and eerily bloodless grace, ensconced in the pastoral prettiness of an unspecified milieu. But the final two lines aggressively subvert our generic and sentimental expectations:
I saw thee stoop, oh lady sweet, And with those pale, frail hands of thine Gather the spring-flowers at our feet, Fair as some late-born Proserpine. Yea, gathering flowers, thou might’st have been That goddess of ethereal brow, Revisiting this radiant scene From realm of dolorous shades below. Thou might’st have been that Queen of Sighs, Love-bound by Hades’ dreadful spell; For veiled within thy heaven-blue eyes, There lay the Memory of Hell.
Blind’s last two lines imply that this woman, manufactured as a pallid, passionless beauty, has a history of suffering selfhood transcending the mannered artificiality of the speaker’s conventionally decorous tributes. The reiterated conditional tense of ‘might’st have been’ (ll. 9, 13) signals that she is separate from ‘that Queen of Sighs’ Proserpine; yet the poem invites the reader to ask what the goddess herself might have experienced before her return to the fields of ‘spring-flowers’ from which she had been abducted. The sudden severity of this finale, the unresolved trauma that might cloud ‘the Memory of Hell’ (l. 16), and the possibly unbridgeable gulf between the ‘thou’ (l. 9) and ‘I’ (l. 5) registers Blind’s determination to expose, rather than gloss over like Tennyson, the jagged edges of a myth that seems to excuse unprovoked male violence against women. Ultimately, Blind signifies, we are unable or unwilling to confront what is ‘veiled’ by this Proserpine figure’s ‘heaven-blue eyes’ (l. 15). Blind’s Proserpine figure sharply contrasts with Tennyson’s version in the domestic monologue of ‘Demeter and Persephone’, a poem Blind would surely have read. Although Tennyson’s Demeter is initially ‘awed’ by her daughter’s ‘imperial [...] eyes’ (ll. 23-4), she tries to gauge what those eyes have seen: the sinister ‘serpent-wanded power’ (l. 25) of Persephone’s ‘dark mate’ (l. 17). She also reveals that neither Persephone’s eyes nor anyone else’s, have been fortunate to observe what she, Demeter, has just witnessed: ‘[t]he Life that had descended’ – an august pageant of a world replenished (ll. 30-31).
Persephone here has no intricate subjectivity, no fund of discrete experience unplumbed by her mother, no inimitable and distinctive cadence; Tennyson’s Demeter employs the poem as a stage upon which to enact her own ‘mighty [...] childless cry’ (l. 32) and tortuous theological conjecture whose outcome is an insipid embrace of her daughter’s new aspect, ‘risen from out the dead’ (l. 142). Blind does not scrutinise her Proserpine’s indissoluble and mystical link to her mother at all; the poem’s speaker never veers on the nurturing timbre of maternal solicitude. Her rhyme of ‘Love-bound by Hades’ dreadful spell’ and ‘Memory of Hell’ (ll. 14, 16) is fraught with ominous semantic ambiguity: the compound ‘Love-bound’ alludes not only to a husband’s domineering sway ratified by matrimonial law, but also a woman’s helpless reliance on such a figure who uses possibly abusive measures to assert his will.
The ‘Memory of Hell’ seems to imply the entrapment that is a focus of the lady’s torment. Blind, like many of the Victorian women poets who invoke the ancient story, exploits the mother and maiden to write incisively about the glaring discrepancy between how they experience themselves and how they have been categorised and fixed in deadening social roles by hegemonic patriarchy. Blind lends the ancient fertility deities vivid subjectivity to interrogate, even to deflate the Swinburnian approach to Greek mythology that upholds the untouchable cipher, and therefore alien and frightening power, of the female.
Blind’s poem, mediated through the urgent socio-political prism of the 1890s ‘New Woman’, evidences the clash between the tantalising ‘spell’ of a woman’s physical bearing, those particularities of dress and demeanour that render the ‘lady sweet’ to the eye (l. 5), and the ‘Hell’ endured by the private, subjugated female self. Blind separates the apparently joyous environment from the secret, stifled sensations of the woman who seemed at first merely a refined ‘prop’, or elegant adjunct to that lush landscape; the poem skilfully divorces the probing consciousness of speaker and reader from the enigmatic features of the woman’s inner life. Blind is instrumental in opening a sharp gender gap within the tradition of Victorian poems about the Persephone myth. She slyly critiques the whole tradition of deploying goddesses as figures for the beauty and harmony (or, for that matter, the despair and disharmony) that male artists project onto the blank canvas of femininity. To restore vital subjectivity to a divinity that has little or none in Swinburne, Meredith, and Tennyson only confirms, Blind implies, the degree to which women are misperceived and manufactured in these poetic texts. Thus the need to re-inflect the Persephone myth as an encrypted, displaced, or disguised illustration of revolt, becomes more pressing. Blind registers the kathodos, plumbing the autochthonous depths of the earth’s crust, as Persephone is dragged into darkness, in terms of initiation which makes it difficult to disentangle the swift epiphany from disorienting fragmentation and paralysing shock. This stark perception, both personally shattering and revelatory, anticipates the chthonic figuration of ancient gods in the next literary generation.
In 1890, a year after the publication of Tennyson’s dramatic monologue, John Addington Symonds proclaimed with celebratory verve that myths were ‘everlastingly elastic’.90 A myth was such an indistinct, amorphous configuration that it could, in Symonds’s opinion, be effortlessly remodelled to voice the conceptions of succeeding generations.
Symonds, like nearly all the essayists, novelists, and poets who contributed to the Victorian cult of Demeter and Persephone, revelled in the richly accommodating character of myth; that it had no definitive or final form guaranteed its enduring vitality, according to ethnographers such as E.B. Tylor, James Frazer, and Jane Harrison.
Swinburne’s Proserpine lyrics infuse a decade in which classical scholarship and the nascent discipline of comparative mythology plays a pivotal role in elaborating Hardy’s ‘version’ of Persephone in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891).92 Hardy’s account is haunted and complicated by many of the key motifs in late-Victorian Persephone poems; in his fictional scheme the renewal promised by the birth of a divine child cannot override the suffering and sorrow of its conception. By portraying Alec d’Urberville as a grotesque parody of Pluto/Dis, Hardy illustrates how male domination in sexual relationships is a synecdoche for a late-Victorian culture that surreptitiously verifies (when it did not explicitly glorify) male mastery, and, according to Phyllis Chesler, consigns women to ‘an endless breaking [...] on the wheel of biological reproduction’.93 That Tess’s pessimism was emerging as a major force in the literary culture to which the ‘New Woman’ was increasingly winning access is apparent in F. W. H. Myers’s seminal 1893 essay on ‘Modern Poets and the Meaning of Life’, which Hardy may have read. Myers judged Swinburne’s ‘Garden of Proserpine’ as a decisive response to the tormented discovery ‘that the universe is in no way constructed to meet the moral needs of man’. This lyric was, according to Myers, ‘perhaps the most wonderful’ of all Swinburne’s poems:
There is here far more than the Lucretian satisfaction in the thought that we shall sleep tranquilly through the hazardous future. [...] No, there is here a profounder renouncement of life; there is the grim suspicion which has stolen into many a heart, that we do in truth feel within us, as years go by, a mortality of spirit as well as flesh; that the ‘bower of unimagined flower and tree’ withers inevitably into a frozen barrenness from which no new life can spring.
It is notable that the ‘iron-shod despair’ of Swinburne’s ‘Proserpine’ lyrics, which had epitomised an alarming onslaught against established pieties to John Morley in the 1866 Saturday Review, is in Hardy’s literary milieu merely the index of a widespread and weary ‘suspicion’ of deep-seated cultural malaise. Schopenhauer’s ‘strange, melancholy, and deterrent’ philosophy could be condescended to as a mildly diverting quirk by smug middlebrow journalists in 1863: ‘[h]is brilliant talents have attracted worshippers without kindling conviction’. But by the time Tess was published, his name was almost a byword for popular existential angst: ‘Schopenhauer and [Eduard von] Hartmann are in the mouths of many people who have not read their works’. Through Angel Clare, Hardy even hints how the pessimistic pose has dwindled into a modish rhetorical affectation for ‘the cultivated class’. Hardy’s novel signals a sea-change in ‘mainstream’ consciousness charted by the anonymous author of a 1902 article on ‘Modern Pessimism’ for the Quarterly Review:
[P]essimism has entered upon a new phase; it has become less revolutionary and more reflective, less sentimental and more scientific, less personal and more general; it makes its appeal to the universal heart. It is also more readily accepted as a theory of life by the cultivated class, and has succeeded in impregnating modern modes of thought to a remarkable extent, fully entering into the spirit of the age and influencing every department of literature and art." [The Lost Girls]
"ἐδιζησάμην ἐμεωυτόν." [Heraclitus]
"All that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both." [Aeschylus, Prometheus]
"The history of everyday is constituted by our habits. ... How have you lived today?" [N.]
*Become clean, my friends.*
Lyssa Har Har Harr
Gender : Posts : 9031 Join date : 2012-03-01 Location : The Cockpit
"Harrison’s section of the 1890 volume Mythology and Monuments of Ancient Athens made it, according to Robert Ackerman, ‘the first book of the Cambridge Ritualists, even though Miss Harrison had at this time not even met Murray, Cornford or Cook’. Harry Payne similarly avers that ‘[a]s early as 1890, at first apparently innocent of the virtually simultaneous developments in the thought of [James George] Frazer and W. Robertson Smith, she had begun to formulate her ideas on the primacy of ritual over myth’.
Harrison posits that ritual is the key element in the development of religion, superior as well as anterior to myth and theology. In a chapter entitled ‘The Making of a Goddess’ Harrison argues that patriarchal Olympian religion suppresses an earlier matriarchal cult whose vestigial remnants survive in the iconography of extant artefacts. She posits that the deities Demeter and Persephone furnish clues to explaining countless rituals for the first time by relating them to fecundity, both vegetative and human. Demeter, as a goddess of grain, and Kore, who is often associated with the grain itself, have, like mortal women in Greek cult, a special symbolic relation to, and command over nature. Harrison probes the evolution of the nature-goddess from the most primitive animalistic bogeys called ‘Keres/Ceres’, to their flowering as anthropomorphic expressions of the female lifecycle, finally to their mystical apotheosis in the union of Dionysian and Orphic ritual with the Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone/Kore. The promise of bliss in the Mysteries was almost certainly linked with the natural cycle itself, with its endless and necessary alternations between procreation and death. From the outset, Hardy’s Tess is obsessed by an august conception of a female fertility deity, though the novel records the sacrifice of this ‘goddess figure of immense stature’ in whom are found truly profound and numinous potencies, mediated and glimpsed on occasions that involve a process akin to transfiguration.
"[T]ill comparatively recent times, the country was densely wooded. Even now traces of its earlier condition are to be found in the old oak copses and irregular belts of timber that yet survive upon its slopes, and the hollow-trunked trees that shade so many of its pastures.
The forests have departed, but some old customs of their shades remain. Many however linger only in a metamorphosed or disguised form. The May-Day dance [...] was to be discerned [...] in the guise of the club-revel, or ‘club-walking’, as it was there called. Its singularity lay less in the retention of a custom of walking in procession and dancing on each anniversary than in the members being solely women [...] The club of Marlott alone lived to uphold the local Cerealia. It had walked for hundreds of years, if not as benefit-club, as votive sisterhood of some sort; and it walked still.
The banded ones were all dressed in white gowns – a gay survival from Old-Style days, when cheerfulness and Maytime were synonyms [...] Ideal and real clashed slightly as the sun lit up their figures against the green hedges and creeper-laced house- fronts; for, though the whole troop wore white garments, no two whites were alike among them. Some approached pure blanching; some had a bluish pallor; some worn by the older characters [...] inclined to a cadaverous tint." [Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles]
Like Harrison in her anthropological ‘excavations’, Hardy sought in mythic ‘survivals’ a wisdom that might furnish urgently needed correctives and solutions to his stricken sense of social and historical severance. But through the Marlott club- walking Tess finally lays these hopes to rest. The ‘Cerealia’ is a fertility ritual ill-adapted, even in a ‘disguised form’ (Tess, p. 19), to the exigencies of the modern moment. An idea or custom, E. B. Tylor observed, ‘the meaning of which has perished for ages, may continue to exist simply because it has existed’.24 Like Blackmore Vale’s ‘hollow-trunked trees’ (Tess, p. 19), this ceremony has been rendered an empty carapace by time, a witness of the earliest ages whose testimony is meagre at best, implying attitudes, reasons, biases and ideologies profoundly different from our own. Through his portrayal of this survival, Hardy complicates some of the basic assumptions underlying social evolutionary thinking in the 1890s: that all societies develop through what are, in some sense, the same evolutionary stages; that the beliefs and practices of existing primitive communities are thus the analogues of those of our prehistoric forebears; and that the earliest, most primitive perceptions thus hold within them the underlying – and continuously operant – mechanisms of our own institutions.
From a strictly anthropological perspective then, the club-walk may appear, in the words of one late-Victorian antiquary, James A. Farrer, Primitive Manners and Custom - ‘as lifeless now as the fossil shells on the shore of some ancient coral sea’.
Luce Irigaray’s re-appropriation of Demeter-Persephone measures the myth’s respect for natural cycle against a modern Western culture and religion posited on random violence, sacrificial slaughter, and environmental abuse:
there is no question of us simply returning to the earth-goddesses, even if that were possible. A return to them would require that they be upheld, and that we establish (or re-establish?) a form of sociality based on those values and that fertility. It’s not enough to restore myths if we can’t celebrate them and use them as the basis of a social order. Is that possible?
Let us grant that it is possible: will Gaea and Demeter be enough? What will we do with Core? And Persephone? [...] Aren’t we always at least two? How can we unite the two within us? Between us? How can we affirm together these elementary values, these natural fertilities, how can we celebrate them and turn them into currency while becoming or remaining women?
Between the publication of Tess and the start of the First World War, over one hundred and twenty review-essays and articles in British and American middlebrow journals examined the intellectual sway of a pessimistic philosophy which seemed to exacerbate a painful sensitivity to human suffering. As one hostile witness declared, ‘[f]rom the thoughtless votary of idle pleasure to the deep thinker [...] the sinister influence of the doctrine spreads’, calling into question essential principles both of orthodox religion and of ethics. Hardy’s manipulation of the Persephone myth confronts a culture in which, according to Alfred Austin, ‘[t]he boastfulness, the sanguine expectations, the confident prophecies of olden times are exchanged for hesitating speculations and despondent whispers’.
Hardy’s responsiveness to these ‘despondent whispers’ contrasts with Walter Pater’s ‘The Myth of Demeter and Persephone’, which privileges the ways in which all phases of the myth evoke a cultural consciousness eager to embrace and meld experience of both intensely physical phenomena and unseen potencies beyond the material veil of things. The initial stage of the Demeter myth, for example, Pater links metaphorically to childhood with its undifferentiating regard for the concrete sensuous world, a spontaneously affective grasp of both ‘seen’ and ‘unseen’: the ‘mental starting point’ is ‘some such feeling as most of us have on the first warmer days in spring, when we seem to feel the genial processes of nature actually at work; as if just below the mould’ there were ‘really circulating some spirit of life, akin to that which makes its energies felt within ourselves’ (GS, p. 104).
Pater’s cautiously deployed stylistic qualifications (‘some such feeling’, ‘most of us’, ‘as if’, etc), heightens the subjectivity of this portrait of a tangible milieu, conveying a community’s restive and inchoate impressions of its bucolic locale, not a fastidious empirical analysis of it. In the Marlott of Tess, Paterian subjectivity has descended into solipsistic self-indulgence, invalidating spontaneous communion with the cosmos as a whimsical affectation practised by the ersatz scholar-gypsy Angel Clare. This despondency extends to the mythic framework of Tess, which anticipates Phyllis Chesler’s argument that the Eleusinian emotions of catharsis ‘are rooted in an acceptance of nature and biology’s supremacy [...] The inevitable sacrifice of self that biology demands of women in most societies is at the heart of the Demetrian myth’.
Hardy’s disenchanted retelling of Demeter-Persephone buttresses a social critique that becomes increasingly strident and bellicose in the mature novels, which are all fixated upon the legal and physical relations between the sexes at a time when William Guthrie’s perception of ‘the insufficiency of the world, and the insignificance of self’ coloured much 1890s fiction. While it might seem the myth is principally concerned with the agricultural change of seasons, the classical philologist Adriana Cavarero notes, ‘[t]he agricultural symbology is superimposed’ on the myth ‘as an external artifice. It does not contribute to mediating and resolving the conflict’.36 That ‘conflict’ centres on certain marital practices as patriarchal institutions. If the psychology of the Demeter cult bears all the hallmarks of a matriarchal order of society, then Hardy’s ‘Cerealia’ implies that this ‘order’ is not simply under siege, but evacuated of its original vitality, crippling the transmission of a maternal genealogy.
The ‘Cerealia’ procession reveals Hardy reacting to the bizarre incongruity of an archaic folk-practice that has, through social or religious conservatism, lingered into a new historical age. The episode reinforces Harrison’s perception that the refinement of Greek mythology evidences to what degree the mother is steadily robbed of her basic potency. Demeter and Kore, Mother and Maid, were not, originally, two women but two aspects of a unified goddess, woman before and after maturity. In Harrison’s conception, matriarchal society is communal, life-giving, and based on non-contractual co-operation rather than fierce competition; it stimulates female creativity and egalitarian relations between women and men. But in Hardy’s Marlott ‘Cerealia’, although derived from medieval Mayday festivities, the concentrated focus ‘on the facts of fertility’ – an alternative set of values regarding egalitarian love and premarital sex – is betrayed and effaced. The glaring absence of men from this lingering layer of the parochial past signals that Christianity has effectively suppressed and neutered the Old-Style May-Days and the Maypole, the tainted idol of furious Puritan invective. Seasonal feasts and May-time rejoicings evolved out of pagan festivals to kindle the rapid revival and growth of vegetation upon which tribes were dependent for life. Sexual intercourse between male and female celebrants in Frazer’s and Harrison’s research was believed to fulfil the sacred function of making the organic world lavishly productive. Later Puritan writers scorned this endeavour to promote natural fruition by a process of imitative magic as merely an excuse for unchecked wildness that had to be guarded against at all costs.
Just as Harrison’s mother-goddess is stymied by the structures and strictures of Olympian patriarchy, so the ‘singularity’ of the woman-only club-walk connotes how pagan fertility worship based on sex and magic is ruthlessly usurped by a ‘man-fashioned’ and etiolated Christian creed whose core components, as Jude the Obscure (1897) attests, encourages a deep- seated suspicion of feminine biological imperatives. It is no accident that Angel Clare, accompanied by his two Anglican elder brothers Felix and Cuthbert, pause in their study of A Counterblast to Agnosticism to watch a gathering whose provenance in pagan idolatries is unknown to them, since they inquire as to the meaning of the dance. Hardy savours with malicious glee the irony of the smugly self-righteous Clare brothers being spectators at this ‘ungodly’ vegetation rite in which Marlott’s maidens clutch peeled willow wands (possibly shortened, portable versions of the Maypole, an emblem of phallic potency).
In Tess, Hardy was fully alert to the scalding ironies and incongruities he could exploit by an extended parallel between the traditional ballad narrative of the violation of female innocence and the abduction and rape of the ‘Maid’ Kore by Pluto. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, by locating the myth within the context of a human world where matrimony with all its variations is a basic feature of the cultural system, suggests Persephone has no answer to the tragic inevitability of an arranged marriage that necessitates pugnacious male intrusion into the mother/child bond.
Irigaray remarks that ‘[a]s a piece of property, Persephone belongs to the men’, and as property herself, Demeter need not have been consulted. Helene Foley notes,
in the [Homeric Hymn to Demeter] Zeus attempts to impose on Persephone a form of marriage new to Olympus [...] in modern terms we would characterise it as a patriarchal and virilocal exogamy (a marriage between members of two different social groups arranged by the father of the bride in which the bride resides with the husband).
Generally, when the Greek gods married, it involved a goddess from Olympus marrying a god from Olympus with the couple continuing to reside in the same location, but as most Olympian divinities were barred from the realm of Hades, this meant that Demeter and Persephone were forever separated by her marriage. The myth, in Foley’s opinion, speaks to human patriarchal marriage practices, common in ancient Greece, whereby daughters, unlike sons, were compelled not only to leave their birthplace but often to live at a distance sufficient to effectively estrange them from mother and family.
As such, Foley adds, the Hymn dismantles the benign cultural institution we see functioning without tension [...] and shows the price paid by mother and daughter for accepting for the first time a marriage that requires a degree of separation and subordination to the male unfamiliar in the divine world.
In Hardy’s scheme, Joan, far from evincing any selfless devotion or maternal care for a daughter required to enter a union against her wishes, actually connives with the patriarchal instruments and agencies that convert Tess into a captive and a commodity, removing her from the natal home and ultimately destroying her.
An unacknowledged protagonist of Tess is the illuminative medium through which people and places are viewed. A perception of potency carries with it a formidable set of complications which lead us to question seriously what we are looking at or through: sunbeams (Marlott club-walk and harvest), flickering shadows or candlelight glow (Sorrow’s makeshift baptism), choking pollen dust (the Chaseborough revel), and dense luminous fog (the night of rape/seduction under the ‘Druidical oaks’ of The Chase).
Harrison, like her distinguished predecessor Frazer in The Golden Bough (1890),56 ascribes to a theory that in very primitive societies, women performed all the agricultural tasks while men hunted, which resulted naturally in the agricultural deity being imagined as female. One of Frazer’s major contributions to comparative anthropology at the turn of the twentieth century, which left an indelible imprint on the trajectory of Jane Harrison’s inquiries, was his sense, imbuing nearly every myth or ritual he interpreted, that spirituality and sexuality were inextricably linked. Frazer painted a culture dominated and energised by proudly generative mothers and their consorts, such as Artemis and Hippolytus, Diana and Virbius, Demeter/Persephone and Dionysus. That Frazer scrutinised the dominance of female archetypes in primitive religion was a logical outcome of his materialist, Darwinian worldview. Harrison’s account of the ‘Mother’ and ‘Maid’ divinity was established on a firm foundation of this Frazerian materialism.
"To the modern mind it is surprising to find the processes of agriculture conducted in the main by women, and mirroring themselves in the figures of women-goddesses. But in days when man was mainly concerned with hunting and fighting it was natural enough that agriculture and the ritual attendant on it should fall to the women. Moreover to this social necessity was added, and still is among many savage communities, a deep-seated element of superstition. ‘Primitive man,’ Mr. Payne observes, ‘refuses to interfere in agriculture; he thinks it magically dependent for success on woman, and connected with child-bearing.’ [...] It was mainly in connection with agriculture, it would seem, that the Earth-goddess developed her double form as Mother and Maid." [Jane Ellen Harrion, PGR, p. 272]
It is a key irony then that while Frazer and Harrison investigate the figure of a potent nature goddess with seriousness and scholarly verve, Hardy documents a crisis of faith in this inspiring configuration of primordial feminine ascendancy through his delineation of the Marlott harvesting: "A field-man is a personality afield; a field-woman is a portion of the field; she has somehow lost her own margin, imbibed the essence of her surrounding, and assimilated herself with it." (Tess, p. 93)
Tess’s engrossed immersion in this expanse entails not so much a prelapsarian rapport with ‘outdoor nature’ (Tess, p. 93) – a commingling of human and non-human, animal and vegetable, material and spiritual domains – as a frightening loss or disburdening of individuality. Brought into eerie communion with the meanest forms of life, she seems an autistic extension of the fields, indiscernible and unnoticed.
The episode evokes simultaneously the image of Tess as a mystic beneficiary of animistic potency, drawing from her region a primal vigour and purpose, as well as a sense of her gradual disappearance, in a state of drugged absorption, into the vast impersonality of the fields.57 As everywhere else in the novel, the woman pays because her bodily outline, autonomy, and individual rights are steadily and relentlessly eroded. Instead of creating a vision of a primitive deity’s capacity to subject natural phenomena to her will, Hardy adumbrates a type of devouring or atomisation here, with Tess dissolving into the atmosphere as part of the landscape’s pigmentation. The experiences of the ‘Pagan’ tribes who once subsisted on the Marlott corn cannot be fully recaptured through the mindless and mechanical activities of the field-women because existing folk-rites may be little more than ‘debris carried along the waves of time’.
Hardy was certainly drawn to anthropological arguments that magic, ritual and religion all evolved out of the need to ruthlessly regulate the seasons and fertility so crucial to the preservation of the species.
Harrison is more struck by how Demeter, the omnipotent Earth-mother, or ‘Lady of the Wild Things’ becomes more strictly limited to the agricultural ‘Grain Mother’:
The derivation of the name Demeter has been often discussed [...] Demeter is not the Earth-Mother, not the goddess of the earth in general, but of the fruits of the civilized, cultured earth, the tilth; not the ‘Lady of the Wild Things’, but She-who-bears-fruits, Karpophoros [...] Demeter [...] probably came from Crete, and brought her name with her; she is the Earth, but only in this limited sense, as ‘Grain-Mother’ (PGR, pp. 271- 72).
Harrison’s first work, Mythology and Monuments of Ancient Athens, grew out of her archaeological training, but it evinces that the ‘primitive layer of deities [which] lay under the Olympian cult’ was already ‘simmering in her mind’ as early as 1890.59 By 1903’s Prolegomena, she had clearly proclaimed the priority of early Greek matriarchal goddesses and gods over the patriarchal Olympians.60 For Harrison, the two-fold deity of Demeter-Persephone is not restricted to the ‘womb’ or to her role as symbol and custodian of the grain’s lifecycle:
The Mother takes the physical side, the Daughter the spiritual – the Mother is more and more of the upper air, the Daughter of the underworld. Demeter as Thesmophoros has for her sphere more and more the things of this life, laws and civilised marriage; she grows more and more human and kindly, goes more and more over to the humane Olympians, till in the Homeric Hymn she, the Earth-Mother, is an actual denizen of Olympus. The Daughter, at first but the young form of the mother, is in maiden fashion sequestered, even a little farouche; she withdraws herself more and more to the kingdom of the spirit, the things below and beyond. [...] She passes to a place unknown of the Olympians, her kingdom is not of this world. (PGR, pp. 275-76)
Harrison’s Persephone escapes the Olympian ‘family group’ of the ‘ordinary type’ altogether through her return to the netherworld and her assimilation into a mystical faith that ‘concerned itself with the abnegation of this world and the life of the soul hereafter’ (PGR, pp. 260, 276). The grievous limitation of mythic female archetypes to ‘domestic and amorous servitude’ (which encapsulates Angel Clare’s callow fantasies of Tess as ‘Artemis’ and ‘Demeter’ at Talbothays), parallels the reduction of religious mysticism as articulated in ritual to an arid anthropomorphic theology that ratified what Harrison supposed was an explicitly patriarchal, political agenda. Hardy charts a modern female fertility figure trapped within, and eventually broken by, a narrative of irreversible cultural decline analogous to Jane Harrison’s account of the ‘early matriarchal, husbandless goddesses’ who once encouraged and ennobled their male companions.
The relation of these early matriarchal, husbandless goddesses, whether Mother or Maid, to the male figures that accompany them is one altogether noble and womanly, though perhaps not what the modern mind holds to be feminine. It seems to halt somewhere halfway between Mother and Lover, with a touch of the patron saint. Aloof from achievement themselves, they choose a local hero for their own to inspire and protect. They ask of him, not that he should love and adore, but that he should do great deeds. (PGR, p. 273)
However, ‘with the coming of patriarchal conditions’ the goddess is oppressed, demeaned, and demoted. Demeter, Pandora, Athene, Hera, Aphrodite – all ‘are sequestered to a servile domesticity, they become abject and amorous’ under the ‘superimposition’ of a male-centred Olympian theology (PGR, p. 273). Harrison vehemently objects to Hesiod’s reworking of the Pandora myth:
Through all the magic of a poet, caught and enchanted himself by the vision of a lovely woman, there gleams the ugly malice of theological animus. Zeus the Father will have no great Earth-goddess, Mother and Maid in one, in his man-fashioned Olympus, but her figure is from the beginning, so he re-makes it; woman, who was the inspirer, becomes the temptress; she who made all things, gods and mortals alike, is become their plaything, their slave, dowered only with physical beauty, and with a slave’s tricks and blandishments. To Zeus, the arch-patriarchal bourgeois, the birth of the first woman is but a huge Olympian jest (PGR, p. 285)
The Marlott club-walking, harvesting and the sojourn at Talbothays Diary all illustrate that Tess, though standing on the brink of ‘rebirth’, will never achieve wholeness of being like the nature-goddess to whom she is repeatedly compared.
The scalding irony is that Clare degrades any flickering glimpse of the ‘natural’ by converting Tess’s physical presence into the abstract essence of a drably mythologized Arcadia… Angel Clare, like Grace Melbury, indulges ‘an excursion of the imagination’, toying with the notion that the observed figure (who is voyeuristically savoured) has been transfigured by the season. ‘Imagination’ here is not a positive, healthy sign of social integration or spiritual aspiration, but an index of the grave perceptual aberrations to which Clare and Grace Melbury are repeatedly prone. Hardy manipulates mythological motifs to act as a bitterly ironic counterpoint to the dominant strand of his action. The reunion of Demeter and Persephone contrasts with the stability that Tess fails to regain after the night of rape/seduction, when she is again wearing the white muslin gown of maidenhood displayed at the ‘local Cerealia’ (Tess, p. 19).
After her experience under the ‘Druidical oaks’ of The Chase, Tess cannot reconstitute herself in accordance with the seasonal cycle of dissolution and regeneration expressed by the Persephone myth. This failure may result from the fact that she simply has the wrong audience for the presentation of a new identity.
At Eleusis, Demeter disclosed to those who had been specially initiated the solemn lessons of law and stoical self-discipline, the incalculable benefits of agriculture and a thorough education, of maintaining an identity anchored in a fixed geographically and socially defined milieu. Some of these religious observances are sarcastically echoed in Hardy’s portrayal of the ‘private little jig’ at Chaseborough (Tess, p. 66). The Trantridge farm workers use the agricultural festivities as an opportunity to ‘drink hard’ and dance. The unearthly transfiguring qualities of light which caused ‘ideal and real’ to ‘clash’ during the Marlott club-walking (Tess, p. 19) are exaggerated here, yet another stubborn ‘survival’ of primitive fertility ritual:
It was a windowless erection used for storage, and from the open door there floated into the obscurity a mist of yellow radiance, which at first Tess thought to be illuminated smoke. But on drawing nearer she perceived that it was a cloud of dust, lit by candles within the outhouse, whose beams upon the haze carried forward the outline of the doorway into the wide night of the garden. (Tess, p. 66)
The border between concrete actuality and the imaginary begins to dissolve in this turmoil: when [Tess] came close and looked in she beheld indistinct forms racing up and down to the figure of the dance, the silence of their footfalls arising from their being overshoe in “scroff” – that is to say the powdery residuum from the storage of peat and other products, the stirring of which by their turbulent feet created the nebulosity that involved the scene. (Tess, pp. 66-67)
Hardy’s archly pedantic definition of the onomatopoeic ‘scroff’ implies that he is compiling a Barnesian glossary of Dorset dialect. The dense, choking mist of pollen and dust, linked with volatile passion and rampant sexuality in Tess, shrouds the Trantridge topers from view. That the excitations and commotions of feeling generated by the dance result in ‘a sort of vegeto- human pollen’ (Tess, p. 66), signals Hardy’s ironic sense of the preposterous throughout this episode.
Under the influence of ‘liquor’ (Tess, p. 67) and enlivened by the immediacy of music as it dynamically associates bodies, the dancers feel a total oneness with nature; in the heady dreamlike ambience it seems they have been transmuted into lubricious classical demigods. By overtly conceiving the raucous rabble in terms of pagan mythology, Hardy accentuates the sense of threat and barely suppressed chaos. Perhaps, like Tess, he cannot confidently police the boundary between the ‘creative’ and the ‘destructive’ in this rambunctious ritual; a distinction between inspiration and dissipation is never emphatically established. That he simultaneously acknowledges the resonance of the communal occasion, while retreating from the anarchic, non-differentiated intensities of untrammelled instinct, connotes a deep-seated anxiety about – even profound alienation from – the partial impression of nature supplied here.
‘The choice spirit’, remarks the Hardyan narrator, ‘who ruled The Slopes in that vicinity’ (Tess, p. 65) is Dionysus, who was revered in the Eleusinian mysteries not as ruler but as a divine child. Harrison, in her Prolegomena and especially in Ancient Art and Ritual, chronicles the evolution of Greek tragedy from Dionysian ritual, arguing that primitive magic rituals could not have arisen out of rational or cognitive conception, but expressed rather a collective emotional experience. The ‘primitive’ celebrant does not require abstractions because he is ‘too busy living’ fully. He ‘begins with a vague excited dance to relieve his emotion’, but the dancer ‘does not embody’ a previously conceived idea, rather ‘he begets it.’ Magic ceremonies, therefore, are entirely experiential, based on ‘collectivity and emotional tension’. She goes on to assert that the very concept of ‘god’ arises out of the congregated, concrete enactments of basic desires for food and fertility:
[The dancers] sink their own personality and by the wearing of masks and disguises, by dancing to a common rhythm, above all by the common excitement, they become emotionally one, a true congregation, not a collection of individuals. The emotion they feel collectively, the thing that is more than any individual emotion, they externalise, project; it is the raw-material of god-head. Dionysus is ‘a human youth, lovely, with curled hair, but in a moment he is a Wild Bull and a Burning Flame. The beauty and the thrill of it!’ Unlike Frazer, Harrison’s theory of magic was derived from contemporary psychological and sociological research, leaving behind the vestiges of nineteenth-century rationalism:
Sympathetic magic is, modern psychology teaches us [...] not the outcome of intellectual illusion, not even the exercise of a “mimetic instinct”, but simply, in its ultimate analysis, an utterance, a discharge of emotion and longing.
For Frazer, human or animal sacrifice in which victims were assaulted, hung, dismembered, or torn apart while still alive epitomised the destruction of the corn by man. But this does not make the barbarisms any more palatable to Hardy’s narrator.
The grisly Marlott harvest-custom of sacrificial slaughter foreshadows the grim portrait of Flintcomb-Ash in winter, where ‘the low sun beamed’ in a village like ‘a place of the dead’ (Tess, p. 272). That Tess chooses to disguise herself as an older, more weather-beaten woman, reminiscent of the cadaverous votive sisterhood at the club-walk, is integral to Hardy’s mythical framework:
As soon as she got out of the village she entered a thicket and took from her basket one of the oldest field-gowns, which she had never put on even at the dairy [...] She also, by a felicitous thought, took a handkerchief from her bundle, and tied it round her face under her bonnet, covering her chin and half her cheeks, and temples, as if she were suffering from toothache. Then with her little scissors, by the aid of a pocket looking- glass, she mercilessly snipped her eyebrows off (Tess, p. 272)
Tess’s self-mutilation, deflecting the gaze of male observers (‘“What a mommet of a maid!” said the next man who met her to a companion’) signifies Demeter’s decision to disfigure and emaciate her own body in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.99 This portrayal of the primordial mother as Crone is most closely associated in modern times with the human suffering and pain accompanying the loss of an innocent child. Grieved beyond reasoning, Demeter becomes the wanderer and exile, the epitome of barren rage in the face of violation and despair:
[w]ithdrawing from the assembly of the gods and high Olympus she went among the cities and fertile fields of men, disguising her beauty for a long time. No one of men nor deep-girt women recognized her when they looked (HHD, ll.92-95)
Maddened, dazed with grief, Demeter reflects, according to Phyllis Chesler, the terrors of reality:
‘[h]er bones seem to shrink, her cheeks become wrinkled. She bound up her hair and turned wanderer’. Maiden and Mother are two phases of the female lifecycle through which Tess passes. The third, the ‘wise crone’ stage, is embodied in the goddess Hecate. In her fullness, Demeter was the Triple Goddess of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. The three were so closely intertwined, with so many overlapping functions and roles, that significant merging occurred, as is evident from the goddesses’ depiction on sacred monuments and in other ancient works of art as three indistinguishable female forms holding one torch.
Tess battles against harsh winter weather and the steam threshing-machine, whose engineer is portrayed thus:
He was in the agricultural world, but not of it. He served fire and smoke [...] He travelled with his engine from farm to farm, from county to county, for as yet the steam threshing-machine was itinerant in this part of Wessex. He spoke in a strange northern accent, his thoughts being turned inwards upon himself [...] holding only strictly necessary intercourse with the natives, as if some ancient doom compelled him to wander here against his will in the service of his Plutonic master. (Tess, pp. 315-16)
An iconic delineation of a specific power-structure, the engineer, serving ‘fire and smoke’, has no passionate feeling for the locale; to him people are merely mindless factors in the process of production. This dark attendant is compared to a chthonic creature, a slave of Pluto, Lord of the Dead. While Tess works alongside the machine in what David Musselwhite calls a ‘featureless “capitalist” desert’, she becomes, like Persephone in winter, literally separated from her mother, the earth. Since the effects of Alec and the threshing machine on Tess are virtually the same – discomposing and reducing her to a condition of insentient animality – Hardy transfers Pluto’s epithet, the ‘inexorable’, from d’Urberville to the machine. With ‘the inexorable wheels continuing to spin’, Tess unties the sheaves of corn sacred to Demeter to supply her ‘Plutonic master’.
The topos of Flintcomb-Ash, with its unfruitful soil and relentless, unforgiving industrial apparatus that demolishes human identity, is for Tess ‘pandemonium’ (Tess, p. 324), the site of all demons and the capital of Hell in Milton’s Paradise Lost." [The Lost Girls]
"ἐδιζησάμην ἐμεωυτόν." [Heraclitus]
"All that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both." [Aeschylus, Prometheus]
"The history of everyday is constituted by our habits. ... How have you lived today?" [N.]
*Become clean, my friends.*
Lyssa Har Har Harr
Gender : Posts : 9031 Join date : 2012-03-01 Location : The Cockpit
"Explaining the complex significance of Demeter, Kerényi writes:
The grain-figure is essentially the figure of both origin and end, of mother and daughter; and just because of that it points beyond the individual to the universal and eternal. It is always the grain that sinks to earth and returns, always the grain that is mown down in golden fullness and yet, as fat and healthy seed, remains whole, mother and daughter in one.
This combination is sacrificed at the ancient temple of Stonehenge, recalling the Proserpine of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads First Series: nature personified as mortality and sleep. After flinging herself with exhausted relief upon the large, flat altar stone, Tess awakens to discover she is surrounded by shadowy figures of the law who appear as if wearing ritual masks: ‘in the growing light, their faces and hands [...] were silvered, the remainder of their figures dark’ (Tess, p. 381).
Her execution by hanging marks the collapse of a noble and nurturing conception of a natural divinity. That there seems to be no hope of reconstruction is compounded by Hardy exploiting the staginess of Tess’s arrest in ‘a place of cultural beginnings’, where people were sacrificed to the sun. Hardy follows Swinburne in denying the optimistic pattern of rebirth with its implication of an afterlife, which the Persephone myth verbalises according to Kerényi: ‘[t]o enter the figure of Demeter means to be pursued, to be robbed, raped, to fail to understand, to rage and grieve, but then to get everything back and be born again’. That Hardy obviates any compensating or consoling hint of redemption is underlined by the wild treeless isolation of Salisbury Plain, and by the Henge itself, a forbidding image of stony circularity, emblem of narrative closure. Although in perpetual and precipitate flight across the face of Wessex, Tess cannot in the end outmanoeuvre the constellations of power that bear repeatedly down upon her.
Despite the ‘promise of a life to come’ (GS, p. 93) implicit in Pater’s punctilious scrutiny of Demeter-Persephone, Hardy is more committed to magnifying its bleaker resonances. This is underpinned by Stonehenge as ‘the hub of olden Wessex’, denoting an order based not on providential patterning but on affliction and death. Mortality here is not the exacting yet precious pledge of fresh vigour for the community. Something of society’s culpability may be expiated by Tess’s ‘sacrifice’ amid the elemental grandeur of this site, though the fierce determination she embodies will never be reawakened. Acceptance of retributive sacrificial suffering as a precondition to the attainment of new vitality will not function here. Pater traces the moral life back to its source in the physical, so as to reconcile himself and his readers emotionally to their inevitable habitation in and of the material earth. Pater’s fondness for Gothic motifs of antiquarian desiccation is superficially similar to Hardy’s cheerless conception of Wessex as a gigantic graveyard through which the nomadic Tess drifts. But Pater, unlike Hardy, dignifies and domesticates the primal fear of mortality. In the first part of his ‘Demeter and Persephone’ essay, Pater reverts to etymology as the ‘archaeology’ of language and to mythography as ‘archaeology’ of human consciousness so that death might be only ‘a rush of home-sickness’. Tess is permitted no such Paterian solace of biological or cultural rebirth.
At a mute monument of forgotten faiths, Tess realises that the only certainty is oblivion unalleviated by any glimmer of transcendence: ‘[f]or there is no God found stronger than death; and death is a sleep’ (Swinburne, ‘Hymn to Proserpine’, l. 110).
Hardy subverts these ideas, showing how the arrest of Tess at the pagan temple of Stonehenge confirms the ruined character of the mythical past in a ‘crude’ contemporary society hurtling unalterably towards spiritual suicide, which evokes Nietzsche’s observation, ‘Man today, stripped of myth stands famished among his pasts’. In the words of Carlyle’s Diogenes Teufelsdrockh as he stumbles in the hell of the ‘Everlasting No’: ‘[t]he Universe is [...] dead and demoniacal, a charnel-house with spectres!’ This feeling is accentuated by the fact that Tess is sentenced in a court not even depicted by the narrative.
Hardy’s next published novel, Jude the Obscure (1895), illustrates that the only mythology available to fill the void once productively occupied by classical stories such as Demeter-Persephone is that of a soulless, punitive and paranoid Christianity. The pig, particularly the sow, was once considered a chthonic creature, the uterine animal of the earth. Frazer writes in relation ‘to the corn-goddess Demeter’:
remembering that in European folk-lore the pig is a common embodiment of the corn- spirit, we may now ask whether the pig, which was so closely associated with Demeter, may not have been originally the goddess herself in animal form? The pig was sacred to her; in art she was portrayed carrying or accompanied by a pig; and the pig was regularly sacrificed in her mysteries. (GB, p. 483) ‘Pherrephata’, one of many variants of Persephone’s name, means ‘killer of suckling pigs’, associating her with the pigs sacrificed during the Eleusinian Mysteries and other ceremonies consecrated to the Mother. The pig became the emblem of Eleusis, stamped on all Eleusinian coins. The votive pigs were sacred to Demeter and Persephone because they commemorated those of Eubouleus that were, according to Clement of Alexandria, devoured in the very same infernal chasm that claimed Kore.
The earliest ritualistic worship of the Mother involved imitative magic: something fruitful was placed in the earth – an ear of corn, a pregnant sow, or in Central and South America, a female sacrificial victim – in the belief that this act would cause the earth to be richly productive. In the Greek rites of the Thesmophoria, suckling pigs were thrown into clefts in the earth, while the fleshly remains of the previous year’s pigs were brought up and mixed with the seeds about to be planted in order to effect a bountiful harvest.
However, Jude’s grudging slaughter of the pig reveals an unbridgeable gulf between an ancient ceremonial venerating the animal as a resonant symbol of agricultural rather than nomadic life-style, and the grisly modern- day equivalent in which it is ‘an inferior species’ (Jude, p. 124). This act impinges on Jude not as a farmer’s matter-of-fact chore, but rather as a sickening series of physical phenomena from which he cannot, for all his nausea, flee. The exercise is little more than a meaningless infliction of suffering from which other creatures instinctively recoil, ‘[a] robin peered down at the preparations from the nearest tree, and, not liking the sinister look of the scene, flew away, though hungry’ (Jude, p. 63).
Rather than emitting a cry suspended between life and death, the pig produces a ‘squeak’ – ordinarily the sound of a mouse – that seems a sufficiently whimsical detail to undercut the reader’s initial discomfort.
The ‘bestial buffooneries’ of Demeter’s Eleusinian rituals that Andrew Lang noted with angry perplexity (‘making Proserpine out of a porker’) Hardy twists into grotesquely comic pratfalls. Harrison argues that the pig was worshipped at Eleusis as a ‘pharmakos’ that conducted out evil through purification in the sea: it ‘was the cheapest and commonest of sacrificial animals, one that each and every citizen could afford’ (PGR, p. 153). For Jude, the pig-killing is the ‘cheapest’, ‘commonest’ facet of experience. Upon Hardy’s swift alternations between dark threat and wry amusement, horror and farce (even the merging of such extremes so that we cannot respond to either one alone) the disturbing impact of this incident relies.
As in most of Jude’s ‘black farce’ episodes, the reader’s emotional and intellectual reactions become profoundly unsettled (life is simultaneously perceived as absurd and deadly serious), and this in turn undermines any sense of a minutely ordered, familiar, and reassuring universe. After keeping the narrative uneasily poised between what is funny and what is frightening as an aghast, feckless Jude almost botches the killing, Hardy ends the episode by showing the squalid, degrading facts of the betrayed animal’s death. This may be a pointedly violent riposte to Pater’s essay on Demeter-Persephone that wilfully excludes, according to Andrew Lang, the grimmer implications of ancient worship. Pater’s account is ‘a prettified picture of Greek faith and custom’.
Hardy, like Pater, aims ‘to bring the every-day aspect of Greek religion home to us’ (GS, p. 272) but the ‘every-day’ is terrifying and traumatic in Jude’s pig-sacrifice scene, the antithesis of Pater’s hushed reverence, depicting Demeter’s shrine as ‘a quiet, twilight place’ (GS, p. 275), or in Lang’s disdainful opinion, ‘a gallery almost hieratic in its stately repose, rather chill, full of good things’.127 To borrow the terms of Pater’s ‘Winckelmann’, Hardy evokes a ‘relic of classical antiquity, laid open by accident to our alien, modern atmosphere’128 but without the faintest trace of sacramental suggestiveness. Hardy finds it impossible to react with buoyantly witty effects to a fundamental lack of coherence in a supposedly ‘Christian’ country:
However unworkmanlike the deed, it had been mercifully done. The blood flowed out in a torrent instead of in the trickling stream she had desired. The dying animal’s cry assumed its third and final tone, the shriek of agony; his glazing eyes riveting themselves on Arabella with the eloquently keen reproach of a creature recognizing at last the treachery of those who had seemed his only friends. (Jude, p. 64)
Hardy consciously presents the pig stripped of any Eleusinian reference, and its slaughter underscores his central theme of paganism’s defeat by a ‘Christian’ ethos that bleaches all mystery out of the ‘Mysteries’, dishonouring their status as a poetic fiction with the legitimacy both of spiritual tradition and of scientific discovery.
Mary Webb’s Gone to Earth (1917) illustrates this sense of existential emptiness with its stern reappraisal of Tess’s mythical framework. In Webb’s novel, Hazel Woodus functions as a Persephone figure deprived of maternal care and refused any redemptive return from the netherworld of sexual violence to which she is exposed. Hazel’s fate seems to bolster the feminist theologian Mary Daly’s reading of Persephone as ‘the essential tragedy of women after the patriarchal conquest’.130 Webb is more scalding than Hardy in her chronicle of a secluded rustic community in which the ‘Maiden’ is compelled to become a wife and mother against her own better judgement; daughters who try to circumvent this ‘natural’ fate must deal with expulsion, destitution and death.
"Certainly there were splashings in the water, Certainly there were shadows on the hill, Dark with the leaves of purple-spotted orchis; But now all’s still. It may be that the catkin-covered sallow, With her illusive, glimmering surprise, Pale golden-tinted as a tall young goddess, Deceived my eyes." [Mary Webb, ‘The Ancient Gods’, in ‘Poems’ and ‘The Spring of Joy’, p. 116.]
"The wail of the lost was in her voice. She had not the slightest idea what the words meant (probably they meant nothing), but the sad cadence suited her emotional tone, and the ideas of loss and exile expressed her vague mistrust of the world." [Webb, Gone to Earth]
According to Hugh Ross Williamson, surveying recent ‘country writers’ in 1931, there are those who turn to Nature as a highly-idealised form of escape from urbanity; and there are those, inspired by reaction from this school, who delight in exhibiting the sordidness and narrowness of rusticity by reminding us that a picturesque village may contain more squalor than a hideous slum. Mary Webb does not fit smoothly into either category; instead she belongs to that group of novelists who ‘accepted the country without comparisons. Webb declares in her ‘Foreword’ to Precious Bane (1924) that Shropshire is ‘a country where the dignity’ of ‘ancient things lingers long’.10 Webb’s Shropshire is an embattled enclave, a site of precious memory whose imagined borders delineate topographical and somatic restrictions. This borderland also resonates with contested conceptions of Englishness, a rediscovery of place and stable location triggered by what Webb deemed a poisonous modernity whose dynamism of progressive enlightenment, coupled with unthinking veneration for mobility, had induced a split between the self and the environment, effacing the need for persistence and settled rhythm: ‘[w]hen antique things are also country things, they are easier to write about, for there is a permanence, a continuity in country life which makes the lapse of centuries seem of little moment’ (PB, p. 6). This connotes that Webb immortalizes the mental as well as physical heirlooms of a parochial past whilst the newest theories encroach with predatory pervasiveness on the ordered calm of her fictional milieu. But her portrayal of Shropshire as a locus rich in folklore, myth, and arcane superstition does not ape that ‘highly idealised form of escape from urbanity’ which Hardy castigates in the fey bourgeois-bohemian Angel Clare, whose affliction is an especially virulent strain of that ‘English disease, a love of Nature’. Indeed, Webb’s sombre reworking of Persephone in Gone to Earth as a story about ‘the age-long terror of weakness bound and helpless beneath the knife’ (GE, p. 216) was explicitly shaped by the climate of ‘all things hunted and snared and destroyed’ (GE, p. 17) in the Great War. Her literary rendering of the Shropshire terrain, while it urgently searches for an inspiriting vision of pastoralised domesticity, is fraught with a feeling for spectral presences and the almost extinct: the fantasy of a coherent community is caught in a process of endless and depressing deferral.
Although intensely local in setting and detail, Gone to Earth cannot be dissociated from ‘the horrors of the War’ seeping into Webb’s imagery of Hazel Woodus as ‘a tiny figure in chaos’ travelling through a woodland in which branches splinter with ‘loud reports like gun-fire’ (GE, p. 259) and ‘gravestones [...] creeping as if they would dominate the world’ (GE, p. 276).
John Buchan, lamenting the disintegration of popular village culture ‘in pagan harmony with the deeper rhythms of existence’ saw in Webb’s oeuvre a blossoming evergreen England, replete with the familiar forms of rural life, as the sole remaining repository of peace. Buchan construed the Webb of Gone to Earth as a cultural embalmer, measuring the relaxed and artless routines of a sheltered agrarian order against a blighted consumerist epoch:
Gone to Earth was published in the dark days of 1917 [...] I read it at a time when everything that concerned the soil of England seemed precious, and one longed for the old things as a relief from a world too full of urgent novelties.
To Buchan the novel appeared so devoid of ‘urgent’ contemporaneous reference that he dated Gone to Earth’s milieu approximately fifty years earlier, in the 1870s, despite a passage clearly stating that the novel’s events occur after 1909.
What Buchan signally failed to mention is how Gone to Earth divulges instead a writer employing the Persephone myth to investigate critically the relationship between insular atavisms and the outbreak of global conflict. This was also a key concern for Jane Harrison in her volume Alpha and Omega:
Essays from Experience, published in 1915, two years before Webb’s novel. Harrison renounced her earlier enthusiasm for the irrational in ‘Epilogue on the War’, an essay that conveys deep disenchantment about the early stage of the conflict. Until the war, she had appraised collectivism as the solution to the exclusive promptings of love and sex: ‘[h]uman life [...] is lived to the full only in and through the “herd” – [it] is social’. She diagnoses that at the close of the nineteenth century, ‘Man rose up from the banquet of reason and law unfed. He hungered half unconsciously for the herd. It seemed an impasse: on the one side orthodoxy, tradition, authority, practical slavery; on the other science, individual freedom, reason, and an aching loneliness.’19 In her major works, she had traced the origins of Greek religion to pre-Olympian chthonic cults and saw them as superior to classical religion because they represented emotion, group unity, and matriarchy, while the later Olympian pantheon signalled an autocracy of reason, egoism, and patriarchal privilege. Like the religion it fostered, the matriarchal social group was, she contended, inclusive and emotionally fulfilling. In 1914, however, Harrison’s earlier promulgation of emotion in the abstract and the sacrifice of individual appetites for the communal good was ruthlessly revised by the appalling actuality of wartime chauvinism, and her ‘Epilogue’, the final essay in Alpha and Omega, appealed for moderation, sober self-analysis, and dignified restraint:
[f]or five long years, in season and out, I have preached collectivism – its relation to life and religion, its inspirations, its perils [...] Nowadays, collectivism is not only booming as a fashionable dogma; it is – a conquest far more significant – astir in every man’s heart.
Harrison perceived the Great War as a barbaric conflict of collectivities, in which a younger generation’s emotional craving fuelled the distressing extremes of a raw, sabre-rattling nationalism: [y]ou are to draw your inspiration from your local soil, from the very chairs and tables and clocks and mirrors of your ancestral home [...] Before all things be local, parochial, patriotic [...] cultivate the small, combative herd-emotions. This is the other side of regional belonging to which Gone to Earth is especially attuned.
To Buchan, Webb’s fictional Shropshire is regenerative, even redemptive, suturing the wounds of a shell-shocked society. But Webb also manifests that petty provincialism mobilises bellicose herd-instinct and mass support for the prosecution of war. Whether it is the marauding huntsmen who harry Hazel Woodus to her death in the quarry of Gone to Earth or the morbidly superstitious villagers in Precious Bane, equally ready for a bull-baiting or to lynch Prudence Sarn for a witch, Webb is damning in her scorn for the coarse, parochial ‘crowd-morality’ that is easily swayed to set definite boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. Thus she teases out, as Harrison does in ‘Epilogue’, the links between mawkish sentimentality for the sacred soil of a rustic ‘home’ and the abhorrent ideologies anchored in a bitterly divisive and deleterious concept of national identity:
It is the mass-ego that constructs dogmas and laws; for while the individual soul is, if free at all, self-poised, the mass-mind is always uncertain, driven by vague, wandering aims; conscious, in a dim fashion, of its own weakness, it builds round itself a grotesque structure in the everlastingness of which it implicitly believes [...] The whole effort of evolution is to the development of individual souls who will dare to be free of the architecture of crowd-morality. For when man is herded he remembers the savage.
Gone to Earth implies that the irrational and instinctual, seemingly associated with the copious bucolic terrain, can become a source of domestic abuse, even martial viciousness and internecine strife. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Persephone disports with the daughters of Okeanos at the remote reaches of the earth. Among the flowers she picks is the seductive narcissus, which Gaia causes to bloom by the will of Zeus as a deception for the maiden. When she reaches for it, the earth opens, and Hades springs out and seizes her against her will. Thus the fragrance of the ‘narcissi on the window-sills’ has a peculiar resonance in Webb’s novel.
The narcissi on the window-sills eyed Hazel in a white silence, and their dewy golden eyes seemed akin to [...] her own. The fragrance of spring flowers filled the place with wistful sadness. There are no scents so [...] grievous, as the scent of valley-lilies and narcissi clustered ghostly by the dark garden hedge, and white lilac, freighted with old dreams [...] faintly reminiscent of mysterious lost ecstasy. (GE, p. 139)
Webb underscores the intractability of this ‘lost ecstasy’ (GE, p. 139)28 by elaborating the intricate patterns of sacrificial imagery so prominent in Tess, in which the eponymous heroine is made to feel ‘like a hunted criminal’, living ‘in perpetual fear that someone might discover that she was an unmarried mother’. Webb sharpens Hardy’s technique of employing some of the emblems of Demeter and Persephone – flowers and a basket of fruit – to link his young heroine to the unified divinity. Webb’s brooding attentiveness to the particularities of her rustic milieu is reminiscent of Pater’s ‘double sight [...] clairvoyant of occult gifts in common or uncommon things, in the reed at the brook-side.’
[o]n some day of late January, when the honey-coloured west is full of soft grey cloud [...] what is the thrill that shakes us? It is not only that the delicate traceries of silver birches are tenderly dark on the illumined sky, that a star springs out of it like darting quick-silver, that the music of tone and tint has echoed last April’s song. It is something deeper than these. It is the sudden sense – keen and startling – of oneness with all beauty, seen and unseen. This sense is so misted over that it only comes clearly at such times. When it does come, we are in complete communion with the universal life.
Webb comments that ‘one must “greet the unseen” [...] in awed and humble silence’. Walter De La Mare commended in Webb’s essays, Gone to Earth seizes upon Hardy’s prevailingly sombre and cheerless mythic allusions in Tess, not just to highlight women’s ‘lost-and- forgotten lives’ (PB, p. 93) in general, but to augur the unthinking slaughter of a fertility figure:
[Hazel] stood in the lane above the cottage, which nestled below with its roof on a level with the hedge-roots, and watched the sun dip. The red light from the west stained her torn old dress, her thin face, her eyes, till she seemed to be dipped in blood (GE, p. 14).
In what seems like a deliberate echo of The Woodlanders, Webb measures the timbre of her protagonist’s voice against the utterance of a dying Giles Winterborne, the ineffectual ‘priest’ of the Wessex orchards. Once aligned with the fecundity of the Hintocks, the delirious Winterborne dissolves into the sylvan surroundings by imperceptible degrees:
[There] were low mutterings; at first like persons in conversation, but gradually resolving themselves into varieties of one voice. It was an endless monologue, like that we sometimes hear from inanimate nature in deep secret places where water flows, or where ivy leaves flap against stones; but by degrees [Grace] was convinced that the voice was Winterborne’s. (Woodlanders, p. 235) Webb’s subtle invocations of The Woodlanders resurface through Hazel’s exultant immersion in her lush locality, her susceptibility to how the ‘wood- pigeons spoke [...] a language older than the oldest scripts of man’ (GE, p. 155), conjuring up an Emersonian ‘Nature’ where ‘all mean egotism vanishes’ and the ‘greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable’.
Ancient hedges hung above the field and spoke to her in fragrant voices. The glory of the may was just giving place to the shell-tint of wild roses. [...] She had so deep a kinship with the trees, so intuitive a sympathy with leaf and flower, that it seemed as if the blood in her veins was not slow-moving human blood, but volatile sap. (GE, p. 163)
Gone to Earth creates an almost religious yearning for the numinous bond presumed to exist between Hazel and the ‘trees’, even as it repeatedly punishes her for this affinity.
Webb’s ominous account of the detrimental operation of natural forces within the forest evokes The Woodlanders in which Grace Melbury notices the extreme and unrelenting cruelty that the Hintocks imposes upon itself when enmeshed in a Darwinian struggle for survival: ‘trees close together’ are ‘wrestling for existence, their branches disfigured with wounds resulting from their mutual rubbings’ (Woodlanders, p. 234). That Webb utilizes imagery of natural destruction to frame Hazel and Reddin’s sexual encounter registers the relationship between malformation and ruthless exploitation. Reddin installs Hazel at Undern Hall, but she broods over his assumption that she will remain there for good as his ‘Queen’. She has now learned the most blatant facts of sexuality, but she does not yet associate them with pregnancy and maternity.
Undern Hall [...] was a place of which the influence and magic were not good. Even in May, when the lilacs frothed into purple, paved the lawn with shadows, steeped the air with scent; when soft leaves lipped each other consolingly; when blackbirds sang, fell in their effortless way from the green height to the green depth, and sang again – still, something that haunted the place set the heart fluttering. No place is its own, and that which is most stained with old tumults has the strongest fascination. (GE, p. 28 )
Undern Hall is Webb’s version of the Frazerian underworld, a ‘gloomy subterranean realm’ (GB, p. 406), to which Hazel is consigned: ‘now she lived at Undern, she never went out in the green dawn or came home wreathed in pansy and wild snapdragon’ (GE, p. 255). ‘It was almost as if the freemasonry of the green world was up in arms for Hazel. She had its blood in her veins, and shared with it the silent worship of freedom [...], and had now been plunged so deeply into human life that she was lost to it’ (GE, p. 204). The emptily hedonistic Reddin, however, is no throwback to the complex Druidical rites analysed in The Golden Bough. Like Alec d’Urberville, he displays unfettered pagan sensualism without a modicum of pagan belief.
Undern Hall indicates both the debased temperament of its owner and the ‘dead world’ (GE, p. 25) over which he presides. When all around Undern is a may-time flowering of organic plenitude, the building epitomises stultifying stagnation; it is moribund matter, necrotic, a festering architectural ‘body’ whose ‘influence and magic were not good’. Like many of the ancestral homes in Webb’s fiction, Undern’s walls are crusted with the baleful ‘residue’ of those who have occupied and abused the site. Undern ‘seemed as if all the people that had ever lived there had come back, ignoring in their mournful dignity of eternal death these momentary wraiths of life’ (GE, p. 251). The dead hand of the provincial past lays a poisonous weight on purposeful change, and Undern becomes a mausoleum of Gothic melodrama – a mottled repository ‘full of subdued complaints and whisperings’ (GE, p. 204). The estate is both womb and tomb, but Webb signals how Undern can never be completely redeemed through dignified intervention in the modern moment.
Webb’s delineation of Undern Hall elaborates the more threatening side of what Hardy terms in The Woodlanders ‘old association’ attaching to ‘a solitary house in the country’:
an almost exhaustive biographical or historical acquaintance with every object, animate or inanimate, within the observer’s horizon [...] what bygone domestic dramas of love, jealousy, revenge, or disappointment, have been enacted in the [...] mansion. (Woodlanders, p. 94)
In the garden, cherries fall from the trees ‘with the same rich monotony, the same fatality as drops of blood’ to lie under the ‘fungus-riven trees’ (GE, p. 29). These trees spoiled by ugly decay and parasitic growth mirror the descriptions of stunted and mutilated tree-life in the wilder recesses of Mrs Charmond’s park in The Woodlanders: ‘slimy streams of fresh moisture, exuding from decayed holes caused by old amputations, ran down the bark of the oaks and elms’ (Woodlanders, p. 149); the half-dead oak ‘hollow, and disfigured with white tumours, its roots spreading out like claws grasping the ground’ (Woodlanders, p. 161). In an echo of Swinburne’s Proserpine lyrics, whose goddess is linked with mortality and sleep, the heavy, oppressive somnolence of Undern shows how ‘the very principle of life seemed to slumber’.
Both Webb and Hardy employ these ‘abduction’ scenes to parody the seizing of the unwilling Persephone by Hades, bearing her away in his chariot to the infernal regions. But instead of the netherworld god’s ‘golden car’ (GB, p. 406), Alec ironically possesses a ‘dog-cart’ (Tess, p. 57). As he drives the heroine downhill, the ground seems to open up like the chasm out of which Hades suddenly arose: ‘[t]he aspect of the straight road enlarged with their advance, the two banks dividing like a splitting stick’ (Tess, p. 57).
Like Pluto, whose name the Romans often translated into Dis, the Latin term for riches, Jack Reddin has sufficient funds to obtain the commodity of Hazel’s body: ‘“I never mind paying for my pleasures”’ (GE, p. 273). As Jane Harrison explained in her 1883 essay on ‘Demeter’:
Hazel unhesitatingly accepts natural magic, and regional legends exert such a hold over her imagination that she feels her own fate inextricably intertwined with them: especially the legend of the Black Huntsman and his pack, recalling the ‘close underground cavern’ (GE, p. 283) from which Pluto emerges to abduct Persephone. The Huntsman is of archetypal significance in Gone to Earth and becomes a manifestation of Wotan, god of war, storm, and frenzy. The dark myth is so deeply engraved on Hazel’s subconscious that it needs very little external pressure to become activated and completely possess her waking thoughts.89 Though Marston resolves ‘to combat these superstitions and replace them by a saner religion’, he cannot fathom, let alone stifle, ‘the ancient, cruel and mighty power of these exhalations of the soil’ (GE, p. 71).
The myths of the Huntsman and the pack presage the novel’s finale: ‘the dark and winding path that she [Hazel] must tread from that night onward to its hidden, shadowy ending’ (GE, pp. 23-24). Myth comes alive in the ritual of the hunt: in frenzied pursuit of the fox, Reddin’s pack also targets Hazel. As Reddin tries to retrieve Hazel by lifting her onto his horse, she connects him only with the bloodthirsty bravado of the Black Huntsman and turning away in terror falls over the ‘grey steeps’ of the quarry. The primitive motif of foxhunting and blood-sacrifice (‘[Hazel] saw the knife descend – saw [the fox] cut in two and flung [...] to the pack, and torn to fragments’) is as central to Webb’s novel as it is to D. H. Lawrence’s story ‘The Fox’ (1922). Webb can only have Hazel killed by the hunting pack – nature’s creatures perverted by human training to run down the fox, a member of the dog’s own family. Hazel’s enfeeblement and absorption back into the forest is not the true source of tragedy here, for in the full natural cycle growth and decay, sowing and reaping, are equally necessary:
[w]e know, too, the echoes of things outside our ken – the thought that shapes itself in the bee’s brain and becomes a waxen box of sweets [...] the upward push of folded grass, and how the leaf feels in all its veins the cold rain; the ceremonial that passes yearly in the emerald temples of bud and calyx – we have walked those temples; we are the sacrifice on those altars. (GE, p. 254) Webb’s acute sense of disaster stems from the fact that Hazel, a ‘wood nymph’90 in John Buchan’s words, has not been fertile in her time and fails to complete her regenerative function by giving birth to her child. Thus she personifies the thwarted destiny of a countryside, an underclass, and a gender. Webb’s Persephone figure, hearing ‘the shrieking of the damned’ (GE, p. 286) and heavy with the pregnancy that prevents her eluding the chasing pack of hunting hounds, is consigned to her fate: ‘[t]hen, as the pack, with a ferocity of triumph, was flinging itself upon her, she was gone’ (GE, p. 287).
Webb explicitly structures the finale to connote that Hazel’s disappearance and death may be the violently purgative moment which precedes renewal and visionary consolation, just as primitive Greek ritual is often inaugurated by grisly acts before resulting in the promise of life eternal. ‘Life is a taciturn mother’, according to Webb’s narrator, ‘and teaches not so much by instruction as by blows’ (GE, p. 206). Jane Harrison focuses on the ‘intense vitalism’ of violent primitive ritual: ‘we have at last got one tangible, substantial factor in religion, a real, live experience’. But the savage violence inflicted by the ultimate creatrix in Webb’s narrative scheme, far from being a valid religious ‘experience’, leads nowhere: it is random, pointless, indiscriminate, and without any fructifying outcome. Webb is repelled by the seemingly anarchic process of Nature’s ‘blind-law’, with ‘death the constant penalty for a species’ lack of successful adaptation’.
However, Webb’s disgust is tempered by a hint of bitterly grotesque humour: Hazel is pursued to the quarry-edge by a pack of hunting-dogs, subverting the Actaeon myth in which the hunter, espying Diana bathing naked, was chased down by his own hounds. In Webb’s closing episode nature is drawn as a feckless ‘mother’ whose callous movements are defined by ‘imponderable’ caprice (GE, p. 11); she provides only meagre dispensations to daughters who lapse from high-minded maternal duty; and rarefied society does not modulate its expectations for daughters who disavow its pious platitudes. The frequently conventional conclusions to Webb’s novels are problematised by her inclusion of the traumas of women’s half-known lives and the fragility of female fulfilment: abortions, domestic brutality, rape, even murder. In Gone to Earth Hazel’s sole desire is to live in the woods, unencumbered by civilised manners. But nature, in Webb’s austere framework, demands unremitting growth not stasis, and for women such growth involves sexuality, and ultimately children. Hazel can either marry or she can die; she is no freer to evade that dichotomised destiny than she is to escape her rapist or deny her subsequent pregnancy. Hazel is ‘predestined to suffer’ according to John Buchan, ‘since she can never adjust herself to the strait orbit of human life’.
In H.D.’s Helen in Egypt, the brave quester is repeatedly worried that she is ‘only a daughter’ like Persephone, mired in a netherworld of non-being, or like Iphigenia, separated from her mother with the promise of a marriage that turns into a death.
E.M.Forster noted with increasingly exhausted alarm in his Commonplace Book, ‘[c]ountryside seems down and out between civilisation and its own late storms. The defences seem pierced at last’.
‘Woman’, Edith Lees Ellis remarked in 1921, ‘wants to build [a home] under which she can walk upright’. To explore this notion of how to re-conceive the woman’s home as a locus of national esteem, sharpening her own propensity for uniquely female forms of creation, Forster’s fiction adumbrates an ancient maternal inheritance so deeply buried that it lingers in the minds of his characters only as a faint, fragile, and far-off memory; if it surfaces occasionally it becomes as difficult to decipher as the old crone’s semiotic babble in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Forster infers, as Woolf did in 1937, that he was living in a ‘moment of transition on the bridge’ connecting ‘the private house with the world of public life’. The private home becomes key to his comprehension of a meaningful relationship between matriarchal potencies that show ‘the dead / are no more dead, / the grain is gold’, and national culture.
Richard Jeffries ruefully remarked that ‘[n]ature is like a beautiful statue. I must love, must gaze. Yet I cannot put the life into it that I should like to’. In Forster’s ‘Cnidus’, Nature has been literally abridged and reduced to a ‘beautiful statue’, an ornament to occupy the ‘gaze’ of museum-goers. Forster wishes to recover the goddess within by conflating national and classical values, invoking her in the ‘battle against sameness’ (HE, p. 328 ), against the emasculating repression of suburban mores that keeps novelty and imaginative freedom at bay. The Hellenised Cambridge intellectual illustrates how the Anglo-Saxon male is ideally situated to cherish, and become revitalised by, the mythified maternal, a timeless force at variance with a feminised suburban domesticity whose persistent policing of behavioural boundaries warps true sexual expression.
I am not going to turn sentimental, and pity the exiled Demeter, and declare that her sorrowful eyes are straining for the scarped rock, and the twin harbours, and Tropia, and the sea. She is doing nothing of the sort. If her eyes see anything, it must be the Choiseul Apollo who is in the niche opposite; and she might easily do worse. And if, as I believe, she is alive, she must know that she has come among people who love her [...] Demeter alone among gods has true immortality. The others continue, perchance, their existence, but are forgotten, because the time came when they could not be loved. But to her, all over the world, rise prayers of idolatry from suffering men as well as suffering women, for she has transcended sex.
The statue of Demeter becomes an ‘idol’ for him, and his reflections on seeing the original in Greece denote its overwhelming strength of attraction, as a means of reconciling what he saw as, according to Furbank, ‘the male and female in his own nature’. In Forster’s fiction, the Demeter figure is usually an androgynous, elderly presence…
The ‘people who love’ this earth-goddess the ‘most’, Forster hints in ‘Cnidus’, are those ‘suffering’ Englishmen like himself, who pray at the ‘unsuspected shrines’ (LJ, p. 45) of a Hellenised homophilia. In The Longest Journey he divines in this Greek handiwork a mode of reclaiming England on behalf of ‘unspeakable[s] of the Oscar Wilde kind’, thus reauthorizing a sophisticated male fellowship, once extolled in legend by an ancient race, before debilitating domesticity and a Christian dogma of denial usurped it in Western culture. In his early fiction, Forster consistently depicts young women aligned with the homogenising force of consensus, sacrificing their sexuality on the altar of marital ‘decency’ and economic solvency, with the result that men, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are compelled to endure lives of cheerless suburban confinement, denied that release which the earth-goddess seems to grant the writer of ‘Cnidus’.
Forster intimates the refreshment flowing from Demeter’s capacity to enfranchise the male novelist by showing sexuality as a site of surprise and visionary possibility, unencumbered by the pernicious protocol of bourgeois matrimony. The Longest Journey places a tentative though ultimately thwarted faith in equivalences between an unspoiled and bountiful natural milieu (‘Nature’) and sexual liberality (the dynamics of homosexual ‘nature’). This implicitly revises the ‘conception of Demeter’ Pater supplies in his 1876 essay on the deity, who ‘is throughout chiefly human, and even domestic’ (GS, p. 148 ), furnishing little indication of the primitive, ritualistic responses to seasonal flux and the conciliation of demons and spirits inherent in the worship of the goddess at Cnidus. Pater, subtly elaborating what he characterises as Charles Newton’s ‘divinations’ into the essence of the Cnidian Demeter, observes that the original shrine is of ‘simple construction, and designed for private use, the site itself having been private property, consecrated by a particular family, for their own religious uses’ (GS, p. 141). Pater localises, specifies, and domesticates the shrine, erecting an intricate symbolic structure of home-life as the locus of human culture. What Pater finds in the Cnidian shards and splinters is a dual expression of humble domestic utility and ardent religious sentiment. That the Greeks themselves blended worship and ritual within their very ordinary material culture enables the archaeologist, as Pater puns, to bring ‘the every-day aspect of Greek religion home to us’ (GS, p. 142).
Forster is also committed to bringing a facet of Greek religion ‘home’ to English shores. However, his Demeter must be purged of negative associations with Pater’s ‘every-day’ usages of ‘private property’ in a comfort zone of heterosexual hegemony – what The Longest Journey derisively terms the ‘sububurb’ (LJ, p. 38 ) of the South and Midland counties, whose unchecked growth, facilitated by more ambitious road technologies such as macadam and mechanised travel, eroded traditional social divisions policed by class ideologies. Forster’s ‘sububurbia’ connotes not just a cultural cul-de-sac in which time is shallow and ownership transitory, but a site of crushing repression, from which Demeter’s spiritual offspring, dreaming of decency touched with poetry36, must flee in order to uncover at least a shred of autonomy.
Rural Wiltshire in The Longest Journey, and the eponymous country estate in Howards End both illustrate Jane Harrison’s anthropological concept of sacred space, or ‘autochthony’: the notion that mystical potencies, which Forster diffidently calls ‘the unseen’, inhere neither in the heavens nor in ethereal essences but are anchored in the elemental atmosphere of a bucolic hinterland.37 These ‘unseen’ are redoubtable entities, ancestral spirits endowing landforms, habitations or tombs; they afford a secluded ‘home to confront the menacing tumultuous world’ (LJ, p. 144).
Forster and D. H. Lawrence, although their eventual quarrel over issues of sexual candour would suggest otherwise, shared not dissimilar views on the role played by sexual vitality in upholding personal and social wellbeing.41 No two writers could appear on a cursory glance farther apart: one the product of the English public school system, cryptic, cagey and gay; the other working-class, obstreperous, and now linked, in the mainstream imagination at least, with the blunt proclamation of heterosexual passion. But both are fascinated by the Demeter-Persephone myth and its empowering relevance, infusing vivid colour to the glum ‘daily grey’ (HE, p. 336). In Forster’s fictional scheme the story promotes enlarging vistas that would not only depose intractable social expectations, but also exalt the undernourished mythological annals of his homeland.43 His anthropological quest – springing from what Michael Warner expresses as ‘dissatisfaction with the regime of the normal’ – to render Demeter’s blessings is couched in terms of promulgating a passional experience that cannot subsist in the fortress families of English suburban culture. The narrator of Howards End asks
[w]hy has not England a great mythology? Our folklore has never advanced beyond daintiness, and the greater melodies about our countryside have all issued through the pipes of Greece. Deep and true as the native imagination can be, it seems to have failed here. It has stopped with the witches and the fairies. It cannot vivify one fraction of a summer field, or give names to half a dozen stars. England still waits for the supreme moment of her literature – for the great poet who shall voice her, or, better still, for the thousand little poets whose voices shall pass into our common talk. (HE, p. 262)
Forster adumbrates a hearty Hellenised occidental, in which the earth- goddess appears, revivified and repositioned, as a proud symbol of the overflowing ripeness of a resplendent bucolic enclave, unblemished by ‘sububurbia’, and its forced vacancies and haemorrhages of surplus personal luggage.46 Forster’s English Demeter denotes a redeeming spiritual largesse that resides in the civilised, seemingly unchanging feudal plenitude of an idyllic countryside as opposed to the reductive intransigence of imperialist patriarchy which pursues the ‘Anglo-Saxon hegemony of the globe’ (LJ, p. 161).Forster saw that the ancient myth lent itself to extremely rich and even contradictory accounts that may apply to a whole gamut of psychological situations.But as The Longest Journey acknowledges with increasing desperation, primitive fertility gods had been attenuated either to a hack novelist’s outdated affectation or a glib reproach against a desecrating metropolitan modernity.49 Rickie Elliot’s short story collection Pan Pipes signifies the degree to which English ‘folklore’ is mired in a tweeness divorced from any conception of the earth as ‘a living being – or rather a being with a living skin’ (LJ, p. 232). Rickie’s rhapsodic note of Pan-worship in these stories may echo Forster’s own awkward sense that the suburban comedy of manners infusing his own early tales – marred by naïve idealism, insularity, and ineffectual aestheticism – not only chafes against, but also invalidates his imaginative pursuit of chthonic vitality.
In the early fictions Forster, dismayed by a meretricious and modern Italy, seeks its more illustrious mythic and ancient antecedent. In Where Angels Fear to Tread, his meditations on the earth-goddess are often defined by hesitant, halting attempts to discover a public, plausible mode in which male homoeroticism (the idolatry of ‘suffering men’ in ‘Cnidus’) might benefit from a primeval female authority without becoming itself ‘dainty’, diluted, and effeminate.
Forster’s Italian novels show that a Mediterranean vacation has the opposite effect on Britons who seem to be unwitting captives of a petty provinciality.
Forster camouflages the role of commerce in buttressing the ‘richness’ of real estate by reverting to cloudy abstraction:
[m]ost of us see the past as a swamp. Events do not flow past us; they neither go down into the mighty ocean nor are they lost in the sand; no, their behaviour is otherwise; the moment they move out of our physical reach they begin to sway and interlock, and they remain quite near. It is no wonder that amateurs all through the ages have indulged in incantations, and have hunted for the Word, the Gesture, the Sensation which should evoke their unburied dead, and bring back the richness and sweetness which had scarcely ceased to breathe.
Although attracted by a romantic theory of inspiration – invoking the artist who ‘dips a bucket’ into the ‘lower personality’ – Forster was not prepared to champion unequivocally the savage dark gods embedded in that lower self.
Lawrence pursues the oblique, oracular, and dislocating psychological meanings that attach to the unseen, gazing into and beyond those ‘rites of the underlying stratum’ (PGR, p. ix). Forster’s fascination for these rites is diluted by the pastoral genre’s association with ‘those less agitating days of the past, when the earth seemed solid and the stars fixed, and the discoveries of science were made slowly, slowly’. Forster and Lawrence grapple with the dilemma of being a modern writer while at the same time spurning those facets of modernism which either simplified the problem of ‘wholeness’ by detaching art from the sharp impact of felt experience (so that unity in art is a formal precept only) or glorified, with Futurist fervour, the scrappy and amorphous quality of contemporary existence. Whereas Forster’s fiction resigns itself to the ebbing away of a putative organic integrity, Lawrence takes Demeter-Persephone, expressed by turns as immersion, reversion, and as descent, to render a wellspring of renewed control, a process accompanied by augmented awareness, pain, perplexity and hope. He employs the gods as an intricate framework for a new kind of mythic narrative that surpasses what Forster terms in his essay ‘Pessimism in Literature’ the ‘discomfort and misery that lie so frequently beneath the smiling surface of things’." [The Lost Girls]
"ἐδιζησάμην ἐμεωυτόν." [Heraclitus]
"All that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both." [Aeschylus, Prometheus]
"The history of everyday is constituted by our habits. ... How have you lived today?" [N.]
*Become clean, my friends.*
Lyssa Har Har Harr
Gender : Posts : 9031 Join date : 2012-03-01 Location : The Cockpit
"You promised to send me violets – have you forgot? White ones and blue ones from under the orchard Hedge? You said you would be my Persephone You would not Persephone has passed through the town, fastening her girdle-knot." [D. H. Lawrence, Manuscript I version of ‘The Almond-Tress’]
Lawrence viewed the Persephone myth as an instance of what Tylor had designated as ‘survivals’, those primitive or ancient forms of thought and practice which obdurately resist the impulse of change and linger into later culture, thus revealing continuity between early and more developed forms of civilization. In these rare and anomalous fragments, Lawrence saw signs of a hidden potency to reinvigorate those demoralised by instrumental social relations. He would have endorsed Tylor’s thesis that there was ‘no human thought so primitive as to have lost its bearing on our own thought, nor so ancient as to have broken its connection with our own life’.
Lawrence signifies in The Lost Girl that the Persephone myth, as a focus of the fractured but resurgent union of mother, daughter, and the earth’s prodigal fecundity, cannot be altogether erased by the tale of brutish male dominance superimposed upon it.
Lawrence’s goal in pursuing these ‘dark gods’ is to overhaul stale conventions privileged by the life of unflagging domestic service, and to refresh them with potencies drawn from a primordial and dateless past. The Lost Girl supplies myriad iterations of the underworld and of Persephone’s arduous journey into that subterranean site, as well as sundry accounts of Persephone’s responses to those separate odysseys. Lawrence is careful to suggest that Alvina does not merely survive crude male control; rather, while encountering the chthonic she acquires a certain primal strength and in part takes charge of the atavistic forces (Ciccio, for example). However, when Alvina emigrates to Italy the novel renders a deepening and darkening of the journeys into underworld experience, an edgier sense of what the quest for fresh sensation entails as Alvina’s bright hopes turn to sad bewilderment and distress on the foreign ‘margins’. In the closing chapters, Lawrence himself seems to hesitate on the ‘brink’, unsure about the grave risks associated with surrendering to the ambience of southern Italy. This may also be his most impudent statement about Persephone: the myth permits a space for provocative contradiction and radical ambivalence. Lawrence in The Lost Girl thus draws closer to a harsher atavistic vision described by Harrison, one that embraces ‘ideas of evil [...] ignored or suppressed by Homer’ (PGR, p. vii).
At the outset, Alvina Houghton is candid and fearless: ‘young men’ are ‘scared away’ by her ‘odd, derisive look at the back of her eyes’. Alvina’s ‘look of old knowledge’ (LG, p. 21) is linked to her choice of profession; her work as a midwife, evoking Demeter’s capacity as a nurse, evinces an instinctive healing capacity which soothes both a dying mother and an ailing governess: with them ‘she was so swift and sensitive in her nursing, she seemed to have second sight’ (LG, p. 50).
In Lawrence’s distinctive treatment, an ancient story illustrating the seasonal decay and revival of vegetation is transmuted into a tool that goes beyond the exploration of interpersonal experience to dissect the phenomenon of war and the mysteries of identity once the rational, disciplinary traits of selfhood are stripped away: ‘[w]as Alvina her own real self all this time? The mighty question arises upon us, what is one’s own real self?’ (LG, p. 34)
Through imaginative excavation of the Persephone myth, Lawrence seeks to debunk smothering fantasies of matrimony and domesticity, with their smug reliance on the aesthetic closure of romantic love. The Lost Girl also belittles the traditional tropes and techniques of the bildungsroman genre that charts the subject’s experience of individuation and eventual bargaining with the joyless custodians of society’s gilded cage. By contrast, Lawrence’s novel traces a trajectory of increasing disillusionment with, and detachment from, the ignorant insularity of ‘home’, through the heroine’s fierce commitment to a stolid Italian suitor, Ciccio Marasca. Such a narrative – piercing the stagnating veil of custom, unravelling bourgeois shibboleths and the hegemony of mind over body – Lawrence believed Forster incapable of writing.
Alvina is reminiscent of the Nietzschean figure of the tightrope walker from Thus Spake Zarathustra, who makes confronting the perilous and the precarious his true calling, ‘who does not know how to live, except by going under’. As Lawrence declares in his essay ‘The Spirit of Place’:
[m]en are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes. And there is getting down to the deepest self! It takes some diving. Because the deepest self is way down, and the conscious self is an obstinate monkey.
Although the crucial reference to Persephone towards the end of The Lost Girl’s opening chapter is couched in terms of exultant, enabling ascent – ‘Dame Fortune would rise like Persephone out of the earth’ (LG, p. 17) – Lawrence is more struck by the notion of radical existential experimentation through descent into a site of raw potentiality, subordinating conscious promptings to the interiority and authenticity of ‘the deepest self’. This process repudiates the estranging watery light of the Midlands for unbearably fecund darkness, bestowed upon those, like Alvina, who traverse the ‘boundaries between two worlds’ (LG, p. 63).
Alvina undertakes two modes of expatriation: a spiritual or psychological journey inward towards a conception of identity that comprises a prolific multiplicity of selves, and outward in a gruelling physical odyssey of attempted deliverance. The Lost Girl is structured to test the urgent questions that the eponymous hero asks Rawdon Lily in Aaron’s Rod: ‘Shall you be any different in yourself, in another place? [...] What’s the use of going somewhere else? You won’t change yourself’. To which Rawdon replies: ‘I’m not only just one proposition. A new place brings out a new thing in a man’.
Alvina’s actual ‘voyage out’ from the alienated frustration of provincial England to domicile in Italy does not occur until the closing fifty pages of a novel of 400 pages. Unlike Forster’s Italian fictions, in which characters only achieve any kind of self-realisation once they have crossed the Channel, Lawrence shows Alvina embarking upon a number of both geographic and figurative migrations and returns within England itself, rehearsing an expatriate adventure that paradoxically carries her ‘home’ to her ‘own true nature’ (LG, p. 21). By conceiving Alvina as a Persephone figure who survives the sordid nullity of imaginative and intellectual life in her ‘wintry’ provincial town, escaping to the ‘springtime’ of a remote Italian hill-village, Lawrence revises not only the limitations of Forster’s early novels, but also his admired predecessor Thomas Hardy’s intensely pessimistic use of the Persephone myth in Tess. Lawrence deplores Hardy’s portrayal of Tess Durbeyfield because after the night of her rape/seduction she cannot rise from the ashes of her ravaged reputation. Tess, in Lawrence’s opinion, ‘cannot separate’ herself ‘from the mass which bore’ her, and so she becomes a ‘pathetic rather than tragic’ figure, barred from that condition of perpetual becoming to which Alvina aspires.
Lawrence’s Alvina, encountering the Plutonic, undergoes a process of being mythicized; instead of studiously cultivating conscious social or personal identity, as in traditional novelistic treatment, she is divested of it, assuming the role of a primordial archetype. Until well into her twenties, Alvina lives in Woodhouse (the name suggests a coffin); like Bestwood in Sons and Lovers (1913), it is a close-knit and stultifying community in which Alvina feels she is losing an ability to respond to the nuances of felt sensation. And she refuses to let the petty provinciality of the pinched Woodhouse mindset defeat her ambitions as it has her woolly-minded and quixotic draper father’s. Alvina’s urgent struggle against the toils of ‘high-mindedness’ (LG, p. 35) has an absurdly comic counterpoint: her father’s persistent efforts to make his fanciful avant-garde commercial ventures profitable in a town whose inhabitants are generally myopic, mundane, and bigoted.
That Alvina inherits some of her father’s resolve and haughty aloofness shows in her unwavering opposition to the precepts of the community that has reared her. The Lost Girl is ‘concerned from the start to portray [Alvina] as a woman with choices. She is not single from lack of opportunity [...] has her financial independence, women friends and colleagues, and work she enjoys’.
This is Lawrence’s muscular riposte to Hardy’s rigorous concentration on the intractability of deprivation in Tess and Jude the Obscure. Lawrence was determined that his bracingly revisionist account of Persephone in The Lost Girl would not duplicate Tess’s anguished pattern, in which Hardy tailors the mythic material to expose the abridgement of women’s control over their own words, bodies, and destinies. According to Lawrence in Study of Thomas Hardy (1914):
[Hardy] cannot help himself, but must stand with the average against the exception, he must, in his ultimate judgement represent the interests of humanity, or the community as a whole, and rule out the individual interest. To do this [Hardy] must go against himself. His private sympathy is always with the individual, against the community [...] Therefore he will create a more or less blameless individual and, making him seek his own fulfilment [...] will show him destroyed by the community, or by that in himself which represents the community.
The Study, while furnishing a deeply personal and shrewd reading of the Wessex Novels, also manifests Lawrence’s firm intention to craft a new sensibility and a new woman in modernist fiction: Alvina, though an ‘outsider’, socially ‘off the map’, can yet ‘stand on her own ground’ (LG, pp. 117-8 ).
The pit and the colliers, a realm of male physical industrial labour, gives Alvina a hint of the currents flowing beneath the surface of her cramped, dispiriting petit bourgeois life. Lawrence captures a note of excited confusion – immersion in an utterly unfamiliar element, rather than the awful ‘shock’ Alvina has to cope with during her training as a nurse:
the dreadful things she saw in the lying-in hospital, and afterwards, went deep, and finished her youth and tutelage for ever. How many infernos deeper than Miss Frost could ever know, did she not travel? The inferno of the human animal, the human organism in its convulsions. (LG, p. 33)
The working was low, you must stoop all the time. The roof and the timbered sides of the way seemed to press on you. It was as if she were in her tomb forever, like the dead and everlasting Egyptians. She was frightened, but fascinated. The collier kept on talking to her, stretching his bare, grey-black, hairy arm across her vision, and pointing with his knotted hand. The thick-wicked tallow candles guttered and smelled. There was a thickness in the air, a sense of dark, fluid presence in the thick atmosphere, the dark, fluid, viscous voice of the collier making a broad-vowelled, clapping sound in her ear. He seemed to linger near as if he knew – as if he knew – what? Something forever unknowable and inadmissible, something that belonged purely to the underground: to the slaves who work underground: knowledge humiliated, subjected, but ponderous and inevitable. (LG, p. 47)
Lawrence gains from existing mythologies to craft enigmatic, arresting myths of his own, refining new ‘mysteries’. He utilises the primitive belief in the dead dwelling together in a common, subterranean abode when portraying the colliers. The quality of this darkness enables Alvina to recapture or reinstate lost links to a fundamental self that signifies a more harmonious blend of instinct and culture. This recalibrates the darkness of mere moral and intellectual confusion that enfolds Tess on the night of her rape/seduction among the primeval oaks of ‘The Chase’. Lawrence underlines the paradoxical nature of being exposed to strange wells of secret life-force. The alertness to exhilarating yet frightening energies beating below the thick, ugly crust of railways and roads intensifies after Alvina settles in the Italian ‘pre-world’ of The Lost Girl’s final section. When a collier stretches ‘his bare, grey-black, hairy arm across her vision’ a sensual energy impinges on Alvina’s consciousness. By granting the dark centre of herself and her singular surroundings precedence over the stale formalities of the upper world, she finds herself caught between terror and amazement, pleasure and pain, liberation and suffocation. Her initiatory ordeal is into a secret knowledge of occult significance that all the colliers apparently share. The adroit mixture of Alvina’s breathlessly rapt perspective (‘you must stoop all the time’), and the unflustered, clinical point of view (‘[I]t was as if she were in her tomb forever’, ‘she was frightened, but fascinated’), makes the ‘you’ absorb the reader’s sense in the queasy imaginative descent. Lawrence also harnesses the multiple meanings of ‘purely’, recalling Hardy’s controversial subtitle to Tess which defiantly declares that his ‘Pure Woman’ is ‘faithfully presented’. The Lost Girl also challenges received cultural attitudes in this sphere. Purity as a bourgeois construct implies ‘cleanness’, ‘chastity’, ‘whiteness’, ‘sanctity’, ‘good taste’: terms wholly at odds with the peculiar ambience of Throttle-Ha’penny, or indeed the tenor of Alvina’s personal life which scandalises the unsmiling sentinels of demure gentility in her town. That ‘something forever unknowable and inadmissible’ belonging ‘purely to the underground’ Lawrence links to Alvina’s stupefied rediscovery of the primal roots of her being.
That the pit and the colliers afford Alvina a sexual awakening oversimplifies her multifaceted reaction to the seemingly oppressive environment, which leaves her feeling entombed like ‘the dead and everlasting Egyptians’. The instinctual life, with all its excitations and commotions of feeling, glimpsed by Alvina in the second-rate mine cannot thrive in the mechanised English setting of The Lost Girl. She is trapped among social beings whose lives are consecrated to defending an ideology of decorous conduct that stipulates abstention from worldly pleasures. Throttle- Ha’penny is for Alvina a bizarre mode of emancipation from this mirthless brand of English ‘breeding’. She yields to the netherworld by temporarily surrendering lucid self-awareness. This is Alvina’s first hesitant step towards merging with a series of cosmic and elemental counter-sites so that ‘Hades’ encompasses not only a chthonic divinity but also a fastidiously rendered physical locale and the interiorised topography of ‘the deepest self’ in Lawrence’s essay ‘The Spirit of Place’: ‘[i]f one wants to be free, one has to give up the illusion of doing what one likes, and seek what IT [the deepest self] wishes done. But before you can do what IT likes, you must first break the spell of the old mastery, the old IT’. The ‘old mastery’ denotes the lexicon of bourgeois individualism encoded in daylight consciousness, whose ‘spell’ Alvina tries to ‘break’ by visiting the subterranean realm:
And still his voice went on clapping in her ear, and still his presence edged near her, and seemed to impinge on her – a smallish, semi-grotesque, grey-obscure figure with a naked brandished forearm: not human: a creature of the subterranean world, melted out like a bat, fluid. She felt herself melting out also, to become a mere vocal ghost, a presence in the thick atmosphere. Her lungs felt thick and slow, her mind dissolved, she felt she could cling like a bat in the long swoon of the crannied, underworld darkness. Cling like a bat and sway forever swooning in the draughts of the darkness. (LG, p. 47)
The crisp contours of Alvina’s civilised identity dissolve, and Lawrence intimates a quality of response so keen yet so fleeting and fugitive that the expressive resources of language fail to condense its essence. The ‘creative’ death indicated by this underneathness – a dismantling of material awareness – is of a completely different sort to the inertia with which her routinely repressive and claustrophobic existence threatens her. Indeed, this chthonic episode, in which Alvina could ‘sway forever swooning in the draughts of the darkness’, foreshadows her instinctual response to Ciccio: ‘[i]t was far more like pain, like agony, than like joy. She swayed herself to and fro in a paroxysm of unbearable sensation.’ (LG, p. 175)
Lawrence’s portrayal of Alvina’s delirious ‘descent’ is intended partly as a reproach to those late-Victorian novelists such as Henry James who could not conceive of the chthonic except in the most desolating terms, as when Ralph Touchett, slowly dying of tuberculosis, reflects in Portrait of a Lady (1873): ‘I don’t want to die on the Sicilian plains – to be snatched away, like Proserpine in the same locality, to the Plutonian shades’.
Alvina rejects all the suitors who would be considered appropriate and offends the sanctimonious superiority of her neighbours by marrying the impercipient Italian peasant Ciccio Marasca, which both concretises and parodies the notion of deliverance through subjection to a superior male articulated in Aaron’s Rod: ‘the deep, fathomless submission to the heroic soul in a greater man’. Alvina is self-responsible and willingly consigns herself to the exacting life of her husband’s hill town. Her insurgency against the inflexible protocol and expectations of Woodhouse is a far cry from the scalding sense of parochial inevitability which Lawrence finds so disheartening in Hardy’s Tess, where finer feelings are repeatedly subject to crushing extinction on the part of social custom. Lawrence records in the Study of Thomas Hardy:
[t]his is the theme of novel after novel: [...] be passionate, individual, wilful, you will find the security of the convention a walled prison, you will escape, and you will die, either of your own lack of strength to bear the isolation and the exposure, or by direct revenge from the community, or from both.
Alvina’s subterranean trial signals how it is feasible to comprehend the rich darkness flowing beneath the ‘walled prison’ of Woodhouse mediocrity. It is feasible, Lawrence avows, to transcend in a moment of unguarded rapture, the limitations of a crudely materialistic culture ‘with its smoke and its money-power and its squirming millions who aren’t human any more’ (K, p. 257).
There was no dark master in the world. The puerile world went on crying out for a new Jesus, another Saviour from the sky, another heavenly superman. When what was wanted was a Dark master from the underworld. (LG, p. 48 )
The passage is the deadly reverse of the creative obverse when Alvina emerges from the pit and bequeaths a radical potency to the shabby, unfinished uniformity of her town. Given her own ability to unleash a ‘terrible, overwhelming voltaic force, something strange and massive [...] like the strange heaving of an earthquake’ (LG, p. 38 ) she now images an apocalyptic eruption of the subjugated underworld force. Eruption seems pertinent here because ‘bubbling’, a key term in Lawrence’s richly textured conception, presages the volcanic lava imagery in Chapter 8 of his Australian novel Kangaroo:
[w]e know nothing whatever of the awful forces at work beneath the crust of the earth, and nothing of the internal fires, or that awful subterranean abode where Shelley said ‘the old earthquake Demon nurses her young Ruin’. (K, p. 168 )
Lawrence discloses Ciccio’s ambiguous primitive passion by repeatedly comparing him to animals: He was a potent, glamorous presence, people turned to watch him. There was a certain dark, leopard-like pride in the air about him, something that the English people watched. (LG, p. 289) His eyes kept hers. Curious how dark they seemed, with only a yellow ring of pupil. He was looking right into her, beyond her usual self, impersonal [...] She was afraid of his long, cat-like look. (LG, p. 173)
There was a sort of finesse about his face. His skin was delicately tawny and slightly lustrous. The eyes were set in so dark, that one expected them to be black and flashing. And then one met the yellow pupils, sulphurous and remote. It was like meeting a lion. His long, fine nose, his rather long, rounded chin and curling lips seemed refined through ages of forgotten culture. (LG, p. 160) His eyes watched her as a cat watches a bird, but without the white gleam of ferocity. In his eyes was a deep, deep, sun-warmth, something fathomless, deepening black and abysmal. (LG, p. 211) ‘A feature in the mythical character of Dionysus’, Frazer explains, ‘which at first sight appears inconsistent with his nature as a deity of vegetation, is that he was often [...] represented in animal shape’ (GB, p. 399). The Italian’s inscrutable black eyes denote cruel remoteness, furtive guile and predatory acquisitiveness.
In his rare appearances in Greek art, Hades is often pictured with an averted face, implying he was not to be looked at directly. Ciccio is feline: he possesses the sensuous beauty of the cat as well as its stealthy grace and independent nature. Lawrence indicates the gulf between fantasies of eroticised submission to the greater soul of a heroic male and the humdrum facts of Ciccio’s quotidian routine. He is treated like a traditional vagabond among the Natcha-Kee-Tawaras troupe and his role in the elaborate ceremonial dance with Kishwegin (LG, p. 141) is that of torturer and killer, reminding us, as Marilyn Papayanis contends, that ‘atavism threatens at any moment to devolve into play or performance to be terminated at the will of the player’.
Mrs Tuke regards Ciccio’s fierce gusto as a subjugating force: ‘“Why not be atavistic if you can be, and follow at a man’s heel just because he’s a man. Be like barbarous women, a slave”’ (LG, p. 286). Alvina, whose sober reasoning faculty cannot help but nervously scrutinise her own non-rational drives, broods over Mrs Tuke’s words: ‘[w]as it atavism, this sinking into extinction under the spell of Ciccio? Was it atavism, this strange, sleep-like submission to his being? [...] Would she ever wake out of her dark, warm coma?’ (LG, p. 288 ) Her self-questioning implies an ambivalently fashioned atavism. However much instinctual and passional excess is privileged by Mrs Tuke, The Lost Girl attests that Alvina’s attraction to the ‘spell’ of atavism carries her to the brink of psychic dissolution (though this might seem pleasurable initially), and profoundly threatens her yearning to be viewed as an active subject in her own right.
Even as The Lost Girl insists on Ciccio’s primal verve, his ostensibly insolent and wilful temperament is complicated by the novel’s celebration of his subtle, sinewy, flower-like embodiment of southern Italy’s seductive charm, ‘extraordinarily velvety and alive’ (LG, p. 140). Even wearing his ‘terrifying war-paint’ for the pre-show procession, he is ‘like a flower on its stem’ (LG, p. 141). Alvina first notices his ‘long, beautiful lashes’ (LG, p. 125), ‘slender wrists’ (LG, p. 128 ) and ‘frail-seeming hands’ (LG, p. 129). Even the muscularity of his frame seems ‘velvety, suave’ and ‘softly powerful’ (LG, p. 161). At her most compliant moments, it is Ciccio’s ‘lustrous dark beauty’ that enthrals Alvina (LG, p. 202). Despite the male chauvinism of his opinions, Ciccio is more like one of the flowers Persephone stoops to pick prior to her abduction in the meadow than he is like a bullying and boorish patriarch. It is quiet recognition of his ‘passional vulnerability’ that moves Alvina to devotion (LG, p. 291) when she notices that ‘his face was open like a flower right to the depths of his soul, a dark, lovely translucency, vulnerable to the deep quick of his soul’ (LG, p. 291). The images of fluid darkness, sacrificial agony and dependence connected with Alvina’s revelatory vision during and immediately after her visit to the coalmine are reiterated when she succumbs to Ciccio in a mystical rape that is at once actual and elusively metaphorical. The terms of simple seduction and normative romantic intercourse fail to reflect the violent rupture implicit in this encounter. Lawrence reinvents the abduction of Persephone through the rhetoric of the exotic sublime. Ciccio’s ‘powerful, mysterious, horrible’ potency is redolent of that Burkean ‘terror’ which ‘crushes us into admiring submission’, resembling ‘a coercive rather than a consensual power, engaging our respect but not, as with beauty, our love’.
The sense of the unknown beauty of him weighed her down like some force. If for one moment she could have escaped from that black spell of his beauty, she would have been free. If only she could, for one second, have seen him ugly, he would not have killed her and made her his slave as he did. But the spell was on her, of his darkness [...] And he killed her. He simply took her and assassinated her. How she suffered no one can tell. Yet all this time, this lustrous dark beauty, unbearable. (LG, p. 202)
Perhaps Lawrence’s most moving poetic use of the deities emerged when he was dying of tuberculosis at age forty-four. While he was ill at a temporary residence in Bavaria, he happened to see flowers – the Bavarian gentians of his poem of that name – and he imagined holding them, as Persephone herself might, as a brilliant torch, a talisman, a symbol of life merging almost imperceptibly with death:
let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness, even where Persephone goes, just now, from the frosted September to the sightless realm [...] of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom, among the splendours of torches of darkness, shedding darkness on the lost bride and her groom.
This Persephone may be half of a psychic unity – the light (as conscious mind) embracing deep, dark colour (as unconscious sensuality). But the two mythic figures (Persephone and Pluto) are also respectively, soul and body in the final convergence of life with death.83 Lawrence’s image of the ‘lost bride’ as a harbinger of immortality owes something to Gilbert Murray’s association of Persephone with ‘the old liturgy of the dying and re-risen year- bride’ and his description of her as a ‘home-coming Bride’ after her ordeal in the earth.
If Persephone is the Queen of Death who had become the giver of life in Lawrence’s poem, we look beyond the nuptials of Persephone and Pluto to her triumph over death. Three torches or ‘flames’, common on the goddess’s sacred monuments are among the symbols of immortality in the poem’s little-noticed final draft. The ‘wedding-guest’ (evidently the poet) will carry ‘a flower [...] and three dark flames’ to ‘the marriage of the living dark’. In Lawrence’s version, the deathly-lost bride is paradoxically obliterated and vitalised at the same time by contact with Pluto/Dis; indeed, this descent is a prelude to the grand design of rebirth.
However, The Lost Girl modifies this structure by depicting Alvina’s devotion to Ciccio as an uneasy mixture of aesthetic admiration and half- willing capitulation. Alvina remakes Ciccio as an impersonal force of nature, exploiting him as the means by which she buttresses her own autonomous and idiosyncratic perspective. Despite his apparent domination of Alvina, it is the Italian who ceases to exist for her as a discrete entity. In Ciccio’s embrace,
she was alone, and she did not mind being alone. It was all she wanted. In the passion of her lover she had found a loneliness, beautiful, cool, like a shadow she wrapped round herself [...] It was a moment of stillness and completeness. (LG, p. 334)
Neither lover is able, or prepared, to apprehend fully the other as a sophisticated and complex subject; though the ‘beautiful’ shadow of ‘loneliness’ which envelops Alvina after the union with Ciccio is portentous given how drastically her status alters upon arriving in Italy. She feels her legal and personal privileges dissipate as officials ‘scrutinised her, and asked questions of Ciccio. Nobody asked her anything – she might have been Ciccio’s shadow’ (LG, p. 295).
Lawrence’s travel-writing offers clues about why Italy has such a profound symbolic meaning for Alvina:
One begins to realise how old the real Italy is [...] Life is so primitive, so pagan, so strangely heathen and half-savage [...] Wherever one is in Italy, either one is conscious of the present, or of the medieval influences, or of the far, mysterious gods of the early Mediterranean. Wherever one is, the place has its conscious genius [...] The expression may be Proserpine, or Pan, or even the strange ‘shrouded gods’ of the Etruscans.
In Italy the ancient gods, including those elusive of exact identification, are felt to be very much alive, and the past bears down heavily on the present.99 ‘To penetrate into Italy’, Lawrence explains, is like a most fascinating act of self-discovery – back, back down the old ways of time. Strange and wonderful chords awake in us, and vibrate again after many hundreds of years of complete forgetfulness.
Alvina’s journey, part spiritual and part sexual, is towards the excavation of the pagan elements within, an exposure of unconscious ‘chords’. The arid grandeur of the region to which she is brought is to her both bewitching and deeply distressing. Terror need not exclude the beatific: ‘she was [...] stunned with the strangeness of it all: startled, half-enraptured with the terrific beauty of the place, half-horrified by its savage annihilation of her’ (LG, p. 314).
H.D. takes account of the chthonic dimension of the gods themselves:
Zeus Endendros – God in a tree; Dionysus Anthios, God in a flower; Zeus Melios, God in the black earth, death, disruption, disintegration; Dionysius Zagreus, the flower torn, broken by chemical process of death, vein, leaf, texture – white luminous lily surface, veined with black – white lily flesh bruised, withered.
These epithets of the gods give figures for the process of life itself, having intrinsically both a vital and a disintegrative aspect, which resonates with Alvina’s experiences of a ‘wild and desolate’ southern Italy. H.D.’s ‘black’ gods, like Lawrence’s ‘dark’ deities are master tropes for the crude necessities of bodily, erotic, and spiritual existence. As signs of necessity, they take on the dual aspect that Harrison investigates: while they confer their gifts, they at the same time compel wounding initiation and unstinting service.
Alvina’s initiation into her husband’s disordered village is much crueller than the darker side of her overwhelming experience in the English coalmine: the essentially Protestant rational self at the core of modern individualism is exposed as a meaningless mask by the daily deprivations and ‘inferior savagery’ (LG, p. 319) of Italian peasant culture: she deplores the ‘haphazard, useless way of Italians all day long, getting nothing done’ (LG, p. 317).
In Chapter 15, Alvina undergoes a self-dismantling as she witnesses ‘the grand pagan twilight of the valleys, savage, cold, with a sense of ancient gods who knew the right for human sacrifice’. From being a proud subject and mistress of her own words and deeds in Woodhouse, she is now utterly beleaguered – a complex reversal of the relationship between the questing self and the locus of displacement upon which the expatriate adventure is founded.
Ciccio is called up to serve in the Italian army at the finale, leaving Alvina with grave doubts about her future. The Great War touches, and is touched by, every reference to human sacrifice, annihilation and the spellbinding but merciless chthonic divinities in The Lost Girl. What is most arresting about the later chapters is how the Persephone myth connects with this cataclysmic event. The maiden goddess was understood to symbolise the seed corn that must descend into the earth so that from apparent desiccation new life may germinate.
The nickname that Ciccio gives to Alvina – ‘Allaye’ which connotes several slang words for the female genitalia – acquires additional import given that she regards herself ‘like one of the old sacred prostitutes’ (LG, p. 288 ). This invokes the pregnant Mrs Tuke’s earlier reproach to her: ‘life is a mass of unintelligent forces to which intelligent human beings are submitted. Prostituted’ (LG, p. 283). These are the implications to Alvina of unconsciously adopting the ‘fierce gods’ as she endures the casual ‘assassination’ inflicted by Ciccio. The gods who demand human sacrifice, who dip ‘their lips in blood’, are to her now ‘immutably right’ (LG, p. 315).
Alvina, living in an ‘isolate’ condition of wonder, imagines what it would be like to turn to the unruly, dark gods as spring gets under way. In this season of prodigal abundance, Ciccio worships her because she is pregnant. March in the Italian hills brings a ‘real flowering’: the scent of wild narcissus is ‘powerful and magical’ to her (LG, p. 335), there are ‘white and blue violets’, ‘sprays of almond blossom’, ‘peach and apricot’, rose-red gladioli and black-purple irises (LG, p. 335). Frazer records how magenta anemones, indigo grape hyacinths, rose cyclamens, lavender crocuses, rose-red gladioli and black- purple irises are emblematic of rites of protection against malignant spirits or of ancient fertility deities such as Persephone. In this riot of natural colour, Alvina ‘felt like going down on her knees and bending her forehead to the earth in an oriental submission, they were so royal, so lovely, so supreme’ (LG, p. 335). She seems to blend with her vibrant setting, divested of the incubus of socially constructed, rather than essential, selfhood; even her modern time metamorphoses backwards into mythic history. The hectic fecundity of this vegetative milieu is measured against the flyblown interior of the local Roman Catholic church:
The place was large, whitewashed, and crowded with figures in glass cases and ex voto offerings. The lousy-looking, dressed-up dolls, life size and tinselly, that stood in the glass cases; the blood-streaked Jesus on the crucifix; the mouldering, mumbling filthy peasant women on their knees; all the sense of trashy, repulsive, degraded fetish- worship was too much for her. (LG, p. 333) The repugnance at agrarian realities is underscored by the galling irony that social relations in Pescocalascio seem little improved from those of Woodhouse.
For Lawrence, as opposed to Forster, Italy cannot supply a classless enchanted realm in which the gentlewoman and the peasant may interact as social equals, each adopting an intersubjective conception of the other. The natives, ‘dumb and elemental’ are like ‘[f]orlorn aborigines’, who treat Alvina ‘as if she were a higher being’ (LG, p. 316). On both sides is a deep misunderstanding of the other’s true identity and role. Although the ‘outside world’ is ‘so fair’, with corn and maize ‘growing green and silken’ (LG, p. 333), Alvina recoils from the hyacinths, which remind her ‘of the many- breasted Artemis, a picture of whom, or of whose statue, she had seen somewhere. Artemis with her clusters of breasts was horrible to her, now she had come south: nauseating beyond words.’ (LG, p. 333) ‘Nauseating’ indicates the psychological complexity of the pregnant Alvina’s condition. She is frightened, fretful and depressed; yet she longs to see her child.
Alvina’s fluctuations of mood are a crucial element in the psychological truth of these closing chapters. The figure of Artemis, covered all over with breasts to mark her connection with childbirth, sickens Alvina because it recalls her encounter with Mrs Tuke in travail, who felt ‘torn to pieces by Forces’ (LG, p. 334).
Artemis, though spotless and detached, is associated with savage and bloody ceremonials, which H.D. also signifies: ‘Greece is a thing of rocks that jag into you’, Hermione in Asphodel muses, ‘every Greek line of poetry breaks you, jags into you, Hellenes the supreme masochists, hurting – how did they manage it?’
Lawrence refines a vision of Italy as a country strange enough to ‘lose oneself away from the world’.108 However, the spirit of place is far from innocuous to an Alvina guilty of the dangerous arrogance that presumes it can sever all ties with the real and symbolic Old Country.
Alvina, like Richard Lovatt Somers in Kangaroo and the eponymous protagonist of Aaron’s Rod, aspires to become an escapee in the mould described by Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus: those who are best at “leaving,” those who make leaving into something as natural as being born or dying, those who set out in search of nonhuman sex – Lawrence, Miller – stake out a far-off territoriality that still forms an anthropomorphic and phallic representation.
Lawrence underlines the paradoxical nature of exposure to strange wells of secret life-force by portraying the vivid yet ominous energies swarming beneath the forbidding terrain. Alvina possesses a tense modernity fused with receptiveness to an environment heavy with the debris of its primeval forebears; she becomes a metaphysical voyager, questioning the moralities and social verities of her cultural heritage, and debunking the orthodox attitudes which hamper spontaneity and personal growth. By granting the dark centre of herself and her surroundings precedence over the bland formalities of the ‘dead-and-rotten Old Country’ (K, p. 290), Alvina yearns for spellbound immersion in a ‘land with a new atmosphere’ (K, p. 350) and a numinous presence, to participate in some larger nonhuman drama. Lawrence records in Study of Thomas Hardy, ‘[t]his is the constant revelation in Hardy’s novels: that there exists a great background [...] which matters more than the people who move upon it’.
Alvina’s withdrawal is by no means simply life-enhancing. Lawrence’s conception of agrarian Italy suggests both the reassuringly familiar South of the Romantic imagination, whose ripeness is replete with exotic promise and grace, but also signifies a site of acute self-alienation and penury. Here is a more tangled and tortured notion of expatriate awareness than that process of becoming ‘unEnglished’…
The sensory overload of forbidding topography, flora, and blinding sunlight contributes to a sense of ‘annihilation’ that forcibly reminds her how profoundly pathless, how unhoused she has become, since no construct exists, whether psychological or concrete, to soften the horrifying impact of disintegration. Noon’s buoyant extended reverie, which idealises a ‘magically different’ counter-site is undercut with malicious glee by Lawrence in The Lost Girl. Europe’s ‘variegation’ only partially camouflages the incomplete, fickle, and unanchored entities which assault the heroine once she settles in her husband’s hill town. Whereas Noon registers richness of diversity and emancipation from the ‘delusional’ received opinions in his flight from a parochial home, Alvina suffers countless privations when caught in the unforgiving grip of an Italian peasant’s material existence – a house freezing cold, open to the animals and out-of-doors. And the ‘free vibration’ welcomed by Noon clashes with the domestic subjugation to which Alvina must become accustomed. Her ‘tight and exclusive nationality’ dissolves during the journey to Italy, and the loss of her British passport makes her effectively invisible. She becomes increasingly alert to the ontological and cultural contingency that a view from elsewhere forces upon those who rebuff the ‘horrible oneness’ of England. The Lost Girl interrogates, rather than venerates, the imaginative contours of expatriate aspiration, the eroticised submission that imbues agrarian southern Italy with a spuriously seductive glamour. Alvina’s regression to the primitive in this material space of racial, ethnic and cultural otherness unleashes inhuman terrors: vestigial remnants of a chaotic, non-Christian past.
To earth, sea, and sky in this marginal zone she has the propensity to respond lyrically; but her willed, even exultant surrender to a landscape and culture straddling the antique and the contemporary, causes a Gothic shudder:
She seemed to feel in the air strange Furies, Lemures, things that had haunted her with their tomb-frenzied vindictiveness since she was a child and had pored over the illustrated Classical Dictionary. Black and cruel presences were in the under-air. They were furtive and slinking. They bewitched you with loveliness, and lurked with fangs to hurt you afterwards. There it was: the fangs sheathed in beauty – the beauty first, and then, horribly, inevitably, the fangs. (LG, pp. 333-34)
The insistent presence of an authentic speaking voice gives the passage its peculiar intensity. Clipped sentences and clauses, organised to show an emphatic, personal, awed intonation (‘They were furtive and slinking’), conveys the hallucinatory quality of spectral visitations and connotes Alvina’s uneasy awareness of a locality ‘which savagely and triumphantly’ refuses ‘our living culture’ (LG, pp. 370-71).115 To Alvina, these entrancing but vengefully destructive spirits are powerfully present in what Lawrence shows increasingly as a vortex of warring potencies and stark temporal juxtapositions that invokes Nietzsche’s conception of the ‘modern soul’ looking backwards into an atavistic heritage and forwards into a nebulous, flickering futurity at the same moment:
"[t]he past of every form and mode of life, of cultures that formerly clashed – horizontally or vertically – is flowing into our ‘modern souls’ [...] Our instincts now can run back in all kinds of directions; we ourselves are a kind of chaos [...] Through our half-barbarian bodies and desires we have all sorts of secret entry into places that were closed to any distinguished epoch." [Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, pp. 147-48]
When Alvina is languishing in the Midlands, Lawrence signifies that she possesses ‘ancient sapience’ (LG, p. 35) which on the Continent evolves into a feverish ‘mediumistic’ capacity, the exquisite torture of the ‘neuralgia’ in her ‘very soul’ (LG, p. 315). Her ‘clairvoyant’ mode of perception, exposing her in Throttle-Ha’penny to ‘underground trolls’ and myriad ‘figures of fairy-lore’ (LG, pp. 65-66), now uncovers the ‘tomb-frenzied vindictiveness’ of Furies and Lemures. Alvina is an equivalent of that Nietzschean crusader in Beyond Good and Evil who scorns bourgeois complacencies to traverse an alternative arena of risk and reward: ‘The greatest shall be the one most capable of solitude, the most hidden, the most deviative’.
Darkness, in large measure a glamorous symbol of metamorphosis and sudden sensual disordering throughout the English section of The Lost Girl, acquires fiendishness and menace when Alvina resides in Italy. Her impressions of her makeshift foreign home become increasingly profound and indescribable, even approaching psychic dissolution, which belies any straightforward set of assumptions about expatriate privilege and self- transformation.118 This mirrors Lawrence’s own ambivalence in his travelwritings concerning the perceived difference between the ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ races, the one immersed in sensual blood-consciousness, mind submerged, the other ‘purely free and abstract’.
Twilight in Italy, a collection of essays reflecting his first visit to Italy, reveals that the traditional customs and folk-practices in Italian hill-villages can appear ‘an old static conception’, utterly detached from ‘the great flux of life’ synonymous with metropolitan modernity.120 The ancient peasant cultures of the Mediterranean, however ‘organic’ and replete with productive vigour they might seem to the outsider’s rapt gaze, do not guarantee the delightful novelty upon which the nomadic sensibility thrives.
Twilight in Italy buttresses The Lost Girl in demonstrating that expatriates might struggle to achieve self-realisation in an environment so at odds with their entrenched bourgeois assumptions, nurtured in ‘the upper world of glowing light’:
[t]he Italian people are called ‘Children of the Sun.’ They might better be called ‘Children of the Shadow.’ Their souls are dark and nocturnal. If they are to be easy, they must be able to hide, to be hidden in lairs and caves of darkness. Going through these tiny, chaotic backways of the village was like venturing through the labyrinth made by furtive creatures, who watched from another element. Lawrence rescues the Persephone figure from the repressive rubble of Hardy’s late-Victorian culture and makes the myth pertinent again in a period of seismic social upheaval. He exploits the ancient tale to illustrate in an increasingly uncompromising way Alvina’s reaction to an elemental world and her preservation of its illuminating power in the bitter darkness of her waiting.
But Lawrence does not vouchsafe a straightforwardly sanguine and life-affirming account of the Persephone myth. The pattern of many of H.D.’s autobiographical narratives allude explicitly to Persephone’s kathodos, or descent, often signalled by depression, mania or physical debility – at the end of Hermione, for instance, ‘Hipparchia’ in Palimpsest, and of Asphodel. In this last novel Hermione, during her pregnancy, muses about the coming of winter: ‘sun lies heavy on the rough brambles, berries are almost over, frost makes a veil, the bride of God, the dead bride, Persephone veil over the bushes, over me, Persephone in Hell’. Lawrence pushes this feeling of physical deprivation, as Alvina ‘almost stupefied with weariness and the cold, bruising air’ (LG, p. 313), is subsumed by the pagan twilight. She resides in Califano (most of the time by herself) for at least nine months, from November until the birth of her child. She feels utterly abandoned and spiritually bereft, given the outbreak of World War I and Ciccio’s conscription. If, as William Connolly argues, ‘the world is always richer than the systems through which we comprehend and organise it’, then Alvina, however much she revels in bewildering diversity, cannot survey her new Italian neighbours in Califano as a ‘richer’ alternative to the Woodhouse curtain-twitchers and vulgarians she left behind in the lacklustre English Midlands.
Alvina, craving opportunities for self-invention yet suspended between desire and disenchantment, ponders whether she might make a fleeting foray into the surface world of English manners: ‘[s]he was always making little plans in her mind – how she could get out of that cruel valley and escape to Rome, to English people’ (LG, p. 336). Yet ‘she knew how easy it would be, once her spirit broke, for her to die and be buried in the [Italian] cemetery’ (LG, p. 336). If The Lost Girl seems to imply a narrative of anticipated redemption as Alvina swaps homogeneity for plucky and reckless ‘experiments’, boring convention for bracing innovation, then the Italian section derails this generic and sentimental expectation by manifesting instead a story of frustrated alienation and a dearth of organic community ties. Indeed, the ‘outbreak of World War I functions to mask the essential failure’ of Alvina’s ‘experiment in expatriation’. Trapped on the far side of human sociality, she is ‘mute, powerless [...] like a lump of darkness, in that doomed Italian kitchen’ as ‘death and eternity were settled down on her’ (LG, p. 338 ). This fate seems little better than her former status in the sepulchral Manchester House as ‘shabby and penniless, a mere household drudge’ (LG, p. 61).
The heroine, exploring an extremity to locate what Richard Rorty terms ‘the power of language to make new and different things possible and important’,130 ends as a victim enmeshed by mystical centripetal energies that induces a condition of radical self-dissolution. Despite her voracious appetite for the polymorphous and the random rhythms of nomadic life, for heterodoxies and multiplicities inherent in an expatriate ethos, Alvina ‘could not do as she liked. There was an inflexible fate within her, which shaped her ends’ (LG, p. 38 ).
Men, according to Lawrence, can only be ‘free when they are in a living homeland, not when they are straying and breaking away’. And thus Alvina is consigned to a version of ‘Hades’ – a careworn exile caught between obdurate resistance and despairing resignation, between time-crusted social forms and the exacting complexities of felt sensation. She cannot go back to Woodhouse, nor can she acclimatise sufficiently to Califano. This isolated pioneer both fashions and deplores her own loneliness. As a young ‘dandy’ visiting her village remarks, ‘this country is a country for old men [...] You won’t stop here. Nobody young can stop here’ (LG, p. 334). If Ciccio returns from the war, there is the faint prospect of a New World for this modern Persephone, whose ‘questing soul’ is stymied by circumstance.
The Lost Girl’s final pages denote that Alvina’s spiritual odyssey is just beginning as she contemplates a future without a husband who clearly needs her at least as much as she needs him. Resolute enough to face pregnancy and childbirth in Califano without Ciccio, Alvina views this enforced separation as ‘a test on her’, after which ‘Ciccio must take her to America’ (LG, p. 320). It is a measure of Lawrence’s sophisticated scepticism that The Lost Girl ends with a tense recognition not only of the value but also the grave risk, discipline and cost of Alvina’s Plutonic ‘passion for new insight’ – disavowing one’s birthplace, caste, and nation for fresh adventures at the ragged margins of the familiar and the safe.
The Lost Girl, reflecting a pivotal moment in Lawrence’s career when he finally managed to leave England after the war and was striving towards abandoning Europe altogether, ultimately signals disenchantment because southern Italy cannot palliate his Persephone figure’s dreams of inhabiting a locus of prolific and dynamic barbaric forces. Alvina’s craving for unqualified mobility ironically results in a cathartic closure being perpetually deferred. As Lawrence conceded in a letter to Robert Pratt Barlow shortly after completing Aaron’s Rod and The Lost Girl:
we make a mistake forsaking England and moving out into the periphery of life. After all, Taormina, Ceylon, Africa, America – as far as we go, they are only the negation of what we ourselves stand for and are: and we’re rather like Jonas running away from the place we belong. That is the conclusion that is forced on me [...] I really think that the most living clue of life is in us Englishmen in England, and the great mistake we make is in not uniting together in the strength of the real living clue – religious in the most vital sense – uniting together in England and so carrying the vital spark through. Whereas The Lost Girl connotes how the ‘real living clue’ is at least accessible to a young woman of nondescript class origins, Butts avows that the decoders of this arcane script can only be found among a ‘natural’ elite or landed aristocracy. In her memoir The Crystal Cabinet Butts portrays her own cosmic initiation thus: ‘I saw more than I could tell’ (CC, p. 267), a ‘translation [...] between the seen and the unseen’ (CC, p. 266). The dauntless patrician heroines of Butts’s novels evince a deep suspicion of, even hostility towards, the social group into which Alvina is born. Butts’s message is mobilised through an exclusionary notion of ‘Englishness’ rooted in a paranoid politics of provincial solidarity, genetics, and heterosexuality that casts an uneasy light on the feminist pacifist Helena Swanwick’s thesis, posited in the year after Butts’s death in 1938, that ‘[women] are, collectively, indispensable and [. . .] it is their duty to use their selective power to save the race’." [The Lost Girls]
"ἐδιζησάμην ἐμεωυτόν." [Heraclitus]
"All that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both." [Aeschylus, Prometheus]
"The history of everyday is constituted by our habits. ... How have you lived today?" [N.]
*Become clean, my friends.*
Lyssa Har Har Harr
Gender : Posts : 9031 Join date : 2012-03-01 Location : The Cockpit
"In a journal entry for 1 October 1929, Mary Butts (1890-1937) proposes that the creative artist is better equipped to exploit the obscure sources of myth, magic and ritual than the school of armchair anthropologists epitomised by Sir James Frazer.
Butts’s female protagonists possess an ameliorative ability, coupled with a mysticism enabling them ‘to live in two worlds at once [...] in time and out of it’ (CC, p. 13). Since in Butts’s opinion, ‘Christianity [...] had taken away from women their priestesshood’, her typical heroine becomes a true adept whose passional intensity flows from a primordial pact of blood with animistic Wessex soil, which has crowned her its heroic steward, and which helps make the veil between the visible and invisible domains periodically transparent.
Into this ravaged milieu the Persephone figures appear as hierophants of the maternalised primitive, a mercurial, distant though by no means disinterested force to be invoked and enlisted if ‘Englishness’, Butts’s carefully crafted notion of ancestral memory, is to resist defilement and desecration from without. Butts’s fictional project prizes and verifies the ineluctability of difference, conserving the safety of the hidden. In her short story ‘Green’, an authentically ‘English’ consciousness registers intuitively the ‘[p]ropriety, simplicity, the routine of country-house life’ – disparaging an open-ended, dizzying multiplicity of traditions and histories in favour of a single, already resolved national narrative savoured only through exclusive rites of remembrance.
This imaginative quest underlines Frances Swiney’s exhortations in her feminist tract The Awakening of Women (1899) that the Englishwoman’s ‘personal duty’ is to instil ‘racial pride’ and keep the ‘great Anglo-Saxon nation [...] pure and undefiled’. As Jane Harrison stresses ‘the worship of the Mother emphasizes the group, the race and its continuance’. Butts’s abiding fascination with Harrison’s anthropological research into matriarchal prehistory was partly due to its argument that women are ‘more racial’ than men, and thus ‘may be of use for the whole body politic’. Butts’s priestly heroines resemble Harrison’s conception of the ‘moderns’, who approach the world without belligerent or coercive designs upon it. Doggedly refusing to make sense of it, they simply attune their ears and ‘trust the background to tell its own tale’.
‘Englishness’ in Butts’s literary vision is typified by the readiness to freely ‘enter’ the ‘mythological world’30 through genetics and ontology, to a wellspring of patrician virtue, an elliptical and august code alien to ‘foreigners’ and the ‘new barbarians’ inured to the ‘vibrating roar’ and ‘street shrieks’ of towns (WH, p. 279).
In Butts’s fiction the ‘bond of blood’ is fundamental; while the ‘trespasser’ (AWM, p. 131) who aims to profane Nature’s holy sanctuaries, against which her Persephone figures swiftly mobilise the Wessex soil’s defensive energies, becomes a key component in her dialectic of modernity. In Ashe of Rings and the Taverner Novels, a daughter’s claim to an ancestral habitation is ratified by demonstrating how a cultural fantasy of Englishness is anchored in patriotic reverence for the moral benefits of reproduction, alongside a profoundly insular definition of racial and cultural homogeneity.
The Crystal Cabinet forcefully illustrates how a sense of yearning for a racially specific rustic motherland underpins Butts’s imaginative re-invention of Dorset as a realm of charmed and irreplaceable particularity, populated by mythic potencies, whose numinous undercurrents can only be registered by indigenous aristocratic elite. Jane Harrison averred in 1913 that the ‘country is always conservative, the natural stronghold of a landed aristocracy, with fixed traditions; the city with its closer contacts and consequent swifter changes and, above all, with its acquired, not inherited, wealth, tends towards democracy’. Butts’s twenty-acre family estate Salterns, hallowed by the fondness of childhood memory (‘[t]he kind of house the Dorsetshire gentry lived in’) is central to her anthropological venture, embodying and invoking in her mind ‘the old, hardy, fragrant rural world’ of ‘Dorset, the county where, if anywhere, the secret of England is implicit, concealed, yet continually giving out the stored forces of its genius’ (CC, p. 14).
In The Crystal Cabinet Butts fashions herself as a Persephone figure, whose idyllic upbringing in an ‘only slightly sub-aristocratic home’, is cut tragically short, not through abduction by a brutal, parasitic and predatory male, but through betrayal by a bungling, uncaring Demeter, whose gross mismanagement of the estate’s finances results in the eventual sale of the sacred property and the dispersal of its pricelessly authentic treasures; flight is the only option left for the child, separated from this enclosure and its ‘magic of person and place’. Forster, having lived in his beloved Rooksnest from before the age of four through pre-puberty, and establishing that ardent connectedness with a piece of English soil so crucial to his writings, the boy of fourteen was tormented ‘by his sudden exile from this rural paradise’. Butts’s ‘exile’ narrative focuses on a plucky but severely neglected daughter, culturally and economically disenfranchised, yet striving to reclaim her rightful inheritance. This plot infuses her non-historical novels, many of which obsess over the dynamics of a nuclear family, especially that of dignified patrician lineage whose quasi-mystical feeling for history is expressed through ancestral memories of genesis, racial purity, a zealous commitment to auratic objects, and eternal rhythms:
[s]ome time after the Religious Wars we left Norfolk, where we had lived since King John’s time, and never seriously settled anywhere else. An eighteenth-century great- uncle had been Bishop of Ely, but from our ancestors we had inherited [...] possessions and the love of them [...] A rather small, slow-breeding race, red-haired, with excellent bodies and trigger-set nerves. Persistent stock, touched with imagination, not too patient of convention, and very angry with fools [...] profoundly sure of ourselves, for reasons we ourselves know best.
For reasons of a secret common to the blood. A secret concerned with time and very little with death, with what perhaps medieval philosophers called aevum, the link between time and eternity. (CC, p. 15)
Butts evinces the mythical daughter’s savage sense of entrapment within, and acute desire to escape from, an interwar purgatory of bourgeois philistinism, created in part by the liberal consensus of mass democracy. So the Persephone figure’s journey entails conjuring up a copious but artificial springtime milieu, lavishly endowed with the forgotten fragments of prehistoric peoples. This is a measure of the rustic estate, ‘before Nature happened, Rousseau, Swedenborg, Blake’ (DFT, p. 51), whose nomenclature is only apprehended by the rare but beleaguered few. Butts’s topography of the mind is laden with ancient myths but with little link to modern agriculture; it is untouched by the falsehoods and fabrications of urban pastoralism, whose misty-eyed interpretation of Wordsworth, she believes, effects a barren modern sensibility that knows only how to consume, rather than commune.
In the concluding chapter of The Crystal Cabinet, Butts’s mystical initiation occurs not in Sicily but in Badbury Rings, the Iron Age earthworks near her Dorset birthplace: a ‘temenos’ full of lingering pagan vibrations, which produces an associative rumination on ritual practice, ‘the right balance of mana and taboo’, and their integral relation to ‘Roman Britain’ (CC, p. 266). Her rhapsodic evocation of British prehistory as a ‘temenos’, or site of ancient purification, is measured against the tense, neurasthenic languor she imagines as the dubious inheritance of the lifelong urbanite. The goal of ‘this business of the unseen’, as she calls it, is to ‘sense a design’ traceable to a pre-industrial English culture whose national ideal is anchored in the exiled daughter’s deep feeling for her venerable vicinity:
[t]hat afternoon, I was received. Like any candidate for ancient initiations, accepted. Then in essence, but a process that time after time would be perfected in me. Rituals whose objects were knitting up and setting out, and the makings of correspondence, a translation which should be ever valid, between the seen and the unseen [...] Like any purified, I was put through certain paces; through certain objects, united to do their work, made from the roots of my nature to such refinements of sense-perceptions as I did not know that I possessed, made aware of those correspondences. (CC, p. 266)
Badbury Rings supplies ‘that business which included in itself end and beginning and all sequences that run between’ (CC, p. 264), what Butts terms the ‘contact between the visible and invisible, the natural order and the supernatural’ (CC, p. 265). Myth, magic, and a state of visionary madness leads her toward ‘a theophany, a shining-out of a God’ (CC, p. 186), which entails a co-joining of primitivism with what is sacred in her chronicle of a Dorset countryside full of ancient herms, dew ponds, and ‘green’ roads set off against chalk and flint.
In Butts’s fiction this can operate as both a cultural critique of contemporary actuality and as a defiant celebration of the blessed few who struggle to find refuge from town-bred invaders and the formally democratic rationality of the liberal marketplace. However particularised questions of personal history might be in The Crystal Cabinet, Butts repeatedly signifies how her plight mirrors that of an entire dislocated generation burying its dead, reeling from a loss of ‘station’; whose hallowed political traditions are engulfed by the corrosive cant of the masses. Butts’s literary endeavour to finesse a modern Persephone who resuscitates a ‘real England’ becomes the salvaging of a social clique whose most precocious members have been unfairly deprived of their time-honoured role and status.
The core informing principle of The Crystal Cabinet, which resonates through Butts’s novels, is not simply a proto-feminist perception of a daughter exposed to the unfathomable mysteries of a numinous bounded site. Nor is it a clear-cut dramatisation of the bitter conflict between a landed patrician elect and a socially mobile, yet aesthetically stunted bourgeoisie. What Butts repeatedly returns to is the coding of family as a peculiarly problematic social institution whose pact with the elemental terrain of Wessex is irredeemably sullied by an impolitic or hasty marriage alliance, thus becoming a source of festering generational dismay. Family is a trait clinched only through high ‘birth’ and ‘breeding’, while marriage is a degraded social ruse that debases the currency of aristocratic connections. In both Ashe of Rings and the Taverner Novels, the structured hierarchy of family is tipped into turmoil through an exogamous alliance. Thus the figure of a malign non-indigenous ‘pollutant’ acquires a nightmarish, even Gothic tinge in Butts’s writing, which warns of ‘what will happen to the world if it decides to scrap its tradition & all conscious continuity with it’. Her versions of Persephone are compelled to safeguard bloodlines and a sacred topography against a host of contaminating ‘foreign’ influences.
In Armed with Madness the pollutant is a black homosexual war-veteran Clarence. Against the radiant ‘whiteness’ of Scylla Taverner and her ‘better bred’ friends (AWM, p. 14), Clarence is fixed by a crude degenerationist discourse of racial selfhood: his body ‘branded with shrapnel and bullet and bayonet thrust’ (AWM, p. 128 ) while his exacerbated mentality, prone to bouts of ‘frightful emotion’ (AWM, p. 63), typifies an ‘always dark [...] country’ (AWM, p. 25); he registers ‘a menace that walked hand in hand with night, joined with the fear natural in remote places to a man not intuitively attuned’ (AWM, p. 128 ); his entering of a room is juxtaposed with another character’s memory of the lyrics to a ‘negro song’ – ‘Bear Your Burden in the Heat of the Day’ (AWM, p. 51).
In Death of Felicity Taverner, another Russian exile, Boris Polteratsky, is key to rescuing more extensive ‘property’, the ‘green transparent world’ of south Dorset, from Kralin’s proposed redevelopment.45 Kralin’s surname, in addition to evoking ‘Stalin’, also signals the working-class mass democracy ‘crawling’ across the borders of Western Europe in the chaotic aftermath of the Russian Revolution. He is not merely coded as the emissary of demonised Jewish entrepreneurship, that ‘untraditional part of humanity’ (DFT, p. 314), or a sinister covert conspiracy: he is a shapeless entity, defined by protean flux, ‘limitlessly self-interested’,46 seeping inexorably into a post-war vacuum once occupied by stately religious rituals consecrated by tradition.
Though ‘Kralin is a Jew’ (DFT, p. 284) because of what Butts implies are irreversible and immutable hereditary traits, his sexual identity is radically indeterminate: a ‘voluptuous man who could not yield himself to pleasure’ (DFT, p. 241), a ‘eunuch of the kingdom of nothing’s sake’ (DFT, p. 178 ). Although allegedly impervious to erotic promptings, Kralin is sex-obsessed: he brings into Felicity Taverner’s home his grotesquely comic ‘harem’ of ‘heavy haunched and over breasted’ city women ‘wearing a terrible parody of country clothes’ (DFT, p. 201), that conveys not only his desecration of her private chambers but also Butts’s virulent class prejudice against a proletariat invading the estate from squalid urban tenements on rapid transit.
Kralin’s macabre blurring of ethnic and sexual categories – Slav or Jew, robustly masculine or mincingly effeminate – makes him antithetical to Butts’s cherished anthropological ideal of ‘mana’, organically stable and structurally integral to every living organism: ‘the non-moral, beautiful, subtle energy in man and in everything else, on which the virtue of everything depends’ (TFU, p. 328 ). By describing ‘mana’ as ‘non-moral’ Butts partially veils a vexed component of this apparently free-floating, untrammelled entity in her fiction: its disturbing association with Anglo-Saxon supremacy, racial specificity, and vehement regional ‘belonging’. In Ashe of Rings ‘mana’ is consistently identified with Vanna’s ‘holy’ body (AR, p. 138 ), though Butts’s rapt rhetoric hints that this ‘profoundly primitive’ spiritual essence is bracingly multicultural, heedless of historical and linguistic barriers, ‘made serviceable to man in every religion he has ever conceived’ (TFU, p. 326). When Death of Felicity Taverner asks ‘What was Kralin?’ (DFT, p. 259) it is evident that this Jewish ‘master in his vileness’ (DFT, p. 281) is the mana-less offspring of ‘a new agony let loose in the world’ (DFT, p. 245), with which her priestly heroines must grapple to ‘keep’ an ‘exquisite part of the earth in the hands of people who will never let it be spoiled’ (DFT, p. 258 ).
In a Journal entry for 19 November 1917, Butts claimed to ‘understand anti-Semitism’:
I have seen him again, not a lover, but a race, a people. They come from Asia, creeping across the world into Europe, long tentative fingers. They banked up against our castle walls like the waters before a dam. Now they run free and the blood of our noblest is mixed with theirs. Before them our forms of civilisation may not perish, but may be terribly assimilated. They are right. Where they breed, we decay. It is rather pitiful to me – they do not love soil or care how things should grow – sentiment is outraged, & the rising sap in my body. But I understand anti-Semitism. We are above our races – we crystallise and I say that man’s will can prevail over chaos [...] But where the East & the West have met we have Egypt & Babylon & Greece.
It is unclear whether the man participating in this debate about the intricacies of racial politics is Butts’s lover and soon-to-be spouse John Rodker (Jewish) or the actor Edwin Greenwood. Nor is it obvious whether the unsettling metaphors ‘long fingers’ and ‘creeping’ are her choice or a sarcastic mimicry of the shrill, hysterical tabloid slogans stoking up popular prejudice. Is her sentiment ‘outraged’ by stridently xenophobic rhetoric itself or by the unfeeling Jewish intruders who cannot ‘love’ her English ‘soil’ and dishonour the ‘blood’ of ‘our’ noblest stock?
Butts freely acknowledges that the finest civilisations derive from a thorough cross-fertilisation of ‘East’ and ‘West’, this does not resolve the issue of her paranoid and reductive scape-goating of the Jewish Kralin in Death of Felicity Taverner. Butts signifies that Vanna Ashe, Scylla, and Felicity Taverner, through their metonymic relation to, and continuity with, the Dorset locale, not only have natural rights of inheritance to the English countryside, but that the spiritual well-being of the nation is clinched through their decisive female cultural intervention. These heroines act as proud inheritors and cultivators of indigenous values, cherishing also the ‘[n]ecessity for a new experience of reality after the failure of religion’. Death of Felicity Taverner engages most dynamically with the issue of patrilineal inheritance by alluding to the rule of primogeniture, which was not rescinded in England until 1925.
As a character in Butts’s Cleopatra remarks, ‘What is rotten in the body of the Republic should be cut out, that the whole may be saved’.
Butts’s typical Persephone figure resembles her reconstruction of Cleopatra as a ‘priestess [...] a woman of the ruling caste in a lost civilisation: an athlete: trained in certain lost rites’. She personifies a privileged sensibility of ‘sophrosyne’: ‘“Daddy said that there were things in the world, good and bad, and a thing called sophrosyne that helped you through both of them. On the road to Delphi, you know?”’ (AR, p. 46). This is Butts’s rigorous code of ethical chastity, stoical self-discipline, and ‘temperance’ (AR, p. 93), her ‘yardstick for all conduct’,56 flowing from unbroken contact with the Dorset soil’s ‘ancient mysteries’ (AWM, p. 138 ), an ineffable grace and high-minded delicacy that cannot be viewed, she believes, through the fey and mawkish prism of suburban country-worship.
That Butts’s conception of the ancient goddess is fuelled ‘by a conviction that the modern world required a renewal of the connection between the ethical and metaphysical realms’, is by itself unremarkable. An upsurge of interest in occultism, the arcane, the primitive, and the unconscious that occurred in the years before and during the First World War supplies a background to the refinement of the ‘mythic method’ in modernism, and it has been exhaustively appraised.
What makes Butts’s project idiosyncratic is her literary refashioning of her south Dorset birthplace as an anthropological ‘stage’, set with ‘all the properties of tragic mystery’ (AR, p. 185), upon which fully to test a numinous notion of femininity. Butts’s imaginative recasting of her ‘homeland’ is infused with that ‘contempt for democracy’ that distinguishes the harsh nationalist rhetoric against which Winifred Holtby rails in Women and a Changing Civilisation (1934): ‘[t]he nation is defended as a traditional, instinctive unit, something to which men feel themselves bound by blood and history [...] Its appeal is to the emotion rather than the intellect’.
Butts expressed fierce opposition to an Enlightenment heritage that deemed nature a diligently manicured rational garden, a locus of progressive development. She depicts instead an imagined universe of violently conflicting animistic potencies that lays bare unacknowledged contradictions in her notion of an English identity founded upon aristocratic continuities sanctioned by myth. Butts was describing her own exiled daughter status with an undiminished loathing for those held responsible for despoiling a once mystical province. Like the Stanley Baldwin of On England (1926) or H. V. Morton of In Search of England (1927), Butts recounts the idealised specificity of an intimate locale, and the charisma of its threatened associations, from a distant remove.
Place I shall never see again, that I can never bear to see. Now they have violated it, now that its body has been put to the uses men from cities do to such places as these. Now Salterns is no more than a white house pulled down and built onto, its back broken, split up. [...] The cars that allow these people to run about the earth, and wherever they go to impoverish it. Driving out and abusing or exploiting something that is not their own; that unconsciously they resent – and might do well to fear […]
I shall never see it again. Except from a long way off. From Purbeck, from the top of Nine Barrow Down, it is still possible to stand, and see, on a clear day, the maggot-knot of dwellings that was once my home. (CC, p. 20)
In her novels Butts cannot conceive of this besmirched modern terrain, or of the august Persephone figure measured against it, without resorting to narrow and exploitative stereotypes. She deploys the familiar iconography of anti-Semitism, combined with anti-alienism and anti-Bolshevism to manifest the devious and inauthentic Kralin as agent of a technological objective with no natural relationship to the region.64 He resembles inorganic substance, unaware of ‘the touch-difference between silk and stone, or glass and jade’ (DFT, p. 296). His Jewishness is conflated with his chicanery and nihilistic drives, comprising a noxious ‘grey web’ (DFT, p. 226) that evinces ‘pockets of poisoned air’ which are ‘everywhere now’ (DFT, p. 225), akin to the ‘gruesome things’ Marianne Moore diagnosed in urban society.
In 1901 Yeats had reflected on ‘that belief in magic which has set me all but unwilling among those lean and fierce minds who are at war with their time’. Butts waged her own war with her time, employing the Persephone myth to enrich a primitivism anchored in the aspiration to reconstruct what she saw as her rightful cultural lineage. Her homeland can no longer be rescued from the mechanistic norms of the materialist ‘Tide’ except within her novels. Butts strives to reclaim a ‘natural’ aristocracy also informing Yeats’s poetic, in which the imaginative and bucolic domains are closely correspondent, rather than simply analogical or parallel. Yeats’s figure of instrumental consumption as the type of all those haplessly enmeshed in the cycles of commodity capitalism articulates a cluster of concerns elaborated by Butts in her Taverner Novels. She extends this concept of a neo-feudal artistic ethos and, while more indulgent towards the contemporary milieu, uses the same anti-financial metaphysic as a trope to celebrate ‘the Grail Country’, an apotheosized Wessex over which her priestly female protagonists preside.
Butts inflects the Persephone myth to privilege heterosexuality through its association with Vanna, Scylla and Felicity Taverner as followers of the ‘procreative earth goddess’. Vanna personifies what Butts will identify in Armed with Madness as ‘the female principle of life’, stretching back into the enchanted magical history. Through Scylla, Butts hypostatises the link between patrician power sanctioned by myth and sacred terrain, so that ‘the wood and the woman’ are ‘interchangeable’ (AWM, p. 12). As a ‘priestess’ (AR, p. 129), this modern female draws her serene assurance from a primal past and recognises the terror and beauty so inextricably mingled in the windswept Dorset locality. A committed anti-rationalist implacably opposed to the hegemony of ‘the machine’ (AWM, p. 90), Scylla is the conduit through which the individual’s pact with a pre-industrial Dorset is consolidated:
‘[n]aked, the enormous space, the rough earth dressed her’ (AWM, p. 5). Anticipating her cousin Felicity Taverner, Scylla is intertwined with, even an emanation of, her surroundings, ‘translating’ the natural world ‘into herself: into sea: into sky. Sky back again into wood, flesh and sea’ (AWM, pp. 67-68 ).
Felicity Taverner is not so much a woman as a figure for the endangered countryside itself: ‘the hills were her body laid-down, and “Felicity” was said, over and over again, in each bud and leaf’ (DFT, p. 191). Jane Harrison’s characterisation of the omnipotent earth mother as ‘Lady of the Wild Things’ (PGR, p. 271) condenses Felicity’s role as virtual agricultural deity: ‘[e]yelash of flowers and a shoot of ivy closing [her] eyes’ (DFT, p. 214). Her body becomes the archetype against which the natural flora is assessed: thus, ‘petals’ are said to be as ‘soft as Felicity’s skin’ (DFT, p. 302), rather than the inverse. Repeatedly metaphorised as a vibrant Dorset coastscape, Felicity is ‘The White Goddess’ aligned with nostalgic longing for the native English principles once defended by a Taverner clan now gone to seed: ‘[t]he death of Felicity Taverner [...] behind it lay [...] the attack on their bodies, nerves, roots, the essence of their make-up, in the attack on their land’ (DFT, p. 342).
Butts’s insistent feminising of a ‘chalk-white’ south Dorset is rooted in an essentialised theory of the female form as an inexhaustible wellspring of natural ripeness and racial replenishment. It is no accident that The Crystal Cabinet links what we might call energy fields (‘other forces’) with the ‘white, white and mighty’ (CC, p. 25) cliffs of Dorset, while elsewhere she reveres the ‘absolute whiteness’ of Thornsdale, speculating on its primeval origin: ‘England once began there’.71 Moreover, the ‘business’ of the Grail ‘cup’ in Armed with Madness is connected to the refrain ‘Lighten our Darkness’ (AWM, pp. 138, 147), while the concept of enlightenment signals a steady process of discoloration: ‘lighten us’ (AWM, p. 139). In Ashe of Rings, Vanna ‘remembered that, outside, the moon would be blazing on the open chalk, on the distinct and tender outline of the hills. An old, white light, much older than the sun’ (AR, p. 15).
Like Cleopatra, another of Butts’s biologically determined heroines, Vanna Ashe, Scylla, and Felicity become ‘impregnated with a life that is not the common run of the blood’. Partly through her abiding fascination with occultism, Butts increasingly fashions narratives deploying an elitist and anti-Semitic politics that runs counter to her declared intention, which is to commend both modernity’s effervescent cosmopolitan brio and Jane Harrison’s conception of the power intrinsic to ‘woman, the primeval Lawgiver’. Butts wishes to ‘re-enter greek religion & carry on where Jane Harrison left off’. Butts’s art, so assured in taking over ‘the anthropologist’s material’, does so to finesse an oppositional polemic reliant upon exclusionary categories of ‘Englishness’. Butts became an obstinate campaigner for ecological preservation and for the safeguarding of historical landmarks. She takes literally Eliot’s metaphor of the Waste Land, offering a complex fictional counterpart to the conservative ecology promoted by Rolf Gardiner and the Springhead Ring, and not dissimilar to Viscount Lymington’s literal auto- regeneration of the Waste Land by his ‘compost and lavatory school’ of agriculture. Butts’s construction of the ‘superb liturgy’ signifies that an appreciation of ‘Nature’, at once reflective and immediate, intuitive and profound, is the means by which the English nation acquires a quickened perception of its geographical provenance.
Unlike Eliot, who views primitive peoples as ‘capable of a state of mind into which we cannot put ourselves’ (and unlike Freud, who in Totem and Taboo contends that art is the sole survival of the savage’s ‘omnipotence of thoughts’), Butts posits the ongoing possibility of a mystical mentality. This awareness ‘just below the threshold of consciousness’,83 affronts routinised and habituated appearances, exploding the pseudo-concrete to compel the jaded everyday milieu into a sudden disclosure of deeper meanings, offsetting what she describes in her essay ‘Bloomsbury’ as (though not so hyperbolic given an imminent Second World War) an ‘Armageddon’ of ‘our civilisation’.
However, Butts’s treasured ‘earth’ is not lush landscape open to, and warmly welcoming of all; rather she evinces the cyclical pattern of land- holding, subject to strict laws of ownership and protection by a patrician elite whose members ‘have never left’ the Dorset countryside (TFU, p. 278 ), and represent an ostensibly timeless hierarchy whose Persephone figure must show ceaseless wariness in repelling incursions of a democratically legitimated, upwardly mobile urban populace. Among the ‘sufferings’ of her ‘age’ Butts highlights the tragedy of the ‘aristocrat who knows only the aristoi are worth having, & yet seeing the people it was his business to help coming to destroy him’.85 Her dream of the patrician female fertility figure is shadowed by the Gothic conception of a ‘democratic enemy’ (WH, p. 270) unable to commune with ‘the tricky, intricate, sure and unsure, slow and dangerous and delightful mechanism of the earth, which cannot be hurried or learned quickly’ (TFU, p. 280). In the final 1929 issue of the Little Review Butts proposed that through the spread of mass democracy, ‘the worst is coming to the worst with our civilisation’.86 A naturalised eugenic standpoint underpins this writing: only the English child of landed aristocracy is vouchsafed exposure to sites of invisible potency in a circumscribed pocket of English provincial mores that Hardy saw undergoing a severe social and economic transformation so deplored by Butts. As Patrick Wright affirms, Hardy’s novels ‘strain to describe a landscape [...] abstracted by an increasingly mechanised and capitalised agriculture’, while in Butts’s fiction ‘there is no longer any closely experienced country life to recount’.
In Armed with Madness, the naïve American visitor Dudley Carston is awed by his surroundings:
‘God! What a beautiful place’, he said. When ‘beautiful’ is said, exactly and honestly, there is contact, or there should be. Then, ‘This is the England we think of. Hardy’s country, isn’t it?’ (AWM, p. 11) Carston’s aestheticised perception of ‘Hardy’s country’ (AWM, p. 11) connotes a prettified site of touristic kitsch, a whimsical literary landscape marketed through the Wessex Novels and aimed at ‘the nature cult’ (WH, p. 283) of a suburbanised bourgeois audience. Against this shallow pastoralism of mere retinal sensation, Butts relates a raw alternative version of ‘Hardy’s country’, ‘England off the regulation road’ (AWM, p. 12) when pastoral sprits symbolised credible, baleful, yet enabling primeval potencies. This ‘other’ Dorset is so richly infused with the idea of racial origin that it is ‘blood- bright’ (AWM, p. 41). Hugh Ross Williamson’s 1931 ‘Portrait of Mary Butts’ testifies to the urgency of her conception of the ‘old gods’:
She was the heir of Hellas. It was on a hill that Endymion slept; Aphrodite had risen from the sea and in the woods Adonis died: Persephone haunted the meadows and Pan the pursuer still lingered by the reeds in the marshes. She had inherited their land. Gradually she came to understand them. If they began as real people, they ended as equally real forces, which refused to be moralised over but demanded acceptance.
This region, according to Williamson, is perfectly suited to the evocation of Persephone’s arduous spiritual odyssey, from abduction and exile to the plenitude of healing reunion with the ‘ecstasy’ of ‘place’ (AR, p. 49) that Vanna Ashe relishes through childhood in Ashe of Rings. In Traps for Unbelievers, Butts portrays her irreligious age as a ‘pathless jungle’ (TFU, p. 5), so the Persephone myth and its assertion of an august female creatrix, harnessing the power of growth, synthesis, and resurrection imbuing all organic and spiritual entities, is a weapon against a history that, from a feminist perspective seems to chart only the dynamics of male subjectivity. Butts’s Persephone, like the mysteries and myths to which she is linked, manifests both good and evil, redemptive radiance and menacing darkness – the seemingly contradictory potencies which the fictions recount in the mystical site of Hardy’s country, ‘charged and soaked with a desperate invisible struggle’:
life as it flew or swam or ran on four feet, or walked with a shell for house. Life that came out of the ground, or flew in from the rim of the sky; life that mounted a few inches further each year, taller and taller into a man or a tree: life that spun for an hour in the air, a column of bright transparencies (DFT, p. 302)
Butts deploys the Persephone myth to underline how women are cultural disseminators of those facets of authentic Englishness (ancestral ties, mystical experience, primitive animism, and the fecundating energy of purgative ritual) that have been blunted by technological encroachments and dogmatic materialism.
However Butts’s bullish response in Warning to Hikers unwittingly reproduces and compounds the glib clichés of urban sentimentalism that are such a frequent target for her ire:
[t]here must be one profound difference between the men of the country and the town, that the most ragged village child who ever went egg-smashing in spring, sleeping in the dirtiest cottage, has not had his sight and smell and touch and hearing corrupted from without. For unless he was born already with a life in his imagination, there is next to nothing in a town for a growing animal to do, if it is to grow according to human animal capacity. A training in “movies” [...] is no substitute for the various experiences in growth and pleasure and hardihood and danger the hillside gives, the shore, the tree and the stream and the weather, handled by a country child and by which he is handled. (WH, p. 272) The ‘ragged village child’ in this extract connotes that the vital sources of animistic energy are heedless of caste, and actually favour a romanticised conception of the unvarnished country-dweller. In a 1933 review entitled ‘Our Native Land’ Butts explains that the ‘English countryside is worthy [of] two things’, the ‘utmost love of which a man is capable and the final perfection of art’. This is because of the enigmatic veil with which Nature has furnished the smallest weed in the hedge, a snail-shell, a pebble; as much as the most stupendous mountain ranges, the stateliest sunset.
No use to peer & try to snatch at the veil. Yet the whole life of poet or painter, no less than scientist or common man, has been determined by its lifting – if only for an instant – from a quite ordinary tree, a bend in a stream, a shoulder of hill, a plant, a stone… Harrison sets the clarifying quality of commemorative ritual against mimesis, viewing it as an outpouring of emotion that results in ‘a presentation’, not in mimicry: ritual is not enacted ‘for the sake of copying’ an event, but for ‘the emotion felt about [it]’.
Butts is also hostile towards all manifestations of the imitative and the copy; she laments the trend toward ‘abstractions’: whereas ‘our ancestors used to personify, or [...] represent’ moral qualities, today they are simply reproduced in ‘plastic’ (TFU, p. 12). Like Harrison, who privileges concrete actuality over rarefied abstraction, Butts’s notion of ritual re-enactment relates the authenticity of collective response rather than the individual’s private emotion. She reappraises Harrison’s work to demonstrate finally the continuity and universalising impulses of the ‘primitive form’ (TFU, p. 44) of worship. Butts’s language in Traps for Unbelievers – ‘“Holy, Holy, Holy”, sang our fathers, and felt better. What they were doing was very ancient magic’ (TFU, p. 32) – directly alludes to Harrison’s earlier pronouncement: ‘We still say “Holy, Holy, Holy”, and in some mystic way feel the holier’. Whereas for Butts, Eliot’s The Waste Land becomes overly saturated with images of reproductive sterility, Armed with Madness dramatises, through the movements of Scylla Taverner’s coterie of friends, the procreative and regenerative aspects of the spiritual Grail quest, connecting it to Harrison’s theory of ritual practice, natural cycles and the potential of woman as priestess embodying the primal virtues and resilience of Persephone. Scylla fulfils the role of the ‘female principle of life’, a coping strategy and resuscitating influence, who leads those culturally dispossessed and uprooted by the effects of global conflict towards ‘a new value, a different way of apprehending everything’ (AWM, p. 9); thus counteracting what Butts deemed as Eliot’s ‘peculiarly undervitalised genius’, attested by his reliance on stunted images of femininity, both unhappy victims and unwitting agents of a desiccated locale.122 Eliot, in Butts’s opinion, utilises chthonic myth as a resting place or retreat; she, by contrast, dynamically redefines the ritual act to convey the redemptive power of empathetic connection with and supervision over an atavistic Dorset countryside.
In Armed with Madness Butts fuses elements from two separate cultural traditions (Hellenic mythology and the Grail legend) to concoct a unique conception of Persephone for a ravaged interwar England in bewildered search of new national narratives. The Grail itself has the potential to symbolise opposing impulses, a hybrid device with both pagan and Christian heritage, signifying equally both the passion of the Christian dying god and the fecund womb of an earlier pagan earth-goddess. This potential contradiction in a primal divinity, uniting elements of Judeo-Christian spirituality with a matrilineally pagan splendour is not out of step with Butts’s artistic experiment. Armed with Madness repeatedly calls attention to the cup’s riddling, tentative provisionality; as one character peevishly comments ‘it’s anything or nothing’ (AWM, p. 44). The ‘inconclusive’ jade cup (AWM, p. 67), with its tortuous tangle of associations and usages, has no inherent significance but supplies an irresistible stimulus for mythical ‘adventures’ that are ‘like patterns of another adventure, going on somewhere else all the time’ (AWM, p. 31).
Butts portrays the divinity’s urgent search for legitimate English roots as neither definite nor guaranteed in a world devoid of inherent values. Instead Armed with Madness denotes the daunting deferral of stable meaning: ‘[a] piece of worn jade [...] the question mark to the question we can none of us answer’ (AWM, p. 137). Both conceptually and topographically ‘the thing was off the map’ (AWM, p. 53); the object nonetheless facilitates a ‘pilgrimage’ (AWM, p. 81) into prehistoric strata that demonstrates to the characters how ‘old patterns repeat themselves’ (AWM, p. 16). However much the novel proclaims its vehement investment in Harrison’s Hellenic notions of collective re-enactment, what ultimately impels the modern Persephone is an instinctual yearning to rehabilitate a pastoral ideal of rustic Dorset enshrined in a myth of ‘medievalis[m]’ (AWM, p. 89).
Death of Felicity Taverner is self-consciously fashioned as a convoluted crime puzzle or a ‘detective story of high merit’ (DFT, p. 221) in which the freakish circumstances surrounding Felicity’s demise and the significance of her missing body are key. Whereas a conventional detective plot strives to uncover and bring all secrets into the open, Butts’s novel concludes with a murder that must remain an impenetrable mystery, a sacrificial slaughter to ward off the threat of desiccation that menaces the Dorset countryside. As in Armed with Madness, similarly fuelled by the desire to restore a precious artefact to its rightful place, Felicity Taverner relates the restless quest for a central absence severed from its regional English roots. The sacred object that ‘had been lost out of the world’ (AWM, p. 79) is Felicity herself, a metonymic Grail to the extent that she is voiceless, submerged, and inchoate.
In Felicity Taverner, Butts reprises themes established in Ashe of Rings, where a primordial grasp of bloodlines underpins a sense of local affiliation. The patrician family ‘home’ starts to resemble a museum, even a mausoleum, viewed both aesthetically and as a discrete space that could fade away forever if its artefacts are not properly policed.
In touch with numinous, invisible emanations from her Dorset milieu, Felicity appears repeatedly as a ghost whose love for her landed estate is rooted in a conception of timeless continuity not only with the regional past but also with a proud, though obscured ‘national tradition’. The figure of the murdered Felicity’s spectre recalls Harrison’s discussion of primitive ritual, in which ‘blood, once shed on the earth, poisoned the earth’ and required ‘purification for blood-guilt’. Felicity as an apparition radiates primarily wistful craving, her ‘ghost’s eyes looked out under a frown’ (DFT, p. 321), and signals her presence through mild ripples of activity across the surface of the downs (DFT, p. 323). In addition, Felicity’s presence is strongly felt in her home, whose interiors – brushed by her spectral fingertips – are marked indelibly with ‘passion and death’ (DFT, p. 181). As Scylla, Felix, and Boris sift their own vivid memories of her, the room seemed to move ‘to some uncharted place’, as sometimes ‘[h]appy lovers’ imagine themselves visiting ‘countries which lie east of the sun, west of the moon’ (DFT, p. 181). The geographical metaphor denotes that Felicity’s sexuality occupies uncharted imaginative terrain, but also evokes England’s sinister colonising appetites, its unrelenting drive to subsume distant outposts. Butts deploys the robust rhetoric of territorial expansionism to capture how Felicity negotiates both the material and the metaphysical domains, destabilising the invisible border dividing the two. The making of this goddess involves a ‘perception not easy to discuss for lack of terms’ (DFT, p. 181).
Refusing to be confined by the framework of conventional discourse, Felicity cannot be explained through precise historical markers either. Felix avers that in order to distil the essence of Felicity’s ambiguous potency one needs to privilege the elements of metaphor and analogy: ‘[i]f a crystal became a white narcissus, you’d have something like her’ (DFT, p. 169).
The nature of Felicity’s sexual memoirs, like the circumstances surrounding her death, comprises the two central mysteries that fuel the narrative. By melding the questions surrounding Felicity’s sudden disappearance with the enigmatic nature of her sexuality – by what standards would she be deemed ‘virtuous’ or ‘debauched’? – Butts signifies that the cultural comprehension of female desire is itself a lacuna. As Scylla remarks, ‘[w]hen Felicity started an affair, it was somehow outside the rules’ (DFT, p. 172). Like her ‘torn and strewn members’ discovered along the roadside and which have to be ‘collected’ and ‘laid out’, the narrative is replete with slippery, suggestive ‘omissions’, radical indeterminacies, and glaring gaps that divulge a different ‘version of the truth’ (DFT, p. 168 ) regarding Felicity’s body.
Like the Grail itself, which typifies and welcomes the possibility of narrative progression, Felicity’s absence is the ‘occasion for a good story’ (DFT, p. 168 ) driving the other characters’ quest for numinous meaning.
From Boris, we discover that Felicity ‘was a woman made for a particular kind of love, a love that [...] [r]ecognises no God with her for priestess’ (DFT, p. 188 ).
This reference to Felicity as ‘priestess’ of a Godless universe, and Boris’s passion for her as a ‘mystery’ – something ‘outside our range [...] a woman who was a miracle’ (DFT, p. 170) – underscores her resemblance to Scylla. For Butts, Persephone derives her potency from her restless sexuality, and each woman is something other than what she initially seems to be. Felicity is like the Grail: she ‘came out of Paradise’ and navigates the earth to assist ‘people who could not find their way [back] in’ (DFT, p. 180).
To Felicity’s chthonic energy, no single consistent layer of significance is attached: she is by turns ‘distinctly chaste’ (DFT, p. 172) yet also ‘a scandalous piece’ of work (DFT, p. 183), an ‘erotic expert’ (DFT, p. 260) with ‘disgraceful knowledge’ (DFT, p. 323). Felicity anticipates Luce Irigaray’s conception of the inscrutable ‘Kore-Persephone’ who escapes perspective. Her depth, in all its dimensions, never offers itself up to the gaze, whatever the point of view may be. She passes beyond all boundaries [...] Whence the veils which she is supposed to cover herself with so that she may give herself out to be – what she is not.
Felix sets the tone for Butts’s critique when he remarks that 1920s British culture in general and the institutional family unit in particular is mired in shallow sexological concepts, creating ‘[a] generation that is learning to treat sex only too scientifically’ (DFT, p. 293). Felicity is said to have had ‘an inferiority complex’ (DFT, p. 180) while her mother’s neurotic loathing for independent, spirited, and attractive young women is articulated in terms of repressed jealousy: ‘Felicity’s life was wholly composed of the excesses she would have liked to have enjoyed’, for in contrast to her daughter Julia ‘had sacrificed her jus saturnalia to God’ (DFT, p. 189). Julia Taverner, in her myriad chilling cruelties and snubs inflicted upon her dead daughter, functions as a macabre caricature of Demeter’s maternal solicitude. Butts’s hideous high-Victorian mother figure is castigated for preaching rigid sexual abstinence to Felicity, yet is simultaneously viewed as an undignified dupe of the very structures she purports to uphold (DFT, pp. 321-22). Butts, while decrying the language of psychoanalysis, deploys it to demonise Julia Taverner and her ‘dirty’ (DFT, p. 322) obsession with the niceties of sexual etiquette. As Adrian Taverner avers, his mother drilled ‘shame’ (DFT, p. 326) into his young sister, telling Felicity ‘she was filthy, when she was clean’ (DFT, p. 324). Because of Julia’s own profound maternal ‘abnormality’ and repressive ‘complex’ (DFT, p. 322), she is unable to appreciate Felicity’s remarkable ‘quality of purity’ (DFT, p. 323). Julia’s status as a fearsome and unfeeling Demeter is highlighted by her literal interference with her ‘detested’ daughter’s inheritance of the family estate (DFT, p. 312). Butts can thus explore Felicity as a model of female sexuality and inheritance that is not in thrall to, or slavishly dependent upon, principles of conventional reproductive power.
Not merely a woman but a source of genealogical and national continuation, Felicity was slain because she became ‘more dangerous than she knew’ (DFT, p. 188 ); like Nature capable of bringing unimaginable devastation as well as generative rekindling. When Kralin avows that ‘Felicity is dead, and her land is to die too’ (DFT, p. 249), the Taverners acknowledge this threat as a second assault on their beloved: ‘the land. To them it is part of her – “part of her body”’ (DFT, p. 330). Implicit in this reaction is the preservationist concern that, because the English countryside is invariably cast as female, her body is violated by interlopers with no respect for the numberless strata of time underlying the modern moment in the life of this terrain. Kralin is the ‘lusty bachelor’ (DFT, p. 211) who assails his dead wife’s body by defacing her earth.
The portrayal of Kralin as ‘actually obscene’ (DFT, p. 231) connotes that the Jewish body is a mark of tainted sexuality and rank perversion. Delineated by Scylla as a ‘scientific pornographist’ (DFT, p. 177), Kralin hangs ‘shocking pictures’ (DFT, p. 232) on his dead wife’s wall, and sets about converting her ‘treasure’ (DFT, p. 230) – her estate – into a ‘public lavatory’ (DFT, p. 229). In a moment of macabre absurdity Kralin proposes to open a cinema showing first-run sex films on the Taverner property (DFT, p. 265). As a ‘practising psychologist’ (DFT, p. 292) whose ‘interests were all cerebral’ (DFT, p. 240), he has ‘impeccable perverse taste’ but has been ‘psychoanalysed out of any pleasure in anything’ (DFT, p. 178 ). He also plans to publish Felicity’s private papers as ‘an erotic classic’ (DFT, p. 261), arguing that in ‘these days of psychoanalysis, it might be very widely read’ (DFT, p. 260) and should ‘throw so many lights on the ultimate psychology of our behaviour’ (DFT, p. 261).
In Imaginations, Carlos Williams discusses Giants in the dirt. The gods, the Greek gods, smothered in filth and ignorance. The race is scattered over the world. Where is its home? [...] It’s all the gods, there’s nothing else worth writing of. They are the same as they always were – but fallen. Do they dance now, they that danced beside Helicon? They dance much as they did then, only few have an eye for it through the dirt and fumes.
Butts forges a ‘home’ for her ‘race’ by sanctifying a daughter’s ancestral access to English prehistory; this mystical votary possesses an ‘eye’ to appreciate the ‘gods’. However, this patrician heroine reveals that Butts is unable finally to shape a project of meaningful connection that might fuse differences without removing them. So fearfully she reverts to a conservative discourse of ‘natural’ plenitude founded upon a punitive, even anti-Semitic, credo of Anglo-Saxon power, patronage, and privilege.
Wharton’s unpublished autobiographical fragment, ‘Life and I’, probably written in the early 1920s, is telling:
[Words] sang to me so bewitchingly that they almost lured me from the wholesome noonday air of childhood into some strange supernatural region where the normal pleasures of my age seemed as insipid as the fruits of the Earth to Persephone after she had eaten of the pomegranate seed.
In this eloquent fragment, Wharton contrasts her childhood enthralment with words to Persephone’s consumption of the pomegranate seed. For Wharton this eating of forbidden fruit (symbolically, of chthonic perceptions) is an irreversible, transformative act as it proves for Lawrence’s Alvina when she arrives in southern Italy, thus sealing her fate and certifying the extent of her ‘fall’ from the parochial Midlands precepts of her parents’ generation. Alvina is permanently ‘marked’ by her surrender to the ambience of her taciturn husband’s inhospitable locale.
That a detailed discussion of Mary Butts should close this study seems fitting given that she is arguably the most devoted to modifying the myth as a means of enunciating a renovated and truculent model of English femininity. Hardy and Webb utilise Demeter-Persephone to aggravate the feeling of provincial inevitability; Forster and Lawrence transport their characters to Italy in order to probe the elliptical dynamics of the myth. However, through all her non-historical fictions Mary Butts is haunted by the concept of an Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess, whose transfiguring capacities combine Hellenic merits with animistic undercurrents drawn from the soil of southwest England." [The Lost Girls]
"ἐδιζησάμην ἐμεωυτόν." [Heraclitus]
"All that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both." [Aeschylus, Prometheus]
"The history of everyday is constituted by our habits. ... How have you lived today?" [N.]