Saturday, 14 April 2012

Sweet poison and sleep: Charlotte Brontë and Keats

These are the opening lines to Ode to a Nightingale by Keats:

MY heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
  My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
  One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,         5
  But being too happy in thine happiness,
    That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees,
          In some melodious plot
  Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
    Singest of summer in full-throated ease.  10
O for a draught of vintage! that hath been
  Cool'd a long age in the deep-delvèd earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country-green,
  Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South!  15
  Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
    With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
          And purple-stainèd mouth;
  That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
    And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
by WJ Neatby
I wouldn't normally compare Keats to Charlotte, because she revered Scott, Wordsworth, Burns and Byron, but then I discovered Keats through her. In the Penguin edition of Jane Eyre, one passage refers you to a quotation from Keats: "Do I wake or sleep?" And since Charlotte was a Romantic in many ways we have a case for her.

But let's compare Keats with Keats. I had been troubled, to be honest, by whether Porphyro actually raped Madeline. Keats didn't think so, but then it does seem as if he took advantage of her. I reached a compromise: his intentions were initially good, but then the seeming rape is due to Madeline's drowsiness. Between a waking state and dream she receives him into her bed. So yes, she is conscious, but not fully. This is confirmed by Keats' descipriton of this state in Nightingale.  Probably Madeline thought that since this is a dream she can do all the guilty stuff she never dared in real life. Too bad it all turned out to be too, too solid flesh - literally, as she wakes with him beside her. Besides, if she idealised the man she might think he wouldn't dare do such a thing as taint her honour, and therefore his turning up in her room at night must be a dream as it is supposedly out of character. That is why the virtuous girl gives in unexpectedly, as she is supposed to be pure and free from mortal taint and this is strange. But if she idealises Porphyro as an honourable man who wouldn't hurt her, when she wakes up in that half-state why does she blame him for being pale and not romantic, unlike her idea of him in her actual sleeping dream? So her idealisation is both an active hero and honourable gentleman. This doesn't make sense, but then dreams don't make sense. Since she was half-awake her mind wasn't working as it ought to. Let's assume we have two Madelines: real Madeline and dream-Madeline. Dream-Madeline (her romantic unconscious) wants a brave active hero to take her away. But her real-life reason tells her of course that wouldn't be a good thing, would it? It is this reason that also tells her Porphyro can't be there in her bedroom except in a dream, so she indulges in her dream fantasies of sleeping with him, because she thinks she's in a dream. Confusing, isn't it? But if Keats intended it this way it shows his talent for character paradoxes and duality.

Now to Keats and Charlotte Bronë. Marcus at Victorian Literature says that Lucy Snowe desires a sweet draught of poison more than wholesome bitters. Full of the senses, very Romantic and Keatsian methinks. The poison is obviously a drug that kills her inside. Possibly Charlotte borrowed from Keats, I don't know. But this sweet poison is company, her friendship with Graham, which while pleasant agonises her because she lies to herself that they can be splendid friends, and she knows she can never be more to him. Lies are sweet but they are poisonous because Charlotte held the truth above everything else, surprisingly for a Romantic.

Now read this from Jane Eyre:
"Dread remorse when you are tempted to err, Miss Eyre; remorse is the poison of life."
"Repentance is said to be its cure, sir."
"It is not its cure. Reformation may be its cure; and I could reform--I have strength yet for that--if--but where is the use of thinking of it, hampered, burdened, cursed as I am? Besides, since happiness is irrevocably denied me, I have a right to get pleasure out of life: and I WILL get it, cost what it may."
"Then you will degenerate still more, sir."
"Possibly: yet why should I, if I can get sweet, fresh pleasure? And I may get it as sweet and fresh as the wild honey the bee gathers on the moor."
"It will sting--it will taste bitter, sir."
Again, it is sweet poison. Charlotte seems to be telling us that what is pleasurable is sinful and guilty, because you are lying to yourself that what you want is good and pure and true and will make you happy. In this case Rochester's sweet poison is really bad, unlike the more ambiguous Lucy's.

In Villette when Paul is on the verge of leaving Labassecoeur, Lucy frantically looks for him,fearful she will not see him. Madame Beck asks her to stay in bed where she will be given a sedative.
 I was consumed with thirst -- I drank eagerly; the beverage was sweet, but I tasted a drug.
It is sweet poison again, for it is a sleeping-draught to ensure Lucy does not see M Paul before his departure. It is meant to prevent her from seeing the truth, which is wholesome bitter. But instead of stupor Lucy is excited. She rises from her bed to the park.  But why call the chapter "Cloud"? Lucy is under a cloud, because she is depressed by Paul's departure. But the word Cloud brings more to mind the sensation of drowsiness, not vibrant, but sluggish. Her mind is clouded, perhaps. Yet she is excited. But then why cloud? It is here Lucy sees the main characters in her story, like a tableaux.

Strangely the Brettons and de Bassompierres are here too, oblivious to her solitary presence. It is here she finds out what they think of her - she is a sort of pet they like to content, but the fact she hasn't been asked here shows she is not their equal - this equality not in wealth, but equality in happiness, fortune and company.  Graham seems to know she is there, though her face is covered, and would approach her but she gestures him not to. She thinks that he is not indifferent to her, and cares for her as a friend, though it is nothing compared to the way he is with his other closer friends. This is a time of truth, it seems. The cloud might therefore be Lucy's presence, for she is insignificant to the rest, like a pale vaporous form. For an analogy look at I Am by John Clare.

It is here she sees M. Paul with his ward Justine-Marie, and immediately assumes they are going to be married, as he is attentive to her. Also she is wealthy. So yes, she is under a cloud because she is deluded: no light passes through. Lucy thinks M. Paul will marry her for her money and because she is the niece of his first love. The love she thought he had for her (Lucy) is to her sweet poison because she thinks it is untrue, though later we find out it is true. But in a way it is poison because her hopes are crushed when he dies later.

Mrs Pryor tells her daughter caroline she is sweet to her. Caroline responds
Mamma, I am sorry papa was not good. I do so wish he had been. Wickedness spoils and poisons all pleasant things. It kills love. If you and I thought each other wicked, we could not love each other, could we?"
James Helstone, Mrs Pryor's late husband, was sweet poison. He came to her when she was poor and lonely, and she thought him an angel. After marriage she realised he was bad and cruel and unloving.

There's a scene in Villette when everyone drinks from a goblet some kind of brandy except Paulina, who is the youngest. She smells it, thinking it must be tasty, only when she is given a little she finds it tastes horrid. It was only good when it was forbidden. I thought this was to show how cute and innocent Polly was, (not liking guilty pleasures) but now I think of it, it might well be a symbol of how sweet the unattainable is to us though it is not wholesome. Graham's friendship and regard is to Lucy such a pleasure, because it is forbidden for her to reveal her feelings for him and he is unattainable. We see in this case a flash of intelligence from Polly, which coincides with Lucy's feelings, hence making them suitable companions

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