Session 7D: New Subjectivities, New Identities

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7D. New Subjectivities, New Identities

Laura Quinney (Brandeis): "Byron, Shelley and the Attrition of Consciousness"
Andrea Henderson
(Michigan): "Keats, Tighe and the Remaking of the Soul"
Debbie Lee (Washington State): "The Keswick Imposter: Coleridge and Wordsworth Make the News"

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"Byron, Shelley and the Attrition of Consciousness"
Laura Quinney

This essay will examine the Romantic representation of the self-bewildering self, that is to say, the self disconcerted in the face of its own incoherence. This may not on the face of it sound like a Romantic theme; yet among the canonical Romantic poets, not only Wordsworth, but Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and, with certain qualifications, Blake, were all working on the portrayal and analysis of reflexive relations within the self, particularly where those relations turn out to be disorienting and disturbing. Though such interests are commonplace now, but they were a novel and singular focus of Romanticism, and it is genuinely surprising how many critics still insist that the Romantics shared a Utopian hope for, if not a steady confidence in, the unity and harmony of the self. Jean Hall, for example, speaks of "the development of a deep self finally at peace with itself" as "a perennial Romantic desire." I object to this notion on two grounds: first, it condescends to Romantic poetry by describing it as expressive of adolescent longings and in doing so, second, it implicitly represses the philosophical content of Romanticism. In fact, the canonical Romantic poets were engaged in an analysis of the self's experience of itself, and the development of a language for describing it. They worked on elaborating a subtle and distinctive psychology, which in turn represented a philosophical position about the nature of subjectivity. In this psychology, the self has been so unfortunately constituted that it is fragmented, self-estranged and, indeed, left to be baffled by the nature of its own composition and history.

The conscious self loses its proprietary relation to the contents of the self in general. The chief means by which the Romantic self encounters its disintegration is of course through memory, or the past self's haunting of the present. This is a central theme in the major autobiographical poems of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Romantic memory serves not only to introduce "a differential register," in Francis Ferguson's phrase, but to mark the phenomena of self-fragmentation, and a concommitant sense of diminishment in the province of conscious self. (Here we must distinguish "conscious self" from "ego," since their synthesis would be misleading: the Freudian ego does more work and is partly unconscious.) The sense of diminishment is often figured as an actual falling-off: in "Tintern Abbey," the Intimations Ode and scores of its imitators, the speaker laments that a grandeur he once had is gone. However, I wish to suggest that this way of staging the difference between past and present self is a itself a trope for a subtler distinction, an apprehension of erosion or attrition within the present self - and this erosion of the "I" emerges in inverse proportion to the heaping up of memories and of the sense of the past.

This feeling of erosion or attrition within the self is a shared theme of the Romantic and post-Romantic lyric. In our time, it has been given utterance very beautifully in Charles Wright's austere line, "Inch by inch, everyday, our lives become less and less," or in James Merrill's stark self-description:

And here was I, or what was left of me.
Feared and rejoiced in, chafed against, held cheap,
A strangeness that was us, and was not, had
All the same allowed for its description,
And so brought at least me these spells of odd,
Self-effacing balance. Better to stop
While we still can. Already I take up
Less emotional space than a snowdrop.

For both poets, the self's accumulation of a past ironically does not have the character of accumulation; its effect upon the present self is to make it feel smaller and fainter instead of richer. Perhaps this theme is now familiar enough that it needs no more elaboration than it finds in these short lines; but in the Romantics, it is worked out with a sometimes breath-taking degree of precision.

Wordsworth and Coleridge's fascination with it is obvious enough. What is more surprising is to find the younger Romantics equally involved with the idea, though their treatment of it might fairly be termed even more subtle. The paradigm of the self that comes to know itself in the apprehension of its attrition receives especially delicate treatment in some poems of Byron and Shelley - especially in The Triumph of Life, in Shelley's late lyrics, and in Byron's "So, We'll Go No More A-Roving":

So, we'll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears the sheath,
And the soul outwears the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.

This poem is very mysterious about the difference it registers, refusing to name this difference or specify it clearly. Everything turns on the word "still," which means the opposite of what it says: though the heart be still as loving, it is not still as loving - something in its capacity to love or express love is gone. Byron intimates a sense of self-alienation with this very notion: it is as if to say, how strange to be this self that has experienced an erosion so subtle but so decisive. How to name what it is that has been eroded or in what place the erosion has occurred? He has suffered no difference in affect or perception, and the world is unchanged, but his relation to his own affects is changed: the will shrinks from them, an energy or commitment to them is lacking, although one is still "having" them, in some sense.

This complicated split between the "I" and the affect is also invoked in "On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year."

The hope, the fear, the jealous care,
The exalted portion of the pain
And power of love, I cannot share,
But wear the chain.

What does it mean to "wear the chain" of love without feeling hope, fear or jealousy? It is loving without hope, as Byron implies in the first stanza ("Yet, though I cannot be beloved,/Still let me love!"); but put more subtly, it is loving without being able to invest in one's feeling, loving somehow at a distance from oneself. The "I" does not so to speak believe in its own affects, not because it has disowned or refused it, rather because familiarity with the affect has worn out its credibility. Byron can be elegant at representing such "worn-outness" or erosion, though of course he can also bastardize his own ideas, as he does in Childe Harold's lament for his "crushed feelings' dearth. As he puts it in "So We'll Go No More A-Roving," "For the sword outwears its sheath,/And the soul outwears the breast." Soul vs. breast sounds Cartesian, giving rise to the notion that the poem is about bodily exhaustion; but I think "breast" here has its metaphorical meaning - seat of the passions - and that this line means that passion survives the capacity for passion, or to bring out the weirdness of this idea more sharply, that the capacity for passion survives the capacity for passion, which is as fine a difference as you can have. The subtlety of this distinction transforms the poem from lament into analysis: the emphasis is not on what has been lost, or what things used to be like, but on the uncanniness of such a delicate failure, the self so close to what it "still" feels of what it used to be.

Byron's "still" is the "still" of Tintern Abbey's "Therefore am I still/A lover of the meadows and the woods." As John Rieder has pointed out, there is an important vacillation here between continuity and motionlessness: "This ambiguity results from a tension between poetic and grammatical form: the syntax of the sentence militates strongly for the sense of continuity, but in order to do so it must overcome or submerge the suggestion of motionlessness that is thrust into view by the enjambment" (188). Rieder goes on to say that this ambiguity in "still" condenses the poem's two contradictory arguments: that W has grown from reckless youth to sober maturity - that he has developed - and on the other hand, that he is unchanged - he has remained "essentially pure, undisturbed" (188). I am grateful to Rieder for emphasizing the power of the word "still" here, though I disagree with his interpretation, since I don't believe Wordsworth is really claiming, anywhere in the poem, that he is "still" what he was. This "still" is rhetorical; it suggests its own qualificatio, for it means "still, in spite of," or "even with all the changes, still. In other words, it is "still" against a background of "no longer." Wordsworth "still" is more complexly affirmative than the "still" in Bryon's "Though the heart be still as loving," where it is clearly concessive. Yet "still" in these important Romantic moments does not mean (as Rieder takes it to mean) that the speaker is transparently asserting identity. Consider Satan's boast: "What matter where, though I be still the same...," - where his claim is plainly self-undermining - or John Ashbery's "I am still completely happy." "Still" is an Empsonian word: it can't ever mean "still exactly the same": at least in these passages it reflects awareness (whether conscious or not) of some erosion in the sameness. It is attended by the shadow of "although," and in the context of self-description it is used as the subtlest word in the differential lexicon, to reflect the pure attrition of consciousness, attrition so to speak without content.

Perhaps the finest use of this trenchant "still" appears in Shelley; naturally, it is in The Triumph of Life, where so much of Shelley's subtlety on the subject of psychological decay was finally distilled. Early in his career, in the poem "To Wordsworth," Shelley turned Wordsworth's own differential scheme, his paradigm of chronological degeneration, against him: Wordsworth had been a great poet of loss, says Shelley, but now "One loss is mine, which thou too feel'st, but I alone deplore" - meaning that Wordsworth has lost his political consciousness and sensibility, but in having lost this he has lost the very means of self-reproach; he has shed precisely that in himself which would remind him to abhor his change. Shelley has derived this rather snide irony right out of "Tintern Abbey" and the Intimations Ode, which beyond the present losses foretell a time of still greater loss, in which the elegiac sense itself will fade: the speaker's sensibility will have eroded so far that he won't remember he once had it and he'll lose even the present residual contact with the "glory." Shelley accuses Wordsworth of having become inert and complacent in just the way that his developmental scheme predicted.

But Shelley found his own subtler and darker paradigm later on in a model of forestalled desires and lingering self-consciousness. This is the model that emerges out of his self-portrait in Adonais, where he calls himself a "Power girt round with weakness," "A Love is Desolation masked". Here the subject is defeated but not tranquillized. He retains the capacity without an end for desiring, and consequently his sense of frustration and loss remains fresh. Instead of lapsing into a complacent mediocrity, he is condemned to suspension in a fractured consciousness, knowing surrender, hopelessness, fatigue, collapse, on the one hand, and on the other: dismay, resentment, and anguish at the spectacle of his own decay. We may say that Shelley arrests the subject forever in the dilemna of consciousness afflicting the speakers of "Tintern Abbey" and the Intimations Ode: you perceive that the self is undergoing a process of attrition yet are powerless to prevent it. But the ordeal is still worse in Shelley, where the process of erosion is unending, and you must witness your own diminishment with an undiminished capacity for contemning it.

What Shelley evidently wants to analyse is a species of self-division in which part of the self has been compromised by experience (drained of confidence and force of will) while another part of the self remains capable of witnessing this collapse and deploring it. This is Rousseau's story and thus the reason for his centrality in "The Triumph of Life." He is introduced as a figure of precisely such self-division:

Then like one who with the weight
Of his own words is staggered, wearily
He paused, and ere he could resume, I cried,
"First, who art thou? . . ."Before thy memory

I feared, loved, hated, suffered, did and died,
And if the spark with which Heaven lit my spirit
Earth had with purer nutriment supplied

Corruption would not now thus much inherit
Of what was once Rousseau--nor this disguise
Stain that within which still disdains to wear it.--

Shelley introduces a fascinating complexity in this account of Rousseau's interior state: for Rousseau describes himself as partly "corrupted" - in fact, as largely corrupted, I take it, since corruption has inherited "thus much/Of what was once Rousseau" - yet such invasive corruption has nonetheless left him "that within which still disdains" its decay and so can regard this decay as a mask or "disguise" for the real self. Shelley is drawing here on the argument of the historical Rousseau, for the notion of a noble "true self" sullied by contact with the world is a Rousseauvian fantasy. But the fantasy breaks down under the weight of its own illogical expression: "disguise," like "mask," implies something worn on the outside, detachable and impertinent. But is this "disguise" of the self worn so to speak on its outside? No: this "disguise" has "stained" that which still disdains it; it has entered and contaminated the self which continues to abhor it. The corruption is inside Rousseau, deep inside where it has "stained," distorted and vitiated even that which resists it, and yet there is still something there with enough autonomy to despise its fate. Shelley's paradox is thus sharper than both Wordsworth's and the historical Rousseau's: no pure, "true self" is left, yet the phenomenon of self-alienation persists, and though thoroughly infected by corruption, the self has not been thereby liberated from the burden of self-contempt.

This reading of the lines comes from Reiman's definitive text of "The Triumph of Life." Its power can be measured by contrast with the version Mary Shelley published in her first posthumous edition of Shelley's poems, dated 1824: there Rousseau reproaches himself for letting his disguise "Stain that within which ought to have disdained to wear it." In other words, the aspect of the self which should have resisted did not - it failed, and the stain took over. This reading lacks the acute sense of self-division that makes Reiman's version so complex and forceful. For if his disguise stains that within "which ought to have disdained to wear it," then the process of corruption is complete and resistance to it a thing of the past. How much tamer, how much less vexing and anguished is Rousseau's state in this version of 1824! He becomes retrospective and empty , like the shade of Jupiter in Prometheus Unbound. But in the Reiman version, the "spark" survives to prick him with helpless perturbation, and he remains actively persecuted by self-loathing - self-loathing in the strict sense, that is: it is not that he dislikes his personality, but he that looks upon the nature of the self and its changes with contempt. The difference between these two states - one retrospective and uniform, the other active and self-rejecting - turns on the temporal precision of the adverb "still," which is missing from Mary Shelley's version. "Still" means that Rousseau feels himself to be continous with his old self but subtly failing, the same and not the same, resistant to corruption but unable to resist it. In a version of Zeno's paradox, the fractions of the self keep getting smaller but never entirely disappear. However much of the self is eroded, there remains some residuum to suffer the consciousness of self-betrayal. In other words, the anguish of the self-questioning self springs from its sense of persistence as much as its sense of discontinuity: it protests that it feels itself to be "still" the same, though somehow it is losing, always losing, territory on its margins. One finds oneself on a course of steady and irreversible erosion, a continuum of departing identity. Thus, to Wordsworth's paradigm, Shelley adds the idea that the attrition of consciousness is defeating because it experiences itself as interminable; and therefore it can never get a perspicuous view of its condition. The self cannot give the authoritative account of its own changes, or become the intelligence of its history.

Young optimistically encouraged his reader to "Know thyself," "to contract full intimacy with the Stranger within thee," as if that could be done at will, whereas Rousseau pointed out in his Reveries that the imperative to "Know thyself" is impossible to fulfill. With the poems I have been examining, Romanticism makes a contribution to philosophical accounts of that which interferes with self-knowledge. That there is such interference was very much a theme of the period, even in Kant, who demonstrated that the "I" of cognition cannot take itself as its own object. In contrast to many sanguine readings of Romanticism, the poems above reveal that introspection leads to bewilderment and the collapse of intellectual authority, for they capture the self at the moment of its failing in its attempts at self-cognition. What stands in its way is temporality; and to point this out, or rather to develop a complex analysis of it, is one of Romanticism's particular contributions to the anatomy of self-occlusion. Yet it is not simply that the self strays from itself over time: that is sufficiently obvious, but it is not all that these poems have to say, for they explore the subtler topic of the effect that the self's apprehension of its changes has on its inner relations, specifically, they are about how its awakening to its own history disarms the self with respect to itself. What has been eroded in the self - and this is an especially vivid theme in the later Romantics, though it is addumbrated clearly enough in Wordsworth and Coleridge - is not anything material in the self so much as it is the self's confidence in its self-possession. The conscious self is precipitated out as the last and least creature of its own evolution. And here a truly wondrous, or vicious, circularity enters in: for the self renders itself elusive to itself in perceiving itself as elusive, and of this there can be no end.

To recognize that the "I" or conscious self feels crowded out by other parts of the self it perceives to be alien has become an accepted notion, and it might not seem surprising to claim as I do that it was the Romantics who first fully elaborated this idea, by filling out a psychology thinly addumbrated in empiricism, but it will seem bolder, I hope, to add that the idea received its subtlest exposition - subtler than any of the intricate contributions of German idealism or psychoanalysis - in that fertile originary moment. We are still trying to raise to the level of articulation the picture of faint consciousness that Romanticism instilled in us.

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Last updated June 1, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell