Thursday, March 18, 2010

the beautifulest Fish of all

Last night I came across two comparisons between a woman and a speckled fish. In The Wife of Martin Guerre, Janet Lewis wrote:

When, upon a certain day, she asked him if he remembered such and such a little incident, he responded, smiling, "No, and do you remember when I told you that your eyes are speckled, like the back of a mountain trout?" she only smiled in return, full of confidence and ease.

In the endnotes to The Road to Xanadu, John Livingston Lowes quoted from volume XIII of Samuel Purchas' Puchas His Pulgrimes, contayning a History of the World in Sea Voyages and Lande Travells, by Englishmen and others. A sea captain named Henry Hudson is describing a mermaid.

… her skin [was] very white; and long haire hanging downe behind, of colour blacke: in her going downe they saw her tayle, which was like the tayle of a Porposse, and speckled like a Macrell.

Hudson didn't see the mermaid himself, but he had this report from two of his men. "Their names that saw her were Thomas Hilles and Robert Rayner." Lowes' endnotes run for more than a hundred pages. "There are," he writes, "those who find the notes in a book more interesting than the text.

I often do myself. But for the sake of others otherwise inclined the notes in this book are, for the most part, securely kenneled in the rear. There they will molest no incurious reader who is circumspect enough to let them lie."

Lowes is enraptured by the side-facts pertaining to the main fact and the anecdotes that attach themselves to central stories. Without that love it seems unlikely that he would have written this book, in which he spends nearly four hundred pages running through everything he can think of that might have inspired parts of The Ancient Mariner. He reads eight hundred and six pages of Joseph Priestley's "ponderous" History and Present State of Discoveries Relating to Vision, Light and Colours and finds the clue he wants on page eight hundred and seven. He considers Dorothy Wordsworth's journals and comes to the conclusion that she and Coleridge discussed the moon. He spends pages tracing historical instances of the word weft. He sees that other writers have criticised Coleridge over the size of the albatross, calling it impossible, a man's neck supporting the weight of a Wandering Albatross, Diomedea exulans, a bird with a thirteen-foot wingspan, so he investigates albatrosses and discovers the existence of the smaller Sooty Albatross "once Diomedea fuliginosa, now, in scientific parlance, Phoebetria palpebrata antarctica," although Wikipedia has it as Phoebetria fusca. He searches for a specimen of Phoebetria palpebrata antarctica, finds a dead one, and the suggestion in the book is that in his enthusiasm for proof he strung the corpse around his neck to see if his poet's idea could be vindicated.

… the smaller bird, might readily enough , as I know from experiment, have been carried suspended from a sailor's neck

Decades after the Mariner was written, Wordsworth told friends and interviewers that he had suggested the albatross to Coleridge during a walk. The other poet was trying to think of a sin the Mariner could commit, and Wordsworth, who had been reading Captain George Shelvocke's A Voyage Round the World by the Way of the Great South Sea, proposed that he should kill an albatross. "The idea of "shooting an albatross" was mine," he stated. Lowes, hunting down Shelvocke, discovers that the albatross in that book is almost certainly the little black-feathered Sooty.

This is Shelvocke:

[W]e had not had the sight of one fish of any kind, since we were come to the Southward of the Streights of le Mair, nor one sea-bird, save a disconsolate black Albitross, who accompanied us for several days, hovering about us as if he had lost himself, till Hatley (my second Captain) … in one of his melancholy fits … imagin'd, from his colour, that it might be some ill omen … [Hatley] shot the Albitross

There is no proof, Lowes tells us, that Coleridge knew his Wandering from his Sooty; his point is that the albatross is not impossible. "In the use to which Coleridge puts the albatross in the poem, neither ornithological fact nor poetic truth moults a feather," he says, adding, "The essential matter is that this incident in Shelvocke crystallized the structural design of the poem."

Charles Lamb used similar language in his essay on Goethe.

Some trifling incidents at Witzlar, and the suicide of an unhappy acquaintance, were the means of 'crystallising' that wondrous perilous stuff, which the young heart oppressively held dissolved in it, into this world-famous, and as it proved world-medicative Werter.

Lowes is modest about most of his discoveries, and defers to Coleridge always, calling him a genius, insisting that he does not mean to explain away the Ancient Mariner, he does not want us to think that he is trying to rise above it, or make himself look smarter than the poet, no, in fact the opposite -- the more sources he uncovers, the more miraculous it is, that one man should be able to transmute so many disparate items into a single poem -- here -- he tells us -- here, in this process of transmutation, is the genius of this genius, the soul, the very nature of genius -- an alembic.

Other critics have seen the same quality in other writers. Here is Harold Bloom on Charlotte Brontë:

The amazingly incompatible precursors are John Bunyan and Lord Byron, and only the combative genius of Charlotte Brontë could have melded The Pilgrim's Progress and Manfred into the remarkable unity of Jane Eyre.

If the Ancient Mariner is a poem about an anguished wanderer then Xanadu is a book about a delighted one. Lowes spins off into word-picture curlicues ("neither ornithological fact nor poetic truth moults a feather") as if the sheer excitement of his Coleridge-love has made him sprout plumes.

And the three powerfully suggestive particulars set the imagination winging, while the livery fair behind and fair before strips every feather from its pinions

is another example, as is

[W]e have watched the tangible realities of of known and charted seas waver and, and disintegrate, and dissolve, like the evolutions of the mist, to reassemble into the luminous apparitions of the insubstantial deeps.

I found these by opening pages at random. The book is full of them.

I didn't intend to write all of this. I started with those first two quotes because I wanted an excuse to post some of the other passages he borrows from eighteenth century travel books. They have the vividness of things seen for the first time and described as precisely as possible, which is just what they are, as if very young children, coming across birds, water, and other ordinary phenomena they had never seen, had been given the power of adult speech --

"In the tenth of March in fortie-two degrees, the Sea was all red as if it had beene mixed with bloud, being full of red Wormes, which taken up leaped like Fleas."

taken from Purchas

"We had been frightened with Stories of Bears that haunted this place, but saw none. It seemed rather a place of resort for Fairies and Genii than for Beares."


"The fifth, wee saw the first Ice, which we wondered at, at the first, thinking that it had beene white Swannes, for one of our men walking in the Fore-decke, on a sudden began to cry out with a loud voice, and said: that hee saw white Swannes: which wee that were under Hatches hearing, presently came up, and perceived that it was Ice that came driving from the great heape, showing like Swannes, at being then about Eevening."

written by Gerrit de Veere

… Narlborough's sturdy Saxon penguins: "they are short legged like a Goose, and stand upright like little children in white aprons, in companies together" … The Vicugnes of of Peru, which "are greater than Goates and lesse than Calves," have hair, Acosta tells us, which "is the colour of dried roses."

But above all of them I prefer this report from a sailor named Fredrick Martens, because it is a description of something that seems so simple, the same fish that glitters like a mermaid's tayle, the mackerel:

All the colours of this Fish shine like to a Silver or Golden Ground, done over with thin transparent or illuminating colours … It is the beautifulest Fish of all that ever I saw

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