Wednesday, May 4, 2016

the everlasting sense of living amongst forms

When Ada Cambridge in the fin de siecle writes, “Geoffrey Hamlyn was my sheet anchor, but did not seem to be supported by the scraps of prosaic history obtainable,” she is remembering how it was before she migrated to Australia in 1870 with her husband, who was being sent to a position in a southeast country town. His friend had written them a letter “reporting the place not wild at all, but quite like home,” though this friend had seen nothing outside Melbourne (two hundred and thirty kms from the place where they would be living) and knew “no more than we of the mysterious Bush, which I thought of as a vast shrubbery, with occasional spears hurtling through it.” Her retrospective conclusion is analogous to that of Weitemeyer, the poor Hamburg carpenter. “When we had assimilated all the information available, our theory of the life before us was still shapeless. However, we were young and trusting, and prepared to take things as they came.” De Quincey in his Autobiography Continued From 1803 – 1808, 1835, describes his own migration to “the woods of Lower Canada” where he saw himself in his late teens living in a spot he had already picked out, “a cottage and a considerable library, about seventeen miles from Quebec.”

My object [in planning the migration] was simply profound solitude, such as cannot now be had in any part of Great Britain--with two accessary advantages, also peculiar to countries situated in the circumstances and under the climate of Canada: viz. the exalting presence in an under-consciousness of forests endless and silent, the everlasting sense of living amongst forms so ennobling and impressive, together with the pleasure attached to natural agencies, such as frost, more powerfully manifested than in English latitudes, and for a much longer period. I hope there is nothing fanciful in all this. It is certain that in England, and in all moderate climates, we are too slightly reminded of nature or the forces of nature. Great heats, or great colds (and in Canada there are both), or great hurricanes, as in the West Indian latitudes, recall us continually to the sense of a powerful presence, investing our paths on every side …

“[T]he silence and grandeur of solitude impressed a sacred awe upon her heart.” Radcliffe, Udolpho, 1794. Dorothy Richardson’s Miriam had the same sensation at a ski resort. Reacting against Great Britain, de Quincey imagines the rewards of the migration logically existing; the opposition engenders the picture, not knowledge, because he does not know Canada, never migrated, knows neither “great colds” nor “great heats,” and is in the same state of ignorance as a tourist who thinks they can walk from the Mandalay Bay to the Wynn in the middle of June without a hat. “These things we did believe in, because all our authorities mentioned them,” says Cambridge, remembering the books she once read about “the physical characteristics of the country, there were but the scentless flowers, the songless birds, the cherries with their stones outside (none of which, actually, is the rule, and I have found nothing to resemble the description of the latter), and the kangaroo that carries its family in a breast-pocket” – she believed in it, as de Quincey can still believe, as he writes his memoir, that the migration might have been as he imagines it, and somewhere a Cambridge who has never migrated is imagining her own migration to the land where the “strange contrasts to the rest of the world which it affords [are] enumerated and commented upon--its cherries with their stones growing outside--its trees, which shed their bark instead of their leaves--its strange animals--its still stranger population--its mushroom cities--and, finally, the fact that the approach to human habitations is not announced by the barking of dogs, but by the barking of trees” – quoted from John Lort Stokes’, Discoveries in Australia, With An Account Of The Coasts And Rivers Explored And Surveyed During the Voyage Of H.M.S. Beagle, In The Years 1837-38-39-40-41-42-43 by Command Of The Lords Commissioners Of The Admiralty, 1846 – Stokes the original source of the cherries rumour -- though he tell us that he already knew “from the best authorities” before he landed on the continent that “within the heart of Australia, nature seems to delight in contradiction” – and so expected the things that he saw, not the precise forms, but the nature of them: the contradictions.

The birds we observed were common to other parts of the continent, being a few screaming cockatoos, parrots, and quails, and near the water a small white egret. There was nothing of interest to recall our memories to this first visit to a new part of Australia, save a very large ant's nest, measuring twenty feet in height. This object is always the first that presents itself whenever my thoughts wander to that locality.


  1. Guy Davenport: "Every force evolves a form" - essays about poetic images and how they happen; a book i liked, but don't remember enough to be authoritative about. John Mandeville's Travels expresses something remotely similar in that both have to do with imagined spaces and how they are filled. De Quincy et alii were driven in some way to realized unfulfilled hopes in an invented world unlike the one they knew; usages of poetic intuition flourishes in some whereby the actuality is merely a framework for the created reality... rereading this, i wonder if i'm actually saying anything... i think so but i'd need a world of room to fill it out: and so the imagination continues it's habits in all levels of consciousness...?

  2. Now I have to read John Mandeville. "Usages of poetic intuition flourishes in some whereby the actuality is merely a framework for the created reality" reminds me that this kind of writing is indebted to sermons and -- in de Quincey's case -- Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living and Holy Dying.