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Towards a Universality of Language: “Tintern Abbey” and Manfred

Chris Burrows Prof. Mark Canuel ENGL 419 4 May 2009


Burrows 2 Chris Burrows Prof. Mark Canuel Towards a Universality of Language: “Tintern Abbey” and Manfred In her essay “In Whose Words? On Gender Identities, Knowledge and Writing Practices,” Liz Bondi asserts that “dominant knowledge systems are phallocentric (rooted in a framework that treats the attributes of masculinity as cultural norms) as well as patriarchal (rooted in a system of male authority and female subordination)” (Bondi 246). Bondi shows that this inherent masculinity of epistemology is inseparable from language as language is ever the means for expressing knowledge. For this reason, language itself is flawed for its inherent male bias or what she calls a “crisis of representation.” Indeed the analysis of the gender connotations of epistemology I have outlined above is a ‘reasoned critique of reason,’ and therefore contributes to, as well as questions, the gender/knowledge nexus it identifies. And, in any case, if language itself is contaminated by, and complicit in, patriarchal and phallocentric knowledge systems, it is not actually possible to communicate from a position fully outside. (246) This recognition of the inherent complicity of gender biased language that Bondi describes is not a new cause, however, as Romantic authors were already working towards a circumvention of this fault. Feminization and incest in the works of William Wordsworth, Lord Byron and other Romantic authors offer not only a progressive recognition of this flaw but also attempt to overcome their complicity, as authors, in a phallocentric system of language and thought.


Burrows 3 This masculinity of language is variously attributable but, as Victoria L. Bergvall notes in “A Comprehensive Theory of Language and Gender,” “The deficit perspective on gender variation has its roots in medieval notions of the chains of the chain of being: God above man, above women, above the beasts. Women were seen as a diminished copy of the original Adam. Women’s language was thus also an imperfect, deviant, or deficient copy of men’s” (Bergvall 277). This notion of the inferior nature of women is ubiquitous in foundational literature that precedes Romantic works. Whereas in Beowulf we can observe an explicit absence of women in almost every aspect—women are relegated to a role of complete irrelevancy--, a progressive shift does seem to occur in later works that even still falls short. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight chivalry with respect to women is not only the focus, it is held up as the ultimate standard for a knight but does not encourage any outward equality for women. Much to the contrary it is distinct in its separation of women and in defining the gender roles of the sexes. The Wife of Bath’s Tale from Chaucer, as another work of context worth noting, deals heavily in themes of female dominance but is widely held as antifeminist in its extreme depictions of Alisoun as the apotheosis of the loose feminist. By comparison, William Wordsworth’s 1798 poem "Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey" attempts a complete feminization and universalism of language never before seen in literature. This is directly inline with the major doctrines of romanticism of which Wordsworth was an efficacious member. An attempt towards universalizing language and foregoing the complicities of a masculine language can be considered not only progressive but a wholly romantic vision for individuals overcoming the shortfalls of until-then unchallenged institutions of convention. Further, the return to


Burrows 4 nature and the pastoral that is common to romantic literature brings about views on the relationship of men and women that is based in nature only and therefore inveterately equal. It is not based in the religious standards that had—to that point—been the basis for all publicly recognized thought and that had therefore, fathered the unfair system which Wordsworth and his romantic contemporaries sought to overturn. Wordsworth’s narrator, upon returning to the abandoned abbey of his youth, experiences nature not only through himself but also vicariously, through his sister Dorothy and, in the processes, exposes a universality of experience that transcends gender boundaries and masculine biased language. The speaker in “Tintern Abbey” describes his transition from uninitiated youth to his current, enlightened state. The speaker has matured from a boy with a gendered perspective to a man with an enlightened, non-gender biased view of the universal human experience. Immediately after the poem's first stanza, the speaker starts off the second stanza with a direct metaphor to his own condition using gendered language in the process. “These beauteous forms, / Through a long absence, have not been to me / as is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:” (Wordsworth, 259, lines 22-24). Here the speaker explains that, although he has been away from the abbey for such a long while, the beauty that exists in it have been with him, similar to how a blind man who doesn’t see but is still aware of his surroundings. This metaphor is ironic, however, in that it applies to the speaker. At this point in the poem the speaker is uninitiated and "blind" to the universal experience of nature. Wordsworth's use of "man" here in particular relays the unworldly view of the speaker. The speaker is still experiencing nature from a male perspective. Wordsworth


Burrows 5 expands on this in the fourth stanza when once again the speaker is looking back on his past experiences at the abbey: Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first I came among these hills; when like a roe I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams, Wherever nature led: more like a man Flying from something that he dreads, than one Who sought the thing he loved. [...] (66-72) Here the speaker explicitly describes his experiences as an unenlightened youth who experienced nature as merely an escape from life as “flying from something”. Whereas now the enlightened speaker in the present tense seeks nature as his love. This is the change he speaks of in line 66 and expresses a move away from the gendered language in line 70 (“more like a man”). This is a metaphor for romanticism’s move towards that same progressive ideal of universality. Literature has matured—as a boy would—and has gained a greater appreciation for the genderless view of the world shirking the gendered reins of language that hold it back by taking on the very identity of a female—as we will see. The pinnacle of the speaker's enlightened state is his ability to experience nature and see the same things in his sister by living vicariously through her. This notion of parity transcending gender roles is absent in Eric C. Walker’s discussion of Wordsworth and his narrator’s relationship with Dorothy. Rather, Walker makes a case for the sibling relationship as one that is disturbed by a cleavage of rest and unrest that is ultimately inferior to conjugal relationships. “The scene of sublime withdrawal in ‘Tintern Abbey’


Burrows 6 belongs to the male speaker, pointedly contrasted later in the poem with the ‘wild eyes’ and ‘wild ecstasies’ of the sister. In ‘Tintern Abbey,’ the sibling figure is never posed at rest. To the contrary, she is the very figure of restlessly unbounded wandering” (Walker 115). Walker asserts competing experiences defined by gender roles here. But what he lacks is the context of the narrator’s prior youthful experience at the abbey in which the narrator too was wild and “bounded o'er the mountains” in line 68 and experienced “dizzy raptures” in line 85. Walker glosses over this in his claims for conjugality in ‘Tintern Abbey’. “The sister who in ‘Tintern Abbey’ is wild and boundless is paired with her sibling in that very scene of sublime retreat. […] This unsettled state of affairs indexes, in these elusively different forms, the absolutist claims of conjugality” (125). These “elusively different forms” that Walker speaks of are at once the same form—23 years earlier. They are the same in that the narrator experienced them at his first visit to the abandoned abbey and his sister, on her first visit, is experiencing those same wild emotions —and he is living it through her. Essentially the speaker is demonstrating our ability to universally experience nature regardless of gender. “My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch / The Language of my former heart, and read / My former pleasures in the shooting lights / Of thy wild eyes” (116-119). Here the speaker relates that he sees in his sister his former self and recognizes in her his own experiences. Further, the speaker suggests that even after he has moved on from this life, he will live vicariously through his sister’s memory of their experience together. “If I should be, where I no more can hear / Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams / Of past existence, wilt thou then forget / That on the banks of this delightful stream / We stood together” (147-151). Here the speaker is speaking to Dorothy asking her not to forget the memory that they shared


Burrows 7 standing on the banks of the stream. This has significance in that the two of them will share the same memory despite their differing genders. The speaker goes on to instill in Dorothy the memory of himself because Dorothy is himself—they share the same experiences in a universal way. “Nor wilt thou then forget, / That after many wanderings, many years / Of absence these steep woods and lofty cliffs / And this green pastoral landscape, were to me / More dear, both for themselves, and for thy sake (155-159) Here, at the poem’s conclusion, the speaker ties it together by suggesting to Dorothy that when she returns again to the abbey after many years – as the speaker did – will embrace the significance of his experience in herself. This is significant in that the speaker and Dorothy will have undergone this universal experience of nature; each will experience it in the same way despite their fundamental biological differences as male and female. A comprehensively antipodal claim to this comes from Antony Easthope who rather finds Wordsworth and romanticism as a force of masculinization that seeks to counter women. “Romanticism approached gender and sexuality with renewed seriousness, though it did so at a price, as Thomas Laquer shows. With Romanticism, woman begins to lose her anciently established characterization as a failed man and begins to be seen, in a two-edged development, both in her difference and as an opposite to be contained by a newly invigorated masculinity” (Easthope 91). Easthope’s claim is quickly disassembled by “Tintern Abbey”’s foundational gender-neutral approach which was a standard setting piece for the Romantic period. However, Easthope, continues by alleging a pattern of phallic imagery and implied masculinity in “Tintern Abbey.” “Wordsworth wishes to be the phallus. In the ‘Tintern Abbey’ poem he identifies with the power that ‘impels’ all


Burrows 8 objects. In ‘Elegiac Stanzas’ with a ‘huge Castle, standing here’ which is ‘cased in . . . unfeeling armour’ and ‘braves’ external threat” (98). Of course, look hard enough and one can find phallic imagery in any text but Easthope’s assertion in the next paragraph that “to be the phallus entails desexualization, that a gain in seeming omnipotence is purchased at the price of a loss of sexual identity, both homosexual and heterosexual desire” is unfounded in “Tintern Abbey” (99). The narrator undergoes a transcendence that gives him an enlightened view heightened further by the vicarious experience through his sister Dorothy but does not experience a complete loss of sexual identity—it’s not necessary for him to do so in order to be universally expressive. However, his language does undergo a loss of its gender bias, or what could be taken as a loss of sexual identity and, therefore, desire. What Wordsworth attmpts to portray in “Tintern Abbey”—as many Romantic authors did and would thereafter was to portray merely the common human condition. That is to say, the narrator could have been any living person—except that he was a man. He expressed this any-man story through universal language. This ungendered language is impossible to establish without the loss, also, of a sexual identity in that language only. This affirms the flawed system of language that Wordsworth and all of us are complicit in as speakers and communicators. The ability of Wordsworth’s narrator to recognize his own experiences in his sister and delight in that joy is part of Wordsworth’s larger doctrine of nature and our part in it— that we are natural and therefore equal. Female and male experiences are the same and the narrator’s vicarious realization of this is Wordsworth’s coup d’etat of gendered epistemology and language structures.


Burrows 9 Lord Byron’s Manfred is an affirmation of that foundationally Romantic and standard setting power of Wordsworth’s dogma of universalism in “Tintern Abbey” as Byron carries on and elaborates on the male-female sibling relationship. Manfred affects an even more radical argument on this same idea by introducing incest—marking Walker’s claims of sibling relationships as inferior to conjugality as inferior for their lack of “rest” as null. Andrew Elfenbein, writing about gender and sexuality in Byron’s works, recognized the usefulness of incest. In such moments, Byron is playing with his audience, bowing to conventions of propriety by not naming the relationship between Manfred and Astarte, yet doing so in a way that nevertheless renders it unmistakable. The reader has to fill in the gaps by admitting knowledge of the forbidden desires that the play points to but stops just short of articulating. The result blends ignorance and knowledge. The lack of specificity lets the reader retreat from facing taboo sexuality too plainly, yet also intensifies the confrontation because Byron implies that any reader can fill in the blanks competently. (69) Elfenbein picks up on Byron’s attempt at connecting to the audience via this utterly taboo relationship between Astarte and Manfred but falls short in informing us of the thematical aspects to why Byron did this. Astarte, like her brother, is resistant to the institutions that she is complicit in, and together Astarte and Manfred are united in their resistance, even, to the flawed institute of language. “The mind, the spirit, the Promethean spark, / The lightning of my being, is as bright, / Pervading, and far-darting as your own, / And shall not yield to yours, though coop’d in clay!” (Byron Act 1, Scene I, lines 154-7). Manfred here displays his willful


Burrows 10 refusal of the seven spirits at his command. This is a symbolic metaphor for Manfred’s resistance to the institutions of the world. His return to the mount thereafter and subsequent rescue by the chamois hunter carry over the theme of a return to nature that is evident in “Tintern Abbey” and encourages a gender-neutral outlook based in nature and not in religion or common social norms. Astarte displays a like resistance to her own complicit institutions of death. “NEMESIS By the power which hath broken / The grave which enthrall’d thee, / Speak to him who hath spoken, Or those who have call’d thee! / MANFRED She is silent, / And in that silence I am more than answered” (2, ii, 106-11). In not speaking, Astarte resists complicity in the communion of the dead which she is a part of, and Manfred puts it, in doing so she communicates even more. Astarte and Manfred are separately resistant to their complicit systems and their incestuous relationship is resistant, also to the terms of society. Byron, then, recognizes his complicity in language. Manfred learned through Astarte the “language of another world” (3, I, 7). This vicariousness of his experience clearly echoes “Tintern Abbey” and applies thematically to Lord Byron’s Romantic doctrine of universalism. Manfred remembers, I do remember me, that in my youth, When I was wandering,--upon such a night I stood within the Coloseum’s wall, ‘Midst the chief relics of almighty Rome; The Trees which grew along the broken arches Waved in the dark blue midnight, […] (3, I, 8-13) Byron creates an unmistakable reference to “Tintern Abbey” here in which Manfred remembers a wild, uninitiated youth in which he is yet to be enlightened to the ways of the


Burrows 11 world and is still complicit in a gender biased system, much like the narrator of Wordsworth’s poem. He is among the relics of a dead civilization and is experiencing a return to the natural order of things—just as Wordsworth’s narrator was in “Tintern Abbey.” Both of these characters—then represent an elightened shift towards a return to the sublime, enlightened, and natural order of men and women as equal beings in an unequal world. As essayist Myra Jehlen put it, "Uncovering the contingencies of gender at the heart of even the most apparently universal writing has been a way of challenging the view that men embody the transcendent human norm, a view to which the first objection was that it was unjust to women" (Jehlen 265). Jehlen succinctly sums up the vision of Wordsworth and of Lord Byron who carried on the torch after him. Both showed through sibling relationships the universality of our experiences as human beings that transcends gender boundaries. The inherent phallocentricities of epistemology, and therefore language that Bondi points out were taken up by Wordsworth in his attempt at universal language. Romanticism provided the perfect stage and Byron and Wordsworth capitalized with their harrowing attempts at a more transcendental, progressive, and universal form of expression.


Burrows 12 Works Cited Bergvall, Victoria L. "Toward a Comprehensive Theory of Language and Gender." Language in Society Vol. 28, No. 2 (1999): pp. 273-93. Bondi, Liz. “In Whose Words? On Gender Identities, Knowledge and Writing Practices” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Vol. 22, No. 2 (1997): pp. 24558. Byron, Lord. “Manfred.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. D Ed. Greenblatt and Abrams. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006. pp. 63669. Easthope, Antony. Wordsworth Now & Then. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1993. Elfenbein, Andrew. "Byron: Gender and Sexuality." The Cambridge Companion to Byron. Ed. Drummond Bone. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. pp. 56-73. Jehlen, Myra. "Gender." Literary Terms for Critical Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. 263-273. “Manfred.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. D Ed. Greenblatt and Abrams. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006. pp. 635-6. Walker, Eric C. Marriage, Writing & Romanticism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009. Wordsworth, William. "Lines." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. D Ed. Greenblatt and Abrams. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006. pp. 25862.

Towards a Universality of Language  

In support of Wordsworth as an affront to language's inherent flaw toward a masculine bias through feminization and Lord Byron's affirmation...

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