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hemans - the rock of calder idris

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The Rock of Cader Idris

[It is an old tradition of the Welsh bards, that on the summit of the mountain Cader Idris is an excavation resembling a couch; and that whoever should pass a night in that hollow, would be found in the morning either dead, in a state of frenzy, or endowed with the highest poetical inspiration.]

I LAY on that rock where the storms have their dwelling, 
  The birthplace of phantoms, the home of the oloud; 
Around it for ever deep music is swelling, 
  The voice of the mountain-wind, solemn and loud. 
'Twas a midnight of shadows all fitfully streaming,
  Of wild waves and breezes, that mingled their moan;
Of dim shrouded stars, as from gulfs faintly gleaming;
  And I met the dread gloom of its grandeur alone.

I lay there in silencea spirit came o'er me;
  Man's tongue hath no language to speak what I saw:
Things glorious, unearthly, pass'd floating before me,
  And my heart almost fainted with rapture and awe.
I view'd the dread beings around us that hover,
  Though veil'd by the mists of mortality's breath;
And I call'd upon darkness the vision to cover,
  For a strife was within me of madness and death.

I saw themthe powers of the wind and the ocean,
  The rush of whose pinion bears onward the storms;
Like the sweep of the white-rolling wave was their motion,
  I felt their dim presence,but knew not their forms ! 
I saw themthe mighty of ages departed
  The dead were around me that night on the hill: 
From their eyes, as they pass'd, a cold radiance they darted,
  There was light on my soul, but my heart's blood was chill.

I saw what man looks on, and diesbut my spirit
  Was strong, and triumphantly lived through that hour;
And, as from the grave, I awoke to inherit
  A flame all immortal, a voice, and a power !
Day burst on that rock with the purple cloud crested,
  And high Cader Idris rejoiced in the sun;
But O ! what new glory all nature invested,
  When the sense which gives soul to her beauty was won ! 

 Female Overflow & The Rock of Cader Idris

Lovejoy has noted that Romanticism has come to mean so many things that by itself it means nothing. Perhaps the most obvious definition of Romanticism is of a ‘spontaneous overflow of natural feeling’ and in Hemans poem this seems to apply, as it relates a particularly romantic experience of inspiration through nature. 

However this ‘overflow’ is structured in defined terms in the poem, as it is divided into stanzas and with a rigid rhyme scheme. Butler has pointed out that Wordworth’s sentence also includes the idea that influxes of feeling are modified by thought, and in this poem the tension which can be seen between typically romantic spontaneity and simplicity on the one hand and control of form, a sense of ‘nature to advantage’ is clear. 

The dilemma is implicit in Neoclassicism, for example Addison’s praise of the perfect simplicity Chevy Chase and the classics as set against metaphysical poetry or later the Gothic mode. In Heman’s poem, there is an ‘overflow’ rising towards an apocalyptic crescendo in typical romantic form, yet the abab cdcd scheme is unrelenting, and the language at times takes on an artificial cast, in high poetic diction which almost comes close to periphrasis, as in ‘the mighty of ages departed’, recast in more prosaic terms ‘ the dead were around me’. 

The ‘egotistical sublime’ is evident from the first in the ‘I’, but there also seems to be a distance imposed by the paragraph of commentary implying ‘whoever’. The poem can be seen as a deeply personal monologue but it the commentary seems to dislocate the I from the Romantic idea of inviting the audience to identify the poet as speaker. This is repeated in the universalising ‘us’ in the second stanza, and perhaps also in the double levels of language, the one straining for a poetic language to figure what is unspeakably terrifyingly sublime, and the other finding a more literal language, creating a dual ground to which a third supernatural unseeable is added - ‘the powers of wind and ocean’ are more poetically repeated as ‘the sweep of white-rolling wave’ and identified with the third level of reality as the ‘rush’ and motion of the waves is likened to the ghostly ‘dim presence’ whose forms the speaker can not see, cannot speak and therefore cannot know. This suggests the romantic longing for reconciliation between subject and object which is a defining feature of nature poetry. 

The theme of learning from Nature underlying the poem is joined with the sense of the poet as hero, a developing and deepening of older examples such as Beattie’s Minstrel 1771. The location is specifically named and this would seem to fit with the schematizing of Augustan as universal and romantic as individual, yet ‘that rock’ is very vaguely described in terms which mystify the implied specificity. 

As De Man notes, the relationship with nature is superseded by the intersubjective relationship and in the downward/inward movement Frye describes the particular which Abrams sees as the romantic characteristic in describing landscape is often subsumed. 

This can be seen in Coleridge’s valorisation of symbol over allegory because it shows the translucence of eternity over temporality. In Heman’s poem symbolic and figurative language deepens the mystical and sublime experience, personalising the abstract to endow it with an awe-inspiring power in ‘mortality’s breath’ and ‘the voice of the mountain-wind’. The romantic poet typically reads into nature, rather than from. As Hazlitt sardonically put it, ‘a puddle is filled with preternatural faces’. This tendency has frequently been opposed to the Neoclassical idea typified in Vaughan’s the Waterfall where ‘wholesome themes’ are can be allegorically read into ‘streams’ yet are not directly identified with natural power. 

This is complicated however in this poem by two implicit views, one of Nature as having the priority over the mind, which acknowledges the power of the Burkian sublime by invoking it’s inexpressibility ‘man’s tongue hath no language to speak what I saw’ and on the other hand, by the sense that the mind ‘half-creates’ what it sees, in the final sentence, ‘the sense which gives soul to her beauty.’ 

The figuring of nature as female is, Mellor argues, part of Burkian theory in that nature points towards the transcendent and mystical. As Day says, the sublime moment is peculiarly male. This might explain Humans technique of distancing, through commentary, locality and also through invoking ‘old tradition’ and ‘welsh bards’. 

Sensibility, with it’s poetry of night and tombs as Tieghem called it, found in Celtic and non-classical traditions a way to charting new psychological territory and expressing emotionalism, legitimised as real - as in the Ossian and Rowley poems. 

The connection traced between ‘death’ ‘frenzy’ or madness and poetical inspiration can also be seen to have it’s roots in Sensibility, and it also implies an awareness of epistemological theories, as the poem traces the progress of the poet, and in the struggle to do more than ‘see’ and ‘feel’, we have a sense of the restricted passive role, most obvious in ‘I felt their dim presence’. There is a continuous repetition of shrouds and veils and covers which are lifted finally, literally through the ‘breaking’ of day and light which ‘burst on that rock’, having lived though this ‘death’ the poet, empowered and enlightened, awakes to ‘inherit a flame….a voice and a power!’ 

Bloom has seen Romantic poetry as an internalization of the Quest, with the poet figuring as Prometheus, standing alone on a tower, which is himself and his stance "all the fire there is". This poem seems very much to fit this view yet there also seems to be an awareness of the dangers of ‘idealizing the libido’ as Bloom put it which destroys community, magnified by the fact the sublime is opposed to the feminine. 

All the terms here, tower and flame and light, can be seen as masculine, terms though which Heman negotiates a double code. She used the dramatised, masculine I of her ‘whoever’ whose sublime power over nature is demonstrated in finding a voice, yet in the final stanza the traditional mastering of nature is problematised by ‘I saw what man looks on and dies’ which suggests that nature, rather than the mind, is sublime, and in the ambiguous ‘invested’ splits power between subject and object. 

This undermines the idea of one as dominant masculine sublime, the other as supporting nurturing feminine, drawing an image of a mind which not only ‘creates, creator and receiver both’ but recognises that what is ‘won’ - both the sense and the strength of spirit - exists in mutual relation with what it is ‘invested’. Glory comes from literal nature and the experience of a dark night’s struggle, as much as from the ‘masculine’ power of mind which celebrates it’s sublimity in finding a ‘voice’. 

written: 2007
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