From a Ripple on the Surface to the Hidden Depths
What can an odd and humorous combination of words in Byron's Don Juan possibly reveal about matters concerning the form and content of Milton's great epic Paradise Lost?
The verb to wander and all its derivatives have a Janus-like character. Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, doors and gateways, gave his name to the first month of the year in the reformed Julian calendar of ancient Rome. With his two heads he could look back at the passed year and forward to the coming one. To wander has a dual orientation in that it refers to the physical act of moving or travelling while retaining the power to make references to purely mental acts. Thus a tourist may "wander" round the streets of New York. A daydreamer may wander in thought. In the sense of departing from a norm or established path, the sinner wanders from the straight and narrow and the inexpert lecturer may wander from the subject. The same range of meanings is present, as we shall see, in certain literary works that describe the errant path of a wanderer or the free association of elements of subject matter. One might say the verb is at the nub of both form and content, both with regard to elements of subject matter and to ways in which subject matter is organized. What is true of a poem or novel is true of the form and content of elements belonging to entire literary traditions in ways that will be discussed in this article. Words set in a poetic work have a dual function in that they usually possess a readily intelligible meaning inferable from their immediate context in a sentence or passage, and are thus subject to the rules of language that pertain in general usage, i.e. not exclusively within the confines of a literary text. On the other hand words in literature are, as I. A, Richards put it in The Philosophy of Rhetoric,(1936), p.131 " meaning points at which regions of experience which can never combine in sensation or intuition come together." I would go further to propose that words are the meeting points where a poet's mind combines awareness of the aggregate past associations of words with their newly acquired meanings subject to the poet's awareness of his or her contemporary situation.This is the conclusion at which the Russion Formalists Roman Jakobson and Jurij Tynjanov (1) arrived on the basis of Ferdinand de Saussure's distinction between the synchronic and diachronic aspects of languge. To elucidate this proposition we shall consider how a clever play on imlications of the word "wandering" leads stage by stage to a discussion of dual orientation of the word "wandering" in Milton's works, which exerted an enormous influence on the English Romantics.
Let us first consider what may be inferred from the following lines:
My way is to begin with the beginning;
The regularity of my design
Forbids all wandering as the worst of sinning.
Lord Byron, Don Juan, canto I, VII
A Contrast of a structural and narrative Implication of the same Word
"Ironic, of course," remarks Frank D. Connell, the Editor of a critical selection of Byron's poetry, (2) with reference to the lines in Don Juan cited above. But "ironic" in what sense? If Irony consists in saying one thing and meaning another, we might understand the lines to imply that "wandering" and "the beginning" are closely linked in the author's mind. Possibly, but why is the statement so obviously ironic? No definition of "wandering" according to a dictionary points unequivocally to a connection between "wandering" and references to origins. Let us consider which of the usual meanings of "wandering" "fits the context" of the lines from Don Juan cited above.
"Wandering" here is not to be understood in the sense of physical motion. In terms of the word's immediate contextual setting it refers to what the speaker ostensibly intends to avoid, a failure to present certain items of subject matter in an orderly and strictly chronological manner.
The speaker announces his intention of beginning his account of Juan's life by informing his readers about Juan's parentage in a manner consistent with "the regularity of his design". Even so, it is remarkable that he disparages "wandering" as "the worst of sinning". As though even the most censorious of preceptors would go so far as to discern in some badly organised term paper evidence of gross moral turpitude! It is not out of the ordinary for a person to use "wandering" as a Synonym for immoral behaviour or, in a different context, as a reference to incoherent or illogical self-expression. Byron, however, contrasts both these meanings of "wandering" within the space of the three lines of verse cited above. In so doing he displays the poet's proclivity to play with words. Is this merely indulging in a triviality? Let us consider the word "wandering" within the context of Don Juan. Are there other passages in this work in which "wandering" is associated with "sinning" or "beginning"?
A reference to "sinning" suggests some item of epic content. Sinning implies the existence of sinners and sinners form the basis of a story. There in are hints pointing to the nature of the story in question. Beginning and parentage could pose an allusion to mankind's first parents, and there is a notable passage in Don Juan which includes several occurrences of the verb to "wander" and explicit allusions to Milton's version of the story of Adam and Eve. The verb "to wander" (in declined form) occurs three times in the passage describing the shore-side walk taken by Juan and Haidée, the prelude of their sexual and a spiritual union (Canto the Second The first line of Stanza CLXXXII).
The words "And forth they wandered, her sire being gone" imply that the young couple took advantage of the temporary absence of paternal surveillance. The lovers' walk with its sequel recalls Milton's version of the events that led to Adam and Eve falling from grace, a connection that becomes explicit from what we read at the end of the eighty-ninth stanza, for here it is asserted that first love is "that All / Which Eve has left her daughters since the Fall". In the ninety-third stanza we find reference to "our first parents". Like them Juan and Haidée ran the risk of "being damned for ever". Consciously or unconsciously (in my view probably the former), Byron was influenced by Milton's use of "to wander" in a passage in Paradise Lost in which there is an altercation between Adam and Eve about Eve's yielding to what Adam terms her "desire of wandering". Eve reminds Adam of this choice of words referring to her "will / Of wandering, as thou call'st it" (IX. 1145,1146). Shortly we shall consider another passage revealing Milton's particular interest in the word" to wander".
Byron not only betrays interest in that aspect of Milton's description of Eve's walk though Paradise that concerns "sinning", which for Byron inevitably had a strong sexual connotation. Byron's reference to "sinning" is at one level little more than a puerile jibe at certain attitudes towards sexual mores. Byron's description of Haidée and Juan walking along the shore also captures that sensuous and even voluptuous element in the Miltonic description of a walk that culminated in Eve's emotional a seduction by the serpent (who approaches his quarry with a mariner's skill). Both Milton's description of Eve's walk and Byron's treatment of the scene culminating in the lovers' union of Haidée and Juan inculcate a sense of unity expressing a sublimated form of sexual or libidinal energy, perhaps of a kind that psychologists of the Freudian or Jungian schools believe to be the mainspring of all human creativity. Miltonic influence in the respect just indicated also leaves a trace in the final passage in Shelley's Epipsychidion describing a walk that leads to a lovers' union. Significantly, this passage is introduced by the verb "to wander".
Let us consider another way in which "wandering" and "beginning" are related to each other in Don Juan, and indeed in Byron's other long poem incorporating his travels. An occurrence of the verb "to wander" is juxtaposed to a reference to the Muse in the Dedication to Don Juan and again in the first Strophe of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. In the eighth stanza of the Dedication, the speaker refers to himself as one "wandering with pedestrian Muse" in contrast to Southey depicted as one seated on a winged steed. In the tenth stanza the evocation of Milton is not merely hinted at, for the speaker alludes to a passage in Paradise Lost in which there is a clear reference to Pegasus and "wandering" conflating the word's associations with poetic inspiration and disorientation.
Up led by thee
Into the Heav'n of Heav'ns I have presumed,
An Earthly Guest, and drawn Empyreal Air,
Thy temp'ring, with like safety guided down
Return me to my Native Element
Lest from this flying steed unrein'd, (as once
Bellephoron, though from a lower Clime)
Dismounted, on th'Aleian Field I fall
Erroneous, there to wander and forlorn (12-20)
Again, as in the dispute between Eve and Adam, the word " wander" is foregrounded, here in a brief exercise in comparative philology. Milton recalls the original meaning of "erroneous" in the light of its derivation from errare in Latin (to stray, to wander). Similarly Aleian means "land of wandering" in Greek. In this passage Milton seems to anticipate the crisis in modern poetry centring on the nature of poetic inspiration and the identity of the poet.
From a Puritan's point of view it was perhaps somewhat risqué of Milton to have identified the Holy Spirit as the Heav'nly Muse in the opening lines of Paradise Lost. In that context Milton could hardly dwell on the feminine qualities of the Muse, and only hints at this in his reference to the Spirit brooding "dove-like" over the "vast Abyss" from which Creation came into being. The dove is of course an established symbol for the Holy Spirit. Milton was not in any case strictly orthodox on the question of the Trinity and the personal or non-personal nature of the Holy Spirit.(3) The conflation of the biblical Holy Spirit and the classical Muse springs from Milton' overall strategy of merging Hebrew and classical traditions, and the mental orientations they typify, when creating Paradise Lost.
1.. Jurij Tynjanov, "The Meaning of the Word in Verse", in Readings in Russian Poetics" in Readings in Russian Poetics / Formalist and Structuralist Views, ed. by Ladislav Mateijka and Krystina Pomorska (Michigan Slavic Publications, Ann Arbor, 1978), pp. 136-145.
2. Byron' Poetry, A Norton Critical Edition (New York, 1978).
3. William Kerrigan, The Sacred Complex, Cambridge (Mass. and London, 1983)..
More articles by Julian Scutts: