Before I start, I should say that I had every intention of coming back from the woods to take on Coventry Patmore again (specifically, this gem [#290] from The Angel in the House), largely because Mia’s always after me to write about poems that I dislike. Alas, I am finding that my Victorian heart is not rising to such an occasion today. (The reasons for this can be roughly approximated by the sentiments expressed in Browning’s “Two in the Campagna” [not in the OBVV]) So I plunged again into the pages of the OBVV, through poems about dead brides and modest attractions and Christian consolations. You know, the usual–without anything in particular striking me as an appropriate site for kicking my Victorianist brain back into gear. And it seems self-indulgently biographical to leap right to the “Bride’s Song” from Christina Rossetti’s Prince’s Progress (#338 — “Too late for love, too late for joy! / Too late, too late!” — yeah, you know what I mean).

Instead, I offer the following sonnet from George Meredith (1828 – 1909), which should at least be a change of pace:

332. Lucifer in Starlight

On a starr’d night Prince Lucifer uprose.

Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend

Above the rolling ball in cloud part screen’d,

Where sinners hugg’d their spectre of repose.

Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.

And now upon his western wing he lean’d,

Now his huge bulk o’er Afric’s sands careen’d,

Now the black planet shadow’d Arctic snows.

Soaring through wider zones that prick’d his scars

With memory of the old revolt from Awe,

He reach’d a middle height, and at the stars,

Which are the brain of heaven, he look’d and sank.

Around the ancient track march’d, rank on rank,

The army of unalterable law.

(1883)

This is a particularly masterful sonnet, in my humble opinion, in both its content and the use of its form. I was particularly struck in the transcription of it by the number of end-stopped lines–especially the ones where a single line is also a single sentence–this, for me, helps convey the sense of disenchantment so powerfully present in the language. It verges almost upon the boring, the desultory. Everything is contained and measured, and “unalterable law” is as much a matter of meter and structure as it is of those epic geological forces that come to replace God’s providence in our narrative of Victorian thought. It’s not so much that the struggle naught availeth, contra Clough, but more that the struggle itself was just one manifestation of a different time, something to be looked back upon from an almost Hegelian historical distance, memories of Milton and Romanticism, and how quaint indeed these echoed questions of being of the devil’s party. Lucifer, in the old mythologies, was a star himself once. Now even his fans don’t do much for him.

Reading this, I’m reminded of that thing that Kant says about the two things that fill him with wonder: “the starry sky above us and the moral law within us.” “Awe” (as in “the memory of the old revolt from”) is sometimes used as a figure for the sublime as well as for God himself. Is it possible, then, that the memory here is not simply that of the epic battles of good and evil (decided in advance, though only according to another set of laws) but also of awe itself, of the sublime, of wonder? For Meredith writes of the stars as the “brain of heaven”–a jarring, striking, clinical-seeming image. Something vast but mappable: a game of connect the dots that is infinite only because we’re better at spurious connections than intrinsic ones. Ever-expanding, but also ever dying.

Yes, these are reflections of the “middle height”: a mediocrity that passes, in these times (though I’m not speaking historically here, necessarily) for an apex, a zenith. In the old days–or so it seemed, we thought–he flew much higher, burned much more brightly before he sank.

And it’s possible, of course, that I’m projecting too much of my own world-weariness onto these fourteen lines. We could see this all, certainly, as simply another iteration of a detente between rationalism and religion–in a world where the hand of God has become more difficult to see, we still need not worry about the old demons–they are here, but the laws that bind them to defeat are more stable, more unalterable, than the myths by which we used to contain them. “Brain” will triumph, even if we no longer call it Providence or Love. It’s not so bad. It’s just that–it’s this formalist itch again–something about doing this in a mostly end-stopped sonnet that makes me feel like it’s not just projection. What still moves in all of this is the dark shadow, the “huge bulk” of Lucifer himself–and it moves more fleetingly, more powerfully, than the forced march below or the intelligent pulses above. Yet, in this movement, it doesn’t seem entirely malignant anymore, possibly because Lucifer, in leaving the sleeping sinners alone, has perhaps learned to pick his battles more carefully–no longer subject to this one “hot fit of pride,” now itself passed on?

…but what does it mean for us if the Awe (revolted against and otherwise) is a memory that only Lucifer has?

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