Saturday, July 01, 2006

"high-embattled towers..."

Characteristic Battlements
(Towering over Wikipedia)

I keep thinking about Wilde's "high-embattled towers" and finally realized why ... but first a reminder by way of Wilde's poem:

To Milton (1881)
Oscar Wilde

Milton! I think thy spirit hath passed away
From these white cliffs and high-embattled towers;
This gorgeous fiery-coloured world of ours
Seems fallen into ashes dull and grey,
And the age changed unto a mimic play
Wherein we waste our else too-crowded hours:
For all our pomp and pageantry and powers
We are but fit to delve the common clay,
Seeing this little isle on which we stand,
This England, this sea-lion of the sea,
By ignorant demagogues is held in fee,
Who love her not: Dear God! is this the land
Which bare a triple empire in her hand
When Cromwell spake the word Democracy!

That was the poem, but what was my realization? That the towers are not "high, embattled towers" but "high-embattled towers." Isn't that rather obvious, you ask. Yes, and that's why I missed it. Too obvious.

Anyway, I realized that the towers are not high towers that happen to be embattled in the sense of being attacked but are towers that are high-embattled in the sense of having high battlements.

(Ah, the hype of a hyphen -- if I may dash this off parenthetically -- the punch of its punctuation, and the consideration of a comma.)

As we see from above, Wilde published this in 1881, ostensibly inspired by Milton, implicitly by Paradise Lost, but where did these "high-embattled towers" come from?

I find two possibilities. One possible source would be George Borrow's very popular book The Bible in Spain, first published in 1843, and which reportedly outsold the much-loved yuletide work by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, also published in 1843. Here is the specific passage, from Borrow's Chapter 29:
[W]e shaped our course to the north-west, and by so doing doubled a mountain which rose majestically over our heads, its top crowned with bare and broken rocks, whilst on our right, on the other side of a spacious valley, was a high range, connected with the mountains to the northward of Saint James. On the summit of this range rose high embattled towers, which my guide informed me were those of Altamira, an ancient and ruined castle, formerly the principal residence in this province of the counts of that name.
Borrow's subtitle -- "or the Journey, Adventures, and Imprisonment of an Englishman in an Attempt to Circulate the Scriptures in the Peninsula" -- lets you know that this isn't some run-of-the-mill evangelist's spiritually uplifting potboiler but a picaresque story in which distributing the Bible is as much excuse as motivation for the 'mission' trip.

The other possible source for Wilde's expression would be The Veils, by a certain 'Miss Porden,' or more usefully known as Eleanor Anne Porden, daughter of the architect William Porden and first wife of the arctic explorer John Franklin. She died of consumption in 1825, a mere decade after publishing her poem (1815). Here is the relevant passage, which comes near the beginning of the poem (specifically, line 37):
Warned by approaching night, with slackened rein
They urge their steeds some friendly roof to gain,
At length they reached the confines of the wood
Where, on a hill, an ancient Castle stood;
With high embattled towers, and turrets crown'd,
By massy walls enclosed, and moated round.
The subtitle -- "or The Triumph of Constancy. A Poem, in Six Books" -- forewarns you that this poem bears a message. Or does it? In her prefatory remarks, Miss Porden tells us of her inspiration: "A YOUNG lady, one of the members of a small society which meets periodically for literary amusement, lost her veil (by a gust of wind) as she was gathering shells on the coast of Norfolk. This incident gave rise to the following Poem...." This sounds almost like the inspiration for Pope's mock heroic Rape of the Lock, a title suggesting an odd image if one takes it too literally and misunderstands the term "lock." Is The Veil a mock romantic poem? The mocking Gnome of lines 25-26 who appears waving the "ravished veil" and mocking the tears of the "YOUNG lady" who lost it would seem to suggest parody. Anybody know?

Anyway, as for Wilde's source, I suppose that it could be either of these, or both, but I'm inclined to suggest The Veil since its "high embattled towers" occurs so early in the poem and is thus more likely to be noticed and remembered.

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At 8:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"high-embattled towers" once more.

Running through the poem is heraldic diction: pomp, pageantry,
sea-lion. The "high-embattled" introduces this theme. The term "embattled" could be any number of objects: halls in Oxford, churches, city walls. It implies an "up and down" pattern which architect's used to embellish buildings. But, as you point out, Wilde uses "high-embattled" to specify something ...and you have proved that the term was used to depict castles. If that is true, then Wilde is knowingly using "high-embattled" to identify a castle, not a church, not a city-wall, not an Oxford hall. He actually is doubly specific in line 2. "These white cliffs" are the White Cliffs of Dover, symbols of England's island fortress. And what exists at Dover? Dover Castle with its noticeable embattled towers? Think that is your answer.

At 10:14 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for that Eshuneutics. I hadn't thought quite so far into the poem as you have.

I wonder, though, if the "high-embattled towers" might not refer to the coastline of England, with its high, rough cliffs and broken crests, such that England itself constitutes the castle.

This wouldn't, of course, preclude a double reference, i.e., to Dover Castle and to England.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Dover coastline is gentle, undulating chalk, not really described by "embattled". Wilde, unlike Wordsworth, however, would not have bothered too much about Romantic niceties. I like your logic, which has a directness to it. Wilde liked his "-" and over-refined diction, so doubling the fortress image would not have concerned him too much. But there is another tantalising thought. Why Milton and Dover? Dover Castle is a key image in Milton's History of England. If you imagine the opening, you have to imagine Wilde at the Cliff Edge, Lear-like, throwing a wild "Milton!" prophetically across the sea. Wilde as Blake and mystical guru?
What a thought!

At 9:43 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I hadn't realized that Dover Cliffs were so regular at their crests. Still, as you note, Wilde may have been using ... um, a little 'poetic' license.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oscar used a lot of license in a lot of things.

At 9:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dover is not the ony place on the coast of England with white cliffs. Brighton Cliffs are a lot rougher than Dover, and they seem as likely a candidate for the model; but when you're up on them the Dover cliffs seem pretty rugged.
I suppose some biography of Wilde might give a clue as to his location when he wrote the poem, if anyone were interested to pursue it.

At 4:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course, we are forgetting a topic close to Gypsy Scholar's heart. The early 1881 poems (before any thing Brighton, Bosie and gay) were rejected by his alma mater for PLAGIARISM. The poem has probably more to do with what Wilde knew from words rather than ever saw.

At 9:59 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm constantly amazed at what people know. I'm not exactly ignorant (no false modesty here), but you two -- Ed and Eshuneutics -- have me beat!

Thanks for all of the fascinating comments.

As for Wilde ... plagiarism, eh? I suppose that from that experience, at least, he learned the importance of being honest.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, well put...chuckle!


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