“To Me In My Unworthiness”: Lampman’s Precarious “Reverse-Impressionism”

“To Me In My Unworthiness”:
Lampman’s Precarious “Reverse-Impressionism”

Archibald Lampman was a poet of the “self-in-nature” in the Wordsworthian tradition and his oeuvre is wracked by the familiar Romantic tension between gnosis and agnosticism; however, in his 1894-95 poems addressed to Kate Waddell, Lampman achieved a temporary release from this wheel of subjectivity through the development of a technique that can best be described as a form of “reverse-impressionism”. Early in his career, the poet occupied himself with the task of polishing the “colored and distorting” lens of perception—a process that culminated in the composition of “Heat”. Lampman’s subsequent work manifests a growing preoccupation with the numinous sheen of countervailing subjectivity that his phenomenological aesthetic brings to light in spite of itself. In the poems “to Kate”, the smitten lover makes far better use of this terrifying Otherness than his Romantic predecessors, the majority of whom would simply have noted a passing sense of alienation and moved on in search of the next pantheistic high or nihilistic low. Lampman, by contrast, transcends the loneliness implicit in the impressionist’s epistemological position by reifying himself. He records the effect that he has upon an alien mind that he intuits in the Other—giving us, in effect, an impression’s impression. Unfortunately, in the later poems “To Kate” this unselfconscious consciousness of Self in a world of other Selves is sacrificed to the dictates of a renewed (and increasingly pessimistic) monism.

Anne Compton was the first to make the case for Lampman as a thoroughgoing literary Impressionist, and, at least insofar as his nature poetry is considered, her claim is indisputable. As Compton notes, Lampman himself, in his critical writing, championed a poetics of “[rendering] the pure and absolute impression produced by the phenomena of material nature, and the movement and emotion of human life” (Selected Prose, 88-89). Lampman was somewhat ahead of the curve in his adherence to this idea—certainly, his aesthetic differs drastically from the more openly Idealist poetry, derived from Emersonian and Whitman, in vogue amongst his North American contemporaries, exemplified by the work of Bliss Carman.

Maria Elisabeth Kronegger traces the origins of literary impressionism to Gustave Flaubert, who presents the impressions of his protagonists without “intruding upon their world”. His impassivity and impersonality reach their greatest density in L’Education Sentimentale of 1869. The events are seen from different centers of consciousness: the protagonists assume the functions of “reflectors” or “mirrors”. They see those details which are most striking from their angle of vision. It shifts, however, according to the density of light which influences their sight. The author identifies with the illusions of the protagonists, and, ironically, the distinction between author and protagonist, between illusion and reality disappears(15).

In American fiction, Henry James began his slow march toward full-blown impressionism with the publication of Roderick Hudson in the 1870’s; and, in fact, though it is seldom recognized, there are many impressionist passages in the novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne, most notably The Blithedale Romance (1852). However, Lampman’s work predates that of Stephen Crane, Arthur Symons, and Lionel Johnson, the generally-acknowledged trailblazers of poetic impressionism in the English-speaking world.

Compton traces Lampman’s impressionism in part to an impetus derived from advances made during his lifetime in the visual arts. However, in light of the fact that the poet’s entree into painterly circles (through the agency of Hamlin Garland) came about largely as a result of the impresario’s enthusiasm for “Heat”, Compton is forced to conclude that Lampman “came to [his particular poetic theory] on his own” (39). In view of this, it is perhaps instructive to bear James Stowell’s global explanation for the rise of the movement in mind:

Literary impressionism sprang from neither theoretical constructs nor rigid ideology, but from reactions to the shifting intellectual and social currents of the age. . . . [the] stylistic qualities [that characterize the works of impressionist writers] emerged from the realization that since they lived in a prismatically impressionistic world, they must recreate that world of individualized sensory perception, epistemological indeterminacy, relativism, ambiguity, fragmentation, and surface. . . they wrote of a need to survive in this “supersensual multiverse” by having enough faith in their expanding powers of inductive perception to navigate the shoals of the unseen and unknowable (15-16).

In fact, an impressionist approach to the world had been implicit in romantic poetics since Keats’ letter of 27 October 1818:

… as to the poetical character itself. . . it is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and it is nothing—it has no character—it enjoys life and shade—it lives in gusto—be it fair or foul, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated. . . . When I am in a room with people, if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of everyone in the room begins so to press upon me, that I am, in a very little time, annihilated…(Wu, 1042)

If English Romantics and American Transcendentalists were largely incapable of freeing themselves from “speculating on creations of [their] own brain[s]”, Lampman was quite successful in this endeavor. In his evaluation of Keats, the young Canadian poet focused upon precisely this aspect of his legacy:

The instinct of Keats’ imagination was to merge itself in the nature of the thing he was considering. Wordsworth’s to endow the object of his reflection with his own individuality. . . . As a personality [Shakespeare} is scarcely less shadowy than Homer. The genius of Keats was of the same assimilative quality (Essays and Reviews of Archibald Lampman, 163).

Lampman’s “Heat” fulfills, to some extent, the impressionist promise of this Keatsian doctrine. As Compton notes, the poem, through the agency of “heat and its effects” (42) achieves a remarkable fusion of content and form, subject and object. However, Lampman’s more Wordsworthian epiphany in the final stanza:

In the full furnace of this hour
My thoughts grow keen and clear
(Collected Poems, 78)

indicates that, even amidst this impressionist swirl, the poet could not help imposing a speculative frame. Desmond Pacey interprets the poem as an affirmation of the essential unity of the world:

[Lampman] has become aware of both the full sharpness and the full sweetness of life and of them both at once and as necessary complements of each other. The same applies to all the pairs of opposites in the poem; wetness and dryness, heat and cold, light and dark, near and far, fast and slow…(Gnarowski, 183).

Perhaps this indicates that the Keatsian and Wordsworthian poetic ideals are less irreconcilable than is generally thought. Certainly, in both cases, the goal is “oneness”. Keats would merge the self into the world. Wordsworth would merge the world into the self. Success in either venture does not necessarily lead to a “happy” result. In fact, though it may be in a romantic poet’s nature to seek unity with the world, that unity, once achieved, can seem barren and lifeless.

Compton asserts that “there is something appallingly lonely in the individual testament—whether in poem or painting—of the single passing moment. The impression is always a lonely affair” (42). This may explain why Lampman’s nature poetry becomes increasingly gloomy in the years that followed the composition of his greatest impressionist work. This is not, as Richard Arnold assumes, the dawning of a new skepticism that “sees nature in a more complex light than did Emerson”(41), but rather the bitter fruit of a too-lush impressionism that has overgrown the plane of reality and deprived itself of the essential Otherness necessary to sustain its faith and roots. As Emerson wrote in “Circles”: “I am God in nature. I am a weed by the wall” (280). The accomplished impressionist is both of these things.

Emerson himself recognized this on a visceral level, and his understanding of the consequences of a radically subjective outlook haunts all of his best work. Unfortunately, virtually none of Emerson’s poems fit into this category. “Days”, written in 1857, is the exception to this rule, and extremely pertinent to any discussion of Lampman’s development after “Heat”:

Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days
Muffled and Dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky that holds them all.
I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
Turned and departed silent. I, too late,
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.

The first half of the poem is comparatively straightforward: it describes the Romantic riches to be gained by mastering Time, though the fact that the Days are “muffled and dumb”, rather than “Sublime” or “untamable” immediately sounds a problematic note. The speaker, watching the procession from his “pleached garden”, is a strangely passive/Keatsian/impressionistic intruder in the Emersonian realm of omnipotence. An uncharacteristic sense of limitation is palpable in the lines: “forgot my morning wishes, hastily/ took a few herbs and apples”. Can a “transparent eyeball” be rushed? In this poem, Emerson’s persona may “see all”, but he is not “part or parcel of God” (6); nor is he “nothing”, at least not in the pantheistic sense that he had been in Nature. One hears Harold Bloom’s rhetoric of gnostic “belatedness” in the line “I, too late”; but is the “scorn” he “sees” under the Day’s “solemn fillet” the Abyss? Or is the passage a quiet admission that Emerson, in all of his phases, from his ascent into “the sky that holds them all” to his glimpse of Time’s scorn, has never confronted the Abyss; for how can one see anything underneath a “solemn fillet”? It is as if the scorn emanates from the garment itself—a stand-in for the world the impressionist seeks to describe phenomenologically—or rather is projected there by the subjective “I”, sensitized, at last, to the mocking unreality of the “solemn fillet”, an ersatz Sublime that can never be anything but a snare for the impressionist’s ego. Perhaps this explains why the poem communicates a sense that its speaker wishes not to see beneath the fillet, but to be in that privileged position; and the final line-break leaves open that possibility, leaving out the “I”.

Lampman’s “Personality” (1893) expresses a comparable desire to experience the subjectivity of the object:

O differing human heart,
Why is it that I tremble when thine eyes,
Thy human eyes and beautiful human speech,
Draw me, and stir within my soul
That subtle and ineradicable longing
For tender comradeship?
Is it because I cannot all at once,
Through the half-lights and phantom-haunted mists
That separate and enshroud us life from life,
Discern the nearness and the strangeness of thy paths,
Nor plumb thy depths.
I am like one that comes alone at night
To a strange stream, and by an unknown ford
Stands, and for a moment yearns and shrinks,
Being ignorant of the water, though so quiet it is,
So softly murmurous,
So silvered by the familiar moon.
(LOE, 264)

Here the poet concedes that the impressionist’s quest is doomed by its own contradictions. In order to convey the most precise impression of external reality, the subject must aim to merge itself with the object. However, even if this merger were possible, it would still fail to produce the desired effect, because without a “differing” other, there can be no “comradeship” between the perceiver and the perceived. In a sense, the ultimate impressionist is the poet laid to rest within the earth. Of course, this theoretical poet would no longer have the power to convey any of his/her impressions, and so we can truly describe this aesthetic as stillborn. The figure of the dead poet is the point of congruence between late decadence and early modernism: Swinburne, Symons, Pound, and Eliot all make use of this trope—to the former pair it represents something like a goal; to the modernists it became the convenient site of a mythical rebirth into culture.

“Personality” gestures toward this morbid conundrum, but is primarily concerned with a more existential question, posed succinctly by Emerson, in Experience: “perhaps [the impressionist’s] subject-lenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects” (359). Just as Emerson, in Nature, must cultivate a blindness to his own subjectivity in order to feel a kinship to the universe, so Lampman worries that his only access to the “softly murmurous” essence of a “differing human heart” is to “silver it” with light from the “familiar moon” of his intellect. The fear that grips him when he confronts “human eyes and beautiful human speech” is two-fold: he is disturbed by the realization that he can never “discern the nearness and the strangeness of [the other’s] paths” nor “plumb [its] depths”, but he is even more disconcerted by the possibility that the “half-lights and phantom-haunted mists/ That separate and enshroud us life from life” are in reality a light-show that he, like a bored God generating his own demonic opposition, has designed to keep himself occupied. Rather than jump to the terribly lonely conclusion of the subject’s omnipotence, the Lampman of “Personality” chooses to believe that the “strange stream” upon whose shore he “yearns and shrinks” is actually there. Unfortunately, once entertained, the “noble doubt” is not easily discarded, and a poet so afflicted will require a constant reassurance of the world’s reality. Lampman’s counterintuitive solution to this dilemma, in the lines addressed ”To Kate”, was to posit a countervailing subjectivity beneath the veil of otherness and to sculpt poems out of the reified impression of himself that this hypothetical mind might possibly record.

In “Spirit of the Shining Eyes” (1893) the poet heralds his discovery of an object that can bear the freight of his “reverse-impressionist” ambitions:

Spirit of the shining eyes
Whom we question for a sign
Waiting on thy grand replies
And that smile, austere, divine

Spirit of the shining eyes,
Still the hearts of men are glad
And thy marching banner flies
O’er a tenser myriad. (29)

Here Lampman’s “ontological sonar waves” strike “essence”—or, at the very least, something so much like the thing-in-itself that he is ready to believe in its substantiality—and he resolves to wait “on [her] grand repl[y]”: waiting to be objectified in turn by the “spirit” behind the “shining eyes” that have so impressed themselves upon his mind.

“She…A Fragment” (1895) is a fairly standard compendium of love-talk, but it plays a crucial role in grounding the “reverse-impressionist” project:

Makes all my blood and all my spirit stir
Whose lips are sweeter than my thoughts of her
Whose little bosom is more soft to me
Than any other even in my dreams could be
Whose touch is but the warm awakening…(38)

Lampman must be able to believe that the object of these lines could not be met with in his dreams, or even be a “dream come true”, because that would rob him of the assurance that “she” is a separate being, possessing a subjectivity independent of his own. It is necessary that this love be an “awakening”, and not an awakening to an ideal world either, but to the world of blood and bosoms. Lampman craves a rude awakening, such as the one presented in “Poem” (1896):

Why so coldly, so damnably
Never look, nor speak?
Dearest, you can trust me surely,
For my pain is meek.

Overmuch I love and fear you
To be madly free.
Just to see you, just to hear you,
Is enough for me(40).

Margaret Coulby Whitridge notes the heavily renunciatory tone of Lampman’s poems “to Kate” (McMullen, 9-17); but, at least in the poems before 1896, this has nothing to do with self-pity or with stoicism. It is essential (in the poet’s epistemological scheme) that no ideal union take place between the two lovers—this would be tantamount to the union of the subject and the object. Lampman surely did not relish the separation from his beloved necessitated by both his aesthetic and his ethical principles (he was, after all, married throughout the course of his love-obsession with Kate Waddell), but he doubtless preferred it to the obliteration of the object herself. All of this torturous reasoning and romancing did bear self-reified fruit. Lampman never published these poems, and when they did see print in 1975, the collection was given the title Lampman’s Kate: Late Love Poems of Archibald Lampman, 1887-1897 by its editor, Margaret Coulby Whitridge; but it might more appropriately have been named after one of the items contained within its pages: “To Me In My Unworthiness”.

Whitridge’s assessment of the poems, in the introduction to this thin volume and in her contribution to the Lampman Symposium, dwells upon the fact of this “love that could not be” without considering the uses to which such loves can be put by an opportunistic creator. In “Would You Care?” (1895), Lampman explains to Kate that his “spirit…is in very truth/ The Shadow of [her] grace” (37). He exults that her image is “in its servant’s sight/ Forever beautiful and pure,/ At every hour, by day, by night/ A sleepless lure—“. In his quest to gain a fix on this “sleepless lure”, the persona somehow passes through the subject-object divide, taking on her point of view, which is independent of his own, without deploying the wrecking-ball of monism:

Ah, couldst thou know this and descry
The sorrow and the dull despair,
Wouldst thou but smile and pass me by
Or wouldst thou care?

Here Lampman refuses to embrace the pathetic fallacy. When he imagines himself able to see what she sees, he knows she cannot see his torment. A deep chasm separates the two lovers, and she is no more able to cross it than he is—the bridge of a perfect Romantic correspondence is down. The best that can be salvaged is the knowledge that there are two sides.

“Essential Grace” presents the progression toward “reverse-impressionism” in microcosm:

They say in the world there are other women
Goodlier and more fair, perhaps, than you
More exquisite of stature, more alluring,
Of a splendour more divine to all men’s view.

Yet, Lady, in your speech and in your learning,
In the accent of your own peculiar grace,
There is something that for me—what is it?
Is like spirit to your spirit, face to face.

What beauty and what magic, what enchantment!
You possess me without willing heart and soul.
What subtlety of instinct, or what knowledge;
I am opened in your presence like a scroll.

Were the riches of a kingdom in my keeping,
Were I captor of all prizes strong and sweet,
Were I mightiest and wisest, I would reckon
All my treasures but as nothing at your feet.

Ah sweetest, be not chary of your graces,
Of your goodness that was bountiful erstwhile.
I know you in your essence as no other,
And I linger as no other for your smile. (34)

The poet spools language around an uncanny “something” that disorders his perceptions and levels the playing field between the subject and object. However, the result it is not unity. Lampman privileges an “eye-level aesthetic” here—“spirit to spirit”, “face to face”. Soon, instead of a neutral field of cognition, gathering impressions of the world, the poet is himself an “open scroll”—an object to be interpreted. In the final stanza, Lampman reverses the “God in nature” formula that began to trouble him in the late 1880’s. The world does not live in him—he subsists upon the world. The “essence” is not within him, it is always elsewhere. The once all-seeing eye now depends upon the gaze of another. There are clear echoes here of Calvinist theology: God is seen as absolutely Other and transcendent, but willing, in a few (always undeserving) cases, to make an exception by providing an incomprehensibly reassuring hint (“what is it?”) of the transcendent—ambushing the sinner with “Grace”. In this poem, Lampman’s persona needs Kate in order to prove that he is real.

The final two lines set the seal upon this epistemological revolution. He “knows [her] in [her] essence as no other” because he now knows her as a subject, rather than an object; and she now knows him (“I”) as a subject as well. Each is, simultaneously, a subject and an object—but the wires never cross, and the relationship remains operative. They become “others like no other” to each other, linked by their shared understanding of each other’s dual epistemological position, without ever partaking of the same essence. The fact that it is the poet who “lingers for [the] smile”, rather than the smile that lingers (as an impression) within the poet’s mind is perhaps the most startling feature of Lampman’s reversal. In “Man”, the poet’s reified self comes into focus:

I know that thou art of the world, O man,
And in thy moulding and ordaining breast abides,
Some glimmer of the insight that made the stars
A portion of the universal energy.
The shield of earth and of time and life,
A visible and aggressive, concrete form,
Thou hast strength, movement, will.
In thy sheer presence, therefore, I
Who have not either strength or will or movement,
Who am but a net of magical desires,
Of swift perceptions and uncaptained dreams—
A thing out of the ordered way of life,
Not marked nor portioned in the eternal chart—
Shrink, even as on a rhubarb leaf at noon
A globe of dew dissolves, and so become
The impalpable luminous dream mist that I am. (38)

Who is the persona of this poem? Lampman? Kate? I would contend that it is Lampman’s subjectivity (or “poetical nature”) divorced from his objective body; or, rather, it is Lampman’s subjectivity reflected off of Kate and redirected back upon himself. Lampman is both the subject and the object of this poem. Here is the true fulfillment of Keats’ doctrine. The poet is no longer condemned to be “the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures” (Wu, 1043)—at last he/she can simply be a person among other men and women, each of whom possesses a subjectivity of their own.

Strangely enough, “To Me In My Unworthiness”, despite the fact that it boasts the best possible title for a “reverse-impressionist” collection tinged by a Calvinist sensibility, manifests the first signs of a weakening of the poet’s will to sustain the project. Most of the poems “To Kate” written in 1896-97 show Lampman sinking ever more deeply into (as Melville would say) “Plato’s honeyed head”. He posits “the strangest likeness of the heart” (42) between himself and his beloved; more seriously, in “One Woman”, he declares that

Had Nature with her utmost art designed
To Fashion that one woman to my mind,
None other could her hand have shaped but you. (45)

With these magic words, Lampman reduces the population of his imagined community to one. He is once more a visionary doomed to wander through a sometimes beautiful, sometimes nightmarish world of his own creation. By accepting “Kate” as a “kindred spirit” and the “best” part of himself (50), Lampman eliminates the possibility of her own subjectivity from consideration. The subject is closed (off), and the drift of his impressionism reverses itself again.

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