Monday, May 18, 2020

The Whole World's Heart Is Uplifted

In Guernsey
To Theodore Watts
by Algernon Charles Swinburne

I. The heavenly bay, ringed round with cliffs and moors,
Storm-stained ravines, and crags that lawns inlay,
Soothes as with love the rocks whose guard secures
⁠The heavenly bay.

O friend, shall time take ever this away,
This blessing given of beauty that endures,
This glory shown us, not to pass but stay?

Though sight be changed for memory, love ensures
What memory, changed by love to sight, would say—
The word that seals for ever mine and yours
⁠The heavenly bay.

II. My mother sea, my fostress, what new strand,
What new delight of waters, may this be,
The fairest found since time's first breezes fanned
⁠My mother sea?

Once more I give me body and soul to thee,
Who hast my soul for ever: cliff and sand
Recede, and heart to heart once more are we.

My heart springs first and plunges, ere my hand
Strike out from shore: more close it brings to me,
More near and dear than seems my fatherland,
⁠My mother sea.

III. Across and along, as the bay's breadth opens, and o'er us
Wild autumn exults in the wind, swift rapture and strong
Impels us, and broader the wide waves brighten before us
⁠Across and along.

The whole world's heart is uplifted, and knows not wrong;
The whole world's life is a chant to the sea-tide's chorus;
Are we not as waves of the water, as notes of the song?

Like children unworn of the passions and toils that wore us,
We breast for a season the breadth of the seas that throng,
Rejoicing as they, to be borne as of old they bore us
⁠Across and along.

IV. On Dante's track by some funereal spell
Drawn down through desperate ways that lead not back
We seem to move, bound forth past flood and fell
⁠On Dante's track.

The grey path ends: the gaunt rocks gape: the black
Deep hollow tortuous night, a soundless shell,
Glares darkness: are the fires of old grown slack?

Nay, then, what flames are these that leap and swell
As 'twere to show, where earth's foundations crack,
The secrets of the sepulchres of hell
⁠On Dante's track?

V. By mere men's hands the flame was lit, we know,
From heaps of dry waste whin and casual brands:
Yet, knowing, we scarce believe it kindled so
⁠By mere men's hands.

Above, around, high-vaulted hell expands,
Steep, dense, a labyrinth walled and roofed with woe,
Whose mysteries even itself not understands.

The scorn in Farinata's eyes aglow
Seems visible in this flame: there Geryon stands:
No stage of earth's is here, set forth to show
⁠By mere men's hands.

VI. Night, in utmost noon forlorn and strong, with heart athirst and fasting,
Hungers here, barred up for ever, whence as one whom dreams affright
Day recoils before the low-browed lintel threatening doom and casting

All the reefs and islands, all the lawns and highlands, clothed with light,
Laugh for love's sake in their sleep outside: but here the night speaks, blasting
Day with silent speech and scorn of all things known from depth to height.

Lower than dive the thoughts of spirit-stricken fear in souls forecasting
Hell, the deep void seems to yawn beyond fear's reach, and higher than sight
Rise the walls and roofs that compass it about with everlasting

VII. The house accurst, with cursing sealed and signed,
Heeds not what storms about it burn and burst:
No fear more fearful than its own may find
⁠The house accurst.

Barren as crime, anhungered and athirst,
Blank miles of moor sweep inland, sere and blind,
Where summer's best rebukes not winter's worst.

The low bleak tower with nought save wastes behind
Stares down the abyss whereon chance reared and nursed
This type and likeness of the accurst man's mind,
⁠The house accurst.

VIII. Beloved and blest, lit warm with love and fame,
The house that had the light of the earth for guest
Hears for his name's sake all men hail its name
⁠Beloved and blest.

This eyrie was the homeless eagle's nest
When storm laid waste his eyrie: hence he came
Again, when storm smote sore his mother's breast.

Bow down men bade us, or be clothed with blame
And mocked for madness: worst, they sware, was best:
But grief shone here, while joy was one with shame,
⁠Beloved and blest.

The island of Guernsey is one of the three jurisdictions of the Bailiwick of Guernsey in the Channel Islands, the other two being Sark and Alderney. Its Latin name was Sarnia, and its capital is St. Peter Port. As a Crown dependency with its own government -- in Guernsey the government is called the States of Guernsey -- it is not part of the United Kingdom but only associated with it, and operates with a mix of English and Norman law under Queen Elizabeth II as Duke of Normandy (although she governs as Queen and not as Duke). Historically, its most famous resident was Victor Hugo.

When Napoleon III seized power in 1851, Hugo, who was very active in politics at the time, denounced him as a traitor to France. This was obviously not a safe position. He fled to Brussels, then Jersey, but was expelled from Jersey due to his inability to avoid getting involved in the local politics; so he came to Guernsey, settling at what has since become known as Hauteville House (which is currently owned and held as a consulate by the City of Paris). He bought the house because in Guernsey, under Norman law, no one who held property could be deported. It was there that Les Misérables was written.

Swinburne corresponded with Hugo several times while Hugo was resident on the island; he also visited the island, but, I think, could not do so at a time when Hugo was there. The eighth canto of this rondel is, of course, about Hugo and Hauteville House. Swinburne liked swimming in Channel waters, which we see expressed in the poem above. Because Guernsey is a major island of the Channel Islands, it has very often been fortified, and there are old defensive fortifications, including towers, throughout the landscape.

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