Monday, April 04, 2016

Charles Kingsley, Andromeda (1852)

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Online text of Andromeda

I'm not writing this in order to commend Kingsley's poem, but just because it's fresh in my mind and hopefully someone else will one day want to compare notes. I don't think it's even a quarter as interesting as The Saint's Tragedy, and it eminently deserves the understated dressing-down that it gets in Adrienne Auslander Munich's Andromeda's Chains: Gender and Interpretation in Victorian Literature and Art (Columbia University Press, 1989).

Munich observes that the Andromeda legend appealed to a number of high Victorian worthies. One of the other principal presences in her book is the artist William Etty (1787 - 1849), who painted Andromeda several times. Some of his other efforts are more exciting than the one I've chosen, but this one's interesting because of the bizarre disparity in size between the heroine and her approaching rescuer. (If you think Andromeda seems rather indifferent to the action unfolding behind her, this is no doubt to prevent her catching a fatal glimpse of the Gorgon's head.) In Kingsley's poem too the manly hero tends to be envisaged as something rather small, like a black-browed osprey*, or a swallow haunting the house-eaves, or a bee roving at will.

On the other hand the imaginative centre of the poem is Andromeda's naked body in the chains: brass chains, Kingsley specifies; the softness of that body, drenched by sea-spray.

   There they set Andromeden, most beautiful, shaped like a goddess,
   Lifting her long white arms wide-spread to the walls of the basalt,
   Chaining them, ruthless, with brass...

   See, I embrace thy knees—soft knees, where no babe will be fondled...

   Dazzling it fell; and the blade, as the vine-hook shears off the vine-bough,
   Carved through the strength of the brass, till her arms fell soft on his shoulder.
   Once she essayed to escape: but the ring of the water was round her,..

                                                           as her neck, like a storm-bent lily,
   Drooped with the weight of her woe, and her limbs sank, weary with watching,
   Soft on the hard-ledged rock

Ah, that yielding helplessness. Perseus exults:

   Coward and shameless were he, who so finding a glorious jewel
   Cast on the wayside by fools, would not win it and keep it and wear it,
   Even as I will thee ....

In proper matrimony, of course. This is Kingsley after all.

   ...longing, and rapture, and chaste content in espousals.

In contrast with the flashing avian similes that describe Perseus, Andromeda is compared to a much more solid animal:

      Just as at first some colt, wild-eyed, with quivering nostril,
   Plunges in fear of the curb, and the fluttering robes of the rider;
   Soon, grown bold by despair, submits to the will of the master,
   Tamer and tamer each hour, and at last, in the pride of obedience,
   Answers the heel with a curvet, and arches his neck to be fondled,
   Cowed by the need that maid grew tame; while the hero indignant
   Tore at the fetters which held her...

There's a certain appropriateness in the bridal gift that Athene puts on Andromeda's neck:

                                       .... and over her shoulders a necklace,
   Heavy, enamelled, the flower of the gold and the brass of the mountain.

Kingsley's poem is a self-conscious exercise in the Homeric style, which sometimes lights up. I particularly like the pseudo-oral re-use of one whole line:

   Coral and sea-fan and tangle, the blooms and the palms of the ocean.

The first time the line appears is when describing the midnight gambols of the sea-nymphs seen by Andromeda. The second time is when describing the fringe of a veil woven by Athene.

Its effect is to make us pause and reflect on what the poem could have been, if it had been more concerted in its realization of a Homeric space, and less concerted in its effort to shape a parable.


* He's right. Ospreys do have black brows.

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