Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Scandinavia at Solstice

Longest day of the year - and all the longer in sub-polar Scandinavia. It is a chilly day in London, so we shall indulge in a nice chunk of pre-Romantic sun-worship. (It's also the shortest day of the year Down Under, so it's fitting that I've been exchanging flattery with Australian amateur Vicki Parslow Stafford, the caped crusader of genealogy, who, as we saw yesterday, discovered the paternity of one of Mary Wollstonecraft's lost daughters.)

But first, context: Mary travelled in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, from June to September 1795, as an agent of Gilbert Imlay, who had mislaid a silver treasure ship. In the letter charging her with this quest, he describes her as his "wife and best friend". Hollow laughter, as Mary undertook her Scandinavian journey between Imlay-inspired suicide attempts. She took heart-break seriously: his infidelity was the betrayal of ideals. On returning to London from France with their baby daughter, she found the man she regarded as her husband shacked up with a woman of the stage; she took laudnum; he rescued her; she offered to prove her devotion; he packed her off to foreign parts. On returning from Scandinavia, she found him still unfaithful, and jumped off Putney Bridge. So I guess all that sublime northern nature wasn't quite enough to reconcile her to her love-torn fate.

What we need is something of the sublime. Mary encounters, alone and alert, a night at high latitude:

Midnight was coming on, yet it might with such propriety have been termed the noon of night that, had Young ever travelled towards the north, I should not have wondered at his becoming enamoured of the moon.  But it is not the Queen of Night alone who reigns here in all her splendour, though the sun, loitering just below the horizon, decks her within a golden tinge from his car, illuminating the cliffs that hide him; the heavens also, of a clear softened blue, throw her forward, and the evening star appears a smaller moon to the naked eye.  The huge shadows of the rocks, fringed with firs, concentrating the views without darkening them, excited that tender melancholy which, sublimating the imagination, exalts rather than depresses the mind.
My companions fell asleep—fortunately they did not snore; and I contemplated, fearless of idle questions, a night such as I had never before seen or felt, to charm the senses, and calm the heart.  The very air was balmy as it freshened into morn, producing the most voluptuous sensations.  A vague pleasurable sentiment absorbed me, as I opened my bosom to the embraces of nature; and my soul rose to its Author, with the chirping of the solitary birds, which began to feel, rather than see, advancing day.  I had leisure to mark its progress.  The grey morn, streaked with silvery rays, ushered in the orient beams (how beautifully varying into purple!), yet I was sorry to lose the soft watery clouds which preceded them, exciting a kind of expectation that made me almost afraid to breathe, lest I should break the charm.  I saw the sun—and sighed.

("Young" must be Edward Young (1681-1765), the poet identified by Barbara Taylor as a source "for her 'romantic' themes". Young was best known for his long poem ''Night Thoughts'', more correctly entitled The Complaint: or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality, a title guaranteed to set any intellectual depressive musing. It was re-issued in 1795, with illustrations commissioned from William Blake, who a couple of years earlier had tackled MW's Original Stories from Real Life.)

So, as the "glorious luminary" reaches its zenith in the northern hemisphere, and high summer rolls on before us, we leave Mary to the composing of another of her  Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

Photo of sunrise (albeit not in Norway) by Fabolu (selbst aufgenommen von Fabolu) 
[GFDL 1.2 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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