Swiss Cows and an English Poet: Empathic Nostalgia in a Sonnet of Wordsworth's

Article excerpt

The traditional Swiss cowherds' melody called the "Ranz des Vaches" has been famous for centuries for its uncanny ability to evoke extreme nostalgia. This paper analyzes a sonnet of Wordsworth's about his encounter with the "Ranz" in Switzerland in 1820. It examines both the statement and the poetic functioning of the sonnet, comparing it to Wordsworth's better known "The Solitary Reaper." The sonnet, I argue, reveals something of the mechanism by which we manage to identify with and empathize with the Other, even while hinting at the inherent limitations of that mechanism. The paper proposes, in passing, an explanation of the mysterious evocativeness of the "Ranz des Vaches," and also asks whether Wordsworth's sonnet, which has been criticized as particularly unevocative, might not require a special kind of reading, grounded in that very mechanism for relating to the Other that is the theme of the poem.

keywords:Wordsworth, "Ranz des Vaches," identification, the Other, poetry

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2008_melnick01.shtml

When my Texan friend speaks to me about her state's special relation to its cattle, I, as a recently naturalized Swiss, feel a compulsion to deny that any people can be more attached to its bovines than we are to ours. I explain that no one, except perhaps the national soccer team, knows the words to the Swiss national anthem-that in fact Switzerland had no national anthem until the 1960's-but that every Swiss knows a centuries old cowherders' song called the "Ranz des Vaches."[1] The "Ranz des Vaches," which was used to call the cows in for milking, is quintessential nostalgia. Even today it brings tears to the eyes of Swiss bankers, and in the eighteenth century there was a legend that it was forbidden to play or sing the "Ranz des Vaches" among Swiss soldiers serving abroad, because if they should hear it, they would be overcome with incurable homesickness-they would break down in tears, or they would desert, or else they would just waste away and die.

That story was publicized by Rousseau in his Dictionnaire de musique (1767/1995, p. 924), which was very widely read, with the result that during the Romantic era the legend about the "Ranz des Vaches" was known throughout Europe. Wordsworth refers to it in a footnote to Descriptive Sketches (1793/1984, note to line 63, p. 100), and it underlies the sonnet about the "Ranz des Vaches" that he published in his 1822 collection Memorials of a Tour on the Continent. Since that sonnet is not well known, I'll reprint it here:

On hearing the "ranz des vaches" on the top of the pass of St. Gothard

I LISTEN-but no faculty of mine

Avails those modulations to detect,

Which, heard in foreign lands, the Swiss affect

With tenderest passion; leaving him to pine

(So fame reports) and die; his sweet-breathed kine

Remembering, and green Alpine pastures deck'd

With vernal flowers. Yet may we not reject

The tale as fabulous.-Here while I recline,

Mindful how others by this simple Strain

Are moved, for me-upon this Mountain named

Of God himself from dread pre-eminence

Aspiring thoughts by memory reclaimed

Yield to the Music's touching influence,

And joys of distant home my heart enchain. (1822/2004, p. 374)[2]

This paper will examine how Wordsworth's poem creates its effect-or, perhaps more accurately, fails to create its effect. But first, in order to make my argument perfectly clear, I need to state a few obvious things about the poem. One has to do with the poem's statement. Wordsworth is in the Swiss Alps, expecting to be moved by a melody that is reputed to have an extraordinarily powerful effect upon the Swiss. But he is not moved-not until, by wishing to be moved and especially, by being intensely conscious of how others are moved by the music, he puts himself into a state where the music finally has its effect. …