Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Wordsworth's "Away, Away, It Is the Air": A Textual, Intertextual, and Contextual Reading

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Wordsworth's "Away, Away, It Is the Air": A Textual, Intertextual, and Contextual Reading

Article excerpt

"AWAY, AWAY, IT IS THE AIR" IS A SINGULAR, UNNERVING, AND ODDLY neglected fragment. It was written at Alfoxden, and the Cornell editors, James Butler and Karen Green, date it as probably penned between March 19 and April 20 1798, though Mark Reed has suggested that it could have been written between the latter date and "c May 16 or shortly after" (1):

   Away, away, it is the air
   That stirs among the wither'd leaves;
   Away, away, it is not there,
   Go hunt among the harvest sheaves,
   There is a bed in shape as plain
   As form of hare or lion's lare;
   It is the bed where we have lain
   In anguish and despair.

   Away, and take the eagle's eyes,
   The tyger's smell,
   Ears that can hear the agonies
   And murmurings of hell;
   And when you there have stood
   By that same bed of pain--
   The groans are gone, the tears remain--
   Then tell me if the thing be clear,
   The difference betwixt a tear
   Of water and of blood.

The lines are all the more disconcerting for being so unlike Wordsworth in content and mode. Mary Moorman remarked that they "contain a note of genuine though gloomy passion," and critics have tended to avoid construing them, or else to take them as inviting unusually direct and summary, even dismissive, biographical or textual readings. Moorman suggests that "they are perhaps a reminiscence of his last unhappy days with Annette, " (2) and Duncan Wu notes that "[t]his fragmentary piece is widely thought to be associated with 'The Thorn.'" (3)

But despite such speculations the question returns: how we are to respond to the delivery and content of these urgent, mysterious lines? Certainly, the tone is arresting ("masterful and lordly" Kenneth R. Johnston calls it), (4) and it admits no opposition. The speaker is one who seeks to unburden himself of images that are shameful, rending, and destructive. Yet what kind of speaker exactly, and who is he button-holing? Is the poem put together as a private monologue of exasperated despair, the self-directed words of someone consumed by guilt or anger? Or does the declamatory tone of the speaker imply more an accursed figure, someone like the ancient mariner or Rivers in The Borderers, who craves an interlocutor, perhaps to alleviate, even transfer, his own suffering ("Away, and take the eagle's eyes / The tyger's smell")? Or are the words like those of someone in a dream, desperately unfolding for us a rebus whose code we cannot construe, for all his crazed insistence?

Equally unsettling is the poem's mis-en-scene: redirecting the addressee from a place of withered leaves to a shared bed amid the harvest sheaves ("where we have lain / In anguish and despair"). Moreover, all the more confusingly this (presumably English or French) setting is figuratively associated with the predations of mostly foreign species--tyger, eagle and lion--and described in ways that veer between the graphically everyday (harvest fields), and the cryptic or visionary (tears of blood, tyger, lion). Further, the poem is itself formally unsettled in mode. It is an unfinished fragment, but it is by no means unformed as poetry. The schematic deployment of rhymes and half-rhymes and the relentless anaphoric effects conspire to give a pointed intensity to the climactic question ("Then tell me if the thing be clear, / The difference betwixt a tear / Of water and of blood"). Taking these features together, it is small wonder that Moorman called the lines "strange, " (5) and that Ernest de Selincourt termed the piece "a curious survival" from the "more crudely 'romantic' taste" of Wordsworth's earliest writings. (6) Presumably, he had in mind "The Vale of Esthwaite," and the many overwrought, tragical yet jumbled, fragments from Wordsworth's adolescence that share this irreducible fervor and aura of derangement, by turns visionary, elliptical, and mundane.

This article probes such questions and contexts, as well as the language of the poem itself. …

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