Natural Descriptions After Trauma

Matt Chapelsky

Two closely related texts, one that we've studied in this class and one that we haven't, that handle natural description differently are Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and Lord Byron's "Manfred." Both of these texts' central characters have experienced trauma, and their portrayal of their environments reveal the effects that the events have left on them. While Coleridge's mariner is unable to consolidate his past and is relegated to constantly relive it, Byron's Manfred has protected himself from his unnamed vice by distancing himself from his feelings and environment. Obvious parallels exist between the poems, but what I found most striking was the way the narrator illustrates the events and how they result from their mode of handling the traumatic events.

The Mariner comes to terms with killing the albatross, and consequently killing his crewmates, by repeatedly voicing his guilt. His description of the souls passing him "like the whiz of [his] crossbow," (l 224) assumption that telling his tale to the hermit will "wash away/ The albatross' blood," (ll 512-13) and expression that "The pang, the curse, with which they died/ Had never passed away" (ll 438-39) shows how the mariner can never accept his actions and alleviate his guilt. I think that it's natural for people to want to come to terms with their past actions in order to better accept one's present state of self, which is why the mariner continually attempts to reconcile his past. The mariner is unable to accomplish this by telling others his story.

His descriptions of the story's retelling are affected by his lack of reconciliation. He projects himself into the landscape, often portraying negatively, and reveals how he mentally relates to his environment. The water, which he reveals as "still and awful red," (l 271) contrasts against the figures that he relates to, the sea snakes. This image accomplishes two things:

1) It tells the reader how he views himself, comparing himself to "a thousand thousand slimy things" (l 237).

2) And it shows how he views the outside world, as a corrupted, threatening environment.

These descriptions reflect the events well enough to determine that the mariner is attempting to accurately relive/retell the events. While making it sound as if it's for the benefit of those that he's telling, the arbitrariness of selecting the audience and the ambiguity of the story's message discredit the mariner's suggestion and imply that the stories' retelling is for the mariner's benefit.

Again, Coleridge's mariner and Byron's Manfred share in their experiences of trauma but differ in their attempts to overcome it. The psychological analogy that working through trauma mirrors the habituation of an event can explain this difference. By repeatedly attempting to experience the trauma, the mariner tries to "get use to" his past to reconcile with his emotions. Manfred has successfully completed this process. The downfall with habituation is that you eventually become desensitized to that stimuli and therefore lose a connection with the environment, which is exactly Manfred's situation.

The descriptions in Byron's text seem, largely, distant emotionally and physically. He doesn't attempt to revisit his trauma but instead never mentions what he had done in his past. This is because he has habituated from his past; his descriptions of nature are, therefore, influenced by his attempt to resolve his past trauma.

His description that "there is not form on earth/ Hideous or beautiful to me." (1.1 185-85) and that:

I have no dread
And feel the curse to have no natural fear,
Nor fluttering throb that bears with hope or wishes
Or lurking love of something on the earth. (1.1 24-27)

shows how Manfred has successfully numbed himself from the rest of the world in order to separate himself from his past and from himself. Habituation, as I suggested before, is characterized by the desensitization from stimuli with repeated exposures. Manfred has separated himself from not only previous experiences but from new ones as well.

In that aspect, Manfred is in a worse situation than the mariner, as Manfred is not working through to another level of acceptance. He will never become more integrated into the world as this progression is the best way that he knows how.

His descriptions of nature, mirror that of the way that he views life. According to another social psychologist, Alfred Bandura, the behaviour of individuals is most determined by the way that they view themselves and their environment. For me, this seems especially applicable for these two characters. The ways that they handle their past is influencing their recollection and their views on the present.

Manfred's desire for death is another example of how his description is based on his mental representation. This circumstance relates more closely to the present: how the individual is feeling at a particular point. This point may seem obvious as a description may change drastically depending on how the he/she feels at that moment, but it is crucial to Manfred's situation. Often suicide victims experience a temporary sense of relief or happiness once they make the decision to suicide. This is thought to be because the individual realizes a last alternative, an escape, to their present situation. Near the end of the text, before Manfred dies, his description at the beginning of Act 3 Scene 2 is revealing. Accepting my previous assumptions that description is partially determined by the individuals state-of-mind, the reader can understand the poetic diction used, which, in comparison to the rest of his narration, seems inconsistent:

The stars are forth, the moon above the tops
Of the snow-shining mountains--beautiful!
I linger yet with nature, for the night
Hath been to me a more familiar face
Than that of man, and in her starry shade
Of dim and solitary loveliness
I learned the language of another world. (3.4 1-7)

This passage shows the importance of nature to Manfred and the significance of his relationship toward it. He uses a more pleasing diction as, internally, he feels more free, which he expresses through his description.

The concept of death remains important for him, and he unsurprisingly relates it to nature for better understanding. His analogy that death's "unnatural red / Which autumn plants upon the perished leaf. It is the same!" (2.4 102-03) further draws a connection, for him, between the unknown and the familiar: or possibly between the unknown and the comforting. Although the two characters' descriptions remain different from each other, some interesting commonalities can be drawn between the two texts.

Firstly, they seem to criticize the value of experience. While Manfred determines that "knowledge is sorrow," (1.1 10) Coleridge concludes the wedding guest as "A sadder and a wiser man" (624). The two narrator's traumas can account for this position on blissful ignorance. I found it odd, though, that they would outwardly express their stance on this position. To make such a staccato statement, in comparison to the rest of the texts, signifies a theme more than a simple statement. Though this may just be expressing the Romantics preoccupation with childhood innocence.

Secondly, the visitation from the spirits reflect the internal schema of the characters. That is, they represent to the characters, what is most important to them. For the mariner, the spirits are most concerned with his penitence. They judge his sin as they discuss his actions among themselves, reducing his character to a simple action; this outlook reflects the way the mariner views himself later on. The Manfred spirits, on the other hand, occupy individual elements of nature and relate them to celestial images: the air to the heavens, and the earth to Mont Blanc which is described as the "monarch of mountains" (1.1 60). The spirits are influential in the stories prominently for the two characters, which reflect the preoccupations and processes of dealing with their traumas.

Lastly, the realization that the environment is subjective, due to the power that the mind holds. As Manfred acknowledges, "The mind which is immortal makes itself / Requital for its good or evil thoughts" (3.4 129-130). This originally appears in Milton's Paradise Lost, implying that it's the mind that creates the heaven or the hell. And although Manfred's view on the mind is dark, and very sceptical, he does realize the creative power available to the subject. This same power is expressed in in their descriptions of nature and is influenced by the methods that they go through in dealing with their trauma.