it is memory

Category: Mind | Type: Discussion | Title: Mansfield Park (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen | Ch: Chapter XXII

Fanny's wonder at the nature of memory associates her with the Romantics, whose own interest originates in 18th-c. psychology's attempts to explain how memory works, the physiology as well as the psychology. Memory—not just recollection but the active interweaving of the past with the present—becomes a distinguishing feature of some Romantic literature. Mary's indifference to memory is another indication that what is most essentially human does not interest her. The subject of memory will return in the novel.

The impact of early experience upon the adult mind becomes important with John Locke and then his follower, David Hartley, develops upon the subject in Observations on Man (1749), a work that influences especially Coleridge and Wordsworth (Coleridge names a son Hartley). Hartley seeks to explain how and why wholly different memories become "associated" and fused through feelings common to each rather than through some chronological or logical connection.

Of the Romantics Wordsworth's poetry most probingly inquires into the nature of memory and most powerfully uses memory or memories to establish connections between his past and his present self. The working title of his great autobiographical poem, The Prelude, is The Growth of the Poet's Mind, much of which details the layered accretion of episodic experience by which the adult poetic mind comes into being, the mind writing the poem and now, in retrospect, apprehending the design that is coming into visibility with each line of the life that led to this moment.

Coleridge addresses at different points in various prose works and poems the subject of memory. One of the most beautiful of the poems is "Frost at Midnight" (quoted below), which is composed of a series of images (what Proust will call "involuntary memory," from which springs Remembrance of Things Past) delicately and intricately bound together by associations so subtle as to be as indeterminate and ephemeral as frost itself. Other Romantic poets and novelists see us haunted and bedeviled by memories ("The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Keats's "La Belle Dame sans Merci," or fortified and ennobled  by particular memories (Wordsworth in The Prelude famously calls these forming and potentially healing recollections "spots of time"). 

There are in our existence spots of time,

That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence–depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse–our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.

The Prelude 12.208-218 (1805 edition):

The passage goes on to describe three stunning events the young Wordsworth experienced.  

        Wordsworth's and Coleridge's poetry was often at its most lyrical when recollective, as in "Tintern Abbey" and the Ode: Intimations of Immortality upon Recollections of Early Childhood. 

Fanny's short disquisition on memory seems aborted yet her allusion to a subject of such significance to 18th-c. psychology and Romantic literature is another indication of her intellectual alignment with one of the age's dominant currents. We learn later she has a print of "Tintern Abbey" hanging in her room. Below is Coleridge's affecting "Frost at Midnight":

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
'Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,

Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.

                      But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger ! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man's only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor's face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger's face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!

         Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

         Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

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