Friday, 24 December 2010

Browning's 'Amphibian'

Browning's 'Amphibian', one of his late poems, was fairly important to my doctoral work.
THE fancy I had to-day,
Fancy which turned a fear!
I swam far out in the bay,
&nbps;Since waves laughed warm and clear.

I lay and looked at the sun,
The noon-sun looked at me:
Between us two, no one
Live creature, that I could see.

Yes! There came floating by
Me, who lay floating too,
Such a strange butterfly!
Creature as dear as new!

Because the membraned wings
So wonderful, so wide,
So sun-suffused, were things
Like soul and naught beside.

A handbreadth overhead!
&nbps;All of the sea my own,
It owned the sky instead;
Both of us were alone.

I never shall join its flight,
For, naught buoys flesh in air.
If it touch the sea--good night!
Death sure and swift waits there.

Can the insect feel the better
For watching the uncouth play
Of limbs that slip the fetter,
Pretend as they were not clay?

Undoubtedly I rejoice
That the air comports so well
With a creature which had the choice
Of the land once. Who can tell?

What if a certain soul
Which early slipped its sheath,
And has for its home the whole
Of heaven, thus look beneath,

Thus watch one who, in the world,
Both lives and likes life's way,
Nor wishes the wings unfurled
That sleep in the worm, they say?

But sometimes when the weather
Is blue, and warm waves tempt
To free one's self of tether,
And try a life exempt

From worldly noise and dust,
In the sphere which overbrims
With passion and thought,--why, just
Unable to fly, one swims!

By passion and thought upborne,
One smiles to one's self--"They fare
Scarce better, they need not scorn
Our sea, who live in the air!"

Emancipate through passion
And thought, with sea for sky,
We substitute, in a fashion,
For heaven--poetry:

Which sea, to all intent,
Gives flesh such noon-disport
As a finer element
Affords the spirit-sort.

Whatever they are, we seem:
Imagine the thing they know;
All deeds they do, we dream;
Can heaven be else but so?

And meantime, yonder streak
Meets the horizon's verge;
This is the land, to seek
If we tire or dread the surge:

Land the solid and safe--
To welcome again (confess!)
When, high and dry, we chafe
The body, and don the dress.

Does she look, pity, wonder
At one who mimics flight,
Swims--heaven above, sea under,
Yet always earth in sight?
It didn't occur to me before, but I wonder if this is the product of some late reading of Plotinus?
Plotinus envisions psyche as having an amphibious nature (Ennead IV.8.4); the human soul has a 'double life' and a 'double nature' participating in both the intelligible and the perceptible realms (Ennead IV.8.8.11-13). It occupies a 'middle rank' at the boundary between the higher intelligible world of the Forms and the lower corporeal nature of the perceptible reality (Ennead IV.8.7.5). Plotinus' famous metaphor of the soul is that of a 'double city, one above and one composed of the lower elements set in order by the powers above' (Ennead IV.4.17.30 ff.). On this basis, Remes maintains that Plotinus conceptualises two notions of the self: the higher rational self and the lower corporeal self. Whereas the former marks soul's goodness, knowledge and intelligence, the latter signifies imperfection and opinion. The author supports the position that, for Plotinus, there is unsubstantiated connection between the higher self and the faculties and capacities of the embodied self such as that of sense-perception and phantasia. Remes correctly states that 'through its share of these capacities, the lower part does tend towards a rational organization even if it does not succeed in expressing this tendency. The inner self is the spring of the self-conscious and deliberative life of the composite. The rational or intellectual dimension dominates the whole picture, but the bodily dimension is not neglected' (p. 256)

No comments: