'The Stones I shaped endure': Dickinsonian Pastiche in A.S.Byatt's Possession

by Robert Bray, Illinois Wesleyan University

The quotation in the title of this essay, 'The stones I shaped endure,' is from Book XII of The Fairy Melusina, an epic poem in blank verse by the little-known Victorian poetess, Christabel LaMotte. So little known, in fact, that the sole voucher for her existence is A.S. Byatt's Booker-Prize-winning novel, Possession, published in 1990. Way back in graduate school this critic was warned that novels, being fictions, were outlaws not to be consulted, let alone trusted, as ramifying on the 'real world.' One interpreted them in light of history, and not contrariwise. Now, however, postmodern liberation allows us to assert that a source is a source, of course; and I have accordingly been living in the fabulous possible world of Possession while trying to assemble a biography of Christabel LaMotte, ignoring the tendentious question of whether she ever existed in the so-called actual world. Here is what I know so far:

Christabel Madeleine LaMotte was born in 1825 and died in 1890. She learned what she learned not in seminary but at home, from her scholarly father, a sort of folklorist/philologist of vast knowledge and high repute, whose specialty was Norman and Breton mythology. Never marrying, LaMotte kept a reclusive house in London with a companion who was an artist by the unfortunately allegorical name of Blanche Glover. From girlhood on LaMotte was devoted to writing poetry: yet was very shy, not to say furtive, about her craft and its products: she published little or nothing during the 1850s and 60s and was always reluctant to share poems with acquaintances, let alone with the reading public. And, as her only friend was Blanche Glover, with whom she lived in utmost privacy, the world may be forgiven for not answering the letters Christabel LaMotte chose not to write.

Into this domestic tranquility, like a seismic tear, intrudes the established, authoritative and very male poet, Randolph Henry Ash, familiar co-eval of Tennyson and Browning and presumably all the rest of the eminent Victorians. Sometime in June of 1858 he meets LaMotte at a literary breakfast, they converse, and he is smitten. Though respectably and to appearances happily married, Ash writes to her, not at first as a would-be lover, rather as poet-to-poet, and she responds; they begin an extensive correspondence that grows ever warmer as the two discover their 'elective affinities' as artists, then in a man-to-woman bout of soul-sharing and melding. Eventually they meet again, this time alone and by assignation; and once again: now admit to one another what's obvious to the reader: they are utterly in love and must have a tryst--their one and only? In June, 1859, LaMotte and Ash travel to the north of England together, each having a pretext that should keep them safe from exposure--he from his wife, Ellen; she from Blanche.

Back home, Miss Glover, who seems to love Christabel in an ambiguously lesbian way, is hardly deceived. She has discovered the correspondence and jealously tried to head the affair off. Failing in this, she despairs and a year later (June, 1860) commits suicide by jumping off Putney Bridge, 'with her clothes wetted and her pockets full of big round stones'. LaMotte had been absent at the time, but where and why? Much later in the novel we learn that when she and Ash consummated their love a child was conceived--unbeknownst to the father--and that LaMotte retreated to Brittany to stay with some of her late father's French relatives until the birth. Still without telling Ash, she gave the baby to her sister in England to raise, then lived with this family dependently the rest of her life, never seeing Ash again but once (and then in circumstances that only compounded misunderstanding), watching her daughter unpoetically grow as her 'niece' but never making the slightest claim on her, indeed never 'telling' anyone anything about the affair (except many years later, in a letter to Ash on his deathbed that was sent but never delivered: Ellen Ash read it, denied its reading to her dying husband, buried it with him). Yet for a few years in the early 1860s Christabel LaMotte wrote poetry as never before, both the most and the best that she would ever do.

Including her 'masterpiece,' The Fairy Melusina. An epic poem in at least twelve books sounds hardly Dickinsonian--at last to introduce the name that I hope has occurred to you during this exposition--but LaMotte's life story is suggestive of at least one version of Emily Dickinson's. For many of us, I suspect, William H. Shurr's The Marriage of Emily Dickinson (1983) is beyond even the postmodern pale--a pale that is theoretically limitless and unbounded by common sense, whatever that may be when the subject is Emily Dickinson. But despite what we may think of Shurr's extravagant speculations, it is, I believe, cogently arguable that A.S. Byatt had something like them in mind for her story of Christabel LaMotte: a woman poet reclusive, unpublished, young-old, with potential passion like a quiescent volcano overgrown with flowers; the incursion of a strong man into this settled, cultivated life, followed by cataclysmic emotional upheaval, wonderfully requited love and sex, mutual guilt, a mysterious sundering or betrayal, even a love child born (or perhaps aborted or miscarried in Shurr's account), followed by an agony, an immolation and a poetic efflorescence that run concurrently for several years. LaMotte is 33 years old when she meets Randolph Henry Ash in 1858; Dickinson is 29 when Charles Wadsworth visits her at her Amherst home in March, 1860. LaMotte has a dog named Trey to match Dickinson's Carlo, and she takes Trey to her first covert lover's meeting with Ash, as Dickinson wishes she could Carlo in the second 'Master' letter but claims she didn't in poem 663: 'We walk--I leave my Dog--at home--/A tender--thoughtful Moon/ Goes with us--just a little way--/And--then--we are alone.' Thus it begins, and the rest, though not exactly history, follows in the roughly parallel fashion already indicated.

Although I agree with Humpty Dumpty that Dickinson biography all depends on who's master, you will be relieved to hear that I have nothing in mind that could clear waters so turbid. Allow me just this harmless gloss on the front-runner's candidacy: when the eminent preacher and poet-manqué was preaching in Philadelphia in 1850, the congregation heard 'the plaintive wail of his tremulous voice.' Thirty-two years later sister Lavinia announces his arrival at the Dickinson house by saying, 'The Gentleman with the deep voice wants to see you, Emily.' It's the same man, by E.D.'s testimony: yet only a poet and a fantasist could remake a youthful but full-grown pulpit Heldentenor into an aging basso. Do you suppose she worked this magic on anything else that migrated from her life to her letters? But to return to the principal subject: poetic affinities between Emily Dickinson and Christabel LaMotte. For Byatt, I shall argue, chose Dickinson and her poetry as the model for Christabel LaMotte and hers, even as she chose Robert Browning as the poetic--though not biographical--template for Ash. Which brings me back to The Fairy Melusina--one of the never-written books I should most like to read. When Byatt tags the line segment, 'The stones I shaped endure,' as from 'Book XII' of the poem, while interpolating long passages from the 'Proem' and 'Book I' into the novel's narrative, she is implying that the poem is as long as and as good as and as authoritative as any dead white male's epic, Randolph Henry Ash's anglo-nordic Ragnarök in particular. Unless we figuratively take Emily Dickinson's body of poetry, or perhaps the fascicles together, as an epic of consciousness, as a 'modern lyric sequence' or 'sequences' in the phrase of Rosenthal and Gall (The Modern Lyric Sequence, 1983), no such macroscopic formal claim can be made to place it alongside LaMotte'sMelusina. Nor is this the only dissimilarity. Even at the microscopic level of the poetic line there are differences. LaMotte's epic is written in blank verse, of which E.D. wrote not a line. Iambic pentameter alone is rare enough in Dickinson, and when she very occasionally uses it she always rhymes it (as in poems 341 and 662) in couplets; and she never sustains iambic pentameter for more than a four-line stanza, after which it diminishes to four- or three-beats, begins to unravel prosodically, and fragments with her fragmenting thought--the full line perhaps to be restored at the end of a poem, perhaps not. The famous and stately opening stanza of 341, followed by shorter lines and bent syntax in the middle, and a Shakespearean concluding quatrain, are the best example of Dickinson's handling of pentameter:

What this poem proves to me is that Dickinson could have written strong iambic pentameter, or blank verse, had she wanted to. That she did not sets her apart from LaMotte, though not so far as one might think. LaMotte's Melusina serves the thematic purpose in Possession of promoting poetic gender equality between Ash and LaMotte (and by extension between men and women Victorian poets) but does so in a more complex way than, So there, take that! The blank verse line, from Shakespeare to Milton to Wordsworth and Browning, has traditionally been a male implement of the high serious: for a 19th century woman to try it would be like Amy Beach composing a symphony instead of piano miniatures--but, oops! she did, and on the romantic epic scale at that: the Gaelic symphony in 1896. Thus Byatt wants her readers to see that LaMotte's employment of blank verse and its baggage of ideas and story in epic form is the natural result of a potential genius actuated after her soul-exchange with Ash. Likewise, his poetry . . . well, it doesnÕt quite soften or sing but moves off from the self-consciously learned and intellectual, from the dry-minded dramatic monologues of pre-Christabel days, and reverberates for once with representations of love's experience--in other words becomes more lyric. An instance of this in Ash's poetry, is the snippet Byatt teases us with from his love-sequence to the memory of LaMotte, Ask to Embla:

Still blank verse, and still highly enjambed: so we know the change in Ash as with LaMotte, isn't so simple as moving in one another's direction poetically, as they did emotionally and physically, heart towards mind, and vice versa. Nonetheless, after their love their newly engendered poetic muse is an androgyne, invocable by both, but as a single force. The logically and syntactically very different questions Ash puts in his only short-lined, rhyming verse?a poem we must infer was written during or after their tryst?

would have gone unasked before 1860. Afterward they are answerable, in what is form him a new kind of poetry: yes, and yes.

What Byatt crucially borrows from Dickinson and gives to LaMotte is lyric voice (along with textual trappings like dashes and capricious capitalization). Consider this unpublished, undated, untitled poem, number 11 in my rough edition of the Lyrics of Christabel LaMotte:

The noun 'pain' and the verb 'bore' are characteristic of Dickinson in her more agonized lyrics, most famously perhaps in 341, before quoted in another context but clearly relevant here. Byatt makes LaMotte an Anglo-Catholic, or at any rate a Christian who likes to argue with her agnostic lover over questions of divinity, immortality and the role of doubt in making and unmaking faith ('Tell me?He lives?for you' [184]). The lyric voice in this poem is like a multiple personality held within a single unstable consciousness that allows a number of meanings to work simultaneously:

The personal allegory of 'great pain' and its agonizing transcendence (or the failure to transcend) is, as Byatt knows, the subject of some of Dickinson's greatest lyrics. Byatt required something similar for her characterization of LaMotte, who is made to undergo in the novel's discovered narrative the very 'crucifixion' that E.D.'s readers have inferred from her poetry. Wherever Dickinson ended up on the question of Christian redemption and immortality, and 'know' is one of her strongest and most frequently chosen verbs but also one of the trickiest, as she was a pretty good epistemologist as well as a great poet, Byatt finally elects darkness for LaMotte, or at least the certainty of (k)no(w). Or so it would seem if we read the poem's final two lines darkly: the 'Poor Frame Crack' (the frame of the Cross? of Jesus? of Randolph Henry Ash?) and 'knows--He'll [Jesus? Ash?]--come--no More.' Two other modes of Dickinsonian lyric, the epigram and the riddle, inform several of LaMotte's poems, with number 12 being the best instance of the autobiographical riddle:

In its narrative context, the poem appears to be about childbirth, since we eventually learn that LaMotte and Ash do conceive a child which she duly delivers (even though only one of them knows it!). It's easy to see how Byatt might have taken her notion from Shurr's 'Pregnancy Sequence' in The Marriage of Emily Dickinson. Shurr makes much of the 'it-ness' of what he believes is the mis-carried child of poems like 491 ['While it is alive'] and 1712 ['A Pit--but Heaven over it--'], which concludes

The LaMotte poem too riddles on the identity of 'it,' and further on what happened to 'it' when 'it' came: born(e)? stillborn? now still? simply still? Such were the questions Ash might have asked when he later intuited that there was a child between them, and after LaMotte had indirectly attempted to make him think 'it' had died either at birth or in early infancy. 'Eternity' is a huge Dickinson noun; 'lapsed eternity' a Dickinson-like metaphysical paradox. LaMotte 12, then, is an unfair Dickinsonian riddle: not to be solved by anyone who doesn't already know the answer. Yet not solving the riddle makes us readers of a poem. To all of us who are not the intended audience of one, Ash or 'Master,' a riddling voice is what matters, not the puzzle itself; a poem and not its cryptogram. All the more so when the poets are sibyls. In one of her first letter to him, riddling her existence as an egg's, LaMotte warns Ash that to break an egg from without discovers only 'Congealing and Mortality' within. Leave alone, she hints, and '[t]here may come a day when you may lift the lid with impunity?or rather, when it may be lifted from within?for that way, life may come?' Here LaMotte prophesied better than she knew. 'Life' did come from her egg, 'as still/ As any [living] Stone.' And this 'still life' quickly made the mother's 'subject' 'Spilt Milk,/ A white Disfigurement:' 'We run with milk and blood/ What we would give we spill/ The hungry mouths are raised/ We spill we fail to fill' (LaMotte 13; 412). All this romantically (tragically?) too soon to happen; in the precious meantime she declares, entreats: I am my own riddle. 'Oh, Sir, you must not kindly seek to ameliorate or steal away my solitude. It is a thing we women are taught to dread?oh the terrible tower, oh the thickets round it?no companionable Nest?but a donjon. But they have lied to us you know, in this, as in so much else' (152). This disparity of action between Victorian men and women, seen from the woman's side, is paradoxical. Although the 'Donjon may frown and threaten,' it is a safe keep that allows for freedom. On the other hand, a dungeon is sometimes just a prison: 'Men may be martyred/ Any where/ In desert, cathedral/ Or Public Square./ In no Rush of Action/ This is our doom/ To Drag a Long Life out/ In a Dark Room' (LaMotte 6; 125). Which it shall be depends on what happens inside. A living egg opens only outward, and only when its 'creature' begins to fledge: 'All day snow fell/ Snow fell all night/ My silent lintel/ Silted white/ Inside a creature­/ Feathered­Bright­/ With snowy Feature/ Eyes of Light/ Propounds­Delight' (LaMotte 7; 142). Dickinson's reclusion 'at home' may have been as voluntary as LaMotte's was (before Ash); or pathological, as so often has been suggested; but it was surely a condition she desired to offset by the big bang and consequent expanding universe of her early 1860s poetry--which she wrote in her room when left well alone. Likewise LaMotte: in the beginning she feels Ash's importunities as portending a fatal invasion of privacy, yet she wants and needs his interest in her poems. When Dickinson in April, 1862 first shyly asked Thomas Wentworth Higginson whether her 'Verse is alive?' she did not get the answer she deserved nor, I think, the one she wanted. Partly this was her greatness and his complacency (he thought she had a 'spasmodic gait,' when it was he who marched too regularly, in the army and in literature); but it may also have had to do with her recent (and ongoing?) exchanges with the potent man-of-words Wadsworth, with whom, as some interpreters hold, she was a kind of 'learning equal:' they helped one another as 'rhetoricians'. So it was from the start between LaMotte and Ash. In a striking parallel to the Dickinson-Higginson correspondence, LaMotte tells Ash that

I sent some of my smaller poems­a little sheaf­selected with trembling­to a great Poet­who shall be nameless, I cannot write his name­asking­are These Poems? Have I­a Voice? He replied with courteous promptness­that they were pretty things­not quite regular­and not always well-regulated by a proper sense of decorum­but he would encourage me, moderately­they would do well enough to give me an interest in life until I had­I quote him exactly­'sweeter and weightier responsibilities' (197-8).

Not surprisingly in view of such patronizing, LaMotte is at first diffident about communicating with Ash at all. When she does write, she pays the deference she thinks due to his literary status, which entails also mildly deprecating her own poetic gift. But she is nonetheless prompt to comment on Ash's work and eager to meet minds, poet-to-poet. In only her second letter to him she reveals her vocation:

Whereas in verity--I have it in my head to write an epic-- or if not an epic, still a Saga or Lay or great mythical Poem-- and how can a poor breathless woman with no staying- power and only a Lunar Learning confess such an ambition to the author of the Ragnaök? But I have the most curious certainty that your are to be trusted in this matter--that you will not mock--nor deluge the fairy of the fountain with Cold Water (177).

And a few transactions later she is no longer worried about disturbing or being disturbed by him:

Now mark--you must write no more of your interest in my work as a possible intrusion. You do not seem aware, Mr. Ash, for all your knowledge of the great world I do not frequent, of the usual response which the productions of the female pen-- let alone as in our case the hypothetick productions--are greeted with. The best we may hope is--oh, it is excellently done--for a woman. And then there are subjects we may not treat--things we may not know. I do not say but that there must be--and is--some essential difference between the Scope and Power of men and our own limited consciousness and possibly weaker apprehension. But I do maintain, as stoutly, that the delimitations are at present, all wrongly drawn--we are not mere candleholders to virtuous thoughts--mere chalices of Purity--we think and feel, aye and read--which seems not to shock you in us, in me, though I have concealed from many the extent of my--vicarious--knowledge of human vagaries (197).

Dickinson would have written this far more obliquely and furtively but I suspect she would have agreed with the sentiment. When Byatt puts words in LaMotte's mouth, she ineluctably spackles the holes in the historically graying Victorian fresco of literature and romance with our own whiter ideology of what should have been and her novelist's prerogative to make it so. Oddly enough, however, Byatt idealizes Ash more than LaMotte. In Possession the great poet slips easily from his patriarchal mantle and bestows his poet's love on the beloved poet unconditionally. LaMotte and her poetry are allowed to be eccentric (if not 'spasmodic') to the reader's eyes but not to Ash's: he sees a transhistorical 'staying-power' in her work that surpasses his own. And is this not the contemporary attitude of many first-rate poets, women and men, towards Emily Dickinson? That she is wholly original? That what Seamus Heaney calls 'the music of what happens' happens almost ineffably in her poetry? Byatt might have chosen (to name only the two most famous women from the Victorian anthology) Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Christina Rossetti for the part of Christabel LaMotte: there are ways of cloaking their 'actual' Victorian existence (as she so deftly did with AshÕs models). But she was casting her romance with the poetry as much the hero as the poet. Biography was one thing: The Brownings' encumbered courtship resembled that of Ash and his wife Ellen; Christina Rossetti's piety and retiring habits echoed LaMotte's. Yet as poets they simply wouldn't do for the world of Possession; their poems lacked the lyrical inwardness which is at the heart of Byatt's conception of Christabel LaMotte. To realize such a character demanded an extended and elaborated pastiche of poetry and letters to accompany the fabulous life. Almost incredibly, Byatt achieved this--credibly. Would not her task been much more difficult, if not impossible, without the 'epic' instance of Emily Dickinson? Sufficiently moved are we at reading's end to relinquish Possession in favor of our tongue's finest poetry of self-possession: 'Possession is to One/ As an Estate perpetual/ Or a reduceless Mine' (856).

1A.S. Byatt, Possession (New York: Random House, 1990), 235. Subsequent references in parentheses.

2Jay Leyda, The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960, 2:7.

3Leyda, 1: 181.

4Leyda, 2: 327.

5M.L. Rosenthal and Sally M. Gall, The Modern Poetic Sequence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983). This book was the first critical treatment of the fascicles (in particular 15 and 16), which Rosenthal and Gall attempted to fit with their definition of the 'modern lyric sequence:' 'a grouping of mainly lyric poems and passages, rarely uniform in pattern, which tend to interact as an organic whole. . . . Intimate, fragmented, self-analytical, open, emotionally volatile, the sequence meets the needs of modern sensibility even when the poet aspires to tragic or epic scope' (9; see also Ch. 3, 'Emily DickinsonÕs Fascicles').

6Thomas H. Johnson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960), 341 [162]; subsequent poems cited by Johnson number.

7Elizabeth Barrett Browning's long autobiographical poem in blank verse, Aurora Leigh (1857) is the strong exception that tests this generalization that blank verse was traditionally a male form in British poetry. And on the American side the assertion holds: of the thirty eight 'principal poets' in Paula Bernat Bennett's Nineteenth-Century American Women Poets (Blackwell, 1998) only Lydia Huntley Sigourney employs blank verse extensively.

8Just for fun I made a 'fascicle' of the thirteen pastiche LaMotte lyrics Byatt sprinkles through the 500+ pages of Possession. Although hardly a 'modern lyric sequence,' or an 'organic whole,' the 'fascicle's' final three poems do exhibit a consequentiality of voice, tone, subject and prosody.

9William H. Shurr, The Marriage of Emily Dickinson (Lexington: the University Press of Kentucky, 1983), 183.

10Leyda, 1: lxxvii; Shurr, 154.