A Tour of The Sceptic
Nanora SweetThe guided tour, written especially for this edition by Nanora Sweet, describes the poem's form and takes the reader step by step through its contents.
- The Sceptic is a long non-narrative poem and a summary or guided tour may be in order. The poem takes place in a skyey geosphere featuring differences of light and dark, height and depth, heaven and earth, water and land. Its first thirteen verse paragraphs (ll. 1-44) explore this setting from the standpoint of the human spirit who seeks light in heaven or (if a sceptic) on earth, who seeks a footing on rock or (again if a sceptic) in quicksand. Flight imagery dominates ; the soul is an eagle, but the sceptic is prepared to clip the wings of the cherub "Hope" and remain earth-bound. An epicurean, he clings to earthly pleasures and ignores disruptions and deprivations to come (by storm, by drought). In sections or paragraphs 14-18 (ll. 145-88), the poem's setting offers a series of choices to the earthbound sceptic : earth or water? Calm or storm? Pestilential swamp or desert storm (this last a double confounding of land and wave)? If the sceptic were to recover his faith, his setting and circumstances would be quite different: an everliving font that flows to the furthest isles, an Atoner (Christ) who deflects the Avenger (God).
- The poem's middle sections feature the sceptic's predicaments and career. In Sections 19-25 (ll. 189-268), its world of water, rock and air is populated by the cautionary figures of proto-sceptics, sceptics and their interpreters. Two versions of the proto-sceptic appear, a Platonic ephebe and a Byronic 'Prisoner of Chillon', each blinded by the light of truth or of freedom. The full-blown sceptic also appears in two forms as Promethean prisoner and fallen Satan. These more profoundly benighted figures are bound in cycles and even downward spirals of punishment and retribution. The sceptic may assume the mantle of historian or poet but cannot do so redemptively without the leverage of 'Eternity' (l.268).
- In sections 26 through 31 (ll. 269-368), the sceptic as failed Byronic poet is given a "progress" from fame to ignominy and even oblivion. Unarmed against "the Avenger," unsupported by his audience, he is exposed to "Death" (ll. 292, 334). Sections 32-37 (ll. 369-456) remind the sceptic that like any human being he will "shrink to die" (l. 394)—and we know that Byron's Manfred (with the support of an audience) is as surprised as relieved to learn that ''tis not so difficult to die" (Manfred 3.4.151). In her own depiction of death, Hemans recurs to winged-flight imagery. The soul is cast into the dark "half unfurl'd" (ll. 402, 424). How might this dark encounter—between death and a faith that demands its Messiah's death—yield the light of heaven?
- Hemans finesses her dark-on-dark dilemma in her closing sections 38-43 (ll. 457-550) by swerving first to one alternative and then to another. The first alternative is that death wins and faith is not worthy of the name; that is, we "wither" in the "desolating blast" of "God," "the Chastener" (ll. 460-2). At once, this fiery solution is replaced by a second alternative involving the "bright" spirit of the late-lamented Princess Charlotte, the queen/mother who-might-have-been. With the Princess as a sublime figure and strong supplement, Britain becomes the "chosen isle" shining with watch-fires to the sea (ll. 510-11) and hearth-fires to the land. In this way the poem reclaims its setting for a light that eluded a sceptic and a fire that has daunted everyone in the hands of a vengeful god. Both light and fire are now in the keeping of a female figure whose two facets accommodate light and fire, a mother-guide who will "[t]each…the immortal lays" (l. 541) and a prophetess whose "tones" are "to Judah's harp convey'd" (l. 544).
- Formally, the 550 lines of The Sceptic divide into 43 verse paragraphs varying from 6 to 38 lines in length. Prosodically the poem's iambic pentametre couplets end in commas as often as full stops and on rare occasions run ahead with no punctuation whatever. Hemans's running distichs differ markedly from the heroic couplets that she and Byron used in early poems on topical subjects, her 1808 England and Spain and 1812 "The Domestic Affections" and his 1809 English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. The Sceptic's enjambed couplets manage the swelling cadences characteristic of Romantic blank verse, but they also support the poem's claims to epic action and "public performance". Textually, the poem carries an epigraph from the seventeenth-century French religious apologist Bossuet and ends with six notes from St Augustine and the Biblical books of Ezekiel, Isaiah, Kings 1 and Jeremiah.
1. I take this phrase from Susan Wolfson's nuanced reading of Byron's (very different) couplets in The Corsair: see her Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism (Stanford University Press, 1997), p.143. Wolfson also calls attention to William Bowman Piper's The Heroic Couplet (Cleveland: Press of Case Western University, 1969) which critiques the running couplet of Hemans's contemporaries (e.g., Moore and Hunt) as a "degraded romance couplet" (pp.4, 49, qtd in Wolfosn, Formal Charges, p.275, n5.)