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Sexting in George Dawe's 'Genevieve' - Part II

Sexting in George Dawe's Genevieve - Part II


Portrait of the Artist, George Dawe, 1810-29


Dawe, Morland, & European Fame

Born in 1781, eight years after Coleridge, information about George Dawe's life and career is much more sketchy. His father was an artist and mezzotint engraver who worked with Hogarth and Turner, while George Morland was Dawe's godfather and painted a portrait of him as a child. Morland was an influential figure in the art world, his reputation increasing after he married Anne Ward (the beautiful sister of engraver William Ward and artist James Ward), who remained attached to him throughout his profligate career. He exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and although earning over a thousand pounds a year at the height of his fame, Morland lived so excessively and incurred such heavy debts that he frequently fled abroad. In 1799, he escaped to the Isle of Wight, but was arrested upon his return to London. He was freed in 1802, only to place himself temporarily in the custody of Marshalsea Prison in order to avoid his creditors. Following his release, he continued to pursue such a riotous lifestyle that apoplectic fits temporarily paralyzed him. He was arrested again in 1804 and sent to a sponging-house, where he was seized with brain fever and died. News of his death initiated a series of convulsive fits in his long-suffering wife, who followed him to the grave three days later.


Dawe chronicled Morland's dissipated life in a highly revealing biography and determined to avoid his godfather's fate by assiduously studying modern and classical languages, philosophy, and literature, and collecting old masters. He also studied anatomy and attended surgical operations, even dissecting cadavers at home to improve his knowledge of the human body. His painting of classical subjects was highly praised, but he was more interested in seeking portraiture commissions since they were highly lucrative and brought him into contact with high society. His ceaseless self-promotion engendered considerable criticism from contemporaries such as Constable.

Dawe completed several portraits of Princess Charlotte of Wales and Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, after their marriage in 1816. When Charlotte died in childbirth, Dawe went to Brussels with the Duke of Kent, and was present at a review of allied troops at Cambray, where he painted a portrait of the Duke of Wellington. In 1819, he was invited by Emperor Alexander to St. Petersburg to paint a series of portraits of all the senior military officers and diplomats engaged in the Napoleonic war. Over the next nine years, he churned out nearly four hundred portraits of Russian officers, three full-lengths of Wellington, Kutusov, and Barclay de Jolly, and a twenty foot high equestrian representation of Alexander, now housed in the Winter Palace. Mixing with the Russian nobility and intellectual elite, and hobnobbing with the likes of Pushkin (who wrote a poem about him), Dawe became a European celebrity. Like Coleridge, however, he had also suffered from pulmonary weakness since childhood. He found it increasingly difficult to breathe and returned to London in August 1829. He died two months later and was interred in St. Paul's Cathedral, his funeral having been attended by many artists and officials from the Russian embassy.

An anonymous biographer stated disparagingly that "Neither the manners nor personal appearance of Mr. Dawe were prepossessing … His anxiety to accumulate was such that he had recourse to several even most unprofessional means to increase a fortune already becoming large from his full avocations: thus, at the death of the Princess Charlotte, he had his portrait of her engraved, and himself employed persons to hawk it about the town, at the coach stands and other places, by which means he realized a considerable sum. It is even said that his admission to the Academy was less a consequence of his reputation as a painter, than of his facilities as a canvasser … If it is true, as asserted, that he realized £100,000 by painting the principal sovereigns of Europe, he must have been more fortunate as an artist than a speculator; as, in the latter character, he contrived to reduce his property to the sum of £25,000, out of which he gives a legacy to one Elizabeth Lemmoffsky, in whom, probably, as he was never married, he had more reasons for taking an interest than expressly appear."

Dawe apparently lost most of his fortune by ill-advised money-lending and subsequent litigation. Nonetheless, he also bequeathed a legacy of £100 a year to Lemmoffsky's daughter - "unless she marries a Russian subject, when the whole shall be forfeited. Whereas if she marries an Englishman, or an American, not of the catholic religion, her annuity shall be increased to £200 pounds per annum." After these legacies were paid, Dawe left the remainder "to a society for the education of the poor, as long as they use the Bible without gloss or comment, and so long as no particular catechism shall be taught, but the benefits of the institution be open to children of every religious persuasion." Thus Dawe, besides being a tireless self-promoter who lived in constant fear of ending up like Morland, seems to have indulged in at least one emotional dalliance of his own.


The Sockburn Worm & The Conyers Falchion

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

- Lewis Carroll, Jabberwocky.


Coleridge published Introduction to the Tale of the Dark Ladie in The Morning Post on 21 December, 1799, with four preliminary and three concluding stanzas. It was subsequently edited and reprinted as Love and included in later collections of the Lyrical Ballads (1800, 1802, 1805) and Sibylline Leaves (1828, 1829, 1834), becoming extremely well known and recited throughout the land. Worried about the racier aspects of Coleridge's original poem, Wordsworth toned down its more effusive aspects for Lyrical Ballads and excised completely the twenty-sixth stanza:

I saw her bosom heave and swell,
Heave and swell with inward sighs,
I could not choose but love to see,
Her gentle bosom rise.

This act of censorship could hardly disguise the underlying symbolism of the poem, however, which describes a "miserable knight" in reference to the chain-mailed figure on the Conyers tomb in the ruined church of Sockburn. In Northumbrian folklore, Sir John Conyers was famed for slaying the Sockburn Worm - a ferocious wyvern that had laid waste to the village. The Worm was a fabulous winged creature with a dragon's head, reptilian body, and barbed tail, commonly depicted in a variety of European carvings and manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages. The term wyvern came into common usage around 1610, denoting a chimerical animal, imagined in heraldry as a winged dragon with two eagle-like feet and a serpentine tail. It is an alteration of thirteenth-century Middle English wvere/wyver, which is in turn derived from the Latin viper (viper, adder, or asp). According to legend, wyverns killed by breathing fire or with a venomous bite - or both!


C14th Welsh Wyvern

When the Bishop-Prince of Durham entered the county for the first time each year, he was traditionally presented with the falchion that Conyers had used to slay the Worm. While proffering the blade, the hereditary Lord of Sockburn recited a speech, identifying the falchion as the one "wherewith the champion Conyers slew the worm, dragon or fiery flying serpent which destroyed man, woman and child; in memory of which the king then reigning gave him the manor of Sockburn." This tradition continued until 1771, then lapsed for 200 years until it was renewed in 1994.

The Conyers Falchion remains on display in the treasury in Durham Cathedral and, although some were used as practical machetes, this blade clearly belonged to a landed family. The dead Worm was believed to have been buried under a rock in a nearby pasture - the "grey-stone rudely carved" of the poem's first draft, later transformed into a "mount" in subsequent editions. Both Coleridge and Dawe clearly recognized the full mythical and etymological connotations of both the Worm and Falchion. Potentially fatal, possibly evil, and undeniably phallic symbols, they perfectly embodied the dangerous sexual subtext of their work.


The Gaze, The Glance, & The Blush

"The human being is the only creature that blushes, or that needs to" - Mark Twain

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Dawe's painting is not so much his transformation of Coleridge's reference to a horizontal Aeolian harp into a vertical erection, but rather the two patches of bright crimson that suffuse the cheeks of both Genevieve and the poet. It is toward these mutual blushes that our eyes are drawn, certainly more than to the tomb of the Dead Knight, whose massive verticality is depicted in deep shadow, monumental, marmoreal, and immobile in its forbidding granite monotony on the left margin of the canvas. The stone statue fully embodies the repressive weight of traditional patriarchal authority against which Coleridge consciously rebelled.

Dawe drew direct inspiration from seventh stanza of Love -

She listened with a flitting blush,
With downcast eyes and modest grace;
For well she knew, I could not choose,
But gaze upon her face!

Coleridge recapitulates this motif in his tenth stanza, stressing the crucial significance of the Gaze, the Glance, and the Blush -

She listened with a flitting blush,
With downcast eyes and modest grace;
And she forgave me, that I gazed,
Too fondly on her face!

Finally, we learn in the poem's concluding stanzas how the lady reciprocated the troubadour's imploring look by running into his arms and staring directly into his eyes -

She wept with pity and delight,
She blushed with love and virgin-shame;
And like the murmur of a dream,
I heard her breathe my name.

Her bosom heaved - she stepped aside,
As conscious of my look she stepped -
Then suddenly, with timorous eye,
She fled to me and wept.

She half enclosed me with her arms,
She pressed me with a meek embrace,
And bending back her head, looked up,
And gazed upon my face.

'Twas partly love, and partly fear,
And partly 'twas a bashful art,
That I might rather feel, than see,
The swelling of her heart.

Coleridge evidently relishes the full range of sexual implications in this somatic form of sanguine fire. If we consider the phenomenon of blushing purely on the physiological level, it involves any swelling of tissue caused by a localized increase in blood flow and pressure. Vasocongestion is activated by the autonomic nervous system, which governs our fight-or-flight response - an uncontrollable corporeal feedback under stressful or dangerous situations. The ruddy colour that appears on our faces whenever we are afraid, embarrassed, or aroused is caused by adrenaline, which accelerates our heart rate, dilates our blood vessels and bronchial passages, and helps oxygenate our blood. It is also essential for procreation in mammals, since it causes the engorged hardening of both the penis and the clitoris, as well as vaginal lubrication.

For phenomenologists, however, when someone blushes it is not simply a representation of their emotion, but the emotion itself, since the blush comes directly from a lived body. Skin is clearly imperative, but self-consciousness is also necessary as the blush involves a complex social membrane that connects us to a shared erotic field. Phenomenological reflection elaborates on what happens when we blush in terms of the Gaze. A "barrier of blood" both hides and broadcasts fledgling sexual desire. The anatomical heart tells the truth about this ambiguous moment of vision, while the reddened face participates in a dialogue between two bodies. Biologically, the blush may protect the integrity of the cardiovascular system, but psychologically it transmits an evanescent beam of nascent sexuality.

In Vision and Painting - The Logic of The Gaze, Norman Bryson studies the use of both the Gaze and the Glance in classical painting, linking them to the linguistic category of deixis - forms of speech that contain information about the locus of utterance. The deictic tenses (the present and its compounds) create and refer to their own perspective. The wider class of deixis includes all those forms of speech where the utterance incorporates information about its spatial position relative to its content (here, there, near, far off) and temporality (yesterday, today, tomorrow, sooner, later, long ago). Thus, personal pronouns rank with demonstrative adverbs and adjectives in the linguistic category of 'shifters' - orientational features of language which refer to the situation of utterance.

In ordinary, non-poetic speech such references are usually obvious, but in poetry and painting there is no empirical situation of utterance. The 'now' of a poem or painting does not refer to the date of the poem's first edition or to when the painting was first exhibited. It is a purely relational fiction with no referent in the external world. In art and poetry deictics do not refer us to an external context but force us to construct a fictional situation. Contrasting 'now' and 'venerable antiquity' indicates that a temporal contrast is an important theme. The same holds true for references to 'I,' 'we' and 'you' - these oppositions, lifted away from external contexts, limit the invasion of the external world and provide scope for internal thematic expansion. They become formal devices for organizing a work of art.

Bryson poses a profound division in Western art between the activity of the Gaze (prolonged and contemplative, regarding the field of vision with aloof disengagement across a tranquil interval) and that of the Glance (a furtive or sideways look whose attention is always elsewhere, which shifts to conceal its own existence, and which is capable of carrying unofficial, sub rosa messages of collusion and lust). Dawe's composition is organized around a strong diagonal line that inexorably connects Genevieve's averted glance and blushing cheeks with the tormented and impassioned gaze of the poet. He stares at her, while she turns away. Vision as it is presented to the viewer is that of the male Gaze victorious over the female Glance.

Eloquentia

Bryson also suggests that deixis is utterance in carnal form, pointing directly back to the body of the speaker, self-reflexively marking the moment at which rhetoric becomes oratory. He notes that Quintilian provides a vivid picture of the classical posture of eloquentia - the left hand of the rhetor facing inwards towards the body, the right outstretched with the fingers slightly extended. While this is precisely the pose in which Dawe depicts his troubadour in Genevieve, Coleridge referred to this kind of subjective poetic syntax as eloquence, as distinct from Ciceronian rhetoric: "eloquence itself … too often is, and is always likely to engender, a species of histrionism." He hoped to depict his own passions with a more complicated and restrained sense of eloquence: "my eloquence was most commonly excited by the desire of running away and hiding myself from my personal and inward feelings, and not for the expression of them, while doubtless this very effort of feeling gave a passion and glow to my thoughts and language on subjects of a general nature, that they otherwise would not have had. I fled in a Circle, still overtaken by the Feelings, from which I was evermore fleeing, with my back turned towards them."

It is exactly this circular sense of being simultaneously overtaken by feelings and trying to flee from them that Dawe so vividly embodies in the composition of Genevieve. It remains a testament to his ingenuity and skill as a painter that he is able to inscribe this sexual subtext into the organization of his canvas. His artistic deployment of the Sockburn worm, the Conyers falchion, and the vertical harp as priapic symbols combines with the male Gaze and the blushing female Glance to suggest the dangerous passions that constantly threaten to subvert the oppressive weight of traditional power structures. Such Romantic longings are both socially disruptive and simultaneously denied, enmeshed in a nexus of sublimated passion, caught up in a network of legendary archetypes, and delineating nothing less than the return of repressed desire.

Part I is available here -

http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/CU1712/S00286/sexting-in-george-dawes-genevieve-part-i.htm


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