Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Ambivalence in Thomson’s The Castle of Indolence

Most people have a decided preference for Paradise Lost over Paradise Regained and for the Inferno over Purgatorio or Paradiso. Blake’s explanation of this phenomenon in Milton would doubtless do for Dante as well: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

Similarly, the first Canto of Thomson’s The Castle of Indolence, describing a sort of land of all play and no work, will strike the common reader as markedly livelier, more precise, and more beautiful than the second in which the noble knight Industry prevails. One of the last of the dream visions, composed in belated pre-Romantic archaizing diction and expert use of Spenserian stanzas, the poem details the dangers of indolence. The usage of that term in Thomson’s poem comprehends not merely selfish laziness and the extreme of accidie, long recognized as sinful, but threatens to extend to much of what might seem innocent pleasure, as well as to love and art. The simpler delights of indolence, though, begin with comfortable clothing. (XXVI) Even “repose of mind” of a sort associated with Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Buddhism is praised by the wizard of Indolence (XVI) as though mental equanimity could be born of pure idleness.

In spite of his clear condemnation, the poet expatiates lovingly on the delights of the Castle which, in fact, operates on the rule of the Abbey of Thélème (and Drop City): “do what you will.” (XXVIII) The luxury is Oriental “Soft quilts on quilts, on carpets carpets spread,” (XXXIII), a richness like the “gay spendour” of “Caliphs old.” (XLII)

The poet’s pose of moral rigor appears in a world so severely problematized as to be almost unlivable. The Castle of Indolence opens in a soporific dreamland of pastoralism in which, contrary to the experience of farmers of all ages, the very sound of the countryside “inclinèd all to sleep.” (IV) Yet the alternative seems to be an even uglier “savage thirst of gain” causing the rivers to run with blood. (XI) The crystal ball which, like Borge’s Aleph reflects the entire world, is called “Of Vanity the Mirror” (L) as though there were nothing further of any significance to be seen. It displays a miserly drudge at work, a spendthrift fool, quarrelsome academics (L-LII) and, vainest of all, war. (LV) Creation belongs to the devil, and his name is not Wickedness but Indolence.

Reality, then, is so very dreary that Morpheus’ dreams are always “gayer.” (XLIV) All the ease-seeking “pilgrims” drink from the fountain of Nepenthe, implying that each must bear a burden in life as onerous as recollections of the Trojan War to its veterans in the tales of “Dan Homer.” Like Helen’s guests, it seems only forgetfulness under the influence of a strong narcotic can free one from “vile earthly care” and open the possibility of joy (XXVII). (Od. 4.220–221)

Given an all-but-intolerable world, indolence, if a vice, is a charming and seductive one. Author and reader may linger in delectation of its joys, yet must condemn it in the end, just as the Pearl-Poet’s medieval Clannesse exhibited the side-show decadence of Sodom only to point a respectable churchly moral, and the New York Post allows its readers to observe the misdeeds of others without ethical peril. This leads to Thomson’s many lyrical nature passages as well as such shocking thrills as the dungeon (LXXIII) and the amazing stampede of hogs at the end. (Canto 2, LXXXI)

But the empire of Thomson’s wizard includes territory beyond what is ordinarily considered the “failing” of indolence. Love, for instance, appears under his auspices only as aggression against a hypnotized maiden, who “sighing yields her up to love’s delicious harms” (XXIII) presumably because it would be too much trouble to be other than complaisant.

Thomson’s persona would have the reader believe that Beauty has “a pale-faced court” (LXXI) whose “only labour was to kill the time.” (LXXII) The text, itself a poem and thus a “killer of time,” presents the villain, the wizard of Indolence, singing to his “enfeebling lute” (VIII, 8) as part of his snares to capture the unwary. In his song, stanzas IX-XIX, he promises that only he can relieve people’s weariness and sorrow, providing instead a “sea/ Of full delight.” (XII) Poetry and idleness are conflated, reminding one of Huizinga’s insistence that “Poiesis, in fact, is a play-function. It proceeds within the play-ground of the mind, in a world of its own which the mind creates for it.” [Homo Ludens p. 119] Thomson’s wizard offers an escape from the sordid routines of practical life devoted to self-advancement: business (“to cheat, and dun, and lie, and visit pay”), law (whose practitioners “Prowl in courts of law for human prey”), or politics ( “In venal senate thieve”). All these are equated, in the end, with crime, with those who “rob on broad highway.” (XIII)

The vanity of poetry is represented by the “man of special grave remark” who sang as sweetly as a morning-lark yet who “buried” these talents, (LVII) preferring to ramble among the flowers. Studying the heavens, he constructs “ten thousand glorious systems,” yet allows these “great ideas” to vanish without action. (LIX) There is a nature poet who visits, but will not remain, in the Castle’s precincts (LXV) and another, too lazy to actually write. (LVIII) The fruitlessness of these artists’ lives is mirrored in others: an unkempt recluse (LXI), a hedonist (LXII), hypocritical clergy (LXIX), and politicians (LXX).
Only the idle poet who has renounced the common goal “to heap up estate” (XIX) can attain that dubious “repose of mind,” a condition in which emotion is tamed and decorative, tending to please rather than “torture” or “deform” man. (XVI) In practice the transmutation of reality in art is what makes life livable, or, at any rate, worth living.

Acceptable to many readers as the point may be, it is itself delivered as part of a “witching song.” (XX) There can be no doubt about the diabolical and deceptive character of the “watchful wicked wizard” who snatches victims with his “unhallowed paw” to sequester within the “cursèd gate.” (XXII)

The contradiction persists to the end. In the second Canto, Industry is the antidote to the evils of Indolence, yet, if one works only to acquire goods, what of the dark picture of the resulting vicious competition in Canto 1? This noble knight displays his prowess in successful practice of the arts. (2, VII) Where then is the condemnation of poetry as vain?
The literary text has extraordinary capacity to express opposition, ambivalence, contradiction, and indeterminacy. Thomson’s poem is the most accurate embodiment of the problematic, conflicted dualities from which people generate the activities of daily life. I myself and may be the reader as well, walk a ridgepole. In my own case, delighting in Thomson’s “soft-tinkling streams” (XLIII), and impatient with the drudgework of writing in the hours before I head off to a foreign land, I suppose I am one with the “bristly swine” (Canto 2, LXXXI) of the poem’s conclusion. Yet, at the same time, as constructor of this essay (as Thomson was of his poem and you of your reading), I also resemble the heroic Knight of Arts and Industry. The tension between the two is as essential to life as the Fall to history, positive electrical charge to negative, or, for all I know, matter to anti-matter. Out of this delicate balance emerges a new poem, a new reading, a new thought.

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