[lit-ideas] The Quaker's Startle Response

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  • Date: Tue, 9 Dec 2014 09:56:08 -0500

A startle response is a defensive response to sudden or threatening  
stimuli, and is associated with negative affect.
Usually the onset of the startle response is reflectory. 
The startle reflex is a brainstem reflectory reaction (reflex) that serves  
to protect the back of the neck (whole-body startle) or the eye (eyeblink) 
and  facilitates escape from sudden stimuli. It is found across the lifespan 
and in  many species. 
An individual's emotional state may lead to a variety of responses.
Helm quotes from Mariani's being startled at his reading of Lowell's  
"Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket": "I can still", remembers Mariani, "remember  
standing in the stacks of the library one dreary rainy afternoon soon 
afterwards  and, as I read that poem, felling as if the top of my head were 
One Oxonian philosopher would have focused on the 'as if' and  Vaihinger 
wrote a book about it, "The philosophy of as if". 

In a message dated 12/9/2014 7:19:22 A.M. Eastern Standard Time,  
lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx writes:
"So perhaps my equivalent of “startle”  (although I don’t like but can’t 
think of an acceptable replacement word) is  what I use, and perhaps the 
evaluation of poetry will always be an individual  thing.  And then perhaps 
only when enough prestigious critics individually  evaluate and then pronounce 
a poem or a poet great will it and he be more widely  considered so."
Well, let us consider the first four lines of the thing, and the Wikipedia  
interpretation. Has the thing attained objective, absolute, 'startling', as 
it  were:
A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket— 
The sea was still breaking violently and night   
Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet, 
When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net.
"The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket is said to be an influential  poem by 
Robert Lowell (on those who read it -- there is a second-hand influence,  
too). It was first published in 1946 in his collection Lord Weary's  Castle.
The poem is written in an irregular combination of pentametre and trimetre  
and divided into seven sections. 
Some think the number seven was magical.
It is dedicated to Lowell's cousin, "Warren Winslow, Dead At Sea." 
Oddly, I was reading in "Ancient Roman inscriptions": 'dedicate' has for  
the epigraphist a strict name. Things can only be 'dedicated' to a _god_: 
Marte,  say. When it's a person, other verb should be used. (Loeb Classical 
Library,  "Remains of Old Latin," Volume IV).
If Lowell knew this, the implicature could be that Warren Winslow's _soul_  
has become, as it should 'divine'. 
According to the Notes in Lowell's Collected Poems, "The body of Warren  
Winslow . . .was never recovered after his Navy destroyer, "Turner", sank from 
 an accidental explosion in New York harbor during World War II."
Why the destroyer was called "Turner", just like the subject of a new film  
on a painter (and I was delighted by the bit of dialogue in "Theory of  
Everything". Hawking senior (to Hawking junior's girlfriend), "And what is your 
 favourite painter?" "Turner". "I always thought his paintings as having 
left out  washed in the rain", or better words to the same effect.
Section I of Lowell's poem describes the discovery, by a fleet of warships, 
 of a sailor's corpse at sea on the North Atlantic "off Madaket" (which is 
a  harbour of Nantucket Island) and its reburial with military honours, 
ending with  the gun salute.
There may be some irony here as to we are not TOLD whose corpse it was.  
There was an ironic cartoon in the newspaper recently: it contrasted a grave 
'to  the unknown soldier' full of glories and flower ornaments and wreaths. 
Next to  it, the caption read something about the 'KNOWN soldier'. I thought 
it was a  genial use of the a-negation: we do speak of 'unknown' too easily, 
but 'known  soldier' has a different implicature to it that we should work 
on (cfr.  'requited love', 'sung hero'). 
Wikipedia goes on:
"It also makes the first reference to Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick",  
specifically to the fictional character Captain Ahab."
And we know Lowell had a thing for fictional characters, like Billy  
Harkness. What WERE the sources for Melvill's Ahab?
Throughout the poem, Lowell uses the fate of the fictional "Pequod", the  
whaling ship in Moby Dick, as a metaphor for the fate of Warren Winslow and 
his  fellow Navy crewmen of the "Turner" during World War II.
This is what a psychiatrist (alla Freud) would call displacement. If the  
implicature is Winslow, why replace or displace this to Pequod? Answer: the 
poet  becomes a poet not only for what he SAYS or expresses, but for what he 
leaves  UNSAID or unexpressed.
Section II introduces the Quaker graveyard in Nantucket and Lowell's  
cousin, and Lowell continues to elaborate his Moby-Dick metaphor in this  
Now, the Quaker are an interesting lot. And this may seem an abrupt change  
of topic into the specifics of a very NEW ENGLAND (and anti-establishment 
OLD  ENGLAND) kind of thing.
Section III muses on the death of his cousin and on the dying thoughts and  
beliefs of the Quaker sailors buried there. 
But these were KNOWN sailors by the QUAKER community. I suppose back in the 
 day a Quaker graveyard would ONLY allow visitors from other Quakers. It 
wasn't a  PUBLIC graveyard, as was the graveyard on which Gray wrote his elegy 
 (his country elegy on a country graveyard -- initiating a genre of poetry 
-- the  'graveyard' poetry).
"Lowell also cryptically references Moby-Dick as "IS, the whited monster"  
which the critic Hugh Staples interprets as a comparison of the whale with  
Staples's implicature is, ..., to say the least, "Startling". It  
presupposes that God is a monster -- and that the quality of colour applies to  
abstract nature.
Section IV continues to mix the narrative of the sinking of Winslow's ship, 
 the "Turner", and the deaths of its crew, with the sinking of the "Pequod" 
and  the deaths of its crew.
Mixing is not displacement though, or replacement. 
In Section V, Lowell uses the imagery of whale-hunting which he compares  
with religious sacrifice.
On the part of the whale, which is God?
It seems that in New England, whale-hunting was a VERY COMMERCIAL sort of  
thing. And whale = oil that could be sold out of it. 
Section VI (separately titled 'Our Lady of Walsingham') makes the religious 
 subtext of some of the previous sections more explicit, invoking a 
pilgrimage to  the saint's shrine in Norfolk, England. 
Back in the old country. C. of E. -- I suppose back in the day, this 'Lady' 
 was a Catholic lady. My first reference to Norfolk is always Noel Coward, 
in  Private Lives:
---- COWARD: Norfolk.
--- Gertrude Lawerence: Very flat, Norfolk.
--- Coward: Indeed: very flat.
"the saint's shrine" in Norfolk, Wikipedia writes.
But of course "Our Lady" is "Notre Dame", as the French call her:  Mary.
"Our Lady of Walsingham" is a title of Maria the mother of Jesus. 
The title derives from the belief that Maria appeared in a vision to  
Richeldis de Faverches, a devout English aristocrat, in 1061 in the village of  
Walsingham in Norfolk, England. 
Lady Richeldis de Faverches had a Holy House built in Walsingham which  
became a shrine and place of pilgrimage.
In passing on his guardianship of the Holy House, the son of Lady  
Richeldis de Faverches, Geoffrey, left instructions for the building of a  
priory in 
The priory passed into the care of Canons Regular sometime between 1146 and 
The Holy House, containing the simple wooden structure which Lady Richeldis 
 de Faverches claimed she had been asked to build in imitation of the home  
in which the Annunciation occurred [following pictorial evidence?], became 
both  a shrine and the focus of pilgrimage to Walsingham. 
The chapel was founded in the time of Edward the Confessor, about 1053, the 
 earliest deeds naming Lady Richeldis de Faverches as the founder. 
In 1169, Geoffrey granted "to God and St. Mary and to Edwy his clerk the  
chapel of our Lady" (i.e. Maria) which his mother had founded at Walsingham 
with  the intention that Edwy should found a priory. 
These gifts were, shortly afterwards, confirmed to the Austin Canons of  
Walsingham by Robert de Brucurt and Roger, earl of Clare.
This may relate to the "CATHOLIC" message that had led Mariani to Lowell's  
poem in the first place. It seems that after the Protestant movement and 
the  Reformation, 'our lady' shrines were a no-no for the C. of E. 
Lowell continues this last but one section by making only a passing  
reference to his cousin, Warren Winslow.
In last section of the poem, Section VII Lowell returns to the Nantucket  
graveyard and imagines the Atlantic Ocean "fouled with the blue sailors,/ Sea 
 monsters, upward angel, downward fish." 
"Blue sailors" is a good figure. But note that back in the Spanish war,  
ARMY was also referred to as 'blue':
I LOVE this verse so much that I'll quote it!

I have come to say goodbye, Dolly Gray
It's no use to ask me why,  Dolly Gray
There's a murmur in the air, you can hear it everywhere
It is  the time to do and dare, Dolly Gray
Don't you hear the tramp of feet, Dolly Gray
Sounding through the  village street, Dolly Gray
------> 'Tis the tramp of soldiers' true 
------> in their uniforms so blue
I must say goodbye to you, 
Dolly Gray

Wikipedia goes on:
"Lowell ends the poem musing on humankind's origins as having evolved from  
the "sea's slime," -- as per OVIDIO and LUCREZIO? -- "and the biblical 
irony  that the same ocean from which God "breathed into his face the breathe 
life"  is where sailors often die."
"Then Lowell ends the poem with the famously ambiguous line, "The Lord  
survives the rainbow of His will."
which may need an analysis in terms of the implicatures triggered by the  
flouting of the conversational maxim, 'avoid ambiguity!'
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