CULTURE AND CIVILISATION: by Lucy SullivanNews Weekly
Resisting the call of the wild
, May 26, 2012
I have just come from a stunning performance of Sibelius’s Second Symphony, surely one of the most extraordinary compositions in the whole Western tradition.
Although it is in the received language and tongues of Western music, it seems, like Beethoven’s expression in music of the Romantic emotions, to have come out of nowhere to access a new preoccupation of the human spirit.
It is certainly not a call to nationalism, as some critics have proposed, and Sibelius himself denied. It is the seductive call of wild nature. It is both harbinger and arrival of a profound change in Western attitudes to the uncivilised and unharnessed created world.
For most of mankind’s existence, while we lived in constant threat of natural and untamed external and insidious internal forces, nature was kept as far as possible at bay in human consciousness. It was not welcomed into our souls. It did not embody principles to which we aspired.
The call of the wild to the individual soul did, nevertheless, make itself felt even in those embattled eras — we know this from folk tales — but, personified in fairies, elves and goblins, it was an evil and dangerous call which took its hearers away from the human world and hid them in fairyland.
Children were particularly vulnerable. There are many tales, in various forms, of children being stolen by the fairies, sometimes of changelings, fairy children without proper human souls, being left in their place. There were steps parents should take to prevent exposure of their children to the fairy call which, once heard, could not be resisted.
In the Romantic 19th century, these tales began to enter formal literature. Romanticism had made a compact with wild nature that humanised it by making it expressive of human emotions. Its power to destroy was disguised as it was admitted into the human psyche.
Its literary representation, however, initially retained something of the old fear, while the claim on belief was ambiguous. Goethe’s poem Erlkönig narrates the story of a father on horseback fleeing with a sick child in his arms, as the elf king, invisible and inaudible to the father, accosts the boy.
The temptations he offers — bright flowers by the seashore, golden clothes — do not, thus early in the century, entice the child, and so the elf king takes him by force. The boy gives a last cry, “Erlking has wounded me”, and is dead in his father’s arms.
By the mid-19th century, in William Allingham’s The Fairies, the identification of fairies with wild nature has become clearer; their abode has become more alluring:
Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen…
Down along the rocky shore…
Some in the reeds of the black mountain lake…
They are still feared:
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men
However, kidnap by the fairies has become more melancholy than terrifying:
They stole little Bridget
For seven years long;
When she came down again
Her friends were all gone…
They thought that she was fast asleep,
But she was dead with sorrow.
The story of Rip Van Winkel is a version, as is J.M. Barrie’s prettied Peter Pan.
More recognisable and scary, though with a certain allure, is the latter’s play, Mary Rose, in which a small girl disappears for a few days on a tiny island in a Scottish Loch. When found, she has no memory of her time of absence, but it affects her oddly, as if she has ceased to mature emotionally from that point.
As a young woman on her honeymoon she again visits the island, hears the island’s call, and this time is gone for 20 years. She reappears unaged, and is bewildered by the effects of time on her husband and parents.
The spirit veil is not lifted in Barrie’s play, but in Yeats’s 1889 poem, The Stolen Child, the other world offered by the fairies is made seductively attractive (water and its shore seem always to be a feature of fairyland):
Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim grey sands with light…
In this world devoid of humans, where nature entrances, the child will escape the common sorrows of humanity:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping
than you can understand.
I clearly recall the lure spun for me by these verses on first reading, and the shock, the sudden realisation of loss, when the poem suddenly changes key to:
Away with them he’s going,
The solemn eyed:
No more he’ll hear the lowing
Of the calves on the green hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast…
Yeats returns us to humanity by evoking the precious mundane alternatives to the enthrallment of wild nature, and imposes on the reader the knowledge that the exchange offered by the fairies is false to the human soul.
A few years later, in The Lake Isle of Innisfree, Yeats seems to have lost this insight as he envisages transcendence and oblivion on an island, the ultimate of isolation in nature, where insects are the only animate life. The siren call is no longer anthropomorphised:
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping…
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Sibelius’s work likewise discards caution as it renders in music the seductive call to the world of wild nature. We first hear the trill of the fairy pipes breaking through the chaos of nature in the first movement, but they do not stay, and we inhabit for the next two movements a non-human wilderness with promises of exhilarating danger and excitement, until in the fourth movement through a great generative swell, as if an ocean is giving birth, the seductive high piping breaks through again and lifts off, transporting us to a purer, refined spirit world co-existing above that still heaving earth or ocean.
Truly, Sibelius spirits us away from our humanity.
Fortunately, the music ends and we have to return to reality, and what could we really do if we stayed there?
One senses, however, that today’s extreme Greens are a modern equivalent of the changeling child whose human soul has been spirited away by the ecstasy of communion with the wild. Fear them!
Dr Lucy Sullivan has written widely on literature, cultural matters, family, taxation and poverty. This article is an extract from her forthcoming book, False Promises: Sixties Philosophy Against the Church: A Sociological Memoir With Statistics, 1900-1995.