Last week, it snowed. It’s late January, and this is the part of winter when I start to grow weary of the gray. The clouds are dark and low. They seal me in. It’s cold enough that I’ve had to confine myself inside more than I prefer. The ceiling presses down upon me. Unless it snows. When it snows, the world is bright and magical again, and it’s quiet like no other type of quiet one experiences, mystically quiet, not at any time during life. I treasure those snowy moments until spring arrives.
This brief description of what seems to be Seasonal Affective Disorder is just to say: this happens to me every year. The world does essentially the same thing, and I feel typically the same feelings during this cycle. However, someone new has found his way into the cycle, and things are slightly changed. Now when it snows, my three-year old son Maxwell exclaims that it’s snowing and asks, “Can we have fun in the snow?” We can.
I’m reminded of times when my father and I would sled down large hills in our woods (and his sledding rule: “No one goes inside until someone gets hurt.”), but as Maxwell and I have a woods of approximately 0.1 acres, we do other snow activities, mainly snowball-throwing. This particular day, we hit snowballs with his plastic baseball bat and yelled, “Kersplosion!” (Not sure why. He likes to make up words.) When he tired of kersplosions, he told me to “watch this,” and smacked the bat on a maple tree trunk. “Don’t hurt the tree,” I told him. “We live here with it, so we need to love it,” and with that instruction, Maxwell wanted me to watch him smack the small branch on the ground, a branch that had fallen out of the tree sometime in the recent past.
My thoughts were rooted in unexpected connections, as all this was happening a day after I finished A.S. Byatt’s neo-Victorian novel Possession. It’s a romance and a Romance, as in a quest with Holy Grails, knights errant, etc., and I was excited for that aspect of the novel, as I’ve always enjoyed folk tales, fairy tales, legends, and myths. I wondered how a postmodern novel about a search for Victorian poets’ missing letters would incorporate these older forms of storytelling; but, of course, as novels, poems, letters, and legends all involve storytelling, the connections came immediately. The name of the main character, Roland, is the traditional name of a Holy Grail quester – as in Robert Browning’s Victorian-era poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” The connections abounded. The novel’s character is a postmodern scholar, the poem is Victorian, and the name is archetypal and infinitely evocative for those who know the legends and the supposed symbolic meanings of their objects and characters.
Roland’s plot in Possession begins and ends with his thoughts on some symbolic imagery involving Proserpina, whose abduction in Roman mythology prompts the beginnings of the world’s seasons; when she resides in the underworld with Pluto (yes, the god of the underworld of the dead is also the god of wealth, underground, where we find the minerals we use to create coins...oh, the connections), she the world is barren. When she returns to our world, flowers bloom and bear fruit, and grains grow and ripen. The painting Roland (and Randolph Henry Ash) ruminates upon includes the classic symbolism of the tree of life, stretching to the heavens while rooted underground, a serpent/dragon coiled around its base, bearing fruit to be plucked by the hungry, bold, and curious. The curious, of course, find connections among most everything.
From the beginning, I could see that Byatt’s “modern” protagonists, Roland and Maud, would be forming connections between each other while searching for connections between the poets Christabel LaMotte and Ash. The parallel plots tempt the reader to find uncanny similarities in the progressions of their romantic relationships and their lives. The two time periods in which the plot takes place tempt the reader to find Byatt’s Victorian allusions.
Maud’s name alludes to a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson; both Browning and Tennyson seem the stereotypical poet on which Ash is based, and the poem “Maud" has some descriptions of water and birds that parallel descriptions of Maud in Possession, all to romantic effect (This link directs you to Part II of the poem; Part I has parallels, too, but these, I thought, were more obvious. Both are available on the “Resources” page of this site). Near the end of the novel, Maud’s connection to the poets and their romance allows her to gain this story’s Grail, the letters of Maud’s passionate progenitors, Ash and Christabel. Christabel: who shares a name with (a Victorian poetic forebearer mentioned frequently in Possession) Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s titular “Christabel.” Coleridge’s poem involves two women who form an unusual bond at the base of an oak tree, possible betrayal, a missing mother, a dream of a snake coiled around the base of a tree, a man named Roland, and an ending praising elfin daughters who bring joy to their fathers – all motifs of Byatt’s novel.
Ash, the father of an elfin daughter he meets only once, to his apparent happiness, writes a poem featuring the classically wandering Odin, the all-father, with his staff. The poem is juxtaposed with Ash and a walking stick exploring Lincolnshire, the place where his and Christabel’s daughter, ancestor of Maud, lover of Roland, was conceived. And Odin’s staff, of the same wood as the world tree in Norse mythology, leads me to the original image Roland imagined while reading Ash’s “The Garden of Proserpina”: the woman, the tree, the roots, the serpent.
I was possessed by Byatt’s patterns. They show us that we possess the past, and the past possesses us. Somewhere in our grasp, through literature, legend, science, or séance, we possess the seeds of all human wisdom.
Maxwell rhythmically beat the fallen maple branch. “Wow!” He was delighted. I’m sure I would have been once, also. I know I was. Now, though, I couldn’t help thinking about the life in the tree I wouldn’t let him bash. I thought of the partial life/partial death state of the fallen but not yet rotted wood my son joyously banged his rhythms upon. The snow we stood in would be water that nourished the tree, and the vibrating branch was once nourished by the decayed matter beneath the maple’s roots. Maxwell’s pounding shook infinity. And then he handed me the bat.
We walked into the woods, as my father and I once walked. I swung a baseball bat while Max pitched pinecones. We laughed, and I looked forward to spring.