Freedom, Independence and "Belongingness" in English pre- and post-Civil War Literature
Readers of early English literature, especially American readers, usually begin with attitudes toward freedom and independence which are diametrically opposed to those held by the authors of the works and their contemporary audiences. We often forget that America was founded upon ideas that were literally revolutionary. They turned away from thousands of years of human social organization and founded their new nation-state upon one ancient idea, largely considered a failure by previous eras' thinkers, and several brand new ideas which never had been put into practice before as the foundation of a culture. The old idea, of course, was "democracy," effectively dead as a social institution since the collapse of the Athenian empire and its absorption by the Macedonian military dictatorship in 338 B.C.E.. The new ideas were that states depended upon a social contract between the governed and their governors (Hobbes), and that even the least of the governed had innate human rights (Locke and Rousseau). These seventeenth- and eighteenth-century ideas reshaped peoples' ideas of what they wanted from life, how they related to the states they inhabited and the people who ruled them, and they covered up, but did not destroy, medieval psycho-social mentalities with a new layer of modern motivations and beliefs. Students can discover much about themselves and about what they believe in if they will experiment with thinking like a pre-Modern mind, and to do that, it helps to reconsider from whom one came to be and to whom one belongs.
If we travel to cultures other than our own, but in our own era, we can find interesting contemporary examples of societies which operate quite effectively on the basis of belonging rather than independence, even amid the culture-changing forces of modern technology. Takie Lebra, in an influential study of Japanese culture, coined the term "belongingness" to explain how belonging to "reference groups" creates the typical Japanese person's idea of "self": Reference is found not only in the gemeinschaft based on ketsuen ("blood ties") or chien ("geographical ties") but, more importantly, in shaen ("company ties")" ("Belongingness" 22). Medieval English people and, to some extent, so-called "renaissance" English people, also understood themselves in terms of to whom they belonged (hierarchical organizations with people at their centers) and to what region they belonged (Reynolds). Lebra cautions that we should not oversimplify how these relationships worked, but she means that "to attain an end--whether social or nonsocial--the creation, maintenance, or manipulation of a relevant social relationship is a foremost and indispensable means" ("Social Relativism" 4). Post-World-War-II democracy, coupled with the slow seepage of Anglo-American notions of individual rights and freedom into Japanese culture, have changed some features of Japanese society since Lebra first proposed this explanation for its operations, but the great differences in emphasis between the Japanese and typical Americans still remains. Medieval English people, except for religious aescetics who sought social isolation and through it an enhanced relationship with God and the saints, similarly find relationship to place, community, enterprise and kin crucial to their sense of well-being and motivation. Absence of those ties produces agonizing psychological pain, as we learn by listening to their laments.
Students writing papers and preparing for exams could benefit from thinking about characters who are isolated from communities against their will, and those rare characters who seek isolation for their own purposes. Among the most powerful laments for isolation in the Norton are those called the Anglo-Saxon elegies, like "Wanderer" and "Wife's Lament," but we also have some notable examples of the "new personality" in formation when we read Edmund's soliloquies anticipating the ruin of his father, step-brother, and king, in Lear. Donne, in some of his most striking erotic songs, often celebrates his isolation (with his Beloved) from the entire Universe, but he does so in a fashion that reveals exactly how socially shocking he believes the reader will find his opinions. When he has lost the woman for whom he gave up all hope of career or solid social connection, he turns to God with a ferocity which equals his earlier rejection of ordinary social relations, perhaps because his experiment with the newfangled ideas of independent exploration had so utterly failed him. Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe appear to seek isolation, but their minds are filled with the supernatural presence of God, a force which displaces one commitment after another until they find themselves alone. The process by which Margery, in particular, strips away her normal medieval relationships could make an interesting comparison with the sentiments in "Wife's Lament" or "Wanderer," or with Julian's parallel experience. Especially note that Margery seeks Julian out as one whose similar new-found "Super-Belonging" might confirm hers against the suspicions of her neighbors, husband, and the Archbishop. Similarly, when we read that characters are trying to decide what to do in a dilemma, look for the expression of choices in terms of people to whom they owe allegiance, often expressed in the word "love," which can mean political affiliation as well as erotic attachment or disinterested well-wishing of another. Shakespeare's sonnet-persona caught between his Beloved and the Dark Lady, like Spenser's celebrating the coincidental service of the "three Elizabeths" in his life (his bride, his mother, and the queen), and Faustus' psychodramas with his good and bad angels, enact the breaking and making of social bonds which also make or break their senses of self.
When relationships to people fail a medieval or early modern character, the land from which they arose remains a powerful point of attachment. Like the samurai, whose names often are composed of their family name, birth order in number of sons, and place of birth, medieval nobles usually bore a given name and the place name of their birth (e.g., John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster and Chaucer's early patron, was born while his mother, wife of Edward III, was in modern-day .Ghent). Therefore, we should not be surprised at the exiled Sir Thomas Wyatt's decision to answer his friend John Poins with a satire on courtiers' behavior that expresses powerful affection for his native Kent and its customs ("Mine Own John Poins"), and we might expect that elsewhere in Wyatt's work we might find references to Kentish landscapes or country pleasures rising up when betrayal and disappointment cut him off from his "friends" at court. Amelia Lanyer's "Cooke-Ham," the brilliant coda to Salve Jesu Rex Judeorum is a spectacular example of a woman exiled from her friends and evoking their lost presence in her grief--also see the dedicatory poems, like the clay warriors of a deposed emperor standing guard over her project's beginning. Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, creates a positive, relationship-sealing evocation of a place to which she still belongs in "Nocturnal Reverie," and a comparison of the two place-poems would be productive. (Ben Jonson's "Penshurst" also fits here--is he connected or shut out?) As always Lear remains a touchstone for late-medieval and early renaissance notions of personal relationship and relationship to the land, perhaps in surprising ways in Acts III-V, and the lonely city folk of Congreve's The Way of the World, having lived through the first stages of the great change in mentalities, actually call their little circle of London elite "the World" and mock the inexperienced Sir Wilful Witwoud for his self-confident, country manners. Herrick, cut off from the cult following surrounding Ben Jonson and the London literary life it represented, writes hymns to the countryside which elevate its ordinary charms to objects of religious devotion.
The evidence of these differences in self-concept differs significantly from evidence of modern "angst" and despair. Don't just look for loneliness or joy, but rather search for expressions of a loss of "self," a feeling one is incomplete, fractured, ineffectual, growing faint or distant or forgotten. Look for the retreat to memories of the team/warband/sisterhood, powerful evocations of places in which bonds were formed and relationships of service and protection offered.
Lebra, Takie. "Belongingness." In Japanese Patterns of Behavior. Honolulu: U P of Hawaii: 1976. 22-37.
---------. "Social Relativism as a Japanese Ethos: A Postulate." In Japanese Patterns of Behavior. Honolulu: U P of Hawaii: 1976. 1-21.
Reynolds, Susan. “Medieval ‘Origines Gentium’ and the Community of the Realm.” History. 68 (1983) 375-90.