Degrees of Freedom (NJ)
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Minutes of Escape (MH)
1st Gent. Our deeds are fetters that we forge ourselves.
When one begins to examine the theme of confinement in even a handful of poems, the paradox of finding liberty or freedom within boundaries is startling. The quote from Lovelace, "Stone walls do not a prison make, / Nor iron bars a cage" is familiar to most of us. The tone is certain: Love, honor, resolve and spirituality are center stage.
Lovelace reputedly wrote "To Althea, from Prison" when he was incarcerated in Westminster Gatehouse (April 30 to June 30, 1642) for presenting an unpopular Royalist petition advocating the return of Anglican bishops to Parliament. His statement of singing shrilly "The sweetness, mercy, majesty, / And glories of my King" (Charles I) is sincere, but we might question how shrilly he has to 'sing' to be heard. Prison is no prison unless we make it so: "Minds innocent and quiet take / That for a hermitage."
Lovelace's metaphysical comparisons spill over into images, metaphors, pantheistic philosophies and ideas of freedom and individualism in the Romantic movement. Wordsworth's "Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room" echoes paradoxical sentiments of Lovelace: "In truth the prison, unto which we doom / Ourselves, no prison is". And so the poet finds relief from "the weight of too much liberty" within "the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground" like the hermit, the scholar, the maid at the wheel.
A Neo-Platonic cultural critique appears in Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality" where "Heaven lies about us in our infancy! / Shades of the prison house begin to close / Upon the growing boy." In growing up, we enter the earthly prison of adult custom and weight, "the fever and the fret," growing farther from our godly origins.
Coleridge, plagued by financial worries, an incompatible marriage, and an addiction to laudanum brought on to alleviate pain (he coined the word 'psychsomatic'), was also knowledgeable about confinement. He writes "This Lime-Tree Bower, My Prison" because a skillet of hot milk accidentally spilled on his foot prevents him from taking a walk with his friends Charles Lamb and Dorothy Wordsworth. He is glad that Charles has a chance to get out of the City (a thought he also has for his young son in "Frost At Midnight"), where he was virtually imprisoned. Like Wordsworth, Coleridge relies on Nature, God and memory to sustain him. He and Lamb had a lot in common, for they met at Christ's Hospital, 'a charity school'—which sounds like an orphanage full of bullies and prison guards meting out punishments according to their whim. (Charles Lamb, Essays of Eliza, "Christ's Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago").
I have ridden the bus and subway when overly energetic, boisterous teenagers who have just gotten out of school make riders nervous and I have reassured them saying, "Relax. They just got out of jail." We all remember waiting for the slow hand of the clock to reach three and release us from that captivity.
An extreme of confinement, isolation, is presented in The Ancient Mariner in the moral context of sin and redemption—a poem difficult to read without being reminded of the effects of sensory deprivation so well chronicled in Admiral Byrd's book Alone (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1938). Cutting off of the senses (now possible in a sensory deprivation tank) causes hallucinations within a short time; psychosis during prolonged periods. Sleep deprivation can have similar effects. The mariner finds a brief respite from his torment when he watches the brightly colored water snakes and "blesse[s] them unaware." The spell temporarily broken, allows him to pray.
That experiments in mind control ('brainwashing,' to those who grew up in the Fifties and Sixties) are still being conducted, and that solitary confinement is still practiced in our growing prison system is of great concern to advocates of reform. Not to mention what goes on in some of our mental institutions.
Harry Harlow's monkey experiments (Learning to Love) graphically illustrate the need for physical contact,—even with a cloth-covered, wire surrogate mother. Developmentally, monkeys (and humans) thrive on physical contact, do poorly without it.
The paradox of finding liberty within confinement, or a wish to not have too much liberty, is discussed in books like Eric Hoffer's The True Believer; Eric Fromm's Escape from Freedom and The Sane Society; Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism, and a self-help book, How I Found Freedom In an Unfree World (Harry Browne, Macmillan, NY, 1973). A high degree of conformity is a cultural mandate.
Bruno Bettelheim's controversial book, The Informed Heart: A Study of the Pyschological Consequences of Living Under Extreme Fear and Terror (1960) recounts his experiences in two Nazi concentration camps where the will to live was brutally and systematically snuffed out. He determined that the need to keep one's identity, to be psychologically healthy, was more important than the need for food and water.
In the opening paragraph of (The Human Zoo), Desmond Morris claims aberrant behavior of animals and humans is due to confinement, overcrowding; that the city is in fact a literal zoo.
Last year I gave a reading and poetry workshop at a prison facility for juvenile offenders in upstate New York. Under constraint that they use no profanity, no explicit sexual references, and no violent scenarios, for the most part these young men tried and succeeded in writing poems that meant something to them. Within these further constraints, they were allowed to have some degree of freedom on the page. One simply wrote about looking out the window.
The paradoxical quality of liberty and confinement is summed up in the concluding stanza of Bob Dylan's love song, "Ballad in Plain D":
my friends from the prison, they ask unto me,
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Minutes of Escape