Byatt in the novel Possession succeeds brilliantly in the monumental technical achievement of creating a deeply layered romance in which two twentieth century literary scholars, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, become themselves romantically involved as they investigate a startling connection between the two Victorian poets of whom they have made specialized study. Byatt's feat is an especially remarkable tour de force as she invents and adroitly interlaces the poetic works of both Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte into her narrative. This essay will present a critical analysis of Ash's poem "Swammerdam" as it reveals it's intricate intratextual roles in the novel.
Randolph Henry Ash writes the poem "Swammerdam" during the period of time during which he and Christabel LaMotte are initiating the secret correspondence that will develop into the great passion of their lives. Byatt intends the reader to know that Ash aimed this poem specifically at Christabel as audience. The poem itself plays a role in the plot as the first copied draft sent by Ash is intercepted by Christabel's lesbian companion Blanche, verifying her suspicions. Blanche presents the poem to Ash's wife as proof of the affair. Ash sends a second copy of the poem to which he finds it necessary to make numerous changes. Ellen returns the original draft to Ash when he reveals the affair to her. "Swammerdam" reveals much about the character of the poet. His perfectionism, his pride in his erudition, his pomposity, his literary pretension. It is a form of his ventriloquism, the style in which he prides himself for looking closely at historical figures, getting inside them and speaking through them.
The first lines of "Swammerdam" include echoes of Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner," as the speaker begs to be heard. Indeed the name Christabel comes from a Coleridge poem. Thus Byatt evokes multiple layers of literary meaning as she equates her fictional poet with Robert Browning, who in his "Mr. Sludge, 'the Medium'" shows that he shares Ash's skepticism of spiritualist phenomena. Taking this Ash poem in the context of his other works, as created by Byatt, the reader, can also perceive the presence of John Donne, whose attitude toward women's minds as expressed in "Love Alchemy," makes it evident that Ash agrees that men must "Hope not for mind in women." From the same Donne poem, Ash takes his title "Mummy Possessed," his own satiric response to Christabel's belief in spiritualism. In identifying Ash with Donne, Byatt categorizes him as a metaphysical poet. Ash's connection with experience, like Donne's is male and intellectual. These poets distance themselves from life and use their poetry to mentally stimulate their readers, requiring depth of knowledge for understanding. The overall tone of "Swammerdam" can be seen as superior male talking down to inferior minded female.
The egg imagery with which Ash begins the poem is vital to its essential meaning and to the relationship of the poem to the novel as a whole. Early in their correspondence Christabel poses a riddle for Ash, "a fragile Riddle, in white and Gold with life in the middle of it" (151) to which the answer is the egg of Christabel's life which Ash is likely to crush. There is even the unspoken implication from Byatt that Ash may be stealing this image from LaMotte when uses it in his poem. Christabel writes brilliantly in her letter describing her solitude as her egg, "sealed and smooth" within which "gold cage" she has "Wings to spread." In magnificent words that reveal her true promise as a poet Christabel says:
Shattering an Egg is unworthy of you, no Pass time for men. Think what you would have in your hand if you put forth your Giant strength and crushed the solid stone. Something slippery and cold and unthinkably disagreeable (152).
With this image Byatt embodies the central male/female dichotomy of the novel in which men and women scholars vie to interpret and defend their poetic counterparts. As "Swammerdam" continues with it's obsession with eggs and larvae and ovaries we find encapsulated the ironic saga of the fate of Christabel, a woman destined to be known merely as a minor poet, later to be championed by twentieth century feminists, the egg of whose life is indeed crushed by her relationship to the "Giant" poet. The fertilization of her egg and the resultant pregnancy, childbirth, and aftermath are so much more overwhelming to her life than to his. As Ash works with the egg image, Byatt reveals much of his character. The simple picture of life being crushed presented by Christabel becomes intellectually complex and convoluted in Ash's poetic mind. He must include every possible association (hatching, shell, pricking, sucking) as he develops his image. His intention is to show that he is an examiner of minute details like Swammerdam. In his attempt to impress Christabel with his knowledge and his investigative nature, he, in the process he reveals that he is pedantic and long winded and full of himself and that often, as he seeks "to know the origins of life," (225) he obfuscates rather than clarifies.
The historical Swammerdam, was a 17th-century Dutch microscopist, who through development of new instruments, careful dissections, and precise experimentation in insect development made discoveries demonstrating that spontaneous generation was a fallacy and that the same organism continues through its various stages. His studies became the foundation for the developing understanding of morphogenesis, contributing to Darwin's theories of evolution which were so prominent in Victorian minds. The year 1859 in which Cristabel LaMotte and R.H. Ash begin the correspondence which includes the sharing of "Swammerdam" to be followed by a shared holiday on the Yorkshire coast studying geology and marine life, is the same year in which Darwin's The Origin of the Species is published, popularizing the theory of natural selection which creates a climate of doubt in the previously secure world of blow Victorian religious faith. Ash's scientific interest in marine biology parallels Swammerdam's perfectionistic study of insects. Both seek the underlying principles behind life.
As the poem begins, Swammerdam is composing his will, allocating his few worldly belongings as he prepares to die. The Frenchman Thevenot who is to receive Swammerdam's pens and manuscripts is a historical person who after Swammerdam's death manages to publish at least one volume of his work under the title The Bible of Nature ().
Nature's Bible" the phrase Swammerdam uses to describe his discoveries serves multiple purposes in the work of Byatt/Ash as it evokes the Victorian concern with Darwin's supposed destruction of the Bible's version of creation.
As Swammerdam describes his worldly work which he "thought much, but men thought otherwise" (221), it is easy to see Ash's ego comparing his own poetry to the scientific exhibits of his subject:
Well nigh three thousand winged or creeping things
Lively in death, injected by my Art,
Lovingly entered, opened and displayed-- (222)
Ash wants to be identified in the eyes of Christabel with the men who "dared to probe/Secrets beyond their frame's unaided scope," and "Who saw Infinity through countless cracks / In the blank skin of things" (222). Like Swammerdam who proved that from the insect's egg the larvae emerged and then further developed into "The monstrous female or the winged drone/Or hurrying worker, each in its degree" (222), Ash wants to be seen as an Expert in smallness, in the smallest things
The inconsiderable and overlooked,
The curious and the ephemeral, 222
Ash carefully details the evolution of Swammerdam from youthful collector to worldly explorer, describing the exactly work that weakened Swammerdam's eyes "straining over motes and specks of living mater" (223). With his poetic cataloging, Ash, like Swammerdam, aspires to "part/Medicine from myth" (224). Like Swammerdam, Ash has "precocious yearnings of the mind" and through his interest in marine biology (to be soon shared with Christabel) shows that he agrees "true anatomy" begins "not in the human heart and hands," but in "primal forms." For both poet and microscopist the "clue of life" lies "in the blind white worm/That eats away the complex flesh of men, and "rational anatomy/Begins at the foot o' the ladder, on the rung/Nearest the fertile heat of Mother Earth" (225).
Byatt introduces the word "possessed" (225) as Swammerdam considers his obsession with insects. From the title of the book it is obvious the Byatt herself is possessed with the ways in which humans throughout history become possessed by one thing or another. Scholars are possessed by long dead poets, men and women are romantically possessed by one another, mentally and physically and Swammerdam and Ash are possessed by obsessions to study "forms of life" (225). As Swammerdam "crucified" "frail dark wings," for his own knowledge and "amusement," the reader sees the analogy to Ash's poetic crucifixions of his poetic characterizations and even feels a foreboding knowledge of Christabel's fate as she will succumb to the pins and microscope of Ash's possession.
Possessed as he is with his pursuit of Christabel as he writes about Swammerdam,