The sea as green fields: calenture and Wordsworth’s rural ocean
Wordsworth’s pastoral “The Brothers” includes a footnote that reads: “This description of Calenture is sketched from an imperfect recollection of an admirable one in prose, by Mr. Gilbert, Author of the Hurricane .” 1 Attached to a passage where Leonard Ewbanks gazes out over the bow of a ship and imagines the verdant landscape of his youth, the note raises several questions: what is calenture, who is Gilbert, and how would calenture matter to a poem Wordsworth designated as “the concluding poem of a series of pastorals” (p. 135n)? Calenture, a tropical disease afflicting sailors who have been too long at sea, is the hallucination that the sea has become a green field into which they desire to leap. The mention of calenture in “The Brothers” juxtaposes colonial disease and its sufferers with the rustic and pastoral communities whose dispersion the poem laments. Calenture stands as the poem’s metaphor for a “recollection,” albeit “an imperfect” one, of rural life cast over the waves: a life displaced, fantastic, and unrecoverable (as it recollects what never was). As William Gilbert, Erasmus Darwin, and other authors have used it, calenture deceives its sea-bound victim with the promise of a reunion with land. For Wordsworth, the trope of calenture might resolve a crisis of displacement through imaginative activity. Yet, Leonard’s spell of calenture creates further crises of identity, location, and origin(s). As a portent for maritime labor promising fortune but delivering dissolution, “The Brothers” illustrates the misfortune of English families who exchange rural for maritime labor. 2
“The Brothers” recounts the fate of the Ewbanks family, shepherds from “among the mountains of Cumberland and Westmoreland” (l. 135n1). After the death of their father, two brothers – Leonard and James – separate as Leonard goes to sea and James remains. While Leonard is absent, James suffers somnambulism, walks off a cliff, and falls to his death. Wordsworth pronounces the poem as the “concluding” one of a series of pastorals he never wrote. The statement (in the poem’s first footnote) performs in textual absence the very loss of the pastoral around which he frames the poem’s maritime activity. Yet, critics have been slow to address the crucial role of Leonard’s maritime activity and sea-borne hallucinations. 3 Richard W. Clancey refutes the idea that Leonard even suffers from calenture. He argues
(OED) description of the disease. More recently, Alan Bewell and Michael Wiley have examined the influence of sea voyage narratives in shaping the poem’s equivocal attitude toward colonialism and the slave trade. 5 Celeste Langan remarks on the calenture passage for how it mirrors Leonard and his brother.