Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Sea Dragon of an Emotion . . . "Causing Half the Trouble of the World, and Half the Joy"

Since April I've been re-reading Winston Graham's Poldark novels. There's twelve in total and I'm currently up to number eight, The Stranger from the Sea: A Novel of Cornwall, 1810-1811.

I can't say exactly what prompted me to seek out these novels and start reading them one after the other, although I think my discovery late one night on YouTube of a 2011 BBC documentary about the hugely successful 1970s television series based on the first seven Poldark novels may have had something to do with it. No doubt it reminded me of just how much I enjoyed the novels when I first read them – beginning when I was in high school. And I have to say that I haven't been disappointed in revisiting them. Indeed, I've written about the series and even shared excerpts from two of the novels in a couple of recent posts (see here and here).

Graham's series is, without doubt, one of the great works of historical fiction. There's really something for everyone – passion, romance, adventure, history – much of which takes place within the context of the ongoing tensions and intrigue between the feuding Poldark and Warleggan families of turn-of-the-(nineteenth)-century Cornwall.

The series' protagonist is the non-conformist, near-rebel Ross Vennor Poldark. In the BBC series of the 1970s he was played by the handsome Robin Ellis (right). In the first novel of the series, which Graham originally intended to call The Renegade before deciding on Ross Poldark, the young Ross is introduced as a battle-scarred veteran of the American War who, returning in October 1783 to his derelict family estate on the windswept coastline of Cornwall, discovers his widowed father dead and the woman he loves engaged to his cousin. Bitterly disappointed, Ross nevertheless vows to move on with his life. He restores his family's estate, reopens the family copper and tin mines, and scandalizes his fellow gentry folk by marrying his kitchen maid, a miner's daughter named Demelza.

Above: Angharad Rees as Demelza
in the BBC television series Poldark (1975-1977).

First published in 1981, The Stranger from the Sea is set twenty-seven years after the events depicted in the first novel and ten years after the previous novel in the series (The Angry Tide). Not surprisingly, the lives of Ross and Demelza's two adult children, Jeremy and Clowance, now share center stage with those of their parents.

In the course of the novel, both of the younger Poldarks find themselves in romantic entanglements that cause the surfacing of intense emotions. Jeremy becomes infatuated with the refined Cuby Trevanion, a young woman from an ancient but impoverished family of the gentry, while Clowance loses her heart to the mysterious Stephen Carrington, the "stranger from the sea" of the book's title.

Aware of the emotionally turmoil her children are beginning to experience, Demelza imagines the awakening impulse of sexual desire as a sea dragon, "moving as yet sluggishly in the depths of the pool. But once roused it would not sleep again." It's an apt metaphor as such desire is often a force that can be terribly overwhelming, even destructive. Yet it can also ensure the experiencing of much happiness and life-giving intimacy. As Demelza wisely observes, it's an emotion responsible for "half the trouble of the world, and half the joy."

I guess the key is how we embody and express this emotion, this impulse. Do we let it overwhelm and control our every action? Do we only ever see it as a temptation and thus as something to be destroyed or to deny? Both of these responses seem to me to be unhelpful, even dangerous. Perhaps a better response can be found when we remember the symbol of the dragon in the ancient stories of humanity. We often think that such stories have always involved a knight (or saint or angel) killing the dragon. Yet as I've discussed previously, in the early legends of dragons the role of the knight was not to slay the dragon but to force it back to where it belonged, to put it in its appropriate place, in other words. The psychological insight is clear: balance is what it is all about; we need to befriend, which is a poetic way of saying integrate, those powerful emotions and impulses within ourselves which, left unchecked and allowed to overwhelm, can cause great harm to ourselves and others.

Anyway, I was reminded of such things when earlier today I read the following from Winston Graham's The Stranger from the Sea.

The three women turned together to escort [the bull calf] back to Nampara. As they did so the little calf came snuffing up to Demelza and licked her hand and arm with its soft wet mouth. For a moment she felt very queer, faint; for she was taken back a quarter of a century to the night when she had come to the conclusion that her only way of remaining at Nampara when her father wanted her home was to induce Ross to take her into his bed. It had been in the evening, and she was out meating the calves for Prudie, and there in the back of the byre with the calves tumbling around her and their wet mealy mouths plucking at her frock and hands she had had the idea. He had been away, in Truro, trying to save Jim Carter from a prison sentence, and when he came home she had gone into him and made pretty plain to him what she had in mind.

So it had happened, and a few months later he had married her, and they had had four children – one lost – and now the middle two were in the grip of the same overpowering emotion she had felt that night. Perhaps it was only just stirring in them, a sea dragon moving as yet sluggishly in the depths of the pool. But once roused it would not sleep again. It would not sleep until old age – sometimes, from what she'd heard people say, not altogether even then. But in youth an over-mastering impulse which knew no barrier of reason. An emotion causing half the trouble of the world, and half the joy.

– Excerpted from The Stranger from the Sea (1981)
by Winston Graham

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Passion, Tide and Time
A "Useful Marriage" for Morwenna

Related Off-site Link:
Winston Graham’s The Stranger from the Sea: A Falling Off – Ellen Moody (Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two, September 30, 2010).

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