- Dead Calm:The Melancholy of Peace
The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday—but never jam to-day.—Lewis Carroll, The White Queen to Alice (1998, 174)<
. . . I breathe again!Trances of thought and mountings of the mindCome fast upon me: it is shaken off,That burthen of my own unnatural self,The heavy weight of many a weary dayNot mine, and such as were not made for me.Long months of peace (if such bold word accordWith any promises of human life),Long months of ease and undisturbed delightAre mine in prospect; whither shall I turnBy road or pathway, or through trackless field, [End Page 243] Up hill or down, or shall some floating thingUpon the river point me out my course?—Wordsworth (1979, I:18-30)
In his inaugural address to the nation, Barack Obama started by conceding that the words of every address invariably share previous contexts: "[they] have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebearers, and true to our founding documents" (2009, 3). While Obama located his own words in the mise-en-scène of darkening clouds, his address also strategically moved over the delicate "still waters of peace," as if easily taking for granted the figure that underwrote the calculated uplift of the occasion. If peace is linked with prospects, glories, and success, then paradoxically, the insights of its "still waters" are fundamentally shallow.
A similarly vague forecast emerges at the beginning of the first book of Wordsworth's The Prelude, another text of thresholds and fragile promises. There Wordsworth reckons with the mixed welcome of things seemingly not too far off. Although lightened of the weight of days, he remains caught up in the consequences of further surmises that do little to clarify the unknowable future course of life. "Trances of thought and mountings of the mind" appear as swiftly as they are "shaken off," while the sense of "many a weary day / Not mine, and such as were not made for me" shares an experience that is just as easily ignored as it is committed to memory. When Wordsworth summons the murky figure of peace, it is with a mood somewhere between apprehension and non-knowing. Indeed, in the 1850 Prelude, Wordsworth shuts away that "bold word" into the space of the parenthetical where it is silently acknowledged as a remainder that haunts poetic thought, an aside only the poem itself could avow in its own inside voice.
Whatever Wordsworth takes the "still waters" of peace to be, they turn us as much away as toward the yet-to-come and may-not-come. Appropriately, questions concerning "whither shall I turn / By road or pathway, or through [End Page 244] trackless field, / Up hill or down, or shall some floating thing, / Upon the river point me out my course?" are about the kinds of orientations that peace prescribes and loses sight of altogether. In times of ease and delight, the open road, pathway, or field are prospective figures of movement that seem as untrustworthy as "floating things," which direct one to forget the future even as they suggest alternative means of discovery. The recoil that peace provokes hints at a poetics of possibility encrusted in a theory of mourning: to appreciate the boldness of the declaration of peace is to feel for an opportunity that has palpably gone missing. It is for these reasons that Wordsworth's own "sweet dream of perpetual peace," as Kant calls it, is both welcomed and elegized as an almost charmingly ineffectual anachronism—a floating thing one greets as if it had already disappeared (2006, 67).
Like much of Romantic writing, The Prelude was written amidst the sobering realities of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century warfare when utterances of peace were never quite distinguishable from the ever-growing chance of more wars...