07 June 2015

Peter Ibbetson and The Cottage of Lost Play

Every now and then you encounter a confluence of sources that simply need to be set out side by side, even if they also merit more extensive consideration later. That happened today as I was reading Verlyn Flieger's exceptionally interesting book, A Question of Time (1997, p. 32-33):

[George Du Maurier's novel] Peter Ibbetson is a story of the inner life, of the reality of dreams, and of the power of the mind to transcend observable reality.  A boy and a girl growing up in France, "Gogo" Pasquier and "Mimsey" Seraskier, are separated as children and meet years later in England, by which time their adult lives are established. He has become Peter Ibbetson and she the Duchess of Towers.  She is now married to a faithless and abusive husband, and Peter is the adopted dependent of his equally unsavory uncle, the wicked Colonel Ibbetson. They meet only briefly before being parted again, this time for life, when Peter is committed to a lunatic asylum for the unpremeditated murder of Colonel Ibbetson.  Cumbersome and arbitrary though it is, this plot device is necessary for Du Maurier's purpose, which is to separate the lovers in daily life so that they may meet in an share one another's dreams. Their dream life then becomes their primary mode of being, and their waking hours a secondary, merely interim existence. 
In their shared dreams the lovers travel together back to childhood, revisit their old life and old haunts and, themselves unseen, observe the children they once were. Here Du Maurier moves explicitly into the realm of parapsychology, presenting the past and the present as intermingled or, perhaps more psychically, presenting them as a unified concept occupying the same dream space, differentiated only by limited observation and experience.  The adult dreamers come to recognize that their present, dreaming selves were present in their own past, sensed by their childhood selves, who speak of being "haunted" by ghosts they cannot see, and which, of course, to ordinary perception do not even exist yet. 
Having taken the step from observable reality with the lovers to interior reality with the dreamers, Du Maurier makes and even greater leap from parapsychology to race memory.  Taking ever-greater risks with probability, he sends his dreaming lovers beyond their personal past and memory into their ancestral past and family memory and history and finally back as far as they can go, back through race memory into a nineteenth-century dream of prehistory.  Together they transcend the Paris suburb of their childhood to visit France in the ancien regime, to go back to the time of Napoleon, to Versailles and the Revolution and the taking of the Bastille, to the Renaisance of Villon, to the time of Charlemagne, and still on and back they go dreaming out into the ancient starlight, into a victorian vision of prehistory when only the earliest humans were awake, back to the Ice Age, the time of the mammoth and the cave bear. 
This dream-life goes on for many years, during which time, though their real-world selves age, their dream-selves remain youthful and vigorous. The lovers' apotheosis comes when the Duchess, whose death precedes Peter's, returns after death in dream to reassure Peter of her continuing, though now unmanifest, presence in his life. She tells him what she knows of the life beyond death, her realization that "sound and light are one" ... that "Time is nothing" ... and "time and space mean just the same as 'nothing'."
So much leaps off the page here, from Aragorn's farewell to Arwen, back to the dreams and time travel of The Notion Club Papers and of The Lost Road before that. But what resonated the most was the correspondences with the poem Tolkien wrote for Edith in 1915:
You & Me and  the Cottage of Lost Play

You and me--we know that land
And often have been there
In the long old days, old nursery days,
A dark child and a fair.
Was it down the paths of firelight dreams
In winter cold and white,
Or in the blue-spun twilit hours
Of little early tucked-up beds
In drowsy summer night,
That You and I got lost in Sleep
And met each other there--
Your dark hair on your white nightgown,
And mine was tangled fair?
We wandered shyly hand in hand,
Or rollicked in the fairy sand
And gathered pearls and shells in pails,
While all about the nightingales
Were singing in the trees.
We dug for silver with our spades
By little inland sparkling seas,Then ran ashore through sleepy seas,
And down a warm and winding lane
And never never found again
Between high whispering trees.

The air was neither night or day,
But faintly dark with softest light,
When first there glimmered into sightThe Cottage of Lost Play.
'Twas builded very very old
White, and thatched with straws of gold,
And pierced with peeping lattices
That looked toward the sea;
And our own children's garden-plots
Were there--our own forgetmenots,
Red daisies, cress and mustard,
And blue nemophile.

O! All the borders trimmed with box
Were full of favourite flowers--of phlox,
Of larkspur, pinks, and hollyhocks
Beneath a red may-tree:
And all the paths were full of shapes,
Of tumbling happy white-clad shapes,
And with them You and Me.
And some had silver watering-cans
And watered all their gowns,
Or sprayed each other; some laid plans
To build them houses, fairy towns,
Or dwellings in the trees;
And some were clambering on the roof;
Some crooning lonely and aloof;
And some were dancing fairy-rings
And weaving pearly daisy-strings,
Or chasing golden bees;
But here and there a little pair
With rosy cheeks and tangled hair
Debated quaint old childish things--
And we were one of these.

But why it was there came a time
When we could take the road no more,
Though long we looked, and high would climb,
Or gaze from many a seaward shore
To find the path between sea and sky
To those old gardens of delight;
And how it goes now in that land,
If there the house and gardens stand,
Still filled with children clad in white--
We know not, You and I.
And why it was Tomorrow came
And with his grey hand led us back;
And why we never found the same
Old cottage, or the magic track
That leads between a silver sea
And those old shores and gardens fair
Where all things are, that ever were--
We know not, You and Me.
(BoLT 1.28-29) 
I would like to return to the question of the correspondences between these two texts, but only after I have read Peter Ibbetson.  For now the poem and Flieger's description of the novel will have to suffice.

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