“Borne Along by a Wave”: George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss as Music Drama
The 2022 Prize winning essay has been awarded this year to Connor Page, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia
Musical tropes and allusions play a well-established role in weaving the ‘poetic web’ of George Eliot’s novels (Gray 1989: 14). Delia da Sousa Correa (2012) begins to suggest that this ‘web’ may itself be a musical production: Eliot’s ‘[i]nvocations of music’ not only form a ‘literary, often poeticized, language’ but also ‘indicate an aspiration […]– via opera – to dramatize the poetics of the novel’ (176). This is not the only compelling call to approach Eliot’s writing as dramatic music. Melissa Raines (2011), for instance, recommends that we incline our ears to the musical rhythms of Eliot’s prose, attentive to the sympathetic vibrations embedded in her punctuation and syntax (xi-xii). Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss is particularly responsive to such appeals, especially insistent as it is to be heard as well as read: Maggie Tulliver, the novel’s musically sensitive heroine, continually experiences writing as sound, from the solemn voice of Thomas à Kempis to the desperate pleas of Stephen Guest.
The common currents of The Mill on the Floss and Romantic opera run even more deeply than the novel’s musical allusiveness readily shows. Indeed, Eliot’s interest in the relationship between operatic and literary form predates her forays into fiction, informing the language of her earliest published literary criticism (da Sousa Correa 2003: 53). When, in her 1855 article ‘Liszt, Wagner, and Weimar’, Eliot weighs the aesthetic values of musical drama, she therefore reflects aspirations for her own art as much as that of her controversial contemporary Richard Wagner. Eliot lays particular emphasis on organic unity in opera, which ‘must be no mosaic of melodies stuck together with no other method than is supplied by accidental contrast […] but an organic whole, which grows like a palm, its earliest portion containing the germ and prevision of all the rest’ (2016a: 102). Joining this botanical metaphor is an optical one: ‘music, drama, and spectacle must be blended, like the coloured rays in the sunbeam, so as to produce one undivided impression’ (2016a: 100). Thus, Eliot identifies two crucial ideals of Wagnerian music drama: aesthetic cohesion and a harmonious combination of media (i.e. the Gesamtkunstwerk, or ‘total artwork’). She further fixes on one of the central techniques of Wagner’s theory and practice, the ‘artifice’ ‘of making certain contrasted strains of melody run like coloured threads through the woof of an opera’ (2016a: 104).
These ‘coloured threads’ represent the technique of leitmotif, although neither Eliot nor Wagner use the word. Wagner prefers speaking of ‘themes of “presentiment and reminiscence”’, a term that emphasizes the leitmotif’s role in reaching temporally across a work, appearing in new combinations and contexts as semantic ‘signposts’ (Borchmeyer 1991: 150). Leitmotif emerges as a fundamental principle of The Mill on the Floss, which is an opera in code as much as Wagner’s epics are ‘novel[s] in code’ (Conrad 1977: 6); Eliot’s prose strives toward the affective and mnemonic qualities of music, conducting the same procedures of thematic repetition and patterns of harmonic tension and resolution that distinguish Wagnerian opera.
In an aquatic image uncannily appropriate to The Mill on the Floss, Wagner describes the relationship between sung melody and the orchestra: ‘This boat, now launched upon the lake […] is the verse melody of the dramatic singer, borne along by the orchestra’s waves of sound’ (qt. in Borchmeyer 1991: 162). The orchestra therefore encapsulates the synchronic element of harmonic depth which underpins the word-bearing melody, and the diachronic element of melodic length which mirrors the singer’s utterances. The orchestra, as Wagner’s wave implies, propels the drama, but is even more crucial as a means of exploring psychological interiority. In this sense, it resembles the chorus of classical tragedy, which sheds explanatory light on the dramatic actors from all sides (Borchmeyer 1991: 159). The coordination of dialogue, gesture, and music allows the orchestra to interpret the characters’ words and actions, suggesting their thoughts and motivations with ambiguous shifts of harmony and recognizable themes that gather semantic weight with each appearance.
Eliot fully embraces this model of orchestral emotion in The Mill on the Floss. As Peter Conrad notes, Wagnerian opera generally influenced the Realist novel’s methods of characterization ‘not through external action or conversation but through the silent, and hence musical, life of thought and feeling’ (1977: 27). Indeed, Ludwig Feuerbach posits music (to Eliot’s and Wagner’s great interest) as an ideal ‘language of feeling’ synonymous with human emotional and sympathetic experience (qtd. in da Sousa Correa 2003: 28). It is no surprise then that Eliot’s narrator orchestrally evokes her characters’ inner lives, acting as an interpreter between ‘on-stage’ speech and action and the reader’s emotional understanding. As Maggie agonizes over Stephen’s last letter, for instance, and hears his voice as a ‘cry of reproach’, an acoustic whirlwind communicates her emotional turmoil:
The words that were marked by the quiet hand in the little old book that she had long ago learned by heart, rushed even to her lips, and found a vent for themselves in a low murmur that was quite lost in the loud driving of the rain against the window and the loud moan and roar of the wind. (Eliot 2003: 534, 535-536)
This is a quintessentially operatic climax, in which outward action is almost entirely absent and the symphonic voices of Maggie’s emotion dominate the stage. Clearly depicted is the conflict of motives (both literal and musical) dramatizing Maggie’s thoughts: the reproachful strains of an impassioned bass, the chant-like tones of Thomas à Kempis urging renunciation, the elemental whirl of rain and wind that is associated with Maggie from the outset.
This last point recalls Eliot’s organic metaphor for aesthetic unity, which begins with a ‘germ’ containing all further development. Eliot may have had in mind Wagner’s orchestral preludes, which present the motivic material which permeates the ensuing work. Tristan and Isolde’s prelude, for example, introduces central themes of longing and an atmosphere of harmonic ambiguity, and Das Rheingold’s witnesses a primal melody of the ordered world arise out of the watery, elemental chaos of a single, monumental E flat major triad. Similarly, the motivic elements that culminate in Maggie’s experiences are present from The Mill on the Floss’s opening pages. ‘A wide plain’, reads the first sentence, ‘where the broadening Floss hurries on between its green banks to the sea, and the loving tide, rushing to meet it, checks its passage with an impetuous embrace’ (Eliot 2003: 9). Echoing Das Rheingold, here are the push and pull of primal elements, the impulse of spatial expansion implicit in the escalation of ‘wide’ to ‘broadening’. The ‘green banks’, however, rein in the river’s elemental ‘hurry’ until it meets the ‘impetuous embrace’ of the ‘loving tide’, an extraordinary image of union that haunts the novel until its conclusion.
Eliot’s prelude creates the novel’s world and its constituent themes; this creation, furthermore, is an explicitly vocal one. The narrator’s symphonic voice conjures the environment with which it is in dialogue: ‘I remember those large dipping willows … I remember the stone bridge …’ (Eliot 2003: 9). The river becomes a ‘living companion’ with a ‘low placid voice’, while the richly onomatopoeic ‘rush of the water and the booming of the mill bring a dreamy deafness which seems to heighten the peacefulness of the scene’ like a ‘great curtain of sound, shutting one out from the world beyond’ (Eliot 2003: 10). This aural gesture of exclusion is nevertheless one of creation, for it raises the curtain on the novel’s theatre of action. As da Sousa Correa (2013: 206) evocatively describes, this world of sound and moistness is a ‘pervading undersong’, an image well borne out by Wagner’s own vision of oceanic orchestral sound. Significantly, Maggie is from the outset fascinated by and associated with this scene of sound and water: as Beryl Gray (1989: 18) remarks, she first appears to the narrator as a fellow observer (similarly ‘rapt’ in the waterwheel’s movement), though she quickly becomes a part of the picturesque scene (Eliot 2003: 11). The twin motifs of water and sound shape Maggie’s role both as subject and as object; it is unmistakeably touching that here of all places the child Maggie’s thoughts are unsounded by the narrator, and the naturalistic description cultivates an altogether musical sense of ambiguity.
The tentatively contained banks of the river, the ‘threatening’ clouds, and the orchestral/environmental soundscape of the novel’s beginning clearly prefigure its dramatic close, but they also permeate the fabric of narration and dialogue throughout the novel (Eliot 2003: 10). Even the Tullivers’ comic recitative draws on a watery theme of presentiment when Mrs. Tulliver predicts that Maggie will ‘tumble in and be drownded some day’ and reflects woefully that her son and daughter are ‘such children for the water’ (Eliot 2003: 16, 110). The foundational sound-image of the Floss flows through another lyrical interlude in which the ‘dark river’ ‘flow[s] and moan[s] like an unresting sorrow’ through a winter landscape (Eliot 2003: 161), and imaginative digressions down the Rhone and Rhine support some of Eliot’s most vivid historical and aesthetic speculations (Eliot 2003: 282-283). The ‘course of an unmapped river’ figures Maggie’s ‘destiny’ as ‘flood-marks’ figure her ‘feeling’, and even Tom’s childhood studies participate motivically through their ‘mill-like monotony’ (Eliot 2003: 196, 349, 418). These images, already musical in their natural rhythms, are deployed musically: intensified, combined and modulated. The sound and motion of water simultaneously works in psychological, pragmatic, historical, and mythic registers. This is all the more true of the language that surrounds concrete musical performance in the novel: the ‘vibratory influence’ and the ‘wave too strong’ for Maggie’s resistance persistently recall the musico-poetic matrix of rushing waters (Eliot 2003: 400, 435). Indeed, here is an almost Brahmsian concentration of motivic material spun out across the breadth of a novel.
The vocal dynamics of dialogue which overlay this undersong are as important for Eliot as for a composer such as Wagner. Peter Capuano (2007) recognizes thought-provoking musical structures in Eliot’s Middlemarch, including a prelude that ‘sweeps through the vast territory of the novel’s upcoming events and themes’ and an ‘expansive rhythmic system wherein each character’s subtly defined level of musical responsiveness corresponds to a distinct chord within the community chorus’ (925, 927). This last point, exemplified by the aural dissonance between Dorothea and Casaubon, is also applicable to The Mill on the Floss. The ‘impetuous embrace’ that begins the novel, like the yearning and tonally uncertain opening gestures of Tristan and Isolde, conjures an image of consummation (corresponding with tonal closure) that is systematically denied until the conclusion. Maggie’s conversations with Tom are consistently discordant:
The presentiment [of Maggie’s intention] made his voice colder and harder as he said,
‘What is it?’
This tone roused a spirit of resistance in Maggie and she put her request in quite a different form from the one she had predetermined on. She rose from her seat and looking straight at Tom, said,
‘I want you to absolve me from my promise about Philip Wakem. Or rather, I promised you not to see him without telling you. I am come to tell you that I wish to see him.’
‘Very well,’ said Tom, still more coldly. (Eliot 2003: 407)
Maggie’s forthright utterances clash painfully with Tom’s laconic coldness as much as her later fractured sentences with his ‘tremulous rage’ when she returns home after nearly eloping with Stephen (Eliot 2003: 503). The quest for an ‘existential harmony’, then, becomes a journey toward literal harmonic closure (da Sousa Correa 2000: 551). Philip Wakem, who sympathizes with Maggie more than her brother, is likewise (ironically) unable to harmonize with her, due to qualities not of mind but of voice.
Maggie’s final reunion with Tom constitutes nothing less, thematically and harmonically, than a fraternal/sororal Liebestot—a love-death. The closure of recognition so long denied arrives in Tom’s utterance of ‘the old childish – “Magsie!”’ (Eliot 2003: 541). This is the first word his lips ‘could utter’, and, in turn, ‘Maggie could make no answer but a long deep sob of that mysterious wondrous happiness that is one with pain’ (Eliot 2003: 541). This exchange, apparently reduced to the barest possible utterances, nevertheless contains the novel’s operatic essence. Tom’s ‘Magsie’ carries all the sentimental associations of their childhood, and the following sentence has an exquisitely crafted musical contour: the ‘long deep sob’ is a protracted sigh of vowel and assonance, followed by the soaring, polysyllabic accelerando of ‘mysterious wondrous happiness’ and the ambiguous reflection that this is ‘one with pain’. The ambiguity above all makes music here; more important than the terms themselves are the rhythmic patterns of emotion and contradiction (Ridley 2012: 94). Only now can the ‘impetuous embrace’ of the river and tide recur in the ‘close embrace’, ‘an embrace never to be parted’, of the drowned Tom and Maggie (Eliot 2003: 542-543). The biblical epitaph of Tom’s and Maggie’s joint grave, ‘In their death they were not divided’, furthers the impression of a Tristanesque dissolution of self and other, a transcendence possible only in death (Eliot 2003: 544; Borchmeyer 2003: 164).
Appropriately, this dramatic climax also witnesses the most emphatic reappearance of the river as leitmotif. The flood of the Floss is not primarily naturalistic (a spectacular effect) but symphonic. This episode seems to literalize the novel’s complex of aquatic metaphors but serves more importantly as its poetic culmination; as ever, the true action is internal, taking place in the musical relationship between Maggie, narrator and reader. The scene’s ‘dreamlike’ quality persists after the current sweeps Maggie away from Bob Jakin’s house, and its setting resembles the ‘darkness’ of the opera house (the darkened auditorium was another Wagnerian innovation) (Eliot 2003: 538). Indeed, Maggie’s final moments in the boat are, on a literal level, curiously lacking in sensory stimuli: it is the ‘cessation of the rain’, an absence of sensation, that rouses her to consciousness, and she continues to be ‘hardly conscious of any bodily sensations – except a sensation of strength, inspired by mighty emotion’ (Eliot 2003: 539). The most catastrophic outward incident and the most intense outward exertion prompt one of the novel’s most radically introspective passages. A reduction of the external world to primal elements—currents, dark ‘masses’, and slowly growing light (Eliot 2003: 540)—conditions this fully orchestral exploration of subjectivity. Significantly, the climactic statement of the leitmotif describes not the literal flood, but the revolutionary understanding that ‘rushe[s] upon [Tom’s] mind’, coming with ‘so overpowering a force’ as to be ‘an entirely new revelation to his spirit, of the depths of life’ (Eliot 2003: 541).
This flood, the result of relentless intensification of leitmotif, becomes an altogether mythic production, not in the sense of being ahistorical, but in that of subsuming history. Both Eliot and Wagner come to similar conclusions in their theoretical writings about the transhistorical significance of Sophoclean tragedy: Eliot (2016b: 262, 264) concludes that tragedy ‘must appeal to perennial human nature’ (a feat achieved by Antigone’s portrayal of the ‘antagonism between valid claims’); for Wagner, myth ‘reache[s] back to the origins of the process of socialization … [and] encompasses the immediate present, together with events which are still to take place’, capturing ‘chronological specificity’ by clothing history in understandable human guise (Borchmeyer 1991: 290). Indeed, in linking disparate historical phenomena into an intelligible whole, myth plays a strikingly similar role to leitmotif. Eliot’s is a mythic flood embedded in cyclical time: Tom’s childhood reference to Noah’s ark, the reminiscences of the ‘old men’, and Maggie’s portentous ‘the Flood is come!’ all clarify it as a recurring archetype in human history (Eliot 2003: 54, 531, 536). As a mythic emblem of rebirth and an intensified theme of reminiscence, the flood returns not only to the lyric, pastoral tone of the novel’s beginning but also to the idealized childhood in which Tom and Maggie ‘had clasped their little hands in love, and roamed the daisied fields together’ (Eliot 2003: 542).
The Mill on the Floss, like Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, comes therefore to embody the ‘cyclical nature of myth’ through the parallels between its closing and opening and opening gestures (Borchmeyer 2003: 236). Again we witness a panorama of the Floss’s surrounding town, hills and fields, with their now-familiar ‘hedgerows’ and ‘wharves and warehouses’ (Eliot 2003: 543). The varied repetitions of Eliot’s narrator embrace a sense of circularity: ‘Nature repairs her ravages – repairs them with her sunshine and with human labour’, then ‘Nature repairs her ravages – but not all’ (Eliot 2003: 543). Remarkably, ‘human labour’ appears as a natural process akin to ‘sunshine’; just as striking is the second, parallel statement’s surprising, melancholy modulation. The process of rebirth, even that of reminiscence, requires loss. Thus, the lyrical prelude that focalized on a child and anticipated dialogue becomes a wistful postlude that hones in on a tomb and the finality of words graven in stone. Eliot has recourse here to a thoroughly Wordsworthian spot of time: Philip’s ‘great companionship was among the trees of the Red Deeps, where the buried joy seemed still to hover – like a revisiting spirit’ (Eliot 2003: 543-544). Memory is coded in place, just as it is in the novel’s sound-images and mythic topoi, even if all these ‘revisitations’ have the poignantly intermittent quality of an echo.
Eliot’s operatic form, then, serves to heighten ‘sympathies’ as well as to pursue an ideal of organic unity. As da Sousa Correa (2012: 175) points out, opera represents to Eliot above all ‘a potent mode of sympathetic communication between characters and between text and reader’. The Mill on the Floss’s musical arrangement of motifs and its patterns of consonance and dissonance cause the novel to resonate with the vibrations of ‘far-echoing tragedy’ and to draw the reader into aural, and hence sympathetic, engagement (Eliot 2003: 207). If musical sound unites characters’ internal ‘thought and external reality’, then this is no less true of the text itself (da Sousa Correa 2013: 213). The aural interplay that structures The Mill on the Floss’s world in the ears of its characters is equally present, through the orchestral mediation of Eliot’s narrator, to the reader. As with sympathy, to see may be to understand, but to hear is to feel. That the predominance of the musico-poetic ‘symbol’ embodied in the final flood seems to unravel The Mill on the Floss’s novelistic realism only allies it all the more firmly with Wagnerian opera’s exploration of time through recurring motif, of history through myth (Eliot 2016a: 104). As both the ‘emblem and discourse of passion’ (da Sousa Correa 2003: 102), musical sound underlies The Mill on the Floss in all its aquatic double nature, with a mirroring surface and an irresistible current.
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