Swammerdam Byatt in the Novel Term Paper

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[. . .] " The "lawful knowledge" Swammerdam seeks magnified under his lenses parallels the knowledge that the poet seeks. The "plans and links/Of dizzying order and complexity" (225) of insect anatomy which allow Swammerdam to say:

saw a new world in this world of ours-- world of miracle, a world of truth can be expanded to encompass the new world which Ash is hoping to explore with Christabel.

The analogy continues as Swammerdam describes his studies. The "optic lens" of both science and poetry "is like a slicing sword./It multiplies the world, or it divides (226). As Swammerdam searches for the One, the reader hears Ash appealing to Christabel to be his Prima materia:

The more the Many were revealed to me

The more I pressed my hunt to find the One

Prima materia, Nature's shifting shape

Still constant in her metamorphoses (226).

And as Swammerdam probed the creatures' very life

And source of life, of generation (226), the reader feels Ash closing in to probe the fragile life of Christabel in similar fashion. As he describes Swammerdam's insect subjects, Ash eventually arrives at the Queen, "The necessary Centre of the Brood" (227) which can be taken to mean that Christabel is Ash's queen and center.

Proceeding immediately to Swammerdam's discovery of the "Ovaries" calls up the image of how Christabel's ovaries will before long be all too involved in similar microscopic dissection.

In the final lines Byatt has Ash invoke Galileo whose lenses looked in infinitely larger universal directions as opposed to the infinitely small investigations of Swammerdam. This comparison brilliantly rounds out the poem as Swammerdam expresses fear of divine "Mystery" and wonders if Galileo too felt overwhelmed by his investigations. The poet elevates his own ego as he ends the poem by placing himself above the masses of Man, poor man, whose ruffled pride

Cannot abide the Infinite's questioning

From smallest as from greatest? (228)

Ash has both an enormous ego and a sense of himself as undervalued. He describes Swammerdam in a letter to Christabel as queer intellect and a lost soul -- despised and rejected like so many great men -- the circumstances of his life almost perfectly coincident with the great preoccupation -- nay obsessions -- of his nature (201).

He could have been describing himself. In another letter Ash flatters Christabel, saying that he has come to see her as "some sort of Muse" and that he is tenacious in his pursuit of her "for the sake of future Swammerdams" (206). His enormous sense of self is again revealed.

One historian writes about Swammerdam that he "developed an extreme form of the preformation theory, supposing that an egg contained all the future generations of its kind as preformed miniatures, like a series of boxes one inside the other. "In nature there is no generation," wrote Swammerdam, "but only propagation, the growth of parts. Thus original sin is explained, for all men were contained in the organs of Adam and Eve." (JanSwammerdam.). At the heart of Byatt's novel is her own possession by this concept of Swammerdam's. From the ovary of Eve, Byatt's philosophy contends, comes the egg that will become Maia, the child of Ash and LaMotte. All is devised by divine plan, including the poem about the Dutch microscopist that did much to seduce LaMotte.

In a letter to his wife, to whom he is purported to have written every day during his holiday trip with Christabel, Ash says "I have become a diligent anatomist of simple life-forms -- a vocation more satisfying at the moment than the recording of human convulsions" (233). In another letter he says:

It is hard indeed, Ellen, not to imagine that some Intelligence did not design and construct these perfectly lovely and marvelously functioning creatures -- and; yet it is hard also not to believe the weight of evidence for the Development Theory, for the changes wrought in all things, over unimaginable Time, by the gradual action of ordinary causes (233).

In the midst of the most convulsive of human experiences, a passionate love affair, Ash coolly describes his intellectual processes. With these words Byatt underscores the intellectual distance from life that "Swammerdam" reveals about its author.

The twentieth century scholars who study Ash seem to have a vague sense of admiration, but even Blackadder, the British authority, admits to Ash having been "duly exposed and found wanting," and having had "unfashionable days" (32). There is little direct modern critical response to "Swammerdam." Ash seems to have become a legend among scholars. Known for his "ventriloquism" (32) and "unwieldy range," Ash is revered more for his vast mental powers than for poetic brilliance. Blackadder admits that in editing his works, the "footnotes engulfed and swallowed the text" (33). As a ventriloquist Ash speaks through others rather than for himself. Maud says she doesn't see how Ash's poems could appeal to Christabel: "All that cosmic masculinity. That anti-feminist poem about the medium...All that ponderous obfuscation" (48). Unaware of the passionate relationship with Christabel, the American scholar Cropper sees "Swammerdam" as the product of a "mid life crisis" (272). Parallels between Ash's fascination with sea anemone polyp regeneration, Swammerdam's studies, and Darwin's publication indicate to Cropper a "continuity and interdependence of all life, which might perhaps assist in modifying or doing away with the notion of individual death, and thus deal with that great fear to which, as the certain promise of Heaven trembled and faded, (Ash) and his contemporaries were all hideously subject" (271). Little did Cropper know how personal the impersonal poem's obsession with ova was or how close to the truth he was in his description of mid life crisis. What Cropper in his scholarly manner sees as a turning toward "Life Nature and the Universe...a kind of Romanticism reborn" an interest "in the life-continuing function... Of all forms" (272), proves to be an obsession for the poet's with his own regenerative functions as he spawns an illegitimate offspring of his own.

Swammerdam, Ash, and Byatt all share the same seemingly contradictory urges. All three examine the human need to intensely investigate the obsessions by which they are possessed and all allow for some divine contribution to the Mystery. The metaphor of the poem and the poet is the metaphor of the novel. Scholars explore lives of writers with microscopes, as Swammerdam explores the origin of insect life, as Ash explores life through his poetry. As Blackadder points out at the end of the novel, when it is discovered that Maud is descended from both Ash and LaMotte, "how strangely appropriate to have been exploring all along the myth -- no, the truth -- of your own origins" (547). Byatt is saying, as Ash says in "Swammerdam," that "Life is One" (224), that all our studies of everything by which we are possessed lead us to the one source of our unified origin. Or perhaps she is agreeing with Ash, who on his deathbed, weary of considerations,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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