Aubrey holds a Ph.D in English and has published many essays on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, he approaches Nowlan’s poem from the point of view of Jungian psychology.
Nowlan’s “For Jean Vincent D’Abbadie, Baron St.-Castin” works at a number of different levels. First, it alludes to the historical situation in New England during the conflict between Indian tribes and English settlers in the seventeenth century. But Nowlan cleverly transposes the conflict into modern times by interpreting it in psychological terms, and this adds another dimension to the poem. This level of meaning can be illuminated by the psychological theories of one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century, Carl Jung.
What is so noticeable about “For Jean Vincent” is not only how the figures that populate it are so starkly split into two opposing sides, but how the poet’s sympathy is placed entirely on one side, that of the Baron. The Puritans and their modern-day descendents are presented as truly pitiable. Fearful, huddled together for safety, obsessed with a materialism that is also reflected in their Calvinist religious faith, and tormented in their sleep by nightmares, they are completely overshadowed and dominated by the magnificent figure of the Baron. Nowlan has elevated this historical figure, the French nobleman who married an Indian woman and took up the Indian cause against the English, into a gigantic, almost mythic figure. He is an inhabitant of the dark woods; he blends two very different cultures and traditions; he is a man of refinement and learning and yet also a feared warrior who leads no less than three Indian tribes; and he is a mysterious figure who carries the mark of the sun god worshiped by the Indians upon his forehead. His charisma and power is so great that even the great trees seem to be on his side.
The Baron is thus presented as an almost superhuman figure. Everyone else mentioned in the poem is small by comparison; even the premier and the archbishop, figures of status and power in their society, are given not a single adjective to enhance their standing. Everyone is dwarfed by the Baron, and the poet reinforces this effect with his cunning use of rhythm, cadence, and repetition to describe the hero.
It is clear that on a psychological level, what is being presented in this poem is a radical split in the human psyche. From the point of view of the Puritans, the Baron embodies everything they fear, reject and do not understand. In terms of Jungian psychology, the Baron embodies what Jung calls the “shadow.” The shadow is the dark side of the personality that is unacknowledged and repressed, and it is often projected onto others—people of other cultures, for example, or experienced in dreams. The shadow often embodies the qualities that a person dislikes when he or she encounters them in other people.
This is plainly what is happening in the poem. The Baron, who represents not only the Indian cause in war but also its culture and religion, embodies everything that the rational Puritans, with their Calvinist God, have denied. The two opposing camps—the Puritans and the Baron—represent two conflicting world views (corresponding to different aspects of the psyche). One represents rationality, self-control, order, discipline, material progress and conquest of nature, while the other represents instinct, emotion, natural impulse, communion with nature, and communication with the gods who inhabit nature.
Jung believed that the unconscious, repressed aspects of the psyche often found expression in dreams. In his memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung, who was Swiss, wrote of a visit he made to North Africa. He noted how people thought and behaved in the Arab cultures that were quite a contrast to his own European background. In a dream Jung had while in North Africa, he encountered an Arab man who attacked him. Jung fought back and the two of them wrestled, each trying to immerse the other’s head in water and drown him. As Jung reflected on the dream (of which the battle with the Arab was only a part) he decided that the Arab embodied the shadow side of the personality that had been pushed out of consciousness but was now trying to find a way back in. Jung wrote:
The predominantly rationalistic European finds much that is human alien to him, and he prides himself on this without realising that this rationality is won at the expense of his vitality, and that the primitive part of his personality is consequently condemned to a more or less underground existence.
Here is the underlying psychology of Nowlan’s “For Jean Vincent.” The “primitive” part of the personality is embodied in the Baron, a man regarded as alien by the Puritans, who have, as Jung writes, lost the vitality that an integrated rather than fragmented psyche would possess. Like Jung dreaming of being attacked by an Arab, they dream of the Baron and his cohorts and fear an attack from the unknown, “the dark woods at their back.” As Jungian scholar M. L. von Franz, writing in Man and His Symbols, states, “Through dreams one becomes acquainted with aspects of one’s own personality that for various reasons one has preferred not to look at too closely.”
It should be noted, however, that the shadow is not in itself a negative or evil force. According to von Franz, “The shadow becomes hostile only when he is ignored or misunderstood.” Also, the shadow often contains values that need to be integrated into consciousness. This explains the poet’s presentation of the Baron in such a positive light. Only the Puritans see the Baron as evil. For the poet, the Baron represents a higher level of integration than the narrow Puritans are able to comprehend. He symbolizes not the shadow, but the whole psyche that contains opposites and is able to Sidebar: Show
integrate them into a powerful whole. The psychic wholeness of the Baron is made clear by the fact that he is at home in two cultures. Not only is he an Indian war leader, married to an Indian woman (and thus a “squaw man”) he also embodies the flower of European culture. He is presented as a Latin poet and as a man who recites the medieval romance, The Song of Roland.
It is because of the range of associations that the figure of the Baron calls up that the poet presents him as living on in the present, still threatening his enemies. Everyone will hear from the Baron because he will always represent the Jungian shadow to those who fear him and an integrated psyche to those who perceive him from the broader perspective of the poet. As an ever-present reality in the human psyche, the voice of the Baron cannot forever be drowned out, not by orthodox religion (the archbishop) political action (the premier), or the daily drudgery of work (“the gnome-like slaves” who work in the diners and service stations). As to what effect his voice will have on those who hear him, von Franz points out that “whether the shadow becomes our friend or enemy depends largely upon ourselves.”
The shadow, in the Jungian sense, appears in another poem by Nowlan, “He continues to try to avoid being caught,” which was published in his 1974 collection, I’m a Stranger Here Myself. The entire poem is only four lines, and it shows the difficulty that the conscious part of the personality may have in acknowledging whatever it is that the shadow is trying to communicate: