Poe: language of the individual



Alone: by E. A. Poe:

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were – I have not seen
As others saw – I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I lov’d, I lov’d alone.
Then- in my childhood, in the dawn
Of a most stormy life – was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still:
From the torrent, or the fountain,
From the red cliff of the mountain,
From the sun that ’round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold –
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by –
From the thunder and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.

We are going to spend a little effort providing a reading of the grammar of this verse by Poe.

First, of course the essential facts:  The verse divides easily into two parts, announced by the word “then” to begin a line.  This “then” announces the turn, the motion of thought, which makes this a ‘verse’ (loosely, Latin for ‘turn’).

The first part has only two complete sentences (noticed by the use of the period), the second only one sentence.  Poe holds the verse together with several grammatical devices, as well a mnemonic devices usually identified with poetry.  These include: rhyming lines; alliteration; meter; repetition of words (“the,” “of,” “or,” “from,” “as,” “my,” and – but only in the first part – “I”).  The repetition of the word “my” signifies the personal passiveness of the verse; repeating the word “from” suggests a movement, which is finally delivered as a “flying by.”  Finally, we note the parallelisms: in particular the placing of the words “from the” at the beginning of several lines, distributed through both parts of the verse.  But in the first part of the verse, the phrase draws attention to some human entity – a lived childhood, a social source of sorrow and joy – while in the second part it refers to forces and motion in the material universe beyond the human.  That’s important.  When the verse wishes to situate the person supposedly uttering the verse in a time and place, it mentions not historical moment or community, it draws that person farther away from human companionship.

Many English professors would say, of that last remark, that it constitutes a comment on the rhetoric of the verse, but that isn’t entirely true.  I have not discussed what Poe wishes us to do, upon listening to or reading the verse, or how to respond to it.  Such questions would surface the rhetoric of the verse, but they haven’t been asked.  We are simply here considering the grammar of the verse.  For it is the grammar that generates the universe in which an audience may then respond to the verse’s rhetoric.

An important function of the grammar of the verse is the manner in which Poe increases the duration of the grammar’s periodicity – that is, takes longer to complete the thought of a sentence than necessary (for the mere act of communication).  Consider this passage:

Then – in my childhood, in the dawn
Of a most stormy life – was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still:

Poe certainly appears to be getting a little carried away here.  The “depth” of a concept (and without further delineation “good and ill” can only be concepts and rather empty concepts at that) is a little hard to imagine.  More important, grammatically, the reference is unnecessary, at first glance, since the colon that ends this passage indicates that what follows will describe this “mystery” and the next passage begins with the phrase “from the” again, telling us that the description will begin by articulating from whence the mystery derives.  Except Poe has already told us from whence it derives, it derives from “ev’ry depth of good and ill.”  Well, one would suppose, then, that what follows constitutes the definition of the concepts “good and ill,” but, frankly, this doesn’t appear to be the case.  The sun rolling around the world of the verse may indeed signal the event of a good or an ill experience, but can it legitimately be referred to as a source of it?  This simply announces that good and ill are everywhere and discoverable at every hour of the day, every day, in the mind of the utterer of the verse standing on a small planet somewhere in our solar system (one presumes that this must be earth, and the utterer a fellow human of some sort…).

The point is that the phrase “from ev’ry depth of good and ill” is not really about depths of good and ill, its really stretching out a couple of lines so that what follows may have greater impact, by continuing the tension generated by the turn announced with the word “then.”

Throughout most of the 20th century, academic literary critics held that every word in a poem is absolutely necessary to its meaing, that whatever was expressed in the language of the poem could never be expressed any other way – not if it was a good poem, anyway.  This is simply untrue.  Meaning is nothing mysterious, it is simply a function of language.  Grammar determines meaning.  The author of a verse establishes a grammar for the verse within the structures of which he or she composes a rhetorical address to some imagined audience, even if this audience must be the author (and no audience could be more imaginary than the author’s own self).

Is there music to the verse?  Well, the author hopes so, most likely.  Let us remark a moment of poetic license that occurs in this verse: the contraction of past-tense verbs, e.g., “lov’d,” “roll’d,” etc.   This contraction is Poe’s way of telling the reader how the given word is to be pronounced when the verse is read aloud.  It should be remembered that at the time of the verse’s composition, there was a lingering supposition that syllables in poetry were to be read out precisely: a past-tense verb was expected to be pronounced with some emphasis on the suffixing tense signifier “-ed” – e.g, ‘roll-ed,’ or ‘love-ed.’  Poe is signifying that he doesn’t want this to done with his verse – ‘rolled’ and ‘loved’ are to be read pretty much as they are normally pronounced in common speech, each pronounced as a single syllable.  Perhaps it was verse such as Poe’s that helped shape the pronunciation of poetry that we now expect – poetry that is in the common idiom, lacking the formalized ‘elevation’ that was expected in verse by many in the 18th and 19th centuries.

At any rate, the point is that the poem is meant to be read aloud, and in the reading of it, special attention is to be paid to the pronunciation – hence the sound – of every word.  It is thus the sound, not the meaning, that determines word choice.  One is allowed to suppose that in such practice is to be found the relation between the composition of the verse and any music to be expected of it.

Is there a relationship between this hoped-for music and the grammar of the verse’s composition?  Well, the sound of the language is most assuredly a source for the grammar of the language.  This knowledge has been all but lost, in the effort to force Americans to write as though they were either scientists or machines (the conjuncture of which is, of course, the petty bureaucrat, whom most Americans imitate in writing today).  But the sound of language remains the chief source for the derivation of rhetoric, as politicians well know, or intuit, still.  Most contemporary would-be poets don’t bother with the matter any more, having been trained by the academic literary critics mentioned previously.  These critics assure aspiring poets that each word must be ‘meaningful,’ not that it should ‘sound good.’  But what word could ever be ‘not-meaningful?’  All words are meaningful, every word, every phrase, every sentence, every period of completed thought has some meaning to it, in some context, and not because it is what it is, or says what it says, but because any audience to language expects this, and will set about to find – or imagine, or interject, or otherwise construct – a meaning for it.  Even to say of a word or a sequence of words that it is ‘nonsense’ or ‘meaningless’ effectively establishes a meaning for it.  “Brillig” is a word having no dictionary definition, that’s precisely why Lewis Carroll invented it for his verse concerning the imaginary Jabberwocky.  Lacking such meaning, the reader is invited to invent one for it – indeed, Carroll is depending on this – and, in any event, readers will listen for the sound of the word’s probable pronunciation (we assume that the ending ‘g’ of “brillig” is not silent).  But there are even some writers who prefer the reader to invent the sound of a word.  High Modernist writers who produced texts they hope would evoke no sound, no meaning, no grammar, no rhetoric, merely deluded themselves.  It is not enough to say such texts disappeared into history; they never appeared to begin with.

This will seem to pressure the the phenomenon of the poem into the domain of fairly conventional genres of grammatical composition and rhetoric; but the truth is, verse always occurs within that domain.   The Romantic hope that verse could be used for the construction of some magic verbal formulas for the release of the human ‘spirit,’ was just so much self-glorifying propaganda – it seemed to make the writing and reading of verse seem very important, at exactly the moment in history when certain scientists and philosophers were raising the argument that verse was no longer necessary and we Moderns could dispense with it.  Such debates, both sides, now seem little better than a contest between different groups of lemmings arguing which cliff to jump over.  Verse is neither necessary nor unnecessary.  It just happens to be one of the many grammatical constructions humans will employ within a given language.  And verse can neither raise the ‘spirit’ nor bury it.  Humans respond to instances of verse with any of the myriad responses with which they respond to any experience of language.  This tells us that verse is of no special concern beyond any other understanding of language – it does not stand opposed to any other use or function of language, and can neither redeem nor salvage language from its many problems of understanding.  Verse is simply another use of language, of use to those who find a use for it.

Having drawn out the grammar of Poe’s verse, we will now address the rhetoric of it.

Briefly, Poe appears to be asking a reader of his poem to imagine a person, the “I” of the poem, who for some reason (hinted at, rather than delineated), matures into the social role of an ‘outsider,’ that is, one expected to be somehow non-compliant with expected social-psychological responses to the world – one who doesn’t ‘fit in’ (and this is a social role, because any society generates such people, by way of conflicts within social expectations, and finds use for them in pedagogical comparison).  Poe attempts to persuade his reader that outsiders are capable of developing vision beyond the social norms – their senses are heightened, they exist in the realm of natural forces rather than social environment.  This capacity does not receive full definition in the verse, and indeed remains ambiguous as to value:  The “demon in my view” is roughly introduced, and the verse ends; does the demon welcome the utterer, or chase him, or ignore him, etc.?  We’ll never know (but every reader is free to guess).  The universe (presented in the verse through such naturalistic signifiers as wind, sun, etc.) produces the demon for the utterer of the verse (in whom the universe has taken special concern), but whether for good or ill or both, we cannot tell.  Therefore, it is not the nature of the demon that really concerns the reader, but the development of the special visionary capacity.  The socially isolated individual thus becomes elevated from unwanted outcast almost to the level of exceptional prophet.  There the poem leaves us, contemplating the possible uses, or difficulties, such individuals present to the good of society as a whole.

If a reader fears this experience, then the demon marks the outer boundary of normative social behavior, and the reader finds deeper comfort from his or her own social relationships.  But if the reader feels with the poem, then he or she may very well become the demon the poem prophesies – the self as inevitable other in a universe without re-assuring connections or even connectivity.


One thought on “Poe: language of the individual

  1. I appreciate your analysis, but i think Poe is not being merely ‘poetical’ : he himself is the ‘I’. The demon indeed an actual demon. Yet he relies on the fact that noone would believe him all the while despairing that someone will. This is the evidence if his genious: his advantage is that noone will believe him. As it seems your analysis verifies mine. The short comming of regular people is that they are socialized and limited in their ability to know. But of course: what is socialized will always argue it own preeminence; its just human. Thanks.


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