Politics and song

Now, the whole business of Irish nationalism can get very serious if you’re not careful.

– Liam Clancy [1]

My father, Joseph Connelly, abandoned his family when I was two years of age.  I probably should have hated him and be done with it; but that’s not how children respond to their abandonment.  There’s a lot of self-questioning – ‘was I the cause of his leaving?’ – and attempts to prove worthy of a love that will never be acknowledged.

So up to his death of a heart attack in 1989, I went through periods when I tried to adopt Irish culture as somehow my own; as my inheritance.  In the long run, these efforts failed, and they left me realizing that I had no cultural inheritance beyond the common culture of the United States.  When people ask me where my family came from, I answer without hesitation, “Brooklyn” [2].

Nonetheless, the efforts to identify with an Irish heritage left me with considerable sympathy for a people that had long suffered the most miserable oppression as a colony of the British Empire.  (The British long maintained that Ireland was a willingly subservient kingdom, aligned to Britain in the laughable pretense of a “United Kingdom,” but this was believed only by British colonialists stealing farmland from the Irish and putting them to work as, in effect, serfs.)  The oppression really began with Cromwell’s bloody conquest of the Catholic Irish, whom he called “barbarous wretches”; the massacres were bad enough – and the Irish were no saints in these engagements – but the immediate aftermath really established the Anglo-Irish relationship that followed:  the policy of suppression “included the wholesale burning of crops, forced population movement, and killing of civilians” [3].  It cut the population by nearly half.

Difficulties, including the occasional Irish rebellion, continued throughout the history of this “union” of Ireland and England, but reached a turning point with the notorious Potato Famine of 1845.  The potato had become a staple, because it could be grown in private gardens.  When a serious blight stuck, the Irish faced starvation. Cash crops in Ireland were routinely sent to England for wholesale, and if they returned to Ireland for retail sale, they were priced way beyond the ability of the Irish peasantry to pay. These practices were unaddressed by the British government for some five years [4].  By the end of the famine, roughly 1852, the Irish population was estimated as having lost more than 2 million, half to starvation, half to emigration.  The British – many of whom agreed with Cromwell’s assessment of the Irish character as barbarous and wretched (and shameless Catholics to boot) – thought that with the famine ended, markets would naturally stabilize, and relations with the Irish could be restored to way they were under the Acts of Union of 1801. They were wrong.  Survivors of the Famine and their heirs remembered what they had gone through and who had put them through it.  Irish political activists were no longer interested in “protesting” impoverished economic conditions that the British colonialists could exploit.  They knew that any such conditions would inevitably recur as long as the colonialists controlled the economy.  So began the long hard struggle that would lead to Irish independence.

Irish rebel songs had been recorded since at least the 17th century (“Seán Ó Duibhir a’Ghleanna” on the Battle of Aughrim during the Williamite War, 1691).  Indeed, there are so many of them that they form a genre of their own.  (Going by Wikipedia, they seem to comprise about a third of all catalogued folk songs of Ireland [5].)  However, they truly embed themselves in Irish culture in the decades leading up to the War of Independence (1919-21).   They include exhortations to fight for “dear old Ireland,” reports of battles, like “Foggy Dew” (Easter Rebellion, 1916), elegies for slain soldiers; as well as opinions on differing perspectives on the politics of the era, especially concerning those that erupted into violence during the Civil War of 1922.

One might object that I haven’t remarked on “the Troubles” in Northern Island, so I will.  There have been political songs on both sides of that conflict, as well as, in recent decades, admonitions to peace. [6]  They are all Irish.  Because as much as some citizens of North Ireland like to think of themselves as somehow British, no one else does – not even the British, who in signing the accords that brought peace to Ulster (1998), effectively agreed to the right of all the Irish to self-determination.

One can no more remove politics from Irish song, than one could remove the Guinness Brewery from Dublin [7].  But the matter goes much deeper.  In fact, throughout the years of occupation, pretty much whatever the Irish sang about was political in nature.  They sang of the success of their gardens – that violated British economics.  They sang of their children – they weren’t supposed to have so many, those damned Catholics!  They sang out their love of their God – in the 17th Century, this got them killed; in the 18th matters improved, it only sent them to prison.  They sang of the beauty of their countryside – and were kicked off it left and right.  They sang of their trades – which they couldn’t independently practice, without a British approved overseer.  All they had to do was warble a note in Gaelic, and they were suspected of some dark satanic plot against the crown.  In other words, the very existence of Irish song, the very singing of it, was a politically rebellious act against British domination.

It must be kept in mind here that for 400 years, the British were engaged in what might be called genocide-by-attrition of the Irish people.  This is difficult to discuss in America, where the media has such a fascination for the health and marital antics of the ‘royal family’.  I suppose the long-range plan was to have the Irish simply die off, but since most of them were Catholics, that wasn’t going to happen.  So the British settled for total suppression of the Irish way of life and domination of its economy. They reduced the Irish to something less than serfs, since serfs were recognized as being a part of the land they worked.  The Irish were not recognized as belonging to the land, they were seen as somehow an annoying infection, needing to be cauterized.  The British did worse than destroy Irish culture, they stripped the Irish of the resources needed to produce culture.

But the body is a resource, and it can only be stripped from the possessor through death.  As Hitler realized, the only way you can completely erase a culture is through complete eradication of the targeted people.  But the British, although cruel and destructive, had a peculiar image of themselves as fundamentally “decent,” so all their crimes needed to be rationally explicable and moderated with some sense of “mercy” (and with some sense of moral superiority).   Goering once declared in a speech, “Yes, we (Nazis) are barbarians!”  A British politician would never admit such a thing.  So the Irish were allowed to starve to death, but there were no death camps to be found in, say, County Clare.

That may have been a mistake.  Song is of the body.  One feels it singing. It reverberates deeply in the lungs and shakes the innards.  It rises up with every breath (Latin: spiritus).  Sing a song and one is that song.  Sing a song for others, and one produces culture.  The British could take everything from the Irish, but they could not take away their breath; they could not stop them singing.

There are actually two ways to listen to a song.  One is to hear the voice simply as a part of the music itself.  One doesn’t actually pay attention to the words; perhaps one doesn’t understand the words.  This is how we listen to songs in languages we do not speak.  But the practice extends beyond that.  Where I work, my older colleagues and clients generally tend to be political and social conservatives.  Yet the public address radio is set to a “classic rock” station.  So I find myself frequently bemused watching these conservatives hum along to songs promoting recreational drug use (“White Rabbit”), sexual promiscuity (every other song by the Rolling Stones), political revolution or anti-war resistance (Steppenwolf’s “Monster”), non-Christian religious belief (a George Harrison song extolling Hari-Krishna), or even a song of anti-American hostility (“American Woman”).  They listen to something like the Chambers Brothers’ burst of outrage, “Time Has Come Today,” and don’t seem to have any idea that they are the targets of that outrage.  The words are meaningless to them, because they’re not listening to the words.  The voice they hear and hum along with, that’s just part of the music.

I have a suspicion that this is how most of us listen to songs in our own language, especially songs we have been hearing since very young.  My colleagues and clients don’t want to be reminded of the ’60s with all that era’s political turbulence.  They want to be reminded of their own youth.

What the British did in their aggressive disenfranchisement of the Irish on their own soil was to force the Irish to listen to their own songs, to pay attention to the words as well as to the melodies.  Because we listen to the words of a song when they are touching us directly in our immediate circumstances.  So even ancient songs can be made meaningful again if the events they refer to are replicated in the events of the current day: they are recognized as contemporary as a newspaper or a political broadside.

The British thus made the rebel song the touch-stone, the embodiment of Irish culture.  One can see how this plays out in the Irish ‘cheer’ (that’s its technical genre), “Óró Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile.” [8]  This probably originated as a shanty, welcoming sailors home from voyage (its structure is quite similar to “Drunken Sailor,” with which it probably shares a common original).  During the Williamite War, it transformed into a plea for Bonny Prince Charles to reclaim the throne and set conditions aright for the Irish.  In the early 20th Century, it was slightly revised by Patrick Pearse, who some say was murdered – or as others would have it, executed – by the British for participation in the Easter ’16 Proclamation of the Irish Republic. [9]  The song is in Gaelic, and roughly less than a third of the Irish report using Gaelic.  That may be less among today’s young Irish, and perhaps they don’t quite understand the full meaning of this song.  But anyone in Ireland forty years or older does.  A call for heroes to oust the “foreigners” (British) from Ireland, it was used as a marching song during the War of Independence.  Even if one doesn’t understand the words, the historical context reveals the meaning, a context remembered and passed on through generations.

Let’s clarify that.  Obviously, however moving the music, and however well known the context, the words technically have no meaning, until they’re explained.  So imagine a young person, unable to speak Gaelic, yet hearing his parents and their friends singing this song and noting their attitudes of pride and determination.  Such a one would feel impelled to ask after the song’s meaning.  And here’s where attempts to suppress a language and its song swing back to bite the oppressor’s hand.  The young person now pays closer attention to the meaning of the song during and following the explanation than he or she would if it were sung in a language already understood.  In other words, the effort to suppress Gaelic song actually backfired:  Rebel songs in Gaelic achieved greater respect as audiences struggled to place them meaningfully within the context of the Irish revolution and take possession of them as their own.

In fact, the problem for any empire is that colonization, oppression, slavery, and mass slaughter do not make friends.  Empires generate hatreds and enmities that last for generations.  The good natured Irish tend to adopt a “live and let live” pragmatic attitude even towards those they have battled in the past.  But they also tend to carry a grudge.

The British are a very proud people.  Writing this in America, I know it is expected of me to continue, “and they have every right to be.”  But I don’t believe that.  The history of England includes important eddies of remarkable writers and scientists.  But these appear to the sides of a great river of blood, clogged with the remains of slaughtered natives of colonized lands.  And for every one of those dead, whole families are left behind to this day, battling to redefine the wretched political and economic confusion the British Empire left behind in its collapse – a collapse that the British still won’t admit or deal with honestly.

I write this in America, the nation that long acted as inheritor of that collapsed empire, while flattering the British ego, by pretending we are all somehow the same people because of a common language.  By functioning in a more paternalistic, “caring” fashion, acknowledging the sovereignty of other countries, spreading around aid programs, enlisting allies (as long as they didn’t threaten our hegemony and wealth), Americans have deluded themselves into believing they are not imperialists and have made no enemies.  But they are and they have, and this will continue to haunt and befuddle their foreign affairs for many generations to come.

But America has another problem.  There is no such thing as “the American people.”  America is a collection of many peoples from around the world.  Some of these have been historically oppressed, although later assimilated into the mainstream.  Others have not been able or allowed to assimilate.  And others may feel themselves oppressed where there is no empirical evidence that this is so, beyond their own disappointment, given the nature of the economy or the nature of constitutional government.  Consequently, there are an awful lot of people here who have, or who have had, or who believe they have, reason speak out.  And when the means for doing so are blocked or when speaking seems unlikely to convince others – they can always sing about it. [10]   That’s what song is for.  Politics is not an add-on to song; song is an inevitable expression in politics.

Mark English wrote here recently of the dangers of relying on mythical thinking in matters political. [11]  The desire for respect, for the ability to live without oppression or risk of theft or murder, for the opportunity to realize one’s full potential unhindered by stigma – are these mythical aspirations?  Quite probably.  The world is a cold home to a lonely, anxious species of over-developed hominids.  But I would not be the one to reassure those starving in a famine that, rationally, their deaths would (in the words of Scrooge) “decrease the surplus population.”   Some myths are worth living for, even fighting for; and worth singing about.

Notes

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3zOVi0C5X4

[2] My oldest sister never quite got over it, and became obsessed with developing a family tree.  She traced the Irish roots back to an 18th century poet, Thomas Dermody, aka Dead-Drunk Dermody, who, as his nickname would suggest, drank himself to death at an early age. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Dermody

The first stanza from his “On a Dead Negro;” https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/on-a-dead-negro/:

AT length the tyrant stays his iron rod,

At length the iron rod can hurt no more;

The slave soft slumbers ‘neath this verdant sod,

And all his years of misery are o’er.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cromwellian_conquest_of_Ireland

[4] The British response to the famine – heartless indifference – was a purely rational one.  Remember that this was the age of Malthus, who once wrote, however ironically:

“(W)e should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality [of the poor]; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use” Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798.

Lest any think this was not in minds of the British during the Famine, consider the following:

“Ireland is like a half-starved rat that crosses the path of an elephant. What must the elephant do? Squelch it – by heavens – squelch it.” – Thomas Carlyle, British essayist, 1840s

“The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.” – Charles Trevelyan, head of administration for famine relief, 1840s

“[Existing policies] will not kill more than one million Irish in 1848 and that will scarcely be enough to do much good.” – Queen Victoria’s economist, Nassau Senior

“A Celt will soon be as rare on the banks of the Shannon as the red man on the banks of Manhattan.” – The Times, editorial, 1848

Source of additional quotes: http://www.politics.ie/forum/history/22143-anti-irish-quotes-throughout-history.html

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Irish_ballads

[6] For instance: U2: “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” Simple Minds: “Belfast Child,” The Cranberries: “Zombie.”

[7] Until Guinness bought out the brewery building recently, they held a 9,000 year lease on it.

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Sje2VYw99A

About the song: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%93r%C3%B3_s%C3%A9_do_bheatha_abhaile

Translation in English: http://songsinirish.com/oro-se-do-bheatha-bhaile-lyrics/

Revisions author: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Pearse

[9] The execution of the leaders of Easter ‘16 was perhaps the most profound mistake the British could have made.  Initially, they sentenced 89 men and a woman to death; but the first 15 executions were staggered over 9 days, as crowds stood outside the prison weeping, and politicians both Irish and British protested.  Author James Stephens described it as “like watching blood oozing from under a door.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Stephens_(author)  The sentences of the other 75 sentenced to death were commuted.  But the damage was done.  The effect was to galvanize the Irish people in support of independence.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_Rising

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs

[11] https://theelectricagora.com/2017/02/22/nationalism-and-mythical-thinking/

 

This essay originally appeared at: https://theelectricagora.com/2017/03/03/politics-and-song/

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E. A. Poe: Philosophy of Composition

Note: Having just posted my poem, “The Tragedy of Hamlet,” I thought about explaining why I engaged in such a verse text that was composed with, frankly, a kind of ruthlessness, in the sense that it quite intentionally plays on the expectations of the readers, especially regarding the many interpretations of Shakespeare’s original that those familiar with that play carry with them; but also expectations concerning the specific words and phrasing. (There is, for instance, a sexual joke somewhere in the middle of it; but more important is the play on the repetition of references to ‘lord’ in the aristocratic sense, and ‘Lord’ in the religious sense.) (It was also important to me to end the poem with a line borrowed from Gertrude Stein’s libretto for “Four Saints in Three Acts,” which was the background influence to the poem, and to have this line evoke the problem of memory, which is clearly one of the sub-textual themes of Shakespeare’s play.)

Well, I could go on with such a discussion for quite a while. Instead, I’ll let a better poet than I raise the larger issues underlining these. In the following essay, Edgar Allen Poe delivers a most cold-blooded explanation of the writing of one of the most beloved poems in the American canon (“The Raven”*). I remember, as an English student, professors trying to wave this essay away, or explaining it as a post-hoc apologia. Nothing could be further from the truth – read it for yourself. Poe knew exactly what he was doing – and anyone aspiring to write good poetry should.

—–
THE PHILOSOPHY OF COMPOSITION

EDGAR ALLEN POE

(1846)

Charles Dickens, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of “Barnaby Rudge,” says- “By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his ‘Caleb Williams’ backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.”

I cannot think this the precise mode of procedure on the part of Godwin- and indeed what he himself acknowledges, is not altogether in accordance with Mr. Dickens’ idea- but the author of “Caleb Williams” was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process. Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis- or one is suggested by an incident of the day- or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative-designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view- for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest- I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone- whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone- afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.

I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would- that is to say, who could- detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say- but, perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers- poets in especial- prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy- an ecstatic intuition- and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought- at the true purposes seized only at the last moment- at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view- at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable- at the cautious selections and rejections- at the painful erasures and interpolations- in a word, at the wheels and pinions- the tackle for scene-shifting- the step-ladders, and demon-traps- the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.

I am aware, on the other hand, that the case is by no means common, in which an author is at all in condition to retrace the steps by which his conclusions have been attained. In general, suggestions, having arisen pell-mell are pursued and forgotten in a similar manner.

For my own part, I have neither sympathy with the repugnance alluded to, nor, at any time, the least difficulty in recalling to mind the progressive steps of any of my compositions, and, since the interest of an analysis or reconstruction, such as I have considered a desideratum, is quite independent of any real or fancied interest in the thing analysed, it will not be regarded as a breach of decorum on my part to show the modus operandi by which some one of my own works was put together. I select ‘The Raven’ as most generally known. It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition- that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.

Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem, per se, the circumstance- or say the necessity- which, in the first place, gave rise to the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste.

We commence, then, with this intention.

The initial consideration was that of extent. If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression- for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with anything that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones- that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least, one-half of the “Paradise Lost” is essentially prose- a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions- the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity of effect.

It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art- the limit of a single sitting- and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as “Robinson Crusoe” (demanding no unity), this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem. Within this limit, the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its merit- in other words, to the excitement or elevation-again, in other words, to the degree of the true poetical effect which it is capable of inducing; for it is clear that the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect- this, with one proviso- that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.

Holding in view these considerations, as well as that degree of excitement which I deemed not above the popular, while not below the critical taste, I reached at once what I conceived the proper length for my intended poem- a length of about one hundred lines. It is, in fact, a hundred and eight.

My next thought concerned the choice of an impression, or effect, to be conveyed: and here I may as well observe that throughout the construction, I kept steadily in view the design of rendering the work universally appreciable. I should be carried too far out of my immediate topic were I to demonstrate a point upon which I have repeatedly insisted, and which, with the poetical, stands not in the slightest need of demonstration- the point, I mean, that Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem. A few words, however, in elucidation of my real meaning, which some of my friends have evinced a disposition to misrepresent. That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect- they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul- not of intellect, or of heart- upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating the “beautiful.” Now I designate Beauty as the province of the poem, merely because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring from direct causes- that objects should be attained through means best adapted for their attainment- no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation alluded to is most readily attained in the poem. Now the object Truth, or the satisfaction of the intellect, and the object Passion, or the excitement of the heart, are, although attainable to a certain extent in poetry, far more readily attainable in prose. Truth, in fact, demands a precision, and Passion, a homeliness (the truly passionate will comprehend me), which are absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty which, I maintain, is the excitement or pleasurable elevation of the soul. It by no means follows, from anything here said, that passion, or even truth, may not be introduced, and even profitably introduced, into a poem for they may serve in elucidation, or aid the general effect, as do discords in music, by contrast- but the true artist will always contrive, first, to tone them into proper subservience to the predominant aim, and, secondly, to enveil them, as far as possible, in that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the essence of the poem.

Regarding, then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestation- and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind in its supreme development invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.

The length, the province, and the tone, being thus determined, I betook myself to ordinary induction, with the view of obtaining some artistic piquancy which might serve me as a key-note in the construction of the poem- some pivot upon which the whole structure might turn. In carefully thinking over all the usual artistic effects- or more properly points, in the theatrical sense- I did not fail to perceive immediately that no one had been so universally employed as that of the refrain. The universality of its employment sufficed to assure me of its intrinsic value, and spared me the necessity of submitting it to analysis. I considered it, however, with regard to its susceptibility of improvement, and soon saw it to be in a primitive condition. As commonly used, the refrain, or burden, not only is limited to lyric verse, but depends for its impression upon the force of monotone- both in sound and thought. The pleasure is deduced solely from the sense of identity- of repetition. I resolved to diversify, and so heighten the effect, by adhering in general to the monotone of sound, while I continually varied that of thought: that is to say, I determined to produce continuously novel effects, by the variation of the application of the refrain- the refrain itself remaining for the most part, unvaried.

These points being settled, I next bethought me of the nature of my refrain. Since its application was to be repeatedly varied it was clear that the refrain itself must be brief, for there would have been an insurmountable difficulty in frequent variations of application in any sentence of length. In proportion to the brevity of the sentence would, of course, be the facility of the variation. This led me at once to a single word as the best refrain.

The question now arose as to the character of the word. Having made up my mind to a refrain, the division of the poem into stanzas was of course a corollary, the refrain forming the close to each stanza. That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt, and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel in connection with r as the most producible consonant.

The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had pre-determined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word “Nevermore.” In fact it was the very first which presented itself.

The next desideratum was a pretext for the continuous use of the one word “nevermore.” In observing the difficulty which I had at once found in inventing a sufficiently plausible reason for its continuous repetition, I did not fail to perceive that this difficulty arose solely from the preassumption that the word was to be so continuously or monotonously spoken by a human being- I did not fail to perceive, in short, that the difficulty lay in the reconciliation of this monotony with the exercise of reason on the part of the creature repeating the word. Here, then, immediately arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech, and very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.

I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven, the bird of ill-omen, monotonously repeating the one word “Nevermore” at the conclusion of each stanza in a poem of melancholy tone, and in length about one hundred lines. Now, never losing sight of the object- supremeness or perfection at all points, I asked myself- “Of all melancholy topics what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death, was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length the answer here also is obvious- “When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

I had now to combine the two ideas of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word “Nevermore.” I had to combine these, bearing in mind my design of varying at every turn the application of the word repeated, but the only intelligible mode of such combination is that of imagining the Raven employing the word in answer to the queries of the lover. And here it was that I saw at once the opportunity afforded for the effect on which I had been depending, that is to say, the effect of the variation of application. I saw that I could make the first query propounded by the lover- the first query to which the Raven should reply “Nevermore”- that I could make this first query a commonplace one, the second less so, the third still less, and so on, until at length the lover, startled from his original nonchalance by the melancholy character of the word itself, by its frequent repetition, and by a consideration of the ominous reputation of the fowl that uttered it, is at length excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different character- queries whose solution he has passionately at heart- propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torture- propounds them not altogether because he believes in the prophetic or demoniac character of the bird (which reason assures him is merely repeating a lesson learned by rote), but because he experiences a frenzied pleasure in so modelling his questions as to receive from the expected “Nevermore” the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrows. Perceiving the opportunity thus afforded me, or, more strictly, thus forced upon me in the progress of the construction, I first established in my mind the climax or concluding query- that query to which “Nevermore” should be in the last place an answer- that query in reply to which this word “Nevermore” should involve the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair.

Here then the poem may be said to have had its beginning- at the end where all works of art should begin- for it was here at this point of my preconsiderations that I first put pen to paper in the composition of the stanza:

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! prophet still if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us- by that God we both adore,
Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore-
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven- “Nevermore.”

I composed this stanza, at this point, first that, by establishing the climax, I might the better vary and graduate, as regards seriousness and importance, the preceding queries of the lover, and secondly, that I might definitely settle the rhythm, the metre, and the length and general arrangement of the stanza, as well as graduate the stanzas which were to precede, so that none of them might surpass this in rhythmical effect. Had I been able in the subsequent composition to construct more vigorous stanzas I should without scruple have purposely enfeebled them so as not to interfere with the climacteric effect.

And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been neglected in versification is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little possibility of variety in mere rhythm, it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are absolutely infinite, and yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing. The fact is that originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.

Of course I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of the “Raven.” The former is trochaic- the latter is octametre acatalectic, alternating with heptametre catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrametre catalectic. Less pedantically the feet employed throughout (trochees) consist of a long syllable followed by a short, the first line of the stanza consists of eight of these feet, the second of seven and a half (in effect two-thirds), the third of eight, the fourth of seven and a half, the fifth the same, the sixth three and a half. Now, each of these lines taken individually has been employed before, and what originality the “Raven” has, is in their combination into stanza; nothing even remotely approaching this has ever been attempted. The effect of this originality of combination is aided by other unusual and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration.

The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Raven- and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields- but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident- it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.

I determined, then, to place the lover in his chamber- in a chamber rendered sacred to him by memories of her who had frequented it. The room is represented as richly furnished- this in mere pursuance of the ideas I have already explained on the subject of Beauty, as the sole true poetical thesis.

The locale being thus determined, I had now to introduce the bird- and the thought of introducing him through the window was inevitable. The idea of making the lover suppose, in the first instance, that the flapping of the wings of the bird against the shutter, is a “tapping” at the door, originated in a wish to increase, by prolonging, the reader’s curiosity, and in a desire to admit the incidental effect arising from the lover’s throwing open the door, finding all dark, and thence adopting the half-fancy that it was the spirit of his mistress that knocked.

I made the night tempestuous, first to account for the Raven’s seeking admission, and secondly, for the effect of contrast with the (physical) serenity within the chamber.

I made the bird alight on the bust of Pallas, also for the effect of contrast between the marble and the plumage- it being understood that the bust was absolutely suggested by the bird- the bust of Pallas being chosen, first, as most in keeping with the scholarship of the lover, and secondly, for the sonorousness of the word, Pallas, itself.

About the middle of the poem, also, I have availed myself of the force of contrast, with a view of deepening the ultimate impression. For example, an air of the fantastic- approaching as nearly to the ludicrous as was admissible- is given to the Raven’s entrance. He comes in “with many a flirt and flutter.”

Not the least obeisance made he- not a moment stopped or stayed he,
But with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door.

In the two stanzas which follow, the design is more obviously carried out:-

Then this ebony bird, beguiling my sad fancy into smiling
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no
craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore-
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore?”
Quoth the Raven- “Nevermore.”

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door-
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”

The effect of the denouement being thus provided for, I immediately drop the fantastic for a tone of the most profound seriousness- this tone commencing in the stanza directly following the one last quoted, with the line,

But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only, etc.

From this epoch the lover no longer jests- no longer sees anything even of the fantastic in the Raven’s demeanour. He speaks of him as a “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore,” and feels the “fiery eyes” burning into his “bosom’s core.” This revolution of thought, or fancy, on the lover’s part, is intended to induce a similar one on the part of the reader- to bring the mind into a proper frame for the denouement- which is now brought about as rapidly and as directly as possible.

With the denouement proper- with the Raven’s reply, “Nevermore,” to the lover’s final demand if he shall meet his mistress in another world- the poem, in its obvious phase, that of a simple narrative, may be said to have its completion. So far, everything is within the limits of the accountable- of the real. A raven, having learned by rote the single word “Nevermore,” and having escaped from the custody of its owner, is driven at midnight, through the violence of a storm, to seek admission at a window from which a light still gleams- the chamber-window of a student, occupied half in poring over a volume, half in dreaming of a beloved mistress deceased. The casement being thrown open at the fluttering of the bird’s wings, the bird itself perches on the most convenient seat out of the immediate reach of the student, who amused by the incident and the oddity of the visitor’s demeanour, demands of it, in jest and without looking for a reply, its name. The raven addressed, answers with its customary word, “Nevermore”- a word which finds immediate echo in the melancholy heart of the student, who, giving utterance aloud to certain thoughts suggested by the occasion, is again startled by the fowl’s repetition of “Nevermore.” The student now guesses the state of the case, but is impelled, as I have before explained, by the human thirst for self-torture, and in part by superstition, to propound such queries to the bird as will bring him, the lover, the most of the luxury of sorrow, through the anticipated answer, “Nevermore.” With the indulgence, to the extreme, of this self-torture, the narration, in what I have termed its first or obvious phase, has a natural termination, and so far there has been no overstepping of the limits of the real.

But in subjects so handled, however skillfully, or with however vivid an array of incident, there is always a certain hardness or nakedness which repels the artistical eye. Two things are invariably required- first, some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and, secondly, some amount of suggestiveness- some under-current, however indefinite, of meaning. It is this latter, in especial, which imparts to a work of art so much of that richness (to borrow from colloquy a forcible term), which we are too fond of confounding with the ideal. It is the excess of the suggested meaning- it is the rendering this the upper instead of the under-current of the theme- which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind), the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists.

Holding these opinions, I added the two concluding stanzas of the poem- their suggestiveness being thus made to pervade all the narrative which has preceded them. The under-current of meaning is rendered first apparent in the line-

“Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my
door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!”

It will be observed that the words, “from out my heart,” involve the first metaphorical expression in the poem. They, with the answer, “Nevermore,” dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematical- but it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza that the intention of making him emblematical of Mournful and never ending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted- nevermore.

—–
* Poe: The Raven
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.”

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
’Tis the wind and nothing more!”

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”

But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of ‘Never—nevermore’.”

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!

Winner’s Hamlet: complete play in 5 acts

The Tragedy of
HAMLET,
Prince of Denmark

By E. John Winner

ACT ONE

Long live the king!

– speak, speak! I charge thee speak!

‘Tis strange.

If thou art privy to thy country’s fate,
‘Tis here!
‘Tis here!
‘Tis gone!

Exuent

My dread lord,

If it be
God!

My lord, the king your father.

The king? my father?

Arm’d, my lord.

He hath importuned me with love
“I am thy father’s spirit,
If thou didst ever thy dear father love –
If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not;
Hamlet, remember me.”
– Remember thee!
-Remember thee!

Within –
Lord Hamlet –

ACT TWO

How is’t, my noble lord?

Mad for thy love?
-reading.

How does my good Lord Hamlet?

– Words, words, words.

Fare you well, my lord.

– friend!

What speech, my lord?

Come, sirs.

– O, my dear lord –

 

ACT THREE

Nay, ’tis twice two months, my lord.
‘Tis brief, my lord.

Dost thou hear?
The king rises.

Hamlet in madness hath
Polonious slain.

Thy loving father, Hamlet.

King Claudius!
The rabble call him lord,
O thou vile king.
Speak, man.

Dead.
I should be greeted,
if not from Lord Hamlet.

 

ACT FOUR

Hamlet!

Ay, my lord;

“Adieu.”

For no man, by the Lord.

Why? This?

E’en so;

Hamlet the Dane. – Remember it, my lord?

Thou pray’st not well.

Was’t Hamlet wrong’d?
Never Hamlet.

King Claudius:
Carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet.

It is here, Hamlet, thou art slain.

King Claudius dies.

 

ACT FIVE

Hamlet: If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,

When this you see, remember me.

Poe: language of the individual

a_lone

—–

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.

Diamond in the dross (a poem)

Diamond in the dross
for: Debbie, whom I still love, and for Rose, who still loves me

We were golden in our morning hour.

By afternoon, we were bronze.

In tin we were at night, we remarked our aging.

Transmutation by alchemy reduces us to dross.

But I still remember you, the diamond in the dross.

But that’s all: a diamond, maybe in the dross.
Or maybe,
merely in the memory.

I haven’t forgotten your name.

Alas, I’ve forgotten everything else –

what brought us together?

what broke us apart?

The metallurgy of the years is unkind.
Mere chemistry haunts us as we live.

Mere chemistry hunts us down,
and finally decides our termination.

We were victims of our chemistry.
You were victim to my chemistry,
I was victim,
there were no victims.

I am responsible for not knowing This?

Neither of us were responsible for anything.

We are all responsible. We can’t decide, we do decide.
There is no responsibility; but there is decision.

The moment demands decision. Decisions happen.
We take the credit, the blame.

Thus, responsibility.

It wasn’t me, but it was who I was.
What I am is not a person you could have known.
I don’t know him. I just am.

The chemicals merge molecules, uncaring, it’s just what they do.

We are left to – well, we are just left here,

riding the atoms into something like oblivion.

This ‘we’ we are, it’s what we live with, caring or not.
It doesn’t care.
We care. I know I do.
I just don’t know anything anymore.

Life happens because chemicals cannot decide anything.

They continue to metaphorphize.

The grave is only their last transmogrification.
They give birth to us.
They surrender us when they have had enough.

I never had enough of you; yet we had enough of each other.

I hope, since then,
you’ve enjoyed all that living could mutate for you.

For me, it has only said, ‘watch and learn.’

Except, – it doesn’t say anything.

Listen then to the dumb and mute being of life.

It speaks eloquently. It has nothing to say.

Our passing limits our understanding.

The uncaring atoms continue their dance without us.

The planet spins in regular orbit about the sun.

I count the change in my pocket and think,
vaguely,
about bills to pay.

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The Astro Boy essay will be continued.  I simply had to get this out of my system.  Sorry for the delay; sorry for the introspection.

(But it’s my blog, if you want something else, post your own blog!)