SPEAKER: This is a production of Cornell University.
ELLIS HANSON: Hey, I'm Ellis Hanson I'm a professor in the English department. And it's my pleasure to introduce Professor MH Abrams. He is the class of 1916 Professor Emeritus of English and our very own national treasure in residence.
For decades, he has set the gold standard for accomplishment in our department. After taking all his degrees at Harvard with a brief stint on fellowship in Cambridge under the tutelage of the eminent critic IA Richards, Professor Abrams arrived here in 1945, which is to say that he just celebrated his 65th anniversary as a Cornell English professor. Among his many accomplishments, he is the inventor and editor of the immensely popular Norton Anthology of English Literature, a textbook used in courses throughout the world. It must be up to at least it's eight edition now.
MH ABRAMS: 10th
ELLIS HANSON: It's 10th.
My copy is the 8th. Its numerous incarnations over the years seem to me to reflect for each new generation what great literature is or ought to be. So I'd better go buy the 10th. His book Natural Supernaturalism won the James Russell Lowell prize. And his landmark study, The Mirror and the Lamp, was selected as number 25 on the Modern Library's list of the 100 most important books of 20th century nonfiction. And that means he came in ahead of Albert Einstein, WB Yeats, George Orwell, Mark Twain, and Winston Churchill.
I never tire of reading that list. Because all great English professors wish they were more influential than great English prime ministers. His former students have endowed prizes and professorships in his honor, including the MH Abrams Visiting Distinguished Professor, who is here today, Ian Balfour. And he'll be giving a talk later in the year. And we're looking forward to welcoming Mary Jacobus back to Cornell for all of next year in that role.
I'm very pleased that Professor Abrams has agreed to take to the Cornell podium once again to reintroduce us to the pleasures of poetry. He once said, "If you read quickly to get through a poem to what it means, you have missed the body of the poem." Poem sounds so much more seductive when you can examine it's body closely. And as a Victorian, I certainly understand the dimensions of that body can be very long and very wide, occasionally very deep. But in his lecture today, however, Professor Abrams will talk to us about the mysterious fourth dimension of a poem. Please join me in welcoming MH Abrams.
Thanks, Ellis, for that very generous introduction. You studied that list of 100 nonfiction works much more closely. It never occurred to me to study it. The fourth dimension of a poem-- to explain that enigmatic title, I'll begin by quoting the opening paragraph of a novel written while its author was a professor here at Cornell.
"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul, Lo-li-ta, the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap at three on the teeth-- Lo-li-ta." Humbert Humbert's obsession with Lolita has sensitized him to a fact of which we are ordinarily oblivious-- that is that the use of language involves a physical component, the oral actions of producing the words we utter, and that by tending to them, we can become aware of the mobile and tactile sensations of performing these actions. Do you all hear me in the back? Good.
Pull the microphone just a little bit closer.
The point I want to stress today is that poets, whether deliberately or unconsciously, exploit this physical aspect of language. And that is the component, the physical act of enunciating it, that I call the fourth dimension of a poem. There are, one can say, four dimensions that come into play to produce the full poetic effect.
One is the appearance of the poem in print as you now see it on the page before you, the visible aspect, which signals that you are to read the text as a poem not as prose and also offers visual cues as to the pace, pause, stops, and intonation of your reading. A second dimension is the sounds of the words when they are read aloud, or if they are read silently, the sounds as they are imagined by the reader. A third and by far the most important dimension is the meaning of the words that we read or hear. The fourth dimension, one that is almost totally neglected in discussions of poetry, is the oral activity of enunciating the great variety of speech sounds that constitute the words of a poem.
It's easy to overlook the fact that a poem, like all art forms, has a physical medium, a material body, which contains its non-material meanings. That medium is not as we're apt to say these days [INAUDIBLE], a written or printed text. The physical medium is the act of utterance by the human voice as it produces the speech sounds that convey a poem.
We produce these sounds by varying the pressure on the lungs, vibrating or stilling the vocal chords, changing the shape of the throat and mouth, and making wonderfully precise movements of the tongue and lips to form consonants. It can be said then that the physical act of producing a poem begins next to the heart and ends near the brain. That is one reason that poetry is felt to be the most intimate of the arts, in addition to being the most inclusive and nuanced in expressing what it is to be human.
What I want especially to emphasize is how important it is to become aware of this fourth material dimension. Life-long and constant habituation in using language has made us largely oblivious to the oral actions that bring a poem into being, the sensations of oral emotion, shape, and touch that we feel, and the oral gestures that we make in performing such actions. But to be oblivious of these physical sensations and gestures and simply to look through them to the meanings of the words that they convey is to disembody a poem. That's what I meant in that quotation that Ellis mentioned earlier.
One function of reading a poem aloud is that to do so helps to re-embody it by exemplifying the palpability of its material medium. And that is important. Because the oral actions that body forth the words of a poem, even when they remain below awareness, serve in intricate and various ways to interact with, confirm, and enhance the meanings and feelings that the words can convey and thus play an essential role in conveying the sense we have that the words of a good poem are notably appropriate to what these words signify.
What I've said will, I think, become more clear when I discuss some poems then read them aloud. But before I do so, I want to stress that there's no one right way to read a poem aloud. Good readers vary greatly. And even the same reader doesn't read a poem twice in precisely the same way.
I go back far enough so that when I was a college student, I heard TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, and EE Cummings read their poems. Each read differently, but all read well. I heard Robert Frost talk his poems to great effect. And I heard Dylan Thomas recite poems in a Welsh bardic chant to equal or greater effect. Thank you.
In the early decades after the founding of Cornell, a famed English professor, Hiram Corson, sometimes read poems aloud in Sage Chapel, accompanied by the chapel organ, to great acclaim. I myself favor a more subdued mode of reading, a flexible one that suborinates to and tries to express and convey the physical as I have described it, as well as the semantic particularities of an individual poem. To illustrate, I'll point out some of the distinctive qualities of each of the poems on your sheet. Then I'll read it aloud.
I chose these examples because they are all splendid poems of which I'm especially fond yet differ markedly in the implied voice of the lyric speakers, in what the speakers say, and the style and pace and tone in which they say it. I'll attend to all four dimensions of these poems but will emphasize especially their fourth dimension-- that is the differences in the physical enunciative actions which help these points achieve their diverse effects by interacting with the meanings and moods that the words of the poems conveys.
The first poem, "On This Island," was written by Auden at the age of 28 in an exuberant display of his early mastery over the resources of language. Most prominent is his use of devices, especially in the emphatic sequences of stressed syllables and the conspicuous patterning of speech sounds that he had learned from the poet priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Almost all of Hopkins' poems, although written in the high Victorian period, hadn't been published until 1918, only 18 years before "On This Island." And Hopkins' linguistic innovations captivated Auden, as they did other young poets of his generation.
Auden's poem represents the sea and shore as overlooked from, presumably, a chalk cliff on the southeast coast of the large island called Great Britain. Look, stranger-- the poet addresses himself directly to you, whom the poem thus pauses as a fellow viewer of this vibrant scene, drenched with sunlight and resonant with the sounds of ever-moving water. In this representation, Auden exploits all four of the poem's dimensions-- its visible appearance, its speech sounds, its meanings, and also the act of its utterance, and makes them co-operate so as to convey to the full the sights and sounds of the sunlit seascape as well as the exhilaration that the view evokes in its observer.
Frequently in his description, Auden foreground something we ordinarily don't heed, the delight that can reside in mere utterance, in our uniquely human ability to enunciate an astonishing variety of speech sounds. Infants show this delight in the activity called lalling-- that is, the repetitive utterance of newly-learned consonants-- ma-ma-ma, da-da-da, la-la-la. Auden recovers for us on a complex level this lost primitive pleasure.
For example, he bids us to look at this island now, the leaping light for your delight discovers. In representing the dazzle of the light, which seems to leap up from the moving waters that reflect it, Auden matches the delight he experiences in viewing the represented scene by the delight he evokes in our oral actions of verbalizing that representation, the light in the repeated utterance of the elastic Ls and then the prominent evolution of other speech units, from leaping to light to delight to dis-covers-- the leaping light for your delight discovers. The restless movements, both in the scene and in this verbal representation, are brought to an abrupt stop by the sturdy sequence of stressed STs in the imperative to you, the listener, to stand stable here. In that last phrase, Auden exploits the potential semantic meaningful content of uttering the initial STs, a combination of consonants that recur in many, many English words that denote a sudden cessation of movement, words such as stop, stay, stuck, stock-still, and so now stand stable.
Such a prominent play of speech sounds is not only pleasurable in itself, it has an added function. And that it is to replicate the sounds that the words signify, the sounds of what I've called the second dimension of a poem. For example, in the swaying sound of the sea, the last line of the first stanza, which describes the rise and fall in loudness of the sea swells, the sibilance of the enunciated S's mimics the susurrous of the sliding waters, at the same time that the undulating rhythm of the spoken line, most prominent in the tension and rebound of the middle Y in the word swaying mimics the undulation of the waves that produce these sounds.
Auden also reminds us by such oral echoism that the sea's edge, the waves don't merely hiss. As they strike the shore, they also make slapping and clicking sounds-- line nine-- and as tall ledges oppose the pluck and knock of the tide. In the lines that follow, Auden foregrounds something that he also does less obviously elsewhere in the poem. He's learned from Gerard Hopkins the trick of breaking a word in the middle and then rhyming the first half of the severed word with the end word of a nearby verse line-- oppose the pluck after the suck-ing surf. See the break.
By this devise, Auden makes us aware that in enunciating words, we perform oral gestures, and that such gestures can be meaningful. In this instance, he breaks the word in order to emphasize a change of direction in the gesture of enunciating its speech sounds from the front to the back of the mouth in suck, then from the back to the front of the mouth to end far forward with a dentolabial F-- the suck-ing surf. In these lines, therefore, even as the speech sounds, the Ss and Fs and Ks, reproduce the diverse sounds we hear on the margin of the sea, the reversal of motion in enunciating those sounds enacts the reversal and motion of the surf that the words signify as the wavelets reach up on the shore, stop, and then reluctantly revert to the open sea-- suck-ing surf.
One more comment to show how Auden exploits all the dimensions of his poem, including its visible appearance on the page-- each of the three stanzas contains a remarkable variety of line length, consisting of two, three, four, and five iambic units or feet, but in non-numerical order. In the first two stanzas, for example, the order of the line lengths is four, five, two, two, four, three, and three metric units. Auden knows that we ordinarily encounter a poem visually in a printed text. Accordingly, he uses the irregular pattern of this visual aspect of the poem as you see it on the page before you to replicate the irregular visual pattern that is etched on the sandy shore by the advancing and retreating waves, a phenomenon we've all seen all the time.
Now I must emphasize that Auden's poem is a great deal more than merely a linguistic tour de force. Note, for example, what he says in lines five following. "That through the channels of the ear may wander like a river the swaying sound of the sea."
In this passage, Auden attributes to the consciousness of you, the perceiver, a spatial dimension into which the oscillating water sounds enter as though the sounds were themselves water that flows through your ear canals, the channels of the ear into to your conscious mind, and even more remarkably in the third line of the last stanza. "And the full view indeed may enter and move in memory as now these clouds do that pass the harbor mirror and all the summer through the water sauntered"-- as the moving clouds are reflected in the water, so the full view-- full because it includes both the water and the clouds that are reflected in the water-- is in its turn reflected in the perceiver's consciousness, where the clouds continue to move, but now in the perceiver's memory. In both these intricate metaphoric figures, the outer is fused with the inner so that the seen and the seer, the human perceiver and the natural things that are perceived, are assimilated into a single, exuberant, perceptual whole.
Final comment about this remarkable little poem-- in the third line from the end, Auden introduces five sequential stresses-- and move in memory as now these clouds do. He then lengthens the concluding line of the stanza from three feet, as in the two preceding stanzas-- if you look at the last lines, you see the two first ones are shorter than the final one-- to five feet, from three feet to five feet, "and all the summer through the water saunter. He does so in order to make both the length and the metric pace of these enunciated lines accord with what they denote-- that is with a sustained, unhurried pace of the moving clouds that are reflected in the water.
But beyond this, the last two lines surely are among the loveliest in English poetry. In part, what we perceive as the beauty of their sound is, in fact, a projection from the fourth dimensional act of utterance onto the resulting sounds of that utterance. It's a projection of the pleasurable ease in utterance with which we are able, that is, to enunciate the succession of these lines of their frontal consonance onto the sounds of the words. What we perceive as beautiful sounds is in great part a reflection of the ease of their utterance, the pleasure in uttering them.
Even more important to the effect, however, is that these two lines can say in a sequence of no less than five two-syllable trochaic words-- A trochee goes dum-da, dum-da, dum-da-- all of which rhyme, but on the off-beat only, namely harbor, mirror, summer, winter, water, saunter. The oral act of producing these recurrent half rhymes, the fourth dimension, that is, of these lines is the more delightful because Auden makes the sense, also the feel of enunciating the nasal continuant Ms in mirror and summer, then to move to the contrasting plosive T in water and to conclude with the combination of both nasal and plosive of the N-T of that perfectly apt word in its enunciation, its sound, and its sense, the artfully delayed, indolent verb, saunter.
May I ask you to read these two lines of the poem aloud with me in order to savor the evolution of the contrasting speech sounds? I'll keep time. [LAUGHING] You got it? We start with "that pass." "That pass the harbor mirror and all the summer through the water saunter." Did you taste those consonants?
Well, you're standing on the top of a chalk cliff at Dover. And the poet turns to you. "Look, stranger, at this island now, the leaping light for your delight discovers. Stand stable here and silent be. But through the channels of the ear, they wander like a river, the swaying sound of the sea.
Here at this small field's ending pause, where the chalk wall falls to the foam and its tall ledges oppose the pluck and knock of the tide, and the shingle scrambles after the sucking surf. And the gull lodges a moment on its sheer side. Far off like floating seeds, the ships diverge on urgent voluntary errands, and the full view indeed may enter and move in memory as now these clouds do that pass the harbor mirror and all the summer through the water saunter."
We turn to Emily Dickinson's poem, which in contrast to Auden's extensive seascape is an exquisite piece of minute description. My business, Dickenson wrote in a letter, "Circumference," by which cryptic statements-- most of her statements are cryptic-- I take her to mean that she circumscribes a small area of observation, then explores its minutiae. In this poem, a robin dispatches a worm, hops about, and then when offered a crumb, flies off. That's all.
Dickinson makes of the robin's negotiation with the worm and of its actions after that a comic pantomime in miniature, while of the bird's final flight, well, how is one to describe what she does in this astonishing passage of verbal impressionism? The act of the bird unfurling is swings and taking off, and of an oarsman rowing so gently as to leave no trace in the still water, and of butterflies launching themselves silently to float through the air, are so interfused and the elements of air and water so commingle that bemused reader ceases to know or to care which words are literal and which are metaphorical.
In large part, what we sense as the delicate adaptation of Dickenson's words to what they describe is the result of their fourth dimension, the acts of enunciating them. In the last two lines of the fourth stanza, for example, "he unrolled his feathers and rowed him softer home," eight of the nine words have prominent components denoted by the correspondent letters H, TH, W, and F, in each of which the sound is produced by applying a soft pressure that forces the air through lightly-constricted oral passages. "He unrolled his feathers and the rowed him softer home."
These oral actions accord with and so enhance the actions they describe. And that is the soft pressure on the air by the robin's wings as he unrolls his feathers and flies or rows or swims away. Within this floating suspension of the equated utterances and actions, butterflies are said to leap from banks. We expect in this watery context that these are the banks of a stream. But no, they turn out to be the banks of an abstraction-- a time of day, noon. In this location of concentrated reference, I can compare Dickinson only to one prior lyric poet, William Blake, at his audacious best.
"A bird came down the walk. He did not know I saw. He bit an angleworm in the halves and ate the fellow raw." The photograph by which we know Emily Dickinson looks so solemn that you have to miss the fact of how funny she can be and what a sense of humor she has. "He bit an angleworm in halves and ate the fellow raw. And then he drank a dew from a convenient grass but then hopped-- and then hopped sidewise to the wall to let a beetle pass.
He glanced with rapid eyes that hurried all around. They looked like frightened beads, I thought. He stirred his velvet head like one in danger. Cautious, I offered him a crumb. And he unrolled his feathers and rowed him softer home than oars divide the ocean, too silver for a seam, or butterflies, off banks of moon, leap plashless as they swim."
But we must move on briefly to the other poems on your sheet. In a note, Wordsworth tells us that "Surprised by Joy," as a reference to his daughter, Catherine, who had died a year earlier at the age of four. It was written when Wordsworth was in his mid '40s in the demanding form of Petrarchan sonnet. Its language has something of the stiff formality that deadens much of the poetry that Wordsworth wrote in his middle and later age. But what makes this poem the moving is that the speaker's spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings breaks into and disrupts the formality, both of its language and of its intricately-rhymed stanza.
Surprised by a circumstance that gives him joy, the poet instinctively turns. And we turn with him to share his feelings with his little daughter. But the second line is interrupted by the interjection, oh. And the word whom at the end of the line forebodes its rhyme word, tomb. In a stab of pain, he remembers that she's dead. He consoles himself that his habitual act of turning to her to share his joy a test the fidelity of his love, then the anguished outcry, but how could I forget thee?
What these broken lines convey is the human paradox about grieving. Time is a healer. But the dimming of grief and the passage of time can make us feel guilty, as though it impugns the depth of our love. In the sharpness of his self-blame, the poet in the fourth dimension of his words, belabors himself with a barrage of blunt, bilabial Bs. "How have I been so beguiled as to the blind." To realize that he has momentarily forgotten the pain of his loss is the greatest pain he's ever known. But no-- once more, he stops to correct himself. The worst pain diminishing with passing time was that which he suffered when he first knew that his daughter was gone forever.
"Surprised by joy. Impatient as the wind, I turned to share the transport-- oh, with whom but thee, deep buried in the silent tomb, that spot which no vicissitude can find? Love, faithful love, recall thee to my mind. But how could I forget thee? Through what power, even for the least division of an hour, have I been so beguiled as to be blind to my most grievous loss? That thought's return was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore, save one, one only, when I stood forlorn, knowing my heart's best treasure was no more, that neither present time nor years unborn could to my sight that heavenly face restore."
In a poem written to memorialize Wordsworth's death in 1850, Matthew Arnold said that the unique quality of Wordsworth's poetry was its healing power. "But where will Europe's latter hour again fine Wordsworth's healing power?" In our present critical climate, that's not really the kind of thing one is apt to say about a poem. But surely Arnold's claim comports with our response to "Surprised by Joy," as with our response to Wordsworth's great narrative poems about suffering, The ruined Cottage" and "Michael."
In his sonnet, Wordsworth confronts the most terrible of bereavements-- the death of a beloved child-- yet transmutes said for his readers into an experience of comfort, of comfort and even a kind of joy, the kind we call aesthetic delight. He does so because he achieves-- and thereby enables us to do so, too-- a mode of mastery over grief by finding language greatly adequate to its occasion. He does so also by reassuring us that we are not alone, that we share with this insightful poet the perplexities of our human condition.
Now the poem by Tennyson-- in lyric poetry, the most frequent topic is, of course, love. But in the 2,000 plus years of recorded amatory poems, I know none that quite matches this one. Tennyson's popularity with the Victorian middle class is unexampled in the history of poetry. But the truth is proper Victorians had nothing against amatory poems-- to the contrary, provided the poem is discreet in its language and lacks overt physical references.
Tennyson's poem qualifies on both these counts, but barely. [LAUGHTER] "For Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal" is in its unobstrusive way a poem of total, unmitigated, suspenseful, sexual longing. Its setting is an opulent garden matched by the opulence of the vocalizations that describe it. The garden contains red and white rose bushes, cypress trees, and goldfish in a rich stone bowl. It adjoins a lake in which grow day-blooming water lilies. And the ultimate exotic touch-- it harbors a white peacock.
Night has at long-last descended, lit only by fireflies and the luminous track of a shooting star. The lyric speaker is waiting for his beloved to waken and join him in this rich, fragrant, breezeless darkness. As we are told in the sixth line of the poem, the beloved keeps this rendezvous. "And like a ghost, she glimmers on to me." The pronoun she in that line can't refer to the peacock in the line before, who is a male, a male peafowl.
What the line conveys then is that the loved one herself appears, her white dress glimmering ghostlike in the darkness. All the while, the lyric speaker's perfervid imagination transforms every detail that it perceives into an analog of his desire. Though lacking rhyme, the lyric is divided into stanzas made up of an opening and closing quatrain-- four lines-- and three intervening couplets. Each of the five stanzas is demarcated by opening with the temporal adverb, thou, and ending with a personal pronoun, me. The cumulative effect is the sustained urgency of a desire so intense that it induces in the lover a physical languor-- now, now, now, now, now, with me, to me, unto to me, and then twice, in me, in me.
The second of the insisted couplets contains what I would nominate as though in a discreetly indirect and most explosively concentrated image in all of poetry. "Now lies the Earth all Danae to the stars." Seems chaste enough on first reading. In the Greek mythology, Danae is a young woman whose father, to ward off her suitors, has locked her behind bars. But the amatory Zeus, chief of the gods, in the standard euphemism, visits her in a shower of gold.
Just unfold Tennyson's compressed illusion and it conveys something like this. By the tensely expectant lover, all the earth is perceived as though it were an enamored female, lying receptive to the multitudinous silvery showers of the visiting stars. "Now lies the Earth all Danae to the stars." If anyone knows its erotic equal, I hope you tell me about it.
Note now the first line of the concluding quatrain. The normal word order would be now the lily folds up all her sweetness. By inverting the subject and predicate and postponing the proposition up until the end, Tennyson's suspense that's in syntactical closure so as to suggest a suspense of the waiting lover. "Now folds the lily all her sweetness z up." By delaying the closure, Tennyson also heightens our awareness of what it feels like to terminate the clause by enunciating the plosive P in the word up. And that in turn makes us aware of the repetition of that speech sound in the following verb, slips, and then of the repetition of that word in the final request to his loved one, now present before him-- "slip into my bosom."
I draw your attention to an important aspect of an expressive reading that could also be exemplified by other poems in your sheet. Tennyson's verse quickly establishes as its basic meter five iambic feet per line, with each foot taking up an approximately equal segment of time. "Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white." If the physical utterance of the poem reproduce metronomically these stresses in time intervals, it would be lethal. Instead, a sensitive reading placed counterpoint to the meter so that its intonation-- that is, the expressive changes in uttering the poem, of pitch, pace, pause, and the rhetorical stresses-- sometimes deviates from, sometimes coincides with, the established pulse that you feel of the underlying meter.
This dynamic of deviation and coincidence, of tension and resolution, between the normative meter and an expressive rendering-- that is, in the physical act of utterance-- is what gives vitality to a poem when it is verbalized aloud. As example, take the opening line. When reading it, I at one time stressed rhetorically the opposing adjectives, crimson and white. "Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white." But that was clearly a mistake. The difference between white and red roses is not functional to the import of the poem.
The key note term is now, which in consequence, though it lacks symmetrical stress, invites an intonational stress-- now sleeps. Equally important, however, is the verb sleeps. "Now at last, at last, the darkness falls so that the red rose sleeps." Here, the intonational stress [INAUDIBLE] with, so as to reinforce the metrical stress on sleeps. In this longed for darkness when rose finally falls asleep, the firefly wakens. And now at last, at last, it's time for my love also to awaken, to keep her rendezvous in the still darkness of this garden with me.
So throughout the poem, an expressive utterance of the text, its fourth dimension, manifests a counter rhythm that plays with and against the underlying metric pulse that you still feel. And as recurrently earlier, so at the very end, the metrical and the intonational stresses coincide. The poem thus concludes with a [INAUDIBLE] double emphasis on the sentient center of all this suspenseful longing, me.
"Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white, nor waves the cypress in the palace walk, nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font. The firefly wakens. Waken thou with me. Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost. And like a ghost, she glimmers on to me.
Now lies the Earth all Danae to the stars. And all they heart lies open unto me. Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves the shining furrow as they thoughts in me. Now folds the lily all her sweetness up and slips into the bosom of the lake. So fold thyself, my dearest thou, and slip into my bosom and be lost in me." Good Victorian poet.
I've been inordinately fond of Ernest Dowson's "Cynara" ever since, as a susceptible college sophomore, I came across it in a survey course in English literature. And yes, there were survey courses even before the Norton Anthology. I like it not despite, but because of its extravagance.
The subject of the poem is outrageous, deliberately intended in 1890, in 1891, to shock the late Victorian reader. The lyric speaker, during a long night of dissipation and while lying in the arms of a prostitute-- note in the second stanza, her bought red mouth-- is obsessed with the memory of an earlier love and insists that this obsession in these circumstances proves his actual fidelity to that loved one.
I find appealing the candor with which Dowson flaunts his poem's high artifice. It begins with an epigraph from a Latin ode in which the poet Horace, referring to a former love, declares, "I am not as I used to be under the reign of the good Cynara." Dowson then appropriates the name of Horace's mistress for his own lost love.
The [INAUDIBLE] is highlighted by the intricacy of the six-line stanza, in which five of the lines are written in iambic hexameter, a six-stress meter common in French poetry but rare and hard to sustain in English. The poet, however, cunningly interpolates in each stanza a fifth line, which is shortened from six to five stresses and is made additionally plangent because it intersects the two-line refrain and its resounding rhyme of passion and fashion.
Dowson is really a masterful metrist. Take, for example, on the opening line of the second stanza the sequence of six stressed syllables. "I felt her warm heart beat." The effect of uttering these six words is to make you feel each individual beat of the warm heart. Immediately following, we get to the two strong sequential stresses in the phrase, night long. The effect of the act of utterance convey by mimicry the length of that night of love.
To mention just one more example of Dowson's exploitation of the enunciative dimension of language, in the second and third lines of stanza three, there is a suspension in the juncture between these two lines forced by our need to reform our vocal organs from the N-G to the D in the adjacent stressed syllables-- throng, dancing. We must move from the back of the tongue at the roof of the mouth to the front of the tongue just above the teeth.
This suspension, this effort and release in the enunciative action mimics the bodily action when we dance-- fling roses, roses riotously with a throng, dancing. That dance, by the way, is almost certainly a Viennese waltz, whose popularity had swept across Europe and England in 1891 when Dowson wrote the poem. It was regarded then as a rather brazen dance because it required you to half embrace your partner, whom you whirled around.
What about this further possibility? I'll drop it in front of you. As the poetic line continues, we find a succession of four elastic Ls, a speech act, a speech sound, that is formed by a pressure and release of the blade of the tongue against the roof of the mouth. "Dancing to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind." But the L in pale, since it's not followed by a vowel, merges with the initial L of the word lost, enhancing the duration and stress of the initial L in what then becomes a sequence of three enunciated Ls-- lost lilies, lost lilies-- [? lo-lily, ?] [? lo-lily ?] one, two, three, one, two, three.
In the triple act of pressure and release, the tongue enacts the quick three-step of the Viennese waltz. Now if anyone here challenges that claim as pushing the effective possibilities of the fourth dimension a little bit too far, I would have to say that I half agree with you. [LAUGHTER] I do insist, though, that the dance alluded to is a Viennese waltz.
For example, there's a poem by Dawson's friend and fellow poet, Oscar Wilde. It is entitled "The Harlot's House." And in it, Wilde describes an upper class bordello in which the patrons are wildly dancing to an orchestra playing a tune that Wilde explicitly identifies as a waltz by Johann Strauss-- parallel. It is to me persuasive. That's what they did when you were rich enough in your trade to have an orchestra play for them.
Prominent throughout Dowson's poem is the unabashed theatricality, even staginess, of its high rhetoric and broad gestures, which would be at home in a lush Victorian melodrama. "Last night, ah, yesternight, yea I was desolate." And then the third stanza-- "I have forgot much, Cynara, gone with the wind." Yes, that's when Margaret Mitchell got the title for her Civil War novel.
Incidentally, from this poem derives rise also the recurrent phrase in the verses by that very literate songwriter, Cole Porter. Do you remember, "I'm always true to you, darling, in my fashion? I'm always true to you, darling, in my love. I'm always true to you, darling, in my fashion." Such literary echoes reassure me that I'm not the only reader to have been beguiled by Dowson's flamboyant poem.
Now this fight is patent contrivances. "Cynara," it seems to me, escapes being meretricious or insincere. Instead, the very candor of its artifice generates a kind of authenticity, building up to the outcry in the fifth shortened line of the last stanza, "Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire." In rendering this line, as in the rest of the poem, the reader is licensed-- indeed, required-- to be histrionic but must take care not to slip into self-parody.
Such restraint is made easier and the poem made and much more interesting by the teasing phrase that closes each stanza and lingers in memory-- in my fashion. How is one to take these words? Clearly, they indicate the speaker's awareness of the extravagance of his claim. But do they suggest also a touch of self-mockery? Well, that depends on the interpretation of the individual reader as that interpretation gets expressed by the intonation the reader gives to the phrase, especially at the close of the concluding stanza. I love to read this poem [INAUDIBLE] have a chance to do it.
"Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine, there fell thy shadow, Cynara. Thy breath was shed upon my soul between the kisses and the wine. And I was desolate and sick of an old passion. Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head. I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion.
All night upon mine heart, I felt her warm heart beat. Night-long within my arms in love and sleep she lay. Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth are sweet. But I was desolate and sick of an old passion. When I awoke and found the dawn was gray, I had been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion.
I have forgot much, Cynara, gone with the wind, flung roses, roses riotously with a throng dancing to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind. But I was desolate and sick of an old passion, yea all the time because the night was long. I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion.
I cried for madder music and for stronger of wine. But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire, then falls thy shadow, Cynara. The night is thine. And I am desolate and sick of an old passion. Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire. I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion." It's quite a wonderful poem, isn't it, in his fashion?
I began this talk with a Cornell author, Vladimir Nabokov. And I shall close it with another, the late AR Ammons-- Archie Ammons-- friend to many of us here, and a long-time professor here, and a major American poet. You couldn't get farther from the conspicuous complexity and artfulness of Dowson's "Cynara" than the conspicuous simplicity and artlessness of Ammons' "Mansion."
Ammons renounces almost all the traditional resources marking the distinction between poetry and standard discourse. He gives up meter and rhyme for free verse. He avoids the use of words and phrasing that, well into the 20th century, were the standard parlance of poetry.
How many noticed, for example, the number of poets on your sheet who said thou, thee, and thy, instead of you and your? But how could I forget thee? Waken thou with me. I've been faithful to thee, Cynara. The use of that archaic pronoun is an index through other locutions that we take for granted in traditional poems, although written at a time when they were rarely used in ordinary talk.
Instead of that, we hear in "Mansion" a forthright, everyday American vernacular with a slight North Carolina accent, the kind of plain talk that has no scruple about ending both of its first two sentences with a proposition-- to be delivered to, to show its motions with. "Mansion" turns out to deal with a basic, very serious human issue. What are we to make of life, knowing that we are mortal? But it begins with the utmost casualness. "So it came time for me to cede myself, as if death were the most natural thing in the world, as indeed it is."
Ammons uses the word cede in the sense to officially turn myself over to. The setting of the poem is the southwestern American desert. There, the speaker addresses himself to the wind. So had many earlier poets. Shelley, for example, apostrophized the wind grandly-- oh, wild west wind-- at the beginning of his great "Ode to the West Wind."
In "Mansion," however, the poetic speaker, without rhetorical ceremony, engages the desert wind in a friendly chat. He offers his body to the wind-- dust to dust-- and by doing so, tacitly accepts his participation in the natural cycle of life and death. That's the rationale in the first stanza for the startling figure, when the tree of my bones arises from my skin. The point is that when he turns to dust, his sun-bleached rib cage will be as natural a part of the landscape as a desert tree.
For his offer, the wind is grateful, because it remarks in playing its part in the natural cycle, it needs dust in order to make its motions visible. It then asks what it can do in return. In the lyric speaker's response, the colloquialism rises in sadistic pitch. The poet even introduces two unprosaic neologisms-- come and whirlwinding stroll my dust. Whirlwind is a noun. But it's used here as the present participle of a verb.
Stroll is an even bolder invention, because it's an intransitive verb used transitively-- stroll my dust. As such, it presses us to recognize that it is what Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty called a portmanteau term-- that is it fuses and that the intransitive verb stroll to move casually with of the transitive verb strew-- strew my dust. In "Mansion," however, the momentary heightening of the speech is whimsical. It serves to remind us of the traditional high lyric style that this poem tacitly plays itself against in order to achieve its counter traditional effects.
Just one last reference to the role of the fourth dimension, it's enunciation in a poem. The word whirlwinding contains the speech sound indicated by a W, which is similarly foregrounded in many other poetic references to the wind-- in Shelley's "oh, wild west wind," in Shakespeare's "blow, blow, thou winter wind," in AE Housman's "the chestnut casts his flambeaux and the flowers stream from the hawthorne into the wind away." The W is similarly emphasized the Ammons' own really short poem about the wind. "The reeds give way to the wind and give the wind away."
The recurrent W is no accident. The speech sound is made by compressing the lips and forcing the air through it, thus the physical act of performing the utterance accords with the meaning of the utterance itself-- that is, we in the literal sense blow the Ws that constitute part of the words that refers to the blowing wind-- oh, wild west wind, whirlwinding. The speaker then requests the obliging wind to blow his dust to a place where he can see the ocotillo, the cactus tree, and the desert wren.
The phrasing is odd, deliberately odd, in the order, I think, to suggest what it doesn't explicitly say. He asks the wind to strew his dust "where I can see how the ocotillo does and how saguaro wren is." You don't speak that way in ordinary English. These phrases serve tacitly, I think, to humanize the relations of the lyric speaker to the ocotillo and the wren.
They do so by echoing the two standard greetings between human beings-- how do you do and how are you-- but convert the second person interrogative mode to the third person declarative mode. How do you do? How the ocotillo. How are you? How saguaro wren is. In this way, the tree and the wren, like that other natural object, the wind, are made companionable with the human observer at the same time that all four are represented as fellow participants, as participants in the processes of nature.
In the last stanza, the speaker requests, in a sequence of stressed monosyllables, that at nightfall, the wind drop his dust here. I had read the poem a number of times before I recognized the full significance of that simple locative adverb. The speaker asks that after he dies, the wind deposit him here-- that is, at the very place he is standing while he is talking to the wind-- in order that after death, he may continue to do what-- exactly what he is doing at this place while alive.
Ammons' poem, anticipating his mortality thus concludes, in a tacit a celebration of life, in such elemental enjoyments as looking at a desert tree, observing a desert wren, and finally watching the dusk and anticipating the dawn. In its tonality, furthermore, the closing segment of the poem also conveys without saying so an affirmation of life. How does it manage this feat of communicating the essential point that it doesn't express?
For one thing, the speaker ends his request to the wind at nightfall. It looks forward to daybreak The poem concludes in a stanza that's one line shorter than all the preceding stanzas with the emphatic present tense of the verb breaks. And notice the slight surprise in the phrasing of the concluding line-- where we would expect a simple statement and see the daybreak, we get instead and think how morning breaks. And think-- that is, he will ponder the possible significance of the fact that night gives way to day.
By this phrasing, Ammons achieves also a subtle metrical effect. At the end of the earliest stanza of the poem, the rhyme has tended to become metrical, to be delivered to, to show its motions with. Now at the end of the entire poem and through all three of its closing lines, the irregular free verse rhythms modulate into the assured, sustained beat of an entirely regular iambic meter-- "where we can watch the closing up of day and think how morning breaks."
Whatever Ammons may lose by not using a regular meter, he recuperates in this and other poems by resorting to that meter for special unspoken purposes. By this and other means, Ammons, without saying so, writes a poem about dying that celebrates the value of living. To put it the other way, the poet tacitly affirms life while tacitly acquiescing to the fact of his own mortality.
I said earlier that Ammons' poem was conspicuously simple and artless. The statement is, I think, true but can be misleading. For in this, as in others of his lyric poems, in his individual, at times idiosyncratic way, Ammons is a meticulous craftsman. It would be less misleading to put it this way. The effects of "Mansion" are produced by an art that hides its art conspicuously. That is, Ammons intends his reader to be aware of what the poem does not say, of what it resists saying, and to be aware also of the rhetorical artfulness of traditional poems in this lyric ballad that his poem silently plays against to achieve its own kind of being.
An extreme instance of Ammons' reliance on what he doesn't tell you occurs at the very beginning of the poem in the baffling title, "Mansion." What does a mansion have to do with the austere desert setting of this poem? The answer was provided to me by Roger Gilbert, my colleague at Cornell, who is writing what will be an indispensable book about Archie Ammons and his poetry.
Roger showed me a statement Ammons wrote in 1987, in which he said that he was influenced as a poet, especially by the only poetry I knew as a child, hymns. To illustrate this influence, he quotes the opening lines of a hymn. That hymn is called "An Empty Mansion." And Roger Gilbert found that it was included in a well-worn song book that had belonged to Archie's family.
The first stanza, from which, remember, Archie quoted the opening lines in his listing of poetic influences on him, reads, "Here I labor and toil as I look for a home, just a humble abode among men, while in Heaven, a mansion is waiting for me and a gentle voice pleading, come in." The hymn is clearly in turn a commentary on the biblical text, John 14:2. "In my Father's house are many mansions."
There can be little doubt that by naming his poem "Mansion," Ammons deliberately counterposted against the purport of that hymn. That is, in choosing the wind to cede himself to, Ammons tacitly chooses, in preference to a mansion in the sky, what the hymn derogated as just a humble abode, an abode here amid the simplicities of the desert, where conjoined in a natural fellowship and as fellow participant in the natural cycle of life and death, he can observe the ocotillo and the wren, watch the night fall and the way the sun rise.
By relying throughout the poem on indirection, suggestion, understatement, and non-statement, Ammons accepted the risk that his spare and powerful poem would slip by a casual reader as pleasant perhaps but inconsequential. By the same token, "Mansion" sets anyone who has the temerity to try to read it aloud with a daunting challenge-- how do you read what the poem says in such a way as to convey the many other things essential to its meaning that the poem conspicuously does not say? I can try.
"Mansion." So it came time for me to cede myself. And I chose the wind to be delivered to. The wind was glad and said it needed all the body it could get to show its motions with and wanted to know willingly, as I hoped it would, if it could do something in return to show its gratitude.
When the tree of my bones rises from the skin, I said, come and whirlwinding stroll my dust around the plain so I can see how the ocotillo does and how saguaro wren is. And when you fall with evening. Fall with me here, where we can watch the closing up of day and think how morning breaks." Thanks for such an attentive audience.
ELLIS HANSON: [INAUDIBLE]
MH ABRAMS: On two conditions-- [INAUDIBLE] we have [INAUDIBLE] to go for dinner. And [INAUDIBLE] you tell me what it is. I'll look at you [INAUDIBLE]. Thank you.
ELLIS HANSON: Mike has agreed to take some questions if you any. And he's like to pause for those of you who have to go out to dinner. But ask away.
MH ABRAMS: We give you three minutes or two minutes-- one minute to walk out.
AUDIENCE: Do you see the popularity of slam poetry and hip hop music as a revival of interest in the fourth dimension [INAUDIBLE] poetry?
MH ABRAMS: Yes, but with this qualification-- to utter poems aloud brings closer to your attention the what I call the fourth dimension. But that doesn't mean that it can't escape you still. Because it seems to escape commentators all through the ages of talking about poetry without-- well, I wouldn't say never. Because I'm not sure it's never-- but almost never mentioning what I call the fourth dimension that's contributive is some fashion or other to the poet's meaning. So it's a help, but we're not there yet-- though the revival of all of oral poetry these days is remarkable. We are the most orally poetic generation since the Middle Ages. Anybody else who dares ask a question?
AUDIENCE: You said that a poem can never be read in the same way even if the same person is reading it again. And when Robert Frost about sentence sound, he talks about creating a sentence that can be read the same way each time you read it. I was just wondering what you think about that idea.
MH ABRAMS: Ellis, you'll have to tell me what she asked.
ELLIS HANSON: Say it again [INAUDIBLE].
AUDIENCE: OK. You said that when you read a poem, it can never be read in the same way, right, even if the same person is reading it. And I was just wondering how you think Robert Frost's idea of sentence sound works in that he says that you should be able to write a sentence of poetry in a way that it can be read the same way by each reader.
ELLIS HANSON: She said-- asking about your comment that each reading of a poem is a different reading.
MH ABRAMS: Yeah.
ELLIS HANSON: But then wondering what you think of Robert Frost's assertion that a line should be written so that it is the same each time it's read.
MH ABRAMS: Robert Frost?
AUDIENCE: Yeah. [INAUDIBLE].
MH ABRAMS: What about the way he reads-- well, nobody can read Frost's poetry as well as he read it himself. He speaks his poems. To say he speaks his poems is to describe the effect he gives or gave when he was alive to do so or does still on recordings. But he speaks them in an awfully artfully artless way, and a little bit like Archie.
I think one of the few poets that Archie really admired, thoroughly admired, is Robert Frost because Frost was also always metrical and traditional in his metrics and so on. He attended meticulously to the details of what he wrote and which he said. And Archie admired that and emulated it.
ELLIS HANSON: In the back.
AUDIENCE: Thank you for this wonderful experience. My question is this. Enunciation-- many people are unaware of how they enunciate. My question is, how does a poet develop their awareness of enunciation-- say the tongue is moving from the back to the front of the mouth. Do you think they just read their own poetry out loud [INAUDIBLE]? Or is it that they got so skillful at this, whereas most of us have no idea how we enunciate?
ELLIS HANSON: Most of us seem to have no idea how we enunciate. And so he's asking how you felt that these poets themselves understood enunciation, as if we're reading their poems aloud or [INAUDIBLE].
MH ABRAMS: I hoped somebody would ask that question.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
MH ABRAMS: You must never take me to imply that all these things I talk about as in the fourth dimension of the poem a poet set out to put in. Poet doesn't write that way. He doesn't say, I'm going now. And I'm going to produce a metaphor. But he produces a metaphor. He doesn't say, now I'm going to use a simile. And he uses a simile. He doesn't say, now I'm going to emulate the sound of what I describe by the sound of the words I use. Now I'm going to bring in to accordance the utterance of the poem with what it signifies.
But being a good poet, that's the way the poem occurs to him. Some of these effects he may be aware of in advance or look for in advance. Some he may or may not be aware of after the fact. But because he's a good poet, it occurs to him that way. He looks at the words and finds that they are good. And he lets them stand.
And he finds they are not good, then he fixes them up so that some of these things we talked about get put in before he'll let it stand. But no, that's the way poems occur to poets. The difference is if you're a bad poet, they don't occur to you very well.
If you're a good poet or if you learn to be a good poet, you must remember that you're learn a lot of this. But after the fact, along come creeping critics like myself. It's like, look what he's done without knowing it.
ELLIS HANSON: Any others? OK, well, I'd like to remind you that there is a reception for Mike in the lounge upstairs, the English lounge in 258. And please join us for a drink there and some food. In the meantime, thanks again, Professor Abrams.
MH ABRAMS: Thank you.
Thank you very much.
SPEAKER: This has been a production of Cornell University on the web at Cornell.edu.
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M.H. Abrams, a leading authority on 18th- and 19th- century literature, literary criticism and European Romanticism, reintroduced his audience to the pleasures of poetry, Nov. 18 in Goldwin Smith Hall. He discussed the four dimensions of six poems by poets ranging from Emily Dickinson to A.R. Ammons, a late Cornell professor.
Abrams, who has been a Cornell professor for 65 years, was the founding editor of "The Norton Anthology of English Literature" and general editor for 40 years. His many publications include "The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition" (1953), ranked 25th on the Modern Library's list of "The 100 Best Nonfiction Books Written in English during the 20th Century."