In Exemplo Est

The Treachery of Art in the Story of Byblis

Byblis in exemplo est, ut ament concessa puellae,
— Ovid, Metamorphoses

“Byblis is a warning,” Ovid asserts in the opening lines of his tale of Byblis “in order that young girls might love lawfully.”[1] Or, as Horace Gregory translates (losing a great deal of the meaning), “That is a story of how girls should not fall in love at all” (Gregory, Myers, 244).

However we translate it, the opening lines lead readers to anticipate a cautionary tale about forbidden love. But Byblis is in Book Nine of Metamorphoses, so by now we’re well acquainted with Ovid’s sly humor, and we know he doesn’t suffer laws or taboos gladly. We trust that he’ll ultimately undermine that Byblis is in exemplo, at least about unlawful love. Indeed, he does make Byblis—desperately in love with her twin brother—a cautionary tale. But the warning concerns art, not the sin of incest. Like the author, Byblis is an artist. Words are her currency. Through his brilliant narration, Ovid works a considerable amount of dramatic irony into the framework of the story, distancing us from his subject. But some of the most powerful scenes are the scenes when we feel closest to Byblis, when Ovid throws his ventriloquist’s voice into her mouth. She becomes a sort of doppelganger for Ovid, and she, like Ovid later in his life, takes the hit for being too artful, too rhetorically slick. Ovid’s Byblis, when she speaks, is a rich, relatable heroine whose very self-doubt wins reader’s hearts and minds, even though her argument is unsupportable. Like Macbeth (who can credit Byblis as an antecedent), she is a master equivocator, talking herself—and sometimes her readers—into some pretty shady seduction plans. The story is not without meta-irony: Ovid himself was banished on account of his own excessive rhetorical artistry some time after the publication of his Metamorphoses, when his writing was considered subversive enough to be treasonous.

Byblis knows that her desires are transgressive. But she is such a skilled wordsmith that she talks herself into a disastrous course of action. She builds and keeps the sympathy of her readers with a surfeit of skill, even as we understand that her venture is doomed. We can’t condone the incest, but by the end of the myth, by the time the repeatedly spurned Byblis is metamorphosed into a fountain, we feel almost wholesale sympathy for her. Her most indignant detractors must confess that by the end that they admire and pity her. Indeed, such is the power of her rhetoric and the beauty of her words, that her brother Caunus is the only character unmoved by her suffering. Byblis is indeed in exemplo. Her tale cautions against self-delusion: beware, young girl, of your creative artistry! Morality, for the artist, is a semi-permeable boundary, across which she can venture, but at her own peril.

When we meet Byblis, she is an innocent. She doesn’t at first identify her feelings for Caunus as love. She doesn’t question the kisses and embraces that she gives her brother, a little too frequently and lingeringly:

Illa quidem primo nullos intellegit ignes,
Nec peccare putat, quod saepius oscula iungat,
Quod sua fraterno circumdet brachia collo:
Mendacique diu pietatis fallitur umbra. (9.457-60) 

At first she did not think such heat was love.
Although her greatest pleasure was to play
A game at kissing him, her arms around his neck.
She thought these gestures sisterly affection (Gregory, Myers, 244).

Soon she comes to understand her blossoming sexuality. Ovid makes use of a familiar puberty trope to do this. But while such desire for Apollonian young men befits girls Byblis’ age, her lust transgresses: neither contemporary readers nor Roman ones could condone sex between twins. And her sexual fantasies are all the more forbidden because they lurk under the guise of familial piety. But little by little, “declinat Amor” (9.461), “love goes astray,” and Byblis has troubling and prurient dreams: “…visa est quoque iungere fratri / corpus et erubuit, quamvis sopita iacebat” (9.470-1): “Often she saw her body joined to her brother.” Even in innocent sleep she blushes because she understands the fundamental taboo. No translation I’ve encountered makes proper use of the past participle “sopita,” which connotes being knocked out by a blow, indicating the strength of Byblis’ passion. When she wakes, she charms her readers by examining her feelings carefully, and balancing them against the social reality. In “Ovid Through Shakespeare: The Divided Self,” Edward Milowicki and Rawdon Wilson discuss the social construct surrounding transgression myths, and assert that “…characters reflect, or otherwise mirror, a public reality accessible on its own terms outside of the text and… the most valid analysis [of it] would follow an empirical-descriptive method…” (Milowicki, Rawdon, 218). Byblis has too much integrity to ignore a personal truth, and sets about weighing her desires against the empiricism of her social reality. But she has too little integrity to hide her feelings when they are balanced and found lacking. Such is the conundrum of the poet! She indulges an impulse that will destroy her: her skill at manipulating truth to justify her actions. She draws upon her treasury of words to explore the limits of her desire and the ramifications of crossing them. Then, through a series of recursive arguments, she slowly inoculates herself against doubt.

Her argument follows a cyclical, rather than linear, trajectory. Concentric circles of logic ripple from the center. The outermost line of reasoning concerns the appropriateness of the match. She dismisses the matter of blood:

O ego, si liceat mutato nomine iungi,
Quam bene, Caune, tuo poteram nurus esse parenti
Quam bene, Caune, meo poteras gener esse parenti (9.487-9).

 If, by changing my name, I were permitted to marry you
What a perfect daughter-in-law I might make for your parent, Caunus
Caunus, what a perfect son-in-law you might make for mine.

The subjunctive mood captures her agony: on balance, their shared blood is the only obstacle standing in the way of their union. Instead of making one another’s fathers happy by the match, they must share a father.

Next, Byblis finds a precedent for incest. The Gods frequently marry their sisters, including Saturnus and Jupiter. She acknowledges that humans are bound to different laws than gods, but leaves the question open-ended as to why: “…Quid ad caelestia ritus / exigere humanos diversaque foedera tempto?” (9.500-1): “The gods / Have other laws than ours: how can I balance / Human mores against them?” (Gregory, Myers, 245). In asking “quid”, she highlights their hypocrisy. Why, she asks, may the gods do as they like? Is there any compelling reason for humans not to follow their example?

After such equivocation, she worries that Caunus might share her feelings, but perhaps they’re both too ashamed to admit to them. She reasons that were the roles reversed, and he came wooing her, she wouldn’t dream of turning him away, incest notwithstanding. Thus, she cannot imagine the worst—his utter rejection of her. To fail to speak, she thinks, would injure her more than the consequences of a confession:

Sit tamen ipse mei captus prior esset amore,
Forsitan illius possem indulgere furori
Ergo ego, Quae fueram non reiectura petentem,
Ipsa petam…! (9.511-12)

If he were already captured by love of me,
Maybe I would be able to indulge this madness
Therefore, since I would never reject him if he came wooing
I myself must woo…!

Here we realize her error in judgment. She’ll never win with these arguments. But we can’t help but admire her passion and skill as a rhetorician, even if she is motivated by self-deception.

Finally, she decides that while shame might hold her tongue, she can still rely on the persuasive powers of her writing. She commits her feelings, in all their circularity, to a letter for her brother. The letter, we sense, is the agent of her ruin.

Here Ovid showcases his own writing chops with a verbal portrait that could be called “Woman in Doubt.” In the word-picture he paints, we warm to Byblis, albeit with extreme ambivalence. Ovid portrays an artist’s exquisite agony over crafting the perfect prose. Almost every word is a verb of doubting and hesitating, proviso, negotiation, translation. She pours in concentration over her artful letter. Byblis starts, stops, condemns and approves of her words:

Incipit et dubitat, scribit damnatque tabellas,
Et notat et delet, mutat culpatque probatque
Inque vicem sumptas ponit positasque resumit (9.523-5).

She began, and then doubted what she’d written
She wrote, and then cursed the words.
She inscribed and erased, and changed, condemned, approved.
As soon as she picked the tablets up, she put them back down.
Putting them down, she picked them back up.

By switching to the point of view of omniscient narrator, Ovid allows for dramatic irony. We see Byblis is in pain. Her hesitation makes her human. She is clever and well-spoken. Nevertheless, we see what she can’t: that her gamble will fail. Not because it is immoral (for love in this story is amoral), but because she has credited the world—and her brother—with greater sensitivity than they deserve. We watch her agonize over the letter, knowing it will be poorly received. We know this not even having met Caunus. The reader watches her scribble in the wax in horror, praying for her to change her mind.

The logic of the letter follows a circular course, mirroring her private thoughts. In the letter she touches upon a new key point: She assumes that Caunus will care more about saving her from suffering than about rules. He could have read her feelings, she says, had he been attentive to her pallor and her thinness and her perpetually-wet eyes, and all those un-sisterly kisses. Moreover, she assures him that,

…Non hoc inimica precatur
Sed quae, cum tibi sit iunctissima, iunctior esse
Expetit et venclo tecum prepriore ligari” (9.548-50)

…It’s not an enemy imploring you
But the girl who is now the most joined to you,
Seeking to be joined by an even tighter chain.

She concludes the letter with a plea that he not reject her and be the cause of the inscription on her tomb. A manipulative move, and one that further complicates our feelings about her. She hands the tablets over to a trembling slave, saying, “…Fer has, fidissime, nostro” / Dixit , et adiecit longo post tempore “fratri.” (“’Most faithful servant, carry these to my—‘ and she waited a long time before adding, ‘—brother.’”) As she hands the tablets over, they clatter to the ground. This is a sure omen. Her endeavor will fail. Byblis’ failure in logic is that she, an artist, anticipates an artist’s response: she can’t imagine Caunus’ hardheartedness. She typifies the trope of the artist, misunderstood in an artless world.

For all the text’s circularity, the letter stands in as the central element. It’s the story’s concretization of the character’s desire and struggle. The tale is organized around the letter as an object. It is, in fact, the only real cause of harm for her. Her fantasies (as all fantasies) are morally neutral, and the text goes so far as to suggest that unspoken desire is natural: to “put it in writing” is where it gets sticky. In “The Writing in (and of) Ovid’s Byblis Episode”, Thomas E. Jenkins creates the below schema to illustrate the organizing power of the letter in a text otherwise circular and cyclical:

455-473: Introduction: Byblis’ dream and desire for her brother
            474-516: Internal monologue of Byblis and the conception of the letter
                      517-563: The composition of the letter                     
530-584: The secret letter of Byblis
                        564-584: The delivery and rejection of the letter
            585-629: Internal monologue of Byblis and regret over the letter
630-665: Conclusion: rejection of Byblis’ desire and metamorphosis (Jenkins, 440).

We have seen the verse take a circular form that mimics the inner workings of the human mind, recursively (somewhat monomaniacally) hashing and rehashing the same evidence to construct an airtight argument that is impervious to reality. But, as noted above, the structure of the story as a whole is highly organized. The moment Byblis releases the letter into the world, she truly dooms herself and her endeavor. It is like her desires have tremendous potential energy. As long as they remain in her fevered brain, they can do no harm. But the moment she releases the tablets into the hands of her trembling slave, they fall, giving a sure omen that they have become harmful kinetic energy. Next, we leave Byblis for the first (and last) time and follow the slave. We finally meet Caunus. We aren’t impressed. We realize the scope of Byblis’ mistake. Caunus is not a poet, and shows himself to be pitiless and obsessed with decorum:

Vixque manus retinens trepidantis ab ore ministri,
'Dum licet, o vetitae scelerate libidinis auctor,
Effuge!' ait 'qui, si nostrum tua fata pudorem
Non traherent secum, poenas mihi morte dedisses.' (9.574-9)

Scarcely restraining his hand from the trembling slave’s face
He says “Flee while you can, Pimp: I would kill you now
If your death wouldn’t drag my good name down with it.”

Caunus is an ambassador from a world without art. His icy—even violent—response to Byblis, although he has the moral high ground, causes readers to side even more dramatically and compassionately with infelix Byblis. Her brother loses our sympathy most when mere etiquette keeps him from killing the messenger. He stays his hand only because it would drag his shame down with him (note his use of the word “shame” in line 9.579 as compared with Byblis’ gentle concern that shame was holding her mouth. The two verbs, “tenabit” and “traherent” illustrate the differences in the roles of shame in their twin lives, and the use and purpose of words for them both).

The last portion of the poem involves Byblis’ struggle with her passion in the face of violent rejection. Caunus is in a rage. Byblis pales and briefly regrets the letter and the feelings, but slowly they creep back into her mind. She allows them to enter, and soon indulges them again:

…neque enim est de tigride natus
Nec rigidas silices solidumve in pectore ferrum
Aut adamanta gerit, nec lac bibit ille leaenae.
Vincetur! (9.613-17)

                                    …Dear Caunus

Is not a tiger’s cub, nor is his heart steel-bound
Or cut from rock, nor did a lioness
Give him her breast to suck. He will be won! (Gregory, Myers, 249).

Once again, she makes the argument that Caunus cannot possibly be as cruel as the evidence has proven he is. Perhaps, she suggests, it was the fault of the slave, who approached him at an inopportune time, or perhaps she chose the wrong day (these poor, poor slaves!) “Byblis,” says Jenkins, “blames not the unpalatable message, but the medium of writing itself” (Jenkins, 447).

Perhaps, she laments, were she to have seen him in person, he would have been won over by her. If she used more ambiguous words, equivocated better, he would have been convinced. If her stratagem were sounder, he would be her lover. We know her cause is hopeless, but we watch her commit herself to further humiliations. She is so good with words that she can still talk herself into actions that work against her own self-interest. Ovid is not telling a cautionary tale about loving appropriately, but about the misappropriation of art. One suspects that Byblis might have left herself less vulnerable if she spoke less well, and didn’t have the skill to convince herself of anything.

Ovid’s Byblis transgresses. The reader must agree with the odious Caunus on this. Byblis has an irrepressible desire for something society can’t allow her to have. Ovid, in his fashion, sets us up to expect a cautionary tale about loving unlawfully. But while “Byblis in exemplo est,” his thesis doesn’t concern lawful loving. Ovid is neutral about incest and doesn’t explore the ethics of incest taboos. He merely exploits them to create tension in the story. He endows his doppelganger-poet with so sympathetic a voice that we root for her. After being spurned, Byblis wanders the wilderness, tearing the clothes from her breast and wailing. We feel her tragedy acutely. The story does not focus on the sin. It focuses on the triumphs—and the pitfalls—of rhetorical dexterity. Byblis uses her talent to inoculate herself against the doubt she should feel. Her creativity parallels—unwittingly perhaps—her creator’s talent. Ovid uses the tools of omniscient narrator, combined with his signature ventriloquism, to persuade title character and reader alike into thinking that what she desires is above morality. Our desires, Ovid warns, if artfully enough expressed, can override ethics. He warns the artist, therefore, about what happens if they fail to anticipate a world hostile to art. Given his imminent banishment, he might have learned better from his own cautionary tale!

Cited Sources 

Jenkins, Thomas E., “The Writing in (and of) Ovid’s Byblis episode”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 100, (2000), 440

Milowicki, Edward J., Wilson, R. Rawdon, “Ovid Through Shakespeare: The Divided Self”. Poetics Today, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Summer, 1995). 218

Ovid. Metamorphoses: Book 6-10. Anderson, William Scovil, ed. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman.  1972. 119

Ovid, The Metamorphoses. Horace Gregory, and Sara Myers, trans. Signet Classics. New York: New American Library. 2009. 244

[1] Unattributed translations are the author’s own

Shored Against Our Ruins

One of the cleverest attributes of T. S. Eliot’s iconic poem The Waste Land is the tension between the chaos of its textural surface and the order of its underlying structure. This tension perches the poem precariously between the World Wars, as on the one hand it frets over the loss of unity that art and mythology provide—focusing on the ruin of society, and the “modern” ascendency of meaninglessness—and, on the other, anticipates (some might argue overmuch) the “aestheticization of politics” tendered by fascism and the second World War. Perhaps this is the reason there is so much critical ambivalence toward the poem. The period between the wars, in Eliot’s estimation, resembles the blighted earth after trench warfare, psychologically barren and devoid of pleasure, for the poem’s characters certainly, but also, maybe, for its readers. But look closer: What appears at first to be a trash heap of the useless shards of Western Civilization—used in the deployment of a meaningless irony so in step with interbellum fashions—becomes, under scrutiny, the attempt to resurrect our old coordinating myths and belief systems. These fragments, “shored against [our] ruins” (Eliot 42), become a radical innovation: A Modernist clockwork that serves to reinstate a more organic cultural grand narrative—that advocates for a synthesis of tradition and modernity.

Many readers don’t—or can’t—get past the poem’s surface. In “The Waste Land Reconsidered,” Lewis Turco describes his first reaction to the poem: it “seemed obscure, confusing, pretentious, pompous, artsy-craftsy” (289). This perfectly describes my own initial reaction to it, and the reaction of students and critics everywhere. Why jumble all this high and low art into such a senseless mess? Why create this modern-day Babel of monuments, images, and languages unless to showcase one’s own erudition and critical (rather than poetic) sensibility? The young Turco describes his reaction to Eliot’s endnotes: “What kind of poem needed all these notes to explain it? If Eliot were a poet, not a scholar, wouldn’t he have put the information of the notes into the poem?” (289). Indeed. In similar vein, in “Withered Stumps of Time: The Waste Land and Mythic Disillusion,” R. V. Young writes that the poem strikes “most readers as a defiant, outré assault by a modish cynic on all the decencies of English literature and society” (24). But, like me, Turco and Young reappraise the poem from the vantage of greater age. Turco concludes that the poem’s power lies in its symphonic sweep, in the music of its syntax, a collaboration between Eliot and Pound that credits il meglior fabbro for the poem’s artistic success. My reassessment lies closer to Young’s. What coordinates this poem beneath its fractured surface is its almost Romantic longing for spiritual fulfillment and religious salvation. “Despite its ‘modernist’ techniques,” says Young, “the poem implies a prophetic denunciation of the secularism, rationalism, and materialism of the modern era” (25). Though Eliot’s own conversion to Christianity was years off, we can see his thirst for it here, exemplified literally by the emotionally sere, secular desert of post-war Europe, for “Here is no water but only rock… / There is not even silence in the mountains / but dry sterile thunder without rain” (40).

Yes, The Waste Land is barren and joyless. But Eliot encrypts the solution to this barrenness interstitially within the text. In virtually every passage, every image of the emotionless clinging to “winter,” deserts, and interior deadness is set against its antidote. The abovementioned quotation, for instance, though it comes later in the text, is reversed by this:

There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising before you (Eliot 31-2).

A familiarity with the bible is needed to fully decode this passage. There is the Messianic prophesy of Isaiah as explained in the endnotes, but one might also know that “Adam,” in Hebrew, means “red earth/dust” and that Jesus Christ is known as the “second Adam,” and also as a “rock or stone.” Someone hidden is pointing the way out of our morass. Salvation is possible, but unavailable—indeed invisible—says Young, “to those who prefer winter to April” (27). Similarly, Madame Sosostris, “the wisest woman in Europe,” wields a “wicked pack of cards,” (Eliot 32) and her Tarot cards clearly contain wisdom. Her cards presage some events in the poem (such as the drowned sailor with pearls for eyes). But, slick and superstitious, she lacks the sight to read them, and her customers aren’t looking for truth anyway. She is ultimately blocked from finding “The Hanged Man,” the point of access to sight—and to grace. In Acts 5:30 of the King James Bible, Jesus is referred to as “Hanged on a Tree.” Unable to see beneath the surface of her cards to their emotional Truth, the cynical Modernist Madame Sosotris can nevertheless see the suffering around her: she sees people “walking round in a ring,” evoking the antechamber of Dante’s Inferno, where, in Young’s words, “those who were neither good nor evil spend eternity going around in a futile circle” (27). The characters that people this poem lack true sight, but the key to their salvation is all around them—all around us. Eliot himself backs up this claim in a later work, “Notes Toward a Christian Society,” in which he claims that industrialization creates men and women who are “detached from tradition, alienated from religion and susceptible to mass suggestion: in other words, a mob” (17), similar to the mob crossing London bridge in fog, or Sosostris’ shuffling circle (Eliot 32). Salvation is non-rational, bearing more in common with myth than fact. Modernism is concerned merely with fact and empiricism. If we blind ourselves to our non-rational traditions, we can see the world, but we can't feel it. We might gain some insight about how to read this poem if we harness some of Joseph Campbell’s observations about myth in The Hero with a Thousand Faces: “The symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source” (4). Eliot makes observations about the dire, Godless state of postwar Europe, but he also alludes to the “germs” (or perhaps the “tubers”) that might save us, so long as we aren’t ruled solely by Modernist individualism and rationality.

For clarification about how the poem’s tension between structure and chaos works upon our psyches, we might look to Frederic Jameson’s genre theory. In The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Jameson proposes two approaches to genre: a semantic read of genre concerns the essence, or core, of that genre, the production of a set of feelings and sensations each genre sets out to create (tragedy makes us feel pity, terror, and catharsis; comedy makes us laugh; etc.) A syntactic read of genre concerns the surface trappings, the bells and whistles that signal to us, the readers and audiences, what kind of story we are reading or watching, conventions to which we are highly, if unconsciously, attuned (104). What distresses us is a discordance between these two generic categories. The Waste Land can be understood as intentionally throwing semantic and syntactic genre into the blender. The poem is semantically cohesive, syntactically fragmented. Built upon a bedrock of tradition, it employs Modernist tropes—not in order to advocate for Modernism but to combat it. Eliot’s realism does not serve to advance the cause of realism, as we have come to expect Modernist poetry to do. Rather, his opus harkens back to the lost and largely denigrated genre of romance. Where Modernism is cynical, romance is idealistic. As Jameson notes,

Romance is a wish-fulfillment or Utopian fantasy which aims at the transfiguration of the world of everyday life in such a way as to restore the condition of some lost Eden, or to anticipate a future realm from which the old morality and imperfections will have been effaced (110).

Why would Eliot blend categories like this, hiding a romance within Modernist trappings? Why might he create a text full of “The ruins of a monument, still noble and radiating significance” (Young 25) without explicating that significance? Eliot uses the idiom of his day to escape the trap of his day: his lost Eden is still out there, but we can't get back to the ignorance of the garden, and nor should we. But we also can't forget the garden. The waste land is real, but realism—mere observation—is not cutting it, spiritually: The City of Man, which worships human self-sufficiency, still cannot erase the old coordinating myths that allow us to see past our own shadows, that bubble up among the dry rocks if we do not blind ourselves to them. For, says Young, “To escape the waste land means learning to live in it without being its subject or citizen” (35). We live in Modernism, but we have the romantic tools all around us to forge a new way. Jameson, too, remarks on the insufficiency of realism as a Modernist tool:

The ideal of realism is a narrative discourse which in one form or another unites the experience of daily life with a properly cognitive, mapping, or well-nigh scientific perspective. Yet in the context of late capitalism, realism loses much of its ability to come to grips with various differential layers of the real. That is, it has undergone a gradual reification in late capitalism. It is in this context that romance, as often opposed to the realist ethos that has turned restrictive and repressive, comes to be felt as the place of narrative heterogeneity and of freedom from the reality principle (104).

Modernism is excellent at observing misery and deconstructing the human condition. But it has no power to reconstruct. The Waste Land argues that we should not abandon our old tools while integrating the honesty and brutality of Modernism into our way of thinking about our world. The syntactic and the semantic genres of the poem do not agree, but maybe they should. Maybe a synthesis of Modernist and traditional modes is what is required.

Modernism is a great observer. Emerging from advances in science, the rise of Darwin and Freud, it provides us to the tools to see the world as it is. But it doesn’t quite offer us a way to change our lot, and that, Eliot suggests, is what is hurting us. Perhaps this is why, as a product of my age, I have come to appreciate the tension between form and content in Eliot’s poem. While I still feel alienated at times by the obscurity of his references, by the vertigo-inducing non-sequiturs and mish-mash of high and low art, by his pretentions and digressions, I still see this poem as a largely idealistic and hopeful work of prescience and yearning. I, too, share Eliot’s longing for a coordinated world in which we can see past the shadow that rises out of men to the architecture of an older, more ordered universe. We can use those old fragments, it’s true, paired with Modernism’s keen observation and adherence to truth, to shore against our ruins.

Works Cited

The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Bollingen Series XVII, Princeton UP, 1973.

Eliot, T. S. Christianity and Culture.  Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1949.

Eliot, T. S. The Wasteland, Prufrock, and Other Poems. Dover Publications, 1998, pp. 31-42.

Jamison, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Cornell UP, 1981.

Turco, Lewis. “The Waste Land Reconsidered.” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 87, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 289-95.

Young, R. V. “The Withered Stumps of Time: The Waste Land and Mythic Disillusion.” Intercollegiate Review, Vol. 38, No. 2, Spring/Summer 2002, pp. 24-36.

The Nothing That Is

Nihilism and Its Discontents on Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man”

The dandy is nothing if not conspicuous, even in the wilderness.
— R. P. Blackmur, “The Substance That Prevails”
It can never be satisfied, the mind. Never.
— Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems

One must have a certain kind of mind—of winter perhaps—to allow Wallace Stevens' famous little double-helix of a poem to do its work. To the receptive mind, “The Snow Man” winds its self-contradictory way around the byzantine conduit of the brain, implanting little rhetorical, linguistic, and grammatical inconsistencies along the way, and bringing the reader, finally, to the paradox—the something, or nothing, or something-and-nothing, or nothing-as-something—nestled unsettlingly at its center. One need only read the critics to see how consternating this twelve-line Imagist classic is: they spill prodigious ink disagreeing about its meaning, realigning the grammar to propose alternate readings, restructuring the syntax, redefining the words, applying various philosophical frameworks to decode its deceptively simple, crystalline word-play. Each critic has a reasonable but, I would hazard, incomplete interpretation. Stevens (that dandy—the only bit of color in his stark winter landscape) has written a poem that works on so many levels at once—intellectual, emotional, Romantic, Buddhist, existential, Cartesian, Jamesian, neo-Platonic—that to encompass them all might not be possible, or even desirable. The true mind of winter embraces (“be-holds”) the contradictions, the multiple readings, allowing them to stand in for all the irreconcilable realities that plague our human lives on this earth: lives for which we must struggle to find meaning with the abyss yawning ever beneath us.

Many critics see Stevens’ “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” as a nihilistic battle royale between an individual and the void. Samuel Jay Keyser puts it beautifully when, in a segment for All Things Considered he suggests that when parsed, the poem becomes a “…perfectly balanced mobile,” and this mobile, spinning, forces “…readers to reanalyze what they have just read again and again,” until one reaches reality: the emptiness at the core of things (NPR). In “Wallace Stevens: Form and Meaning in Four Poems,” Keyser delves further into how the poem’s structure informs its meaning:

The poem is in its structure precisely what it talks about in its content. It demands of readers that they reanalyze in order to see the truth of its syntax and this is what Stevens claims one must do with respect to one’s perception of the world in order to perceive the truth of the world’s reality (“Form and Meaning” 597).

Stevens’ Platonic aim, Keyser suggests, is to shed the “pathetic fallacy” and see the world as it is, bare of human emotional projection. There is no “misery” in Nothing, because there is nothing in nothing. John P. Wargacki agrees that Stevens wants to strip away the human to reach the nothing beneath. In “Reduction and Negation in Emily Dickinson’s ‘There’s a Certain Slant of Light’ and Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Snow Man,’” he likens the poem to a palimpsest (as resonant a metaphor as the mobile): “[Stevens’] process of reduction has been… likened to the removal of a surface painting upon which another painting beneath the first is revealed” (Wargacki 91). What is revealed, he goes on to say, through constant reduction and negation—constant “unnaming”—is the “universal blank of nothingness,” (Wargacki 94), and that “…what is and what is not ultimately reduces itself into the same nothingness, blank or void [emphasis mine]” (Wargacki 95). Stevens himself reinforces Wargacki’s metaphor (though not the void) when he talks about the “first idea.” In The Letters of Wallace Stevens, he says, “If you take the varnish and dirt of generations off a picture, you see it in its first idea. If you think about the world without its varnish and dirt, you are a thinker of the first idea” (Letters, 426-427). Harold Bloom writes about the connection between the “first idea” and the pathetic fallacy in “Wallace Stevens: Reduction to the First Idea:” one needs the mind of winter, he argues, “…in order to avoid indulgence in the fallacy of imputing human ‘misery’ to the wind and leaves” (54). He disagrees with Keyser and Wargacki, however, on the definition of “Nothing:” the poem’s “nothing,” he posits, “…is the most minimal and abstracted of fictions, yet it is still a fiction” (Bloom 55). It isn’t the void: It’s an alteration of the first idea to get as close to the void as a human being can get without being destroyed by it. So why approach the void at all, if we can hardly survive it? In “Grammar and Rhetoric in Criticism,” Robert Browne reinforces Plato’s contention that “knowledge, even of the void, is preferable to ignorance” (153). Stevens, then, is doing the brave, the necessary, with his imperative that we “must” develop a wintry mind, one that can withstand the Awful Truth.

Other critics argue that Stevens, rather than trying to expose the Platonic void (or the just-bearable minimal fiction of that “Nothing”), is trying to gain mastery over it. In “Wallace Stevens and the Symbolist Imagination,” Michel Benamou sees transcendence in Stevens’ “lexical opulence” (36): “The poetry of the beautiful surface with the dark terror beneath,” he remarks, “does not… escape the facts of death and suffering. It is a means of overcoming [the] terror [of them]” (Benamou 36). So, unlike Keyser, Wargacki, and Bloom, Benamou argues that our imaginations safeguard us, however provisionally, against the void: “The imagination,” he says, “is man’s best protection against the vast spaces ready to engulf him” (37). But the darkness is real, is ever near. Stevens, Benamou suggests, denudes this winter scene as an act of “linguistic askesis,” creating an aesthetic, “…similar to a glacier both transparent and denying transparence to the poet it will eventually paralyze” (55). We can overcome terror through imagination, but we cannot overcome the reality of the terror’s cause. In similar vein, Helen Vendler argues for Stevens’ mastery of the void in “Wallace Stevens: Hypotheses and Contradictions:”

…in spite of his frequent thematic bleakness, Stevens was above all a poet of fertility of verbal invention. His swerves, hypotheses… accretive elaborations, and asymptotic progressions establish… a mental landscape anything but bleak, one that matches the distributed richness of the material world with its own unfailing wealth of emotional, intellectual, and linguistic forms (117).

Thus, Vendler argues, there is an inherent contrast between the richness of Stevens’ landscapes and the painful subject matter with which he contends, and in fact, by creating the contrast, he “…attempts to contest his nihilistic deadness even as he voices it” (108). He is R. P. Blackmur’s dandy, a conspicuous creator within the wintry wilderness of the human condition (Blackmur 107). Both Benamou and Vendler celebrate the almost feminine fecundity of Stevens’ images.

Robert Randolph takes it a step further in “‘The Snow Man:’ Nausea or Numin?” He attributes a sort of divinity to the triumph of the human over the nihilistic. At the end of the poem, “Rather than Nothing… one is left with the ‘new transcendent fact’ that paradox does not necessarily destroy being… One can [survive paradox] through the use of symbol, or, as Stevens has it, image. Moreover, this sort of transcendence… carries with it a numinosity” (Randolph 121). Even Robert Browne, more firmly in the nihilist camp, admits that, “It is a paradox… that none of the misery signified by the sounds is in any way altered; but it is brought under control of the mind” (155). Art controls—or at least temporarily tames—the terror of the void.

Much of the debate between those who argue nihilism and those who argue transcendence comes down to one small question: whether the viewer (the “one” in the poem who “regards” and “beholds”) is the same as the listener “who listens in the snow,” and whether these are the same as the speaker. To Keyser, Wargacki, and Bloom, these three are all the same character, a character who must shed his human limitations in perception one by one in order to give himself a mind of winter, capable of apprehending stark reality and emptiness; the Nothing that is. The poem, to these critics, is a treatise on how to get ourselves out of Plato’s cave—to steel ourselves against revelations of the void. But others see important distinctions between speaker, observer, and listener. Browne sees the characters as discrete, inferring a lesser intellectual/perceptual capacity to the viewer than to the listener: “…the imperceptive viewer and the perceptive listener are much alike; both stand in the snow, both ‘see nothing:’ the viewer through lack of insight, the listener precisely because he has insight” (153). This “Capital-N Nothing” is more Buddhist than nihilistic, and provides the listener, who embodies enlightened patience (after all, says Browne, he is not “…born with a mind of winter but acquires it through long exposure” [147]) with a kind of connection to the world to which a regular human hasn’t access. In this interpretation the mind of winter is both achievable and desirable. To Ronald Hoag, by contrast, in “Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Snow Man:’ An Important Title Pun,” the listener is an actual man made out of snow, “This No-Man” (a homophonic reassembly of the title syllables), who is only divorced from the scene’s misery because he isn’t human: “…the snow man himself, mindless and devoid of imagination, beholds (embraces) both ‘Nothing that is not there (no-thing but the scene) and ‘the nothing [no-thing] that is’ (himself as a part of that scene)” (Hoag 91). Thus, Hoag suggests, we shouldn’t feel bad about being miserable in such a scene: the aesthetic beauty of this wintry bareness can only be enjoyed by an entity “created from the landscape” (91).

Like Hoag, David Hesla argues for the inescapability of human emotion in “Singing in Chaos: Wallace Stevens and Three or Four Ideas,” this time from a philosophical standpoint. He vehemently disagrees that the persona of the poem is, in tone, “…that of a steely-eyed positivist calling upon us to distinguish facts from feelings; nor is it that of a dialectical ontologist courageously facing the abyss of nothingness” (Hesla 251). Hesla argues for a Jamesian, rather than Platonic/Cartesian, reading. He notes that the mind does not exist in a vacuum, as Descartes would have it—it exists on a continuum of its own created reality and the world that informs it (Hesla 257). “James,” says Hesla, “eliminated the abstract dualism of mind and body, thought and things, and replaced it with the single, vital, complex concept of ‘pure experience…’ so the experience of a winter landscape may include the emotion of misery” (248). He concludes that the poem’s speaker, unlike the listener, the reader and, perhaps, the poet, is “…bemused, even appalled, by the fact that there can be people who have so far forgotten their humanity as to be unmoved by a winter landscape” (Hesla 251). Stevens is, Hesla suggests, condemning the Keysers, the Wargackis, the Blooms of this world, who have “forgotten their humanity” enough to think the void exists, is knowable, and—worse—is worth dashing ourselves against.

Glauco Cambon, too, fundamentally disagrees with the nihilists about the nature of the Nothing. In “Nothingness as Catalyst: An Analysis of Three Poems,” he identifies two extremities with opposite emotional valences in Stevens’ work. “Winter as deathly purity,” he says, “summer as exuberant fulfillment, constitute for Stevens the two poles of the terrestrial condition, beyond which there is no other… [thus] the absolute perceptual blankness Stevens’ observer [in ‘The Snow Man’] reaches by hypnotism is an end unto itself” (Cambon 97). So, like Browne’s Buddhist “Nothing,” the nothing at the end of Cambon’s reading is a goal worth achieving, a state of mind that cleanses, bringing “purity” and peace, and that one must “hypnotize” the self to attain. One imagines intense prayer, fasting, Sufi dance (or perhaps Benamou’s “linguistic askesis”), and the way these are used to stimulate a spiritual condition of non-being (the “No-Thing” the listener enjoys in the poem). Moreover, this state exists as but one of two necessary polar states. Cambon’s “deathly purity” is not a terminal, absolute “Truth,” the final stasis of the Romantic/Platonic/Cartesian search. Rather, it’s part of a duality of contingent truths represented by the fertile, procreative summer and the purgative winter. Benamou, too, finds “poles” in Stevens’ work, both equally necessary, and in this case gendered: his “constellating images of the South, the Moon-Woman, vegetation, summer, nature, music…,” which give way to “the masculine constellation of the Day, North, men… winter” (Benamou 37). These poles, Cambon and Benamou argue, are the extremes in the orbit of Stevens’ poetry, which is essentially center-seeking: “The centripetal imagination of Stevens,” says Benamou, “moves toward a pure center where it will find peace” (60). But does the reader—can the reader—ever get there?

Richard Blessing is the critic with perhaps the most humanist approach to the blank Stevens leaves us to decode in “The Snow Man.” In “Wallace Stevens and the Necessary Reader: A Technique of Dynamism,” Blessing argues that “The Snow Man” is indecipherable without its final indispensable ingredient—the dynamic engagement of the reader:

Stevens… is able to force the reader into participation in the poem—a participation which mirrors that of the scientist who discovers that, try as he will, his human act of observation has altered whatever it was that he was trying to observe without alteration. Even more disconcerting, the reader may find that in the process of reading he has discovered a poem which means something quite different from what it says that it means” (252).

So Blessing contends that the paradoxes Stevens leaves us with are there to stimulate, to make us search for our own meanings. The void, while it entices us with its simplicity, exists as a red herring, for, “While Stevens pretends to be directing us toward ‘Nothing’ with one hand,” Blessing reminds us, “he is making sure we don’t get there with the other” (252). Stevens does this verbally and syntactically as well as conceptually:

…our reactions to the world destroy our neutrality as surely as the poet’s choice of words adds meaning and value to the landscape he describes. The words “shagged,” “rough,” and “glitter” agitate the mind, force judgments upon us, cause us to add the colors of the emotions to the event which we are trying to see without emotion (Blessing 253).

So, Blessing argues, we can never achieve a mind of winter. We are human, after all, and while human beings can imagine the void, to imagine the void without a sensation of misery—that is going too far. We cannot and should not expect it of ourselves. We have a human’s perceptual apparatus and a human’s perceptual limitations. We are not snow men, and we haven’t “minds of winter.” Blessing and Hesla see the poem as a celebration of our humanity, not a turning away from it.

Who among this cacophony of criticism is correct? To this reader, they all present viable but incomplete readings: their mobiles, palimpsests, polar dualities and philosophical applications are useful, representing the full engagement of human endeavor. Perhaps that is Stevens’ intention. At the end of the day, only one thing is certain: “The Snow Man” resists easy decryption. It is, I suspect, built that way. In Hesla’s words:

For every position there is a negation, for every assertion a denial, for every denial a denial. Stevens’ poetry is a poetry of ideas and the men who thought them, but it is not a dignified debate among gentlemen. It is a wrestling match, it is a combat zone” (261).

And reading the critics’ vociferous disagreements is indeed mentally challenging—and mentally exhausting. But I like to think of Stevens as the dandy who incites the fight, who throws the wrench into the works of his own machine, in order to make us think. The paradox, to me—the nothing that is—is the constant, unwinnable battle between ourselves and the void; the byzantine complexity of our world and our human experience as the merest fragment of that world; and the jostling we must do between the things we need to know and our inability to know them.

Stevens said it best: “It can never be satisfied, the mind. Never.”

The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
— Wallace Stevens, "The Snow Man"

Cited Sources

Benamou, Michel. “Wallace Stevens and the Symbolist Imagination.ELH Vol. 31, No. 1. (Mar 1964). 35-63. Print.

Blackmur, R. P. “The Substance That Prevails.” Kenyon Review XVII. (1957). 107. Print.

Blessing, Richard. “Wallace Stevens and the Necessary Reader: A Technique of Dynamism.Twentieth Century Literature Vol. 18, No. 4. (Oct 1972). 251-258. Print.

Bloom, Harold. “Wallace Stevens: Reduction to the First Idea.Diacritics Vol. 6, No. 3. (Autumn 1976). 48-57. Print.

Browne, Robert M. “Grammar and Rhetoric in Criticism.Texas Studies in Literature and Language Vol. 3, No. 1. (Spring 1961). 144-157. Print.

Cambon, Glauco. “Nothingness as Catalyst: An Analysis of Three Poems.”  Comparative Literature Studies Special Advance Number. (1963). 91-99. Print.

Hesla, David H. “Singing in Chaos: Wallace Stevens and Three or Four Ideas.” American Literature Vol. 57, No. 2 (May 1985). 240-262. Print.

Hoag, Ronald Wesley. “Wallace Stevens ‘The Snow Man:’ An Important Title Pun.” American Notes and Queries Vol. 17, Issue 6. (Feb 1979). 91. Print.

Keyser, Samuel Jay. “In Praise of Wallace Stevens.All Things Considered: National Public Radio. 29 Nov. 2005. Radio.

Keyser, Samuel Jay. “Wallace Stevens: Form and Meaning in Four Poems.” College English No. 37 (1976): 578-98. Print.

Randolph, Robert. “’The Snow Man:’ Nausea or Numin?” ANQ Vol. 3 Issue 5. (1990). 119-121. Print.

Vendler, Helen. “Wallace Stevens: Hypotheses and Contradictions.Representations Vol. 81, No. 1 (Winter 2003). 99-117. Print.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems. New York: Knopf. 1954. Print.

Stevens, Wallace. The Letters of Wallace Stevens. Ed. Holly Stevens. New York: Knopf. 1966. Print.

Wargacki, John P. “Reduction and Negation in Emily Dickinson’s ‘There’s a Certain Slant of Light’ and Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Snow Man.’” The Explicator Vol. 69. No. 2 (2011). 90-99. Print.

Never Quite Disclosed

Epistemological Hijinks in the Poems of Emily Dickinson

Literature is not religion, and it doesn’t address itself to belief. But if we shut the vision of it completely out of our minds… something goes dead inside us, perhaps the one thing that it is really important to keep alive.
— Northrup Frye, The Educated Imagination

Emily Dickinson wrote during a revolution in epistemology. Scientific inquiry, from the time of Francis Bacon, had endeavored to uncover the stable, static, unchanging design behind God’s universe. But what was becoming increasingly clear, from Charles Darwin onward, was that the scientific method uncovered, despite itself, not nature’s divine stability but its chaotic stochasticity. Scientists and theologians of the time scrambled to reevaluate knowledge itself: why we gather it and to what purpose to put it. Enter Emily Dickinson, educated in both theology and the sciences, and highly observant of the way the inner (spiritual) life interacts with the natural world. She joins the debate on the one hand as a Victorian scholar, representing 19th century religious ideas of an unchanging, stable, and discoverable Truth with a celestial creator, and on the other as a naturalist who doesn’t just accept but celebrates contingency, chance, and change. She places the two worldviews in tension by employing metaphors that destabilize rather than coordinate the world—emphasizing, rather than reducing, difference—in an attempt to suggest that it’s process, not product, that gets us closest to the divine.

In her article “The Apparatus of the Dark: Emily Dickinson and the Epistemology of Metaphor,” Michelle Kohler notes that the scientific method had “…long held the promise of gradually revealing a fixed, divine order to the material world” (61). But, she goes on to say, these methods were dismantling the very ideas of permanence and fixity they were meant to reinforce. In response, she notes, “Dickinson seeks a new way of thinking about revelation that embraces process and provisionality” (Kohler 61). Let us examine poem 1140 as an exemplar of this phenomenon. The poem starts without surprise: “The Lightning is a yellow fork” (Dickinson 457). Forks and lightening are an oft-paired metaphor, and represent the way lightening branches into frightening and destructive “tines.” But the poem veers dramatically from the expected in the next few lines: “From tables in the sky / By inadvertent fingers dropt / The awful Cutlery.” This lightening fork, far from being a representation of God’s terrible power (a cliché the reader is primed to expect), is actually a domestic, almost womanly metaphor of mislaid flatware. This fork is dropped by accident from a heavenly table during, we have no choice but to presume, a heavenly meal. Even in God’s “mansion,” accidents happen. Randomness reigns supreme. Note what Dickinson chooses to capitalize. The Fork, the Table, and the Cutlery, are given proper noun status, while the “fingers” and the “mansions” of God are generic. The poem employs the passive voice: the Fork is dropped. God is undermined as the agent. It is the mistake, the movement, the downward motion, as well as, to a certain extent, the end viewer’s ability to see the metaphor, that Dickinson emphasizes. Further, the reader is asked to imagine this accident as revealing a spiritual truth. But it is the falling object’s accidental disclosure, not the object itself—the God-made lightening, table, mansion, or observer—that delivers this spiritual truth.  The cutlery is dropped from “…mansions never quite disclosed / And never quite concealed,” and the moment of observation causes “The Apparatus of the Dark” to be, for a brief, accidental moment, exposed to those who otherwise have no access to the mysteries of the divine. Through destabilized metaphor, our poet approximates revelation.

Dickinson places herself in competition with God by offering up this exposé. As Claudia Schwarz notes in her article “Dickinson’s Journeys Beyond Time,” “Whereas God has the power to give and to take away, the poet’s imagination transcends the boundaries he has set up and even turns his concepts upside down” (94). Just as science was challenging—albeit queasily—God’s hegemony, Dickinson, too, shifts the focus from God’s power to nature’s mutability and contingency. To an almost blasphemous degree she places herself in the role of its record-keeper and even, at times, as its creator. We see this in poem 787, in which she claims that had she the seed, her own “bloom” would surpass the bloom of sunset (Dickinson 351). Humble, in a way, because she admires the “Efflorescence” of sunset while admitting she isn’t equipped with the right material to enact her one-upmanship. But it takes nerve to suggest that with the right tools she could out-create God. In The Rhetoric of American Romance: Dialectic and Identity in Emerson, Dickinson, Poe, and Hawthorne, Evan Carton notes how paradoxically Dickinson makes herself powerful: Dickinson’s language, he contends, “…exercises its power as it seems to announce its impotence; and… intricately involves itself with its object while ostensibly opposing itself to it” (83). Sure, the mountain, “Indicating by no Muscle / The Experience,” doesn’t expend effort to create so gorgeous a sunset. But, insists the poem’s speaker, with the right “seed,” her “…Purple Sowing / Should endow the Day / Not—a Tropic of a Twilight— / Show itself away—.” Though it might take effort, her sunset wouldn’t be something that died in twilight, but would be an efflorescence worthy of the day. Like Carton, Kohler notes that, “…it is precisely in the act of laboring for and against itself, of claiming success and incapacity, that Dickinson’s metaphor locates meaning” (82). Cynthia Griffin Wolff, in Emily Dickinson, agrees with Schwarz that Dickinson’s poetry turns God’s concepts “upside down,” and even invites her readers to share the power: her verse, Wolff says, though the poet herself is mortal, can, “…confound death and transcend time by springing to life anew for every reader. Her poetry, then, stands as rival creation to God’s” (185). It is this brazenness that, despite her reclusive life, makes Dickinson one of the world’s most beloved iconoclasts.

Dickinson throws her gauntlet not just before God, but before all prevailing 19th century notions of the very purpose of knowledge-gathering. Previously, scientists assumed that, sans a priori assumptions, close observation would reveal the “intelligent design” behind the world’s outward variability. Instead, scientific observation was again and again undermining its theological end. Literature, Dickinson suggests, can mend this rift. She seeks, in Kohler’s words, a way to “…redress the growing rupture between empirical methods and spiritual truth” (61). Dickinson uses what, in “Emily Dickinson: Metaphorical Spaces and the Divided Self,” Simon du Plock calls her “paradoxical pronouns—often grammatically or generically unstable” (275) to celebrate the dual (and often multiform) nature of all things; metaphorical, rhetorical, and literal (and these become quite tangled: a sunset is at once real, the signified, and a metaphor of a bloom; her written bloom is a facsimile of that metaphorical bloom, but also, in the subjunctive, outblooms the real sunset’s bloom, etc.) Her poems breathe life into the inanimate while exposing the mechanisms behind the omnipotent. Kohler contends that an unstable Dickinson metaphor can, “…accommodate the incongruity that erupts amid her repeated efforts to make words adhere to their referents” (77), which goes a long way to explaining Dickinson’s obsession with the limits of knowing: with half-obscuring and half-revealing (like her shadowy diner with His—Her?—effulgent cutlery). Literature can bridge the split in epistemology, but only imperfectly—in the way an asymptote approaches its axis.

In Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise, Charles R. Anderson comments upon her keen sense of the bounds of human perception:

What seem like objects to the limited mortal view are really aspects of nature as process, nature going down to the “death” of eternity. And conversely, what man sees as process and change are the illusory pictures cast by the immutable on his time-trapped senses (134-5).

Nature—God—shows us only a bit at a time, and shows it to us provisionally. And art, because it self-consciously creates an incomplete replica of its referent, is more suited than science or religion to approach “the immutables:” Truth, Revelation, etc. Perhaps that is why Northrup Frye, in The Educated Imagination, cautions us that without literature “…something goes dead inside us” (48), because the formal mechanisms by which we find truth—science and religion—speak in absolutes, whereas our minds apprehend only fragmentarily. Dickinson describes the artistic process best in poem 1263, when she urges us to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant— / Success in Circuit lies” (Dickinson 495). We must approach truth asymptotically, she tells us, else “every man be blind.” Dickinson embraces the paradox syntactically as well as rhetorically by creating an infinite loop within the reader’s mind. We have “truth” in the middle of the first line, equated with the Circuit that “lies”—the terminal word of the second line. Of course the denotation of the word “lies” in this context is “rests,” but the reader must also confront “lies” as truth’s opposite. Similarly, the word “slant” recalls a number line on a Cartesian coordinate system, elegant, infinite, while “circuit” evokes an ellipse… a known, limited, closed system. Du Plock comments that Dickinson seeks to “…satisfy our increasing need to have our intelligence resisted” (279), and this poem, with its paradoxes, does just that. It suggests we use our own limitations to glimpse the infinite; and lie to tell the truth. What better metaphor is there for art in general—for literature?

There is mischief in Dickinson’s metaphors. They’re pranks on the whole epistemological paradigm shift and its polarizing effects. And through her metaphorical roguery, her poetry synthesizes two prevailing worldviews—the randomness and chance that science reveals, and the spiritual Truth that religion espouses—and does so with pathos, humor, and humility. She understands something that neither side alone does: that divine truth can be found in nature’s very unpredictability, so that even as we lose truth as an unchanging entity, we gain something richer and truer to the human sensual and spiritual experience; we gain, in Kohler’s words, a truth that “…is true only insofar as it is of use to a person and… because usefulness is determined by constantly changing methods, needs, and environments, truth is always in the process of being made and remade” (84). Dickinson spent her life writing and rewriting, hardly considering the fruit of her labors. She, almost more than any other poet, privileged process over product. It was the labor itself that sustained her—and that continues to sustain us in a world that, despite our best efforts, can never be quite disclosed.

Cited Sources

Anderson, Charles R. Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise. New York: Rinehart and Winston. 1960. Print.

Carton, Evan. The Rhetoric of American Romance: Dialectic and Identity in Emerson, Dickinson, Poe, and Hawthorne. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press. 1985. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Ed. R. W. Franklin. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press. 1999. Print.

Du Plock, Simon. “Emily Dickinson: Metaphorical Spaces and the Divided Self.” The International Conference of Psychology and the Arts. Univ. of Porto. 26-28 July 2013. Presentation.

Frye, Northrup. The Educated Imagination. Concord: Anansi Press. 1997. Print.

Kohler, Michelle. “The Apparatus of the Dark: Emily Dickinson and the Epistemology of Metaphor.” Nineteenth Century Literature Vol. 67, No. 1 (June 2012): pp 58-86. Print.

Schwarz, Claudia. “Dickinson’s Journeys Beyond Time.” Arbeitenaus Anglistik und Amerikanistik Vol. 32, No. 1 (2007): pp 83-99. Print.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson. Boston: Addison-Wesley. 1988. Print.