Poe: A Grammar of the Individual
E. John Winner
As a Buddhist, I’m committed to two essential principles: The Self is the source of all suffering; and the Self can be deconstructed, thus alleviating suffering.
These essential principles generate others. Primarily there is the Eightfold Path, the program by which the Self is deconstructed, including “Right Thought,” i.e., philosophy.
Secondarily, there is the need to offer the Eightfold Path to others. This has a dense relationship to the Eastern concept of karma – the notion that every action has a consequence. But the full elaboration of this need not concern us here. Suffice it to say, when one turns a corner, the corner will decide one’s fate, unless steps are taken to open other avenues to take. And it’s preferable not to take this turn alone.
When the Buddha lived, life was very hard for most people. Where this is not perceived or is not the case, Buddhism can only be an offering. If one has never suffered, one will not find solace in it. But suffering still continues, and the offering remains for those who need it.
There is also, embedded in the philosophical analysis of Buddhist thinkers, a profoundly materialist understanding of the arising of individuated consciousness as an (inevitable) epiphenomenon of bodily needs, experiences, will, and social influences. (1) “I” do not eat; this body eats (although there is an enjoyment in the tasting of it which is thence “mine”). Certainly there is the experience of “love,” but what love is has been determined for “me” through social experiences, which “I” then must own as participant in those experiences.
Language and the Self
Our grammar impels us to think that certain entities, such as the Self, have ontological necessity, which we then assert as psychological or social necessity. Philosophers subsequently tease at it logically, rather like picking at a scab. Useful or beneficial, it is best to stay aware that this is a social construction, primarily a play of language. Once this is recognized, neither the burden of the Self, nor the possibility of its loss need threaten us. Whether we are this or that or neither may challenge us, but these bodies and their lives will still be here once the conflict is resolved. We will still talk the same language, indeed, we must, in order to communicate with others. But now we also can hear and participate in the play that is language.
Let’s begin with an American view on the matter, by one of the most important social theorists of the 20th Century. He didn’t have available our clinical psychological or neuroscience data to draw from, but he had a question that couldn’t be resolved otherwise than with observation of common experience: If the individuated self is not a unified given but an aggregate (a view dating back at least to Hume), how does it come about?
George Herbert Mead, from “The Social Self,” 1913:
The actual situation is this: The self acts with reference to others and is immediately conscious of the objects about it. In memory it also reintegrates the self acting as well as the others acted upon. But besides these contents, the action with reference to the others calls out responses in the individual himself – there is then another “me” criticizing approving, and suggesting, and consciously planning, i.e., the reflective self.
It is not to all our conduct toward the objective world that we thus respond. Where we are intensely preoccupied with the objective world, this accompanying awareness disappears. We have to recall the experience to become aware that we have been involved as selves, to produce the self-consciousness which is a constituent part of a large part of our experience. As I have indicated elsewhere, the mechanism for this reply to our own social stimulation of others follows as a natural result from the fact that the very sounds, gestures, especially vocal gestures, which man makes in addressing others, call out or tend to call out responses from himself. He can not hear himself speak without assuming in a measure the attitude which he would have assumed if he had been addressed in the same words by others.
The self which consciously stands over against other selves thus becomes an object, an other to himself, through the very fact that he hears himself talk, and replies. The mechanism of introspection is therefore given in the social attitude which man necessarily assumes toward himself, and the mechanism of thought, in so far as thought uses symbols which are used in social intercourse, is but an inner conversation. (2)
The self is thus generated through myriad responses to the world. But there is a function that stabilizes these responses as though from and returning to a unified source – our ability to incorporate signs, including language, in what amounts to self-talk. Where there is no other, there is always the language of others through which we think.
Of course, this structure is not wholly or always as stable as we might want it to be. Sometimes it gets carried away.
A Grammar of the Individual as Poetry
Alone, by Edgar Allen Poe (1829)
From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were – I have not seen
As others saw – I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I lov’d, I lov’d alone.
Then- in my childhood, in the dawn
Of a most stormy life – was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still:
From the torrent, or the fountain,
From the red cliff of the mountain,
From the sun that ’round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold –
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by –
From the thunder and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view. (3)
We are going to expend a little effort in reading the grammar of this verse by Poe.
First, the essential facts. The verse divides easily into two parts, announced by the word ‘then’ to begin a line. This ‘then’ announces the turn, the motion of thought, which makes this a ‘verse’ (loosely, Latin for ‘turn’).
The first part has only two complete sentences, the second only one sentence. Poe holds the verse together with several grammatical devices, as well mnemonic devices usually identified with poetry. These include: rhyming lines; alliteration; meter; repetition of words (‘the’, ‘of’, ‘or’, ‘from’, ‘as’, ‘my’, and – but only in the first part – ‘I’). The repetition of the word ‘my’ signifies the personal passiveness of the verse; repeating the word ‘from’ suggests a movement, which is finally delivered as a “flying by.” Finally, we note the parallelisms: in particular the placing of the words ‘from the’ at the beginning of several lines, distributed through both parts of the verse. But in the first part of the verse, the phrase draws attention to some human entity – a lived childhood, a social source of sorrow and joy – while in the second part, it refers to forces and motion in the material universe beyond the human. That’s important. When the verse wishes to situate the person supposedly uttering the verse in a time and place, it mentions not historical moment or community, it draws that person farther away from human companionship.
Many English professors would say of that last remark that it constitutes a comment on the rhetoric of the verse, but that isn’t entirely true. I have not discussed what Poe wishes us to do, upon listening to or reading the verse, or how to respond to it. Such questions haven’t yet been asked. We are simply considering the grammar of the verse. For it is the grammar that generates the universe in which an audience may then respond to the verse’s rhetoric.
An important function of the grammar of the verse is the manner in which Poe increases the duration of the grammar’s periodicity – that is, IT takes longer to complete the thought of a sentence than necessary (for the mere act of communication). Consider this passage:
Then – in my childhood, in the dawn
Of a most stormy life – was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still:
Poe certainly appears to be getting a little carried away here. The depth of a concept (and without further delineation ‘good’ and ‘ill’ can only be concepts and rather empty ones at that) is a little hard to imagine. More important, grammatically, the reference is unnecessary, at first glance, since the colon that ends this passage indicates that what follows will describe this “mystery,” and the next passage begins with the phrase ‘from the”’ again, telling us that the description will begin by articulating from where the mystery derives. Except Poe has already told us from where it derives, namely from “ev’ry depth of good and ill.” One would suppose, then, that what follows constitutes the definition of the concepts ‘good’ and ‘ill’, but this doesn’t appear to be the case. The sun rolling around the world of the verse may indeed signal the event of a good or an ill experience, but can it legitimately be referred to as a source of it? This simply announces that good and ill are everywhere and discoverable at every hour of the day, every day, in the mind of the utterer of the verse standing on a small planet somewhere in our solar system (one presumes that this must be earth, and the utterer a fellow human of some sort).
The point is that the phrase “from ev’ry depth of good and ill” is not really about depths of good and ill, it’s really stretching out a couple of lines so that what follows may have greater impact, by continuing the tension generated by the turn announced with the word ‘then’.
Throughout most of the 20th century, academic literary critics held that every word in a poem is absolutely necessary to its meaning; that whatever was expressed in the language of the poem could never be expressed any other way – not if it was a good poem, anyway. This is untrue. Meaning is nothing mysterious, it is simply a function of language. Grammar, in a given context, determines meaning. The author of a verse establishes a grammar for the verse, within the structures of which he or she composes a rhetorical address to some imagined audience, even if this audience must be the author (and no audience could be more imaginary than the author’s own self).
Is there music to the verse? The author likely hopes so. Let us observe a moment of poetic license that occurs in this verse: the contraction of past-tense verbs, e.g., ‘lov’d’, ‘roll’d’, etc. This contraction is Poe’s way of telling the reader how the given word is to be pronounced, when the verse is read aloud. It should be remembered that at the time of the verse’s composition, there was a lingering supposition that syllables in poetry were to be read out precisely: a past-tense verb was expected to be pronounced with some emphasis on the suffixing tense signifier ‘-ed’ – e.g, ‘roll-ed,’ or ‘love-ed.’ Poe is signifying that he doesn’t want this to done with his verse – ‘rolled’ and ‘loved’ are to be read pretty much as they are normally pronounced in common speech, each pronounced as a single syllable. Perhaps it was verse such as Poe’s that helped shape the pronunciation of poetry that we now expect – poetry that is in the common idiom, lacking the formalized “elevation” that was expected in verse by many in the 18th and 19th centuries.
At any rate, the point is that the poem is meant to be read aloud, and in the reading of it, special attention is to be paid to the pronunciation – and hence the sound – of every word. So the sound, as much as the meaning, determines word choice. One is allowed to suppose that in such practice is to be found the relation between the composition of the verse and any music to be expected of it.
Is there a relationship between this hoped-for music and the grammar of the verse’s composition? Well, the sound of the language is most assuredly one source for the grammar of the language. This problematic relationship has been recognized by some language theorists. Structuralist linguists struggled with it for decades. But its practical application has been obscured in the systematized educational effort to convince us to write as though we were either scientists or machines (which gives us the style of the petty bureaucrat, whom many imitate in writing today). But the sound of language remains a major source for the derivation of rhetoric, something that politicians understand very well. Most contemporary would-be poets don’t bother with it anymore, having been trained by academic literary critics, who assure aspiring poets that each word must be meaningful, not that their poems should sound good. But what word could ever not be meaningful? All words are meaningful: every word, every phrase, every sentence, every completed thought has some meaning to it, in some context, and not because it is what it is, or says what it says, but because any audience will set about finding – or imagining, or interjecting, or otherwise constructing – a meaning for it. Even to say of a word or a sequence of words that it is nonsense effectively establishes a meaning for it. ‘Brillig’ is a word having no dictionary definition, which is why Lewis Carroll invented it for his verse concerning the imaginary Jabberwocky. Lacking an already-existing meaning, the reader is invited to invent one for it – indeed, Carroll is depending on this – and, in any event, readers will listen for the sound of the word’s probable pronunciation (we assume that the ending ‘g’ of ‘brillig’ is not silent). But there are even some writers who prefer the reader to invent the sound of a word. High Modernist writers who produced texts that they hoped would evoke no sound, no meaning, no grammar, no rhetoric, merely deluded themselves. It is not enough to say such texts disappeared into history. They never appeared to begin with.
This will seem to pressure the phenomenon of a poem into the domain of fairly conventional genres of grammatical composition and rhetoric, but the truth is, verse always occurs within that domain. The Romantic hope that verse could be used for the construction of some magical verbal formulas for the release of the human spirit was just so much self-glorifying propaganda. It seemed to make the writing and reading of verse appear very important at exactly the moment in history when certain scientists and philosophers were raising the argument that verse was no longer necessary and we Moderns could dispense with it. Such debates now seem little better than a contest between different groups of lemmings arguing about which cliff to jump over. Verse is neither necessary nor unnecessary. It just happens to be one of the many grammatical constructions human beings will employ within a given language. And verse can neither raise the spirit nor bury it. Humans respond to instances of verse with any of the myriad responses with which they respond to any experience of language. This tells us that verse is not a rarefied use of language – it does not stand opposed to any other use or function of language, and can neither redeem nor salvage language from its many problems of understanding. Verse is simply another play of language, of use to those who find a use for it
Having drawn out the grammar of Poe’s verse, we will now address the rhetoric of it.
Briefly, Poe appears to be asking readers of his poem to imagine a person, the “I” of the poem, who for some reason (hinted at, rather than delineated) matures into the social role of an outsider; that is, one who is expected to be non-compliant with expected social-psychological responses to the world; one who doesn’t “fit in.” Poe attempts to persuade his reader that outsiders are capable of developing vision a that takes them beyond social norms; their senses are heightened, and they exist in the realm of natural forces rather than social environment. This capacity does not receive a full accounting in the verse, and indeed remains ambiguous as to its value. The “demon in my view” is roughly introduced, and the verse ends. Does the demon welcome the utterer or chase him or ignore him, etc.? We’ll never know, but every reader is free to guess. The universe, presented in the verse through such naturalistic signifiers as wind and sun, produces the demon for the utterer of the verse, in whom the universe has taken special concern, but whether for good or ill (or both), we cannot tell. Therefore, it is not the nature of the demon that really concerns the reader, but the development of the special visionary capacity. The socially isolated individual thus becomes elevated from unwanted outcast almost to the level of an exceptional prophet. here the poem leaves us, contemplating the possible uses – or difficulties – such individuals present to the good of society as a whole.
If readers fears this experience, then the demon marks the outer boundary of normative social behavior, and we find deeper comfort from our own social relationships. But if a reader feels with the poem, then he or she may very well become the demon the poem prophesies – the self as inevitable other in a universe without re-assuring connections or even connectivity.
This imperious “I” thus may jettison us into the realm of the abstract, yet carnal, experience of a world of hopeless desire and diminishing horizons. Poe articulates – and offers – a universe of pure subjectivity. But to get there, one has to abandon all the social commitments that make life something worth attaching to. The pure individual is purely alone.
There is another way. The individual is in the final analysis a construct of desire, and social impress interpreted as social detachment. Modernity has given us an autonomous individual, detached and purified. The truth may be otherwise. It may be a collection of experiences ordered around a fiction. If so, it may be healthier to read our precious selves as mere characters in a work of fiction we neither write nor read properly. Or in a poem.
- See for instance this discussion: http://www.buddhanet.net/funbud14.htm
- Background sketch: