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.


  1. See for instance this discussion: http://www.buddhanet.net/funbud14.htm
  2. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/us/mead3.htm
  3. Background sketch:



  1. Although I like most of what you say, I have one quibble: language does not determine meaning. Meaning is something constructed in each speaker or hearer, by systemic relationships with already existing feelings, experiences etc; language merely points to it. Dictionaries define meaning (of words) in a circular fashion, by pointing to other words. But utterances have more meaning than the language signs that constitute them, as Grice and many others have shown. It is a commonplace of linguistics that with respect to language, even to organised strings of words, with any meta semantic elements, such as italics, or timbre, tone of voice etc, meaning is ‘ampliative’. The socail organisation of generic linguistic expectations predecides ntpretive frameworks etc. But you know all this. It does matter though, when it comes to buddhism that we remember Mead’s points about the inner conversation, and also the points that linguists make about the contextually influenced, constructed character of meaning.Recently this account has been broadly confirmed by several functional MRI studies.



  2. Its not that you do not get around to these things. But its how you get there: you keep insisting that words have meaning. They don’t. not in themselves. It as if, in instructing someone on how to get to Dublin from Belfast, you gave them a series of reports of the celebration of Bloomsday in Moscow. Its very much the long way around. A word like ‘suffering’ can be made much or little of, depending on whether you have experienced mental illness, concentration camps, or a poorly made latte lately. When a person hears a word, after years of training in the contextually located language acts of parents, siblings, peers etc, the MRI shows a connection and a commerce between feelings, visualisation, memory, conceptual processes, and a sort of concrete dictionary in the brain, but we seldom think of what happens that way, and this leads to all sorts of illusions. But everyone’s brain relates to the provocation of sign strings at least a little differently.

    We all do it, of course, talk about language and meaning in a way that is completely upside down. Davidson was wrong. The MRI studies prove it. Everyone has a private ‘language’ and there are no words, grammar etc in it. It is in a topological code. Words evoke parts of this code and then the parts provoke other bits of the brain, where code for producing images, feelings, remembered feelings, stories etc are stored, and then images are ‘seen’ feelings ‘felt etc.

    Science has a way of catching up to philosophy, and philosophy has the duty and the task of keeping up with the science, in order to make it more fruitful. Together, it is possible to reduce the scope and density of the illusory world in which most of us move and live from day to day. Perhaps Gautama would approve.

    Much enjoy this blog.



  3. Inigo,
    It is a basic understanding in semiotics, as I understand it, that signs without context have no signification, and that any sign within a context will have signification. A reasonable assumption here is that any sign we can possibly discuss or respond to in any way will have a context, and thus signification, and that therefore signs having no context or signification simply do not exist.

    Meaning is something humans do. Words occur in social context. Whatever audience our words have, will provide or invent a meaning for the words, even if it is tangential to any possible dictionary definition. So even if the response is, ‘that person is speaking nonsense,’ this manifests or generates a meaning for the words – a signification for the verbal sign.

    As to the private language question – I don’t know that patterns of brain behavior are such that they can be understood as a language, this would seem to remain pretty controversial. However, even if this were so, it would not effect arguments concerning having a private language, since these inevitably presume language itself, not prior existing brain patterns, and thus occur at the level of social engagement with language.


  4. Absolutely. And I should have said that Davidson did not deny the possibility of a private language so much as deny that reverting from public language to something inaccessible added something to understanding the publicly available language-in-context. But when I said ‘You know all this’ I was making the point that the game has changed. We can now map the internal process of meaning-making and as far as context goes, if it plays a part in that meaning-making, it will be seen on the brain scans. Of course, we still attend to the public bit, but we should recognise that it carries an illusion with it because we attribute the product of the internal process to the outward sign-events, while semiosis actually occurs within. For me the issue is this: how do we talk about this. Neither analysis of sentences, or genres (action-oriented linguistics) help much, and semiotics is just a definitional chase when the real question is what is the nature of that which we are trying to define. I do not take issue with what you say and say eloquently, but with the whole starting point issue: if meaning is a holographic, multidimensional, instantaneous topological phenomenon, constantly changing , building and collapsing, as recent brain-scan researchers (and perhaps Derrida on a good day) have it, the apparent objectivity-intersubjectivity and publicity of words may be a misleading place to begin an analysis.

    There may be controversy about brain mapping, but functional (real time) scanning is only a few years old and the results have yet to be absorbed in our way of talking about meaning. The latest news is of an attempt to map in real time the thinking of a rat as it goes about its business. We are not yet mind-readers but it is only a matter of time before we are. Recent advances in algebraic topological representation of the neuronic structure of the human brain, undertaken with a view to creating computers with brain-like structure, have shown that many of the structures of the forebrain are 7 dimensional (some are 11 dimensional!). These advances mean that many of the old debates are being bypassed. And that was my key point. Do we need to find new ways of talking about how language works. After all Saussure has been dead almost as long as Marx.

    my very best wishes,



  5. I am trying to say that language in its semiotic sense is merely a way-station between minds and we do not yet have a way to talk about the whole process from mind to mind and the role the externalisation of what is in one mind always fails to some considerable degree even before the other person enters the picture. We have always started from the middle of the process – ‘language’- but that may not be the best place to start. Perhaps a model for this might be two sets of assented-to holo states (not ‘propositions’: as Brandom might have it), written in an algebraic-topological multidimensional pattern description, some sort of translation of this into a one-dimensional, sequentially-expressed, mathematical-logical language-like code (lets say, mathematical logic) and then a translation of this into something like symbolic logic, then into sign strings, and reverse all that for the reader/listener…Now, where is the best place to start analysing this, and where does context begin and end and is context singular or plural in this process…



  6. EJ

    The main points you are making here, your general idea of the self and your reaction to what Poe is saying, I think I agree with.

    There are probably differences in respect of ‘turning corners’ and certainly in respect of your specifically Buddhist claims, but maybe this isn’t the place to go into them.

    You made a point about ‘elevated’ poetic language and the possible significance of Poe’s use of the apostrophe for the ‘e’ in those suffixes. Sounds plausible. The French still *sing* (or in certain spoken contexts, recite) suffixes which are now silent in ordinary spoken language.

    But Poe also wrote ev’ry. No one says, ev-er-i, do they? I have heard a Cockney form of Henry – (H)en-er-i – though maybe only in a song!

    The lines of Poe’s poem have a set number of syllables (8, then 7…). And he needs a third syllable in “mystery”, apparently. No apostrophe. (Most people say ‘mis-tri’, don’t they?)

    Ezra Pound – especially in his role as T.S. Eliot’s editor – is the one I think of in relation to resisting archaisms and making the language of poetry more natural.


  7. E.J. Winner:
    An impassioned and eloquent reading of Poe which it would be otiose to quarrel with. The general metaphysical claims about the nature of the self, the anatman/anatta doctrine and the manifestation of the mental as impermanent, the annica/momentariness doctrine are questionable however. It would be less invidious to use the term transcendental postulate instead of doctrine but anything that guides religious practice suggests the word as apposite. I think here of mindfulness (vipassana) meditation and the no-mind school of Zen.

    Buddhism in America often appears to be Neuro-Science at prayer and the reason for this is the fascination with the contents of consciousness. If there are only contents then they are the only basis for our constructs. Memory suggests itself as a source for the notion of the self but that has the difficulty that Hume recognised namely that memory has the magical power of creating its own subject. Shankara the 9th. century Vedantin opposing this held that memory indicated the self but did not establish it. The Self as he understood it was consciousness as such, the impersonal absolute onto which we project the ego. Consciousness is therefore not generated by the brain but rather modulated by it. Thus in Raja (mental) Yoga you have the biofeedback techniques that evoke meditative states of mind, to get below or above the noise. Poetry has the power to do this also:


    The antlered forests
    Move down to the sea
    Here the dung-filled jungle pauses
    Buddha has covered the walls of the great temple
    With the vegetative speed of his imagery

    Let us wait, hand in hand

    No Western god or saint
    Ever smiled with the lissom fury of this god
    Who holds in doubt
    The wooden stare of Apollo
    Our Christian crown of thorns;

    There is no mystery in the luminous lines
    Of that high, animal face
    The smile, sad, humouring and equal
    Blesses without obliging
    Loves without condescension:
    The god, clear as spring-water
    Sees through everything, while everything
    Flows through him

    A fling of flowers here
    Whose names I do not know
    Downy, scarlet gullets
    Green legs yielding and closing

    While, at my mental distance from passion,
    The prolific divinity of the temple
    Is a quiet lettering on vellum

    Let us lie down before him
    His look will flow like oil over us.

    Denis Devlin


  8. 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?

    I know it is popular to make seemingly counter-intuitive claims but what does this mean? I examine myself and find only one self. I peer back into my memories and find dim recollections of earlier selves. I look into the future and I imagine the self I want to be (kinder, gentler, more loving, more tolerant and more generous).

    But try as I will, I find only one self in my present. I am rather grateful for that fact. I really would hate to be contending with other selves.

    Let’s look at the problem from the other point of view. If I, for the sake of argument, grant your claim that my self is not unified, then what would my experience be if my self became unified? How would my experience of life be different?

    Many things are aggregates but the mere property of being an aggregate does not deny it unity, it merely denies it homogeneity. For example, my home has many rooms, serving different purposes. It is thus heterogeneous. But it possesses the unity of being my home with all the functions it provides. To deny that my home has unity would be a form of word game that depends on what we mean by ‘unity’. An architect, for example, would claim that it lacks unit in its design(quite true). Here we are not talking about ‘unity’, but instead are heavily qualifying the term by talking about ‘architectural unity’.

    My reply to the architect would be ‘so what’? It has the necessary function of ‘unity’ that I, as the owner require of it.

    I suspect that this talk of the ‘self’ not being ‘unified’, is largely a word game that depends heavily on vague qualifications of the word ‘unity’.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I might be quibbling about the content of your essay, but I really love the Edgar Allen Poem, ‘Alone’. My compliments, by the way, on writing such an elegant essay, even if I disagree with much of it.


  10. 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.

    When you say “fairly conventional genres of grammatical composition and rhetoric, but the truth is, verse always occurs within that domain” I must disagree strongly and maintain instead that it does indeed release the human spirit.

    When I read good verse my spirit is indeed released. It soars, it swoops, it dives with dizzying speed, it cries, it mourns, it grieves desperately and then climbs to the heaven in ecstatic joy.

    Verse is not “the construction of some magical verbal formulas“. That is the drab utilitarian description that a plumber might give to the Mona Lisa. It is not “fairly conventional genres of grammatical composition and rhetoric“. It is instead the deeply felt insights of a magician with words that uses metre, rhyme and evocative language to resonate with our own deeply held feelings. It is this resonance with our own intuitions that gives poetry such evocative and indeed magical power.


  11. Mark,
    Thanks for your remarks. I think Poe’s contractions, as being better representative of the common idiom, was really a part of a wave of modern poets who wished to speak more directly with their audience than the ‘elevated’ mannerism and carefully classified topoi inherited from the 18th Century allowed. (BTW, in America, most of us do say “ev’ry’ for every, but we still say ‘mys-ter-y,’ possibly an habituation borne of the popularity of mystery fiction over the past 150 years or so.)

    The comment on Buddhism I recognized as probably controversial, especial in a webzine with a general audience, but it helped to explain what my interest here is, and also provided a different view on self-identity/ individuality than is commonly accepted.

    Continuing on that line, “I examine myself and find only one self. (…) But try as I will, I find only one self in my present.”

    Interesting enough, Hume discovery of the ‘convenient fiction’ of the self also begins as ‘self-examination:’ “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions remov’d by death, and cou’d I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I shou’d be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity.” And there may an impassable ‘agree-to-disagree’ moment here, as Hume notes in the very next line here: “If any one, upon serious and unprejudic’d reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. ”

    That may be true of our differing poetics as well. If what you describe is how you find verse useful to you, that’s all well and good; you should find delight where you will.

    But it does no service to poetry in the Modern age to treat it as so special a use of language that none but specialists can partake of it. Taste in poetry, as in all practices in which taste matters, has to be cultivated. But it doesn’t help our young to beat them over the head with it, or chastise them if they don’t ‘get it’ somehow, or deny the many uses with which they wish to make of it. It is language. It is both as constrained and as useful as any language practice.


  12. Oh, yes, before I forget again: “including “Right Thought,” i.e., philosophy” – that should be ‘including “Right Thought,” *e.g.*, philosophy.’

    Please don’t blame the Buddha for any of my lapses here!


  13. Hi EJ,
    Disagreements are fascinating things because they can stimulate so much thought but it is useful to note agreement. The two areas where I am in agreement with Buddhism is metempsychosis and meditation though I disagree on some of the details.


  14. EJ,
    Oh, yes, before I forget again: “including “Right Thought,” i.e., philosophy” – that should be ‘including “Right Thought,” *e.g.*, philosophy.’

    Oh no! I was nodding my head in hearty agreement when I read your original phrase, thinking I might have misunderstood Buddhism and should start to take it seriously 🙂 Oh well!

    I suspect your original phrase reflected your real thinking and you are modifying it to toe the party line 🙂


  15. EJ,
    But it doesn’t help our young to beat them over the head with it, or chastise them if they don’t ‘get it’ somehow,

    Poetry is not alone in this. Our recalcitrant, spoon-fed, self absorbed youngsters shy away from anything that takes effort at understanding. Mathematics comes to mind as well as many other subjects. I suspect education would die if we followed your advise.

    I am so grateful I was beaten over the head and chastised until I got it.


  16. EJ,
    It is language. It is both as constrained and as useful as any language practice.

    It is language of a very special kind that is not as constrained as other language practices are, and is useful in a special way that no other language practice evidences. It has evocative and expressive power that no other language practice possesses.


  17. EJ,
    Can you answer the question that I posed in my original comment?

    Let’s look at the problem from the other point of view. If I, for the sake of argument, grant your claim that my self is not unified, then what would my experience be if my self became unified? How would my experience of life be different?


  18. EJ,
    Please don’t blame the Buddha for any of my lapses here!

    I find your disclaimer so interesting. Buddhists, for all their disavowal of theism/deism/pantheism/panentheism, cling implicitly to the concept. It permeates their language in subtle ways.


  19. labnut,
    “f I, for the sake of argument, grant your claim that my self is not unified, then what would my experience be if my self became unified? How would my experience of life be different?“”
    You write as if a unified self and a disunified self are the only choices we have.

    To put very briefly, remembering the format here, as I understand it, the Self is the product of the process by which consciousness localizes and unifies its experiences and responses so that they are perceived as a whole rather than a series of unrelated incidents and actions. This is inevitable as we are raised socially, and useful in continuing to live socially. But it comes with burdens and costs.

    A ‘disunified’ self, such as we see in individuals suffering certain mental illnesses, is the result, through either extremely bad parenting, or a neuro-chemical dysfunction in the brain, of consciousness attempting to reconfigure the localization/unification process in maladaptive ways, leading to repeated failure, leading to repeated reconfiguration, and so on.

    There is however the possibility, through such practices as meditation, of achieving consciousness without self. The localization is simply what is here, the unification is simply what is now.

    That, at any rate, is the hope, and I know it to be achievable.


  20. 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.

    By examination and adaptation of one’s internal mental state one can endure suffering, one can become habituated to it, or one can become accepting of it. But does this truly alleviate suffering?

    Whose suffering does it alleviate? Mine? Or that of other people?

    The answer to this question goes to the essential difference between Buddhism and Christianity.


  21. labnut,
    “the essential difference between Buddhism and Christianity” – I don’t think the matter reducible to this point; “Whose suffering does it alleviate? Mine? Or that of other people?” is actually quite a complicated question for both ways of looking at the world. But let’s not have that discussion right now, since strictly speaking it’s off-topic.

    (If we ever do have that conversation, please remember that I was raised in the Catholic Church and studied its theology for years before I became a Buddhist.)


  22. “the essential difference between Buddhism and Christianity” – I don’t think the matter reducible to this point; “Whose suffering does it alleviate? Mine? Or that of other people?”

    The problem has many dimensions but this is one of the key dimensions by which one can contrast Buddhism and Christianity.

    But let’s not have that discussion right now, since strictly speaking it’s off-topic.

    It was after all in your opening sentence but I concede that as the author you get to rule on it 🙂


  23. Lord Buddha, in the opinion of Dr. Ambedkar, faced a thoroughly modern dilemma. By birth he was a member of the Sangha (Ecclessia) of a small aristocratic Republic menaced by a more powerful monarch, which had resolved to fight a doomed battle to protect its access to river water and thus maintain its relative prosperity. Buddha’s ‘suffering self’ was a thymotic self- bound up to a warrior band about to engage in a suicidal struggle.

    Lord Buddha didn’t want to fight but he also didn’t want to endanger his own people in any way by undermining their social cohesion. More particularly, he wished to reassure them that he wasn’t handing a propaganda victory to the enemy by appearing to pursue the soteriological benefit of his own private self and gaining Enlightenment for himself alone (pratyeka Buddhahood). In that case, the enemy would say ‘the Sakyas were once a virile warrior race. However, their day is done on this earth of ours. The best of them is preparing a high seat for himself in the next world. We shall slaughter the remnants unless they follow his example.’

    Buddha resolved his dilemma by creating a new type of ‘Sangha’- one which open to all regardless of gender or ‘caste’. The suffering thymotic or hedonic self could take refuge in this Assembly and be cured of its distemper by a new type of Yoga founded upon the gaining of like-hearted peers.

    This had happened before. The Indo-Aryan tribes had previously held Assemblies where poets, on behalf of their patrons, had done exactly what Poe does in this poem- at least, that was the then current theory of how the Hindu Vedas were compiled. An inspired poet, meditating upon the balance of Natural forces, celebrated ‘Rta’- cosmic harmony as securely based upon the cataclysmic discord of the thundering heavens- uttered mantic ‘mantras’ which were woven together in the musical medley of the Sama (Psalms) which Lord Krishna incarnates in the Gita.

    Thymotic Societies face the problem of unbridled hubris and tragic hamartia- costly wars fought over trivial insults- and their savage exultations were but briefly punctuated a prolonged bardic diminuendo recounting ‘sad stories about the death of kings’. One way forward was for Kings to place a limit upon themselves- to bind themselves by a vow- in Sanskrit the word is Vrta and is obviously related to Rta (cosmic order). If the King’s vow is to uphold procedural Justice, then there is a clear relationship between Vrta and Rta. More generally any rule bound vocation is a Vrta. One can have division of labour and gains from trade if people stick to their Vrta.
    The canonical example is the ‘Vyadha Gita’ where a butcher (actually a wealthy meat distributor) is depicted as having gained the highest Upanishadic wisdom while living luxuriously and without regard to the strictures of the priests or the commands of Kings. Interestingly, in the companion piece to the Vyadha Gita, the Just King is obliged to learn Statistical Game Theory (i.e. something like modern Social Choice theory) in order to overcome his ‘vishada’ (aboulia arising out of hamartia). In other words, Lord Buddha lived at a time and place where something like Victorian Bourgeoisie morality seemed a way out of incessant thymotic strife.

    It may seem peculiar that Dr. Ambedkar- who bitterly resented the discrimination he experienced in India, not America or London, on account of his ‘untouchable’ status- should have converted to Buddhism. After all, it reinforced or made normative, the practice of untouchability in faraway countries like Japan. Indeed, prior to its advent, individual ‘pariahs’ could rise in status either as a result of the King’s command or by some extraordinary action of their own- e.g. Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, who is the most revered of Sages because of his composition of the Ramayana.

    The truth is Dr. Ambedkar- unlike Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru- was a truly modern intellectual as well as a courageous warrior for Social Justice and the Commonweal. He had PhDs in Economics from Columbia and the LSE and had himself contributed to Sociology and Anthropology. His choice of the time and method of his conversion to Buddhism featured something our current Social Science has no way to discriminate- viz. ‘kairos’ (Timeliness- in Sanskrit kshana sampatti as part of upaya kaushalya).

    There is a hidden poetry in both the Buddha’s didactic utterances and Ambedkar’s polemical writing which their disciples can’t convey because of our modern inability to marry parrhesia with kairos- i.e. to speak truth to power in a timely and effective manner. The poet’s ‘vrta’ (vow or vocation) is to uphold ‘Rta’ not by the incessant babble of virtue or virtuosity signalling but, on the contrary, by discerning the rythym to cosmic dissolution (pralaya) and founding a dialogic that ascends as its counterpoint.

    Ambedkar rebelled against the abstractions offered by Gandhi, Nehru and the Marxists. These upper caste men were content with a reified view of their own ‘vrtas’ and thus a boon to a bureaucratic simulacrum of ‘Rta’ which the suffering masses experienced as a cruel joke.

    Nehru, upon whose prose was the impress of Pater and whose taste in Urdu poetry was hopelessly vulgar, might well agree that-

    ‘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.’

    Indeed he wrote something along these lines himself.

    No doubt, his successors- he has two great-grandsons, one a poet, the other a disciple of Amartya Sen, who belong to rival parties in India today- would also sagely nod their head at the following as well-

    ‘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.’

    The culmination of Bourgeoise, anti Thymotic culture, did allow Modernity to read itself in poetry- witness Prufrock- but the blood boltered shambles of Ypres and Passchendale put paid to that project. Ambedkar, first at Columbia, and then at the LSE during this period, understood the nature of the change in the Verstehen of the Social Sciences. He created, at least for his own people, a new type of Buddhism founded upon a new type of Metanoia alert enough and agile enough to seize the Kairos of our changed Times by the forelock.

    No doubt he failed- all political careers end in failure- yet he founded a ‘vrta’ consonant with our ever dissolving ‘Rta’- and thus his fate- as the totem of corrupt politicians and academic careerists- is poetic nonetheless

    All seek to, by the forelock, seize, what, as Fortuna, is yet miscalled
    Whose occiput is, by alopecia’s disease, a grim Golgotha bald
    For still must Kairos giddily scoot as Metanoia lamely lags
    So La Douleur Exquise recruit under falser and falser flags


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