The Ode And Deconstruction

There is often a predictable correspondence between the genres or types of the Romantic poem and its deployment of poetic form. The narrative poem will generally involve the use of the ballad, the stanza or blank verse. The accumulative, consecutive nature of these forms can accommodate and stabilise the relationship between the speaking presence and the pre-linguistic spatiotemporal nature of the reported events. The individual line or the stanzaic unit will not necessarily parallel the progress of syntax, but their predictable, repetitive function will at least establish a shared emphasis upon the forward movement of the syntagm through both dimensions of the double pattern. With the poem which does not foreground a series of events and causal circumstances, and which addresses issues whose relation to one another are determined more by their emotional or intellectual impression upon the speaker, we are more likely to encounter the ode. There are of course exceptions to this generalisation: Wordsworth used blank verse both for his more contemplative, introspective pieces such as Tintern Abbey' and The Prelude and in rural narratives such as 'The Brothers' and 'Michael', but one should note that in the latter he maintains the eighteenth-century tradition of coordinating syntax with verse design and consequently diffuses any tension between text, speaker and event. Coleridge, in Christabel, uses an accentual rather than an accentual—syllabic form and largely succeeds in drawing attention to the spoken immediacy of the story rather than its textual enclosure (we should also note that Christabel bears an ironic resemblance to the ode in that it is a deliberately unfinished narrative). But it is the ode that prevails as the most discussed and widely celebrated vehicle for the Romantic programme of recording and reconciling individual experience, perception and mediation. The reason for this is that the ode, at least in its post-classical form, was the only alternative to blank verse in its allowance of flexibility for both elements of the double pattern. It at once encodes, and often promotes, the foregrounding of linguistic materiality in metre, rhyme and sound pattern, yet permits a far broader and less predictable range of interactions between syntactic and poetic structures than would blank verse, the couplet or the stanza. The largely predictable form of the classical Pindaric or Horatian ode had, since the sixteenth century, been overridden by deviations that were largely a consequence of the greater prominence of accentual and sound-correspondence patterns in English verse, so that by the time Wordsworth wrote the 'Immortality Ode' it was acceptable to alternate line length and rhyme scheme almost at random (see Shuster, 1940). As a consequence the sliding scale between the cognitive and the conventional elements of the double pattern becomes invalid as a means of analysing the poem as a whole: the relation between the two elements will change at unpredictable, localised points throughout the entire structure. In short, the ode, particularly the irregular ode, is able to promote the illusion of the speaking presence as both in command of the subject matter and as responsive to the vagaries of pre-linguistic experience and perception.

Consider the opening strophe of Wordsworth's 'Immortality Ode'.

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,

The earth, and every common sight,

To me did seem

Apparelled in celestial light,

The glory and the freshness of a dream.

It is not now as it hath been of yore;

Turn wheresoe'er I may,

By night or day,

The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The utterance at one level appears to be improvised and unconstrained by predetermined structures. The verb phrase 'to me did seem' is pitched between the itemised description of natural objects and the more introspective, subjective semantics of 'celestial light', 'glory', 'freshness', 'dream'. But at the same time the entire syntactic unit operates within a symmetrical rhyme scheme (a b a b a). We are never certain whether the shortening and opening of line lengths delimits or responds to the irregular and apparently improvised syntactic structure. One consequence of such uncertain relations between the two elements of the double pattern is an unsettling of the readers' cognitive and interpretive faculties. The much debated problem of whether a poem's syntactic or formal features should dominate the process of naturalisation is here thrown into an even more chaotic cycle of response and interpretation. When, in an ode, we encounter such textual foregroundings as stress reversal or enjambment our response is limited by the fact that there is no regular and predictable pattern of form and syntax against which such 'deviations' can be counterpointed. The Romantic taste for the ode encompasses the uneasy relationship between their ex cathedra statements on language and pre-linguistic experience and the manifestation of this polarity in verse, because in freeing syntax from the repetitive formulae of line length and stanzaic rhyme scheme the ode sets up a continuous and unpredictable tension between the referential function of language and its materiality. Consider the opening strophe of Keats's 'Ode to Psyche'.

O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers, wrung By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear, And pardon that thy secrets should be sung Even into thine own soft-conched ear: Surely I dreamt today, or did I see

The winged Psyche with awakened eyes? I wandered in a forest thoughtlessly, And, on the sudden, fainting with surprise, Saw two fair creatures, couched side by side In deepest grass, beneath the whispering roof Of leaves and trembled blossoms, where there ran A brooklet, scarce espied:

The deictics of this passage are entirely self-referential. The situation of the utterance is the speaker's consciousness: he moves from an address to the goddess Psyche through an uncertain recollection of his dream to a rural setting that resembles Eden and which may or may not be connected with the dream. We are not prompted to ask where or even who the speaker is at this particular moment of mediation. In an important sense this, like many other Romantic odes, resembles the modernist technique of interior monologue or stream of consciousness. Language and consciousness, rather than any spatio-temporal relation between language and events, control the syntactic and semantic pattern. Its most obvious difference from the interior monologue is its adherence to the conventions of poetic syntax, metre and sound pattern. As a consequence the addresser-addressee relationship is focused less upon the imagined situation of the speech act and far more upon the internalised patterns of cultural and referential codes and poetic devices. Indeed, in this instance the poetic function effectively governs and marginalises its referential and contextual counterparts. Any attempt to follow the ideational pattern of the Goddess invoked, the dream and the Edenic images is countered by a persistent interweaving of the material functions of language. The relation between the irregular accentual-syllabic pattern, the rhyme scheme and the syntax is further complicated by continuous foregrounding of aspirates and fricatives, all founded upon the consonant 's' (at least two in each line). This moves the text away from an adherence to formal pattern for its own sake and toward a suggested relation between the material and referential functions of its language. In effect the opening consonant of 'Psyche' occurs continuously within the opening strophe and is maintained, with not quite such persistent emphasis, throughout the poem. It would be wrong here to invoke Jakobson and Wimsatt's formula for the semantic-phonemic correspondence of rhyme words because there is no particular semantic or syntactic relationship between secrets, see, soft, creatures, leaves, espied. Hearing the poem we are left with the impression that it gives as much attention to echoes of the signifier 'Psyche' within the enclosed sphere of linguistic materiality as it does to the function of the signified goddess in the mind and the cultural experience of the speaker.

We should now turn to an issue that has been widely discussed in recent debates on language and literature: why do the so-called poststructuralist/deconstructionist critics find Romantic poetry so fruitful in their interpretive encounters? A number of summaries should precede our discussion. Poststructuralism and deconstruction are notoriously resistant to abstract summation, but it is generally agreed that they draw upon Saussure's model of language as an enclosed differential sign system and extend the implications of this thesis in ways that had not been fully considered in literary criticism and linguistics before the mid-1960s. If, as Saussure argued, it is the difference between linguistic signs themselves that enables us to posit and stabilise the relation between constituents of the prelinguistic continuum of existence, then it could be argued that language does not reflect or mediate reality (contra the premise upon which both Romanticism and traditional linguistics and philosophy is grounded); rather that language constitutes and determines reality both for individuals and for collective ideological-societal groups. Christopher Norris in The Deconstructive Turn (1983) offers an economic summary of the Romantic-poststructuralist relationship:

Once the critic despairs—as despair he must—of attaining the 'unmediated vision', the unimpeded merging of mind and nature held out by the Romantic metaphor, he is then set free to explore the endless complexities of textual meaning and configuration (31).

So, the sense of doubt that has attended academic literary criticism regarding its apparent inability to define a method that brings about some form of closure between the textual play of literature, particularly poetry, and its specific meaning is, in its encounters with the Romantics, comfortably accommodated by the latter's similarly unsuccessful attempts to fuse, language and reality, mind and object, such that all extraneous detail falls away in the moment of achieved communion. Where the Romantics typically overreach themselves—in aiming for a pure unmediated vision, a perfect correspondence between idea, language and reality— their failure is a heightened and dramatized version of the problems which beset all thought.

The eminent US deconstructionists—de Man, Hartman, Hillis-Miller, Bloom—found in the Romantics a means of justifying the notoriously uncertain role and function of literary studies. Literature consciously engages with and foregrounds the illusion that there is or can be any natural or unitary relation between sign and referent, language and reality. Therefore literature, more than any other discourse, involves us in the honest, if somewhat tragic, awareness that language can only ever address or mediate language. The validity of this claim is still open to question, but one issue that has been consistently marginalised in the ongoing debate is Romanticism's tendency in its use of poetic form to foreground the materiality, the non-signifying palpability, of language.

Norris's essay focuses upon a text that represents the archetype of Romantic overreaching, Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan'. For a number of reasons this poem (in the ode form) is regarded as a self-deconstructing text. It is largely impossible to encounter a published version of the poem without also encountering Coleridge's prose description of its sources and its compositional genesis: he claims that it is the record of a probably opium-induced dream, 'in which all the images rose up before him as things with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort'. On awakening he wrote these down. This statement is significant, firstly, because it economically summarises the entire Romantic programme: his ratiocinative and linguistic resources have been transformed into a vehicle for communicative transparency. Secondly it engages with the post-Saussurian concepts of sign and referent, signifier and signified. Derrida claims that the differential system of arbitrary signs involves 'syntheses and referrals that prevent there from being at any moment or in any way a simple element that is present in and of itself and refers only to itself (Positions, 26). Coleridge claims to have achieved exactly this transparent unity of sign, presence and reference. The most famous attempt to resolve this conundrum occurred, half a pentury before deconstruction had been heard of, in John Livingstone Lowes's The Road to Xanadu (1927). This masterpiece of scholarly source-hunting attempts to trace each of the poem's references to mysticism and middle-Eastern culture back through

Coleridge's own reading and experience. As such it acknowledges that, as in Keats's 'Ode to Psyche', our attempts to relate the deictics of the text to a particular situation of the utterance confront us with two alternatives. We can, like Lowes, effectively relocate the text as a function of a much broader survey of its biographical, historical and cultural contexts (and this, as we have seen, is an option that also confronts superreaders of Wordsworth's ballads and Blake's songs). Or we can consider the extent to which the text, again like Keats's ode, replaces deictics with poetics. Once more we find ourselves with a potential for conflict between the literary scholar and the linguist, and in the case of 'Kubla Khan' the latter will hold the centre ground.

The poem makes use of a number of proper names from classical and middle-Eastern mythology (Kubla Khan, Alph, Xanadu, Mount Abora) and immediate locative references to unnamed rivers, chasms, fountains, a pleasure dome, an Abyssinian maid, all witnessed by the poet himself ('In a vision once I saw'). But any attempt to coordinate these as functions of a particular contextually determined speech act would have to rely upon Lowes's programme of biographical source hunting. If we focus upon the poem itself our attention is drawn away from the cultural, semantic or circumstantial designation of each sign and deictic signal and toward their relation to one another as functions of an enclosed, self-referential pattern of sound, syntax and semantics.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea.

It is virtually impossible to isolate a single word or syllable that is not linked phonetically with at least two others: Xanadu, did, dome, decree, Down; stately, sacred, sunless, sea; Kubla Khan, decree, sacred, caverns. Such a listing could be extended and supplemented by an almost infinite series of permutations in which alliteration connects with stress pattern, semantic foregrounding, syntactic structure and rhyme scheme. The effect of this complex interrelation between the material and the signifying dimensions of language creates two problems for the reader. Firstly it is largely impossible to justify the selection of a particular series of formal, semantic or syntactic correspondences as the basis for a naturalisation of the poem. Our choice to foreground or to exclude certain elements can never be founded upon any reliable invocation of the context of this speech act. And a reading that attempted to take every element of the double pattern into account would move us beyond Riffaterre's human superreader to the computer printout. Secondly we find that there is a self-deconstructive relation between Coleridge's claim to have produced a transparent record of his dream experience and the undeniable fact that the text does, in Derrida's words, 'prevent there from being at any moment or in any way a simple element that is present in and of itself and refers only to itself. Derrida refers chiefly to the differential nature of syntactic and semantic designation, but here this self-contained system is supplemented by an equally complex fabric of relations between material signs. It is impossible to fully detach the intense correspondences between the sound patterns from what should be the more stable undertow of 'normal' syntactic and semantic correspondences.

Hence we either attempt to naturalise the poem by effectively forgetting its intrinsic signifying function (Lowes), or we acknowledge that any attempt to demystify this function and translate it into the metalanguage of paraphrase and closure will be continuously thwarted. For modern criticism the most notorious examples of Romantic textual foregrounding occur in the work of Shelley. His reputation as a poetic dilettante was established in dismissive judgements by Lamb, Carlyle and Arnold and was sustained with merciless precision by the textual analysts of the New Criticism (T.S. Eliot, F.R.Leavis, Donald Davie and Allen Tate included). The most common complaint is that his poems lack textual cohesion. Tate and Leavis draw attention to how a pattern of images or a metaphoric chain might begin with a specific noun or verb phrase but be followed by such a proliferation of wild and often discordant paradigms drawn from an apparently limitless frame of reference that any certain awareness of who is talking about what is effectively disrupted. And in an important sense Shelley could be regarded as the heir to the textual surrealism of Blake's Songs. Leavis (1949) comments on the following stanzas from the 'Ode to the West Wind',

Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky's commotion, Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed, Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean, Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread On the blue surface of thine aery surge, Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge

Of the horizon to the zenith's height,

The locks of the approaching storm.

In what way, asks Leavis, are the 'Loose clouds' like 'decaying leaves' and how can the 'Heaven and Ocean' be comprised of 'tangled boughs'? How can 'clouds' be 'shed' and how can the 'blue surface' of the sky 'surge' (346)? Leavis concludes that Shelley suffered from a 'weak grasp upon the actual', which, roughly translated, means that his shifts between the paradigmatic and syntagmatic elements have detached his language from any regular or reliable correspondence with perceived reality.

In the context of normative and functional linguistics Leavis has a valid case, but throughout his reading (and in Allen Tate's similar analyses) he conveniently forgets that the double pattern, as Jakobson was later to argue, removes language from its normal structural and functional mode. What Shelley does is effectively to transfer the cohesive, consecutive function of the text from the syntactic to the poetic sphere—and we will find similar shifts in the poetry of Hopkins, Eliot, and Dylan Thomas. The phonetic correspondences between whose, stream, sky's, loose clouds, earth's, leaves, shed, shook, boughs and Ocean effectively demolish Levin's demarcation between the syntactic—semantic function as cognitive and the poetic as conventional (see Chapter 1 pp. 15-16). Our cognitive resources are drawn as much to the material relation between these linguistic units as they are to their syntactic-semantic correspondences. Leavis partially acknowledges this by stating that the 'sweeping movement' and the 'plangency' of the verse are so 'potent' that we do not ask 'the obvious questions' (346). By 'obvious questions' he means the type of analytic uncertainties that might attend our reading of a non-literary text, but he did not consider the attendant question of how, when naturalising the text, we might balance the 'potency' of the verse (its poetic function) against our 'obvious questions' (its referential function). He did not do so because criticism and textual analysis did not (and probably still do not) possess sufficient resources to enable the reader to stabilise the tension between poetry's foregrounding of the material constituents of language and our normative, ratiocinative isolation of specific meanings.

To deal with this problem we should begin with a comparison between Shelley's and Coleridge's deployment of textual cohesion on the one hand, and Pope's on the other. The former effectively disrupt the Augustan programme of a balanced and parallel relation between the syntactic-semantic and the purely poetic dimension of the text and cause a continuous, and from the reader's perspective disorientating, pattern of interactions. Syntactic-semantic cohesion is not entirely disrupted but we find ourselves unable to move from the process of documenting the patterns created by alliteration, rhyme scheme and metrical foregrounding to any certain and productive model of signification. Consider how this shift of emphasis relates to the conventional programme of linguistic analysis. The poetic element of the double pattern is generally categorised within the broader study of phonetics. 'Phonetics is the branch of linguistics concerned with the physiological and acoustic bases of speech, and with such questions of how speech sounds are produced and perceived' (Traugott and Pratt, 51). Phonetics is essentially the study of linguistic material, and as such it gives as much attention to the physical origins of these phenomena as it does to their relationship with the lexical, semantic and syntactic production of meaning. The concept of phonetics as in some way isolated from the systematic complexities through which language generates meaning is important in our understanding of why the Romantics were drawn so regularly to the construction of self-contained patterns of sound. As we have seen, such patterns effectively work against the protocols of naturalisation and this may well have been an important element of the poet's intention. To naturalise a poetic text is to strip it of those features that constitute the poetic, and to effectively construct a metatext involving the addressee in the imagined situation of the utterance and its broader cultural, stylistic and social contexts (see Chapter 1, pp. 17-21). With poems such as Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan', Keats's 'Ode to Psyche' and Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind', the dense fabric of sound patterns ensures that the text is largely detached from inferred or direct correspondences with prelinguistic reality. To understand why the Romantics, whose programme was founded upon the mediation of pre-linguistic continua, might betray themselves into such gestures, we should return to the deconstructive analyses of speech and writing. Derrida:

The privilege of the phone does not depend upon a choice that might have been avoided. It corresponds to a moment of the system (let us say, of the "life" or "history" or of "being-as-self-relationship"). The system of "hearing/understanding-

oneself-speak" [s'entendre parler] through the phonic substance—which presents itself as a non-exterior, non-worldly and therefore non-empirical or non-contingent signifier—has necessarily dominated the history of the world during an entire epoch, and has even produced the idea of the world, the idea of world-origin, arising from the difference between the worldly and the non-worldly, the outside and the inside, ideality and non-ideality, universal and nonuniversal, transcendental and empirical, etc.

(Of Grammatology, 1977, 7-8)

By foregrounding the 'phone' these poets present their texts as pure moments of speech where the phonic substance seems to have isolated itself from the parasitic contingencies of other texts and extra-textual circumstances. It becomes impossible to detach the paraphrasable, referential meaning of each poem from its sound patterns—and sound patterns to be properly appreciated demand speech and presence. Hence we encounter manifestations of Derrida's disclosure of 's'entendre parler' as a self-deceiving illusion: speech and hearing guarantee presence and presence guarantees sincerity, truth and meaning. The deconstructive paradox exists in the fact that in order to transcend the deterministic function of the linguistic and interpretive system each poem has become in itself an isolated self-referential construct of language. In shifting the balance of the double pattern away from the intelligible toward the sensible dimension of language these poets effectively subvert their shared objective of preserving a pre-linguistic experience: the speaker effectively surrenders to the spoken text.

Was this article helpful?

+1 0

Post a comment