Beyond Reason And Credibility

I have dealt in some detail with two types of linguistic absurdity (the third type mentioned, violation of selection restrictions, will be more fully illustrated in the next chapter), and may now finish with some general remarks on the element of absurdity and illogicality in poetry. So important does this element seem to be that a recent literary theorist, Wayne Shu-maker, has devoted a book to the subject, attempting to trace by its means the primitive psychological and anthropological sources of literature.7 A modern poet, Robin Skelton,8 has commented on the incredibility or mar-vellousness of events and worlds projected by the poetic imagination. He points out, for example, the 'miracle' of fire burning under water described in the following stanza:

In what distant deeps or skies

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand dare seize the fire?

[Blake, 'The Tyger', Songs of Experience]

In this respect the poet seems to aspire some way towards the condition of the religious mystic: the state in which the relation between 'reality' and 'imagination' is reversed, the imaginary becoming more real than the apparent. This is implied in Wallace Stevens's remark that 'metaphor creates a new reality from which the original appears to be unreal'.9 When we come to anatomize metaphor in the next chapter, we shall not lose sight of this mysterious actuality of the metaphorical experience.

Examples for discussion

Discuss the irrational element of poetry with detailed reference to the following:

1.1 travel'd thro' a land of men, A land of men and women too, And heard and saw such dreadful things As cold earth-wanderers never knew.

For there the babe is born in joy That was begotten in dire woe; Just as we reap in joy the fruit Which we in bitter tears did sow.

And if the babe is born a boy He's given to a woman old, Who nails him down upon a rock, Catches his shrieks in cups of gold.

She binds iron thorns around his head, She pierces both his hands and feet, She cuts his heart out at his side To make it feel both cold and heat.

Her fingers number every nerve, Just as a miser counts his gold; She lives upon his shrieks and cries, And she grows young as he grows old.

Till he becomes a bleeding youth, And she becomes a virgin bright; Then he rends up his manacles And binds her down for his delight.

He plants himself in all her nerves, Just as a husbandman his mould; And she becomes his dwelling-place And garden fruitful seventy-fold.

[Blake, from 'The Mental Traveller', Songs of Experience]

2. Metaphors of a Magnifico Twenty men crossing a bridge, Into a village,

Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges, Into twenty villages, Or one man

Crossing a single bridge into a village.

This is an old song

That will not declare itself...

Twenty men crossing a bridge,

Into a village,

Twenty men crossing a bridge Into a village.

That will not declare itself, Yet is certain as meaning ...

The boots of the men clump On the boards of the bridge. The first white wall of the village Rises through the fruit-trees. Of what was it I was thinking? So the meaning escapes.

The first white wall of the village ... The fruit trees ...

[Wallace Stevens]

3. Pyramus and Thisbe

Two, by themselves, each other, love and fear Slain, cruel friends, by parting have join'd here.

[Donne, Epigrams]


1 The example is from s. ullmann, Semantics: An Introduction to the Science of Meaning, Oxford, 1962, 144.

3 b. groom, The Diction of Poetry from Spenser to Bridges, Toronto, 1955, 34.

5 g. tillotson, ' Eighteenth Century Poetic Diction', Essays and Studies, 25 (1939), 77-80.

7 w. shumaker, Literature and the Irrational, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., i960.

8 r. skelton, Poetry (Teach Yourself Books), London, 1963, 61.

9 w. stevens, 'Adagia', Opus Posthumous, New York. 1957, 169.

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