Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances

Been a while since a poetry post. I clearly miss my degree too much. Enjoy the pretty poem if the analysis is too self-indulgent!

Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances

Of the terrible doubt of appearances,
Of the uncertainty after all, that we may be deluded,
That may-be reliance and hope are but speculations after all,
That may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful fable only,
May-be the things I perceive, the animals, plants, men, hills, shining and flowing waters,
The skies of day and night, colors, densities, forms, may-be these are (as doubtless they are) only apparitions, and the real something has yet to be known,
(How often they dart out of themselves as if to confound me and mock me!
How often I think neither I know, nor any man knows, aught of them,)
May-be seeming to me what they are (as doubtless they indeed but seem) as from my present point of view, and might prove (as of course they would) nought of what they appear, or nought anyhow, from entirely changed points of view;
To me these and the like of these are curiosly answer'd by my lovers, my dear friends,
When he whom I love travels with me or sits a long while holding me by the hand,
When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that words and reason hold not, surround us and pervade us,
Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom, I am silent, I require nothing further,
I cannot answer the question of appearances or that of identity beyond the grave,
But I walk or sit indifferent, I am satisfied,
He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.

Walt Whitman, from Calamus (1860)

this is J. K. Rowling's favourite poem. That article says it's in Leaves of Grass but my collection clearly says Calamus so I went with that. And well she might pick it as a favourite. I don't know much Whitman and bookmarked this to read after someone mentioned it on Twitter. If someone mentions something as a favourite then I'm usually curious to see why, especially when it's not something I know a great deal about. Whitman was too American to feature on my course at university and I haven't really found a good way in yet.

This poem is fantastic. If you just read it for sense, you get the fact that the speaker finds the world confusing, but that it's all ok when he has a friend, a lover, with him. So far, so good. I'm not sure that it's the sort of thing the British Romantics were much into, though it's hard to say. The style is so different from that of, say, Tennyson who was writing at the same time, or of Wordsworth who was a little earlier. I don't recall this sense of vulnerability in Tennyson or Wordsworth, or even this much positivity for much of the time. Admittedly, I found both of them too wet and self-conscious and frankly emo to persuade myself to study them too long so I will freely accept correction on that subject. I love that last line though. When I first read it, I thought 'wedding poem' because of that fantastic sentiment there, though it would have to be perfectly read to convey the sense of it to anyone just listening and not following it along on paper. All the huge questions of existence are resolved by the presence of another and by the fact that they are there with you. What better summing up of a true relationship can there be? It's wedding season at Great St Mary's again, and I shall await someone choosing something other than 1 Corinthians 13 probably in vain...

Wikipedia suggests that Whitman might be regarded as the father of blank verse - look at the line length in the poem and the lack of strong rhythmic, rhyming or even strong structural devices. It's real blank verse in that sense, but far from prose because of the conscious syntax and even type-setting. The hyphenation of 'may-be' all the way through apart from the first instance seems unlikely to be a mere whimsy of the period or of the later editor. Again, I haven't studied Whitman or American writing of this period, so it's possibly that 'may-be' was habitually hyphenated, but even if it was I like that it forces you to take more time over the phrase - both when reading to oneself or out loud. 'Maybe' is synonymous with 'might' in modern parlance. The way we use and understand the word today doesn't emphasise the permissive element in the word 'may'. Today's use seems to allow us to sit back and let things happen. The quick way that we throw the word about means that we never stop to savour the fact that there are several outcomes to something. This construction is more conscious of the fact that something may be or may not be. Whitman achieves what I have there with six words and italics in two words an a hyphen, and then intensifies the uncertainty by repeating it through the poem. Suddenly, it is more important to us that things have more than one possible outcome and that the speaker and we as readers are more uncomfortable about that. This level of confusion and concern is important because it heightens the relief we feel with the speaker when we discover that love and friendship are the things required for peace.

But the construction of uncertainty doesn't end with 'may-be' - he uses the phrase in conjunction with 'doubtless', 'may-be these are (as doubtless they are) only apparitions'. What are we supposed to make of that? Are they apparitions? The juxtaposition of the certainty and the uncertainty only makes our understanding even more slippery. And their are other things, like beginning the poem in the middle of a sentence that is never complete. In fact, all four of the first four lines are dependent clauses without an independent to stand with. They are all missing bits, and we are wrong-footed from the outset. The first nine lines proper of the poem are long run-ons, with interruptions in parentheses. They are hard to follow and one has to read them several times in order to unravel which clauses might go with which. The word 'nought' appears where one might expect 'naught' - the two words are similar but they don't mean the same. How does one resolve it? I went to read the poem in other locations to check that they were printed right. 'Nought' is a number; 'naught' is nothing. We don't normally draw a line between the two that says they are the same thing. ARE they the same thing? It opens more questions.

The second part of the poem is clear. The clauses are easily resolved into sentences albeit still long and complex ones that make sense and follow through, in contrast to the first part. There are no interruptions and no 'may-bes'. Clarity exists in the structure as well as in the sense of the words. It is as though the presence of the friend resolves the potentially complex syntax as well as the 'big questions'. It is all this that makes this poetry not blank verse. The emotional journey of the poem is greatly intensified by the poet's manipulation of our ability to comprehend it. I love it. It's so clever and so well done, and the sentiment is a beautiful one - for all it's a fairly twee resolution of the 'existential angst' theme that so much poetry relies on.

1 comment:

  1. This is free verse, not blank verse :)