About a hundred years ago, Gerard Manley Hopkins defined the study of poetry or poetics (by which he meant, as we do, the study of verbal art in all its forms and modes) as a “baby science,” which he proposed to study in a precise and scientific way or, as he put it, with a “microscope and dissecting knife” (106). Although the study of verbal art is at least as old as the study of the other sciences of man, the recent proliferation of works on poetics testifies to its perennial versatility and vitality.1.
What seems to be the distinctive feature of twentieth century poetics is that it has set up its tent under the double banner of structuralism and linguistics. As Piaget has observed, the term “structuralism” has come to hold for our century the same kind of fascination that words like “organism,” “system,” “determinism,” or “causality” held for other periods (Bastide: 93). In the simplest terms, structuralism implies the quest for the intrinsic behind the extrinsic, the obligatory behind the contingent, and the invariant behind the variant. However, the various schools of structuralist poetics, like linguistics itself, have assigned to these qualities the most diverse interpretations, depending on differences in philosophical outlook, local traditions and fashions, and the pressure of neighboring disciplines.
The Russian Formalists, the keenest students of literary theory some fifty years ago, identified the search for the invariant in literature with the separation of the intrinsic features of literature (what they called its “literariness”) from its sociological, ideological, emotional, or referential functions and causes. Thereby they hoped to convert the study of literature into an autonomous and nomothetic science.
The Formalist program may be seen (and was seen by them) as a part of a more general movement that was taking place at the same time in a number of disciplines, but especially in art history and linguistics, the two fields that were most closely related to the study of verbal art. In art history the new lines of investigation were drawn by Wölfflin, who proposed to replace the study of subject matter and of the great monuments of the past with that of pure visual forms treated as a system of opposed, historically alternating values. In linguistics it was above all Ferdinand de Saussure who insisted on the autonomy of linguistics as a science “en elle-même et pour elle-même,” and who established this autonomy by drawing a sharp distinction between langue and parole, i.e., by treating language as a formal system of relations apart from its material realizations. Language, wrote Saussure, is “form, not substance.”
These developments coincided at the turn of the century with the emergence of a new, experimental poetry, remarkable in its scope and variety. By renouncing its subservience to extra-literary causes, the new poetry set as its aim the construction of “pure,” inner-directed and tightly organized forms that would, in the words of Edgar Allan Poe, have the precision of “a mathematical formula” and that would resort to language for its invention and inspiration. “Grammar, dry grammar,” wrote Baudelaire, “becomes the magic of evocation,” while Mallarmé advised his friend Degas that “it is not with ideas that one makes a poem, but with words” (Valéry, 1958: 63). Combined with this effort was a distrust of language as a vehicle of meaning (misinterpreted by a long linguistic tradition as the equivalent of referential meaning) and an attempt to assimilate poetry to non-representational art. “Pure poetry,” according to Valéry, “need not carry any communicable meaning but should resemble dance and magic formulas.” He envied the musician the purity of his art and exhorted the poet “to draw a pure, ideal voice from practical and soiled language, a maid of all work” (1958: 81).
The modern poets-turned-theoreticians thus became the true founders of modern theoretical poetics which sought to define the general characteristics of verbal art by overcoming the one-sided historicism of the nineteenth-century approach to literature which had dominated the scene since Herder’s declaration that “no theory of the beautiful is possible without history” (Wellek: 2).
The views of several generations of poets (Poe, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Belyj, Pound, Valéry), however, gave a particular direction to the further development of poetics. To begin with, they were intended to lend theoretical dignity to the kind of art they themselves were producing but were ill-fitted to forms of art based on different principles (e.g., realistic prose); second, they placed a high premium on innovation at the expense of tradition; third, they exaggerated the formal properties of poetry, tending to disregard its semantic aspects. The place of meaning in this scheme was unambiguously described by Archibald MacLeish: “A poem should be equal to: not true/A poem should not mean, but be,” while the titles of such works as Philosophy of Composition E. A. Foe), How is the Overcoat of Gogol’ Made? (B. Ejxenbaum), The Morphology of the Folk-Tale (V. Propp), How to Make Verses (V. Majakovskij) testify to the heavy emphasis placed on the technical aspects of verbal art. “A new form,” wrote Šklovskij, “does not arise to express a new content, but in order to replace an old form.” The study of poetic form above and apart from meaning could not but lead the Formalists to a study of the formal “devices” or techniques that allegedly were sufficient to cope with the esthetics of literary works.
The development of literature was further interpreted by the Formalists as a self-regulating process, involving a constant change of forms, and the principle accounting for this phenomenon was seen in the “law” of “de-familiarization” or “de-automatization,” i.e., in the awakening of perception that is stultified by familiarity with old forms. Thus the question of the function of poetry or of its meaning was not dismissed; its burden was merely shifted to the external form and psychology of perception. And just as the mere arrangement of color and line was believed by some contemporary painters to provide a “bridge between the visible and the invisible,” in the same way poetry was presumably capable, through the magic of form and by severing its ties with external reality, to convey a deeper, “trans-sense” reality.
The pre-World War II period witnessed in addition various efforts to define poetry in opposition to “ordinary” language. Thus it has been defined (by Carnap, I. A. Richards, R. Ingarden) as the language of “pseudo-statements” (in opposition to referential language that deals with true/false statements), as the language of emotion (Croce, S. Langer), or as the language of “connotations and attitudes” (Ogden and Richards). Along more linguistic lines, it has often, though vaguely enough, been described as a “deviation” from language, as a more expressive form of language, or as a language that draws attention to the sign-vehicle itself. The last view was especially popular with the Formalists, but it was also embraced by their followers of the Prague Circle. Poetic language, according to one of the leading theoreticians of that Circle, is “une langue fonctionnelle ayant pour but la désautomatisation des moyens d’expressions, une langue où tout élément linguistique, même celui qu’habituellement on remarque le moins, peut prendre la valeur d’une procédé nettement téléologique” (Mukařovský, 1931: 288). It will be noted that the Formalist concept of de-familiarization is retained in this definition but is given a decisive linguistic slant. And what may be said in general about the Prague Circle is that they, more than any other contemporary school, established a close connection between linguistics and poetics, treating them as complementary aspects of the same study. To the credit of the Prague structuralists it must be added that they rejected the atomistic study of poetic “devices” and recognized the will-o’-the-wisp of a poetics that does not come to grips with the question of meaning. Thus we read in one of the Theses of the Prague Linguistic Circle that “poetry reveals to us language not as a ready-made static system, but as creative energy,” while another of the Theses points out that “what remains least elaborated from a methodological point of view is poetic semantics of the words, phrases and compositional units of a certain length. The diverse functions of tropes and figures have so far remained unexplored” (1929: 20).
At the Fourth International Congress of Linguists (Actes: 1938), Mukařovský defined “poetic language” as a meta-language, i.e., as a verbal activity that refers to itself. This proposal had the advantage of incorporating the recent contribution of Bühler, who in his “Sprach-Organon” recognized the referential, expressive, and appellative functions as the three basic functions of language, Since, like poetic language, the last two functions suspend the question of the truth-value of the message, the opposition poetic-non-poetic language could no longer be considered coterminous with the opposition of non-referential and referential function. But Mukařovský’s proposal raised in turn the question of the difference between poetry and metalanguage in the proper, logical sense of that term, i.e., of a “language” in which the message refers to the code, or to special, artificial codes. A solution to this problem was offered by Jakobson in his paper “Linguistics and Poetics,” which expanded Biihler’s model by adding to it three more linguistic functions, and where the difference between the poetic and the meta-linguistic functions is defined as follows: in meta-language “the sequence is used to build an equation,” while in poetic language the “equation is used to build a sequence” (1960: 358). It should be apparent that this definition places the emphasis on the formal, syntagmatic structure of the message, remaining in line with Jakobson’s earlier (and since reiterated) formulation of poetry as a language in which the “fixation is on the message itself” (1971: 662). While the other dimensions of language—the referential, phatic, expressive, and meta-linguistic—are specified positively in terms of their semantic functions, poetic language is defined negatively in opposition to these functions (with which it may, nevertheless, intersect), and positively as a verbal sequence built on the parallelism (“equivalence”) of its linguistic elements.
The tradition of Formalism and of a structuralist poetics has in the last decade received the strongest support from the French School of poetics, which has given a new twist to this tradition by combining the tenets of Formalism and of structural linguistics with the objectives of an ideological and extra-literary (Marxist or psychoanalytic) character. The leading representatives of this school do not tire of emphasizing the intransitive, “metalinguistic” character of poetic discourse, the priority of an abstract code over the concrete poetic message, and the derivative nature of poetic forms from their linguistic substratum. Literature, according to R. Barthes, is “une activité tautologique, comme celle de ces machines cybernetiques construites pour elles-mêmes” (1964: 148). The literary code, by analogy with the Saussurean approach to language, is treated as a closed system and as the only legitimate object of study, whereas the general properties of the poetic text as a particular type of message are ignored. The individual text is declared to be inaccessible and lacking in interpersonal meaning since, it is argued, each reader may bring to it any interpretation he wishes. “La poétique,” writes Todorov, “est en quelque sorte un langage—non le seul—dont dispose la littérature pour se parler. Chacune d'elles est un langage qui traite de l’autre; et en même temps chacune ne traite que d’elle-même” (1968: 164). Literary analysis swings like a pendulum between the poetic text and the code, inasmuch as the text is used to arrive at the distinctive properties of the code while the code is expected to explain the text or to refer to itself. The literary code is defined abstractly as a “set of possibilities,” but is interpreted concretely as an inventory of devices that are in part drawn from traditional rhetoric and in part from the categories of language. The two types of devices are not kept apart but tend to merge into each other, as when Todorov (in his Grammaire du Décaméron) equates sexual passion with the optative and the tasks of the hero in fairy tales with the conditional or subjunctive. The members of the French School, like classical Rhetoricians, show a strong predilection for classificatory schemes and taxonomies. Thus Barthes has established an ingenious distinction between the “readable” (lisible) and the “writeable” (scriptible), a distinction that cleaves the entire history of literature and any modern text in two. No bridge unites the “readable” and the “writeable,” since the first refers to the paraphraseable content of a given work and the second to its esthetic superstructure that remains “absolutely intransitive.” The literary text is likened by him to an onion: no matter how much you peel it, you get the same layers of skin without ever reaching a kernel.
In his latest work (Le plaisir du texte), Barthes treats literature as a hedonistic activity in which the “neutral” word teases suggestively with meanings it never intended to deliver (“c’est le seintillement même qui séduit,” and “vous voulez qu’il arrive quelque chose et il n’arrive rien” (1973: 23), and where the problem of meaning is precluded in advance. It would not be unfair to conclude that the school of French structuralists, which started out by declaring its allegiance to linguistics and to structuralism, has not contributed to the development of either. Having taken over from Saussure the antinomy between langue and parole and his indifference to the latter, it has ignored the study of the distinctive features of the poetic message (message being mistakenly identified with the realizations of parole), and instead of studying the types and interrelations of historically given poetic codes, it posits a reified poetic code which it interprets atomistically as a catalog of formal devices.
Before proceeding to the noncritical part of this paper, it is worth having a glance at classical poetics, which grappled with the issues of poetry that are still pertinent and reached, like many a modern theory, semantically incomplete results.
The founder of theoretical poetics, Aristotle, was probably the first to maintain that the value of art lies in the work itself (Ethic Nic. II, 1105a) and that the propositions of poetry are neither true nor false (De interpret ., 17a2). He had also an acute awareness of the other functions of language, for he opposed poetry and the modal statements of language, together with forms of persuasion and command (which he assigned to Poetics and Rhetoric respectively), to the referential function of language (lógos apofantikós, which he treats under Logic). These Aristotelian distinctions provided the model for a functional approach to language that was overlooked by Saussure but that was amply developed by the Stoics and the British philosophers of language (Locke, Hobbes, and Berkeley), to be taken up again in our own times by Bühler and philosophers of language. Aristotle also advanced some specific proposals about the function of poetry in his analysis of Tragedy. Although he was sensitive to the critical role of poetic form, he insisted that the poet should be “the maker of plots, rather than of verses.” “Tragedy,” he proceeded, “is an imitation of action,” though not of real action, which is the concern of history, but of action that belongs to the realm of the probable. “Poetry,” he concluded, “is a higher thing than history”; it is “more philosophical” and “tends to express the universal,” while history deals merely with the particular (Poetics, 1451a36). Unfortunately, we are not told what “more philosophical” is supposed to mean.
And, as though to acknowledge the shortcomings of his semantic theory, Aristotle added to it some further elements—to wit, that the function of Tragedy is to “inspire fear and pity,” that the roots of poetry lie in “the instinct for harmony and rhythm,” or, finally, that the poetic impulse is beyond rational explanation, for it “implies either a happy gift of nature or a strain of madness.” It is the above definitions of poetry—that of mimesis, catharsis, or supernatural inspiration—that were destined to have a successful career in Western criticism.
The ideas of mimesis and of the poet as a seer are echoed in the works of Shakespeare. “The purpose of playing,” we read in Hamlet (III, 2), “whose end, both at first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure,” while Theseus in A Midsummer-Night’s Dream (V, 1) gives us what amounts to a Romantic formula of the poet as visionary and as a man moved by powerful emotions: “The lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact. . . . The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling . . . does glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven.”
The solid kernel to be found in the above definitions is that poetry does not sever its relations with the other functions of language, but that it is multi-functional. The sharp separation of the artistic from the other functions is, on the whole, a modern invention. It is contradicted by the existence of long traditions of realistic and didactic art and by our experience with minor or larger forms of literature that convey—to one extent or another—referential, expressive, appellative, and socializing (phatic) functions (e.g., the novel, dirge, ritual formula, advertisement, lyric poem, hymn). The view of an art for its own sake was certainly far from those traditions of literature that encouraged simultaneous poetic and non-poetic interpretations of a work (e.g., the medieval tradition of four types of literary exegesis), that urged a search for the truth behind the poetic garb (Dante’s “mirate la dottrina che s’asconde sotto il velame degli ver si stranV [Inf. IX, 62/63]), or recommended instruction and delight (prodesse et delectare) as the goal of all poetry. The capacity of art to express a variety of functions is also known from the history of painting if we but think of the works of Leonardo and Dürer which, in their observation and rendering of phenomena, have served as invaluable sources of factual information.
The esthetic function of a work, furthermore, cannot be decided in internal terms alone: the identification of the artistic function may vary with changes in style and the attitude of the reader. Works of art executed primarily for non-esthetic purposes (ritual masks, goblets, wedding songs, or laments) may be approached from a purely esthetic angle if the non-esthetic intentions are forgotten or purposely ignored. On the other hand, works that were conceived and interpreted as art may in the course of time lose their esthetic impact and function as pure historic facts. Nor are the artistic and non-artistic effects in a complementary relationship: Balzac’s novels can tell us more about French bourgeois society than contemporary chronicles, while Plato’s Dialogues may be considered artistically superior to the plays of Voltaire.
If poetic works appear to us nevertheless as works of artifice or “fiction,” compelling us to suspend the question of their referential or social functions, it is not because their words are emptied of their inherent meaning and the sentences lose their propositional function, but because the overall organization of poetic texts compels us to view them primarily from an esthetic angle. Poetry may tell profound truths or bold lies (or, as is so often the case, blur the distinction between the two), but these questions remain ultimately peripheral to the central poetic enterprise. The poetic text creates its own universe and points of reference, a “microcosmos” (or, as the followers of Aristotle would say, a “heterocosmos”) in which all the elements and parts of the message are employed for the purpose of mutual support and for confrontation. Poetic discourse is thus more complex and richer than “ordinary”language, for it does not preclude the other functions of language but incorporates them, and transcends them.
The specific character of the poetic message would also argue against the treatment of poetry as a “function of language” on a par with the other linguistic functions, or as a special “poetic language,” unless of course we treat these terms metaphorically. The reason for recognizing different linguistic functions must certainly lie in the fact that these functions are expressed by elements inherent in the linguistic code. Thus the referential function depends for its implementation on the use of a predicate (see below), while the appellative, expressive, and phatic functions are rendered by special linguistic forms and constructions.2. But since the “poetic function” does not depend on special elements of the linguistic code (for some qualifications, see below), it must be treated entirely as a matter of the organization of the message, and not as a separate functional language.
Another characteristic of verbal art that sets it apart from everyday language is its capacity to combine with other systems of signs, or more specifically, with non-verbal arts. This capacity also exists in ordinary discourse which may combine with visual signs (e.g., body gestures); but the nonverbal signs and arts penetrate poetry in a more profound way, yielding a scale of hybrid forms. The manner and range of this penetration depend on the character of literature (i.e., oral or written) and on its genre.
Lyrical poetry (as the term suggests) has been associated everywhere with music and with dance, whereas dramatic art is inseparable from pantomime and the visual arts (e.g., the sets and costumes of the stage). The non-verbal component is particularly strong in oral literature that involves performance in which pantomime, music, and the very style of delivery (e.g., tempo) modify and may even dominate the verbal material. And since every written text can be read aloud, it too can be subject to modifications in the process of delivery.
Written poetry is, in turn, intimately connected with the graphic arts, as is the case with emblems, cartoons, or any illustrated texts. The very typographic arrangements of a poem on the page signal the poetic form and become a part of the composition. This interaction between the visual and verbal forms of expression has been on the increase in modern verse, where the experiments of Mallarmé, Apollinaire, and Majakovskij, the graphic patterns of free verse, and concrete poetry have tended to blur the distinction between the visual and verbal arts.
In considering the crucial problem of the relation between the linguistic code and the poetic message, it is necessary to point out that (1) the linguistic elements of the latter may be, but need not be, different from those of non-poetic speech, and (2) that they are endowed in poetry with functions that they do not carry in non-poetic speech.
An examination of the first problem does confront us with the fact that literature indeed employs features that are at variance from those used in “ordinary” discourse, though poetry does not in this sense differ from those special languages (professional slang, children’s language) that likewise abound in such features. The use of deviant forms or unusual linguistic constructions in poetry has been connected with particular literary traditions and schools, and with special purposes and literary genres. Thus the use of the e muet is a feature peculiar to French verse, Greek poetry assigned different dialects to different poetic genres, Homer and the Serbo-Croatian epic song are composed in special, inter-dialectal koines, while the poetic guilds of Ireland and Iceland employed special, esoteric languages. The use of neologisms, archaisms, and unusual word order is pervasive in all forms of poetry.
The study of such phenomena must turn, however, from a purely mechanistic enumeration of features to considerations of their function in works of art. The use or prohibition of such features may serve iconically to mark a specific genre or poetic form as well as to modulate its internal structure; e.g., the characterization of the narrator or protagonist by dialectal or archaic forms, the reversal of word order for the purpose of foregrounding thematically crucial words or sentences.
The second problem of the special functions of linguistic elements in literature comes to the fore primarily in the study of integral poetic texts, and not in that of sporadic poetic devices or of the “applied” poetry of “ordinary” language. This “applied poetry” is by no means uninteresting, since “ordinary” language is not homogeneous but consists of a gamut of styles that move from outer-directed, referential, or socializing functions towards texts that are in their entirety set on the poetic function. At the most “prosaic” end of that gamut is scientific language, which stipulates as narrowly as possible the meaning of its terms and which coins special terms in order to obtain a maximal fit between the message and its reference, while closer to the poetic pole are those messages in which practical expediency is relaxed (e.g., leisurely conversations, sermons, or love letters). It is the latter type of message that makes the greatest use of “applied poetry” in the form of stereotyped formulas and “small genres” (e.g., literary quotations, puns, jokes, proverbs) or of semi-poetic expressions and styles. The borderline between such messages and “pure” poetry is never sharp; in some periods or social groups a premium on the “matter of fact” prevails even in leisurely discourse, as it did, for example, in the seventeenth-century Royal Society, which sought to banish metaphor “out of all civil society” (Abrams: 285), while in others the most practical utterances become infused with poetic expressions as, for example, the court decisions in Africa, which conclude with proverbs, or the philosophical works of Descartes, which have been found to be richer in metaphor than the contemporary plays of French playwrights .
The central object of poetics, however, is the poetic text as a message which hinges as a whole on the poetic function and which emerges from the interaction between individual creativity and the poetic codes of a given period, place, or social milieu. The poetic text is also the area of encounter between the linguistic code and the superimposed formal and semantic codes of poetry. The relation between these two kinds of code is not unilateral, but one of interdependence: the linguistic code defines (but does not determine) the possibilities of the poetic codes, while the latter modify and enrich the meanings of the underlying verbal material.
One of the prominent features of the literary text is that it severs its ties with the hic et nunc of the ordinary speech act at the same time as it asserts its independence from external aims. The problem of the speech act has largely been ignored in modern linguistics, which has focussed its attention on the properties of the code. In reality, the code and the message present two complementary aspects of language. The basic types of sentence—the question, statement, and command—and the categories of mood and the shifters (the “indexical symbols”) are elements of the code that are oriented toward the message and that serve to establish a relation between the participants of the speech-act and the narrated event. Only the existence of such a relation, or what Peirce called the “conjunction of Secondness and Thirdness” (Dewey: 91) enables language to perform its referential and social functions and to build a bridge between the speakers and the world.
In poetry, on the other hand, the role of the speech-event and the relation between its participants are basically transformed. The speech-act loses its situation-bound, extra-textual status and overlaps with the narrated event in the message. The addressor of the message, the author, enters the message as a literary “device” and assumes the role (as Baxtin would say) of one of the voices in the polyphony of the text, even though in the end all the voices are his own. Nor is the reader/listener an addressee in the ordinary sense: he is a ubiquitous, non-specified interpreter, a kind of eavesdropper who must decode the message without any clues from the sender or external context. The only information that is available to him is that supplied by the text itself, and by his literary competence, i.e., by the knowledge of the literary code(s) and of other literary texts against which he projects and interprets the meaning of the message.
Poetry is thus, as Valéry said, “strange discourse, as though made by someone other than the speaker and addressed to someone other than the reader. In short, it is a language within a language” (1958: 63). The removal of the text from external context modifies the semantic values of those grammatical categories which in ordinary discourse define the relation of the participants to each other and to the narrated event. Thus questions and commands acquire the function of poetic “devices” (e.g., of reported speech or of internal dialogs), while the indexical categories of time and person are relativized with respect to each other and in accordance with the internal logic of a work. Thus the opposition between past and present tense may serve to distinguish the voice of the narrator from the foregounded speech of the characters, it may sharpen the contrast between central and peripheral actions, or it may be iconically associated with different genres (e.g., the prevalent past tense of the epic vs. the present tense of lyrical poetry and of plays). Similar shifts of meaning also affect the use of person, inasmuch as the first person designates a fictitious addressor and the second person a fictitious addressee. The modern attempts by novelists to adopt the “dramatic mode” and to suppress the role of the omniscient author have merely shown in how many different guises the author may enter into the work—as the principal narrator, as a narrator who shares the stage with other narrators, or as a pseudo-narrator who speaks through his characters in direct or reported speech. The peculiar relation which obtains between the narrator and the narrated event shapes not only the character of the modern novel, but participates in the articulation of literature into the major genres which assign a different place to the narrator-author. In epic poetry (including fiction) the author shares the stage and interferes with the speech of his characters; in lyrical poetry he generally overlaps with and speaks for his character(s); while in drama it is the characters that speak and act for the author. For even when the playwright tries to step out from the play to turn to the audience directly (as, for example, in the plays of Brecht), his address is always interpreted as an integral part and continuation of the play. By the same token, the spectators are expected to respect the border of the stage and not to transgress it in order to punish the villain. The boundary between the internal and external context of a work is not totally fixed, and allows for fluctuations in the process of reading. And just as the work cannot completely suspend its reference to the external world, in the same way it cannot entirely cancel its relation to an external context.
The emphasis on the external context of a work is most compelling in texts which combine, like a collage, artistic and non-artistic components (e.g., the realistic novel with its frequent digressions of a referential nature) or which employ special, “extra-textual” devices (e.g., the epilogue and prologue) to create a distance between the author and the work and explicitly to place the latter in a historical and social setting.
The internal structure of the text, which reinterprets the meanings of the grammatical categories that in “ordinary” language pertain to the speech-act, also transforms the value of the formal elements of language. This effect is not achieved directly by endowing these elements with some evocative, synesthetic or magic powers (as claimed by the Romantics and mystics of all time), but by using them as the building blocks of the text’s composition. It is the composition or formal organization of a work which enriches the value of the underlying linguistic material, bringing into play the elements of all linguistic levels and endowing them with peculiar semantic weight. This interaction between meaning and form converts poetry into a code of a special kind, or, as Novalis would have it, “into a language to the second power” (93). The nature of this code is most palpable in verse, since verse represents the poetic composition in its optimal and most condensed form. Here the selection and arrangement of sound, the length of a sentence, the choice of word order, the distribution of word and sentence boundaries, and even the mere repetition of lines and words all participate in the construction of the whole, while they serve to shape the meanings of its parts.
The interpenetration of meaning and form is even more conspicuous in the pivotal element of verse, in rhyme, where parallelism of sound at the end of lines is inextricably connected with parallelism of sense.
The modern concern with form at the expense of meaning has distracted modern poetics from the study of the function of form, and more broadly from the study of the very function of poetry. The insistence on the “symmetry between sound and meaning” and the inclination to treat poetry as a semantically purposeless activity that can be likened to music or to dance have tended to skirt the central issue of its function: the meaning of the poetic message as structured form. For even verse, the most systematic of poetic forms, is not merely a structure of unfolding parallelisms of sound and meaning, but a process in which the parallelisms of form serve to create parallelisms of meaning. This process transcends the limits of verse and presupposes for its implementation a special organization of the poetic text that applies both to its formal and its semantic dimensions.
The basic formal properties of the poetic text are its tendency towards closure and the articulation of the text into discrete, equivalent parts. These two properties, we may note, were also singled out by Aristotle. “Tragedy,” he wrote, “[is] closed action of a definite size [which is] differentiated in all its parts” (Poetics, 1449b24). The first of these features guarantees the selffocused, discontinuous character of the text, while the second defines its internal structure.
The tendency towards closure marks both the limits of the discrete parts and of the work as a whole, but it is most conspicuous at the outer boundaries of the work, i.e., at its beginning and end. The compositional devices that delimit the beginning and especially the end of a work constitute a frame which defines the work like the curtain or stage in the theater, or the frame of a painting, and which separates it from other forms of verbal discourse. This frame is occasionally of a non-verbal character (e.g., refrains consisting of nonsense words or of musical themes); but, being generally verbal, it differs thematically and/or formally from the rest of the text. Examples of such frames are the prologues and epilogues of plays and novels, the preambles of oral epic poetry, the final couplet in a Shakespearean sonnet, the epigrammatic endings in lyrical poetry, the use of the proverb at the end of Serbo-Croatian epic songs.
The second feature that articulates the text into a series of parts is counterbalanced by a tendency to unify them into larger wholes. The individual parts, such as the couplets and stanzas of verse, the scenes and acts in a play, the chapters in a novel are relatively independent and equivalent, since each successive part repeats with some variation the basic formal properties of its antecedents in the temporal unfolding of the text. Semantically, the parts seem to be even more independent, allowing for sudden shifts of theme, as does the famous sonnet by Ronsard, Sur la mort de Marie, in which the quatrains describe the fading of a rose (Comme on voit sur la branche au mois de mai la rose.. .), while the tercets switch to the death of the beloved (Ainsi en ta première et jeune nouveauté). While in ordinary discourse, and especially in scientific prose, we tend to speak about one thing at a time, the poet deals with a variety of things all at once, or, as Shakespeare says in the passage quoted above, he throws his glances “from heaven to earth and from earth to heaven.”
An opposite, but in essence concomitant, feature of the division of the text into a series of parts is the tendency to integrate these parts into progressively more complex wholes, up to the unity of the total text. This integration is achieved by combining the principle of succession with the principle of simultaneity which forces us to grasp the successive elements of time as if they were equivalent elements in space. The combination of the two principles complicates the syntagmatic structure of the poetic message, opposing it to the ordinary message which is based on a single principle of linearity and which, as Saussure has pointed out (following here the views of the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century philosophers of language [Aarsleff: 103/4]), is one of the principal features of language and a corollary of the temporal character of speech.
The syntagmatic complexity of the poetic message was firmly grasped by Diderot at a time when Lessing (in Laocoon) tried to justify the superiority of poetry over painting by emphasizing its ability to present action in a linear succession: “C’est [l’esprit du poëte] qui fait que les choses sont dites et representées tout à la fois... et que le discours n’est plus seulement un enchaînement de termes énergiques, qui exposent la pensée avec force et noblesse, mais que c’est encore un tissue d’hieroglyphes entassés les uns sur les autres qui la peignent” (374).3. The principle of simultaneity in succession also applies to other arts, and its role in music was described along similar lines by Mozart, who claimed to compose his works “in the mind” and to perceive the parts “all at once. . . like a fine picture or a beautiful statue” (VII).4.
The principle of simultaneity does not contradict the principle of succession but, on the contrary, enhances it and brings it more sharply to the fore. While the linear progression is endowed in ordinary language with an iconic function (e.g., the irreversibility of the verbs in the phrase veni, vidi, vici, which reflects the actual order of events), in poetry it is exploited in more complex ways, involving not only the perception of duration but the structure of the plot, the vicissitudes of the heroes, and the formal structure itself. The successive order is persistently felt, even when the author rearranges the sequence of events, or when the central plot is stalled by minor plots or counterplots. The principle of succession dominates in the theater, as it did in the classical epic, and lies at the basis of such literary forms as the catena or the palindrome, in which the reversibility of the sequence merely corroborates the importance of the order of succession. It is also implicit in the compositional structure, which concentrates all its energy around the terminal point (the pointe), or in which the last part carries, like the tercets of a sonnet, the weight of the preceding, less significant parts.
The principle of simultaneity compels us, on the other hand, to comprehend the elements of the sequence in their simultaneous presence, imparting to the progressive movement of the text a retroactive impulse. This forward and backward movement is most clearly felt in verse, where each line leads inevitably to a succeeding line, while the latter in turn looks back to its antecedent, with which it forms a higher, inseparable union. The same pattern asserts itself in plays and in artistic prose, where each individual segment or motive may anticipate the occurrence of a similar segment or illuminate the structure of the whole. Thus the train in one of the early sections of Anna Karenina (Ch. 18) is the very train under which she finds death at the end of the work. The opening line of Mickiewicz’s Crimean Sonnets, “Wpłynałem na suchego przestwór oceanu”(“I sailed out into the expanse of the dry ocean”)—indeed, the entire first sonnet—anticipates the dynamic movement of the entire cycle of sonnets (which describe alternatively a voyage by sea and by land) and mirrors the semantic opposition which informs the entire composition. The plays within Hamlet are a part of the sequential development and are also a metaphor for the whole play.
The combination of the successive and simultaneous dimensions is differently exploited in various genres and traditions that assign a different importance to the one or the other principle. Plays and narrative fiction tend to emphasize the order of succession (through action and the temporal development of plots), whereas short lyrical poems can more fully exploit the simultaneous order of all their parts. There is also a difference between works that are destined for reading and those destined for oral delivery, where the mind cannot easily retain the totality of the successive parts. This limitation of memory is compensated by the use of supplementary, integrating features, like music, or by the listeners’ familiarity with the text. What makes all poetry an art of “difficult reading,” however, is precisely the fact that the principle of succession is at every step complicated and resisted by the principle of simultaneity, which compels attention to the structure as a whole. The difficult form of modern poetry is but a consequence of the increased emphasis on the role of simultaneity at the expense of the principle of contiguity. The ideal of Valéry to combine “le simultané de la vision avec le successif de la parole” (Oeuvres I, 625) was not merely a quest for a new form, but was connected with the search for a new language of “daring” metaphors which could be grasped only within the confines of highly condensed texts.
The central issue of poetry is not, however, the formal structure of the message, but—as has been suggested above—the creation of “poetic meaning” by means of structured form. The form of a poetic message is the indispensable framework within which the disparate semantic components are compressed and confronted for the purpose of revealing the “unity in variety.” The poetic text is set on a metaphoric process which involves the discovery of resemblance in difference and of difference in resemblance and which is, as in a nutshell, represented by the metaphor in the narrow sense of the word. For the proper function of the metaphor is the conjunction of opposites with a view to bringing forth their underlying similarity. Contrary to commonly held opinion, the metaphor does not imply any shift in meaning as it does not neutralize or alter the distinctive semantic features of the conjoined terms, but, on the contrary, sharpens their opposition while it draws attention to their common trait. The metaphor contained in the line from Mickiewicz quoted above compels us to see the similarity in the difference between the steppe and the sea and to view them as variants of a more abstract semantic unity. But if the single metaphor works in the small, the poetic text builds its metaphoric process on a larger scale, enriching it with properties that stem from the very unfolding of the message. In his article “Poetics and Linguistics,” cited above, Roman Jakobson defined poetry in a marvelously compact and compelling formula as the “projection of the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination” (358), i.e., as a sequence that is built on the alternation of equivalents that are either “synonymous” (similar) or “antonymous” (dissimilar). But this definition is too restrictive and makes poetry too dependent upon and parallel to language. It is too restrictive in that a poetic text built on the mere succession of similarities or dissimilarities would remain a static structure without a goal or integrating movement, whereas an adequate definition of poetry should capture the dynamic and creative aspects that characterize any work of art. The poetic text further differs from the paradigmatic system of a language (the “axis of selection”) in that it does not, like the latter, merely involve either/or alternatives but combines, in the complex dialectics of poetry, the either/or with the both/and possibilities. The semantic equivalents, that is, do not follow each other in sequence like the parallel lines of a poem, but they interpenetrate and illumine each other, producing, in the words of Goethe, “wonderful reflections . . . which moving from mirror to mirror do not pale, but ignite each other” (173).5. The concept is close to that of the Neoplatonists of Florence who in their hermetic, half-mystical way believed that beauty, in assuming the shifting guises of Proteus, reflects the oneness of Pan, and that Pan cannot reveal himself in any other form than through the ever-changing Proteus. “Nor do contrariety and discord between various elements,” wrote Pico della Mirandola in his treatise on Beauty, “suffice to constitute [it], but by due proportion the contrariety must become united and the discord made concordant; and this may be offered as the true definition of Beauty, namely that it is nothing else than an amicable enmity and a concordant discord” (88).6.
The exploration of similarity in dissimilarity and of dissimilarity in similarity in verbal art, as opposed to other arts, is supported by the structure of language itself, since every meaningful unit is both opposed and similar to other meaningful units. The pattern of differences and similarities encompasses all levels of language so that identity or resemblance on one level (e.g., lexical) entails a difference on another (e.g., morphological or syntactical), producing a constant interplay of similarities and dissimilarities in poetry. The metaphoric process engages the poet in an incessant exploration of the resources of language, but the choices of what is similar and dissimilar are always his own and it is they that make up the “vision” of his poetry. But the poet further transcends the limits of language by creating entire works whose themes, plots, actions, and heroes are constructed on the principle of similarity in difference.
The application of this principle to the structure of narrative is most tangible in folklore and in the literature based on it, since folklore reduces to the simplest schemes the relations that in original works of literature are more complicated and intertwined. These narratives include such universal themes as the return of the hero after years of wandering (as in Ulysses), the transformations of man into animal (as in the Metamorphoses of Ovid), the worlds of giants and dwarfs (as in Gulliver’s Travels), the blindness of the sighted and the seeing of the blind (as in Oedipus Rex). All these tales contain the elements of wonder and surprise that come with the recognition that the split realities which appear before us are basically the same, and that the conflicting differences conceal a basic unity. The interplay and conjunction of opposites unfolds with the work as a whole, so that resemblances established in one part of a work are transformed into differences in another part, creating shifting perspectives that strive to be resolved in a unified vision or in a synthesis that is never finally resolved. The quality of such transformations was cogently defined by Gerard Manley Hopkins: “[Poetry] makes of each resemblance a reason for surprise in the next difference, and of each difference a reason for surprise in the next resemblance . .. and resemblances and antitheses themselves are made to make up a wider difference” (p. 105).
The metamorphoses that are developed in a text (and which especially mark the great works of fiction) engage the reader’s constant attention, for he must formulate at each point of his reading, by means of provisionally formed hypotheses, the proper meaning and direction of the text. The forward and backward movement of the text along the syntagmatic axis, its retardation and acceleration, compression and extension are complicated paradigmatically by the hierarchical structure of its components (by the characters “in the round” and characters “in the flat,” by peripheral and central actions, by the utterance of the author and the utterances of the character) which make the text into a multi-dimensional and multi-layered structure within which the reader is expected to find the unifying links. “Our wills and fates do so contrary run/That our devices still are overthrown,/Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own,” says the Player King in Hamlet, and this saying illustrates, indeed, not only the conflicting elements and lines of a text, but also the tension it creates between itself and the reader.
Inasmuch as the poetic message is an intentional, goal-directed and creative act, it always strives to say something new. Its newness is not of a practical or referential nature, but lies in the creation of a meaningful metaphoric structure in which the means (the form) amalgamate with the ends (the content). The poetic message is a goal in itself, and as such it is “memorable” and enters the collective consciousness as a concrete cultural fact. The founder of a typology of visual art forms, H. Wolfflin, was acutely aware of this (in contrast to some modern structuralists) when he asserted that “die Kunst steht iiberhaupt nicht im Allgemeinen, sondern im einzelnen Werk” (217).
But although the intention of the artist is always to create de novo, he never creates de nihilo, and his effort is always informed by the norms or codes of a given art. Knowledge of the formal and semantic codes also guides the reader in his interpretation of a poetic message, and if the message is to have an interpersonal and communicable meaning, the codes that are mustered at both ends of the “channel” must basically (though not completely) coincide. The contemporary emphasis on the rights of the reader to interpret the text in any way he wants opens the gates to a free-for-all subjectivism and often marks the refusal of literary criticism to limit itself to the intrinsic properties of art.
The problem of innovation cannot be separated from that of tradition, just as the question of the individual text cannot be separated from that of the collective code. Code and message constantly interact, and the change of code is brought about through innovations in individual messages which redefine the limits of the code. The relation of code and message, however, presents a gamut of possibilities that vary according to literary form, oral or written type of literature, school, and period. The highly codified small literary forms, which belong largely to the oral tradition (proverbs, riddles, fixed metaphors), are least susceptible to personal invention, while oral literature as a whole treats the relation of innovation to tradition in a different way from written literature. Moving essentially on a single synchronic plane (which itself comprises a series of diachonic layers), oral literature combines a maximal adherence to the collective code with a minimal adherence to any specific text. The individual text emerges only in the process of actual performance in which the non-verbal elements (music and pantomime) play no less a role than the verbal material. The longer texts of oral literature thus acquire an existence similar to that of an abstract code, while the role of the performers of such texts comes close to that of their actual authors. Written literature, on the other hand, observes to a maximal degree the integrity of the individual fixed text and achieves innovation by breaking the rules of the governing code(s). The changeable status of literary codes and the fixed character of the written texts introduces into “learned” literature a historical dimension which complicates the reading of any individual text. For the “memorable” texts of the past exist side by side with the texts of the present, composing with them an open and continuous series. The interpretation of any written text thus presupposes not only a knowledge of the underlying poetic and linguistic codes (knowledge of the latter being a prerequisite of any verbal message) but also a familiarity with other texts to which the given text may explicitly allude. The poetic text is consequently as context-bound and open-ended as any non-poetic message, except that the latter is anchored to an external (situational) context, whereas the former refers primarily (though not exclusively) to other homogeneous texts. It can always be interpreted metonymically, as a part of a larger text (as a poem in a cycle, as a part of a trilogy, or as a representative work of a certain school), or metaphorically, as an echo of another text (as, for example, Pushkin’s Pamjatnik with respect to Horace’s Exegi monumentum, or Joyce’s Ulysses with respect to Homer’s Odyssey). The conjunction of such texts not only affects the interpretation of each text, but puts them, like any metaphor, in a state of mutual irritation that expands the meanings of both.
The covert or overt use of allusions is a conspicuous feature of modern poetry (as in the works of Joyce, Eliot, Pound, or Mandel’štam), which has condensed the internal structure of the text and expanded its reference to other texts. By doing so it has become a literature of an elite which demands the closest collaboration of the reader with the author. For example, the twostanza poem by Yeats, The Scholars, ends with the unexpected couplet, “Lord, what would they say/Did their Catullus walk that way?” However, knowledge of Catullus’s poem Vivamus, mea Lesbia reveals immediately the affinity between the two poems in theme and formal organization. Both poems establish the opposition between the young and the old (in Yeats: “old, learned bald heads” vs. “young men, tossing in their beds,” and in Catullus: “Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus” vs. “rumoresque senum severiorum”), between learning and ignorance, hope and despair— oppositions which complement each other within and across the two poems.7. The lack of extra-textual knowledge which would make the reader miss the point of Yeats’s allusion need not vitiate the comprehension and enjoyment of his poem, but both poems gain in fullness and completion when read in conjunction with each other.
An extra-textual, internalized dimension is nevertheless indispensable for the full interpretation of any literary work, though it may vary again according to time and literary tradition, and according to various literary forms. It is this dimension that involves the active participation of the reader and completes the meaning of individual texts.
In the first place, the reader is expected to be able to place the message within a more general type, i.e., within one of the major literary genres. Knowing the distinctive (both positive and negative) features of the basic genres, the reader can restrict the range of his expectations and exclude those interpretations that are alien to the given genre. Without knowledge of the literary types (knowledge internalized in the process of earlier readings), the reader could not decide whether the work in question is a pastiche or parody, to what extent it adheres to the rules of the given genre, or if it tries to establish a new form (as happened when the Romantics elevated the letter to a literary form, or tried to fuse the features of different genres). A knowledge of compositional form, which generally varies according to the basic genres (e.g., lyrical poetry is, on the whole, composed in verse), serves likewise as a guide to the reading of a text. Thus it is well known that diverse metrical patterns are associated with different functions and are capable of evoking the content of poetic works. According to Valéry, the rhythm of the ten-syllable line and its association with Dante’s endecasillabo suggested to him the theme of Le Cimitière marin; in the same way the Russian iambic meters imply (at least during the nineteenth century) a high, rhetorical tone, while the trochaic meters evoke the light, sung motif of folkloristic verse.
A command of the literary code—i.e., literary competence—is essential for the interpretation of entire poetic sub-types, such as the allegory and the fable, whose overt textual meanings must be complemented by reference to the implied, non-verbalized sense. An open-ended, latent dimension also underlies such popular forms as the proverb, whose internal meaning is completed only by matching it with a corresponding external context, or the riddle that always implies more than one solution. The latent meanings may, as in the forms cited, underlie the meanings of entire texts or they may surround the meanings of individual words, elevating them to the status of symbols. The symbolic meaning which is superposed upon the ordinary lexical meaning of words may be a part of the broader cultural tradition (the Christian symbols of the cross and the rose), of a given period or poetic school (the mythological symbolism of the Renaissance), or of individual poets and texts (Blake or Yeats). Furthermore, the “allegorical” and “symbolic” interpretations of a text may combine, as, for example, in the Divine Comedy, which must be read both with an eye to its allegorical meaning (stipulated by the canons of medieval poetics) and with an understanding of its symbols (e.g., the beasts in the Inferno). However, no poetry is entirely free of a symbolic layer, since every lexical element can be endowed with supplementary, non-“literal” meanings. The metaphoric process itself compels us to look for the deeper, multi-layered meanings that are set off by the collision of opposites and radiate beyond the surface of the text. Thus the tragic meaning of Othello lies not only in the conflict between the Moor's jealousy and Iago’s hatred, or on a deeper level between the parallel sins of pride and envy, but also in the tension between two opposite visions of the world. Similarly, the various divergent lines of Hamlet converge to expose the tension between crime and duty, thought and action, freedom and fate, but even more profoundly, the ambiguity of man (“the beauty of the world” and “the quintessence of dust”) and of the human condition.
The quest for symbolic meanings has often led in modern poetry (as in the works of the Symbolists) to the proliferation of private symbols that tend to blur the clarity of a text in the same way as the density of allusions hampers its understanding. The two types of trans-textual reference are nevertheless implicit in the poetic process that enlarges the meaning of individual texts and moves them closer to each other. In going beyond the limits of the text, poetry also establishes links with other arts, in the same way in which the plurality of its functions puts it in the broader context of non-artistic systems and activities.
1. This paper is a further development of reflections in poetics that I have presented in two recent papers: “Structural poetics and linguistics” (1974: 1) and “The poetic text as a linguistic structure” (1974: 2). For a fuller bibliography and discussion of certain points, see especially 1974: 1.
2. For the need to distinguish the expression of the various functions in the code vs. the message, see Stankiewicz, 1964, 242 ff.
3. There is some reason to believe that Lessing was influenced by and grasped the ideas of Diderot whose Discours sur la poesie dramatique he translated in 1760. In the chapter “De la pantomime” Diderot repeated some of the principles he had formulated in his Lettre of 1751. According to E. M. Szarota (1959: 163ff.), Lessing planned to write a follow-up to the Laokoon in which he intended to defend the superiority of dramatic art over other literary genres precisely on the grounds that it combined more than any other genre the principle of succession with that of simultaneity.
4. The full passage of Mozart’s letter reads: “My object enlarges itself, becomes methodised and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost complete and finished in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or beautiful statue, at a glance. Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them as it were all at once.”
5. The quotation is taken from Cassirer (1945) and refers to the effects of colors in crystals. The German text reads: “entoptische Erscheinungen .. . welche gleichfalls von Spiegel zu Spiegel nicht etwas verbleichen, sondern sich erst recht entziinden.” On Goethe’s concepts of Polaritàt and Steigerung and the use he made of them in his esthetic and scientific writings, see Jolies, 1957.
6. On the use and interpretation of the Neoplatonist concepts by Goethe and the Romantics, see Wind, Chs. 5 and 13, and M. H. Abrams, 1972, 183 ff.
7. A closer analysis of the two poems and their full texts are given in Stankiewicz, 1974: 2.
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