Blog Post

Quotation out of context (2) -- Synecdochic quotations: "Beauty, force, and vehemence of impression"

You know how people will sometimes hum a phrase or say a word or two that haunts them, as though just that phrase, just those words, could mean everything? It's the literary equivalent of the magical name of the beloved. I need only think: Belinda or Geoffrey

(yes, their real names) and that wonderfully sunny orthography lights up the world for me. And I need only quote some line from Proust or Shakespeare -- "Va avec le petit," or "Since Cleopatra died" -- and the scene comes back through a kind of Leibnizian madeleine, a self-similar monad evoking the whole.  This is the opposite of the epiphanic stand-alone I posted about in part 1 of this series on quotation out of context.

Recently, one line has stuck with me, or I with it, from King Lear: "You will say they are Persian, but let them be changed." One of Lear's great achievements in the course of the play is to attain to a kind of casual minimalism. He's still every inch a king, and so still uses the rhetoric of command, but the commands now acknowledge themselves somehow as those of a very foolish fond old man. He's asked for so little from Cordelia at the start of the play, so he thinks, but now he realizes that that isn't what asking for very little turns out to be. No, to ask for very little is really to ask for very little, and to do it only because of those quirks in one's own character that are easily accommodated by others. It's not just that he understands this: he's understood it from Act I, in his interactions with the Fool. But now he understands more -- he understants that his right to petty accommodation can also be socially effective, can open for him a last pathway to kindness in his utterly impoverished state. So he invites Edgar, dressed only in rags, to join his retinue of knights: "You, sir, I entertain for one of my hundred; only I do not like the fashion of your garments. You will say they are Persian; but let them be changed."

You will say: he acknowledges that in the kind fictional context he's offering Edgar, Edgar can have a different point of view, can think his garments beautiful. Lear even acknowledges (in the fictional context he's kindly offering) that they are beautiful: he can see the beauty of the Persian garments, only he's old and set in his ways and wants his knights dressed as he wants them dressed.

But this doesn't account for what's haunting about the lines (what haunts me about them). I think rather that it's the beauty of the unexpected beauty.

Persian garments in the hovel! And that Lear expects Edgar/Tom to share the sense of the beauty he evokes! I think he means it when he says "You will say they are Persian." Or rather means it as he says it. He's made them Persian, for a moment, and made Edgar someone who (now) will say that they are Persian. Really, how else can this line be read? (It won't do to say, as some have argued, that this is just a joke on the contemporaneous experience of the outlandishness of Persian garments, since what seems to have struck the court of James was their beauty, not their looped and windowed raggedness.)

I think Edgar feels it that way too, at least later on when he insists to the blind Gloucester that he's done what Lear asked: "In nothing am I changed / But in my garments." This later in the trajectory of his avatars, the trajectory which ends with his being indeed the last of Lear's knights, in single combat with Edmund.  Anyhow, I cite this line because of its synecdochal mystery. It's just so good, but only if you know the play.

With far greater compression and concentration Dickinson was haunted by a single word in Shakespeare, by what she called, in a fragment, "that engulfing Since" in Antony's absolutizing description of himself just moments after Mardian's (false) report of Cleopatra's death (which I quoted above): "Since Cleopatra died / I have lived in such dishonor that the gods / Detest my baseness." The world has changed utterly, and the whole of that change is in a word that denotes a very short but a complete, total, and absolute, passage of time.

(An interesting aside: Dickinson's friend and mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, published a poem called "Since Cleopatra died" where he misquotes the Shakespeare but essentially -- and badly -- paraphrases Dickinson's great scrap. I wonder whether the two of them talked about this line, and whether we should therefore see his poem as a kind of private elegy to her. His "astonishing misquotation" [William Morton Payne in The Dial, September 1889] suggests that they did, because he's quoting it by heart, and also because the line as he quotes it would apply to him -- military hero and infatuate of Dickinson -- whereas a reference to the Roman gods would not have captured the live self-rebuke he felt.)

Well there's a point to this impressionistic report. Christopher Smart, as a poet, was grand enough to feel these synecdochal forces and to repeat them in his poetry, to press and press and press on them. I think he thought about this issue a lot. I lately had occasion to read his Preface to his wonderful translations of Horace, and what he writes there about one aspect of poetry, that

poetical excellence, which tho' possessed in a degree by every great genius, is exceeding in our Lyric to surpass; I mean the beauty, force and Vehemence of Impression: Which leads me to a rare; and entertaining subject not (I think) any where much insisted on by others.

Impression then is a talent or gift of Almighty God, by which a Genius is impowered to throw an emphasis upon a word or sentence in such wise, that it cannot escape any reader of sheer good sense, and true critical sagacity. This power will sometimes keep it up thro' the medium of a prose translation; especially in scripture, for in justice to truth and everlasting preeminence, we must confess this virtue to be far more powerful and abundant in the sacred writtings.

The way this power can survive even a prose translation -- well, that seems to require a synecdochal sense of the original, or at least of the whole. I think what Smart is describing here is a mystery of style: the way a work will make certain of its lines or passages or phrases or even words synecdochal. This is what he's calling the "beauty, force and Vehemence of Impression." Being able to transfigure its own language, make the unextraordinary into something extraordinary, extraordinary enough to represent the whole to those who remember only the unextraordinary words -- hoc labor, hic opus est. Otherwise put: well, that's something.

I think a lot about why Merrill is so much greater a poet, even on the level of language, than Wilbur, who is close to his equal in technique; or why Ashbery's assembly of ordinary bits and pieces can transmute them into something so amazing -- "These are amazing" is one of Ashbery's greatest lines, no? -- or how Bishop can make Hemans's "Casabianca" into something sublime ("Love's the boy stood on the burning deck"), and I can't say how they achieve this except to say with Smart that it's a talent or gift that empowers poetic genius. What I can say is that Smart is on to something about this effect, the effect of the words made great only by their context, but somehow made so great by that context that they can absorb it entirely into themselves, be transfigured by it, stand for that context even if none of it is remembered, and summon the whole up through the most apparently unassuming of its parts.  All those clouts and rags somehow become Persian.



TK (markers for myself, really): 3. The prosodic context of lines
4. Forgotten quotations

William Flesch's picture

William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).