This fall, I’ve been assigned to instruct a class called ‘Introduction to Writing about Literature.’ While the course is designed to transmit a specialized skill-set (textual analysis), it’s not organized around a historical period, event, or philosophical discourse. As an instructor, I’m required to jump around—across periods, genres and continents—in an effort to give students the most comprehensive possible familiarity with literature in English. The only thing that holds the course together is a persistent focus on form and figuration. This is both liberating—it’s great to get close to some of my favorite texts in the classroom–and a little terrifying—unmoored from thematic, historical and philosophical contexts, I’ve found myself wondering if I know anything about how literary language works. In this post, I’ll outline some of the theoretical and pedagogical dilemmas I’ve bumped up against teaching close reading and then explain how I’ve decided to talk about metaphor and figuration in my requirement-level lit course. Though the post turns on my own experiences, I’m hoping that the problems and solutions that I address here may be relevant to readers working out their own ideas about how to teach and test close reading skills.
My students frequently surprise me with their metaphorical interpretations of key poetic lines and passages. In a discussion of Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn,’ for instance, a student proposed that Keats’ “still unravish’d bride of quietness” is the goddess Athena. The claim is not exactly wrong and it was actually a great leeway into a discussion about the gendering of the urn. Athena is, like Keats’ “unravish’d bride,” characteristically virginal. But Keats’ speaker doesn’t make any explicit allusion to Greek deities in this poem as he does, for instance, in ‘Ode to Psyche.’ The addressee here is a beautiful art object, not an immortal god: the “unravish’d bride”—not Athena–is Keats’ chosen metaphor for the urn.
On a different day, a different student contended that the laborer who gives the discharged soldier shelter at the end of Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Discharged Soldier’ is Christ. In this view, the soldier in the poem is ultimately welcomed into heaven. Jesus was a carpenter, I think, and Wordsworth would surely have known this. But Wordsworth’s poetry is filled with all sorts of real laborers. Instead of agreeing wholeheartedly with the reading, I evasively pointed out that it attributes a satisfying, compensatory resolution to the poem. All characters involved—the speaker, the laborer and the soldier–are valorized. But if we don’t see things this way, we may begin to suspect that one good night’s rest at an Inn is not a durable solution to the discharged soldier’s plight. After class, I realize that the concern I have with the view of the laborer-as-God is that it blunts the critical edge of the poem: we loose sight of the historically specific problems that the poem addresses (imperial warfare, rural dispossession) when we subsume the individual particularities of the laborer and the soldier under the figure of Christ and the heaven-bound spirit.
Monroe Beardsley characterizes literary language as “distinctly above the norm in ratio of to explicit meaning” (qtd in De Man, 30). My students’ creative and often wacky allegorical readings of poems have, above all, attuned me to the destabilizing effects of this discrepancy between implicit and explicit meaning. One of my students confessed that she likes poetry because “there’s no right interpretation.” I encouraged her enthusiasm but, in all honesty, I worry that this idea approaches the notion that there is no explicit meaning, or that the explicit meaning given in a poem is not important. As students continue to suggest that the hidden meanings that they’ve discovered in the poem equate to the meaning of the poem or even the authorial intent, I feel a growing need to tether our discussions to a theory of figurative language. This, I hope, will give my students and I the tools we need to talk and write self-consciously about our own metaphors and those of the poets we’re reading.
While there are plenty of language-conscious philosophers and theorists that I could have turned to for such a theory, I chose to give my students Nietzsche’s essay ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense’ (1873) because it’s short, provocative and highly readable. In the essay, Nietzsche imagines how humans came to substitute words for things. He emphasizes the gap between sense-data drawn from an unknowable external essence–“X”—and the metaphor that gives the “nerve stimulus” a form and concept. He makes the bold claim that all language functions like figurative language: concepts, as it turns out, work a lot like metaphors.
“Every concept comes into being through the equation of non-equal things. As certainly as no leaf is ever completely identical to another, so certainly the concept of leaf is formed by arbitrarily shelving these individual differences or forgetting the distinguishing features…We obtain the concept, as we do the form, by overlooking the individual and the real” (256-57).
I chose to hone in on this passage in class and it worked magically. We were able to talk about how figures-as-concepts overwrite the particularities of the “individual and the real.” How, whenever we abstract, we overlook the thing right in front of us. We do this too when we favor the implicit over the explicit meaning of a poem. For instance: if Frost’s woods in “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” figure death’s allure, then they become something other than what his speaker first perceived them to be–the property of a person he knows in the nearby village (a marxist reader will note that property is abstracted from the sensible stuff of the land itself but I left that conversation for another day). Students seemed to really get this process—someone pointed out that race is a concept that functions in this way.
This is as far as I got in my efforts to bring a theoretical discussion of metaphor into the classroom. But, in future, I’d like to talk about the “wear and tear” of metaphor—the second critical point in Nietzsche’s vision of the language making process. In ‘On Truth and Lie,’ Nietzsche posits that concepts harden into social conventions when we forget that concepts were metaphors to begin with. He writes: “truths are illusions that are no longer remembered as being illusions, metaphors that have become worn and stripped of the sensuous force, coins that have lost their design and are now considered only as metal and no longer as coins” (257). I suspect the metal, worn as it is, can still passes as valuable. But once the visible and tactile design of the coin has been worn away by the customary practices of exchange, our acceptance of its value becomes all the more obviously mechanical, automatic. The concept—like the coin—has sensible force at its origin. But once we’ve become desensitized to that origin, we’ve–spookily enough–lost consciousness of what and how our concepts mean what they mean. For Nietzsche, the “obligation to be truthful” is nothing more than the obligation to “use the customary metaphors…to lie in accordance with a firm convention” (257). His tone is blasé, but his point is clear: with habitual use, concepts become clichés, conventions, dead metaphors.
In class, I’ve tended to emphasize students’ agency as readers and critics. As long as they can provide evidence to support their interpretations, they are free to decide how they read a poem. But eventually, I’d like to get students questioning how much control the reader or lyric speaker can ever really have over the meaning of a poem. Nietzsche’s discussion of the worn coin may be one way to suggest that language shapes us as much as we shape it. But I’d like to convey too the idea that our engagement with poetic figures involves movements of fantastic transport. In other words, figuration entangles us in processes of association out of our conscious control. Romanticism seems like the literary movement to turn to here; Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ with its “fairy lands forlorn,” could surely support a discussion of language’s almost-magical agency. But Coleridge’s ‘Effusion XXXV’ (1795) may be even more fitted for a discussion of the unconscious dimensions of figurative language because of the way that the early and late versions of the poem reflect two very different attitudes about the autonomy of the lyric speaker.
Coleridge drafted ‘Effusion XXXV’ in Clevedon, Somersetshire just a few months before he married Sara Fricker. In the first few lines of ‘Effusion,’ his speaker describes an intimate domestic scene, one in which everything from the cot to the landscape is shared. When Coleridge begins to describe the sound produced by a lute in his window-pane, his figurative language begins to spiral out of control. The resemblances that Coleridge draws to evoke the haptic sensations that the lute’s sound rouses within him are erotically charged: the lute is “caress’d” by a breeze, it is like “some coy Maid half-yielding to her Lover.” Though the poet is speaking to Sara when he likens the lute to “some coy Maid,” the simile functions at a remove from their shared domestic world. When the lute’s “long sequacious notes” become “Melodies round honey-dropping flowers,” the speaker has entered a world entirely of his own making. The trope of seduction suggests that Coleridge’s speaker is, like the lute, more acted upon than acting: lured into a dream-like state of bodily sensations, he may not be fully in control of the resemblances his mind generates.
Ewan Jones observes that ‘Effusion’ moves in accord with a material world “subject to the quickening rhythm of dissolution and re-constitution” (274). The poem famously culminates with the speaker’s comparison of the material world to an eolian harp. The elegant metaphor reconstitutes all matter as potentially divine:
“What if all of animated nature / Be but organic Harps diversely frame’d / That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps, / Plastic and vast, one intellectual Breeze, / At once the Soul of each, and God of all?” (35-40)
Just as sound is produced when wind strikes the harp, the poet’s soul comes into being when his passive body is touched by an omnipresent intellect. As the metaphor brings insides and outsides together, it puts a stop to the metonymic chain of associations—i.e. the breeze as a coy maid, the breeze as Melodies round honey-dropping flowers. But the speaker’s movement from “idle flitting fantasies” to philosophical speculation reads as an unaccountable event—a big idea that, like the breeze, seems to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.
In this early version of ‘Effusion,’ mechanical processes of association enable the totalizing unity at the end of the poem; the speaker’s disposition to passive receptivity makes the final metaphor possible. But, over time, Coleridge changed his mind about how all this should work. For the Coleridge of the Biographia (1817), the “distinct powers” of the will control the chaotic currents of associative thought (427). When Coleridge republished ‘Effusion XXXV’ as ‘The Eolian Harp’ in Syballine Leaves, eight lines were added in between the speaker’s daydream and his metaphysical reconstitution. The new lines—about the “one life”–represent a colossal act of internalization akin to the one described by Wordsworth when, in Book VI of ‘The Prelude,’ he affirms that “tumult and peace, the darkness and light— / were all like workings of one mind” (635-636). If the lines added to ‘The Eolian Harp’ express intent, then the chaos of the associative process at the beginning of the poem is brought to order not by chance, but by the “distinct powers” of an autonomous creative imagination. So far as I am concerned, the emphasis on the strength of the speaker’s will in ‘The Eolian Harp’ is reason enough to prioritize the original poem. When read closely, ‘Effusion XXXV’ suggests that metaphor has as much to do with the messy—and uncontrollable–movement between dissimilar terms as with their unification. The poem shows that Romantic lyrics can be as much about the undoing of the poetic speaker as about his or her re-constitution.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Nicholas. Halmi, Paul. Magnuson, and Raimonda. Modiano. Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose: Authoritative Texts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.
De Man, Paul. “Semiology and Rhetoric.” Diacritics 3, no. 3 (1973): 27–33.
Jones, Ewan. “‘Less Gross than bodily’: Materiality in Coleridge’s Conversation Poem Sequence.” The Review of English Studies, New Series, 64, no. 264 (April 1, 2013): 267–88.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Raymond Geuss, Alexander Nehamas, and Ladislaus Löb. Writings from the Early Notebooks. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.