• Grey Facebook Icon
  • Grey Twitter Icon
  • Grey Google+ Icon

Clarity vs. Obscurity: The Essences of Classicism and Modernism Compared Part II - "Concreteness" as Obscurity

March 17, 2019

 

In my last essay, I discussed the difference between classical and modernist poetry as a difference of worldviews. Classicism views the art as a vehicle to reveal universal truths, while modernism denies such truths and instead views the primary purpose of poetry as inducing an effect in the reader. This difference manifests itself chiefly as one of clarity. Because classical poetry conveys an idea, not primarily a feeling, its meaning must be clear for it to have its intended effect.

 

The idea of metaphor, however, failed to figure prominently enough. It is a key concept of classical poetics that deserves some discussion. And, as it turns out, the breakdown of metaphor has produced some spectacularly obscure modernist poetry. This essay aims to tackle both subjects.

 

Central to the classical poetry is the concept of metaphor – metaphor not simply as a rhetorical device, but metaphor as central to the poem itself. In any classical poem the centrality of metaphor is readily apparent. As noted previously, in Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” the entire poem is one extended metaphor of the mountain as the Platonic ideal, eternal and unreachable, elevated above the titanic forces of nature, which in turn dwarf man and his works. Keats’s great odes also provide excellent examples of metaphor. The Grecian urn is art itself, and art as a vehicle for revealing eternal truth across time. The nightingale, calling through night unseen but heard, is the soul’s immortality in the face of death and fear of death.

 

Such use of metaphor is absent from modernist poetry. Indeed, modernism has no need of metaphor because it views metaphor as superfluous. In a worldview that denies absolute truth outright or at least its knowability, nothing exists for metaphor to reveal. Instead, when inducing an effect is the end of poetry, the images and objects in the poem become triggers to induce a feeling in the reader rather than vehicles to express a truth external to both the poet and the reader.

 

But some modernists take the inducement of an effect beyond the mere use of language to evoke feelings in the reader. They literally paint a picture with the text of the poem itself. No modernist poet more clearly exemplifies this technique than E.E. Cummings.

Before analyzing his poetry, it is essential to note that Cummings was also a modernist painter, and his painting “encouraged him to join the revolt against realism” in his poetry. (Kennedy, 4.) He was very taken with the avant-garde visual techniques of the day – fauvism and cubism. (Id., 4.) But he was especially taken with the futurism of Balla and Duchamp because it could “paint the fact of motion.” (Id., 180.) Of these movements he wrote, “after the death of [Cézanne] European painting blew up in two places – Subject exploded so violently as to be carried piecemeal into psychology, while the explosion of Technique was straight up in the air and its denouement the precept of the perpendicular . . . .” (Id., 180.)

 

            But cubism, the cubism of Picasso, held a special place in Cummings’s esteem. He wrote, “The Symbol of all Art is the Prism. The goal is unrealism. The method is destructive. To break up the white light of objective realism, into the secret glory it contains.” (Id., 4.) Indeed, his fascination with Cubism crept up in his poetry (Id., 180):

 

Picasso

. . .

 

your brain’s

axe only chops hugest inherent

Trees of Ego,from

whose living and biggest

 

bodies lopped

of every

prettiness

 

you hew form truly

 

This passage is revealing. Cummings acknowledged that beauty (“prettiness,” as he calls it) was “lopped” from the representational forms, and that the “true” form was the individual elements of color separated from their integration into the entire image. In this view, beauty is in fact opposed to truth.

 

            Cummings’s views fall perfectly in line with those expressed by cubist painters themselves. In the first and most influential manifesto of cubist visual art, Du “Cubisme,” the French painters Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger echo Cummings in articulating their aesthetic ideal: “Let the picture imitate nothing; let it nakedly present its raison d'être.” (Gleizes and Metzinger, in Herbert, p. 46.) This is because “[t]here are as many images of an object as there are eyes which look at it” and “as many essential images of it as there are minds which comprehend it.” (Id.) And more fundamentally, “[t]here is nothing real outside ourselves,” and indeed “nothing real” at all “except the coincidence of a sensation and an individual mental direction.” (Id.)

 

            As with modernism in poetry, cubism derived the meaning in the artistic work not from some absolute truth outside of both the artist and the viewer, but left it to the viewer to “assemble” the disparate angles depicted in the work in his own mind. Thus, the meaning of the work was entirely dependent on the viewer’s interpretation, and presumably was meant to vary with each individual observer.

 

            And for Gleizes and Metzinger, as with modernists in general, advocacy for the “new” art is impossible without attack on tradition:

 

Some maintain that such a tendency distorts the curve of tradition. Do they derive their arguments from the future or the past? The future does not belong to them, as far as we are aware, and one be singularly ingenuous to seek to measure that which exists by that which exists no longer.

 

(Id.) The future does not belong to those who seek to preserve tradition. Such a statement could appear convincing only to a mind that has rejected the existence of absolute truth. Truth, after all, does not change whether it is in or out of vogue. That any trend “is the future” not only fails to appeal to a classicist – it is not even an argument.

 

Armed with their non-argument, Gleizes and Metzinger press further. They brazenly attempt to isolate their ideas from any criticism by asserting that tradition “exists no longer” – and non-existence cannot measure something that exists. This is a grandiose rhetorical flourish, but a meaningless one. Classicism and tradition are ideas, and ideas exist out of time and space. Even if one accepts the premise that they were outmoded and had no place in the future, the ideas themselves remain. And neither Gleizes nor Metzinger could will any idea out of existence. Again, only a mind that rejects the existence of absolute truth could find itself convinced by such an argument. And the statement contains a glaring contradiction: the authors who assert on one hand that objective reality is impossible to know affirm in no uncertain terms the non-existence of an idea.

 

            Suffice it to say that the polemics of cubism rest on the shakiest of grounds, grandiose and self-contradictory flourishes of non-argument, and nothing more. But having understood cubism, we may now return to Cummings and better understand his work. His fascination with cubism is the key that unlocks his facially inscrutable poetry. Let us take two examples. First, the opening poem is his 1958 collection, 95 Poems:

 

l(a

 

le

af

fa

 

ll

s)

one

l

 

iness.

 

The analysis is simple. “A leaf falls” is inserted as a parenthetical into the word “loneliness,” which in turn is fragmented so that the two 1’s stand alone as reminiscent of the numeral 1 and the word “one” is spelled out. The cascade of two- and three-character lines evokes the motion of the leaf falling, and the image is framed within the idea.

 

            Then there is this earlier and less laconic example from his 1935 collection, No Thanks:

 

                        r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r

 

            who

 

a)s w(e loo)k

upnowgath

            PPEGORHRASS

                                    eringint(o-

aThe):l

            eA

                !p:

S                                              a

                        (r

rIvInG                         .gRrEaPsPhOs)

                                                            to

rea(be)rran(com)gi(e)ngly

,grasshopper;

 

The same principles apply, only more is at play in this one. The word “grasshopper” appears three times scrambled before appearing correctly in the final line. These are inserted among a text that, unscrambled, reads, “Who, as we look up now, gathering into the leaps arriving to become rearrangingly.” (Cummings, incidentally, loved to create such words as this last one by using one part of speech as another.) (Kennedy, p. 330.)

 

            In both cases, it is not the text itself, but the arrangement of the text that supplies the poem’s meaning. As with the modernists, the primary concern of Cummings is the effect on the reader. Only whereas the modernists sought to achieve that effect purely through language, Cummings does so through the appearance of the language. He remains the cubist painter, only now he paints with text.

 

Cummings’s meanings are not subtle, either. In the first poem, the shape of the text reflects the falling leaf, and framing that object within the word “loneliness” visually depicts the object captured within the idea. It is a ham-handed attempt at metaphor. The poem does little more than shout, “This falling leaf symbolizes loneliness!” But that is not metaphor. It does not develop the idea, but only announces it prosaically, albeit in a visually whimsical way.

 

The grasshopper poem is hardly more subtle. The recurrence of the word “grasshopper” in three different scrambled rearrangements before appearing correctly in the final line resembles the inability to behold the leaping grasshopper fully until it comes to a stop. The variance in capitalization and the insertion of punctuation further echoes the broken vision. The insertion of “become” into “rearrangingly” suggests that the rearrangement of visions is itself a form of becoming, and indeed being, as “be” in “become” is isolated. Again, the poem does not treat the grasshopper as a metaphor. Of course, neither poem is meant to be recited. Indeed, recitation would only detract from the intended effect of the poem.

 

Cummings’s poems are cubist paintings using text rather than oils as their medium. To recite them would be akin to substituting a recited description of a Picasso painting for a view of the painting itself. As preferable as this might be in the case of the Picasso painting, it rejects millennia of poetic practice and indeed the very origins of poetry itself.

 

These two pieces display Cummings at his most abstract, and in that regard might be considered experimental. But examining one of Cummings’s more straightforward poems, the same principles apply, just not as garishly displayed. The following is the twenty-third poem of his 1944 collection, 1 X 1:

 

love is a spring at which

crazy they drink who’ve climbed

steeper than hopes are fears

only not ever named

mountains more if than each

known allness disappears

 

lovers are mindless they

higher than fears are hopes

lovers are those who kneel

lovers are those whose lips

smash unimagined sky

deeper than heaven is hell

 

Here Cummings approaches the traditional. He uses strict meter – six syllables to each verse – and even ventures into rhyme with “fears”/“disappears,” and the half-rhyme “kneel”/“hell.” He makes no use of the parentheticals and typographical oddities present in the previous poems. Yet he is still Cummings the modernist. Capitalization and punctuation are absent, blurring the division of thoughts. Does the fifth line continue the thoughts expressed in the fourth, or the last line those in the eleventh? Cummings the cubist would doubtlessly answer that both depend entirely on the reader’s perspective. And there lurks the underlying philosophy of modernism, even in a quasi-formal poem: the poem’s meaning depends on the impressions of the reader.

 

            And Cummings’s legacy lives on. In his 1956 manifesto on “concrete poetry,” the Brazilian poet and critic Augusto de Campos defines the term thus:

 

- the concrete poem or ideogram becomes a relational field of functions.

 

- the poetic nucleus is no longer placed in evidence by the successive and linear chaining of verses, but by a system of relationships and equilibriums between all parts of the poem.

 

- graphic-phonetic functions-relations (“factors of proximity and likeness”) and the substantive use of space as an element of composition maintain a simultaneous dialectic of eye and voice, which, allied with the ideogrammic synthesis of meaning, creates a sentient “verbivocovisual” totality. In this way words and experience are juxtaposed in a tight phenomenological unit impossible before.

 

(de Campos, paras. 8-10.) This encapsulates exactly what Cummings’s technique achieved. Cummings might even be considered a “concrete poet” forty years before concrete poetry itself existed. Reading de Campos’s poems, the influence of Cummings is readily observable. If anything, de Campos outdoes even Cummings by varying the typeface and color of the text.

 

            But reading further into de Campos’s manifesto, it becomes readily apparent that his movement suffers from the same bellicosity as the cubists forty years earlier. He says of classical poetry, “[T]he old formal syllogistic-discursive foundation, strongly shaken at the beginning of the century, has served again as a prop for the ruins of a compromised poetic, an anachronistic hybrid with an atomic heart and a medieval cuirass.” (Id., para. 5.) And he goes on to deride traditional expression as “self-debilitating introspection and simpleton simplistic realism” opposed to the “absolute realism” of concrete poetry. (Id., para. 4.)

 

            Cummings himself was no polemicist. Indeed, “disciplined intellectual analysis was not to his liking,” and “as time went on, he came to express an open scorn for philosophers.” (Kennedy, p. 53.) It was therefore left to de Campos and others like him to weaponized Cummings’s style into an ideological attack on classical aesthetic.

 

            De Campos’s rhetoric is little different than the cubist painters forty years before. Classicism in the twentieth century was to de Campos “the ruins of a compromised poetic” and “an anachronistic hybrid.” The “syllogistic-discursive” foundation de Campos describes is none other than classical metaphor, the poem’s use of the tangible to reveal an eternal, universal truth. What “shook” it at the beginning of the Twentieth Century was modernism itself. But as with Gleizes and Metzinger, to view modernism as “shaking” classicism requires equating trend with truth, which amounts to denial of absolute truth.

 

            A shameless hypocrisy lies under all this rhetoric. “Concrete poetry,” as with cubism, claims that the only reality of which anyone is certain is the perception of the observer. Yet at the same time it asserts in no uncertain terms that it and only it depicts “absolute realism.” It knows no reality, but in knowing that it knows no reality, knows reality. Thus it presumes to attack not only classicism and tradition, but human reason itself.

 

            In truth, however, “concrete poetry” depicts no “absolute” reality. Instead, it only mimics the metaphor of classical poetics in a primitive, sub-rational way. It needs an image. Its technique is indelibly linked to the visual, as it uses the medium of the text itself to convey its effect. Yet it is not depiction. It presents not merely an image, but a textual representation relating to the central image. This is a form of metaphor, but not metaphor in the classical sense: a reasoned presentation of ideas language easily comprehensible to the reader. Instead, it represents a regression – a reduction of reason to innuendo and of ideas to effects. And it cannot even be bothered to present an argument, but instead must rely on the reader to supply whatever meaning he would.

 

And “concrete poetry” was really nothing new. Pictorial poems appeared centuries before. In the Seventeenth Century, George Herbert wrote poems in the shape of the objects that served as their central metaphor, notably “Easter Wings” and “The Altar.” What was new about Cummings’s poems and the “concrete poetry” after him was their perspective. Cummings painted cubist abstractions using words, rather than molding a discussion of ideas into a shape. But that is mere modernism. The work derives its meaning from the effect assigned to it by the reader. Cummings and the “concrete poets” may be deemed little more than modernism’s George Herbert.

 

In the end, Cummings and the “concrete poets” are just another stripe of modernist. Only their obscurity is much more inscrutable than, say, Yeats or Eliot. The latter content themselves with conveying their effect through the language itself. “Concrete poetry” goes one step further and conveys its effect with the visual representation of the text itself. But the worldview is the same: truth does not exist or is unknowable, and any meaning in the poem is left to the reader to formulate from the impressions he derives from the work.

 

Modernism found a way to obscure its obscurity further.

 

Works Cited

 

Campos, Augusto de. “Concrete Poetry: A Manifesto.” AD – Arquitetura e Decoração, No. 20 (Nov./Dec. 1956). Tr. John Tolman. Available at http://www2.uol.com.br/augustodecampos/

concretepoet.htm (last visited Feb. 6, 2019).

 

Gleizes, Albert, and Jean Metzinger. On “Cubism.” Paris, 1912. Pp. 9-11, 13-14, 17-21, 25-32. In English from Robert L. Herbert, Modern Artists on Art, Englewood Cliffs, 1964.

 

Kennedy, Richard S. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E.E. Cummings. W.W. Norton & Co., 1994

 

Appendix: Some Examples of Metaphor

 

By Adam Sedia

 

            To measure a work by any standard is impossible without a defined standard. Modernist poetry, as lately exemplified by the works of E.E. Cummings, cannot have shortcomings without something of which to fall short. The standard used in criticizing his works was their lack of metaphor. It is necessary, then, to clarify exactly what metaphor is and how it is used effectively. This brief appendix seeks to explore more fully the classical use of metaphor in poetry.

 

            The dictionary defines “metaphor” as “a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance,” or in the broader sense “something used, or regarded as being used, to represent something else; emblem; symbol.” As used here, “metaphor” is used in its second definition, though even that sense does not fully capture the breadth and power of poetic metaphor.

 

            Metaphor, while technically a symbol, is so much more. Poetic metaphor takes an object of sensory experience – however concrete or abstract – and through the poet’s artistry transforms the object into an idea much greater than the object itself. The concrete becomes abstract. In this way the poet speaks to the reader by appealing to both shared sensory experience and conceptions universally shared to reveal a truth that was not apparent to the reader before. The object is a vehicle to illustrate the idea in a new, unique way. And therein lies the artistry of poetry.

 

            But expounding can never convey the true power of poetic metaphor more effectively than demonstrating it through the works of the masters. Below are four examples strewn across time, nations, and even languages that show not only the power, but the versatility of metaphor. All share a single object of their metaphor – the sea. What could be grander than the sea? Perhaps the skies, but the sea is literally an all-encompassing object that laps the shores of every continent. It is calm in some latitudes and stormy in others; shallow and turquoise in some and measureless, deep blue in others – yet it remains the same sea. The sea as metaphor, just like the sea as experienced, varies just as greatly and encompasses just as much – and for that reason is just as powerful.

 

            The earliest poem examined here is “Meerestille” by the great German classical poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It has long been a favorite, having been famously set to music as a cantata by Beethoven and inspiring an overture by Mendelssohn. Though often paired with “Glückliche Fahrt,” we will examine it alone here. The original German and its translation are:

 

Meerestille

 

Tiefe Stille herrscht im Wasser,
Ohne Regung ruht das Meer,
Und bekümmert sieht der Schiffer
Glatte Fläche ringsumher.
Keine Luft von keiner Seite!
Todesstille fürchterlich!
In der ungeheuern Weite
Reget keine Welle sich.

 

The Quiet Sea

 

Deep silence rules the paling waters -

The pristine seas are soundless.

Meanwhile a boatman looks on and shivers

As he beholds the tranquil surface.

No howling gale, no whispering breeze –

The silence is terrible.

In the distance, in every direction

There appears not one ripple.

 

Translation © David B. Gosselin

 

            This is a vision of eternity. A brilliant irony underlies the entire poem: Goethe through language – a medium rooted in sound – portrays absolute quiet and still. The description conveys a vivid image of an endless sea of glass spreading wide beneath dead air, and neither the narrator nor the boatman present with him speak anything in that motionless scene. And a further irony permeates the poem, this time in the description. The tranquility is disquieting. Far from calming, the silence is “terrible” and makes the observing boatman “shiver.”

 

            Goethe observes in the calm and quiet a vision of Sir Edmund Burke’s sublime. The natural surroundings engender fear in the narrator. But what is to fear from a quiet sea? The narrator seems to prefer a death-dealing “howling gale” to the stillness he sees. That is because the endless stretch of motionless sea evokes the infinite stillness of death. The smallness of the narrator and boatman against the still sea further evokes the transience of the human lifespan against the eternity in which it exists.

 

            Through metaphor, Goethe makes the sea into death’s eternity, and by translating such an abstraction into a concrete image conveys its vastness and the insignificance of human existence against it to the reader with striking immediacy. The use of metaphor here is masterful furthermore because Goethe’s use of the sea to evoke death occurs unexpectedly. It is not the swelling, white-capped high seas battered by storm-gales that evoke death, but the seemingly inviting quiet, breezeless seas of the doldrums. By deviating so far from expectation, Goethe makes the reader reflect on the analogy, and allows an understanding of death and eternity from an entirely unlikely perspective.

 

            Though by metaphor he extends it beyond the mere sensory experience of it, Goethe still describes a literal sea. In the next poem, Edgar Allen Poe describes another sea, one purely in the realm of imagination:

 

A Dream Within a Dream

 

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow—
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

 

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand—
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep—while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

 

            Poe uses the narrative voice, speaking to his lover, to convey the same thoughts as Goethe – the transience and insignificance of human existence against eternity. But Poe’s approach is quite different from Goethe’s. Whereas Goethe represented eternity in the passive, calm sea stretching endlessly out, Poe stands on shore of a very active sea – a “torment[ing],” “roar[ing]” surf of “pitiless wave[s].”

 

            Nor is it the sea itself that Poe uses to represent death and eternity, but the sea’s action. The narrator grasps a handful of “golden sand” – gold being the color of light and life – and weeps as the grains fall into the waves to be washed away forever. He tries to grasp more tightly, but can only pray to save even one (which he emphasizes in italics) grain from them.

 

            The narrator stands grounded on shore, which represents human existence more generally. Yet this, too, lies within the tormenting seas. The individual life of the narrator, then, is merely a “dream within a dream.” It is the roaring, consuming sea that is reality. The narrator cannot stop the golden grains of sand he holds – individual days or experiences of life – from falling into the vastness and turbulence of the waves, where they disappear forever. And the land on which the narrator stands is composed of the sand. One day, all the sand will run out and it, too, will disappear beneath the waves.

 

            Whereas the sea in Goethe’s poem is a larger existence within which the narrative voice exists and against which it compares, in Poe’s it is an external force, felt by what it does rather than for what it is. As eternity, it consumes the individual golden joys and obscures them irretrievably into oblivion. The presumed vastness of the sea never figures into the poem because it does not matter. The sea consumes the golden grains of sand and that is what troubles the narrator, regardless of how vast the sea might be.

 

            With Poe the great age of modern classicism drew to a close. After him came the sentimentalist Victorians and the iconoclastic modernists. Neither school had much interest in metaphor. Yet among the milieu of modernism vestiges of classical poetic craft survived. Among twentieth-century poets, Robert Frost displays some of the best use of classical metaphor. The following appears in his 1928 collection, West-Running Brook:

 

Once by the Pacific

 

The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
The cliff in being backed by continent;
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God’s last Put out the Light was spoken.

 

            As with Goethe and Poe, Frost uses the sea (actually here, an ocean) to represent death and eternity. Unlike Goethe, Frost portrays the sea at a moment when it would be expected to conjure thoughts of death – just before a storm is about to hit shore. But it is still the appearance that is unsettling. As with Poe, Frost’s narrator stands on the shore. But unlike Poe, the sea inspires dread not by what it is doing but by what it threatens to do.

 

            Frost’s sea is not the eternity against which individual human existence pales in insignificance. Instead, it is the force that annihilates the world. It is about to do “something . . . that water never did to land before.” It will break the land just before God commands, “Put out the Light” – countermanding His first command in Genesis.

 

            Frost’s sea represents the overwhelming, unfeeling, primeval forces of nature that can easily overwhelm the world and sweep it away along with all human existence and achievements. It illustrates the frailty of human existence not by dwarfing it, as in Goethe, but by showing what it can do. The sea’s power lies in potentiality. Yet the narrator has survived to tell of his experience, and the reader survives to learn of it. For all the sea’s terrible potential, it remains only potential, and the God who would command, “Put out the Light,” to an obedient sea is merciful enough never to have commanded it. In this way, the metaphor of the sea reveals an implicit, underlying sense of optimism and gratitude beneath the fearful lines of the text itself.

 

            Classicism did not die with Frost. Among contemporary classical poets, the use of metaphor remains strong. And they turn to the sea for inspiration as much as their predecessors. Take, for example, the following poem by David Gosselin:

 

The Sea

 

My sleeping spirit wakes

As the town’s vespers

Ascend the stairless sky

And the sea whispers.

 

The rushing waves arrive

Upon the craggy                                  

Shores of consciousness

And the sea whispers.                                     

 

Like the mariner's song

Or an ancient dirge,

Which the paling waves hum

As the sea-storms surge.

 

Through the hidden grottoes
And cavern waters 
Lie the countless demesnes
Through which she whispers.

 

Like some magic seashell

On an antique shore

Echoing a thousand words

Of sage-like lore.

 

Upon the earthly sod,

Of sunken treasures

And ships long forgotten

She quiet whispers.

 

Like a forlorn nymph

Who weeps and shivers

In her hallowed grots,

And sacred rivers— 

 

In hope of love’s tidings,

Her quiet vespers,

Upon the boundless seas,

She softly whispers.

 

Like a beautiful swan

With its broken wings,

Whose delicate soul flies

As the night-tide sings.

 

So my dreaming spirit

Slumber enters

As the clouds veil the moon,

And the sea whispers.

 

Here, Gosselin presents a slightly different side of the sea. Goethe, Poe, and Frost all likened the sea to death, eternity, and the immensity of nature compared to man. For them, the sea is to be feared. In Gosselin’s poem, by contrast, the sea, while still vast and boundless, is a neutral force. It is a world to be discovered.

The sea here does not overwhelm as for Goethe. It does not erode as for Poe or threaten as for Frost. No, here it “whispers” – a refrain repeated six times through the ten stanzas. It calls out to the “sleeping spirit,” beckoning it to awaken and partake in its many wonders. The sea is not remarkable so much for what it is or does as what it contains: the storms, caverns, treasures, distant shores – an entire universe to explore.

 

The narrative voice does drop hints as the sea’s surlier side – the “sea-storms” that “surge,” the sunken ships and treasure, the “boundless” expanse. But these hints occur in passing. They are brief nods to acknowledge the subject’s power. But they are not the only facet of the sea that draws the narrative voice’s attention, as they are in the other poems.

 

Instead, the narrative voice awakens from nighttime slumber at the whisperings of the sea. It is transported through the universe of worlds on, under, and around the sea – worlds of mystery, knowledge, and treasure waiting discovery and hidden from the rest of the townsfolk who do not awaken. After this geographic exploration, the voice rides like the nymph riding upon the seas, seeking love. The sea for the nymph is freedom to search for love on the unbounded waters, as it is for the narrator freedom from the cares of waking life – escape through sleep. The narrative voice then likens itself to “a beautiful swan / With broken wings / Whose delicate soul flies,” evoking mortality. At last, it enters slumber. It has found peace in death. And the sea whispers on, for other ears to hear.

 

All four poems share the same object for their metaphor. Yet their treatment of that single subject could hardly be more different. Goethe’s calm sea inspires terror, not the expected serenity. Poe’s unstoppably seizes the sand grains the narrator wants to retain. Frost’s threatens the destruction of the world that remains undestroyed. And Gosselin’s beckons exploration. And these are only four selected poems. Just as the sea in its various climes and weathers assumes and infinite range of colors, moods, and atmospheres, so can the sea as a literary device engender infinitely variegated use of metaphor. And metaphor used masterfully as in the poems above can be just as powerful as the mighty, boundless sea.

 

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload