Raymond Shorthouse

Poetic Rhythm and the Sonority of Being

In contemporary philosophical debate there is increasing interest in the role of poetic language. There are those, like Richard Rorty, who claim the poet as the maker of new worlds, the shaper of new languages. These philosophers are concerned that Western philosophy, by maintaining a separation between the language of the emotions and rational discourse, has failed to account for the role of the poetic in traditional mythologies and grand narratives, and inhibited reason in relation to new experiences of life. In their concern, Rorty and other philosophers argue for the final victory of poetry in its ancient quarrel with philosophy. It is time, they say, to recognise and encourage the role of the poet.

In my book, Textual Narratives and a New Metaphysics, I acknowledge these important philosophical developments, and have attempted to demonstrate that there is a ground for affirming rational meaning through the way in which textual rhythmic structures of poetic language mediate a sonorous condition of being. Reading and listening to poetry affects a profound rhythmic state of being in the auditor, a pulse of affirmation of rational meaning. This is based on the objective, rhythmic structures of the text transmitting those deep rhythms which lie beneath and beyond conscious levels of control. It is in this sense, therefore, that such affirmation is to be thought of as metaphysically grounded.

The imaginative expression of the poet is not fundamentally reflective, but, analogous to the sculptor working with stone, it is given form in the texture of the language used. The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur writes,

The poet, in effect, is that artisan who sustains and shapes imagery using no other means than language.

It is, however, a linguistic process of working with words radically different from the working out of a propositional, descriptive sentence. It is a process of image-making like any other artistic activity.

Let us take as an example W.B. Yeats’ metaphor for old age in his poem, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’,

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick…

Any attempt to paraphrase the metaphor (such as, an aged man is frail and insignificant) loses that immediate, imaginative grasp of the image which the poet has created. The staccato rhythm of the second line gives to the image a sense of battered frailty and physical disintegration. This is made more conspicuous by the contrasting, contextually rich imagery of Byzantium, and the strong Yeatsian rhythm,

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress

In comparison with the empirical, rational attempts to explain the meaning of old age, Yeats allows us to meet an old man. The encounter is grounded in rhythmic sonority to such an extent that it is what Ricoeur calls the iconic moment. According to Ricoeur, the image or verbal icon, like the icons of Byzantine, consists in fusion of sense and sensible. It is the hard object, similar to sculpture, that the language of a poem becomes, once it is stripped of its referential function and reduced to an opaque appearance. It presents the experience immanent within it. In other words, the meaning of ‘tattered coat’ and ‘stick’ are grounded not in the referential function of their literal meaning, but in grasping the verbal icon in its rhythmic sonority. Like the experience of music and dance, there is a moment of affirmation, a rhythmic convergence, a unity grounded in the person’s state of being. It is a moment of liberation: to appropriate the image is to experience a ‘living moment’ made possible by entrance into the dynamic of poetic rhythm.

There are, for example, the hard, stark and stern rhythms of a poet like R.S. Thomas. Such is the image of the Welsh peasant in his ‘Lament for Prytherch’,

Your heart that is dry as a dead leaf
Undone by frost’s cruel chemistry
Clings in vain to the bare bough
Where once in April a bird sang.

Gerald Manley Hopkins in ‘The Windhover’ captured an ecstatic experience of Christ in the exhilarating sight of the bird in flight. The rhythms of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence resonate with innocence and joy. Dylan Thomas’ evocative, lyrical rhythms combined in his poem ‘Fern Hill’ with its original images to create a strong emotional sense of happy, carefree childhood.

To encounter such images is to appropriate their sonorous, rhythmic texture and inhabit a viewpoint, a way of seeing, that is ontologically grounded in such images. This is not simply an act of concentration, but a moment of self-forgetfulness in which we are absorbed by the image. It is an act of the creative imagination, in the Kantian sense, in which the transmission of the text precipitates a rhythmical drive towards a new way of seeing, a new way of being. This is an ontological dynamic which uproots the figurative characteristics of the words from their literal meaning and ‘carries them over’ (metaphora) to a new configuration. The image of the ‘tattered coat’ rhythmically reconfigures a new way of seeing the aged man.

In Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem ‘God’s Grandeur’ the sight of the sun shining suddenly on a bird in flight captures a vision of divine presence in the world,

Oh, morning, at the brown bring eastwards, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

The poet is not simply expressing emotion but, stirred by the rhythms of poetry, is open to revelation. It is an affirmation of meaning born out of the rhythmic language, transcending language on a commonplace medium. In that moment, there is a conversion of perception, to see the world, as though for the first time, from the point of view of the other. It is a moment of understanding in the consequent semantic uprooting and the creation of new meaning. In the context of Hopkins’ poem, if the reader is sensitive to the rhythm, the image ‘bright wings’ resonates throughout the poem, giving a new meaning to God’s grandeur in the world.

At this level of understanding, the poet shatters the pre-established semantic network to open up the horizon of meaning. Paradoxically, those poets, like Thomas Hardy, who are disturbed by perplexities and self-questionings, often enter into this process to give expression to an affirmation that transforms the negative to positive meaning. Through the struggles and dark places, the poet engages with the discordance at the centre of his being, to discover a rhythmic concordance, a harmony, which drives him to the point of affirmation.

After the death of his first wife Emma in November 1912, Hardy discovered three personal manuscripts she had written about her life. The third one, ‘Some Recollections’, includes reminiscences about her early life, which caused Hardy to be stricken with remorse, because their later married life had been extremely unhappy. In the early months of 1913, he revisited the places of Cornwall where their young love had flourished. The poem ‘After a Journey’ describes his search into the past. The historical context for this poem, with its mood of uncertainty, is the impending breakdown of traditional beliefs and increasing pessimism. Hardy’s doubts were clouding over his sensibility and his attempts to find a rational explanation for the mystery of life. In the poem e approaches death with disturbing honesty, resisting all consolations.

‘After a Journey’ is not, therefore, an exercises in nostalgia and personal fantasy; an elderly poet indulging his longing for a lost past. It is a kind of Proustian act of remembrance, an anamnesis when things in the past are recalled into the present. The memory of those moments of young love, powerfully evoked by Hardy’s return visits to the place where they wandered together, becomes at one level the images of Emma, which he imaginatively grasps to be one with her again. But this image has greater depths in this act of remembrance. The rhythmic drive to be absorbed in capturing the otherness of the young Emma is the striving to inhabit a viewpoint in which the world does indeed make sense.

As with many poems, ‘After a Journey’ is structured with what Northrop Frye calls ‘implicit’ as well as ‘explicit’ metaphors. The presence of the sea, as the setting for the poem, is a metaphor for a gentle surging towards a oneness with Emma. The lyrical rhythm, which is repeatedly disturbed and broken, also conveys a sense of uncertainty in its ebb and flow upon the rocks. We see this, for example, in the first four lines of the poem,

Hereto I come to view a voiceless ghost;
Whither, O whither will its whim now draw me?
Up the cliff, down, till I am lonely, lost,
And the unseen waters’ ejaculations awe me.

It is in the fourth line that the rhythmic movement reaches a climax, which gives a pulse of affirmation to the whole poem. The break in the movement of the line, made by two unstressed syllables at the end of ‘waters’ and ‘ejaculations’, is an instant of holding back to allow for the climactic surge in the full rhyme ‘awe me’.

There is here, of course, a sexual image that comes alive in the movement of the rhythm. But this is taken up and transformed by the evocative rhythm and imagery of the whole poem, so that the physical unity in the moment of climax is an affirmation that transcends personal grief and the tragic awareness of life which pervades the poem. The image of the young Emma is given a sense of her sexual presence in the rhythmic surging of the sea. This reaches a moment of climax, which is transcended by the war ‘awe me’ draws the prayerful connotations of ‘ejaculations’ to the surface. It is a sudden gasp of prayer, as a pulse of affirmation reverberates throughout the poem. This gives to the image of Emma a Dantesque dimension of beatification borne out of a mood of uncertainty and melancholic nostalgia.

It is through poetic language that there is the possibility of a reasonable affirmation of the intelligibility of the world. But for this to be so, there must be an awakening to the nature of the poetic, to the music of language. This calls for a process of redefinition of aesthetic sensibility.

Reverend Doctor Raymond Shorthouse is an Anglican priest in Dorset. ‘The Sonority of Being’ is a concept taken from the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

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