Accueil > à l’écoute > Critique > The Poetic Voice, an Ethical Voice : the Question of Rhythm, par Anne (...)

The Poetic Voice, an Ethical Voice : the Question of Rhythm, par Anne Mounic

29 avril 2012

par Anne Mounic

The Poetic Voice, an Ethical Voice : the Question of Rhythm [1]

A poem is an ethical choice, the subject’s assertion and new birth. It also gives shape and meaning to time. Following this perspective, I wish to discuss the reciprocal relationship of ethics and/to aesthetics in creative writing, by focusing on and examine the essential question of rhythm. First of all, leaning on examples taken from different periods, I intend to study the visages of the ‘I’ in the poem in its relations to the second and third persons, as well as and to time and space as well, through several examples from different periods. Then I shall consider the notion of rhythm, or the arrangements of words, as regards the ethical choice and its aesthetic manifestation. Finally, I shall discuss the consequences of such a conception of the poem as far as the critical approach to poetry is concerned.

The ethical choice and the fullness of time

Following Kierkegaard’s definition in Either… or…(1843), I shall begin by defining the notion of ethical choice as a necessary element of existential dialectics : “The choice here makes two dialectical movements at once : what is chosen does not exist and comes into existence through the choice, and what is chosen exists, otherwise it would not be a choice. For if the thing I chose did not exist but became absolute through the choice itself, I would not have chosen, I would have created. But I do not create myself, I choose myself. Therefore while nature has been created out of nothing, while I myself qua my immediate personal existence have been created out of nothing, as free spirit I am born of the principle of contradiction, or born by virtue of the fact that I chose myself.” [2] The ethical choice is the subject’s choice of individual life. As Kierkegaard also says, having made that choice, the individual is no longer eccentric, as he is in the aesthetic phase. And because he has become a centre to himself, he is no longer divided but wholly himself. He fully realises his own self – “a relation which relates to itself, and relating to itself relates to something else” [3]. Choosing life, the individual subject acknowledges its uncontrollable dimension : “… in relating to itself and in wanting to be itself, the self is grounded transparently in the power that established it.” [4] The choice of life is a choice, or an acceptance, of time. I could quote Eliot’s sententious formula in Four Quartets : “Only through time time is conquered.” [5] The repetition of the term in the middle of the line, by creating a frontal clash, grounds a duality which resists dialectics. Eradicating despair, which is what Kierkegaard contemplates at the beginning of The Sickness unto Death, does not mean conquering time but accepting it as a “trump card” [6]. Kierkegaard’s “repetition” is a dialectical process which implies accepting the loss but giving the present moment its full resonance through faith : “… for it is great to give up one’s desire, but it is greater to hold fast to it after having given it up ; it is great to lay hold of the eternal, but it is greater to hold fast to the temporal after having given it up.
Then came the fullness of time.” [7]

Accepting life means accepting the loss and converting it into a new leap into the future. Time is not “conquered” but given full resonance in the inner being. The self is grounded in time and finds its freedom through the threefold movement of “relating to itself” (reflexive consciousness) and placing its faith in becoming. We may consider Coleridge’s primary imagination, that is, the “leap”, the “intermediate faculty, which is at once both active and passive” [8], as the faculty of becoming. Thinking about association, Coleridge shows how time and contemporaneity cannot be separated “for that would be to separate them from the mind itself” and he affirms : “The act of consciousness is indeed identical with time considered in its essence.” [9] This runs counter to Eliot’s assertion in the passage just mentioned, situated at the end of the second section of “Burnt Norton” :

“Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered ; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.” (My italics)

Eliot’s outlook is definitely idealistic since he separates mental consciousness from experience. The present moment of experience belongs to the temporal, or sublunary, world. But consciousness transcends time : “To be conscious is not to be in time”. It seems that the opposition between experience and memory of experience on the one hand, and consciousness on the other, cannot be reconciled. Hence the clash in the middle of the last line : “Only through time time is conquered.” Without a dialectical relation of the eternal and the temporal, the “fullness of time” cannot be contemplated. The idealistic view of the work of art as an impersonal aesthetic object shares in this hopeless dualism of the eternal and the temporal. We shall see how the plenitude of time is linked both with expression of self and with rhythm.

The phrase used by Kierkegaard after he has described what faith is – the acceptance of the dialectics of loss and repetition (the French translation by Nelly Viallaneix, “reprise” [10], or “resumption”, is more accurate, since Kierkegaard does not mean that the present moment is being repeated but that it is being renewed, or resumed, on another plane) – is interesting : “Then came the fullness of time.” The philosopher refers to Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, 4, 4 : “But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law.” Paul speaks of messianic time and the possibility of redemption. The idea of “fullness” suggests plenitude as opposed to the feeling of deprivation that goes with chronological time. Time as absolute transcendence is absolutely destructive ; time as converted in our inner being into our own creative choice is freedom and plenitude. In an essay called Il tempo che resta, Giorgio Agamben distinguishes between what he calls “represented time” and “operative time” [11], or chronos and kairos – in other words, clock time and the right, or appropriate time, the time in which we can act. He calls the subjective time of individual creation messianic and links the notion with poetic rhythm, or the rhythm of achievement. In other words, rhythm gives flesh to life.

Rhythm as the substance of subjective life

I wish to consider how rhythm may give flesh to life through the process of renewal, or resumption, of the present moment which Kierkegaard associates with “the fullness of time”. The individual lives in the present moment, which is his access to the eternal. Denying it means denying the individual. Yet the present moment is part of becoming ; it cannot be dissociated from it. Otherwise there would be no resumption, no renewal, but only the irreversible duality between the temporal and the eternal, which characterizes idealistic philosophy and severs the aesthetic object from its subjective highly personal origin. In “Burnt Norton”, T.S. Eliot meditates on “now” : “And all is always now” [12]. But there is a tension between the notion of totality (“all”), and the present moment (“now”). The latter can only be renewed if it is not “all” but a movement constantly projecting the past into the future. Within the self, time knows no break. Time, as it is experienced, is a dialectical continuity of action and repose [13]. There is no such thing as “the waste sad time / Stretching before and after”, which Eliot deems “ridiculous” [14]. On the contrary, in the present moment, time is actively embraced by the individual, and the embrace also creates plenitude. The process of resumption can be compared with the grammatical value of the convertive vav in Biblical Hebrew : this letter is able to transform a verb in the past tense into a verb in the future, and vice versa. Gerschom Scholem even claimed that messianic time is the time of the convertive vav. [15] In The White Goddess, Graves shows how the poet is concerned with time, saying he can freely move in the past and the future. “In the poetic act, time is suspended and details of future experience often become incorporated in the poem, as they do in dreams. This explains why the first Muse of the Greek triad was named Mnemosyne, ‘Memory’ : one can have memory of the future as well as of the past. Memory of the future is usually called instinct in animals, intuition in human beings.” [16] What is being suspended is chronological time, or clock time, as represented by Big Ben in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Paul Ricœur uses the expression “monumental time”, coined from Nietzsche’s “monumental history”. At the least, it is objectivated time.

Graves calls anticipation of the future “prolepsis” and memory of the past “analepsis”, and remarks : “But an interesting feature of prolepsis and analepsis is that the coincidence of the concept and the reality is never quite exact : Gamma coincides with Zeta, but not so closely that either loses its identity.” [17] In the same way, Giorgio Agamben says that there is a slight difference between “represented time” and “operative time” [18]. Therefore the present moment of the active mind cannot renounce movement, as T.S. Eliot would have it, “not in movement / But abstention from movement” [19]. “Cleansing affection from the temporal” [20] can only deprive any energy, any flesh of duration.
‘Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light” [21]

And the poetic voice is on the brink of implosion :
“Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them. The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.” [22]

The “I” which has descended “Into the world of perpetual solitude” [23] – some form of psychic autism : “Internal darkness” – has lost the world and knows no “fullness of time”.

We shall now consider two poems, one by John Donne, “The Dreame” [24], and another by Robert Graves, “Counting the Beats” [25], so as to show how the present moment acquires its flesh and substance.

“The Dreame” is a poem comprising three stanzas of ten lines each. In the first stanza, the poet, “I”, wakes up from his dream and finds his beloved with him :
“Therefore thou wakd’st me wisely ; yet
My Dreame thou brok’st not, but continued’st it”

And he wisely suggests that they should “act the rest”. In the second stanza, he explains how he was awakened by his beloved, an Angel penetrating his dreams, an Angel whom he chose to see as herself only, in the profane world. In the third stanza, he considers the ephemeral quality of the present moment of love.

The poem starts with an address to the poet’s “Deare love”, and the second person pronoun “thee” appears at the end of the first line, before “I” is pronounced. The second person gives its reality to the first, and substance to the present moment. It gives its flesh to the subjective mind :

“Thou art so truth, that thoughts of thee suffice,
To make dreames truths ; and fables histories ;
Enter these armes, for since thou thoughtst it best.
Not to dreame all my dreame, let’s act the rest.”

What is described here is a descent into the reality of the self but it is no secluded self, no “deprivation” as in Eliot’s poem ; it is fulfilment, plenitude, “the fullness of time”. The subjective world of dream grasps the real world and the present moment. The present tense is used (“Thou art so truth”) and the imperative gives even more immediacy to the event since it links it to the future : “let’s act the rest”. Therefore the poet reconsiders the past (“thou wakd’st me wisely”) in the present and opens the future : “Enter these armes”. The use of “Enter” sanctifies the moment, the person and the act as if the I and Thou relationship, the act of love, instantly created some sort of tabernacle in the temporal. “… it is great to lay hold of the eternal, but it is greater to hold fast to the temporal after having given it up.

Then came the fullness of time.” [26]

“As lightning, or a Tapers light,
Thine eyes, and not thy noise wak’d me ;”

The beloved appears as a presence in the poet’s dream, a presence which associates light and the brevity of a moment (“lightning”). A “Tapers light” is a symbol of ephemeral life. After comparing his mistress to an Angell, the poet then redescends into profane reality through some sort of subjective embrace : ‘”When thou knew’st what I dreamt, when thou knew’st when / Excess of Joy would wake me, and cam’st then”. In the second stanza, the poet dramatises the lovers’ mutual recognition : she knew his thoughts and he desires “to thinke thee any thing but thee”. Through this mutual recognition, the subjective self acquires its reality and plenitude.

The poet’s sense of reality is troubled by separation, which breaks the unity of the moment and the enchantment of love.

“Perchance as torches which must ready bee,
Men light and put out, so thou deal’st with mee,
Thou cam’st to kindle, goest to come ; Then I
Will dreame that hope again, but else would die.”

In the last lines, the rhythm of life’s experience is being depicted – action and rest ; subjective joy and objective indifference ; presence and absence ; life and death. The last stanza is reminiscent of the Song of Songs, of the mutual pursuit of love, which belongs to the appropriate moment : “I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please.” (Song of Solomon, 2, 7) The moment of love is a kairos, just as the moment when we speak. Emile Benveniste speaks of the sentence as of “a vanishing event”, “un événement évanouissant” [27]. The present moment of subjective time is such “a vanishing event” ever resumed, and “the fullness of time” lies in the resonance, in the act of recognition, or reciprocity, which gives reality its subjective flesh, and its rhythm, I and Thou, presence and absence, involvement and involution.

The I and Thou relation is at the heart of Graves’ poem, “Counting the Beats”. The poem comprises six quatrains. In each of them, the lines grow longer, and then the last line is shorter again. The lengthening of the lines expresses the persona’s anguish as regards “The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats”. The three tenses, past, present and future are used, and the present moment, “now and here”, is the abode of the two lovers, who are “You, love, and I” and then “we” but also third persons : “(He whispers)”, “Wakeful they lie”, “(She whispers)”. The fact that Graves should have inverted the usual phrase, “here and now”, shows that the poet’s main concern is his situation within time. The third person is introduced with the expression of anguish in the second stanza and with a reference to death as “the huge storm” in the third. Death is absolute transcendence breaking upon helpless heads. The figure of the patriarchal God, whether Jupiter or Jehovah, looms behind the image. In the fourth stanza, the woman contemplates the moment of death, which breaks the lovers’ intimacy. The past tense (“Who were you and I”) refers to the present moment of the poem, which the poet insists upon and shelters from fate :
“Not there but here,
(He whispers) only here,
As we are, here, together, now and here,
Always you and I.”

At the end of an essay on Claudel, Emmanuel Levinas, denying the aesthetics of the “belles lettres”, offers a definition of poetry, saying it is “what makes language possible” [28]. Poetry makes language possible in spite of death since it restores speech to what it is – the practise of our intersubjective participation in the being of the world. The individual voice, incarnate in rhythm, regains confidence and thus withstands the existential ordeal. The poem is the place of nowhere which the poet creates in the air, wrestling with the angel. Emily Dickinson considered the poet as a “pugilist”. To T.W. Higginson, she wrote, reverting the roles : “‘Audacity of Bliss’, said Jacob to the Angel ‘I will not let thee go except I bless thee’ – Pugilist and Poet, Jacob was correct –” [29] Donne’s angel sounds more like a guardian angel. However, in “The Dreame”, the poet wrestles with absence, or the disruption of reciprocity, which means that the unity of being in the present moment is broken, paving the way for death : “Then I / Will dreame that hope againe, but else would die.” Donne’s poem is based upon a structure of contrast and opposition :

My Dreame thou brok’st not, but continued’st it”

“yet I thought thee
(For thou lovest truth) an Angell, at first sight ;
But when I saw …
I must confesse, it could not chuse but bee
Prophane, to think thee any thing but thee.”

“Coming and staying show’d thee, thee,
But rising makes me doubt, that now,
Thou art not thou.”

The alternation of “yet” and “but” gives the poem its underlying rhythm. It also gives deep resonance to the present moment when thus placed under scrutiny, since it highlights its perfect ambivalence, which could be expressed in a way much relished by Defoe in Moll Flanders who “had a Husband, and no Husband” [30] : the moment of love / of the poem is a dream and not a dream ; the beloved woman is an angel and no angel ; she is more than angel, could we say, paraphrasing “more than Moon” in “A Valediction of Weeping” [31] ; the moment of love / of the poem is profane and not profane, more than heavenly (“beyond an Angels art”) since it is reality metamorphosed into a fuller substance. (“it is great to lay hold of the eternal, but it is greater to hold fast to the temporal after having given it up.”) The restriction in lines 19 and 20 : “but bee / Prophane”, “but thee”, gives its ambivalent flesh to the individual and to the present moment. The individual’s full identity can only emerge through the reciprocity of love and language, in the “correlation of subjectivity” which is for Emile Benveniste the genuine dimension of speech. “Dès que le pronom je apparaît dans un énoncé où il évoque – explicitement ou non – le pronom tu pour s’opposer ensemble à il, une expérience humaine s’instaure à neuf et dévoile l’instrument linguistique qui la fonde.” [32]

Both poems, Donne’s and Graves’, give the full impress of the poetic moment, and the poetic voice. They help us to define the ethical moment of choice as a moment of perfect ambivalence, at the same time itself and not itself, subjective and objective, suspended within duration but swept away by the flow of time. And the poem’s present moment is actualised each time we read and tell it for ourselves. It needs reciprocity to come into being. The poetic experience is intermittent, as love is. Yet each time we get a glimpse of the infinite. Donne describes such infinity in “Loves Growth” [33], linking the multiplicity of the moments of love to the unity of the second person :

“If, as in water stir’d more circles bee
Produc’d by one, love such additions take,
Those like so many spheares, but one heaven make,
For, they are all concentrique unto thee”

The last stanza of “Lovers Infinitenesse” [34] dilates on the notions of totality and the infinite :

“Yet I would not have all yet,
Hee that hath all can have no more,
And since my love doth every day admit
New growth, thou shouldst have new rewards in store ;
Thou canst not every day give me thy heart,
If thou canst give it, then thou never gavest it :
Loves riddles are, that though thy heart depart,
It stayes at home, and thou with losing it savest it :
But wee will have a way more liberall,
Then changing hearts, to joyne them, so we shall
Be one, and one anothers All.”

Love cannot be, except in time, which breaks the totality of being but opens the infinite, just as reciprocity opens the infinite and creates plenitude of being in “a way more liberall”. Language and love both aim beyond the finite realm of totality, from I to you, or thou, from the past into the future in the dialectical unity of the present moment expressed by “yet” and “but”. There is no “selving”, as Hopkins would say, without becoming, and this is how to reconcile freedom with necessity, as Duns Scotus did, according to the poet [35] who found in him an echo of his own thoughts. [36] As far as individual becoming is concerned, the sonnet “As kingfishers catch fire” is significant. The octave is based upon a comparison between all the creatures on earth seen from an individual point of view through the use of “each”. “Kingfishers” and “dragonflies” are mentioned and associated with fire ; “stones” and “strings” are endowed with sound. The notion of “sake” is exemplified here. For Hopkins it means the manifestation of the inner being outside and is its distinctive feature [37].

“Each mortal thing does one thing and the same :
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells ;
Selves – goes its self ; myself speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me : for that I came. [38]

What is important to notice here is that distinctiveness is a common quality uniting each of us on earth. Becoming oneself is acting in God’s grace – the engendering principle of life, or Christ, or man’s face. In Hopkins’ view, the ethical choice is some sort of ethical thrust, or life force, and its recognition in the mind.

“I say more : the just man justices ;
Keeps grace : that keeps all his goings graces ;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

Not only “freedom is compatible with necessity” [39] but also multiplicity with individuality. The poetic voice is highly individual but helps everybody to go to “its self”. Moreover rhythm gives each word its distinctiveness, or “sake”. “Stress is the life of it”, says Hopkins about “The Loss of the Eurydice” [40]. For him, “sprung rhythm” is “the nearest to the rhythm of prose, that is the native and natural rhythm of speech” [41]. Referring to speech means referring to the instant, to the reality of here and now. It means lending flesh to words.

“Man’s spirit will be flesh-bound, when found at best,
But uncumbered : meadow-down is not distressed
For a rainbow footing it nor he for his bones risen.” [42]

In the last lines of “The Caged Skylark”, Hopkins suggests that man is a dialectic unity of flesh and spirit and, with the arrangement of words (“flesh-bound” / “found at best”), the community of sounds emphasizes the paradoxical harmony of high and low, of descent and elevation. The rhythm helps to convert the cage into wonder. The present moment of speech and song is a moment of contrast and conversion – the conversion of necessity into freedom, through the poetic voice which recognises life and its epic quality. In this sonnet, Hopkins uses “Though”, “Yet”, and “But” as Donne did :

“Though aloft on turf or perch or poor low stage,
Both sing sometimes the sweetest, sweetest spells,
Yet both droop deadly sometimes in their cells
Or wring their barriers in bursts of fear or rage.

Not that the sweet-fowl, song-fowl, needs no rest –
Why, hear him, hear him babble and drop down to his nest,
But his own nest, wild nest, no prison.”

The dualistic viewpoint cannot achieve such recognition of wonder.
“Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light” [43].

Universality, disregarding the individual ethical moment, or even dismissing it, condemns the individual to his own objective denial on behalf of the ideal, and this denial amounts to nihilism. Let us consider Mallarmé after his crisis, when he wrote to Henri Cazalis, on 14 May 1867 : “J’avoue, du reste, mais à toi seul, que j’ai encore besoin, tant ont été grandes les avaries de mon triomphe, de me regarder dans cette glace pour penser, et que si elle n’était pas devant la table où je t’écris cette lettre, je redeviendrais le Néant. C’est t’apprendre que je suis maintenant impersonnel, et non plus Stéphane que tu as connu – mais une aptitude qu’a l’Univers Spirituel à se voir et à se développer, à travers ce qui fut moi.” [44] And Eliot’s descent into “Internal darkness” in “Burnt Norton” recalls Igitur’s climbing down the stairs of the human mind [45] and exploring the darkness of the night : “Car tel est son mal : l’absence de moi, selon lui.” [46] The poetic voice is the immanent unifying principle of the present moment and therefore, of time, seen from the inner being, as “operative time”, or the time we need to achieve something and complete it. Rhythm is the manifestation, or the “sake”, of such intrinsic meaning, or faith. I cannot speak of rhythm without quoting Henri Meschonnic : “Le poème, particulièrement, est un savoir qu’on ne connaît pas, qu’on ne peut pas consulter. Dans l’ignorance du futur, le savoir partiel du passé, le poème est un savoir du futur dans la mesure où il inscrit les déterminations d’un sujet. C’est pourquoi on n’écrit pas ce qu’on veut, encore moins ce qu’on souhaite. Mais alors que chacun n’a que son passé, le poème passe de je en je. Il est ce discours qui peut reconnaître le passé des autres. Il n’arrache pas seulement un peu de vivre à l’oubli. S’il est autre que du souvenir, c’est que le rythme est une actualisation du sujet, de sa temporalité.” [47]
The poetic voice manifests an individual subject that claims no sovereignty but recognizes life in its multiple aspects and uncontrollable origin : “Le rythme, comme le désir, n’est pas connu du sujet de l’écriture. Ce sujet n’en est pas le maître. C’est pourquoi le rythme dépasse la mesure.” [48] Rhythm and speech are one and the same thing : « Car le rythme, dans le langage, n’a lieu que dans le discours. Quand il s’agit du rythme dans le langage, il ne s’agit que du discours. » [49] Mallarmé was aware of the rhythmical dimension and its decisive significance : « Les fidèles à l’alexandrin, notre hexamètre, desserrent intérieurement ce mécanisme rigide et puéril de sa mesure ; l’oreille, affranchie d’un compteur factice, connaît une jouissance à discerner, seule, toutes les combinaisons possibles, entre eux, de douze timbres. » [50] I would like to highlight an analogy here between these words by Mallarmé and Hopkins’ view as expressed in a letter to Robert Bridges in January 1883. This is the famous letter in which he claims that for Duns Scotus, “freedom is compatible with necessity” [51]. He says that while arguing with his friend on the issue of rhyme. Bridges held that obvious, or necessary rhymes, are “vulgar” [52]. Hopkins replied : “And besides, common sense tells you that though if you say A, you cannot help saying A, yet you can help saying A1 + A2 at all ; you could have said B1 + B2, or C1 + C2 etc. And is not music a sort of rhyming in seven rhymes and does that make it vulgar ? The variety is more, but the principle is the same…” [53] What is emphasized here is the possibility of an ethical choice transcending the objective aesthetic necessity. And the originality of the choice may be deduced from the absolute novelty of the present moment. On the contrary, if the poet follows the conventional aesthetic routine, he will imitate the past. One has to choose oneself in the silence of the present moment to give that instant a slightly different human face.

If the poetic rhythm is the manifestation, or « sake », of the flesh of life, how should the critic apprehend the poem, which reveals the subject and its situation in time ?

The critical voice

The poem, or any work of art, is not an object but a subject and we should not read it from the outside but endeavour to capture the inner viewpoint. It means that the critic is capable of a certain amount of empathy, enabling him to follow the poet into what Graves called his trance. Furthermore, each reading will be subjective. We read poems with our past and our future, with our experience and our expectations. The truth will be achieved through multiple viewpoints. No objective sovereignty can be achieved in literary criticism. The critical present moment renews the poem’s present moment. Each reading of a poem is an instance of renewal, of resumption. The critical viewpoint, like the poem, belongs to the spirit of the narrative, or the reflexive outlook on life, unless the critic only considers the technical aspects of writing. Analysing a poem means considering its rhythm, in the broad meaning of the term (the arrangement of words), its images and topical references, in order to grasp its full existential dimension. Considering only what Claude Vigée calls the “pure literary technology” [54] is betraying the poem and the poet. A subjective viewpoint may not be the poet’s exact viewpoint but it is less damaging than a purely technical approach, even if the latter is easier and less demanding. Graves starts his essay called “Technique in Poetry”, one of his Oxford lectures in 1962, with the following lines, which could be read as a parable :

“God, according to a Hebrew myth, promised our father Adam the helpmate he needed, and invited him to watch while the divine fingers built up a woman’s anatomy from primeval sludge. They extemporized bones, tissues, muscles, blood, teeth, brains and glandular secretions, wove them neatly together, co-ordinated their functions, covered the whole ingenious apparatus with the smoothest of cuticles, and embellished it with tufts of hair in selected places. This technical demonstration caused Adam such disgust that, when the First Eve stood up in all her beauty and smiled at him, he turned his back on her. God therefore removed the First Eve and behaved with greater circumspection : He formed the Second Eve from Adam’s rib while he slept, then ordered the Archangel Michael to plait her hair and adorn her in bridal array. Adam woke and was enchanted.

I inherit Adam’s mistrust of creative technique.” [55]

As critics, and even more as teachers, we should preserve the enchantment : “A true poem is best regarded as already existing before it has been composed : with composition as the act of deducing its entirety from a single key-phrase that swims into the poet’s mind.” [56] In other words, the critic, and the teacher, should not confine the poem to the finite world of the object but reveal how it renounces totality to open the infinite – which does not mean that a poem should not be analysed, but only analysed in order to cast a light on the newly perceived human face of the individual instant as revealed by the poem, or any genuine work of art. In that way, both poet and critic share in the spirit of the narrative. I owe the phrase to Imre Kertesz, who borrowed it from Thomas Mann. In Die Geschichten Jaakobs (1933), Thomas Mann claims that the storyteller’s aim is the “essence of man” [57]. Past and future are made present through the narrative which provides a garment to clothe the mystery of life.

Chalifert, January 2011


[1On trouvera cet essai plus détaillé, en français dans L’esprit du récit ou La chair du devenir : Ethique et création littéraire. Paris : Honoré Champion, à paraître.

[2Søren Kierkegaard, Either… or…Translated with an Introduction by Alastair Hannay. London : Penguin, 2004, pp. 517-18.

[3Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death (1849). Translated with an Introduction by Alastair Hannay. London : Penguin, 2004, p. 43.

[4Ibid., p. 44.

[5T.S. Eliot, « Burnt Norton » (1944), Four Quartets, Collected Poems 1909-1962. London : Faber, 1975, p. 192.

[6Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition, Fear and Trembling, Repetition. Edited and Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong with Introduction and Notes. Princeton, New Jersey : Princeton University Press, 1983, p. 216.

[7Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, ibid., p. 18.

[8S.T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria. Edited with an Introduction by George Watson. London : Everyman Library, 1993, p. 72.

[9Ibid., p. 73.

[10Søren Kierkegaard, La reprise. Traduction, introduction, dossier et notes par Nelly Viallaneix. Paris : Garnier-Flammarion, 1990.

[11Giorgio Agamben, Le temps qui reste : Un commentaire de l’Epître aux Romains (2000). Traduit de l’italien par Judith Revel. Paris : Rivages Poche, 2004, p. 125.

[12T.S. Eliot, « Burnt Norton » (1944), Four Quartets, Collected Poems, op. cit., p. 194.

[13See Eugène Minkowski, Le Temps vécu. Brionne : Gérard Monfort, 1988.

[14T.S. Eliot, « Burnt Norton » (1944), Four Quartets, Collected Poems, op. cit., p. 195.

[15Gerschom Scholem Zwischen die Disziplinen, edited by P. Schäfer and G. Smith. Francfort-am-Main : Surkamp, 1995, p. 295. Quoted by G. Agamben, Le Temps qui reste. Paris : Rivages Poche, 2004, p. 131.

[16Robert Graves, The White Goddess (1948). London : Faber, 1957, p. 343.

[17Ibid., p. 344.

[18G. Agamben, op. cit., p. 122.

[19T.S. Eliot, « Burnt Norton » (1944), Four Quartets, Collected Poems, op. cit., p. 193.

[20Ibid., p. 192.


[22Ibid., p. 194.

[23Ibid., p. 193.

[24John Donne, Songs and Sonets, The Complete English Poems of John Donne. Edited by C.A. Patrides. London : Everyman, 1985, p. 83.

[25Robert Graves, Complete Poems, II. Edited by Beryl Graves and Dunstan Ward. Manchester : Carcanet, 1997, p. 180.

[26Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, op. cit., p. 18.

[27Emile Benveniste, « La forme et le sens dans le langage » (1966), Problèmes de linguistique générale, 2. Paris : Tel Gallimard, 1998, p. 227.

[28Emmanuel Levinas, Difficile liberté. Paris : Le Livre de Poche, 1984, p. 188.

[29Ibid., p. 330.

[30Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders. Edited by G.A. Starr. Oxford : O.U.P., 1981, p. 64.

[31John Donne, Songs and Sonets, The Complete English Poems of John Donne, op. cit., p. 85.

[32Emile Benveniste, « Le langage et l’expérience humaine » (1965), Problèmes de linguistique générale 2. Paris : Tel Gallimard, 1998, p. 68.

[33John Donne, Songs and Sonets, The Complete English Poems of John Donne, op. cit., p. 80.

[34Ibid., p. 61.

[35Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Major Works. Oxford : O.U.P., 2002, pp. 157-58.

[36Ibid., p. 211.

[37Ibid., p. 237.

[38Ibid., p. 129.

[39Ibid., p. 158.

[40Ibid., p. 232.

[41Ibid., p. 228.

[42« The Caged Skylark », ibid., p. 132. See « Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) : le rythme transfigure la cage », Temporel n° 2 :

[43T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”, op. cit., p. 192.

[44Stéphane Mallarmé, Œuvres complètes. Edition de Bertrand Marchal. Paris : Gallimard Pléiade, 1998, p. 714.

[45Ibid., p. 474.


[47Henri Meschonnic, Critique du rythme. Lagrasse : Verdier, 1982, p. 87.

[48Ibid., p. 225.

[49Ibid., p. 128.

[50Stéphane Mallarmé, Divagations, Œuvres complètes, II. Edition de Bertrand Marchal. Paris : Gallimard Pléiade, 2003, p. 206.

[51Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Major Works, op. cit., p. 258.

[52Ibid., p. 257.

[53Ibid., p. 258.

[54Claude Vigée, La lune d’hiver (1970). Paris : Honoré Champion, 2002, p. 260.

[55Robert Graves, Mammon and the Black Goddess. New York : Doubleday, 1965, p. 69.

[56Ibid., p. 74.

[57Thomas Mann, Les histoires de Jacob. Paris : Gallimard L’imaginaire, 1985, p. 46.