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Hiatus of subject and verb in poetic language.

The thought behind, I strove to join Unto the thought before.

--Emily Dickinson

People speaking English generally pause slightly at the juncture of contiguous vowels not sounded as dipthongs (e.g., "When Brenda arrived, Mario opened the door"). This momentary gap in sound, known to linguists as a hiatus, is the equivalent of a caesura in the metrical structure of a line of poetry. However, a hiatus in a poem is not necessarily an aural event. Visual hiatuses are created by punctuation marks, line breaks, stanza breaks, and other dispositions of white space and typography. Narrative hiatuses are created by spatial or temporal interruptions in the story line, such as Euryclea's flashback to the boar hunt while she is washing Odysseus's feet. Grammatical hiatuses range from the highly conspicuous, such as tmesis, in which one word is split in two by the insertion of another (e.g., "fan-blooming-tastic"), to the barely noticed, such as the break between article and noun when an adjective is positioned between them. (In languages with post-positioned adjectives, such as French, no such break occurs.)

Grammatical hiatuses may' be occasioned by any number of linguistic phenomena (interjections, appositions, subordinate clauses, parenthetical remarks, etc.). For example, in the following lines from Louise Bogan's poem "Women," what creates the hiatus between verb and direct object is a prepositional phrase, working in conjunction with a line break:

17 They hear in every whisper that speaks to them

18 A shout and a cry.

Because the grammatical hiatus in Bogan's sentence is short and simple, a reader is not likely to find it a stumbling-block to comprehension, but a sentence characterized by multiple and lengthy grammatical hiatuses may well be termed "difficult." Here is a sentence from Henry James's story "The Beast in the Jungle." Because the story is in prose, its grammatical features operate independently of the random line breaks created by typesetting.
 These depths, constantly bridged over by a structure firm enough in
 spite of its lightness and of its occasional oscillation in the
 somewhat vertiginous air, invited on occasion, in the interest of
 their nerves, a dropping of the plummet and a measurement of the
 abyss.


In "The Beast in the Jungle" the main character comes to recognize the pain he suffers as a result of the enormous emotional distance he maintains between himself and all the people he encounters. This distance is enacted in the language of James' s sentence, which creates a protracted grammatical separation, though not quite an abyss, between the subject and the verb, and a smaller separation between the verb and its direct object. The insertions responsible for these separations--"constantly bridged ..." and "on occasion ..."--are simultaneously the light but firm structures that bridge over the separations. That is, they are so for experienced readers; novice readers get lost in the somewhat vertiginous air.

What makes James's sentence so difficult for inexperienced readers is not just its grammatical subordination but the hiatuses created by that subordination-especially the one splitting subject from verb. Were his sentence recast as two, each incorporating the subordinate material without hiatuses, difficulty would remain but be considerably lessened. For example, if the first recast sentence began, "These depths were constantly bridged over by ...," the reader could focus full attention on the complicated imagery of the prepositional phrase without trying simultaneously to hold the grammatical subject in mental suspension, waiting for a verb to arrive. But although recastings may be instructive, they are debilitating to James's artistry. The hiatuses in his sentence are not stylistic quirks to be expunged; they serve, as I indicated above, a distinct literary purpose.

Both the diction and the image in James's direct object, "a dropping of the plummet and a measurement of the abyss," are decidedly more complex than the diction and imagery in Bogan's "a shout and a cry," but the separation of direct object from verb in James's sentence is only slightly more difficult to navigate than in Bogan's. Hiatuses between verb and object tend not to exert much syntactic strain, even when the separation is as long as that between "find" and "things" in Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning":

19 Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,

20 In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else

21 In any balm or beauty of the earth,

22 Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?

The syntactic split that can strain even experienced readers is the one between subject and verb. Timothy R. Austin's entry for "Syntax, Poetic" in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics cites the following sentence from Shelley's "Adonais" as "almost impenetrable":

51 Thy extreme hope, the loveliest and the last,

52 The bloom, whose petals nipped before they blew

53 Died on the promise of the fruit, is waste.

Readers encountering "Died" at the beginning of line 53 do not know what to do with "is waste" at the end of it. That is because the sentence has been rendered "almost impenetrable" by two subject-verb hiatuses, one of which is embedded in the other, and by several presumed but nonexistent subject-verb hiatuses, such as between "hope" and "Died" or "bloom" and "Died." In fact, the sentence's primary subject-verb hiatus is betwen "hope" and "is." The first part of that hiatus consists of a fairly simple apposition: the hope in its extremity is "the loveliest and the last." The second part of the hiatus begins with another apparently simple apposition, "The bloom"--but then this bloom unexpectedly bursts into its own complicated subject-verb hiatus, which is either "bloom ... / Died" or "petals ... / Died." What makes this hiatus-within-a-hiatus complicated is the fact that "nipped" and "blew" are verbal forms, so that on a first reading of the line, the petals appear to have nipped something (which will presumably be identified on the next line) and then to have blown that something away (if "blew" is transitive), or to have been blown away themselves (if "blew" is intransitive). But at the next line, any expectation of finding a direct object for "nipped" is itself nipped; it dies on the surprise of the enjambment, which offers yet another verb. Viewed retrospectively, line 52 did not deliver on its promise: "nipped" was not a verb for "petals," but merely a past participle functioning adjectivally. Still unresolved, however, is the subject of this new verb, "Died": is it "bloom" or "petals"? That is, is the syntax of the lines

The bloom, /Died

whose petals [were] nipped before they blew

or

The bloom, whose petals / Died

nipped before they blew

The fact that the first option requires an editorial interpolation suggests that the embedded subject-verb hiatus is "petals ... / Died," not "bloom ... / Died," but readers encountering the complicated syntax of "bloom ... petals ... / Died" are still carrying "Thy extreme hope" in their heads, and so when a verb finally appears, they may unconsciously be hoping that it belongs with the noun in apposition to "hope" rather than with a noun inside a relative clause.

Thy extreme hope

aka Died

The bloom

This solution to the syntactic split between "Died" and its subject promises to work until the arrival of "is waste" simultaneously reopens and closes the primary subject-verb hiatus. Reopens it by revealing the ungrammaticality of saying:

Thy extreme hope, ... the bloom, ... died ..., is waste.

Closes it by providing the only grammatically plausible formulation:

Thy extreme hope, ... the bloom, whose petals ... died ..., is waste.

Why did Shelley embed one complicated subject-verb hiatus within another? His sentence would have been so much easier to read had he dispensed with both hiatuses and just said (only poetically): "Thy extreme hope is waste. It is the loveliest and the last of thy hopes: the bloom whose petals died on the promise of the fruit because the petals were nipped before they blew." But the construction of Shelley's lines cannot be converted, even "poetically," into what they are not without changing what they say, for what they say is precisely what they do. Their syntax enacts the very extremity that the sentence is about and that it conveys to readers experientially, not merely intellectually, by the extremity of the process of working through it. Robert Browning once wrote to John Ruskin (10 December 1855) that poetry requires "putting the infinite within the finite." "You would have me paint it all plain out, which can't be," he continued, "but by various artifices I try to make shift with touches and bits of outlines which succeed if they bear the conception from me to you" (qtd. in Litzinger 14-15; original emphasis). The artifice bearing Shelley's conception in lines 51-53 of "Adonais" is the double hiatus between subject and verb.

Browning, too, employs subject-verb hiatuses. Here, in "An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Kar," he uses one to describe the death of a physician who "perished in a tumult":

252 His death, which happened when the earthquake fell

253 (Prefiguring, as soon appeared, the loss

254 To occult learning in our lord the sage

255 Who lived there in the pyramid alone)

256 Was wrought by the mad people ...

As an earthquake dislodges land mass from land mass, the commentary between "death" and "was" dislodges subject from verb. The grammatical rupture might have ended with "the earthquake fell," but that would not have been particularly tumultuous. What makes it so is the parenthetical remark within the commentary, bringing a loss of clarity to the narrative that is suggestive of the loss to occult learning brought by the death of the sage. Not only does the parenthesis prolong the separation of subject from verb; it prompts confusion, at least initially, about whether the "prefiguring" is done by the death or by the earthquake. The logic of the passage, interrupted by the subject-verb hiatus, dictates the answer: an event that causes a loss is not prefiguring that loss but bringing it into being, and the event that causes the loss to occult learning is the death "wrought by the mad people." Since it is not death that prefigures the loss it causes, the prefigurer must be the earthquake. But to recognize this is to recognize that Browning has warrant to make the syntax of his sentence even more tumultuous than it is. He could have positioned the "prefiguring" remark immediately following the noun it modifies: "the earthquake (prefiguring, as soon appeared, the loss ...)." By not so positioning the prefiguring remark, Browning avoids embedding a subject-verb hiatus between "earthquake" and "fell" within the primary subject-verb hiatus between "death" and "was." He avoids the "almost impenetrable" charge levied against Shelley. Is the desire to avoid such opprobrium--from Ruskin and likeminded contemporaries, if not from posterity--the motivation for his restraint? The question may sound silly until we look at some other instances of subject-verb hiatus in his work. In all four of the examples below, Browning inaugurates a subject-verb hiatus, only to avoid it at the last moment by repeating the subject, as though he were concerned that, without the repetition, the distance between subject and verb might put too great a strain on the reader. Recall his statement to Ruskin that "by various artifices I try to make shift with touches and bits of outlines which succeed if they bear the conception from me to you."

The first of the four examples of what one might call Browning's "repeated-subject artifice" is from the opening of the poem we have just looked at, "An Epistle." The pertinent terms, which I have italicized, are the subject "Karshish" in line 1, its reappearance as an apposition, "The vagrant Scholar," in line 15, and the verb for Karshish, which is "sends" in line 16.

1 Karshish, the picker-up of learning's crumbs,

2 The not-incurious in God's handiwork

3 (This man's-flesh be hath admirably made,

4 Blown like a bubble, kneaded like a paste,

5 To coop up and keep down on earth a space

6 That puff of vapour from his mouth, man's soul)

7 --To Abib, all-sagacious in our art,

8 Breeder in me of what poor skill I boast,

9 Like me inquisitive how pricks and cracks

10 Befall the flesh through too much stress and strain,

11 Whereby the wily vapour fain would slip

12 Back and rejoin its source before the term,--

13 And aptest in contrivance (under God)

14 To baffle it by deftly stopping such:--

15 The vagrant Scholar to his Sage at home

16 Sends greetings....

The next two examples of the repeated-subject artifice in Browning are both from book 1 of The Ring and the Book. In the first example, the subject of the verb "proved" in line 664 might be read as "fact" in line 659, were it not for the reprise of the subject "memory" as "this" immediately before the verb.

656 ... years came and went, and more and more

657 Brought new lies with them to be loved in turn.

658 Till all at once the memory of the thing,--

659 The fact that, wolves or sheep, such creatures were,--

660 Which hitherto, however men supposed,

661 Had somehow plain and pillar-like prevailed

662 I' the midst of them, indisputably fact,

663 Granite, time's tooth should grate against, not graze,--

664 Why, this proved sandstone, friable....

In the next example from The Ring and the Book, Browning again uses a demonstrative pronoun to point all the way back to the original subject of the verb, thereby helping to "bear the conception" from poet to reader. The verb is "Followed" in line 786, and the subject would appear to be "Count Guido Fransceschini the Aretine" in line 776, were it not for the reprise of the Count as "This husband" in the line before the verb.

776 Count Guido Franceschini the Aretine,

777 Descended of an ancient house, though poor,

778 A beak-nosed bushy-bearded black-haired lord,

779 Lean, pallid, low of stature yet robust,

780 Fifty years old,--having four years ago

781 Married Pompilia Comparini, young,

782 Good, beautiful, at Rome, where she was born,

783 And brought her to Arezzo, where they lived

784 Unhappy lives, whatever curse the cause,--

785 This husband, taking four accomplices,

786 Followed this wife to Rome....

In the three examples above, each repetition of the subject has two characteristics: it compensates for the subject's lack of proximity to its verb, and it is not an exact repetition but a rephrasing that creates a slight shift in the identity of the subject. Karshish, "the picker-up of learning's crumbs," becomes a Scholar, albeit a vagrant one; the memory of a fact becomes simply the pronoun "this"; and the Count of ancient lineage becomes "this .husband." The fourth and final example, from "A Grammarian's Funeral," shares neither of these characteristics.

31 He, whom we convoy to his grave aloft,

32 Singing together,

33 He was a man born with thy face and throat,

34 Lyric Apollo!

Since the separation of the first "He" from "was" is so brief, why does Browning bother to repeat the subject? Perhaps the repetition is made in mock deference to the dead man, who was surely no Apollo, but a leaden-eyed grammarian who "mastered learning's crabbed text," "Sucked at the flagon" of the soul, and "Gave us the doctrine of the enclitic De, / Dead from the waist down." A man of his extraordinary sensibilities would not have appreciated the postmortem infelicity of a subject-verb hiatus.

One final comment on repeating the subject: Browning is not the only poet to do so. For example, in the following passage from Matthew Arnold's "The Scholar-Gypsy," the subject "we" in line 171 repeats in line 180. Notice that the passage compares the waiting of scholars with the waiting of ordinary people. Perhaps, then, the reason "we" repeats is that it grows tired of waiting for its verb, "await."

171 Thou waitest for the spark from heaven! and we,

172 Light half-believers of our casual creeds,

173 Who never deeply felt, nor clearly willed,

174 Whose insight never has borne fruit in deeds,

175 Whose vague resolves never have been fulfilled;

176 For whom each year we see

177 Breeds new beginnings, disappointments new;

178 Who hesitate and falter life away,

179 And lose tomorrow the ground won today--

180 Ah! do not we, wanderer! await it too?

Ironically, despite the repetition of "we," the subject and verb are not quite contiguous after all, because "wanderer!" wanders in between them.

Many small hiatuses between subject and verb are not the result of a word or phrase being sandwiched between them; they are the result of word order being inverted, with subject-verb-object transposed to subject-object-verb. The rationale for inverting standard word order varies from poem to poem, but the inversions that exist merely to satisfy the requirements of meter or rhyme suggest a deficiency of craft. In a well-crafted poem they deepen the meaning of the words. Blake's "London" provides a good example of such deepening when it inverts the verb "appalls" with its direct object, "Every black'ning Church":

9 How the Chimney-sweeper's cry

10 Every black'ning Church appalls....

It is not only the rhyme of "appalls" with line 12's "walls" that would be lost were the inversion corrected but also the suggestion of blasphemy in the word order: "every black'ning Church appalls." (That is, appalls anyone not yet deceived or corrupted by the Church, which is not simply a building blackened with yesterday's soot butan institution currently black'ning with continued indifference to suffering.) One could say that what enables the direct object "Every black'ning Church" to suggest itself as the subject of the verb "appalls" is the inversion of the two, but one could also say that what enables the suggested blasphemy is the reluctance of English-speakers to accept a separation of subject from verb, or the eagerness of English-speakers to end the separation as swiftly as possible. Upon discovering no verb for a grammatical subject, readers will often engage in a kind of "shadow reading": they will attempt to substitute for the actual subject whatever plausible subject-like candidate is closest to the verb, or they will attempt to substitute for the actual verb whatever plausible verbal candidate is closest to the subject. In a shadow reading of Blake's lines, "Every black' ning Church" is taken as the subject of "appalls" because it is closer to "appalls" than "cry" is, just as in a shadow reading of Shelley's lines in "Adonais," "died" is taken as the verb of "hope" because it is closer to "hope" than "is waste" is.

Blasphemy lurks also in William Cowper's "Lines Written during a Period of Insanity." Its speaker is so beset by "hatred and vengeance" that he considers himself

5 Damned below Judas: more abhorred than he was,

6 Who for a few pence sold his holy Master.

7 Twice betrayed Jesus me, the last delinquent,

8 Deems the profanest.

Given the difficulty of making sense of lines 7 and 8, readers may well conduct a shadow reading of line 7 as the blasphemous: "Jesus twice betrayed me." The implication of blasphemy would be fainter if a comma followed "betrayed" or if line 7's first two words were hyphenated as "Twice-betrayed"--either punctuation would identify "betrayed" as a past participle functioning adjectivally. But although the implication of blasphemy would thereby be made fainter, it would not be eliminated:

7 Twice-betrayed Jesus me, the last delinquent,

The implication of blasphemy still hovers around "Jesus me" because the line provides only one word that sounds as if it could be a verb for "Jesus," and that word, despite the hypothetical punctuation, is "betrayed." Cowper's inversion of the normal word order from subject-verb-object ("Jesus deems me") to subject-object-verb ("Jesus me deems") places "deems" at a remove from its subject. Had he positioned it immediately after "Jesus," the reader would readily understand--with or without punctuation for the first two words in line 7--that it is Jesus, not the speaker, who is "Twice betrayed": first by Judas and then, even more heinously, by the speaker himself:

7 Twice betrayed Jesus deems me, the last delinquent,

8 the profanest.

Cowper's speaker considers himself the "the profanest" precisely because of the implied blasphemy that the corrected word order deprives him of. The correction also destroys the syllable count of Cowper's perfectly constructed Sapphic stanza. Two good reasons for not messing with the tortured insanity of his lines.

"Tortured" is how many readers feel about the convoluted language they find in certain portions of Paradise Lost, such as the following excerpt from book 9. Satan, in the guise of a beautiful serpent, has just captured Eve's eye by silently bowing, fawning, and licking the ground:

528 ... he glad

529 Of her attention gain'd, with Serpent Tongue

530 Organic, or impulse of vocal Air,

531 His fraudulent temptation thus began.

The last line of this passage seems simple enough--"His fraudulent temptation thus began"--but the beginning of the passage poses problems. It seems to say that he, Satan, being glad of her attention, gained ... something. But what? Searching through the rest of the passage for what he gained turns up nothing useable. So perhaps the opening lines are not saying that Satan, glad of her attention, gained something, but rather, quite simply, that he is glad that her attention has been gained. But the lines do not say "he is glad"; they say "he glad." Surely that is not Miltonic English? And are the lines saying that he gained her attention with his tongue because he just licked the ground? Furthermore.... But rather than continue with this protracted confusion, we will make the darkness of the syntax visible with some italicized type:

528 ... he glad

529 Of her attention gain'd, with Serpent Tongue

530 Organic, or impulse of vocal Air,

531 His fraudulent temptation thus began.

"[H]e ... began": subject split from verb. With this basic syntactic relation of the passage clarified, readers can more easily comprehend that the final line is not, as originally thought, "His fraudulent temptation thus began" but rather an inversion whose subject is in the first line: "he ... began his fraudulent temptation." The passage is one in which Satan, glad of having gained Eve's attention with the visual antics described in the lines preceding these, now begins his fraudulent temptation with verbal antics--fraudulent because he only seems to be uttering human language; in reality his "counterfeit Man's voice," as Adam will later call it, is only a serpent tongue organic (that is, used as an organ of speech), or only the sound of air impelled by Satan into seemingly human vocalizations. The fiend's sly verbal strategies not only prove catastrophic for the trusting Eve but have a syntactic counterpart for the unwitting reader, who, failing to discern the disjuncture between subject and verb, is deceived into reading the passage falsely. Recognizing the syntactic split thus becomes, analogically, a moral imperative, not merely a technical one.

Subject-verb hiatuses are not recognized in handbooks of poetics as syntactic phenomena in their own right; they are considered to be by-products of inversion. Terms such as hyperbaton, anastrophe, and inversion are defined, explained, and illustrated solely on the basis of word order, not word proximity. But the presumption that all interruptions between subject and verb are caused by inversions of word order from subject-verb-object to subject-object-verb is simply not true, for just as not all inversions create interruptions between subject and verb (for example, the first line in Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts": "About suffering they were never wrong"), not all subject-verb interruptions are the result of inversion (for example, the first line in Auden's "Law Like Love": "Law, say the gardeners, is the sun"). Many subject-verb splits either do not involve any inversions or, if they do, remain even after the inversions are corrected. The following three passages contain inversions, but unlike the Blake, Cowper, and Milton excerpts above, their inversions are not responsible for the subject-verb hiatuses they also contain.

Here is the twentieth stanza of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard":

77 Yet even these bones from insult to protect

78 Some frail memorial still erected nigh,

79 With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture decked,

80 Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

The stanza has conspicuous inversions, such as line 77's "even these bones from insult to protect" instead of "to protect even these bones from insult," and line 79's "With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture decked" instead of "decked with uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture." But whether one looks at Gray's stanza with all its inversions intact or at a parsing that corrects the inversions, the word order of subject-verb is the same: "memorial" precedes "implores" even in a revision that normalizes syntax:

77 Yet

77 [in order] to protect

77 even these bones from insult

78 some frail memorial still erected nigh [i.e., still standing near]

79 [and] decked

79 with uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture

80 implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

All the inversions in Gray's stanza are what one might call "local"; that is, none of them changes the subject-verb word order of the sentence, and therefore none of them is responsible for the separation of subject and verb--a syntactic structure that suggests the vulnerability of the physical one, the "frail memorial."

The following three lines from Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" come at the end of the first stanza, which is a single sentence twenty-two lines long.

20 I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,

21 Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,

22 A reminiscence sing.

The grammatical subject "I" is separated from its verb "sing" by a two-line apposition ("chanter ... them") and by the inversion of verb and direct object ("A reminiscence"). But even were the inversion corrected, the apposition would remain, and with it the subject-verb hiatus. (Given this hiatus, one might ask: on what basis can the speaker claim to be a "uniter" of oppositions, "leaping beyond them"? Perhaps the answer is: on the basis of context. After nineteen lines of preparation, the distance between subject and verb--only two lines--feels more like unification than separation.)

My last example of a subject-verb hiatus remaining even after inversions are corrected is this excerpt from Shelley's "The Sensitive Plant":

118 Whether that Lady's gentle mind,

119 No longer with the form combined

120 Which scattered love, as stars do light,

121 Found sadness, where it left delight,

122 I dare not guess....

These five lines form a grammatically complete statement, the syntax of which has been inverted from the subject-verb-object word order that English speakers find easiest to comprehend,

I dare not guess whether ...

to an order that is tinged with strangeness, object-subject-verb:

Whether ..., I dare not guess.

What is the purpose--or at least, the effect--of this inversion? It delays the speaker's confession that he dare not guess about the Lady's mind until after the reader has been persuaded, in lines 118 through 121, of the difficulties of guessing about that mind. But lines 118 through 121 make no overt claims about the enterprise; if they persuade us that one dare not guess, it is because they successfully prompt us to make wrong guesses about' the Lady's mind, or about what they are saying about the Lady's mind: our reading experience becomes an analogue to the speaker's difficulties. The linguistic mechanism by which that analogue is created is a subject-verb hiatus: the noun "mind" at the end of line 118 does not connect with its verb "Found" until the beginning of line 8. Before it does, however, we encounter the sequence "mind ... combined" in lines 118 and 119,

5 Whether that Lady's gentle mind,

6 No longer with the form combined

and because English-speaking readers expect a verb to follow fairly swiftly after a subject, this sequence seems to connect the noun with its verb. The syntactic interruption disguises itself as a syntactical continuity. Enhancing this misimpression is the fact that "combined" rhymes with "mind." An alert reader, noticing that a comma follows "mind" (and understanding that it must be there for grammatical rather than metrical reasons since it occurs at the line break)--such a reader might be cautious about combining "mind" with "combined" as subject and verb, especially since the words do say: "mind, / No longer with the form combined"--but these words are unlikely to be read as a message about syntax except retrospectively, when "Found" appears, unexpectedly in need of a grammatical subject. The fact that "mind" is the only reasonable candidate must mean that the initial pairing of "mind" and "combined" was a wrong guess. "Combined" was only a past participle functioning adjectivally to modify "mind," and the stanza as a whole was not wondering whether the Lady's gentle mind any longer combined with the form that scattered love but rather whether the Lady's gentle mind found sadness. It is only at this point, after the reader has struggled with (and probably made wrong guesses about) the syntax--it is only at this point that the speaker reveals his reluctance to guess about the Lady.

Readerly struggles with the syntax of the following Emily Dickinson poem (J 855) are complicated by the white space between the stanzas:

1 To own the Art within the Soul

2 The Soul to entertain

3 With Silence as a Company

4 And Festival maintain

5 Is an unfurnished Circumstance

6 Possession is to One

7 As an Estate perpetual

8 Or a reduceless Mine.

Although the first stanza poses syntactic difficulties, they are not fully evident until one passes through the silence of the space between stanzas and arrives at line 5. Its first word might be construed as the start of a question that enjambs into line 6--"Is an unfurnished Circumstance / Possession?"--but the "is" after "Possession" puts an end to that possibility. Perhaps, then, the syntax of line 5 began in line 4. Working backward, one might try to pose "Festival maintain" as the subject of "is"--but that, too, yields nothing intelligble. In fact, one must return to the very beginning of the poem to find line 5's grammatical subject. It is all of line 1: "To own the Art with the Soul ... Is an unfurnished Circumstance." And what is this art? That is what lines 2 to 4 explain: it is the art of not only entertaining the soul with the most unentertaining of company--silence--but simultaneously, despite the silence, maintaining festival. A poet may have flashes of such a paradoxical art, but actually to own it would be, as lines 6 to 8 say, like possessing an estate in perpetuity or a mine never to be exhausted of its riches. It is perhaps because the ownership of such an art is an unfurnished circumstance that the subject "To own the Art within the Soul" is unfurnished with a verb within its stanza.

The difficulty of correlating subject and verb in Dickinson's poem hints at the difficulty of correlating silence and festival. A similar relation is found in the following excerpt from "The Dry Salvages" section of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets:

494 Now, we come to discover that the moments of agony

495 (Whether, or not, due to misunderstanding,

496 Having hopes for the wrong things or dreaded the wrong things,

497 Is not the question) are likewise permanent

498 With such permanence as time has.

All readers--not only those who are unused to encountering splits between subject and verb--are likely to be initially misled by the syntax of this passage, because the parenthetical remark that creates the syntactic split seems at first to be no more than a modifying phrase within the main sentence: "the moments of agony / (Whether, or not, due to misunderstanding ...)." Only with the appearance of "Is" at the start of line 497 is the parenthetical remark revealed to be a sentence in its own right. In his book about literary parentheses, But I Digress, John Lennard makes the strange claim that the passage's parenthetical insertion promotes clarity: "The causes of individual agonies are less important than the permanence of all such agonies, and the lunulae allow Eliot to say so clearly and compactly" (208). But if Eliot were aiming for clarity, he is unlikely to have given the embedded sentence the unnecessarily tortured construction of a double inversion: "Is not the question" instead of "The question is not," and "Whether, or not, ... the question" instead of "The question is not whether...." If he were aiming for clarity, he is unlikely to have positioned the parenthetical remark exactly where the syntactic integrity of the main sentence is most readily destroyed: right between its subject, "moments of agony," and its verb, "are." As Lennard himself observes in connection with a similarly positioned sententia in Edward Guilpin's Skialetheia: "For a parenthesis to separate a verb from its subject is unusually interruptive" (33). Yes, it is. In his 1921 essay "The Metaphysical Poets" Eliot said that "it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult.... The poet must become ... more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning" (248). The effect of Eliot's subject-verb interruption is precisely to decrease the clarity of the passage, in order that the reader experience a great deal of difficulty following the thought--not as much difficulty as would constitute an actual "moment of agony" but enough for the passage to be disturbingly mimetic.

Not every instance of protracted hiatus between subject and verb is as resistant to easy reading as those we have been looking at. Here, for example, is the first stanza of Robert Graves's delightful poem "The Naked and the Nude":

1 For me, the naked and the nude

2 (By lexicographers construed

3 As synonyms that should express

4 The same deficiency of dress

5 Or shelter) stand as wide apart

6 As love from lies, or truth from art.

As in the Eliot excerpt from "The Dry Salvages" and the passage from Browning's "An Epistle," marks of parenthesis visibly indicate the syntactical hiatus in the main clause. The interruption forces the grammatical subject, "the naked and the nude," to stand wide apart from its verb, which is indeed "stand ... wide apart." That is, the separation of subject and verb enables the grammatical structure of the stanza to demonstrate physically the lexicographic relation that gives the poem its title.

Whenever the grammatical subject of a poem is syntactically disconnected from its verb, the distance between them--not just the grammatical distance but the actual physical distance on the page of the text--is worth attending to, for it may well be embodying the emotional or intellectual distance that is the subject matter of the lines in which they occur. Such is the case in Coleridge's "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison"--

5 They, meanwhile,

6 Friends, whom I never more may meet again,

7 On springy heath, along the hill-top edge,

8 Wander in gladness ...

--and Donne's "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning":

17 But we by a love so much refined

18 That our selves know not what it is,

19 Inter-assured of the mind,

20 Care less, eye, lips, and hands to miss.

It is not coincidence that both the above concern the painful separation of people from one another. In the Coleridge poem, the separation of the grammatical subject "They" from its verb "Wander" enacts the wandering away of "Friends, whom I never more may meet again." The friends, in apposition to "They," wander in locations that further separate "They" and "Wander." In the Donne poem, one might construe the distance between the subject "we" and its verb "Care" as a separation, but the speaker, intent on forbidding mourning at his imminent departure, would probably construe it otherwise: though verb and subject are apart, they "endure not yet / A breach, but an expansion, / Like gold to airy thinness beat" (lines 22-24).

The first seventeen lines of Spenser's "Prothalamion" provide a final example of how the separation of main subject and verb may enact the distance that is the subject matter of the lines in which they occur:

1 Calme was the day, and through the trembling ayre,

2 Sweete breathing Zephyrus did softly play

3 A gentle spirit, that lightly did delay

4 Hot Titans beames, which then did glyster fayre:

5 When I whom sullein care,

6 Through discontent of my long fruitlesse stay

7 In Princes Court, and expectation vayne

8 Of idle hopes, which still doe fly away,

9 Like empty shaddowes, did aflict my brayne,

10 Walkt forth to ease my payne

11 Along the shoare of silver streaming Themmes,

12 Whose rutty Bancke, the which his River hemmes,

13 Was paynted all with variable flowers,

14 And all the meades adornd with daintie gemmes,

15 Fit to decke maydens bowres,

16 And crowne their Paramours,

17 Against the Brydale day, which is not long ....

These seventeen lines are all one sentence. Anyone listening to the poem being read aloud is not likely to follow its syntax: a distance of five lines separates the main verb of the sentence, the word "Walkt" in line 10, from its grammatical subject, the word "I" in line 5. The syntactic spine of the sentence is: "Calme was the day ... When I ... Walkt forth." Spenser's physical dispersal of syntax manifests the subject matter of the lines: the speaker who introduces himself in line 5 and walks forth in line 10 is distancing himself both physically and psychologically from the Prince's Court and all its attendant woes. In the split between subject and verb we see enacted the split between court and nature, politics and the pastoral.

To the extent that a poem's hiatus between subject and verb is mimetic of some physical, intellectual, or emotional split, one would not expect to find the hiatus in a passage that celebrates connection. Yet that is what happens in the following excerpt from Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey":

4 Once again

5 Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,

6 That on a wild secluded scene impress

7 Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect

8 The landscape with the quiet of the sky.

The connection of the verb "connect" at the end of line 7 to its grammatical subject is a curious one. Throughout the poem, the speaker's feelings of deep spiritual connection to this place are tested against powerful forces of disconnection, both spatial and temporal. These begin with the first words of the poem, which opens not with communion, but hiatus: "Five years have passed; five summers, with the length / Of five long winters !" (1-2). Of equal or greater concern to the speaker is the lapse between childhood and adulthood: "I dare to hope, / Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first / I came among these hills" (65-67). In each instance of actual or potential loss of connection to the Wye, the speaker finds, or claims to find, more than sufficient recompense in present reunion and future prospects, but the language of "cheerful faith" (133) cannot seem to let go of the challenges to maintaining or re-establishing connection: "Once again / Do I behold" (4-5); "Once again I see" (14); "through a long absence" (23); "oft, in lonely rooms" (25); "recognitions dim and faint" (59); "May I behold.., what I was once" (120); "many years / Of absence" (156-67). The speaker's ambivalence about his connection to the past is echoed in the ambiguous syntactic status of the verb "connect" in lines 4 to 8, in that the distance between the verb and its grammatical subject depends on what one takes that subject to be:

4 Once again

5 Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,

6 That on a wild secluded scene impress

7 Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect

8 The landscape with the quiet of the sky.

4 Once again

5 Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,

6 That on a wild secluded scene impress

7 Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect

8 The landscape with the quiet of the sky.

To take "cliffs" as the grammatical subject of "connect" is to read the passage as a meditation on nature, which forms connections that endure; to take "I" as the grammatical subject is to read the passage as a meditation on the human mind, which forms connections that must be renewed.

Every once in a while, a literary critic or linguist discussing the syntax of a poem will remark on the unusual placement of a verb relative to its subject, as though the hiatus between subject and verb were idiosyncratic to that poem. And so it is: each poem's configuration is its own. But the hiatus between subject and verb is also a surprisingly widespread phenomenon of poetic language. It belongs to no one poet.

Works Cited

Auden, W. H. Collected Shorter Poems, 1927-1957. New York: Random, 1966.

Austin, Timothy R. "Syntax, Poetic." The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Ed. Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993. 1262-63.

Arnold, Matthew. The Poems of Matthew Arnold. Ed. Kenneth Allott. 2nd ed. Ed. Miriam Allott. London: Longman, 1979.

Blake, William. Selected Poetry and Prose of Blake. Ed. Northrop Frye. New York: Modern Library, 1953.

Bogan, Louise. Collected Poems, 1923-1953. New York: Noonday, 1954.

Browning, Robert. The Poetical Works of Robert Browning. Cambridge ed. Ed. G. Robert Stange. Boston: Houghton, 1974.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Poems. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Cowper, William. Poetical Works. Ed. H. S. Milford. London: Oxford UP, 1967.

Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, 1960.

Donne, John. The Complete English Poems of John Donne. Ed. C. A. Patrides. London: Dent, 1985.

Eliot, T. S. The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt, 1980.

--. "The Metaphysical Poets." 1921. Selected Esays of T. S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, 1964. 241-50.

Graves, Robert. Collected Poems. Garden City: Doubleday, 1961.

Gray, Thomas. The Complete English Poems of Thomas Gray. Ed. James Reeves. New York: Harper, 1973.

James, Henry. Selected Fiction. Ed. Leon Edel. New York: Dutton, 1953.

Lennard, John. But I Digress: The Exploitation of Parentheses in English Printed Verse. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Litzinger, Boyd, and Donald Smalley, eds. Browning: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes, 1970.

Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. New York: Odyssey, 1957.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Poetical Works of Shelley. Ed. Newell F. Ford. Boston: Houghton, 1975.

Spenser, Edmund. The Complete Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser. Ed. R. E. Neil Dodge. Boston: Houghton, 1908.

Stevens, Wallace. The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play. Ed. Holly Stevens. New York: Vintage, 1972.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Selected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Wordsworth, William. Selected Poems and Prefaces. Ed. Jack Stillinger. Boston: Houghton, 1965.

Debra San

Massachusetts College of Art
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