«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
Dialogue is an integral component of Hopkins's poetry, suggests Donatella Abbate Badin in her essay "The Dialogic Structure of Hopkins' Poetry;" she emphasizes the "'internal dialogicity'" of Hopkins's poems "in that they are intrinsically a form of dialogue with their potential readers" (55). Drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of dialogism, Badin recognizes "Hopkins' dialogism" as "'utterances... oriented towards an anticipated implied response" (55). She thus clarifies that dialogue implies the possibility of response, whether or not that possibility is actualized. Badin's definition of Hopkins' dialogism affirms our readings of "Spring and Fall" as thoroughly dialogic, regardless of the ambiguity about whether or not the speaker actually speaks to Margaret. Badin's definition also affirms that the kinds of connection that the poem imagines between its characters and enables with its reader are not only relationships of identification that may exist only in the mind's eye of the reader who recognizes them.
Rather, the poem's connections imply possibilities of response—the possibility that Margaret may respond to the speaker, that the speaker may respond to himself, and that Hopkins' reader may respond to the poem. By thus preserving such possibilities for responsive connections, the dialogic nature of "Spring and Fall" seems to invoke connections that resist the speaker's doubts about humanity's capacity to care. Poetic dialogue becomes the format for addressing and even overcoming separation. Loss serves as the exigence for dialogue that explores and overcomes disconnection in "Spring and Fall." The poem seems to invoke connections in the face of their absence, as if the poem attempts to undo or reverse loss at an ontological level, even if it cannot undo the particular loss of Goldengrove's leaves.
Dialogue plays a much smaller role in Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" as we previously observed in our discussion of the poems' two titles. Frost's speaker's seemingly impersonal voice in the poem identifies the speaker with Frost himself, deflecting his presence in the poem and thereby emphasizing the reader's presence. By making the reader "feel present" at the poem's events through short, simple descriptions of the landscape, Frost invites the reader to identify closely with the speaker's gaze— and, because the speaker is so closely identified with Frost, with Frost's gaze (Ping and Reed 115). The close identifications Frost invites between the speaker, the reader, and himself seem to occlude dialogue and separation, focusing the reader's attention on the connections that dialogue can yield rather than on the rhetorical, dialogic process of creating those connections. Although he does not illustrate dialogue as Hopkins's does, Frost invites his reader to adopt an identifying gaze—to inhabit the role of an interlocutor in relationship to the poem itself, an effect that actualizes the reader's meaning-making capacity.
For example, the poem's synecdochal logic aims to identify the loss of spring's "early... flower" with the larger losses of autumn leaves, of dawn, and of Eden (Frost, "Nothing" 3). To be successful, however, these identifications must be recognized by the reader. By pointing to similarities between the images of nature's "early... flower" changing to leaf, "dawn" changing to "day," and Eden vanishing in "grief," Frost invites the reader to participate in the pattern-making process (3, 7, 6). In connecting the poem's images to each other, the reader shapes the poem's meaning in much the same way that the poet does, performing similar kinds of identifications and engaging with the poem dialogically from her rhetorical viewpoint. Derek Attridge explains how this kind of performance works in all literary texts when he notes that "literature does not present themes as such, but rather takes the reader through a process of thematizing," such that the reader is usually aware that in simply summarizing the theme of a literary work, she has "omitted everything that makes the work a literary artifact" (97). Because the reader participates in a text's processes, like "thematizing," her reading is "creative;" indeed, Attridge suggests all "literary reading" is "creative" (97, 95). Frost's reader reads creatively as she performs the identifications between the flower, dawn, and Eden that the poem invites. The reader's performance parallels the writer's processes of identifying different kinds of losses with each other, of recognizing synecdochal relationships, and of negotiating specific rhyme and rhythm patterns—processes through which both Frost and his reader rhetorically shape the poem's meaning.
The reader may also respond dialogically and creatively to Frost's invitation to extend the meaning of the poem, in part by connecting it to her own personal experiences of loss. The final line, "Nothing gold can stay," aims to identify all losses with the ones Frost describes, seeming to project the synecdochal logic beyond the poem. Frost seems to invite his reader to imagine other instances that affirm the closing truism or proverb—and possibly even to defy the generalization by imagining instances that counter it. By engaging his reader in the poem's synecdochal logic and meaningmaking patterns, Frost may invite his reader to pursue the poem's philosophical aim. As Frost's reader participates in the poem's poetic and philosophical processes, she actualizes her ability "to be able," her ability to make meaningful, personal relations (Levinas, "Time" 42). Because this capacity seems to allow one to act responsibly towards other people, the poem seems to actualize the reader's capacity for responsibility. In the following section, we will consider how the dialogues that Frost and Hopkins invite their readers to participate in align with Levinasian responsibility.
Rhetorical Dialogue as Ethical Responsibility As we glimpsed with "Nothing Gold Can Stay," reading or writing poetry may actualize our ability "to be able," our capacity for responsibility in that readers participate in a creative act of realizing a text's singularity, as Derek Attridge describes (Levinas, "Time" 42). Attridge explains that creative reading "attempts to do justice to a work's singularity" in a Levinasian sense by participating in the processes of "thematizing," allegorizing, identifying, etc. that characterize the text (Attridge 82, 96Frost's reader affirms the singularity of his poem by, for example, participating in the poem's synecdochal relationships between flowers, leaves, dawn, and Eden, and participating in the poem's rhyme scheme. By participating in these processes, the reader responds to the text's "otherness," allowing her own "purposes" to be "reshaped by the work" such that her reading exceeds "conventionally determined meanings" and "is not entirely programmed by the work and the context in which it is read, including the psychological character of the reader" (Attridge 80). Creative reading involves attending to the ways in which a text's form may resist our expectations and assumptions, much as J. Hillis Miller encourages in "The Ethics of Reading." Such creative reading seems to actualize our ability "to be able" in part because it involves making sense of the text in light of its historical, political contexts and of one's own motives, expectations, and historical context. Creative reading—like writing—involves making meaning for oneself and sometimes for other readers. By thus creating personal meaning—by synthesizing words, contexts, various sources of meaning—a reader creates personal relationships not unlike the kind that, for Levinas "[vanquish] death" ("Time" 47).
This understanding of reading as actualizing our subjective ability "to be able" challenges Attridge's de-emphasis on a work's contexts, "including the psychological character of the reader" (Attridge 80). A work's various contexts—including its historical, political, and personal contexts—all influence a reader's ability to make sense of the work, to find personal meaning in a work. The singularity of a work's form is one element that facilitates a reader's—and a writer's—personal meaning-making processes.
Attridge seems to elide this personal significance when he focuses on a literary work's form—on its "referential properties" like "allegoricity... narrativity, metaphoricity...
mimetivity" that contribute to the "eventness" or "performance" of a literary work" (96, 95). This treatment of form may not seem much different from New Criticism's investment in form. Take, for example, W. K. Wimsatt's treatment of rhyme in The Verbal Icon: "the emotions of poetry are simultaneous with conceptions and largely induced through the medium of conceptions... The words of rhyme... are an amalgam of the sensory and the logical, or an arrest and precipitation of the logical in sensory form; they are the icon in which the idea is caught" (165). For Wimsatt, poetic form embodies emotions and ideas, imposing logical order and "aesthetic value" onto their "alogical," unaesthetic character (165). Such arguments elide the personal, historical nature of emotions and ideas, and dismiss aesthetic value's contingency on the historical, personal, political, etc., contingencies that Pierre Bourdieu emphasizes in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste.
Attridge's and Wimsatt's emphases on form obscure the ethical, communal effects of literature on readers and writers. For example, both Attridge and Wimsatt risk diminishing human agency by projecting it onto literary form; Wimsatt claims, "The poem is an act," an abstraction suspended between a poet and audience, and Attridge similarly argues that literature is an "event" (Wimsatt xvii; Attridge 2). While these characterizations can be helpful for understanding how literature can rhetorically construct reality for writers and readers, Wimsatt's and Attridge's de-emphasis on literature's historical, psychological, and political contexts undermines the usefulness of viewing literature as an act or event. Literature functions as an act or event for particular people, affecting their views and ways of making meaning in their psychological, historical, and political contexts. Even Sacks's description of the elegy as "a work," as in "the working through of an impulse or experience," may risk obscuring literature's rhetorical, ethical significance for readers who lose sight of the fact that elegies serve as works of mourning for particular people, for human agents, who encounter loss in particular historical moments (1).
By emphasizing literature's form over its historical and political contexts, Attridge obscures some of the rhetorical—and ethical—effects of literature. Based on literature's formal "difference from other kinds of writing," Attridge concludes that literature "solves no problems and saves no souls" (4). Yet readers of elegiac poetry, such as Susan Hess, argue otherwise; Hess, a victim of childhood abuse, explains that Emily Dickinson all but saved her soul as Dickinson's poems "leapt from the page to meet [her] mental and emotional needs and transformed" her, giving her "a path to freedom" (63). Because Attridge dismisses "the psychological character of the reader" and other personal, historical, and political contexts of literature, he obscures the ethical effects that literature rhetorically evokes (80).
Literary texts can rhetorically mediate ethical relationships between writers and readers—and among communities of readers. The language and form of a poem, for example, is the common ground between the writer and all of her readers. Because the poem's form may serve as the impetus for connections between people—the writer and her readers—we have a responsibility to attend carefully to the poem's singular form as a way of caring for the common ground through which we may connect with other people.
Responding responsibly to the poem's form is an indirect way of acting responsibly towards the community of readers—including the writer herself—that the poem invokes.
Attridge obscures this rhetorical function of literature when he equates our responsibility to and for a text with our responsibility to and for a person. He explains that our responsibilities to texts and to people are also similar in that both entail "a responsible openness to the other," a responsibility equally expressed "as I compose music or respond to another person or read a novel" (Attridge 127). By listing a response to another person among aesthetic activities like "compos[ing] music" and "read[ing] a novel," Attridge suggests that all of these actions are ethical in parallel ways—because they are equally encounters with otherness and therefore they all equally summon my responsibility (127). Our responsibilities to text and to people, however, are not separate but equal responsibilities. Rather, our responsibility for other people in a Levinasian sense is primary and motivates our secondary responsibility for texts.
When a reader makes sense of a poem, creating personal meaning, by attending responsibly to the poem's form, then the reader's care for the poem is an indirect way of caring for the community of other readers that the poem makes possible and with whom she may be indirectly connected. These community-affirming effects of poetry do not define, as Attridge does, literature as a distinct genre, but rather align literature and poetry on a continuum of rhetorical forms of communication. Poetry can affirm communities with others in much the same way that memorials do, as we have seen in the comparison of Hopkins's poem with the commemorations of the Columbine tragedy.
To recognize Levinas's ethical responsibility in the acts of reading and writing seems to require also recognizing how these acts involve not just literary forms, but human agents. For example, Levinas explains, "Responsibility, in the etymological sense of the term... is what is meant by dialogue..." ("Martin Buber" 66-67) Hopkins portrayals of emotional, dialogic connections, when we read them in light of Levinas's theory of responsibility, seem to align meta-poetically dialogue with ethical responsibility. The dialogic effects of Hopkins's rhetoric allow us to recognize emotional connections not only between Margaret and the speaker, but also between both characters and ourselves. These dialogic connections are appealing because they seem to overcome or at least coincide with the loss and separation that Hopkins explicitly describes. Through this meta-poetic appeal, Hopkins seems to argue that dialogue is an ethical response to loss. By suggesting that dialogue is ethical, Hopkins seems to support Levinas's identification of dialogue with ethical responsibility.