«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
The popularity of Dickinson's short lyrics, which are widely anthologized, affirms the broad appeal of such anthology pieces, including Robert Frost's and Richard Wilbur's poems. Dickinson's lyric "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" complements elegiac images in Frost's "Desert Places." The wintry images in Wilbur's "Boy at the Window" echoes the winter landscape in Frost's poem and the sense of frozen emotion that Dickinson's poem. Frost's and Dickinson's speakers both respond to loss—especially the loss of their own emotions and even their own subjectivities—but emphasize different facets of those experiences. Although both speakers suffer from paralyzing, death-like absences of affect, Dickinson's speaker emphasizes a fragmented subjectivity while Frost's speaker emphasizes the specific loss of the ability to express himself. By reading these poems together, we may better recognize how integrally these two facets of subjectivity (emotion and expression) are related. These poems share similar rhetorical images of wintry scenes, frozen emptiness, disconnection, paralysis, and death. Wilbur echoes these images, but uses them to emphasize not an absence of emotion, but rather the boy's overwhelming grief. Frost's, Dickinson's, and Wilbur's poems affirm Emmanuel Levinas's view that loss lies at the heart of human experience— but each poem emphasizes different aspects of that experience.
Ethics as Elegiac Subjectivity This chapter explores how Dickinson and Frost rhetorically evoke mournful responses in their readers, and thereby affirm personal relations threatened by loss and death. Emotion is conspicuously absent in both poems, however, as each speaker expresses a death-like experience of losing of his or her own subjectivity. Although both Dickinson and Frost personify non-human elements of their surroundings to emphasize their speakers' loss of personhood, their poetic expressions invoke the kinds of personal relations that, for Levinas, "[vanquish] death" ("Time" 47). In contrast to Dickinson's and Frost's representations of the absence of affect that accompanies the loss of one's very personhood, Richard Wilbur portrays an overwhelming presence of emotion and personhood as a response to threatened subjectivity in "Boy at the Window" (hereafter "Boy"). Personification saturates Wilbur's poem, which draws attention to the ways in which the boy, Wilbur, and the reader all participate in personifying acts—acts on which the very presence of human subjectivity depends. Wilbur's images of intense emotion may border on the sentimental, but, in doing so, may serve elegiac purposes. By contrasting the presence of affect and personhood in Wilbur's poem with the absence of both in Dickinson's and Frost's lyrics, we may identify two dichotomous effects of losing one's subjectivity (at least imaginatively or psychologically, if not literally). Such poems in turn may function epideictically by helping readers find terms for their own experiences of loss, much as the writers in Wider than the Sky identified with Dickinson's poetic portrayals of mourning. Together, Dickinson's, Frost's, and Wilbur's poems suggest that human mourning can include even seemingly dichotomous ways of grieving, thereby validating non-stereotypical forms of mourning and expanding the possibilities for who may be recognized as legitimate mourners.
These dichotomous responses to loss may reflect a generic contrast between the elegy and what we might call an anti-elegy after the "anti-elegiac principle" that Eleanor DesPrez recognizes in Frost's poetry (34). DesPrez registers Frost's un-affective voice as an ethical and aesthetic critique of the elegy's sentimentality. Such a generic contrast between the elegy and the anti-elegy, however, exposes the many kinds of responses that loss can inspire. Indeed the many faces of loss include both the unbearable presence and the unbearable absence of affect. Yet these diverse responses to loss all affirm that dialogue (the presence of a listener or reader) is the healing end for which elegiac/poetic loss aims. Such an aim affirms the elegy's epideictic function and the healing power of poetic dialogue.
Based on the affective contrasts between Dickinson, Frost, and Wilbur, I conclude that poetic or elegiac attitudes of loss may be expressed in various—even opposite—ways. When we recognize the many faces or expressions of loss, we may more readily respond to those expressions with sympathetic patience, with compassionate attention to how the Other's loss compels us to respond. Emmanuel Levinas suggests that loss is inherent in ethical, humane subjectivity. To exist as a human subject, "One has to speak, to say I," but such expression always already implies the Other's listening presence ("Ethics" 82). This Other, however, is vulnerable, mortal—vulnerable to me and to my possible indifference (whether intentional or unintentional) to her mortality. The Other's mortality thus implicates my responsibility to attend to her vulnerability, to make sure that I do not usurp resources essential to her survival ("Ethics" 82). Levinas explains, "my being-in-the-world" always risks being "the usurpation of spaces belonging to the other man whom I have already oppressed or starved, or driven out into a third world..." ("Ethics" 82). In this sense, "to say I"—to be present as human—is to always already be responsible to and for the Other, who I may lethally displace ("Ethics" 82). Responsibility for the Other precedes and invokes my very presence as a person, "as if I had to answer for the other's death even before being" ("Ethics" 83). The Other's mortality and vulnerability—her potential to lose life and/or the necessities that sustain it—compel me, before my very presence as human, to respond, to take responsibility for preserving her personhood.
I suggest that all our responses, and especially our mournful responses, to others
may signify or express this underlying ethical relationship. In Vigilant Memory:
Emmanuel Levinas, the Holocaust, and the Unjust Death, R. Clifton Spargo explains "that for Levinas mourning is a discursive mode referring to an excess in all remembrance, to an exteriority that arises as greater than any historiographical or cultural ordering of our knowledge, and yet it is not reducible to the priority of the private, parochial, or simply communal interest" (34). Mournful emotion exceeds the self, not in a merely "communal" sense, but in a specifically ethical sense on which, for Levinas, community is predicated (Spargo, Vigilant Memory 34). In mourning for a particular loss, the mourner does not come to possess the lost object or person because the reality of the loss always already defies that possession; as Spargo concludes "as an attitude without consent, mourning characterizes a speaker who has forever lost the content of what she would speak" (Vigilant Memory 34). Because it resists reality, mourning can never fully reduce the other to an object, theme, or content to be possessed through description—rather the other's alterity perseveres in resistance to the mourner, whose mournful attitude necessarily remains oriented, responsive towards the other's alterity (Spargo, Vigilant Memory 34). As Spargo explains, "mournful memory, in responding to the death of another, is necessarily dedicated to an alterity" (Vigilant Memory 47).
I suggest that while mourning for the other's death may always imply a recognition of the other's alterity (if only the alterity of the other's death), our expressions and actions may realize this ethical valence to greater or lesser degrees.
Richard Wilbur's illustration of such mourning for the other's death in "Boy at the Window" contrasts the boy's mourning, which is directed more toward himself than toward the snowman, with the snowman's mourning, which seems more ethical in a Levinasian sense. This ethical structure of mourning, which may inhere in many kinds of expressions of loss, lies at the heart of all ethical relations for Levinas, for whom "mournfulness... inflects and inspires ethics" even prior to our conscious intentions, motives, and emotions (Spargo, Vigilant Memory 47). The "impossible responsibility" that constitutes such mournful, ethical relations may even inhere in the very structure of "language itself," as Spargo suggests (Vigilant Memory 36). This chapter, "The Many Faces of Loss," argues that Levinas's ethical responsibility illuminates all our expressions of mourning, and anticipates the next chapter's exploration of how such mournful responsibility, especially when it is expressed poetically, may lead to responsible, dialogic consolation.
Personal Rhetorics in Poetry of Loss The epideictic appeals and elegiac ethics of Dickinson's "After great pain" and Frost's "Desert Places" become clearer when we contextualize Dickinson's and Frost's poetry historically and biographically. Both poems are informed by personal and cultural contexts of loss and hardship—contexts that resonate with Levinas's ethical concerns about what it means to die and to lose one's human subjectivity. Emily Dickinson's lyric was written around 1862 during the Civil War (Ferguson, Salter, and Stallworthy 1015).
About this time, Dickinson supposedly "experienced a psychic catastrophe" that "haunted" her with "some mysterious fright" and thus inspired her poetry (Manley 260).
Francis Manley situates "After great pain" within a group of about twenty-five to thirty poems that all address "the intense subtleties of mental anguish" (260). Although "After great pain" was not published until 1929, it's not hard to imagine that Dickinson's poetic response to personal pain would likely appeal as much to Americans plagued by the Great Depression as it would to readers of her own war-torn era (Ferguson, Salter, and Stallworthy 1015). Indeed Ellen Louise Hart affirms the appeal of "After great pain" to Americans mourning after 9/11, and her essay is one of many in Wider than the Sky that further affirms that Dickinson's poetry in general continues to console diverse readers grieving over various personal losses.
Frost's "Desert Places" appeared in print at the time of the Great Depression, and also during one of several periods of ill health in Frost's life (Parini 285). Although he was too ill to fulfill many of his professional commitments at the end of 1933, he wrote "Desert Places" in the early 1930s (Parini 285). It was first published in April 1934 in the literary journal American Mercury, and it was later included in his collection of poems A Further Range published in 1936 (Barron 73). Haunted by the deaths of his father during his childhood, of his 3-year-old son in 1900, and of his mentally unstable sister in 1929, Frost clearly seems to be one well acquainted with the darkness of loss by the time he writes "Desert Places" (Parini 18, 68, 199). This poem, like Dickinson's lyric, continues to speak to readers from its place in anthologies, which indicates that the literary community recognizes some enduring appeal in these poems. When we read these poems side by side, both seem to reach out to readers across time and personal singularities, inviting readers to see themselves as members of a human community constituted in part by the universal presences of loss, absence, and death.
Rhetorical and Poetic Values of Death Levinas's theory that death signifies the absolute absence of meaning helps us recognize Dickinson's and Frost's suggestions that the emotional responses that death evokes, particularly grief, are themselves meaningful, valuable. As the presence of absence overwhelms Robert Frost's "Desert Places" and Emily Dickinson's "After great pain," the speakers of both poems dwell upon losses of connections with others and with themselves. Mourning in these poems, however, seems to resonate not so much in the speakers, who express "formal feeling[s]" of emptiness and alienation, as in the reader, who grieves the absences of affect in the speakers' expressions (Dickinson, "After" line 1). This mournful effect emphasizes the value of emotion in the face of such losses of connection, losses that may at least subtly signify our own impending deaths. Emotion, including emotional emptiness, helps deflect the threat to meaning that death implies by inspiring poetry. Perhaps such poetic and rhetorical means of mourning heal us by reminding us of our ability to make meaning even when meaning itself seems utterly lost. Such creative processes may be part of "[v]anquishing death" itself, which, for Levinas, seems to entail affirming the value of "personal" relationships, the value of humanity itself, in the face of personal loss ("Time" 47).
For Levinas, the problem of loss defines the ethical foundation of subjectivity, prior to any ontological question of being or presence. Death—as the loss of our own lives, but, more importantly, as the loss of the other's life—is a threshold or defining mark of human subjectivity in Levinas's ethics. My own death implies the inherently relational nature of human subjectivity since, as Levinas explains, in death "the subject loses its very mastery as a subject"—its very ability "to grasp," its "initiative" and "mastery" that constitutes being as human "subject" ("Time" 40-41, 47, 42). Death ruptures my very relation to my own subjectivity, and thus leaves me with no agency, no way of making meaning. This rupturing of my self-relation, however, only follows from my responsibility for the Other's death, a responsibility that is, for Levinas, the ethical origin of my subjectivity. My very humanity emerges only as "[t]he other man's death calls me into question, as if... I had become the accomplice of the death to which the other... is exposed;" only in this relationship to the other am I implicated as responsible and thus human ("Ethics" 83). Although as Spargo explains "[f]or Levinas an injustice inheres, at least potentially, in every death"—mine and the other's—my humanity resides in my responsibility towards the injustice of the other's death (Vigilant Memory 64).
According to Levinas's definition of subjectivity, "[t]he human is the return to the interiority of non-intentional consciousness... to its capacity to fear injustice more than death, to prefer to suffer than to commit injustice, and to prefer what justifies being over that which assures it" ("Ethics" 85).