«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 speaker's personification of the landscape and even of loneliness itself seems to imply a projection of his own humanity onto his surroundings and his emotions. This attitude of projection toward the landscape and his own emotions in turn implies a distance from or disconnection with himself. In Frost's poem, the speaker's personification of the inanimate landscape and emotions simultaneously entails the inverse gesture of pragmapoeia through which the speaker objectifies or dehumanizes himself. As the speaker's rhetoric makes personhood metaphorically present in the landscape itself, his rhetoric also makes personhood metaphorically absent in himself.
As with Dickinson's poem, the speaker's loss of personhood may evoke mourning in the reader who sympathetically realizes that Frost's speaker fails to cultivate and preserve his own humanity. Both the reader's mourning and sympathy may be ethical responses in Levinas's sense of "compassion" for the other as "a non-useless suffering (or love)... which immediately has meaning" in contrast to the "useless" suffering of the self "overwhelmed by the evil that rends it" ("Useless Suffering" 100, 93, 92). This mournful, compassionate response in Frost's reader seems especially meaningful in contrast to the speaker's own loss of his meaning-making agency—a loss that suggests a kind of affective encounter with death laden with a sense of suffering. Apparently a victim to his own emotions, Frost's speaker is not even able to save himself. The speaker's lack of agency seems to expose not only his own vulnerability, but also the vulnerability of the poem itself. The poem seems close to slipping into absence itself given the alienated speaker's all but lost capacity to express himself, which is the poem's origin. Although Frost's speaker, insofar as he is a poet, seems capable of crafting a beautiful poem, its poignancy arises in part from the tension between the speaker's aesthetic wisdom and inability to recognize or to reconnect with himself.
The reader is invited to mourn the paradox of the speaker's artistic ability that still threatens to undermine his very humanity. Indeed the reader's enjoyment and appreciation of both Dickinson's and Frost's respective poems seems to participate in their speakers' own undoing as the reader takes pleasure in the poetic means through which the speakers seem to invoke their own absences. Even as the reader may mourn compassionately for the speakers' losses, she may nonetheless be pleased by witnessing the beauty of the poems' carefully crafted lines—the patterns of alliteration, repetition, and images that so poignantly convey the speakers' desperation. The reader may thus also be invited to mourn for his or her pleasure itself, since its poetic sources also endanger the poems' speakers.
Poetry's Personal Relations Both Dickinson's and Frost's speakers seem precariously perched on the boundary between life and death, as indicated by their ambiguous and tenuous presences in their respective poems. Because their ambiguous presences are signified by various disconnections from their own emotions—and, in Dickinson's case, from her own body—emotion seems to be an important aspect of self-coherence that allows her to actualize her human agency on an experiential level in response to others. The absence of emotion seems to foreshadow, or even to constitute, the loss of human subjectivity for both speakers. Unable to recognize their emotions as their own, both speakers seem unable to render themselves as coherent persons, and thus seem to have lost their human agency or mastery over their own subjectivity. We may view this loss of coherent selfrelation as a portrayal of a conscious experience of the utter rending of the self, which is effected by other's death. On an ethical level prior to experience, the other's death ruptures the self, and this rupture then becomes the essence of all our genuine responses to others, in Levinas's ethics. Frost and Dickinson seem to emphasize the radical "mournfulness that inflects and inspires ethics" due to our oppressive responsibility to and for the other (Spargo, Vigilant Memory 47).
The artistry of both poems, however, seems to deflect the absolute absence of these speakers' subjective agencies. Even as their ability to present themselves as persons starts to slip away, they find agency enough to express that loss in "personal" relations— i.e. relationships between words and between metaphorical images that make their absences and losses present for their readers (Levinas, "Time" 47). The poetic relationships between words as they form patterns like alliteration, repetition, rhyme, and imagery are personal in that they express the speakers' very sense of themselves. In doing so, they allow the speakers' to connect to implied listeners, and the poets themselves to connect to historical readers—thus making personal relations possible. In addition, Spargo notes that "the impossible responsibility structuring ethics" may also reside in "language itself," although we will address this possibility more thoroughly in chapter IV (Vigilant Memory 36).
Although these speakers' seem alienated from any stereotypical expression of mourning through representations of weeping or of death itself, their own lack of emotion invites a mournful response in the reader. This effect on the reader affirms the speakers' connections with others through their poetry. Thus Dickinson's and Frost's poems seem to constitute not only "personal" relations between poetic words and images, but also "personal" relations between rhetorical speakers and audiences (Levinas, "Time" 47). By participating in such relations, the reader herself may both actualize and simultaneously be reminded of her own human agency. In this sense, the speakers' cultivation of their own absence may simultaneously invite their readers to actualize their own human presence. Through this effect on readers, Dickinson and Frost affirm the value of others in the face of personal losses.
Richard Wilbur's Many Faces of Loss Frost's and Dickinson's poems emphasize the after-effects of loss—the absence of emotion that arises in the wake of loss. Dickinson's "After great pain" and Frost's "Desert Places" are strongly oriented toward the past in that speakers of both poems respond to memories of trauma that haunt the present. In contrast to Dickinson's and Frost's respective emphases on the past, Wilbur's poem illustrates an encounter with— and response to—loss in the present tense, in the moment. These differences in the poems' tenses seem to coincide with a difference in the kinds of responses to loss that these poets represent. Unlike the absence of emotion that torments Dickinson's and Frost's respective speakers, the characters in Richard Wilbur's poem "Boy at the Window" seem burdened by too much emotion. Comparing Wilbur's poem with Frost's and Dickinson's lyrics illustrates the variety of affective responses to loss, exposing the
many faces of loss. These faces include two situations of seemingly unbearable affect:
one in which speakers feel the weight of affect's absence, and another in which characters feel the weight of affect's overwhelming presence. Affect seems unbearable at both ends of this spectrum.
Wilbur also differs from Frost and Dickinson by explicitly describing how subjectivity arises within a personal relationship with the other. While Frost and Dickinson adopt personas that seem to speak from a first-person perspective (even the absence of first-person pronouns in Dickinson's poem seem to mark the very absence of the speaker's subjectivity, as Marcus notes, rather than an omniscient third-person perspective), Wilbur's poem is clearly told from an omniscient third-person view because we overhear the inner thoughts of both the boy and the snowman. This thirdperson view represents a conscious experience that expresses the dialogic structure of our ethical relationship to the other. Spargo explains, "For Levinas the death of the other is that paramount example of vulnerability by which every ordinary relationship is marked" (Vigilant Memory 32). Wilbur illustrates just such an "ordinary relationship" permeated by loss that emphasizes the radical "vulnerability" of subjectivity (Spargo, Vigilant Memory 32).
Wilbur's poem begins with a description of a "small boy" who "weeps" at the very moment he recognizes that the snowman is "standing all alone" in the stormy winter "night" ("Boy" 1-4). The emphasis on the boy's "tearful sight" conveys the child's overwhelming sense of loss that does not respond to a previous loss, but rather expresses his anticipations of losing the snowman to the harsh winter weather (Wilbur, "Boy" 5).
The boy's grief implies his personification of the snowman, an inanimate object of nature shaped, presumably by the boy, into a human-like figure, as if nature were fashioned into a kind of metaphor for personhood. The snowman's physical form seems to embody a first layer of personification in that the boy has imposed a human figure onto the natural element of snow. The boy's fear for the snowman's vulnerability to the harsh winter conditions thus constitutes a second layer of personification as the boy projects his own vulnerable "situation as a human being" onto the snowman (Farrell 86). If the boy's imposition of a human figure onto the snow projects his own physical human form onto nature, then the boy's fear projects his emotional or psychological form onto the snowman. The boy's fear even motivates his personification of the storm as he sees nature "prepar[ing]/A night of gnashings and enormous moan" like a live if not human creature (Wilbur, "Boy" 3-4). A cyclical relationship seems to emerge between the boy's projection and personification, a cycle through which personification seems to motivate his grief and thus beget more projection and personification.
Because this cycle motivates the boy's very emotional mourning, it contrasts starkly with Dickinson's and Frost's personifications, which seem to deflect emotion and personhood. Wilbur's personification, however, seems to distort the snowman's real nature, or, as Spargo puts it, "surrender[ing] the force of the other's alterity" (Vigilant Memory 46). From this perspective, the boy's grief seems to be narcissistically sentimental, only insincerely directed toward the other in a manner that remains unethically indifferent to the other's difference. As Rodney Stenning Edgecombe suggests, Wilbur's poem "comes close to sentimentality" (80). Such sentimentality is also evident in Margaret's mourning for Goldengrove in "Spring and Fall." Both Hopkins and Wilbur represent children grieving because they misperceive nature as human—like Wilbur's boy imagines the snowman will die a human death in the storm, Margaret seems to see the autumn leaves as dying a human-like death, responding to them as if they were gone forever and not part of the trees' cycle of regeneration. We may understand why the boy weeps more thoroughly than we understand why Hopkins's Margaret weeps, however, since Wilbur's omniscient speaker more thoroughly describes the boy's perspective and the feelings that motivate it (as opposed to the distant gaze of Hopkins's speaker who speculates on the reasons for Margaret's grief). In one sense, this insight into the boy's perspective may invite us to identify more closely with the boy than we do with Margaret.
On the other hand, as older readers, our age, experience, knowledge, and even emotional disconnection from the snowman that the boy presumably created allows us to realize the irrationality of mourning for a snowman that can only survive in winter weather and that from a realist perspective has no human sensations to feel lonely or even cold anyway. This realist perspective is wrong, however, in the world of the poem in which the snowman grieves for the boy. The reader's mature recognition of the snowman's lack of human sensations is not unlike Hopkins's speaker's view of Margaret's tears for autumn leaves. Wilbur may thus situate his reader in a position much like that of Hopkins's speaker from which we may recognize the innocence and ignorance of children's mournful misperceptions of nature. Indeed the speaker of Hopkins's poem characterizes Margaret's misunderstanding of the falling leaves for us as naïve in contrast to a more mature, adult perspective that she will grow into—a "colder" view that will not even mourn for "worlds of wanwood" lying "leafmeal" (G. Hopkins, "Spring" 6, 8).
Because Wilbur's speaker does not correct the boy's personification for us as Hopkins's speaker does, Wilbur's poem seems more magical than Hopkins's poem.
Wilbur's speaker continues personifying the snowman in the second stanza, affirming the boy's personifying gesture. According to the speaker, the snowman has emotions, as the boy suspects, but he is "content" with instead of fearful of the winter weather that "is his element" (Wilbur, "Boy" 9, 12). Yet the snowman recognizes the boy's tears, and "responds with sadness to the boy's love" (Farrell 86). The snowman's sad, loving response to the boy seems to parallel the speaker's and the poet's apparent role of responding in poetry to the boy. The snowman's "sadness" itself becomes an "act of love," since he is so "moved to see the youngster cry" that "[h]e melts enough to drop from one soft eye/A trickle of the purest rain, a tear/For the child..." (Farrell 86;
Wilbur, "Boy" 11-15). Farrell explains that "[t]he snowman begins to dissolve as he begins to love" (86).
The snowman's expression of love seems to be, paradoxically, both a gesture of death and a process of becoming more human. The snowman seems so overwhelmed with emotion that he overcomes his own "element" of "frozen water" to cry like the boy—he feels and acts humanely (Wilbur, "Boy" 12). Farrell notes that "[t]he snowman in dissolving does not, after all, die," but rather "is metamorphosed into 'the purest rain.' His love exacts an enormous cost, but the effect on him is, finally, beautiful..." (87). In a Levinasian sense, the snowman's "tear" is a "human" gesture "in which worry over the death of the other comes before care for self" (Wilbur, "Boy" 14; Levinas, "Dying For..
." 216). The snowman's mourning seems like a process of dying for the other, which is, for Levinas, what it means to become human—as if the boy's personifying gesture brought the snowman to life not only in a figurative/poetic sense, but also in an ethical sense.