«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
Rhetoric itself seems to be a way of responding and attending to loss, in light of Kenneth Burke's definition of rhetorical identification. The loss of connection, or separation, between people is the exigence for rhetoric, suggests Kenneth Burke in A Rhetoric of Motives (hereafter RM): "[I]f men were not apart from one another," in a physical sense, "there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity" (RM 22). Such division inherent in our discrete physical bodies and in our various ideologies, attitudes, values, etc. may be overcome via identification. We may identify two people who share "common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, attitudes that make them consubstantial" (RM 21). Two individuals are "'substantially one'" when "their interests are joined" even though each person simultaneously "remains unique, an individual locus of motives" such that each person is simultaneously "joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial" with another person (RM 21). Although rhetorical identification does not erase differences, it "is compensatory to division" and solves the problem of separation by unifying individuals (RM 22).
in Doss 311). Insofar as rhetoric aims to identify the audience with the speaker, to persuade the audience to identify with the speaker's message, rhetoric seems to be a way of attending and responding to loss, specifically the loss of connection between people.
In this respect, rhetoric seems to retain an elegiac strain.
Poetics of Loss Like Doss and Levinas, Gerard Manley Hopkins seems to address the constitutive elements of personhood in his short lyric "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child." Although Hopkins's poem seems to emphasize, on the explicit level of diction and imagery, that separation and loss of connection from others constitute the "blight[ed]" condition of personhood, the dialogic relationships that he depicts through the rhetorical situations in and beyond the poem demonstrate how loss and separation may facilitate connections with others (G. Hopkins, "Spring" line 14). Mourning reflects the subject's fundamental orientation toward loss in Hopkins's poem, but emotions like mourning and grief, when we examine them rhetorically, also seem to facilitate identification and connections between characters in the poem, and between Hopkins and his reader. Like Hopkins, Robert Frost also emphasizes the universality of loss in "Nothing Gold Can Stay" (hereafter cited as "Nothing"). Frost's poem complements Hopkins's lyric as both poems use similar symbols of gold, Eden, the season of spring, and of nature in general to describe how processes of becoming are characterized in part by decay, absence, and loss. Frost emphasizes nature more than human subjectivity by referencing natural elements like "flower," "leaf," and "dawn," however, while Hopkins emphasizes human subjectivity through the characters of Margaret and the speaker, and by referencing humanity and human elements through terms like "man," "thoughts," "heart," "sigh," "child," "mouth," and "mind" (Frost, "Nothing" 3, 5, 7; G. Hopkins, "Spring" 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 12). When we read Hopkins's and Frost's poems in light of each other, we may more fully recognize how both poets treat nature as a metaphor that reveals loss at the heart of human subjectivity.
In "North of Boston: Models of Identity, Subjectivity and Place in the Poems of Robert Frost," Stephen Regan argues that Frost expresses "a deep and prolonged interest in the philosophy of mind" and in "the shaping of subjectivity" (par. 2). The shaping of subjectivity includes, for Frost, the "creative interaction" between the human mind and the world, which, Regan suggests, engages the mind's "metaphor-making impulses" and "compulsion to make sense of the world through metaphor" (par. 3-4). Although Regan teases these conclusions about Frost's philosophical interests out of his more overtly psychological poems like "Tree at My Window," "The Mill City," and "Mowing," we may infer that "Nothing Gold Can Stay" may also express, however indirectly, Frost's interest in the philosophy of mind and subjectivity.
"Nothing Gold Can Stay" may indirectly express the speaker's self-centered view of nature, especially if we read it in light of Roger L. Slakey's focus on "egoism" in Hopkins's "Spring and Fall" (30). Slakey argues, "Margaret is grieving because through Adam's sin she has been turned in on self, and, unawares, she projects on the grove losing its gold leaves the prototypic phenomenon of the loss of Eden. That is, she perceives the falling leaves with an eye informed by self" (28). Margaret projects "unawares" her sense of her own losses onto Goldengrove, perceiving the forest in terms of herself; according to Slakey, Hopkins portrays the source of all sorrow as "the radical self-centeredness of man or self-preoccupation," not just in the sense of a person being egotistical in the moment, but in the sense of a pervasive, universal "egoism" that structures the human mind (28, 30). Egoism may inform the relentless focus on loss in "Nothing Gold Can Stay," a focus which may reflect the poet-speaker's egotistical projection of his or her own sense of loss onto nature.
Such inferences about the speaker's psychological stance toward nature seem to be uninvited, deflected by the poem's style—its universal voice, the lack of characterization of the speaker, the absence of the first-person voice in poems like "Desert Places" that more overtly interrogate psychological projection of one's own attitude onto nature. Such a universal perspective on nature's loss may convey, however, in light of Slakey's theory of egoism the working of the poet-speaker's mind—the process of projection that enables and undermines such a "universal" view of nature.
From this perspective, "Nothing Gold Can Stay" not only speaks to human subjectivity as an incidental part of nature's grand patterns of becoming and decay, but also speaks to human subjectivity as shaping, constituting those patterns as such. This reading also aligns "Nothing Gold Can Stay" with Hopkins's more explicit portrayal of subjectivity as defined and constituted by loss. Both poems address how loss and absence may serve as exigences for presence—especially for the presence of human subjectivity and responsible, dialogic connections between people. These poems themselves seem to be conditioned by loss and may even reflect, however indirectly, each poet's response to encounters with loss. We may clarify how loss informs these poems by briefly considering how loss shapes their biographical and historical contexts.
Loss in Critical and Biographical Contexts By attending to a few particulars of Hopkins's biography, we find other situations in which Hopkins addresses personhood, mortality, and loss through mournful, metaphorical interpretations of nature. For example, Hopkins's attention to the nature of personhood in "Spring and Fall" reflects his persistent concern with selfhood in his other writings, as a quotation from The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins (hereafter cited as Sermons) illustrates; Hopkins writes, "I consider my selfbeing, my consciousness and feeling of myself... which is... incommunicable by any means to another man..... Nothing else in nature comes near this unspeakable stress of pitch, distinctiveness, and selving, this selfbeing of my own" (G. Hopkins, Sermons 123). This fascination with selfhood also seems to inform "Spring and Fall," with its emphasis on the incommunicability, the utter separation that characterizes selfhood (not only Margaret, but also the speaker and his conclusions about the nature of personhood).
Hopkins's sense of selfhood also seems to be informed by his aesthetic value of nature and his sense of loss. As a child, Hopkins roamed the wilderness of Hampstead Heath near is family's home in Hampstead outside of London (White, "Hopkins: A Life" 59). When Hopkins arrived at Oxford University, he was strongly influenced by John Ruskin's aesthetic theory and came to agree with Ruskin that "grand significance [is] implicit in nature's smallest part," the logic of which we may observe in his speaker's reflections on how small Margaret's mourning implies "grand significance" about human nature (White, "Hopkins: A Life" 63). Indeed, "Spring and Fall" exemplifies, as White observes, Ruskin's emphasis on "recording nature rather than inventing it" and on the "elegiac" vulnerability of "natural beauty" ("Hopkins: A Life" 63). White concludes that "Hopkins was at his happiest" at Oxford, although his university experience was also characterized by his religious development, which was fraught with "ascetic penances" and self-doubt about his powerful responses to painting—a favorite hobby that Hopkins gave up to avoid his "morally evil" and "profoundly dangerous" responses to art ("Hopkins: A Life" 62, 64).
Hopkins decided to become a Jesuit priest and, although his acceptance into the Society of Jesus gave him "the most complete peace of mind [he had] ever had," he was assigned a series of brief jobs throughout England and Scotland in towns that all failed to match the ideal atmosphere of London and Hampstead where Hopkins grew up (Hopkins qtd. in White, "Hopkins: A Life" 66; White, "Hopkins: A Life" 59). Poetry seems to have provided him some comfort; for example, his poem "Duns Scotus's Oxford," which affirms the Scotus ethical justification of contemplating Beauty (White, "Hopkins: A Life" 69). Poetry even played a celebratory, epideictic role in the Jesuit tradition— according to White, "the Society of Jesus actually encouraged its members to write verse to celebrate specific religious occasions" ("Hopkins: A Life" 67).
Nonetheless, Hopkins worried about compromising his priestly responsibilities by spending too much time on poetry (Roberts 95). When he was assigned to Liverpool in 1880, his professional poems—complicated by an "excessive" workload, exhaustion, illness, dissatisfaction with the community, and Liverpool's industrial, "museless" atmosphere, which he called a 'hellhole"—felt overwhelming and stifled his creativity (White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography xv; Hopkins qtd. in Roberts 95, 96). He only wrote two poems during this assignment, one of which was "Spring and Fall" (Roberts 96). White implies that this poem may convey Hopkins's persistent worry about spring's return; since the beginning of his Jesuit career, Hopkins consistently wrote about "the annual crisis of spring," which he feared might fail to come and deny him its refreshment and rejuvenation, on which he relied (White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography 322). We might even imagine "Spring and Fall" illustrating an internal conflict between Hopkins's mature knowledge that spring will return and his somewhat childish fear that it will not via young Margaret's mourning for Goldengrove and the mature speaker's awareness that spring will return. When Hopkins writes from Liverpool in 1881 to a friend, we might
view him as poetically suggesting the dual significances that spring holds for him:
"Every impulse and spring of art seems to have died in me," he writes, suggesting that spring is a season of renewal that serves as a source of artistic inspiration (qtd. in Roberts 96).
The juxtaposition of spring and death seems to have been a pervasive image in Hopkins's thinking and writing as evidenced by his journals, letters, and poems like "Spring" (written in 1877) and "Spring and Death," which Roberts identifies as a companion piece to "Spring and Fall," although the former was probably written much earlier while Hopkins was at Oxford (White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography 322, 275, 297; Roberts 6). Roberts finds these last two poems sharing "a characteristic Hopkins message of the mortality of human things" and of "Nature" as "the standard by which mortality is judged" (6). In keeping with Ruskin's early influences, Hopkins seems to value nature as a lens for understanding beauty, death, and personhood.
"Spring and Fall seems to mark the beginning of Hopkins's decline into pessimism and depression, which escalated in his appointment to Dublin in 1884 following a series of brief posts in Scotland and Ireland (White, "Hopkins: A Life" 71;
White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography xvi). Hopkins's emotional strife may have enhanced if not motivated his poetry; White observes that Hopkins's wrote some of his "best poetry" during his depressing stay in Ireland ("Hopkins: A Life" 72). Barely six months before his death, however, Hopkins bemoaned the loss of his creativity, writing "I am ashamed of the little I have done... All my undertakings miscarry... I wish then for death" (qtd. in White, "Hopkins: A Life" 72). While Hopkins himself mourned his lack of poetic creativity even in his last three poems, White points out that these poems defy Hopkins's pessimistic self-evaluation ("Hopkins: A Life" 72). Yet these last poems as well as "Spring and Fall" seem conditioned by Hopkins's frustration with the loss of his creativity. Perhaps writing poems like "Spring and Fall" was one way for Hopkins to think through the influences of nature, art, religion, and loss that coalesced in his personal experiences.