Poetry Is the Making One of Opposites
A Statement with Comments
By Eli Siegel
All poems have in them a oneness of opposites: as seen by the individual who wrote the poem. However, some opposites are more noticeable in one poem than in another. For example, Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey is a oneness of meditation and excitement, or, more philosophically put, rest and motion. Yet oneness and manyness are in Tintern Abbey—as are order and freedom, continuity and discontinuity—and other opposites.
Therefore, in the following Statement and Comments, when I present a poem as instancing some opposites, it should not be presumed that the poem has only these opposites: for, indeed, it has all of them.
And I am not trying to put the opposites here in a serried arrangement. If there is some casualness, let it be so. The philosophic opposites present in poetry, while ever so orderly, are likewise as casual as thistledown or a tired little girl with a hoop.
1. ordinariness: strangeness. Every poem is a oneness of ordinariness and strangeness. This was talked of by Coleridge and Wordsworth as they planned the Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge tells us so in his Biographia Literaria. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is perhaps the most noted exemplification of ordinariness and strangeness in our language. The Mariner is strange, and is in strange territory: and yet he talks a clear English, and he takes himself matter-of-factly or ordinarily.
2. regularity: irregularity. There is something regular in verse itself, yet all good verse has irregularity, too, or imbalance, or the unsymmetrical. What makes the lines in Pope’s Rape of the Lock effective is that in the regularity, something unexpected is found, a charming imbalance. However, in Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, we begin with uncertainty or irregularity but feel something sure or regular. Pope’s poem and Whitman’s poem begin differently but they come to have similar aesthetic possessions or attributes.
3. universality: individuality. Milton’s Paradise Lost is in a sense about the universe, but the Miltonic self is there. Milton, as self, asserted what he was even as he wrote about the beginning of earth, God, the fall of man, and, in time, the saving of man. The relation of all good and evil is what the universe is about, and Milton as one person saw fit to write about this, and apparently did it well. France, Germany, and even Russia have said that in Paradise Lost, the individuality of Milton merged well with the universe—a theological universe is still universal.
4. slowness: speed.In poetry there is a slowness which is sharpness and alacrity or speed. Words in a poem may be slow, but since more is said, and a greater height and depth are reached, there is speed, too. Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum is an important instance of slowness and speed as one in poetry. The very first line:
And the first grey of morning fill’d the east
shows this. The words are slow, but so much is included in these few words—color, time, and sky—they are fast or speedy, too. Slowness and speed as one can be seen also in Blake’s
O Rose, thou art sick.
Something is said here abruptly, sharply, but with such meditativeness, depth, we can feel that the rose is told it is sick swiftly but with the slowness of unwilling, large thought.
5. permanence: momentariness. Poetry has in it the utterance of all time, while it fits the moment, while it is immediate. The russet mantle in—
But look, the morn in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill—
as told of by Horatio in Hamlet, is a russet mantle with the immediacy of garb, but we feel also that the russet mantle will never be worn out. And the morn that walks o'er the dew, while an active morn, undoubtedly present this minute, is, likewise, in the territory of the enduring.
6. sense: sound. Virgil, the Romans in general, the Greeks and Li Po were aware of these opposites—as all writers of poetry have been. “Sound must go along with what I mean”—every poet has said to himself. The oneness of sense and sound makes for a rightness that is thrillingly acceptable.
7. picture: music. This pair of opposites is of course related to Sense: Sound. Picture in poetry consists, as it does in painting, of shape and color. In Tennyson’s line, from Tithonus—
And after many a summer dies the swan—
there is a shape of sound, almost like that of a swan’s neck moving. At least there is shape, and the swan is there, visually, if we so like.
In la sua volontade è nostra pace—
which can be put in an English iambic line this way:
Whatever peace we have is in His will
we have shape. The syllables rise and fall, widen and narrow in the line from Dante’s Paradiso. And the iambic line arising from it in English has the shape of the iambic in it, if nothing else. The shape of music is like picture.
However, color is in poetry abundantly. Color and music, dullness and motion make a one in these lines from Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind:
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red.
8. oneness: manyness. A poem like all art is a composition: that is, many things, while being what they separately are, have a work in common, an impulsion in common. If the poem I have just mentioned, Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, were not one thing as it changed, as it went to differing detail, it likely would not be studied these days in so many educational places of the world.
9. junction: separation. There must be a closeness of words in a poem, also of syllables—also of lines. The parts of a poem must be in an unchangeable, undying embrace. Yet there is separation, too. Keats’ line from his Ode on a Grecian Urn,
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape,
has congestion in it, impediment—but there is also separation. Legend haunts call to each other as words ever so closely, but still they are different words—there is space between them.
The whole of Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn is a study in crowdedness and space at once, or junction and separation.
And William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow is a notable instance of crowdedness of objects and the separation of wonder.
10. lightness: heaviness. In poetry, the syllables trip as they are majestic: they stamp and linger as they beckon elsewhere and seem to leave the scene. The first stanza of Thompson’s Hound of Heaven is a study in lightness and heaviness at once. If we look at the very first line of this poem:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days—
are there not lightness and ominousness here—lightness and heaviness?
11. grace: energy. Poetry is easy, but strong: it hints and affirms. The grace and energy in all poetry are exemplified in FitzGerald’s stanza from the Rubaiyat:
I sometimes think that never blows so red,
The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled;
That every Hyacinth the Garden wears
Dropt in its Lap from some once lovely Head.
Here are tentativeness of approach and sureness of manner. The rose is graceful—but then there are “buried Caesars.” Besides, the rose itself is graceful and energetic at once. Poetry tells us that the unseen asserts, and that the lightsome is persistent.
12. expansion: contraction. A poem goes out, as it is economic. Suggestion arises in a poem from concision. The oneness in poetry of expansion and contraction can, I think, be usefully seen in Sir Charles Sedley’s
Love still has something of the sea,
From whence his Mother rose.
The Restoration in English poetry was as good a time as any for inclusiveness of
meaning and brevity—that is, expansion and contraction.
13. depth: surface. The value, meaning, import of things are in poetry as there are surface, brightness, the show of things. The eighteenth-century lines with which Gray’s An Ode on the Spring begins are a little funny, I grant, yet there are depth and surface in them: a solidity, a depth is in them along with the frivolous, jolly show of things.
Lo! where the rosy-bosom'd Hours,
Fair Venus’ train appear,
Disclose the long-expecting flowers,
And wake the purple year!
Frivolity oft beckons to profundity; this is an avouchment of poetry.
14. contrivance: spontaneity. Poetry is both artifice and a cry, structure and freedom. How many poems in all languages exemplify the fact that poetry is spontaneous in art! Contrivance and spontaneity may be felt in the first lines of Poe’s Raven:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.
Poe’s poem is a careful structure arising from the spontaneously somber, the obsessively boding.
15. unknown: known. What we know and what we don’t know are present as one in poetry. What we see and don’t see, conceive and don’t conceive, understand and are uncertain of—are inextricably to be found in the beginning stanza of Shakespeare’s The Phoenix and the Turtle:
Let the bird of loudest lay,
On the sole Arabian tree,
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.
16. sameness: difference. Things are the same and different in a poem. All the technique of poetry is about sameness and difference: metaphor, image, symbol, personification—these are in “meaning technique.”And rhyme, assonance, change of accent, alliteration, syllabic recurrence, the chemistry of sound, parallelism, onomatopoeia—these are in “word technique.” Whatever the manifestation of technique in poetry, sameness and difference as one are in play.
When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,
The mother of months in meadow or plain—
these lines of Swinburne are permeated with sameness and difference as one thing.
And so it is in poetry.
I trust that the instances I have given make acceptable the idea that Poetry, like Art, is the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual.