As this blog still gets a steady stream of views, it seems worth noting that I now post at resistingtheintelligence, primarily though not exclusively about poetry.
Close attention to the meter in Emily Dickinson’s “When Night is almost done – “ reveals a tension between the meaning of the words and the mood of the rhythm. First, the poem (#347):
When Night is almost done –
And Sunrise grows so near
That we can touch the Spaces –
It’s time to smooth the Hair –
And get the Dimples ready –
And wonder we could care
For that old – faded Midnight –
That frightened – but an Hour –
The base meter of the poem is iambic trimeter – lines 1, 4, and 6 are all follow this meter perfectly. There are a few substitutions in the first six lines – line 2 has a spondee for its second foot (-rise grows), and lines 3 and 5 end with amphibrachs rather than iambs – but mostly she follows the meter closely in the opening lines. In the closing lines, however, Dickinson engages in quite daring metrical variation, and it’s very successful.
Before I get to that, however, I’d like to make some preliminary comments on other formal aspects of the poem. There is an obvious break-point in the poem, the stanza break, and it separates logically two halves of the poem. The first stanza focuses on the end of night and the coming sunrise, while the second stanza turns attention to the ability of night to frighten. This is a logical division, but other aspects of the poem fight against it. Dickinson uses off rhyme within stanzas (near/Hair; care/Hour), but lines 4 and 6 have perfect rhyme (Hair/care). Thus, even though there is a stanza break separating them, there is a close connection between lines 4 and 6. This creates the sense that the entire portion of the poem, from lines 2 to halfway through line 7, is a single entity separate from the rest. The remainder then looks like this:
When Night is almost done –
– faded Midnight –
That frightened – but an Hour –
Here we have together all the portion of the poem dealing with the night and its effects. They create an envelope, into which the portion about the sunrise is inserted. For me, at least, this suggests something less essential about the inserted portion. The fact that the night forms an envelope in this fashion keeps our attention focused there, and makes it the aspect of the poem that most lingers. Against this, the sunrise seems of secondary importance.
This sense is, I think, amplified by the metrical variations in the final two lines. Here’s a breakdown of the stress patterns (u = unstressed, – = stressed):
Line 7: u u – – u – –
Line 8: u – u u u –
I’m a bit uncertain about how to break down the feet in these lines. The base of the poem is iambic, which makes me want to read it this way:
Line 7: u u / – – / u – – [pyrrhic, spondee, cretic]
Line 8: u – / u u / u – [iamb, pyrrhic, iamb]
However, both lines contain a dash after the third syllable, and this forced pause leads to a competing inclination to read the lines as each opening with trisyllabic feet:
Line 7: u u – / – u / – – [anapest, trochee, spondee]
Line 8: u – u / u u – [amphibrach, anapest]
I am not sure which reading to choose, though I lean toward the first. In any case, the four stresses in line 7 really slow the line down, especially since they are bunched into a five-syllable span. This breaks up the relatively smooth flow of the preceding five lines, and dims the brightness of the sunrise for the transition back to night.
Then comes the last line, which is just masterful. The presence of only two stresses makes the line seem as if it should be really light. This complements the surface meaning of the words “that frightened but an hour.” They make the line go quickly, as the fright went quickly. But – there are the dashes. Read the line without the dashes, and it is as I just described, light, springy, easy. The first dash, however, inserts a pause right in the middle of its quickest portion (the pyrrhic), more or less eliminating the effect of having a pyrrhic there at all. The second dash, at the end of the line, similarly makes the line heavier. Instead of the satisfaction of a full stop (as one would expect at the end of a light, quick line), the dash forces us to linger with the night and the fright it brings.
The form of Dickinson’s poem thus fights with itself. On the surface, it seems to follow the literal meaning of the words, as seen in the stanza break and the meter, abstractly considered. However, the placement of the dashes and the rhyme scheme contest this obvious reading, showing a darker undercurrent to the poem. They resist the easy solution to the troubles of night that the poems appears to offer – even in the light, the night lingers.
Why be self-reliant? Emerson offers an aesthetic justification in “Behavior”: lack of self-possession is ugly, and painfully so.
Those who are not self-possessed, obtrude, and pain us. Some men appear to feel that they belong to a Pariah caste. They fear to offend, they bend and apologize, and walk through life with a timid step. (1046)
There is a tone to our actions, and two instances of what is nominally the same action may be unmistakably distinguished by their possessing distinct tones. The one acts with assurance, the other with apology, and though the act alone be of equal value in each, we are willing followers of the former, and detest the latter.
One would say, that the persuasion of their speech is not in what they say, – or that men do not convince by their argument, – but by their personality, by who they are, and what they said and did heretofore. (1048)
One means by which such a tone is generated is through manners, etiquette – I am convinced Emerson would have named this essay “Manners” had he not already published an essay by that name in Essays: Second Series. Self-reliance stands opposed to conformity, but nonconformity here does not mean reckless abandonment of etiquette, that powerful creator of forms. Forms are requisite for expression – they are constraints only when they are imposed upon the content.
An illustration of the point may be found in poetry. Paul Fussell, in his book requisite for all readers of poetry (Poetic Meter & Poetic Form), notes that what makes poems poetic is their density: that each element may be seen to contribute to the meaning, that none are tacked on or arbitrary. If a poem contains stanza divisions, those divisions must matter. If a poem has a meter, that meter must bubble up out of the poem’s content, and prove itself worthy of it. &c.
So too actions. One can not simply add form, manners, tone to action arbitrarily. Actions require density. Or, better, persons require density.
And you cannot rightly train one to an air and manner, except by making him the kind of man of whom that manner is the natural expression. Nature forever puts a premium on reality. What is done for effect, is seen to be done for effect; what is done for love, is felt to be done for love. (1047)
No more than one can write a poem in iambic pentameter whose thought does not so move, can one cultivate a person’s appearance who remains barbaric underneath. The barbarism will show through.
One of the aesthetic markers of self-reliance – I note in passing a confidence between Emerson and Nietzsche on this point – is a mistrust of too much giving grounds. One need only watch a contemporary discussion between disputants each of whom is concerned to display his rationality, his cautiousness, his consideration of all sides, his charity to opponents to be disgusted by the ugliness of a too great love of the appearance of rationality.
Emerson noted this opposition in grand style in his essay on “Self-Reliance”:
I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. (262)
It is important, however, so he reiterates here, with an interesting variation:
Self-reliance is the basis of behavior, as it is the guaranty that the powers are not squandered in too much demonstration. In this country, where school education is universal, we have a superficial culture, and a profusion of reading and writing and expression. We parade our nobilities in poems and orations, instead of working them up into happiness. (1048)
In this expression of the point, Emerson ties it to the thought that poetry might profitably disappear – not his first time having entertained such a thought. He mistrusts that poetry (and other writing) that becomes a show of nobility, often at the expense of the enacting of that nobility. Were this form of poetry to disappear, what is poetic in it would nonetheless remain: “when a man does not write his poetry, it escapes by other vents through him […] clings to his form and manners…” (1048)
This disappearance of poetry is, moreover, annexed to a consideration of happiness: there is something sickly, unhappy, about a person who sacrifices happiness to poetizing. As a person possessive of at least pretensions to such poetizing, this thought is interesting to and useful for me. Ought I not to write, in favor of other forms of expression? I do not think so, and do not believe that I am merely gratifying myself in so thinking. What this suggests to me instead is that Emerson places a priority first on happiness (by which I do not believe he means that sloppy self-content that today sometimes carries the name). Once this is secured, it may overflow into poetry.
The requirement is that poetry be a product of joy, of healthful morning hours. If such joy be its fount, it will adopt poetic bearing of its own accord, and wear it regally. If not, all the cultivation of form imposed upon it will not protect forever the impostor.
As Adrian del Caro, at the end of his translation of Beyond Good and Evil (Stanford University Press), chose to preserve the rhyme scheme of the ending “Nachgesang” at the expense of Nietzsche’s meaning,** I thought I would try my hand at a literal, deliberately artless translation. (Adrian del Caro did not attempt to preserve Nietzsche’s meter, rendering his translation accidentally artless.)
**I give an example after I give my own translation.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
From high Mountains.
Oh life’s midday! Festive time!
…..Oh summer garden!
Restless happiness in standing and peering and waiting: –
The friends I await, poised day and night,
Where do you stay friends? Come! It’s time! It’s time!
Was it not for you that the glacier’s grey
…..Today adorns itself with roses?
You the brook seeks, longingly rushes,
The wind and clouds thrust higher today into blue
To peer at you from more distant bird’s view.
In the highest place, for you was my table covered: –
…..Who dwells so near the stars
Who near the abyss’ greyest distance?
My realm – what realm has stretched itself wider?
And my honey – who has tasted it? . . . . .
– There you are, friends! – Woe, then I am not
…..The one you wanted?
You hesitate, marvel – ach, better if you resented!
I – am no longer? Swapped hand, step, face?
And what I am, you friends – I am not?
I became another? And foreign to myself?
…..Sprung from myself?
A wrestler who too often vanquished himself?
Too often braced himself against his own force,
Through his own victory wounded and obstructed?
I searched where the wind blows most sharply?
…..I learned to dwell
Where no one dwells, in barren polar bear zones,
Unlearned man and God, curse and prayer?
Became a ghost, that over glaciers goes?
– You old friends! Look! Now you look pale,
…..Full of love and horror!
No, leave! Rage not! Here – you could not reside:
Here between remotest realms of ice and rock –
Here one must be hunter and chamois-like.
A wickeder hunter I became! – Look, how steeply
…..My bow tenses!
It was the strongest who drew such a draw – – [der solchen Zug gezogen]
But woe now! Dangerous is this arrow,
Like no arrow, – away from here! For your health! . . . . .
You turn? – Oh heart, you carried enough,
…..Stark remained your hope:
For new friends hold your doors open!
The old ones leave! Leave the memory!
Once were you young, now – be better young!
What ever knotted us, a band of hope, –
…..Who reads the signs,
That love once inscribed, yet pallid?
To parchment I compare it, that the hand
Dreads to grasp, – like it browned, burned.
No longer friends, they are – yet how can I call them?
That knock at night on my heart and window,
That inspect me and say: “yet we were?” –
– Oh wilted word, that once like roses smelled!
Oh youth’s yearning that misunderstood itself!
…..For which I yearned,
That I imagined related, converted to myself,
That they became old has removed their charm:
Only who changes himself remains related to me.
Oh life’s midday! Second youth!
…..Oh summer garden!
Restless happiness in standing and peering and waiting: –
The friends I await, poised day and night,
The new friends! Come! It’s time! It’s time!
* * *
This song is over, – wistfulness’ sweeter cry
…..Died in the mouth:
A magician did it, a friend at the right time,
The midday-friend – no! Ask not who it was –
It was around midday that one became two . . . . .
Now we celebrate, confident victory unites,
…..The feast of feasts:
Friend Zarathustra came, the guest of guests!
Now laughs the world, the horrid curtain tears,
The wedding came for light and eclipse . . . . .
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Comment: an example of del Caro sacrificing Nietzsche’s meaning to the rhyme scheme.
In the fourth stanza, the poet begins to worry that he is no longer himself, and this theme dominates the fifth stanza. In the final four lines of that stanza, Nietzsche suggests a causal mechanism by which this change of identity occurred:
Ein Andrer ward ich? Und mir selber fremd?
…..Mir selbst entsprungen?
Ein Ringer, der zu oft sich selbst bezwungen?
Zu oft sich gegen eigne Kraft gestemmt,
Durch eignen Sieg verwundet und gehemmt
Del Caro translates these lines as follows:
I have become someone else? Strange to me?
…..From me unseated?
A wrestler by himself pinned and defeated?
Who strained against himself too forcefully?
Wounded and blocked by his own victory?
The first line is fine, though awkward, as is the last. The three lines in the middle, however, are all problematic. I’ll go through each in turn.
In the second line, Nietzsche uses the verb ‘entsprungen’, literally ‘sprung from’. This suggests not only that the narrator has become someone else, but further that he was himself the agent of this change. Del Caro changes this to ‘unseated’, which carries no such connotation – if anything, it suggests that it was some external force that caused the change. At best, del Caro loses an important implication, such that the line contains no information not contained in the previous line, and thus becomes redundant, distending the poem. At worst, del Caro has inserted a meaning into the poem that is opposite to what Nietzsche intended.
The next line confirms this implication of Nietzsche’s verb choice. Here del Caro’s choice of ‘defeated’ is fine, though he needlessly adds in an additional verb (‘pinned’) with no source in Nietzsche. More problematically, del Caro changes the tense of the sentence, from active – “a wrestler who too often vanquished himself” – to passive: “by himself pinned and defeated.” Where Nietzsche (again) highlights the agency involved in the narrator’s transformation, del Caro again makes it sound like something that just happens to the narrator from “outside.” Del Caro sneaks the agency back in with the “by himself,” but the force of this is attenuated. Finally, the extra verb is not only absent from Nietzche’s poem, it also means del Caro has no space to include Nietzsche’s “zu oft” (“too often”). What Nietzsche very clearly indicates is something that occurs multiple times, del Caro gives the impression was a single event.
The following line afforded del Caro a chance to rectify this mistake, as it contains another “Zu oft,” but del Caro did not avail himself of the opportunity. Instead, he switched the “too” over to a later adverb: “strained […] too forcefully.” But in fact this adverb never appears in the German. What Nietzsche actually says is that the wrestler “braced himself against his own force.” This identifies the wrestler’s “own force” (“eigne Kraft”) as the object of struggle. In del Caro’s translation, however, the object of the struggle is just “himself.” In Nietzsche’s original, the line adds new information: in vanquishing himself, he had to set himself against his own force. But in del Caro’s translation, there is once more, at best, no new information. We simply hear, again, that he’s struggling with himself. At worst, there is new information, but not that which Nietzsche wanted to convey: del Caro’s translation suggests that the cause of the change was the application of too much force, when really it is the result of the struggle occurring too often.
What is gained by these changes? The idea, I suppose, is that something of Nietzsche’s artistry is preserved. There is, in translation, always a trade-off between style and sense, and I can understand sacrificing some nuances of sense to style, though my own taste (if not talent) in translation leans Nabokovian. However, I don’t believe that is actually going on here. Preserving the rhyme scheme does not at all preserve Nietzsche’s artistry.
Consider: a different poet who writes a different poem in the same rhyme scheme does not in any sense share Nietzsche’s artistry. Whatever the meaning to be expressed, any talentless pseudo-poet can find a way to make it answer to a rhyme scheme. It is not the answering to a rhyme scheme that makes the poem, but the specific rhymes chosen. And the exact rhymes Nietzsche chose by definition cannot be translated, since they involve German words. All of the rhymes in del Caro’s translation belong to del Caro alone, even if they are constrained, very loosely indeed, by Nietzsche’s original.
Moreover, if one is to preserve something of the formal scheme to which Nietzsche’s poem answers, surely it should be to the meter. After all, as del Caro notes in his translator’s afterword, so much of Nietzsche’s writing is its tempo. The meter is a major instrument of tempo in a poem, yet del Caro makes no attempt to preserve Nietzsche’s meter. (I do not have a good enough feel for the sound of German to confidently spell out this meter, but it is obvious that it has a metric base. For instance, lines two and three of each stanza generally consist of an iamb followed by an amphibrach.) Instead, del Caro’s translation is all over the map. Just looking at the stanza thus far considered, his translation of the first line is top-heavy, while his translation of the third line is oddly lilting in a way that does not fit with the meaning.
So what, then, is gained? There is a trade-off made, but it is not between Nietzsche’s sense and his style. Instead, it is between Nietzsche’s sense and del Caro’s style. I get a sense of del Caro’s quality as a poet (you may infer what I think), but at a cost. There is, moreover, a second trade-off: between Nietzsche’s style and del Caro’s style. For there are aspects of Nietzsche’s poetic sensibility that do translate, e.g. his use of repetitions and his non-redundancy. By preserving the rhyme scheme, del Caro is forced to eliminate repetitions and neuter lines to the point of redundancy.
When I was first reading Nietzsche, before I knew any German, I believed that Nietzsche simply was not a very good poet. That belief, I am now convinced, was entirely an artifact of my having read English translations that choose to preserve the dubious façade of rhyme over the poetry involved. This is not to say that I now believe Nietzsche was a good poet – my German is not competent for that. (Aside: I hope any readers of this post will keep in mind what the translation I offered above is, namely, an exercise that may help me to one day be a competent reader of German.) But it is to say that I wish translators would make less egotistical decisions when translating Nietzsche’s poetry.
Or, if they were so inclined, more egotistical decisions – i.e. the decision to write a poem that preserves all of Nietzsche’s artistic trappings, at the expense of any attempt at line-by-line correspondence (theme and “plot” are enough) – so long as they admitted that what was provided was not so much a translation as a hybrid offspring. That would be interesting, though of course such an attempt is only appropriate for a genuine poet.
It is very rare for an essay by Emerson to insist on a single point without a countermovement. Let whatever have its say, some opponent also demands a voice, and Emerson grants it. Yet in his essay on “Power”, Emerson defers this movement to later chapters of The Conduct of Life.
I have not forgotten that there are sublime considerations which limit the value of talent and superficial success. We can easily overpraise the vulgar hero. There are sources on which we have not drawn. I know what I abstain from. I adjourn what I have to say on this topic to the chapters on Culture and Worship. (985)
It is telling that Emerson imposes this delay on himself. He has just been defending the fundamental role of power in human life. Life itself he defines as the search for power, and immediately connects this to a favorite theme: selectivity. Genius is selective, Emerson teaches again and again. This may be applied to life as the search for power, for such life takes events as the ore in which power is found, that is, as something to be sifted. “He can well afford to let events and possessions, and the breath of the body go, if their value has been added to him in the shape of power.” (971)
Emerson’s picture of power is not a humanized one. He is not playing games with the word, making it mean something softer, lighter, than in a generic context it conveys. No, power is power, the ability to control and dominate, to subject some material – be it inert or animate, animal or human – to one’s will. Given the choice between power and ethics, Emerson will take power – “if it be only a question between the most civil and the most forcible, I lean to the last” (977) – and he considers seriously the worry that “conscience [is] not good for hands and legs.” (978)
Nor does Emerson see such a reliance on power as harmful. If “this power, to be sure, is not clothed in satin,” nonetheless “it brings its own antidote.” (976) The solution to the problems power raises is more power, of a different sort – counterbalancing power. Politics, with its brute clash of forces, becomes a model of self-reliance writ large: it is not goodness, conformity to civil standards, that makes for sustainable politics. It is that each comes “with a mind made up to desperate extremities.” (975) This paragraph, by the by, is a strong plank in the case for seeing Emersonian self-reliance as it must be seen: as a form of egotism.
Power is fundamental. It is because power is fundamental that Emerson defers the coming movement. To be sure, Emerson hints at it in the essay. “Physical force has no value, where there is nothing else.” (980) But Emerson cannot disparage physical force, for without it, nothing else has value. Emerson is clear where value lies:
Everything good in nature and the world is in that moment of transition, when the swarthy juices still flow plentifully from nature, but their astringency or acridity is got out by ethics and humanity. (980)
The value of power lies in its ability to be directed, when it is not an end in itself, but put toward some aim. The power, however, comes first. The aim without the power is “idle seeing,” and accounts for nothing. (982) Ethics and humanity without power leaves only tamed and neutered animals – that is why Emerson chooses the forcible over the civil. Emerson favors the moment of transition precisely because power is preserved in it. When the transition is complete, all that remains is undiluted ethics – conformity. Then brute power is again required.
Emerson draws from these views on power a consequence for the artist. As someone who has recently begun writing poetry (again, if my horrid teen years are to be counted), I found the following passage of especial significance:
The triumphs of peace have been in some proximity to war. Whilst the hand was still familiar with the sword-hilt, whilst the habits of the camp were still visible in the port and complexion of the gentleman, his intellectual power culminated: the compression and tension of these stern conditions is a training for the finest and softest arts, and can rarely be compensated in tranquil times, except by some analogous vigor drawn from occupations as hardy as war. (980)
Aside from my pet interest in the connection between Emerson and Nietzsche – who, familiar with Nietzsche, can fail to see how the German on so many occasions rewrote this very passage? – the passage is interesting for treating fine arts and intellectual endeavors as only one step removed from war, and as degenerate when further removed. Just as in politics and business, the material side of life, where self-interest and the crudest egotism rules, so also in poetry and painting, power is fundamental.
That origination of art in power has an interesting consequence:
The friction in nature is so enormous that we cannot spare any power. It is not question to express our thought, to elect our way, but to overcome resistances of the medium and material in everything we do. (984)
Art is not about expression. How many turn to poetry or other arts to express themselves, or to express a message about society, or… – in any case, to express something! And how much terrible, unreadable poetry results! What results from such endeavors is a chaos of words held together only by their meaning, a distended organization of unrecognizable shape.
This because art – as all else – is about power, is about overcoming the “resistances of the medium and material.” It is not about expression, not even about beauty. It is, in the case of poetry, about dominating words, forcing them into position, making them do the work the poet commands. (Vladimir Nabokov once said, “My characters are galley slaves.” He knew.*) There is resistance imposed by meter, by the sounds of words, by the conventions of form – all of which require power to be overcome. It is in that overcoming that the successes of poetry lie.
[*Nabokov also, to my great surprise, appears to have found Emerson’s poetry “delightful.” I can’t say I’m displeased.]
This is not to say that expression and beauty have no role. It is just: their role is secondary. They are sources of constraints. Not only must meter be obeyed (and in meter-lacking verse other constraints take over this role), but meaning must be conveyed. Thus the resistance of the medium increases. Not only must meter be obeyed and meaning be conveyed, but the result must be beautiful. The resistance of the medium becomes nearly impervious to the poet’s effort.
I have permitted myself to write the above not just because it is, I believe, true to Emerson, but because it corresponds with my own experience. I can certainly not claim a single pure success in what I have written so far, except perhaps in an isolated line here or there, but the joy I have found in writing has not come from expression, but from the thrill that comes at each moment that the material yields even a little, at each correct placement of a single word. No such joy attends the successful expression of an idea – every half-baked line of mine expresses something – and I would banish meaning from my poetry if I would not thereby lose a rich source of friction, and hence a rich source, eventually, of joy.
This realization I came to before I read Emerson’s essay and its striking claims. As I wrote in my journal, earlier in the day: “Poetry: a struggle for power over words, words that fight back.”