abstract nouns in poetry:

perceptual and conceptual categorization
Chearlesse Night in Spenser and Baudelaire

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Chearlesse Night in Spenser and Baudelaire



                                          (Charles Baudelaire)

Spenser's is, undoubtedly, an allegoric night. Nevertheless, it is not pure allegory, in the sense that--as Legouis and Cazamian and others have suggested--one may well enjoy the poem even when missing most of the allegory, if one feeds the senses of his mind on the rich, sensuous descriptions. Therefore, when comparing this description to Baudelaire's poem, the factor of other things being equal is far more striking than one might expect. Indeed, some things are almost identical, and the differences--though unmistakable--are almost hopelessly evasive.

Spenser's stanza is informed by an atmosphere generated by the co-occurrence of nouns such as Night, darkness and adjectives as chearlesse , sad. Similarly, in Baudelaire's sonnet we find Douleur, Soir, Nuit, obscure. Furthermore, for Spenser's shroud we find linceul in Baudelaire's sonnet. In one poem people are "dismayd with darkness", "In silence and in sleepe themselves did shroud"; in the other one darkness brings to some "la paix", and to some "le souci". Characteristically, in one poem we find the verb ycovered, in the other enveloppe, both having an abstract noun for subject.

It is undeniable that Spenser's poem induces some atmosphere, quite dispensable in an allegory; whereas in Baudelaire's prevailingly symbolist-impressionist sonnet there is an allegoric machinery, more elaborate than in Spenser's present stanza. There is a long series of abstract nouns capitalized (and all but l'Orient personified): Douleur, Soir, Plaisir, les défuntes Années, le Regret souriant, la douce Nuit qui marche; and a concrete noun capitalized and personified: le Soleil moribond. In addition, there is in the sonnet a long series of nouns, most of them abstract, some of them collective nouns, or denoting some substance that lacks characteristic visual shape, such as atmosphère, la ville, la paix, le souci, des mortels la multitudes vile, des remords, la fête, du ciel, du fond des eaux.

The issue at stake is that of the whole that determines the character of its parts. In the passage from The Fairie Qvene the abstractions tend toward a compact, conceptual character under which a mood is subsumed, whereas in "Recueillement" it is the diffuse mood, the atmosphere, that is dominant, and the allegorical figures interplay and join forces to induce it. According to our foregoing assumptions, the reader is supposed directly to perceive this difference. After the event, however, he is entitled to get a reasoned account of the source of this difference. What reasons can be brought, then, in favour of the respective qualities perceived in the two poems? No doubt, some of our different impressions are due to our different expectations: if we know that we are going to read Spenser, or Baudelaire, we may be inclined to perceive an allegoric-conceptual character, or a symbolic-perceptual character in their respective poems.

But even after making these allowances, some people feel there is an unmistakable--if evasive--difference between the two poems. We feel that in Baudelaire some concepts have been attenuated to their utmost, fused into each other, generating an extremely dense, thing-free and concept-free atmosphere inducing a feeling of having perceived an infinitely subtle sense-perception. Whereas in Spenser, the concepts as well as the percepts are "hard", well-distinguished.

This difference may be accounted for in terms of the distinctions propounded above. First, Baudelaire activates the mechanisms of spatial orientation in an immediate situation defined here-and-now, by using a great number of vigorous deictic devices; this, as we have seen, may have a decisive effect on processing information in a more diffuse (that is, more emotional) manner. The vocative phrases in lines 1, 8 and 14 (ô ma Douleur, ma Douleur, and ma chère), and the imperatives in lines 1, 8, 9 and 14 (Sois sage, tiens-toi, donnes-moi, viens, vois, entends) are effective deictic devices implicit in words and phrases that carry additional information, and create an "immediate", "vivid" situation; their effect is enhanced by a few explicit deictic devices, such as le voici (line 2), and viens par ici / Loin d'eux (lines 8-9). One possible source of the intense feeling perceived is the tension between the cumulation of abstractions and the concrete situation defined by deictic devices mainly.

Spenser, on the contrary, employs all available devices to shift the situation to a general rather than a specific scene. The cloud that covers heaven is an "Universal cloud"; and the situation is defined with reference to time not by deixis but a temporal clause (introduced by when).

Second, Spenser uses such all-inclusive "universals and absolutes" as "universal cloud" and "every wight", suggesting "a sense of control, security and authority", and thus reinforces the conceptual character of his description. Baudelaire, on the contrary, makes fine distinctions within his population: "Aux uns portant la paix, aux autres le souci", reinforcing the psychological atmosphere of uncertainty in the poem.

Third, Spenser uses his adjectives as epithets, that is, they represent cheerlessness as a permanent, characteristic and basic feature of Night, sadness of darkness and fairness of heaven. Moreover, Night, darkness and heaven are conceived of as of strikingly representative exemplars of cheerlessness, sadness and fairness respectively. The permanent, basic and exemplary nature of the qualities designated becomes clear from the observation that "poeticity disappears when the adjective is modified or qualified or enters into a predicative relationship--in short, when it ceases to be an epithet" (Riffaterre, 1978: 28), in constructions as "very sad darkness", or "darkness is sad", "Night is cheerless", etc. The point is that darkness is sad evidently and absolutely (that is, in an unqualified manner); sadness is inherent in, hence need not be attributed to, darkness. In other words, the adjectives in chearlesse Night and darkness sad are non-restrictive: they denote an attribute inherent in the noun, and do not distinguish between sad darkness and, say, cheerful or comforting darkness. In the light of the foregoing discussions, one may suggest that a restrictive adjective particularizes the noun, whereas a non-restrictive adjective keeps it on a general level.

These suggestions are corroborated, from a different angle, and in a wider perspective, by C. S. Lewis' classical study (1936: 313):

Like the writers of the New Testament [...] he is endlessly preoccupied with such ultimate antitheses as Light and Darkness of Life and Death. It has not often been noticed [...] that night is hardly even mentioned by Spenser without aversion. His story leads him to describe innumerable nightfalls, and his feeling about them is always the same.

Baudelaire's darkness differs from Spenser's not only in the poet's gentle feeling towards it: it is an accidental--local rather than universal--"atmosphère obscure" that envelops the city; and obscure is a restrictive adjective of atmosphère. In other words, obscurity is not an inherent, permanent quality of the atmosphere that envelops the city; indeed, lighting is typically changing from moment to moment.

Now it is illuminating to see, what happens to the adjectives faire and obscure, which in one of their main senses are exact antonyms, and as such ought to behave in a similar manner. Both adjectives have several meanings relevant to their contexts, but whereas the meanings of Spenser's epithet yield a complex of compact, conceptual entities perceived in sharp focus, the meanings of Baudelaire's restrictive adjective yield a diffuse, perceptual entity, perceived in a soft focus. The plurisignation of Fair seems to be essential here for Spenser's allegorical method. It denotes (a) free from bias, dishonesty or injustice; (b) bright; (c) beautiful. Its first meaning corroborates the allegoric contrast between the moral qualities intimated by the canto. The second meaning enables to state the sharp contrast between brightness and darkness. Whereas the third meaning reinforces in an allegoric manner the first two. Both words that constitute the phrase atmosphère obscure are ambiguous. Atmosphère may either mean "air" which, we all know, envelops the city; or, a quality that produces a mood or impression. Similarly, in connection with the first sense of atmosphère, obscure means "dusk, evening twilight" (contributing to the specific, immediate situation); in connection with the second sense it may mean something like mysterious, giving the mood or impression its peculiar emotional "colouring". In accordance with the central claim of the present paper, une atmosphère obscure denotes a visible but intangible substance--a perceptible feeling, so to speak, particularizing and informing the scenery of the sonnet. This difference may be regarded as a consequence of the restrictive ~ non-restrictive opposition of these adjectives.

C. S. Lewis' passage is relevant in an additional respect: Spenser "is endlessly preoccupied with such ultimate antitheses as Light and Darkness of Life and Death". I have suggested above that clear-cut contrasts will tend to assume some logical organization, with a psychological atmosphere of certainty and patent purpose, whereas finer distinctions, by amassing overwhelming information, may produce a threat of chaos. Such chaos is more readily controlled when processed in relation to the "integration of diffuse input, such as orienting oneself is space", resulting in some vague, elusive, emotionally loaded atmosphere perceived in a concrete landscape.

In excerpt (12) we have the indication of such "ultimate antitheses" in the sensory domains, in the opposition between "faire heaven" and "universal cloud", and between "silence and sleepe" and "she heard a shrilling Trompet sound aloud". In the emotional domain, chearlesse and sad are synonymous; however, in the former adjective (but not in the latter) the emotional colour is obtained by negating its opposite (chear); so it implies a sharp opposition. How different are Baudelaire's nuances! He does not contrast light with darkness, but Soir (line 2) with Nuit (line 14). The contrast between silence and sound is strikingly subtle. Only the last line of this sonnet appeals to the auditory sense. The perception of the marching Night's paths suggests either some infinitely subtle, supersensuous sound, or, by way of hyperbola, an all-pervasive silence, in which one may hear even the marching of the night. If in Spenser's poem silence and sleep are to be distinguished from


the first line of "Recueillement" implies a distinction between "tranquille" and "plus tranquille".

We have seen is Spenser the epithets chearlesse and sad attributed, almost a priori, to Night and darknesse. They have emphasized, unambiguously, some conventional, spiritual aspects of the nouns. Chearlesse and sad denote some unambiguously undesirable qualities. But what about Douleur in 13? Although the word itself denotes some undesirable quality; while nowhere does the sonnet state that it is desirable, the speaker invokes it in a tone of intimacy and affection. Consider "O ma Douleur" and "Ma Douleur, donnes-moi la main". The passionate tone indicated by the interjection O becomes affectionate, by virtue of "give me your hand"--a gesture intended to bestow a feeling of assurance upon a child (cf. "sois sage" in line 1, implying a tone of comforting a child). Now, is darkness in 13 as undesirable as in The Fairie Qvene, or, on the contrary, does it bring relief as, say, in Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner"? Darkness has been explicitly desired by "Douleur"; but is douleur itself desirable? This ambiguous character has not been resolved, but rather reinforced, by the fact that Night falls "Aux uns portant la paix, aux autres le souci".

Or, consider the subtleness of a phrase like "le Regret souriant". In an allegory we might expect Regret to assume almost any expression but smiling; its face would express sorrow, or gravity, but not a smile. The present sonnet has acquired some mood that avoids any extremities. Of Regret one may conceive as more moderate than sorrow, of "souriant" as more moderate than "laughing". The paradoxical combination need not be perceived as paradoxical at all, but as a subtle (or even gentle) feeling, in which there is an emphasis on the common bearing of both of its elements on some process of spiritual cleansing and refreshing. Or again, if at the beginning of the sonnet we have found some affinity between Douleur and the dusk of evening, the arrival of night should suggest some extreme grief or distress. This is reinforced by death-imagery, such as défuntes, moribond, linceul. In this sense, the last line is a culmination of a death-process, as I have elsewhere argued at length (Tsur, 1973). On the other hand, Night is called here la douce Nuit, and qui marche echoes in its consonants ma chère. This last line is, then, really ambivalent, accomplishing the process of death and bringing relief, suggesting the beginning of a process of "rebirth".

In the passage from The Fairie Qvene the relationship between Night and chearlesse, darkness and sad is made unambiguous, by means of their grammatical connection. In "Recueillement", on the other hand, Sorrow is not attributed to Evening. It has been personified, and had called for the evening. The reader is left in uncertainty whether Sorrow and Evening are disconnected entities, or are to be treated as metonymically related. If they explain and qualify each other, one may assume that "ma Douleur" has called precisely for the evening, because "she" resembles it in some sense; it is a "twilight" mood, a nuance, in between identifiable extremes; ma Douleur stresses the emotional quality of the evening atmosphere, whereas the dusk presents Sorrow as gloomy, dusky, unlike dark distress.

Il descend, as attributed to Soir, may mean one of two things. In an allegoric context, it might refer to some personification of the evening, descending from Heaven (like some angel). In an impressionist poem like this, the evening descending from nowhere is diffuse, spread all over the visible space and beyond, and enhances the thing-free quality presented by une atmosphère obscure. This all-pervasive quality, substantial and insubstantial at once, is reinforced by "Et, comme un long linceul traînant à l'Orient". There seems to be some dark substance spreading toward the East; it is evenly spread like some solid stuff, yet intangible. It seems to be "long": its end seems to be lost beyond the horizon.

The syntactic structures of the two passages, too, contribute to the perceived difference between one clear, over-all opposition in excerpt 12, and a multidirectional set of oppositions based on minute distinctions in excerpt 13. Spenser's stanza, the first in its canto, begins with a connective heralding a hypotaxis: "Tho when as ..." indicates that the following description is to be conceived as opposed to something else. This expectation is amply fulfilled in "She heard ..." etc. A similar construction we have in 13, "Pendant que ...". But whereas Spenser's complex sentence presents two opposites, Silence and shrill of Trompets, against each other, in Baudelaire's sonnet the syntactic structure has been exploited to an even more complex effect. "Pendant que" introducing the hypotactic sentence appears at the beginning of quatrain 2. "While the vile multitude of mortals is doing one thing, let's separate us from them, and do something that opposes their action". But one of the main effects of this hypotactic sentence is a contrast with the parataxis in the former quatrain. One of the effects of the parataxis in the firs quatrain and parts of the sestet is to carry and articulate the parallel events that constitute the process (emphasizing this leisure by contrast to the second quatrain), whereas when reading Spenser's stanza, one must look forward to the clear, unambiguous opposite.

To Sum Up
The last section of the present paper focuses the foregoing discussions on an inquiry into the relationship between an "extreme" kind of symbol and "good old allegory of our fathers". We have found some evidence that traditional critical terminology such as "personification", "extended comparison", "the first and second term (or tenor and vehicle) of the metaphor" may, at best, point at the similarity of the two figures, but can do little justice to the intuitively felt immense difference between e.g. Spenser and Baudelaire. The theoretical frame of reference and critical apparatus expounded in the present paper seem to be appropriate to handle this difference. It has been assumed here that the critic must rely on the aesthetic qualities of the poems directly perceived and reported by a variety of readers. In case of disagreement, one may attempt to account for conflicting intuitions in terms of differences in the relative weight assigned to the various variables that determine the effect of the whole. In some extreme cases one may find evidence in the critic's arguments of an intolerance of the aesthetic qualities typically perceived in the poem and detect cognitive strategies to eliminate them from awareness. Further, one may assume that in such cases as excerpts 12 and 13 the same kind of information is processed in two different ways, and categorized in a way that is nearer to the conceptual or to the perceptual pole, respectively. In the case of allegory, information is perceived as typically conceptual and compact; in the case of 19th Century Symbolism--as perceptual and diffuse. We have also identified a few variables in the text that influence the intuitive decision of the readers, whether to categorize information as compact or diffuse entities. This influence of linguistic and thematic devices on the organization of the perceived effects can be explained only via the putative cognitive mechanisms activated by them. Most notable among them is the correlation between emphatic deictic devices and specific landscape descriptions on the one hand, and the diffuse, undifferentiated vision induced by abstract nouns. Because there appears to be little structural resemblance between these devices and that kind of vision, here we must go outside the domain of literary criticism or linguistic description, or even cognitive theory proper, to the different modes of functioning of the two hemispheres of the human brain. Only an understanding of the linear nature of the activities of the language-hemisphere, and the global and diffuse nature of the activities usually associated with the other hemisphere can account for the relationship between spatial orientation and the undifferentiated vision aroused by abstract nouns. But this should be noted: this conception is a far-cry from what Fodor (1979: 18) has called "Psychological Reductionism", that is, "the doctrine that every psychological natural kind is, or is coextensive with, a neurological natural kind". The doctrine expounded here, on the contrary, attempts to account for the correlation between certain linguistic and thematic devices and certain perceived aesthetic qualities consistently reported by various readers, by focussing on the point of intersection of two apparently unrelated kinds of brain-processes (i.e., emotions and spatial orientation). As a result, the perceived qualities of poetic passages like excerpts 12 and 13 became susceptible to meaningful public debate. The theory expounded here offers distinctions the applicability of which in specific instances can be publicly verified on the one hand, and which, on the other hand, help to identify elements that typically count toward one or the other aesthetic quality. The reasons brought to support the conceptual allegoric nature of the abstractions in Spenser's poem and the perceptual-symbolic nature of Baudelaire's sonnet have been found to be in perfect harmony with the reasons brought to support judgments that Time (or one of its hyponyms) is perceived as a compact concept or a diffuse percept.

Abstract nouns, then--like so many elements of style--are of a "double-edged" nature. In various contexts they give rise to different--sometimes contradictory--qualities. "While high abstractions may be a primitive process when accomplished in the absence of differentiation, they may be an advanced process after differentiation" (Brown, 1968: 286). Accordingly, abstract nouns may denote highly differentiated concepts, or contribute to some undifferentiated poetic atmosphere or "mystic" insight. This, of course, does not imply that a poem like Baudelaire's "Recueillement" or Wordsworth's "It is a beauteous evening" reflect "primitive processes"; only that the processes of differentiation have been accomplished on various, and usually other than conceptual, levels. If concrete means various qualities "grown together" in a perceptual object, one should not be very surprised that poetic atmosphere, or poetic insight--the sudden grasping of some undifferentiated quality--presupposes a certain amount of thing-free qualities, some loosening, so to speak, of the qualities which are grown together in a concrete object.

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