Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Argument in verse

In his comment to my reflections on plot and thought, Brandon Watson suggests, without developing the idea further, that one of lyric poetry’s “intellectual strengths” is its use of “poetic syllogisms.”

The father of the thought, of course, is J. V. Cunningham, whose “Logic and Lyric,” originally published in Modern Philology in 1953, argues that the structure of the syllogism is one means to organize a poem, “a way of disposing of, of making a place for, elements of a different order.” His example, which changed the course of its interpretation, is Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress with its clear argument:

Major premise
Had we world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime. . . .

Minor premise
But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near. . . .

Now, therefore,
. . . . . . . .
Now let us sport us while we may. . . .

At the risk of being heretical, though, I would venture to say that there may be no poet in the English language better than Cunningham at constructing arguments, philosophical arguments, in verse. Here is one of my favorites:


Passion is never fact
And never in a kiss,
For it is pure unact,
All other than the this.

It is love’s negative,
Love’s furious potency,
Distinct from which we live
In the affirmed to be.

And as love’s passive form
Is not this form I see
But all the loves that swarm
In the unwilled to be,

So in this actual kiss,
Unfaithful, I am true:
I realize in this
All passion, act, and you.
Aside from the riddling content and the further evidence of what he means by certain terms that are central to his verse (“the this,” the error or perhaps the evil of actual choice), the poem shamelessly lays bare its syllogistic structure:

Major premise
Passion is never act. . . .

Minor premise
       love’s passive form
Is not this form I see. . . .

So in this actual kiss,
Unfaithful, I am true. . . .

The argument is that passion—the ardor that is suffered in passivity—can only realized in a human contact (“kiss”) that dispels the passion, because human contact demands action, the opposite of passionate passivity. The lover has a choice: to remain faithful to the experience of passion, and never love; or to his lover, and reject passion forever.

It is an argument for marriage.

Update: There are also those who observe that Ulysses is structured as a syllogism. They note the printing convention used in the old Modern Library Giant edition of the novel, with its 360-point initials at the beginning of each division in the novel:


Part II. MR


S–M–P, the terms of a syllogism.

Of course, I learned this from a teaching assistant at Santa Cruz who also believed that Freud and Joyce were connected by the meanings of their surnames. So make of the observation what you will.


R/T said...

Since you are on the subject of argument in verse, I would like to offer another poem for consideration: Gerard Manley Hopkins' Italian sonnet, "God's Grandeur." Notice the ways in which the problem/argument is posited in the octave and the solution/response is presented in the sestet; moreover, to further the problem/argument, Hopkins relies heavily upon cacophony in the octave but turns heavily to euphony in the sestet. The result is a perfectly argued proposition that the grandeur of God's creation (the world) may suffer because of mankind (argued in the octave) but God's creation will endure and even be improved because of the omniscience and omnipresence of the Holy Spirit. Taken together, "God's Grandeur" is a brilliant Thomist argument about the significance of an atemporal God in a temporal world.

Steven said...

Dear Sir,

My only reaction to this is "What an appalling way to think about poetry, and how intrinsically wrong-headed." I offer this on the basis of having composed and published a very large number of poems and never having composed as single poetic syllogism--and I'm sure Marvell would concur. The concept is a construct, and I suppose if it helps one to understand the poem, it may serve some purpose. But I have to admit to being exceedingly dubious about this critical structure.



D. G. Myers said...


My only reaction is that you should read Cunningham’s essay.

Cunningham’s point is that the S–M–P structure provides an “expandable filing system” for a good deal of other material.

It also provides a way for the poet to know when he has concluded.

Steven said...

Dear Mr. Meyers,

I will take your advice. (I haven't checked back on your original, but assume there may be a link there--if not I'll see what I can do to find it.) But to your final point--what makes anyone think that you need this to know when the poem has ended? That's what I mean by construct. I'll look, but I'm exceedingly dubious--this is one of those critical contraptions that may be more robust than I'm giving credit for; but experience suggests not.



Brandon said...

We forget that there was a time when just about everyone educated was taught this sort of thing from a relatively early age, at least in bits and pieces. I remember a passage in Alain de Lille's medieval work, the Complaint of Nature, in which he describes sex entirely in syllogistic terms -- as in syllogisms minor and major terms are connected by a single middle terms, in sex minor terms and major terms are connected by a set series of middle terms (starting with acquaintance, moving through kisses, and ending in mutual inherence). It reads like a metaphysical conceit; but for Alain there's no conceit about it. Talking in syllogistic terms is just a natural analogy for a medieval poet to use when talking about things that are joined together; just as straightforwardly natural as it is for Chaucer to have Chanticleer and Pertelote to spend about a third of the story engaging in a learned dispute about whether dreams have meaning or are just caused by indigestion. A modern poet would pass over it lightly, as not contributing anything to the story; while I suspect Chaucer would have difficulty wrapping his mind around the idea that settling in a properly philosophical way whether dreams had meaning could be irrelevant to a story involving a dream. And his audience would almost certainly have eaten it up. Likewise, while it would be odd if modern authors in general wrote things that lent itself easily to this sort of structuring (except, perhaps, for occasional exceptions like Joyce, who might well do something like encode a syllogistic structure into a book), it would be less odd for poets who grew up learning syllogisms as a major part of their education.