Thursday, March 11, 2010

Refutation in verse

Thomas Hardy’s Hap is also an argument in verse, although it is not a syllogism but a simple modus ponens:

If but some vengeful god would call to me
   From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
   That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
   Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
   Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
   And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
   And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
   These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

Here the argument is negative—a refutation of a popular inference—but still a valid argument. If P (= God creates suffering) then Q (= the poet will endure it). But ~P (= God does not create suffering). Instead of stating the conclusion, however (therefore, ~Q [= suffering is not to be endured]), Hardy extends the argument by correcting ~P. The true P is “purblind Doomsters,” not God, are the source of suffering.

The correction of ~P gives Hardy four lines to write.

Update: In light of Brandon Watson’s friendly low-marking of my own logic, it strikes me that Hap takes the following logical form:

If P1 then Q
But ~P1
Rather, P2

Where P1 is “some vengeful god” and P2 is the “purblind Doomsters.”

The conclusion is different, though, in this different light. If the cause of suffering is accidence then the suffering itself is accidental: it could as readily have been bliss. It’s not that suffering is not to be endured. (Watson is right. That conclusion is invalid.) Rather, suffering can be endured by understanding that it is entirely a matter of chance.

An alternative modus ponens is implied, but not fully worked out.


Brandon said...

Interesting. I would read it a little differently, but I think you're largely right -- because it is a repudiation of a view, it falls naturally into a sort of basic logical structure. Strictly speaking, If P then Q, ~P, therefore ~Q is invalid -- modus ponens is only valid if you affirm P; it's not if you deny it. But the 'if but' could suggest that the meaning is really more like "Only if P, then Q" (where P and Q mean the same as you suggest); and, by a confusing quirk of English (which spreads dismay and despair among my students every single time it comes up), this is the same thing logically as "If Q, then P." Then ~P by modus tollens does get you ~Q, and we have the refutation. But the conditional here is subjunctive, and subjunctive conditionals have a much stranger logic than indicative conditionals, so I'm not 100% sure that this is the right way to read it.

D. G. Myers said...

No, you’ve got it right, Brandon. And I’ve clearly got it wrong. (I am an autodidact when it comes to logic. The trivium these days is creativity, multiculturalism, and self-respect.)

R. T. said...

David, thank you for the postings on the logic of verse; and Brandon, thank you for your careful analysis of the logical structure. You have each given me new ways of looking at poetry (especially, to my mind, sonnets and other verse of the Tudor, Elizabethan, and Jacobean eras). Now I have to educate myself better about logic, and then I will decide whether or not to inflict what I have learned on hapless students (not intending any pun on David's example from Hardy). Who has a good recommendation for a simple source for an illogical literature teacher who seeks to teach himself something (but not too much) about logic, especially as it would pertain to poetic structures?

D. G. Myers said...

I am sure that you will get other recommendations, Tim. But my self-study text has always been Cohen and Nagel’s Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method (1934). Clearly written, with striking examples.

Steven Riddle said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

I still fail to understand the intent of this. Is the implication that this is the method the poet uses to compose the poem? If not, what relation does it actually have to the poem except as an outside construct laid over the whole? If the latter, what is its validity as a critical practice. I ask because I can bring a Marxist paradigm to Shakespeare and show how Hamlet was a champion of the proletariat--but how is that meaningful with respect to what Shakespeare wrote and knew.

That's what I'm struggling with as you talk about these things. Are they there? Perhaps--but were they there as a deliberate logical construction a "modus ponens" or are they there as a result of another process--a process of argument with self?

The bottom line--does this critical apparatus reveal something real about the poem or something more about the person encountering the poem?



D. G. Myers said...


Logical structure belongs to what Yvor Winters called the “forms of discovery”—that is, it is a method by which the poet may figure out what he wants to say. It is not an “outside construct,” but the very heart of some poems’ mystery.

Traditional forms provide all writers with the benefit of liberation from self-discovery and self-invention. You don’t have to waste time coming up with new methods, when the old ones are better than anything you can come up with—and give you the power to say more, and more powerfully, to boot!

R. T. said...

May I add to the answer by suggesting the following: Poets, perhaps more so than other writers (and particularly those in the past working in closed forms), savored the challenges involved in writing within the restrictions of the logic associated with the chosen form; reading and analyzing the logic and form of Tudor, Elizabethan, and Jacobean poetry--especially sonnets--makes this point more clear. Poets working in open forms (i.e., "free verse" are not usually so constrained, and their challenges are to be found in other elements of poetry.

Steven Riddle said...

Dear Sir,

Thank you for the explanation. As to this:

"Traditional forms provide all writers with the benefit of liberation from self-discovery and self-invention. You don’t have to waste time coming up with new methods, when the old ones are better than anything you can come up with—and give you the power to say more, and more powerfully, to boot!"

I understand entirely and largely agree--writing within a form is actually liberating in a different way than is free verse--but form is not syllogism. That is to say there is a strucutre to a poetic form, but whether that structure rises to the level of a "logic" is a question that could be debated.

And perhaps I'm just being very dense, but I take issue with:

"Logical structure belongs to what Yvor Winters called the “forms of discovery”—that is, it is a method by which the poet may figure out what he wants to say. It is not an “outside construct,” but the very heart of some poems’ mystery."

I don't deny that a logical structure is possible and indeed, may underlie structure, my question would be was it conscious and deliberate? Was the presentation of a syllogism the intention of the author? (And I know talking about authorial intention is passe) Or was it rather a kind of result of anything that is likely to happen in language? Unless one goes out of one's way to deliberately tear down the implicit logic of language, there will be an underlying structure and sequence. Is that intentional--did we mean to present a logical argument in poetry? My suspicion is that most of the time the answer is NO. The meaning or purpose lies elsewhere the syllogism results from the structure of language that has not been bent or broken to not have that structure--as in Ionesco or some of Beckett.

I go on too long--but you get the thrust of what I'm saying. The fundamental question I would have and do have as both writer and reader is, if the syllogism is there is it consciously there as the construction of the poem--did the poet think the whole thing out and structure the argument in those terms--or is it a natural outsome of the presentation of scene and thought that is not merely stream of consciousness.

And perhaps, for critical purposes it doesn't make that much of a difference. Was Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" a downward language spiral that evokes time and place and emotion or was it a carefully argued logical syllogism--leading to and perhaps answering some overwhelming question?

Perhaps the answers to both of those questions is yes. But I guess I'm just a little suspicious of the thought that we can assume that most poets go about the work of poetry with syllogisms and symbolic logic running through their heads. Speaking only for myself, I was trained in symbolic logic and associated mathematical fields--boolean logic, and such, but as I write, I cannot think of a single poem in which I constructed an argument and set out to prove or resolve it poetically. And perhaps I am the minority poet experience, but I have to take as a valid datum that at least one poet whose poems could later be analyzed to have this kind of logic did not structure or intend any such thing upon writing.

It wouldn't bother me if someone were to find that in the work--indeed it would be fascinating, but it would tell me more about the reader than it would about the work.

Or not. Perhaps I have it wrong.

Whatever the answer, thank you so much for your patience and forebearance. This has been a very interesting discussion and will give me much to think about next time I pick up Rimbaud, Prevert, or Keats.



Steven Riddle said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

(Feel free not to post this as it is more in the way of a personal note and an apology for the length of th last. But the discussion has been fantastic and I can see from the blog that there's more ahead. Thank you so much!)